Breakwater, page 1part #1 of Broken Tides Series
FATHOM INK PRESS
Copyright © 2017 by Catherine Jones Payne
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For Mom, who insisted I keep my options open, pushed me to pursue the things I loved, and imparted in me a deep, abiding love for the ocean. I wouldn’t be where I am today without your unflagging support for my crazy schemes.
And for Dad, whose voice I still hear in my head. You loved it when I wrote, and I know you’d be proud.
I clutched my dolphin’s dorsal fin as she glided upward. Her muscles tensed, and a moment later we broke the surface and arched through the air. I giggled as I wrapped my left arm around Kiki’s rubbery body.
Sunlight gleamed off my pearl-and-navy-coral engagement ring as we plunged back into the warm ocean waves. Tor had done well. Except for the ring on the finger of Prince Elias’s new bride, I’d never seen its equal.
I grinned. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just a ring.
But I couldn’t stop the little thrill of pride that warmed my body whenever I thought about it. It hardly seemed real that Tor, the youngest captain in the Royal Mer Guard, had sought me out.
I was never quite sure if the tingle in my stomach when I thought about my upcoming marriage flowed from excitement or nerves.
“He’s a really good guy.” I scratched Kiki’s back. “Talented, intelligent, loyal to a fault. Everyone speaks well of him.”
Kiki whistled at me. She could always sense when I felt nervous. I patted her side and sang to her in a soft, reassuring voice. “I’m alright, friend.”
She didn’t understand my words, of course, but my tone soothed her.
I clicked my tongue three times, and she turned around to swoop back toward the walls of Thessalonike. We soared over swaying coral and smooth sand, skirting past a royal-blue octopus and barely avoiding a snapping eel.
Within minutes, I spotted the spiraling coral that marked the entrance to the city. Sunlight filtered through the water, highlighting a school of blue-and-yellow fish.
Kiki quivered. I scratched her side and launched my body away from her, toward the city, and she charged the fish with a squeal of glee. The fish scattered, bolting for crevices in the reef.
With a smile, I decided I’d come out again to see her tomorrow. Now that I’d graduated, I had a few precious months of free time before I’d need to choose a career, and I intended to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Mother had promised to find me an apprenticeship with another advisor or a diplomat, but I doubted I could stomach politics for the rest of my life. I’d seen the way political games and half-truths wore on Mother.
But when I was out with Kiki, I didn’t have to think about any of it.
I flicked my fin and barreled toward the gate, waving at the contingent of guards—five mermen and three mermaids—stationed at the entrance to the city. They nodded at me. I’d gone to school with three of them, and the others likely recognized me as Advisor Cleo’s daughter.
In the middle, a couple of guards conversed with a two-legged, dark-haired figure clad in an ethereal robe. He stood a head shorter than either guard.
What’s a naiad doing out here?
We had lived in uneasy coexistence with a small population of naiads for nearly ten years. They all worked in the city, mostly for wealthy mer. I didn’t often see one at the gate. Then again, aside from the fishers and harvesters, few mer ever stirred outside the city.
I studied his small frame and short-cropped hair and realized that I recognized him. He worked in my friend Rhea’s house. Her mother must’ve sent him on an errand without regard for the hassle he’d get from the guards when he returned.
A whirlpool raged in my stomach. I started to swim past them but then changed my mind and approached the two guards.
“Excuse me?” I said. “Is there a problem?”
One of the guards glanced at me. “No problem, milady. Just making sure his story’s straight.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
The guard’s lips tightened. “We want to make sure he had a good reason for leaving the city. Can’t be too careful these days.”
“He works in a respectable house. I’ll vouch for him,” I said.
“Milady, with all due respect . . . ”
I drew myself up to my full length, hoping the simple kelp wrap that stretched from my shoulders to my belly button wouldn’t undermine my words. I hadn’t planned on confronting the guards when I left the city dressed like a shopkeeper.
“Do you know who I am?” I enunciated each word like Mother would and hoped they wouldn’t notice my gills flaring or sense my rapid heartbeat.
“This naiad is in the employment of Lady Athanasia and Lord Zenon. Let him go on his way.”
The guard’s nostrils flared. “Yes, Lady Jade.” He nodded brusquely at the naiad. “Go on.”
As the naiad stepped away from the guards, he looked at me and mouthed, “Thank you.”
I swam alongside him in silence until we reached the first canal inside the city. It was small and sparsely populated, but I figured he’d be fine on his own from here.
“Go in peace.” I bowed.
He hesitated. “Milady, I—”
“Go in peace.”
He smoothed his silvery-white gossamer robe. “And peace be upon you.”
