In the noontime sun, waves crashed softly against the limestone cliff face. With nothing but bright blue skies above, and the sea of soft grass around her, Carina could have lain there for hours. On her back, she stared at a flock of birds passing by, migrating home for the winter months, probably to somewhere warm and tempting; anyway, but here. She'd been human for almost six months, and still, she couldn't get warm, not really.
In the beginning, she had sat in the sun, before a coal stove, by fires, in an effort to let the heat leach her limbs of the cold. Although she could feel the heat against her skin, the chill still lingered, bitter and relentless. Once, she has even plunged her hands into a bonfire, letting the flames lick up her arm and singe her skirts. She’d held it there for some time and would have probably kept it there for even longer if Luc hadn’t been coming to fetch her for dinner. She could still remember the look in his eyes like she had done something ghastly.
If only he knew what she really was.
After Carina and Jiona had washed up on the beach shore with no voice or name, the Prince who had found them insisted on Carina and her cousin staying until someone came looking for them. Given rooms and maids of their own, they had been kept comfortable with the Prince insisting that they dine with him every night. Third in line for the throne, his actions were more liberally than most, especially with Jiona; but unlike her starstruck cousin who swooned at the sight of the Prince, Carina was more interested in mastering her new body. Riding horses with stable boys, sparing with the castle guards, even sitting in on lessons with the librarian to learn about their language and other human things. Not a day went by where she didn't train or search for a way out.
Folding the blanket she had been lying on, she walked over to the edge of the cliff and listened. She had heard whispers from the palace staff that mermaids were created when heartbroken girls threw themselves off cliffs or forlorn boys fell off ships. Tales of gods that took pity on drowning mortals. Legends of a Guardian of the deep that saved lost souls. A bunch of non-sense, but maybe. Just maybe there was something to it. Carina shook her head. She needed to go home, to take the throne back from Jaali. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the coastal air, salty and sweet, the sea salt clinging to her as she waited. Nothing.
Something tapped her shoulder. Turning, she saw her cousin smiling up at her, her silk dress tousled by the wind. Jiona’s scarlet hair made her pale skin even paler in the bright sunlight. Like her, she had also lost her voice when Jaali made her human, so the two were reliant on hand gestures and signs, a non-verbal system of communication that they had learned as children.
What are you doing out here? Lunch was an hour ago. She signed, weaving her fingers through the air furiously.
Home. Jiona, it's been six moon cycles, and we're still here. We need to go back. Find help, something. We can't keep waiting anymore.
How? Neither of us can read their language―
But we can understand it when spoken. Let’s just take one of their vessels and go East, to Nakada, or West to Lemuria. Someone―
Carina! She signed, grunting a bit, don't you think that I, of all people, want to go back. I was next in line to be Mōʻī wahine. My coronation was supposed to be last month. I love our people just as much as you, but we can’t go back there. Not like this, she gestured to our bodies, the water pressure will kill us if the sea creatures don’t first, besides without our powers, we can't risk it. Jaali will kill us on sight.
She was right, and Carina could have thrown her cousin off the cliff for it, but instead, she shook her neckless at Jiona. Well, I am going back with or without you.
Storming off to the castle, she left her cousin slack-jawed and alone. A shell of the woman Carina had known, this Jiona had become quiet and withdrawn. Always wary of the shadows, she often clung to Prince Luc’s side. Eating with him, following him to meetings, going on hunting trips and boat rides with him; it was disguising, really. Not only did she have a fiancé who was probably alive, but she didn't care about the people of Mu. Content to sit in the Prince's lap and sip fizzing wine, she never expressed a longing to go home or taking back the throne. No―disgusting didn’t even begin to describe what Carina felt for her cousin.
The castle courtyard was full of vendors and townsfolk. It must have been Market Day. Stalls filled to the brim with fairy floss and rock candies were scattered about alongside vegetable stand jewellery displays. Children ran from tent to tent giggling ferociously, their parents probably bartering for silks or provisions. Approaching the doors of the grand hall, she smiled at the guards, ready to wave them a good day, when a gnarled hand curled around her wrist.
Boney and withered with age, the palace seer had Carina’s hand in an iron grip. Knuckles white, she yanked her closer, flashing a gummy smile, teeth blackened and broken.
"A moment of your time, miss?" The woman crooned, pulling her into a brilliant blue tent.
Gods, where did this woman come from?
Trying to pull her arm back, Carina was met with a pair of steel grey eyes and a snarl. Pointing at her throat, she shook her head, doing her best to signal that she couldn't talk, but the old woman didn't have it. Pulling her further into the tent, decorated with low burning candles, crystals and magnificently intricate tapestries, it was hard not to stare. Warned to stay away from the woman by palace staff and the Prince alike, she had always feared that the seer would cast a curse on her, or worse, kill her for her bones.
