He was one of the older ones, old enough that he should have known better.
Meisa watched Urae carefully pull herself up out of the water, slowly, slowly, so as not to startle him. He bumbled forward, curious, blinking at her with spell-clouded eyes. The water washed around his ankles and he didn’t even notice. Urae held the spell tight around her, golden curls spilling over her pale shoulders, her round breasts. She sat on the rocks, keeping her true half hidden down in the water still. She flashed Meisa a quick glance, flicking her chin away to the far side of the bay.
Meisa slipped down into the water and darted through swirling seaweed and surging tide. The sea distorted her sister’s song, twisting the notes into tuneless keening, a nightmare of what could only be the sweetest dream to the unwitting landmeat above. Meisa breached on the far side of the bay, tucked back against the black rocks, and watched.
Urae sang without words, the seasong pouring from her elongated throat. She spread her arms toward the landmeat sloshing toward her in the tide, tripping and stumbling against the sharp rocks below him, scattered with mussels and weeds.
He had no idea. No idea.
Meisa felt a twinge of uncertainty.
Her sister reared forward like a striking eel, grabbing the human around the waist. He fell backward into the water with a cry and a splash, and then all was stillness.
Meisa waited a moment, squeamish about what came next, and then sank without a ripple, swimming to her sister.
The landmeat was dead before they passed the tideline.
By the Current, he was delicious. All Meisa’s scruples couldn’t deny that, and she couldn’t deny the hunger in her belly for it as the smell of blood swirled through the water. Sharks churned the water around them, but there weren’t enough of them that they would dare disturb a pair of scaleshifts at their meal. Urae gnawed an arm contentedly, her sharp teeth shearing flesh off to the bone. Meisa nibbled at a leg, at the piece of the landmeat least like herself, and the sisters fed in silence.
Finally, Urae swallowed and started deeper into the water, away from the warmth and light of the surface. “Come,” she ordered. “Mother will be waiting.”
Meisa grabbed the landmeat’s other arm and helped haul him home. He was light in the water, pulling just slightly to the surface, yearning for the air even in death. His dark hair rippled behind like gillfronds, and Meisa couldn’t help but reach up and touch its smooth softness. Her fingers brushed slowly through it, and it curled around her fingers like an embrace.
“Meisa!” Urae snapped. “Stop playing with it.”
She flinched her hand back to her side, her almost-human features dropping into a scowl.
Urae sighed. “Oh, stop it. And you can let go of the spell now. The landmeat won’t care.”
Meisa glanced over at her sister. She’d dropped both her charms the moment she struck out at the human. Her pink skin was now white, nearly blue, and patterned with long lines of dark freckles the entire length of her torso, tail, and arms. Her long golden curls were again gillfronds spread like a halo around her face. Her chest was flat over her ribs, her fingers long and webbed. The landmeat wouldn’t recognize her if he saw her.
But Meisa held stubbornly to her spell, coal black hair flowing behind her, a little limpet of a nose, red human lips. Swimming was harder like this, and breathing, and it irritated her mother and her aunts to no end, but she liked it. She liked that it frustrated them, she liked that she bore the face of their food. She couldn’t tell them why even if she wanted to, which she never ever would.
Urae was only two seasons older than Meisa and so, although she sighed and her skin flushed green in annoyance, she didn’t make any demands. She remembered what it was like to be trapped somewhere between between fingerling and fish. Adulthood was terrifying and tantalizing, every bit as foreign as the drylands above the tide, and nearly as interesting. And so Meisa could be a little more rebellious with her sister than with their mother. The memories were still fresh for Urae.
They swept out beyond the gravel and human litter of the shoreline, and the seafloor spread wide and smooth beneath them, an open plain that stretched as far as they could see. Outcroppings pocked the landscape, marking their way home. The old shipwreck, and the new one. The reef, sweeping like a mountain range to their south. Jutting black cliffs and dozing volcanoes to the east, just before the sea plunged away into the Deep. They kept this ridge to their right, following the familiar trail to their home, hollowed over generations from the seafloor. Several familiar males stopped in their hunts and their patrols to stare at their passing.
Folding her gillfronds down against her back, Urae squirmed down into the narrow door first, and with Meisa pushing from above, they managed to squeeze and twist the broad shoulders and long legs of the landmeat down into the tunnel. In the dark below, Urae’s freckles glowed with pale bioluminescence, lighting her way, but Meisa still held stubbornly to the spell.
Sometimes she wished she knew why.
They wrestled the human down into the main corridor, where it widened enough for them to swim side by side, dragging the human behind them.
Members of other pods poked their heads out of their families’ apartments as the smell drifted all through the warren. The chambers spread for miles into the rock, the colony spreading wider and wider as each generation of daughters brought in their own mates and started families. Meisa glared around at her aunts and cousins, their curious faces pulsing white and green in the dark, and hauled the corpse back into their family’s narrow hall. Someone made a grab for a foot and she whirled, hissing. They backed off and let the sisters pass into their own apartment.
When it was time for Meisa to gather her own harem, she was starting a fresh warren. She was sick of this crowded crab’s den.
Their sisters swarmed out of the alcoves, squealing with joy at the prize Urae and Meisa dragged between them. “Such a big one! Was it alone? Did it fight?”
“Mother!” Urae called, her voice lifting with pride. “Look what the tide washed in!”
Their mother swam out of her chamber, a school of their youngest siblings darting playfully through her gillfronds. She stared at the human for a moment, and then her skin flushed blue with pride. “Well done, my daughters.” She looked up at them. “Well done.” She paused, taking in Meisa’s human-like appearance, but she let it go with a strained smile. She looked around at her children. Fourteen daughters, and five sons who hadn’t left the warren yet, the product of six seasons. She smiled at their anticipation, at their eager attention, and then laughed. “Go on, then. But thank your sisters. And save a piece for the males!”
