Chapter 3: Secrets
Averil jumped a mile when he heard his name. He’d been so distracted that he hadn’t even heard Alec calling him. He was daydreaming again, laying on his stomach on his bed, fingers absently picking at a loose thread on his pillow.
“What is with you today?” his brother demanded. “It’s like you’re not even awake.”
Averil rubbed at his eyes.
“Sorry,” he apologized quickly. “What’s up?”
Alec rolled his eyes. He was beginning to wonder why he’d even asked Averil for his help in the first place. Ansel didn’t have Averil’s artistic eye, but at least he would have paid attention. Unfortunately, the older brothers were all doing princely things that day. Alec and Averil had chores too, but for now, they went undone.
Indicating his freshly-rearranged portion of the room, Alec repeated his query.
“I said, how does it look?” he asked. “I like the posters where they are, but something still feels weird about it.” Alec’s earring glinted in the light as he surveyed his work. He redecorated his bed area almost every other week, but he took it seriously every time.
Glancing over, Averil saw the problem right away.
“It’s the glowstone,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “You had it under the Aquanettes poster before, you said you liked how the light fell on it. Try moving that.”
He returned to his brooding position, again very focused on his pillow.
Surely enough, when Alec moved the glowstone as Averil suggested, he was immediately satisfied. He offered his brother a sarcastic round- of applause.
“Thank you,” he sneered. He raked a hand through his messy brunette locks, contemplating his next move. Clearly something was up with Averil. He was normally a daydreamer in his own little world, but this was a little much even for him. He hadn’t left their room all morning, which was strange considering how often he was begging to get out. It wasn’t hard to put the pieces together.
Alec dropped onto Averil’s bed, forcing his little brother to scoot over. Smirking, he leaned in close, hovering right next to Averil’s ear.
“So what’s her name?” he asked wickedly.
Averil’s eyes went wide. He glared at his pillow, refusing to meet Alec’s eyes.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered. “Get off my bed.”
Alec threw back his head and laughed, his suspicions confirmed.
“Come on, little brother, you can’t hide anything from me,” he drawled. “Your head is a million miles away. Either you’ve sustained some kind of brain damage while I wasn’t looking, or you met a girl.”
Averil growled under his breath.
“I said, get off my bed,” he snapped.
True to form, the ever-rebellious Alec simply grinned and leaned heavily on Averil’s back, putting almost his whole weight into it.
“Not until you tell me what’s going on,” he threatened, an evil glint in his slate-gray eyes.
All bets were off. In a single motion, Averil twisted round so he was on his back, swinging wildly at his brother. Alec laughed and caught Averil by the wrists, holding his squirming little brother at bay.
“Tell me,” he taunted. Averil shook his head in determination. He tried to slap Alec with his tail, but his brother had him pinned down rather well. Averil could barely move.
“Tell me,” Alec wheedled once more. “Come on, Averil, tell me what’s going on.”
“If I tell you, will you get off me?” Averil snarled.
Averil sighed, screwing his eyes shut tight. This was ridiculous, but if he was going to tell anyone....well, Alec was the least likely the cause problems. As a fellow troublemaker, Alec would never consciously betray him. That was more than could be said for any of his other brothers.
Averil took a deep breath.
“It’s not a- well, it is, but not- it’s not just a girl,” he mumbled. Alec released his wrists and sat back, listening intently. Still, Averil would not meet his eyes.
“There was a shipwreck,” Averil said carefully.
Alec raised a brow.
“That’s not so unusual,” he said, obviously disheartened. “They’re all over the ocean floor. Shark traps, most of them.”
“No,” Averil interrupted. “Not an old one. In the storm, the other night. I saw a ship go down. It hit the jetty, out past the kelp forest.”
Alec said nothing. He continued to stare at his brother. Averil was beating around the bush, he was sure. A shipwreck wasn’t such a big deal that he would be brooding over it. Plus, he had mentioned something about a girl.
The elder merprince’s mouth fell open.
“Averil, tell me you didn’t do what I think you did,” he whispered.
