To Kill a KingdomBy: Alexandra Christo
For those I love, who never got the chance to see this happen
I HAVE A HEART for every year I’ve been alive.
There are seventeen hidden in the sand of my bedroom. Every so often, I claw through the shingle, just to check they’re still there. Buried deep and bloody. I count each of them, so I can be sure none were stolen in the night. It’s not such an odd fear to have. Hearts are power, and if there’s one thing my kind craves more than the ocean, it’s power.
I’ve heard things: tales of lost hearts and harpooned women stapled to the ocean bed as punishment for their treachery. Left to suffer until their blood becomes salt and they dissolve to sea foam. These are the women who take the human bounty of their kin. Mermaids more fish than flesh, with an upper body to match the decadent scales of their fins.
Unlike sirens, mermaids have stretched blue husks and limbs in place of hair, with a jawlessness that lets their mouths stretch to the size of small boats and swallow sharks whole. Their deep-blue flesh is dotted with fins that spread up their arms and spines. Fish and human both, with the beauty of neither.
They have the capacity to be deadly, like all monsters, but where sirens seduce and kill, mermaids remain fascinated by humans. They steal trinkets and follow ships in hopes that treasure will fall from the decks. Sometimes they save the lives of sailors and take nothing but charms in return. And when they steal the hearts we keep, it isn’t for power. It’s because they think that if they eat enough of them, they might become human themselves.
I hate mermaids.
My hair snakes down my back, as red as my left eye – and only my left, of course, because the right eye of every siren is the color of the sea they were born into. For me, that’s the great sea of Diávolos, with waters of apple and sapphire. A selection of each so it manages to be neither. In that ocean lies the sea kingdom of Keto.
It’s a well-known fact that sirens are beautiful, but the bloodline of Keto is royal and with that comes its own beauty. A magnificence forged in salt water and regality. We have eyelashes born from iceberg shavings and lips painted with the blood of sailors. It’s a wonder we even need our song to steal hearts.
“Which will you take, cousin?” Kahlia asks in Psáriin.
She sits beside me on the rock and stares at the ship in the distance. Her scales are deep auburn and her blond hair barely reaches her breasts, which are covered by a braid of orange seaweed.
“You’re ridiculous,” I tell her. “You know which.”
The ship ploughs idly along the calm waters of Adékaros, one of the many human kingdoms I’ve vowed to rid of a prince. It’s smaller than most and made from scarlet wood that represents the colors of their country.
Humans enjoy flaunting their treasures for the world, but it only makes them targets for creatures like Kahlia and me, who can easily spot a royal ship. After all, it’s the only one in the fleet with the painted wood and tiger flag. The only vessel on which the Adékarosin prince ever sails.
Easy prey for those in the mood to hunt.
The sun weighs on my back. Its heat presses against my neck and causes my hair to stick to my wet skin. I ache for the ice of the sea, so sharp with cold that it feels like glorious knives in the slits between my bones.
“It’s a shame,” says Kahlia. “When I was spying on him, it was like looking at an angel. He has such a pretty face.”
“His heart will be prettier.”
Kahlia breaks into a wild smile. “It’s been an age since your last kill, Lira,” she teases. “Are you sure you’re not out of practice?”
“A year is hardly an age.”
“It depends who’s counting.”
I sigh. “Then tell me who that is so I can kill them and be done with this conversation.”
Kahlia’s grin is ungodly. The kind reserved for moments when I am at my most dreadful, because that’s the trait sirens are supposed to value most. Our awfulness is treasured. Friendship and kinship taught to be as foreign as land. Loyalty reserved only for the Sea Queen.
“You are a little heartless today, aren’t you?”
“Never,” I say. “There are seventeen under my bed.”