Long ago, in a kingdom that the sea had swallowed, there lived a girl named Carina. A princess of Mu, she was beloved by her people and all who met her, for she was gentle; a trait that the merfolk we not known for. Singing in a forest of kelp, she wondered what it would be like to ordinary, to not have everyone stare at her whenever she entered a room or opened her mouth.
Surrounded by a bloom of jellyfish, she giggled softly to herself, watching them shrink away from her touch. In the bleak abyss of the forest, she lay sprawled on a rock, watching the creatures' bioluminescence lash against the black water. Curling a boney finger around one of the jellyfish's tentacles, she didn't miss the faint electric current that passed from it to her. A soft smile curled against her lips. The creature's poison was ineffectual against her skin.
The haze of blue-violet reminded her of the land walkers and their strange houses that pierced the sky. If only she could talk to one of them, ask why they lived inside of stone walls, or how they swam on legs, but her uncle, the king, had forbidden all contact with surface dwellers. Although this never stopped her from lurking in the shallows of the marshlands or under the planks of a wharf to watch them. Fiddling with a ring she had found on the ocean floor, her thoughts strayed to her excursion to the surface earlier that month―to the man she had saved.
Though he wasn’t the first surface dweller she had saved, he was by far the most handsome. He looked so much like her, yet nothing like her at the same time. His skin was pale ivory, warm to the touch, and his ink-black hair hung loosely around his face. She had kissed his rough cheek and too soft lips before she returned beneath the waves.
"Carina!" A high voice sliced through the silence before Carina could see its owner, but she'd know that voice anywhere. "Carina!" Rolling to her side, she groaned at the sight of her cousin, the successor to the kingdom of Mu, guardian the deep, and heir of shadow, Kamāliʻi Wahine Jiona. With her scarlet hair and viridian tinted tail, she was hard to lose in a crowd, and at this moment, even harder to hide from. How did she find her? Carina was in a kelp grove leagues away from the city.
Sitting on a massive seahorse Jiona, just like the rest of their family, had glittering black eyes and smooth hoary skin, whereas Carina had been gifted a pair of wide-set milky eyes and opalescent colouring. Unlike her family, who could communicate with sea creatures, wield water as a weapon, bend light, summon earthquake, or shift into beasts, Carina had the unusual ability to charm speak, to control people's action through her words alone. Though she rarely used it, her teachers had always warned her about its dangers, how absolute power had the tendency to corrupt even the purest of hearts. This, of course, led to far-flung rumours that she was either a seductress who swindled men for their power or had somehow manipulated her way into the hearts of her people. She had never given them much thought. To take away someone's free will was a heresy she couldn't bring herself to commit, let them think what they want.
If it weren't for their scaly black tails and collective ability to beckon land walkers to their watery grave, she would have thought that she was a different species entirely. Although her physical appearance was odd, she also didn't carry the same sharp tongue or crooked witt as her kin, no she had a love of histories and art, but the drowned god himself had made her this way; peculiar to a fault.
"Yes, Jiona," Carina sighed, pushing herself up on her elbow.
"What are you doing here? Father has called everyone to the palace. It's his birthday feast, remember?"
"Then why aren't you there?"
"Why aren't you there?"
"Mother sent to get you, and Seong said that you went to the temple to pray."
A hushed curse escaped Carina's lips; she really needed to change her bodyguard. Seong was a great fighter but a terrible liar. Carina hadn't been to the temple in decades, if not centuries, and at two hundred and five years old, she doubted that she'd ever go back. Jiona chuckled but extended her arm, pulling Carina upright so that the two were now eye level; their oil black tails made the sand below them billow in the water.
"Remind me again why I have to be there? I am eighth in line. I am not important to the crown."
Jiona looped her arm around her's and began swimming into the black water towards the palace. "Carina, you are still a part of the family, so you have to be there. Beside Jaali said that he had a surprise for Father, don’t you want to know what he got him?"
The courtroom was loud and rambunctious as always. With a mix of merfolk, selkies, nagas, and people from Lemuria, Mu, Atlantis, and Formosa kingdoms, there was scarcely room to breathe, much less hide. Swallowing her fear, she shoved her nerves to the back of her mind and donned a smile, enduring the courtroom as she always had, her back bearing the weight of hundreds of starving eyes. She had done this dance a thousand times and would survive thousands more.
Entering the decadent space with Jiona at her side, they greeted her uncle, Mōʻī Ryujin and aunt, Mōʻī wahine Nuru who sat on their matching thrones of Telkhines steel. Studded with pearls and amber aragonite, the thrones sparkled in the enchanted firelight of the acropolis.
Swimming around the courtroom, Carina politely conversed with the various guests, ignoring their prying question and sideways stares. Dancing with visiting lords and village chiefs, she tried to distance herself from the crowd but kept getting dragged into conversations about trade policies and drinking games. All shallow laughter and tight smiles, she saw a lull in the evening and seized the moment.
