first time she ever saw him was late in the summer of her fifteenth
year, after she’d woken up on the beach again. It was
and the storm surge had left the sky a leaden grey; the gusts of wind
were whipping the waves into a show of mare’s tails, flaring
in ghost white streaks across the waves coming in.
The beach was cold in the post-dawn light, and Sara could smell rain coming in the air; she pulled her sweater closed and looked out from her hiding place under the pier, off towards the tiny stretch of beach nearly hidden by the high rocks. Nobody used it for much of anything—it was too small for sunbathing, and at high tide, it was mostly underwater, but at the moment it was exposed, showing a pale expanse of sand with a heavy clump of seaweed washed up from the waves.
Sara looked more closely at the seaweed. It was thick and irregularly shaped. The longer she stared at it, the more it seemed to resemble something more than just a thicket of kelp. When it flailed, she flinched, and narrowed her gaze on it once again.
Fish? Shark maybe, or seal most likely, snagged up or wounded, she decided. Whatever it was, it wasn’t moving very much, and Sara suspected the creature was exhausted and probably ready to give up.
She knew the feeling.
Since the choice for the moment was to ignore the trapped thing on the beach and head back to the Inn, where the predictable yelling match and threats were going to fill the next hour followed by a beating and a grounding, Sara opted instead to investigate the kelp. At the very least, it would mean that she’d have something to think about other than the fury of her parents when she eventually faced them.
Getting up, she dusted the sand off her bare legs and made her way down towards the waterline, leaving her sandals, sleeping bag and tote bag up under the pier. She brought her knife with her though; nowadays Sara brought that with her everywhere.
As she got closer, she realized with a cold shock that the pale surface she was staring at through the strands of kelp and brown rope fishing net were actually shoulders, ashen against the darker, richer colors entrapping them.
God, a body— she thought, not as much scared as intrigued. Boating accidents happened, and once in a while someone would go overboard during a day trip with one of the charters. Even more rarely a local would drown; usually because of excessive drinking or carelessness while fishing. Sara had seen the coroner’s wagon pick up the blanket-wrapped remains before, although the last one had been nearly two years ago.
Cautiously she came closer, feeling tense. The shoulders were broad, and muscled under the thick rope. Sara felt a twinge of heated interest now; she was no stranger to hormonal surges, although she kept them in much better check than her nineteen-year-old brother, who may or may not have gotten his girlfriend pregnant a month ago.
They were definitely male shoulders, she decided. Moving around towards where the man’s head would be, she squatted and stared, moving within an arm’s reach. Between the wet leaves of burnt orange colored kelp, Sara could see long wet strands of hair; brown for the most part. She cleared her throat and called out. “Hey—you okay?”
He wasn’t, of course—anything that snagged up was probably dying, but it didn’t hurt to check.
Sara was good about checking before making a move.
The lump of rope and seaweed groaned, and that galvanized her into action; shifting forward, Sara pulled her knife out and began sawing at the first thick strand of rope. The blade was sharp, and within a few seconds, the section parted. She moved to another strand, working quickly now, aware that the being inside was shifting a bit. The man inside coughed wetly, and the sound made the little hot gush of fear inside her surge up.
More determinedly, she cut faster, slicing the kelp, working through the thick, algae-slick cords and pulling them away, exposing more and more of the head and shoulders of the man.
He was unexpectedly handsome, with curly brown hair in wet ringlets all over his head, and a matching beard over slightly chubby cheeks. His eyes were closed, and he had the longest, darkest eyelashes Sara had ever seen. She stopped long enough to check if he was breathing, and the stillness of his chest frightened her.
I can DO this— she thought, and carefully slipped a hand under the back of his neck, tipping his head back. A year of staring at the First Aid posters in the nurse’s office was finally paying off, and she swept a finger through his mouth, clearing his airway, as the poster called it.
Then, carefully, Sara took a big breath of air and blew it deeply into the stranger’s mouth.
His lips were cool, but surprisingly soft, and the unexpected pleasure of the contact with his mouth made her quiver. This was kissing of a sorts—nothing like the sloppy tongue battles she’d seen her brother and his girlfriend do down on the family room sofa—this was more of a sweet, formal kiss . . .
