The sea bleeds red this morning. It's so thick that it makes it seem like nightfall even when they are this close to the surface. It's a good thing, too, because it'll make them harder to spot if someone swims by.
"This must be some sort of record," says Thorne, popping some more seaweed chips into his mouth. "They're blinking out quicker than an anglerfish who's captured his prey."
"Judging by the wreckage of the ship, it could be a total loss," says Cinder, her lips twisting down sourly. She points at the mast, which is split into at least seven jagged pieces below them.
"I called it," says Thorne smugly.
"If only they wouldn't struggle so much. They're expending all their air on panicking. If they just relaxed they could probably hold their breath longer. I mean, look at that sailor flailing around like he's being chased by a shark. All he has to do is shut his mouth and swim to the surface."
"You know most sailors don't even know how to swim, Cinder. Pity for them, lucky for me."
Cinder rolls her eyes and steals one of his chips. "You haven't won yet, Thorne. Even if just one of them survives, you owe me five hundred sand dollars."
"Trust me, sis. No one is going to survive. You said it yourself. A pirate ship must have attacked them."
"There's no other ship around now. There could be someone Above who is sitting on a piece of wood."
"We'll just have to go to the surface to check."
She shoots him a disapproving look. "You know we can't go up there, Thorne."
He grins and flips his fin at her. "If you're willing to accept your loss, then we can both stay right here."
The light in another sailor's eyes goes out, not more than one hundred meters away from them. Thorne always wonders if the humans can see Cinder and him, floating there watching them, just before they die. But humans don't have the same ability to see in the water, he's learned, so he doubts it's ever the case. No one ever focuses on them. Their eyes are always frantic and desperate, too preoccupied with clawing their way out of the water.
Legs are such a drag.
"It's forbidden for a reason, Thorne. And they haven't all died yet. Stop counting your seahorses before they've crossed the finish line."
But there are hardly any humans left alive. Many of them are swallowed up so quickly by the turbulent water near the surface that neither Thorne or Cinder can keep track of where they have gone. The only thing that's clear is that they are not able to make it out of the sea.
Suddenly, Cinder gasps. She grabs Thorne's wrist. "We've been here too long! We need to get out of here."
He scoffs. "Slow those fins. Father never notices when we're out here."
"Thorne, the changing sea!"
He glances below them, down into the depths. His pulse quickens at the murky water. They have been so focused on the sea above them that they have not bothered to notice what's happening underneath. The wreckage of the ship is no longer visible; neither are the sailors who have already been lost. The water swirls up at them, angry and raging, as if ready to suck them down.
It will suck them down.
He sets his jaw and takes his sister's hand. Neither of them will be lost today. They take off, first swimming up, up, up, through the debris, as close to the surface as possible.
They pass right by a sailor who is still alive, and Thorne swears he sees them. A piece of wood cuts against his elbow and he curses. He pushes onward, holding tightly onto Cinder, and together they use both of their momentum to get as far away from the burgeoning vortex that is forming below them. They break through the surface and then they are Above and his ears fill with furious winds and the cries of sailors—still very much alive.
"She's going to take them over there!" Cinder cries, pointing to the spinning water. From Above it is always easier to see where the center of the vortex is, where most of the danger lies.
"Let's cut back this way," Thorne yells, pulling her towards him. She narrowly avoids getting pummeled by a floating chest.
They dive back underwater and swim away from the current as fast as their fins can carry them, staying right below the surface. It will take them an extra hour to get back home if they go this way, but neither of them has to think twice about it. They have to get as far away from the vortex as possible or they will be two of the souls claimed by the sea.
The change in the water can only mean one thing.
Levana is coming.
"Where have you two been?" King Kingsley demands, his golden trident nearly skewering the servant bobbing at his side. "I was ready to send out a search party!"
"I'm sorry, Father," says Cinder, dipping her head. "We lost track of time and then we got caught in a vortex—"
"A vortex!" Their father turns bright red with anger.
Thorne raises his eyes to the waters above. Cinder has never been good at hiding the truth, and frankly, she's a little too honest for her own good.
"My fault, naturally," says Thorne, straightening his shoulders and moving in front of Cinder just a bit. "I wanted to show Cinder this new spot I found for tanning." He holds out his muscled arm and flexes. "It's too bad a ship had to flounder right at that spot. I've barely absorbed any sun."
As expected, Kingsley backhands Thorne. Cinder is the one who cries out on his behalf. If the slap bothers him, his father will never know.
"You dare endanger your future queen for your vain pursuits?!"
"She'll be queen much sooner than anticipated if you don't calm down," says Thorne, trying to sound bored.
"I will not be spoken to that way in my castle. In my kingdom!"
"It wasn't really that far away," says Cinder, holding up her hands.
Their father glares at her. "And you! You know your brother is never up to any good. Why would you follow him?"
Cinder shakes her head. He knows she's torn between telling him the truth, because that's what she always does, and trying to come up with any excuse at all to placate him. But if she tells the truth now, then Thorne will have taken the heat for nothing.