Slowly, Averil nodded.
“When the ship went down, there was a girl on board. A human girl.”
Averil’s voice was faint. He could barely believe it himself, honestly. But he had agreed to tell all.
“She- she would have drowned, Alec, I couldn’t leave her there. I couldn’t just sit back and watch her die.”
Rubbing at his temples, Alec muttered a few choice words under his breath. He certainly hadn’t learned those here at the palace.
“Remind me never to ask what’s up with you ever again,” he said. He pushed himself away from Averil’s bed and began silently pacing back and forth, his tailfin flipping about nervously.
“You get how bad this is, right?” Alec asked sharply. “If anyone- anyone finds out about this, you’re more than just sharkbait.”
“I know,” Averil answered miserably. “Trust me, I know.”
“You rescued a human from drowning.”
Alec ran his fingers through his hair again, like he always did when he was nervous, or thinking hard about something. Still, a grin spread across his face.
“I gotta hand it to you though,” he chuckled, “You sure don’t do anything halfway.”
Averil didn’t know whether or not that was a compliment.
“Just don’t tell anyone,” he emphasized. “You say a word to anybody about this, and I swear I will drag you down with me.”
“Deal,” he said firmly. He extended his hand, and the brothers shook on it. If they were lucky, that would be that.
Needless to say, they weren’t lucky.
Days later, when Sebastien first heard that the Sea King wished to see him, his thoughts immediately jumped to the worst case scenario. He knows, he thought, panicking. He knows, and there’s gonna be crab soup for dinner.
Still, no matter how afraid, one did not refuse King Triton an audience. There was little Sebastien could do to conceal his fears. When he first spoke, his voice came out high and squeaky. He cleared his throat and tried again, in a more normal tone.
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
The King beckoned his right-hand crab into the cavernous throne room, a deeply pensive look on his face.
“Sebastien,” he said, his rumbling voice echoing through the large room. “I’m concerned about Averil.”
Sweating bullets, Sebastien raised a brow.
Triton propped his head on his hand and stared thoughtfully into the distance.
“Arren tells me he’s been quiet lately,” Triton mused. “He doesn’t speak to anyone but Alec, and he’s been away from home during the day more than usual. His chores aren’t getting done. I’m beginning to think he’s more distracted than usual for a reason.”
The king narrowed his eyes at Sebastien, mysterious as always.
“You haven’t noticed anything, have you, Sebastien?”
The little crab gulped. His legs were knocking together, producing the most obnoxious rattling sound.
“W-w-well, I,” he began, but his mouth wouldn’t cooperate. He just knew that Triton was baiting him, waiting for him to say something completely wrong. The water in the room felt warmer than usual.
Triton grinned, all of a sudden. Sebastien’s eyes went wide.
“I’ve seen it before,” the king said with a chuckle. “His brothers were all just the same. I thought we were going to have to nail Antony’s fins to the floor when he was younger.”
Sebastien didn’t follow. If the King was knew that Averil was keeping secrets, then...why did he seem so happy about it? It wasn’t in his nature to be pleased by the misbehavior of his children. Triton liked to keep all of his ducks in a row. This laughter made no sense.
“Before, sir?” Sebastien asked weakly.
The Sea King’s shoulders were shaking with laughter. He twined his fingers through his long white beard, smiling as he had not done in a very long time.
“He’s in love with a girl,” Triton said matter-of-factly.
That was it for Sebastien’s resolve. He had no idea what was happening, but before he knew it, he had burst into frantic hysteria.
“I tried to stop him, sir!” he howled, burying his face in the king’s beard. He dropped to his knees- or the closest thing crabs have to knees –and wept with shame.
“He wouldn’t listen!” Sebastien bawled. “I told him to stay away from humans, they are bad, they are trouble-”
A sudden chill fell over the room. Where moments before, Sebastien had felt like he swam in a cooking pot, he now shivered from the king’s aura alone.
Triton was up in a splitsecond.
“Humans?” he demanded. “What about humans?”
Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no, backstroke, quickly, get out of there while you still can-
Sebastien smiled nervously.
“Humans?” he asked, as innocent as he could be. “Who said anything about...humans?...”
Just outside the throne room, a singular merfigure detached itself from the wall, all eavesdropping finished. Olive green fins flashed rapidly through the water, leaving trails of bubbles in their wake. If he moved quickly enough, he might be able to reach the grotto before Triton did.
Averil had just placed the last thingamajigger back in its box on his shelf when he heard the grating sound of the grotto stone being moved. He exchanged furtive looks with Flounder, then stared suspiciously at the stone. It could only be one other person. Only one other knew about the grotto and had the strength to move the stone.
Sure enough, Alec poked his head in a moment later. He looked completely out of breath, and very, very upset.
“He knows,” Alec panted. “He knows, you have to get this stuff out of here!”
As if struck by lightning, Averil shot into motion. It was his worst nightmare come to life. ‘He’ could only be their father, and if Triton found the grotto, they were all screwed. Both young mermen began throwing things into various bags and boxes, frantically trying to hide it all.
“It’s no use,” Averil hissed. “There’s too much of it!”
He turned to simply make a mad dash for it and run away from home, but found his path blocked.
King Triton looked nothing short of livid. He held his magical trident in one hand, as always, but for the first time in his life, Averil felt like the weapon might be aimed at him. Sebastien hovered just behind the sea king, trembling from head to toe. It wasn’t too difficult to figure out what had happened. It was not Alec who had sold him out.
“Dad-” Averil began, but his father cut him off.
“I consider myself,” Triton rumbled, “-a reasonable merman. I set certain rules, and I expect those rules to be obeyed.”
Averil flexed his tail nervously, and found a cold wall of coral shelving at his back. His father had him up against the wall, literally. Alec was slinking farther and farther into the shadows between the two, wanting to be as far from the splash zone as possible.
Averil tried again.
“Dad, I’m sorry, I just-”
“Is it true you rescued a human from drowning?”
“Dad, I had to!”
Triton’s gray eyes flashed with rage.
“Contact between the human world and the merworld is strictly forbidden, Averil, you know that!” the king bellowed. “Everyone knows that!”
“She would have died!” Averil protested, his face flushing red. He was getting more and more heated up by the second. Triton’s temper problems, it seemed, were hereditary.
Triton flapped a hand, just the way Averil always did, dismissing his words without a thought.
“One less human to worry about,” he growled.
“You don’t even know her,” Averil argued. His voice deepened as his anger bubbled closer and closer to the surface.
The King turned a disbelieving eye on his youngest (and most problematic) son.
“Know her?” he repeated, confounded. “I don’t have to know her, they’re all the same! Spineless, savage, harpooning fish-eaters, incapable of any feeling or-”
That was it. Averil’s hands balled into fists, and he squared his shoulders. He wasn’t afraid of his father, he was too angry to be afraid.
“Dad, I love her!” Averil hollered at the top of his lungs.
The room froze. Triton’s jaw fell open in complete and utter shock.
“No,” he breathed, his grip on his trident tightening. “Have you lost your senses completely? She’s a human! You’re a merman!”
Averil crossed his arms defiantly over his chest.
“I don’t care,” he spat.
It seemed that was the last straw. Triton raised his trident, which had begun to glow a soft, steady yellow.
“So help me, Averil,” Triton declared, “I am going to get through to you.”
He brandished the weapon at the wall behind Averil’s head, and suddenly the young merman realized exactly what his father was about to do.
“And if this is the only way, so be it!” Triton thundered.
A strong force collided with Averil from the side, knocking him to the ground just in time. Triton released a bolt of pure magic from the trident, smashing everything within two meters of where Averil had been only moments before.
It was all Alec could do to hold his little brother down for a few seconds. Averil struggled, and threw him off with a strength that only this much rage could have produced in him.
“Dad, stop!” Averil shouted, to no avail.
Triton continued his destructive blasting, destroying every remnant of humans he could see. Whatchamacallits exploded into dust, and doohickeys flew in every direction. Statuettes, figurines, pictures, everything exploded in a burst of golden light and bubbles.
