Chapter 2: Rescue
The hours before dinner were tense. Dinner itself was ten
times worse. Averil could feel every one of his family members surreptitiously
staring at him, as if he couldn’t feel their condescension anyway. King Triton
said nothing to his youngest son, speaking only to his right-hand crab,
Sebastien, and the two eldest princes. That was no surprise.
Generally speaking, Triton wasn’t the most talkative of mermen, and when it came to his sons, he was even more silent. Since the death of the Queen, the King’s heart had been cold, and the young princes felt that freeze up close. As Averil was the most similar to Queen Athena in looks and personality, it was his relationship with his father that had suffered the most.
Triton bonded well with his eldest sons, who had been old enough to truly understand the tragedy of their mother’s death. Arren and Allan were enough like Triton that they understood one another easily. Antony and Amery were more different, but they didn’t seem to mind. Amery didn’t want to be close to anyone in the first place, and Antony understood that his glass-half-full mentality reminded them all of Queen Athena. It was something he had come to terms with, in a way that Averil had not.
Ansel, Alec, and Averil were the outcasts, the youngest, and farthest from their father’s supposedly loving gaze. Ansel chose to spend his time playing jokes and pranks. He laughed it all off, preferring to make his own happiness in the void family bonding had left. To the naked eye, Ansel didn’t require firm parenting, and was fine on his own.
Alec was the rebellious delinquent child. He was hauled up before Triton more than any of them, for a variety of reasons. Triton had more than once threatened to disown him. Yet he never did, and Alec never stopped his misbehavior. Averil suspected that Alec caused such trouble purely for the purpose of capturing his father’s attention, but no force in the sea could convince Alec to admit it.
That left Averil, the daydreamer, the adventurer, the questioner. He rarely went out of his way to earn his father’s wrath, the way Alec and Ansel did, but the behavior of his two closest brothers had cast a shadow on Averil as well. Small things, like being late to dinner or asking why they couldn’t go to the surface, wore on Triton’s patience. It didn’t help that Averil was only sixteen. No father takes his son seriously at sixteen, especially not a single father with six other children and a kingdom to rule besides.
Averil would have been content to be ignored, but alas, it was not to be. Crown Prince Arren kept the watchful eye on his brothers that his father could not spare. Sometimes it was like having two fathers.
The dinner hour passed in near-silence. Averil’s hands were fidgety, tapping restlessly on the coral table. It earned him enough glares to assure that when he asked to leave the table, release was granted immediately.
Hoping to get out of the palace before any of his brothers had the chance to ask where he was going, Averil swam at top speed back to their room. He grabbed his treasure bag out from under his bed and took off, out the window and into the dark, open sea.
The water got cooler the further he drifted from home, but Averil didn’t mind. He was headed for his grotto, which felt more like home anyway.
“Flounder,” Averil called softly as he approached the grotto’s entrance, and was pleased to see the small striped fish appear from the tall seaweed surrounding the large coral lump that covered the grotto.
“Took you long enough,” Flounder grumbled, but the smile on his face gave him away. Averil ignored the jab, and reached for the large stone that blocked the grotto entrance. He pulled it back, leaving just enough room from Flounder to get by, then zipped inside as quickly as he could before the stone fell back into place.
The grotto was a small cavity in the coral and stone that covered the sea floor. It had coral on most of its sides, growing in convenient ebbs that provided shelving for all of Averil’s treasures. Averil and Flounder had painstakingly moved the large stone to hide the entrance, and since then, the grotto had served as their secret clubhouse. No one beyond the two of them knew it even existed.
The natural shelves were covered in treasures and rescued items that Averil had collected over time. Many of them he had never seen before, and had needed some explanation from Scuttle. Thingamabobs and doohickeys, whatchamajigs, gadgets, gizmos- Averil had it all. Blue and white patterns danced across the walls and floor, reflecting the moonlight that shone down through the small opening that served as the grotto’s skylight.
Grinning triumphantly, Averil drew the snarfblack and the dinglehopper from his treasure bag, placing them carefully on the shelf next to his most recently acquired whatchamacallit.
“Another salvage mission, perfectly executed,” he declared, admiring his collection. “I tell you what, Flounder, I could start a museum with all this stuff if my father wouldn’t have me executed for collecting it all in the first place.”
“You got that right,” Flounder replied. He let out a sigh, and sank down to rest on the large rock that jutted out in the grotto’s center, providing a place to sit.
“Hey Averil?” he asked tentatively, as the young merman pondered his next move.
“Yeah?” Averil answered quietly.
“Do you think your dad’s ever going to understand why you collect all this stuff?”
The little fish’s voice was hesitant, as if he wasn’t sure he should ask such a loaded question. Truth be told, Averil didn’t entirely appreciate it, but this was his friend. Flounder had stood by him when no one else did, and he at least deserved an answer.
