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We are savage. We are proud. We are the dark rulers of the sea.
Deep in the ocean near the earth's core, I survey the Aquarathi peoplea firestorm of coloras the four courts pay homage to their new queen. Closest to me, the Gold Court stands quietly proud. The Sapphire Court is flamboyant in their tribute. The Emerald Court, more demure. But the Ruby Court, I watch with silent, cautious eyes. Months before, they supported a rival queen in her bid against the High Court, and she almost won.
The great hall of Waterfell is deep and cavernous, with cobbled golden stalactites and stalagmites spanning its entire length to meet in the middle like majestic columns. In the human world, I learned about the marble pillars of the ancient Greeks. Ours remind me of the pictures I saw of theirs, only the ones around me are far older and more forbidding. The floor glitters with all manner of earthly minerals, reflecting off our bodies like prisms.
Today we celebrate my coronation as heir to the High Court. In Aquarathi society, it's a pivotal milestone, one made even more momentous by the fact that my fatherthe last kingis dead. If he were alive, years from now he would be the one to transfer the proverbial baton to me. The endorsement from one ruler to another is a vital piece of our tradition. An Aquarathi coronation isn't the same as humans might expect from what they know of royalty in the media, but power is passed from the old monarch to the new one in a ritual that's just as significant.
Aivana, which translates into the human language as beautiful flower, refers to an ancient Aquarathi practice. Like Sanctum, it is a gift born to those of royal blood. In our world, when kings or queens die, they can bequeath their power, should they so choose, to a next of kin. Aivana is not only a transfer of Aquarathi energy from one ruler to the next; it's a transfer of trusta blessing of sorts from the old to the new.
In a parallel world, my father would be alive and standing at my side. I can picture his face, silvery blue and radiant with pride. Everyone would watch with bated breath as he touched his nose to mine and bent his forehead to rest directly upon my brow. We would both glow so brightly that the light would extinguish all colors save ours. Together, we would bestow Sanctuman ancient Aquarathi practice used by royals to strengthen our peopleto everyone in the room, reminding them of our strength and our love. Eventually his bioluminescence would fade, merging into mine and signaling the rise of a new ruler.
But my father isn't here, and there's no one to pass along a crown to make this any easier or to make the Aquarathi immediately accept me. I am alone. And I am already a queen. My coronation is but an afterthought. My people watch me in expectant silence, crowding into the great hall of Water-fell like silent luminescent candles flickering in a body of water. A shiver winds through me as I study their facesmy fledgling rule has already raised questions and a near-royal coup. I've had to earn their approval. I still have to. I wish I were back in La Jolla.
The thought is errant. And cowardly. I am Aquarathi, not human. And I belong here. I know that. But the truth is, I miss being humanplaying hockey and surfing, lunches in the quad, hanging out with my best friend, Jenna. Being human. But I'm not just a girl. I'm part of an alien marine species living on this planet, and my place is in the ocean, not landside.
I almost smile, remembering snippets of a conversation I had with Jenna during one of our sunny lunches in the Dover Prep courtyard, a couple weeks after I'd revealed what I was to her.
"So, do you live in a giant underwater castle? You know, like Ariel?"
I snorted soda through my nose at the Disney reference. "Um, no. There are no underwater castles in the ocean, Jenna, and I definitely don't sit on rocks grooming my hair in the sunlight waiting to be rescued by Prince Eric even though he is kind of dreamy."
Jenna grinned. "Well, now that you've gone and dashed all my childhood ideals, enlighten me."
"Disney version or Jeopardy version?"
"We live in underwater caves. We hunt, we sleep, we reproduce and we work. As a species, think of us as a cross between whales, dolphins and wolves. No castles, no tea parties, just the occasional sushi brunch. We're just like any other sea creature living in pods pretty boring really."
"Don't you have an economic or political structure?"
"An economy of what? Trading in plankton? Our political structure is divided into four courts, as you know, with one high court. Unlike most humans," I said with a grin, "we are a very simple species."
"I don't get it. I mean, you're so evolved. Intelligent."
