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Authors: Elizabeth Haydon

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BOOK: The Tree of Water
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“That's good advice,” said the merrow. “If you don't pay attention, it
will
be the last thing she said to you.”

As the thrum of her words died away, a long pointed shadow appeared on the surface above her head.

It was moving toward them, gliding in from deeper in the harbor, blocking the light as it passed. It dwarfed the school of fish swimming beneath it.

Ven felt his heart pound hard against his rib cage.

Shark,
he thought.
Shark.

Instantly, the blue-and-yellow fish vanished.

The sunflower starfish, now almost out of sight, froze. It buried the tips of its many legs into the sand and lay flat, all but disappearing into the bottom of the harbor.

Char's head whipped around, catching a clump of seaweed in his hair.


Shark?
Where, Ven?
Where?

Amariel spun around as well.

“What? Where's the shark? Hold still, for goodness' sake, Chum.”

Ven stopped moving as well.

Above you
, he thought, trying to think quietly.

Amariel's head did not move, but her eyes looked up. Then they returned to Ven. The thrum of her voice echoed in his ears, the tone sarcastic.

“Sharks don't have rudders, Ven,” she said. “That's a fishing boat.”

Ven looked up as well. Just as the merrow had said, what had looked like a tail on the shadow was just a piece of wood, like the hundreds he had seen manufactured in his family's factory.

Even in the cool seawater, he could feel his face turn hot.

“How embarrassing,” he said. “I'm very sorry.”

The merrow shrugged. “Don't tell me—tell
them
.” She pointed at the hundreds of fish, now staring at him from within the seaweed. The sands at the bottom shifted as the sunflower starfish angrily pulled out its tentacles and shook them.

“Sorry, everyone,” Ven repeated.

The school of fish regrouped and swam off in a huff. Ven could feel their annoyance in their thrum. The starfish crawled away, its fury clear. In the distance Ven thought the sea urchins had made use of his mistake to gain some time and escape. Their thrum was farther away, and less frightened.

“Well, at least the urchins made out well,” he said to Amariel and Char, who were floating next to him.

“That's not funny, Ven,” said the merrow sternly. “A shark warning is taken seriously by everyone in the sea. A false alarm doesn't make you any friends, trust me.”

“I'll try to be more careful,” Ven promised.

“You had better be. Come along, now.”

The two boys followed the merrow as she swam farther out into the depths. The deeper they went, fewer shells dotted the sandy ocean floor. The sky, while still visible through the watery ceiling, was growing hazier. Only the sun was still clear, its rays spreading out in the green water, making shafts of light and shadow.

“Where are we goin', Amariel?” Char asked. “I've lost all bearings. Can you tell directions in the sea?”

“Of course.” The merrow's voice was disdainful. “Seafolk have a lot better sense of direction than land-livers do.”

“I think what Char meant to ask was what are you taking us to see,” Ven said. “I'd like to know that as well. The harbor looks very different from underneath.” He looked up at the surface of the water and marveled at the number of ships and small boats sailing by above them, unaware of everything that lay beneath the waves.

Just as he had been when they were on the decks of the
Serelinda
.

“Well, besides showing you the harbor of your own land, I thought we might go outside it and explore the coral reef,” the merrow said. “This island is surrounded on almost every side by a huge wall of living creatures that protect it from storms and high seas. It might be nice for you to get to see them—and maybe say thank you.”

“Good idea,” Ven said.

“It will take a while to get to the reef—especially with you two slowpokes. We'll be lucky if we get out of the harbor by nightfall. We're heading north, so I guess we can make for the skelligs and sleep there tonight, then head west to the reef in the morning, when you can see all the colors and the creatures that live there.”

“Skelligs?”

The merrow sighed. “Black pointy hills in the sea off the coast. You sailed right past them on the way here.”

“Oh, yes,” Ven said. “They look like dark teeth sticking out of the water not too far from shore.”
Covered in mist,
he thought.

