The sea roiled. The sky flashed. Thunder cracked the air. And the sturdiest vessel that Locke had ever served aboard listed and toppled. Not two hours before, his greatest worry had been that the special item he had acquired at great cost and effort would not get lost or stolen. His mind was filled with visions of what her face would look like when he presented her with it, a real pearl.
He was tossed overboard the breaking ship. It was night. The torches from the ship were drowned. The stars and the moon were blocked by storm clouds. The only light to see by was lightning. It was by chance that he surfaced that first time. He struggled to tread and to see anything he might hang on to. Lightning flashed and he saw nothing but waves. They pushed him up and pulled him down. And one of them loomed above him. In vain, he pumped his arms and tried to swim away. The wave descended and swallowed him.
He closed his eyes when the water shoved him down. When he opened them, he could not tell which way was up. He could not tell how much water was above him, and whether he would be able to swim up to the surface, even if he did know where the surface was. Strangely, he did not panic. The sea would claim him. He was certain of it. But he did not give in. He could not just let it happen. He had to calm down and at least try to survive. He began to swim upward, or so he hoped was his direction.
He did not remember drowning…
…when next he woke. He remembered hands holding him down as he coughed and sputtered and gasped for breath. He remembered pain in his throat and his lungs. He remembered terrible cramps in his arms and legs when he tried to struggle and break free. He remembered panicking because he thought he had died and was in hell, being held down by demons, in preparation for eternal torments.
A gurgling voice spoke and told him to be easy.
Locke closed his eyes. He could not be easy. But he was so exhausted, he fell into a dream-filled slumber.
When he woke, he was alone. He felt no hands, heard no voices, saw no one. He sat up for he had been lying on some kind of bedding. The air felt damp and chill, like a foggy autumn morn. He looked around, moving his gaze carefully, fearfully. Darkness surrounded him, but there was a glowing stone nearby that cast a steady yellow-green light. He was in a grotto. And there was something strange about the air. It seemed to ripple.
He reached out his hand toward the rippling air.
“Beware you do not burst it,” a voice said. A familiar gurgling voice. He glanced about and saw that he was no longer alone. There was someone or something there with him.
He had of course heard legends and tall tales of the sea. He had a few of his own, though they were rooted in truth, if adorned with slight embellishments. But some of his fellow seamen would speak of enchanted encounters far out in the sea near forgotten isles or under skies lit with unfamiliar stars. Stories of the merfolk, who were half human and half fish. The mermaidens were beautiful, playful, and deadly, singing many a ship to wreck. Some tales claimed that if sailors appealed to the merqueen, she might have mercy and call off the maidens. Other tales said the mermaidens were commanded by the merking, who hated those who dwelled on land.
Once, on a merchant run from Callimoray to Trilenkary, a sailor on Locke’s vessel claimed to have seen a mermaiden off to starboard. The man was young and did not understand why his fellow sailors laughed at him when they saw what he was pointing at. From a distance, the great seal sunning herself on a rock might have, to some eyes, seemed like a comely lass with a fish tale.
Until that moment, Locke’s stories were all about large catches and fish that seemed to be possessed of demons or greater intelligence than should have been their due.
Now he stood before what could only be a merwoman. She did not look as he had expected from the tales, the top half a woman and the bottom a fish. She looked mostly human. Though her chest was flat, her hips were curved. Her arms and legs and wrists and neck were slender. It was only from that observation that he guessed she was a “she.” But he noted the scales on her skin—some delicate, some hardened. He noted the gills, the webbing between her hands and toes, her black, lidless eyes. Round eyes rimmed with a clear golden circle that almost glowed. He saw from the way her seaweed-like hair lifted and flowed that she was in water. But he was in air.
He had been lying on some bedding made of seaweed and something that looked like moss. Beside the bedding was a cup carved out of coral it seemed and filled with water. And beside that was a conch shell adorned with pearls. The sight of the pearls pulled at his gut. He felt he was missing something or forgetting something. But he was too preoccupied to try and remember.
