Mer rarely sleep—the world below is too dangerous—and even more infrequently do we dream. Some attribute it to the fact that, even while resting, we hear everything…and if you stop listening you die.
So it’s disorienting for me to wake and find myself in a wide and grassy field filled with orange and black butterflies; even stranger is the Lesser Solved I see conversing with a Were-girl that does not notice me as I approach them.
“You DO understand that this is the last time I’ll be able to meet with you, right?” the Solved asks the Were as she pushes off the ground and sits back. I think, Certainly they’ll notice me, but their conversation continues as if I’m not even there. The Solved wears a flowing white gown that pools around her and its many layers engulf her in tiny orange roses detailed with leaf green embellishments. Her shining, mahogany & chestnut colored hair is straight but as I circle around her I realize her eyes swirl with the unearthly colors of a vampire.
“Vampire,” I hiss and something—the tilt of her head, or a flash in her eyes—alerts me to the fact that she knows I’m here, although she continues to appear as a Solved with a vampire’s eyes.
“Nope,” the Were replies and their conversation continues, but the vampire keeps casting piercing glances at me while blithely chatting with the other woman.
Wait, peals through my head and I freeze in place even as I strain to backtrack out of this DreamScape. I miss the rest of their conversation as I struggle to free myself, even shifting forms yields no escape and for the first time since I became a Lesser Solved I start to panic. Calm down, resounds in my very cells and though every conscious part of my being warns me to escape but my body cannot resist the command. After a time the Vampire and the Were reach some sort of conclusion and the moment the Vampire’s lips touch the Were’s forehead she vanishes.
“Now,” the Solved with the vampire eyes addresses me directly and the compulsion binding me releases as she stands in a cascade of layers, “who are you and how did you get here, Little Solved?” She circles me slowly and while I am not so foolish as to strike out at her or attempt to escape, I am not stupid enough to answer within anything other than obvious generalities, either.
“I am a Lesser Solved,” I murmur, dipping my head politely and keeping my eyes on the ground as she circles closer.
“Indeed,” she hums and her breath stirs the tiny hairs on my arms, “Pod Meister, too, no less,” her comment startles me into looking up and I catch a sparkle in those swirling eyes before she goes back to stalking around me. “And well on your way to Greater Solved, but that’s not what I asked, Mer,” voice changing from honey to ice she repeats, “who are you and how did you get here?” This time her compulsion almost wrings an answer from me and I choke on the words trying to force their way past my will.
Coughing, sputtering, I drop to my knees and feel the vampire crouch down beside me.
“Why fight it?” she asks, bemusement coloring her voice and banishing some of the malice I feel emanating from her, “you’re going to tell me, little one, why fight it?” I shake my head from side to side, a silent refusal, and then I cry out as a short, sharp pain cuts into my thumb—a vertical, one inch cut that neatly bisects my pad—before blood wells to the surface and starts slowly dripping into the grass.
She’s too fast and as I try to cradle my injured hand against my chest she snatches my wrist, brings my fingers to her mouth, and languorously licks the wound. One sweep of her tongue feels like the brush of Princess Whisker’s, the second sends a tingle up my spine, but the third shocks me with a burst of electricity that rushes, pulsating, throughout my body and knocks me flat.
Panting, gasping, and riding the wave of an incredible—but foreign—sensation my breathing and heart rate return to normal even as my eyes glaze over and the world blurs into something like a watercolor painted by a madman. Bursts of color radiate from the grass, the trees, and sky but most vibrant of all is the vampire woman now standing above me with a pensive smile on her face. Folding her arms across her chest, she closes her eyes as one hand raises to rest against her face with a single finger pressing lightly across her lips.
“Oh,” she says, thoughtfully reflecting on some internal conversation. “Now I see. Hmm. I didn’t expect this…” the vampire lapses into thoughtful silence and her eyes close, shuttering that blue, green, pink swirling and somehow signaling the world to resolve into a more normal perception. “…though I suppose I should have,” she mutters before striding off toward something I cannot see.
