Either this place is a fantasy, or my entire life has been a lie.  I know which one it is, but I can’t help but stare in awe and disbelief at the sight before me.

My tail still flicks beneath me, the iridescent scales glimmering in the soft, diffuse light coming from above, seawater still flows around me and through my gills, buoying my body and spirit, and the merman I’m holding onto is firm and solid and full of life.  Everything around me is real, but I’m still in a wonderland.

In the center is a palace not unlike the one I called home — tall, prominent,  regal.  But unlike the piled stone walls of my childhood home, the identical, rectangular bricks of this palace look like something I’d see in the human world, the architecture and craftsmanship precise and sophisticated.  Surrounding it in linear rings are hundreds of smaller homes, almost as perfect, and they’re lit from within!  It’s almost as if a human city was submerged, and the residents grew tails so they could survive.

Hundreds of merfolk swim in and out of the homes, some visiting one another or heading off to catch their dinners, others coming back with passels of fish, and merlings playing in the open areas and greeting their parents with eager smiles.  The only thing unusual about all of them is the fact that I don’t recognize any of their faces.

But more compelling is the stream of merfolk swimming towards the shoal from someplace off in the distance.  I watch them with curiosity for several moments before finally turning to Llyr.  “What have they been doing out there, and why are they all coming back at the same time?”

Llyr quirks an eyebrow at me and smiles.  “Come with me, I’ll show you.”

He flaps his long, powerful tail, his long, bronze hair flowing behind him as he swims alongside the procession of merfolk going in the opposite direction.  I quickly swim after him, trying my best to keep up.  Merfolk notice us, their eyes glancing back and forth from Llyr to me, probably wondering who I am.  Llyr doesn’t pause long enough for anyone to ask him, though, just speeds on by, an eager smile on his handsome face.

As we get farther away from the shoal, I can see two, large shadows in the distance, one in the shape of a boat.  Llyr swims up to the other one, a rectangular structure floating on the surface.  We ascend towards it, breaking the surface right next to a large, flat, white deck.  A man with wrinkled, tan skin and curly, graying hair jumps up at the sight of us, smiling widely.

“Hey Galon!  How goes it?”  Llyr pulls himself up to the edge of the deck, propping his crossed arms on the ledge.  I bob in the water beside him.

“Llyr!  Good to see you!  You know the ferry doesn’t leave for another two hours, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I don’t want to interrupt your dinnertime.  I just wanted to show my friend here our awesome setup.”

“Made a new friend, eh?  Where’d you find this one?”  Galon nods towards me and winks.

“Rescued her from a human.”  Llyr shrugs like it was no big deal and hefts himself up onto the deck then flips over so he’s sitting on his tail, his wide, shimmery fin hanging off the edge, flinging water droplets with each flick.

Galon smirks and shakes his head.  “You always did like to play hero, didn’t you?  What happened?”

Llyr reaches for me, grabbing my hands and pulling me up.  I shimmy onto the deck next to him, my own tail noticeably smaller compared to Llyr’s.

“Well, I don’t know how the human got her, but he had her tethered to him.  She was doing a pretty good job fighting him, but I heard her song and knew she needed some help.”

I can’t help grinning at the offhand compliment.

“How did you end up like that?”  Llyr turns to me with a quizzical look on his face.

“I was exploring a shipwreck, and he found me and captured me.  He was a treasure diver, and he and his crew mates threatened to expose me if I didn’t help them find more gold.”

Galon grabs some towels from a nearby shelf and tosses them to us.  I start to pat myself dry then suddenly realize that even though I’ve escaped, my secret is out.  Will James, Sam, and Roy try to find me or other merfolk?  Will they tell other humans?

I still my towel and look at Llyr with wide eyes.  “Llyr, they know the truth.  What if they tell?”

Llyr shrugs and wipes his face with his towel then pulls it away, revealing a calm smile.  “Humans have been claiming to see merfolk for thousands of years, but no one has ever proved it.  He’ll have a good story to tell his grandkids, but no one will really believe him.”

