Chapter 1: Prologue
There is a storm raging in the Upside world. The skies crack open with thunder and lightning and the rain pours into the sea, connecting two realms.
The air smells of something sharp and fresh, it smells of freedom that seems within the reach and yet so far away.
Maleagant’s gills flutter uselessly, his body is confused about where to draw the air from and his lungs constrict as he takes a deeper breath. His fingers clutch the wet stone while his tail moves constantly to keep him in one place.
He got too far away from home.
His curiosity got the better of him, the change of weather took him by surprise. If he tries to go back now, he surely will lose his way in the murky waters, worn down and exhausted from fighting the currents.
King Bagdemagus always scorned him for his obsession with the upside life. He never shared his wife’s gentle indulgence towards their child’s fascination with useless human trinkets and tales and songs.
Those he hated most.
Crude, lacking both true melody and the magic granted by it, they seemed distasteful for the king, but Maleagant found them— different.
Different just like he’s always felt himself.
Though deep in his heart he knows that the human world is much more foreign to him than his own could ever be, something foolish and hopeful in him still longs to find acceptance in that strange, unknown, forbidden realm.
The stone crumbles under Maleagant’s fingers as he pushes himself out of the water and on the flat surface of the rock. It scrapes his tail, the dull golden scales give way to the more durable black ones.
He has the royal coloring, deeper and richer than his father’s, but that’s the only thing he’s ever been praised for by his kin. Even his voice is more of a curse than a gift, no matter how powerful it is, capable of bending even the strongest of wills.
Human wills, and it is useless when the war between their species is over.
The peace is over too.
To humans, they simply ceased to exist. Like all of the merfolk, Maleagant is forbidden from wandering too far away from the deep waters. He can’t break the rules and end their carefully maintained separation from fickle, emotional humans.
Emotional like Maleagant.
Even the strength of his voice isn’t enough to temper his rebellious heart.
Maleagant squints, trying to make out behind the wall of rain the shores of Camelot, the capital of Britain. The kingdom of human arrogance, their immense ambition and greed.
It was their fault the peace had ended when King Ambrosius built his age of prosperity on disregard for merpeople’s lives, when his armada sailed the free waters, leaving behind only ruin and waste, scaring the fish and breaking the ages-old reefs.
As the years passed by, the merfolk were driven further and further into the depths of the sea, too prideful to beg for mercy. They protected themselves by being far away and hidden and then forgotten far too quickly, even if it was for the best.
Now, all that’s left of their resistance is spite.
A few of Maleagant’s kin possess enough of it to break the law and seek vengeance for the once suffered insult. Stalking the shipways, they sing to the sailors, fueled by anger and desire to hurt. They sink the boats to the very bottom of the sea, they raid them for trinkets and gold, all but useless to most, but precious to Maleagant, who never fails to buy them in a not-so-well-kept secret.
It’s never spite that fills him when he thinks of humans.
Perhaps he should resent them for having their glory while the merfolk kingdom suffers. Perhaps he should hate them as his father does, but for all the abundance of emotions that his heart possesses there isn’t any place left for those.
Maleagant knows that life wouldn’t be any sweeter if his home were a little bit closer to the surface or if there were more fish in his belly. He’d still be shunned and condemned for the things beyond his control, his arrogance and his temper and being too much like them—
For cradling darkness in his heart.
It is that darkness that calls for him now, restless and alive. It spreads, spills from his heart, fills up his lungs and mixes with the air.
It wants out and Maleagant can’t hold it.
He takes another breath. He opens his mouth and lets the sound come. His plea, his curse, his mourning.
A song flies from his lips, beautiful and haunting. It intertwines with the wailing of the wind and the crackle of thunder. The strength of it is overwhelming, it ripples through Maleagant, it grows and consumes—
It would frighten him if there were a place left for fear.
It would frighten his kin if they were here to listen.
It reaches far into the sea and covers the waves like an oily film. It searches for someone to hear it and to come to him—
This is what he wants. This is what he needs.
This could be his war song but it’s not the blood of his enemies he seeks, there are no enemies left. It is a different desire that spills from him and fuels his magic and shapes it into the call. The one that will destroy the will and take away the choice, because it’s not and never will be in human’s power to deny him.
He sings for someone that may not be there to hear him, but try as he might he can’t hold his magic at bay.
He sings like he never did before. The birds in the sky lose their balance and dive into the sea, the fish scurries away, frightened by the bigger and deadlier predator. The sea knows to fear him, but the warm-blooded will submit to him.
He sings for himself because he cannot not to, he’s through with denying what he is.
Until his song reaches whom it’s been searching for.
Chapter 2: ocean dug so deep
Arthur’s entire body aches. He’s bruised in the places he didn’t know was possible to bruise, and though he breathes just fine it feels like there is still saltwater lingering in his lungs, its aftertaste in his mouth is stinging and sharp and familiar.
