art: Mermaid by Olivier Ponsonnet
“Stop! Stop! Please!“
Few things were more liberating to Tia than the sight of a Royal screaming in pain. The assassin waited for a few, fleeting moments to watch the flailing mermaid beneath her struggling against her grip, clawing desperately at Tia’s hand as it tightened around her victim’s neck. Long, flowing, full locks of red hair jerked this way and that, before innocent blue eyes looked at her for one last time — and rolled back into their sockets.
It was done. Tia had just murdered the Princess of the Eastern Sea, and the pay from the Princess’ vengeful younger sister would cover every need that Tia’s own sisters could possibly have. For a time, at least; the hunt never truly ended.
Clean-up wasn’t exceptionally hard. She had cornered the Princess during an evening swim, attacked, and finished the job in less than two minutes without any bloodshed. It wasn’t a personal record, but Tia preferred to do things quickly and efficiently. She pulled a short blade from a harness tied at her waist, which was secured to the larger spear harness on her back, then proceeded to hack away at the Princess’ hair. It wasn’t a client request, but rather a ritual for Tia’s clan, to take every inch of hair that the victim had. Even in death, their victims would feel the pain of the Sea Witches.
It had been over a century since they had banded together to form the most elite group of bounty hunters that had ever occupied the sea. They were powerful, feared, and highly sought after when revenge or any other form of royal distaste warranted a murder. It was almost ironic that the ancestors of those royals were the very reason that the Sea Witches existed; in an archaic ritual of abandonment, mermaids who were born without hair — their freakishness determined by poreless, smooth scalps and eyes as black as midnight from corner to corner — were exiled almost immediately. But even beyond the pitch black, inhuman eyes, hair was a sign of status in her kingdom; of normality. A mermaid with long, beautiful hair was highly revered, given positions of power, and treated as a goddess among her people. From birth, girls throughout the sea kingdoms were taught how to manage their social presence and lithe bodies, but most importantly, their gorgeous hair.
She looked down at her victim as she wrapped the former Princess’ corpse up for delivery, her lips tightening into a frown. “Good riddance, royal scum,” she muttered, her eyes drifting up to the loose, crimson locks of hair that floated above them.
Tia was deemed deformed from the moment she entered the world. Elders had warned her hopeful parents that she’d never grow hair, and ordered her to be exiled immediately. Her parents held a high position of political power, and before she was a toddler, these same parents had decided it was best to leave their first-born daughter alone, crying within the dark depths of the sea, hundreds of miles away from her birthplace. Her mother — with silky, stark black hair, and emerald eyes that Tia could still remember as they watched her float alone in the dark — would try again to produce a normal, beautiful child of the sea.
That didn’t matter to Tia, now. The Sea Witches had found her, taken her in, and shown her that she was not alone. While many of them were born like her, there were several that had simply decided to get rid of their hair; some did so as an act of solidarity, but others — many of the older women — were mothers to monsters like her, and fled with their infants before an exile could be placed.
Her own mother, plagued with a firstborn monster, would suffer the consequences of Tia’s birth. Producing a hairless girl meant punishment: a shameful, one-woman parade through the city, to show her regret for the crime she had committed. She had carried a monster inside of her for so long, and that monster would cost every ounce of her dignity. Her mother would likely endure the King stripping away all of her titles, reducing her to little more than an infant production factory until she birthed a real child.
Tia, like all Sea Witches, had abandoned her birth name and chosen one modeled after a warrior goddess of sea lore. Tiadumeaux, The Harpy of the Southern Isles, was known best for her fabled revenge on an entire island when a rival lover murdered her human husband. Tiadumeaux exiled herself shortly after for her crimes, traveling the sea alone and searching for injustices against all merfolk. She destroyed entire colonies, brought down undersea castles in shows of electric magic, and avenged all who were wronged by those in power. Tiadumeaux was a protector, hell-bent on bringing justice to those who would wrong her people. Tia was obsessed with her legend, and promised to serve the Sea Witches as Tiadumeaux had served the sea. Tia did not think of herself as the heavy hand of justice, but if she could deliver it to those who might otherwise hunt her sisters, then she knew she was doing something right.
Hauling the body over her shoulder, Tia began the long swim back to her client, slinking through the darker depths of the sea in order to remain hidden.
“Tia!” The chime of a familiar youngling’s voice filled the waters around her as Tia approached her sisters’ camp site. Prisma had only been with them for a year or so, but the child’s enthusiasm and sweet demeanor could already break Tia away from her often troubling, rigid thoughts.
“Prisma,” she said warmly, opening her arms — for once, not battered and bruised, thanks to the easy kill — only to lose her balance as the eager young girl darted right in to them. Prisma’s tail was still short and stubby, far too short to charge into battle, but there was something about Prisma that made Tia worry for her future. Despite the open abandonment from her parents and people, Prisma’s wide eyes continued to glow with resilience (like big, black jewels, Tia thought), unsullied by past loss or betrayal. Tia, Prisma, and the Sea Witches were family now; that’s all Prisma needed.
“Are you okay? Where did you get to go this time? Did you bring anything back?” Prisma raised her eyes to meet Tia’s, grinning widely. Instead of focusing on Tia’s kill, Prisma was always eager to learn more about the sea. Tia hid her concern; the Sea Witches were warriors, but Prisma seemed to have no interest in the thrill of the hunt. “Of course I did. Here,” Tia reached in to her belt, pulling out a beautiful necklace adorned with gems that couldn’t be found anywhere near their current region. It had been the Princess’, and Tia had claimed it without her younger sister noticing. Now, it was Prisma’s, and Prisma was thrilled.
“Oh my goodness, how beautiful! Do I look like a princess, Tia?”
