“Thus the Orpheans of Arion took upon them the vestiges of war, and made no war, but where war was made upon them.”
-- the Blood of Kraken, an ancient sea story
Turtle Rock jutted out of the ocean at the edge of the Pacific. It marked the end of the human world for the least curious of the mainlanders, and held a special spiritual significance because of it. As such, only one person lived on Turtle Rock, and even then, she didn't really live on the island. She spent most of her time in the western lagoon. It opened towards the mainland, so the water was especially clear and quiet. Crabs gathered there to feast on the little fishes. They grew fat and big and very juicy, and made a good soup. Catching them was difficult – at least it was so for a thin-armed girl alone on the ship, a a crickety houseboat that had seen too many rainy seasons. It rocked easily, trembling even under her steps. Inside, the belly was stuffed with family heirlooms – wooden crates, fish hooks, woolen socks, dull knives, silverware. She did not use much of it, but it was all handed down and warmly cared for, and so remained in the belly of her home.
Despite her pervading sentimentality, one heirloom she treasured above all else – her hat. Made of orange wool, white and green stripes were stitched through with aesthetic precision. She pulled it low over her brow – there was no brim, but there were three flaps covering her ears and neck and trailing down over her shoulders. All of her hair was stuffed up inside it, and her ears had gone for years without seeing light of day. Her cheeks were always pink though – it was a hat made for winter, and the sun on the isle was only ever blocked by monsoons, never blizzards. Even today, when the sun scorched her bare skin, and clouds were a distant hope, she did not remove her hat. Pulling it lower over her brow, she set to hauling up the first of the cages. She grasped the rope, wiggled her fingers in the oversize gloves, and strained. Her feet slid in slime until they bumped up against the railing and braced against it. She felt the slack kick as the rock weights tumbled off. The load seemed lighter than usual, and she did not become overwhelmed this time. It thunked against the boat, scraped as she drew it up, crab legs dangling out of the bottom’s wire weaving. She slid it over the rail and was careful not to squish the legs.
“Ha! There’s muscles in these arms yet,” she proclaimed, patting her biceps. Her haul dripped over the deck. “And not the kind you would eat, crabbities,” she teased as she lifted the hatch. “Neh? What’s this?”
Large and persistently apparent as a blister, laying on top of all her lovely juicy crabs, was a prawn scampi, freshly dead. Its eyes, though like blooddrops, were clear. The shell was the color of a day-old bruise, with thorny bits yellow as puss. The crabs wriggled underneath it frantically, making it move like a macabre marionette.
“Ick.” She picked up the scampi by an antennae. “You don’t look so good to eat, prawnish.” The antennae snapped off and the prawn hit the deck. The boat reeled, she grasped the cage and slid towards the prow, her home reeling as if in a storm. The prawn tumbled past her, forward and back as the boat heaved to and fro, till it thunked against the solid railing at the prow, and the boat trembled to a stop.
“Neh? A rock-the-boat prawnish? Bad luck charm, yeah,” she mumbled, and peeped around the cabin at the front deck. She sniffed, startled at the creature on deck. A kappa! A seademon like a mermaid upside down, with a fishy face and limbs like a human – if humans were scaled, thorny and slimy. A pool of seawater spread from purple feet with nails yellow as puss. It did not look too different from the dead prawn, but it smelled a whole lot worse.
She cringed – it had sighted her, and she hadn’t had time to stash her haul.
“You there!” it said, wagging a clawed finger at her. “Fishmonger! I am quite hungry, you see, so show me some fresh wares! I need them to eat on the spot! Can’t swim another inch without a bite of flesh. You can understand me, can’t you?” it asked, mistaking the slightly horrified, slightly offended expression on her face for slowness. It picked up the scampi and bonked her on the head with it. “Here now! Here now! Pay attention. Poor fishmonger, had to be born human, not that bright or anything. Can you hear me?” it cupped its mouth with one hand and the scampi. “Can you get that? Do your ears work? Or do you have any ears?”
It reached out to lift a flap of the hat, but she clapped her arms crossed over her head and snorted. The kappa did not much care – it had noticed the cage cradled in her legs. It jerked open the hatch.
