Chapter 1: Discoveries
The breezes that blew across the seas were a great relief to
many, as the heat of summer covered the earth. Sweethearts and families with
children traveled as far and as long as they needed to, hoping to reach the
seaside with its cool breezes and clear waters. Here a young child selected
pretty shells from the thick sand, bunching up her apron to hold them all.
There, a pair of sisters splashed water in one another’s faces, squealing with
delight. An older woman sighed dramatically as she allowed her young servant to
fan her, sending the sweet scent of roses from her perfume into the passing
Miles away, far out into such distant ocean that few land-dwellers had ever seen it, that rose scent caught the attention of a most peculiar person.
Averil sat up the moment he smelled something interesting. That particular scent, it didn’t exist in the ocean. It was sweet, but not sweet like candy. His flaming red hair blew in the breeze as he documented the smell, hoping he might find its source at a later time. The ends of his long turquoise tail curled ever so slightly, betraying his delight.
Slowly, he lay back down on the large rock he had chosen as a perch, placing his hands behind his head, watching lazily as the clouds above twisted and puffed in the wind.
“Did you smell that?” he asked aloud, turning to glance at his companion. At the base of his rock, a bright yellow fish striped with blue poked its head out of the water, shaking its head. A coral-colored bag sat on the rock, bulging with mysterious contents.
“I never get to smell anything fun,” the fish whined, prompting a chuckle from the young merman who relaxed above him.
A smile spread across Averil’s face.
“You never stay still long enough to notice when the good smells are around,” he replied casually. “You worry too much, Flounder. No one’s gonna catch us.”
The waters below lapped more vigorously against the rock as the offended Flounder crossed his fins.
“You say that every time,” he said, his gaze darting around like dragonflies on a pond, searching almost frantically for any sign of having been followed. “Can we go home soon?”
Averil sighed, sitting up and scratching lazily at his messy red hair.
“Scuttle should be here soon, just be patient,” he said, his eyes traveling to and fro beneath the clouds. His seagull friend was not usually quite so difficult to track down, there must have been something interesting going on somewhere. Either that or he was lost again.
Averil understood Flounder’s frustration. He was just the worrying type. He liked the surface as much as Averil did, but he could never stop fussing long enough to really appreciate it. He was such a guppy.
Just as he was about to give up, Averil spotted a dark speck in the sky, headed their way. He grinned and raised hand, waving it in the air so that Scuttle could see where they were.
“See? I told you so,” he snickered at Flounder. In one graceful motion, the young merman used his powerful tail to flip himself off the rock, diving back into the refreshing waters. When he resurfaced, there was a ruffle-feathered seagull perched on the rock, staring at him.
“Scuttle, check this out,” Averil said, jumping right in. He didn’t have much time, plus he was excited to show off his treasures. He dug around in the pink bag, removing at long last a strange shiny object. It was long, maybe a little longer than Averil’s handspan, and thin. One end was all one piece, but the other end had been twisted into three different pointy bits. Scuttle’s eyes went wide as he snatched it out of Averil’s hands.
“I haven’t seen one of these babies in a very long time,” he guffawed, his feathers all pointing up at odd angles. He tapped the object against the rock, producing a slight ringing sound that sent shivers up Averil’s spine.
“What is it?” Averil breathed, his eyes transfixed on the shiny mystery object.
The seagull leaned back on his webbed feet, holding the object out for display.
“It’s a dinglehopper,” he said dramatically. Averil and Flounder both went bright-eyed with excitement.
“Humans use’em to straighten out their hair, you know,” Scuttle continued, strutting round in a small circle. He raised the three-pointed end and twirled it around in his crown feathers, poofing them up spectacularly. Flounder chose not to mention the few feathers that fell free of Scuttle’s head completely.
“Seems odd,” Averil commented. He reached out and took the dinglehopper back, turning it over and over in his hands, examining it for the umpteenth time. Scuttle, meanwhile, busied himself taking his own look into Averil’s treasure bag. He emerged holding the only other new discovery.
It was a strange brown curved thing, large as a starfish on one end, but it shrunk narrower and narrower as it went on until it was no larger than the tip of Averil’s little finger. It looked like some kind of scooper, but it wasn’t hollowed out on the large end. Averil and Flounder had marveled over it for quite some time, with no grand ideas as to its purpose.
Scuttle waved it around emphatically.
“Now this is rare, this is very very unusual,” he said matter-of-factly. “A genuine snarfblack like this is hard to come by.”
“Snarfblack?” Averil repeated, raising his brows. “What does it do?”
