Lianna lay on a large rock, enjoying the sensation of warm sun on her closed eyelids and wet skin. Blue-green water the exact shade of her shimmering scales danced against the nearby shores, though there was little wind. The day was hot and still above the waves, just the way Lianna liked it.
Lianna was just beginning to drowse off when she felt a shadow over her, blocking out the sun. She opened her eyes to see what the problem was.
“There you are, Lianna!” It was Narina, Lianna’s friend. Narina wore a short, pale yellow sundress that contrasted nicely with her copper-coloured skin and burnished orange tail. Her long hair, the same orangey colour as her scales, dripped water on Lianna. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. What are you doing up here?”
“I was enjoying the sun, but for some reason, there’s a big shadow blocking my way…”
“Enjoying the sun? What nonsense!” Narina grabbed Lianna’s pale green hand and held it up. “Look at you! Your fingers have gone round! You can’t stay up here for so long; you’ll dry out!” It was true. Having been out of the water for so long, Lianna’s normally wet and wrinkled fingers were now soft and round.
“I’m fine. It’s not like I haven’t done this before,” Lianna answered, a little crossly. "And I have been careful to keep part of my tail in the water. I wasn't hatched yesterday." She sat up, running her hands through her short turquoise hair.
Narina frowned back at her. “Well, at least you haven’t been up here long enough for that to dry, too.”
Lianna decided not to tell her friend that if her hair had dried, it still wouldn’t have been the first time. She didn’t think Narina could take it.
“What’s with you, Lianna?” Narina asked. “You’ve become so rebellious lately. You’re never around anymore, you cut your hair, and you’re not even scared of drying out? I’m worried about you, Lianna.”
The truth was, Lianna had cut her hair for the same reason she was always hiding and for the same reason she liked it when her fingers went round. Narina didn’t know that, though. All she knew was that one day Lianna had found a sharp piece of seashell and the next day Lianna’s long tresses were no longer very long at all.
“You don’t have to worry about me, Narina. I’m fine. Better than I’ve ever been.” Lianna smiled.
“And there’s another thing,” Narina went on. “Your skin has… changed. Your face is covered in spots!”
Lianna laughed, a high, sweet sound. “Those are called freckles, silly.” Lianna had noticed about a month ago, when she had first started spending long amounts of time in the sun, that darker green spots were beginning to appear on her pale green face and arms. The more time she spent in the sun, the more of them there were and the darker they got. “And I rather like them.”
“How do you know what they’re called?” Narina was curious in spite of herself. Unlike Lianna, she was a stickler for rules, but like Lianna, she had an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
“Kalina told me.” Kalina, Lianna’s aunt, was a siren by profession. In past decades, being a siren involved luring human sailors to their doom, but in modern times, sirens ensured that the humen survived, albeit with slight amnesia. There was no other practical way to get the supplies that came on those ships. Because of her job, which involved long hours of sitting on rocky shores and singing, and the treasures on the ships, Kalina knew a lot about the world above the waves. She, like Lianna, was covered in freckles.
Kalina was also the one who had, indirectly, influenced Lianna to become such a rebel.
It had started about a month ago. Lianna had wanted to find an extra-special present for her friend’s hatchday. When Narina was distracted by her sisters, who were trying out some new sheath dresses (the only kind of skirt that stayed on under the waves), Lianna made an excuse and swam away.
She found Kalina in her coral-cave, sorting treasures from the latest ship. Lianna couldn’t see any of the latest load of treasures, because it was all packed away in crates, but if previous loads were any indication, it could be anything from strange foods to bolts of fine cloth to precious jewels to strangely shaped hunks of something that were nothing but junk, as far as Lianna could tell.
“Hi, Kalina!” Lianna called out, swimming over to her aunt.
“Lianna! How’s my favourite niece? What brings you here?” Kalina was always happy to see Lianna, and always had a story or a treat ready for her when she dropped by. Lianna loved hearing the stories, which were usually inspired by the strange and fantastical treasures that Kalina found on the ships she sunk. She was never sure how much of each story to believe. Hufolk were strange, and sometimes the things they carried on the ships were even stranger.