He nearly drowned.
He should’ve drowned judging by what his hazy memory suggests. Going into the sea on a flimsy boat in the middle of a raging storm was nothing but suicide, and he doesn’t have the faintest idea what possessed him to do that, he—
Arthur reluctantly opens his eyes.
In the faint light of glowing fungus, he sees the ceiling of a cave above him and stalactites hanging low above his head. The waves are sloshing against the stone floor, high enough that they can’t reach it, and there is no way Arthur got here on his own. He wasn’t simply washed ashore, someone must’ve rescued him when he fell off the boat, losing his grip on the wet wood, when he let the sea take him, saltwater filling his lungs until he could no longer breathe—
Digging his elbows into the floor, Arthur tries to sit up. The pain in his body flares sharply, making him groan and hiss a curse through his teeth. He has no idea how he’s going to get back home or if it’s even possible.
He didn’t get that far from the shore, but who knows where he is now.
There is a loud splash to his right that sounds different from the rhythmic sloshing of waves. Arthur turns his head abruptly, hoping it might be his savior, someone willing to help him again when there is no other choice but to ask for it.
The light provided by the fungus is faint, but it’s enough to make out the shape of a man half-submerged in water, only his bare shoulders and head visible above.
The man is watching him. His gaze is searching, intense, and Arthur can’t help but return it. He stares back, drinking in every feature of his rescuer.
Indeed, it is a man, his shoulders are broad and his face lacks feminine softness, although his hair — wet, inky black curls — is longer than Arthur’s ever seen men wear. He’s beautiful too, exotic and otherworldly, the lines of his face enchantingly sharp. Arthur could swear he’s never seen the cheekbones so defined, the curve of the mouth so perfectly shaped. But then—
Then, he finally notices the other thing. The one that suggests this might not be his rescuer but the opposite of it, not human but a beast luring unsuspecting people into the darkest depths of the sea.
On the long, graceful neck of this creature, there are thin, symmetrical lines, the skin around them fluttering ever so slightly. The gills. A mark of the merfolk.
A lot of people claimed them to be nothing but legends, imaginary creatures from sailors’ tales, but though no one could prove their existence, too many were gone with glimpses of scaled tails and beautiful, haunting songs.
The creature finally catches him staring and its mouth curves into a semblance of a smile.
“I see you’re finally awake,” it says, its voice light and smooth, pleasant, although it’s nothing but a trap. “ Good. I feared the sea might’ve claimed your soul.”
Arthur blinks dumbly, bewildered by the creature’s words.
Didn’t it want him dead? Called by the sea, dragged into its deepest pits for his flesh to be ripped from his bones and devoured without mercy?
He carefully sits up. He can’t help but notice that his feet are bare and his boots are carefully placed by the wall. The creature must’ve tugged them off, either tending to his comfort or having entirely different things in its mind, though Arthur fails to imagine which.
One again, he makes himself meet the creature’s gaze. Its eyes, he thinks, are greenish-gray, the color of a stormy sea, just as intense, though not exactly hostile.
“Where am I?” Arthur asks, his voice raspy and weak. “Why am I— alive?”
For how long, he doesn’t ask.
There is no evidence to suggest merpeople didn’t like to play with their food.
The creature keeps silent, tilting its head as if to judge him better. There is a tiny frown between its eyebrows, something displeased in the curve of its mouth that makes Arthur feel vaguely and inexplicably inadequate.
It’s an unfortunately familiar feeling. A couple of months ago, mother hosted a feast in honor of one of King Uther’s old friends, Sir Leodegrace, which, as Arthur learned later, served the sole purpose of introducing him to Lady Guinevere. Lovely as she seemed, she also used to look at him with pretty much the same expression as if no matter how noble his blood was everything else remained— lacking.
Arthur finds out that it stings just as much if not more when it’s a sea dweller he failed to impress and not a pretty yet rather shallow dame.
The creature shifts, then folds their hands on the stone floor of the cave. Its fingers are generously adorned with rings, intricate and shiny trinkets Arthur didn’t know could be found or made underwater.
“You are not enthralled,” the creature says slowly, wonderingly. “My song no longer has any power over you.”
Arthur remembers it now, it slips through the fog in his mind, a wistful, otherworldly melody that called for him, filled his heart with yearning and aching need.
There was no chance to fight it.
It didn’t matter that the sea was raging, it didn’t matter that he had nothing but a rickety boat that didn’t even belong to him. At that moment he couldn’t care less.
If he could, he might’ve guessed what kind of a creature was calling for him and what kind of death was awaiting him.
How many times did it use its voice to lure its victims? How many ships it sunk and how many of Arthur’s people it feasted on? This must be where it got its rings.
This creature is nothing but a monster, no matter how lovely their visage is.
He grits his teeth, trying and failing to hide the blinding anger he feels.