The merwoman gestured to the cup and conch. A voice came from the conch, telling him that it was safe to drink the water, that it was freshwater, not seawater. Locke saw that the merwoman had a conch shell of her own and had placed it against her lips just before the voice spoke. And he understood. They were enchanted, the shells. When she spoke in one, her voice came out of the other. That was how she could speak to him through the border between air and water.
Locke took a hesitant sip from the coral cup and found that what she had said was true. The water was fresh and cool and tasted just a bit grassy. He gulped the rest and longed for more.
The merwoman told him her name was Endora. She told him that he was being held in a bubble of air, one that he could easily breach but dare not, for if he did, he would drown if he wasn’t first crushed by the weight of the sea. They were far, far below the surface. Locke felt pressure and nausea and anxiety. He suppressed a fit of nervous laughter. He wondered just how far down underwater they had taken him. He longed to get free, to go home to his family. But when he mentioned returning to the surface, the merwoman gave no response and only observed him.
Locke soon realized that the merfolk had both rescued and imprisoned him.
They came to observe him and study him. They gave him food and water. Locke’s bubble was placed atop what appeared to be a latrine, a hole in the ground, but under which, water was ever rushing by. There was little to no odor. The merwoman named Endora spoke to him directly. Others spoke to him through her. They mostly asked questions about the world of the land-dwellers, as they called him and his people. He answered every question, for none seemed meant for harm. He asked and begged if he could return to his home. His request never met with much response. Once or twice, the observers reached their arms into the bubble carefully, wearing a special sleeve and glove that could pass through the bubble without breaking it. Locke had been fascinated, until he was pricked. Even as he cried out in surprise, the merfolk observers were already drawing back a piece of clear glass on which they had smeared some drops of his blood. They placed the piece of glass into a vial containing some liquid that must not have been water. For when the glass was slipped inside, the blood did not dissolve or wash away.
He made marks in the damp earth of his bubble cell to indicate the days, which he measured by when he slept and when he woke. But without the sun and the moon, he did not know how long he had been held there. After what he measured to be four or five days, he could bear it no longer. He pulled out his cameo locket. It was hung about his neck and by some miracle had not been torn away and claimed by the sea. The tiny portrait within was damp, but undamaged. Locke’s rescuers and his jailers had caught him up quickly enough for the sea to have done no great harm to either him or his last precious possession. He had been afraid that his captors would take it. The locket belonged to his wife and the portrait within was of her. They had a ritual. She always gave him the cameo when he went out to sea and claimed it back when he returned.
Having it gave him some measure of hope that he could still get free and get back. He was always watched. Even that first day when he woke, he had not seen his guards, for when they stood still, their skin blended into the stone of the grotto, but they had been there nonetheless.
Endora was the most responsive of the scholars that were studying him. So he had been asking her if they had rescued any other sailors from his ship or salvaged any things. But she would not answer such questions.
“Why do you not answer me!” he said in desperation one day and threw the conch shell through the bubble. As it breached the barrier of air, the conch began to float in the water, instead of breaking at Endora’s feet. And the bubble that kept Locke from drowning burst.
Before the water struck him, a great agony knocked the breath from his lungs and the sense from his mind. The world went black.
When next he came to his senses, his body felt sore and full of aches. And it was restrained. He was breathing air again, but he saw that the bubble around him was a small one. Even if he weren’t restrained, he could not have escaped. He could not have even sat up without breaching the bubble. A figure walked toward him and stood above him, for the surface he lay upon was a raised platform of some kind. The figure was a merman that Locke had seen before, lingering behind the scholars that studied him. Most of the merfolk were tall and lean. This merman was tall and muscular. His hair, like the hair of all the merfolk, was long and would fall to his waist if pulled down. And while the rest of the mermen wore their hair tied in intricate braids, this merman let his flow freely.
