Waves smashed into boulders strewn like a giant’s bread crumbs in front of the seawall. Caught by the setting sun, the spray glittered gold as it was cast into the air and fell in drops of citrine. Zeninna laughed and raised her arms to catch the wild energy. Wind tangled her unbound black hair and billowed her clothes. Though the wind tried, the gusts lacked the strength to knock her from her perch on the seawall.
“I did it, you old hags! I got in!”
The roar of wind and angry waves along Landis’ empty seawall gave Zeninna the courage to yell her triumph to the sea. She pealed with laughter, delighted with her success.
She’d sworn she could. Stood up before the Iridescent Court and scoffed at those who mocked her as too young, too wild, too loud. Unruly as the sea in storm, her own mother screeched at her. Zeninna’s supporters begged her to keep her temper leashed. She hadn’t. She couldn’t. The old hags made her too angry. But she won the right to try.
And she’d succeeded. She pressed her hand over her heart and felt the papers stashed inside her coat crinkle. Her acceptance papers. Tomorrow morning, she would enter the Great Library of Cerulea as an Acolyte.
“I did it!” She screamed once more into the wind and waves.
A dark shape popped out of the water between two of the boulders. Zeninna’s heart stopped as a wave crashed over the rocks. Had she just seen…? Ahead of the next wave, her cousin Viridis hopped half out of the water onto a bowl in the rock.
Shock held Zeninna momentarily speechless. She’d spent too long around well-fed, healthy humans. Viridis looked green and positively skeletal.
“Are you crazy?” Zeninna looked wildly up and down the seawall. Relief tempered her outrage. Viridis, not her best friend Perseah. Perseah was safe at home.
“I would hope you wouldn’t be screaming at the top of your lungs if there were humans in the vicinity to hear.”
“That they can’t hear over the wind and waves doesn’t mean they can’t see you from a window.” Zeninna gestured wildly at the town behind her.
Viridis smirked. “Human sight isn’t that good. I’ll take your message to the Court. How long before they should expect you?”
Screaming reminders at herself not to give Viridis reason to suspect anything, Zeninna forced herself to take a deep breath. Her mind rocketed about and found the perfect way to spin the answer. “I’ll know better after Orientation tomorrow.”
“Should I meet you here at dusk then?” Viridis raised her eyebrows.
Zeninna frowned. It wasn’t like Viridis to offer to play messenger. She shook her head. “You can come. I can’t promise I’ll be able to get away.”
Viridis narrowed her eyes. “Don’t forget the importance of your mission.”
Fury propelled Zeninna off the wall. Imbecile! Viridis couldn’t possibly understand the importance of Zeninna’s mission to the Irides! Viridis only knew the Court’s version of the task, not the actual plan. The gall of her brainless cousin to attempt to remind her what was at stake! Whipping back around, Zeninna sneered at Viridis. “I will not forget. Now I must go. I’ll be missed.”
Zeninna knew herself to be less rash than the Iridescent Court labeled her. She understood that Orientation would not be the time to even attempt her mission. Her duty might be at the back of her mind at all times, but today she pretended that she simply was another acolyte with dreams of becoming a librarian or curator or even director of the Library.
So she listened to the welcoming speeches, what was expected, where they’d live, what their days would be like. She introduced herself to her roommates–not one too thin from years of sickness or malnutrition–and gave them a vague location up the northwest coast as her home. That area of Cerulea was scarcely populated, which should keep anyone here from knowing enough to catch her in a lie and explain any lack of knowledge of custom on her part.
Plus the Iridescent Court was northwest of here.
Her five roommates seemed wholly enraptured in their acceptance into the Library. The human children shouldn’t cause Zeninna any problems, which was good because their junior advisor looked ready to.
The suspicious stare Adlai gave Zeninna when they met sent a shiver down Zeninna’s spine. Was Adlai Sighted? Few people in Cerulea were these days, but few meant few, not no one.
Cephalo of the Deep couldn’t be so cruel as to give Zeninna a Sighted junior advisor. She must want Zeninna’s mission to succeed. Hadn’t the Irides Nixies suffered enough? Didn’t that suffering affect their Goddess?
