They’re not supposed to save anyone. If they do, if they absolutely must, it can only be a woman. Her grandmother forbade them to save any man from the ocean’s waves.
But the queen is crying, and the prince is beautiful, she likes the softness in his brown eyes even as the water fills his lungs. He’s trying to swim towards them, reaching out for his mother, but he keeps getting pulled back under the sea.
“Please!” she sobs, grasping onto Tuyet’s shoulders, “please, go - go to him. You’re supposed to help! The books – the books say you help!”
She wonders what books they were. Mermaids don’t usually help. They’re not supposed to help.
Her grandmother is going to be so upset with her.
Tuyet looks into the queen’s eyes, hesitating only a moment, then says, “You’ll die.” She’s not strong enough or fast enough to save them both. The queen will already be submerged by the time she’s able to go back for her, and then she won’t be able to dive below to find her without dragging her son underwater as well.
“GO!” she screams, nails digging into her but unable to break Tuyet’s skin.
“I can do it quicker,” Tuyet says, because this is something she is allowed to offer the drowning.
Drowning looks painful. When she was a girl, she used to cover her gills and hold her breath, trying to see what it felt like to have her lungs burn and her darkness creep into the edge of her vision. Snapping the humans’ necks just seems kinder than watching them flail, slow, and stop, kinder than watching the life leak out of them.
“My son,” the queen insists.
Tuyet only sighs before kissing the queen’s cheek, then lets her go. She falls beneath waves, and Tuyet watches her head bob up from the surface, but doesn’t waste time watching it fall beneath the waves again.
She has a human prince to save.
He’s already fallen deep when she reaches him, his lungs have already filled with water, and she’s run out of time.
“Not yet,” she says, grabbing onto his upper arm and pulling him close, slotting her mouth over his. It’s simple to suck the water from his lugs, to swallow it down, and to breath air back into his lungs. She covers his mouth and nostrils when she leans away to take another breath so she doesn’t have to do it all over again, then presses her mouth to his so she can give him another lungful of the air his kind seems to need so deeply. She slings his arm over her shoulders and carries him to the surface, breaking up through the water so there’s plenty of air for him to breathe.
The ship is in pieces, and dozens of bodies float at the surface of the ocean. She wonders where the queen is, if she’s already dead, if maybe she could leave the prince on a piece of the broken ship and go searching for his mother.
But the waves are rough, and it would be such a waste, if after all that he ended up dying anyway.
Then again, letting him die here, now, means she won’t have gone against her grandmother, won’t have to face her father and tell him she’s broken one of the few rules that’s ever been given her.
The prince’s head rolls against her shoulder, and his dark eyelashes cling to dark skin of his cheeks. His lips are bitten through, and she raises a hand to touch that chapped skin, feeling the rough texture of his lips under the pad of her thumb.
His eyes crack open, and she pulls her hand back, face hot. She feels like when she was a little kid and her grandmother caught her doing something she wasn’t supposed to. “Ma,” he starts, then coughs, pressing his face into her neck, like a child.
Something tender but not maternal unfurls in her heart, and she’s hit with a sharp stab of gratitude for the queen, for choosing her son over herself, for giving Tuyet this moment, this feeling of softness.
Given the choice, would her own mother have chosen to die for her? Did she regret it, as they laid Tuyet on her chest and her life slipped away from her - was that her mother’s last thought, cursing the daughter she’d died to have, or was she happy to do it? Sad to go, but glad to see her child arrive?
The prince has passed out again, his breath hot against her collarbone, and she holds him to her that much more tightly, vowing to bring him home. His mother died to save her, just as her own mother died to birth her, and Tuyet can’t let that death be in vain.
It’s harder to swim like this, holding a human in her arms and unable to dip below the choppy waves to where it’s calmer, but she makes it to land just as the sun is starting to peak over the horizon, just as the murky grey of dawn is streaked through with vibrant bits of orange.
