Attina splashed out of the surf on four shaky limbs, then stood. She tottered on her strange flat feet. She missed the buoyancy and support of the water around her, found the act of inhaling and exhaling thin air exhausting, and already disliked the weight of her body pressing her feet into the hard, dry ground.
She could not understand why Eline, her youngest sister, would choose this.
She clutched at a rock, happily familiar with grabbing hands and rough stone. Then she attempted to sit on the rock, her balance still precarious, uncertain which parts of her body bent, which relaxed, which supported. The hot, sandy rock and unfiltered sun burned her dry skin.
“Where did she go from here?” she asked the seagull, then clapped her hands over her mouth at the flat, dead sound of her own voice. The sudden movement sent her tumbling. She landed hard on hot sand, and pain shot through her shoulder.
The bird landed on the rock and gazed down at her with beady black eyes. “Her prince took her to the castle.”
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“Fate is a funny thing.”
“She’s not fated to spend the rest of her life in this hell,” Attina snapped, sitting up carefully. Sand clung to her skin, and scratched her when she tried to brush it off.
“Her fate is not for you to decide, Sea Princess.”
“How can I get to her?”
The seagull blinked and shifted his wings. “I’m not certain that you can.”
“I thought you’d agreed to help me.”
“I did. But you can’t just walk up to the castle and pull her out. There are guards, and they won’t simply let a naked woman walk in.”
“So, I need to cover myself in their human garments?”
“Yes. And when she and her prince leave the castle, you may be able to speak with them.”
Attina bent and straightened her knee, examining the movement of muscle under the skin. “What do I do till then?”
“I should go check in on her–make sure that she’s fitting into her new life. I will return when she leaves the castle.” The seagull leapt into the air and soared away, cutting through the air like a fish through water. “Get yourself some clothes!” it called down to her.
Attina hugged her knees and stared out at the ocean. “How exactly am I supposed to do that?”
Attina had never understood the human need for coverings, and even now that she was trapped in a human body, the idea seemed silly. Still, her father had sent her here to get Eline back, and if legs and feet hadn’t stopped her, she refused to let some idiotic cloth stand in her way.
She pulled a pearl pin from her dark hair then staggered up the beach. A hideous stench assaulted her nose as she walked, and banks of thick gray air swirled in the breeze. It burned her lungs, and they contracted.
She coughed till she fell over.
Small hands grabbed her and pulled her out of the gray cloud. “Are you okay?” A child with dark brown skin and black hair peered at her. She wore brown rags tied with a rope belt.
“I’m certainly not,” Attina wheezed.
“Well, you shouldn’ta walked into that smoke,” the child said.
“I will remember that for the future.”
“Why are you naked?”
Attina bit her lip. She needed some kind of story to tell the humans. The truth was dangerous–the humans were forgetting that her people existed, and both she and her father liked it that way. “Someone–someone stole my–my clothes.” She held out the pin. “I have this to trade for some.”
The little girl arched an eyebrow. “They took your clothes but left that?”
Attina shrugged. “They weren’t very bright.”
The girl laughed. “My momma might have some you can have. Come on, I’ll take you to her. I’m Tammy.”
“My name is Attina.”
The little girl perked up. “Like the Sea Princess?”
Her stomach sank. Maybe the humans weren’t as close to forgetting as they’d hoped. “The Sea Princess?”
“She’s the heir to the sea throne! Even though she’s a girl, because there aren’t a lot of mermen, and anyway, mermaids can do anything mermen can. They’re not like us.”
Attina had six younger sisters–she knew how to deal with little girls who liked to talk. “Oh?”
“That’s what my momma says. And her momma told her the story, back and back and back. They live a long time, mermaids.” They approached a ramshackle hut, and the girl darted forward. “Momma! Momma! I found a naked lady!”
The sand gave way to rocks, and Attina picked her way across them. Pain jabbed through her feet with every step.
Tammy’s mother scanned Attina up and down. “She is a naked lady, that’s for sure.”
“Robbers took her clothes! But look, she has a pin to trade for more.” Tammy grabbed Attina’s hand and pulled it forward. Her mother took the pin and examined it. Her face was unreadable.
“Her name’s Attina! Just like the Sea Princess!”
“Why don’t you run and play, sweetie. I’ll take care of her.”
Tammy grinned and ran off. She was a graceful little thing, but she still looked strange and lumbering, pressed down by gravity.