“I doubt it,” he said.
A loud crashing sound from behind Averil interrupted and caused both merman and fish to jump almost out of their scales. Averil whipped around to find none other than his father’s major domo, the stuffy and uptight crustacean Sebastien. One of his many legs was caught in a doohickey trap, which seemed to have dragged him off the shelf that lay just above. The shelf’s contents had followed, covering the little crab with a pile of Averil’s collectables. His eyes were narrowed in disdain.
Pushed to his limit that day, the ordinarily even-tempered Averil promptly lost his composure. He scooped the crab off the ground in a single motion, bringing him close to his face. He made no effort to be gentle about it, either.
“What are you doing here, Sebastien?” Averil growled, in no mood to be pleasant.
Sebastien eyed the room, clearly beyond comprehending what he was seeing. He seemed too frustrated to even form a coherent sentence at first.
“Prince Averil, you- this- what is all of this nonsense?!” Sebastien demanded.
“This is my collection,” Averil answered coolly. His free hand curled into a fist.
“If your father knew about this-” the crab began.
“You’re not going to tell him, are you?” Flounder fretted.
“You can’t tell him,” Averil said, his tone deadly serious. “Not my father, not my brothers, not anyone, you hear?”
Sebastien matched Averil’s angered expression with one of his own.
“If you think, young man, that I would keep secrets from His Majesty, then you are sorely-”
“Sebastien, come on!” Averil argued desperately. “You have to understand! I-”
All three of them froze as a dark shadow passed over the skylight, temporarily plunging the grotto into darkness. Averil looked up, and saw only a vague shape from what looked like the distant surface. In the sudden silence, he heard a boom and a crackle sound. Then again, boom, crackle.
“Whoa,” Flounder whispered. “What is it?”
“Don’t know,” Averil replied, awed.
All argument forgotten, Averil dropped Sebastien to the floor and raced for the entrance stone. He shoved it aside as quickly as he could, searching overhead for that shadowy shape. Flounder right behind him, the young merman swam rapidly for the surface. He ignored Sebastien’s desperate calls for him to come back.
The moment he hit the surface, Averil shook out his dripping hair so he could see. The boom and crackle got louder, the sound leading Averil to his quarry.
The starry night sky lit up at the sound of the boom, bright colors exploding in the air like the lightning during a storm. Averil was the only one in his family to have ever seen the lightning. This, however, was much more interesting.
The lights illuminated the dark shape, a large ship sailing across the water. It was big, larger than many of the shipwrecks Averil had scoured for treasures. He had never seen one all in one piece before. His eyes wide, Averil was so amazed that he didn’t even hear Sebastien calling him back again.
Averil dove into the water, skipping through the waves as the dolphins did, swimming in for a closer look. As he approached the ship, he noticed that its sides were covered in extra beams, which could provide a man handholds, were he strong enough. There was also a hole, just below the deck railing.
The temptation was too much. Even knowing that he risked death, Averil couldn’t let this opportunity pass. He got as close as he could to the ship’s broad starboard side, and carefully worked his way up the side, using his arms to pull himself up. The beams were slippery with water and algae, but it wasn’t so bad. He only slipped once.
As carefully as he could manage, Averil folded his tail onto the second-highest beam, which gave him a perch to look through the hole at the ship’s deck. No sooner had he become situated, though, when a sound from above startled him.
A dark-haired human girl appeared at the railing, making Averil’s face go white with shock. He had never seen a human so close before, let alone a girl. Any moment she was going to see him. His heart was beating so fast he thought it might fail. Quickly, he had to get back to the water. But any motion and she would definitely see him!
Trapped, Averil just held as still as possible, praying to Poseidon that she would not see him.
Fortune was on his side. The lady seemed as distracted as could be, staring out into the open ocean. Under her breath, she hummed softly, as the wind blew through her long black hair. Her eyes were the same pale blue as the sky in the daytime. She wore all white, a long covering that hid her legs from view. Her voice was low for a female, a distinct contralto. She sang no words, only hummed a lyricless tune in a repetitive pattern. She started with an F, then drifted through G and A, followed by a surprising low C. She always seemed to lose it after that, trailing off into silence, only to begin again moments later at the beginning again. Averil wondered if she was aware of the sound she made at all. Her eyes were locked on the distant ocean, watching the waves rise and fall.
He couldn’t look away, not if he’d tried.
Her skin was pale as ivory, her hair soaking in the blue-white moonlight. She rested her arms against the railing, propping up her head on one hand.
Averil felt like he couldn’t breathe. Suddenly a second person joined the lady, blocking Averil’s view and interrupting her song. He was an older gentleman, dressed in all black.
“Please, Princess Erryn, you must go belowdeck,” the man whined. “It is not appropriate for a young lady to wander about the deck like this!”
