Authors: Anna Banks
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Love & Romance, #Mermaids, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Collections & Anthologies
Nalia lifts her chin. “I heard you feel the pull for me.”
That is unexpected. From the sound of her voice, she doesn’t like the idea. And he takes slight offense. Suddenly the tiny pearl in his hand feels like a burning rock from the hot beds. “Is it so bad for me to
to be your mate?”
“That’s just it. The pull is mindless. It tricks your feelings. It’s not what
want, it’s what
wants. To make stronger offspring. But I want something real.”
A whirlpool of relief swirls through him.
She wants something real—from me
. “But you have to mate with me, pull or no pull. What does it matter if the feelings are real? There could be no feelings at all, and we’d still have to mate.”
“I’d rather there were no feelings at all, than be tricked by the pull.” She crosses her arms. He’s spent enough time with her to know this is her gesture when she’s unsure.
“And if I don’t feel the pull for you?” He caresses her lips with his eyes.
She swallows. “Don’t you?”
“Hmmm,” he says. “I’m not sure. Wouldn’t you feel the pull toward me, if I felt it toward you?” He’s hoping his mother knows what she’s talking about, hoping that she didn’t just make this ridiculousness up.
She considers. “I suppose so. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.”
“And I suppose it would make sense for us to be pulled together.” She tucks a short piece of hair behind her ear. “Firstborn, third-generation Royals, right? To pass on the Gifts of the Generals to our fingerlings. If anyone would be pulled, it would be us.”
feel the pull for
She bristles like an anemone. “Oh, just forget it!” She turns away, but he catches her arm and whirls her around.
“I don’t believe in the pull,” he blurts. “I think it’s a bunch of superstitious muck. Besides that, I think the pull would pale in comparison to the way I feel about you.”
She lets out a tiny gasp, swirling the water in front of her and spooking some fish close by.
Grom pulls her closer, wanting this moment to be right, wanting the right words to appear in his mouth, wanting the contrary ones to disappear from hers. “If it was the pull, surely it would have brought us together before now. I’ve been old enough to sift for a mate for three seasons now. Don’t you think that if the pull were at work, I would have sought you out already?”
“I hadn’t thought about that.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. About you and me. And…not long ago in the Cave of Memories,” he says, “you told me that I was mean to you when we first met, at your mother’s entombing ceremony all those years ago. Do you remember that?”
She bites her lip. “I was just a fingerling when she died. Nine mating seasons old. It wasn’t what you’d said. It was how you said it. As if I was unimportant. As if it was a bother for you to be there.”
Grom nods, cringing on the inside. That had been exactly how he’d felt when he’d had to make an appearance at the ceremony—imposed upon. “I’m so sorry.” He brushes her cheek with his fingers, something he wishes he’d done all those seasons ago. Something,
to comfort her instead of set her on edge like he did. If he hadn’t been so self-occupied, maybe they wouldn’t have avoided each other all this time, missed out on each other. Maybe they’d already be mated. The thought bears down on him with the weight of a great whale. “I have no excuse,” he says softly. “But something you said back then stuck with me. Do you remember what you told me? When I offered you my condolences?”
Nalia shakes her head. Then she sends the thrill of a thousand electric rays running through him when she rests her hand on his. “No.”
“You asked how I could understand your loss, when I didn’t even know your mother. But you were wrong. I did know her, before you were born. And I liked her.” He offers his fist between them, then opens it. When he picks up the black pearl, her eyes go round and soft, luring him closer like the light of the dangle fish she’d wanted to hunt down. “I remember she had a pearl like this one,” he tells her. “I remember how happy she was when my mother gave her a human string for it. She put it through the pearl and wore it around her neck, always.”
Nalia accepts it into her palm, rolling it around with her finger. “She was entombed with it,” she breathes. “I wanted to keep it, but I thought it would be selfish, so I didn’t ask Father for it.” She lifts her scrutiny from the pearl to his face. “This looks exactly like hers. It must have taken you forever to find one just like it.” She bites her lip. “That’s what you’ve been doing in the shallows every day before you come to meet me and Freya.”
He nods. Every single day since he was forced to cut off her hair, he’s been harvesting in the oyster beds. Sure, Freya could have used her Tracker abilities to locate him. But by Nalia’s expression, he knows that’s not the case. “You can sense me, then. The way I sense you.”
“Is that the pull?”
He grins, scratching the back of his neck. “I thought we just agreed that the pull doesn’t exist?”
“Then why do we feel this way?”
“I was thinking of calling it ‘love.’ Of course, I can’t speak for you—” He’s cut off by her lips on his, her body against his, her arms wrapped around his neck. This kiss is even better than the first. This kiss wraps heat around them, between them, through them. It makes the ocean seem inconsequential, the moon unimportant, everything else nonexistent.
It fills all the empty spaces inside him, the ones he didn’t know were there, and the ones he thought he’d already filled. And the future is laid plain before him. Their future.
“We’re almost there,” Nalia giggles, keeping her hands pressed tight on his eyes as he swims clumsily forward. He warbles a little, for effect. She giggles again.
Grom smiles. “Did you pick the farthest island from our parents, then?” Syrena custom normally calls for the male to pick the mating island, to find a private, uninhabited place for the newly mated couple to consummate their vows—which they can only do in human form. But Nalia had asked—no,
—him to let her pick the island and set it up for their stay there.
