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Like the creature I’m named after, I am beautiful but untouchable, treasured but imprisoned.  My grandfather named me Coral after the thing my mother loved most about the sea, in hopes that I could lure her back when everything else had failed.  But she loved something else more, and my name is just a reminder of his failure.

I stare at the reef separating my kind from the rest of the sea.  Colorful fish dart between the vibrant rainbow of polyps piled high upon the rocks, and anemones sway back and forth with the currents.  I hold out my arms and flick my iridescent tail gently to stay afloat in one spot, each scale throwing off multicolored twinkles of light that sparkle in the clear water.

I want to lay back and let the current take me where it will, deep into the darkness beyond the reef, where no court watches my every move and no kingdom demands my loyalty. The coral imprisons all of us, but sometimes I feel like the only one who notices.

Meribel approaches silently, but I recognize the familiar swish of her fins.  Her arm links with mine, and her pale hair mingles with my own dark locks as she leans her head into mine.  She doesn’t say anything, just lets me linger in my sorrow.  After a few moments, I feel guilty for letting her comfort me.  She’s losing more than me today.

“I’m sorry, Meribel.  If there was anything I could do to change it, you know I would.”

She shakes her head and sighs.  “He was never mine to lose, Coral.  Just because I wished it with all my heart doesn’t make it so.”

Meribel knows what she wants, always has.  She wants a quiet life inside the reef with two little merlings and a merman who swims home every night with a passel of fish for them to feast on.  More specifically, she wants Kai, the boy she’s loved since we were merlings, playing hide and seek together in the reef.  And Kai wants Meribel.

But instead, Kai and I are set to be mated this afternoon when the light reaches its peak above Persephone’s Cradle.  I will succeed my grandfather as queen of the shoal, where I will live out the rest of my days in this coral prison, and Kai and I will produce an heir who will carry on my family’s legacy when I am lost to the depths, more moons from now than I can fathom.

My fins shrivel at the mere thought of my destiny.

“Your grandfather is calling for you, Corie.  It’s time to go.”  Maribel tugs my elbow and flips her tail to propel us back towards the palace where my handmaids wait to adorn me.

They will twist my hair into elaborate braids, dotted with pearls and woven with sea grass.  For the first time, my breasts will be caged behind curved shells, never to feel the caress of waves outside my dressing room again.  They will be caressed by the hands of my husband instead, a merman who does not love me and who will spend the rest of our lives wishing I was someone else.  An ancient Pāua shell necklace will drape around my neck, a symbol of my royal lineage, the heavy weight of it a permanent reminder of my sentence.

Most mermaids envy me; I probably would, too, if I was them.  I’ve lived in the insulated womb of the palace my entire life, pampered by handmaidens, every luxury provided, every whim entertained.  And all the spoils of this kingdom will be mine once I’m married.

But the palace is just a gilded prison, the royal raiments no more than shackles.  My spirit has been imprisoned since birth, now my body will be as well.

The courtyard swarms with merfolk, readying the grounds for the ceremony, tails of every color swishing eagerly.  I find it funny that they are more excited than me, and a laugh escapes, the bubbles rising above me and disappearing into the waves.  The crowd parts as Meribel and I swim through, but no one comments on the look of panic that must be etched across my face.

The front of the palace is bright with sunlight that pierces through the water, but it looms before me, cloaked in shadows only I can see.  They descend upon me as I enter the vacant foyer, the rapid beat of my heart suddenly pounding in my ears in the absence of other sounds.

Very few merfolk are allowed inside the palace on a regular basis — just myself, my grandfather, and the royal staff, most of which live on the premises.  Meribel included.

When her mother, a young, unmated mermaid, turned up pregnant and no merman came forward to take responsibility, my grandfather hired her as my handmaiden, and her daughter became my live-in playmate.  Only one year of age separates us; we’ve spent our entire lives together.

Today, my marriage will divide us in more ways than one.

Meribel and I swim to my room, a wide, open space decorated with my favorite varieties of coral.  The stone walls are covered with perfect rows of salmon-colored scallop shells, and dozens of small windows let in the light but keep out intruders.  My nest is piled high with soft sea sponges that tempt me to curl up and sleep away my heartache.

“There you are, Coral!  Where have you been?  I’ll barely have time to braid your hair at this rate.”  Muriel, Meribel’s mother, puts her hands on her hips and flaps her fins at me.  Her long hair, more white than blonde now, is tied up and out of the way.

“I just wanted one last swim before…” I stop myself before I say any of the words I’m thinking.  She’ll frown at all of them.

“Your life isn’t ending, Coral-Lee.  You’ll swim again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day…”  She frowns at me, anyway.

I don’t bother arguing.  She’s heard it all before and doesn’t sympathize with me.  But my silence doesn’t spare me her side of the argument.