All the merfolk wore pearls. Locke had wondered if the number, size, and color indicated some ranking. For Endora and the scholars wore dark blue and purple pearls, shaped like drops and buttons, small but many, around their wrists. And some who had come to observe Locke, officials perhaps, wore strings of round pearls around their necks that were colored like rose petals or orange cream. The merman who stood above Locke wore a belt around his waist adorned with golden yellow pearls that were perfectly round and far too large to have been natural.
The merman stared down at him with those unblinking eyes.
And Locke feared that his imprisonment would soon be over, that he would be enslaved or eaten or drowned for the trouble he was causing. Drowned slowly and painfully, not mercifully as he would have been after he broke his bubble cell.
The merman’s lips moved and formed a smile. He raised a conch to his mouth and Locke heard his voice beside his right ear. He turned and saw that a conch shell had been placed beside his head.
“I am Quell,” the gurgling voice, only slightly deeper than Endora’s, said. Quell moved the conch away from his mouth and smiled again. The sight made Locke uneasy for it was no natural expression of the merfolk. And Locke suspected that the name he was given was not the merman’s true name. He formed an instant mistrust of the merman. The other merfolk were no friends of his, to be sure, but Locke had felt no particular ill will from any of them. Nor had he felt any toward them, save only his resentment at being kept from his wife, his family. But this merman had some ill agenda. Locke was sure of it. And he feared his part in it.
Suddenly, the air bubble around Locke rose and grew. The restraints around him loosened and he sat up. Quell gestured toward his left and Locke saw a table carved from some glistening silvery rock. Upon it were clothes, a shirt, trousers, and robes all made of silk. And there were strands of milky pearls beside the silks.
Locke eyed the rich attire and a great worry brewed in the pit of his stomach. He looked at Quell.
“We once dwelled upon the surface as you do, or so our ancient tales tell us,” Quell said.
And he continued with an old tale, a myth that was told among his people that the land-dwellers were ancestors to the merfolk. The merfolk were descended from the survivors of a fleet of pilgrim ships that were sailing to some faraway land to settle colonies there. The ships were caught in a typhoon at sea and were destroyed. Many perished. But many were rescued by the ocean fairies, who transformed the survivors so they could live and thrive beneath the sea.
“We have tried to do as the ocean fairies did in the story,” Quell said. “We have tried to rescue, but we have rarely succeeded.”
Locke had never discerned any emotion in Endora’s speech. She was the only other one among the merfolk who seemed to know his language. But Quell sounded regretful as he spoke.
Despite his misgivings, Locke felt a surge of hope in the merman’s seemingly sincere regret. “I am grateful that you saved me,” he said. “But I long to return home. I have little to give your people for my thanks, but whatever I have, I will give it. Whatever debt you set for me, I will pay it. I only ask, I only beg, that you take me home. Or as near to home as you can so I may find my own way there.”
The merman smiled his uncanny smile again. “We have kept you long, haven’t we?”
Quell explained how much of a treasure Locke was to the merfolk. For them it was like reuniting with a long-lost father. He said that the sovereign of their seas wanted only to feast Locke and pay homage to him. He said it had been necessary to keep Locke contained and to study him and assure that his dwelling so far down in the sea had no ill effects. There was a reason why the merfolk could not rescue land-dwellers, though they had tried time and again. Being near the surface was unbearable for most of the merfolk. Only some races could withstand it naturally, and Quell described those as savages who would sooner kill and devour than save. Locke thought of the tales of seductive and destructive mermaidens and wondered if they were the ones Quell spoke of.
The merfolk had spells and enchantments to help them stay near the surface for a short time. And many of the merfolk realms patrolled the surfaces of their seas. But storms disrupted the spells and sometimes even broke them. And so the merfolk could not carry shipwrecked sailors to land. They had to pull them under the sea. The bubble enchantment was a simple one for most who were skilled. The challenge was in keeping the great weight of the ocean from crushing a land-dweller’s delicate body. The bubble was not enough. Many land-dwellers died in the care of merfolk who did not understand why it was not enough to simply provide air.
