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.
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The trident is half gleaming silver at this point, half full of Tuyet’s magic. It lies in the corner of Caligula’s cave, waiting for each bit of magic that she pours into it. The rust flakes off as she pours more magic into it, and at this point it’s always glowing. At first Tuyet found the light comforting, but now it just seems ominous, a reminder of her debt to Caligula, of the life she’s given up forever just for the chance to walk on the sand instead of dragging herself across it.
Tuyet swims around it as she heads to the mouth of the cave, going out her way to avoid it when she can.
“Going somewhere?” Caligula asks idly, suddenly sitting right in the middle of the room when she hadn’t been there before. She doesn’t look up from the scrolls she’s reading.
She does her best not to flinch. “I – I was just going to–”
“Going to look at your prince?” the sea witch finishes. “Very well. Be back before sunset.”
How would she even know when sunset is? They’re deep enough that the sun’s rays don’t reach them, but she knows better than to question it. “Okay.”
She waits, seeing if Caligula has anything else to say to her, if she’s going to try and stop her, and when she still doesn’t even bother to look at her, Tuyet darts out of the cave.
Ever since the earthquake and tsunami she’d accidentally made, Caligula hasn’t been watching her as closely. Or maybe she’s been watching her just as closely the whole time, if she knew about her frequent trips to the prince, but now she isn’t, or she still is, and just doesn’t care if Tuyet knows it.
Now that Tuyet has nowhere left to go, it’s like Caligula’s grasp on her has tightened and loosened at the same time. She decides not to think about it, not to obsess on it when there’s nothing she can do about it. The trident is halfway restored, which means she’s halfway to her freedom, to legs and her prince and his island.
That’s what she’ll focus on. Not her current circumstances, not the sisters and grandmother and father and kingdom that she’s lost, but on the hopeful future.
Except when she breaks the surface to sneak looks at Elias on his weekly patrol, she sees something that shatters that hopeful future.
There’s a new ship heading towards Elias’s, with what basically amounts to an armada surrounding it. The ships are foreign, but they’re not pirate ships, not attacking like so many other ships that approach this island’s shore.
There’s a girl on the helm of the ship. She’s pale and beautiful, wearing a dress the same shade as the clouds in the sky, and bright red hair piled atop her head. On top of her hair is a crown made of glittering gold and jewels.
A princess. A foreign princess, coming to her prince’s land.
Heart thudding in her chest, she inches closer, but it’s still not close enough, so she clings to the side of the ship, fitting her hands into sharp barnacles and ignoring the way they cut into her skin. It’s still not enough, she can hear the sound of people talking but can’t make out the words. “Audite,” she whispers, and the magic in her blood pulls forward, until she can hear the crewman talking as well as if they were standing right next to her. She directs the magic, shifting past conversations about the weather and work and things that don’t interest her until she finds a conversation that does.
“-sure if he should do this.”
“What else is he supposed to do? We need a king, not a prince. Besides, look, this girl comes with a whole navy as her bride price.”
“And you think it comes free? That they just want a marriage and a throne for Princess Felicity in return for all that? Their kingdom will swallow our island whole. Prince Elias will be a king in name only if he does this.”
The other man scoffs, derisive. “We’re not winning this war. He can’t win it, and they can. That’s what matters.”
“And after the war?” he challenges.
There’s a moment of tense silence, then, “If he marries her, at least there’ll be an after. If the pirates win, there’ll be no island to protect when they’re through.”
Tuyet has heard enough, has heard more than enough. She lets go of the ship and dives back under the water, feels herself increasing in size not because of pressure but so her bigger body can get her to her destination faster.
She shrinks back down as she approaches the cave, bursting inside and crying out, “Caligula! Caligula, please, I need legs now!”
“What are you shouting about?” the sea witch asks from right behind her, and Tuyet doesn’t have the energy to panic about her appearing out of nowhere. “There’s no need to be hysterical.”
“I need legs now!” she repeats, too desperate to be afraid.
Caligula raises an eyebrow. “Finish restoring my trident, and I’ll make you the most wonderful pair of legs your prince has ever seen.”
She glances at the trident, but it’s taken her months to get it even halfway. She may be stronger than she’s ever been, may have more control over magic than she’s ever had, but it’s all relative. She can’t finish restoring the trident all at once. “I can’t, and it won’t matter, not if I don’t get legs now. It’ll be too late!”
Caligula isn’t lashing out or hurting her, which is what Tuyet has come to expect. If anything, she almost seems amused, and Tuyet can’t even feel grateful for it. She prefers Caligula’s rage to her condescension. “No trident, no legs. Why the rush?”
“He’s getting married!” she says, nearly bursting with it. “To some – some princess with a ton of ships, and I know he needs them,” she’s selfish, she’s so selfish, wanting the prince for herself, wanting him to choose her when choosing her means turning his back on a guaranteed safety for his country, but she can’t help it, “but I want him, and if I wait, he’ll be married to her and then there will be no chance for me.” She doesn’t need the prince, perhaps, she’s planning to keep her legs even if he doesn’t choose her, doesn’t love her. But she wants the chance, at least.
“Show me,” she says, and an ember of hope burns in the center of Tuyet’s chest. Maybe Caligula will let her have her chance. She can come back to the sea at night, surely, and work to restore the trident then. She’ll do it, she really will, and Caligula knows the type of magic that will force her to keep her promise. She’ll accept the binding spell gladly if it gets her close to her prince.
She brings Caligula over to the ships. They must have sent a rowboat or the ilk between the ships while she was gone, because now the red haired Princess Felicity is on Elias’s ship, is standing at the front of the ship, her hands in his and a smile on neither of their faces.
A captain stands between them, and there are nobles on her prince’s ship. She hadn’t noticed that before, hadn’t thought the princess’s white dress meant anything, but it must, with nobles on his ship and a captain between them, all of them in clothes too beautiful to wear to sea.