“It got me here,” he says sharply. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
The water sloshes as if the creature flicks its tail, but its face remains impassive.
“I suppose,” it raises its eyebrows. “I could sing to you again, but— It might be too strong for you, given the proximity.”
“And that bothers you… why?”
Once again, Arthur feels more bewildered than angry. The creature’s actions, its words simply refuse to make sense.
Why is he still alive? Why was he rescued? What does the creature want from him?
It tilts its head again as if it’s not quite sure about the answer.
“It wouldn’t be the same,” it says cryptically. “Do you have a name?”
This — all of this — is the single most bizarre experience in his whole life.
“I’m Arthur,” he says. Belatedly, he thinks that maybe he shouldn’t have given his real name, though he’s pretty sure the merfolk don’t have any power over them. “Do you have one?”
“Not in the way that you do,” the creature offers another not-answer. “But you may call me Maleagant.”
The name sounds unusual and foreign to Arthur’s ear, and yet it doesn’t alienate them further. On the contrary, it makes accepting this creature’s existence much easier. It— he must’ve been named by someone, perhaps his mother, gentle and loving and eager to welcome into this world her tiny, newborn child.
The fact that this child had a tail and gills didn’t make it any less of a person.
“Maleagant,” Arthur says slowly, half-afraid to butcher the name. “Are you— Do you, by chance, have any intention to eat me?”
He thinks he meant it as a joke, but it doesn’t sound like one. His fear is real and not exactly unfounded, and yet Maleagant looks affronted by the mere suggestion. His tail swishes violently, his eyes narrow and an odd, low sound comes from the depth of his throat.
It reminds Arthur of a growl but seems to resonate so much deeper in him. A vague sense of unease settles in his gut, and just like that he’s once again confronted with the reality that what he’s dealing with is dangerous and inhuman.
“Do I look,” Maleagant hisses, “like I could eat you?”
If Arthur could afford to be entirely honest, his answer would definitely be “yes”, but he is pretty sure that Maleagant won’t appreciate it.
His prolonged silence seems to convey his feelings all the same.
“Should I assume then that your people would gladly carve up a siren?” Maleagant spits venomously. “No doubt you’d find it a delicacy.”
The mere image makes Arthur feel sick in his stomach. The merfolk aren’t humans, that much is true, but they still look enough like them. They are sentient, they aren’t soulless, and killing them is one thing, but eating?
And yes, he’s perfectly capable of recognizing the double standards in his own thoughts. He certainly doesn’t need to guess where Maleagant’s offense comes from.
Sighing deeply, he rubs his face but has to stop when the sharp pain shoots through his left wrist. It doesn’t feel like it is broken, but even a sprain is extremely bad news in his situation.
“I’m sorry,” he says and thinks that he means it. “I was out of line, it’s just… Why did you summon me here?”
Maleagant’s gaze doesn’t soften, it remains hard and unflinching, but there is something else lurking in the depths of his eyes. A conflict, maybe, uncertainty and almost wariness.
He shifts, then presses his palms flat to the stone floor of the cave and pushes himself up with alarming ease, and Arthur can’t help but wonder how strong he truly is or how easily he could win if they were to fight.
But then, he already knew he’s at the creature’s mercy.
Maleagant’s tail lands on the stone with a heavy slap. It’s massive, powerful and long, dark as his hair is and softly glistening in the faint greenish light of the cave. It’s gorgeous, if Arthur is honest with himself, and it is really terribly unfair that a creature so deadly must be this breathtaking.
“No need to flaunt all of your assets,” he mutters under his breath. “I already think you are pretty.”
“Do you?” Maleagant asks, and suddenly he is too close for Arthur’s comfort, their faces just a few fingers apart. He slowly blinks. “I’ve never seen eyes like yours.”
“Brown,” he pauses. “Do they shine like amber in the sunlight?”
Arthur feels utterly bemused.
“I… have no idea,” he murmurs, wishing he could back away and yet unable to move. He wonders if Maleagant’s voice has the same mesmerizing power his songs possess. “Do merpeople have no brown eyes among them?”
Maleagant keeps silent. He seems just as enchanted by Arthur, perhaps drawn to the odd mixture of familiar and foreign he finds in his features. Slowly, he raises his hand, and though Arthur has plenty of time to recoil, he keeps still.
He feels a touch of cool fingers on his face as they trace the line of his beard and then the curve of his mouth. It’s intimate like a lover's caress, it’s weird, but not unpleasant.
“It’s rare,” Maleagant says as he takes his hand away. “And it’s— It’s different underwater. Everything is different.”
Arthur wonders if he imagines something forlorn in Maleagant’s voice, something akin of longing— for what, he doesn’t know and cannot guess.
Maleagant is a strange creature. He’s much stranger than merpeople are rumored to be because monsters and beasts are easy, but Maleagant, Arthur thinks, is not.