He glances at her briefly, hoping she'll get the message.
"It's just…uh," she stutters, "I thought I might find a new type of flower from Above. Something that I could wear in my hair for when we meet Prince Kai."
Thorne has to hold back his snort. Cinder isn't just his sister, she's his twin, and they've always had a special connection between them. But it doesn't take a special connection to know that Cinder is lying out of her tail. Their father would know that if he paid any attention. Cinder has no desire to meet Prince Kai, and she would rather spend her time trying to figure out how the inner workings of sand structures work than dressing up for her future betrothed.
Cinder will only dress up for formal occasions where their father is present, and maybe that's why he thinks she actually enjoys it.
His face softens at her comment, though. "You know it's dangerous to go Above. And near a ship! What if someone had seen you, Cinder? You can't lose your head over some merman, even if he is a prince."
"I'm sorry, Father."
Kingsley turns to Thorne. "And you, ungrateful boy? What do you have to say for yourself?"
"I wish I could be more like you, Father," he mumbles.
Kinglsey grunts, but his initial anger is subsiding, replaced by the usual disappointment he has on his face whenever he looks at Thorne. "As do I. We can consider ourselves lucky that Cinder was born first."
"Only by two minutes," says Thorne with an elbow jab at Cinder.
She looks like she's trying to smile, even though Thorne can tell she's clearly upset.
"I don't ever want to hear about you dragging Cinder out into the middle of the sea again," their father says, coming so close to Thorne that he can see the glow in his eyes.
"It wasn't in the middle of the sea—"
"Anywhere that the two of you could run into a vortex is the middle of the sea," he snarls. "The Sea Witch is forbidden within the three merkingdoms."
"All right, I'm sorry. I won't take Cinder out there again."
"I don't want to hear about any of my children in the middle of the sea. That includes you. Find somewhere else to tan." He gestures at a cluster of young mermaids that are in the back of the courtyard. They giggle when they see Thorne looking at them. "I'm sure one of them can show you a nice cove within the kingdom. Do you understand, Thorne?"
Thorne returns his gaze to his seething father. He wants to say, I didn't know you cared. But he just nods and swims away, flashing a heart-stopping smile as he passes the group of mermaids on the way out of the courtyard.
It takes three weeks before either of them dares to bet on another shipwreck. They still go out into the sea like they always do, where they can be away from politics and the scrutiny of the rest of the merpeople, but they stay closer to the border.
This time, the ship is much smaller, so Thorne is much more sure about his imminent victory. Cinder, of course, always manages to have hope for the poor humans.
"There!" Cinder points and flutters around wildly. "A new one. A female."
Thorne grabs her arm. "I can't see with all the bubbles you're creating. And the females never make it. Haven't you listened to any of the stories? They are the most helpless humans of all. Especially on ships."
He knows she knows this, but his sister isn't listening. She has stopped moving and fixated her attention on the spot where she was pointing. "She's not struggling," she murmurs.
"Then she's dead already." He peaks over her shoulder, though, to get a better look at the female. They've probably betted on at least fifty ships by now, and he's only ever seen a dozen or so that weren't male.
Their father says that legs are what keep females from reaching their full potential. They are small and scrawny and have to be covered up by dresses. The males become sailors because their legs are sturdy and broad.
The females stay at home, away from the sea.
He tries to imagine Cinder sitting at home all day and leaving the adventures to the mermen. It's enough to make him snort. Cinder can beat almost any merman in any race. She was at the top of her class, too, so she can outsmart most of them as well.
She will make an excellent queen someday. Prince Kai has no idea about the force he will be up against if he agrees to marry Cinder.
When he sees the female, it's not her dress that he notices first, though. It's her hair, golden and full and so long that it spirals out around her like the sun. She is all hair.
And Cinder is right. She isn't struggling. She floats almost like she is standing in the water, waiting for something.
Her eyes are open and wide and staring right at them.
A chill glides down Thorne's spine.
"It looks like she can see us," Cinder whispers. "But she's too far away, isn't she? Humans don't have the same vision merpeople do."
"That's what they say," says Thorne, eyes fixed on the female.
She smiles, then, at him, he thinks. Her legs kick out and then she is heading towards the surface, exactly the way Cinder always said that humans should.
Like her ship hasn't capsized. Like sailors aren't dying around her.
Her hair drifts around her, wrapping her up and hiding her face from the two of them.
Thorne starts to swim upward.
"Hey!" Cinder yells after him. "Where are you going?"
He doesn't answer. He just wants to see this female who has defied the sea. She's not behaving the way he thinks she should, the way that humans are supposed to when death is at their door, and he needs to see what she'll do next.
His head breaks the surface, but just barely. He sinks down just a bit, so only his eyes are above water. Cinder is right next to him now, but she stays below the water. He can feel the anxiety coming off of her with the way she flaps her fins around and agitates the water even more than the storm above.
