Really, it was a wonderful day to do nothing at all.
Inej stared over the edge of the ship— her ship, what a wonderful thing it was—into the sea below, waves calmly rolling along the sides. She could feel the warm sun beating down on her back, almost a little too warm if it weren’t for the breeze blowing through her hair.
Her crew had docked at this small fishing village for supplies, and for once Inej had some time to relax. Captaining a crew of slaver-hunting pirates was rewarding and Inej couldn’t be happier where she was, but it was exhausting. She deserved a bit of a break.
Inej jumped, and realized she was spacing out a little because suddenly she was staring directly into the green eyes of a particular mermaid who had been following her crew for weeks. She wasn’t exactly harmful, in fact she and her other friend were actually quite friendly, just slightly irritating. Inej didn’t know why they had any reason to follow a bunch of pirates.
“What do you need?”
“Want to go for a swim?” Her green eyes were twinkling, but there was a genuine smile on the mermaid’s face that made Inej want to trust her for some reason.
That’s just mer magic. She’s trying to manipulate you. Inej knew the tales, had heard the countless warnings that told how mermaids were powerful creatures who sang songs to lure humans into the water and eat them.
“That sounds like it will end in my own death.”
The mermaid let out a joyous laugh. Inej had never heard a laugh like hers before, musical and carefree, like she had never felt shame in her life. She was confident, Inej would give her that.
“I won’t eat you, silly. I’m not a siren. This is just for fun. I bet you’ve never swum with a mermaid before, have you?” She batted her green eyes in a way that Inej couldn’t tell if she was mocking her or seriously trying to flirt with her.
“There are mermaids who don’t eat people?” Despite her best interests, Inej was curious. She really didn’t know much about mer, other than the nonsense that her crewmate Matthias spewed all day. Maybe she had been listening to him too much. Maybe not all mermaids were manipulative bloodthirsty creatures like he insisted.
Still, the smarter part of her brain said, you wouldn’t go swimming with any random person either.
“Are you kidding me? Are you telling me you humans just lump us all into one category?”
“Goodness. This is why Zoya told me not to talk to you guys,” the mermaid mumbled, more to herself than anything else. From the few interactions they’d had, Inej had never seen this bubbly creature very annoyed. “There’s a lot of different kinds of mer… only sirens really eat humans, but then, my friend Wylan doesn’t even eat humans… We’re very diverse creatures.” Her brown hair was wet from being underwater, but she flipped it anyways, and somehow it still looked impressive.
“Huh. I didn’t know that.”
The mermaid grinned. “I could show you what we’re really like. Come swimming with me. It’s a beautiful day.” From her position in the water, she extended a webbed hand out for Inej to take. “You do know how to swim, right? I know you humans are incredibly resourceful.”
Now this was something Inej couldn’t resist. She knew it wasn’t right to trust this mermaid—it went against everything she’d ever been taught, but this was an opportunity to learn the truth. Kaz would kill her if he saw what his captain was doing. Matthias would likely kill the mermaid. Jesper and Kuwei, though, would probably think it was cool, because they weren’t stupidly closeminded about everything.
She looked uneasily at the mermaid, her outstretched hand and the webs between her fingers, the gills on her neck, the huge, shining red tail with billowing showy fins that matched her confident personality. It was probably the magic, Inej guessed, siren or not, but she was certainly a sight to behold.
“Okay,” Inej said, tentatively reaching out for her. For a split second, she thought it was going to feel weird, touching those webbed fingers, but she didn’t have time to find out, because the mermaid immediately jumped up to grab her arm and yank her into the water.
She’d been pulled so fast her hat had flown off her head. Inej yelped—she couldn’t help it, she was caught off guard—and hit the water before she even realized what was happening. The sudden cold was electrifying. Despite her terror, Inej lifted her face out of the water and started laughing. “You didn’t have to do it like that! ”
“I had to. You were going to chicken out before you even got in.”
“Okay, you’re right. But still.” Inej’s clothes felt heavy in the water. She’d swum before, but usually out of necessity, not for fun. Maybe she should have prepared better for something like this.
