I GRAB RIDEN BY the shoulder and pin his face against the nearest wall in the room.
“Riden, come out of it.”
He strains against me, swings an arm, pushes off the wall with his feet. “Damn it, Riden. Stop!”
He jerks his head backward, connects with my nose. Blood runs down into my mouth. I wipe it off my face with my arm.
All right, that does it.
I grab the nearest sturdy object within reach, a pretty glass jar from the island of Naula that holds my hairpins.
What a shame, I think as I bring it down on his head.
It shatters, and he goes limp. I rummage through my things until I find the wax I brought for the men. I shove some into Riden’s ears before hurrying outside.
Sorinda has Kearan flat on his back, her sword pommel ready to strike again if the first hit didn’t do the trick.
“Here,” I say, tossing her the wax.
Mandsy and Niridia have Enwen’s arms pinned behind his back as he squirms against the ground. I rush over to help them get his ears covered. Deros is already unconscious on the ground near them, and Niridia approaches him next with a ball of wax.
Then that leaves— “Papa! Come back here.”
I dash down the stairs, collide with Wallov in his rush to get above deck.
The two of us roll head over heels all the way down the steps.
I groan as I rub my head, but Wallov is already back on his feet, ignoring the pain as he tries for the stairs again.
Roslyn races ahead of me and launches herself at Wallov, wrapping her tiny arms around his legs. She gets her legs around him, too, and squeezes with all her might.
It sends him to the ground again, which gives me the time I need to reach them. I dig a knee into his back, force the wax into his ears.
“It’s okay, Roslyn,” I say. “You can let go now.”
She does and lets out a long breath. “That was close.” “You did great,” I tell her.
Wallov stands, rubs at his side, which he must have hit on our tumble down the stairs.
I point to my own ears. He reaches for his, feels the wax. Realization shows in his eyes. Roslyn puts an arm around him. He nods to me.
I leave the two of them, returning up top. “How are they doing?” I ask Niridia.
“Enwen’s back to himself. Riden, Kearan, and Deros are passed out cold. We tied them to the mast, lest they try to unplug their ears first thing upon waking. Sorinda is keeping an eye on them.”
“Good. The island isn’t even in view yet,” I say.
“I know. Perhaps the sirens are taking a swim away from its shores?” “Or their song reaches farther than we realized.”
Niridia’s eyes widen. “You really think so?” “No way to know.”
“It’s probably too much to hope that the king will be caught unawares like we were.”
I snort. “He’ll probably send a ship far ahead of his to test out the waters first.”
My father’s cruelty really knows no bounds.
“I want to know the second the island comes into view,” I say. “Aye.”
* * *
The singing comes and goes as we sail, but we dare not allow the men to uncover their ears. Not for an instant.
It’s a full week before the Isla de Canta comes into view. A full week without talking to our men. A full week without being able to talk to Riden. I observe the isle now through my telescope. Trees cover the place, making it impossible to see anything else. Another jungle like the island we
passed by in our search for water.
On a piece of parchment, I write, See if you can find somewhere out of sight to drop anchor.
Kearan reads it and nods.
Riden stands by my side on the aftercastle. He doesn’t speak; he couldn’t hear my response if he tried. But his presence is a comfort. The closer we approach the island, the louder the singing becomes.
The singing that interrupted me and Riden.
I suppose I could have pulled him back to bed with me when he came to. He certainly doesn’t need his ears for it, but I don’t want to take that step with him when he doesn’t have use of all of his senses. Not for the first time.
I go warm just thinking about it, and I quickly turn my thoughts back to the island ahead.
But that only heightens my anxiety.
Is my mother nearby? I equally dread and relish the idea of speaking to her again. I want to ask her—no, demand of her why she left me. I want to know what’s become of her. Is she still fragile and weak? Does she remember our meeting at the keep at all? Or is she now a senseless monster with nothing but a need to kill men?
No one dares to speak as we sail. Several of the girls lean over the ship’s edge, peering into the water, looking for sightings of sirens.
Despite the fact that they must know we’re here, they’re staying out of sight.
Kearan finds the perfect spot to drop anchor.
The beach curves, making a little nook blocked by trees and other greenery. It’s far enough from the main shore for comfort’s sake and gives us some shelter from anyone heading this way. It also blocks our view of the sea, but I’m not worried now. My trick with the rudder should have had the fleet stopped for hours. Maybe even a full day.