I hope Llyr is right.  I’d hate to think the merfolk were in danger of exposure because of me.

But I’m distracted from my worries by the sight of Llyr’s tail morphing into legs.  I know he told me he goes on land, but it’s incredible to watch him shift.  I open my mouth to say something, but he starts talking to Galon.

“She’s from Persephone’s Cradle.  Can you believe it?” Llyr says, grinning, his bright, white teeth gleaming in his tan skin.

Galon tilts his head and looks at me.  “No kidding?  Haven’t met anyone from there in nigh on 20 cycles.  I didn’t think anyone ever left that shoal.”

“Yeah, well if you think that’s something, guess who she is.”

Galon tilts his head and stares at me for a moment, rolling his lips back and forth.  “She looks a bit familiar, but can’t say I recognize her.”

Llyr’s smile gets impossibly wider.  “She’s King Aegeus’ granddaughter, Princess Coral.”

Galon gawks at me as I pat my tail dry.  “Well, call me a blobfish!  I’ll be damned.”

Before Galon can ask me any questions, Llyr wraps a towel around his waist and holds out a hand to lift me to my sprouting feet.  “Come on, I want to show you around.  We’ll catch you later, okay Galon?  I’m going to give Coral a tour.”

Galon nods and lifts a hand in goodbye as Llyr drags me into the floating building.  Inside, it reminds me of the shopping mall Avery took me to on land, only smaller.  They’re even playing human music.  Off to one side, there is a large store full of clothing and other human items, and another section looks like a restaurant with a counter and several tables full of merfolk eating what smells like hamburgers and French fries.  Large windows look out over a wide stretch of open ocean, but I can see land in the distance, the square tops of buildings and the green fronds of palm trees sticking out of the crescent of land.  Another small area of the building looks like a business center, with desk and computers and filing cabinets.

A few merfolk, sans their tails, wander around, but the space is mostly empty.  Rows of metal cabinets line the walls, and I watch a mermaid in a towel carrying a handful of clothes open one of the cabinets and hang the garments inside.

“We call this The Deck.  It’s like a way station between our shoal and the human world.  From here, you can take the ferry to the mainland.”  Llyr leads me out a set of wide, glass doors.  The sun blazes through them like an orange ball of fire, blinding me to what’s on the other side.  When we step through, I shield my eyes with my hand so I can see.

A large, luxury boat floats beside the dock, it’s hull so white and glossy it shines even with the sun behind it, cloaking this side in shadows.  Dozens of rectangular, darkened windows line the decks, hinting at what lies inside.  The words “Flying Siren Ferries” are painted in bright red script along the side.

“We can’t go aboard right now, but the ferry goes back and forth five times a day so merfolk can come and go from the city whenever they need.”  Llyr gives a wide smile, clearly proud of his shoal’s development.

“Why would they need to do that?”  The answer niggles in the back of my brain, but my mind won’t accept it.

“Lots of our merfolk have human jobs, houses, vehicles.  They split their time between the shoal and the land.”

His words make me sway on my feet, rocked by the revelation.  A chuckle bursts out of me at the thought of how Liam would react if he knew this.  He was blown away at the idea of mermaids coming to land to mate with humans.  What would he think if he knew there might be merfolk living and working right next to him and he never realized it?

It’s obvious that this shoal is totally different from mine, but are the others as advanced?  Suddenly, I have to know everything.  I grab Llyr’s arm, a little too tightly, and stare at him with demanding eyes.

“Llyr, you said there were other shoals.  Does everyone live like this, half on land and half in the sea?”

Llyr must see the distraught look in my eyes, because he gives me a small smile and pats the hand that’s digging into him.  I glance down at the sensation and pull my nails from his skin.