She drags him to shore, gritting her teeth against the dry sand dragging against her scales. She has to bring him high enough that the tide won’t drag him back, and it seems like clumsily maneuvering on land takes as long as the whole swim there had, and the sun hangs high in the sky, bright and orange and so, so hot. She feels half cooked, and licks her lips, but finds only salt crystals left behind on peeling skin.
She hears something, and her head snaps up, straining.
“Prince Elias!” she hears people shouting, “Prince Elias, where are you?”
“Elias,” she repeats, looking down at the man she’s saved. She leans close, presses her peeling, salt covered lips to the skin of his cheek, and then rolls back towards the sea, letting a wave wash over her and pull her deeper into the sea.
She stays huddled in the cove until the voices get closer, until humans are running across the beach and towards her prince, and she knows she should leave then, but doesn’t, instead waiting and watching them drag Prince Elias away from the shore, until he’s a speck in the distance, and then until she can see nothing of him at all.
Tuyet knows then, that if anyone asks her about this, asks her what she’s done and where she’s been, she’ll do something she’s never done before.
“My voice?” Tuyet raises a hand to her throat. She’d thought the sea witch would demand her family’s conch shell, would want to use it to control all the creatures of the sea, and she was prepared to refuse, to deny her and lose her chance to walk on land if her family’s safety and power was the price. This cave now seems colder, and smaller. “But I need it. I won’t - the prince didn’t see me, if we can’t speak he won’t know who I am!”
Caligula circles her, and Tuyet can’t help the spike of jealousy. The sea witch walks on two feet, moving in the water as if she’s on land, her pale skin and pale hair glowing in the faint light of the bioluminescent coral. Her narrowed blue eyes are the same color as the sky above the sea, and the sea nets clinging to her body is black and crusted, but the gnarled trident in her hand stands tall at her side, although it looks like it’s less than it once was. Her father has a trident, but his is glittering and silver, seeming to emit a faint light all its own. This one is covered in a thick layer or rust and grime.
“Well, if you’re so attached to your tongue,” she says, and the rasp of her voice sends a shiver down Tuyet’s spine. “Then there is one other thing of value you have to barter.”
“I have pearls!” she says, holding out the nondescript burlap sack she’d carried to this corner of the ocean. She opens it to reveal a fortune in black and pink pearls.
Caligula’s face twists and she smacks it out of Tuyet’s hands. The bag falls to the cave floor, and the priceless pearls go rolling across the ground. Tuget gasps and reaches out to gather them back up, but Caligula grabs her wrist tight enough to break it and jerks her upright, pulling her so close that Tuyet could count her jagged teeth one by one. “What use have I for pearls, girl?” she sneers. “I don’t care for the proceeds of you pilfering the royal stores.” Tuyet flushes. Caligula raises her wrist to her mouth, and Tuyet flinches as the sea witch’s teeth pierce her skin, just enough so a thin ribbon of her blood rises out of her skin. Caligula breathes it in, something close to euphoria crossing her face.
“You - you want my blood?” Tuyet asks, trying to hide her trembling as she leans away from Caligula as much as she can without drawing more attention to herself.
Her face twists and she shoves Tuyet to ground, and her tail twists and drags painfully against cave floor, the rough material catching and pulling at her scales. She wants to start gathering the pearls back up, but doesn’t dare move with the sea witch towering over her. “Stupid girl! You are the daughter of the king of the sea. Magic is in your blood, being formed in your cold little heart.” She waves her trident through what’s left of the cloud of Tuyet’s blood, and wherever it touches, rust flakes off. “I grow old, and weak.” She doesn’t feel weak, and she certainly doesn’t look it. “Grow the magic in your heart and restore my trident to what it once was. Once you've given me enough magic, once I’m strong again, I’ll give you the legs you so desire.”
“How - how long will that take?” she whispers. The thought of spending a minute more in the sea witch’s presence terrifies her. Maybe she shouldn’t have come here, maybe this was all a mistake.
If it was, it doesn’t matter. She’s already here, already committed.