“Ah! Crabs! Nice, fresh and kicking, I see, first catch of the day? Quite good, I’ll take a dozen, but you have,” it shook the scampi as it counted , “just six. Just six? Not very good at this either are you? And this? This one’s dead isn’t it?” It pounded the scampi on the deck, its long claws flailing. “Not much good, is it, only good for snails and bottom feeders, this isn’t very quality minded, you know.” The kappa pounded harder, till it shattered a claw. The surviving antennaes drooped as the kappa held it up. “Yes, quite dead, smells funny,” it ripped off the mandibles and part of the thorax with a terrific squelch, “not very good for your reputation in the market, now, eh? But go on, give me some crab, all of it, and I won’t speak a word to anyone about this.” It took one of the blood-red droplet-eyes and pinched. The ichor trickled down its claws, some flecked its swollen lips. A blue tongue, nervous and fidgety, leapt out and mopped it up. “You’ll give it, fishmonger, yes? All the nice crabs?”
For a second, she did not move, the cage still clutched in her legs and her head in her arms. But then she moved – everything did. The boat lurched, the prow bowing again into the water, the kappa and the girl smacked against the railing. They clutched it, looked down and saw a woman with hair the color of kelp and armor brighter than sunlight on waves. She had grasped the rail, and now she grasped the kappa by a fin on the side of his head. It squealed and pushed off the balustrade with his feet, but she was not letting go – his leap pulled her up, and it was then that the girl saw what was not scale mail, but scales on a very large supple and muscular tail that just missed thwacking her in the head as the kappa and mermaid launched backward onto the deck. The weight misplaced, the boat reeled, pitched, swayed and, only by some grace of counterweights in the many heirlooms in the hold, the boat managed to right itself.
“Kappa!” the mermaid snapped, in a voice the girl did not think had ever made a siren’s song, “You are to halt in the – will you stop – name of the Taras Arion – just quit it! I hereby order you – stop! – to surrender to the law – sto-o-o-op moving!” She grasped the kappa by the neck and banged its head against the deck, her very short patience worn out by its struggling. The kappa was not phased by the blow.
“Sanctuary!” it cried, flailing. “Sanctuary!”
“What the hell?” the mermaid snarled. She removed her hands. The kappa scrambled away.
It paused, put his hands on his lower back, and blinked, as if realizing what it had said. Then, even quicker than thought, it nodded. “Yeah – yeah – yeah, th-that’s right. Sanctuary, sanctuary, uh huh.”
“This isn’t a chapel or a graveyard,” the mermaid growled. Her tail thwacked against the deck, and the wood tremored underneath it. She made a move as if to crawl after the kappa.
“Ai, sh-shhhhh-she, she told me so!” it stammered, shaking a finger at the girl, then returning to the pose it obviously thought was made by all law-abiding citizens.
The mermaid rounded on her. “You told it what?”
The girl shook her head dumbly.
“Yu-huh! She said this was a church!”
“Yuh yuhs! Yes. A church.” The kappa made a motion with its lips and the forehead muscles that, if looked at from the right angle and far away enough, could have indicated indignation.
The mermaid narrowed her eyes at it. “That’s it, you slob, if you’re gonna run away from jail at least try to go to mainland where there are graveyards, snail-food. And keep in mind you ought to bury yourself there too, save the kappa race a few generations of idiocy.” She unstrapped a trident from her back; the demon balked. “Out! Go! Get in the water and swim, you rock-brained idiot.”
The kappa looked at her a moment, at the red sharp gills on her blue tail, which flapped impotently. It breathed in, and stamped. “Ha! I can breathe air days longer than you can, miss corporal gull-bait! G’on, you jump in, g’off to get your soldiering buddies, you’ll be half as lucky as urchin eaters to find me here when you get back!”
She pounded the trident on the deck; wood splintered and the trident rang. “You want to play with the big fishes? Fine.” Her tail curled and flipped about at the end, the tattered fins twisting and falling and swishing about. With concerted effort and little grace, she dragged herself with the dead weight of her tail to the edge of the boat, up over the banister, and fell into the lagoon. There was no triumph in the kappa’s face; his knees trembled, and the claws were in his mouth, picking at very small sharp teeth.
“The…big fishes?” the girl echoed, her hands clamping back over the hat.