Then the stranger made a groaning sound, shuddering; Sara turned his head away from her as he vomited. A gush of dark tinged salt water sloshed out of his mouth, and annoyed, Sara wiped her own lips with her sweater sleeve as she waited for him to finish. It wasn’t the most encouraging reaction to her kiss, but the pragmatic part of her argued that at least the man was still alive.
She lifted his head further and rubbed his prickly chin with her thumb. “Hey, you okay?”
He opened his eyes. Sara felt the full, beautiful power of his gaze; direct and assessing, taking her in for a few long seconds. Then he slowly nodded.
“We ought to sit you up then—“ she offered awkwardly, still caught in the glamour of his eyes. She pulled him forward, the remaining entangling seaweed and net making it difficult. The man didn’t seem to have a shirt on, Sara noticed, and felt herself redden for noticing that. A moment later all thoughts about the attractiveness of his top half vanished when she realized he didn’t have any pants or shorts on either.
Most likely because the bottom half of him was a fish.
Sara stiffened, staring hard at this utterly unexpected development. Not possible, her mind told her. There are no such things as mermaids. Or men. You’re just having one of those weird dreams where stuff like this seems normal, and when you wake up, you’ll crack up about it.
The man—merman—gasped, and coughed a little more, his broad chest expanding. Sara propped him up; he was surprisingly heavy for a dream, she noted, and patted him hard on the back. One of his arms was still coiled in kelp and the other was shifting to grip hers.
“Terra firma?” he managed in a choked voice. Sara nodded uncertainly. He nodded, and added, “Ne cede malis—“
She struggled to remember what little she knew of Latin and replied, “I’m not giving in to misfortune and neither are you, okay?”
Surprisingly, he smiled at her and nodded, his hand giving her arm a squeeze. Moving carefully, he began tugging at the rest of his bonds, and Sara helped, using her knife where needed on the thickest clumps and tangles. It took a while, but gradually the merman was able to give a few powerful waves of his tail and pull it free of the mess.
He slowly let his fluke glide in the water, waving back and forth, the way a human might dip their feet, and Sara grinned at him. She picked up the kelp and rope, shoving it away and sat beside him at the edge of the sand, cross-legged. Thinking hard, she spoke, waving at him. “Um, video sed non credo.”
He laughed. “Videre licet,” came his reply, and he added, “A soil fingerling who has the Mother Tongue—this has been a morning of reckoning!”
“English. Yeah, good, that’s very cool.” Sara felt a sense of relief. She’d gotten a B plus in first year Latin and wasn’t sure she could keep up a conversation without her textbook.
The merman look at her, puzzled. “Why would my words have chill?”
She blinked, and laughed a bit, shifting to find a more comfortable place in the sand, and brushing her hair out of her face. “No, no—it’s just a phrase, umm, an idiom that it’s good thing.”
“Ah. Well though English is not my first tongue, I have sufficient grasp of it for the moment. I am grateful to you, young daughter of Earth for coming to my aid with speed and blade as you did. Had I stayed and dried in the light of the rising sun I would have passed on to spindrift, surely.”
“You mean that sea foam stuff that catches on the rocks? That’s dead mermaids?” Sara asked before thinking. “Eww—“
He shot her a slightly chiding expression; a stern little look that instantly made her turn her gaze down in embarrassment. “Sorry—I just never knew that’s what that stuff was. I always thought it was just a buildup of sea spray and detergent.”
“And what is detergent?”
“Soap,” Sara explained, not wanting to get into details, not with so much more she wanted to know. She added, “The sunlight would have done that to you?”
“Had I dried out fully, yes. So I am indebted to you, little fry, for your compassionate gesture. Now I may return to the depths and renew myself.”
“Hey wait—“ Sara broke in, slightly alarmed. “You don’t want to, uh, overexert yourself, you know. Might be wise to rest up, have something to eat. You do eat, right?”
The merman nodded absently, flexing his shoulders a bit. Sara noticed a series of welts along one of his upper arms that seemed to form a pattern. When he noticed her gaze, he pressed a hand over it and looked stern. “Staring lacks propriety, young one. I am sure you do so out of ignorance and not spite, but it discomfits me.”
“Sorry,” she replied, face reddening slightly. “Anyway, I have some crackers and cheese and soda I’d be happy to share, if you’d like.”
“Cheese . . .” the merman murmured, and Sara smirked at his slightly dreamy expression. Clearly he had a weakness, so she got up and dusted sand from her bottom, scooting back up to her stash hidden under the pier.