Caligula looks down at her, and in between one breath and the next she changes, reigning herself in until she’s not so scary, until she just looks like an old woman in draped netting, until her long white hair settles around her shoulders and no longer looks like a jellyfish atop her head. She holds out a hand for Tuyet to take, and she only hesitates a moment before putting her hand in the sea witch’s, only just managing to stop herself from jerking away from the iciness of her skin. “Well, my dear, that entirely depends on you, and how hard you work.”
Tuyet knows that she’s lucky, that she has what others don’t. Her life isn’t perfect, of course, her mother is dead and she’s the youngest of six, she has five older sisters who must love her, but also tease her and mock her and do all sorts of things without her. She has a grandmother who’s cared for her and her sisters her whole life, who tells Tuyet of the surface for those long years before she turned sixteen and could go see it for herself. She also twisted her ears and scolded her for letting her garden fall into disarray, and would yank loose scales from her tail hard enough that she’d bleed, but, well, nothing and no one is perfect.
Her sisters had each only gone once. They’d broken the surface of the water on their birthdays and then never again, each seemingly satisfied with their glimpse of the human world.
Tuyet’s never been satisfied by anything. Maybe that’s her problem.
She can’t be satisfied with being a mermaid, with living centuries longer than any human ever will, with being royal and loved and privileged, with being the daughter of the king of sea.
No, she’s a creature of want, and that wanting has led her here, to doing the bidding of the sea witch.
She knows she has magic, of course, it’s what gives her her long life, it’s what allows her to swim to the deepest depths of the ocean, where the pressure and cold would kill any merperson not of royal blood.
But Tuyet is sixteen and impulsive and so full of want she lets it lead her into situations like these, searching for the impossible even when there’s no part of the sea which is forbidden to her.
Well, there’s one part, but she’s already broken that rule, and is sitting in the very caves her father and grandmother always warned her to avoid.
“I don’t know how to use it,” she tells Caligula, eyeing the sharp nails on her hands, nails that look more like claws, and hoping that the witch keeps them far away from her. “It just happens.”
“I know,” Caligula murmurs, lips pulled back in what might be a sneer or a smile. “It’s as easy as breathing for you, isn’t it, Princess?”
It’s easier. She can hold her breath, but she doesn’t know how to put a stop to the flow of power under her skin.
She doesn’t say anything, and Caligula snorts, turning away as she says, “No matter. It’s no use to me like this, complacent and easy. You’re going to need to train until it’s strong enough to restore my trident.”
Tuyet glances at the rusty trident in the corner. The small spot that her blood had cleared shines so brightly it looks like a diamond sitting on the surface of it.
She could run, couldn’t she? Her father and grandmother will be furious, and she’ll be in trouble, but surely less trouble than she’s in now, less trouble than being tied to the sea witch puts her in? But they’ll lock her up, ground her for years at this rate, maybe even decades.
Her human will be an old man by the time she’ll be allowed to break the surface to see him again, and she can’t - she doesn’t want that. She has to see him again. If she wants to see her prince again, then she has to stay.
Caligula turns and there’s something red and glowing in her hands, and Tuyet doesn’t realize it’s hot until it’s pressing against the skin of her arm. She cries out and tries to swim away, but Caligula grabs onto her hair and holds her in place. “The faster you learn to harness your power, the faster it stops,” she coldly.
Thirteen hours and a body of blistering, bleeding burns later, Tuyet is exhausted and her skin is covered in oozing wounds. She’d thought she might find relief when Caligula ran out of skin, but she only heals a section of it and starts it anew.
“What do you want?” she sobs, helplessly trying to twist her body away from the brand.
Caligula presses it into the skin of Tuyet’s collarbone, uncaring of the way it rips a scream from her throat. “You don’t like it? Then stop me. You are a daughter of Proteus who was born of Pallas. The power of the sea is in your blood, and you cannot even steal the heat from my hand?” She hits it against her cheek as if slapping her, and Tuyet’s vision nearly goes white with pain, with the horrifying sensation of feeling the skin of her face being scraped and burned off in a single blow.
