“Prince Clay. Why am I not surprised to find you here?” Shona hauled herself from the waves onto the rocks where he sat.
He lifted his gaze slowly from the girl he’d been watching on the beach, pivoting to meet the finwoman. Shona was seated where the waves met the rocks. Mist rose from the water to mingle with the weather. A fine drizzle had been falling off and on through the night, but the clouds had thinned as dawn neared. He watched as Shona’s silver and green fin split and morphed into legs in the space of a few heartbeats.
He’d thought he was alone on this rocky outcropping in the San Juan Islands. He came here every day to see if he could catch Lorelei on the beach near her home. Today he’d dared to come close, grateful for the dim light of predawn, but still shielding himself against her view with finfolk magic.
He had not expected Shona’s intrusion today, but he had known she would come eventually. “I expected them to send you sooner. It has been weeks.”
She rose and stood next to him. “If I find you have bothered the girl—”
“You needn’t worry,” he snarled. “I would not disobey a direct order from the king.”
“On pain of death.”
“I know it. Do you presume to remind me of my honor, Shona the Shameless?” He said it to get a rise out of her; the king would not be pleased.
“If you refer to me by that name again I will do my all to turn Lorelei against your proposal.”
He ground his teeth together, knowing further harsh words wouldn’t help him with Shona. King Cleophus had sent her to do a job, and that gave her a feeling of worth beyond her station. Not that he needed her help with Lorelei. He just needed time. When she realized all that being a finfolk meant, she was sure to choose their people, sure to choose him.
Fighting Shona would win him nothing. He swallowed his annoyance at being caught watching his future bride, and changed tack.
“Have you met her yet?” His eyes drifted back to Lorelei, across the small expanse of water. The sky was growing lighter, and he could see her face now, her fine features turned toward him with an openness that made his heart beat against his ribs. His love was looking their direction, watching the moon floating low behind him. He knew it was full without even looking at its round and glowing face, for he could feel its promise as all finfolk could. Could she feel him here, watching her as she watched the moon?
“For now I am observing. I will make contact today.”
“Does it bother you? Meeting them this way?”
Shona was still. He asked only to unsettle her and didn’t expect an answer. They were not close and such a personal question was not appropriate, especially given his current exile, and her assignment. The truth was, Shona unsettled him, to a degree. He could not read her as well as many of their kind; likely because she was raised among humans, like Lorelei. It was the reason King Cleophus had chosen Shona for Lorelei’s mentor.
Clay had no power over the choice, but he approved. If anyone could convince Lorelei that she belonged among the finfolk, it was one who had chosen their way of life.
“No,” Shona answered, finally, her eyes on Lorelei. “It does not bother me. It is time I met my family.”
A soft glow illuminated the sky around the full moon; February mists at their finest.
Fine droplets clung to Lorelei’s hair and coat, but she didn’t move from where she stood on the beach near her home in Anacortes, Washington.
That full moon riding low over the cresting waves held her spellbound. The water below glowed with the moonlight, shimmering with untold secrets. She’d risen from bed drawn by the power of that moon, by the power of the sea and all it held in its wild depths.
She was early, and so she waited.
Did she really want to do this?
It had to happen sometime. She knew that.
She held one hand in front of her and pictured her father—called his image into being. And her hand changed. It was his hand. She knew if she looked in a mirror, she’d see his face, not her face.
A rock clicked as someone walked toward her, and Lorelei hurriedly changed back.
She’d been amusing herself with small shifts like this for days, ever since the fear wore off and the anger began to simmer like hot coals under everything she tried to do.
She turned, showing her own face again, to greet Vardon.
Her heart thumped against her ribs. That had been too close. She didn’t know how she’d explain her experiments with shapeshifting to Vardon. She didn’t want to have to.
He waved at her, the same Vardon he’d been two weeks ago.
Envy seethed, feeding the coals with whispers of how things could have been.
He carried his sealskin. Hers was in the depths of the ocean, with the people who had claimed her and forced her to accept them. She was supposed to be a selkie, but she couldn’t be now.
“Hey,” he said when he was finally close enough to touch. He smiled, but his eyes were serious. “Thanks for meeting me. How are you?”
Lorelei shrugged. There was no way she could honestly answer that question. “Your mother let you come?”
It was a mean thing to say; implying he was a child who had to ask permission. But her supposed boyfriend hadn’t talked to her for nearly two weeks. What was she supposed to think?
“She doesn’t know.” He moved closer, like he would embrace her, and Lorelei turned from him to avoid the contact.
“She isn’t going to let us see each other, Vardon.”
“Does it even matter?” he asked, his voice soft, but cold. “Everything changed, didn’t it? Two weeks ago you had to make a decision. You made the choice you had to make, and it screwed absolutely everything up.”
