By Beka Gremikova
Askos looked too quiet to be the home of a murderer. Perched on a shady hill overlooking the nestled cottages, Tula unrolled her seaweed parchment and gripped her squid-ink quill. Below her, a man sat by a stream fishing, a broad-rimmed hat sloped over his eyes. Humans harvest fish in fresh water, she wrote, and not only the sea.
She sighed and rolled the stiffness from her shoulders. So far, her exploratory mission hadn’t unearthed any great secrets to the humans’ success in the Land-Sea War.
The traitorous thought came unbidden. She squeezed her eyes shut and leaned her head back against the tree looming behind her. Careful, Tula. Don’t turn your back on the mer yet. She’d begged the elders to let her prove her loyalty through this mission. They’d grudgingly agreed, unaware that her true—and secret—purpose was entirely personal.
That, after fourteen years of living through war, she could find her father—and, perhaps, some peace.
A bug landed on her leg, and she swatted at it. Her fingers brushed the indigo scales peppering her skin, their swirling shark-fin design a reflection of her mother’s scale pattern. She rubbed at her aching chest. Seven years since Mama’s death, but the hurt still swelled fresh and often.
She scrunched her toes into the soft, slightly damp grass. Even after two weeks of being on land, she still found the ticklish sensation of dew-dropped blades strangely soothing. She took a few deep breaths and stuffed her supplies back into her pack before heading down the slope.
The stream’s gurgling echoed as she approached the base of the hill. The man she’d seen earlier yawned, covering his mouth with a deeply tanned arm.
Tula wet her lips. “Excuse me, sir?”
An unintelligible grunt.
Better than a mistrusting stare, she supposed. She gripped the strap of her seaweed pack. “Do you know where I can find Captain Arick Klyn?”
The man’s shoulders stiffened. A breeze ruffled his earth-brown tunic. He tilted his head back, spearing her now with glittering dark eyes. His gaze roved over her face, taking in the tiny, fingernail-shaped scales that covered her cheeks. “And what’s a good little mer-child wanting with a mer-killer, hmm?”
“I’m not a good little mer-child.” Tula’s fingers clenched into fists. “I’m half-human.” Which was why, no matter how she loved the ocean, the land drew her in.
The man lurched to his feet, ambling toward her with a confident yet bow-legged stride. A tingling suspicion nibbled at her. “And you’re Captain Klyn.” She gulped. He seemed so much… harsher than she’d hoped.
She’d envisioned her father as a tall, welcoming figure who would whisk her away from the repressive mer, who would offer her a safe place to truly mourn her mother’s death. This man didn’t seem safe at all. What if he hates anything to do with the mer after what they did? What if he hates me? Her chin wobbled.
“I’m not much for captain-ing anymore.” Klyn’s fishing line bent under a sudden tug, but he ignored it. “Poor thing. Guess the mer kept you away from land.” He shuddered and patted her shoulder. “Terrible place, the sea.”
Memories of her mother filled her mind: collecting seashells, braiding seaweed crowns, coaxing octopi out of hiding… Despite what the mer had done, the sea was beautiful. Just like the earth, despite the wars humans waged.
“How can you say that?” Tula whispered, her throat clogging.
Klyn yanked his fishing pole out of the water, gripping it with white-knuckled fingers. “The sea stole everything from me,” he snapped. “The love of my life. The lives of my brothers, uncles, sisters in that lands-damned war. I want nothing to do with it, or the mer.”
Her stomach dropped. How could this man embrace a mer-child as his own? She clenched her fists. She’d been a fool to hope. She’d go back to the ocean and never think of him again. He could sit here and rail against the sea until he rotted.
Klyn raised his arm, rubbing at his eyes. “Child, I’m sorry—”
Her gaze snagged on something glinting from his wrist. A braided rope bracelet strung with deep, swirling purple scales in a shark’s fin pattern.
She reached out, brushing the familiar ridges. If Mama had loved this man enough to trust him with her own scales…
Tears welled again. “Do you really hate everything from the sea?” she whispered. “Even if it’s part of you?” Her heart thudded.
His eyes widened before he squinted closely at Tula’s scale pattern. “Lands-damn.” He grasped her shoulders, breathing rapidly. “You… you’re… my… daughter?” His eyes shimmered.
Gone was the snarky, angry man. Here was someone Tula understood—broken, grieving, afraid to hope he wasn’t alone. Someone who lay awake at night, staring into nothing because memories clogged his mind. Who pushed down words because no one wanted to listen.
She bowed her head. “Mama told me you never knew. The mer took her away before I was born.”
Klyn tilted his head back, his hat flopping to the ground. “All I knew was that they forced her to fight for them. She… she was killed in the same battle as my brother.” His sharp features crumpled. He rubbed at the bracelet, and she noticed calluses on his fingertips.
Years of repressed grief swelled to the surface like a burgeoning wave, pushing her toward this stranger who was her father. “I—I miss her so much,” she whispered.
Silent sobs wracked his frame.
She fell against his chest. For a moment, he froze—and then his arms wrapped around her.
They might not have much in common, but they could grieve together.
“I’ll warn you.” Arick patted her back. “I’m no fine knight, child. I’ve killed mer, and I’ve… killed humans, too.” His entire body trembled, and she buried her face into his tunic and hiccupped.
“I’m not looking for a knight.” She met his dark, soft gaze. “Just my father.”