He and Flounder leaned in closer to look as Scuttle explained.
“Well you see, this goes back to the time when humans used to be so boring that all they thought to do was just sit around and stare at each other,” Scuttle lectured. Flounder and Averil exchanged doubtful glances, but they let the seagull continue.
“So they invented this here snarfblack to make beautiful music!” Scuttle declared. “Allow me to demonstrate.”
He raised the smaller end of the snarfblack to his beak and went to blow through it, but the silly bird wasn’t smart enough to inhale first. He wound up inhaling whatever was inside the snarfblack, which looked like thick, black steam. Scuttle coughed and choked, earning some well-deserved laughs from him companions.
Good-natured as he was, Averil couldn’t just watch the poor guy suffer. Chuckling to himself, he leaned forward and patted Scuttle on the back, helping him clear his lungs of the gunk. When he had stopped spluttering and coughing, Scuttle flopped to the ground and just wheezed helplessly.
Flounder couldn’t for the life of him contain his giggles.
“You okay, Scuttle?” Averil asked, unable to keep himself from grinning as well.
The seagull couldn’t quite muster a reply, but he held out a wing and formed his feathers into a thumbs-up.
Reassured of his friend’s safety, Averil sank down in the water until only his shoulders and neck were visible. He stretched out his tail, maneuvering onto his back so that he could float in the water with the edge of the rock as a pillow. He continued turning the dinglehopper around in one hand, just fiddling with it absentmindedly as he stared at the endless sky above them. The clouds were beginning to thin out, spreading themselves flat like a coral fan. Though it was still afternoon, the sun was beginning to drift off toward the west. Averil sighed, thinking that if he didn’t get home soon, his father was going to have some serious words for him.
King Triton ruled over all the seas, but the surface world was beyond his control. Humans were alien to him, vicious monsters that inhabited horror stories. Averil’s own mother, the late Queen, had fallen to the humans’ destructive nature. That being as it was, it only made sense that the Sea King would be so mistrustful of the world above. However, that meant very little when it come to the youngest of his sons.
Averil was not only the youngest of the princes, but also the most curious and adventurous. He was always looking for some new scrape to get into. The palace staff always laughed and blamed it on his bright red hair. He looks just like the Queen, they all whispered to themselves. Must have gotten her free spirit. Averil found the surface world fascinating, no matter what his father thought.
Thank Poseidon I’m not the crown prince, Averil thought to himself wryly, watching the clouds slowly dissipate in the stronger wind. Or this would be a whole lot harder.
He sighed slowly, trying to let out all of his dark thoughts. He spent most of his days and nights at the sea palace, being overshadowed constantly by his condescending father and older brothers. This was the surface. His father couldn’t bother him here.
Averil shot up, his eyes wider than ever before. All of the color had drained from his face, and he didn’t even appear to notice when his tail awkwardly splashed back into the water, sending sprinkles at both Scuttle and Flounder in the process.
“The crown prince,” he whispered, nearly too shocked to move. “The coronation ceremony. My father is going to kill me.”
Flounder’s jaw hit the water. Averil snatched his treasure bag, stuffing the snarfblack and dinglehopper back into it, as securely as he could when moving so quickly. Both merman and fish moved so fast they were but blurs on the horizon.
“See you later, Scuttle!” Averil called over his shoulder, before diving down into the waters that were his home.
“We are in so much trouble,” Flounder fretted.
“Shut up and swim,” Averil answered gruffly, his tail aching with the effort of swimming so quickly. It took all of his willpower not to speed up even faster, leaving Flounder in the bubbles. He was tempted to leave him, but Averil knew that later he would be grateful for his friend’s company. The Sea King was a formidable man, but it was always a little bit better if you weren’t the only poor schmuck standing in front of him.
Please don’t let me have ruined it, Averil prayed silently as he swam. Not again. Not this time. Please.
“I don’t know what else to do with you, young man.”
Averil flinched at the tone in his father’s voice. He could feel Flounder trembling behind him, that great lump of useless. Oh sure, he was a great support system.
“Dad, I’m sorry, I just-”
King Triton silenced his youngest son with a single look. He towered over him, his broad and muscled torso just daring him to say another word. Averil dropped his gaze to the sea floor, his face flushed with shame. He knew just how hot water he was in.
“This ceremony was the most important event of your brother’s life,” King Triton intoned, stretching out an arm to indicate his oldest son. The newly appointed Crown Prince Arren, eldest son of the great Sea King, hovered next to the throne, his expression as dark as his father’s. He resembled Triton in physique, but for his blonde hair, which he kept shorn neatly just below his ears, his carefully trimmed beard, and his goldenrod-hued tail. He wore a gold circlet, to signify his rank as crown prince. His beady eyes were narrowed in anger.
