I stand on the edge of the cliff, miles of land now uncovered because of Damian and what he had done. The wind wraps around me, the white dress I wear rippling like water. It’s finally over. Everything peaceful again.
I can see a smaller peak of land several miles away, a blanket of water wrapped around it across an expanse of land. The water had covered it before the Earth stopped moving and the sea was relocated into the clouds, perhaps even past that. It almost gleams in the fading sunlight as I stare at it, the remains of the cities of mermaid clans below shining in the sunlight. Maybe we were the only inhabited island left in the world after the Flood. Or maybe not. I don’t think I’ll ever know and I don’t want to know. If we weren’t, we sure are now. This is my home and I should focus on it rather than daydreaming about other tribes.
“Cressa-la.” Lily-flor’s voice is soft behind me.
I turn as she takes my hand and tugs.
“Tani-mah wants to talk to you.”
I nod, glancing once more out at the newly uncovered land, and let her lead me to where everyone was placing their findings. I’ve long awaited this, tried to keep my distance from everyone after todays’ events until this moment. The moment where they will cast me out for eternity because I’m a One. One in a million.
Tani-mah’s jaw is set as she stands alone over the pile of wood and twigs. Her hands are placed on her hips as she nods to someone asking her a question. She runs her hands through her hair as she looks down at the heap, stress radiating from her figure. Where are the other Tribe Leaders?
Her eyes lock on mind as I move closer. She straightens her body and locks her hands behind her back. And once again, she’s the Tribe Leader I’ve known all my life.
People either dart out of my way or congratulate me as Lily-flor guides me the rest of the way. She stops, the only thing between Tani-mah and I is the growing mountain of supplies.
“Hello, Cressa-la,” she says, her voice tight.
I take a shaky breath and nod. “Hello, Tani-mah.”
People begin to gather around us, craning their necks to see and straining their ears to listen. Lily-flor squeezes my hand. Her presence makes me feel secure, although I know I’m moments away from being tossed from this temporary alliance with the two other tribes. Who knows where our species could go from here?
I hold my head high as Tani-mah begins to speak.
“You betrayed us by going into the water. You spoke to a boy, whom we now know is Tamir, whose home was the sea. The entire tribe was put in harms way because of you, and many of us suffered or died because of it. Yurt-sah, Lup-mem, Marin-na… Rai-si…” She chokes on his name as she says it, and my heart lurches inside of me. They’re all dead. She’s the last Initi Tribe Leader. “The lightest punishment I could deliver to you would be to send you out into the sea to fend for yourself.”
Storm clouds roll overhead slowly, nature trying to balance itself out once again. I have a feeling it’ll rain until the sea levels return to normal. Give or take a few hundred feet because of the places the water will fall and won’t return to the seas, should there really be any other land past the horizon.
“This would have happened anyway.” I shove the lump in my throat down, only to have it return. Tears sting my eyes with the news of the deaths, with the threat of my own… Lily-flor grips my hand with both of hers now, holding on as if I’ll float away.
Tani-mah nods once. “You’re right, it would have. And because of you, we had knowledge of this beforehand, as well as allies to fight beside. You warned us. Because of that…” She sighs. A sad smile crosses her face. “I grant you a pardon.”
A weight lifts from my heart and I feel my body relax. People cheer and clap, slapping me on the back. I feel a smile spread over my lips. I’m forgiven. Forgiven and home, where everything will soon be okay again.
My eyes narrow as they snap back over at her. Her lips are pursed and her eyes are narrowed, watching me. She can’t take him away from me. If she does, I know it isn’t out of spite. She understands that none of what Damian did was my fault. Or at least she’s got to…
“He didn’t do anything,” I blurt. “He came up here to help us; I promise he isn’t a danger to us at all unless he touches the water on a full moon. He’s not dangerous…”
I sniffle, a daring tear darting down my cheek.
“He doesn’t belong here, Cressa-la,” Tani-mah says softly. “He came from the sea.”
“But he was once a part of the Revli Tribe.” I clench my fists to keep everything inside from falling apart. “So that means, in some way, he’s connected to us, One-Hundred or not. He’s one of us.”
“No, Cressa-la,” Tani-mah shakes her head. “He’s one of us. You’re not a one-hundred, nor a part of the One-Hundred. You are a One.”
“Does it matter?” I cry. “Let him stay up here with us, with me. Please.”
“And why should I do that?” Tani-mah asks, growing impatient as she crosses her arms over her chest. “Why should I let him stay?”
“Because we match.”
All heads turn in the direction of the voice. Tamir appears out from between the trees, holding an armful of twigs. They clatter into the pile as he releases them. His face is hard and unreadable as he stands up straight. The scars on his torso seem to shimmer in the glow of the sunset as I stare at him, awestricken. Could he really be…?
My brow furrows. “You’re… my…”
“Match,” he says, turning to me. His face is sad but his eyes sparkle with something indecipherable to me. “I’m your match.”
“How do you—how do you know?”
“Your glowing,” Tani-mah interjects, and I snap my head around to look at her. “They’re the same color. When the sea chooses you, you glow. That glowing, aside from the large possibility of it matching your parents’, shows you who you’re compatible.”
