Authors: Anna Banks
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Love & Romance, #Mermaids, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Collections & Anthologies
Grom’s fin gives an occasional thrust, a reflex really, to maintain forward motion if only at the speed of driftwood. But comparing himself to driftwood would be unfair—to the driftwood.
At least driftwood doesn’t have to mate with the hideous Poseidon heir.
He keeps his back to the abyss below and his face upturned to the ceiling of ice above him. A ceiling to the Syrena, a floor to the humans, but most important, a divider of the worlds. Even when the humans began to submerge their steel death ships—long, ugly things that breathed fire underwater and hurled chunks of metal at one another—none of them dared to venture as far north as the Big Ice. So far.
Which is lucky for him, since the Syrena hide all things of importance under the frozen shield, down in the depths of the Cave of Memories—Grom’s destination. Within the cave, he’ll find the Ceremony Chamber, and possibly a way out of his own impending ceremony—the one that seals him to the house of Poseidon for the rest of his miserable life. The punishment for being a firstborn, third-generation Triton Royal.
En route to the cave, Grom spots an occasional ice chunk bulging out more than the rest, so as to resemble a bulbous nose. If he lets his eyes relax enough, the crevices and icicles surrounding it could blur into the dour face of his father, the Triton king—or, at least, the face his father made when Grom told him he didn’t particularly
to mate with the Poseidon princess.
But to complete the king’s fury, Grom would need to somehow add ten shades of blotchy red to the ice—one shade for each time his father had said, “But you’re the firstborn, third-generation Triton. You
uphold the law of Gifts.” Or, on second thought, maybe one shade of red for each time
had said, “The law is outdated!”
Whether or not the law really
outdated, Grom can’t say. The law of Gifts was brought into effect long ago by the great generals, Triton and Poseidon, to ensure the survival of the Syrena. At least that’s what the Archives say. But the Gift of Poseidon hasn’t occurred in many generations. Not that the Syrena are starving, by any means. But as more and more humans invade the oceans, the more important the Gift of Poseidon will become, especially since they all share a common food source: fish. The humans have their nets. The Syrena have the Gift of Poseidon.
As for the Gift of Triton, not even the Archives can remember the last time anyone saw evidence of it. In fact, there is continual debate about what the Gift of Triton actually is. Even the Archives—the oldest of the Syrena entrusted to remember such things—continually debate about Triton’s Gift. Some say speed. Some say strength. But if the
can’t remember, who’s to say it actually still exists?
But one thing Grom
sure of is that the survival of the Gifts couldn’t possibly hinge on his mating with the ugly Poseidon princess. The Archives must surely be mistaken on that point.
Nalia, Nalia, Nalia
. Just thinking her name makes him snarl.
He’s only ever met her once, years ago when her mother died. Etiquette had forced the Triton Royals to pay their respects to the mourning house of Poseidon. Well, etiquette, and the close friendship between Grom’s father and the Poseidon king, Antonis. But for Grom, it was strictly etiquette. Especially considering how Nalia had treated him.
And I was just expressing my condolences!
Thirteen mating seasons old at the time, he was already being groomed to rule the Triton territory, already given the respect due to a future king. But Nalia was a haughty little mess, even at a mere nine seasons old. He remembers how careful he was in reciting each word of his mother’s comforting speech, saying noble things about death and loss and love, even as Nalia sneered up at him in apparent disgust. Most of all, he remembers how those swollen red eyes made her look like the result of what would happen if a puffer fish mated with a rock. She’d said, “How could
understand my loss? You didn’t even know my mother!”
Which wasn’t true at all, of course. Grom’s parents had been fast friends with the Poseidon Royals for many years. That is, before the precious princess came along. After giving birth to the spoiled bullshark, the Poseidon queen never fully recovered, and preferred to stay in the Royal caverns rather than venture out to any social functions.
To be fair—or at least, to pretend to be fair—Nalia couldn’t justly be blamed for the queen’s death, no matter how closely her sudden decline coincided with the birth of Puffer Fish Face.
Or maybe she’s more like a hammerhead, since her eyes are set so far apart.
Grom smirks to himself as, at that moment, he passes a slab of ice with two deep-set holes spaced an arm’s length apart. “Nalia,” he says to the contorted, makeshift face, “still so icy after all these years?” He even allows himself a chuckle at her expense.
Why not? After we’re mated, everything will be at
After a long stretch of brooding, Grom senses the two Trackers guarding the entrance to the Cave of Memories. No doubt they sensed him before he sensed them, possibly as soon as he set off on his journey. Which has always amazed him. All Syrena can sense each other within close proximity, but Trackers have a special sensing capacity. The ones who impress him the most are the elite Trackers, who can sense their kind even from opposite sides of the world. Only the elite can stand guard at the Cave of Memories. Only the elite can be trusted with such precious relics.
And to Grom, none of those relics are more valuable at this moment than the answers that lie in the Ceremony Chamber, the place where all of Syrena history is documented. Matings, births, annulments, deaths. With any shimmer of luck, Grom will find evidence that he’s not third generation. Or that he’s not firstborn. Or, better yet, he’s not even of Triton descent! He’d take any of those options over the last one: He is all of the above, and he will mate with Nalia and her hammerhead eyes.
When Grom senses the Trackers directly below, he swoops down and approaches them at the entrance. Both—one from each Royal house—move aside for him.
“Is there a Royal function here today, my prince?” the Triton Tracker says.
Grom pauses before he passes. “No. Why do you ask?” And then he senses her. Nalia.
