“Marin!” Saeesar called behind me as I broke the surface of the ocean. We were surprisingly closer than I thought to land. The crevice had been part of a deep section off a long shallow shelf. Instead of wasting the charm, I used it to push myself towards the soft sand beach. “Marin!” Saeesar called again. I ignored the call, intent on putting feet to earth.
At the beach edge, I cleared out my gills and drew in fresh, humid air. The type like Grabble in summer when the wind had settled. Suffocating, when the sea turned into the heavens, and people sweated like they’d been swimming. The trees were strange compared to the pine and birch I had grown up with. Broad overarching palm fronds and thick staggered trunks clung to the beach edge.
I couldn’t survive in the human world the way I was. Going back now was chancing my freedom and my life. Going in the ocean unclaimed meant dealing with Leviathan and others of the Antumnos. Nuada gave me the creeps. Leviathan, I understood. That motivation was almost tangible and bluntly honest.
People from the village had a saying: “Come to a crossroads and count the stars above you. Make a pact with the first person to intersect with you, if you wish to leave.” An easier way of saying it: “When no other choice is available, make a pact with the devil that lets you sleep at night.”
“Marin Goranich?” Saeesar called from several feet out in the surf. If he came in much closer, he would beach himself and get stuck.
“Where’s a freshwater source?” I asked, digging a foot into the sand to get myself upright. The world protested, slipping sideways on me. The sun was shifting past midday, and I was famished.
“South.” He pointed along the beach edge.
“How far?” I called back, starting on my trudge.
“Not more than fifty spans.” He followed me in the surf.
“Your length?” I asked.
“Not my length, no. I’m not sure how to relate it to you. You saw Nuada’s length. Twenty of her, at least,” he answered.
The beach ran up against a set of dark cliffs, interspersed with broad foliage. Birds flitted in and out of the trees. He had brought me to paradise, and I was lost. Set my sail and let the rudder list; I was floating to the whims of the gods.
“I don’t like her,” I grouched at him.
“She takes time to warm up to,” he hedged.
“Thank you for getting me to someone who could help with my shoulder.” I still couldn’t lift it and rotate it properly, but it was better.
“Of course! You were wounded, and you warned me of danger with those humans. Why did they injure you?” Saeesar asked.
“I was camped on their territory, so they wanted me to leave until they realized I was different. Ever heard of a circus?” I scrambled over a jut of volcanic rock.
“No, it is a new word for me,” Saeesar admitted.
“Companies collect odd and strange creatures and employ people who can do tricks or look strange. They travel, acting and performing for money from crowds of other people. There’s something called a sideshow, and they are usually part of the circus. That’s where bearded ladies and strong-men and short people exhibit themselves. The men, once they saw my spots, changed from wanting me off their land, to wanting to put me in a sideshow,” I explained.
“But they shot you? You said no?” Saeesar asked, confused.
“They would have gained a finder’s fee for me. I may or may not have actually gotten paid. I can’t stomach that kind of attention. It was something Jarl had initially wanted to do with Taigre; send him to the sideshow. I couldn’t fathom seeing him stuck in a tank. That wouldn’t have been good for him.” I ended up having to backtrack at an impassable rock and get into the water.
“Thank you for not sending him to this sideshow place. A finder’s fee. I am not sure I understand.” Saeesar shimmied over low rocks in the water rather than go far out to get around.
“You know how humans value pearls?” I splashed through the tide around the rock.
“Yes.” He pulled closer in as the shallowness of the beach dipped on the other side of the rocks.
“Does the Antumnos deal in money, currency, taxes, barter?” I lifted away deep lobed leaves to search for the absentee shoreline.
“We will barter, yes, but I am not familiar with the use of the other terms.” Saeesar shrugged. “We’re almost to the freshwater, around that next outcrop, and you’ll be at the delta.”
“Essentially, they would have bartered my life for pearls.” I gave him the blunt version, finding the edge of the shore again.
“But you are not theirs to give.” His tail slapped the surface of the water in frustrated incredulity.
“You’re not wrong there. If I had been one of them and come across Taigre, you would not have gotten him back. Humans, some are good, some are not, and it’s not always easy to tell who is who.
“Met some old-timers who came out of the Civil War and went through emancipation. Met some of their kids on the docks. Met enough sharecroppers on my way down from Vale to Grabble. Some of them who lived through the 1900 flood. People take advantage of others when it benefits them.
“We’re parasitic by nature.” I turned at his rock, the smell of the water changing noticeably. The temperature dropped, and the delta merged between a clear soft green and a murky algae green. Saeesar dashed into the deep river. I followed him along the bank while he rolled in the current in ecstasy.
“You are not parasitic. I’ve seen enough parasites, and you do not do what they do,” Saeesar defended.
