Spray sprang up from the sea, a massive glittering mirror parting before the ship’s prow where a mermaid, carved from the flesh of the vessel, arched toward the sky.
But the figurehead was not alone.
With an arm slung around the statue’s neck, a sailor clung to the great boat. White shirt billowing with wind off the water, much like the sails above that carried the Royal Navy’s flagship, and salt stinging soft skin, the seafarer gazed out across the endless crystal horizon and whooped joyfully against the blinding rush. Up on the ship’s deck, her crew’s voices rose into the rigging, booming old tunes to the sun and surf.
A single shrill cry pierced the stew of song and the deafening crash of currents against her hull.
“Princess?!” It was Hawthorne, the royal advisor. “Princess Lilith?!”
The mermaid’s dangling mariner sighed, placed a departing kiss on her cheek for luck, and caught the end of a loose rope, swinging back aboard and landing before her reluctant, queasy chaperone. Hawthorne swayed where he stood, never having found his sea legs and taken aback by his charge’s sudden appearance.
Despite her rugged, masculine attire, the young woman was undeniably beautiful, with regal features and sparking blue eyes like the ocean she adored so. Her cheekbones were nearly as sharp as her wit and humor, her chin strong and steadfast as a king’s. She was a slender, agile creature and moved with the fluid flair of underwater weeds. Hawthorne swept her black tricorn hat away, letting thick waves of dark curls tumble down over her shoulders like sea foam upon jagged, rocky shores.
“Your Highness, if you insist upon stuffing your hair up in that thing, you’re bound to be mistaken for a man,” Hawthorne entreated. Lilith scoffed, echoed by the sea below, and snatched the offending ornament back.
“Oh please, George, perhaps I’d like to enjoy a man’s freedoms. What does it matter?” She settled it atop her head as if it were the crown she’d left on land. A sudden swerve in their course sent Hawthorne to urgent business at the starboard side, allowing Lilith a sweet escape to the helm.
“Captain Walker,” she called, arriving at his side with a skip in her step.
“Princess.” The man kept his eyes ahead, but a fond smile snuck into his voice and onto his face.
“I’m just Lilith off-shore, Captain. Hello, Roz.” The captain’s daughter perched on a rail behind him, nose buried in a book as always.
“I smell a storm brewing,” the girl said, marking her page. “We should head back to port soon. The lord of the deep is stirring up trouble.”
Rosalind had the best trusted instinct of any shipmate, having grown up on the seven seas. Her father nodded. “Can’t take any chances with our future on board.” He began shouting out to his men, and Hawthorne joined them, still green in the face.
“Sailors’ superstitions aside, my lady, it’s high time we return home and find you a husband. Plans for your coronation are already underway, and you’ve yet to choose a suitor. We can hardly crown you Queen of Aradia without a king.”
“And why not?” Lilith mused. “I’m perfectly capable of ruling alone. In fact, I’d prefer it, at least to your proposal of marrying without love, without even knowing the person meant to stand by me.”
“You know very well the way of things. These are our traditions, princess, and your father’s dying wishes.” Hawthorne cleared his throat. “Besides, love is such a fretful, unpredictable thing. How can you ask your people to depend upon something so flighty?”
“How can I, in good conscience, expect my people to accept some stranger as their ruler?” Lilith countered, drawing her sword to slash and stab at thin air so Hawthorne bit his tongue. “It’s my duty to lead them and protect their interests. I’ve no stake in the politics of marriage, George, I am devoted to my people and my people alone. If I find happiness with another along that path, so be it, but I will not be manipulated by any historical precedent or lack thereof.”
Roz chuckled into her pages. “A queen with your bold, headstrong spirit would surely fare well on the throne, whether or not she shared it.”
Lilith bowed to the girl with an elegant flourish. “Why, thank you, Lady Rosalind.”
Just as Hawthorne prepared to protest, the symphony of the sea seemed to soften, making way for a single song. A voice clear and pure as a cathedral’s bell or a tide pool at dawn, spiraled sweetly between the ship’s masts. It seemed to harmonize with the breeze, haunting and hopeful as poetry.
“Do you hear that?” Lilith breathed. Roz squinted and shook her head.
The princess scaled the ship, climbing higher and higher through lashings and canvas until she reached the Crow’s Nest. She whipped her spyglass from her belt and searched the surrounding waters for the source of the angelic sound with no success. So Lilith closed her eyes, allowing the music to flood her, ears and lungs and soul at its mercy.
“Follow that voice!” she ordered, leaping down to the deck. The Walkers shared a look, but the captain obeyed nevertheless.
“What about the storm, princess?” Hawthorne pursued her as she dashed down the length of the boat, hoisting herself up to direct Captain Walker.
“We’ll dock at the first sign of danger, I promise. I wouldn’t jeopardize the Siren or her crew. Now hush, George.” Thoroughly dismissed, he grumbled off below decks.
She stood there, listening intently to each delicate modulation, watching and waiting for an apparition to become a reality. When day fell into night, she settled at the prow, staring up at candlelight stars. The song had long ended, but she could sense it like a sweet dream trapped in the twilight between asleep and waking. The melody crooned inside her head, becoming a lullaby as the shimmering silver moon tucked itself behind a cloud like a squid’s startled ink spilling across the heavens.