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I’ve often wondered if the soul lives on after death. Barnacles may adorn the human skeleton cradled in my arms, but it still grins at me. Is this man’s soul truly preserved inside the pearl on my necklace? Or is he happy somewhere, living in an afterlife? Only Mother Moon knows for sure.
Flicking my tail, I swim the bones toward the Cirque du Mer Big Top, the gigantic, pinstriped tent of crimson and teal kelp. It looms over the reef and dances with a warm current. Inside, the water bubbles with excitement as performers and stagehands set up for the Crescent Moon Festival.
Bioluminescent algae light the stage as the contortionist twists her tail and torso like a sea snake to fit inside a giant nautilus shell. The strongmer curls two anchors at a time with his thick tail, dropping them with a massive thud and a plume of sand. The masked chorus practices their scales. I dive to avoid the deadly pink jellyfish, loose from their tamer, who whooshes after them with a net.
I swim along the edge of the tent and greet the stagehands setting up the scallop-shell seats. The mermen have a crescent moon carved into the scales on their hips just like I do. It won’t be long before I get to see the mermaid - the Moon Priestess of the Crescent Reef - to whom we owe our freedom. We worship the goddess Mother Moon, who governs the tides, with the Moon Priestess’ blessed guidance.
The stagehands nod to me and continue their work while I sweep my tail into the sand. Once I’ve dug a hole deep enough, I dump the skeleton inside and hurry to cover the sailor’s bones. Rubbing a pearl of my necklace between my fingers, I suck in deeply through my gills. A vision of a woman and child floats into my mind, followed by a dancing crowd, midnight laughter, and footprints on a beach. I release the pearl, for no good ever comes from me viewing the lives of the souls inside the iridescent orbs.
Humans are monsters, I remind myself again and again.
In one more tide, I’ll be allowed above the surface. In one more tide, I’ll participate in the Moon Priestess’ Sacrifice. I won’t let some old memories of dead humans distract me.
Remember what the humans did. Remember that they are monsters. Remember.
As I glide from the Big Top, I crash into the fortune teller, and she drops her crystals and shells.
“I’m so sorry, Ondine!” We both reach for the scallop shells with magic symbols carved inside. “I must have been distracted.”
“Wait!” She pushes her long brown braids over her shoulders and peers at the shells. “Oh, dear,” she says and clicks her tongue against her teeth.
She grabs my wrists and leans close to look into my eyes. “Love. Danger. Death.”
My tail shivers, and I pull my arms from her grasp. Llyr warned me to stay away from Ondine.
“I had a vision of you, Muriel, and…” she trails off, shaking her head.
“The vision was murky, but look,” she says, pointing at the symbols inside the shells. “Love. Danger. Death.”
I tremble and glide a tail-length away from her. Ondine is kind and all, but I want no part of her visions and readings.
“I cannot piece it together,” she says, her posture slumping. “I’ll admit that what I do for these festivals is mostly tricks. But this frightens me.”
I gulp what feels like a ball of kelp and help her pick up her things. Love. Danger. Death. There is no time for this nonsense; I have to set up my skeletons before the Sacrifice. For all the tides long I’ve been looking forward to it. The fortune teller studies my face and clicks her tongue again.
“Stay away from the Sacrifice,” Ondine whispers while holding up a seashell with a boat carved inside.
“Why? Are you not coming?”
“No, no, no. I always stay away.” She trembles and tugs at her braids. “In fact, you should too.”
I twist my brows and nod. “I’ll think about it.”
When she swishes into her tent with a rush of bubbles, I turn to find Llyr next to my skiff, unloading skeletons for me. Massaging my temples against the rising headache, I take a deep pull of water through my gills and try to forget the awkward encounter with Ondine. But now I have Llyr to deal with.
My skeletons could simply walk into the Big Top with the magic in my voice, but vendors are already setting up their booths for the festival, and I don’t want to spoil my act. Triton believes my performance will draw our largest crowd yet in all the seven seas. Llyr turns to grin at me as I approach.
“I’m perfectly capable of setting up by myself,” I say, cradling a rather ancient and badly barnacled skeleton.
“I know.” The shark tamer’s long blond hair swirls in the current. He caresses my cheek with his free hand, letting his thumb glide over my lips. “But you are running out of precious tidlings …and I do enjoy our time together. I look forward to celebrating your first Sacrifice this eventide.”
Vomit rises in my throat. I twirl around and lead him into the Big Top. One eventide. One eventide of sea-spirit induced delirium, and now he thinks we’re together like a pair of clamshells. I shake away the memory of me kissing every shark bite on his body. I’ll have to find a way to let Llyr down gently, but for now I must focus on my performance.
I cannot upset Ringmaster Triton or our mysterious patron the Moon Priestess. My hand finds the missing scales on my hip. Triton carved the crescent-shape into my scales while Llyr held my hand—and now, just like them, I’m indebted to the priestess of the Crescent Reef.
Llyr and I swim to the Big Top and hide two more skeletons before he takes my hand and guides me back to the giant clamshell skiff. There are two props left, lying there in a pile of bones. Llyr sweeps them both up, knocking my mother-of-pearl trinket box over. The contents spill out, and my heart sinks into my tail.
“What is this?” he asks, lifting a silver human hairbrush from the collection.
“Nothing,” I say, looking down at the sand to hide my flushed cheeks. “I just like to collect things from—”
“Humans?” he cuts me off and sinks down to look into my eyes. “You collect things from those monsters who hurt you?”
“I…I don’t know.” I shake my head as bubbles of pain rise in my throat. “Sometimes I have a difficult time believing they are all monsters. I mean, the memories I see when I hold the pearls aren’t all bad and just look at these wonderful things.”
I show him the little doll, the pretty-painted cup, and the fancy hair clip. His brows narrow when I show him the shiny stick and the broken glass things.
“Aren’t they beautiful?”
“Muriel,” Llyr says in a low grumble and wraps me in his arms. “The humans are monsters, and you can’t keep these things. What would Coquina and Coral think if they saw this?”
I droop lower into his embrace. He’s right. The conjoined twins had a much more traumatic time with the humans than I did…and they’re so young. It would break their little hearts if they saw my collection.
“You’re right.” I disentangle my arms and tail from Llyr’s before tucking the items back into the iridescent box. “I’ll get rid of it all.”
“Good.” Llyr’s hands creep around my midriff, and he kisses my neck.
Nothing. I feel nothing when this sweet merman kisses me. Is something wrong with me? When I turn, he only pulls me closer.
“Is something wrong, Muriel?”
I shrug. “What if we don’t impress the Moon Priestess?”
“You are the newest and most exciting performer. If anyone can impress the priestess, it’s you,” Llyr says, and his confidence in me lifts my spirits. “But, I’m also working on making my act more dangerous.”
My finger glides over the shark bite on his shoulder and chest from when he almost lost his soul at the Gibbous Moon Reef rehearsal. “You already put yourself in too much danger, Llyr.”
His neck and cheeks grow pink while he watches my finger. I remove it at once, almost forgetting what I did to him the other eventide under the influence of sea-spirits. He absolutely did not forget, though, for he grows hard against my tail where our slits line up. I glide back a seashell’s width to let the water cool him down.
Merfolk are meant to have soul mates and combine their souls when they first make love, but nothing changed in my soul when I was with Llyr. My stomach grows sick at the thought of breaking his heart. Llyr is my best friend, but I don’t love him the way he loves me.