He bowed his head and placed his right fist on his heart, then turned and kicked off the coral seafloor with his legs. A fine white stream of bubbles rushed past me as he jetted away, and my hair billowed backward in the current he’d cast. Moments later, he disappeared around a corner.
Jealousy tugged at me as I watched him go. Naiads don’t have it easy in Thessalonike, but what I wouldn’t give to be able to bend water like that.
I nodded at the guards and drifted into the city. Taking time for water to filter over my gills, I let the sights and sounds of urban life wash over me again. When I turned the same corner the naiad had darted around, nervousness tugged at my chest.
I didn’t like crowds.
Two fishmongers hawked their wares in the middle of the busy canal. Their haggling blocked a merchant, who struggled to maneuver around them with a food cart drawn by a dolphin a little smaller than Kiki.
It seemed like half the mer on the canal were children and teenagers younger than I was. School must have just gotten out. I’d spent longer on
A handful of naiads dotted the crowd, conspicuous in their opalescent clothing—spun from the water itself, our seamstress Pippa said—and their short, bobbing movements.
If a canal was too crowded for a naiad to jet through on their own current, as the main canals usually were at this time of day, they had to walk. To me, at least, walking seemed like a terribly inefficient way to travel.
I turned down the canal toward my house. Memories of my father churned in my mind. Not all the naiads are bad. Father would be proud that I confronted the guards.
I flipped to the edge of the canal and swam upward, alongside the single row of second-story shops where the crowd was thinner. Allowing a gentle current to carry me, I forced myself to relax, letting my anxiety fade.
Then I tensed again. The party. I have to go to the party at Tor’s parents’ tonight.
I groaned. After the encounter with the guards, I just wanted to curl up in a ball like a sea urchin.
What will Mother say when she finds out I challenged the Royal Mer Guard? And for a naiad?
Islipped into my house through the back door and floated up the vertical blue corridor toward the sleeping chambers. My room, the second door on the left, sat next to my little brother’s chamber and across the hall from my mother’s.
I swept into my room and sank onto my sleeping hammock. Glancing at the tide glass, I sighed. Only an hour before the party begins.
“Jade?” Mother’s voice floated up from the first level of the house.
“Pippa finished your new wrap. You can wear it tonight if you’d like.”
I glided toward the closet in the corner of my chamber and pulled out the new addition, a purple-and-blue chiffon piece. I could only imagine the fortune Mother had spent on the cloth.
It really is lovely, though. I hope Tor likes it.
After wrapping the chiffon in an intricate style around my torso and chest, I reached for my clamshell comb and teased the tangles from my fuchsia hair. I considered putting it up with clips but decided to leave it down.
Pursing my lips, I squinted at the reflection in my ornate oval mirror framed by whorls of gold and topped with a fleur-de-lis—my personal favorite shipwreck salvage. Mother didn’t pay overland trade prices for that, at least.
The chiffon complemented my hair and looked vibrant against my deep brown skin, but something was missing. Perhaps a necklace would complete the outfit.
I dug through my jewelry box and landed on a simple pendant necklace—a shark tooth carved in the shape of a dolphin. Father had bought it for me shortly after I’d rescued Kiki.
Mother might disapprove—it wasn’t fancy enough for the party, really, but I thought the overland jewels the other ladies wore looked silly. Privately, Mother thought so too, though she’d never admit it outside the house.
I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. Good enough. After all, I’m already engaged. No need to flaunt my position anymore.
But then again, I’ll need one of these mer to apprentice me in the next few months.
I added three strands of pearls—two black and one white—to the ensemble and then nodded at my reflection in approval.
With a grin, I looked at my ring. It didn’t shine inside. The bioluminaries that coated the ceiling provided enough light to see comfortably but not enough to make anything gleam.
I turned around to find a tall, elegant mermaid in my doorway.
“Rhea!” I squealed and rushed over to give her a hug.
“I need to see your ring!” She grabbed my left hand and gasped. “Oh, Jade. It’s exquisite.”
I fought back a smile. “I love it.”
“And Tor’s so dreamy.”
“He’ll be a good life partner, I think.”
Rhea rolled her eyes. “So practical. He’s gorgeous!”
I giggled. “Yeah. He really is.”
“I need every detail about the proposal.” She grabbed my arms and spun me around in a circle. “Did he really do it at Sapphire? I’ve only eaten there once. Father says it’s too expensive.” She rolled her eyes.
“He booked out the whole restaurant.” A grin spread across my face. “We ate a five-course meal, and he read a poem he wrote for me.”
Rhea covered her mouth and squealed.
“The server was supposed to bring out the ring with dessert, but she forgot.”
I winced at the memory. “Tor got really upset. He threatened to get her fired, but I set him straight.”