“Sit,” she commanded, guesting to an olive-green couch. "Sit. I need to read you."
"Look at me." Pinching Carina's chin between her thumb and forefinger, the seer squinted at her milky white eyes, “Yes. I’ve been waiting for you.”
With her nails digging into the rough velvet of the couch, she looked around for a weapon, anything to throw.
“The Prince has told me about you and your sister. How you two washed up on the shore weeks apart. From seemingly nowhere, both of you are mute and without the means to leave. Curious, isn't it. Especially just after the Prince himself had returned from sea, with tales of merfolk etched into him. He goes out every night looking for the creature that saved him.”
Carina stared blankly at the crone, eyeing a letter opening. She watched the woman take her seat at the table, crystal ball placed in the centre of the table.
“Don’t act coy with me girl, I know who you are.”
Crossing her arms, she leaned back, raising one eyebrow in challenge. Is that so?
“Your name isn’t Renée, and you’re not from here.”
Was this woman serious? Of course, she and Jiona weren’t from here. They had seafoam pale skin and lilted eyes that stuck out amongst the sun-kissed skin of the villagers. Tilting her head, Carina beckoned for the woman to go on.
With a flick of her wrist, all of the candles blew out. The only light left in the room came from the crystals. “Your name is Carina, niece of Mōʻī Ryujin and, Mōʻī wahine Nuru. You were eighth in line for the throne, but after the massacre at the hands of Keiki aliʻi Jaali, your brother―”
Carina sprung from the couch, lunging for the letter opening. She fisted its hilt in one hand. She held the old woman by the scruff of her neck with the other. Her eyes burned with the intensity of wildfire as she pressed the blade to the crone's throat. The question was clear enough. Who are you?
“My name is Pelageya, and I was a friend of your mother." Pushing up her sleeve, she brandished a tattoo. The black ink was mottled in places, but the sigil was clear enough. It was an Ayakashi. An ancient serpent of the deep and the symbol of the house her mother came from. Only family and those most trusted were allowed to ink the beast upon their skin. It was a sign of the highest honour.
How? Dropping the blade, she stared the woman down, unflinching.
“I saved her from a whaling ship in our youth, and as such, I now owe you a life debt. It took me some months to find you, but I am on your side, Carina. You and I have met before. I was in a different body then, multicoloured and―”
Recognition lashed into her mind. The woman’s steal grey eyes reminded her of Jerry―the multicoloured cephalopod with who she had once played Mahjong with.
“Ah, I see you remembered me. Jerry is short for Jeraldeen. It's my middle name.”
Carina felt her face tighten. A muscle in her jaw feathered as she cocked her head in question, eyes as sharp as razors. What do you want?
“After the massacre, I was able to flee to Nakada, but not many were as fortunate as I.”
The floor dropped out from under her as she blinked tears out of her eyes.
"Not a day after you left, the people were enslaved. Jaali has ordered the Telkhines and the master smiths of the forge to build a dozen fleets of warships. He plans to attack Atlantica in two moons. But I’ll be damned if he does.”
Taking a step back, she glared at the woman, nodding her head once. Go on.
“I understand that he cursed you, took away your power?”
"I can undo it. Some of it, at least."
At that, her ears perked up.
“I can give you back your scales, your fins… you’ll be able to breathe in the water just like you did before. All I need are two things, your blood and a favour.”
Carina cocked her head to the side. What’s the favour?
“A seat at Privy Council of Mu.”
She raised an eyebrow. Is that all?
The request was reasonable enough, she supposed, but there was still one problem. The necklace bound her as human. Waving the chain in her hand, she shook the pendant exasperatingly, allowing the information to sink its jagged teeth in. This was it. She could go home.
"Don't worry about that. It's a cursed talisman, yes, but nothing a bit of blood magic can't get rid of,” she smiled, pulling a shark's tooth from her pocket. "Sit my child, for now, the work begins."
Sitting back on the velvet-lined couch, she let the old woman take her wrist. Staring the Ayakashi on her wrist Carina didn’t flinch as the serrated tooth was dragged across her skin. Her crimson blood dripped thick and heavy into a carved bone basin. They'd sat there for hours, drawing enough blood so that the bowl was full. Light-headed and dazed, the world blurred, and from the edges of memory, she saw the hag dip her fingers into the bowl, drawing runes on Carina's legs. The fabric of her skits had either been cut away or pushed to the sides. Dark spots floated into sight when the marks began to glow white. The air burned her lungs, her skin, her eyes, and for the first time, in months, she felt warm―no, not warm-hot.
Forcing her eyes open, she looked down and found that she still had a pair of legs, but instead of smooth skin, she says raised marks, runes; but in her lap, oh gods, in her lap sat a broken shell pendant. No longer glowing, it was cracked and misshapen. Placing a tentative hand to her throat, she coughed, afraid to open her mouth.
