Authors: Tera Lynn Childs
he Thalassinian Marketplace is, in my opinion, one of the wonders of the underwater world. Held on the open sands of the old town square, the market boasts vendors of every kind hawking their wares. Farmers come from the rural regions, beyond the edges of the city, with barrels of sweet smelling sand strawberries, fresh kelp, and pickled sea fans. Lobstermen put the fattest of their herd on display. Breathtaking bouquets, tasty delicacies, and even the odd salvage stall selling human treasures that have been found on the ocean floor—a mergirl could get lost in all the options.
But I know exactly where I’m going. I swim past the food and flower displays, over the organic sea-life stalls, and around the tables of trinkets. I make straight for my favorite vendor: Paru’s Pearls.
Pearls are plentiful under the sea, and many girls consider them ordinary. Plain. Common. To me they will always be the most beautiful things in all the oceans. I love the way that some gleam and others sparkle. They come in all the colors of the rainbow, from bright white to soft pink to inky gray to the blackest black I’ve ever seen.
I can’t wait to browse the latest collection.
As I turn a corner, an older merwoman loses her grip on her shopping basket, sending a dozen live starfish tumbling across the aisle. I swerve out of the way as the woman dives after her lost bounty, then turn around to help. Most of the starfish remain within reach, and the woman quickly gathers them back. One is making a gallant bid for freedom.
I retrieve the wayward starfish and return it to the woman. “This one almost got away.”
“Such a sweet dear.” Her face crinkles into a bright smile. She reaches up and pinches my cheek. “Thank you.”
I smile back before turning and continuing toward my destination. The pearls are calling.
I approach the stall, swimming with such momentum that I stop kicking and float the rest of the way. If I weren’t so excited, I might have noticed the trio passing in front of the stall.
Of course I crash hardest into the meanest of the three.
“I’m so sorry,” I blurt, kicking myself out of the way, out of reach. “I wasn’t looking where I was—”
“Swim much?” Astria asks, sneering.
“Yeah,” Piper chirps. “Swim much?”
I stare wide-eyed at the terrible trio. Astria, Piper, and Venus have been awful to me since guppihood. They take great delight in making me feel as small and worthless as possible. They try to belittle my best friend, too, but Lily is the princess. They can’t be as cruel with her or there might be repercussions. With me, though, they act without restraint.
It doesn’t help that they’re gorgeous. Astria has beautiful red hair and perfect alabaster skin. Piper looks more like a California mermaid, with sunny, blond hair and a fake tan that almost matches her golden tail fin. Venus is the most exotic, with dark skin, waves of midnight curls, and rich mahogany scales.
I feel dim in their presence. With my boring brown hair and brown eyes, I practically fade into the shadows. Only my tail fin, a bright copper in a thousand shining shades, makes me feel special.
Looking down and away, I mutter another, “I’m sorry,” and try to swim past.
Astria never lets me get away that easily.
“Shopping for pearls?” Her upper lip curls in a sneer. “Again?”
I just shake my head and dart into the stall. I hear them laughing and making fun as they swim off into the market. No matter how many times I tell myself not to let them win, their barbs and mockery always sting.
Closing my eyes, I take a deep, cleansing breath.
“You’re better than those three put together,” a male voice says.
Startled, I spin around.
Usually Paru works the stall herself, with occasional help from her daughter Coral—who is a couple of years younger than me and just about the sweetest girl in all of Thalassinia. Pearl harvesting is a time-intensive business, and Paru can’t spare any of her workers to hawk beads to tourists and shoppers when they could be gathering more.
On my last visit Paru told me she was leaving soon for a trading tour of the southern hemisphere. Off to seek out the rarest pearls ever found. She hadn’t told me her son would be taking her place in the stall.
I haven’t seen Riatus in over a year, not since he left on his grand adventure to explore the world’s oceans and make contacts for the family business. His departure had been so sudden. One day he was in the stall, the next he was gone and Paru was telling me about his big trip.
My heart pounds and my breathing quickens. In a flash, my guppihood crush splashes back to life—years of pining and longing and excitement just to see a glimpse of him in the stall or when he delivered orders to the house.
He looks even more like a dashing pirate than he used to. His hair, black as squid ink, is longer and held back by a red-and-black scarf. Where it flows out the back, I can see tiny, silvery shells woven into his locks. His tail fin has darkened into a deep navy that fades to a green-blue at the bottom. I’ve been dreaming of those dark eyelashes and the pale silver eyes they frame since my first trip to the pearl stall with Mom all those years ago.
But today, it’s his mouth, quirked up to one side, that I can’t stop staring at.
“Wh-what?” I stammer.
He jerks his head after the terrible trio. “I’ve seen the likes of them plenty,” he explains. “Your sort is worth ten of them.” He winks. “At least.”
Come on, Peri, say
“Thanks,” I finally manage with a lame smile.
He shakes his head and lowers his gaze as if it’s no big deal. When those pale eyes pause at the base of my throat, his grin widens. “That’s beautiful,” he says. “One of ours?”
With a gasp, my hand goes to my throat, to the spot where I know a big, fat pearl—the size of a ripe kelpberry and the exact coppery shade of my tail fin—hangs from a simple gold chain. He doesn’t remember. Why would he?