“Well, until he actually gets crowned King,” Averil muttered, which earned him a glare from both his father and brother simultaneously.
Arren leaned forward.
“So what was so important that you had to miss the coronation, little brother?” he asked icily. “It must have been something very special.”
Though his heart was beating so loud he thought his brother could probably hear it, Averil managed to calm his breathing. Without looking up, he answered as smoothly as he could.
“I was trying to finish my official gift to the Crown Prince, Father,” Averil said apologetically. “I must have lost track of the time.”
He reached into his treasure bag, extracting an exquisitely carved coral flute. It wasn’t entirely a lie- the flute was supposed to be his gift to Arren. It was just supposed to be given to him that morning, at the ceremony. Averil had finished making it a week ago.
Arren eyed the flute suspiciously, but when Averil offered it to him, he accepted it with a gruff nod.
King Triton, too, looked unsatisfied with Averil’s answer, but he had no proof, and no reason to ask for more information.
“This is good work,” Arren observed, turning the coral flute over in his hands, no doubt searching for some sign that it was a fake, or a ploy. A maker’s mark, maybe. Anything to prove that Averil might be lying. Unfortunately, he found nothing.
“I’m glad you like it, brother,” Averil replied cautiously. He turned his gaze back to the King.
“May I go now?” he asked testily. “I think I have some other brothers to apologize to.”
The Sea King exchanged a glance with his oldest son, then nodded.
“Do not let it happen again,” King Triton warned. “This is your last chance.”
Taking note of the warning, Averil nodded, and got out of there as swiftly as he could. He reached the outer corridor and let out a long sigh of relief. Flounder, his silent shadow, copied the action.
“I thought we were dead,” Flounder mumbled, still shaking a bit.
“You thought so?” Averil accused. “I’m the one who would have been shark bait.”
This line of banter continued nearly all the way to Averil’s room, which he shared with not one, but all of his brothers. That, of course, meant that the moment he floated inside, he was accosted with no mercy.
The blue-green coral walls spun as Averil felt himself being immediately tackled to the floor.
“What the shellfish, Averil?”
“The coronation ceremony, really?”
“I knew you weren’t the sharpest, but to miss that-”
“Guys!” Averil hollered, desperate for fresh water. It was hard to breathe with that many people piled on top of you. Especially when half of them were twice your size. For the thousandth time, Averil cursed being one of the only mermen in his family not to be blessed with the mer-hunk gene.
Slowly, Averil’s brothers backed off, but none of them ceased their questioning. It took two more yells to get them to stop all talking at once.
“Yes, I know, I screwed up,” Averil sighed, exasperated. He flopped onto his bed, dropping his treasure bag on the floor, and buried his face unceremoniously in his pillow.
“That’s putting it lightly,” came the dry voice of his brother Amery from the next bed over. Amery was the fourth of the brothers, younger twin of Antony, the third (though they looked little alike). Bookish and unsociable, Amery had no interest in most family politicking, and was generally content to remain alone to read. His tail was a dark russet red hue, which paired nicely with his short, sandy hair.
“Oh, shut it,” Averil snapped, rolling over so he could face the masses. They all stared at him, every single one but Amery (he was multitasking, a book in one hand).
Allan, the deep blue-tailed second oldest, simply frowned at his younger brother. He was unimpressed with Averil’s behavior, but was too kindhearted to truly scold him. Allan was usually the gentle calm that helped to counter Arren’s temperamental dispostion. He also happened to be a physical dead ringer for the Sea King, but for his long hair being auburn rather than white.
Antony, the third brother and elder twin to Amery, looked discomforted. His deep orange tail flicked back and forth nervously, and he had his arms crossed over his barrel chest to keep from fidgeting. His curly red-gold locks shielded his eyes, making him hard to read. Like Amery, Antony wasn’t the type to get involved with family politics. He was the good-natured sort, with a simple mind which lent itself better to completing tasks than contemplating them.
Ansel, the fifth, and Alec, the sixth, both struggled not to outright laugh at their youngest brother. Ansel was the trickster who lived to watch other people be chastised. Half the time that was his motivation to play tricks, as he had just enough dashing good looks to never be suspect. Ansel could charm his way out of anything, and his wavy black hair and smoldering brown eyes made him the perfect liar. His pale yellow tail drifted back and forth slowly as his shoulders shook with suppressed laughter.
