Authors: Anna Banks
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Love & Romance, #Mermaids, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Collections & Anthologies
He stops within a fin’s length of her.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she says, her hand flitting to her throat. But he can tell by her face that it’s the same kind of reflex of alarm he’s feeling—and it has nothing to do with danger. Her eyes, too, are full of the same kind of whirlwind he feels tightening in his chest. And he doesn’t like it. Not at all.
Grom floats closer, growing more delighted as she allows him to devour the distance between them.
Who’s the awestruck one now, idiot?
“Like what?” he murmurs, his nose almost touching hers. He decides Nalia is the exact opposite of ugly. She has the same features as every other Syrena. Smooth olive skin, dark black hair, violet eyes. But hers are all arranged in just the right way to make her stunning.
Nalia gasps, licking her lips. She keeps her eyes locked on his. “Like…like…”
“Like I found what I was looking for?” he offers.
He’s answered with a sharp jab to his throat. “Like you’re looking to die,” she whispers, pressing whatever weapon she has into the soft flesh under his jawbone. “This is a lionfish spike. If you even flick your fin, I’ll inject its venom.”
His eyes lock on hers, a silent battle raging between them. “You won’t do it.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I want to. I do.”
Right after I murder you
She scoffs. “I’m going to leave now. You’re going to stay right here.” She whirls them around in one fluid motion and backs away from him, toward the entrance. A tantalizing smirk curves her lips. “You must have bumped your head on the way in,” she says, tucking the hook behind her, probably into her braid. “To think that would work on me.”
Grom never takes his eyes off her. “And what do you think will work, pray tell?”
She shrugs. “I don’t suppose it matters much.” Nalia glances back at the stone tablet she was reading. “Since I don’t have a choice one way or the other.” Then she speeds away with such force that a swish of water slaps at his face in her wake.
When the length of her elegant fin disappears behind a bend in the cave, he glides over to the tablet. He could go after her. He could even call her bluff on the lionfish venom—she wouldn’t keep such a deadly threat tucked against her bare flesh. Or, he could let her bask in this small victory. Let her think he’s weak.
His eyes scan the tablet, but his attention is still overwhelmed by the memory of her. If she didn’t find what she was looking for here, then it’s not likely that he will either. Their future course is set. One day, they will be mated. It’s a battle neither of them can win. He knows it. She knows it.
But today, Nalia started a new battle. One that he’s intent on winning.
The one for her heart.
Grom finds his mother in her private chamber, right in the middle of her usual routine of caring for her human relics. She uses her finger to gently swipe off a layer of silt from a tall clear cylinder, which she claims the humans use to contain fire for light. After it’s spotless, she moves on to a small white box, her favorite of them all. “I can’t touch this one anymore,” she says without looking up. She puckers, then blows a gentle stream through the delicate flowers carved on the lid. A slight cloud of black wafts up, just before the surrounding water absorbs it. “Last time I chipped one of the small green pieces, see?”
Grom swims forward and squints, more in a show of interest than in actual interest. “Are you sure it wasn’t already like that? You did recover this from a wreck, after all.”
She bites her lip. “I’m sure. I cried when I did it.”
“You and your human treasures,” he says, not unkindly.
“Oh, not you too,” she says, waving her hand. “Do I not get enough complaints from your father? Is it so wrong to want to preserve beauty, even if it’s made from human hands?”
“Of course not,” Grom smiles. “Otherwise, the Cave of Memories would be outlawed. Besides, I didn’t come here to complain.”
“Excellent! I do get weary of having to defend myself. What can I do for you, my son?”
“It’s about Nalia.”
The queen groans. “Oh, Grom. You know that’s the one thing I can’t—”
“I want her for my mate,” he blurts.
“I…You do?” She clasps her hands together. “Because I was certain that you’d rather mate with a rockfish. In fact, I think you’ve said as much on several—”
changed. But I want her to want me too.” Sort of. He wants her to want him, so he can reject her the way she rejected him. But that explanation won’t convince the queen to help him.
“Truly? Do you…do you love her, then?”
“No,” he says, even as he feels Nalia’s pulse thrum through him. Ever since their meeting in the Ceremony Chamber, he can’t shake it. Sometimes it’s light, almost like a phantom tickle, easily brushed aside. Other times it’s maddening, strong and intrusive, so that he can’t think of anything else but her. And apparently talking about her triggers the madness. He doesn’t like that. Not at all.
“Then why?” His mother’s lips press into a line.
Grom chuckles, hoping it doesn’t sound as fake as it feels. “Have you
Nalia lately, mother?”
The queen gasps. “Are you shallow as a clam pool, boy?”
“Triton’s trident! Ever since she was born you and father have twisted my fin to accept her. Now you’re upset that I’m
to mate with her. I do wish you’d make up your mind.”
His mother grimaces in obvious shame.
“Truth be told,” he says, almost choking on the words, “I think it’s more than love. I think it’s the pull.”
“The pull!” she says, gliding over to him. “Grom, are you sure? What makes you think so?”
Grom shrugs. He should have looked into the whole ridiculous legend further before going around spewing “the pull” all over the place. He has no idea of the supposed symptoms. And symptoms they are, since Grom has always considered the pull a mental defect, at best. The idea that nature could force a couple together in order to produce stronger offspring has always been nonsensical to him.
“Do you think about her all the time?” The queen’s eyes light up. “Do you always sense her, no matter how far apart you are?”
There is nothing fake about his scowl as he realizes he does.
