“I can’t believe you!” I shrieked it when we, at last, stopped.
“You had to know.”
“Everything was fine until you ruined it. There was no need! They were my friends!”
“Yeah, friends. Did you not see the way they wanted to sell you, torture you, eat you?”
I shook my head, trying to banish the images of the six faces coming towards me. “No.”
“Deny it all you want, Cleo. I saw them. They were coming for us. Thank the gods I was there to save you.”
I threw myself against his chest and pummelled him as hard as I could, my hands balling into fists. He shouted and tried to throw me off, but I wouldn’t stop. I wanted to feel his skin under my nails. He’d ruined everything.
When the rage subsided, I pulled in the deepest breath I could before screeching at him. “We’re through! I don’t ever want to see you again!”
He couldn’t catch me as I dashed away. My vision was blurred by my tears. My hearing was muffled by the sound of my heart. My skin was tingling from the shudders along my body. I didn’t stop until I reached my cavern, the only place I’d ever found to escape my sisters. It was there I curled into a ball and sobbed into my tail.
At some point, a guppy swam in to investigate. He hid behind a rock to watch me, but I saw him. I let him stay.
The water seemed darker by the time I’d built up enough strength to pull myself off the floor. I drifted out of my cavern in the opposite direction to the palace. I couldn’t face them now. Without thinking, I found myself floating in the direction of the beach. I let myself, watching for legs, but there were none. When I reached the point where the sand started to slope upward, I noticed something colourful on the ocean floor. It was the ball. I snatched it off the ground and clutched it to my heart, sighing. It was all I had to remember them now.
Before I entered the palace to face up to my father and whatever Bay had told him, I placed the ball in the cavern, where the guppy was still floating, watching me.
“Hi,” I waved at it and it floundered around the place, making me laugh. It sounded wrong in my throat. “This’ll be our little secret.”
I entered the throne room with my head down.
I looked up when my father didn’t sound as angry as I expected. He bundled me up into his arms, and the tears started to escape again. He was warm and right.
“I’ve been so worried! Bay told me what happened at the surface. What those barbarians tried to do to you.”
I didn’t argue. What was the point?
“As if they would dare touch my daughter!” He was trembling. “The nerve of those spineless, savage, harpooning fish-eaters.” His hands were clenched into fists. “So help me, Cleo, it took all of my energy not to go up there.”
“Daddy, I’m sorry.”
He pulled me closer to him again. “It’s not your fault. I didn’t realise how things were. It’s no longer safe to go up to the surface.”
“Contact between the human world and the mer world is now strictly forbidden.” He ran his hand through my hair. “I’m just glad you’re safe.” His face dropped as he started at my neck.
I touched my hand there. “What?”
“Your mother’s necklace.”
Something lodged itself into my stomach, and I wanted to vomit.
“Those monsters. I must call a meeting at once. Everyone must know what these barbarians are capable of.”
I didn’t move as he stormed off, only let myself float to the sand. Just because those six humans looked as though they wanted to hurt me, that didn’t mean they all did. They were just young too, naïve. Maybe they weren’t going to hurt me after all. Maybe they just wanted a closer look.
I’d never know. Now it was forbidden.
Was that all it took to change our way of life? Because of me, none of the children got to look upon the beauty of the human world. Were we that quick to judge?
Who was I to say what was right and what was wrong? But even so, I couldn’t get the image of all those smiling, happy humans laughing on the beach. I wanted to know more, I couldn’t help myself. I’d developed a taste for it, an addiction.
Even after all this, I still wanted to be part of their world.