The girl sighed.
“You know how I feel about being appropriate, Grimsby,” she said, her low, musical voice ringing through the air, though she spoke rather softly. “I refuse to spend our entire voyage sitting in my cabin being bored. We’re nearly home anyway, what does it matter?”
The old man- Grimsby –sniffed.
“All the more reason for you to return below, my lady,” he insisted. “You must pack your things.”
“I’m already packed,” Erryn answered. The wind from the sea picked up, blowing her lovely hair into disarray.
“But my lady, if you do not follow the rules of decorum, you will never find an eligible suitor!”
With a dramatic sigh, the princess tore herself from the ship’s rail, grumbling about servants who didn’t mind their own business. Droplets appeared on the deck as rain began to fall from overhead.
“I don’t care about suitors,” the princess half-shouted, dragging her servant away to talk with him more privately.
Averil inhaled sharply, with half a mind to call out, but the ship bucked in the rising waves. The momentary lapse of judgment vanished, and the young merprince clapped a hand over his own mouth.
He had almost called out to her that she should stay. He had almost spoken to a human. His father would kill him if he knew, as would any of his brothers. It was ridiculous. This whole situation was ridiculous. But somehow, Averil couldn’t bring himself to look at that girl as the murderous villain humans were portrayed to be in the merworld. She was beautiful, and her voice was as good as any siren he had ever met. Surely this beautiful human princess was the epitome of all things good in the world.
The booming and crackling of the colored lightning above the ship was nothing compared to the very real lightning that suddenly flickered through the sky overhead. The clouds had formed a dark gray swirling mass above them, dropping rain and lightning on the ill-prepared sailors. The sea began to churn faster and higher, waves now reaching as high as Averil’s perch.
“Hurricane a’comin!” came the cry from the lookout’s nest, high above the deck.
Immediately, the ship’s deck was plunged into chaos. Men in striped shirts ran every which way, grabbing ropes and pulling them tighter. Averil searched for a better handhold in the shrieking wind, but saw none. He pressed himself tightly against the ship’s side. Hitting the water at this distance would be painful.
“Protect the princess!” someone on deck shouted. Averil tried to catch sight of her, but he saw only men. The rain picked up, making it difficult to see in any direction. The waves rolled higher and higher. Averil fought to hold on, but he could definitely feel his hold slipping.
Lightning crackled once more, a harsh sound that made Averil’s hair stand on end. Light flared above him.
When he looked up, Averil saw that the large white mass on top of the ship, the one that caught the wind for them to sail with, had been engulfed in some glowing orange expanse. It grew, eating the white thing, then moved on to the deck itself. Suddenly Averil was warm, warmer than he ever wanted to be. His scales and skin felt dry, even in all the rain. Something about that orange mass was not right.
The orange moved closer and closer. It flickered at the edges, like lightning, sending heat everywhere it went. Soon, Averil would have to jump, lest the orange mass reach him.
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than the entire ship jolted forcefully, having collided with something. Averil’s hold gave out, and he knew he had only seconds to get out of there before he fell. Instead of letting himself fall uncontrollably, Averil used his powerful tail propel himself into a dive, hitting the water arms first. It hurt, as he predicted, but the rushing cool water felt fantastic against his heated skin. His lungs, too, thanked him for the fresh water to breathe. Air didn’t hurt merpeople, but it wasn’t as comfortable as water.
Averil resurfaced quickly, eyes darting around. The ship had become lodged against a large jetty rock, a sharp, jagged thing that protruded from the ocean like a spear. The ship’s crew were mostly in the water, having been thrown overboard on impact, as Averil had been. The orange mass covered the entire deck, glowing like the sun.
“The princess!” someone shouted from a small lifeboat.
“She’s lost!” a second voice answered from the water. “No way she survived!”
The roar of the storm ate their voices, as Averil swam desperately through the wreckage and debris that littered the waves. He saw no sign of the princess, and wondered if she had, indeed, been lost to the storm.
Out of the corner of his eye, a flash of white caught Averil’s attention. It was the white dress of the princess. She clung to a piece of drifting debris, but quickly sank beneath the waves.
Without hesitation, Averil dove after her. He moved swiftly beneath her, hooking his arm around her waist, swimming hard for the surface. He broke through, searching for any sign of the ship’s crew. He saw only wreckage in every direction.
Land, he thought frantically. I’ve got to get her to land.
His turquoise tail whipping hard through the swirling seawater, Averil set off in the direction of the closest land he could think of. He had seen it only once before, at a distance, when looking for Scuttle. He only prayed that he could find it again.
Hang on, princess.
It was a long, hard swim, even for a merman who wasn’t burdened with the weight of an extra unconscious person. Still, no one could say that Averil was anything less than determined. After locating both Flounder and (to his surprise) Sebastien, Averil had managed to get the human princess to the shore. Still, her unconscious state worried him.