Not a monster and certainly not easy.
By now, Arthur is somewhat reassured that Maleagant won’t eat him, but even if it was nothing but loneliness or curiosity that made him call for a human, there is no guarantee he won’t get rid of him when this is over.
There must be a reason why no one talks about seeing merpeople these days.
“What do you want from me?” he asks quietly. He makes sure that no accusation slips into his voice so maybe this time Maleagant will deign to answer.
Maleagant’s eyes, still stormy and a little uncertain, flicker to meet Arthur’s. He makes another sound at the back of his throat, not a growl this time but something lighter. Something that reads vaguely… ashamed? Shy?
Arthur’s lips twitch.
“My song called for you,” Maleagant says. “It wasn’t exactly... deliberate.”
It takes Arthur a moment to process the implications of this confession.
Didn’t Maleagant admit earlier that he wanted him here? But then, it doesn’t exactly contradict the fact that it wasn’t planned, just— paints it in an entirely different light.
Arthur still doesn’t know enough about this creature and what drives him, he doesn’t know if he’s genuine or extremely good at deception, but this is certainly something he’ll have to think about carefully when he’s left alone. If he’s left alone.
He has no idea how far from the shore he is or is it possible to reach it without a boat, and then— Arthur lowers his eyes to take a closer look at his left wrist, still tender and pulsing with dull, barely noticeable ache.
He presses his fingers to the puffy swollen skin, winces as it sends a jolt of pain through his arm. Definitely a sprain, and with an injury like this, he’s not swimming anywhere for at least a couple of weeks.
Even if Maleagant would be so kind as to let him go.
“You’re hurt,” Maleagant states.
“I think my bruises have bruises,” he confesses. “And I’m pretty sure I sprained my wrist. It should heal on its own, but it’ll take some time, and for the time being… I guess I’m stuck here.”
A tiny frown settles between Maleagant’s eyebrows.
“You humans are awfully soft,” he says. “You wouldn’t have survived a day in the sea.”
They do survive pretty well, Arthur wants to argue, but he’s pretty sure that sailing is not what Maleagant meant. The merfolk’s world is much more hostile, so it’s no wonder they are much more strong and durable than humans.
“It’s a good thing then that we don’t live in the sea,” Arthur says.
“And you should stay out of it,” Maleagant retorts sharply. “If you value your lives.”
Was this the reason behind the drownings and the shipwrecks? Did the merfolk see his people as invaders or simply unwelcome in their home?
Arthur would’ve accepted their reasoning and their right to protect their territory, if not for the fact that the ship trade is the only way for humans to survive.
“If you wanted me to stay out of your sea,” he says, not bothering to hide his irritation, “perhaps you should’ve tamed your song.”
Maleagant recoils and his eyes flash with hurt. He growls again, though this time the sound comes out higher and far more disturbing.
Something in Arthur resonates towards this, it aches and crawls, it fills him with unease and regret and an odd desire to apologize. It is instinctual more than rational, because rationally he knows he was right.
Maleagant presses his lips into a thin line and grits his teeth so tightly his cheekbones look even sharper. It seems like he fights something inside of him, an instinct or an urge, and Arthur sincerely hopes it’s not an urge to wring his neck.
“I can’t,” Maleagant hisses, angry and low, “tame it, as you put it. Nor should I have to! Not for the likes of you.”
And oh how Arthur wants to be angry in turn, for this derision and for everything that Maleagant did to him, but—
He also feels like he hit a nerve and Maleagant’s rage isn’t even aimed at him. He feels like it’s an old pain, something that discomfits Maleagant greatly, that makes him restless and longing and so dissatisfied it’s obvious even for a stranger.
He still won’t apologize, no matter how he’s tempted to, but he also—
He doesn’t think it’s wise to antagonize this creature any further.
He watches as Maleagant moves back to the edge of the cave, surprisingly agile for a sea-dweller. The look of him is still foreign and mesmerizing, and it reminds Arthur that not so long ago he would’ve thought him impossible.
A part of him still doesn’t quite believe this new reality.
“I have to get you some food and freshwater,” Maleagant says, dipping his tail into the sea. He doesn’t sound angry anymore, but the detachment in his voice is clearly deliberate and entirely fake. “Don’t try to leave on your own. You won’t survive it.”
It’s not a threat, just the constatation of fact that Arthur has already admitted, and he wastes no energy to react to that. The soreness in his whole body leaves him with bone-deep exhaustion, the sort that won’t go away after a few hours he spent unconscious.
Maleagant doesn’t want him dead. He saved him, he intends to feed him, and for now—
For now, Arthur thinks he can put his worries away.
At least for a little while.
When the loud splash signals Maleagant leaving, Arthur stretches on his back and lifts his gaze towards the softly glowing ceiling. It’s pretty and oddly soothing, and his head is blissfully empty of the things that will worry him in time, but do not yet.