Not possible. It’s not possible that I actually do feel the pull for Nalia
. He clears his throat. “Er…yes.” The words taste like squid ink in his mouth.
“Oh, this is wonderful. I can’t wait to tell your father.”
“No! Do we have to tell anyone? I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s the pull or not, right? We would still have to mate, even if it’s not.”
“But wait. If you feel the pull toward her, shouldn’t Nalia feel the pull toward you? Isn’t that how it works?”
Triton’s trident, what a stupid legend.
“I’m sure she reciprocates, mother. But given our history, she might be stubborn enough to fight it.” Again, Nalia’s pulse jolts through his veins. He grits his teeth. “And that’s what I need your help with. I want to charm her. Win her over.”
Grom swears he hears pity in the Triton queen’s chuckle. “Oh, my dear boy. Who could resist your charms? I’m sure you’ll have no trouble at all stealing her heart. You don’t need my help. The little princess has no idea what’s coming for her.” With that, his mother flits out of the cave in a wave of feminine innocence. And Grom is sure he’s just been had.
He follows Nalia’s pulse to the shallow waters off the coast of the Old World, in Triton territory.
What is she doing in the Human Pass? Is she brainless?
The Human Pass is just that—a stretch of barren waters where the humans pass through in their underwater death ships. As best as Grom can figure, these humans think this is their territory, and they do their best to patrol it regularly. It’s a dangerous place for any Syrena, and a careless place for a Poseidon Royal.
Which is why he’s not really surprised to have found her here. In the weeks since their confrontation in the Cave of Memories, he’s found her in all sorts of unpredictable places. Unpredictable seems to be her specialty.
As he nears her pulse, he senses another one—the female Tracker he first met at the entrance of the Ceremony Chamber. Freya, Nalia’s accomplice in all things bad. He finds them both in Blended form on the bottom of the passage, their bodies mimicking and reflecting the color and texture of the rocky muck. Not bothering to Blend himself, he swims down to the barely discernible shapes. “Why are we hiding?” he says loudly.
Nalia materializes before him and rolls her eyes. “What are you doing here?” she hisses.
Grom crosses his arms. “I’m here to rescue you. I was very alarmed to find my future mate in dangerous waters. I’ve come to help.”
She Blends again and huffs. “You can help by Blending, and shutting your mouth.”
“What are you doing?” he asks, exasperated.
“I don’t answer to you.” Grom is left imagining just what kind of superior expression she has on that lovely face.
does.” He raises a brow at the transparent silhouette next to Nalia.
Freya materializes. “We’re waiting for one of the long boats to pass so we can ride it.”
“Freya!” Nalia hisses.
“What?” Freya says, her voice full of whine. “I have to answer him. He’s a Triton Royal.”
Nalia appears again and scowls up at Grom. “Look, if you’re not going away anytime soon, then would you please just Blend so you don’t blow our cover?”
“You’re both out of your minds. Don’t you know how dangerous—”
“Shhh! They can pick up sounds down here somehow. They’ll come and investigate,” Nalia whispers.
Grom doesn’t even want to know how she knows this. He Blends and crouches down next to her, tucking his fin under him. “So this is your plan? To get yourself killed so you don’t have to mate with me?” He’s glad she can’t see the dejection he knows is all over his face.
She scoffs. “Not everything is about you. If you must know, we come here all the time. And since you’re here, I was going to invite you to come with us, but if you’re too scared—”
“I’m not,” he says, though he’s not sure he believes it. Hitching a ride on any human boat is dangerous, but hitching a ride on a human death ship is downright madness. Their sole purpose, as far as he can tell, is to pick fights with other human death ships, which makes them all moving targets. But, begrudgingly, he admits he’s a little thrilled that she thought to invite him this time. He’d love to reject the invitation, but if he does, it will look like as if he’s afraid, instead of like he’s just plain rejecting her.
Nalia seems pleased. “Good. One should be along soon. Here, take this. You’ll need it to hold on.” She hands him a chopped-off tentacle of what used to be a very large squid; the suckers are as big as his face. He wants to believe it was dead before she found it. But he doesn’t.
He swallows, turning the tentacle over in his hands. “You’re not serious.”
“Change your mind?” she coos. Freya giggles.
Grom swallows. “No.”
“Shhh! Here it comes.”
All three Syrena stiffen, almost invisible against the current. In the distance, a shadow emerges, slow and stealthy, like a wary shark. A giant, wary shark. It glides through the water, looking every bit the predator it is. When it’s just overhead, Nalia and Freya shoot up expertly, leaving Grom behind in the wake of their swirling muck. He watches as Nalia’s clear form latches on to the metal hull with her squid tentacle. Dangling by one arm, she materializes just long enough to grin down at him.
Stupidly, he grins back. And he’s thankful he’s still in Blended form. Otherwise, she might think he’s flirting with her. Am
I flirting with her?
In the next second, he springs up and attaches his own tentacle to the hull, his half grunt full of disbelief and thrill.
Up close, the ship doesn’t look as smooth. Where the metal is chipped in places, rust rings have settled in, and even a few barnacles have taken up residence in sporadic clumps along the length of it. But Grom suspects the humans aren’t so concerned about the beauty of it as they are about the deadliness of it. And deadly it is.
He keeps an eye on Nalia, who is now sneaking her way to the top of the vessel. He copies her movements as she sticks and unsticks her tentacle, careful not to make noise. Which is why his heart almost stops when Nalia starts pounding on the metal with a rock.