Captain Proasheck leaned out of the crow’s nest, a rope wrapped around one hand to keep herself from falling. From here our fearless captain could see where rolling blue folded into a cove shielded by crystal.
The pink sheep at her side nudged a spyglass into her other hand. When Zoey looked through it, she could see sea-smoothed outcrops of rock, multicolored crystal, and the faintly-glowing magic mushrooms from which its name came—Mushbury Cove.
Except for the lapping waves and call of gulls, all was quiet. The calm of being at sea built into excitement while they sailed toward the cove, so it felt like the still air was buzzing. When she wiped foam spray off the lens, Zoey saw something behind her hand that made her grin.
A mermaid had slipped out of the water, lay now on a crystal outcrop with the sun on her face. Her lips moved in a song they weren’t close enough to hear.
“Keep on course, Ringlette.” She petted the sheep’s head. “We’ll be there soon.”
Ringlette nuzzled Zoey’s hand before heading down from the crow’s nest. Zoey swung her legs over the side and leaned back while she listened to the lulling sea.
By the time the Rainbow Flake was close enough to land that she could sail no farther, several other mermaids sang and swam and slept in the cove. Their tails gleamed in the sun, every color and pattern, and their voices wove through the air like thread through pure blue fabric. That calm quality was in all their simple melodies.
Zoey was leaning over the prow of the ship now, listening to the mermaids while Lieutenant Beep-r prepared a boat to row out on. A few mushrooms crowded at Zoey’s feet and swayed to the music.
Her crew had been searching for Mushbury Cove for months now. They’d worked hard to find it and had fought more than a few dragons. And here it was, more beautiful than she’d imagined, serene and shining. Magical mushrooms clustered near waterfalls and blue and purple crystals. The mermaid song was already weaving its spell on her.
You could tell by the way she stumbled getting into the rowboat, then lowered it so quickly into the water that it made a huge splash. She was usually more careful, considering none of her mushroom crewmates had hands to steady themselves.
Before she rowed even halfway to the cove, a scaly mermaid face peered out of the water at her. The boat almost capsized as Zoey slammed the oars backwards in an attempt to stop before she hit her. The mermaid twirled around and leapt out of the water over the spray from the oars. Her tail was the color of sunlight, spotted with orange. The saltwater streaming off her fins stung Zoey’s eyes. She blinked a few times until they cleared, and when they did the mermaid’s arms were hooked around the side of the boat.
“Hey there, sailor.” Her smile was blindingly bright.
“H-hi—” Zoey’s voice had quite fled.
The mermaid laughed. “You’ve come a long way. You must be very brave.”
Our fearless captain turned quite pink. She tried to talk, but no sound came out. The mermaid moved to the prow of the boat and held it while she swam, so they glided forward again.
“I’ve only met a few humans before. Is that your ship out there? It’s very impressive. Are you the captain? Of course you are, you have such a fancy hat.”
Zoey didn’t know what to say, or how to speak really. The truth was that the mermaid wove a magical charm with just her voice while she pulled that little rowboat. A mermaid with eyes like lightning joined her, humming softly.
Zoey finally managed a “Hello.”
“Hello,” the lightening-eyed girl replied.
Zoey took heart from this. When they glided into the cove, other beautiful faces came near curiously, and she found courage to say, “Hey good lookins’. What’s cookins?”
Most of the mermaids laughed, not unkindly. They surrounded the little rowboat, looking up at the girl with a feather in her hat who didn’t realize how much danger she was in. Only one, curly-haired and bold, hung back. When they started to sing, she was silent.
Two things give Mushbury Cove its fame: the magic mushrooms, which can heal wounds, calm minds, and give hope, and the mermaid song that guards them. You may have heard of siren song, and it’s like that, yes. In a basic sense it’s nothing more than a charm spell, the kind that says, “Just listen to me and you’ll be happy.”
There’s something just a bit more powerful about songs, though. When Mushbury mermaids sing, it’s like waking up for the first time. Or falling asleep—Zoey wasn’t sure. There was a soft ringing in her ears that sounded like bells in harmony. The music is different for everyone, and for her it was slow and fast, comforting and exciting, like the feeling of coming home or just setting out. Their voices were high and clear.