“What more do you want, little fish?  A merman to sweep you off your feet and carry you to an enchanted kingdom?  Wake up, Coral-Lee.  You have the ocean’s treasure right in front of you!  Would you rather be one of the common folk who nest in the sea grass and spend their days chasing their next meal?”

What she doesn’t say is: would you rather be Meribel, a mermaid who’s losing her true love to her best friend?  But I hear the question, anyway.

What I don’t mention is, it isn’t the common merfolk life that I dream of, either.  It is the world outside our realm I long to see.  My mother’s world.

I wonder if Muriel remembers the questions I peppered her with when I was a merling.  I wanted to know everything about the mythical humans who walked on legs and crossed the sea in giant boats, the wind pushing their sails towards distant shores.

Muriel has been to the surface once, before the spell was cast, and she told me of the ball of light that lit the sky and the creatures that flew through the air, squawking as they dove into the water to snatch a fish.

She’s never been on land, but she’s seen it, she’s watched the water crashing on the shore in frothy waves from the relative safety of an outcropping of rocks that peeked above the water.  She said the sand extended past the sea and disappeared under a canopy of giant trees with thick, tall trunks topped with waving fronds.  What lay beyond was just as much a mystery as the sea beyond the reef.

I envy even this tiny glimpse.  My own head has never broken the surface of the water, never even gotten close, and as long as my grandfather lives, it never will.

For generations, mermaids of mating age ventured onto the land to mate with humans, ensuring their hybrid offspring would have the ability to live on land or under the sea.  They were supposed to return and marry mermen, raising their merlings to love the sea.  But as human civilization grew more advanced, some of them stayed on land, tempted by the pleasures of the human world.

Like my mother.

When she came back, pregnant, and told my grandfather that she was going to make her home on land, he forbid it.  She insisted, and he didn’t want to lock her up to keep her here, but he didn’t have the same qualms about imprisoning me.  When I was born, he allowed her to go, but only if she left me behind as his only heir.  He never expected her to agree.  But my mother loved the human world even more than she loved my grandfather and our people.  Even more than she loved me.

To ensure he would never lose me, he called upon a sea witch who cast a spell not just on me, but on everyone in the shoal.  Mermaids could only survive on land for five days, and after that, they would die if they didn’t return to the sea.

But my grandfather won’t allow me even this.  Instead, I’ve been sentenced to the sea forever.  It is my duty to lead our people.

My mind wanders again to Muriel’s story about the world above the water.  I try to picture it, but my imagination isn’t vivid enough to create a world so different from my own.

“I’m going to go find Kai,” Meribel says, tired of watching me ponder in silence.  I don’t begrudge her one last goodbye.

Muriel gives her a look that hints at a previous conversation, and I can imagine how it might have gone.  I’m sure she wishes her daughter could have the man she loves, but Muriel is too practical to dwell on fantasies.  She understands her place in the shoal, and her daughter’s, and she knows that even if Kai wasn’t destined to marry me he would never be allowed to marry Meribel.

“The kitchen has prepared a hundred pounds of shrimp, scallops, and yellow fin tuna for your party guests — all your favorites.”  Muriel tries to distract me from my malaise as she puts the finishing touches on my hairdo, but it will take more than the thought of a tasty dinner.

Instead, I imagine all the merfolk laughing and smiling, chatting about mundane things like the currents and the banal accomplishments of their merlings as they nibble on hors d'oeuvres, oblivious to the fact that the death knell is ringing on my freedom.

Muriel finishes my hair and reaches for a gleaming, mother-of-pearl box that I’ve never seen before, holding it out to me.  I lift the lid, revealing a custom shell bra, made for a queen.  My fingers trace the intricate designs engraved in the abalone shells and the tiny pearls that outline the edges.  I’ve never seen one so beautiful.

She lifts it carefully from the box and secures it in place.  It is a perfect fit, of course.  The delicately-carved shells are surprisingly lighter than the simple clamshells that most mermaids wear, but the weight of their significance lies heavy on my chest.

She steps back to admire her handiwork and nods, smiling, then reaches for my hand mirror, a treasure from the human world that my mother left behind.  She holds it up for me to see my reflection.

The face looking back at me is solemn with large, blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a delicate nose over tiny, red lips.  People say I’m beautiful, and mermen stop to stare at me as I swim, but what difference does it make if my mate has already been chosen for me?  Most would say that Meribel, though lovely, is not as beautiful as me, but that doesn’t seem to make a difference to Kai.

I nod, satisfied with my appearance, and Muriel smiles at me.  “I’ve never seen a more lovely bride, Coral-Lee.”

Just then, Grandfather raps on my doorframe and peeks his graying head around.  A wide smile wrinkles the corner of his rheumy eyes, and his plump cheeks pink with pleasure.  His barrel chest is puffed with pride.

