The Mermaid's Kiss
Part OneAuril stepped gently up to the half-opened door of his father’s shop. Peering cautiously into the vast room, Auril searched hopefully for the absence of the other workers. The craftsmen under his father’s steady command enjoyed the frequent visits from the overseer’s son, but today Auril wanted to catch his father alone. The early hour meant most other workers would still be at home, eating a hurried breakfast with their families before leaving for the smithies and metal shops that filled the town.
Seeing none in the great shop but his father, sitting bent over a workbench laden with tools and bits of metal, Auril smiled and slipped into the room. The workshops had been Auril’s favorite haunt since he first learned to walk, and the magnificent skill of the craftsmen fascinated him. His father, Argentel, served as overseer in his shop, and often let his son spend the morning with him, teaching him the fine nuances of his trade. Each workbench in the wide shop proclaimed the varying skills of its user. Those nearest to the doors bore strong tools for the rough bending and shaping of metal, while those further back were covered, like Auril’s father’s, with finer tools and smaller scraps of silver and iron. The most fascinating work happened on the far side of the room, however, and those benches held brilliant trays of gems and precious stones, and wore the sparkling sheen of spilled drops of molten gold.
Auril walked slowly along the first row of tables, pausing at each half-formed object. Laid carefully across the top of the first workbench, covered in a clean strip of linen fabric, sat a mighty sword. The edge, beaten to a deadly keenness, glinted dangerously at Auril, though the hilt was as yet unfinished. Another workbench bore half of an elaborate set of silver dishes. A large urn stood unpolished in the center, surrounded by several goblets and small bowls, all awaiting the jewels that would soon bedeck their rims. Auril paused, glancing back over his shoulder at the sword. It too seemed waiting for something to complete its glory, something besides the embossed leather that would complete the grip.
“Tavion started that blade a few days ago. He’s taking much care with it. It will be beautiful, and wicked, when he has finished.”
Auril looked back, meeting the smiling gaze of his father as he stood up and walked to his son’s side. “What are you doing here at this hour, Auril?” Argentel questioned. “Even the other workmen are not yet arrived.”
Auril smiled. “Looking for you. Neriss isn’t awake yet,” he added, naming his twin sister. “Neither is Uldara,” he said, grin widening into an expression of mischief. “She doesn’t know I’m out here.”
Auril’s father laughed. “Escaped your governess again, have you? I don’t know why Uldara is still here, after all you put her through. You and Neriss both. You’re like a pair of sprites, sometimes.”
“Oh no,” Auril said, shrugging his shoulders. “Not sprites. Uldara calls us hobgoblins.” He laughed as his father pulled him close in an affectionate embrace. “Tavion’s sword,” he continued, pointing to the great blade, “It looks lonely. It needs a hero to wield it,” he exclaimed, walking around the table on which the bright weapon lay.
Argentel nodded. “It does. And one day it shall have one, once it is finished. But you have yet to tell me what’s gotten you out of bed so early, when Uldara has a time of it just to get you dressed by noon, most days,” he added, eyes twinkling.
“The sun woke me up,” Auril said, motioning to the brilliant golden light that spilled through the high windows beneath the eaves of the metal shop. Then, hesitating a moment, he continued, “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course. What is it, son?” Argentel asked, pulling a second stool over beside his bench for Auril.
“Well…the traders are always telling tales about the merpeople. They see them often. And I wondered, since you work so closely with them…have you ever seen a mermaid too?”
“A mermaid?” Argentel repeated, surprised. When Auril nodded, he leaned back against the work table behind him, thinking. “No, I’ve never seen a mermaid before,” he continued after a moment, “but I have seen a merman. It was the only time I ever accompanied the traders in their ships. With me aboard, the merpeople would not let the traders near their capital city, but one of them came near enough to the boat to be spoken to.”
Auril leaned closer. “What did you say?”
Argentel’s voice carried all the strains of truthful sincerity, belied by the twinkle in his eyes as he answered. “Oh, not much. I asked him what the weather was like down there under the waves. He said they’d been having a rather damp year, lots of flooding, you know, but they were making the best of it.”
“You didn’t!” Auril protested, hiding his amusement beneath a stern frown.