Alec grasped desperately at Averil’s arms, trying to hold him out of the line of fire. The younger was screaming, his usually musical voice growing rough pleading for his father to stop. Triton was having none of it. He would not rest until the entire grotto was destroyed.
Everything went up in bubbles, even the one shelf dedicated to things Averil had made, rather than found. Only when all of the shelves were empty, chipped, and scarred did the Sea King end his violent rampage.
Averil went limp in his brother’s arms. He trembled from head to toe, from anger, shock, or both he did not know. Sensing the damage he had done- or perhaps just wanting to definitively have the last word –King Triton turned and slowly left them.
Tentatively, Alec deposited his brother on the sea floor. He didn’t think Averil had the strength even to keep himself afloat right that moment. He, Flounder, and the ashamed Sebastien looked on in pity as the youngest sea prince fought with his warring emotions. He shed no tears, but the haunted look on his face told them everything. This was too much for tears. Triton hadn’t just hurt his youngest son, he had nearly destroyed him.
“Averil,” Alec tried, but Averil shot him a deadly glare.
“Just get out,” he whispered, his voice hoarse from the yelling. “Go away, all of you.”
When none of them moved, he swung a fist at Alec, who blocked it easily.
“GET OUT!” Averil roared.
Though none of them believed leaving him alone was a good idea, all three of Averil’s companions acquiesced. They drifted out the door, casting many concerned looks back as they did so.
Averil drew up his tail close to his chest. He crossed his arms and buried his face in them, as if by hiding his face from the world, he could hide himself as well.
Outside, Alec knew he had no choice but to return to the palace. Triton wouldn’t accept his being there for much longer, no matter the circumstances. Plus, one prince in a world of trouble was enough for one day.
“Keep an eye on him,” he advised the other two. Flounder and Sebastien both nodded.
All of them knew that, heavy as their hearts now were, they couldn’t begin to fathom how Averil was feeling.
That was a very scary thought.
Every merchild in Atlantica grew up hearing the stories of the great and terrible sea-witch, Ursula. She was said to have been a palace resident, the highest of society, in the days before Triton became king. Some rumors even suggested that she might have secretly been Triton’s sister (though these were highly implausible and never confirmed or denied). She was banished from Atlantica for use of dark magic in an attempt to take the throne for herself. King Triton prevailed, defeating the evil witch, and she slunk away into the shadowy depths to lick her wounds.
Generally speaking, the sea-witch was a ghost story, a scary tale told to children to keep them from staying out late at night. ‘Be careful, or the sea-witch will get you!’
Still, no one knew that the threat they warned their children about in jest was in fact very real. No one would have suspected Ursula’s minions at first glance.
The pair of nearly-identical moray eels slithered through the water, slipping and twining around one another. Their heterochromatic white and yellow eyes surveyed the grotto, waiting for just the right moment. Their mistress would never forgive them if they ruined her plans with carelessness now.
“Poor child,” one of them hissed, causing the distraught young merman to look up in surprise. When he caught sight of them, Averil raised a wary brow in question.
“Poor, sweet child,” crooned the second. The eels circled Averil, sizing him up, their flexible bodies bending and twisting like ribbons through the water.
“He has a very serious problem.”
The pair of eels were as creepy as creepy could get. Their voices were low, enticing, yet reverberated through the grotto with a spine-tingling echo.
“If only there were something we could do,” intoned the first eel- or was it the second? The way they were twining around like that, it was impossible to tell. If he hadn’t been able to see them, Averil would have suspected one eel of talking to himself, rather than two.
The second eel grinned, a terrifying, fanged grin.
“But there is something,” it replied smoothly, the suggestion clearly planted.
Not in the mood for games after the loss of his collection, Averil crossed his arms and prepared to defend himself. There was something suspicious about these two.
“Who are you?” he demanded, his voice low and calculating.
“Don’t be scared,” one eel said. It inched closer and closer to Averil’s face. The young prince leaned back, discomforted by the proximity.