Soon enough, he feels himself drifting to sleep.
He prays to all the gods his people worship that in the morning things will become a little more clear.
Chapter 3: see if I can stand it
things are getting... fluffy
The next three days of Arthur’s not-quite-captivity Maleagant spends, for the lack of a better word, sulking. Which is extremely unfortunate, since his moods apparently possess a unique ability to be contagious.
Arthur remembers the very first time when he woke up abruptly in the middle of the night, tears streaming down his face and his heart squeezing in an agonizing, unnamed emotion.
He heard a song amidst the rustling of the wind and waves’ sloshing, a sound bewitching and unearthly. It barely resembled music, but any other name would seem even less fitting.
It beat with Arthur’s heart, it filled it to the brim with too strong emotions until they overflowed with salty water running down his cheeks.
There was a deep sadness in that song, heartache and longing, and Arthur was so close to bolting from his makeshift bed and rushing to do something, anything to soothe this terrible hurting of another’s soul.
He stopped himself by sheer force of will. He lay still, unwilling to give Malegant even a hint that he’s awake, he ignored the call that felt so different from the one that brought him here but in its core remained the same.
In time, its magic seemed to fade. It still resonated somewhere deep in Arthur’s heart, but it no longer robbed him of the clarity of his mind. It felt like empathy, impossibly heightened and sharp, and seeing someone so obviously miserable and doing nothing has never been Arthur’s strong suit, but—
That was exactly what he did.
He shut his eyes and clutched the cloak that served him as a blanket, he tried to fall asleep again, his face still wet from tears, his mind restless and his heart guilty.
Since then, it has been happening every night. At times, Maleagant’s songs were forlorn and mournful, at others, they filled Arthur’s soul with a peculiar mix of dissatisfaction and irritation that for the most part felt like his own.
It didn’t take him long to realize just why his unwitting suggestion to tame the siren’s song offended Maleagant this much. It must be something he’s simply incapable of doing, no more than Arthur is capable of stifling irritation, vague pity or faint curiosity he feels towards his captor.
While he did entertain the possibility of Maleagant deliberately trying to influence his emotions, he couldn’t make himself believe it. It seemed too obvious that Maleagant had no desire to showcase his feelings. He always took a visible effort to contain his songs in the daytime, and while he slipped from time to time, for the most part, he kept himself perfectly collected and reserved.
He was closed-off and mildly irritable, and though he took proper care of Arthur, it left him with a vague feeling that he’s being treated like a pet.
Some fifteen years ago, when Arthur was a child, he convinced his mother to let him take one of the kitchen cat’s kittens to his chambers and then sulked for days when this tiny independent creature hissed at him and bit his fingers and refused to sleep on his pillow.
The comparison may be somewhat amusing, but Arthur can’t help but wonder what fate awaits him if he won’t stop being so annoyingly uncooperative. Much as he wants to believe it, he doubts that he’ll simply be returned to where he was taken from.
With a quiet sigh, Arthur rolls onto his back. He’s been trying and failing to fall asleep for hours, this time not because of Maleagant’s singing, but thanks to a mild hunger and a particularly unbearable itch of his salted-through skin.
So far, his life in the cave hasn’t been particularly awful, but neither could it be called comfortable. The food Maleagant brings him, for the most part, consists of raw fish, some seaweed and roe, and while it’s nothing Arthur didn’t have before, he already misses some basic variety. The freshwater is sparse. It’s enough to keep him hydrated, but his clothes were starting to get musty, and his attempt to wash them in the sea only made them coarse and thoroughly unpleasant to wear.
That one time he tried to bring the issue to Maleagant, he just blinked at him and asked why he bothers with the clothes at all. Which—
Arthur decided he had no energy to try and explain it.
He sighs again.
The glowing fungus on the ceiling is familiar to him in every tiny detail. He feels restless and vaguely miserable, bored out of his mind, and his constant musings about the fate that awaits him do nothing to help it.
Arthur turns his head to look at Maleagant who’s sitting on the edge of the cave, his figure sharply accentuated by the light of the full moon. His song is quiet tonight, gentle and lilting. It speaks of loneliness that’s all too easy to decipher.
Or maybe Arthur is simply getting better at this.
He isn’t a kitten. He doesn’t need to be domesticated and tamed, he can choose to be a little more cooperative and a little less hostile, because gods know Maleagant won’t make the first step. He’ll continue being miserable and difficult, he’ll grow to resent his pet, and then—
Arthur doesn’t wish to find out what then.
With yet another forlorn sigh, he takes his cloak and gets off his bed, then quietly moves towards the edge of the cave.
Maleagant visibly startles when he hears the sound of his steps. The song dies in his throat, his eyes are wide and wary and his whole expression is unfamiliarly open.
Arthur feels a little ashamed for intruding on what must’ve been a private moment, and yet he doesn’t back off.