“Alright,” Argentel laughed, “I didn’t speak to him, though I could have if I had wished. I do not think he would have answered me, though. But why do you ask about the merpeople? It is very rare for one who is not a trader to see them, much less to exchange words.”
“I know,” Auril answered, looking down. “But…I just wondered…are they really like people say?”
“What have people said about them?”
“I asked Uldara. She says they’re awful and mysterious, and wicked. Different than us, colder and more…more aloof. Dangerous. They don’t like us, and that’s why they stay in their city in the center of Lake Esrathel and we never see them near the shore here.”
Argentel was silent for a moment, deep in thought. “I believe Uldara is not totally correct,” he said finally, speaking carefully. “The merpeople are not evil by any means. Once, long ago when the world was much younger and magic still flowed in the air like water and light, the merpeople rose up from their cities far off from shore and came to the aid of the first humans, who fought along the lakeside against the werewolves that inhabited the wilderness for a place to call their own. No, the merpeople do not wish us evil. But it is true that they are not like us. They are more distant, more reserved. This very city thrives and expands because of our trade with the merfolk, and yet we still do not often see them. Only the traders that sail out on the waters in their long ships to facilitate the exchange of goods see the merpeople on a frequent basis.
“But I would not call the merfolk cold. We live in harmony with them. We depend upon their trade, they depend upon ours. If our city is attacked, the merpeople will aid our warriors, to the best of their abilities. We will do the same for them. Although they rarely come near the shore of the lake, and most people count themselves lucky to see a merperson so much as a very few times in a lifetime, the merpeople are our allies, and our friends. They are not cold. Just, as you said, different. And dangerous…I suppose they are, in their own way. But they do not wish us harm.”
Argentel paused, and Auril sat deep in reflection. A minute passed in silence, and the first of Argentel’s craftsmen had begun to filter into the vast metalwork shop before Auril looked up again. He saw his father watching him intently, and grinned self-consciously. Then he was up, laughing his thanks, wishing the first workmen a productive morning, and disappearing down the narrow path from the metalworks back down into the city.
Neriss sat up slowly, blinking and rubbing her eyes. The early morning sunlight shone brightly through her wide windows and the fine curtain that hung about her bed, creating a patchwork of light and shadow spread across the untidy folds of her coverlet. Something had awakened her, and as she turned from the window and pushed aside the thin drape she understood what it had been. The curtain of Auril’s bed was flung wide and his blankets fell in a tumble of blue and gold, more covering the floor than the high mattress.
Auril’s feet seemed to have perfected the art of silence, and Neriss knew his movements had not been loud enough to wake her. Her mind, tied closely with her twin’s, had rather felt his absence from the room, wakening with the sudden departure of its second half. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and slipped to the floor, the cool stone making her shiver slightly. Neriss couldn’t say what had pulled Auril so early from his bed, but she knew he was happy. His mood, though he was nowhere nearby, still impressed itself upon her, humming soft in the back of her mind. Smiling, Neriss tip-toed from their room, padding quietly down the great stone hall past Uldara’s bedchamber and out into the garden to wait for Auril.
Neriss and Auril’s bedroom window looked out onto a small, sun-filled walkway that led to a sheltered nook in the mountain that rose from the edge of Lake Esrathel, on which Methnai, the city of metalworks, was built. This tiny garden of sorts was not the one Neriss now occupied, however. As an overseer, Argentel held the honor of living in one of the great houses situated higher up in the city on the gently rolling mountains, and possessing a breathtaking terrace view away eastward over Lake Esrathel. The wide balcony-garden floated out above the rest of the city, backed by a wall containing more windows than stone, to catch every drop of morning light. It was to this balcony that Neriss went, and sat down against the narrow rail, looking through the stone balusters across the water. The sun’s rays, shining so clearly into the eastward window of her bedroom, had not yet reached the water, and it lay still sleeping under a shadowing silver-blue mist. Her young imagination sprang to life, and Neriss scarcely noticed the cold spring breeze that jumped from the lake, ruffling the silk of her nightgown and refusing to give way to summer’s first advances.