"Why? Intelligence is measured in different ways, not necessarily according to human standards or human categories. For us, it's about self-awareness. We exist within the parameters of our world, within our social and cultural structures, living as one with the environment. We don't belong up here, involved in politics and MTV and wireless Internet. A killer whale doesn't just get up and say, 'I want to play some video games and maybe try using a fork,' and neither would any Aquarathi. It doesn't make us any less intelligent."
"Yes, but you can transform to be like us. Human."
"Not all of us. Most Aquarathi can only exist in human form if they're in close proximity to me. It's not our natural state."
She stared at me as if I were an imbecile missing the big picture. "Still, for argument's sake, think of what you could do if you didI mean you could be a part of the government instead of working policy change from the sidelines. You could make sure we don't do anything to jeopardize your species. You could play an active part. I mean, more than you already do in secret, and you wouldn't have to hide."
"If the humans knew about us, it would lead to worse things, Jenna."
She was so passionate, and what she said was partially true. We could make ourselves known. But what would stop us from seizing control and overpowering the humans if they didn't like our ways? It would be easy, with all of our abilities. After all, that was what Ehmora wanted. She wanted to control people so that this planet wouldn't face the same brutal end that Sana, our home planet, faced at the hands of the hominids there.
But that wasn't what my father wanted. And it's not what I want. There are always going to be those who think we are a stronger and smarter speciesthose like Ehmora who would view humans as less than. Those are the few who won't be happy coexisting. Eventually the humans would grow to fear us and we'd end up in the same place that Sana didin an interspecies war. No, it's better that we live in secret, affecting change from the sidelines, as we have done for millennia.
And now it's my turn to take the reins.
My eyes flick to the restless Ruby Court. Those Aquarathi have been the slowest to accept my rule over the past few weeks, especially after the death of their leader. But I beat Ehmora on the sands of battle, and their allegiance has been sworn, if not truly won. I'm still working on that. Some of them still support what Ehmora was fighting for, and they're the dangerous ones stirring seeds of malcontent.
I take a breath and close my eyes. On cue, the crown of bones on my brow pushes forward like a fan of finely webbed coral. I center myself, feeling my core connect with the heart of Waterfelland the beating hearts of all the Aquarathi within ituntil we are one and the same. I am a daughter of the old kings and a mother of the new. Every living creature in this room is tied to me. I exhale, and the whispered breath ripples across the hall from body to body, heart to heart. I open my eyesthe glow in the room is almost blinding, a tumultuous kaleidoscope like the northern lights in Earth's sky.
Echlios, my Handler and captain of my royal guard, moves forward to stand beside me, his body rigid. I can see the approval flashing in his bright silver eyes. He nods and arches his long neck, his dark red scales glittering, as he bares it to me in a gesture of submission. Golden-green lights shimmer down the length of my body, mirroring the deep ruby of his, and I click fiercely in my native tongue to my people, calling water-to-water and blood-to-blood.
My water is yours as yours is mine, I tell them, whispering the oaths I would have sworn to my father. Power ripples along my spine, making my golden colors flare so brightly that every finned head dips in deferent successiongold to green to blue, and finally to red in a wave of reluctant molten crimson.
I must rule by strength now. Not just by love.
Trust is a luxury, and the time for compassion in Water-fell has come and gone. Ehmora planted dark seeds of doubt and confusion. If I don't control my people, all of the humans will be at risk. And everything my father fought and died for will be for nothing. I can never let that happen, even more so now that I am bonded to a hybrida halfhuman, half-Aquarathi prince.
I arch my neck, my tail curling through the water and freeze as a violent wave of pain crashes into me like a rogue tsunami, destroying everything in its path. Lo's name reverberates like a hammer in my brain as if the sharp thought of him has summoned his consciousness to me in full force. My lights flutter and die. I can feel the startled pulses and the clicks of the courts, but I can't focus on them.
All I know is Lo's pain a deep, shattering, all-consuming pain, as if a thousand blades are carving my body at once. The navy swirls on my flanksLo's marksdeepen like ink, sinking into me with scorching pressure. Everything disappears and I feel only the pull of the bond and the one on the other side of the bond calling to me.
And in that moment, I know. The threat isn't here.