“A lot of merfolk and sea creatures like to hang out on the skelligs. Sea lions especially—merrows have to be careful of them, because the males are stupid and often mistake us for giant fish. It's the last part of the upworld you will see for a while once we get there. After that we head out to the coral reef. The water there is still pretty shallow. The reef is very large, so it will take a while to get to the edge of it and out to the True Deep.”

“What does that mean, True Deep?” Char asked nervously. “You mean the bottom of the sea?”

“Don't worry—we will never leave the Sunlit Realm, the shallowest part of the ocean,” Amariel said. “That's where all the normal creatures and plants live, because the sunlight shines through the water there. Most of the ocean is far too dark and cold for anything but monsters to live there. No self-respecting sea creature goes below a hundred fathoms.”

“Do merfolk use the same measure of a fathom that sailors do?” Ven asked.

The merrow scowled. “I don't know what sailors use. They're
humans
, remember?”

“Right, sorry. A fathom's about six feet by human measure, about the size of a human man.”

“That sounds about right. So the reef is very shallow, just a little bit over your head, for the most part. Once we're past it, we will be in the True Deep, anywhere from five to one hundred fathoms to the bottom. That's where the Sunlit Realm ends, and the Twilight Realm begins. We don't want to go there—it's a frightening place with very little light. Some really strange creatures live there that we would never want to meet up with. Twilight goes about five hundred fathoms deep, and then you're at the place where all light dies, the Midnight Realm. But that's very far away from here.
Way
too far for us to go, not that we would want to.”

“I think exploring the Sunlit Realm sounds perfect,” said Ven. “The skelligs and the reef sound like great fun.”

“Then, maybe, if you're very good and things go well, we can travel past the reef and into the Sea Desert. That's a challenge, because the desert is a pretty scary place. A lot of the big predators, the sharks and giant octopi, live there—and most of them are
not
my friends. But if we want to go to the Summer Festival—which we
do
—we'll have to cross the desert. Believe me, it's worth it.”

“The Summer Festival? Isn't that where you said you wanted to be a hippocampus rider in the great races there when you get older?” Ven asked.

Amariel smiled. “You
were
listening, then,” she said. “I told you those stories when you were lying on that piece of driftwood after the explosion that blew up your ship. I wasn't sure you were awake.”

“I was somewhere between awake and asleep. But I remember those stories very well. I've never seen a sea horse—er, hippocampus—especially not a giant one big enough to be ridden. I think that would be a very exciting thing to see.”

“Me too,” Char said.

A thought suddenly occurred to Ven.

“Do you know where there are any sea dragons, Amariel?” he asked.

“No,” said the merrow. “Why?”

“Because I think I am supposed to return the scale Madame Sharra gave me to a sea dragon,” Ven said. “She said it was important to discover the reason I am making this journey before it's over. I think that may be part of the reason—to return this scale to the dragon who owns it, just like we did with Scarnag.”

The merrow stared at him.

“I thought the reason was to explore the Deep with me, as you've been promising to do since we met,” she said huffily. “I didn't realize you needed another reason.”

“I don't,” Ven said quickly. “But I think perhaps Madame Sharra does. Or at least she expects me to do something for her while I'm here.”

“Well, there's no point in annoying anyone who is powerful enough to send things through a sunshadow,” said Amariel. “We can always ask around about the dragon. But I warn you, if you're intentionally approaching a sea dragon's reef, I'm not going with you. Sea dragons breathe the same sort of fire that Fire Pirates use—it is not put out by water, and it burns like a thousand of the fires you have on land. Sea dragons, like any other dragon, are very protective of their reef lairs, and everyone stays clear of them. So if we learn of where one is, you can go visit it—as long as you do it by yourself.”

“Fair enough,” said Ven.

“What's goin' on over there?” Char's thrum sounded even more nervous than it had before.

Ven and Amariel turned in the direction he was pointing.