She found she was standing up. Water lapped over the side of the boat and soaked her crewmates. The lightning-eyed mermaid held out her hand.
Our fearless captain is very smart. She is, however, not immune to curiosity, mermaid music, or very pretty people. It’s easy for us to tell her not to take that mermaid’s hand, but we can’t hear the song. It’s like water filling your ears and nose and mouth, suffocating, strange.
Zoey’s mushroom friends did not have ears, and so they were not charmed. They had to watch, as we do, Captain Proasheck lean forward and take the mermaid’s hand. They could not stop her—mushrooms don’t have hands.
Zoey plunged into the water. The mermaid kissed her briefly, still singing though the water muffled her voice. Then she was gone. Zoey tried to swim after her, but the water was heavy and something had grabbed her arms and there were clouds in her brain and water in her mouth and suddenly she was being pulled down.
The song stopped abruptly. Zoey found herself staring at a scaly, beautiful face made eerie by silence and underwater light. The mermaid with a sunlight tail held Zoey’s arms while the others pulled her down by her feet. The sunlight one kissed her hand, held it fast, and dived down with the captain in her grasp.
Now our fearless captain screamed. The clouds left her head and water filled her lungs. The mushrooms in the boat couldn’t hear her and they certainly couldn’t help. Whenever Zoey kicked, the mermaids held on tighter and dragged her farther down, a victim of beauty and songs and curiosity. Waves rocked the surface of Mushbury Cove—that was the only sign of the struggling girl below.
Her lungs were too full of water to burn. Salt stung her eyes red. Her whole body felt heavy. Zoey looked up toward the surface, toward sunlight, as the ocean closed over her head. Her free hand trailed through the water above her and she thought, it was such a pretty song…
A rainbow flashed through her fading vision. The pressure on her legs eased for a second but returned stronger, like claws in her skin. Then it vanished all at once. There were arms around her, one pair cruel and crushing, the other strong and sure. Zoey wasn’t sure because she was really nearly unconscious, but she thought the strong sure arms won whatever battle raged.
The last thing Zoey saw before she went limp in the water was sunlight on rainbow scales.
She woke gasping and coughing. Curly hair hung in her face; there was a girl leaning over her.
“Are you all right?” Her voice sounded like the soft and loud song.
Zoey made some noise that passed for a yes. Saltwater had rubbed her throat raw. The mermaid relaxed and flopped up to sit next to our fearless captain. Her tail was red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet.
“That’s good. Sorry about that.” She gave a short laugh that didn’t sound amused. “They’re not very friendly, are they?”
“Thank you for saving me. Um…do you guys usually greet people by, well…drowning them?”
“We didn’t used to.” She flicked curly hair out of her face. Rainbow scales circled her forehead like a headband. “People used to come all the time to take mushrooms, and that was fine. Then they took too many at once, and crystals too, and the cove started to die.”
“That’s horrible,” Zoey said, and meant it.
“About as bad as drowning people.” The girl frowned at the mermaids surfacing near the shore where they lay. “You’re not going to steal all our mushrooms, are you? They’d be right angry with me if you did.”
Zoey shook her soaking head. Water dripped from the ends of her hair, and the stripes had washed off her cheeks. Sand was stuck all over her arms and hair. At least the water was warm.
“Why come all the way out here, then?”
Zoey went pink. “Oh, um, well….”
She made a pretense of wringing out her shirt hem. The other girl raised her eyebrows with a grin.
“I was—looking for mermaids,” she admitted. “Everyone says the mermaids of Mushbury Cove are beautiful, I thought I could handle the danger, I didn’t think…”
The girl didn’t laugh. She smiled like she thought Zoey was adorable. Zoey found herself smiling back.
“What would you say? Are the stories right?” She flexed her arms and pulled a funny face.
“The stories don’t come close,” Zoey laughed. The words were out of her mouth before she thought about them. Her eyes went wide. “I mean, um, that song was beautiful—”
“Until it almost got you drowned.” The girl’s hair hid most of her face, but Zoey could see her huge grin. “My name’s Fiona.”
