“Knife, dull. Apple, half-eaten. Comb, bone. Claw and knuckles, bestial, dessicated. Slime, jar of. Body, male, still in the boat,” the obese merman looked up from the wax tablet, “Quite an assortment of possessions.”
Lynn glared at a wall in defiance.
“And you say she was drifting in a boat with these items when you found her, in the middle of the night?”
“That’s correct, sir,” the younger merman responded, “Right on top of Under Valenar. I was out on a patrol when my sharks smelled blood.”
Lynn’s gaze wavered, but didn’t go down. She wouldn’t look at her dress. Soaked as it was by the underwater trip, Josh’s blood would never wash out. She didn’t look at her hands, either. She may be shivering, but she wouldn’t let them touch her.
“Did she say anything?”
“What’s your name, child?”
The obese merman tried to sound kind. Lynn didn’t buy it.
“You’re in some trouble right now. But nothing that can’t be cleared up with your cooperation. You didn’t murder the fellow you were found with, did you?”
Lynn shot him a venomous look.
“Didn’t think so. How about you tell us what happened, then?”
Lynn imagined the merman catch fire. His stupid little moustache would burn off first. The younger merman who caught her tried to lay a hand on her shoulder. With a tiny shriek Lynn dove out of the way, moving until she could keep them both in front of her.
“Nicholas, don’t,” the fat merman almost sounded concerned, “The girl is obviously in shock. Her friend, was he your friend? Her friend had died in front of her,” he turned to Lynn again, “We can help you. Tell us what happened.”
Lynn exploded. “Why? What do you care?!”
“It’s our job to care. We are the Tidewatch of Under Valenar.”
“You’re doing a piss-poor job of it, then, or he wouldn’t be dead!” Lynn was shaking, and only partially due to the cold clinging clothes.
“We can’t be everywhere. But we can help you now.”
“No, you really, really can’t. You say you care. Everyone says that. Makes them feel good. No one does anything. Especially not you mermen in your underwater palaces,” she spat on the floor. The sponge this Nicholas had stuffed into her mouth before dragging her out of the boat had left a foul taste on her tongue. It also, somehow, allowed her to breathe underwater long enough to get here.
The older merman raised an eyebrow: “Take a look around you. Does this look like a palace?”
They were in a lower floor of a half-sunken tower, out in the harbor. The part that still stuck out from under the waves at a perilous angle was used as a lighthouse during the shadowfall, to guide the last ships hurrying home. No one was stupid enough to sail during the night. The part below the waves kept the air somehow. There were some pipes hanging from a sealed staircase leading up that probably had something to do with that. They’ve ascended a different flight of stairs to get here, emerging from the chilling water into a dark, dank room.
Some sort of luminescent lichen covered the walls, giving barely enough light to see the people inside. There was a desk to the side, behind which the senior merman sat, with a single candle on it. Water dripped from Lynn’s dress and formed a stream running down the sloped floor, towards the descending stairs. There were smaller streams coming from under the mermen, their attires lacking absorbent cloth – or much of any material altogether. No, this didn’t look like much of a palace. But then again, it was meant for people like her, the ones not able to breathe underwater without disgusting sponges.
Mistakenly taking her silence for agreement, the merman continued: “Oh, and another thing. I wouldn’t advise you to call our people ‘mermen’. Some may react unfavorably. That’s the term we use for the ones made for this life. We are still human, though changed. Call us Allyrian if you have to, the name of our sunken kingdom. Or Menar’s Chosen, though that’s a mouthful. By his grace we’ve survived the Last Battle.”
“Regardless. If you refuse to cooperate, we’ll have to turn you over to the surface authorities. The murder happened above, so that’s where the investigation will occur.”
“Then I’m dead,” said Lynn matter-of-factly.
“I’m certain they’re not so quick to judge.”
“Who, the ‘surface authorities’? They won’t do anything. Another street kid dead. We’ve been dying for half a year now. It’s the Beast that’s been hunting us that’ll get me.”
The mermen (Lynn didn’t care for their distinctions) exchanged uncomfortable glances.
“I’ve heard of this Beast,” said the senior one after some consideration, “Is there a reason it is after you?”