He felt a cold, slick ribbon against his skin, and found (to his intense dislike) that the second eel was twining itself around him now.
“We represent someone who can help you,” it murmured softly, syrupy sweet. “Someone who can make all your dreams come true.”
Averil moved back, away and out of the eels’ grip. They circled one another once more, twirling and entwining as if actually one being.
“Just imagine,” they hissed in unison, bringing their heads close together, nuzzling each other. “You and your princess.”
“Together,” said one.
“Forever,” they both finished.
So that was their game? But what could two little eels possibly do about that? Averil shook his head, frustrated by his own confusion.
“I don’t understand,” he said carefully.
The eels smirked at him, their game was clearly going well.
“Ursula has great power,” one of them said darkly.
Averil froze in shock. Of all the things...
“The sea witch?” he asked in disbelief. What a ludicrous idea, to go chasing down a known criminal for his own personal gain. Even if he did trust her, which he really didn’t, it was still completely out of the question.
“I couldn’t possibly,” he snarled, returning to his original spot on the floor. “Get out of here, leave me alone.”
Exchanging knowing looks, the eels drifted away, their slinky bodies flowing through the water as if part of it.
“Suit yourself,” one of them drawled.
“It was only a suggestion,” added the other.
The mer-prince watched as their shadows twisted ever closer to the doorway. He clenched his teeth. What insanity, to go to the sea witch for help. Why, his father would have killed him for even entertaining the idea. It simply wasn’t done. Anything Ursula could do, Triton could do better.
That forced the question, though, which was more important to Averil now? It might once have been bearable, to give up that beautiful dream of a woman in lieu of his family and his entire undersea life, but how much of that was even left to protect anymore? After everything Averil held dear was viciously destroyed by his own father, did he even want to be here?
It wasn’t a good plan. In fact, it was probably a very, very bad plan. But nothing sounded worse to Averil right then than losing both his family and his love. It was painfully clear that if Averil refused to give up his hopes for Erryn, his family life would be lost. As his current life would be nothing without her, that left him only the one option: Get her. She was the last ray of sunshine on his horizon, and he was never going to let that go without a fight. Perhaps in this case, the ends could justify the means.
“Wait,” Averil said.
As if they had been waiting for it- which they had –the two moray eels returned their unnerving gazes to the prince.
“Yes?” they chorused sweetly.
As they met the newly-determined eyes of the youngest prince of Atlantica, the eels knew their trap had been set perfectly. An understanding between them, the two eels and the merman swiftly left the grotto, with a new destination in mind.
Only a few meters away from the grotto, Averil’s suspicions about his friends waiting outside for him proved to be true. Flounder and Sebastien swam up behind them, casting mistrustful looks at Averil’s eerie guides.
“Averil, where are you going?” Sebastien asked. He sounded worried, but Averil was not concerned about that. The little crab came closer, propelling himself with his claws until he was an inch from Averil’s face.
“Averil, what are you doing here with this riff-raff?” he asked, a bit more discreetly.
“I’m going to see Ursula,” Averil answered smoothly.
Gasping in surprise, Sebastien fell back, momentarily stunned. Still, he used his pincers to grasp the very end of Averil’s turquoise tailfin, trying in vain to pull him back.
“Averil, no!” he pleaded. “She’s a demon, she’s a monster-”
Having had enough, Averil stopped and glared at the crab.
“Why don’t you go tell my father,” he snarled, finally throwing Sebatsien’s betrayal in his face. “You’re good at that.”
That was enough to stun him once more, it seemed. Sebastien fell away, his crimson flesh paling in shock and shame. Averil vanished into the dark water after the eels. For all Sebastien pretended not to care, the irreparable harm he had done to Averil had left him feeling much more hurt than he let on. He had never meant to betray Averil’s secret. It was an accident.
A blue fin poked Sebastien in the side, jarring him into motion.
“Come on,” Flounder said, pulling Sebastien away into the darkness. Hurt feelings or not, they still had a job to do.