Quietly dismissing herself and swimming against the carved stone wall, Carina did her best to disappear. Cringing at the sight of her eldest brother Jaali in the distance. Miserable and goading, they hadn't grown up together since he had been sent away years ago for schooling in the Southern Sea when she was a child. All they knew of one another was why they heard through the gossip of courtiers and news reports, and from what she knew, he was nothing but a snake. Slipping into an alcove, she was about to hide in the kitchens when a booming voice reverberated through the space, and a hand curled around her writs.
Resisting the urge to slap him, Carina cast her gaze downward, "Keiki aliʻi," she greeted. Pulling her arm back, she forced her gaze upward, "I didn't see you there. When did you get back?"
Tower above her, she looked up at her brother's cruel sneer, a silent jab as if to say fight me. "Uncle himself, call me back home."
“Welcome home then,” she bowed.
“Are you leave already, dear sister?"
"Oh no…no, I was just―just going to check on the kitchens, see if we had enough kelp."
"I am sure we have enough, the evening has just begun after all, and I wouldn't want you to miss the main event."
"Main event?" She questioned, abandoning her plans to escape her curiosity had gotten the best of her, "What event? Uncle has already given his birthday toast and blessing. What else is there?"
"You'll see, I have a present just for us," Jaali's sneer grew impossibly wider, his black eyes darkening to match the black ring on his thumb and earrings. The stones looked oily and ancient in the dim light, and something worrisome tugged at her, but she couldn't place the memory.
"Have you seen mother and father for the evening?" she asked, but before she could hear the answer, he slipped back into the fray.
Lingering in the courtroom for a bit longer, Carina started another Mahjong game, but this time with a multicoloured cephalopod who called himself Jerry, an odd name, but she didn't bring it up.
Midway through the game, she noticed that the guards had moved from the perimeter of the room to the dais, their decorative spears swapped out for celestial steel. Jaali stepped up to the dais, standing next to their uncle, the king. Signalling for the musicians to stop, and the room plunged into silence. Setting her tile down, she looked over to Jiona, who had been dancing with her betrothed, the fins of their tails flowing beautifully together. Exchanging a glance, it was evident that she didn't know what was happening either.
“Ladies, and gentleman, members of the court and my fellow aquatic brethren, thank you for joining my family and me here this evening to wish my Ryujin a happy birthday.” He raised a glass to the crowd, smiling wider when they cheered his name, “A toast to Mōʻī Ryujin, may this be his happiest birthday!”
"Welcome home, my boy. It has been much too long."
"Yes, uncle, I agree."
The room of courtiers cheered as the two men hugged, clapping each other on the back, but when they pulled away from each other, a streak of crimson bloomed over the king’s heart.
Screams erupted in the courtroom. Liveried guards stood around the dais, spears pointed at the crowd, while others held the doors closed, sealing off and escape. From her perch on a terraced balcony, Carina could see the king's lifeless body floating in the water. Her aunt shrieked, rushing towards her husband, but Jaali grabbed her by the hair and pulled another knife out from his belt, slitting her throat. Then as if on cue, guards grabbed our cousins and the other senior members of the court. Her fingers dug into the balcony railing as Jiona’s glittering black eyes were as wide as sand dollars. Her back was held ramrod straight against the guard restraining her. Her cries for help were muffled against the banging of doors. The guards held firm as they watched on, not blinking an eye as her brother prince Jaali committed regicide.
Carina yelled for him to stop. Her milk eyes flash with power as she used her charm to speak, but nothing happened. Again she tried to order him to stop, but Jaali kept smiling. Snapping his fingers, the guards slit each of Mōʻī Ryujin and aunt Mōʻī wahine Nuru’s children, and in seconds, all three children were dead.
Carina faltered backwards, spinning around her jaw fell to the ground when she saw the bodies of her family suspended in water, no longer upright. Their limbs hung awkwardly around them. Carina didn't even register the scream that ripped through her. Fury and sorrow twisted in her gut. Falling to the floor, shockwaves lashed around her, knocking over the guards that rushed to grab her.
“Sister,” Jaali’s voice boomed, “come and join me.” Glancing down at her brother Carina felt bile rise in her throat. The sight of his red-stained hands and the cloud of scarlet around him made her bones shake.
Her voice evaded her as she moved to the doors, tackling the guard out of her way. Tearing down the hallway, she dodged body after body. Tumbling over a body, her fin snagged in something sharp. Making the mistake of looking down, her heart fell out of her chest at the sight of her parents' broken, bleeding bodies. Their blood clung to her, sticking to her skin.
