A Mermaid's Heart
Ebby darted after Urokotori’s crimson tail fins, knowing exactly where the other mermaid was heading with the helpless human. While some mermaids cultivated schools of fish or vicious eels as pets, Urokotori kept a giant octopus in a cave not far from here. The mermaids delighted in feeding it, watching its arms and beak rip its meal to pieces—always while that meal was still alive.
“Wait!” Ebby cried as she pushed out of the kelp toward the rock face. Ahead, she spotted one of the octopus’s giant red arms retreating back into the cave.
Floating near the entrance, Urokotori smoothed her long black locks away from her face in satisfaction. “That’ll keep him.”
There was no blood filling the water, yet the human had disappeared from sight. An angry-looking octopus eye filled the cave entrance. Surely the creature couldn’t have eaten him that fast? “What did you do?”
Selachii stretched her arms languidly over her head and allowed her triggerfish to shimmy up her side, powerful mouth snapping the water. “Call for me when it’s time to play. I’m going to take a beauty rest.”
A stream of bubbles escaped Urokotori’s lips, and she rolled her eyes. “For all the good that will do.”
Lutana giggled. Selachii’s freckled face darkened and her amethyst hair seemed to stand on end as she turned on her sister.
Ebby drifted backward, sure there was about to be bloodshed.
Urokotori emitted a soft trill and reached for her fish harp. A suckered red arm shot from the cave, tip curling with menace. “Watch it now, sister.”
Selachii thrust out her jaw but backed into the kelp forest, disappearing from view.
Smirking, Urokotori turned to Ebby. “Timuri has permission to eat the human if he tries to escape. Don’t even think about trying to take him out to play unless I’m here.”
Ebby eyed the cave as the octopus resumed its camouflage among the rocks, then nodded. She knew better than to interfere with another mermaid’s pet.
With a flick of her tail, Urokotori darted up and over the rock face, headed off to find mischief elsewhere.
Lutana regarded Ebby, her golden eyes not unkind. “How frustrating.” Arching her back, she moved closer and ran a tender finger down the top of Ebby’s breast and over the nipple. “I can help relieve your tension if you like.”
Ebby took the other mermaid’s hand to stop further advances. Of all the mermaids, Lutana was the most benign. “I’m fine.”
On the ledge below the cave, Kato crept silently over the sand toward her from his hiding spot between some scattered boulders. Coming this close to the octopus’s lair was dangerous, and she wished her tiny friend had stayed away. Releasing Lutana’s hand, Ebby settled to the ledge and shielded him while he burrowed beneath the sand next to her. She wasn’t ready to give up on freeing the man, but she wasn’t sure what her next step should be.
“Once, Urokotori kept a man in that cave for over a month.” Lutana curled her tail to one side and sat in the sand beside her. “Until she forgot to renew his breath.”
“Oh.” It was bad enough to use a man, but to imprison him and use him over and over only to let him drown? Despicable.
“Humans are wonderful in how they can love multiple women.” Lutana’s pretty coral lips pursed into a pout. “But tragically fragile.”
Ebby stared at the dark cave opening. “We have to get him out of there.”
“I’m not crossing Urokotori.” Lutana spread her tail fin and stirred a flurry of debris from the ocean floor. “You saw what she did to Selachii’s tail to get that fish harp.”
A reflexive shudder passed through Ebby. That fight had been brutal. “Maybe I can offer her something in exchange?”
Ebby didn’t spend a lot of time with the other mermaids, so she didn’t know what kinds of things they might value, but her mother had liked Da’s jewelry. She toyed with the conch-spiral bracelet on her wrist. Da had made it for her just before she entered puberty, telling her it would bring her luck once she chose her gender; he’d always assumed she’d choose to be male.
Her throat felt thick as she remembered the look of disappointment in his eyes when her breasts had emerged.
Lutana watched Ebby stroke the bracelet with avaricious attention. “What are you offering?”
Suddenly uncomfortable, Ebby shrugged. “There’s all kinds of stuff buried around that shipwreck.”
“Ew.” Lutana withdrew her hand. “You expect me to dig in the muck with you? Forget it. And forget him. He’s just a pitiful human.” She rolled lazily onto her back and pushed off toward the kelp forest. “If you insist on having a male, at least find one of our own kind who can provide you a nest.”
As the mermaid’s gleaming tail winked out of sight between the fronds, Ebby rose from the sand. There was only one place she could go for advice on this; Uncle Zantu. He’d defeated mermaids before.
“C’mon, Kato.” She settled his bony carapace against the crook of her neck and he promptly nestled into her hair, holding tight for the swim.
Giving one final glance at the cave, she darted toward the surface, praying Uncle Zantu could come up with a rescue plan before the poor human’s breath-spell expired.
* * *
Cruz stared at the mottled gray octopus blocking the opening. Its arms had to be longer than he was tall and its bulbous, pulsing head blotted out the dim light entering the cave. Was that the only exit? Why had the mermaids put him in here? Swimming with mermaids definitely hadn’t been in the party-boat’s brochure.
Keeping one eye on the octopus, he kicked upward, arms outstretched, searching for the ceiling. Hard rock met his fingertips, edges worn smooth by the water. Here and there his fingertips discovered pockets of air trapped between the water and the stone, none more than a few inches in height. How long would his ability to breathe underwater last? At least it hadn’t gone away when the mermaids left. Hadn’t he read a story about a mermaid’s kiss granting water breathing? These mermaids fit the description he recalled, from their beauty to their voracious sexuality.
Using his hands to move along the dark cave ceiling, he reached a wall and followed it downward to the sandy bottom. The cave wasn’t small, but it wasn’t enormous, either, about the size of a large bedroom. Blinking, he realized he could see, at least a little. Was there a crevice somewhere letting light through? He lifted his gaze and was greeted by a trail of perfect teal-green handprints. Wherever he’d touched the wall now glowed.
He purposefully rubbed his fingertips along the rocks, illuminating the cave’s interior with dim green light. Spinning in a slow circle, he gauged his surroundings. The cave walls, though lumpy, had no visible exits except the one the octopus guarded. The sandy floor was littered with empty crustacean shells and a few bones from long-dead fish. He glanced at the creature guarding the entrance.
Someone on the boat must’ve noticed by now that he’d failed to come up for air. Surely, they’d send divers to look for him. Would they even think to look inside the cave? He needed to get a signal to them. Swallowing, he approached the cave entrance, praying the octopus was as frightened of him as he was of it.
One long gray arm shot out and struck him.
Bubbles burst from his lips and his chest felt like it was on fire as he slammed backward into the cave wall. Green light filled the cave—or was it the stars filling his vision? For a brief moment, he worried the blow had removed his ability to breathe water. Then he shuddered and breath returned to his lungs. Fuck, that hurt.
He ran his fingertips over the circular welts rising on his chest and glared at the octopus’s pulsing head. The creature eyed him back with hungry intelligence. For all he knew, the thing was saving him for a midnight snack. Did octopuses sleep? Cruz wasn’t sure, but he seemed to recall they were night hunters.
Backing up to the wall farthest from the entrance, Cruz kicked away the clutter of shells and settled to the floor. His exertion with the mermaids had tired him out, and he had no idea when they might return. If they would return.
He hoped he wasn’t on the menu once darkness fell.