In seconds, Echlios is glued to my side, the rest of his guards surrounding us in a protective circle. "My lady, what is it?"
"Lo," I gasp. "Something's wrong. He's hurt."
"No," I insist, nearly doubling over. "The coronation"
I shake my head, feeling my ties to the Aquarathi start to fade. I swallow. "This is too important."
Echlios nods, but I can see the uncertainty flicker across his face. Because of the bond with Lo, I am vulnerable, and if Lo is hurt, I can be, too. Echlios's mate, Soren, joins us, her eyes flashing gold fire. As my Handler, she is so in tune with me that she has felt the fear I'm now trying desperately to conceal.
Her voice is gentle, as is the pale green tail fin circling me in a protective manner. "Breathe, Nerissa. Try deep calming breaths. It will help with the pain. Echlios will go. It is his duty to protect you. and the prince regent."
I do as she says, letting the salt water enter through my gills and breathing out the sharp, pulsing pain until it becomes a dull throb. Nodding weakly to Echlios, I watch as Soren dismisses the courts that have come to pay their respects to the new queen. I don't know what they're saying, but I have to imagine that seeing their new ruler in an incapacitated state on the first day of her coronation has to be cause for concern. Still, that anxiety pales in comparison to the urge I feel to take off in a sprint for the mainland in response to the pull of the bond.
"I need a minute," I pulse to Soren as another wave of dizziness overcomes me.
"Go. I'll convene the High Council," she says to me and then frowns, her eyes narrowing in concern. "Not too far, Nerissa."
I nod and make my way out of the throne room and into the tunnels beyond. There are two silent black forms behind meNova and Nelltwins and two of my royal guard that I'm aching to get rid of. They're young but fierceEchlios thought our closeness in age would make me less uncomfortable with having permanent shadows glued to my every move. I didn't mind, until now.
"Stay here," I click to the twins at the tunnel's exit. "I'm going to be right over there."
I swim away from Waterfell with a few short, powerful strokes, but stay within watching distance of the two guards. Their forms are indistinct, cloudy shapes, which means they can still see me and that's all that matters. I close my eyes and stay perfectly still, clearing my mind of everything but the feel of the water against my skin and the soft muted sounds of ocean life around me. I let the sea do what it does bestheal.
For a heartbeat, floating in a sea of space and nothing, it's easy to imagine that I live in a world where everything is different. That my parents are alive and together. That my father is here to watch my coronation with pride. That the one who has my heart isn't a million miles away and that he hasn't been hurt, or worse.
Lo the prince regent. My mate.
We are bonded for life, bound by an unbreakable tie. We belong to each other in a way that only lovers can know. My gaze falls on the bands of navy shimmering through my golden-green scalesthe marks of our bondingand green bioluminescent lights tingle along my sides in automatic response. Fighting another wave of panic, I try to push the thought of himand the thought of his blue-black eyes, so like the shadowy darkness of the ocean surrounding mefrom my mind, but it's like trying to separate my skin from my body. Every breath I inhale, he inhales with me. As if in response, the tug from before becomes more insistent, less painful now but still sharp. I can only hope that Echlios finds him safe.
Drifting deeper into the deep blue coldness, I don't resist as the current drags my body with insistent force. I'm not afraid. I can handle the ocean at its worst, control it even, but I let it take me, enjoying the feel of not having to be strong for just a moment. I don't care that I've lost sight of my two guards or that the dim lights of Waterfell have faded. There's nothing around me but pitch-black murky gloom. I'm the deadliest predator out here, so it's not like I have anything to fearespecially with Ehmora dead and her allies in hiding. Those Echlios hunted down either swore fealty to me or were executed.
Inexorably, my thoughts return to Lo, the son of the very one who tried to usurp my throne. Ehmora's son. Sure, he killed herfor mebut our relationship is still delicate at best, and even at the core, a lifelong genetic bond wouldn't be the only thing that would hold me to him. At first, being with Lo was an act of defiance and desperation on my part. I wanted to be close to someone, to forget for a while what I was and pretend to be a human girl. But that one moment cost me so much. I bonded myself to the son of my enemy.
"Planning to drift to China?"