Authors: Leigh Michael
At one point throughout the night, someone threw a white poncho over my head. Oddly enough, that split second of darkness was the sanest moment of my night thus far.
I lost track of how long I’d been at the celebration. Everything was a blur and my head bobbled in every direction in an attempt to find my balance.
Suddenly, I was torn away in yet another direction. One second my eyes glimpsed a cheerful Mami Wata face and the next thing I knew I was pressed against the wall, staring into a new face. Another split second later, the drapes that were pulled aside surrounded us.
“Adrian!” I screamed and launched myself at him.
It felt so good to be in his arms within our own little hiding spot in the curtains.
“There you are,” he responded with a slow smile.
“What is going on out there? I know they're appreciative, but wow.”
I took a chance and slowly pushed the fabric aside just enough to peek out.
I spotted Miriam. There was no other way to describe her actions other than out of control. Clearly, she was the type of queen who liked to mingle with her followers.
“I didn’t know Miriam could move like that,” I mused. “She seemed so demure… now she’s just as insane as the rest of ‘em.”
Instead of responding, Adrian slowly ran the back of his hand down my cheek, his face only inches from mine. I yearned to be above water, to feel his breath against my skin. Still, his presence made my heart thump inside my chest.
My hand dropped from the curtain, the heavy fabric falling back into place. Slowly, I turned my head toward him as his hand guided my face to his. Forcefully, I swallowed the lump—a good lump— that had formed in my throat. This moment that he’d orchestrated with a slight touch against my cheek was a complete oxymoron from the grabby hands on the other side of the curtains.
We hadn’t been “alone” since that moment in the dungeons when we shared our first kiss. There wasn't time to think about what that kiss had meant—until now.
I remembered how it sent a spark throughout my entire body. How I felt it in my toes. Then like a shiver, it moved up my legs and lingered in my core.
It changed things between us. Made us a team.
That kiss wasn’t planned. Desperation fueled it, clouding the fact that cold bars kept us apart. Here we were now, hiding in the corner. The musty smell of the drapes mixed with the natural scent of the water. The thumping of the music created our ambiance. It felt romantic and even a little forbidden.
And this time, it was planned.
Slowly, he pulled me closer.
Our second kiss was just as good as the first.
I woke up before the corals with an instant realization that it was New Year’s Eve.
It meant only one thing—time had almost run out.
As I rolled over to push out of bed, I saw Adrian stretched out on the couch in my sitting area.
Even though anxiety pulsed through my arms and legs to start our journey to the dolphin flower, I couldn’t help but take a moment to do something so simple as watch him sleep.
The few seconds we stole together last night in the curtains was just what I'd needed. A quick dash of normalcy in my life that now seemed foreign to me. Unfortunately, those seconds had passed too quickly and Adrian led me back into the room. He claimed it was important to do so before the merpeople panicked that both the prince and “princess” had gone missing. Personally, I thought, “let ‘em sweat,” but Adrian insisted for us to head back into the lion’s den.
The night wore on before an older mermaid, proclaiming how my actions would change their lives, released me from her grip and my eyes connected with Adrian’s from across the room. We quickly raced toward each other and slipped out of the room before anyone else pulled us back into the madness.
Finally—and I mean finally—the night had come to a close. My cheeks flushed from the barrage of merfolk and somehow my hands turned clammy in the water. My limit had been met for the amount of attention I could endure.
Don’t get me wrong, I'd tell anyone who’d listen that the Mami Wata were hospitable, kind, and a gracious group of sprites. I’d also go on the record that the loud thud of the doors as it closed at our backs was one of the best sounds I’d ever heard. With the door between the craziness and us, we lazily swam back to my room and threw ourselves on my bed.
There we snuggled, sharing stories of our evening.
Adrian pulled me close, his arms enveloping my body. “You know, I’m pretty pleased with myself.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, my eyes drawn up to his.
“Because I was right.”
Cue involuntary eye roll. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah.” His chest puffed.
“Are you going to tell me what you’re right about?”