“Every shoal is a bit different.  The ones farther out to sea don’t spend as much time on land as we do, and a lot of the shoals aren’t as developed as we are.  It takes money to build what we have, and not every shoal has the resources to fund it.  We just happen to have a few successful businessmen who wanted a way to bridge the divide between the two worlds.”

His words make sense.  In just the short time I’ve spent on land, I’ve learned how important money is to human civilization.

“Coral?  What’s it like in your shoal?  Why has no one seen or heard from anyone there in so many cycles?  I take it you don’t have anything like this.”  He waves a hand at the luxurious boat and the building behind us.

I shake my head and try to think of a way to explain it to him without revealing Grandfather’s deception.  I don’t know why, but I still feel compelled to protect him, even though I’m one of the victims of his lies.

“In my shoal, no one leaves except for mermaids, and then only for a few, short days so they can mate.  King Aegeus is very… protective of us.”  The curse grandfather placed on us ensured the mermaids always came back to raise their merling in the shoal, or at least, that’s what everyone believes.  I think the truth might be even worse.

“Wow, no kidding.  I guess that’s why he banned visitors too, huh?  He didn’t want anyone tempting you with stories about life on land.”

I almost want to defend him.  But the truth is, grandfather’s ruling has unfairly shielded us from not only the danger of the human world, but also the pleasures of it, pleasures I myself craved so strongly I was willing to sacrifice the shoal and everything I knew for a chance to experience them.

But what if I could have both?  What if I could live like these merfolk, halfway in between?  The thought is mesmerizing.

My mind drifts back to all the other merfolk in my shoal who’ve been imprisoned there by Grandfather’s fear, or stubbornness, or selfishness.  Don’t they deserve to know the truth?

“So, are you gonna get in trouble if he finds out you came here?  Do you need to get back right away?”

I choke back a laugh and it quickly turns to a sob.  I wonder what Grandfather thinks happened to me.  A small part of me hopes that he doesn’t know the curse is a lie.  Maybe the sea witch tricked him, as well.  If so, he probably believes I’m dead.  But if he knows the truth, would that be worse for him, thinking I chose the land over him?

“Coral, are you okay?”  Llyr wraps an arm around my shaking shoulders, pulling me into his firm chest.

I let myself wallow in my sadness for a moment before wiping my tears and lifting my head.  “I’ll be all right.  It’s just been a rough day.”

“You could probably use some rest.  We can hang out here for a while and wait for the ferry to leave if you’re anxious to get going, or we can go back to my house, if you’d like.”

“Here in the shoal?”  I glance at the ferry.

“Yeah, I don’t have a place on land yet, but hopefully someday.  I still live with my parents,” he admits with a wrinkle of his nose.

“I’d love to meet your family.”  I am curious to meet more of these merfolk and find out about their lives.  I won’t stay long; I’m eager to return to the land and   the men I love, but knowing I have a guaranteed way back soothes some of my anxiety.

Llyr and I walk around the outside of the building on the wide deck.  Racks stacked with dry towels and bins filled with wet ones are spaced along the length.  A few merfolk swim up to the deck and climb aboard, and a few others drop their towels in the bins and dive into the water.

“Bye, Galon.”  Llyr waves when he sees his friend coming out of the door near the restaurant.

“You’re not gonna take the ferry tonight?” he asks, chewing on the last bite of his dinner.

Llyr shrugs.  “Coral wants to rest a bit, so I’m going to take her to my house, let her meet my folks, then I might show her around the shoal.”

Galon nods.  “Well, while you’re out and about, you ought to introduce her to that mermaid from Persephone’s Cradle.  Maybe they even know each other.  Actually, she’s who your friend reminds me of.”

I grab Llyr’s arm, my eyes going wide.  “There’s someone here from my shoal?”

“Yeah, she’s been here all my life, I forgot that’s where she came from.  Her name is Pearl.  I doubt you know her, though.  She’s probably old enough to be your mother.”

The blood drains from my head, turning my face pale, and rushes to my legs, making me off balance.  I wobble for a moment before collapsing.