“Captain Proasheck of the Rainbow Flake, at your service.” She pushed her shoulders back as she rattled off her whole title. “Or just plain Zoey.”
“Just Zoey? You came all the way to the cove. You got past the nether wart caves and the whirlpools. Not ‘just’ anyone can do that.”
“I had help.” Zoey hid her red face behind one hand. “My crew. And theRainbow Flake is pretty tough. My Auntie Shroomsie helped design her.”
“She’s a good ship with a good captain, to get this far. Oh, no…” Fiona suddenly pointed towards the water. Mermaids were gathering near the shore, every eye on Zoey.
She bolted to her feet, water streaming off her. There was no way to get to the little rowboat without going past the mermaids, and she knew that wouldn’t be easy. Her worry was all for the mushrooms inside the boat, though. If they got hurt because of her…
Fiona grabbed her hand. “You need to get out of here. They’re not going to stop.”
Zoey closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She could do this. She’d gotten through worse. If she could just reach the rowboat—
And then the song began again.
Her head filled with clouds. She woke up and fell asleep, heard bells, felt there would be nothing better than to walk into the waves and take the outstretched hand of a girl with eyes like lightning. That was all she could see as she walked forward—the girl, the waves. All else blurred.
A now-familiar rainbow trailed at the edge of her gaze. Water lapped at Zoey’s boots, then suddenly she could not move. There were chains around her ankles. Our fearless captain struggled, broke free from Fiona’s grip, moved toward that echoing, endless song.
The full force of that rainbow tail smacked into the back of her legs. Zoey’s knees buckled and she splashed into saltwater and sand. Her eyes burned, and she choked on the spray.
Don’t move, she thought for a clear-headed second. Just stay here, don’t you dare move another inch.
Then everything settled, and the mermaids still sang. Never say charm lacks power; Mushbury is old, its magic deep. Even Zoey, smart and brave and survivor of worse, could hardly fight it.
While on her knees, the water almost reached Zoey’s chin. The lightning-eyed mermaid came closer, reaching for her hands. A thought flickered in Zoey’s mind: Maybe this is what coming home feels like.
Then Fiona was there. As if from nowhere she came between Zoey and the girl with lightning eyes. Fiona’s blue eyes were brighter, pulling Zoey’s gaze to her.
She kissed her.
The charm broke, and for just that second, magic had no power. Fiona kissed her, and grabbed her hands, and held on tight.
“Don’t listen to them,” she said. “Don’t—”
Zoey kissed her back. Fiona was warm and real, and though the song still rang in her ears, Zoey kissed Fiona and held her hands and found strength to fight the charm.
The other mermaid raised her voice until it was almost a shout instead of a song. She tried to push past Fiona, to grab our fearless captain. While Zoey drew back, Fiona let go of one hand and punched the mermaid in the face.
She recoiled with a hiss. The song broke jaggedly off all across the cove. It very nearly rang with silence.
“Hold on to me,” Fiona said, guiding Zoey’s arms around her neck. “Hold on and don’t listen to them.”
Zoey locked her hands together. She was close enough to hide her face in Fiona’s curly hair. She did catch sight of a rainbow fin slapping across the face of the lightning-eyed girl as Fiona dived into the waves.
“And hold your breath!” she shouted over her shoulder, just a moment before they both went under.
Zoey closed her eyes and held her breath. Being underwater was different this time, with a clear head and someone to hold on to. Fiona moved through the water as easily as flying, even though Zoey felt hands snatching at them. Her lungs burned for want of air, but she knew they’d surface soon. Just hold on, and don’t listen.
The song had been replaced with shrieks all around, the kind that get inside your head, jangle it around, and leave it throbbing for too long after. Hold on.She tightened her grip, let Fiona carry her. Don’t listen. She sang inside her head to block out the shrieking.
Hands like claws fastened around her leg. Zoey kicked wildly, eyes still closed. The mermaid lost her grip as Fiona picked up speed. Just when Zoey thought she couldn’t hold on another second, they surfaced beside the little rowboat. Fiona swam underneath Zoey and flopped her into it.