“Mind if I join you?” he asks, keeping his voice soft.
Maleagant blinks at him. He clears his throat and then a corner of his mouth jerks upwards in a semblance of a smile.
Arthur huffs a laugh.
“No,” he shakes his head. Without waiting for a proper invitation, he lowers himself on the stone next to Maleagant and dips his feet into cool seawater. “No, I don’t think you’d like to hear that. While I’m not the worst singer in Britain, it— It simply can’t compare.”
What humans call singing isn’t remotely the same as the siren’s songs. There is no magic woven tightly in each and every sound, there is no purity, no otherworldly beauty words fail to describe.
Whatever he might try will only sound like a crude, insulting imitation.
“There is no need to compare,” Maleagant turns his gaze towards the sea and his tail keeps slowly swishing through the waves. “They are different, but being different isn’t necessarily a bad thing.” He pauses, his lips curve into something wry and self-deprecating. “At least I hope it isn’t.”
Arthur doesn’t know what to say to this.
He knows this isn’t about singing, not anymore, but whether Maleagant speaks of the difference between the two of them or something else entirely, he cannot guess.
He cannot ask, for it certainly won’t be taken well.
“No, I don’t think it is a bad thing,” he says.
Maleagant doesn’t answer.
For a while, they sit in silence that for the first time feels truly comfortable. This isn’t much of a progress, half a step at best, but Arthur sees no point in complaining. The night is beautiful, the sky is peppered with the myriad stars, and in the soft light of the moon, his strange companion looks like a character from a fairytale.
Perhaps one of those that Arthur’s mother used to tell him when he was no longer a child but not yet an adult, of forest spirits dying in the big cities or of a selkie woman trapped by a greedy, selfish man who thought he could own another living creature.
Arthur wonders if his mother believed these tales might be real. He wonders what she’d think of Maleagant, if she’d be able to understand his struggles better.
From the corner of his eye, Arthur sees Maleagant shivering. The wind has risen, and though the night is still warm, it is getting a little chilly.
“Are you cold?” Arthur asks with entirely feigned nonchalance.
Maleagant’s eyes flicker towards him. He looks surprised, a little cautious and wary. His hair is still wet, curling softly just above his shoulders, inky black in the monochrome of the night. The water droplets glint on his shoulders and chest, and Arthur catches himself trailing the path of one of them that slides down the smooth skin and disappears somewhere amongst the scales.
He wets his lips and wills himself to raise his eyes.
“I am,” Maleagant answers slowly. “I’m not used to being out of the sea for so long.”
At Arthur’s questioning gaze, he clarifies:
“I don’t feel cold when I am underwater,” he says. “When I breathe through my gills, water brings my temperature down, but here my body works differently. More like yours. But I suspect you don’t really want a lesson in the merfolk’s anatomy.”
In truth, Arthur sort of does. Perhaps not right now when his mind is sluggish and murky, but he does wish to know more about the sirens. They may look like something out of a fairytale, but they are real, they aren’t impossible.
It’s just a little difficult to accept it.
“Maybe some other time,” he says. After a moment of hesitation, he unfolds the cloak that lies on his lap and offers it to Maleagant. “May I?”
For a moment, Maleagant looks confused, but then simply lowers his head. He allows Arthur to wrap around his shoulders the woolen fabric of the cloak, coarse from the salt but thick enough to ward off the chill.
It feels oddly intimate when there are only two of them in this cave amidst the sea.
Gently, Arthur untangles the lock of Maleagant’s hair caught in the clasp, his fingers lightly brushing the cold, damp skin of his neck.
He feels Maleagant shiver.
For a heartbeat, Arthur can’t make himself move away and break this not-embrace, but then—
He feels the song before he hears it, a complex melody that goes through him, fills his veins with saltwater, confusion and yearning, and dozens of other things he has no hope to untangle.
Arthur doesn’t mean to recoil but he does, startled much more than discomfited.
Maleagant’s throat jerks as he swallows, pushing his song down and stifling it before it can break free. He furrows his brows, presses his lips into a thin line and wraps himself tighter in the cloak.
“You really can’t tame it, can you?” Arthur asks gently. “Your song?”
“Not really, no,” Maleagant’s voice sounds even, but there is something restless in him and his eyes refuse to meet Arthur’s. “I can try, but it doesn’t always work. It’s difficult to keep it contained, it’s overwhelming, it’s— too much.”
He can’t say he understands it fully, but he suspects it’s not that different from trying to hold your strongest emotions at bay. You need to smile when you’re happy and cry when you’re sad, you need to let your anger out when it tries to consume you.
Arthur has never been good at controlling these things, so how can he expect Maleagant to be any better?
“I told you before,” Maleagant says, “it wasn’t exactly my choice to bring you here.”
Given what he knows now, Arthur has no trouble believing these words, but that still doesn’t mean that Maleagant didn’t want him here. Not all of his songs call for him, and only that first one possessed such overwhelming strength that made him forget caution and reason and himself.