Thoughts flying with the birds that dipped and spun over the water, glorying in the return of daylight, Neriss jumped in surprise when Auril’s voice broke the relative quiet. “Neriss! I thought you might be here,” he exclaimed.
Turning, Neriss saw her brother vault over, rather than open, the small gate that led onto the wide path to the metalworks. “Auril! Uldara says you shouldn’t do that anymore, remember?” Neriss laughed, jumping up and skipping to her brother’s side.
Auril grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “I know. But she’s not here right now.”
Neriss tossed her head, smiling. Going to the wide windows that opened into the house, she peered through the glass, leaving a mist of breath and fingerprints. All was quiet inside, the only movement coming from a pair of serving maids going about their chores. Turning back, she addressed Auril again. “Where did you go? You woke me up when you left.”
“Sorry,” Auril returned. “I went to the metalworks.”
“But there’s nothing exciting to watch so early in the day.”
“I know. But I wanted to talk to Father alone,” Auril said, sitting down on a small bench near the rail.
“Mm.” Neriss nodded, and sat next to her twin. After a moment of silence, she spoke again, curious. “What did you talk about?”
“Oh…not very much.” Auril trailed off and looked down.
“I promise I won’t laugh at you,” Neriss prompted, poking him in the ribs.
Auril smiled, hesitated another moment, then continued. “Well…I just wanted to ask him about the merpeople.”
Neriss’s eyebrows shot up, surprised. “But you were just talking about them to Uldara a few days ago.”
“Yes, but I can’t help but keep wondering,” Auril said, gazing out over the lake far below as the morning sun began to light upon the waters and clear away the fog. “Uldara’s answer didn’t seem right. Merpeople being wicked and mysterious, and all that…it just sounds wrong. So I asked Father what they were really like. I figured he would know best, since he works so closely with the traders.”
“What did he say?” Neriss asked, eager.
“He said Uldara was right; that they are different and they aren’t very friendly. But he also said they’re not bad, like she told me,” Auril said. A smile spun across his face as he spoke the last sentence.
Neriss nodded and fell silent, seeming to drop the subject. As Auril stared across the lake, however, Neriss’s thoughts turned in her head. For the past month Auril had been different, uncertain and afraid, almost. Though others observing from the outside did not notice more than a slight change in her twin’s manner, Neriss saw what they could not through the sixth sense that linked her mind with his. And now, all of a sudden, Auril was happy again. She wondered if a connection lay between this change and his strange interest in the merpeople, often taken for granted by the people of Methnai, who knew little about the mysterious race besides the odd, beautiful, and sometimes frightening tales the traders told. And even these tales held only a doubtful amount of truth, embellished as they were with each telling.
Auril’s voice broke once more upon her thoughts. Without turning his head to Neriss, he asked, “What are you thinking about, sis?”
“You, actually,” she answered.
Now he did turn towards her. “Me? Why?”
“Well…you’ve been different lately. And now all the sudden the old you is back again.”
Auril grinned. “The old me? Oh come on. We’re only just thirteen. I’m not that ancient!”
Neriss laughed, then grew serious again. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Auril. But don’t think I can’t tell when something’s different.”
Auril shook his head. “No, it’s not that I don’t want to tell you. Just…you’ll not believe me.”
Neriss groaned. “Have I ever disbelieved something you’ve told me in confidence?”
“No...Not anything, you know, real, anyway,” Auril answered, then stood up, walking across the terrace to the windows. “Uldara will be out here searching for us soon,” he said, grinning.
“All right, all right,” he said, turning back to Neriss, who sat still looking extremely exasperated on the bench. “Just swear you’ll not say anything to Uldara, or…or anyone!”
“I won’t; you know I won’t,” Neriss answered.
Auril stood before her a moment, thinking. On a sudden he began, saying abruptly, and with pride, “I’ve seen a mermaid.”
Neriss jumped up, excitement blazing in her eyes. “I knew your questions to Uldara and Father must have something to do with it!” she exclaimed. “You’ve seen a mermaid? You really have? Where? When?”
