The storm screamed around the wounded ship, ramming her against the rocks again and again. The hull of the Nimbus finally stove in, sending men scrambling into the water in a desperate effort not to be dragged down with it. In the cabins of the officers, young Lieutenant Claiborne was hurled about like a ragdoll. The captain sent him to retrieve the charts so that they could abandon ship with the slightest idea where they were. Unfortunately, the actions of the wind and waves drove the ship onto a reef, where it was battered relentlessly. Julian was thrown against the wall, cracking his head sharply. The precious charts scattered around him like fallen leaves.
The young officer woke with a start at the feel of water against his hand. He could feel pressure. The cabin seemed strangely still. Julian looked down and discovered a wall of water where the forward cabins had been. He shook his abused head. The Nimbus had broken in half; somehow his half landed stern up. Julian was trapped in an air pocket. This was a precarious position to be in. The seal could be broken and water could come rushing in at any moment. Could he swim for it? How far down was he? Was it still storming?
A sleek shape moved in the water. A moment later it was joined by another, then another. Perhaps a dozen shadows curled through the dark sea.
'Sharks,' he thought.
But they weren't sharks. They didn't move properly, for one thing. They moved their tails more like dolphins, but stopped to inspect every nook and cranny of the broken ship.
'I must have hit my head quite hard,' Julian mused. 'They almost look like merfolk.'
Doubts about the sight were understandable to a skeptic, what with the darkness and the water and the head injury. It wasn't until a pale arm reached out of the water to grasp a shiny gold pocket watch from the deck did Julian realize he wasn't imagining things. He tried to leap up and grab the captain's saber, but his battered head cut him off at the knees and he went down in an ungainly heap. When the room stopped spinning, he looked up to lock eyes with the new owner of the shiny gold pocket watch.
It was a mermaid.
She bobbed in the air pocket, studying Julian. Her hair was gleaming black and studded with pearls and gold trinkets. Anything gold would do, apparently; there were a pair of cufflinks decorating a braid and a bent candle snuffer curved around her neck like a torque. She seemed a lot less surprised to see Julian than he was to see her.
"How do you do?" he asked for lack of something better to say.
She didn't reply, but dove under the water, flashing a pink tail.
"I don't suppose you could help me?" He asked the rippling water. The whole situation struck him as ludicrous. He giggled. "Ah, no, Leiutenant Claiborne, no time for hysterics."
The water heaved again. The gold-loving mermaid was back, this time with a friend. The second mermaid was fair haired and skinned, her pearls and baubles intercut with shark's teeth and anemone spines. There was a certain hardness about her eyes that suggested she was the one who dealt with threats. After a moment, the rest of the pod surfaced, staring at him with wide eyes. Every single one of them was a maid; not a male to be seen. The staring continued a bit longer, then they huddled in a group. They made no sound, but gestured continually with their hands.
"Can you ladies help me, please?" He tried again.
The pod stared at him in silence. The first mermaid exchanged looks with the rest, then treated him to a brilliant smile. She held out her hand in a beckoning manner.
"You will help me? Thank you," he said, reaching for her.
Afterwards, Julian couldn't remember if she pulled him off his feet or if he slipped on the wet, broken boards. The next thing he knew, he was engulfed in water. Dozens of hands grabbed him and dragged him deeper. Claws scratched his skin. Tails pounded his legs. Something cold, wet, and slimy was forced into his mouth. His throat burned, water rushed up his nostrils and for the second time that day he lost consciousness.
He could see daylight. It warmed his limbs and soaked into his chilled skin. Julian stretched his hands over his head, elongated his spine, went to point his toes and realized something was terribly wrong. Nothing felt as it should from the waist down. He sat up and looked down the long silver-blue length of his new tail.
How? Why had this happened? Did he die and this was some twisted poetic punishment for eating too much fish? What on earth?!
He was so focused on on his new appendage it took him a bit to realize he was stretched out on a large rock just a few inches above the waves. Behind him, a small island rose out of the sea. More mermaids were relaxing in the shallows, tending their hair, eating, and socializing. There were about thirty of them all told, all women. Their ages ranged from mid-teens to middle age.
There were no children.
The fair-haired mermaid with the hard eyes saw him sitting up and slid off her own rock. In what seemed like seconds, she launched herself up to sit beside him. She looked him over critically, studying his scales, webbing and size of his flukes. She nodded in approval.
"How did you do this to me?" Julian asked.
She didn't seem to hear him. More likely she just didn't care. Either way, she continued to poke and prod like an over enthusiastic physician. Julian tolerated it until she tried to delve her fingers into the slit that he could feel housed his genitals. Then he squealed like an offended horse and - quite without meaning to - smacked her in the face with his tail. The hard eyed mermaid reeled from the blow, but managed to stay on the rock. Julian was less coordinated and flopped over his own shoulder as if he were tumbling. He tumbled straight into the sea. He encountered another rock with his shoulder about a foot down. Then he was floating free in crystal blue tropical waters.