“My name is Mary. What brings you here, princess?”
Attina sighed. She didn’t have much experience with lying, and she had a feeling that Tammy’s mother had a fair amount. “I’m here for my sister.”
“The mute girl that the prince has taken up with?”
Attina nodded. “She made a deal with the Sea Witch. Traded her voice for legs.”
Mary frowned. “Bad trade.”
“I can help you. My aunt works in the castle, cleaning in the kitchen. I’ll help you trade that pin for a real fancy dress, then help you get to your sister to talk some sense into her. But I want something in return.”
“Take Tammy back with you. If your magic can make mermaids into women, it should be able to make girls into mermaids.”
The transformation was simple with the Sea King’s magic, and taking the girl would also end the family’s oral history that went back and back. “Why?”
“She is sick with the consumption.”
“She seems healthy enough.”
“She has good days. But they won’t last.”
Attina looked at the girl, frolicking in the waves. “What is this consumption?”
“It is in her lungs. But she won’t need those as a mermaid, will she?”
“Very well. We have a deal.”
Mary grimaced. “Just like that?”
“You don’t need to ask for your father’s permission?”
“No. I am to be Queen after him, and he trusts me.”
Mary shook her head. “Things must really be different down there.”
“Yes, very much so. Why don’t you come, too, when I leave?”
Mary shook her head. “I’m too old to learn a whole new way of life.”
“Too old, or too afraid?” Attina asked.
“Would you want to stay here?”
“Not in a million years.”
“Well, then,” Mary said. “That’s that. Come on, let’s get you decent before my man gets back.”
Mary’s husband was a fisherman. He returned just as the sun set. He kissed his wife and daughter, then stopped short and stared at Attina. “Who’s this?”
“Just a friend,” Mary said.
Her husband laughed. “If it’s none of my business, you can just say so.”
He smelled like sunshine and rotting fish and stood a full head taller than his wife. Was Eline’s prince so massive? How did the humans live with their own stench?
Mary offered her a small, brown thing. It looked like a rock. “This is a potato,” she said. “Careful, it’s hot.”
Attina took it and broke it open. Steam rose from its white flesh. The palace was built near a fissure in the ocean floor, and Attina was no stranger to boiling water. But she’d never heated food before. The heat was strange against her teeth, and the potato’s fluffy texture completely unlike slippery fish. She chewed slowly, considering it.
It wasn’t terrible. She wondered if they could grow such things in the ocean.
“Can I have another?”
Mary shook her head. “I’m sorry, no.”
Attina thought for a moment. “Did you eat anything?”
Mary just shrugged.
After the meal, Mary offered her a blanket by the fire, and Attina tried to sleep. But the ground pressed painfully into her flesh, no matter how she turned, and there was no comfortable place for her arms. Gravity pressed her bones into the hard-packed floor.
She curled on her side and stared into the dying coals. Sleep flitted out of reach, like silvery minnows in slivers of moonlight.
She wondered how her sister slept, in the palace with her prince. And she wondered how well Mary slept with her empty stomach.
Tammy coughed in her tiny bed in the corner. It was a deep, ripping sound.
Mary woke before sunrise to toss handfuls of grain into a pot with fish bones and scraps of seaweed. They scooped the stew up with dry slices of bread. “Do you have different food for every meal?” Attina asked.
Tammy shot her an odd look. “No.”
“Why don’t you go gather some seashells to sell at the market, sweetie” Mary said.
Tammy nodded and ducked out of the hut.
“Why would anyone buy such detritus?” Attina asked. Then she noticed that they only had three bowls. “Are you going hungry for me again this morning?”
Mary pursed her lips, then pulled a dress out of a sack. “I went out early and traded for this. I think it should fit you.”
Attina pulled the garment on. It clung to her arms and legs, and constricted her chest and stomach. “I–I cannot breathe.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Mary said.
Outside, a seagull screeched. Attina took Mary’s hand and pulled her outside. “Come on, I think my sister is on the move.”
“We got him to guess her name,” the seagull said, landing on the ground at Attina’s feet.
“That’s touching. Where is she?”
“You don’t think that means something? That he guessed Eline, out of all of the names in the world?”
“Was it his first guess?”
The seagull glared at her.
“Are you talking to that bird?” Mary asked.
“Yes. It’s going to take us to Eline.”
