It was a gloomy, overcast day, like all days were, when the princess first saw them. The two of them, who would change her life. There was nothing to herald their appearance, no collection of birds or arrangement of tea leaves to mark their arrival. If anything, the convent was more quiet than usual. The nuns had just finished the midmorning service and scattered to their cells for private prayer. The abbess was shut in her chamber.
Only the princess was out in the garden, wandering along the stone wall that overlooked the sea. Here, near the old well, the wall dipped down to her knees, and an ancient gate led to a stairway that curved to the rocky beach below. She was bundled in furs, wincing against the blast of wind that swept up from the sea and made the bare trees rattle around her.
She was not supposed to be out here. She should have been in her cell, too, but she did not follow the rules the way the others did, and the abbess had instructed them to give her wide berth. No one knew why, only that she ’d arrived one night on horseback accompanied by three armed guards, who carried in a large chest, placed it in a private double cell in the novices’ wing, and disappeared as quietly as they’d come.
No one but the abbess herself knew that she was the Northern king’s daughter, that she was in hiding after secret reports that the South would be renewing its attacks. The others knew her simply by the name Mira, which was short for her given name, Margrethe. Most assumed she suffered some kind of ailment or melancholy, and the less committed novices had spent hours over the last months trying to guess which one. A few days after Margrethe’s arrival, another new tenant had appeared: a bright, flame- haired girl named Edele, who became fast friends with Margrethe, almost as if they’d known each other for years.
Margrethe had never wanted to come to this desolate outpost, was not used to the barren loneliness of this part of the world. She missed the castle, the long dinners lit by fire and dancing, the sleigh rides, her childhood room with its little fireplace in which pinecones burned, the mantel lined with books. She especially missed those—her books, and the long hours she had spent with her father’s adviser and old tutor, Gregor, poring over them, learning of ancient battles and loves and philosophies. But the kingdom was under threat, and this was the safest place for her, her father had said, here at the edge of the world, in the convent that her late grandmother had helped found and that her mother had been schooled in as a girl.
She thought of her mother now, as she stared out at this desolate sea. It had been two years since the queen’s death, but sometimes it felt as fresh as a new wound. Margrethe pulled her furs close and stood stark against the wind, breathing in the thick air, which coated her tongue in salt. She wondered how her mother had felt staring out at this same sea. Was it like this back then? The ocean dark, wild? It seemed, to Margrethe, the color of grief.
Before coming here she had never seen the sea like this, as a living thing. Some trees had been uprooted by a recent storm, and they reached toward the water like gnarled fingers. She strained against the wind, hoping to catch sight of a Viking ship, a square flag, a dragon prow, but she was at the end of the world now, at the most northern point in the kingdom, and no ships came here.
How was she to know that this would be the most singular moment of her life? How can any of us tell when that thing comes that will make everything different? It seemed, to Margrethe, a moment like any other: waiting to return to her father’s castle, looking over the gloomy sea, waiting for private prayer to be over and the convent workday to start. Strangely, she found herself looking forward to the hours she ’d spend weaving that afternoon, listening to the clacking of the looms, the hum of the spinning wheels nearby, the voice of one of the sisters reading scripture moving over them. At first she ’d hated the dull hours of work, but lately she’d found a certain comfort in them. She could forget everything, watching the wool transform in front of her.
The sky gleamed and shifted. The sun was a dull ache behind a veil of gray and silver.
And then, there. On the water! She breathed in quickly, afraid it was a trick of the sea. A fish’s tail shooting out. Bright, shimmering silver.
Margrethe squinted against the cold wind, trying to keep her eyes steady and focused. They say you can see things here, at the end of the world. Faces in the clouds and waves and leaves. Branches becoming arms and then branches again.
But there it was again, a flash of white. Margrethe blinked repeatedly, and the sea air seemed to cut through her. She wiped tears from her eyes and cheeks and leaned into the wind. The sea seemed to shift from foam to water, from dark to light, swirling. In the distance, rocks jutted. It would be easy to mistake one for the monstrous fin of a great fish, the prow of a ship sinking down.
