Iantha had been the third of the students to pull a marble from the pot this time and everyone had been surprised when she opened her hand to reveal the inky purple darkness of the Dark Deeps again. Miranda and her assistant Oralia had looked shocked. The two girls older than her in the class, Cleome and Ula had looked concerned, whispering to Iantha that it was worrying that their teacher and her assistant looked worried. Iantha, gazing at the marble in her hand, could feel a sort of detached inevitability about it and somewhere in the back of her mind she could hear a sort of amused chuckle.
Iantha knew a lot more about the Dark Deeps this time, she’d had three more months to research them. She hadn’t been able to find the book Miranda had taken away from her again but by dint of looking around she had found a lot of useful information. Three chaos beasts were supposed to sleep in the Deep Trench with more on land. Kraken might be sleeping, but the giant squid that might be his get and preyed on whales weren’t. Megalodon ate both the giant squid and the hunting whales that came after them, although the whales apparently gave the megalodon as good as they got. All three would probably happily eat a mermaid, if they could get her. Iantha was glad she hadn’t known about any of those creatures the first time she’d stood her vigil down here.
She’d also managed to find a copy of the prophecy she’d seen in the missing book. Apparently the chaos beasts would reawaken during an eclipse of the sun that occurred within a double hand of days after a Sagittarian arrow crossed the face of the moon. None of the books in the library seemed to have anything about Sagittarian arrows in them. Which was very annoying. Even more annoying was that thinking about it did nothing to help her ignore the cold. Her hair was long enough to reach her waist these days but it didn’t want to hang around her and keep her warm. She wondered briefly whether the currents were bringing an up welling of cold water from the depths but then realised that if anything her hair was trailing towards the end of the trench.
Her train of thought was interrupted by a familiar impact against her hip from behind. She looked around and down to find it was indeed Gralk looking up at her with his ‘Scratch me, please’ expression. After paying attention to the eel for a few moments she looked around for his master. There was, however, no sign of Tu. She continued to scratch the giant eel, somehow with him there the darkness didn’t seem so threatening or the cold so intense.
“Oh my, boys. What do we have here?” It was an unfamiliar masculine voice. Iantha turned in its direction and found that she was being regarded with interest and concern by three merboys, if that was the right word. They seemed to be about her own age, but she had very little to judge by. No mermen seemed to come to the Moon Hall, that Iantha had ever seen, and no-one seemed to talk about them. Just the other day Miranda had changed the subject abruptly and firmly when Nathene had asked if there were only mermaids. “She’s a pretty little thing, isn’t she?” The speaker had a yellowy-gold tail and blond hair. Like his companions, he carried a spear.
His companion with the single yellow stripe running the length of his blue-green tail said, “Excuse me, what ever your name is? You do know that eel’s dangerous, don’t you?”
Iantha looked down at Gralk and up again at them. “Who, Gralk?” she asked, “I know he can be a bit rough when he gets carried away...”
“A bit rough?” chimed in the black haired boy with the beginning of a beard under his cheekbones and on his chin, “He took off one of Praxedes’ fingers.”
“What did Praxedes do before that?” Iantha asked shrewdly.
“Nothing he deserved to lose a finger for,” said the blonde one. “Who are you and what are you doing here on your own?” He came closer, halving the distance between them.
“I’m Iantha from the Moon Hall of the Third Aspect and I’m standing my vigil here,” she indicated the token box. “Who are you?”
“I’m Ormin,” said the blonde, “And you know what, Iantha? I don’t think you’re old enough to be standing a vigil.” He started coming closer but stopped when Gralk made a hissing sound. “I think you’re just playing a game or having a dare with your friends.” His companions came almost as close as he was, spreading out so they were in a half circle. Gralk hissed again then disappeared backwards towards the Trench. “I think we deserve a kiss each from you for taking up our time checking on you.”
“We did scare away the war eel,” offered the black haired boy with a red, black and white patched tail. “I’m Guillarn, by the way.”
“You owe us a kiss each for that too,” said Ormin, “I’ll take mine first.”
Iantha backed away a little. “I didn’t want Gralk chased away,” she said firmly, “And I don’t understand why you want a kiss from me.”
The boy with the yellow stripe and the blue-green hair looked worriedly at the other two and said, “You mean you don’t know?”
Iantha folded her arms across her chest, feeling oddly safer because she was wearing the most secure, covering and warmest of her tops. “My teacher hasn’t actually admitted that boys exist, so she’s not going to have explained anything that involves them, is she? So what’s the big deal with a kiss?”