Zeninna’s entire point of being here was to fulfill a promise to Cephalo of the Deep. Over the last months, the Irides made significant offerings and their priestesses prayed nonstop. Such great displays of worship should have Cephalo inclined to help not hinder.
Zeninna closed her eyes briefly and offered a quick, silent prayer, a plea, that none of the humans would guess what she was. Most humans refused to accept any of the other peoples of the world as people. She’d be lucky to not end up in a zoo if they caught her. Though that imprisonment might be better than being hunted for sport. At least there’d be the possibility of escape. She opened her eyes to find Adlai staring at her with a raised eyebrow. Adlai looked away as she moved on to her next topic.
The instructions and expectations dragged on half the morning. Zeninna’s stomach growled long before Adlai escorted them to lunch. Not that hunger interfered with her ability to listen. She was used to being hungry.
Lunch amazed her. An oyster soup, ten times more delicious than any Zeninna had ever eaten at home. She couldn’t understand how this was possible. Wouldn’t all oysters come from the same sickened sea? Still she took hope from the soup, took it as an omen that she would succeed. That health for the sea would be found here on land.
After lunch, they entered the Hall of Enlightenment. Adlai swept them past the guards with their salamander-sniffers, past the check-in desks, straight to the rotunda where floors and floors of bookshelves encircled them. All the way up to the dome six stories overhead. Zeninna gaped with her classmates at the vivid painted story of how writing and stories were given to humans.
Special collections and archives filled the first floor. Staircases behind locked doors led to the stacks in the basement. New acolytes had no need of either.
Adlai led them to the map carved on a stone that squatted at the top of the stairs on the second floor. She walked them through the map, before leading them on a tour, pointing out the sections they’d need for most of their assignments at this stage in their learning.
By sunset, Zeninna’s feet screamed with pain. They’d wandered through countless wings and almost every floor of the Hall of Enlightenment. Seen many human treasures, sacred texts, rare books, even scrolls from the founding of the kingdom. And gone to no other buildings. Come nowhere near the one that held the Magnificence of the Sea exhibit.
Zeninna sat with her chattering, excited roommates, but ate her dinner in silence. She glanced at the windows set high in the walls of the hall. The world was dusky blue. She’d missed her rendezvous with Viridis, not that she’d ever planned to make it. She picked the fish out of the flatbread and smiled at Linden, her tallest roommate, who regaled them with a tale of her village school. Linden laughed, throwing back her head and putting Adlai in Zeninna’s line of sight.
From the next table, Adlai stared at Zeninna, a perplexed little frown wrinkling her brow.
Zeninna smiled. She couldn’t think what else to do. Turning her attention to her blond roommate Teddy, she stabbed a piece of fish with her fork. Teddy gushed about something they’d seen today. Zeninna missed what, but she swallowed and muttered her agreement. It didn’t matter what Teddy was thrilled about. The others thought everything here was wonderful, so Zeninna agreed.
A couple of hours before dawn, Zeninna woke. She crept to the washroom and back without anyone else waking. She’d planned to try this in a few days, but she was awake now. And no one else was.
She only knew the way through maps. A week, a month from now, that might still be the case. Nothing outlined yesterday included visiting the Magnificence of the Sea. Zeninna hovered in the doorway. She could feel where she needed to go. The Peral Dagger sang to her. Why waste another two or three days here if she could go now?
Why deprive her people of their most holy artifact for even two more hours? Decades had passed since the dagger was stolen by one of their own to impress a human she thought would keep her as a lover. The seas had sickened slowly as the nixies failed to offer the sacrifice to usher in the new year. The execution of the traitor’s lover had been a rejected by Cephalo of the Deep, as had every offering without the dagger since.
She slipped into the hall. The door closed without a sound. She tiptoed through the dark corridor of closed doors. At the staircase, a shiver ran down her spine. Zeninna spun. Adlai stared at her from three doors back.
She jumped–and regretted that immediately, but couldn’t have helped it. How did Adlai move without a sound?
Zeninna plastered her biggest smile on her face. “Adlai! Good morning.”