And then: a curving, gleaming tail flaring out of the water. A moment later, another flash and a pale face emerging, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. A woman’s face. The tail of a fish stretching out behind her. Silvery, as if it were made of gems. Margrethe shook her head. The cold was making her see things.
She turned to look at the convent behind her, the cross and church spires stretching black against the sky. The other women were inside, next to fires and wrapped in blankets and furs. Only she was crazy enough to stand here staring into this impossible sea.
She laughed at herself, turned back to the sea. But the woman was still there, closer now, gliding through the water as if she had wings. Her hair the color of the moon and scattered through with pearls. Her skin shimmering out of the water, catching the light and turning to diamonds. And that tail propelling her forward, unmistakably. It was not human, this creature.
Mermaid. The name came to Margrethe automatically, from the stories that had rooted themselves in her mind, the ancient tales she had read by firelight as the rest of the castle slept. She no longer felt the wind or the cold as she stood transfixed, watching the mermaid move through the water. Margrethe had not known such things could really exist, but the moment she saw the mermaid, it was as if the world had always contained this kind of wonder. This is how it works, she thought. When the world becomes something new, it seems always to have been that way.
She’d never seen anything so beautiful in all her years at court, not in all the grand banquets and dances, the festivals that lasted weeks at a time, the creations of musicians and storytellers, the rich spices and fabrics and jewels shipped in from all over the world. Not in all her years surrounded by handmaidens who bathed her and brushed her hair and laced her corsets and pressed powder into her skin. Nothing could compare to this creature gliding through the water, propelled by the tail of a fish.
As the mermaid approached the shore, Margrethe saw that she was carrying something. A man. Holding him in her arms and keeping his head above water. The mermaid slowed as she arrived at the shore, and reached out to the rocky beach. In a graceful rolling movement, the man cradled in one arm, she moved from sea to land. The sharp rocks would have ripped a human’s skin, but the mermaid seemed unharmed as she released the man and gently, tenderly, laid him out on the shore next to her, her light hair hanging in long, wet ropes. Now Margrethe could see clearly: the man’s muscled warrior’s body, covered with wounds. Human.
The mermaid stretched out next to him—her pale, naked torso shifting to glittering scales as waist flared to hip, the curve of her tail like a perfectly fitted, exquisitely colored dress. A most wonderful silver, tinged with green. The mermaid sat up and pulled her tail to her side. She still didn’t appear to be affected by the cold, despite the wind whipping all around her. Her skin seemed hard, like stone. As Margrethe realized this was the mermaid’s actual body, a feeling of revulsion mixed with her wonder and awe. What would it be like to be half a fish? she thought. How cold and hard was she to touch?
The man was sputtering and coughing. The mermaid leaned over him, her breasts grazing his chest as she did. She kissed his forehead, stroked his wet hair. Even from a distance Margrethe could see the look of pure, radiant love that lit the mermaid’s face as she gazed down on him.
This is what rapture is, Margrethe thought. That thing she saw come over the nuns’ faces as they knelt in prayer. She ’d tried turning to heaven, the way the women surrounding her did, but her heart, she knew, was too tied to the earth.
Behind her the bells rang, announcing the late morning devotions. Suddenly the mermaid looked up and saw Margrethe. Margrethe gasped, caught. She could see the blue of the mermaid’s eyes, as if the whole scene had become magnified, feel it inside her despite the distance between them. It was as if, for one moment, the mermaid was right there in the convent garden. Save him, the trees, the wind seemed to whisper. A voice inside her. You, come now.
Margrethe stopped breathing, could barely feel her own body. And then, with one last look at the man, a last kiss on the lips, the creature pushed off from the rocks and dove back into the sea. Margrethe cried out and, without thinking, ran through the convent gate and down the stone steps—hundreds of them—that led to the beach. She hugged the furs to her body, almost slipping, reaching to the thin iron banister to steady herself, the air rushing and whirring around her, the stairs streaming under her endlessly.
