Eager hands accepted our offerings as we returned home fueled by adrenaline and hope. No one asked any questions, they were too busy filling their mouths, and their empty stomachs, to care where the food came from. No one, that is, until we reached the heart of the reef.
The Queen waited with arms crossed and a scowl clouding her already intimidating features. We stopped as one and waited. No explanation was needed as she glanced at our grass-woven baskets.
“It is forbidden,” she said.
Her voice vibrated through the water and I felt the reprimand against my skin.
“Mother, please,” Taya began, but her words were quelled with a single look.
Another shift of her eyes brought her gaze to rest on the key which still hung around my neck.
“This will not happen again,” she commanded.
Four heads bowed, three of them in obedience.
The Queen extended one hand, palm up, and we gave up our baskets. Her hand remained outstretched.
I looked up then and met her gaze, knowing what she wanted but unwilling to acquiesce.
“Elisande!” Taya hissed at my side and gave me a hard look from the corner of her eyes.
Reluctantly I slid the chain from my neck and held it out to her.
“Your Highness please, there is food enough to last us for months.” I said softly.
“Yes,” she replied, “but at what cost?”
“No greater than the risk of traveling beyond the reef.” I replied.
Her eyes hardened then and she grasped the key, yanking the chain from my fingers.
“Never again.” With that the Queen turned her back to us and swam away.
Taya followed with her head bowed.
Imalia and Leilani gave me apologetic glances before following their own mother home, who had been watching from the gathered crowd.
As the crowd dispersed, I remained, completely alone.
I waited until I was sure everyone was asleep, which didn’t take long after their first real meal in weeks. Then altering my course lest anyone happened to be watching, I make my way along the inner edge of the reef. My eyes wandered longingly to the dark expanse of ocean beyond the sharp coral and barnacle-covered rocks. My Father, along with the rest of the young men, had been sent to find not only food, but a new home. They’d gone hunting beyond the reef, and they’d been gone too long.
We all knew it, but no one would put words to that which weighed so heavy on our hearts.
I angled in toward the shore and watched the early morning light play on the tops of the waves, streaming through the surface to dance across my skin.
Pulling myself onto the shore I willed my scales into smooth skin, separated my fin into two legs, and then stole up the beach toward the castle.
As I neared the tower, hoping to find it unoccupied and still unlocked, I heard a great commotion inside. Voices yelling, feet stomping, and a door being slammed shut.
I crouched in the sand and pressed myself against the stone wall, listening.
Their accents were strange, and I did not know all of the words, but I knew enough to understand the empty crates had been discovered.
We had replaced the lids, and even locked the door behind us. There must be another key.
The sun hung a hand width above the horizon now, shining on me and warming my skin. My hair was drying into salt-stiffened clumps.
More stamping feet and yelling voices caused me to lean in. This time a new voice responded in firm denial to a series of accusations.
“It’s your job to guard the tower, you’re as guilty as if you’d stolen it yourself.”
A resigned sigh and a man’s deep baritone responded.
“So be it.”
Much scuffling and muttering followed this pronouncement, and then there was silence, a story left with no ending.
I squeezed my eyes closed, relief and guilt battling inside of me. Someone else was about to be punished for my actions.
My mind spun as I tried to figure out what to do. In the end all I knew for certain was that I must do something.
First things first, I needed to find some clothes.
How and where should she acquire an outfit?