“Come on. There’s so much you need to see,” the mermaid said, taking Inej’s hand and diving underwater.
Inej didn’t know what she was expecting when the girl asked her to “go for a swim”, but this certainly wasn’t it. If not for the mermaid’s powerful tail and her strong grip on her hand, Inej was sure she would have made much slower progress swimming on her own. She tried her best to keep up as they flew through the water. This close to shore, there wasn’t much to see at first—just sand and rocks—but as they traveled farther out to sea, she began to see more plants, more creatures, things she’d never seen before.
It was very interesting, but Inej was running out of air the more they swam. She hadn’t even realized it at first, too distracted by what the mermaid was showing her, until her lungs were aching for oxygen. She tugged on her arm, gesturing to the excited girl that she needed to go up.
There was an odd expression on her face, her fins flapping, but she must have realized what Inej was trying to say because she eventually complied and dragged Inej back up to the surface.
Swimming back up felt like an eternity. Inej gasped for air as her head burst the water’s surface. Staying afloat was even a struggle, but the mermaid still had her hand clasped in hers. Inej somehow knew she wouldn’t let her drown.
“I forgot you breathed air. Do you humans actually not have an underwater language?” the mermaid asked.
It took Inej a moment to finally catch her breath. “...No?”
“That sounds inconvenient.”
“We don’t live our lives underwater.” Inej hadn’t even considered the fact that mermaids might have another language. She’d just assumed they all spoke human dialects. How ignorant of her. “What is your language like?” If this girl had bothered to learn Kerch, she might as well try to understand what she spoke too.
The mermaid looked terribly pleased at the question. “Well, the common mer language is spoken in gestures. We use our fins and our hands. Like this.” She made a series of familiar movements with her hands and fins along her body, and with a pang Inej realized she had been trying to talk to her the entire time they had been underwater.
“What does that mean?” Inej asked, intrigued.
“It means you’re cute.”
Inej felt heat rise to her cheeks. “You’re awfully bold.”
The mermaid grinned. “Exactly. Now, do we want to keep going? I swear I’ll let you breathe this time, even if it slows us down.”
She moved at such a fast pace, Inej hardly knew what was happening. There were still so many questions whirling around in her head. “Wait.”
It felt ridiculous that she hadn’t even asked until now. “What’s your name?”
This mermaid seemed to smile at just about everything in the world, but the smile that stretched across her face could rival even today’s sun in brightness. “I’m Nina. Nina Zenik.”
That’s a pretty name. “Inej,” she responded in a soft voice. She needed to shove her face back in the water.
“Nice to meet you, Inej. Inej the pirate. It suits you.”
“You too, Nina the mermaid.”
After that, things did get a little slower paced. They swam leisurely through the water, allowing Inej to marvel at all the wonderful new things she was still seeing. She had no idea what half of these things were. That was a fish, obviously—but she’d never seen one in that color with that kind of mouth and those fins. Every time they periodically resurfaced for Inej asked a carefully described question about what she just saw and Nina eagerly explained what it was. She seemed to thrive with Inej’s curiosity, something that only fueled her to ask even more questions.
Still, no matter how many explanations she got, there was nothing that could have prepared Inej for what she saw next.
It was beautiful. It was a colorful mass of all kinds of things and plants and creatures, different shapes and sizes and shapes. There was so much going on down there that Inej struggled to focus on one thing at a time.
It was at this moment that Inej realized she had never really stopped to think about what was under the waters she’d traveled all over the world. It took her a second to realize what it really was: a coral reef. She’d heard of those before, seen a few black and white drawings of them, but no description or depiction could encompass what this really was.
As promised, there were even several mermaids swimming about the reef, far enough below that they wouldn’t notice Inej and Nina unless they looked up. With a pang, Inej realized Nina was right about the diversity of the species. Though they still were about half human and half fish just like the mermaid holding her hand, many of them looked so distinctly different from each other you couldn’t even call them the exact same kind. She saw one with wild dark hair and spines all over her body, sharp teeth bared as she dove after a large fish; a blonde one with a huge, shimmering gold tail speaking in another strange language; a small, skinny one about Inej’s age with a long, almost ribbonlike purple tail and the barest scraps of a mustache on his face.