She arrived at the beach, stumbled over rocks, but there was no trace of the mermaid. Only him, the man the creature had pulled to shore. And there, by his hand, one gleaming oyster shell. Margrethe stood at the shoreline, then waded into the sea, not caring as water soaked through her boots. She stared out, but there was only endless ocean, cut up by rocks and ice and the worried, suffocating sky. Suddenly the world seemed entirely bleak and without hope.
“Come back,” Margrethe whispered. “Please.” But the sea was quiet now. The rocks pushed up from the water, motionless, like uncaring gods. The waves moved back and forth along the shoreline, slapping it, lunging to the earth, and then disappearing again.
The palace’s great hall was unusually quiet that afternoon. The ocean floor, dense with sea plants and anemones and coral plates, was still, and the amber walls swayed only slightly, sprouting flowers that brushed the mermaid’s skin as she swam past. The high- pointed amber windows had been flung open, and schools of glowing silver fish with pointed teeth poured through, illuminating the dark water. Above, thousands of mussel shells opened and closed with the currents. If she squinted, looked as hard as she could, she imagined she could make out the dim glare of the sun above.
Her name was Lenia. She was the youngest daughter of the sea queen, and lived with her mother, father, grandmother, and five sisters in a large coral palace on the ocean floor. She made her way to the end of the great hall, where a piece of heavy, clouded glass hung over the grand fireplace. Both glass and fireplace had been recovered from sunken ships full of human bones and ephemera and treasures. Lenia found it strange to see her own image, and she usually avoided the glass and its tricks. But today she felt so different and changed, she had to see if it would be obvious to anyone else.
Her sisters had badgered her all morning, their singing drifting through the water and every room of the palace, trying to lure her out to the garden, where they had all been waiting to hear her story. She had the most beautiful voice, everyone had always said, and it was she who’d been most excited, of all the sisters, to swim to the upper world. She was the one who had the human statue in her garden, a garden as round and red as the sun. She was the one who’d asked their grandmother countless times to tell her about men and women, about souls.
But Lenia had waited in her room until she was quite sure her sisters had left for the day, until the only resident left in the palace was their old grandmother, who knew better than anyone that Lenia would talk when she was ready, and only then. Lenia came upon the clouded glass. It took her a minute to focus on her blue eyes, her white skin, the glittering moon hair that flew out on all sides of her in the water, her small, pink- tipped breasts, her long silver- gray tail, the oyster shells lining it, symbols of her high rank. Behind her, an octopus swayed this way and that, and a group of sea horses floated past.
She leaned in until she was inches from her own reflection. She pressed her palms into her waist, her smooth, cold skin. She had thought she might look more . . . human, she realized. But she was the same as she ’d always been. She didn’t even look older. Her face stared out at her from the glass, as if it were mocking her. There was nothing human about her. Her skin was opalescent, changing color ever so slightly as she shifted in the water. Her lips were stained pink with the sea flowers that had been ground for her. Water moved in and out of the tiny gills on her neck. And right below the curve of her belly, her skin took on a high sheen and then turned, slowly, to scale. Long, thin silver fish scales layered down her tail.
She had wanted to go to the upper world for as long as she could remember. One by one her sisters had been allowed to travel to the surface of the water on their eighteenth birthdays, for the entire day, while she, the youngest, had to wait in the palace for their return. After each sister’s visit, they’d all gather in the gardens and hear tales of the curiosities and wonders that lay above. The fish would slip past their shoulders and faces as the lucky sister wove her tale, and Lenia would listen breathlessly as her sisters spoke of the glimmering cities and clattering carriages they’d watched from the shore, the star- sprinkled night skies, the flying swans like long white veils over the sea, the mortal children with legs rather than tails, and the icebergs that glistened like pearls.
Her sisters had been impressed by these things, but happy enough to return to the sea when their birthdays were over. But to Lenia, the whole upper world seemed so vast, so strange, so full, that she ’d been determined to venture farther than any of her sisters on her own eighteenth birthday, memorizing every moment of it. Once, mermaids had been able to visit the upper world whenever they wanted. They’d appeared to sailors, bewitched travelers, stolen beautiful young men from seasides, brought them down to the world below. But things had changed in the last few hundred years, as humans took more and more to the sea. After a group of mermaid sisters had been hauled up by fishermen and brutally killed, Lenia’s great- grandmother had issued a royal decree forbidding any further interaction between the two worlds.