Alec, too, fought to hide his amusement, but he was also the first one to offer any kindness. He reached out and placed a rough hand on Averil’s shoulder.
“Don’t sweat it, bro,” he advised, flipping his long brown bangs out of his eyes. For all he complained of them, everyone knew Alec loved his bangs. Just as much as he loved the unseemly rattail he wore at the base of his skull, and the earring in his right ear. He was a rebel from the top of his head to the tip of his olive-green tail. Alec was the closest in both age and love to the youngest, a fact for which Averil was grateful. Without Alec, he would have been a much more miserable prince.
“Dad will get over it eventually,” Allan added calmly. “But I suggest you do some serious groveling when Arren gets in here. He was livid.”
“I’m sure he was,” Averil replied, rolling his eyes. “Just like every other day.”
“Averil,” Allan reprimanded with a sigh. “You may not get along, but you still owe Arren your respect. As Crown Prince-”
Averil cut him off with a desperate growl.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s the Crown Prince, we know already!” he snarled, restlessly running his fingers through his hair. “Can’t he just leave the rest of us alone? It’s his problem, not mine!”
The suddenly silent room regarded Averil with a mixture of sympathy and quiet awe. While he wasn’t the loudest of the bunch (that title fell easily to Alec), Averil was the most bluntly outspoken. He was never afraid to say what he felt, regardless of consequence. It was both a blessing and a curse.
Averil sank back onto his bed, scowling. He knew he was being unfair, but at that moment, he couldn’t bring himself to care. He had known how important the coronation ceremony was to his family. He hadn’t meant to forget about it, it was an accident. They were all acting like he did it on purpose, though.
They act like I go out of my way trying to find ways to screw up, he thought angrily. Truly, that concern was more valid with either Ansel or Alec than with Averil. Ansel would have thought missing the coronation was funny. Alec would have skipped because he didn’t want to be there, and made a big fuss about it. Yet it was Averil who got the brunt of the family’s displeasure.
Bubbles drifted round the room as the brothers carefully dissipated. From the look on Averil’s face, this wasn’t the moment to push him. Amery returned to his book. Ansel floated lazily back to his own bed, grabbing a magazine from under his pillow. Alec poked Antony in the side out of boredom, starting a playful wrestling match between them. Soon they were nothing but an olive and orange blur.
Slowly, Allan lowered himself onto Averil’s bed. At first he said nothing, but the frequent mediator was experienced enough to know how to deal with each of his brothers. King Triton himself said that it would be a sad day if Allan ever left Atlantica, and advised Arren often to listen to his closest brother’s counsel. He was very wise, even at such a young age.
“Averil,” Allan said quietly, his auburn locks settling loosely across his shoulders, just as Triton’s did. “You didn’t intend to miss the ceremony today, did you.”
For all it was phrased as a question, it wasn’t. Both mermen knew it.
“You know you can’t keep up like this,” Allan continued softly. He reached over and laid a heavy hand on Averil’s shoulder. The youngest merprince tried to jerk himself out of Allan’s hold, but the elder’s grip was strong.
Averil was compelled to turn, meeting his brother’s eyes. His calm blue gaze was firm, but not harsh.
“No one expects perfection from you,” Allan said seriously. “But you’re sixteen years old. That’s old enough to behave like a true prince of Atlantica. That means no missing ceremonies, no forgetting the rules.”
Averil’s face flushed red as he listened.
“I didn’t ask to be a prince,” Averil muttered, his voice nearly lost in his pillow.
“No, you didn’t,” Allan conceded. “But then, none of us did. Arren didn’t ask to be Crown Prince either. We all have our roles to fulfill, whether we want them or not, and that includes you.”
When Averil continued to scowl at his pillow, Allan gave up. There would be no getting through to him while he was still so upset. It was all about saying what you could before he decided to shut you out.
“Think about it,” Allan advised. He turned and flicked his tail, wandering off to go try his luck with Antony, who now held Alec in a merciless headlock. Time to break it up before Alec’s rapidly reddening face exploded.
Averil watched his brothers out of the corner of his eye. Every one of them overshadowed him, it was the curse of being the youngest. Still, not one of them knew about his frequent trips to the surface. That was one secret that the young merprince had managed to keep all for himself. It was his refuge, the one place where he felt truly comfortable. The warmth of the sun and the expanse of the open sky took away all of his worries. When he lay on that rock, soaking in the sunlight, he was free.
At least there was one good thing to remember about that day. Averil smiled to himself, glancing down at his treasure bag that lay on the floor. He knew just what to do with his new discoveries.