“Wait!” I surprise myself by crying out after her and she stops, pivoting so smoothly I would swear she was not moving, eyes snapping open and she stares at me as if I had suddenly materialized this moment instead of having been here all the time.
“Yes?” she asks, and where her voice was cold and calculating it is now warm and patient—the difference between an irate lecturer having been interrupted in the middle of their speech and a parent indulging a child’s endless series of “why” questions—and my voice fails me.
“What is your name?” I ask lamely, knowing that I’ve wasted my only question.
“That doesn’t matter,” the vampire/solved says, smiling and adding, “What does matter is that we’ve met, and you’re the key to the fourth harbinger.”
“Fourth harbinger?” I ask and she laughs.
“It doesn’t matter, nothing I say matters,” her laugh is like wind chimes, joyfully infectious and I smile through my bemusement, “all that matters is that you’re alive.”
What does that even mean? I want to shout, but her hand flicks and I feel as if I’m caught in a whirlpool—but unlike a human, I have no need to fight it—so I let it carry me away.
“Good Evening Passengers, this is your Captain speaking,” my mouth feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton and my eyelids rasp sandpaper over my dehydrated eyeballs. Rarely have I felt this bad and not been physically injured so I stumble into the shower and turn it—full blast—until the ringing in my ears stops and I no longer feel like I’m going to die. The Captain continues some droning, daily update about weather conditions and ends with, “I will see all of you at dinner in thirty minutes.” Thirty minutes isn’t nearly enough time to dry my hair so instead I squeeze out as much excess moisture as I can before piling it on top of my head in some combination of bun/tumble that looks artful and keeps the wet ends from dripping on my clothing.
Vampires love spectacle; even though they can’t eat they love the pomp that goes along with ‘dining.’ So it’s not enough to just toss something over my nudity, I have to show up in all the requisite glory that will set me apart from an average passenger and somehow convey the dignity of being an Envoy to everyone who glances upon me.
We do not go about draped in kelp wearing discarded shells for modesty, Elondiata chides when I protest yet another session of measurements, and IF you were ‘Solved you could wear a flowing wrap of nothing but swirling seawater…but I hear the energy required to keep it in motion is exhausting and not worth the effort except in the most dire situations. Since you are not ‘Solved, little Pod Meister, clothing will have to do. Smiling, I pull on a length of aquamarine silk that covers my front from clavicle to ankle while bearing the entirety of my back—and a measure of my rear—in cascades of artfully draped fabric that shimmer with every breath. Around my wrists I clasp pearl and opal-encrusted platinum gauntlets before hanging a spray of the same from my ears. Unassuming kid slippers the same light blue enclose my toes and when I open the door to my cabin Princess Whiskers and Tuxedo Katman tear out the door and thread through the throng of people heading to the dining hall like ground lightning.
Joining the flow of passengers, many clothed in outrageous ensembles that simultaneously shout, “Look at me!” and “I’m important!” as well as, “I have more money than sense or taste!” I incline my head in acknowledgement to each of the porters, waiters, attendants, etc. that help direct the massing throng in the right direction without allowing for distraction.
When I reach the hall, it has been transformed from the utilitarian, even boring, place where breakfast was served to a lavish ballroom complete with an inlaid marble floor that depicts all the races cavorting wildly. The ceiling, the whole ceiling has been raised and chandeliers of cut crystal reflect actual candlelight that bobs and sways to the otherwise imperceptible movement of the huge ship. The main table is easy to find, given that each chair is more like a miniature throne and I notice a large contingent of attendants waiting to help guests to their seats.
“Envoy,” the Captain purrs and I arch an eyebrow at him, “I trust we’ll expect smooth sailing this voyage?” Niran knows very well what to expect and that, on our end, the Mer have no problem with our projected course or timeline. But the sea is fickle and weather even more so I laugh—as is expected—and move in to sit at his left side.