“They are dangerous,” she had said. “They will kill us all if they have the chance.” Still, to honor that long- ago link between merpeople and humans, every mermaid and merman was allowed this one day, on his or her eighteenth birthday, to travel alone to the upper world, as long as they kept carefully out of view of humans.
To most of Lenia’s kind, humans were base, predatory. They lived short, violent lives before dying and leaving their bodies to rot, which most merpeople found quite inelegant—as they themselves lived for three hundred years before turning gracefully to foam. The bloated bodies of humans littered the ocean floor; human ships sank and became tombs full of garbage and bones. In recent years, some merpeople had even elected to stay in the sea on their eighteenth birthdays, refusing any contact with the upper world at all.
Her sisters, more than anyone, had mocked Lenia’s love for humans. Nadine would bring Lenia the bones of sailors and, whenever she could get to them before the fish, decaying body parts.
“Look how disgusting,” she would say, holding up a disintegrating finger, pieces of skin flapping off it like small sails. “Look what happens to them.”
But none of her family’s prejudices had lessened Lenia’s desire to see the upper world for herself. She had anticipated her visit for so long that she had insisted on going the night before, right after midnight, in the middle of a terrible storm, one so strong and fierce they had felt it at the bottom of the sea.
“You might want to wait a few hours more,” her grandmother had warned, the coral walls quivering around them, but Lenia had waved off her concern. The eve of her birthday had finally come, and she ’d gone through the whole ceremony—the elaborate feast, the clipping on of oyster shells and pearls, the singing in front of the entire court—and she was not going to wait a second past midnight to visit the world above.
“I want to see all of it,” she ’d said. “Even the worst of it.”
They had wrung their hands and tried to distract her with gifts and baubles. Her mother had had the cooks find giant clams and stuff them with monkfish liver and crab and roe, prepare lupe de mare with sea mushrooms, wrap crabmeat around imported rascasse, lay out platters heaped with the rarest caviar, and present a selection of oysters and percebes and periwinkles and crabs and lobster and conch on huge plates lined with starfish. Her father had given her a shell that, when held up to the ear, played the songs of whales and selkies. And her sisters had joined together to make her a bracelet strung with sea glass plucked from the oldest, most tragic shipwrecks.
The golden banquet table had tilted and shifted from the shaking of the storm above. Sand from the ocean floor had whirled up and spun around them as they feasted. The musicians kept playing their instruments made from coral and bones and shells, even as the palace swayed and the mussel shells above them snapped open and shut. No one had experienced such effects from an upper- world storm in hundreds of years, some of the merpeople whispered. This was extraordinary, and surely a very bad sign.
“Sing, Lenia,” her sisters had insisted, trying to distract her, and, to defy them all, she opened her mouth and sang the sweetest song she could about the beauty of the world above them. She remembered details from her grandmother’s stories, from her sisters’ visits, from her own dreams. Creatures that flew through the air. Lightning that flashed across the sky. Souls leaving bodies and drifting up to the stars.
That is what the other merpeople did not understand, and what Lenia did: that humans had souls, and that their souls lived forever. It was not the same as when merpeople died, dissolving into foam and becoming part of the great ocean. Souls were webs of light that contained the essence of a human’s life. Memories and loves, children and families. Every moment of a life, pressing in.
“Stop!” her mother had cried, seeing the effect Lenia’s voice had on the court. Even those who had never been to the upper world and never wanted to go, who accepted it as a place filled with danger, had felt a deep longing within them when Lenia sang. They had all come from the same place, after all, humans and merpeople. No one could be whole in a universe so divided. Lenia’s voice—so sweet and clear—had snaked into each one of them, filling their hearts and illuminating the parts that were empty. Lenia had stopped singing, and there was silence as each guest struggled to regain composure.
