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Authors: Elizabeth Haydon

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BOOK: The Tree of Water
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I couldn't argue with that. We certainly were outsiders in this vast, foreign world. It was clear that the inhabitants of the ocean found us even more odd than we found them.

Even though the ray was gone, I still was unable to move.

But now it was not fear that froze me, but amazement.

Below me the ocean bottom had changed from the sand-strewn floor with patches of seaweed and the broken trash of humans to what looked like a living painting. Here in the depths, away from the beating of the surf, a magnificent wall of color and life was spread out as far as I could see. Coral of all sizes and forms danced in the drift, some shaped like the horns of reindeer, some like great tubes, and others like the wispy fronds of ferns in a watery forest.

And within the plant-like arms of the coral, brightly colored fish darted. A school of beautiful orange and white ones with ruffled fins swarmed below my feet. Their thrum was curious.

“Those are clown fish,” Amariel whispered in his head. “They're very friendly.”

Ven smiled. “You have clowns under the sea as well?”

“Well, of course.”

“I'm afraid of clowns,” Char said. He had wrapped his arms around himself and was hovering in the water, trembling slightly.

“You would be,” said the merrow disdainfully. “You have no common sense, Chum. Clown fish are some of the only things in the sea you don't have to fear.”

“I don't mean the fish,” Char continued awkwardly. “I mean the ones in the upworld that put on creepy face paint and weird clothes with ruffles and bells and pom-poms. They had a lot of them in the Gated City, in the Outer Market. I don't like
nothin'
with a permanent smile. You can't tell what it's really thinkin'.”

“I bet land-liver clowns got the idea for their ruffled clothes from clown fish,” said Amariel. She waved her web-fingered hand, and the clown fish scattered back to the arms of some purple coral that looked like cabbage leaves.

“I guess we are going to have to swim until we get past the reef,” said Ven. “I imagine we shouldn't walk on the coral.”

“Of course not. Would you want some human walking on
your
family?”

Ven thought back to his sister, Matilde, and his eleven brothers, his business-like father and his stern mother. Even though Nain were shorter than humans, they were stockier, and generally sturdier. They were also a good deal grumpier, with thorny personalities, and tended to bounce their bellies off anyone who got in their way
. Definitely not,
he thought to himself.
I wouldn't want to see humans' feet get bitten off.

Char chuckled, and Ven remembered that his thoughts were no longer his own in the sea.

“Come along,” said Amariel. “Let's explore the reef.”

The water above them was clearer and bluer than Ven had seen since coming into the sea. The sun shone down steadily through the surface, brightening the colors of the coral and the creatures that lived within it. The sight reminded Ven of the lair of the dragon Scarnag, the beast he had met in a great serpent-shaped cave in the Wide Meadows of Serendair. Scarnag had hoarded books, globes, and maps as well as gems and coins in sparkling towers. Ven wondered if the beautiful reef and its creatures could be the hoard of another dragon, one whose scale he might be carrying at that moment in the buttoned pocket of his vest.

As he was thinking about it, they swam through a patch of bright, hazy light caused by the sun beating down from the sky above. Before he could stop his thoughts, an immense sunshadow image of a dragon appeared.

The beast's mud-colored hide was striped in colors of green and red, purple and blue and seemed to have been formed from Living Earth itself. His head was roughly shaped, with cruel spines all the way down his back to a tail that had softly rounded spikes on it. His stone-like claws were jagged, and gray smoke curled from his nostrils, almost covering the tiny pair of glasses that were perched on the end of his nose.

Scarnag, whose name meant
scourge
, was in truth really a fairly pleasant dragon librarian when he wasn't torching the countryside.

Ven's head almost exploded as the thrum of every living creature around them gasped and screamed at the same time.

Including all the tiny creatures forming the massive coral reef.

The sheets of herring swarmed around them, then sped off the reef toward deeper water.

Char's body snapped in shock, then curled up into a ball in pain.

“Gee ma-nee, Ven!” he moaned. “What the
heck
?”

The merrow spun in a similar fashion. She clutched her head and let out a sound that was half screech, half gurgle.

“By the Blowhole!” she shrieked. “Get out of the sunwater, and think of something
else!
” She let go of her head long enough to give Ven a violent push with her tail.

Furiously Ven paddled, flailing his arms and kicking his legs hard. He swam as fast as he could into bluer parts of the water until the thrum from the reef subsided. He looked back over his shoulder.

The image of Scarnag had vanished.

The merrow was glaring daggers at him.

The reef was bare of fish.

And Char was still curled up in a ball, sinking slowly toward the bottom of the sea.

“You know, I can't take you
anywhere
.” The merrow's thrum vibrated against his eardrums. “You are
so
embarrassing. Don't even say it,” she added as Ven started to apologize. “Get your thoughts under control, Ven, or I'm going to abandon you here in the middle of the coral reef. You are getting to be a danger to associate with.”

Ven swam quickly down to where Char was floating helplessly, and grabbed his arm.

“I'm so sorry,” he thought, trying to keep his brain from conjuring up any more ferocious images. “Are you all right?”

“Awwwggh” was the answer from Char's thrum.

“I don't know what to say,” Ven thought to Amariel. “I didn't mean to think of Scarnag—I don't know what to do, how to apologize to an entire coral reef—”

“Stop.” The merrow's thrum sounded a little less annoyed. “Just keep a quiet mind for a moment.”

Ven's face was red and hot, and it was all he could do to keep from throwing up.
I should never have come,
he thought, trying to keep his mind from wandering.
We're very far from land, and one more false move might doom us out here.
He looked down into the palm of his hand at the magical image of the Time Scissors, the sign of his ability to redo one moment of his Past.
Maybe I should undo this whole journey, and take my chances with the Thief Queen on land.