“Especially us. I’m just…Vardon, I’m just angry all the time. I don’t know what to do. I have about ten weeks to figure it out before the finfolk decide whether I’m even worthy of them. Until then, they have my sealskin and I’m adrift between freaking species.”
He laughed harshly. “That’s one way to put it.” He reached out a hand tentatively and Lorelei steeled herself to accept his touch.
Why did this have to happen right after they got close? Why did she have to be punished for her existence? She wasn’t a threat to anyone, and yet both the selkies and the finfolk were ready to make her an enemy. She just wanted her life back.
Except that wasn’t one hundred percent true. She couldn’t go back, and she knew it. Not after that swim when she’d first taken her finfolk form. Not after feeling the fluid slide between shapes, the allure of the depths…nothing would ever be the same, and life here on land didn’t satisfy anymore.
Where did that leave her?
Vardon’s hand was heavy on her arm, and she stepped closer to him. She remembered her racing heart, the catch in her breath, when she’d thought of Vardon before.
“Why did you wait two weeks?”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
They both watched each other, and then Vardon cracked a grin. Lorelei followed suit, humor feeling awkward for the first time she could remember.
“I could probably do with more human contact,” she said, trying to keep it light.
“Or…maybe you could do with a swim.”
“Is that why you called?” Adrenaline shot into her veins. She knew it was a stupid decision, but she wouldn’t turn him down. “You know I don’t have my sealskin.”
His eyes darkened under a scowl. “Of course I know. I was there when it was stolen,” he growled.
She turned into him, finally welcoming the hug he’d been offering with body language throughout their exchange. He wrapped his arms around her, and her cheek rested against the hollow of his throat. His skin felt cool against hers, where she remembered it being so warm.
“Lorelei. I missed you.”
An ache in her throat made speaking too difficult. She just nodded against his chest. As much as it hurt to be near him now that everything was different for them, she’d missed him, too.
“Do you want to try a swim?”
She pulled back so she could see his face. “What exactly are you suggesting? You want to see me as an evil mermaid?” She tried to laugh, but she saw the hurt in his eyes.
“I like that nickname a lot less now.”
“It isn’t flattering, is it?”
He finally chuckled, which was the reaction she was after, and she smiled back at him. “I know you don’t have your sealskin, but what if you used your finfolk power to change into your seal shape? Have you thought about that?”
She tilted her head to one side. No. She hadn’t thought of that. “Uh…the idea gives me an unsettled feeling that I probably shouldn’t ignore. But I think I want to ignore it.” Her smile turned into an all-out grin. Yes, it sounded creepy, but it also sounded like fun. She could use a distraction.
“So you want to give it a shot?”
“Yeah, let’s try it. Don’t freak out on me when I smell like finfolk, though.”
“I’ll try to keep my head, fins.”
“Fins? Don’t call me that, flippers.”
“Ugh. Agreed. No sea-related nicknames. Flippers? That’s terrible. I might have to call Mom that one of these days.”
“Stealing my idea?”
“You have great ideas.”
“Are we giving this a try, or what?”
“Let me change. You want to look out there or something?”
Lorelei obliged, turning so that he could strip and tie on his sealskin. She tried to find the moon, but it had slipped behind clouds so she could only make out a bit of its glow.
“Ready?” Vardon asked.
“You sound like you did that first time we swam together.”
“It feels like a first again.” Lorelei squinted out at the waves, her own feelings more of an untamable wilderness than the ocean would ever seem again. “And we just had all of those firsts. I’m waiting for things to settle and feel normal, but they never seem to get around to that.”
“Well, I’m ready, so let’s do this.”
He grabbed her hand and made for where the water met rocks and sand.
Could she remember how to do this? She’d only made a full shift with King Cleophus, and then into her finfolk form. She’d been playing with small shifts, but she was far from certain that she could shift into her seal form.
Vardon’s face began to morph before they were thigh-deep in the waves, and he dropped her hand and hurried into the water to complete the shift.
She followed, the water soothing her worries. No matter what happened, this was bound to be fun.
Chest deep, she pictured her seal form. She started with a visualization of the knots tying her skin…it felt odd now, somehow wrong, to be so divorced from one’s shape that an implement like a pelt is needed…but today she didn’t let that bother her. She recalled the shift, the feel of her seal shape, and that’s where she landed within a few seconds.
She dove, her whiskers picking up the vibrations of a boat offshore, and a whale pod not too far off. The wilds and the humans, meeting again. Humans were everywhere, their touch even affecting the deepest and darkest places on the planet’s surface.
Vardon swept past her, smacking her shoulder with one flipper as he passed. He gave a short bark that carried, muffled, through the water.
It didn’t feel the same. Oh, how she wished that it did now that she remembered!
Would this day leave her missing her sealskin more than ever?
