For a merman, I've done very little deep-sea exploration.
I grew up in chlorine pools, racing from one end to the other until I became the fastest kid in all of Brooklyn. Those were fishbowls compared to the endlessness of the Atlantic Ocean.
I kick my legs harder and harder alongside the belly of the ship until I grab hold of the ladder.
I consider shifting into my tail, but then I remember these are my last pair of cargo shorts, and I've not yet mastered the half-shift combination of legs and scales to cover my goods. Instead, I let my gills develop, only freaking out a little that I, in fact, have gills. Then I give myself a pat on the back for being able to control them. Cold water trickles in and out, and I wonder if that's something I'll ever get used to.
With one hand, I secure my footing on the ladder and let the ship do the heavy lifting. With the other, I lean out to the ocean, combing my fingers through water. I want to shout out the thrill of the moment, of the powerful ship cleaving the ocean like a knife through the smooth skin of the sea. But I stop myself, realizing that shouting would give away my position to my opponent.
War games aren't supposed to be fun, not the way my guardian describes them. War games teach you skills-fighting, hunting, hiding. All meant to achieve one thing: survival.
I'm four days shy of turning seventeen, and though I was technically born with a blue fishtail, I've only been a merman for two whole weeks, ever since the Sea Court returned to Coney Island to hold a championship for the next king. That would be the Sea King (my grandfather) and me (one of four remaining champions). Yeah, me a king. I'm not in Coney anymore, Toto.
The clucking wail of a dolphin echoes from below. He swims up alongside me, and for a moment, I forget about Kurt lurking nearby. I reach out a hand and touch the dolphin's slick skin. I can't understand the sounds he's making, but I can sense the urgency. He dives downward and disappears into the blue shadows.
Then I see him.
Kurt's glowing violet eyes lock on me. He undulates like a serpent rising from smoke. His dark hair billows with every kick.
Kurt takes the dolphin's place beside me, like we're two cars racing on an empty road. He swerves to his left as if to knock me off my ladder, but I kick out and he swerves to the right. In our last skirmish, we managed to disarm each other. But I didn't account for the small knife strapped to his bicep.
Kurt holds the knife by the hilt. He raises it over his head, flicks his wrist back and forth. He wouldn't. As my guardian, he's in charge of making sure I don't meet an untimely death. He wouldn't.
But he does.
I dive to the left. My back hits the ship hard, and I let the current pull me away. His deep chuckle lingers in the rustle of water. He takes hold of my ladder and hoists himself back up onto the ship, which is getting farther away.
My muscles burn with every breaststroke, every kick. Then the dolphin returns, and I realize that being the grandson of the Sea King comes with some perks. His big black eye gleams at me, and I wonder why dolphins always look like they're smiling. I grab hold of his dorsal fin.
In seconds, we're caught up with the ship. I pat him on his back and grab hold of the ladder. Halfway up, I see Kurt's knife an inch deep into the wood. When I pull it out, there isn't much resistance. I break the surface and my gills shut against the wind. My body feels a hundred pounds lighter. The blisters on my soles pop and bleed with every step until I'm over the rail and planted on the deck. I strip off my T-shirt and toss it to the side.
I brush my wet hair from my eyes and spot Layla and Gwen leaning on the railing of the quarterdeck. All they need is a tub of popcorn, and it'd be just like being at the circus. Layla's biting her nails down to stubs. She runs her hands through the mess of her thick brown hair, which is growing bigger and bigger with the rising heat. Her hazel eyes flick between Kurt and me. He's holding his knees and breathing hard. He quickly adjusts the sheath at his hip. Great, he's got his sword back.
"Tristan," Layla says, "you guys are still just play-dueling, right?"
The Sunday morning sun is so hot that my chest is already dry. I pick up my sword off the deck.
"Best out of five," I remind her.
"You've lost twice," Gwen says, twirling a lock of white-blond hair around her finger until it coils on its own.
"He's also won twice," Layla counters.
"I don't know if that last one counts," Gwen says. "They went overboard, and the arena is supposed to be the ship. I say that last one didn't count."
I can't believe what I'm hearing. "It totally counts!"
"Tristan?" Gwen points a finger behind me.
I hear the wet smack of Kurt's feet racing. Without a word, it's still game on. Kurt drags the tip of his sword along the floor. With his middle finger, he lightly taps the center of his forehead, something he does every time we fight. I never ask and he never explains what it means. It reminds me of going to church with Layla and her Catholic father. They do something similar-the father, the son, and the something spirit. I have no secret messages to tap like Morse code on my face like they do. I'm not exactly sure what I believe in anymore, now that I know monsters are real and good people die in the blink of an eye.
I raise my sword just in time to meet his and growl, "I wasn't ready."
"I'm a hungry merrow. I don't care if you're ready." He spins and strikes the opposite way.
I block, block, block, moving two steps backward with every blow. Sure, merrows don't care if you're ready or not. They come out of the shadows and attack, the way they attacked us in the football field of my school and at Ryan's house Friday night...
Too late, the thought of Ryan, my friend, dead on the ground, makes me miss a beat, and Kurt's sword comes a hair away from my face. I wipe sweat and seawater from my cheek, and a long stripe of red comes away with it.
"You cut me!"
"It's a duel, Tristan." Kurt rolls his eyes, a habit he's picked up from Layla. All of his movements, from the eye roll to the way he turns his dagger like the right angles of a clock, are uptight. "Of course I cut you."
But he doesn't let up. His face is ferocious, shoulders hunched like a predator. "When Adaro was your age, he slew white-bellied sharks for supper. Collected their teeth and dipped them in gold to decorate his armor."
