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The sea is dark and deep. The water is cool, it’s the middle of winter, and the middle of the night. I wake suddenly, with electrifying adrenaline running through my veins. I shiver and look out at the gently waving sea grass. I just had the distinct, unsettling feeling that I am not alone.
I sit up and pull my shawl more tightly around myself. I’m used to being alone, and usually I sleep very heavily. What woke me? My bright green fins and tail twitch. Soft murmuring from the ocean pulses comfortingly in my ears, but still I sit, paralyzed, looking towards the surface and through the grass.
All of a sudden, a fish darts through the clearing. I gasp, and then laugh. Just a fish. I run my fingers through my hair. I lie down again and dig myself into the sand. With a sigh, I slowly fall asleep, my worries fade…
The next day, I swim fervently toward the palace.
“Oh no, oh no, oh nooooo…” I murmur.
I’m late. I yawn as I pull my servant’s uniform over my smock. I fly high over the city. The huge white castle appears, with dozens of merpeople swimming in and out of the main gates.
My job is to clean. I scrub the floors and walls, make the beds and polish mirrors, wash the plates. It’s pretty boring. But hey- better than starving!
I reach the gates and they let me inside. In the mornings, the maids meet in the kitchen to eat breakfast and receive their jobs for the day. Hopefully they’re still there. I race down the main hall, take a left, go down a tunnel to the lower floor, and into the kitchen.
This room is alive. There are about a dozen chefs cooking, a handful of little pages dashing in and out to get their master’s breakfasts, usually the knights who train early in the morning, and another half a dozen maids. I sigh with relief. The matron is still there, eating fried fish and kelp.
“I’m sorry I’m late, matron. May I receive my assignment?” I start tentatively.
She looks up. Her dark brown hair floats up. “Viv.” She sighs. “Yes. Scrub the floors in the dance hall. But another slip-up and I might have to let you go.” She looks down and continues to eat.
I nod, and inwardly shudder. The other maids look at me from the corners of their eyes. I bite my lip. She’s in a bad mood today. The dance hall is huge. I consider eating in the kitchen with everyone else, but when the matron’s mad she can lash out without a warning. I’ve seen her fire three maids in one day because they forgot to clean the stables.
So I go to the chefs and ask for my breakfast to take it outside. The rest of the day, I scrub. I’m alone, no other mermaid appears to help me. I suspect that the matron did that on purpose.
Someone shakes my shoulder. I look up to see that it’s dark, and blink at the man who shook me.
“Excuse me, this hall is going to be used now. You are excused to leave.”
I nod and gather up my rags and scrubbers. Wow. I did that all day. Sometimes I tend to get into such a zone I can do one repetitive thing for hours. I also have the mode where I can’t keep still for two minutes, or cannot focus for my life. I also lose things, and of course, am late often.
I look around at the hall with pride. At least most of the floor shines nicely. Now, people are starting to decorate. They hook up glowing lanterns and colorful coral and shells. Bouquets of sea flowers stick out of the sconces in the walls.
“What is happening?” I ask no one.
A squire replies, “The youngest Princess’s birthday party.”
“Oh,” I redden and tuck my hair back as he swims away, beneath a pile of patterned gifts.
I wonder where Marlee is. I haven’t seen her all day. She’s a maid like me, and my best friend. Well, my only friend. I have light blonde hair. She has dark black hair. I’m tall. She’s short.
I go to the matron’s office, and she gives me my pay for the week. Two Alti’s. I roll the crystal blue gems in my hand and put them into a small pouch on my hip.
“Do you need any extra help for the party tonight?” I ask. I really don’t want to go back to my camp.
Matron slowly looks up. “I don’t think so. Go get some dinner Viv.”
I rub my neck. “Alright.” I exhale and turn away.
I turn back.
“Good job today.” She smiles at me, and I smile back.
I guess she wasn’t as angry as I thought. I swim outside. The streets are decorated for the birthday. I make my way towards my favorite place to eat. It’s run by a man named Jerry and his wife Bell. They’re always nice to me. And okay, I admit, sometimes they also give me free food.
But they aren’t there.
The whole building is dark and the front door is locked. There’s a small message pinned to the sign that says the diner is closed. It reads- Closed for two days. Catering at Palace for Princess Aria’s birthday!
I groan. This birthday party is somehow ruining everything! Ah, well.
The tavern a few blocks away is open though. I swim through the festive streets and into the low, green-stone restaurant. There’s only a few people here. A man with a huge beard, picking at a pile of oysters. A couple giggling and talking quietly over their food. And in the corner, a shadowy figure slumped into their chair. I tear my eyes away from the corner and find the man tending the front.
“What would ya like?” He asks.
“Umm, I guess some smoked cod…wait no. Lobster. Thank you.”
He nods with deep circles under his eyes and disappears into the back room. I look around, with my elbow on the counter. I try to squint at the corner without being too obvious, but it’s too dark. It seems like every shadow under the sea has come to crowd around that one person in their booth.