I pushed up onto my elbow, a better vantage point to look into his eyes.
They were warm as he spoke. “I already told you how the Guardians described you as kind, selfless, and smart when they scouted you. It’s a lot to live up to, but I knew you would. I was right.
He put his finger to my lips. “Shh, listen. I’ve never met anyone else like you. You’re sacrificing so much to help me, to help us. It takes a special person to do that.”
I opened my mouth, not even sure of what would come out. There wasn’t a chance for words before Adrian pulled me closer and rested his forehead on mine.
“Thank you,” he whispered before he lowered his lips gently onto mine, kissing me until I’d gone breathless.
He tucked my head into the nook of his neck, his hand resting softly on my hair. His arms would act as a safe harbor until tomorrow. I drifted off to sleep with the feel of his kiss still on my lips and a smile across my face.
The fact he stayed the night in my room made the corners of my mouth turn up yet again.
It meant a lot to me that he decided to camp out here. It acted as another reminder of how in tune Adrian was with me. He knew I needed him nearby after the evening we had. Who knew, an overzealous Mami Wata could’ve tried to sneak into my room to make sure I knew how appreciative they were.
Ripping my attention away from Adrian and toward my door, a huge merman overpowered the entrance of my room.
“It’s time to leave,” he said firmly, waking up Adrian with his demand.
“Oh, hey Maddox,” Adrian responded, calmly.
I swear that boy baffled me. I nearly peed myself at the sudden appearance of Maddox, but there he was: the definition of relaxed.
Adrian sat up, stretching his arms. “Are we all set to go?”
“Yes, my prince. Clemente and Shamus are waiting at the trapdoor.”
After Adrian slipped out to go to his own room and Maddox again took up his post by my door, I threw my armored bodysuit back on.
I recalled how last time I left for a leg of our mission I wrote my parents a letter. It’d been so long since I’d spoken with them. I hoped they were okay and that they didn't worry about me. I knew they did though. That was a wish to be left unfilled. Worriment went hand in hand with being a parent—to forever fear for the safety of your children.
And this time, there wouldn't be an opportunity to write a letter. Maddox waited for me in the hall. With his back to me, his extremely muscular arm peaked out into the entrance of the doorway. Blackened tribal tattoos covered his mocha colored arm, bent so that his hand rested on his hip. I couldn't tell if his stance was one of protection or impatience. My guess: most likely the latter.
I took a deep breath, my shoulders rising then lowering with the movement of my lungs. Adrian and I already accomplished so much together, even with all the setbacks. Somewhere along the way I acquired strength I never knew possible. I suppose when so many people counted on you to succeed, there wasn't a choice. I needed to step up and face this next chapter head on. I needed to find Triton's shell. Confidence flooded my body and carried me toward Maddox.
Naturally, Adrian beat me into the hallway and currently spoke with Maddox in a low voice.
“Ready to go, Belles?” he asked, turning his attention to me.
I quickly gave a nod that Maddox returned with a similar shake of his head. He was a man of few words; that strong, silent type.
I don't know why it surprised me, but even at this early hour, the people of Mamadjo lined the streets. They shouted greetings of “good luck” and wished us well on our conquest to fulfill the ABA prophecy.
Last night the merfolk’s intensity was… alarming, but in the light glow of the wakening corals, their support warmed me and helped guide me to the trapdoor. From there, it was all business.
It was unknown if the Trackers knew the location of the flower. Fingers crossed, we’d get lucky and they wouldn’t make the connection between the dolphins on Arethusa’s coins and the Columnea Billbergia flower. Without help from Queen Miriam, our mission would’ve been at a standstill.
However, we didn’t know the resources the Trackers could get their hands on. They didn’t blink an eye at hurting others to get what they wanted. And right now, they wanted to stop us from succeeding. So far they had managed to stay either on pace or one step ahead. This streak needed to end.
From our location in the Gulf of New Guinea, there wasn’t a need to go far before our heads broke the surface of the water along the shoreline.