Locke should have died when he broke his bubble. But Endora acted quickly. And Locke seemed unusually resilient. Quell admitted that they had rescued others, but all had died before they could be helped. It was a time of peace and prosperity in their sovereignty and their leader did not want his people to learn of the failed attempts to save land-dwellers. There were also those who denied that the merfolk were descended from land-dwellers, those who found the idea distasteful. Quell called them “the unenlightened.”
“The sovereign will hold a feast in your honor,” Quell said. He waved a webbed hand toward the silks and pearls. “You must attend out of respect and thanks.”
“And then, he will let me go home?” Locke asked.
“I will not lie to you, my friend. It will be a delicate undertaking.”
“But you brought me down. Surely you can raise me back up.”
Quell smiled. “I am flattered by your confidence in our powers.”
Locke mistrusted the merman, but he did not see any harm in attending a feast.
Having lived the past month in the grotto, Locke did not expect the splendor of the underwater city of the merfolk. There were great towering spires. Arches of coral and columns fashioned from great shells. There were railings and handholds everywhere, so the merfolk could brace themselves against a surface and dart forth or pull themselves along. The feast, as Locke had feared, was of raw food. Seaweed and mussels and clams and octopods. And fish of course. But to his awe, a flaming stone was placed carefully in another air bubble and used to cook some of the fish for him. He had not eaten any cooked food or hot food during his imprisonment. He relished the cooked dishes and enjoyed himself more than he had intended.
He noted that Quell seemed to have told him the truth about the merfolk’s story of descent from the land-dwellers and the sovereign’s pride in presenting Locke, a hale and hearty land-dweller, to his people.
Most of the merfolk looked much like Endora and Quell, but some did indeed seem more fish-like and less human-like. The sovereign was most impressive of all. He was tallest among the merfolk. Quell, who sat beside Locke, told him that it was because the sovereign ate a special food that only royals were allowed to eat. An enchanted jelly that made them grow tall and strong and wise.
Beneath the sovereign’s head of fine but flowing hair, a crown of red coral rested on his brow. A shirt of black and white pearls adorned his breast. Locke had never seen royalty much less met them. And only in the great ports of land had Locke seen as many as were at the feast that day.
When the feast was over and Locke returned to his chamber, he asked Quell once again when he would be allowed to return home.
Quell lowered his head and admitted that he had somewhat misled Locke. The feast was only the first step. Quell explained that Locke was beloved of the people now. A treasured curiosity that the sovereign would want to keep. The only way for Locke to win his freedom was for the merfolk to want him gone. And for that he would have to do something despicable, but not so much so that the merfolk would turn against all land-dwellers. Only something small enough for them to want him exiled and gone. And Quell had a plan for that.
Locke felt an uneasy broiling in his stomach. But he listened, telling himself he could always refuse whatever Quell asked if he were truly a guest and not a prisoner. And refuse he did when he heard the extent of Quell’s plan. The merfolk treasured fiercely all their great monuments. They cared for them, kept them pristine. If Locke were to deface or destroy one such monument, perhaps a small one, perhaps even by accident, the people would protest and the sovereign would at least want Locke out of sight. And that would give Quell the chance to secret Locke away from the city and sovereignty. Locke asked questions of his professed benefactor. What monument? Who would witness the destruction? Was there a chance that any would be hurt? How certain was Quell that Locke would be exiled instead of jailed again?
At first, Quell answered each question put to him. But soon he grew impatient.
“Can you not see that I seek to help you!” he said with such force that the conch shell in the bubble cracked. Quell stalked away in angry leaps.
Locke saw no more of the odd merman until the next day when some blue-pearled scholars came into the chamber, followed by Endora.