“It’s not really morning. It’s still dark.”
Zeninna faked a big sigh, rolled her eyes, and walked closer to Adlai. “I think it’s morning back at home though. I’ve woken way before everyone every morning since I got to Landis. I thought I’d go down to the social room. Didn’t want to wake anyone.”
She deliberately looked Adlai up and down, pretending to notice her junior advisor’s robe and nightshirt. Zeninna dropped a hand over mouth. “Did I wake you? I was trying to be so quiet!”
Adlai shook her head. “You should go back to your dorm room. If you can’t sleep, rest until it’s time to wake.”
“Oh. Okay.” Zeninna hoped her frustration remained hidden. Talk about boring. Why would she want to lay on her bed and stare at a ceiling she couldn’t see? She allowed herself to drag her feet on the way back to her room.
At her door, she looked back down the hall. Adlai remained outside hers. Zeninna gave her junior advisor a bright smile and entered the room. She’d obey thus far, but had no intention of wasting the next two hours doing nothing. Trying not to rustle a piece of paper, she collected all her handouts about the Library.
By the time her roommates stirred, Zeninna had a new plan.
An hour after lunch, the new acolytes gathered in study hall. They’d been given several short papers to write, a page each on topics related to their morning lectures.
Zeninna sat with her roommates and wrote her first paper. She slid the finished paper into the folder she’d been given for completed assignments and drew out a fresh page. A look around confirmed her study of the map correct. No washroom inside the study hall itself.
“What’s wrong?” Linden asked.
“I could use a washroom.” Zeninna strained to see the far corners of the room, where no washroom materialized to ruin her plan.
“Think there’s one just down the hall outside,” Teddy offered.
The hall supervisors let her leave without displaying any suspicion. Zeninna took an immediate left and trotted off down the hall, head swinging back and forth as if she searched for the sign for a washroom. At the corner, she took another left and zigzagged her way towards the stairs. She turned another corner and came face to face with a Scholar.
“Acolyte! What are you doing down here?”
Hoping her fury didn’t show on her face, Zeninna looked right and left. “They told me in study hall I could find a washroom around here. Somewhere? This way?”
The Scholar smiled. “Oh, you missed a turn. Come this way. I’ll show you.”
She escorted Zeninna to the washroom and remained outside waiting when Zeninna exited. Zeninna smiled and pointed back the way she’d come. “This way, no?”
The scholar nodded and smiled. Zeninna thanked her and headed back to the hall. She rounded the last corner.
“Where have you been?” Adlai hissed as she stormed down the hall.
“I needed the washroom.”
“You’ve been gone forever!”
“I got a little lost.”
“Lost?” Adlai raised an eyebrow.
Zeninna sighed dramatically. “I know those who work in the Library have to be able to navigate it without getting lost, but this is the first time I’ve been in this building. I didn’t study the maps for this area.”
Adlai rolled her eyes. “Go finish your work.”
For five days, Zeninna pretended to be an Acolyte. She read books, wrote short essays, and studied maps. Her roommates teased that her dedication made them look bad. But five days in their company was five days too long. Every last one of her roommates thought Zeninna odd. It would only get worse.
And then there was Adlai.
Zeninna caught the junior advisor staring at her at least ten times a day. Adlai watched her when she ate, when she studied. She couldn’t set foot outside her dorm room without Adlai popping out to see what she wanted.
Zeninna couldn’t slip out in the night. She couldn’t escape during the day. Even if she could, the mission would be completely impossible by daylight. She couldn’t do anything while the Library was open. Not with people everywhere. Docents, Curates, Librarians and Archivists all going about their jobs, not to mention the hundreds of visitors the Library saw on a daily basis. She blushed to remember her attempt to sneak out during study hall. What had she thought to do?
But none of that mattered. She’d worked out a solid plan over these last five days.
They had clam chowder for dinner. Zeninna picked at it, though the chowder was much better than the land animal dishes they’d served the past two nights–or any of the thin soups they’d have at home. She wished she didn’t have to pretend to be sick tonight, but food wasn’t incentive enough to change her plans.