It came as a rumble and a tremor on deck, the lagoon trembling as all the crabs and snails and clams and big fishes and little fishes and prey and predators removed themselves into the farthest corners of the lagoon in a single burst. A large ripple cut through the water, trailing in from the lagoon's mouth. The ripple became a disturbance, the disturbance became a wave, the wave became a breaker as something greyer than a storm broke the surface. But neither the kappa nor the girl on deck were paying it mind; the breaker rushed the ship which was already rocking. The kappa screeched and dove overboard. The girl stood, lurching against the boat's motion, and scrambled on the railing. The breaker caught the ship, and she tumbled off, falling past the crest and into the swirling aftermath. She was tossed up, down, thrown in the eddying water, and found her balance near the bed. She looked down upon a crab that was rushing into the sand again. A shuddering and muffled creaking rumbled through the water. The girl kicked off from the bottom and quickly surfaced.
"Gah!" She gulped in air, and blinked away seawater. Flotsam floated past her – a blue, battered tile smudged slightly with slime. Blinking away more than seawater now, she raised her eyes to the wreck. The roof was clutched in the rocks offshore, the cabin half-submerged among the shallows, and upside down on the beach lay the broken hull, gushing water and heirlooms.
She could have handled the scene with a few tears, under ordinary circumstances. If this had been the morning after a storm, she would thanking the stars that she had survived. If pirates had gotten bored one day and decided to mess around with a local, she would have been happy that the silverware could be fished out of the lagoon. If Poseidon himself had conjured a tsunami to punish her for not quite knowing who he was or how to worship him, she would have bowed low and erected a temple to him that day. But she was staring at a kappa, a mermaid, and a large, long-necked, grey speckled creature who could barely keep its mass afloat in the shallow water – and the last of the crabs was crawling out of the broken cage.
"Hey!" she yelled.
The mermaid was strapping the unconscious kappa to the massive creature, loose wet hair clinging to her limbs and trailing over the water's surface. She paid the girl no mind. "Come on, Pashana. I'd like to make it for afternoon meal at least –"
"Oh yeah? What about my meal?" the girl cried. She treaded closer to the mouth of the lagoon, as if to block their exit – nevermind that the long-necked Pashana outweighed her by several thousand pounds. "Just look – my house! My crabbities! You just better be glad I ain't had no soup left."
The mermaid's eyelids moved slowly down and up over the too-limpid pools of blue. "Catch more crabs then."
"You smasheded my cage!"
"Tools are an unfair advantage in the hunt."
"Look," she humphed, "I ain't got no tail, no gillies, no nuffin to help me catch the fish. Nature gave me no tools, I'm human, that's why I gotsa make tools. I don't eat if I ain't got 'em!"
"Good thing for me it isn't my problem."
"Nyllar," Pashana spoke, her behemoth belly vibrating, quick ripples tracing the sound, "Standard protocol for civilian complaints…"
"She isn't a civilian," Nyllar snapped. "She's a human."
"But isn't she a sea dweller?"
"No! She lives on land."
Pashana moved her head to look at the wreck – it took a considerable amount of time to twist a neck that long. "Seems to me she lived on the sea."
Nyllar's mouth moved dumbly. She scrambled for an excuse. "Well, she's not a mermaid, or a Denizen like you – she can't exactly survive the trip to headquarters."
The Denizen narrowed the first of three transparent lids over her large eyes. The mermaid snorted.
"Here!" she snapped, and launched something at the girl. It splooshed in the water, and she fished it out before it could sink. She turned it over in her hands – it could have been seaweed, or at least a bizarre amalgamation of kelp. Frond-like appendages trailed out of a small knot of pliable but firm red-brown bladders.
Nyllar scoffed. With a kick of her tail, she was at the girl's side. "Put it on your nose, you stupid human."
Pashana was in the process of lowering her head. "You can't call her 'stupid human' all day. Little female, what is your name?"
She squinted. What was her name? The kappa had called her fishmonger, but what father would name his kid – "Oh! Iruka."
"Iruka?" the mermaid snorted. "Sounds like mainlander babble."
"Iruka is fine," Pashana said, her snout at last dipping into the water. "Mainlander babble isn't too different from our air language, Nyllar."
"How do you know air language, anyway?" Nyllar did not look at the trident, but Iruka had the distinct impression that her hand was well aware of its location.
"I've alwuhs spoken like this," she said. She felt blood rush out of her cheeks and steal its warmth down into her feet. "It's how my mum and dad talked."
"Where's your 'mum' and 'dad'?" The mermaid's eyes darted around the beach.
"Nyllar, we'll miss the meal," Pashana interjected, her voice rumbling out of the water.
