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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

What Merfolk Must Know

Kat Otis lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there's no country music involved. Her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress XXVI. She can be found online at katotis.com or on Twitter as @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.
Even then, it was not just curiosity that drove me, but desire. I wanted a human of my own, to love and to cherish all the days of my life. Whether it ended in heartbreak or joy, I did not care.
The most important thing you must know about deathships is that they are named for the dead humans they leave floating in their wake.
I followed the deathships for moon after moon, playing with the dolphins and wondering why the humans threw their dead overboard in such large numbers. It was dangerous to go too close to those dead--they attracted shivers of sharks, with which it is best not to meddle--but even from afar I could tell that something was wrong. Fishermen occasionally jettisoned bodies that had been carefully wrapped in canvas, but these bodies were naked and they tainted the water with the taste of blood and iron chains.
It was nearly a whole migration before I realized that some of the humans still breathed when they first slipped below the surface.
After that it was inevitable--I went to the sea witch.
The bargain I made with the sea witch was this: that I could save one and only one.
After I left the pod, it took me almost a moon to find another deathship. All that time, I could barely eat or sleep, I was so excited at the thought of finally having a human of my own. As I trailed in the deathship's wake, I began to worry how I would tell the living from the dead, so as not to lose time trying to rescue the wrong human. The longer I spent near the ship, the more likely it was that the sharks would finish with the humans and come after me; even the magic of the sea witch could not save me, then.
But the day the deathship finally opened its hatches, I realized there had been no need to worry. Each and every one of the humans screamed as they went overboard.
And there were more than enough to share with an entire shiver of sharks.
The only thing you must know about the way of the sea is that merfolk take what we need and no more; it is rarely kind, but it is always fair.
The sea witch's magic shielded me from the iron as I swam among the dying humans, clutching the enchanted scale that would give my choice gills and fins. They were men and women, old and young, strong and scrawny--a bewildering array of differences I had not expected. Some fought their fate, tearing at their chains and clinging to the deathship, while others accepted it, opening themselves to the sea and sinking into its depths. A few panicked at the sight of me, as if I was more terrifying than a shark closing in for the kill.
And one breathed the last of her air into the mouth of her small child, then held the child out to me with a silent plea in her desperate eyes.
I could save one--only one.
The only thing you must know about the way of the land is that humans rend and destroy; a human broke my heart, but not in the way I had expected.
Someday, Kendria, when you are older, I will take you to the sea witch to learn the name your first mother gave you. And if you wish it, on that day, she will bargain with you and give you magic to help you reclaim the legs of a human. Perhaps you will find joy, perhaps you will find heartbreak, or more likely you will find both--such is love, on land and sea.
And perhaps, just perhaps, you will find the origin of the deathships and chase them from our waters, forever.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, April 18th, 2013

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