“Do you dine every night?” I ask politely as two burly men push my chair forward without a sound. Captain Niran laughs, a short, sharp bark before signaling for silence as a spotlight hits him and he bellows,
“Welcome honored guests!” the room falls completely silent and he continues a traditional, if laborious, speech about the grandiose nature of his vessel, the ameneties the guests can expect to enjoy, our projected stops at exotic locations and finally, “please let me or any one of my crew know what we can do to make this the best voyage of your life!” before sitting down as the first course is placed before everyone simultaneously. “I don’t,” he replies, answering my question as if he hadn’t just delivered a five minute welcoming address, “but as this is the first proper night at sea it is expected of me.”
“Ah,” I murmur, spooning delicate broth into my mouth. “One must respect tradition,” I glance at him under my lashes and his mouth twists sourly, “no matter how much one would like to do away with it.”
“Shocking, Envoy,” Niran retorts as my broth is taken from me, “to say such a thing, with a history and traditions as entrenched as yours.” Not much is known outside of the Mer, so I do not rise to his verbal baiting.
“Not every tradition is a good one,” a woman says from a quarter turn around the table and I can’t peg her. Could be human, could be Were—is NOT Mer—or maybe Fae, she smiles and a hint of fang gleams in the low light. Vampire then, I should have known given her lack of interest in the food.
“Envoy, may I introduce <VAMPIRE LADY NAME>, my third in command,”
“A pleasure,” she says, nodding toward me in such a way that the string of diamonds twined in her long, black ringlets wink in and out like stars in a stormy sky. Unlike the captain she isn’t clad in a variation of the ship’s dress uniform and I wonder why it is important for her to pass as human before turning my attention to another course.
Vampires and humans are terribly wasteful when it comes to food. The rule on the ship seems to be that if a course can be finished before another is provided then the chef isn’t doing a proper job. Which leads me to wonder, what is done with the unfinished portions?, but questioning along that line will only make me sad so I stop thinking about it and try to enjoy a crab cake before it is disappeared.
“Are you enjoying the voyage, Envoy?” a man seated to my left asks as I take an overlarge bite and I can only smile and nod as he launches into a description of the business venture he plans to undertake when we arrive at our sixth port. This human is dressed in a bespoke tuxedo that manages to conceal a lifetime of sedentary plotting underneath, and if I couldn’t sense the water laboring through his veins I would guess he was at least ten years younger than he is. “Do you think anyone in your know would be interested in a joint venture?” he asks me and I sigh,
“No,” I say, smiling to soften the blow, “we Mer haven’t much interest in reclaiming cities from the waves,” since they weren’t built for us and won’t be built to suit us, either I finish in my own mind and the poor man is crestfallen. “There are groups, however, who try to save relics of particular import, perhaps I can get you in touch with them?” He nods, but it’s a distracted nod as he reformulates his pitch for more effect on the next ‘person of influence’ he can approach.
People around the table make the sort of polite, meaningless conversation that one expects on the first day of a voyage: how lovely the weather is, what marvelous details their accommodations have (no two suites being the same), what interesting choices the chef makes in the meal and wine pairings and while the Were representative (a tiny woman that could be blown away by a stiff wind) and the third-in-command vampire argue the merits of different kinds of dancing I let the cresting, roaring, crashing hum of conversation roll over me until I can feel the ocean beating against the sides of the ship and a measure of calm is returned.
My calm is shattered when the industrial entrepreneur shouts, “Good lord, is that a cat?” and an indignant, “Mew!” reminds me that Whisker Princess would, of course, gravitate toward the easiest source of food after boring herself with adventuring.
“Kitten, actually,” I say as I rub my fingers together under the table, “and she’s quite harmless,” I murmur as the ball of fluff jumps into my lap.
“Unless you have allergies,” someone adds, holding up a napkin and dabbing at a not-running nose. A muscle in the Captain’s jaw visibly twitches but the band chooses just then to strike a rousing number and many of the (more modestly dressed) ladies jump to their feet, dragging laughingly reluctant partners with them.