“Shall I give the order to go ashore?” Niridia asks.
“No. We’re not going ashore. Not yet, anyway.” Not when the last island we stopped at housed such horrors. “I want to take a look below the surface first.”
She raises a brow. “You’re going into the sea alone?”
“If this legendary treasure has been hoarded by sirens, it’s probably better accessed by the sea. Besides, we need to know what we’re up against. It’s better that I go alone. I’m less likely to be noticed.” Not to mention it’s impossible for anyone else to follow.
“Keep a sharp eye out,” I say. “One on the sea and one on the island.
Under no circumstances is anyone to go ashore.”
I lighten my load, removing my boots and corset. I don’t want to be weighed down, and I have no use for them where I’m going. I strap a knife to my ankle, but otherwise, I’m going unarmed. A sword and pistol have no use below water.
I grab Riden’s hand and pull him over to the ship’s edge with me. I jerk my neck toward the ocean, indicating what I want.
He shakes his head fiercely. He knows that this is what we’ve been practicing for, but he also knows there are sirens in the water right now.
I understand his hesitation, but I gesture around the ship. I need to do this to keep everyone safe.
His eyes are still hard, but he steps over the railing with me, giving in. Trusting me.
He wraps his arms around me, and the two of us jump. I hit the water; all that power rushes in, and—
I’m still me.
I can do anything right now.
I could sing forever. My limbs are strengthened. I can move faster underwater than I can on land. I was already the perfect killing device as a pirate.
It’s hard to remind myself I’m not invincible when I feel the opposite.
I search the ocean’s depths: no sirens in sight, though their singing has become even louder now that I’m underwater.
I swim with Riden up to the ocean’s surface. A rope is thrown down. He gives me a parting glance as he grabs it and mouths two words.
I watch him until he disappears back over the ship’s edge. I won’t be able to go on until I know he’s safe. Then I dive back down.
The water has never been more beautiful. So clear and clean, untouched by humans. The light filters through the water, spots dancing on the sandy bottom. A school of fish with bright blue and red stripes swims by. A turtle sets its fins on a large rock resting on the ocean’s bottom. A young shark barely bigger than my arm meanders around.
I swim farther out to sea, then follow the shoreline around the island, following the singing. More and more critters surface. Crabs skitter sideways across the sand. A jellyfish flows with the waves moving toward the shore. Shells, both broken and whole, turn over the sand as they’re pushed toward the island.
But no sirens, not yet.
At first I’m perplexed by the lack of sentries, of people on lookout.
Wouldn’t they wish to be alerted to any threats?
But then I realize, there is no threat to them when they’re under the water’s surface. Nothing can harm them. No man can survive under the water. What need have sirens to watch for approaching ships?
But my thoughts fall away as I focus on the singing.
Voices intertwine in melodies so complex, no mortal could write them down on paper. They pull me in as the tide does the water. Like calling to like. I have sung alone all my life. And always with a purpose. Singing was never something I did for enjoyment alone, especially when those around
me feared I was enchanting them. Not my crew, of course, but my father’s men.
I follow the sound, savoring every note. But there is a chord missing. A place in the melody that needs to be filled. Before I consciously make the decision, my voice is filling the gap, throwing out a line of notes that fit perfectly with the voices of the others.
My muscles hum at the synchronization. The music grows louder as I approach, rounding a coral reef.
And there they are. Hundreds of them, but I can hardly process it until my throat lets out the last note, holding it, letting it fill the space around me. Like a flame doused in water, the music cuts off. Heads turn in my direction, long, luscious hair swirling at the movement. Creamy brown.
Sun-darted yellow. Inky black.
And then, in the center, one rises above the rest with hair the color of flame.
At last, you’ve come home, Mother says.
* * *
Were I above the water, I might find it strange that they wear no clothing. But it makes perfect sense down here. The water does not chill us. There is no harsh weather or extreme temperatures to be shielded from. There is no one to hide their nakedness from.
The older sirens, my mother included, have shells strung through their hair like beads. My mother, I notice, has the most. The mature sirens don’t have lines near their eyes or any other indications of age, but there is something about them that marks them as older. Something that I can sense rather than see.
Siren children—I’d never even considered their existence before—stay near the ocean’s bottom. They skip through the sand, roll in it, reminding me of human children playing in mud puddles. One sees me and immediately swims for the siren I assume is her mother. They both have the same golden locks.