Rhea looked in my mirror and smoothed her hair. “It’s really sweet that he cared about everything being perfect.” She grabbed a bracelet off my dresser, slid it on her wrist, and re-examined her reflection. “When’s the wedding?”
I crossed my arms.
“What?” She set my bracelet back on the dresser and smoothed her black hair.
“Nothing. Wedding’s in four months. His mother insisted it happen before storm season.”
Rhea opened her mouth and then closed it again, her eyes wide. “How will you ever get it planned in time?”
“I don’t know. It all seems fast to me. But I really do like him.”
“What do you think of my wrap?” Rhea stretched out to show off the bright red cloth coiled around her torso.
“Lovely.” I touched the fabric. “Feels like it’ll last longer than mine, too.”
“Yours is just perfect,” she said. “We’ll be the talk of the party.”
I smirked, snatched a piece of stray seaweed off the windowsill, and flicked it at her with my fin.
“Oh!” She tugged a small pouch out of her wrap. “I nearly forgot. I need your advice on which necklace to wear.” She pulled out a simple strand of pearls and a gaudy, emerald-studded gold choker. “I like the emeralds better, of course. They match my fin. But I’m worried it’ll be too much.”
“You already know what I’m going to say. I hate overland jewels, and you know it.”
“I know.” She sighed. “But do you think that other people will think it’s too much? You have a great instinct for these things.”
I eyed the necklace. “It is a very fancy party,” I said at last.
“Oh, thank you!” She threw her arms around my neck. “I knew I could depend on your good sense! Now, come with me. I want to make sure we’re there before Prince Theo. I absolutely must be talking with a handsome boy when he shows up so he sees that all the other boys want to talk to me.”
“You were flirting with his older brother not two months ago.”
She pouted. “Well it’s not my fault Elias swam off and eloped with Keira. I can’t help that there’s only one prince left on the market. But Theo’s a better pick, I think. Being queen sounds like such a bore.”
“If we leave now, we’ll be the first people there.” I crossed my arms.
“All the better.” She grabbed my arm and dragged me out of my room. “They’re your in-laws now, so it’s not rude, and we’ll have the first go at the food.”
As we crossed the threshold, I noted with chagrin that we were indeed the first people at the party. “Told you so,” I whispered to Rhea.
“Jade, how delightful to see you,” my new mother-in-law, Yvonna, said with a graceful smile.
I smiled back at her, trying to hide my discomfort. I never quite knew what to say to Yvonna. While she seemed pleased enough about the engagement, I’d always suspected she personally disliked me.
“I’m so happy to be here,” I said. “You have such a lovely home.”
It was true. Their home was twice as large as ours and decorated in the same style as the king’s own reception hall. On the far wall, a trio of silver filigree dolphins—life-sized—chased a school of gold fish. Eight hundred and forty-five fish, to be precise. I’d counted them during a particularly insufferable party the month before.
We stared at each other in silence for a f
“I believe he’s in the courtyard. Go in peace.”
“Thank you.” I bowed. “Peace be upon you.” I grabbed Rhea’s hand, and we drifted toward the back door.
“Oh!” Rhea whispered in my ear, looking behind us just as her fingers curled around the door handle. “Philip’s coming in! He’s perfect for making Theo jealous. See you later.”
She released the door handle and swooped down on poor, unsuspecting Philip.
I suppressed a smile.
Leave it to Rhea. With her beautiful face and all her machinations, it was a wonder she wasn’t engaged yet. Of course, she’s not as well-connected as I am. I can’t assume it’s as easy for her as it was for me.
With a final glance backward, I pushed my way into the well-appointed courtyard. Daring red anemone lined the walls just above three thin lines of bioluminaries that cast a romantic purple light on the scene.
I smiled and bit my lip. A battalion of tiny sea horses hovered around a feeder to my right.
Movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention, near Yvonna’s prized fire coral garden at the corner of the house on the far side of the courtyard. I swam toward it. “Tor?”
When I reached the fire coral, I stopped short and locked eyes with Tor. My whole body trembled. In one arm, he held the dead body of a red-haired naiad girl.
“What the depths?” My hand flew to my mouth.
Tor glanced at the naiad’s body and back at me. “It isn’t what you think. There wasn’t anything going on between—”
“Wait, what?” I blinked.
He stopped talking.
“Did you . . . ” I trailed off, almost unable to speak the thought out loud. “Did you kill her?”
He dropped her body to the seafloor and swam toward me. “I can explain.”
When he cupped my chin in his hand, a shudder ran down my spine. I looked into his eyes and almost believed him.
“She was threatening the family. Telling all kinds of lies about my father’s business—about my father—if I didn’t give her money.”
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