Whipping her head back, she saw plumes of inky shadow trailed her. Pushing herself upright, she swam towards palace doors to the open courtyard. Praying that someone, anyone, could help her. Risking a glance behind her, she fell. The motion caused her to lose focus as a hand of shadow curled around her tail. Her head thudded against the smooth stone floor, knocking the breath from her lungs. Coughing, she held her arms in front of her, ready to strike, but the hand of shadow held her upside down, turning the world on its side.
Jaali came into focus minutes later, his stained hands fiddled the black ring on his thumb, and recognition stuck her. That oily stone was no ordinary ring. It was silent stone, a tool used by sorceries to nullify magic. That's why her charm speak didn't work, not because she was weak, but because he was protected.
“Where did you get that?” Carina demanded, arms still braced for impact.
“The Southern Sea is quite a knowledge place. Just ask our uncle. Oh wait, you can't.”
“I stole the throne for us. For us to rule. Uncle and the other’s lacked foresight, content to shrink away from the world in this, this abyss. “He gestured to the dim lights of the place and the city beyond. “We have been blessed by the drowned god himself. Together you and I have the power to shape the world. When I heard that you manipulated the people into loving you, I knew you could be trusted.”
Carina almost snorted, "Those are rumours, nothing more. I could never―"
“But you are capable,” leering down at her pulled a necklace out from his pocket, “pledge fidelity to me and help me take control of this world.”
"Never. I will not make innocent people slaves."
“Pledge fidelity to me, or I'll hang you out to dry. Literally." He smirked, looking towards the surface.
“No. You can’t―”
"Oh, but I can, you see, I am king now. You will address me as Mōʻī Jaali." Raising her higher, he pinched her chin between his frigid fingers.
Spitting in his face, she grinned at his grunt of disgust. Jaali may have thought he was king, but true power didn't come from within―no, a sovereign was only as powerful as their people's belief and love for them.
“You brat!” he yelled, slapping her across the face; she wrapped his sharp fingers around her throat, syphoning the life from her. Dragging her nails across his face, she felt her limbs grow heavy.
“I yield, I yield,” she shrieked, voice raw and strained his fingers uncurled from her throat. Jaali looked at her, “I yield. I’ll give you what you want. Name your price.”
"Your power. Give me your power, and I'll set you free."
Carina swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded her head. Blowing a bubble that morphed into a shimmering orb, it shaped itself into a pearl. Jaali snatched it, shattering the pearl in his grip; she watched in horror as the power fused into him. Ribbons of white light and shadow roiled over his head; he had just crowned himself an heir of shadow.
Her body then slumped against the hold of the shadow hand, and with heavy eyelids, she looked at Jaali expectantly. Jaali scrubbed his face with his hands before he bent down and fitted the clasp of the necklace around her.
The snap of the metal made her bone shudder and writhe. Squeezing her eyes shut, she felt heat lace through her, her bones snapping out of place, and the sickening tear of flesh. Her lungs were on fire, her breathing becoming laboured, forcing her eyes open she saw that her skin had turned a pale brown, and she usually bones fingers fuller. She was engulfed in a cloud of red that melted away to reveal legs―her tail gone.
“Jaali,” she screamed, but her voice was lost in the water as bubbles of air escaped her lips. Swallowing water Carina watched her body shoot towards the surface, the crushing pressure easing with every second.
Breaking the surface, she inhaled. Carina blinked the blinding sun out of her burning eyes. The air burned her lungs, and for the first time, her skin felt cold. Looking down, she saw two legs kicking her afloat. Oh, gods, she was human. Touching a hand to the necklace, she saw the shell pendant glow. Powerless and mortal, she tried to call out, but her ears were met with only silence.
Her voice was missing.
Carina walked on the shores of the beach, the loose sand pooling around her toes. She had been on land for three weeks from what she had been told, but it felt like a small eternity. In the stone place people didn’t stare at her or whisper when she walked by, the feeling of normalcy was welcomed. She had always tried to fit in, or be more than she was, but here on land, in that place she was free, powerless but free.
Every breath was glass in her lungs, every step like knives against her skin; the pain remained just on the cusp of unbearable. She longed to get back to her kingdom, to her people, but without her powers, her voice, she didn't have a singular hope in hell.
While she couldn't talk or even write, the people in the castle had begun to call her Renée. Hearing her name called in the distance, she saw Luc running towards her. Kicking up sand in his wake, she stared at him pleasantly, her eyes asking her questions for her.
“Renée, come with me. You have to see this." The two walked steadily down the beach to its end, where a cluster of boulders sat. Turning the corner, she caught sight of blood-red hair. A woman with pale alabaster skin lay face first in the white sand, with nothing but a sheet tired around her. A black ring was clutched in her palm, Carina saw the woman’s glittering black eyes first.
Helping Luc to roll her over, she gasped; it was her cousin.
Hope glimmered in Carina’s eyes, they could take the throne back.
Jiona was breathing and alive.