The maid’s mouth quivered like a fish in the palm of her webbed hand, but Princess Gwyneth needed her quiet—their lives depended on it.
“Stay behind me, and don’t make a sound.” Seawater muffled the metallic whisper of Gwyneth’s drawn sword as she removed her hand and crept forward. Stirred sediment swirled where the intruders recently swam, its murky turbulence freshest in the direction of her father’s study. Shouts floated from the floor below. The clang of clashing metal pierced the water like a harpoon. The frightened maid tugged at the sleeve of Gwyneth’s shark-leather sparring tunic and pointed to the dim orbs lining the curving stairway. They flashed as bodies passed in front of them.
“They’re coming this way,” whispered Gwyneth, dragging the girl into a small closet. Turbulence brushed the door as more intruders swam by.
The palace maid stopped Gwyneth’s webbed hand on the closet door’s handle and shook her head. “There are more. Wait here, Princess, I beg you.” The gill slits on the sides of her neck trembled, and her eyes shone with fear.
Gwyneth grimaced and shook out of her grasp. “You stay. I’ll come back for you when it’s safe.”
Shouts flooded down the hall from King Greggory’s study. Gwyneth paddled closer, but a muffled grunt forced her to dive behind thick kelp-velvet curtains framing a tall window. Nearby, a woman in Tivan-style clothing tugged a priceless mosaic from the wall. A loaded harpoon sagged her belt. When Gwyneth was sure the woman had gone, she continued toward her father’s study.
“Do what you will. I shall not reveal it!” King Greggory stood behind his desk, white knuckles held stiffly at his sides. An orb filled with bioluminescent plankton shone brightly, reflecting off the desk’s polished surface. Parchment was scattered where the king had been working. His lionfish-quill pen lay broken on the marble floor, a cloud of squid ink hovering innocently above it.
A tall, hooded man in a ragged cloak slapped the orb to the floor. The fragile glass exploded with a loud crash. The naturally glowing plankton, no longer agitated in the confined space, dimmed from view, allowing shadows from the evening sun to claw across the floor.
Gwyneth braced herself as she checked the readiness of her fal’cik—the long, thin fighting knife at her waist. Her stomach roiled. She shut her eyes and focused her thoughts: Mur’etal, just like Sirion had taught her. She breathed deeply, raised her sword, and charged.
“There be another!” shouted a portly man in ragged Tivan-style shark leathers.
Sirion also taught her that the first strike often determined the outcome of a fight, so Gwyneth put all her strength into her swing. Before it could hit its mark, however, her arm was forced to a jarring halt. Thick fingers dug into her flesh as a brute of a man wrestled her sword from her grasp. Anger swelled through her like a tsunami.
“Gwyneth,” shouted King Greggory. He paled as the fight drained out of him and was replaced with fear.
The hooded man’s foul breath permeated the seawater as he stepped forward. The dark recesses hid all but his rotting teeth. “Seems ta me ya got a good reason ta tell us now, King, or would ya prefer I ask the lassie meself?”
“Take me. Do what you must, but please don’t harm my daughter,” pleaded the king.
Gwyneth cringed at the desperation in his eyes. She had never seen weakness in her father, until now, and it scared her. “Father, what’s going on?” She shook one arm free, but the brute’s grasp held the other as firmly as a tiger shark.
“Please, I beg you. I will tell you about the scroll, but please release my daughter.”
The tall man’s hood bobbed up and down and Gwyneth was freed. She rubbed at the new bruise and swam to where her father stood.
“What is this, Father? What do these men want?” King Greggory wrapped her in his arms as if to shield her. His strength had always been her comfort.
“Seein’ we ain’t got all day, King, I suggest ya give us what we came for or the lassie—”
“All right, please, I beg you,” the king said as he pushed Gwyneth behind him. “First, let my daughter go then I’ll tell you where—” He gurgled. Gwyneth moved closer, but the sound stopped her. It was curiously out of place. A dark red line welled up beneath her father’s chin like the ruby necklace he had bought her on her name day. His eyes met Gwyneth’s briefly; they said it all—swim! But she couldn’t. She froze, her gaze stuck on the crimson cloud that formed in the seawater as her father’s body settled lifelessly in his gilded chair.
The tall, hooded man turned. His knife left a small bloody trail in its wake. A rotting fence of teeth smiled under the dark hood. “Looks as if we got what we need right here. She can tell us. Grab her!”
Gwyneth, jarred from her shock by the hooded man’s command, dove for the door. The brute’s fingers clawed at her, but fear fueled her strokes and she broke free. Ahead, she heard the rustle of metal and felt the surge of water that preceded urgent motion. It was Grendle, the Murundian captain of the palace guard and her father’s closest friend.
“In the name of the King of Galmaria, you are under arrest!” she shouted. Grendle’s eyes scanned the room, resting briefly on the king’s body, then on Gwyneth.
“Princess Gwyneth, stand aside.”
“But I can—”
“No, Your Highness. It’s too dangerous. You are King Greggory’s only heir. You must go. I insist!” Grendle shouted as the balding brute charged her. Their swords locked. Thick, matted strands of Grendle’s kelp-green hair floated between them. With a burst of power and a loud grunt, Grendle twisted her hips, pulling free. Then she spun and lunged as fast as a swordfish. The cloth down the back of the man’s tunic split and a glint of blood-dipped metal peeked through while his sword sank to the floor with a loud clang.
The room erupted. The intruders fought clumsily against Grendle’s hand-full of well-trained troops, but they were outnumbered. No one had suspected an attack from within the Galmarian Palace and reinforcements were strokes away. The situation was dire. Gwyneth dove for her sword.
“Go now, Princess. Go to Sirion! She’ll know what to do,” shouted Grendle who was standing her ground between the intruders and King Greggory as if to shield him.
Gwyneth hesitated, but she knew Grendle was right: the future of Galmaria would soon be her responsibility. She swam for the door in a daze. She had just lost her father—the man she cherished above all others. He had raised her with such love and acceptance. He held her close when the world seemed bent on throwing her back. Their early morning rides were now a memory; the contentment she felt during them forever gone. She wanted to swim to him, but she couldn’t—his study was a cauldron of chaos. The crystal-clear seawater roiled with rust-colored clouds. Gwyneth tasted iron, and it was bitter.