"Right. Put that on your face." Nyllar slid an arm through ropes bound over the Denizen's back.Seeing her hesitate, she slapped Iruka's hand up and the weed stuck to her face. She grabbed her arm and put it through the ropes – Iruka protested with a muffled yelp, the bladders of the weed pressed into her nose and suctioned onto her mouth. The mermaid tied the frond around her head. Iruka couldn't breathe.
Then Pashana moved, and Iruka was pulled under the water as if caught in a riptide. For all the slow movements of her neck above the surface, Pashana swept through the lagoon like a tidal wave, effortlessly carrying the mermaid, kappa and girl. Through her shock and the eddying water, Iruka saw the familiar bed fly past her – the lava rocks, the rippled crab-shelter sand, the trembling fish in the shallows, the young coral at the mouth of the lagoon – and they fell into the unfamiliar sea.
Iruka looked below her at the shelf, at the red, silver, blue and yellow fish that zipped behind kelp and coral and into sand, escaping the path of the Denizen; at the seaweed that trembled in Pashana's wake, at the clouds of sand as clams, crabs, flounders and rays scrambled into the seabed. But gradually the shelf fell away, and all that lay below her, down into shadow and fear, was motionless blue. They moved through a forest of slender strips of sunlight, down to where their long glow wavered and failed. Blue overtook them. The surface was distant and darkening and they encountered no creatures in the margin of light. Iruka was quickly forgetting she had known any color but this boundless, formless hue. She did not notice the wonder of her breathing; the bladders in her mouth secreted overrich air that made her head light, and a sweet water absently drunk. The rope was cutting into her arm, and the mermaid held the other stiffly. Water rushed over her stronger than any wind, cold and constant. Pashana's belly rumbled in a gentle oversized purr, almost too faint to feel. But Iruka noticed only the taste and texture of blue.
So distracted, she did not have time to notice their destination from afar and prepare herself. Pashana rushed into it, and the gates engulfed them before Iruka could react.
The sea was no longer empty – it was overfull. Force crashed over Iruka's skin, sent from the rushing of a thousand creatures. Mermaids, mermen, a hundred Pashanas in a dozen sizes and colors – blue kappa, serpentine iara, selkie in their seal skin, makara with their crocodile noses, ray-tailed oceanids upon hyppocampi, jewelled nagas, green-haired rusalka riding sea horses, eel-like nereids. All these creatures poured into an avenue between towers of cultured coral, pushing into each other, swimming above and below and darting through buildings with open floors. Among the throngs of races, all packed together in cliques as they swam, Iruka became painfully aware of her legs.
But before the feeling of blue could take hold in her, panic struck. A naga's jewels tangled in Iruka's tattered shirt, and the self-important strokes of the snake tail dragged her out of the rope and fast away from Pashana. Some ways into the city, the naga noticed the extra weight. She looked back and emitted a shriek that ravaged Iruka's ears even through the rushing water. The snake woman tore Iruka's shirt from the jewel's setting and shoved her aside, darting back into the tide of sea creatures. The girl tumbled back and smacked into rushalka, who tickled her vehemently – she nearly snorted the weed from her face. She kicked away, was pushed by a dark-eyed merman, tumbled through a cluster of young mermaids, floundered in the wake of a blister-red Denizen. Then no one pushed her. The avenue and the rushing creatures continued past her, behind and to the side and up; she was falling away. Between two of the massive lava beds on which the city was built, past the layers of vegetation and fish among the rock, she tried to swim up. She saw below her titanic chains, groaning in the movement of the ocean, stretching out of the blue density and clutching the submerged isles. Her heartbeat, in her ears, she flailed, reached for, the chain, still sinking.
A shadow passed over her and into the nadir. She felt her shirt pulled tight, herself pulled so fast the blood in her veins felt suspended. The rock, the seaflowers and fish blurred -- she came into the avenue so abruptly that the motion in the water shocked her. Inside the weed, her mouth dumbly motioned out to her supposed rescuer, Pashana -- but the Denizen was dipping her neck out of the avenue. She snatched her by the cuff of her shirt and rushed on. Iruka looked back. Against the flashing scales of the avenue, the pale shadow of her hero moved. Pashana's speed was too great; Iruka caught only the deep shade and predatory shape of sharp fins.
She did not think long on her savior. Iruka dangled from Pashana's maw, her feet in view of rushalka hitching a ride on the Denizen's chest. She balled her body to hide from the hungry laughing eyes of the maidens and stayed wary of their fingers. As such, Pashana carried her passengers through the sunken city without further incident.