The sun is in my eye and the rail of the ship digs into my lower back.
"Yeah, well," I say, "Adaro doesn't have the quartz scepter, does he?"
"There are still two pieces out there." Kurt turns, elbows me in the chest, and spins back around. "You only have the one."
Our swords are a mess of clinks and screeches. I'm running on pure adrenaline. It's a rush no swim meet has ever given me.
"One is better than nothing." I push him back with the ball of my palm, but that only makes him smile. It's got to be a record. When he was on land, he never smiled this much.
"Brendan might be young, but he can cut a man into ribbons with nothing but a spearhead."
I can't let him get to me. It's like when Coach Bellini swims alongside us during practice, shouting, "You call that swimming? I met a turtle in Vietnam that was faster than you!"
Sure, Adaro, champion of the Southern Seas, and Brendan, champion of the Western Seas, have been fighting longer than me. But my grandfather chose me. That's got to count for something.
"Dylan's so fast on his feet that you'd swear he was born sparring."
Right, Dylan, the golden boy, champion of the Northern Seas.
And then there's Kurt, King of the Show-Offs, who does some ballerina shit across the deck. I push hard, metal banging on metal. I hit his solar plexus and he braces, trying to regain his breath. He switches arms. Every five strikes, he switches arms to not tire one over the other. That creates the gap I need to strike.
I make my blow count, aiming where I know it will hurt Kurt the most. The swipe is painfully accurate, and a lock of his precious hair falls to the deck. His brow trembles, giving way to the first drip of sweat from his too-tight pores.
I'm about to say, "Don't worry, it'll grow back," but he raises his blade with a deep grunt and charges at me until I find myself stuck between Kurt and the edge of the ship once again.
Note: Don't mess with a merman's full head of hair.
It's the reaction I want-careless, reckless, thoughtless. Until we're stuck in a mirror image with my sword at his throat and his at mine.
"Draw?" Kurt suggests.
"I don't think so, bro." I shake my head, pressing the cold metal of his own knife to his abdomen. My heart is pounding, partly because I can't believe I did it. Partly because Kurt digs the edge of his sword into my throat some more.
"Easy," I say. Neither of us stands down. "If I show up to the oracle without a head, she's going to think I'm rude."
With a loud harrumph, he steps back, lowers his weapon, admits defeat by bowing. It takes all of me, and I mean years of discipline, to not shout, "Yeah, in your face!"
But this is not me beating my buddy Angelo at Mortal Kombat. This is how grown-up mermen fight. I bow back to him, accepting his defeat but keeping my eyes on him at all times. The clapping above us breaks our warrior trance. Kurt blinks into the blinding sun beating through the sails. I flip the small knife in the air, catch it on its blade, and hand it back to him. He grunts a short "Thanks."
"Well done, Master Tristan," says a baritone voice. Arion, the captain of our ship, hovers over us. He's a merman just like Kurt and me, but he's royally bound to the vessel. Enchanted black vines twine around his wrists and his tail. The black and silver fins lick at the empty air beneath him. The binding stretches all over the ship, allowing him to go as far as the topmast, but never into the sea. A punishment carried over from father to son.
I reach up and shake his hand. "Thanks, man."
"You're a fast learner," Kurt says, nodding. I can tell he doesn't say this easily. "A natural, really, if you adjusted your focus."
"You should have more faith in me," I say.
Kurt takes one step closer. Whatever he's going to say is interrupted by blue and purple blurs.
It's the urchin brothers, pulling sails and tying ropes to create a little bit of shade. When they stop running around, you can see their true shapes. Their almond-shaped eyes are big and black, like their gums, which freaked me out when Blue woke me up this morning. True to their name, the urchin brothers have spiky heads that are surprisingly soft to the touch.
Note: Don't mess with an urchin's head of hair, either.
The food they've spread out on silver platters, tarnished from being stored below deck, is decadent. Dried salmon skin, pink stuff that jiggles without touching it, and whole calamari jerky that looks like Buddha hands coming to get you. There's caviar in the brightest colors on top of crunchy dried seaweed. Steamed seaweed. Seaweed noodles. Seaweed chips. There's a great big seaweed party in my mouth.
Blue is studying my face. He's been trying so hard to make something that I'll like. "Special, for Lord Sea Tristan."
My smile is strained. I don't know if I'll ever get used to a mer diet. But he's trying so hard and I don't want to hurt his feelings. "Uh-thanks, little dude."
I make to sit down, but Kurt stands in my way. He flips his hair back, splashing me on the way. I knew he was a sore loser, but damn, let me live.
"What?" I ask irritably.
"Don't you think it's time, Tristan?"
"Time for what?"
"You said you'd tell us." He turns back to Layla, then to me. "About the other night. With the oracle."
Friday night. The night I claimed one of the three trident pieces from the oracle in Central Park. I've been putting off the details, but I've run out of reasons.
"It might help us with the next oracle," Layla urges.
"Perhaps later-" Gwen starts.
"Not later," Layla presses, sitting up on her knees. "I mean, you just left. Then you return with your giant metal toothpick and Princess Snowflake here, and you won't tell us what happened."
"Tristan doesn't have to tell you everything," Gwen says.
Layla ignores her and looks up right at me. "What did she do to you?"
I'm not sure if she means the oracle or if she means Gwenivere.
I hold my hands up in defense. "You guys. It's just-"
It's just what? They're my team. They're here for me. I hadn't considered that they might've thought I was dead. I didn't consider them at all. I sit down at our makeshift floor table and cross my legs meditation style. "Come. Let me start from the beginning."