“Stop it!” she screams, except this time she doesn’t pull away, but instead pushes forward. She reaches for the hot iron; even if it burns her hands it’s better than letting it tear her apart.
At first she thinks she’s moved wrong and broken her spine. Her back cracks so hard that it leaves her breathless, like she’s spent hours hunched over and now all her vertebrae are moving into a different shape. Then the iron is in her hand instead of Caligula’s, as cold as the ocean floor where she’s touching it, but red hot where’s its buried in Caligula’s thigh.
Caligula doesn’t look ugly anymore, doesn’t look mean or angry, and she doesn’t reach out to grab or hurt her. Instead, she grabs the iron and pulls it from her body, equally as uncaring of the cloud of her blood swirling around her as she’d been at Tuyet’s pain.
“Sorry!” Tuyet cries, dropping the iron into the sand, eyes wide. “Sorry, I’m so sorry-”
“Good girl,” Caligula murmurs, dragging an ice cold finger against Tuyet’s cheek that she’d torn apart, and Tuyet feels the soothing wave of healing magic cover her body. By the time it ebbs away, her body is as flawless and pain free as when she entered the cave.
Tuyet reaches for the wound she left at Caligula’s thigh, towards the blackened and crust skin surrounding the sluggishly bleeding gash. “Sorry.” Caligula has healed her wounds, but Tuyet can’t heal hers.
“It’s alright,” she says, running her hand through Tuyet’s hair just like her grandmother does. Did.
There will be no more of Grandmother’s lectures, her affection, her stories or her shame. Tuyet’s thrown that away for a chance at the surface, for a chance with her prince.
Caligula’s momentary softness sharpens as she grabs onto Tuyet’s hair and pulls her closer, greed glinting eagerly in her pale blue eyes. “That was good, so good. Much better than I was expecting. Keep it up and you’ll have your legs and human in no time.”
Tuyet’s eyes flicker down to the sea witch’s pale, human legs and swallows down her protests and her fear.
The sooner she fixes Caligula’s trident, the sooner she gets to leave.
Most people are not bold enough to go searching for the sea witch, they do not swimming into her lair. Most can’t. It’s close enough to the ocean floor that they can’t stand the pressure, and the journey would kill them rather than the destination.
Instead, they summon her.
Salt water and salted blood and salty tears swirled together in a conch shell and poured into the waves. Caligula can resist the summons if she wants to, and Tuyet doesn’t think that’s something she should be able to do, but Caligula’s power isn’t all talk. She may not have the innate magic of a royal mermaid, but she can do things that Tuyet would never even dream of, couldn’t do even if her life depended on it.
That’s why she’s here, after all.
“I like it when they summon me,” Caligula confides right before she leaves, tapping her on the nose, in an oddly cheerful mood. She must be getting summoned by someone important. “It gives me the advantage.”
Tuyet wonders if that means she had an advantage when she swam into Caligula’s cave. It certainly didn’t feel like it.
Those moments are her blessings now, when Caligula’s been summoned away. Sometimes she’s only gone for a few hours. Other times, it’s days. Tuyet’s supposed to stay in the cave, supposed to practice the spells and exercises Caligula has given her to expand her power.
And she does.
Most of the time, even. She does understand how important this is, understands that the sooner she can fix Caligula’s trident, the sooner she gets her legs.
But sometimes she needs a reminder about what she wants her legs for.
And Prince Elias makes patrols every third morning.
It’s a delicate balance, getting close enough to see while still being far enough away not to get caught. His ship is small and sleek, for a ship, cutting through the water as his flag flaps in the wind. He always stands at the helm, even though it’s dangerous, what with how desperate everyone is to kill him. She’s overheard his advisors yelling at him about being reckless, about endangering they’re tiny nation. The courtyard of her castle is bigger than her prince’s whole island, but it’s not as if she’s interested in him for that. She wouldn’t care if he were just a poor fisherman. She’d prefer it, even, because then she wouldn’t need legs to get to him, she could tip his tiny boat over and cut through his nets and take him for her very own.