She returned a few moments later, and pulled out the foil package, unwrapping it carefully. The big chunk of Stilton was still there only nibbled on one end, and a few slices of Pepper Jack too. With care, she wiped her knife blade off on her sleeve and cut a piece of the Cheddar, handing it to him.
He hesitated. “By common courtesy, I fear I have nothing to offer you for this hospitality.”
“You could tell me what to call you,” Sara replied, busying herself by carving out her nibbled section of the block. “And how you know about cheese?”
“An unequal exchange, since your favor to myself is the greater. However—“ he smiled and cocked his head. “My name is Thetus of the Wave Born.”
Sara looked at him intently. His hair was drying now, forming into the sort of natural waves most women would kill for, and it hung long and loose nearly to his shoulders. His beard looked much softer, but it was more of a brown velvet fuzz over his chin and cheeks instead of a long flowing one.
His torso wasn’t quite what she’d expected either; a solid, slightly barrel-chested one with sloping shoulders, but his arms were corded with muscle. At his waistline, the gradual shift from skin to fish began, and Sara noted that he was scale-less, and that the surface of his tail much more like the impressions she had of dolphins or whales; a smoother, sleeker sort of skin with a rough sheen to it. The color differed from her preconceptions as well; the lower half of him was a green-gray that blended with the rocks and water exceedingly well.
He noted her gaze and coughed to catch her attention again. Sara started, and held out a hand. “Sorry—Sara Sidle.”
“Sara. In Hebrew, a princess; in Arabic, pleasant and pure. A fitting name I think.”
“Umm, thank you,” She replied politely. Sara knew the definition of her name, but the pleased way in which Thetus said it brought a quirk to her lips. Clearly he was a little . . . naïve. She cleared her throat and asked, “What does Thetus mean?”
“I’m named for an ancient ancestor; one of the first of the Wave Born,” he replied, and took another bite of cheese. After chewing and swallowing, he added, “This is very fortifying. Thank you.”
“Good. How do you know about cheese anyway? I didn’t think it was the sort of thing that, uh, sea creatures knew about.”
For a moment, Thetus looked slightly embarrassed, and shot her a sidelong glance. “Well . . . it’s often used as bait.”
“As . . . bait,” Sara repeated, and her grin grew as a mental image of Thetus, cruising through the filtered sunlight under the pier, plucking knobs of cheddar from dangling hooks, the way a guest at a party might nibble at canapés.
From the look in his eyes, he seemed to know her thoughts, and cleared his throat. “Yes, well there are times when one must make do with whatever one can scrounge. Not that I take any pride in my petty theft.”
A pang of compassion resonated through Sara and she leaned forward, laying her hand on his forearm very gently. “It’s okay. Losing bait is something a good fisherman takes into account, and besides, you’re right—sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
“Agreed. And I have worked to do good at times to counterbalance the kismet. In fact, I owe you a debt, Earth-Sara for your aid, and will be glad to pay it back in whatever is in my power to provide. Have you a desire I can fulfill?”
Sara blinked. “Do I have to choose right now?” It seemed like the sort of thing to think about, and she didn’t want to rush. Overhead the grey clouds scudded by, and fog drifted in. She was grateful for it; not that there would be many people around, but now she and Thetis wouldn’t be seen.
“No, there is no urgency,” he assured her. “It is wise to consider well your choice. You strike me as a very sensible Land child, and I respect that.”
“Hey, I’m not a child!” she protested, feeling a pink flush across her face. She hated it when grownups got condescending with her. Sara knew she was more, much more than a kid.
Thetus, however looked unperturbed. “I meant not offense; I myself am but a juvenile of my race, with a mere thirty seasons to my days, Sara.”
“Thirty years is a juvenile? How long do you live?” she asked, sidetracked by this revelation.
Thetus rubbed his shoulder and sighed. “Barring accidents or disease, upwards of two hundred and fifty seasons. Algaernon is still hale at two hundred and sixty-seven, but then again, he rarely leaves his league now, and putters around raising seahorses and wrasses. Brinella is over two hundred now, and helps keep records for the Keep. And clearly none of this makes any sense to you, I am sure. Forgive me; it’s been a while since I had another being to talk to.”