“I’m too late,” she says, and the despair makes her feel heavy, like the only thing left to do is to sink to the bottom of the ocean and stay there, to wait for her skin to turn to coral and for fish to make a home of her ribcage.
Caligula clucks her tongue. “Well, we can’t have that, can we?”
Tuyet doesn’t understand. “There’s nothing-”
“Exanimis,” she casts, like it doesn’t matter, like it means nothing.
“No!” she shouts, but it’s too late.
The princess’s pretty eyes widen, her lips part, and she falls backwards into the sea. There’s screaming, and the prince doesn’t hesitate, diving in after his would be bride.
Tuyet tries to go after her, knowing she can get to her so much faster than any human, but Caligula grabs her arm, her nails digging into soft muscle. She doesn’t even notice the pain, pulling against her even as it makes the wounds even worse, even as her blood falls thick and slick into the sea. “Don’t bother. She’s already dead.”
She closes her eyes against that, because she knows it’s true. Exanimis snatches the air from the victim’s lungs. It’s meant to be used to hunt whales.
A small human woman stands no chance against it. “Why,” she starts, and finds her throat clogged with suppressed sobs. More men are diving down, trying to find Felicity, but she knows it’s already too late. If they haven’t found her body already, then they never will, it’s already sunken deeper than they can swim.
“Now your prince is unwed, and you have time to finish restoring my trident,” she pulls her claws from Tuyet’s arm. “It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Not like this. Never like this. Why do all her wants turn out like this, twisted and painful and not worth the cost?
Caligula puts her arm around her shoulder squeezing, and maybe Tuyet would be able to find it comforting if she didn’t feel so numb. “Don’t get back too late.”
“Okay,” she answers, out of a lack of anything else to do. She stays and watches as the divers give up, and the prince is the las of them, in fact he doesn’t give up at all. His men have to drag him out of the ocean and onto a boat, have to force him back onto his ship. There’s arguing and screaming, and for a moment Tuyet is afraid that she’s going to witness the beginnings of another war, that the princess’s people will decide to declare war on this island in return for Felicity’s death.
She can’t hear what they’re saying, and she can’t bear to use magic to do so. Somehow the only thing worse than not knowing is knowing.
The argument lasts for hours, and the sun is just starting to set when the armada retreats, sailing back to whatever land they came from, and the prince’s ships head home.
There’ll be no war between them, at least. But that doesn’t help the war Prince Elias is in now, with random attacks from what seems like every pirate at sea.
She’s still sitting there when the moon hangs high in the sky, not knowing where else to go. She has to return to Caligula’s cave, of course she does, but she can’t bring herself to do it.
She dives beneath the waves, going deeper and deeper, following the currents and even swimming past them.
Princess Felicity’s body isn’t quite on the ocean floor, instead her dress is snagged on a rock, and she’s bobbing above it, her red hair floating all around her head and her green eyes wide, her blue lips open in a soundless scream, one she hadn’t quite managed to give when all the air has been stolen from her lungs.
“I’m sorry,” Tuyet whispers. “I didn’t mean – I never wanted anything to happen to you. I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known. If – if you’d had air in your lungs still, I could have replaced it with water, and I could have saved you from this, if nothing else. I would have saved you. No matter the cost. I swear it.”
The princess, of course, doesn’t answer. Whether Tuyet is telling the truth doesn’t matter. Whether Felicity would have believed her doesn’t matter. None of it makes her any less dead.
Tuyet delicately closes the princess’s eyes, and hesitates, not sure where to go from here. She’s found her. Now what is she going to do with her? If she leaves her here, something will eat her, or she’ll just decompose in a way that Tuyet can’t call dignified. Human bodies don’t turn to coral or caves or anything like that. They just rot away. And maybe that does some good on the earth, in the soil, but here it’s just food. She could bring her body to shore, and hope someone finds her before she’s made into food, or before she rots past the point of dignity, but it’s a gamble if that would work. And what will they do with her anyway, the decomposing body of a foreign princess?
Tuyet drags her teeth against her bottom lip, then swims close enough to reach out and cup Felicity’s face in her hands, dragging her thumbs against her cold cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she says again, like her regret does this woman any good. “I’m so sorry. I hope you have peace in your death, and happiness wherever your soul is,” she says, the words sitting strangely in her mouth.
Her people don’t have death rites, only mourning songs, and the only one designed to be sung by one is the Widow’s Wail, and singing that would be more insult than tribute. She struggles to think of anything else to say, of any more words that humans say over their dead, but comes up empty.
She sighs, presses her forehead to the dead princess’s, and brings the magic of her blood to the fore before whispering, “Calamochnus.”
Felicity’s body dissolves between her hands, breaking apart and floating to the surface of the ocean. She’s transformed her body into seafoam, and she watches until the last of her has been swept away by the current.
The white dress finally rips free of the rock and floats away, but the crown that had been resting around Felicity’s head now lays half buried in the sand. Tuyet can leave it here, can let it remain buried treasure, or can leave it on her prince’s shore, or maybe even try and catch up with the princess’s armada so they can bring at least this small piece of her home.
Instead she picks it up and lets magic flow through her fingers. The crown loses none of it’s shine, none of its precious stones, but it becomes smaller and more flexible at the same time.
Tuyet fastens the crown around her neck like a necklace, flush against her skin and impossible to ignore, to forget.
She won’t let this happen again.
First the tsunami which must have hurt her people, then this princess, and her death has hurt not only the girl herself, but her prince and his island. She won’t allow herself to be used like this again. No matter the cost. And if that means fastening a noose around her neck to keep her honest –
So be it.
Caligula doesn’t say anything about the crown she wears like a choker around her neck, but Tuyet hadn’t expected her too. Precious metals and stones don’t interest her, nor pearls nor anything physical that supposedly has value.
The sea witch cares for the currency of power, and power alone.