The rising sun just peaked out over the mountain range in the distance, momentarily blinding my eyes. As I squinted, I took a moment to even my breathing. This time as I transitioned from water to air, the effect wasn't as jarring.
Grabbing my arm, Adrian pulled me toward him.
“Annabelle,” he started, his voice sounding clearer than underwater. The non-muffled sound of it made me smile. “Even though I can’t go with you, Clemente and Shamus will be with you each step of the way. Maddox and I will be right here in the sea watching for any Trackers. You ready for this?”
I stopped listening after he told me he couldn't come with me. The rest sounded foreign. I was annoyed with myself that I hadn’t thought of this before. Of course Adrian wouldn’t be able to leave the sea. With this very obvious realization, I couldn’t help but second-guess myself before I rediscovered my conviction.
Yes, having Adrian with me was a comfort, a very big comfort. But I could do this. All I had to do was grab the flower.
Just grab the flower.
“Do you hear me?” he questioned, dipping his head to catch my eyes.
I quickly refocused. “Yeah, sorry. I’ll be fine. Just sad I gotta leave you, that’s all.”
“Me too. I’ll be right here waiting for you though.”
“I know.” I smiled again. I liked hearing that.
Looking over my shoulder toward the shore, I saw two men waiting for me.
The first had an explosion of freckles covering his face, with shaggy red hair and a lanky build accompanying it. I assumed this had to be Shamus. He was a lot younger than I thought he’d be—probably only a couple years older than me.
The second guy I immediately recognized as Clemente. The same straw hat, white linen pants, and floral print he wore during my abduction were a dead giveaway. This time, he also had a sword attached to his belt.
I turned back to Adrian, confused. “Where did they… never mind.”
After my recent exposure to all this paranormal crap, the magical appearance of clothing on Shamus and Clemente was the least of my worries.
“Looks like the boys are waiting for me,” I said instead.
“You take care of my Belles,” he whispered, then followed with a light touch of his lips.
Sighing, I took another second to commit this moment to memory. The combination of his intense brown eyes staring back at me, the softness of his lips, the heat of the sun on my shoulders, the cool water lapping against my skin, and the flutter in my chest made me want to linger here forever.
Alas, it was time to go. Without another word, I turned and swam toward the shore.
“You ready for this?” I asked the boys as the last wave quickened my momentum onto the awaiting sand. The weight of my body on my legs caused my legs to wobble and I threw my arms out for balance. Talk about sea legs.
Shamus pointed high into the sky. “Aye, Maddox said the flower is on the top of that peak.”
I followed the direction of his arm toward the cliff face behind him. Squinting, I felt like I peered up at a New York City skyscraper. I stumbled back a few steps as my mind registered the sheer height of the mountain.
“We should keep moving,” Clemente’s voice cut in. The encantado are generally from around Portugal, which accounted for the Spanish tone to his words.
As Clemente studied the rock face, I studied him and Shamus.
Their human-like appearances made them seem like strangers. It was also weird to hear their voices. For the past week or so, Shamus and Clemente communicated through various barks and clicking noises. Now, they not only had human forms, but I could understand them. Hopefully that made this leg of the trip easier than what we’d faced so far. The clarity of the sounds above water versus under wasn't lost on me either. It sounded like I had just pulled plugs from my ears.
“This way,” Clemente directed.
After I detached the flippers from my bodysuit, I quickly followed after. The feel of the sinking sand beneath my feet was a welcomed change to wearing them. I was happy to leave my flippers behind for a few hours.
Clemente and Shamus arrived at the steep incline first. Reaching up, Clemente easily pulled himself up over the large rock that jutted out of the rock face.
Even at this early hour in the day the humidity in the air seeped into my body, but the surface of the rock felt cool and even hard beneath my grasp. Pulling my hands back, I examined my fingertips and palms. After being submerged in water for days, I figured they’d be wrinkled beyond recognition, but they weren’t. This wasn't always the case. As a child, I found amusement from my raisin-like skin after I spent the day in the pool. It’d be a mystery to solve at a later date. Wrapping my fingers into a groove, I pulled myself up to the same landing as the boys.