“I’ll just take her back to my rooms,” I say and Niran nods tightly. As I press through the throng of excited dancers Whisker Princess meowls lustily and Tuxedo Katman pulls out of the shadows as I emerge into the passageway, following at my heels as a sort of rear-guard/trip hazard. “Thank you,” I murmur and the kitten purrs mightily. I knew that this was not the job for me, but nothing has driven the point home more than the outlandish, wasteful, self-indulgent throng that filled that dining hall. Living on the surface is too easy, the races have mastered their domain too well at the cost of the earth itself. The vampires talk of reclamation and repair while the humans try to claw back what they lost. They lost what they SHOULD NOT HAVE HAD, and instead of learning the lesson they continue in their folly. “It’s enough to make a person sick,” I mutter and Tuxedo Katman growls in agreement.
Shoving the hatch shut with my hip I know the moment I step into my quarters that there is no solace for me here. Nothing but the indifferent embrace of the waves will soothe my indignation so I slip off my shoes, jewelry and dress and pull on one of the ship’s robes. Then I tuck the cats into bed and head up to the flight deck. Opening the airlock, I know something’s not right in the frenzied way the wind whips my hair free, but before I can shut the door a subsonic whump, whump, whump penetrates my bones and I realize that it’s just a helicopter landing. None of my business who’s coming and going in the middle of the night, I calmly walk toward my diving platform while the wind buffets me and use the safety chain to secure my robe before looking out into the night.
Someone is calling to another on the deck but I pay no attention, until, mid-leap, my wrist is shackled by a vise-like grip and I am jerked, bodily, to slam backward into the ship’s hull.
“I’ve got you!” a man shouts and I look up into swirling eyes of amber fire.
“Let go, Vampire!” I shout in return and, though he is straining, Why is a vampire straining? flickers across my mind, his toothy grin lets me know that he has no intention of releasing me. “For god’s sake, I’m the Mer Envoy!” I scream, but the wind rips my words away as the vampire—who is also dangling off the side of the ship, having grabbed ahold of me and only then anchored himself to the vessel—starts curling his legs up to get some kind of leverage against the platform above. Enough of this nonsense, I Shift…I mean to Shift, but I dissolve instead, my molecules unbinding until I am nothing more than a woman formed of water, water that slips through his fingers.
Fingers that, in turn, unbind from their form into water and suddenly there are two of us tumbling to the crashing, churning fury below, blowing apart as we strike the waves, being hopelessly tangled as the propellers churn us into ever decreasing percentages of ourselves and the only thought that anchors me apart from the whole of the ocean is, What just happened?
I was supposed to Shift, I tried to Shift, why didn’t I shift? I frantically ask myself as the water that is me bounces around in torrential helices that spin in every direction. The problem with being dissolved is that—without an iron will—you simply fade back into the ever-present song of the sea. Unlike Terrans, among the Mer if your song stops for long enough we simply assume you’re dead (or Landed, which is almost worse).
When I became ‘Solved it was part accident, part acceptance. But the Vampire-Mer who is falling with me is so startled, so upset, that I know there’s no way he’ll have the fortitude to put himself back together unless I help him. The moment before impact I curled the greater part of ‘me’ around the inner spark of ‘him’ and let the waves push us under and around and through the ocean until the ship is nothing more than a resonant thrum off in the far distance.
“Who are you?” I ask, stretching myself out into the surroundings and gathering what I need to become whole again. Holding the Spark like a goldfish in a bowl I notice that there are two distinct patterns present, but they’re separated from each other even as they jockey for response. Fully resolved into my Terran shape, I ask again, “Who are you?”
“Where am I?” The Spark asks, rambling, “This isn’t my ocean, it’s too cold here, why am I here?” Soothing as best as I can (I’ve never done this before—I didn’t announce myself to the other ‘Solved—and I’ve never tried to help someone through the transition either) I reply,
“We’ll figure out where you belong, but first you need to get ahold of yourself,” the Terran phrase slips out and I smile, it’s surprisingly apropos. “Remember who you are, remember what you want.”