Tia watched as Prisma spun as gracefully as her little fin could move her, Tia’s rigid form slowly beginning to relax. Tia smiled. “No,” she told Prisma, “You look like a Queen.”
“But you are far greater than a simple Queen could ever hope to be, Prisma.” The familiar, low hum of the Elder Batilda’s voice filled the space around them, and Tia turned to look back as the centuries-old wisewitch approached them. “We do not aspire to be royalty here, you know. That is far beneath us,” Batilda said offering a smile, “but you do look beautiful, young one. Now, go — I must speak with your sister.”
Prisma looked down at her necklace, giving Tia a lopsided smile. Then, she bowed out and darted off to the common square, where their sisters were crafting new weapons. If anything, Prisma had an eye for beauty, and could appreciate the intricate carvings in their weapons. These carvings weren’t for show – they were war stories, a history of the defeat and bloodshed that led the Sea Witches to becoming the feared group of assassins that they were. There was still time for Prisma to find her calling in their clan, but for now, the youngling’s unbeatable spirit contributed to their own resilience.
At the moment, Batilda resided deep within a sea cave nearby, with razor-sharp diamonds and rock formations giving the long, narrow entranceway a great deal of protection from ambush. They moved every few weeks, traveling to different quarters of the sea to hunt down bounties, and the Elders took precedence when it came to sleeping quarters. For the most part, Tia and her sisters would sleep under the moonlight’s reflection, taking on shifts as lookout.
Tia settled on a large rock, watching closely as the Elder stood, pensive, over a radiant light that seemed to sprout from the earth’s core, directly through a group of diamonds. This light, which seemed to sprout up every time the Elders settled in to their new quarters, told them of what the Fates had in store for the clan. Tia had never seen the Fates, but she had seen their actions, heard their tales, and quietly agreed to follow that direction. Her initial skepticism as a child had waned over the years, but Tia had never experienced any personal miracles. For the most part, she assumed this was the Elders’ way of adding magic to their usually dark situation – the hope that came from the prediction of the Fates kept their clan going, optimistically, no matter the setbacks or the outcome.
“Batilda, you seem troubled.”
“I am,” said the old woman. Her back was turned to Tia, yet Tia could practically feel the deep lines on Batilda’s face, forming in to a deep grimace. “We’ve been assigned a new kill, but one that the Fates aren’t certain of. I am not sure that we can take this — but we must. You must.”
Tia paused. “I must?” She couldn’t hide her grin. Had the Fates seen her line of successful kills? More importantly, were her Elders finally interested in letting her advance as an assassin by training, personally, with one of them?
She wasn’t lost in her own pride for very long. The ear-shattering sound of the diamonds exploding around the light, into small, floating shards, snapped her into an upright position. The diamonds circled around the beam of light, then began to form into the visage of a man. “Who is that?” she asked.
“King Archaeus, ruler of our seas. He is the latest in a long line of our oppressors, and has turned on his own people. His ancestors began our exile so long ago… now, he hunts down our sisters at birth.”
“In their homes?! But the parents –”
“Are not even given time to see their child. What’s more, the King is no longer exiling our sisters — he is killing them. Our blood, our children, our girls. We have been hired to assassinate this blood-hungry King by another who seeks to change everything with his crown.”
“Everything,” Tia echoed, her heart pounding as horrific images of infants just like her danced in the light before her eyes. Children ripped from their parents’ arms, maimed as their heads and tails were cut from their torsos. Her fists shook with anger, and she stood, fire in the form of a sea harpy. “I will kill him with my own hands. I will cut his head off in chunks, and I will serve his tail to our people when I return.”
“Peace, child. Your anger will be your undoing.” The Elder held her hand up, and as quickly as the diamonds had dispersed, they returned back into their solid formation. No cracks, no sign of tampering. Tia had never understood her Elder’s ways with magic, but she had also decided not to question it from early on. “You are fated to take his life. The Fates have foretold your rise for some time now, Tia. You will avenge us. You, alone.”
“Wait — what? Batilda, you can’t just tell me these things. How have you known this for so long and denied me the–”
“The right to kill him, child? You have no right to kill any creature. But you do have a responsibility, and your test will come soon. You must be ready.”
“I am ready.”
“We shall see. Rest, then. I will come to you in the morning.”
Prisma was fast asleep by the time Tia had emerged. Unfortunately, Tia did not find sleep so easily; Archaeus’ new, relentless slaughter of young mermaids plagued her mind, bringing up old memories of her abandonment – flashes of her parents looking at her as though she was already a corpse, her mother’s cries of despair ringing in her head. If only her mother had come with her…
Tia’s gills shifted sharply, as she looked upwards at the wavy, weary image of the moon through the sea’s lens. “I’ll take the next shift,” she called to another Sea Witch, years younger than her and still without armor. They often stole their armor from kills or palace guards, fashioning them with spikes and covering them in black ink. Sea Witches were stealth embodied, their armor pulled and chopped to a custom fit for each warrior, but this teenager wore the bulky armor of a peer. Her sister nodded, and when the time came, Tia left the sleeping Prisma to prowl their campsite.
King Archaeus. Tia had never seen him before, but she had heard of his cruelty, many branding him as more of a warlord than a true ruler. She had heard the stories of his servants’ many deaths within the palace walls, and even more tell of his anger toward his people for reasons that simply did not make sense. His images, his perfect images, were only met by a few, and the people he ruled over were little more than bodies to shove in the way if an invader or usurper came for him. Archaeus’ army was made of thousands, throwaway soldiers from all walks of life, of all species, and of all demeanors. It seemed as though the King’s shield was entirely composed of corpses. Tia wondered what his might look like when she was done with him.
She turned to the darkness of the ocean beyond, eyes narrowed. Hours away and miles ahead was her fate. Sleep may have been the wise decision, but it would not find her that night, and dawn was not coming soon.