But she can’t do that. Even if she could grab him, he doesn’t know her, and even if he did, he can’t leave. He’s too good of a man to leave his country now.
They are at war, after all.
Tuyet doesn’t pay too much attention to what the humans do up above, but from her spying on Elias she can’t help but notice. All the pirates of the sea seem to have converged here, on this little island nation, and seem determined to claim if for their own.
It’s strange, if nothing else, like finding a swarm of sharks clustered together like tuna, when that’s not what sharks do. They’re not social creatures.
Well, one shark is, but she can’t imagine that he’s very pleased with her right now. Her father had sent the goblin sharks after her more than once when she’d been late coming home, but so far they haven’t managed to find her. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if they do find her.
They can’t hurt her. She may not have the conch shell her family uses to control all the creatures in the sea, but she’s still of royal blood. When she speaks, they must obey. Her sisters haven’t figured out that trick yet. They always got caught sneaking out, when she almost never does.
Maybe it would be better if she had. She wouldn’t be indebted to Caligula then, wouldn’t be trading the power of her blood for legs, would instead be safe in the depths of the ocean in a castle as big as her prince’s whole island. His ship isn’t even the size of the pupil of her eye when she skims the ocean floor. It’s easier to withstand the pressure of the ocean when she’s as big as the emptiness around her, and so the deeper she goes, the larger she becomes.
The humans made a statue of her grandfather once, somehow, and plated it in gold and called him Collases. None of them can manage to increase their size above the surface of the water. They’re too big and too heavy. Without the buoyancy of the water, their body collapses into the ground. He must have taken them down below, rescued a sailor or kidnapped a human wife who he returned to the surface.
She clutches the rock she’s hiding behind, resting her head against the rough edge and focuses on the dark, handsome figure standing at the edge of the boat.
Prince Elias isn’t someone she can steal or even borrow.
She’s saves his life, and she’s decided it belongs to her, or that at the very least she deserves a chance to make him her own, but - how could she love a deserter, a traitor, how could she love a man who would leave behind his kingdom?
It’s different for her. She’s the youngest daughter of six, her father has her five eager sisters to choose from for the next queen. But her prince’s island has no one else.
Not even a king and queen, anymore.
Prince Elias is all alone, with an island’s hope resting on his shoulders, and even if she dragged him down with her, if she stole herself a human husband - she would not love him if he stayed, if he chose her over his kingdom then she wouldn’t want him anymore.
It’s impossible for him to go to her, even if he wanted to, even if he knew she existed.
So she’ll have to go to him.
Her secret trips to see her prince are constructive. In a way, they do benefit the sea witch in the end.
They renew her convictions, remind her what she wants, and fills her with determination to finish this, to restore Caligula’s trident so that she may receive her legs and step onto the soft sand and walk to her prince.
A couple moon cycles later, she’s not sure if it’s worth it anymore.
“Again,” Caligula commands.
Tuyet grits her teeth, knowing by now that Caligula won’t care for her begging or for her pain. She looks down at her hands, and the way she can’t get her fingers to stop twitching and shaking. Her arms below her elbows feel like jelly. It’s a struggle to raise them, never mind use them.
“If I mess this up, we die,” she points out. Appealing to Caligula’s own self serving tendencies is the only way to get anywhere.
For example, she’s stopped healing Tuyet perfectly, says it’s a waste of magic. She’s now covered in jagged scars, the pale scar tissue standing out in contrast to the rest of her skin.
Surely her prince won’t mind a few scars, right?
A part of her doesn’t even care about the prince anymore, not at this moment. She just wants to leave, wants to run as far from Caligula as she can. Wants legs so that she can run.
There’s no place for her left in this ocean. She can’t bring herself go home, and she can’t stay here. She doesn’t even know if she’ll be able to go to her prince. How can she face him, after what Caligula did? After what Tuyet let Caligula do?
It has been a long, painful couple of months.