Of course, Adlai noticed, but this time Zeninna meant her to. “Is something wrong with your dinner?”
“I don’t feel very well. I’m kind of queasy.” Zeninna listlessly twirled her spoon around the bowl.
Adlai frowned. “Do you need the nurse?”
“Maybe.” Zeninna frowned and set the spoon aside. “That might be a good idea.”
“Come on. I’ll escort you.”
They walked out of the dining hall, left the building and crossed a courtyard with a fountain of leaping dolphins to a building on the other side of the auditorium.
“Through here.” Adlai opened a green door into a lobby which contained an empty desk and a few scattered chairs. Zeninna offered a small prayer of thanks to Cephalo. Whether someone always staffed the check-in desk had been one of the uncontrollable, unknowable parts of her plan.
Adlai struck a bell on the desk. A nurse bustled into the room about half a minute later.
“What can I do for you?” She looked from Adlai to Zeninna.
Zeninna looked at Adlai, who flushed and gestured for Zeninna to go on.
“I’m feeling kind of nauseated.”
The nurse smiled sympathetically. “Come on back. I’ll take a look at you.”
“Thanks for escorting me, Adlai.” Zeninna gave her advisor a weary smile before turning to leave with the nurse.
She held her breath as they walked past the desk and entered a small room. The door banged shut behind Adlai leaving a few seconds later. Thank Cephalo. Zeninna had hoped that Adlai wouldn’t be able to abandon her roommates, however much she might want to stay and spy on Zeninna.
The nurse laid the back of her hand on Zeninna’s brow. “You don’t feel feverish. Do you have any other symptoms?”
“My head aches a bit, and I felt a little dizzy when I stood up to walk over here.”
“Hmm.” The nurse took her pulse and checked her eyes, ears and throat. “I’m not seeing anything. Perhaps it’s simply your headache making you feel ill? Let me get you a headache tonic and we’ll have you rest here tonight. See if that takes care of everything.”
Zeninna sniffed the cup. Hoping the contents wouldn’t kill her, she drank the potion down and curled up on her side on the bed. The nurse doused the lights and left the door slightly ajar. Her footsteps receded, moving deeper into the building. Zeninna smiled over that.
She closed her eyes and began to pray. The nurse came to check on her about half an hour later. Zeninna suppressed a smirk and continued with her silent chant.
Another thirty minutes and the nurse popped in, felt Zeninna’s forehead, and left. This time Zeninna snored slightly in hopes the nurse would not feel the need to check again tonight.
She counted off five minutes, not wanting to rush out and be caught by the nurse making notes on her chart just outside the door. The door squeaked a bit as Zeninna pushed it open. She flinched and froze. No sound of footsteps. No sign of anyone. She crossed the empty lobby and tiptoed out the door.
Her luck held. Adlai was not waiting outside.
Reciting the start of the ritual in her head, she turned left and hurried along the small alleyway between the buildings. The ritual should be performed in stillness and peace, but Zeninna couldn’t count on having time when she reached the Magnificence of the Sea. Someone might see her and follow. Security might chose the exact wrong time to walk by that wing.
The Pilgrim’s Garden was empty. Zeninna’s feet crunched softly as she walked the twisting paths, the second prayer of the ritual ringing in her head. At the gate, she ducked so as not to set any of the wind chimes singing. Twenty yards from the Pilgrim’s Garden’s exit stood the Orirs Building, home of The Magnificence of the Sea.
Slipping through shadows, Zeninna skirted the boundaries of the courtyard. She looped around the side of the building and stepped up to a staff entrance, where she stood silently until she finished the second prayer. Whispering a soft plea to Cephalo, she tried the handle. Locked.
Why? Zeninna cursed softly. Not an exterior door in any of the buildings where they lived or had classes bore locks. Nor had the Hall of Enlightenment. Why this one? The treasures it held would be esteemed no more than the rare and sacred books.
Of course, the stacks had been locked. Zeninna raised her head slowly. This was a staff entrance. It led to offices and workrooms and backways that likely were locked away from the public areas too.