The pause as each of the three tried to find the right words and the right place to start grew awkward.
“So, what’s all this about then?” It was Tu, come from the direction of the direction of the Trench. Iantha thought he looked tired. Gralk was with him, trailing an end section of tentacle about as long as Iantha and as thick as her arm in his mouth.
“They want me to kiss them, but they won’t tell me why,” she explained. “I suppose you know?”
“Of course,” he agreed. He looked at the three boys and looked at Iantha. “Do you want to kiss any of them?”
“Not without knowing why they want me to,” she replied. “Is this something Miranda should have told me?”
“In your circumstances, yes,” he confirmed. “The easiest way to for me to explain it is to show you I suppose.” Out of the corner of her eye Iantha caught the boys exchanging looks with a complicated mixture of surprise and admiration on their faces. “Do you trust me?”
“Why do you ask that?” She looked at him, puzzled.
“Because parts of your life will never be the same again, afterwards,” he said simply. “If we’re going to do this, give me your right hand,” he held out his left hand and after a moment’s hesitation she took it. “Now, it might be easiest for you if you close your eyes.” She looked at him hard and for a moment he thought she was going to refuse, then her expression softened that fraction back to normal and she closed her eyes.
His lips touched hers and it was like lightning hitting the ocean in a storm. The water around her felt like she was in a storm of tiny bubbles that burst all over her skin and it was she who reached out with her left hand to pull him closer. Her hand wound up in the middle of his back and she could feel the haft of his trident across hers. Information welled up and flooded through her mind. She didn’t care how long it lasted but it was Tu who broke the contact.
Iantha was the one who spoke first. She’d opened her eyes, still feeling that complete and utter sense of rightness, to find Tu gazing down at her fondly and with a touch of concern. “It’s about promising to have a baby? That was what none of you could tell me?” She almost laughed.
“Well, it usually leads into an explanation about where babies come from and how they’re made,” pointed out Tu. “I think it’s fair to say that was our stumbling block.”
“Ah,” she could see his point. Interestingly, that information was now floating around in her mind too. She turned her head to look at the three boys, “And you three wanted a kiss each?”
“You could still kiss them, if you’ve a mind to,” said Tu, his chest moving against hers as he spoke, “But to be honest, I would prefer that you didn’t. They might like to consider,” he directed his comment towards their audience, “That there are twelve other girls out there standing vigil as we speak, any one of whom might want to kiss any one of them.” Ormin and his friends must have taken the hint because they left, heading upwards.
Iantha was happy to hang there in Tu’s embrace, her tail attempting to entwine itself around his but he sighed and said, “I think we should let go now or we will move on to actual baby making. Much as I would enjoy that, I think we should wait.” She looked up at him questioningly. “If you were a mermaid born,” he explained, “You’d be about seventeen and you could be a mother, although I think that’s too young. What you are is a mermaid made, and your transformation won’t be complete until a year and a day has passed. I think it would be bad for you both if you got pregnant before your transformation is complete.”
She reluctantly let him go, straightening her tail, taking the opportunity to run her hand along his rib cage and pausing when she found the depression of an old scar that extended into the bone.
“I fight,” he said simply, “It’s one of the things I do. Sometimes I get hurt. Today, I’m just tired,” he sighed, “Otherwise I might have thought of a better way out of that.”
“Do you regret kissing me?” It was a quiet question asked at a moment when his tone and expression made her feel very young. Then, “Did you always mean to kiss me?” The look that had been on her face just before she’d closed her eyes was back.
“No and no.” He smiled. “I hadn’t thought about kissing you at all until I saw those boys making such a fuss over it, and then I wanted it to be me. Not any of them. Up until now, I’d only met you as a little girl. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind before today.”
“So what happens now?” Her dark hair was floating around her in a cloud. Her tail was already navy, sea green and purple – she was going to be even darker than Queen Melia. Her expression, by her expression she still trusted him.
“You go back to the Moon Hall for at least the next three months. Finish your studies. If you want to serve the Moon as a maiden for a time, I can wait.”
“In three months I’ll be inducted,” Iantha said, “I didn’t know you could leave the Moon Hall after that.”
Tu went still. “We’ll see,” he said, “But I will see you in three months. You’ll be old enough to wear pearls then.” He let go of her hand and traced her collar bone with one finger, “Black ones with your colouring, I think.” He glanced over towards where Gralk was happily chewing on his piece of tentacle. “You realise that the light on that blasted box has gone green don’t you?”
“Oh, at least a couple of minutes ago,” she agreed, “But this seemed much more important.”