“Go on,” prodded the old woman, “say something.”
"Thank you." It was no more than a whisper, but they both heard it. Weak and unsteady, her voice was there.
Leaping to her feet, she hugged the woman, tears streaming down her face. He legs no longer hurt, and her lungs no longer burned, but when she looked down at her hand, she gasped. Two fetters now adorned her wrists. Shimmering black metal, the iron links resembled tiny interlocking leaves.
"These will give you your tale back, but I couldn't restore your magic. Not all of it. I am afraid you have just enough to transform. After that, you're on your own."
"Where did you get these from?" Carina asked, examining the fetters.
“They were stolen from a goddess decades ago, and that is all I will tell you. ”
"No. Somethings are better left unknown. Now go. It's already been too long." Shoving her out of the tend, Carina stumbled, looking up at the sky. The stars winked at her, and the moon hung high above. Looking towards the beach, she was ready to sprint, but then she looked back at the seer.
“How will I find you?”
“You won’t. I’ll find you. Now go before that scarlet headed wretch finds you.”
Sprinting towards the sea, Carina didn't pay attention to the wondering eyes of the townspeople. Skirts flew around her, wild and unruly she tore her braid free, throwing the pins to the ground. Kicking off her shoes, she breathed in the sweet sea air, her feet pounding heavily against the cold earth. With the beach insight, she flung her arms wide, letting a breeze rake through her. Stumbling through the dunes, Carina saw a stay horse walking around, all saddled up and ready to ride. Slowing down, she froze when she saw Jiona lying in the say. Wrapped in the arms of the Prince, she was laughing.
Then just as she was about to call out to her cousin, the two kissed. With Jiona straddling the young man Carina felt her stomach churn. She was going to be sick. In the moonless night, she saw Jiona slip an oily black stone onto the Prince’s ring finger, and in return, he slipped a shimmering stone onto her's.
Faltering backwards, she fell. The sound of shifting sand drew the two lover's attention, and the next thing she knew Jiona was racing towards her. Grinning like a fool, she moved to hug Carina but stopped, digging her heels into the sand when she saw her bare neck. The absence of the necklace was as good as a battle cry. I am leaving.
Wha―What happened? Jiona signed.
"I found a way home," Carina hissed. Rising to her feet, she ignored the Prince, storming past him towards the waves.
Small hands clung to her arm, and without hesitation, Carina flung Jiona onto her back. Flipping her midair, she landed with a satisfying oof. The breath knocked out of her. Planting a foot on her stomach, Carina glared at her cousin.
“How could you,” she spat. “How could you desert your people, your home like that?”
Jia was shaking.
“Stop!” The Prince’s voice rang out. He was racing towards them, puffy shirt billowing in the air Carina rolled her eyes.
“Are you going to let him fight your battles for you?”
Drawing back, Carina threw her fist at the man, the sound of her knuckles connecting with his nose made her smile. Wiping the blood on her silk skirts, she ran for the waves, but before she could reach the water, castle guards ran onto the sands. Pistols drawn. They shouted her name. Pivoting, she threw herself onto the Prince's horse, racing down the shore. The men fired at her, nothing but warning shots, but they were steering her towards the cliffside.
The horse's hooves dug into the damp earth, kicking up grass and chunks of dirt. Glancing back, she cringed at the men who followed her. On horseback, they shouted at her to stop. With the cliff edge insight, Carina couldn't help the wicked smile that graced her face.
Hoisting herself up, she carefully planted her feet on the saddle, squatting low. She’d done this dozen’s of times with the stable boys and had yet to fall. Placing a kiss to the beast's mane, she whispered a prayer to the gods of old and new as the two of them dove off the cliff's edge.
Plunging into the black waters, she was felt whole. Squeezing her eyes shut, she felt the sharp sting of seawater and then the sudden snapping of bone. Forcing her eyes open, she looked down to see that her skin had returned to its opalescent colouring, and if she had to guess, her wide-set milky eyes had returned, but her hands―oh gods, her hands were tipped with black. Like she had a living shadow clinging to her skin.
Swallowing hard, she looked to her side, expecting a horse corpse, but was instead met with the sight of a hippocampus. Iridescent and breathing, the beast whinnied at her, shaking its head. The fins glowed in the darkness. Carina gasped its reigns and thanked the gods for their blessings.
Guiding the beast deeper into the black waters, she let the deep claim her. First, she needed an army, then she’d need some power. Letting the current guide her, she set her mind to Atlantis. To find a King who would back her cause and the Queen who could make empires fall with nothing but her wits. Yes, she would pay the ancient King and Queen of Atlantis a visit, and she wasn't going to take no for an answer.