“In the general sense of the term, humans are parasitic. We may not latch on and feed like your lamp rays or snot worms, but we take and take and take. You would make me the wealthiest man in the world.” I tried to elaborate.
“But I am not yours, not to give away.” Saeesar picked leaf shed out of his tresses, flicking detritus back into the water where he would gather it all over again.
“No. You know that. I know that. There are people out there that do not see the situation that way. Don’t trust humans, Saeesar. Learn them, but don’t trust any individual you just run into. They won’t have your best interests in mind. Right now, most of the nation’s people, the country I live in, are looking for the easiest way to fill their stomachs. If they found out about the Antumnos and decided to set value to it, your world would collapse right alongside mine.” I paced with him as he enjoyed his bath.
“You are a river creature, aren’t you?” I called out to him, putting my feet in the water. It was soft, compared to the ocean. Cooler, calming, it was easy to slip into the stream and walk along the edge as he fluffed his fins and cleaned the algae from his tail.
“Yes. It feels better. The water doesn’t burn my gills like it does out there,” he admitted, finding himself a large rock to bask on, his eyes and back fins above the waterline. His tail and side fins flicked in and out of the rocking tree light.
“Can I really not breath this?” I waded farther in to sit on a rock close to his.
“If I find the sea to burn, you will think you have died. Reason why I chastised Taigre when he dragged you into the sweetwater mix. It can take a long time getting used to waters that are not natural to you. That could have killed you. Nuada is not wrong. A Kraken child and a Fomorii would not make a good match.” His gaze slid from me to regard the canopy shading our spot.
“Explain the names. Fomorii, child of Domnu, Bet-tah. I know you are Saeesar. Also, what are charms? They help a lot, but humans can’t do what you do.” I slipped deeper into the water to enjoy floating.
“You do not fear the river?” Saeesar pushed himself from his rock to circle me warily. I rolled my shoulders in response.
“Charms are manipulation of energy. Those of the Antumnos and those with blood from the Antumnos have a varying capacity for them. You could learn to cast them with time. Llyr is higher than the saltwater gods. Domnu is higher than the sweetwater gods. Fomorii is an old name for us from when Nuada fought on the side of Llyr against Domnu. The Fomorii, underrepresented in the Antumnos Council for millennia, had thought to take the seat and transfer the council. A revolution broke out and a lot of both sides were killed, more so from the children of Domnu than the children of Llyr. This was well before my time, or my mother’s. Are you really okay to be in this?”
“I grew up hunting crawdads in the creek, swimming in lakes in summer. I’ve waded flooded pastures. These waters, they aren’t something as broad and deep as that out there.” I pointed back the way we came.
“But rivers can be deep. There are those of the Antumnos who are the same as Nuada in size. Do not think it safer,” he cautioned.
“Do I know that feeling. Viktor, my younger brother, got too far out once, and I had a fun moment of running into a massive catfish getting him out of the water. Crept on my memories for weeks,” I chuckled.
“You were angry out there, and now you are singing? All the sea gods will hear you,” Saeesar whispered, stuck between indecision of reaching out to hold me above water and leaving me to my floating.
“Maybe I’m a solitary creature, one that finds a person, or two, and after that, it’s too much to handle?” I offered, catching onto one of his wrists. He startled at my audacity. “I’m probably not what you need here, just a problem to navigate around. Mate Claim isn’t something you’d want with me.
“Bet-tah is what you are, isn’t it? Your group in the Antumnos, like Nuada and Dian Cecht are different from Taigre’s family? Fomorii refers to the separation between the fresh and saltwater factions, not your clan or tribe or people, yes?” I guessed, pulling closer to him and his wavering uncertainty at my motivations.
“Yes, those are what the names mean.” His fins flattened at the assessment. He fluffed back out and looked up at me, “but I would argue with you on the validity of Mate Claim. Siren’s Voice. You’re singing now. Can you not feel it?”
I closed my eyes to listen to the trickle of water over boulders. The sound of home. The drip of humidity off the leaves. The coating of the freshwater spray on my skin. Saeesar swallowed. I opened my eyes to regard his expression. He was watching my spots intently, all of his fins feathered out into clouds. “What?” I fought a smile wavering at the corner of my lip.
“I – um -” His fingers slipped along my waist, but his focus was across my chest and arms.
“I’m doing weird patterns again, aren’t I?” I asked after his closeness. He dipped below the water and came back up, flicking his eyes between mine and the rest of me. I snorted at the edge of the water, ducking below the surface to run fingers along a stripe on one of the side fins along his tail. He stilled, fixating. “Is ducking your way of showing yes? Like I nod?” The charm had to still be active between my throat and iase.
“You know what you’re doing?” He joined me under the water.
“Admiring you?” I traced the edges of his fin before bobbing for the surface to grab another breath of air and diving back to him.