“Just go, Daughter,” her mother had said, resignedly, and her father had nodded beside the queen the way he always did. No one was even sure how much he actually paid attention to anything anymore, he was so used to echoing his wife. “It is almost midnight. Go and you will see that nothing is as wonderful as our dreams can make it.”
And Lenia had left the palace and swum straight up to the surface of the ocean. Up, up, so fast it was like she was being pushed on a wave, as the water swirled around her. The surface was miles away, farther than she ’d realized even on days when it felt so far from her it might as well have been another universe. The closer she got, the more intense the current became, thrashing her about, throwing fish and shells against her, wrapping seaweed around her limbs.
When she finally reached the surface and pushed her face above water, the sheer wall of sound nearly sent her back under. The crash of thunder, the pounding of rain, the rush of air as it hit her mouth and lungs. A strange, raw feeling—as if she were being hollowed out, the air swooping through her, invading every cell of her body. She struggled for breath as the waves rose and fell all around her, howling. The sky was black and then ablaze with lightning. She cried out, and fl inched when her voice distorted as it hit the air. Even among the crazy cacophony of the upper world, the sound of her own voice seemed to shatter against her.
As her eyes focused, she saw something in the distance, tossing on the waves. She ’d only ever seen ships at the bottom of the sea. It confused her, the force of it battling the storm. The dragon prow twisting this way and that. She ducked back into the water and made her way to the ship. She cut through the wild water with ease and swam right under the vessel, watched in wonder as it tipped to the right and left, shedding oars and chests and other treasures into the sea. Like a monster riding the sea. She darted out from under the ship, pushed her head above water.
And then, there, on the vessel. Right in front of her. Human men. She watched their faces raging with life, as they fought to hold the ship steady on the impossible sea. But the vessel began to split apart beneath them. Whole chunks ripped off, twisting in the wind, crashing in the water, where they would sink to the bottom of the ocean and become new ruins for her and her sisters to explore.
A man fell from the ship. Just fell into the water like a bit of debris. She slipped her head below the surface and watched him being pulled under. He thrashed and struggled to get above water, to the air, and she wanted to tell him that he was safe now, that the world under the water was beautiful, that she could take care of him there. But, as she watched, his face became horrible, lurid. He stopped struggling. She swam to him. She wanted to help him, to pull him down to the palace and tend to him, but then his body stopped moving and she knew he was dead. She grabbed him and shook him. Her face was next to his, her hands under his shoulders. It struck her, what she knew already: men could not survive under the surface of the water.
She’d seen many dead humans, of course, but she ’d never seen a human die before. It was horrible. Merpeople had a different kind of death. Everyone knew when they would die, and it seemed long enough to them, their three hundred years. They passed gently, turning slowly to foam, fading into the water and then disappearing altogether, to become part of the sea. She’d seen many merpeople die, and those left behind always celebrated the passing with song and feast. But she believed it was even more beautiful when humans died because they had immortal souls. She remembered again, now, how her grandmother had described to her the way a soul would slip from a human body, shimmering and beautiful, and rise to something called heaven, where it would have eternal life.
But that was not what Lenia saw as she watched more men die around her. These were awful, painful deaths. Limbs thrashing and going slack. Men struggling, with all their strength, for air, the horror on their faces as they began to drown. It was the most terrible thing she ’d ever seen.
She let go of the man’s body in horror, watched him drop farther and farther, until he faded into the black of the sea. She looked up. Men were falling all around her now, spilling through the water, clawing for land, for air. Dying. She pushed her way back to the surface. The ship was nearly gone, just slabs of wood falling into the sea. Men were swimming, trying to grab onto pieces of the ship. Their strange legs fl ailing, their screams ripping through the stormy air. She watched as a piece of ballast fell and smashed in a man’s skull. Dead men floated past her. And the sky still crackled with lightning, like an angry god.
It was chaotic, terrifying. She did not know which way to turn. Until she saw him. The one man clinging to a slab of wood. His eyes moved up and caught hers. Had she seen him before? He was so familiar to her. The water was pulling him. There were barely any men left above the surface. Her body began moving before the thought crystallized: she would save him, this one man. She swam to him, pushing past bodies and debris, and he was frozen, staring at her, stunned, the rain pounding down. He was so strong, clinging to life so ferociously, his powerful legs kicking to keep him above water. She found it moving, his passion for life. This will to live.