It must’ve been an immensely powerful emotion, his loneliness or longing or something else no human is capable of comprehending. It didn’t simply awake Arthur’s empathy, it bent his will with alarming ease.
It should feel scarier than it does.
“I don’t have any intention to hold you captive,” Maleagant says after a moment of silence. Once again, his eyes flicker towards Arthur as if he tries to gauge his reaction. “We aren’t terribly far from the shore. Once your wrist is healed, you should be able to make it. Four hours at most.”
Arthur tries not to show how utterly relieved he feels.
He refused to think what he would do if Maleagant refused to let him go, whether he’d try to fight or flee when the opportunity presented itself, but he’s genuinely happy they can avoid hostility between them.
For too many complicated reasons he doesn’t care to untangle right now.
“Four hours,” he repeats. “For me or for you?”
Maleagant’s lips quirk into a slightly mocking smile.
“For you,” he assures. “I would need half an hour, but I—” The shadow passes over his face. “I’m already too close to the shore. I can’t risk it.”
Arthur turns away, for some inexplicable reason unable to look into Maleagant’s eyes.
He stares on his wrist, still swollen and tender, but no longer constantly aching. It is the only real injury he suffered because of Maleagant, he wasn’t drowned or dragged to the bottom of the sea, but—
Is Maleagant an exception amongst his kind?
“Do you really think you’ll be in danger?” he asks. “Because of my people?”
“Yes.” Maleagant doesn’t even take a moment to think about his answer. “Yes, I will be. I can’t defend myself with my song, it works differently, and while I’m physically stronger than your kind, your weapons, your nets will overpower me with ease.”
Arthur swallows heavily. He wishes he could deny that his people would readily hunt a sentient being, but he’s lived his whole life in a coastal city and heard sailors bragging about their finest catches, the rarer the better, he—
He’s seen enough cruelty in humans to truly believe Maleagant would be safe.
“You think that we’re monsters—”
“We don’t,” Arthur interrupts. “We don’t think about you at all, a lot of people don’t even believe you exist, but— You’re not wrong. There are those who would hunt you, given the chance.”
Maleagant casts a look at him, heavy and calculating, but a moment later it seems to smooth into something more forgiving.
“There are those amongst my own kind who would lure your ships onto the rocks, drown your sailors and scavenge your goods. There aren't many, but— enough.”
“I wonder,” Arthur muses, “if it is possible to have peace between our people. We aren’t— We aren’t that different, are we?”
They seem to have pretty much the same set of morals and no real trouble communicating. They may express their feelings and emotions differently, but that shouldn’t be a cause for hostility.
Maleagant hugs himself, tightly clutching on the cloak. His gaze is distant and thoughtful, almost wistful, but it could be a trick of the light.
“We had peace once,” he says. “Not terribly long ago. It’s not impossible, but— Even when your king dies, who can guarantee the next one will be any better? Less selfish, less bloodthirsty, less obsessed with his own privilege?”
Arthur huffs a mirthless laugh.
“I suppose I can,” he murmurs. “Much as I can answer for myself. I can— try .”
A part of him knows that he shouldn’t have said that. It’s reckless to trust Maleagant with the truth of who he is, not simply a fisherman or a sailor, but a crown prince to the kingdom the merfolk seem to detest, but—
It’s hard for Arthur to lie to Maleagant, to anyone.
He’s always worn his heart on a sleeve.
“King Uther,” he adds at Maleagant’s incredulous, disbelieving look, “is my father. We aren’t close, and I personally disagree with plenty of things he does, but the truth is that I will one day inherit his throne. I— is this so hard to believe that? You think I am unsuited for this role?”
He knows that he’s not ready for the crown. He’s immature and soft and too often forgets the reason, allowing his feeling to rule him, but he thinks— he hopes that his heart is in the right place. Isn’t that what’s truly important?
Maleagant shakes his head.
“I don’t think I have any right to judge you,” he lifts the corner of his mouth, “especially considering that not a lot of my people are eager to see me as their ruler.”
Arthur would laugh if he didn’t think it’d be terribly inappropriate.
What were the chances that fate would bring together the princes of two different realms? If peace between them is even possible, one day they will be capable of bringing it back.
Arthur doesn’t think it will be easy. His people may not yet be ready to accept another race’s existence and treat them as equals. The merfolk may be unwilling to make amends and share their power over the sea.
He doesn’t even know if he can trust Maleagant’s word and it’s certainly not the right time to make any decisions, but it’s something.
It’s comforting that he can treat this as a diplomatic mission of sorts. A noble course and a good excuse to let actually himself enjoy Maleagant’s company.
Gingerly rubbing his eyes, Arthur stifles a yawn. Pleasant as said company is — and he’s surprised to find he does mean it — it’s been a long day, and exhaustion seems to be finally catching up on him.