Why is she here?
The Tracker nods when he sees that Grom recognizes Nalia’s pulse. “Her Highness arrived not long ago, my prince. We just thought…” The Tracker shrugs, unable or unwilling to theorize further.
Grom presses his lips together in a tight line. “Did she say why?”
This time, the Poseidon Tracker shakes his head. “She did not, my prince.”
Grom nods. “As you were, then.” Careful to hide his grimace until he passes, he makes his way into the enormous first chamber, a cavern filled with long rocks that look like icicles dangling from the top and protruding from the bottom. It reminds Grom of the mouth of a piranha.
You don’t have to see her. Just find what you came for and leave.
But the more he winds through the maze of caverns, the more his heart sinks. He passes the Scroll Chamber, full of human and Syrena relics, none of which are actual scrolls; all the true scrolls, the ones scrawled onto papyrus and birch centuries ago, have disintegrated into bits of nothing to be stolen by the current. Then there’s the Tomb Chamber, the final resting place for all Syrena dead, preserved by the freezing water and, most importantly, kept from washing ashore on any human beaches. He eases past the Civic Chamber, full of monuments from many human civilizations. Each tunnel, each chamber, brings him closer and closer to the Ceremony Chamber—and closer to
Finally, he reaches the entrance, and the female Tracker on guard meets him with a surprised look. “Your Highness,” she says, bowing her head in reverence.
Grom scowls. Nalia’s pulse pounds against his chest, his head, his entire body. He doesn’t remember her pulse being this strong, this intrusive.
She’s in the Ceremony Chamber. Why, why, why?
“As you were,” Grom nearly growls, making his way through the elongated opening.
The Ceremony Chamber is nothing but century after century of Syrena records etched and carved into aged rock—a much more practical material than the humans’ papyrus, Grom is sure—stacked atop one another, maintained for an eternity by the Archives and the Trackers and the freezing waters. Grom has always been in awe of this chamber, even before it meant something to him personally. Before it meant his possible escape from the law. He’s always felt as if past lives, past experiences called out to him from the stone tablets, as if this place held answers to future questions he might have one day as a Triton king.
But now, it feels as if this place has closed off access to itself, replaced by the suffocating pulse of
Deciding the meeting is inevitable—he knows she senses him just as clearly as he senses her—he chooses the diplomatic course and follows her pulse until he finds her draped over a stone tablet in a far corner of the cave.
Nalia is all grown up.
From head to fin-tip, she takes up the length of the tablet and then some. She’s twisted her long black hair into a braid and tied a knot at the end to keep it in place. Though a strand of seaweed is wrapped tightly around her torso in the traditional female cover, it doesn’t quite hide the swell of her breasts. Without looking up, she says, “What are
Though her voice is full of disdain, it’s not unpleasant. In fact, it has a rich texture to it, velvety as a fin, and it fills up the cave with her presence. He doesn’t like it. Not at all. Grom clears his throat. “I might ask the same of you, princess.”
She huffs, but still won’t look at him, which is sure to drive him mad. “Yes, you might.”
It occurs to Grom that he really does want to know why she’s here.
Is she here for the same reason I am? Does she seek a way out of this arrangement too?
Hope licks at his insides, but then a sense of rejection instantly quells it. After all these years, she still dares to snub him.
I won’t have it, not again. Not with all the females I have throwing themselves at me at every change in the current. What makes
Then Nalia, firstborn, third-generation Poseidon heir, looks up.
And Grom almost falters. “You’ve…you’ve changed, princess.”
Yes, it’s the same pulse he remembers from years earlier. But it’s not the same face. Not the puffer fish face with hammerhead tendencies. No, this face, this new Nalia, this
Nalia, is breathtaking. Her eyes are still huge, yes, but in a way that makes his mouth go dry despite the ocean around him. And the color of them! Didn’t he remember them being dull and plain? Could they always have been this vibrant, this crystalline violet? And her lips. So full. So alluring. So pouty.
“You haven’t changed at all,” she counters, crossing her arms. “Except, your mouth hangs open wider than I remember.”
Grom clamps his mouth shut.
“And you still haven’t answered my question. What are you doing here?” she says.
Grom offers his most charming grin, but from the look on her face the effort is wasted. “Surely you know. I’m here to make sure there is no mistake in the records. That I am the
enough to be your mate.”
Her eyes declare him full of whale dung. “Liar,” is what she says out loud.
“I swear by Triton’s trident.” He places three fingers on his Royal birthmark, the small image of a trident embedded into his skin just before stomach turns into fin. “I had to make sure you were mine.”
She uncrosses her arms. “You and I do not like each other.”
“Is that so? I didn’t realize.”
If Nalia narrows her eyes anymore, they’ll close. “You were mean to me when you came to my mother’s entombing ceremony.”
Beautiful, but dumb as a clam. Such a shame
. Grom cocks his head at her. “Was that before or after you attacked me?”
Attacked me, then bit me when I tried to restrain her. How convenient that she doesn’t remember.
Their parents had found them wrapped up in each other, her in his best headlock, him trying to pry her vicious little teeth from his stomach. That’s when the ridiculous rumor had started that they had taken a liking to each other. Complete nonsense.
“You told me I killed my mother.”
“I didn’t say that. Not exactly.” Pretty close, though, he recalls. “We could start over, you know. Forget about the past.”
Over my lifeless fin
Nalia must notice that he’s making his way closer, because she presses herself against the tablet. Grom swears she swallows with the familiar vulnerability of an awestruck female. “Why would we do that?” she says.