Sara cocked her head and turned her face to the bay, looking out over the grey wavelets rolling towards the rocks. “Tide’s going out . . . in ten minutes it will be too low for you to make it back into the water without help.”
“True,” Thetus acknowledged. “Therefore our time here is short. I owe you my life, Sara of the Shore, and I acknowledge the debt. If you wish to summon me, all you need do it drop your fingers into the sea and speak my name; I will be with you soon after that. Think well on what you desire, young one, because I am true to my word, always.”
He reached out his hand; Sara shyly extended her own to him, not prepared for the brush of his lips and chin whiskers over her skin as he placed a courtly kiss on her knuckles.
When Thetus raised his head and looked at her again, she blushed. “Okay. Stay away from fishing nets then, all right?”
He cocked his head, grinning crookedly at her. “I generally do—this one snagged me in my sleep, roiled along the lower current by the last storm. It will be the last time I am taken by surprise, I think. Farewell, Sara of the Shore—summon me when you will; I await our next meeting with great anticipation.”
In a quick twist of a move, Thetus rolled and turned, slipping his body back into the deep tide pool and splashing Sara’s legs in the process. She rose up to watch him; he gave a push of his wide tail flukes and dove, disappearing into the depths of the grey-green water, and leaving a little circle of ripples crossing the incoming wave.
Sara watched for long minutes, and when the chill of the day began to reach through her sweater, she tugged it closer and turned away, taking a breath and preparing herself to face what lay in store at home.
Thetus felt the summons dart through his slumber, waking him with a start. He’d anchored himself down near the root ball of the kelp, his tail entwined as his mother had taught him, the long strands hiding him from casual view.
It was dark, but he let the summons give him direction, and rising carefully, he swam in purposeful strokes through the dark water, perplexed at the lateness of the hour and the hint of urgency in the echo in his head.
He wasn’t surprised at the clarity of the link; the land child had no idea that her kiss, and subsequent gift of her air into his water-filled lungs had bonded them. It was one of the steps of Mer courtship, and although unwittingly done in an attempt to save him, Thetus knew that for the time being, he was tied to the young land walker.
Not that he minded; he was many seasons from choosing a mate, and since his Banishment, times had been lonely. Only two seasons had passed of his ten decreed so far, and sometimes the longing for another being to talk to left him melancholy. The fish around him listened, but they could never speak back.
Thetus found himself approaching the shallows within the Bay, close to where he’d been washed up. That made sense; the girl Sara probably lived close by. He swam a bit faster, keeping his concentration on the echoing summons, which was growing stronger with every stroke.
He cautiously broke the surface of the water and looked up, wondering what he would see. It wasn’t as dark as he thought—rows of houses stood along the shore, with a few on thick stilted piers over the water. The largest one had only a few lights in the windows of the upper floor, and he sensed the echo coming from down below, near the pilings. Cautiously he approached, keeping only his head above the water.
“Hey Thetus?” came her quavery voice over the small, lapping waves. Focusing on that, he swam closer and looked up, to the under pilings that held up the house. There seemed to be a trap door hanging open, and a metal ladder was mounted on one of the pilings. Yellow light came from above a flat wooden platform; he realized Sara was on it, holding what appeared to be a lantern of some sort. Her other hand was in the water, completing the link to him.
He swam closer, and his cheery greeting died on his lips when he saw her blackened eye and the swollen corner of her mouth. She noted his stare and ducked her head a little. “Wow, you really did come! I didn’t know if you were just an early morning dream or not.”
“How have you come to be injured?” Thetus asked in a low monotone, unable to stop from staring although he knew full well it was rude. It wasn’t just the injuries that changed her appearance either; her shoulders were a little more slumped and rounded now.
“It’s nothing. I’ve been through worse. Hey listen—I thought about what you said, and I know what I want.”
“Sara—“ he began, then hesitated at the quick, fierce look she shot him. When he was quiet, she set the lantern back on the jutting nail and spoke, her words quick and quiet.
“I want a green pearl.”
“A green . . ?”
“A green pearl. It doesn’t have to be huge or anything, but it’s got to be green. A real one; you can do that, right?”
“Pearls, yes, I have the skill to acquire them. It may take some time though. May I ask—why green?” came his soft question. He rose up higher, and gripped the edge of the platform. She was half in shadow now, but the light illuminated the puffiness along her cheekbone, which was already mottling to purple. She blinked at him.