Vardon circled and returned, passing her again and heading into deeper waters.
Lorelei shoved her snout above water for a great gulp of air, and followed him under. The sun had risen, but it wasn’t yet high enough to touch the underwater world that was theirs alone.
She could smell any number of small creatures to eat…and her belly rumbled because she hadn’t bothered with breakfast before she left the house. But she hadn’t yet graduated to harvesting crustaceans. She’d never tried it.
Another smell haunted her.
There was the ever-present Clay, who never seemed to leave the ocean near her home, now that he was exiled for all he’d done – forcing Lorelei to complete the ritual that would welcome her finfolk powers. He’d wanted to make her his bride, apparently. Which was just strange. They’d never even had a real conversation, though he’d been stalking Lorelei for weeks—maybe months—before her birthday, when he’d forced her into the ritual that would change everything.
What could he possibly know about her that made him want to be her husband?
What did it even mean to be a finwife, as King Cleophus had put it two weeks ago, when he’d proclaimed that she had three months to prove herself finfolk and gain access to the golden undersea kingdom of Finfolkaheem?
But Clay’s scent was not the only one. Another finfolk was nearby. From this one she sensed frustration, impatience. And it was directed at her.
King Cleophus had said he’d send someone to teach her the finfolk ropes…could this be the one?
If so, it appeared Lorelei had already managed to frustrate. And there was so much she needed to learn.
This Lorelei was not the same one who swam with him before. In his seal form, Vardon knew it. She smelled different; she’d come into her finfolk powers. It left him with a feeling of disquiet in his gut that he couldn’t get rid of no matter how hard he swam.
Did it have to change everything?
His nose said yes. He couldn’t ignore the scent of finfolk, both Lorelei and the others that roamed the bays and inlets near Fidalgo Island now that Lorelei had come of age.
He wished one of them were that King Cleophus, who had flung him out to sea on Lorelei’s birthday like he was a flea being flung off the back of a dog. It had taken so little effort it was frightening. Or the one who’d pounded his face in when he’d been trying to find Lorelei, and then forced him to the beach for the confrontation. Both of those had some control over the stalker, Clay, who had changed everything with his intrusion.
There was no competing with the finfolk. Vardon understood that better now that he’d faced them himself. They were just too strong. Selkies could shift shapes and heal quickly, but they weren’t sorcerers.
His parents had never questioned the animosity between selkie and finfolk, but because of Lorelei, he had.
The local selkies were still coming to terms with the finfolk so close to them. And it was Lorelei who brought them to the area, so her name bore the brunt of the scorn.
That was unfair. Lorelei hadn’t caused the situation, but at this point what was she thinking? Did she already know it was fruitless to pretend? She sure wasn’t saying much.
He’d hoped this swim would bring them closer again, but Lorelei was distracted, and so was he.
In deep water, flying through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Lorelei came to a sudden halt, stirring the water with her flippers as she hovered, uncertain, highlighted by the refracted light now making its way beneath the surface.
He circled round and nudged her, and she whirled and fled for home.
He stayed right at her flank, not knowing what drove her away from the strait, but not willing to leave her side. She swam near the surface, but not too near; she knew enough to be wary of boats.
He forgot how new she was at sea-life…she made it easy to forget; she was such a natural in the water. She’d barely had two weeks of knowing she was a selkie before the finfolk took that away and called her one of theirs.
As they neared the beach, he realized one of the finfolk was very close. Terror thrummed through him, and he quelled the natural instinct and focused on reclaiming his human shape.
He and Lorelei shifted simultaneously, but as he strode up the beach, he realized she wasn’t by his side. He looked back and saw her swimming offshore.
She grinned sheepishly. “We didn’t think this through. I lost my clothes in the shift. Pretty idiotic, right?”
“What, they just melted?”
“I don’t know where they went when I shifted! What do I know about this? That was one of my favorite shirts, too.” The smile died. It had never reached her eyes anyway. “Vardon…I need to stay. I think my finfolk mentor is here. She called me mind-to-mind…”
He shivered. Their mind powers were creepy beyond belief.
Hiding his disappointment, he quipped, “Hope she can show you how to dress again.”
She rolled her eyes, and he felt an arrow straight to the heart.
His girl. She was so his girl.
“Call me tonight, okay?” she asked.
“Yeah. I will. Um…have fun?”
“I’m sure it’s going to be…interesting. I don’t know about fun.”
And with that, Vardon left for school, leaving Lorelei alone on the beach. No part of him wanted to, but no part of him wanted to meet a finfolk again in person, either. Especially as the one thing standing between Lorelei and all that she was supposed to learn.
The finfolk had stolen her. And he was powerless to stop it.
Find the Water Rites series at your favorite retailer.
Castle and Crown (**Coming winter 2017**)