Nina squeezed her hand, and Inej remembered she was there. She had this knowing smile at her expression that was somehow genuine, but Inej could feel the “I told you so” vibes radiating off that grin.
The irritating need for air was back, though, and Inej had to have Nina drag her back up to the surface as she took greedy mouthfuls of oxygen.
“That was… oh, Saints. That… was beautiful,” Inej breathed. “Thank you. Thank you for showing me that.”
Nina, for the first time, almost looked a little bashful. “Everyone needs to see a coral reef at least once in their lives.”
“Everyone needs to do it with a mermaid,” Inej replied, smiling. She squeezed her hand.
“Yeah,” Nina said. Any sign of bashfulness gone, the mermaid flashed her a mischievous grin. “Come on. I want to show you one more thing. I know you’d probably like to be on land right now.”
She was right. Inej found her legs were aching just from trying to kick to stay afloat. It was hard work even to keep her head above the water. Nodding, Inej dove back underwater with the mermaid and let her lead them to their next destination.
As the land became more visible, Inej realized that Nina had dragged her to a small, quiet cove. Though it wasn’t far from the coral reef, it seemed so hidden that Inej was convinced no one had ever been here before.
With a groan, Inej hoisted herself onto the beach. She couldn’t believe how exhausting just a little swim could be. It felt like she had swum halfway across the world.
“This is where Wylan and I usually hang out,” Nina explained, resting her head on the sandy beach next to Inej. “It’s completely private.” She smirked.
Inej blushed. “Is this where you plan to eat me?” she teased.
“Yes. Right after I showed you the most beautiful place in the sea. I had to gain your trust,” Nina said, playing along. She dug her hand into the sand and ran the grains through her fingers.
“It’s working,” Inej replied with a smile.
“Fantastic. You’ve fallen right into my trap,” Nina said dramatically, stretching out her hands threateningly like she was some sort of shark. The effect was lost, though, when she couldn’t reach Inej from her spot in the water and just ended up clawing the sand. “I’ll get you!”
“You can try!” Inej shouted, trying to keep up the same dramatic flair in Nina’s voice, but there were giggles around the edges of her words. She danced playfully around the mermaid, nimble feet staying just out of her reach. Inej couldn’t remember the last time she had laughed this hard.
“You’re so slippery!” Nina growled, but she was giggling too. “Inej the pirate? More like Inej the eel.”
“Nina the shark,” Inej retorted.
The mermaid gasped. “How dare you!”
“Sorry,” Inej said, though she was not sorry. Pretending to wobble on her feet, she stumbled over to Nina and let her catch her by the ankle.
“Aha!” the mermaid exclaimed, hand snapping onto her leg. Inej feigned a tumble to the ground as she fell dramatically back onto the sand, hair splashing into the water as she trembled with laughter.
“I got you,” Nina whispered.
Inej rolled over to face the mermaid, a mischievous smile stretched across her face. “You got me.” Inej never fell, but she’d do it for this sunny, confident girl.
From her spot low in the sand, face just inches from Inej’s, Nina flashed her another grin, one she’d never seen before. “Want to know the next stage of my plan?”
Then Nina leaned in and kissed her.
It was soft, tentative, surprisingly shy for such a bold creature. Inej tasted salt on her lips.
It would have been sort of an awkward place to kiss someone, but Inej wasn’t focused on how uncomfortable she was. All she could feel was the spray of the sea and the soft feeling of Nina’s mouth on hers.
Hand brushing Nina’s hair, Inej kissed her back.
You’re awfully bold.
Inej could be bold, too. As a treat.
Then, of course, just as Inej had worked up the confidence to kiss Nina back, the ocean rushed in to bring them back to reality. Water crashed up to Inej’s shoulders, and the two of them exploded into giggles.
When they’d finally caught their breaths, Inej said, “Your plan succeeded.”