“Huh, and I thought that seagulls weren’t good for anything.”
They followed the gull along the beach and to a lagoon. The prince and Eline floated together in a boat, gazing into each other’s eyes. The prince was handsome, in a floppy-haired, thin way.
“What is your sister’s goal, exactly?” Mary asked.
“She needs to make him love her, or else she’ll be turned to seafoam.”
“She has to win him while mute?”
“And within three days.”
“She’s very young.”
“And more than a little bit stupid.”
“What are you going to say to her?”
Attina sighed. “That we can help her out of this, if she’ll just come home.”
Eline stared at her prince, rapt and attentive on his every move. “I don’t really think I have a chance,” Attina said.
Mary snorted. “That look on her face isn’t love. No man is perfect enough to live on the pedestal she’s got him on.”
The prince stared back at Eline, tilted his face toward hers.
Attina spotted a shadow in the water. One of the Sea Witch’s minions, waiting to spoil the moment. Its purpose and hers were momentarily aligned. If the two kissed now, it would be over. Eline would truly be human.
Attina would rather be seafoam.
Still, she pressed her palm to the lagoon’s still surface and reached out with her power. The shadow dissolved. Eline’s lips met her prince’s. Light flashed, then faded. Eline laughed, and Attina was happy to hear that she still could.
“I thought you were going to stop them,” Mary said.
“She’s a fool, but she’s still my sister. Can you still get us into the palace?”
The palace was lovely and colorful, and Eline’s room had a huge soft bed and a balcony over the ocean. “This is very different than your home.”
Mary gave her a flat look. “Yes. Isn’t your palace nicer than where the other mermaids live?”
Attina considered the question. She’d never visited any of her subject’s homes. “I don’t know, but I’ll be sure to check when I get home.”
They were waiting, perched on the bed, when Eline twirled in. When she saw them, Eline gasped and turned to flee, but Attina sealed the door and locked the windows with a flick of her fingers.
“Calm down. I’m just here to talk. Has he asked you to marry him?” Attina asked.
Eline glared and shook her head.
“But your deal with the sea witch is concluded, correct?”
“I came to tell you that you can come home, if you want.”
Eline crossed her arms over her chest.
“You can’t really want to stay. How do you sleep up here?”
Eline frowned and shrugged.
“Well, the offer stands. Just call out, and we’ll change you back. We might even be able to find you a new voice.”
Eline touched her throat, then blinked back tears and turned away. She pointed at the door.
“I’ll go. Just remember, we love you, and you can always come home.” She tugged at her sleeves as she walked out. “I’m very much looking forward to getting out of this cloth trap.”
Mary paused in the doorway. “Miss, I know it’s none of my business, but you should listen to your sister. Life up here–it’s not what you dreamed of, I promise.”
Eline tapped her chest, then pointed at a painting of the prince that hung over the fireplace.
They hurried down the hall, careful not to be seen. “I’m glad that Tammy’s got more sense than that,” Mary said.
“Me too, if I’m going to be taking her home. One Eline is enough.”
“Do you think she’ll come back?”
“I do. You were right. It’s not love that she feels, and he’ll disappoint her. And then she’ll come home.”
Attina ate a potato and watched the sunset while Mary talked to Tammy.
“I knew she was the princess!” Tammy shouted. “I knew it!” She twirled around in a circle. “And I’ll really get to be a mermaid?”
“Yes,” Attina said. “But there will be a few rules. You can only visit your parents once a month, when there is no moon. And you must not be seen by strangers.” Attina hadn’t had the heart to forbid visits completely–Mary had been a good friend to her.
“That doesn’t sound hard,” Tammy said.
Mary wiped away a tear.
“Life under the sea is very different from life up here. You’ll have to relearn everything you know. My days here have been extremely difficult. I will do my best to help you through your transition.”
“I’m ready,” Tammy said.
“Very well.” Attina bowed to Mary, who rushed up and wrapped her arms around her. “Are you sure that you don’t want to come?”
Mary shook her head and wiped tears away with the back of her hand. “I–I can’t. You’re right. I’m afraid.”
“My offer to Eline stands for you, too. Just say the word, whenever you’re ready.” Attina took Tammy’s hand, and they walked into the waves together.
BIO: Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death… She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com, and her debut novel, Left Hand Gods, is forthcoming from Hadley Rille Books. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.