My mother is so different from when I beheld her on land. Where before she was sunken, weak, barely able to stand, now her muscles are toned, her
skin smooth and unblemished. She is a creature of power and beauty that is unlike the rest. Their queen.
When she sees my eyes return to hers, she says, There was always a piece missing. We are complete now that you’re here to fill it.
She swims past the others, using both arms and legs to propel herself toward me. When she’s there, right in front of me, she extends her arms out to me. What took you so long? I missed you terribly.
I want to be wary of her. Of all of them. Sirens are beasts. They’re mindless monsters that care for nothing and no one but themselves.
But I can’t.
Not after what I felt while singing. There was always a place for me here. My mother left an opening in the song just for me, hoping—no, desperate—for me to come and fill it.
I don’t understand, I tell her. You left me. You abandoned me after I freed you. Why?
Her brows lift in a perfect arch. I had to get back to my sisters. I am their queen. They needed me. You were told to follow. Why did you not listen?
Because I couldn’t. I become something else when I am in the water. I’m not myself. I’ve only recently found a way to control it.
There is a rippling in the water, as I feel those around us shifting uncomfortably.
My mother closes her eyes, taking in my words, thinking through them. Of course, she says. You are land-born. Your natures fight together for dominance. One stronger on land, one under the sea. But it would seem the human in you has won.
Almost imperceptibly, every siren in the water drifts back an inch. All save my mother.
Is that a bad thing? I ask.
Not to me, she says softly, so only I can hear.
And everyone else? I ask just as quietly.
It may take them longer to warm up. But never mind that for now. I want to show you something.
This time, instead of swimming ahead without me, she takes my hand. I had every intention of following, but I enjoy the contact. I know what it
means. This time, she is not giving me a chance to become separated from her.
We swim around the group of sirens, who start chatting among themselves.
What is that covering her skin? She smells like a human.
Why does the queen welcome her? She’s an outsider.
My mother halts, turns, and sings one booming note all in the same movement.
Enough! the song commands. Every mouth closes, as though forced shut with a hand at the top of their heads and under their chins.
With my hand still in hers, she pulls me closer to land.
Do the sirens have to obey your song? I ask.
Yes, but it’s not the same as when we sing to men. I am their queen. My voice moves the charm.
The entirety of our people together is called a charm. I say where we swim, what we do, and the charm follows. It is in our nature. It’s different from the magic that compels men.
Like a queen bee commanding her swarm.
It doesn’t work on me, though, I say, knowing this somehow. She can’t command me.
No. It is in you to become a queen. You are my daughter. You are meant to rule when my soul passes.
That halts me in place. Rule the sirens? My mind has always been set on ruling the sea. I have a crew to care for and command. I can’t take over the charm.
But I shake the thought from my head and continue to swim after her.
It’s not something that needs addressing now.
I know it’s a lot to take in. You’ll fit in and understand. Just wait until you see!
The ocean bed grows rocky as we approach a new side of the shore. A series of rocks opens into an underground cave. Mother swims through,
holding my hand the entire way. The path grows darker, but we can still see. Urchins and starfish cling to the rocks. Barnacles open as the current moves through the cave. But the current is no deterrent for Mother and me. We push right on through it.
Eventually, the cave widens into a cavern. It’s very deep, the bottom some fifty feet below. And resting atop it …
So much gold and silver.
In coins, jewelry, goblets, and dishes. Encasing precious stones and gems.
I could purchase the entire world five times over with the amount contained in here.
My mother swims down to it, picks up a handful of coins, lets them slide through her fingers.
It’s been in the family for generations, Mother says, but we’ve all added to it. She finds a silver ring with a diamond in the center. She strokes her finger across it. I took this off a sailor who fell overboard during a storm. The sea swallowed his cries as I pried it from his pocket. I think he was saving it for a sweetheart back home.
And this, she continues, pulling up a gold plate and fork, fell off a vessel near your Seventeen Isles. As soon as we knew there was treasure aboard, we sang to the rest of the men, demanding they throw everything valuable overboard. When they were done, we had them toss themselves in afterward. So we could enjoy them.
I keep my face carefully neutral, but she asks, Does that trouble you?