Things settle, and she almost wonders if she was over reacting, if perhaps Caligula is not quite the monster her memory twists her into.
She’s wrong, of course, and it’s her fault for forgetting.
A pirate ship passes by her prince’s island, and doesn’t start a fight, doesn’t seem to do more than curve around the edge before heading off into the horizon.
It’s strange only because it’s normal, and things have been so abnormal recently. A successful pirate crew and its captain have no reason to cause trouble by attacking an island kingdom, one who may be prosperous for its size but has no great stores of gold and riches. Especially one that has a history of turning a blind eye to pirate ships on its docks, as long as they didn’t cause any trouble.
They’ve caused nothing but trouble for months, and Tuyet doesn’t understand it. Maybe if she were human she would, if she could walk through the market and hear everyone gossiping and laughing she would be able to figure it out, would know why pirates now seem to go out of their way to attack an island that used to be their port in a storm.
Except for this one, apparently, who sails on by like it never even occurs to them to start a fight.
Of course Tuyet follows them.
She sees the crew on deck, and a man in a brightly colored coat and a hat with a feather in it is standing near the wheel of the ship. But he doesn’t seem to be doing much, is relaxed and laughing and chatting with his crew, which is nothing like any pirate captain she’s ever seen before.
Night comes and the ship quiets, which is when she creeps over, once more pulling herself up the sides of the boat until she can peek over the edge. The captain sits at the edge of the ship, everyone but the most necessary of crew asleep in their hammocks.
And these three. The captain is with two crewman, which upon a closer look are clearly two crew woman. They both look rougher around the edges than the captain, clothes more tough and practical than pretty. One has fire red hair like Felicity did, and the other has skin even darker than her prince’s, and they sit on either side of the captain. He’s laughing and smiling, and they’re not, but they don’t look unhappy to be around him either.
They seem familiar to her, like she’s seen them before, but of course that can’t be right. Can it? She so rarely risks getting close enough to get a good look at humans, surely she’d remember.
“Audite,” she casts, because she doesn’t just want to see or hear, she wants to do both.
“-all the way to Creta, you’re sure? That’s so far.”
“Got someplace to be?” the dark woman asks, nudging him in the ribs.
He rolls his eyes. “I just don’t think the bounty is worth the risks, Maria.”
The redhead’s expression doesn’t change. “I do.”
“Yes darling, I know that,” he says wryly, shaking his head. “You both do remember that I’m the captain here, right?”
“Yes darling,” the women both echo, real humor finally shining through their emotionless mask.
“I overheard one the of the men joking that at least you wouldn’t say the wrong name in bed,” Maria says, pushing her fingers through the captain’s hair.
“Maria and Ana are not the same name,” he says, leaning into her touch, “and I told the crew that calling you both Ana Maria was suicidal, so that was rather bold of them. Are they still alive? You’re not usually so generous with people who speak ill of you.”
She rolls her eyes. “I’m not usually so generous with people who speak ill of you.”
There’s laughter and more soft conversation, but Tuyet isn’t paying attention to them anymore. If those two women are Ana Darling and Maria Freeman, then that must mean –
- the man is Captain John Darling.
Tuyet has seen them before.
She’s heard of them, of course, heard of John running off with another man’s wife, heard how John may be the captain but Ana is the one to watch out for, is the one that left no prisoners and gave no mercy.
Which is how John had gotten the fearsome Maria Freeman on his crew. Tuyet and her sisters had even seen that battle, had watched John’s crew fight Maria’s, had seen Ana hold a sword underneath Maria’s chin, and had seen her surrender. John’s ship had been badly damaged, so they’d sunk it on purpose and then taken over Maria’s ship, and she and her sisters had watched, and waited, but neither Maria’s body nor that of her crew had sunken into the ocean’s depths.
Rumors had run rampant after that, so much so that they’d heard them, even down in the ocean’s deep. Or maybe it was just her, because she’s always been so eager and interested in the lives of the humans, and this story was as fascinating to her as anything else.
If John and Ana Darling had been like out of a fairytale before, if Maria Freeman had seemed fearsome and powerful when she was on her own, it was nothing like after they were together. It seemed like they’d mastered the sea, as if there wasn’t a bit of it they couldn’t corral into their favor.
But she’d heard another rumor too.
She’d heard when they were captured, when all three of them were hanged for their crimes, their bodies left swinging at the bay’s entrance as a warning.
Tuyet had seen them, had seen their bodies swaying in the wind, except now they’re here, right in front of her eyes. They can’t be ghosts, can they? She’s touching this ship, she can see them, can hear them, they don’t look translucent or like they’re stuck in a time loop. They look solid, real, alive.
She doesn’t understand it, and so she stays, and watches. Ana doesn’t touch John, but Maria does, little moments of skin against skin that could mean everything, or nothing. By the way they were talking earlier – are they together? Ana doesn’t seem bothered by the other woman’s hands on her husband, and she can’t imagine that Ana would be one to swallow her anger or her pride if it did bother her, not based on everything she’s heard about her.
Crew members smile at John but skirt around the women. John is either completely relaxed or very good at faking it, and why shouldn’t he be? They’re alone in the middle of the sea, and even if they’re pirates on the run with every navy in the world after them – they’re alone in the middle of the ocean, and it’s calm enough that they can see for miles all around them. They should all be relaxed. It makes sense for them to be relaxed. John is relaxed.
But Maria and Ana aren’t.
Maria’s making a good play at it, but the longer Tuyet watches them, the less Mara’s little touches seem flirtatious and the more they seem anxious, like she has to keep reaching out to John to reassure herself that he’s there. Ana’s eyes are always scanning the sea, like she’s looking for something. Have they just outrun someone, maybe?
“Bed, darling?” John asks, reaching out for the first time to run the back of a single finger against Ana’s cheek. It occurs to Tuyet that darling is both a term of affection, and a form of address, considering it’s the name they share.