“I am…” there’s a flicker and the second stream snarls at me before the first stream regains control. Suddenly I don’t want this Spark to resolve; there’re too many questions and none of the answers I can imagine are good. As the Spark fights, I wonder.
It WAS a vampire that grabbed me, of that I am sure. But I’m also sure that Vampire’s can’t be Solved. Every Vampire that has managed to turn a Mer has been thwarted in their goal of infiltrating our ranks because every Mer must return to the sea…and none of us really sleep. Not the way that vampires sleep, and the cycle continues (from what I’ve been told) even in the Deep. So, if we find a Mer just drifting during the day, and they only rouse at night, the Meisters kill them. Sometimes they think they’re being clever if they only take nighttime sojourns into our realm, but they can’t sing our songs and are discovered anyway.
However, I am faced by the undeniable proof in my own hand that somehow, some way, a vampire has managed to turn a Mer but the Mer HAS NO KNOWLEDGE OF IT.
“What is the last thing you remember?” I ask and the Spark dims.
“I…was on walkabout…” he starts and the eddies swirling around us begin to form shape, “I went too far into the mountains, I got lost…” first his face forms; square jaw with a hint of angles at the sides, narrow nose, full lips.
“It’s okay,” I coo, hoping that ‘soothing’ is what my voice is conveying, “there’s time. Why did you go into the mountains?”
“Had to get away,” he murmurs and the Spark is encapsulated by a fully formed Terran shape. The only thing left for it is to actually change back from water to person, but it’s unpleasant and he hesitates.
“Away from what, brother? Was it a pod, or school? Was a Meister unkind to you?” He flinches at the last and becomes fully man.
I mean FULLY MAN. I blush—as he didn’t bother to resolve any clothes—and try to avert my gaze but my eyes will not obey me. No wonder the Vampires targeted him; they are drawn to beauty and this man is absolutely gorgeous. Raking my gaze from the manicured tips of his toes to the angular planes of his face I see for a moment—an instant, or maybe it’s a flash of light (light from above?)—his hair is the pure silver-white of a member of the Deep. It’s gone in an instant, replaced with a naturally dark-brown Terran color but I know what I saw.
“What?” he asks, frowning as I push away from him, “what is it, sister?”
“No,” I murmur, assaulted by memories and terrified of their implications. Lights sweep the water overhead—not searching, not really, but more like announcing their path to those who might be interested below. “You have to go back,”
“Back where?” he asks and instead of answering I forcefully kick for the surface. “Back where?!?” he calls after me but I burst out of the water and haul myself into the boat before Caleb can even halt the outboard motor.
“Envoy?” the old man asks and I take the robe he offers me. “Is the Vampire down there?”
“His name,” a Vampire woman turns to shine the flashlight right in my eyes, “Is Tor’Scion and he’d best be in one piece,” I open my mouth to answer this uppity bitch but ‘Tor’Scion’ breaks the surface of the water, sputtering and gasping as his body makes the shift from water to air breathing.
The very moment that his gill slits seal and he takes a first rattling breath I watch it happen; the man who was Mer fades and suddenly it is Tor’Scion standing before us, his Vampire eyes swirling an unearthly Amber color flecked with russet before retreating into human eyes the color of milk-chocolate.
“Where are my clothes?” rumbles an unearthly-deep voice. Quickly folding one of the Queen Averna’s plush robes around his shoulders, he ties the waist belt into an efficient knot before turning toward me. “What was all that about?”
“All what?” I ask, trying to play innocent—or if not innocent at least coy—and fingers like steel rods grip my chin. Tor’scion forces me to look into his eyes and tries to Enthrall me…but his attempts fail when his attention is grabbed by an unlikely, pop, plink sound.