“It is the Beast. That’s what it does. But you’ve already heard about it, and yet you’re still here. You’re still here and the Beast is out there. Lucky you, the Beast doesn’t go into the water, and neither does the Shadow. Fortunate. Chosen.”
“Watch your mouth, girl, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Nicholas angrily.
“Or what?” spat Lynn, “There isn’t anything you can do that scares me anymore. The Beast is after me. You, ‘authorities’, none of that matters. Empty posturing, all you’re good for.”
“How about we give you to the Shadowguard for drug trafficking?” Nicholas raised his voice to match her, “They’ve been on our backs about slime for quite some time.”
“You know full well I’m as guilty of that as I am of murder. But sure, go ahead. Lie, get rid of the inconvenient street rat. Not your problem, right?”
“Nicholas, enough. The girl has a point – the Shadowguard is too busy to protect her. And if the Beast is after her as she claims, we can’t turn her away. That means she stays here, for a few days at least, until we figure out what to do with her,” he turned to Lynn, “I’m really tired to talking about you in third person, by the way.”
“Why? I’ve been referring to you as ‘the fat one’ in my head, works for me.”
“Delightful. And that’s not third person, by the way. Either way, I am officer Thomas, officer Nicholas you already know as ‘the skinny one’.”
“Lynn,” she said grumpily.
“No family name?”
“Right. Nicholas, you are in charge of Lynn here. Take her in, temporarily.”
“Sir! I don’t want a criminal on my hands or in my home!”
“Or what, she’ll escape from you? A surfacer will outswim and outsmart a Tidewatch officer in his own home, is that what you’re saying?”
“No, sir, but…”
“Then do as you’re ordered,” Lynn couldn’t tell if Thomas was amused or annoyed, “You can claim compensation for whatever expenses she incurs later.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” Nicholas straightened his back and bowed slightly, almost shouting his consent.
“Do I get a say in this?” Lynn wasn’t too happy either.
“No. Unless you’d prefer to be turned over to the Shadowguard.”
“Fine, I’ll go with the fishface.” An uncalled for, and entirely inaccurate insult – if anything, Nicholas was quite handsome, sharp cheekbones and all. “But I want my things.”
“You’re not exactly in a position to make demands,” Thomas kept his ambiguous smirk.
“But you are in a position to steal from me the only things I own. I ain’t about to let you.”
“The term would be ‘confiscate as evidence’. But there’s no need for that. Take it.”
Lynn dashed forward, sweeping her meager possessions into the soggy bag. She stopped when she laid her hands on the jar of slime. Raising her eyes, Lynn saw Thomas watching her, eyebrow cocked. Demonstratively, Lynn let go of the jar, a finger at a time, and moved back. Thomas nodded in approval, causing her to hate the merman so much more.
Nicholas lost the last of his patience.
“Come,” He didn’t bother to look at Lynn. Suited her fine.
“You’re forgetting something. Here, Lynn, take this,” Thomas extended an amulet to her, pulled from within the desk drawer. It looked like a bunch of horizontal wavy lines, or, Lynn realised, a hand with wavy fingers clasping the string. The candlelight reflected from it in a rainbow of colors, like a shell she’d sometimes find washed up on the shore.
“Menar’s Embrace. We keep a few for visitors. It’ll let you live among us,” explained the merman.
Lynn put it on, and a wave of warmth washed over her. Her shivering stopped as the damp clothing wrapped around her ceased being freezing, now merely cool.
She nodded in thanks, more automatically than purposefully. Nicholas was a few steps down already, half submerged in water and looking back. His smirk wasn’t ambiguous at all. Lynn hurried after him. She’ll bide her time. Not dead yet.
“Follow me. Don’t even think of escaping. My sharks will get you before you swim a meter.”
Two dark shapes, as long as Lynn’s leg, were swimming in circles just outside the submerged tower. Nicholas dove, and the sharks moved to him, wagging their tails like puppies. Shark-toothed shark-puppies. Lynn followed. No choice. Again.