“I mean, well, you see,” he stuttered as I traced the feathered edges of his fins in fascination. Delicate, they tickled my fingertips. My lights played in tight patterns up my arms in response. He twisted, all of his fins flashing in the river light.
I pushed for the surface and sucked in more air, and let it go, this time diving on empty lungs. I reached for him. He grabbed my wrist, pulling me so I could curl around him. I kissed him, taking a breath of hellfire. He held on until I had fought past that first flash of pain. His fins wrapped around me protectively. Returning the kiss tentatively, he pressed his charm into my chest, helping me draw in and out on the burn.
“The sea gods, Nuada, they’ll recognize us, yes?” I gasped past the sensation of drowning in moonshine.
“Are you sure? Weren’t you the one who said yesterday that humans need time?” Saeesar asked.
“Maybe we’ll find love, if those in the Antumnos even understand the concept. For now, can we seek protection in each other?” I twisted with his movements, slipping along his ridges.
“You’ve never seen a Mate Claim display,” Saeesar whispered in startled awe. “Kraken or Fomorii, and you can’t hear yourself. It’s all instinct, and you don’t even know you do it.”
“No. I’m not sure I ever will. Someday, I’ll play you songs on my mandolin or guitar.” I slipped my hands behind his neck.
“You’re dancing,” he hedged.
“How does this work with you?” I trailed fingers down his chest.
“Work?” he swallowed.
“Maybe I missed the concept of Mate Claim?” I offered. “You said you’d seen it. That often there was a pairing off after only a couple hours?”
He settled timid fingers over mine. “You seem to know what you’re about.”
“Is this the time to ask if Bet-tah approach this like Taigre and Keris, or is this more of a trout thing? You’re quite literally three times longer than me, so I’m trying to, uh, you know?” I hesitated.
“Like Keris.” Saeesar’s fins shimmered in the dappled sunlight. I paused, calculating. “Your spots have gone dim, Marin?”
“I’ve seen enough livestock in my life. I’m trying to work out how this isn’t going to hurt,” I admitted.
Saeesar got the concept of where my problem lay, all of his fins going slick as his fingers traced across my skin absentmindedly. “You um, well, I thought, see you’re Kraken. I thought you were going to…” he trailed off.
A miniature jack and a Clydesdale came to mind at that admission. I was insignificantly small around the others of the Antumnos I had met up to now. The world turned vastly more intimidating all at once. “I’m not going to say no, but am I assuming you designated this off of some hierarchy thing in the Antumnos that I’m not familiar with, or…? Again, three times my size, I have some doubts, size-wise, that I’ll please you in much of any way?”
Saeesar ducked at the question, his way of nodding yes. “You’re not wrong. There is a hierarchy in the Antumnos.”
I shifted from teasing and admiring to tug him toward some of the low rocks where I could more easily perch. “Would there still be this problem if I were capable of bearing children? Would that impact how this went?”
“Paired like that, I would still be secondary to you because you are Kraken child, but I would be provider.” He let me pull him to rest between my knees.
“Okay. Let’s just clear this one up now. Antumnos hierarchy is bullshit,” I told him.
He shifted in protest like I had said something taboo. “I’m not sure you understand, Marin. You’re – you’re up there being Puca’s child. You guarantee someone will die if you mark them.”
“A grim reaper?” I clarified.
“That is an unfamiliar term, but the sensation feels right. If you’re down here long enough, you’ll come across more of your siblings. I told you, Puca’s children pack hunt other Kraken and sea gods. You bite someone, the rest will come,” he explained.
“I bit Taigre.” Horror flashed all of my spots bright at that realization.
Saeesar’s eyes went wide at that as I pushed him off me and launched myself into the river current. “Bit him? When?”
“When he dragged me under that first time. I got scared, and he wasn’t letting go. I got one of his fingers. Where are we going?” I demanded as I let the headwater carry me to the delta.
“Pull out and clear your gills before you smack into the ocean, Marin! You think river water hurts; that mix is going to make you pass out!” Saeesar cautioned, catching my foot before I could make it into the murky swirl. I did as I was told and clambered into the swampy mud and spat out the water.
“Who’s more likely to have others like me come after them, Leviathan or Taigre, right now?” I demanded, the water taking its sweet time clearing.
“Leviathan. You took a full chunk out of that massive snout. Taigre had all his fingers when I saw him.” Saeesar answered from the ocean side.
“Do we have time to get there? Is there a way to let the Antumnos know there’s been a mistake?” I waded into the water and dived in. Saltwater, I had to admit, felt significantly better on my gills.
Saeesar reached for my hand as I struggled against the current we turned into off the island. “Hold tight and let me know when that charm goes. Dian Cecht said your ribs will eventually soften to passing water through your gills, but to not push it, lest they crack from strain. You’re fast, but I can cover the distance with less effort. I’ll get us there faster.”
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