“I was wondering if you have any treasure you could spare,” Lianna told her aunt. “Narina’s sixteenth hatchday is coming, and I was hoping to give her something extra-special this year.”
“You’re welcome to look around. This latest batch is mostly books, though. They won’t do you much good.” Kalina sighed. “If only there was some way to know what was on those ships before I sunk them! Those poor hufolk, losing their ship for nothing.”
Lianna was surprised. “You feel bad for the hufolk? Why?” Then something else registered. “Books? What are those?”
Kalina laughed. “One question at a time, Lianna! Hufolk are people, too, you know. They’re different from us, true, but they’re sentient creatures. And I don’t pity them when I take things we can use; that’s business. I pity them when we take things that we can’t use. If the things are of no use to us, why should we take them away from those who can use them?”
Lianna had to think about this for a moment. Thinking of hufolk as people was a strange idea, one that was warned against in merfolk society. There was even a legend told to young merlings to warn them to stay away, about a mermaid who had fallen in love with a human and died as a result of the human’s natural cruelty. Still, that was probably just a story. And if the goods on the ship actually were of no benefit to the merfolk, there was no reason to deprive the hufolk of them. “I guess that’s so,” she finally conceded. “What are books?”
“Those are one of the things we can’t use,” Kalina explained. “Here. I’ll show you.” She opened one of the crates and took out a rectangular object about three times the size of her palm. It was firm along the top and bottom and on one of the sides; the other three were softer. Kalina pulled the top up, and Lianna saw that it was hinged to the object along the firm side. She reached out to touch the soft middle of the thing and was astonished to see that chunks of it came away in her hand.
“It’s supposed to have pages,” Kalina told her. “That means this whole middle part is supposed to act like this top part, a mass of separate flat sheets. And there are usually words printed on them, and when you read those words, they tell you stories, like the ones I tell you. Unfortunately, they don’t work well underwater, so they’re useless to us.” Kalina looked sadly at the crates filling the cave. “Come. I’ve got to get rid of this whole batch. Lend me a hand, then you can look through some of my older treasures to find a hatchday gift for Narina.”
Reluctantly, Lianna helped Kalina empty the crates into the shallow water by a nearby shore. With a little luck, they’d be washed ashore so some hufolk could find them there and take them back to do whatever the hufolk did with spoiled goods. Lianna wished she didn’t have to give them back. True, they were useless, but there was something magical about the idea of being able to get at a story without needing someone to tell it to you.
As Lianna dumped the last crate out, she noticed something that made her heart soar and her breath catch in her gills. “Look!” She shouted. “Kalina, look! This book isn’t ruined!”
“Not so loud, Lianna!” Kalina cautioned. “I picked a beach that humaids come to sometimes. There aren’t any here now, but we need to be quiet in case any are coming.”
“It’s alright. Just keep it down. Now, what did you want me to see?”
Lianna just pointed. There, resting just below the surface of the water, was a book that wasn’t ruined. It was smaller than the others and made of a different material. Lianna picked it up to see it better. It had only a few words on each page and was mostly pictures, but the pictures were like nothing Lianna had ever seen before. Each page was filled with an illustration of a different strange land-beast.
Kalina put her pink, freckled arm around her niece’s shoulders. “I know why that one’s different. That must be one of the ones they use to teach their young to read. They make them waterproof so their young can try to eat them without ruining them.”
Lianna twisted to look at her aunt. “How do you know so much about them?”
Kalina’s eyes twinkled. “You’d be surprised what you can learn from reading.”
“You’ve read them?” Lianna was astounded. “You know how? How?”
“I have my ways.” Kalina smiled mysteriously, if a little sadly. She seemed to be peering into the past.
Lianna would have pressed the point, but something behind Kalina caught her eye. “Look!” She shouted again, pointing.
Kalina turned to see. “Looks like that’s not the only one that survived.” At least a third of the last crate had been filled with this sort of book. Lianna hurried to gather as many as she could carry, stuffing them back into the crate. Some of them had drifted too close to shore to safely retrieve, so she had to leave those, but Lianna didn’t mind so much. There were plenty left! Some of them had more words than others, and a few even seemed to be about the world Lianna knew, from the pictures. She couldn’t wait to learn to read them all!
