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Sea and sky merged into one. His upraised head bobbing on the wind-whipped surface like an unanchored buoy, Durgay had trouble making out the horizon line when rolling in troughs of the four-foot swell. Two limitless expanses of blue--one of liquid cobalt, the other an airy azure--vied for dominance in his shifting vision. That competition extended to Mother Sea copying Father Sky's streaky white clouds wisping high overhead in the rival whitecaps speckling the mirroring ocean.
A yellow-nosed Mollymawk glided serenely into Durgay's line of sight, effortlessly riding the spring sea breeze like a Portuguese man-o-war drifted aimlessly with the current. Dipping a black wing in graceful salute to the skygazing merman, the smallish albatross soared silently away into the wind with an upward swoop. Floating mesmerised, Durgay watched the contrasting plumaged bird longingly until it became a distant white-bodied fleck lost against the background clouds.
A summoning whistle tugged at Durgay from the undersea depths. Annoyed by the intrusion, the merman gave up on his spyhopping for the day and submerged into the underwater calm. Diving with the slowness stemming from old age and reluctance, the geriatric leisurely homed in on the call even as the whistled command repeated itself with greater urgency.
His Seaguard captain--a younger, handsomer version of himself--cruised purposefully up over the fringing reef 140 feet below, angling toward the veteran Fisher in answer to the stream of identifying clicks issued by Durgay. Exquisitely spotted butterfly and striped angelfish scattered lazily before the approaching swimmer in a kaleidoscope of brightscales, unhurried flashes of sunburst orange-gold and girdled blue sensing the ascending spearman was not on the prowl.
At least not for fish.
Durgay was the focus of the officer's search, beckoned to this impromptu meeting. Living in a three dimensional world where time had little meaning or measurement other than the regularity of day darkening into night, the mature merman was nonetheless considered positively ancient after reaching his unmarked fortieth year. Lucky to celebrate life beyond their late twenties due to the rigours imposed by the unforgiving marine environs in which they struggled to survive, Fishers protected and provided for the Cetari; the merfolk. And Durgay, with infinite experience sourced from his elderliness, was numbered among the best.
Durgay deliberately slowed his descent. The tropical seas, luxuriously warmed by the equatorial sunshine, cooled appreciably the further a diver sank. The elderly merman enjoyed spending his free time basking two or three feet beneath the sun-rayed surface, avoiding when he could the indigo deep, which chilled his old bones. He would meet his rising superior in the midlevel boundary of lukewarm no-man's sea.
Dipping their individual whalebone tridents in ritual greeting, the square jawed Fishers" equalled each other in size and form. Eight and a half feet in length, with a dry weight of over 250 lbs, their hairless blue steel bodies were a beautifully blended amalgamation of man and fish. A horizontally-fluked tail designed for speed attached seamlessly to a powerhouse torso sculpted out of the beefiest muscle; arms bulging with outsized biceps, perfectly tailored to engine complimenting swimming strokes, ended in delicately webbed hands capable of working the elemental tools shaping their primitive culture.
Externally, the melon-headed merfolk looked virtually indistinguishable from one another. Even their humanlike faces seemed carbon copies, from the black pits of their tiny bone-ringed eyes, evenly spaced above a bulbous honker of a pseudo nose, right down to the fleshy lips behind which a mouthful of pointy yellowed teeth, suited to their tough seafood diet, waited to strip clean fish bones or chew up rubbery seaweed.
To the Cetari eye, even the untrained, subtle betraying marks and blemishes picked out a personage. In Durgay's case, a grumpy conger eel nipped an indelible bite mark out of his left tail fluke when he was still a merboy wet behind the earholes. The hovering pod commander of the Merking's bodyguard, half the age of the old hand Fisher but sporting an equally impressive tally of hunting scars, was made instantly identifiable by the telltale armband of white pearls he proudly wore signifying his captaincy.
"What's up, Lasbow?"
The Seaguard boss did not take exception to the oldster's informality. He accepted nothing less from the merman who, as his mentor, trained him, remaining his closest friend through thick and thin water. "I have a task for you, Durgay."
His feathery gill slits flapping irritably against his neck, Durgay rebuffed, "I was already busy doing something."
"Daydreaming topside doesn't count as a job."
"Neither does being a pest, yet you're excelling at that."
"Don't make me pull rank on you, Durg."
The threat was needless. Loyalty would have been Durgay's middle name, if indeed he possessed a surname. He smiled indulgently at his former star pupil. Durgay long ago turned down the prestigious captaincy eventually conferred on to Lasbow, declining the promotion in favour of continuing to teach promoted Fishers essential Seaguard skills. Deciding not to accept advancement did not preclude obedience to his bossy pal.
"What have you lined up for me now, Las?"
"Myself, nothing. Cerdic, on the other hand, requested you personally."
Durgay's stomach knotted up. Invariably whatever chore the Merking reserved for a specific subject was bound to be unpleasant. "This is going to be even more indigestible than swallowing live sea slugs, I take it."
Lasbow grinned his needle teeth and completed the set-up. "In a word, Princess Lorea."
"Not if you run them together."
If he were capable of furrowing his eye bones, Durgay would have frowned. Instead, he clicked his annoyance. "She's a spoilt sprat."
"That's her in a clamshell."
"What am I supposed to do with her?"
"Be her babysitter."
"I'm too old to go swimming after a silly mergirl whose only claim to fame is throwing a wobbly better than a temper tantrum prone octopus."
"And I'm not getting any younger listening to this. You have your assignment. Today, you'll be chaperoning Cerdic's eldest stepdaughter, soon to be my intended."
Reaching out, Durgay placed a webbed hand on Lasbow's shoulder and squeezed. The captain pulled a face from the phenomenal strength left in the old merman's grip. "You were my brightest herring, Las. Yet your taste in merwomen is worse than mine. Do you love her?"
Clasping the oldster's forearm firmly in response, Lasbow voiced, "Her tongue sports more barbs than a stingray's tail and she's meaner than a moray eel disturbed from its day nap. It'll be a union of convenience. I get my fin in the crevice to the kingship and Lorea scores this!" He struck a classic bodybuilding pose, showing off his buffed physique.
Durgay chuckled, far more impressed by Lasbow's ambitions. "Always the planner, my boy. That's why I swum aside when offered the captaincy, giving you the chance to realise your potential."
Surprise played across Lasbow's angular features. "I always figured you didn't want the position."
"Who wouldn't covet becoming the second most influential merman in Pah Ocean? Not to mention the perks--having every pretty mergirl swoon at your tail. I made my choice for the greater good of Castle Rock. You display a tendency for thinking beyond the reef. Never lose that. It'll take you far and benefit the Cetari immensely, King Lasbow."