The man returns with a platter. “That’ll be one Beto please.” He says.
I hand him the little green gem, and he hands me the plate.
I go to a table by the door and sit down into the carved stone seat, wrapping my tail around the bottom. There’s a thin netting over the plate to keep the food from floating away, and I rip that off. The lobster tastes fine, a little overdone though. At least it isn’t under cooked.
It sounds like they’re starting festivities outside. Loud music blares from somewhere, and people start to sing. I expect they’re dancing too. My ears prick up, what is that noise? A strange scent is coming closer…
Smells like old meat. The sound of gruff voices pound outside.
I stiffen, and I notice the dark figure in the booth straighten up as well.
Then the door to the tavern is thrown open. I jump, and I think everyone else in here does too, well except for the old man.
A trio of hulking, mercenary-looking guys swim inside. Their tails are cut up and scarred, and their faces bruised.
They make their way through the tables and look every customer in the eye. I shudder when I meet one’s cloudy, mean stare.
Then they find the merperson in the corner. They jerk the figure up from the shadows. I blink. It’s only a kid. And he holds up a sword to the brute’s neck.
“Well hello there Tahoe.” The mercenary says.
“Hi Bill.” Tahoe says, and pushes the sword more firmly against Bill’s neck. The other two rush to Bill’s side and draw their swords from their scabbards.
The rest of us just stare silently. Maybe I’m going to go…
I start to slide from my seat as quiet as I can.
“I don’t want to give you any trouble.” Tahoe says. “Let me go now, and you won’t regret it.”
The mercenaries laugh. “You might be able to take one of us. But now there’s three. And I remember giving you a nice cut on your arm. You don’t seem to be using your usual sword hand.”
I glance over, only a couple feet from the door now. Tahoe doesn’t move and Bill laughs again. The hirelings shove their swords at the boy and tie him up. Then they all head for the door. One of them shoves me into the wall. I gasp in pain.
“Get outta the way maid.” He laughs.
Oh, no. I feel my face go red. I tense up.
Those signs usually occur right before I do something reckless and stupid.
I yank Bill’s sword out of his scabbard and slice through Tahoe’s bonds in one action. Wow. His sword is really sharp. All four of them stare at me with their jaws hanging open.
“Oh. Haha…” I breathe, slowly dropping the massive weapon.
Then Tahoe jumps into action. He reclaims his sword and grabs my wrist. “Come on!” He shouts and pulls me out the door behind him.
Three shouts of outrage follow us. I cringe. Oh no. The men dart after us.
“Where are we going?” I cry.
“…I don’t know!” Tahoe cries.
We’re nearing the castle. “There!” I point. There’s a small hole that leads into the servant’s quarters near the bottom of the palace.
I hear one of the mercenaries shout, “That way!”
We slip into the tunnel and race down until we emerge into a central room lined with doors. “In there!” I suggest, and we enter the farthest door.
Marlee is sitting on the edge of her bed with wide eyes. I grin at her awkwardly and wave. “Hey Marlee.”
I glance at Tahoe. He leans against the wall with an anxious expression. “Uh… this is Tahoe?”
He blinks and looks at me. “Oh, yeah. That’s me.” He flashes a nervous smile.
“What is going on?” Marlee swims toward us.
“We’re being chased by big guys, hirelings I think.”
“SHhh!” Tahoe interjects.
We go silent as he puts his ear against the door. Marlee rushes up next to him.
“They sent guards after you!” She says. “Quick! Get into the closet, crowd near the top.”
“Wha-” Marlee drags me and Tahoe to the closet and pushes us in. “Don’t make a sound.” She says.
I pull myself to the top of the pitch-black closet with difficulty. I’m not sure, but I think Tahoe is doing the same. It’s a big closet, with a lot of clothes for three servants, and a shelf somewhere. I know because I hit my head on it on the way up.
“Can you trust her?” Tahoe whispers.
“What?” I ask.
“She is your friend right? You trust her to not give us away?”
I nod. “I trust her.”
At least I hope she doesn’t give us away. I have a feeling those men are pretty mad about what I did. I listen and someone pounds on the door.
“Yes?” Marlee says.
“We need to check your room.” A man’s voice says. I squint. I don’t think it’s one of the mercenaries.
“Why? Has something happened?”
“We were told two fugitives are somewhere in the castle. Runaways.”
“Oh my. Well, I haven’t seen anyone. They’re definitely not in this room at least.”
“Are you sure?”
The man hesitates, then says finally. “Alright. Excuse us for the interruption. Please lock your door, and alert a guard if you see them. They are supposed to be a boy of about 15, and a blonde maid around the same age. The boy is apparently a dangerous criminal.” I hear the guard and another man laugh. “But the people who gave us this information didn’t look like sweethearts either.”
I look towards Tahoe, I can just barely see him grin at me awkwardly through the dark.
Marlee thanks the guards and I hear her pull her door shut. “They’re gone, you can come out of there now, and Viv, big explanation.”
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