All she wants is to go somewhere her father won’t find her, where Caligula won’t find her. She wants crawl onto land and keep going until there’s nothing around her but freshwater rivers, until the salt and blood and pain can’t find her.
Caligula grabs her jaw, squeezing her thumb and forefinger against and into her gums, and Tuyet hadn’t even noticed the blood in her mouth until the pressure of Caligula’s fingers sends a gush of it down her throat, and she’s coughing, choking on her own blood.
The sea witch doesn’t let her go, only says, “If you mess this up, you will die. So don’t mess it up. I’ve put too much time into your for it all to be for nothing.”
Tuyet sighs, looking down at her hands, at the rocky crevices that lie in rubble around her. She takes a deep breath and presses her hands against the side of the stone, feels the roughness against the palms of hands, searching, feeling.
“What’s taking so long?” Caligula snaps.
Tuyet ignores her. The sea witch will keep making her explode these rocks until she’s satisfied, until the destruction is sufficiently large enough to convince her that Tuyet’s powers are accelerating at an acceptable rate.
But she’s exhausted and shaky and so, so tired of Caligula ripping her open just to watch her bleed.
So she searches, looking for something she can exploit, something that’s already there instead of just blindly pushing her power into the surface.
It takes another half minute for her to find it, a crack running through the inside of it, too small for even the smallest of fish to swim through, barely even there. But it’s right through the center, which is exactly what she needs.
“Princess,” Caligula snarls, the claws on her hand digging into the muscle of her shoulder.
“Afiago!” she snaps, pushing her magic through that crack, and then forcing it outwards.
It’s only Caligula pulling her away that saves her life, only the sea witch’s powers which get the both of them far away fast enough to keep them from being impaled by the stone’s shrapnel.
The ground shakes, then collapses. It’s not just that, but Tuyet can see the groaning and shifting across the sea floor, see the effects of her spell sweeping through the ocean like a wave on the shore.
“Very good,” Caligula murmurs, her hand still on Tuyet’s shoulder, her claws still in Tuyet’s shoulder.
Tuyet presses a hand to her mouth, uncaring of the way it pulls at her shoulder, suddenly no longer concerned with the pain and numbness throbbing through her body. “No - you have to - please, you have to stop it! People will die!”
She can already see a tsunami beginning to form in the distance, and effect of what she’s just done. She hadn’t realized - she hadn’t known it would reach the great plates sliding down below the earth, otherwise she wouldn’t have done it.
“Yes,” Caligula says, and Tuyet flinches away from the pleasure in her voice. “They will.”
“Please fix it,” Tuyet begs, “I’ll do anything, anything you want, just - please!”
“You already do anything I want,” Caligula says, amused and detached. “But I’m sorry to say that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.”
Tuyet blinks. “W-what?”
“Congratulations, dear,” she murmurs, glee in the brightness of her eyes. “You’ve done what I cannot. Soon, all that delicious magic of yours will be mine.”
For the first time, it occurs to Tuyet that she’s never asked what Caligula wants all this power for. She’s never done anything truly terrible before, backwater deals and swimming on the edges of society. Something dark and slippery and foul, of course, but not something horrible enough that her father ever felt the need to do anything about it.
But what if that wasn’t out of a lack of desire, but a lack of power?
What if restoring her trident just gives Caligula the power she needs to wreak destruction over the whole sea? What if Tuyet is handing her the keys to the palace, to her home?
“Look what you’ve done,” Caligula says, her entire presence cold against Tuyet’s side. “You can never go home now. Look at the mess you’ve made.”
Tuyet’s tears aren’t as dense as the surrounding water, so they float to the surface, small pockets of fresh water carrying her sorrows to where she so longs to go. Cracks branch out from the ground, spreading farther than she can see.
The destruction she’s caused - its immense. It’s something more than just powerful. It’s dangerous, and people are going to die, her people are going to die. The people of her ocean that she’s supposed to protect are going to be harmed because of her. Caligula is right.
She really can never go home now.