Ana smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “You two go. I’ll keep watch.”
“We’re safe out here,” John says, and because of how he’s turned he doesn’t see the way that Maria flinches. “Come to bed.”
Ana’s gaze flickers down to him, and she leans just enough to press her forehead to his before pulling away. “Not tonight, darling.”
John sighs, but gets to his feet, making a point of stretching with his back to the them.
Maria raises an eyebrow. Ana whispers, so quietly that it’s only due to the spell that Tuyet can hear her, “I feel like we’re being watched.”
Tuyet ducks down, even though if they haven’t noticed her yet it’s unlikely they will, and nothing they could do even if they did see her. She feels something like guilt squirming in the bottom of her stomach, and she risks one more glance. Ana’s arms are crossed as her eyes dart around her, and Maria and John are walking below deck together.
She’s done enough spying for one night, even if it’s left her with more questions than answers, and she dives back below the waves, heading back to Caligula’s cave.
Except the moment she enters the cave, she knows that something is wrong. Caligula’s eyes are wide and wild in way they haven’t been in weeks, and she fear curls at the base of her spine before she even comprehends what’s happening. Caligula grabs her hair and yanks her close, running her nose up her neck and inhaling deeply. “Where were you?”
“Am – am I late?” she asks, trembling. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be.”
“Shut up and answer the question,” the sea witch snaps.
“I, um, I was just watching some humans, on a ship,” she says, wanting to pull away, but knowing that she’ll only make it worse for herself if she makes a show of resisting.
Caligula’s grip on her hair tightens, to the point that Tuyet feels her nails prick the skin of her scalp. It’s not on purpose, so she says nothing, in case it does become on purpose. “What was the ship?”
“Big?” she tries, and swallows when Caligula’s eyes narrow. “I don’t know, I wasn’t looking, I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she finally let’s go of her, and Tuyet resists the urge to check for tacky blood sticking to her hair. “Take me there.”
“It’s just a human ship,” she protests.
Caligula sneers, pusher herself into her face, so close and overwhelming that it might be less frightening if she was grabbing her rather than this, “Did I ask? I’m not angry at you, girl, but keep it up and I will be.”
Tuyet flinches. Most of the sea witch’s cruelty is thoughtless, casual, something she does without thinking. Her rage is truly frightening, in ways that make her uncomfortable to contemplate. “Okay.”
She guides Caligula back to the ship, and she’s expecting this to be a waste of time, for Caligula to see that this is nothing more than another of the many pirate ships that cross their sea, and then they’d leave, Caligula frustrated, perhaps, but in the end none of them truly worse for wear than when they’d started.
That’s not what happens.
“Finally,” Caligula breathes, and before Tuyet gets a chance to question her, the water the sea witch is in rises to deposit her on the deck, and when it retreats she’s perfectly dry, her pure white hair gently curled but her fishnet dress still clinging to her the same as it does in the sea.
Crewman are screaming, some of them running below deck and some of them going so far as to jump off the ship, which just seems poorly thought out to her. They’re so far from land, it’s not like they can swim to safety. They should have at least taken a rowboat.
Ana doesn’t even get to her feet, still sitting down, but she can’t hide her reaction completely. She’s gone an unnatural shade of pale, a color no one who spends so much time under the sun should be. Maria and John come bursting out of the bottom of the ship, pushing past people who are trying to get beneath, their clothes having clearly been put on a hurry.
“Sea witch,” John sneers, pushing Maria behind him even as he goes to stand in front of his wife. “Leave our ship, you have no reason to be here. We have no quarrel with you.”
Ana stands and touch’s John’s shoulder, pulling him back. She says, softly, “That’s not true, exactly.”
He pauses, then turns on her. There’s fear and horror in his voice when he asks, “What did you do?” but no anger.
“Saved your life, of course,” Caligula purrs, slinking forward, “and their own. But it was not free. I do not work for free.”
“Caligula,” Maria says coldly, and Tuyet can’t hide her surprise. Humans who know of her are so afraid to say her name, just in case it invokes her, in case she hears it whispered even when she’s all alone in her cave at the bottom of the ocean. “We paid your price. A baby you demanded, and baby Ana lost. Now leave.”
John’s face goes blank and cold for the first time. He glances back at Ana, but she won’t look at him, won’t take her eyes off of Caligula.
“It was supposed to be twins,” she hisses, “I was promised twins. I’m owed twins. However,” she concedes, “my circumstances have changed since we last spoke. I suppose I could be satisfied by simply one more child.”
Tuyet’s breath catches in her throat. She knows what happened, what must have happened.
The potential of an unborn life is a powerful thing. Of unborn twins, even more so. Caligula must have drained that life from Ana’s body before the child was born, must have bottled and saved it, or maybe even tried and failed to use it to restore her trident.
“We don’t have any more children,” Ana says, and she’s steady, but she must have some sort of tell, because John and Maria both look to her, concern in the crinkle of their brows.
Caligula smiles, her sharp teeth even more unnatural above the water. “You don’t. But she does.”
It takes everyone a beat to realize she’s looking at Maria.
“No,” John says as Maria presses her hands to her stomach, eyes wide. Ana looks sick.
They hadn’t even known she was pregnant until just now.
Felicity’s crown feels tight and heavy around her throat, and Tuyet can’t just watch this happen, can’t be silent and complicit in this. One dead princess was enough, was too much, and she made a promise to herself, and if it kills her to keep it, then so be it.
“Stop!” she shouts, and the water rises to deposit her onto the ship, putting her in between the pirates and Caligula. Except she doesn’t have legs, so she’s forced to sit on the floor, pushing herself up as much as she can and ignoring the pain as he scales drag against the wood of ship.
Maria and Ana take a startled step back, but John barely seems surprised at her entrance, never mind her existence. She can’t be the first mermaid he’s seen.