“Oh, Coral!  You look beautiful.  Just like your mother did at your age.”  His eyes glaze over with memories, and his smile slips.  He shakes his head and pulls his gaze back to the present.

As stubborn and overprotective as he is, I love my grandfather.  He’s the only family I’ve got.  I just wish I could fulfill his desires without sacrificing my own.

“I do believe the entire shoal is camped in our garden, awaiting your debut, little starfish.  Will you be ready soon?”

Panic seizes my chest.  The guests have already arrived?  It’s too soon!  I suck in deep gills full of water, trying to calm my heartbeat.

Kai and Meribel enter the room, looking a little guilty, and I suddenly wonder if they’ve been kissing.  Grandfather made it known from the beginning that Kai, the oldest son of the highest ranking family, would be chosen as my suitor, so he and Meribel have never openly admitted their feelings for each other, but it’s been written all over their faces since we were old enough to know what mating meant.

“King Aegeus, might I have a moment alone with Coral before the ceremony?”  Kai asks, bowing his head slightly in Grandfather’s direction.

Grandfather looks at Kai, a twinkle of amusement in his eye, and smiles.  “Of course, Son.  We’ll give you two some privacy.”

Kai approaches me cautiously as the others file out.  His black hair has been freshly shorn so it waves only slightly in the water, and he holds a branch of coral in his hands.  His chest is bare, but soon he will wear a royal necklace that matches the one waiting for me.  His dark eyes seek mine.

“I picked your bouquet.”  He holds out the coral, and I accept the traditional bridal gift.

“Pink bird’s nest is my favorite,” I say, admiring the intricate structure.

“I know.”  He smiles.  We’ve been friends for years; Kai knows everything about me.

“Thank you, Kai.  It’s perfect.”  Just like him.

Kai is perfect husband material.  He’s kind and handsome, smart and sensible, funny and easy going.  But he’s not in love with me.  I can’t begrudge him; I’m not in love with him, either.  I’d like to think that we’ve been friends for too long, and that’s why there’s no chemistry between us.  But that didn’t seem to stop him from falling for Meribel.

My grandfather pushed us together from an early age, having already decided on Kai as my future suitor, and he, Meribel, and I spent every free moment together.  But while our friendship blossomed, it never deepened into the kind of love that binds two souls together as mates.

I will never feel that kind of love, and Kai will have to give it up.

He reaches up to cup my cheek, lifting my face to his.  His mind searches for the right words to say, but he doesn’t know what they are any more than I do.

“I love you, Coral,” he tries.

“I love you, too, Kai,” I whisper back, pretending what I feel for him is enough.

He reaches out and hugs me like he’s done a thousand times, but this time it feels strained, awkward.

“Are you ready?” he asks, and I nod.

“Well, let’s go then.”  He loops his arm through mine, and escorts me through the hall towards the back entrance.

I can see the merfolk crowded outside in their finest jewelry, holding conch shells and tittering in anticipation.  Kai approaches a guard and tells him we are ready to proceed, and the guard blows a giant conch shell to announce the start of the ceremony.  The crowd parts and turns towards us, creating a path to the statue of Atargatis, the goddess who created our kind, where Grandfather is waiting for us with the royal officiant.

Meribel and her mother are waiting by the doorway, and they give us both a quick hug.  The guests raise their conch shells and start to blow, creating a wall of bubbles, and swish their tails towards the center, creating a current meant to carry us forward.

But the raucous effect is too much for me, the cacophony like an army advancing in attack, and my heart seizes in panic at the claustrophobic passageway in front of me.  I can’t do this; I can’t swim voluntarily into a future that looks so bleak.

Instead of swimming forward, I panic and kick my fins as hard as I can, yanking myself free from Kai’s hold and pushing myself upward — higher, higher, into the water above.  The bubbles embrace me in an airy cocoon, lifting me higher still.

I keep swimming, propelling myself toward the surface with frantic energy, ignoring the sharp ache in my joints and the tightness in my chest, intent only on escape.

The water grows warmer and brighter the higher I go, but the currents are stronger, and I feel them pulsing against me.  Suddenly, my body bursts out of the water, and I gasp as air fills my lungs, driving out the water.  I choke on it, spitting out water, and sucking in the nothingness.

My eyes dart around, but the surface does not look anything like I imagined it.  Muriel said the sky was the color of a blue tang fish, with a yellow sun the color of its tail to warm the air, but this sky is gray and cold, with large, dark, menacing blobs floating above.  Water falls from the sky in thousands of tiny drops that sting my skin, the exact opposite of the curtain of bubbles my wedding guests had created.  Suddenly, a jagged line of light flashes in the sky, and a loud sound rumbles around me.

A wave crashes down over me, burying me, and I fight my way back to the surface, but the water tosses me again and again, assaulting my body, till I no longer have the energy to fight it.

Exhausted, I close my eyes and let the water take me.