With the merman amulet on, the sea accepted her, there was no other way to describe it. The water was warm and welcoming; the stinging darkness dissolved before her eyes and Lynn could see clearly, down to the very seabed; even her movements seemed easier, like the liquid parted more eagerly before her, and propelled her on her way. She forgot to hold her breath, and water rushed into her nose, filling her lungs. A moment’s panic dissipated as Lynn kept on breathing. She felt the heavy movement of water inside her, felt it expelled and inhaled with greater force than air would require. Lynn didn’t choke, didn’t gasp for air that wasn’t there, didn’t drown. Menar’s Embrace, huh.
With her vision clear, Lynn saw Under Valenar for the first time. She knew it’d be sprawling, but didn’t expect it to be so colorful. In the darkness of the night it glowed softly with greens and blues, walls themselves shedding light. And what walls they were!
The houses were built into a coral reef, made out of it, grown into it. Canyons of corals spread under and around her. Dark holes of windows and passages marked their surface chaotically. Seaweed swayed in unseen currents. Schools of tiny fish sped here and there, black silhouettes outlined by the glowing walls. The place looked both unmistakably inhabited and entirely natural. So unlike the opulence of Higher Valenar, yet just as ornate. So unlike the towering history of Lower Valenar, yet not without its own grandeur. Here, the ruins of the older city were neither demolished nor rebuilt. They were used as a foundation for new growth, elven masonry still seen here and there through the enveloping coral.
The third, often forgotten part of the trifold city was beautiful, yes, but also gloomy. The glow of its walls only served to frame the deeper darkness of the night sea. It was a mundane darkness, not disembodied flesh of an insane god crawling across the land, but darkness nonetheless. Lynn had spent her entire life fearing the dark, and this place set her teeth on the edge. The sea may have accepted her, but she wasn’t about to accept the sea.
As she swam after Nicholas, keeping up as best as she could, Lynn seethed. For years, she’s hated mermen, mostly because they weren’t like her. Actually meeting them didn’t change her opinion. She hated the mermen for the safety of their city and for how uneasy being there made her; for doing nothing to protect others against the Beast and for keeping her here to do the same; for the slurred way in which they spoke in the air and for the speed with which they swam in the water. If she could see these contradictions, she’d hate the mermen for them too.
The city seemed endless, rows upon rows of houses, mountains of corals stretching under her. Lynn’s arms burned from exertion, and still they swam. Nicholas had to stop more and more to wait for her with that annoying smirk on his face. Lynn couldn’t see it, but sensed it just the same. Eventually the glow diminished, the coral grew more sparse. Now, there were only splotches of color, tiny islands of illumination under the sea of darkness. Lynn would wonder what lurked there, had she not been so exhausted.
Further out and down they went, finally coming to a small coral hill, barely aglow. Nicholas gestured for her to follow, leading Lynn inside. He led her through a gloomy house, more cramped that Lynn had expected. There was water inside. Of course there was water. For some reason Lynn had thought there wouldn’t be, that inside a home there’d be regular beds and tables and all the things people who have houses have.
They passed through a seaweed curtain, arriving in a tiny room, barely more than an alcove. Lynn felt her way around in pitch black. Something woven and heavy lay on the ground. The walls were uneven and Lynn could almost reach them all from the middle of the room. She turned to Nicholas, but he was already gone. Fine then.
This was her prison. She could wait for the jailer to fall asleep. There were no locks, at least none that she had seen. But then what? Where would she run to? Swim to. No, she was too tired, too disoriented and not in an immediate danger. She’ll wait.
Lynn tried to lay on the woven bed, at least what she assumed was the bed, but kept floating off it. Mere act of drawing breath propelled her. She resigned to sleeping in mid-air, well, mid-water, then bumped her head into a protruding bit of coral. Add that to the long list of merman indignities.
Finally, Lynn managed to back herself into a corner, arms and knees braced against the walls to prevent movement. Not the most restful position, but it would have to do.
Lynn closed her eyes, and felt blood squelching between her fingers in great pulses. Felt the grip on her arms weaken. Heard the gurgling breath grow more desperate and more quiet with each exhalation. Heard her empty, meaningless, lying prayers and promises. Felt the hot blood covering her turn cold, the flesh under her hands turn cold, the whole world turn cold. Felt Josh’s fear as he died, fear from which all his grins couldn’t save him.
Lynn opened her eyes and stared into the darkness.