Auril nodded calmly. “I have. It was a month ago…or close to that, I think. D’you remember the night we went down to the wharfs with Uldara to watch the trade ships come in? We were going to stay and see them unload.” When Neriss nodded, Auril continued, “And you also remember I snuck off while you distracted Uldara? I’d left my knife in our secret passage under the wharf the day before, you know, and I was going to get it back. Well, when I was down there by the water’s edge, just as I was about to turn back after grabbing the knife, I saw something shining in the water. Then a second later, a girl’s face was looking at me out of the mist. At first I thought it was Sadrie or Melithia, or another of your friends, so I called out and asked what they were doing in the water so late, and how they had found our secret tunnel.
“At first the girl didn’t answer at all, she just looked at me like she was curious. And then she came closer, and I saw that she wasn’t one of the girls from here at all. She wasn’t at all familiar. Then before I could say anything else, she was gone. I saw her tail splash and sparkle in the water as she disappeared. But she smiled at me before she left.”
Auril stopped speaking, and Neriss’s eyes glowed at him from her excited face. “How come you didn’t say anything before? A mermaid!”
“Because Uldara was there. And then we had to go to bed, and I didn’t get a good chance the next day, and I just…didn’t.” Auril shrugged.
Neriss satisfied herself with Auril’s very unsatisfactory excuse to exclaim, “Oh Auril, a real mermaid! Why can’t we tell anyone?”
“Well, Uldara doesn’t like the merpeople. She might be upset. And –”
Neriss jumped up, hissing over her shoulder for Auril to be silent. A moment later, one of the great windows opened, and a grey-clad woman stepped out onto the terrace balcony. Although she could be no more than thirty summers old, her face bore the time-worn appearance of one much older. Her dark hair, swept up into a braid around her head, also bore signs of premature age, streaked as it was with silver. Despite and beneath these things, however, she still held an air of old beauty, or perhaps just the intrigue of mystery, about her.
Neriss ran to the woman’s side, smiling happily. “Good morning, Uldara,” she sang, taking one of the woman’s hands and skipping beside her.
Uldara sighed. “And here you are! You and your brother both, I hope. What are you doing out so early, without telling a soul where you are? You could have caught your death of cold, Neriss, in nothing but that frilly bit of silk.” Despite her harsh words, Uldara smiled at Neriss, placing a kiss on her soft cheek. Beckoning Auril to come, Uldara shepherded the two children before her back in to the house, breakfast, and morning lessons.
Uldara walked alone along the curving shore of Lake Esrathel. The sand, glowing faintly silver in the starlight, warmed her bare feet and whispered dreams of turmoil. The moon, rising high in the sky above, bespoke the lateness of the hour. Auril and Neriss had long since been in their beds asleep. As thoughts of her two charges tumbled disorderly through Uldara’s mind, she shook her head, smiling softly. Despite everything, they were precious to her. They were her ties to the carefree world of innocence…of ignorance.
The sand beneath her feet felt somehow wrong. It always did. Like she did not belong upon the shore at all. The sound of the gently lapping water rushed like music in her ear, flooding her senses and aching to overpower her, draw her to itself. As though her very soul yearned for the waves. Uldara sank to rest upon one of the wide, flat rocks that jutted irregularly from the sand, a muffled, sobbing gasp escaping from her breast. Within her, her mind and heart rose in tumult, yet she was too accustomed to the sensation to give any greater outward sign. Every night it was the same. The lake spoke to her of freedom; the shore laughed and brandished her chains. The sand tormented her, and still she came, every night, to walk upon its fair and terrible surface.
The moon reached its height, and began to fall back towards the west. The rock on which Uldara sat became her bed, her thin cloak both pillow and blanket. Mist rolled from the waters, enshrouding and entangling her in its web. And as the moon set and the stars dimmed slightly, Uldara awoke. She stood, stretched, turned, and walked back along the shore towards the dim lights of the wharf in the distance, still illumining the docks in the darkness.
As she reached the first ships tugging at their moorings, Uldara looked back across the dark water. She spoke quietly, one word in a strange tongue like the flow of wind and foam, hardly a whisper in the still air. Her breath mingled with the mist off the lake. Then she turned, mounted again the wooden docks, slipped away between the buildings. The only moving figure in a silent, sleeping city.