“How do you know this?” I gasp at her, my heart pounding in my body.
“We Tribe Leaders are informed about everything, if only they ask the Kings and Queens beneath the water when they appear to us.”
“But…” my eyes drift to Tamir’s, who meets them with his. “Why does it happen?”
“Maybe it’s to make Ones,” Tamir suggests lightly, taking my hands in his. A shiver makes its way down my spine. “So that they won’t all be evil.”
I smile at this, looking down at our hands. His are warm against mine, and suddenly everything makes sense. Why he glowed so powerfully on the night he tried to keep me from touching the water. Why he did what he did and why he looks at me the way he does. We are perfect for each other, and he’s known it from the start.
“Cressa-la.” Tani-mah clears her throat and I turn to look at her.
“You can’t throw him out.”
“We have to. Like I said, he doesn’t belong here.”
“But he belongs with me.” My heart skips at the words. “Why can’t you just let him stay?”
“Cressa-la,” she says, disappointment drenching my name as it passes her lips.
“No. Why can’t he stay? You haven’t told the Wurn or Revli Tribes to leave yet. Why is he any different?”
“Cressa-la, I can’t let him stay.”
“Because I said so.”
“That makes no sense!”
“Cressa-la, stop this right now,” she shouts over my arguing. “He has ten seconds to leave.”
I turn to him, his jaw set.
“Fine.” Once more, I lift my chin. “But I’m going with him.”
Not looking back, we begin to walk away. A part of me starts to empty, as if I’m leaving an important part of myself behind.
Lily-flor collides into my legs, wrapping her arms around them. I pry her off and squat down, looking her directly in the eyes.
“You have to stay here,” I tell her, stifling a tear. “Tani-mah will take care of you.”
“But I don’t want her to-I want you to!”
I shake my head firmly. “Lily-flor—”
“Tani-mah! Don’t make them go! Don’t make Cressa-la leave me!”
“Lily-flor.” My voice is stern; I sound like Tani-mah. “You’ve got to listen to me—”
“No!” A tear falls from each of her eyes. “You’re not going anywhere. Please, Tani-mah! She’s a Tribe Leader now too, remember? She passed all the tests! And Tribe Leaders stick together no matter what—even when they fight. Rai-si would let him stay!”
Tani-mah is taken aback, a stricken look appearing on her face. She’s lost for words as she opens her mouth. The crowd stares at her, and even I am at awe with Lily-flor’s words.
I am a Tribe Leader, aren’t I? As soon as I stepped out that door…
Tani-mah sighs, her shoulders falling as her eyes shut. Lily-flor somehow knew the right buttons to press, because when she opens her eyes back up, she nods her head in approval. I stand up as she waves her hand for us to come back.
“All right, Cressa-la.” Her voice cracks. “He can stay. But only if he wants to.”
Tamir looks at me. Smiles. “I do.”
“And you have to help us with hunting and every other responsibility.”
“And you can’t break our number one rule.”
“Which is?” He asks.
I interrupt before Tani-mah can finish her thought.
“Don’t touch the water.”
Like I guessed, the water didn’t completely refill the sea. The peak of land sticks up over the shallow water wrapping around it and the merpeople that survived have begun to visit us. We’ve become friends with them as we help each other rebuild our cities and villages. Some of the merpeople have decided to keep their legs and live with us up here, helping us repopulate the Earth.
Me, on the other hand, I balance both worlds in my life.
Lily-flor has been begging me to take her beneath the water for some time now. She’s ten, and the rule of the island still applies to her, just like it applies to those under the water. She can’t touch the water and they can’t touch the land. However, those rules have been modified over the past four years because of me. You have to be thirteen and pass a test over their way of living on the other side to even touch it. Every time I begin to head down the mountain, Lily-flor is there, tugging at my arm and asking me to go, trying to convince me she knows all about their way of life down there. And I’m sure she does. But she isn’t thirteen. And as a Tribe Leader, and her permanent guardian, I have to follow the rules. But she’ll go down there some day, seeing that the sea chooses her.
Tonight I walk along the tree line at what used to be the bottom of the island. The trees disappear there, the land beyond it filled with a downward slope of sand crashing into water. The point of land a handful of miles away is growing its own ecosystem, some of the merpeople deciding to live their human lives out over there.
The moon shines down onto me, but its pull has no effect. I harness the strength of its powers in my fingertips, therefore making me strong enough to resist its pull to the water. But tonight does seem like it would be a great night for a swim.
I leap into the air, my skin prickling with energy as the blue glow begins to illuminate from it.
“Tamir!” I hiss, not able to keep myself from laughing. He wraps his arms around me and kisses me on the cheek. The ring he had made me glimmers in the moonlight as I touch his face, and I smile. Everything is perfect, even with the flaws we both have—my trust issues, his painful past, our heart’s limits—but nothing could ever come between us. Everything inside of me screams it as I recall our story from the moment we met. And as he kisses me, I wonder how different it all could have been.
What if I had never touched the water?