Caligula raises an eyebrow, looking at her then over, dismissing her presence is under a second. “Leave. I don’t need you for anything else.”
“No,” she says, has to force herself not to hunch over at the icy glare that gets her. “No, I won’t leave, and I won’t let you hurt them or take anything else from them.”
i hope you liked it!
are ana, maria, and john a blatent rip off from the historical figures anne bonney, mary read, and jack rackham? yes. yes they are.
feel free to follow / harass me at: shanastoryteller.tumblr.com
Tuyet has no idea what she’s doing.
“You don’t need them,” she tries. “You have me. How much more magic can one unborn life really give you, compared to what I’m giving you?”
Caligula sneers. “You idiotic girl, haven’t you figured it out yet? It’s not about the power I have.”
She stares, her mouth falling open and all her arguments and pleadings abandoning her. “What? You love power. You want it.” It’s why you want me, she doesn’t add.
“No,” she says, slinking closer, “you’re not listening, child. It’s not about the power I have. It’s about the power I take.”
Caligula could have all the power in the world, and it would never be enough. Because it’s not about what she has. It’s about what she can take and steal and trick out of other people, it’s not about what she can gain, it’s about what she can make others lose. She’ll never be satisfied until everyone is left with nothing, until there’s nothing left for her to take.
She lifts her hand in the air, gathering magic into the palm of her hand. Caligula throws her head back and laughs. “You think you can fight me? You know parlor tricks. There’s no amount of power that can make up for a lack of skill.”
That’s not true, exactly, but it’s true for her. She may be stronger than Caligula, her royal blood rich in magic and the sea witch’s abuse having brought that magic to the fore, but Caligula has been using magic for a long time, has fought many battles and come out the winner. There’s no spell destructive enough or quick enough to destroy Caligula before she outsmarts her.
But that’s not what she’s trying to do.
“Invenient,” she casts, then blows on her hand, scattering the reverse tracking spell to every crevice of the sea.
Caligula isn’t laughing anymore. “What are you doing?” she hisses, stalking forward.
Tuyet tries to pull herself backward but there’s nowhere for to go. She flinches when Caligula grabs her hair and tugs her upright, pulling her close to her face and forcing most of her body weight to be supported just by the grip on her head. “My father will follow that spell, and he’ll come here. You’re right. I can’t beat you. But he can.”
Her father had never bothered with Caligula before, had just warned Tuyet and her sisters against going near her and said that those who sought out the sea witch got what they deserved. He’ll be furious with her for becoming one of those people, for what she’s done, for her lies and betrayal and the people she hurt. But it’s better, still, than the alternative.
She wouldn’t love her prince if he abandoned his people. How can she expect him to love her if she abandons hers? She’s still a princess, of royal blood and royal duty. She has to protect her people.
“Foolish girl!” Caligula cries. “He’ll lock you up for what you’ve done, if you’re lucky, and you’ll never see your prince again! Is that what you want?”
“No,” she answers, and crying underwater is so much better, it’s less messier, more dignified. There’s determination in her refusal, but not dignity. Her face is puffy and she has to hold herself half upright on this boat, the pain tugging at her scales, all the power in her blood and she can’t even put herself upright. “But the price for my happiness is too high. I can’t pay it.”
She should have done this before, when Princess Felicity died she should have done this, but she was desperate and a coward. If she’d been smarter, she would have figured this out long before Felicity, and she could have called her father and locked up Caligula months ago, and then Felicity would be alive, would be married, and then Elias and his island would be safe.
But instead it’s all chaos, all death and fear, because she’s been stupid, and she refuses to let it continue.
Caligula snarls. “That tracking spell won’t work on your corpse, girl.”
She sees Caligula’s claws coming for her, and she covers her face, knowing it won’t do her any good, that Caligula can curse the breath from her lungs without needing to touch her at all, just like she did to Felicity.
Then there are legs at her back, supporting her, and Caligula stops short.
“Hey now,” John says, mildly, and Tuyet tilts her head back to see his arm extended, a pistol aimed at the space between Caligula’s eyes.
A gun should mean nothing to her, should be child’s play, but the sea witch isn’t laughing. Instead she’s frozen in place, and for the first time that Tuyet has ever seen, she looks afraid. “Where did you get that?”
“Don’t mind that,” he says, still completely relaxed, a smile hovering around the corner of his mouth even now. “If you take another step toward this lady, I’ll shoot.”
Tuyet twists around, and Ana and Maria are looking at John in surprise, some part of this is clearly something they haven’t seen before, is somethingthat they hadn’t expected.
Apparently someone doesn’t become an infamous pirate captain solely due to having fearsome wives.
“It’ll kill you,” Caligula warns. “All the trouble your women went through to save your life, the child they bargained away, and you’d throw your life away right in front of them?”
There’s a threat of compulsion interwoven into Caligula’s words, a spell that’s not actually a spell. Tuyet tries to open her mouth to warn him, to say anything at all, but nothing will come out.
“To protect them?” he asks, just as steady as before, completely unruffled and unaffected by Caligula’s voice. Tuyet doesn’t understand how he’s doing that. He’s just a human. Isn’t he? “Of course I would. You make a move toward this lady, or either of my wives, or myself, and I’ll pull this trigger and ensure it’ll be the last thing you ever do. “
“Then pulling that trigger will be the last you do,” Caligula says, but she doesn’t say it like a threat.
He shrugs, his shoulders rising and falling under his pretty coat.
They stare at each other for several tense moments, and Tuyet can do nothing but wait, hoping her father arrives before anything terrible can happen.
She’s looking into the ocean, eyebrows pushed together until they shoot to her forehead. “My trident!” she cries. “Stupid girl, you sent him to the trident!”
Tuyet doesn’t get a chance to react to that before Caligula is turning and diving into the ocean, leaving them all behind.
John reholsters his gun and leans down to press his hand against her shoulder. “You alright there?”