Heart fluttering madly, she crept back to the front of the building and raced up the steps. Two steps from the top, an owl hooted. Zeninna jumped a good foot into the air, came down between steps and fell, bashing her shin. Tears filled her eyes. She hobbled to the door and yanked the handle, forgetting in her pain to pray first. The handle turned freely.
Limping inside, she forced herself to concentrate and recite the third prayer of the ritual. Only a few low lanterns in the entry hall and over the stairs provided light. They glittered off royal jewels and artifacts in the exhibits to either side.
Zeninna’s destination lay upstairs. Praying fervently, she dragged herself upwards. At the turn before the third floor, muffled voices shocked her into stillness.
“Do you realize how ludicrous this sounds?”
“Why do you think I didn’t go get a supervisor?” Adlai asked.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. Why can’t we check at the nurse’s?”
“We won’t have time. She’ll come here.”
“I cannot believe you think one of the acolytes is a nymph of some sort. Or that I let you drag me out after curfew. Do you know how much trouble we’ll get in if we’re caught?”
Ignoring her throbbing shin, Zeninna broke into a run. She took the remaining stairs two at a time and raced across the third floor. Her pounding footsteps drowned out all other sounds. They might hear her, but she dared not waste time. She began the fourth prayer.
The sign for the Magnificence of the Sea was shrouded in darkness, but Zeninna didn’t need to read it to know she’d reached her goal. To the left of the entrance stood a statue that was supposed to be a mermaid. It wasn’t quite right, but still recognizable. Whoever carved the one on the left, though, they got a nixie perfect.
Zeninna reached out and traced the nixie’s face. Had someone modeled for this? History was strewn with tales of nixies befriending humans. Letting them know too much, see too much. The theft Zeninna sought to rectify tonight supported banning such friendships entirely. Her entire world was dying because an infatuated nixie allowed a human to run off with one of the Irides’ most sacred artifacts.
She slipped inside and hurried past displays of items from shipwrecks and of sharks’ and whales’ jawbones. The golden trident of some unknown merpeople made Zeninna shake her head in wonder, but she didn’t have time to pause and look at it. Oh, and there hung three enormous oceanscapes by Tersola, the greatest painter of seascapes the world had ever known. The stairs creaked. Voices murmured.
Regret filled Zeninna’s sigh. She hadn’t the time to stop and admire the paintings. Crossing into the next room, she hurried to the display in the corner on her left. To the Peral Dagger.
Her breath caught. Awe washed over her. Zeninna closed her eyes and took two deep breaths. She’d done her best to meditate the last three nights after her roommates fell asleep. She’d recited all prayers in her head getting here, all but the final one.
“Cephalo of the Deep, I come to you in open arms. I offer homage of your beauty. I offer praise of your wisdom. I am young, but I am strong. I am ignorant, but I am faithful. I seek you willingly and with joy.
“Accept this sacrifice on behalf of the Irides. We only wish to honor You. We ask your guidance. Your help. Your return. We would remake the oceans. Return the seas to their pure state in Your honor. In Your Name.
“I offer my life force. I offer all the centuries I have yet to live. Use my life to purify the seas. Bring back balance.
“I beg You. Accept this sacrifice which I offer freely in my abiding love of You. You are my will, my heart, my life. I return all to You. In love. In honor. In hope.”
Her words seem to ring off the walls. Her skin tingled. She could feel Cephalo. She’d never felt Her presence so intensely before. She was here. She waited for Zeninna.
Voices scratched the edges of Zeninna’s awareness. Irrelevant now. Zeninna belonged to Cephalo.
Zeninna reached out and lifted the Peral Dagger. She caressed the hilt and laid a kiss on its blade.
“For my people,” she whispered as she turned the blade so that its point hovered over her heart.
Time to return the dagger to the sea. Cephalo would bless them. The Irides Nixies would prosper once again.
The intruding noises grew closer. Grew louder.
No matter. If Cephalo rejected Zeninna as unworthy, they’d find a dead nixie with the Peral Dagger protruding from her heart. If Cephalo accepted this sacrifice, they’d find nothing but sea foam on the floor.
She plunged the dagger into her heart.