“Sort of. But the surprise part isn’t who we’re
from—it’s who we’re
Finally, after what seems like an entire season, his fin skims sand. “Are we there yet?”
She uncovers his eyes, and he’s shown the underwater landscape of a slowly ascending ocean floor littered with coral reefs and rocks and colorful fish. They couldn’t be more than thirty fins deep, which means the shoreline is close.
Nalia pops to the surface and motions for him to do the same. She points to their destination, and Grom drinks in the small island, the breeze dancing through the luxuriant green canopy, the lazy waves of ocean licking the shore. He holds up his hand to shield himself from the sunlight reflecting off of the bright sand, almost blinding him as his eyes adjust to dry air. Then he sees it. “Nalia,” he says, his mouth gone suddenly dry. “You can see the Big Land from here.”
She claps like a seal. “You noticed! Aren’t you excited? But that’s not the whole surprise. Let’s go on shore.” She pulls his hand, but he holds back.
“You’d better just tell me the rest of it. Because we’re not going on shore so close to the human land.”
Her face falls. “But that’s the surprise.”
Grom pinches the bridge of his nose. One thing he adores about Nalia is that she’s adventurous, fearless. She could never be boring. But this is a bit much. This is not a small law to break. This is the biggest. Through gritted teeth he says, “Why would we want to go to the Big Land?”
She won’t meet his gaze now, finding something terribly interesting to look at beneath them in the water. “Well, for one thing, it’s fun.”
“Please don’t say that means you’ve done it.”
She bites her lip.
“I have what the humans call a rowboat. I do feel bad about stealing it, but I need it to take me to shore after I change into dry human clothes on the island. I feel bad about stealing those too—”
“How long have you been doing this?” His voice sounds gruffer than he intended.
She crosses her arms now, apparently in short supply of shame. “Why don’t you ask your mother?”
where she gets her human treasures. You can’t really believe that she scavenges for them herself.”
Actually, he did. The idea that his mother knows about—no,
—Nalia’s escapades makes his insides catch fire. “This has got to stop,” he says before he can hold it back. Before he can twist the words into something more diplomatic.
The way her eyes pool into huge drops of water on her face. The way her mouth curves into a soft frown. The way her crossed arms seem to relax into a gentle self-hug, as if she’s trying to hold something in and comfort herself all at the same time. She’s disappointed in him.
Without another word, she slinks below the surface.
And he learns something new about Nalia. She is very fast. He cannot keep pace with her, but finds that the best he can do is not get left behind altogether. She moves farther and farther ahead, deflecting the attempts of others who try to greet her. They toss confused looks in his direction as they realize he’s actually chasing her, calling out to her. And she’s ignoring him.
He can’t imagine the size of the spectacle they’re making, but right now he doesn’t care. He knew they would eventually have their first fight. Triton’s trident, they started out fighting, didn’t they? He knew they couldn’t live in euphoria for their next two hundred years together. But he’d been expecting to argue about silly things first, like who is the better kisser, or what to name their first fingerling. Things that he’d be more than willing to surrender on.
But this fight is big. It’s not just about her interest in humans and he knows it. It’s about her freedom. And about how much control he’ll have over it once they’re mated. This is not a fight he’s anticipated. He’s always known she is fiercely independent, but he thought he could reason with her, coax her into seeing that there is always more than one point of view to any situation. And maybe he could, if the first words out of his mouth hadn’t sounded like some unbending command.
He curses under his breath. “Nalia, please stop,” he calls out. “Please.”
She doesn’t. Already they’ve passed the central hub of Syrena society, and they’re well on their way past the Human Pass, where they were nearly killed. Just one more sandbar and they’ll be close to another human shore altogether.
He reaches the hump of the last sandbar. And freezes.
She tries to stop too, but her momentum catches up with her and she slides into the human mine. Hundreds of round metal balls floating above long chains, waiting to be touched, to be set off, to explode. It’s a trap meant to kill humans, but now Nalia,
Nalia, is inside the mess of it, the slightest move of her fin setting the chains swaying haphazardly. There’s barely enough room for her to fit between them, let alone maneuver with any kind of speed. It’s a miracle that she’s still alive, that the wake of her entrance didn’t knock two of the balls together. It will be an even greater miracle to get her out.
“Don’t move,” he says, terror clutching at his throat like an actual hand.
This can’t be happening.
She nods, eyes wide. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “This is my fault.”
“I’m going to get you out,” he tells her, but he has no idea how.
“Grom. Don’t come any closer. Get away.”
He eases forward. “Be still.”
“If you come any closer I’ll set them off on purpose.”
“Nalia. Don’t be stupid. I can help.”
“This is how it’s going to work. You’re going to swim in that direction until I can’t see you anymore. Then I’m going to get myself out of here.”
He crosses his arms. “You’ve lost your mind if you think I’m leaving.”
“There’s no point in both of us…Just go. I can get out. But I can’t concentrate with you so close to—just go.
They both hear it at the same time. Two distinct
from the surface. Grom looks past Nalia. Two metal ovals, distinctly human-made, with red angular symbols painted near the tails. Two miniature death ships falling sinking falling.
No no no no
There is no time.
A flash of light. Once. Twice. Uncountable times.