“Will you teach me? Please? Please, please, please, with an oyster’s pearl on top?”
Kalina laughed at Lianna’s excitement. “Very well, but you mustn’t tell anyone. They wouldn’t understand.”
“Yay!!!” In that moment, Lianna had forgotten all about Narina’s hatchday. All she cared about was unlocking the new world which was unfolding before her.
“And you must remember that not everything you read will be true,” Kalina went on. “These stories won’t be like my stories. It’s just the hufolk’s perception of things, and even some of that may be just made up stories.”
“So it’s exactly like your stories,” Lianna had teased, and Kalina had laughed.
That day, Lianna’s reading lessons had begun. With everything Kalina taught her, she was thirsting for more. After the first week, she had started spending time above the waves to see if she could get dry enough to read books on the shore without ruining them. By the end of two weeks, she had read all of her books and decided to try rescuing some of the old ones. It turned out that they weren’t completely ruined after all. Most of each one was missing, but in several places, there were parts of them with enough words left to put together part of a story. Lianna read the parts that were legible and left the rest. That was when she had discovered that long hair tended to drip on books and ruin them further, so she had cut her hair. It didn’t matter to her that the fashion was, and always had been, to have long, flowing locks. They got in the way, so they had to go. Lianna didn’t think Narina would understand that, at least not if she put it plainly, so she didn’t say anything to her. Narina was way more into fashion than Lianna was.
Now, on the rocks, Lianna found a way to explain her new passion that she thought her friend would understand. “I… I think... I’m in love,” she told Narina slowly.
“Eeee!” Narina squealed happily, and, forgetting her apprehension at being above the surface of the water, pulled herself up on the rock next to Lianna. She leaned forward, grabbing Lianna by the shoulders of her light blue dress and looking intently into her grey-green eyes. “Tell me everything. Who is he? Do I know him? What’s he like? How long have you known him? Is that why you cut your hair? Is that why you spend so much time up here? Are you trying to get tanned for him?” She paused, and an expression of concern came over her face. “Sweetie, you don’t need to do that! You’re beautiful as you are. Spots and all.”
Lianna threw up her hands, laughing. “No! No! It’s not like that at all! And they’re called freckles!”
“Not like that? Why not? Is he hurting you? Tell me! I’ll protect you. If he hurts you, just tell me and I’ll– I’ll– I’ll yank all his scales off by hand and feed them to him!”
Lianna laughed harder. “Thanks, Nari, but that won’t be necessary. No yanking anybody’s scales off. Nobody’s hurting me.”
“Does he not know you exist?” Do you want me to talk to him for you? Do you want me to—”
“Narina, stop!” Lianna was glad to hear of her friend’s concern for her, but she was getting nowhere. Narina’s vehemence was sweet, but it wasn’t needed now. “I’m not in love with a person.”
“Not with a person? What does that mean? Is he a human? Is that it? Lianna, you know the stories. You know what happens when a mermaid falls in love with a human. The hufolk aren’t safe!”
“Narina, I’m not—”
“No, I get it; You can’t help yourself. You’re in love! I still want to hear all about it. But I warn you, if this man hurts you, I’ll hunt him down and– and feed him to a giant squid. Alive.”
“Narina, stop!” Lianna said again. “I’m not in love with a human, either. Do you want me to tell you about it, or not?”
Narina calmed down. “Okay, tell me everything.”
Lianna hesitated. Could she tell Narina about her secret hobby? Yes, she decided. If Narina would stand behind her even if she was in love with a human, which was not only forbidden but impossible, Lianna could definitely trust her with her hobby.
“Alright. I’m not in love with a person, but I’ve discovered something that I love doing more than anything else in the world.”
“More than dancing with dolphins?” Narina teased.
“Yes. No. Maybe.” Lianna loved dancing with dolphins, but that was something she’d always been able to do. This was a lot more recent, and therefore more exciting, at least for now. “It’s the reason I spend so much time up here, and the reason I cut my hair. I learned about it from Kalina. And now… Now I want to share it with you. I still owe you a hatchday present.”
“Yay!” Narina slid off the rock, then swam back to it and propped her elbows on the rock, resting her face in her hands. “I’m ready.”
Lianna grinned at her. “Can you keep a secret?”