The female with the hair is swimming now, trying to reach a large piece of wood that is still floating. She makes it there and collapses on top of it, breathing heavily.
"She survived," he whispers.
A bolt of lightning shoots out of the sky and she screams, though Thorne almost wants to yell out and tell her that it's nowhere near the waters they are in now. The thunder is still miles and miles away.
A hand reaches out of the water and grabs the female by the hair. She disappears into the water.
Thorne dives down, only for Cinder to stop him. "What are you doing? We should get out of here."
He pushes her away.
There is another human now, another female—bigger and older and with much less hair—who has joined her. She is no longer calm. She is struggling quite a bit because the bigger one is holding her down.
"She's trying to kill her," says Cinder.
"Thank you for that astute observation," says Thorne but he is already swimming closer.
"Stop!" she hisses, grabbing him by the arm. "They'll see you!"
"She's dying," he says. In fact, the bigger female is holding onto all the hair and keeping her from kicking to the surface.
"You should be happy about that. If they both die, you win. Isn't that what you want?"
It is what he wants but it also isn't. He doesn't know why, but something about this human and her hair and the way she looked at him has suddenly made this more personal.
"Come on, Thorne, we should leave."
Despite her struggle, the female opens her eyes again, staring directly at Cinder and Thorne again.
"You can't help her. You know you can't help her."
"Are you crazy? They'll both see you! We are a myth to them, Thorne. You can't put us in danger like that."
The two females break the surface again. Thorne does too, still at a safe distance. Maybe he misread the bigger one's intentions. Maybe this was some sort of saving ritual. He's never seen anyone but merpeople fight, after all.
But the bigger one slugs the one with the hair. Her body goes limp and the vicious smile on the other female's face amidst the storm is anything but friendly.
She begins to tie the hair around the floating piece of wood.
"Thorne," Cinder says, all pleasantries gone from her voice. "You're leaving with me right now."
Thorne stays where he is. The bigger female swims away, towards the ship, which is ablaze on top of the water. The female with the hair floats unconscious next to the wood.
"I think you win," Thorne says.
"I don't care about that. I'll give you the sand dollars if you just leave right now."
The bigger female is barely able to keep her head above water now. She's dragging something behind her, something that looks like a chest, but when Thorne dips his eyes under the water he sees that it's not floating. Perhaps it is another human treasure chest. There are so many of them at the bottom of the sea. Humans will do anything to save their treasure. They have watched many of them die trying.
But as she reaches the piece of wood again, she crawls on top of it. The wood sinks below her, plunging into the sea from the weight. The female with the hair gets dragged down with it.
Thorne darts into the sea. Cinder follows him, still yelling at him to get out of there but he pays her no attention. The bigger female is putting the chest-like-thing on top of the wood now as it sinks.
She lets go.
The wood, and the female with the hair along with it, disappear into the depths of the sea.
Thorne swims after her, flying through the water as fast as he can. He doesn't know what's possessed him, but something makes him need to help her.
She hits the seafloor right as he reaches her.
He pushes the chest off of the wood, but it stays at the bottom of the sea. He tries to pull her up, but the wood resists him against the water and knows he'll never make it on time. Humans have to breathe and he knows they can't hold their breath long. She's unconscious so maybe she has already swallowed too much water.
His eyes dart around the floor, landing on a large, abandoned conch shell. He smashes it against the wood and it breaks instantly.
Thorne saws at her hair, cutting it away from the wood.
Then Cinder has wrapped her arms around Thorne's waist, trying to stop him.
"Leave me alone, Cinder," he growls, still sawing. "Father will kill me if anything happens to you."
"And I'll kill myself if anything happens to you, brother."
"I'm doing this with or without you."
One last cut and the female is free. Cinder, surprisingly, lets him go. Thorne reaches for her and he startles at how soft and cold she is, much like mermaids are. He draws her face into his and kisses her furiously. Behind him, Cinder gasps, but Thorne continues putting as much of his own breath into the human's lungs, hoping that it will be enough to keep her alive.
He takes off for the surface. It's harder to swim with someone else in his arms and it takes him much longer to reach Above than usual.
Once there, the wind whips his hair around. The lightning has picked up and the thunder is closer than before, but he holds the female in his arms, making sure to keep her head above the surface and against his chest—away from the storm.
She's not waking up but he thinks he feels a pulse, though he's never felt one on a human and doesn't know if a light flutter means the same thing.
Cinder is nowhere to be found.
When he fears the lightning might actually hit them, Thorne moves. Crushing her to his chest, he swims away from his kingdom and further out to sea. If he goes back towards his kingdom or the other two merkingdoms, they will kill her and he will be exiled.
Humans are not allowed among the merpeople.
So he swims and swims, exhaustion nearly claiming him, going toward a distant shore that he has never explored, one that only legends speak of.
The place where the ships come from, the place that is even more forbidden than Levana's kingdom.
When he reaches the shore, he collapses over the human, who is safe at last, unable to move another inch.