In the distance to what Ven guessed was the north, a great disturbance of sand and weed was churning.

Amariel's face lost its smile.

“That's the place outside the Gated City,” she said. “It's a sort of undersea tunnel. When I first followed you to Serendair, I used to see people going in and out of there all the time, sometimes with barrels and crates, sometimes alone. It was closed for a while. It looks like they have it open again.”

“Those are Felonia's people, I'd guess,” Ven said. “It's one of the leaks in the Gated City—like a hole in the wall. That place was built to be a prison a long time ago, but it's clear that she has contact with the outside world. In fact, it seems like everyone in both the Inner and Outer markets has some way to get past the gates.”

“My, you have a lot of interesting enemies,” the merrow said. “I say we stay as far away from that as we can.”

“Good idea,” said Ven. “It's a shame. There are a lot of nice people trapped behind those walls that can't seem to get out, and yet the most evil of them, like the thieves and assassins in the Raven's Guild, don't have any trouble at all. It's disgusting.”

“I guess everything in the upworld is food to something else, too,” said Amariel. “Let's be on our way—the merfolk all know to stay well clear of that place.”

“Amen,” said Char.

Amariel turned and gave a strong sweep of her tail, heading back out toward the depths of the harbor. Char followed quickly behind, but Ven lingered for a moment, staring at the place where the underwater tunnel entered the market.

The excitement I felt at finally getting to explore the Deep had dimmed a little.

When Char and I, along with our other friends, first went into the Gated City, we were dazzled by all the magic and the beautiful sights we found inside the walls of the Outer Market, where the townspeople of Kingston go to shop on Market Day. Everywhere we turned we saw bright colors, golden spangles, and odd animals that we never knew existed. We smelled rich meats roasting, spicy perfumes, and baked goods that made our mouths water from several streets away. And we heard sweet, entrancing music everywhere we went. It was such an interesting, exotic place that it was easy to forget that it wasn't a
safe
place. It was not until we were beyond the keyhole-shaped gate that led into the dark, misty streets of the Inner Market that we understood how the bright magic could mask deadly danger.

For just a moment, I felt a flash of that feeling again.

Then it was gone.

I wondered if seeing the tunnel into the Gated City was bringing back old, scary memories.

Or if the exotic call of the sea was masking a deeper danger.

But either way, it was too late to do anything about it.

“Are you coming?” Amariel demanded.

Ven shook off his thoughts.

“Yes, sorry,” he thought quickly in reply. “Lead away, Amariel. Show us the coral reef.”

Amariel nodded, then turned and swam off into the sunshadows of Kingston Harbor.

Ven followed as fast as he could.

In the distance, he heard the familiar thrum once again echo against his ears, far away.

And then it was gone.

 

7

On the Skelligs

It took far longer to reach the open sea than Ven could have imagined.

The drift was stronger the deeper out they went. Both he and Char could swim, but neither of them had ever had to do so for long. They found themselves getting tired easily.

“Weaklings,” Amariel muttered as they took a break near some broken lobster traps at the bottom of the harbor. “Sheesh. How do you walk around in the air of the upworld when you are having so much trouble in the sea? The sea carries you. This shouldn't be so hard, Ven.”

“We'll get used to it,” Ven promised.

“Or die trying,” Char added.

“Careful what you say,” the merrow cautioned. “The sea is full of wishes. Yours might be granted by accident.”

“What do you mean?” Ven asked.

“A lot of humans wish on the sea for luck,” said the merrow. “They send messages in bottles or toss coins over the sides of ships. They even swear oaths by the sea, which is the truth in its purest form, a very powerful thing. Sometimes those wishes and oaths get caught in the waves and float around, trapped in the sea. If you happen to swim through one when you are wishing for something yourself, well, you may just get your wish. I don't think you want that one to come true, Chum.”

“No, indeed,” Char agreed. “Thanks. I'll be more careful.”

BOOK: The Tree of Water
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