“John,” Maria starts, but then doesn’t say anything else.
“I’m angry with you both,” he says, but he doesn’t say it like he’s angry, his voice isn’t tight or mean or loud. He says it simply, as if his anger is a simple thing. “I’m not sure what mess you’ve gotten yourself into, but Caligula isn’t the person to help you out of it. I don’t think you should go back to her. Stay here.”
It takes Tuyet a moment to realize that John is talking to her and not his wives.
“No,” she says finally, mouth dry for the first time in her life. “No, I can’t. I have to go back in the water.”
“You don’t,” John starts, but Tuyet doesn’t stay around to listen, summoning a wave to crash over the boat, not to capsize it or hurt anyone, but just to drag her back into the ocean.
She wants to stay, or at least not to go, but where can she go that her father won’t be able to find her, eventually? Before, she was to escape to land, to where her family couldn’t follow her even if they tried, but now she can’t.
She’s done the right thing, but it’s cost her everything she’s wanted so desperately. She’ll never dig her feet into hot, dry sand. Never walk among a marketplace. Never get the chance to see her prince again.
But her people will be safe from Caligula. Her father will lock up the sea witch, and her too probably, for running away, for everything. Maybe if he’s especially angry he’ll have her and Caligula share a cell, so that she can continue torturing her, and by the time her father lets her out again, Elias’s bones will be dust.
It’s no wonder that people so rarely do the right thing, if it always hurts this much.
She could probably hide from her father, for a while, the ocean is large. But all it would take is one blow from the conch to get every sea creature to go searching for her, and there’s no place where she’s completely alone, where not a single living thing could find her, so there doesn’t seem to be much point in it. Hiding won’t save her, it’ll just make her father angrier, will just make her punishment worse than it’ll be already.
So she doesn’t hide, and she doesn’t run.
She goes back to Caligula’s cave to face the music, propelling herself through the ocean with her magic. Better to catch her father while he’s still at the cave than meeting him back at the palace. At least this way he can get the initial explosion and yelling out while they’re not in front of everyone.
The smell hits her before anything else, something rotten and foul and burning, acrid even. Smoke doesn’t last in the ocean, but she can taste it in the water around her. She approaches the cave slower, cautiously. Surely Caligula wouldn’t do something as foolish as try and resist king of the sea? She’s powerful, sure, but he’s King Proteus, born of Pallas. Caligula is many things, but stupid is not among them.
“Absconditum,” she whispers, waiting until the rush of magic covers her, cloaking her from sight, then slips into the cave, hugging the edges so as to not accidentally bump into something and alert them to her presence.
What she sees isn’t exactly what she expected.
Her father is furious, angrier than she’s ever seen him, and that fury seems to make him appear larger, even though he can’t even grow that much in the cave’s cramped space. His electric blue eyes are cold and hard, his dark, silver streaked hair floats around his head, the conch shell swaying from his hip while the bottom of his dark silver tail moves back and forth in agitation.
Caligula clutches the half-restored trident, shrinking down on herself, appearing small for the first time. “Please, no - it’s not what it seems-”
“My daughter,” he says thunderously, “for your trident? What were you thinking?”
Is Caligula trying to bargain her away? Does her dad think she’s locked away or restrained somewhere? She opens her mouth, preparing to say something, to let her dad know that Caligula doesn’t have her and therefor doesn’t have anything to bargain with.
She doesn’t get the chance.
Proteus opens his clenched hands, and a dozen cone snails float out of his hands, and Tuyet’s eyes widen.
As little girls, her grandmother would weave cone snails into her and her sisters’ hair. Tuyet thought they were beautiful, and didn’t understand that they were protection, like the ancient goblin sharks that were their constant companions. As royalty, they’re immune to the cone snail’s venom.
But Caligula isn’t.
The barbs sink into her skin before she even has a chance to scream, and that would kill a sperm whale several times over, but maybe it wouldn’t be enough even for Caligula, because she wasn’t born with magic in her blood but she certainly has poured enough of into her veins, has turned herself inside out to control magic the way she does, and maybe that would be enough to save her.
But this attack isn’t magical, and she doesn’t have the time to mount any sort of defense against it before it kills her, her body falling to the ground as the snails go floating towards the top of the cave.
Tuyet is so surprised she doesn’t even remember to breathe. Proteus looks at Caligula’s corpse, just as still as her, but then he leans down and grabs the trident from the ground and plunges it into Caligula’s chest with such force that it breaks through her ribcage and pierces her heart. The blood swirls around the trident, coating it and drying faster than it should, flaking off in the next moment, leaving it shining and silver.
It’s finally completely restored.
“Was it worth it?” Proteus asks, his quiet voice unbearably loud in the stillness of the cave. “First the earthquake, then this? Why did you think I would forgive that?”
Tuyet flinches, flattening herself back against the cave wall and hunching her shoulders to her ears.
She hadn’t meant to make the earthquake.
Her father reaches out for the trident, but then stops. His eyebrows dip together, and he reaches for it again before stopping and making a disgusted sound in the back of his throat. It’s powerful, Tuyet knows that, but her father must hate it so much to not even claim that power for his own, to at the very least keep it out of someone else’s hands by taking it back the palace and locking it in the vault. He exits the cave, and Tuyet watches him go, saying nothing. If he doesn’t sense her, if the tracking spell led him to all the magic she’d pushed into the trident instead of to herself, if he’s so upset over the earthquake that he’d kill Caligula over it, then there’s no reason for her to reveal herself.
Maybe this is the middle line. Her father doesn’t know how to find her, maybe isn’t even looking for her, maybe this is the closest to freedom she’s ever going to get. She doesn’t get legs, doesn’t get true freedom and markets and a life among humans. But neither is she shunned or locked away in the palace, neither is she forced to sit in a cell for years watching the world pass her by.