“Away from the Envoy, if you please,” Caleb murmurs in his salt-roughened sailor’s voice. The sound that distracted the vampires (for both of them have gone stone-still) was the sound of a UV grenade’s safety cap popping off the end of the rod and dropping into the bottom of the launch.
“You dare?” the vampire woman hisses and Caleb shrugs his shoulders.
“Of course he does,” I say, moving to position myself between the too-vulnerable humans and the (previously furious) now-enraged vampires. “Because he knows that if I stop singing everyone on the Queen Averna is dead.” It is a fact, not a threat, and I manage to convey no threat as I bend down to retrieve the cap and replace it on the grenade. “Speaking of the Averna,” I turn to Caleb and only now notice Joshua piloting the outboard motor of this emergency launch, “I assume they cut thrust when he,” I jerk a nod at the sopping wet vampire, “went over?”
“They did,” Caleb confirms and Joshua moves to idle up but the older man shakes his head, no. “But they’re out of range by now. Someone neglected to refuel the launch before we left port so what little we have left won’t get us back.” I had been afraid of that when I heard the sputtering cough the outboard was making when I surfaced and I sigh before turning back to the vampires.
“Will your helicopter come back for you?” I ask and they both shake their heads, no. “Great.” I start to remove my robe and pause, “are you going to interfere this time?” I ask Tor’scion directly and he looks me up and down, penetrating male gaze trying to rattle me, before he murmurs, “No.”
Before Joshua in the rear of the boat can hear him I’m out of the robe and over the side, diving until the water changes and I know I’m in another strata of the sea. Back when the Terrans were trolling all over the ocean you couldn’t enter these lanes for fear of having your ears blown out, but now that all (most) of the war-toys have been packed away a Mer who knows what they’re doing can easily send out a call that will carry for a hundred miles. Luckily for me a Pod known to my father answers me, and while they resent Terrans and despise Vampires, they agree to push the little boat back to the larger ship without much complaint. I surface just as two tall, straight, black fins poke up on either side of the craft and yell, “Kill the outboard and pull it up!” to Joshua before swimming to the nose of the craft and calling to Caleb, “I have to go fishing for these two; don’t engage the outboard until they break away from the ship, understand?”
“Aye!” Caleb calls and I snag a spear gun from the gunwale before diving back beneath the waves. Grumbling good-naturedly about lazy fish, I dive into a trench and begin the hunt for the giant octopus the Orcas love to eat but hate to hunt. Singing a soft lullaby meant to relax the chromatophores on any nearby prey, I start a thorough search of the trench and resign myself to a long night.
My foot hasn’t even touched the deck proper before Captain Niran is standing before me. “Ship Meister?” I ask, suppressing a yawn. The sun is threatening to burst over the mountains in the east and the vampire is acting like he has all the time in the world to confront me. “Is there a problem?” Since Caleb is wiping down the rescue craft while Jacob refills the fuel tank (both taking their time while appearing to be in a hurry) I know that everyone’s returned and he has no legal standing to be furious with me.
“Why were you on deck when the Scion’s group arrived?” he asks, voice slipping into heavily accented Basic.
“I was going for a midnight swim,”
“And did you inform the Officer Of the Deck?”
“I did not.”
“And why,” he almost hisses and his eyes blink back and forth between human and vampire, “didn’t you inform my Officer?”
“Because I,” I say, pushing him back with my own body, chest to chest, “am Envoy to the Queen Averna.” Niran draws a breath to argue but I cut him off, “And I am Mer. You can control me no more than you can control the sea. I will do as I please and as long as your ship is safe, and compliant with the Treaty, you can demand no more from me.” I pause, just long enough to see his eyes flick to the horizon and the ever-present threat of the sun. “However, I will concede that, in the future, it will be best for all to know when I intend to depart the ship. I will inform you personally—or your on-duty representative such as the Officer Of the Deck—when I next intend to depart the ship.” Captain Niran nods, only a fraction of an inch, and I stride toward the nearest stairwell leading below decks.
Crashing Entry: 04