The thought of Felonia made him shiver. He looked around quickly to make sure he wasn't floating in a patch of sunwater, then tried to make his mind go blank. But his curiosity was burning so intensely that he could not stop the images that were flooding his brain.

Then, his head suddenly cleared.

Around him was a thrum that was both magically distant and familiar, a haunting song of a sort that wrapped him in a gentle vibration. He knew he had heard it before, but he could not place it.

He turned to Char, who obviously could feel it as well. His best friend was staring ahead of him.

He pointed. Ven followed his finger.

He was pointing to the merrow.

Amariel was singing.

Instantly I knew why the thrum was so familiar. Her voice was different underwater than it had been in the air of the upworld, when she sang me songs and told me stories to keep me awake so that I would not slip off the broken piece of driftwood on which she had tossed me to save me when the
Angelia
blew up. But it had the same tone, sweet and enchanting and calming.

As she sang, the fish and other creatures of the reef that I had frightened away began to emerge from holes in the coral and return. They were gathering around, listening to her, too.

The song did not sound like anything I had ever heard. It had no words or choruses, just a sweet, pleasant melody that made the air from the breathing stone feel cleaner. My head felt light and woozy, and at that moment I would have done anything she asked of me.

I remembered the stories human sailors tell on dark nights about merrows, or mermaids, as they call them, and their songs. They say that they are so magical, so enchanting, that many men who sail the sea meet their doom following those haunting songs to rocks and reefs where their ships are lost, run aground. Hearing her call the frightened fish back to the reef, I could believe it. Then I realized what she was doing with her song.

She was apologizing for me, trying to keep the creatures of the reef from attacking me, or seeing me as an enemy.

I've never been so embarrassed in my life.

In a section of the coral of reef below him, many tiny plants suddenly swelled and bloomed between the rocky structures. They opened like flowers blossoming in the sunshine, splashing the coral with their colors of soft orange and vibrant pink and a purple so intense that Ven could actually hear it as it grew. They moved in time to the merrow's song, almost as if she were calling them with her melody, and they were answering her.

He could hear the plants sing, each in its own colors.

When Amariel had finished her song she turned back to them in the drift. She smiled when she saw Ven and Char watching the new colorful garden exploding in the coral at their feet.

“Elaroses,” she said.

“They're beautiful.” Ven pumped his arms to raise himself higher as the plants shot up even taller. “Thank you for singing to them—and to everyone else.” He watch as more fish, bright blue and yellow with noses that looked like the beaks of birds, and a small herd of pink-and-white-striped shrimp emerged from the coral bed. “You have saved me from myself once again, Amariel.”

The merrow's face lost its smile.

“I know,” she said. “And I hope you understand what a dangerous thing it was to do. Because someone is going to pay for it now, probably with their lives.”

 

11

A Deadly Song

“What—what do you mean?” Ven stammered.

The merrow shrugged. “I've told you that merrows—well, female merrows, anyway—are some of the most beautiful and wonderful creatures in the sea. Everyone knows that. And, as you have seen several times, merrow songs are very powerful. Goodness knows they've saved your backside more than once. We aren't supposed to sing unless it's an emergency, because so many creatures, including human males, get silly and lose control of themselves when we sing. That's the reason we are allowed to save human men if they're drowning, as I told you the night I saved you. We're not supposed to have contact with humans at all, but if a merrow has been singing, it's possible that the human jumped into the sea or sailed into rocks to follow the merrow's song. So if they do something foolish, we're allowed to save them, but we're not supposed to talk to them.”

Ven looked up at the surface, where the sun was turning the water a spectacular shade of aquamarine. The drift was clear of any sign of a vessel passing overhead. “Do you think a passing sailor or ship might have heard you?”

“Maybe. I have no idea. But sailors are not the only thing—or even the most important thing—that is attracted by the song of a merrow.” She pointed at the blooming elaroses below them. “As you can see, everyone and everything that hears it wants more of it. The elaroses don't hear well down in the coral bed, so they grow just be to close enough. The fish, who ran from your sunwater mess-up a moment ago, braved what they thought was a sea dragon, one of the scariest creatures in the sea, to hear it. A merrow's song makes most creatures forget their common sense completely, because they are entranced. All they want to do is follow the song—and that can mean terrible trouble.”

“So somethin' else is going to show up?” Char asked nervously. “Something dangerous?”

“Quite possibly. There are all sorts of deadly creatures on a reef that listen to the music of the sea—and not all of them are predators. We had best move along. The plankton are storming nearby, and there are a lot of krill not far from here. That means just about anybody could be around. That's why merrows are supposed to be very careful about singing, especially under the water. We only do it if it's an emergency. You seem to be good at making emergencies, Ven. Now everyone has forgotten the dragon in the sunwater—but we've just potentially made our journey to the Summer Festival a whole lot more dangerous.”

Ven sighed. “Sorry.”

The merrow shrugged again. “Can't be helped. That's what happens when you go to a place you're not really supposed to be in. You land-livers call someone who is out of place a ‘fish out of water.' We have an expression for the same thing—'a man in the sea.' Either way, it's not the best situation to be in. I guess that's the risk you take when you explore each other's worlds.”

Ven thought back to the words of Asa the fisherman.

The sea's no place to explore without a good reason, lads. Lots of bad stuff down there—believe you me.

Madame Sharra had questioned him as well.

For what reason is a Nain, a son of the Earth, going into the sea?

His answer sounded even more weak in his memory than it had in his ears at the time.

Lots of reasons. Amariel—the merrow over there—she's my friend. I've been promising her for a long time I would come and explore the sea with her. It's her home. She came out of the sea to explore my world—she grew legs, in fact, and—

A good reason, perhaps, but good enough to risk death?

BOOK: The Tree of Water
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