She drops the invisibility spell and swims to Caligula’s corpse, sitting on the ground beside her, looking at her wide open eyes and her body which is still leaking blood that dissipates around her. She holds out a hand, and the cone snails gently fall into it, small and beautiful and not looking anything close to deadly. She does as her grandmother did and weaves them into hair, just in case.
Her future has never seemed so uncertain, and she feels like she could use the extra protection.
The trident gleams silver even in the weak light of the cave, and Tuyet bled for it, she learned magic for this trident, and she doesn’t know she’s reaching for it until it’s in her hand.
It feels heavy, and cold. She thought it would be different, now that it’s complete, she thought it would feel electric, would feel alive, but of course it doesn’t.
The trident isn’t a person. It’s a tool. Maybe her father couldn’t bring himself to take the trident, but clearly she doesn’t have that same problem. Maybe her time with Caligula broke her more than she thought, if she does so thoughtlessly something her father wouldn’t.
“Um, excuse me,” a small voice asks quietly, and Tuyet turns, defensively thrusting the trident in front of her, but it’s just a merman peering into the edge of the cave. “Are you the sea witch?”
From this angle, he can’t see the bloody corpse on the cave floor.
She glances down and silently casts the same spell she had on Felicity’s body, so that Caligula turns into nothing more than sea foam. For Felicity, it was a kindness, but this is just to Caligula’s body out of the way. Tuyet can’t even feel that guilty about it. It’s not like anyone was going to sing any mourning songs for her anyway.
Is this the answer, then? What else is she to do, with this tenuous freedom? She knows magic. Maybe not as much as Caligula had, but enough, and now that she can go through her scrolls maybe she can learn even more, can become someone with her own power that she uses for herself.
Maybe she can fill the place Caligula had taken up, and maybe she can do it better, do it differently.
“Yes,” she answers, gripping the trident. “I am. What do you want?”
He breaks into a grin, confidently swimming closer. “I need help killing my mother. She’s won’t let me do anything, keeps going on about bettering myself and not wasting her money, and she’s going to live forever and keep all her money to herself out of spite, can you-”
It takes her longer than it should to make the connection between the trident humming against her hand, the rage rising like bile in the back of her throat, and the merman cowering and terrified against cave wall, angry burns arcing across his chest.
She could heal him. She doesn’t.
“Get out,” she says, watching with dispassionate eyes as he skitters away from her.
Maybe not, then.
Tuyet wonders if Caligula started out terrible, if she was always awful and she stumbled into this life and this magic because she’s awful, or if this life made her awful instead.
People keep asking her for such terrible things. For death, in so many ways with so many variations, and so rarely does it feel anything close to justified. The thing is, death is easy, torture is easy, so much of the terrible things are easy to do, are simple magics.
Two weeks into studying all the scrolls she’d never been allowed to touch before, she understands why Caligula did nothing for free.
The cost for the other types of magic is so high. It’s not an economical toll, because that would be easier, she still has the fortune in pearls she took from the royal stores, unless she attempts to recreate the lavish lifestyle that was afforded to her when she lived in the palace, then she won’t need to worry about money for a long time.
Healing sickness is almost impossible, and of course people don’t come to her with broken bones or stab wounds, things she could fix for as little as a lock of hair or a handful of scales, no one’s ever desperate enough to call a sea witch for that. It’s for the illness that sickens from the inside, for rotting bones and hearts that can’t beat properly.
The scrolls call for things like a young boy’s last breath, the still beating hearts of several dozen dolphins, and people’s firstborns.
The real magic, the kind that can do those sorts of things, doesn’t come cheap.
It doesn’t take that long to find the spell that would give her legs, would give her a chance at freedom, and she discovers that Caligula hadn’t told her the whole truth, had left out a very important part.
She’s a mermaid, with a cold sea heart, and she won’t survive on the surface, not forever. For a while, maybe, she’d be okay, and then her ice heart would melt and she would die. The only way to prevent that, to allow her to keep her legs and her sunshine, would be to replace her heart with that of a human, one that had been freely given.
If she’d managed to get her prince, if Prince Elias had fallen in love with her, she would have either had to convince him to kill himself or leave him, because the type of magic that would allow her to keep her happiness is the kind of magic that she can’t afford.
She can break things apart and run magic through the earth until it split open, could tear this world in two, and that would come cheap. But mending a broken heart has such a high toll - eight dry faced maidens - that she can’t imagine anyone could ever manage it.
So instead she does what she can.
For the heartbroken and grief-stricken, she takes away the memories of those they lost, and they don’t hurt anymore. For those that are sick, she can work only with what she has. She can replace a faulty liver if she has another one handy, and too many loved one come to her, pleading with her to give them the illness instead, to let those they care for keep on living even while they give themselves a death sentence.
The first time a woman comes to her, red eyed and clutching an unmoving bundle, her heart breaks.
“I can’t awaken the dead,” she says, and she’s not gentle with people often these days, since they so often take that gentleness and twist it to weakness.
“Please,” she says softly, “please, I can’t hide this, and his mother will be back soon.”
Tuyet goes cold.
“I just got so angry,” she says, and tips the bundle. Tuyet’s stomach rolls at the bruised face of the baby, of the way his neck hangs at an awkward angle. “Can’t you fix it? They don’t usually break like this.”
“Usually?” she repeats, numb.
She nods, mouth drooping at the corner. “They get so loud, and I want them to be quiet. They go quiet, eventually, and then I say they rolled over or got sick. But I can’t do that with this one. Can’t you fix his neck?”
She doesn’t want Tuyet to bring the child back to life. She wants her to help her cover up a murder, to cover up one of the many murders she seems to have committed.
“Yes,” she says, holding out her hand so the trident floats into her grasp, “yes, I can fix it.”
