You're always on the lookout for magical items, especially unusual ones. They're the lifeblood of your small shop at the edge of the living mall where regular humans only wander by fate or by accident and magic-users congregate on any given weekend. So when you hear that mermaids have returned to the lake in the deep woods, you're wrapped up in your invisibility cloak that protects against all weather almost before the words are out of your aunt's mouth.
"It's hardly polite to go haring off like that, Karina," she admonishes.
You nod, nod, gesturing your heeding. "Sorry, Auntie, but mermaids don't stay for long."
An understatement. Not only are mermaids migratory creatures, but freshwater mermaids are amphibious and not bound solely by waterways. Summer's coming and it's going to be hot. No doubt they'll estivate even if they do stick around.
You've never met a mermaid, you remember as you cross brook and stone on your way to the woods, then through them. You've seen one once by the sea, a seawater mermaid that prefers deep waters and barely bothers to come ashore.
Mermaid scales have their uses, and only seawater mermaids have proper scales. Like dragon scales, they heal many ailments and are imbued with magic that does other things beyond healing. But freshwater mermaids have hair that breathes, and thankfully, the hair is as harmless to a mermaid to remove as a scale and grows back quicker.
You hope you find the mermaids, you hope they're familiar with and friendly with humans, and you hope against hope the things you've gathered to trade are of any interest to their kind.
She flicks her tail. She's been sunning herself on a rock, and all you can think is she's magnificent. Her hair is thick and red and luxuriously long. Considering it subs in for lungs, that's not surprising and mostly just indicates how old she is. Younger mermaids scramble around the trees surrounding the lake or dive below. The youngest of all still look more like fish than people, but this is clearly a gathering, and you know better than jump into the water and find out how discriminating the children are in their hunger.
She stops and looks at you, head tilting, green eyes almost glowing in the afternoon sunlight, and you catch your breath. She's certainly not a merman, considering the shapely breasts her hair grants modesty to, nor is she any less wise to the ways of human than you are to those of her people.
You raise your trader's flag, set your basket on a rock, and back away with a bowing gesture common to the magic folk.
Her curiosity looks piqued, and with a soft splash, she's in the water, then emerging again directly by the rock you've chosen.
You hold your breath, but she doesn't drag at your feet and feed her siblings. She presses both elbows on the rock and hoists herself halfway out of the water, sets nimble fingers to the basket's fastenings, and roots through your stores.
You're almost certain freshwater mermaids have no use for shells, but you brought some in case it's universal among the merfolk, the seawater mermaids' love for smooth shells and shiny things. You brought real gems, as mermaids are known to trade when friendly. You brought food and bread, magical in their own way, and pearls and various useful things or pretty and a waterproof camera for deep divers. You've heard they've taken to the technology.
She lingers on the camera the longest, a hint of pleasure in the set of her teeth, but in the end, shakes her head and sets it down. She stretches out her hand—you glance at the webbing between her fingers, supposed to have superhuman grip—and beckons to you, smiling with sharp teeth.
You come closer but just far enough away she can't quite touch you without time for you to shield yourself with magic.
She pouts and flirts her tail, tosses her hair. She cocks her head and gestures a question in trader's sign. What do you want to trade for?
A friendly. You're grateful for that much, though part of you still feels an insane amount of tension since your familiarity with her kind is secondhand. You sign back. Perhaps speech is taboo? Perhaps she doesn't speak your language? You're not sure so you stick to what she's expressed comfort in. A few locks of hair, if you can spare them.
She frowns, looks thoughtful, opens the basket lid again and thumbs the camera. Then shakes her head and closes it. You, she says. Show me around your woods and town.
You glance at her tail and she laughs a surprisingly bell like sound, then gestures again, eyes dancing and bright. You have magic.
Ah. Yes, you do.
You rummage through your cloak's pockets for what you need and pinch a little magic from the air of the woods, mix it with your homemade bubbles of sweetness and fire, and glow a seeming that could be real but won't last and breathe it over her tail. It shimmers for a moment and then she has legs. You wonder if she'll use words now, but she doesn't.
It feels oddly like a date, being dragged hither and yon, your status as guide notwithstanding, though she clearly has her own money and baubles to spend for the things that catch her fancy. She tries the crepes at the stand near your shop, plays in the fountain for minutes while you distract the local area guard from noticing with a glamour more expensive than the one on her tail, and she laughs as you point out your favorite sites.
She's calm and quiet in the library, as is proper, running one reverent finger over the spines of the books she does not read and peering into several for long minutes before you go.
It's a pleasant day, refreshing in its own way, and she kisses your cheek softly before settling a few hairs in your hand and returning to her rock as the seeming wears thin. It's time for her to return to the water.
You look at her. She's beautiful, you think, but it's not the way you looked at her the first time, in awe of this creature you barely understand. This time, she's beautiful because you've seen her smile, heard her laugh, felt her hand in yours as she skipped through the fountain spray and twirled on cobbled stones.
You open the basket and press the camera into her hand.
She cocks her head and stares at you, then shakes her head and tries to give it back.
"It's a gift," you say, offering your voice at last. A rare thing for a mermaid. A dangerous thing to give some of them.
But she just looks at you in wonder with those brilliant green eyes, then draws the camera to her chest. She caresses it with one hand, fiddles for a moment with the settings, and raises it. She takes a picture and you think that this is a different, but no lesser, kind of magic.