The broken conch shell had never been replaced. She was wearing those special gloves, the ones that could pass through the air bubble without breaking it. Locke wondered how they had made the bubble and gotten him into it. He had always been knocked out when it had happened. Endora placed a working conch shell in the bubble. Locke picked it up and she spoke.
“You are not safe here. We must move you quickly.”
Locke wanted to ask what had happened. He could not tell from Endora’s and the guards’ unreadable expressions. He followed as they seemed to roll his air bubble out of the chamber. He could not hear anything outside of his air bubble. So he had no choice but to trust Endora and her comrades to direct him. But the way they were moving, walking carefully, stopping and hiding, meant they were sneaking about. Locke was too jaded to hope that it meant she was helping him to escape the city. And he was right. For they did not go far before they were caught by a troop of guards.
The guards took Endora and the other scholars away and carefully rolled Locke and his bubble toward an unfamiliar area where he was soon confronted by a merman who was dressed in silks just as Locke had been. None of the other merfolk wore fabrics. This merman waved a hand and Quell came forth. He spoke through the conch shell.
“The Tower of the Sovereigns has fallen as has our sovereign and by your hand. There are many who serve as witness. And there is evidence of your deed.” Quell held up a bundle. It was the silken clothes that Locke had worn at the feast wrapped in the pearls he had worn. He had changed back to his own clothes afterward, torn as they were and barely clean.
“You are a land-dweller,” Quell continued, “but you cannot escape our justice for such a terrible crime.”
Locke stood agape.
“The high elder,” Quell said, turning slightly to the silk-robed merman, “is now the sovereign ruler and he sentences you to death by drowning. You will die three days hence on the day we honor our dead sovereign.”
The other merfolk opened their mouths and the rippling waters before them indicated they had spoken or communicated something. Quell nodded and repeated what they had said.
“Hail the sovereign.”
The three days passed in an odd and discomforting haze of fear, followed by peace, followed by anxiety, and acceptance, and fear again…
Locke regretted only that he would not see his dear wife again and worse that he would never see the child he had made with her, the one she must still be carrying. She had asked him not to go to sea before their child was born. They had money enough for a year of staying on land. What foolish and careless will had led him to convince her that he should go, he did not know. He thought a pearl would be a rich enough gift to give her to appease her doubts and worries. How much richer would she be to have her husband back. She was already mourning him. To her, he would have been lost at sea.
On the day of his execution, he received a visitor. Endora entered and told him that she and the other scholars had been punished for trying to move Locke. But she had managed to convince the new sovereign that she only wanted to study Locke. That he would be no good to her dead. The sovereign forgave her and the other scholars. He freed from prison those who agreed to pay the price he named. All of the freed scholars had lost their left feet. Locke was horrified. But Endora, expressionless, held up her hands and told him at least the sovereign hadn’t taken a hand. But neither had he relented to Endora’s arguments to keep Locke alive. She did not understand what had happened.
But Locke did.
“Quell betrayed me,” he said.
Endora stared at him without speaking.
“Quell and I were once true-mates,” she said. And though he heard no emotion in her voice, he imagined that he should be hearing regret and longing.
“He was your…husband?”
Endora stared at him again. “No, not skin-mate. True-mate…friend.”
“He betrayed you too,” Locke said.
“He betrayed Quell.”
Locke’s curiosity was gone. As was his courtesy. He did not ask Endora what she meant. She had come to tell him that she had tried and failed to save him from execution.
He pulled out his cameo and removed it from his neck. He held it out to her. “If you can manage it someday, can you deliver this to my wife?”
Endora donned her special glove and took the cameo. “Your skin-mate?”
Locke blinked. “My everything mate. Her name is Mirabelle.”
Endora nodded. And Locke went to his fate. This time, the sea would truly claim him. This time, he would not wake.
His body felt strange. Something was wrong. He felt a stifling discomfort. When he blinked his eyes, he seemed to blink twice. There seemed a film upon his eyes. He was lying down again. He shifted and a voice, full of concern and relief, warned him to be easy.