He surfaced to the sound of laughter.
The rest of the pod was laughing uproariously. At first Julian felt the sting of being laughed at, but the hard-eyed mermaid - still holding her face - whirled on them. Most of the laughter stopped instantly. Oh, they weren't laughing at him, they were laughing at their leader for getting hit with a tail. Most of the laughter stopped. Not all. Another mermaid with ragged scars from multiple shark bites draped over her shoulder like a tartan was laughing shamelessly.
The hard eyed mermaid snarled, dove into the water and surfaced before the scarred mermaid, glaring at her fiercely.
New male forgotten, the rest of pod watched in silence.
The mermaid with a scar like a tartan, who had been busy shucking and eating oysters . . . continued to shuck and eat oysters. However, now she did it in a very deliberate manner without ever breaking eye contact. Julian was suddenly reminded of a rank new captain butting heads with an old bosun. The captain had the title and money and shiny pips, but the bosun had circled the globe three times before the captain was even toilet trained and he had forgotten more about sailing than the captain ever knew. The bosun was happy to let the captain be captain as long as he didn't get a swelled head about it. A wise captain would take heed of the bosun's experience.
It looked as though Hard Eyes realized this in a very general way, but was fighting the urge to prove her dominance. Tartan Scar raised her eyebrows a fraction. Most of the pod was behind, so very few people saw this aside from Julian. Hard Eyes snarled and dove back into the water, splashing the scarred mermaid. Tartan Scar looked back towards the rest of the finfolk and rolled her eyes.
Such snickers were muffled behind hands and tails.
Julian swam up to her, feeling like a child clinging to the one adult who noticed they existed. Tartan Scar looked at him sideways for a long moment, then handed him a freshly shucked oyster.
"Thank you," Julian said, sucking it down gratefully.
Tartan Scar gave him a small smile and gestured; touching her flattened hand to her chin, palm inwards. Was that . . . was that 'you're welcome?' Is that how they communicated? Like deaf mutes! That made sense; it's not as though you could speak underwater!
"So you don't know what they did to you?!"
Julian paused in his tale and looked over his shoulder. Queen Evelyn Marie Grace of the House of Matin was standing behind her, her expensive silk and cloth-of-gold dress ruined by the saltwater.
Evidently Julian had grown quite close to Tartan Scar, for he now employed the 'very deliberate bite of spice cake and withering stare' on Queen of Pelagia.
"I don't know the exact spell that was used to transform me," Julian finally said. "It's a closely guarded secret."
A footman hurried up behind her, dragging a chair. The former Lieutenant Julian Cuthbert Bluefin nee Claiborne and the most powerful woman on the planet continued to study each other.
"Why haven't you spoken before?" She finally asked as a footman pushed a chair under her padded bum.
"No one addressed me," Julian answered. "I supposed breeding doesn't guarantee manners."
Reginald and Amanda's jaws dropped. Jules transforming into a merman they could handle, though not without a bit of shock. Jules sassing the queen was too shocking. Queen Evelyn blinked quickly, as if she couldn't quite believe what had just occurred.
"Is - is it reversible?" she finally asked.
"I don't know of any merman who wished it reversed," Jules returned.
"What about yourself?!"
The Queen all but reeled.
"You wish to stay as you are?!"
"Well, I wish to go home," Julian stressed. "But I am quite quite happy as a merman." There was a moment of hesitation, then: "I'm sure my wives are missing me."
"You have many?!" For the first time since anyone could remember, the Queen was at a loss.
"I suppose it depends on your point of view," Jules said coolly, pouring himself another cup of tea. "I have two, which is excessive by human standards, but extremely reserved by the standards of finfolk." Something caught the merman's eye and he gestured with his head towards the nearest wall. "He has eight. But most have five."
The Queen, Reginald and Amanda all followed Julian's gesture. There was line of portraits against the wall - every one of a Naval officer that fell in the line of duty. More than a few had been lost to the sea - who evidently kept what she took.
"W-which gentleman are you referring to, Lieutenant Bluefin?" Amanda asked.
"Sixth from the left. I don't know his name, but in the sea, he's known as Silvermane."
The footman who had brought the chair heard this exchange, waded out of the pool and fetched the portrait. A dark haired captain of very average looks stared back at them.
"'The Honorable Captain Thomas Washington Booker, master of the Crimson Opal, lost in the year 1762 when his ship went down in a hurricane.'" Reginald read the name plate.
"Around Zamib, I'd wager," Amanda offered.