What she’s revealed is disturbing. It’s wrong by my code of ethics. By my human nature. But I can also see it from the point of the siren in me. It’s natural. The way of sirens. Would one blame a tiger for hunting a human as its prey?
I have killed many men, I say.
But do you enjoy them first?
No, I only enjoy the men I like. Not the ones I intend to kill.
She turns back toward the treasure. He took you from me. Someday, I will add his gold to this pile, and I will think with pleasure on how he died.
I hope that time comes soon, I say. I hate that he kept us apart. But I like being who I am. My human side may disgust you, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
But just look at you, she says. Her hand goes to my sleeve, pulls it up to reveal all the scars there. You must be covered in these. He did this to you, didn’t he?
It was part of my training.
She lets out a sound so inhuman, I don’t even have the words to describe it. You were meant to be with me, not to suffer! You were meant to swim with the charm, add memories to this pile of gold. To hunt for colorful shells, dance in the currents. To observe the sea life, to sing with your family, to explore every hidden crevice the ocean possesses. Our existence is a full and happy one. You were not meant to be beaten!
She composes herself, pulls me toward her in another embrace. My dear girl, he will not harm you again. Stay with me, and I will protect you.
As much as I want to believe her, to let her, even, I know I cannot. I cannot. I have those I must protect.
Your crew. Yes.
A pause. You’re not here for me at all. You’re here for the treasure.
I want to say no, but I don’t think she would believe me. I thought you abandoned me. I thought you used me so I would free you, faked your concern for me. After I freed you, the pirate king came after me. He’s hunting me. He can’t be too far behind my ship. I thought if I could get my hands on the treasure, I could bribe his men away from him, set myself up as the pirate queen. I came here to survive. Not because I wanted to steal from you. Although, when I thought you used me, stealing from you didn’t seem like such a bad thing.
Her face softens at my words. I do not have concern for you. I love you, Alosa-lina. The way she sings the last part of my name, it fills the room with truth, with power. It’s impossible for me to doubt. Mere concern is nothing compared to what I feel for my own flesh and blood. You are mine. Mine to protect and care for. I already know you are fierce and powerful, and I cannot wait to get to know you better.
My limbs tremble as she holds me, knowing every word she speaks is true.
But first, she says, you must make yourself and your friends safe. Take as much gold as you need from here. Go set up your regime. I will wait for you.
My relief sags through me. Thank you.
The charm will not harm you nor your crew. Even the men? I ask.
Even them. Now go. Bring your ship to this position. The charm will help you carry the gold that isn’t claimed by living sirens.
It’s almost too good to be true, but I cannot doubt her words. Not the way she speaks them.
To go from such hate and disgust toward my mother, to suddenly being filled with love and understanding. It nearly undoes me. I cannot believe all that has happened.
Yet there is still so much to do.
I will come back after I and my crew are safe. I promise, I tell her.
Good. Now go. The sooner you leave, the sooner you can return.
* * *
I wish there were more time. My mother is no mindless beast. She is a siren, true to her nature, but that does not make her a monster. She is deadly and ruthless, but so am I. A new future opens up before me. One in which I know my mother. I visit her. We are different, and I can never abandon my human nature, but there is something for us. Where before there was nothing, now there is hope.
And my fury toward my father burns only brighter for his keeping her from me. But beneath that fury, there is still fear. He’s right behind us, could come upon us at any moment. My ship has kept a lead, but he has those sweep oars. For all I know he’s worked his men half to death to catch up.
I swim back for my ship. For the Ava-lee. I suppose there is no need to rename her after all.
Niridia’s left a rope for me. It hangs down into the water. I grab it and effortlessly hoist myself onto the ship, taking in the water as I go.
When I reach the deck, I find it empty.
My heart plummets. I told them not to go ashore. Made that perfectly clear. And I told them to keep watch. The ship is never unattended. Something is very wrong.
The railing is chipped and broken in places on the port side. Grappling hooks? I search the water on that side, opposite from the way I came. Wood scraps float on the water’s surface. Blown-apart rowboats? Did something come aboard from the island and run off with my entire crew? I didn’t even think to ask my mother what lived on this island in all the emotions of seeing her again.
I don’t have any weapons except my dagger. I go to my rooms first. He’s waiting for me there.
The voice is deep and curt, swift and piercing all at once. It is the voice of pain, the voice of violence, the voice of terror.
My father’s voice.