The mushrooms were thoroughly jostled, but they made way for their captain. Fiona hooked her arms around the side of the boat, a huge grin on her face.
“That was exciting.”
Zoey’s smile reached both ears. “That was awesome! You saved my life, oh my gosh, thank you!”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m a super cool dashing hero. We still need to get you out of here.”
She was swimming for the prow of the boat when a girl with lightning eyes pounced on her from below. Fiona didn’t have time to make a sound before the other mermaid dragged her underwater by her hair.
Zoey yelled and lunged so suddenly that the boat nearly capsized. She could see them fighting below her, but they were just out of reach. Fiona threw a solid punch while the lightning-eyed girl scratched at her face.
The boat rocked as Zoey turned, looking frantically for the oars. She didn’t carry a sword or even a dagger, but she’d found through many adventures that the flat side of an oar can be just as effective. When she found one she stood up carefully to keep the boat steady and stabbed the oar down.
It slammed into the other mermaid’s shoulder. Her hold on Fiona broke, her face twisted with fury, and she turned on Zoey once more.
She shot out of the water before Fiona could stop her, though she snatched at the end of her tail. Zoey was ready; she held the oar like a baseball bat, wound up, and smacked the mermaid as she lunged at the boat.
She flew back several feet before she landed, dazed and floating. Fiona didn’t hesitate—she wrapped the rope Zoey tossed her around both hands and took off, leaving a rainbow afterimage in her wake. Zoey toppled over, then held on to both sides of the boat to keep from flying out.
Their jerky stop a minute later sent everyone tumbling once more. The side of the boat bumped against the Rainbow Flake. Zoey lay at the bottom of the rowboat, looking up at the main mast that blocked the setting sun.
“Are you all right?” Fiona peeked over the side of the boat.
Zoey turned her head. “I’m awesome. You’re awesome. You just saved my life like three times!” She sat up. “Oh, wow. That must be some kind of record.”
Fiona shrugged in the way people who are pleased but don’t want to admit it shrug. Her smile really was pretty, and her eyes were still bright with excitement.
“I’d save a pretty face like yours as often as you need saving.”
Lieutenant Beep-r had lowered a rope ladder and helped most of the mushrooms up by now. Zoey would have to tie off the rowboat and be gone soon. She found she didn’t want to go, not quite yet.
The soft and loud mermaid magic was entirely gone. But Zoey had the memory of the warm kiss that broke it to give her courage.
“Do you want to come with us?”
Zoey nodded fervently, blushing red without trying to hide it. Fiona vanished suddenly, but before Zoey could react, she back-flipped out of the water like a dolphin. Sunlight caught in her hair, the scales crowning her forehead.
Zoey was so soaked that the spray from her landing made no difference. Fiona surfaced, her whole face glowing. Some of that warm light raced up Zoey’s arms when Fiona grabbed her hands.
“I’ll go with you.” She kissed Zoey’s hand. “To bold adventure and the ends of the earth, Captain Proasheck of the Rainbow Flake.”
Zoey was laughing, because Fiona looked so determinedly serious. Courage curled up in her belly, warm, safe right here. And she thought, this is what coming home feels like.
“Just Zoey,” she said.
She leaned down and kissed Fiona, the kind of kiss where you’re both smiling. Fiona was sea salt and rock candy, and Zoey was mushroom soup and chocolate milk. That was better than whatever treasure Mushbury Cove held.
Sometimes a pirate ship sails by, bringing joy instead of chaos. Mushrooms line the deck, a pink sheep turns the wheel, a bit-too-magical frog reads at the prow. A doctor is studying old medicine charts beside him. A puffer fish floats in his pool, humming. A snow creature hides from the sun, fixing some-odd mechanism, while one robot points faithfully and another raises the ship’s rainbow sails.
There is a mermaid girl, curly-haired and bold, sitting on the edge of the crow’s nest. A girl in a fancy hat, who has survived worse, holds her hand. They share a spyglass, looking for the next great adventure.
The Rainbow Flake sails on.