“Green pearls are rare, right?”
Thetus nodded. “Extremely.” It was true; Maenae had taught him about questing for pearls and their uses for medicine, magic and mercantilism. Her lectures had included grades and colors, rarity and cultivation as well; at the time, it had been boring, but useful. Now, however—
“Good. So that’s why I want a green one. If you keep your word and get me one, I can sell it and get enough for it to leave this place,” she announced in a fast rush of words. “Hock it, take the money and just—leave.”
“Sara . . . “ he began, then stopped when she turned her face back to him. Although she was still a girl standing on the brink of womanhood, the fierce, beautiful expression on her battered face took the breath out of him and he blinked, speechless.
This girl-woman was a survivor; a little one who would outlast her suffering of the moment, no question of that.
Thetus felt this heartbeat pound loudly in his ears. “Sara,” he began again, his tone gentle. “I will do as you ask, but you must understand . . . a pearl that rare will take time. I can promise to find it, but it will be a quest. At least a year, maybe more—you do realize that?”
Her expression faltered slightly, but then her chin came up and she nodded. “Okay. I can . . . live with that. But you will do it, right? You’re obligated to?”
“I am true to my word,” he said again echoing the same promise he’d made earlier on the beach. “I promise as an indebted Wave Born that I will bring you a green pearl, Sara of the Shore.”
He lifted a hand up to her, intending to clasp hers, but she bent her head, grasped his wet fingers and lightly kissed his knuckles.
The tingle, heated and true, ran down his arm and circled inside his chest; Thetus gave a sharp sigh that he tried to hide with a chuckle. “Such formality . . . I appreciate the gesture, but truly, it is not needed.”
“Yeah . . . “ she murmured, “I guess I’m just glad you’re . . . here.”
The simple honesty of her words touched him; Thetus could only nod for a moment. When he spoke, his words were a slightly hoarse. “As am I—will you be all right?”
Sara smiled at him then, and shifted, her long legs unfolding to dangle over the edge of the platform. Thetus eyed them with wonder, and she chuckled at his rapt gaze. “Just legs. A little on the skinny side, actually.”
“Intriguing though—and with them you . . . ambulate?”
“I walk, run, climb stairs . . . “ Sara nodded. “Kick, dance, all kinds of things.”
“Marvelous,” Thetus murmured. “So many options. I swim and maneuver, but those are all I need, I suppose. Yours are bare, but I have seen that others cover them?”
Sara grinned. “Pants. To protect them from the sun, or just be decent. Not every place allows shorts.”
They spoke on for a while, about pants and shoes and socks; all mundane things to Sara, but newly amazing now in reflected conversation with Thetus. She explained different styles and uses of footwear as best she could, privately agreeing with some of his commentary on the doubtful value of high heels or platforms.
The hour grew late, and finally the conversation faded into a sweet peacefulness between them. Sara knew she needed to climb back up and take a few aspirin before going to bed; her temple ached, and she’d have to sleep on her side. But just talking with Thetus had gone a long way in soothing her, and she knew it.
“I . . . have to get to bed,” she sighed reluctantly. “I’ve got guestroom duties in the morning, and a grocery run with mom.”
“Groceries?” Thetus asked. She nodded.
“Bread, eggs, milk, cheese—tell you what. I’ll get you your own cheese, would that be all right?” she offered impulsively. “Any kind you want.”
“Cheese—“ he sighed. “You have more than one variety?”
She laughed, a lovely husky sound that carried over the quiet water. “Oh yeah, big time, Thetus. Let me see if I can snag a few for you. Can you come back tomorrow, around the same time?”
“I believe I could arrange that,” he gravely told her, the twinkle in his eye putting levity in his reply. “I could bring fish—“
“Raw? Like sushi?” Sara replied, nose wrinkling a little. Thetus gave a slight shrug.
“I know not sushi, but the only cooking possible is over the vents from the sea floor. But there are mussels and clams and tender kelp and all manner of roe—“
“—Pass,” Sara laughed. “Just bring yourself and I’ll be happy.” Rising, she stretched a little and looked down at him, her expression almost tender. “See you tomorrow then. And . . . thanks.”
Thetus watched her blow out the lantern and waited until she’d climbed up the ladder safely before letting himself sink back down under the water.