One day, years and years ago, I’d been too sick to accompany Mom to the market. I was devastated, of course, because that meant missing a chance to see Riatus. Mom had the pearl order sent to our house and he had been the one to deliver it. I was asleep in bed when I heard a soft knock at my window.
Riatus was floating outside, a sheepish grin on his face.
“Here,” he said as he handed me the pearl. “Feel better.”
Then, without another word, he swam away.
We never spoke about that moment. I never even wore the pearl—I was too afraid he would know what it meant to me, and too afraid I would lose it—until he left on his adventure. I started wearing it as a reminder, a way to feel closer to him when he was who-knew-where in the world.
“Yes, one of
,” I answer cryptically. “It was a gift.”
The bemused look on his face gives me more satisfaction than it probably should.
“Peri!” Coral whips across the stall and pulls me into a tight hug.
Riatus frowns. “Peri?”
“You remember Peri,” Coral says, releasing me and spinning to her brother’s side. “She’s Mrs. Wentletrap’s daughter.”
His frown transforms into a wry smile. “Little Peri?”
My cheeks burn. This was always our problem—well,
problem. He’s only two years older than me, but he makes it feel like a decade. A century. He sees me as the little guppy who comes to his stall with her mommy.
“She’s emissary to the princess,” Coral brags. “Not so little anymore.”
I feel Riatus’s pale gaze sweep over me from head to tail fin.
“Little Peri,” he repeats, his expression turning curious, interested. “All grown-up.”
His bemusement deepens as he realizes who I am. It’s only been a year—I can’t have changed
much—but I feel older, more mature. Maybe he sees that, too.
He studies me for what feels like ages even though I know it’s only seconds. There is something different about how he is looking at me now, different from moments ago and different from before he left. Like I’m watching him mentally erase the “little” he used to place before my name.
“It’s been a while,” I say, trying to diffuse some of the tension. “How was your grand adventure?”
He smiles, but not before I notice a brief tension in his jaw. “Grand,” he says vaguely. “How about you? Emissary to the princess—that’s pretty impressive.”
“She’s my best friend.” I shrug.
“She’s not stupid,” he argues. “You wouldn’t have the position if you couldn’t do the job.”
Coral gasps. “Are you helping plan the Sea Harvest Dance?”
“No,” I answer. “The dance committee is in charge of that.”
“I hope I get to go this year.” She twists into a dreamy swirl. “I hear it’s magical.”
“Is that coming up soon?” Riatus asks.
Coral stops and gapes at him. “In less than a
“Hey, sea squirt,” he says, playfully thumping her on the shoulder, “I’ve been gone for a year. I didn’t know.”
the night of the August full moon,” she replies. “Always.”
She looks at me, as if seeking support.
“It is,” I admit.
“Traitor,” Riatus teases me, but there is no venom in his voice.
Coral starts dancing around us in a twirling spiral, lost in her dreams of the dance. It’s true, the Sea Harvest Dance—the culminating event of the Sea Harvest Festival—is positively dreamy. Lily and I have gone together since we were old enough to attend. This year, though, she’ll be going with Quince.
“Are you going?” Riatus asks. “To the dance.”
My breath catches in my throat.
“Yes,” I manage. “I mean, probably. I always do.”
We float in silence—except for the sound of Coral humming as she dances. I’m trying not to stare at him—which is really, really hard when I haven’t even
him in a year. And he’s . . . I don’t know, trying to act like this isn’t the most awkward moment ever.
“Are you?” I finally ask. “Going? To the dance?”
Lord love a lobster, when did I lose all ability to ask a complete question?
“I’ve never been,” he says.
“But there’s always a first time.” He shrugs, a casual gesture, yet full of meaning. “I’m trying to make some changes in my life. Maybe I’ll start with the dance.”
“Great,” Coral exclaims, swimming up next to us and smacking us both on the shoulder. “You two go together. Now we just need to find
“What?” I stare at her like she’s lost her mind. Turning to Riatus, I try to assure him that this was not my idea. I don’t want him to think it’s a setup or anything. “No, you don’t have to. I mean, I didn’t think you meant—”
“It’s perfect, Peri,” Coral says. “Do you have a date?”
“No,” I admit. “But that doesn’t mean—”
“And my brother has been gone for a year.” She looks at him adoringly, batting her eyes. “He’s practically a feral fish. How will he ever find a date in the next four weeks?”
My throat makes a noise that’s some sort of cross between choking and crying. What has gotten into Coral? We’re friends, sure, but I’ve never asked her to set me up with her brother. Maybe she knew about my crush. Maybe she’s just trying to help me out.
Whatever the case, I just want to swim and hide. I’ve never been more mortified.
I force myself to look at Riatus.
If I expected outrage or amusement—maybe even disgust—I’m stunned when I see . . . blushing. He’s not scoffing at Coral’s suggestion. My jaw slacks as I realize he might have
been getting ready to ask me to the dance.
I can’t think, can’t speak. Can barely breathe.
“I’m a genius.” Coral applauds her efforts, her dark curls bouncing in the current. “You can thank me later.”
Riatus shakes his head, but he’s smiling. “I’ll thank you to be—”