The spell to fix a broken neck and bruises is easy, even on a corpse. The one to erase all of the woman’s memories is harder, but easier after she’s sacrificed the woman’s arm and a quarter of her tail to the spell. Quickening the baby’s heartbeat requires both the woman’s eyeballs and her tongue to get it going, and then squeezing the blood from her heart to complete.
The soul transfer is obviously the most difficult, especially with her limited time, and she needs to use a spell to strip the woman’s flesh from her bones, and then grind those bones into dust, which she forces into the baby’s lungs, calcifying them to every inch, and an incantation that burns her lips to recite.
It’s quick, and easier than she thinks it should be, but it seems it takes no time at all to turn the woman into a pile of oozing flesh and to have a living, breathing, curious baby in her arms.
She can’t bring back the child the woman killed. But luckily, at this age, most babies seem much like any other.
“May your wickedness have been a learned habit rather than an inevitability,” she tells the baby, tells the woman’s soul she stuffed into this form. “It would be a shame for your mother to raise a monster.”
Then presents the problem of how she’s supposed to return the baby. A tracking spell to find his mother is easy enough, but it’s not exactly like she can go swimming into the middle of a city.
So far, no one has recognized her, has had no reason to recognize her, since she and her family spend much of their time deeper in the ocean than most of their subjects can swim. The rumors of a new sea witch have spread far, and if her father has heard them, then he hasn’t cared, hasn’t wanted to cause any issue by pointing out he killed the last one. It makes people nervous when their king goes around killing subjects, even ones that everyone knows to be wicked. Maybe especially those ones, since as Tuyet is discovering, so many of her people are wicked.
She can’t go into the city, at least not for this, it’s just not worth the risk. But going to all this trouble to make something that the mother will recognize as her baby will all be for nothing if she can’t get the baby to his mother.
The conch shell which can compel those creatures around her hangs on her father’s hip. But that doesn’t mean she can’t ask one to do her a favor.
It does mean, however, that if she’s going to get a helper, it should be someone that her father can’t compel. Which is every being of the sea. So she needs something that is not of the sea.
She whistles, the sound leaving her lips and being carried far past her cave, to the ocean’s depth. She just hopes her father doesn’t hear it. He won’t know it’s her, of course, it’s not like this is something he ever taught her how to do, but he’ll know what she’s doing, and that might just be enough to pique his curiosity about the new sea witch, which she obviously doesn’t want.
For several long minutes, nothing happens, and she takes that as a no. She supposes she’ll have to find another solution, perhaps crafting a cradle that she can enchant to go to city? But it does leave the baby vulnerable to being eaten or something else terrible. Which, again, ruins the point of going to all this effort in the first place.
The ground shakes, and at first she thinks it’s another earthquake, except this one not of her own making. Except that it gets bigger, and closer, and she’s smiling as she exits the cave, the baby held to her chest.
The massive head of a sea serpent breaks through the soft earth, sliding through the water to surround her, coiling his huge body around her, his head swaying above and tilted down.
Cetus has lived in the earth, was crafted by Oceanus’s hands before there was an ocean, and although he lives in the sea he’s doesn’t fall under her father’s control, is something else that lives in the depths of the sea that her father and grandmother always warned her against chasing.
But she’s not chasing anything. Cetus is the one who came to her.
“I need this returned,” she says, holding out the baby.
Cetus goes closer, growing in size until one of his eyes is as wide as she is tall, until she only see the clear silver of his one eye and nothing else. Then he squirms and shifts back down, until he takes the form of a dark silver octopus and plucks the child out her hands with his tentacles.
“Thank you,” she says, and a tentacle trails down the side of her face before Cetus propels himself forward towards the city.
She thinks that will be the last of it, that she asked for a favor and he gave it and he’ll go back to whatever sea monsters who are older than the ocean they reside in do with their infinite spare time.
Except the next day a serpent is slithering around the edges of her cave, pretty silver scales, and there’s only one explanation for that. “Hello,” she says, “can I help you with something?”
Cetus doesn’t say anything, although she’s sure he could if he wanted to. She can speak with plenty of sea creatures, and he’s much more than that, she’s sure he could twist himself into any sort of form he wanted if he felt the need to speak to her directly. He circles the trident, and she half expects him to curl around it, but he doesn’t touch it, instead choosing to drape himself around her ankle.
“Stay as long as you’d like,” she says, because it’s not like she could stop him anyway. She’s the sea witch now, is a princess and the daughter of King Proteus, but she’s not foolish. Not anymore, anyway. If Cetus wanted to eat her, wanted to swallow her whole, then he could, and there’s no magic or protection she has at her disposal that would be able to stop him.
His presence is a good thing, really. It helps her feel less lonely, gives her something to focus on that’s not her own anger and pain and sadness. It helps, but it doesn’t heal, and if she wasn’t broken before, she surely is now.
The woman who’d killed the baby had been the first person she ever killed with her own hands. Felicity she killed through her foolishness, and she hasn’t asked too many questions over where some of the desperate people that come to her get the ingredients that she requests. But she’s always been able to reign in her rage and disgust, to smother those violent impulses that she can’t remember having before, but not with that woman, not that time.
Was she always like this, deep down? She doesn’t think so. But she doesn’t think it’s the magic doing this to her either. Her thoughts and feelings are her own. This has to just be the result of seeing the worst of people, over and over again, or maybe the best of people, sometimes, but in the worst way possible. She was soft before. She’s not soft now, and she misses it, in an abstract sort of way. No one would dare take advantage of her now, would dare hurt her. But she misses the girl she was before she picked up Caligula’s trident and her title, the girl who didn’t know the worst and best that people were capable of.
It’s turned her into the type of person who kills a woman and thinks nothing of it. Sure, she was a murderer, a baby killer several times over. But she’s still the type of person who twists a murder’s soul into a shape that will fit into an infant body, and she’s not sure which of those transgressions are worse.
Whatever she is now, it’s not who she was before, what she was before, and she’s not sure that it’s a good thing.
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