He laid her down in the soft sand as gently as he could, but with his tail on land, it was still a quite clumsy. Sebastien and Flounder watched from the water with bated breath, as the sun began to rise in the distance.
“Is she dead?” Flounder asked nervously.
Averil peered closely at his comatose companion.
“I don’t think so,” he said hesitantly, “-but I don’t know how to tell for sure.”
Her skin was pale, but not cold to the touch. She was warm. That was good, right? For humans? Weren’t they supposed to be warm?
Averil reached forward and brushed her long black hair out of her face. As he did so, he felt a slight puff of air against his wrist. Quickly he leaned closer to her mouth, and found that what he had felt was indeed her breath.
“She’s breathing,” he said, relieved.
“Good for you,” grumbled Sebastien. “Now let’s go home before the king decides that we are all dead.”
“Hang on a minute, will you?” Averil growled. “I want to get a good look.”
His eyes were transfixed by her beauty. In the glow of the rising sun, she looked almost peaceful, for all she had nearly drowned in a shipwreck. Her clothes were a mess, and her hair looked like seaweed...but she was beautiful. Averil wished she were awake, so she would hum that song again. The one she couldn’t finish.
Before he even realized what he was doing, Averil was humming the song as he remembered it, softly, the way she did. F, G, A, C.
Singing was one of those skills you didn’t tend to talk about much in a family full of boys. If his brothers knew how good Averil’s voice really was, they would never let him hear the end of it. Not only that, but his voice was high, more melodic than most mermen, and therefore a prime target for brotherly jokes. So while Averil did enjoy singing, he rarely bothered to do it.
That didn’t stop him now.
Averil added lyrics to Erryn’s song, just blurting out whatever came to mind.
“What would I give to live where you are,” he sang quietly, barely even audible. “What would I give to stay here beside you...what would I do to see you, smiling at me....”
He let the words go, not sure what possessed him to say such things. He knew what he would have sung next, though. It echoed in his head like a dream, as if he had wanted to say it all along.
Where would we walk,
where would we run
If we could stay all day in the sun
Just you and me, and I could be
Part of your world
Below him, she stirred ever so slightly. Her eyes twitched, then slowly slid open.
Averil froze. He knew he should escape, quickly, get out of there before she saw him- but it was like something had stuck him to that spot, unable to look away from her sky blue eyes.
A loud, barking sound broke Averil’s trance, and he sat up quickly. Panicked by the sound, he dove for the water, hoping beyond hope that she hadn’t seen his tail.
Breathing heavily, Averil ducked behind the closest rock. The barking sound was closer now, followed by a frantic voice. It sounded like the princess’ servant, the one who had been bothering her about suitors.
“Princess Erryn, thank heavens! We thought for sure you had perished in the storm! Such a dreadful business, shipwrecks. Now come along dear, we must get you inside and dried off-”
“No, Grim, wait a minute.”
“There was....did you see anyone, just now?”
“What? I saw no one, my lady...”
“There was a boy. There was a boy here, just now, he rescued me! Grimsby, didn’t you see him?”
Averil’s breath caught in his throat. For a moment, his heart stopped beating completely. She had seen him after all.
“My lady, I think perhaps you were hallucinating? Seawater can do that, you know. Now let’s get back to the castle.”
“No, Grim, he was real, I know he was. He was- he was singing. Grimsby, you have to believe me, I couldn’t have swum this far on my own! Someone rescued me.”
“Er...yes, well, I suppose. But I don’t see anyone around, so there’s nothing to be done.”
Grimsby sounded more irritable than anything. Clearly he didn’t really believe her.
Averil risked a very quick peek around the rock, and saw Erryn’s searching gaze. Searching for him. His face stung as she turned away at last, her eyes downcast. She allowed Grimsby to lead her away, but she kept looking back. It was obvious that she hadn’t thought her rescuer a hallucination at all. She wasn’t going to give up.
For several minutes, Averil made no sound. He closed his eyes and just took a moment, trying to sort out what was going on in his head.
Slowly, his breathing returned to normal. His short hair fluttered in the wind, dried out by so much time in the sun.
Flounder sounded worried. He always sounded worried. That guppy.
“I’m fine,” Averil mumbled. “Let’s just- let’s just go.”
Flounder didn’t drop it.
“Averil, are you okay?” he asked, more persistently.
After a moment of silence, Averil opened his eyes. Surprisingly, a small smile appeared on his face.
“I’m fine,” he repeated, softer this time.
“Now that we are all fine, let us go!” Sebastien interjected. “And no one breathes a word of this to anyone, you got that? You don’t tell the king, I don’t tell the king, and maybe we can all make it out of this intact.”
With that, the trio dove beneath the surface once more.