My grip on the trident loosens millimeters before the black ink touches my skin. I watch as the legendary gift falls from my hand to the seabed beneath me. Letting go of the trident is something I have not done in a long time. It is one of the most powerful weapons one could wield, and as much as I dislike responsibility, I know better than to let it fall into the wrong hands. Lucky for me, the infection retreats and slowly recedes under the edges of the trench. The only thing that remains is the skeleton of its latest prey.
I can only stare. What is this blank ink, and how will I handle this?
Lachlan clears his throat, bringing me back to reality. I pick up my trident before making the swim back home. The water trail in my wake is nothing but a blur of bubbles until I’m back in Atlantis. Arriving in the underwater city, merfolk and fish quickly move out of the way as I pass, their stares burning into the back of my head.
Why are they looking at me that way? Almost desperate. What am I missing?
It was never like this before. Normally, the beauty of my golden palace under the sea is lost on me, but something’s different. As if the loss of power over my own domain is making me see things I missed before.
My feet catch up to me, and I step onto the stone walkway. I have always preferred walking rather than swimming on castle grounds. Something about swimming through one’s home almost made it seem like work.
Surprisingly, Lachlan’s on my heels, following me through one of the secret passageways. There are a few of these halls in the castle, all with different purposes. This one is only known by myself and a few of my advisors. It leads to my private study, where scrolls and artifacts are kept. Small minnows swim past my head as I arrive at my destination. Lachlan watches silently as I use the trident to open the first door. The golden lock spins clockwise before it clicks open. We enter, the door closing behind us and locking us in. The water slowly drains from the small room, and I cough, clearing my lungs. Lachlan’s tail glows, reappearing as human legs. Lucky for me, he is wearing pants.
The second door in front of me clicks open, and I enter the study, taking in the familiar surroundings. I lift the trident, and a spark emits from the tips, striking the ceiling. The darkened windows turn clear, allowing the light from the bioluminescent sun to shine into the study. Multiple bookshelves line the room, holding thousands of scrolls. All of them contain information about the ocean and its history. If there is anything about this black ink, it will be here.
I wait for the door to close behind Lachlan before saying gruffly, “Explain.”
Lachlan blanches as I move around the study, looking at the scrolls. The ink is prodding at something in the back of my mind. A long-forgotten memory is trying to breach through my tumultuous thoughts, trying to tell me what I’m seeing.
“I…can’t. It’s almost as if the trench is infected,” Lachlan reports, his hands locking behind his back.
Lachlan is a bluefin. The bluefins are among the higher castes in the kingdom, most of them serving as generals and advisors. They can summon legs if they wish, but Lachlan clearly prefers his tail. Just like the arrogant prick he is. I’m the opposite. Something about a tail still feels strange to me. I wasn’t born a Mer. I was given the trident and took the seas when my brothers and I drew lots. I don’t have the connection that Mer’s do to their tails. I’m always looking in from the outside, even within my home
Grabbing one of the scrolls off the shelf, I unfurl it. My mind spins as I try to remember where I read or heard something about this before. “When did it start?”
I can feel his eyes on me, like two lasers, and under his gaze, I want to scream, I know I’m not who you want! I’m a terrible king who shirks his duty! I should have stayed lost! But I can’t scream. So I pretend to have this shit under control. I can pretend to be a king. I have been faking it ever since I was assigned this position.
“We can’t say for certain, we can’t even say how deep the infection goes, the depths of the trench are unexplored even by Meres. It only came to our attention because it broke the surface of the trench, we think—”
The mer breaks off suddenly, causing my gaze to snap up and lock on him. Not that I was really reading what was in front of me. “You think?”
He watches me silently for a moment, and his eyes harden with accusation. “We think it sensed that Atlantis was without a ruler. We think it sensed weakness.”
That you are weak. He doesn’t have to say it out loud, but we both know what he means. Still…
“There was a queen here.”
That used to be enough for him, for all of them. She took over the actual responsibility while I got all the glory and lost myself. An hour back as king and I’m already losing the fragile hold I have on my control, I’m buckling under the stress.
I can taste it on my tongue.
No! Not again. It does not control you. Remember, you can only control yourself. Focus on what you can control, not on what you cannot.
Lachlan’s oblivious to my inner turmoil. “She left two thousand years ago, and you never showed. Atlantis must always have a ruler.”
It always had a queen, and you’re lacking. I can feel the sweet burn in the back of my throat. The only thing I can control is myself.
Turning away from Lachlan, I mentally castigate myself. I should never have replaced my former advisor, Kai, one of my closest friends and my one remaining link to the mortal world, with this prick.
“Have you looked through them all?” I murmur, pulling another scroll from the shelf.
I smirk to myself as I spin the scroll in my hand. I know the answer already, but I can’t resist making him say it.
“No, unlike you, Mer are not born with the knowledge of all languages. It takes a while to translate.”
Bet that stung, huh? From the way he stiffens, I know I hit a sore spot. Though karma is a cruel mistress—even if her goddess is quite stunning—and looking over the thousands of scrolls here, I suddenly wish Mere could read all languages like gods could.
“Fuck.” I exhale, pulling another scroll.
“What we have translated,” I get it, I’m an asshole, “provides no insight into what’s going on in the trench.”
“Maybe you should consider some language courses. Do they have Rosetta Stone for Ancient Babylonian?”
I really need to learn to keep my thoughts to myself. Lachlan chuckles to himself, shaking his head. “I suppose, if I were king, I would already know what was going on with the trench…oh wait.”
My hands tighten on the fragile scroll so tightly for a moment that I almost tear it. My palms are itching for something else to hold, something familiar, achingly so.
“Prick,” I snap at him.
“You would know,” he bounces back.
Shifting my feet slightly, I wish I could say the grudging feeling of respect was blossoming in my chest, that it was the source of warmth in me. But it’s not. It’s all in my head. I need to be alone. I need to return to myself, have an hour to be completely still. Maybe then I can figure this out, and the desire to succumb will stop.
Looking at Lachlan briefly, I feign nonchalance, imitating my brother’s wave of dismissal flawlessly. “Why don’t you go fix your hair or something? While I figure out what’s going on in my trench.”
Pulling another scroll from the wall blindly, I don’t look back as I hear him leave.
The second the door shuts behind him, my back hits the wall. My breath comes in and out of my mouth in short, sharp exhales. The ground shakes as my grip on my abilities loosens. I feel the tremors through my bare feet as the earth responds to my loss of control. Scrolls cascade from the shelves.
Earthshaker. Never got control. Lacking in every way. Subpar. Murderer.
Every step I take, I feel the subtle vibrations in the planet, to its very core. Once I thought myself Gaia’s favorite, now I know the opposite to be true. It’s a curse.
Calm, don’t panic. Mantra.
My breathing is heavy, the sound loud in the silence of the room as I try to calm myself. The light mocks me, calling me upwards, back to the surface.
The image of the unnatural darkness in the trench brings me back to my task and why I am here.
This time when my mouth opens, it’s a deep inhale of air filling my lungs and exhaling again.
The only thing I can control is myself.
The only thing I can control is myself.
The only thing I can control is myself.
Relaxing against the wall, I pull my knees up to my chest. I knock something loose behind me, sending another wave of scrolls falling, several hitting me. This is really what it’s come to? This is really how deep I’ve sunk?
Fitting for the ruler of the deep. Hard to hit rock bottom when that’s where your home is.
An etching catches my eye on one of the fallen scrolls. I pick it up slowly, scanning through the text. It takes me a moment to translate from the original language. My Quechuan is rusty, but I know the name. I’m just not sure why.