The siblings all lunged forward, and Urae let the landmeat be swept out of her hands with a laugh. Meisa gave him a small shove and backed against the wall, distancing herself. She let the chorus of thanks and squabbling wash around her and tucked herself away. She startled as Urae sighed close to her ear.
“Meisa, what’s the matter? You’ve been moping since the hunt started.”
Her older sister watched the human coming apart, watched their smallest siblings dart and dive between the older children for a taste. Landmeat was a rare treat, and so much of it was a gift from the Current. Meisa knew that. So why did it bother her so much?
“You know you can talk to me, right?” Urae asked in a low voice.
“Alright,” she said, pushing off from the wall. “As long as you know that.” She glanced back at Meisa, her round eyes warm, her freckles and skin pulsing pink with worry. “And Meisa? You’re too pretty to charm your face away more than you have to.” She flickered a loving blue, and then turned to the disintegrating corpse. She grabbed a hanging hand and darted for the door, no doubt going to share with one of the males she had started courting outside the warren.
Meisa watched her go, longing for that kind of confidence, that acceptance of self.
And then a moment later, her mother was at her side. She smiled down at her daughter, the look not quite friendly, taking in her human-like features. “Meisa. Thank you for hunting with Urae.” Meisa shrugged and her mother glanced over at the growing pile of bones on their floor. “I know you’re still learning, but I appreciate your trying.” She looked back to Meisa again, reaching up to brush a finger along one of the little ones darting over her shoulder and into her gillfronds again. “Did Urae teach the summoning spell?”
“And did you use it?”
Meisa bit her lip. She had. Sort of. But she had stopped the moment a human had actually appeared. It had proofed far more effective than she had hoped it would. Urae had had to take over before they lost him, and she had done everything from that moment forward.
Her mother seemed to understand what she wasn’t saying. “Urae will be mating soon,” she sighed, welcoming another pair of little fry with their tiny arms and large golden eyes. “And then she’ll have her own school to worry about. After she and Ayla are gone-”
“I’m the oldest,” she snapped. “I know, mother.”
“I know you know. You also know I can’t leave the babies, and I certainly can’t take them from the warren. All I’m asking-”
“I know,” she said again, backing toward the door. “Is that everything?”
Her mother sighed, sinking back against the wall. “Oh, Meisa…”
That was everything. Meisa turned and squeezed back out into the main corridor.
She had to get out of there. She had to think. She had to be alone.
It was late by the time Meisa returned, holding a token perch to explain her long absence. From sheer exhaustion, she had finally let the spell that changed her appearance dissipate, and the freckled lines and whorls over her body lit her way through the drowsing warren. Faint light and movement lit the walls opposite of apartment doorways, the occasional whisper of conversation.
Meisa knew she was being unfair. She knew she was being childish. She didn’t like it, but it was hard to stop sometimes.
She paused outside the doorway to her family’s branch of the warren.
Her mother and Ayla were talking.
Meisa scowled. Ayla wasn’t like Urae. She hated Meisa, and sometimes Meisa hated her back.
“It isn’t fair,” Ayla whined, and even though Meisa had just been admitting the same to herself, she bristled on the outside of the door. “She gets to flit around all day, doing the Current knows what, while Urae and I do all the hunting.”
“She helped Urae bring in that landmeat today.”
Ayla scoffed. “She watched Urae bring in that landmeat today. Meisa certainly doesn’t mind eating the things, but she won’t flick a fin to catch one. She’s a hypocrite.”
“She’s a hypocrite,” Ayla said again, a pout in her voice.
“She’s just trying to understand how she fits in this world. You struggled to find your place too, Ayla.”
“And I was two seasons younger than her when I did. Once Urae leaves, I’m going to have to do everything by myself, and how am I supposed to get a new apartment ready for mates? I’ll be stuck here forever!”
“You will not. If you-”
“And how am I supposed to find decent mates anyway when she flits around looking like that all the time? It’s embarrassing!”
Her mother didn’t have any retort for that. Meisa gripped the perch tighter, clutching it against her ribs.
Meisa turned and went a small way back up the corridor, letting her luminescence shine brighter, humming quietly. She didn’t pause outside the door, but swept through with a smile.
Her mother and sister flinched apart, Ayla scowling, her mother smiling. “Meisa! We were worried.”
“Sorry. The hunting wasn’t very good tonight.” She handed the perch over to her mother and affectionately brushed a hand through the gillfronds just behind her ear.
Her golden eyes crinkled into a soft smile. “What a sweet girl you are.” She cast a quick look toward Ayla.
Meisa turned to her older sister with a cold smile, struggling to keep her skin blue instead of green. “Hi, Ayla. Did you get any of the landmeat?”
She barked on a short laugh, a whisper of green flashing across her chest. “Neli saved me a piece.”
“Good. It was a pain to get into the warren. And some of the cousins nearly attacked us to get some.”
Meisa stretched, flexing her spine, and slipped into the shallow alcove she had claimed for herself when Lila left the apartment. “Well, goodnight.”
Her mother smiled. “Goodnight, Meisa.”
Meisa curled up against the sloped wall, her back to the foyer. Awkward silence filled the room behind her and she smiled into her folded arms. She could practically smell Ayla’s desire to keep complaining about her, to keep railing on all her deficiencies. But she knew her mother wouldn’t allow it with her right there.
The water shifted with sudden movement and, when Ayla glanced over her shoulder into the foyer, her mother was floating there alone, looking through the doorway into the corridor.
She looked tired. Worried. Her freckles pulsed a sad pink.
Meisa felt a little less smug.