He felt hands on his skin, but the sensation was muted in some way and sharpened in some other way. He was disoriented. He had to get his bearings. He had to find his north. He moved his arms.
A firm but gentle hand pressed down on his chest and he saw Endora’s face above him. She looked happy. No, she felt happy. She had no expression on her face. Something was different about Endora. About…him. Locke focused on his chest. He looked down at it. He was bare of all clothing. But he did not see the skin of his chest as he expected. He saw scales beneath Endora’s hand. He raised his own hands. He stretched his fingers and there was webbing between them. He sat up. And though he did it quickly, he felt a grace in the movement that he had not possessed before. It was more than the grace that almost everyone had when moving through water.
Locke started. He was in the water.
Endora held out her hands and he sensed her worry, her anxiety. Her expression, her face was unchanged.
“They wanted to make sure you were truly dead, so they forbade us to make air bubbles,” she said. “We had no choice but to make the changes. We started when you were first brought down or you would not have survived at this depth. And we have now made all the changes we had learned how to make. We thought it would give you the best chance.”
Locke realized that there was no conch shell. Endora was opening her mouth and sending out ripples in the water, vibrations. But Locke understood them as words.
“It’s been many days,” Endora said. “Much has changed. All for the worse. We did not think you would survive. And at first, we only wanted to help you escape.”
“But now, if you are willing and able, we will need your help.”
Locke did not turn his head toward the new voice. He had never heard it through the water, but he recognized it all the same. His enemy had spoken.
Quell had spoken. And he spoke again. “Our new sovereign is leading us into ruin and war. It was he who committed the crime for which you paid.”
Locke stood up. He felt energies surging through his body.
“You must calm down!” Endora held out her hand. Quell stood in front of her.
Locke felt a sensation akin to goose pimples along his arms. And rows of spines rose from the backs of his arms.
“You must believe me,” Quell said. “I did not know the sovereign would die. I believed the high elder was only trying to disgrace the sovereign. The elder wanted his seat. And I only wanted to help you.”
Locke glared at Quell. And then he glared at Endora. They had saved him. But they had also doomed him.
“I know why you survived,” Quell said. “I didn’t tell you before. I was the one who brought you here. You were dying as I pulled you down, so I gave you some of my blood.”
“That was likely why you survived when your bubble burst too,” Endora said. “We continued giving you Quell’s blood when you slept along with enchantments to help your vessels accept the blood.”
Quell stepped toward Locke. “I know I betrayed you, though I did not mean to.”
Locke tensed his muscles, new muscles that he did not recognize. But then he relaxed them. Quell’s sincerity was so convincing. And with some new sense, Locke felt that sincerity more keenly. Perhaps that was the merman’s greatest power.
Quell took another step toward Locke. “We are bound by blood. We should be true-mates.”
Locke could understand the merfolk speech now, but he didn’t know how to speak himself. It took several minutes for Endora to guide him while he fumed and then calmed.
“You keep asking for my help,” he said to Quell at last. “And every time I do, it ends badly for me.”
“I know. You owe us nothing now. We owe you this.” He handed Locke what appeared to be a giant yellow leaf rolled up. Locke unrolled it and saw there were markings upon it. He felt his eyes shift and he saw a different set of markings. He closed his eyes a bit dizzied.
“My hope is that you will get used to your new senses in time,” Endora said. “We have given you many more than any one creature has had. I will show you what the markings mean and how you can return to the nearest land. From there, you must guide yourself.”
“You can still breathe air,” Quell said. “Or you should be able to once you reach the surface, though you will need to return to the water. You will be a being of both air and water.”
“Then what you have done to me is lasting?”
“We cannot say, but most likely it is,” Quell said.
