|Image from a Google search|
Ylaine slowed as she wove her way through the tunnel. The vial of potion glittered so that she could see various heaps of things like pearls and sea-gems scattered over the floor of the tunnel. Had she known that such practices once occurred, she would have realized that this was an old smuggling tunnel some of the more self-interested mer-traders would use to reserve amounts of rare sea-goods for trading, and also to reach the surface before the official delegations could make the journey through the open water.
Just when Ylaine was beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea, and perhaps she ought to turn back, she saw the end of the darkness ahead.
Her tail quivered as she swam into the open water. The King's Boundary was behind her! She was free! Ylaine looked up to the surface, just a few meters away. She now hovered on the far side of the island of Overcliff, where the rocky cliffs opened up to a stony beach and a series of wooden posts, with boards between them. Nayidia had said humans walked on these to be near the water but staying out of it, since they could not be in the water without risk of drowning. Ylaine swam as far as the posts that supported the walkway. She figured she would be able to climb up quick enough. Her tail fluttered at the thought of what was to come; when she came free of the water, would she finally get to fly?
Ylaine positioned herself just below one of the walking places. Bracing herself, she uncorked the bottle and poured the potion into her mouth.
It blazed like the sting of a sea urchin all the way down her throat. As the potion entered her belly, Ylaine felt a strange feeling in her throat, as if her gills had suddenly seared shut. Water was coming in—but she could no longer breathe! Desperately, she shoved her face against the walk-place, gasping the air above the water for the first time.
But the potion had not finished. The stinging pain seemed to seep right past her stomach, all the way down to her tail—and right down the middle of that to her fin. The potion cut her tail in two like a shark's bite, ripping into flesh and bone. Ylaine could not even scream as the long fin folded on itself, her spine twisting as length was lost. She felt the flexibility of her tail stiffening into rigid, jointed legs and feet. Frantically, she reached up and pulled her head above the water. Heaving, spewing, the former mermaid filled fresh lungs with gasps of real air.
Jaren had been the harbor master of Overcliff since his father grew too old, sixty years ago. He had watched the once-mighty fleet dwindle away to one small sailboat no bigger than a dinghy—and the Prince had lost that in the freak storm the day before. Now all that was left was to wait for the grand schooner from Crossway bearing the Queen, the Princess, and their entourage. Just one ship—
Jaren jerked so hard his chair nearly collapsed when he heard the splash. He scrambled to his feet in time to see a mass of white floating underneath the dock. It took some doing at his age, but the emergency invigorated him and he made it to the water's edge just in time. The body was sinking again, but he could barely make out the hand that was so nearly the same color as the dress. He grabbed this as a dark head emerged. The woman was coughing already; that was a good sign. Jaren supported her as she heaved her body onto the dock and lay there, panting furiously. She looked up at him.
Jaren had never seen eyes of her color before. They were far too blue to be termed green, but then again, brighter than any blue eyes he'd ever seen.
"What were ya doin' down there lassie?" Jaren asked as her breathing slowed. He helped her sit up and noticed that she was a very tall woman. "Trying to drown yourself?"
The woman fixated on her dress; it was a tattered old thing, mildewed in so many places that Jaren wondered if she was too poor to afford a dry chest to keep her clothes in—either that, or this woman swam fully-clothed quite a lot.
As much as he would have liked to allow the woman to sit here on the dock as long as she pleased, Jaren knew he had duties to perform. He stood and offered his hand to her. When she finally turned, she stared at it as if he displayed a new kind of fish.
"Can I help you stand?" He asked.
At last, she moved, gripping his gnarled, weathered hand in her cold-damp one. Jaren gasped as she seemed to put her entire weight on him. Her muscles must be very weak indeed, or far too strong for a lady's. She swayed like a poplar on her feet, nearly six feet tall, the tallest woman he had ever seen. She blinked down at him with those strange eyes.
"Where do you hail from?" Jaren asked.
The woman said nothing, only glanced in the direction of the Channel on the other side of the island, toward Crossway.
"Crossway, is it?" Jaren guessed. "Did your boat get overturned in the storm, then?"
The woman seemed to have recovered her color somewhat, even if she was the palest human Jaren had ever seen. She leaned heavily on him as he led her over to the cottage. Her head turned this way and that, the thick, dark hair flapping wetly against her shoulders. Her chin trembled, but Jaren couldn't tell if she was cold, fearful, or perhaps just wanted to say something but did not know how.
He offered her a walking stick, and showed her how she could lean against that and keep her balance.
"Wait just a moment," he said, "and I'll bring you some food. You look like you could use a bite to eat."
The unnaturally-tall woman stood where she was, staring after him with those queer eyes.When Jaren came out with a bit of dried fish and a jug of fresh water, his mysterious guest had gone. Jaren shrugged and tottered back into his cabin. Perhaps he had been imagining things in his old age.
Excerpts from "Princess of Undersea":
-"Undersea and Overcliff"
-"The Witch and The Storm"
-"Walking Through Overcliff"
-"Dining With The King"
-"Enter The Queen"