“A good thing? Kona, we’re nothing. We’re less than nothing.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Don’t tell me what I mean. You’re a selkie. I’m a mermaid who wants to be human. We can’t be together.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Does it really matter?”
“It matters to me.”
“Well, then, I guess it’s won’t. I won’t be with you.”
“Don’t do this.” He leaned forward, grabbed my hands and brought them to his chest. “I love you, Tempest. And I know you have feelings for me too.”
“No.” I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from crying. “I don’t.”
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. In that moment, his features were so racked with pain that I almost relented.
Except that with every word I said to him, everything I did to push him away, something was growing inside of me. A numbness that took away the anger, took away the pain, until there was nothing left but a yawning void that was infinitely preferable to the agony I’d felt upon remembering the battle with Tiamat.
“Look, I’m sorry.” Kona reached for me. “This is a bad time to have this discussion. Let’s get this tail thing taken care of, and then get you in the house and cleaned up. We can talk later.”
Don’t be nice to me! I wanted to scream the words at him, wanted to beg him to just walk away and leave me. Because with every nice gesture he made toward me, the blessed numbness threatened to wear off. And I just couldn’t deal with feeling anything right now.
Still, I forced myself to be civil. It was the only way to find out how to get rid of the tail, and until I did, I would be stuck on this beach with Kona, going over and over everything that had gone wrong two days before.
I couldn’t handle that; I would go stark, raving mad if I had to face it all right now.
“Okay. We’ll talk later. Now how do I get rid of this ridiculous thing?” I flopped the tail to emphasize my predicament.
“To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how the whole mermaid/human–shifting thing works. But I’m guessing that it’s much the same as the breathing thing. Your gills work when you need them, as do your lungs.”
“Yeah, well, in case you haven’t noticed, I don’t exactly need this tail right now. I’m on land.”
“Yeah, I did notice that. Why don’t you swim out a little ways, get used to it. And then come back in.”
The last thing I wanted to do was go back in the ocean, not after what had happened the last time I’d been there.
Kona must have sensed my hesitation, because he said, “Come on. I’ll go with you.”
“You don’t have—”
“I want to.”
But instead of plunging straight in like he usually did, he slipped the necklace from around his neck. Reaching inside, he murmured a few words, and I watched in astonishment as a full-blown seal’s pelt came out of the tiny bag. He hadn’t been lying when he’d told me that magic made it fit.
“What are you doing?” I asked, as he shook it out and then slipped it over his shoulders.
“You don’t think I’ll really let you be the fastest thing in the water, do you?” Then with a grin that didn’t quite make it to his eyes, he dived into the surf. I watched, astounded, as he surfaced about fifty yards away. Or at least I thought it was him—the Kona I knew had been replaced by one of those long, skinny seal-type creatures.
I dove in after him, then raced to catch up. Not because I wanted a closer look at him, I assured myself, but because the sooner I got into the water, the sooner I got rid of the tail. Or at least, I hoped that was how it would work.
I caught up to him in a few seconds, shocked by how fast I was now that I had a tail. But I still couldn’t compete with Kona, who was twisting and flipping and racing through the water so quickly that most of the time he was little more than a blur.
The numbness wore off a little as I watched him and tears burned behind my eyelids. He was in here, doing this, not because he was in the mood to play any more than I was, but because he didn’t want to leave me alone. He wanted to help me.
I felt a sob catch in my throat and knew that if I didn’t get away from him I was going to lose it completely. I didn’t want to do that now, couldn’t do it now. Not when there were still so many unanswered questions, not the least of which was the location of my mother’s body.
The sob escaped then, followed by a second and then a third. Clamping my teeth together, I dove deep. Surely I couldn’t cry and breathe underwater at the same time—I’d drown.
Though the pain was a deep-seated burning in my chest, one lungful of water—and the ensuing coughing fit—stopped the tears, exactly as I’d hoped.
I headed back to land, unable to take one more second of self-reflection. Instead, I concentrated on imagining myself with legs walking on the beach, thought about breathing through my lungs instead of my gills.
It must have worked, because by the time I’d made it back into the shallows, I had legs again. Thank God.
I took off up the beach before I realized that while I did have legs, I didn’t have any pants on. No bathing-suit bottoms or underwear. Nothing. Except for the tank top I was wearing, I was completely naked. I wondered, vaguely, what had happened to my suit—but I hadn’t been conscious when the tail had formed. This shape-shifter thing was a lot more difficult than I’d ever imagined. I made a note to pay better attention the next time it happened.
Glancing frantically around the beach, I saw a couple of towels piled on the sand. I grabbed one and wrapped it around myself just as Kona emerged from the ocean clutching his pelt in front of him. Obviously, he had the same problem I did.
I tossed him the extra towel and then booked it toward the house. I didn’t want to talk to him anymore, didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. Not when my emotions had turned to poison within me, ready to spew out and cover anyone who got in my path.
At first, I thought he was going to follow me, but about halfway up the beach he must have changed his mind. Right before I got to the house I turned around and found him standing on the beach staring after me.
I went into the house and closed the door firmly behind me.
Twenty-four hours later, I stood about two miles down the beach, staring up at my mother’s funeral pyre. There had been numerous funerals during the two days I’d been unconscious, farewell ceremonies for the selkies who had died at the hands of the Lusca and Tiamat’s forces.
There had also been a huge memorial for Oliwa, the fallen prince. I was sorry to have missed that, since he had died defending me.
There were funerals for the merpeople too, but those had happened back in my mother’s territory. The only reason Cecily was being honored here, Kona had explained, was as a tribute to me. Merpeople and other sea creatures had come from all over to pay their respects to her, the greatest priestess her people had ever known.
By the time I stood on the beach, watching what was left of my mother burn, the numbness that had started coalescing inside of me the day before had taken over my entire body. There was no part of me untouched by the bitter cold of it and I had never been more grateful.