Locke could feel the weight of the ocean on him, but he could bear it. For the first time since he woke under the waters, he felt unrestrained. Free. He should have longed for vengeance. But though he was angry, he felt no urge to kill or destroy. A faint memory of his execution returned to him. The merfolk had not condemned him. They had not shouted or demanded his blood. They had been too saddened and shocked by the death of their strong and beloved sovereign. He remembered the feelings coming from the high elder, the one who was now sovereign. Through the filter of his new senses, Locke felt hatred and disgust and hunger. The high elder wanted power. And he hated Locke. He hated all land-dwellers. And in a time of peace and prosperity, he had taken advantage of the merfolk’s trust and diminished defenses. Locke did not trust Endora. He did not trust Quell. They had saved him. But they had also doomed him. And Quell had betrayed him. But he believed they needed help.
He had been so helpless before, to stop his own fate. But even though he did not yet know how to use whatever new changes had been made to his body, he could sense that they made him capable. He turned to his allies.
“I will help you,” he said.
Locke could not succumb to rage. He could not be careless. Changed or not, he was alive. And whether or not his love accepted him as he was, he would protect her and their child for as long as he lived, and long did he hope to live.
Still, he had to take some vengeance on Quell.
“Your attempt to smile is unsettling,” he said.
The merman’s eerie grin faded.
Those who would oppose the mad sovereign, who was in secret called a usurper, were all imprisoned. If they could be freed, they would mount a rebellion against the usurper. And in the confusion, Endora and Quell would help Locke to escape. The enchantments and spells they had used on Locke had been practiced for many lifetimes by the merfolk, but they didn’t work on merfolk. Until Locke came along, Endora and Quell hadn’t known if they would work at all. The two had always wondered if they would work on a land-dweller, an ancestor whose blood and bones had not been shaped and honed by the sea. Others in past generations had tried with varying success. Quell’s blood might have been the key to their seeming success with Locke.
Being a sailor, and a swimmer, and a man who had always loved the water since he was a child, Locke understood most of the changes they had made. The patches of scales, the webbing, the gills at his neck, and fine film of slime that protected his skin and scales were apparent. The merfolk had no mirrors, so he could not see what his eyes looked like. He could see as he could before, but sometimes his sight shifted by reflex and he saw waves of light and color that were unfamiliar. Between his gills, there were sacs of ink, like those of a squid or octopod. Along the underside of his forearms, where he had no scales, he felt the sensation of the new organs that lay beside his muscles. They were like the organs of shocking eels, creatures who were possessed of the ability to throw lightning within the water when attacked. On the backs of his arms and on his legs grew spines that lay down like hairs when he was calm, but sprung up if triggered by his sense of danger. Endora warned him of one last enchantment that may be unpredictable and hard to control and should be used with caution and care. There was a creature in the sea that produced a powerful slime that when released would expand in the water and thicken. It could clog the gills of fish and choke them. It could entangle any would-be attackers. The creature was said to be ugly and mindless, but formidable to all predators because of that indomitable slime. Endora warned that it might entangle Locke himself if he didn’t take care.
The defenses were necessary for he would not be able to swim as fast as the merfolk. And he could not change his coloring to blend into the surrounding as merfolk could. And now that he was to help Endora and Quell free the imprisoned dissenters, he would need to turn the defenses into tricks and weapons. They had not given him any venoms or poisons, for worry that such might harm him. For that, Locke was thankful. He wondered how he would keep his spines under control when he held his wife or his baby. But then he pushed aside such thoughts. For he had once again foolishly offered his help to the merfolk who couldn’t leave well enough alone and let him die on the sea. He owed them a debt. And he might still die in paying it.
But Locke as he had been had already died. He had already been claimed by the sea and now was a creature of the sea. And he surprised both his allies and himself in how quickly he learned to use all the gifts they had given them. There was little time to learn his true limits. For the sovereign was planning to amass an army and invade other realms in other seas.
The sovereign was clever. He did not keep all of his enemies in one place. And he kept them hidden, lest the people try what Locke and his allies were trying.
