art by Seth Alan Bareiss
What Merfolk Must Know
by Kat Otis
I saw my first deathship when I was only ten migrations old.
Mamma and I had swum up to the ocean's surface to play with a pod of dolphins. We were leaping and spinning and dancing in the waves when she caught sight of white sails on the horizon. The dolphins abandoned us, racing off to ride the waves in front of the ship's bow. I wanted to join them, but Mamma herded me below and told me I was never to approach the deathships.
I asked her why, hoping for one of her delightfully terrifying stories about humans with nets and harpoons, but she only flicked her tailfin and refused to say any more.
The first thing you must know about humans is that they are dangerous; the shoals of the merfolk avoid their ships at all times.
When I was fifteen, rumors began to circulate among the shoals--rumors of a mermaid who had left the sea. No one knew what had happened to her after she left, but all the rumors agreed that she had gone to bargain with the sea witch out of love for a human. Some claimed she had merely seen the human walking along a beach, while others claimed she had rescued the human from drowning in a storm.
In my favorite versions, the human was not some cruel fisherman but a shipwrecked sailor from one of the mysterious deathships.
There are two things you must know about the sea witch. One is that she is as wild and as wondrous, as fair and as fearsome, as the sea itself. The other is that any mermaid can bargain with her--but only once.
After twenty migrations, I was officially an adult. My shoal begged me not to leave, but their love was not enough to stifle half a lifetime's worth of curiosity. So I left them to live with a pod of dolphins in the waters between the islands where the deathships plied their trade. If there had been anyone who could have answered the questions that burned within me, I might not have gone--
No. No, that is a lie.