“Come,” she said, holding out her hand. He didn’t move. “Come to me. I will save you.”
Her voice seemed to have some magical effect on him. He looked at her, his eyes wide with fear and wonder, a smile beginning to form on his face, despite everything. She smiled back at him. Her grandmother had told her this, how easily men were enchanted by mermaid sounds. How easily a mermaid could cast a spell on a man and lead him to his death. This made sense to her now. Her soft, beautiful tones in this harsh, loud world. She put one arm behind his shoulders, the other winding about his waist.
“Let go,” she said. “Hold on to me.”
His face was right next to hers. She could feel his heart beating.
“My men,” he said, his voice rumbling into her. “My ship.”
“Shh,” she said. “I will take you to shore.”
He was wearing cloth over his chest, and the material felt strange under her palm. She loved the smell of him. Even over the sea and rain, she could smell his hair, his skin, feel the warmth of his beating heart. As she began swimming, she leaned her cheek into his wet hair, surprised at the feel of it. He was so soft, full of life. She had to stop herself from pulling him down to her garden and wrapping herself around him. He will die there, she repeated to herself. Take him where he will live.
She swam harder, pushing against the current, leaving the wreckage and the bodies far behind. She realized that she knew where to go, that her body could sense it. It was wonderful, swimming for the first time between the two worlds, half in the air and half in the water, as the rain beat down against her. She liked the challenge of the crashing waves, the way the lightning cracked the sky open, the beauty of the night and the rain and the moon, faintly visible. She liked the feeling of him in her arms. For a human it’d be hard work, carrying a man of his size, but he felt easy in her arms.
He had slipped from consciousness, but she was aware at every moment of his breathing, the air moving in and out of his lungs, how crucial it was to keep him above water and not let his breath stop. She swam as her body told her to, slipping into a kind of trance between his breathing and the churning of the storm- ridden sea.
After a while, the rain stopped, the sea calmed, and there was no sound but the lapping of water and his faint breath. Above her, the black sky cleared, until she could see the thousands of stars strewn across it. Even in her most vivid imaginings, she had not understood the vastness of this world, how far it extended. She looked down at the man in her arms, his soft, perfect face, and a ferocious love moved through her.
I will save you.
She pushed her powerful tail behind her. She swam harder than she ever had, holding the man as if he could break, her arms under his shoulders. And then, finally, in the distance: the glimmer of windows. Humans. The way her sisters had described it. There was a wall of rock, and above it, a large stone structure. The sun was coming up behind the structure, on the top of the cliff, splitting the sky into pink and cream and blue.
“Look,” she whispered, and his eyes fl uttered open. “Look at the sky.”
He turned his head, looked right at her, and, in the breaking sunlight, she could see the strange tawny color of his eyes. There was so little life in them now.
She shoved her tail against the waves and swam as hard as she could, to the shore, to where he would be safe. Her eyes scanned the cliff, the building, and then rested on a lone human girl, standing on the cliff, near a long staircase that wound down to the rocky beach. Lenia focused in on her.
Save him, she thought.
She reached the shore and pulled him out of the water, onto the rocks. She had only seconds. She lay beside him and stroked his face and his hair. His eyes fluttered open and shut as she leaned down and kissed his lips, his eyelids, his forehead. The feel of him under her lips, combined with the sunlight, the air that swept along her bare skin, her wet hair—all of it filled her with a kind of euphoria she ’d never before felt.
The material of his wet shirt tickling her breasts as she leaned against him. His open mouth and warm tongue. He was so beautiful. She had never seen anything so beautiful.
But she could feel the life leaving him, and knew that she had done all she could do, that it was time to let other humans take care of him so that he could live. She looked up at the girl on the cliff, standing there watching them, transfixed. Her black hair blowing around her, her pale skin and brown eyes, her furs.
You, she thought again. Come now.