Locke now resembled the merfolk enough to walk out among them, unrecognized as the land-dweller he once had been. Others had done the work of finding out where the prisoners were kept, how to get to them, free them, bring them out. There was great risk of death and torment. But not for Locke. His job was to distract. The city was heavily guarded and the guards checked for sacs of squid ink, hidden beneath bracelets of pearls. And they checked for knives and spells. They checked even for notes or letters, anything that might bring harm or hindrance to the new sovereign.
But Locke’s gifts were hidden. He wore the blue and purple pearls that signified scholars. And the only thing he had hidden beneath them was his cameo. Endora had returned it to him upon his resurrection.
Things did not go as planned, and that had been expected. Locke did his part. He used his ink to swathe a large part of the city in darkness. And as he fled, map in hand, he checked on Endora and Quell and found them in danger. He used his arms to shock one guard, his spines to pierce another. And he helped to carry a wounded Quell to safety before leaving them. Endora reminded him which path was clear. Locke wished them luck. And he glided away in a cloud of ink.
When he was far enough from the merfolk’s realm to no longer feel their presence in the waters, Locke began to wonder how the rebellion had fared. He began to wonder if Endora and Quell were his friends, his true-mates. He wondered if he should have stayed to help them. But he felt no guilt or remorse at leaving, so wondering is all he did.
He found his way back home. And once he emerged from the waters and breathed the air, he fell to the ground, his body cramping, gasping for air. Another change had come upon him. He was soon to learn that he could no longer survive without breathing both air and water. Quell had been right. Locke was now a creature of both realms.
It took him many more weeks to reach his home. He had been confident his wife would overlook all the changes that had befallen him. But he had seen his reflection in the waters and in windows as he walked about towns, his face hooded and hidden. She would have mourned his death. Even if she believed he had returned, what was returning to her? A demon of the sea? A creature of spines and ink and slime and sparks?
He would not leave her to fend for herself, yet he could not be a husband to her. He could still perhaps be her true-mate.
He readied himself for every reaction she might have. Fear, anger, shock. He imagined the worst. One quiet morning, he knocked on their door. She answered, holding a sleeping babe in her arms. He had his hooded head lowered and she tried to see who he was, one hand holding the babe, the other reaching for the mallet she kept by the door.
He held out his hand, gloved to hide the webbing between his fingers. On a chain he held suspended the cameo. Her cameo.
“It’s me,” he said.
Mirabelle had a sweet and gentle face. Few expected such fortitude from one with such a face. He never feared she would faint away, though he was prepared to catch her and their child if she did. She shivered. Her eyes widened. She pulled the mallet beside her. But she stepped toward him as well.
“Show your face,” she commanded.
“Do not come closer, my love. Do not embrace me. I have been changed by the sea. Truly and forever changed.”
“Show your face.” She spoke the words gently that time.
He lifted his hood. And she stared for a while and before he could stop her, she dropped the mallet, swept forward, and embraced him, careful not to press too hard, lest they squeeze the baby. And after he warned of his spines, she stepped back and swatted his arm and crossly told him that he should have warned about that first. There were tears streaming from her eyes. And tears streaming from his.
She stepped aside so he could enter his home. She showed him their child, a girl, whom she had named after him in his memory. He presented a string of pearls colored blue and purple. She gaped. And he laughed. For a few days, she tested him. He knew she trusted who he was when she at last handed him his daughter.
They stayed together, though they moved far away to another land by the sea, where no one would knew the story of the sailor named Locke who drowned in a shipwreck. They changed their named to Merlocke.
Though he hid his face and hands when about town, claiming an ailment of the skin, Merlocke became a sailor again. He still took his wife’s cameo with him, though she worried far less than she once did. They had difficult times and happy times and all in between.
And Merlocke, became a hero of the sea, using his gifts to rescue and defend his fellow sailors and many others.
Ever he was watchful though of the merfolk who made him. Ever he wondered if they would return to claim their creation, to bring him back down under the sea.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.