He’s still not sure he’ll manage to fall asleep, but at the very least he feels ready to try.
“I—” he yawns again. “Do you mind if we continue this talk tomorrow? I think there are things that need to be said, but I don’t really wish to fall asleep on you.”
He quirks his lips into a quick, placating smile and is pleased to see Maleagant answering with a ghost of his own.
“No, I don’t mind,” Maleagant says smoothly. “I need to get some rest as well. I haven’t had any chance to sleep these past few days, and—”
Arthur blinks at him, honestly surprised. He assumed that Maleagant did sleep at night, perhaps right after his song no longer begged to be set free, and it’s not like he looked particularly exhausted. Tired, irritable for sure, but not like a person who didn’t sleep for three days straight.
“Why?” he asks. “I can hardly imagine staying awake for so long—”
“I don’t need to sleep as much as you humans do,” Maleagant interrupts a little too harshly. “Though at this point I really have to. I— told you this before. It’s too close to the shore. I don’t feel comfortable sleeping anywhere in these waters.”
For a couple of moments, Arthur tries and fails to imagine how sirens sleep. Perhaps they simply let themselves drift across the bottom of the sea, wherever the currents might take them.
It doesn’t seem to be particularly comfortable or safe.
“You could maybe try to sleep here, in the cave?” he offers. “I mean… could you?”
While Maleagant never showed any discomfort being out of the sea, he also never stayed in the cave for long, so maybe Arthur’s offer is useless at best and offensive at worst.
Maleagant furrows his brows.
“Possibly,” he says slowly. “I don’t really— how do you imagine?”
He swishes his tail as if to remind Arthur of its existence and that he isn’t exactly a land creature. He certainly won’t be comfortable even on the largest of humans’ beds, but it’s not like they have one of those here, besides—
“I have an idea,” Arthur gets on his feet and moves towards the pile of dried seaweed that serves him as a mattress.
What he’s thinking about is bold and extremely foolish, but he also can’t not offer it.
“Come here,” he calls.
With barely concealed skepticism, Maleagant watches as Arthur lies down onto his makeshift bed. It’s not like he particularly wants to share it, he just can’t imagine Maleagant settling on the stone floor. He has to curl around something, and the choice of that something in the cave is—
After a moment of hesitation, Maleagant takes off the cloak and shifts towards the bed. He’s slow and careful in his movements, graceful despite the inevitable awkwardness of his crawling.
He places the cloak next to Arthur, then stills, seemingly unsure about what to do next.
“Just,” Arthur bites his lower lip, “put your head on my chest, it should be fairly comfortable this way.”
He is inviting a siren to cuddle, and the thought of it is so absurd he almost wants to laugh, yet there is no real mirth in his heart. Just weird, tense anticipation.
Maleagant presses his lips into a tight line but complies without a protest. He aligns his body with Arthur’s, presses the cold scales of his tail against his thigh.
Carefully, Arthur helps them both settle into something a little less awkward.
“I suppose this will do,” Maleagant murmurs.
His palm lies flat on Arthur’s chest, right above his heart that surely beats too fast.
This intimacy between them isn’t something Arthur expected, he just rushed into things without thinking much as he always does.
This intimacy between them isn’t something familiar, because not once he shared his bed for sleeping. He is a prince. He isn’t meant to have partners, just lovers for a night, and— That’s certainly not the direction his thoughts should be taking.
Arthur quietly sighs.
“You said I didn’t want to hear it,” Maleagant says quietly, his restless fingers tracing the hair on Arthur’s chest as if he’s mildly fascinated by them, “your singing. But I think I do. Don’t your mothers sing their children to sleep?”
The absurdity of this whole situation is amusing, off-putting, weird, and yet he doesn’t truly mind it. He wonders if Maleagant even heard human singing before, if he knows what he’s getting into, but—
Well, it probably won’t hurt to try.
He’s really not the worst singer, quite good if the court ladies are to be believed — though they really shouldn’t be — and a part of him wants to share this with Maleagant.
He closes his eyes, trying to remember the words of the lullaby his mother used to sing to him, a simple, calming melody that reminds him of simpler, kinder times.
Putting his palm onto the back of Maleagant’s head, he takes a deep breath and lets out the first sound, soft and murmuring and soothing in the silence of the cave.
It isn’t perfect, not by far, but Maleagant voices no complaints, and Arthur grows a little bolder, more sure of himself, and then—
A quiet, melodic humming joins him, entwines with his melody and rights it.
There is nothing but pleased contentment in this song, no trace of sadness or pain, it’s lulling in a way a human lullaby can’t be.
It feels too easy to fall asleep to it.
Before the night claims him, Arthur thinks that while Maleagant didn’t exactly get him to sleep on his pillow, the reality isn’t far off.
He finds that he doesn’t mind it at all.