It was the first of her three vigils and she’d drawn the Dark Deeps, the loneliest of the thirteen locations that were used for this. No sunlight penetrated here from the surface and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she was beginning to see the luminescence inherent to much life at this level. She’d pressed the marker on the token box and now all she had to do was wait for it to open, then she could take her proof and return to the training hall.
There was no point in trying to mark the time, the box would do that. Her instructress, Miranda, had been quite clear about it. Mind you, Miranda had also been concerned that she hadn’t had a little more preparation before her first vigil. But the others had all been ready for their vigils, Sula and Tizane were doing their third, and they’d needed her to make up the numbers. So here she was. The dark between the luminescence wasn’t getting any less dark, well that made sense, and she didn’t dare go look more closely at any of the pretty looking displays because one of Miranda’s warnings had been, “Remember, those lights can be traps, lures for prey to come close to much bigger jaws. Stay beside the checkpoint and you’ll be safe.”
It was getting cold now, no, she was beginning to feel the cold. It was always cold down here where the sun could not reach. She tried not to envy her classmates standing their watches at lesser depths, lit from above and warm. One of them would be here next time and she would be up there in the warmth and the light. She hovered in the water beside the token box waiting for it to open.
“What have we here?” She whirled in fright, having thought herself completely alone, and almost started tumbling through the water except that he put out a steadying hand to help her. Miranda and the others had told her that being a mermaid was special, but they’d said nothing about men and her new companion was definitely a merman. A stray thought kicked through her mind – if she’d never seen one before and they hadn’t been talked about, how did she know what a man was? This one was about twice her length and bigger than her all over, had long hair and a beard that went with his massive aqua and teal tail except for the two parallel dark blue stripes in his beard below his mouth and carried a massive trident that was now glowing softly. Around his hip peeked a massive greenish-gray eel that looked like an overgrown moray and extremely bad tempered to boot.
She felt like a child under his hand. That went with her appearance: her length only that of a short human adult, she’d likely be half that again at full growth; barely existent breasts and no discernable nip to the waist yet; short, brown hair – short hair was odd for a merchild of either sex; fins and flukes nowhere near fully developed; and her tail was still a light, clear, unmottled silver. “Where’s your mother?” he asked kindly, “You’re surely not down here on your own.”
She put her hand over her mouth and giggled, she knew the answer to that. “Mermaids don’t have mothers,” she said, wondering why he didn’t know something so obvious, “We’re made, not born! I’m here because I’m doing my first vigil.” She added confidingly, “It is very dark down here, isn’t it? I hope next time I get a station in the sunlight.”
“That would be pleasant,” he nodded in agreement, “So you’re in one of the Moon Halls are you? Who’s the mistress?”
“Lady Katharine and Miranda is my teacher.” She paused then asked, “If I’m doing my vigil are you supposed to be here?”
“Well, no-one arranged for me to be here, so I think you’ll have to consider me to be a natural hazard,” he allowed, “How much longer have you got to go?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted, it seemed so silly actually telling someone that, “I have to wait till the token box,” she pointed at it, “Opens so I can take my token and go.”
“Ah, so what were you before you were a mermaid?” He was resting his trident on the rock now and leaning on it. He even looked comfortable.
“I don’t think I was anything before I was a mermaid,” she looked confused, “I can’t remember being at anything but a mermaid.” She was distracted by the eel head-butting her in the hip and looked at it uncertainly.
“Rub him behind the jaw,” advised the merman, “That’s all he wants. So what’s the first thing you remember?”
“Lady Katharine taking a cup away from my mouth and Euclea and Callidora letting go of my arms.” She beamed at him, please both to answer the question and at the eel’s response to her rubbing. “He does like this, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, Gralk can be a real softy.” Then, as if it wasn’t important, “So about how long ago did you become a mermaid?”
She tilted her head to consider and Gralk bumped her again because she’d stopped scratching. “About three quarters of a moon. If I hadn’t done it now I’d have had to wait another three months before I could start my vigils.”
“That would have been a shame,” he agreed gravely, “Is that green light on the box important?”
“Oh,” she turned around again but retained her balance this time, “I can get my token!” She flipped the lid open and grabbed the item on its cord inside. The lid closed automatically as she withdrew her hand but the cord didn’t snag. She carefully put the cord around her neck so that the little coral amulet on the end hung in the middle of her chest. She turned back to him, “I’m sorry, but I have to go home now. It was nice meeting you.”
“And it was nice meeting you too,” he smiled. “We didn’t introduce ourselves. I’m Tu.”
“I’m Iantha. We probably should have said sooner, shouldn’t we?” She giggled.
“We should have.” He smiled and then offered, “Why don’t Gralk and I swim up with you as far as the sunlight?”
“Is that allowed?” She was doubtful, Miranda hadn’t said anything about other people...
“I’m a natural hazard, remember?” he smiled. “You can’t stop me swimming anywhere I like. Besides, it’s not as if Gralk or I are carrying you.”
She giggled again.
Some time later Queen Melia was having a royal word with the Mistress of one of the Moon Halls of her people.
“You have taken the gift of the gods and turned it into a production line,” Melia’s dark, filmy flukes tapped angrily against the front of her throne. “What are you thinking of, Katharine?”
“We are ethereal creatures of magical essence and origin and you encourage us to act like base animals,” snapped back the erect Katharine, hovering in the gentle currents of the throne room.
“We are creatures of the world: we love; we mate; we have children; and we raise them to the best of our ability. You are grabbing women off the shoreline, putting them through the bestowal of the gift and then, to make matters worse, you are forcing the draught of Lethe down their throats. Stripping them of their pasts and their loved ones.”
“We find that they adjust better to their new lives if they take the draught,” said Katharine, hair not so dark as the queen’s and tail marked in silver and gold.
“I’m sure that they cause you fewer problems that way,” Melia commented drily, “But all phases of the practice will cease immediately, including putting children through the vigil process.”
“I am Mistress of the Hall,” objected Katharine, “I decide such things!”
“I am Queen,” shot back Melia, “Mastery of the hallow Halls lies within my gift.”