Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Michelle Hoppe.
All rights reserved.
Shadows and darkness distorted the ghostly mast that jutted from the wooden deck, a lone sentinel standing guard over the broken ship. The Spanish galleon had come to rest on soft, white sand near a coral reef. A gaping hole in her side from cannon-shot was a testament to a long ago battle. The ragged edges of her broken timbers were worn smooth by the soft caress of warm Caribbean waters.
Barnacles covered much of her exposed surface, and schools of small, colorful fish swam in and around her shattered frame. Unseen in darker water, sharks waited just out of sight, swimming in circles. The sleek predators built their ravenous hunger into an overwhelming need before they darted in to capture careless denizens of the deep in their razor sharp jaws.
Just one month to go, Tiro thought. Damn this curse. He swam closer to the wreck—hiding behind wooden crates, a part of the old ship’s cargo—which had been carelessly tossed from the hold during a final plunge deep below aqua waters. With a javelin at his side, he watched the sharks circle the reef. Waiting for an opening, he flexed his fingers against the spear’s metal shaft, ready to launch the moment a sleek gray body glided close to his hiding place.
His gaze was momentarily drawn to a school of bright yellow Coney flying from the cargo hold, fleeing a large white-tip riding their wake from the bowels of the ship. Hundreds of small fish were devoured in a single sweep of the shark’s mouth before any were aware they were doomed.
Tiro’s hand clenched in anticipation, his body rigid and his muscles coiled to spring, when the seven-foot monster swam closer. Unaware death waited, the shark cut through the water with grace. Raising the spear to his shoulder, he waited, breath held. He drew his arm back, and then shot the javelin forward with great force. Slicing through water with deadly silence, the six-inch metal point cut into the shark’s thick scales and imbedded into its soft flesh. Blood poured from the wound, tainting the sea red. Swimming faster, the stricken shark tried to dislodge the painful intruder. A trail of red followed his path, closely pursued by his brethren waiting for death’s throes to take him before they devoured his flesh.
As the sharks moved from sight, his way clear, Tiro cautiously swam toward the ship. Skirting its side, he turned his head, scanning the open sea, checking for danger before he approached a fissure leading inside. With a kick of his fins, he cleaved through the water, moving from a world of color and light to dim, foreboding semi-darkness. Unable to see, he paused a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust to the diffused interior light. Many small creatures darted in and out of the crates and urns flung haphazardly about the cargo hold. Sea urchins filled every inch of the wooden core, their colorful appendages extended in hope of snaring small plankton floating past.
Moving toward an opening above his head, he passed from the cargo hold and into the heart of the old wreck. Stairs climbed skyward, leading to an upper deck. He opened the only door and swam into what could only have been the captain’s cabin. A large bed frame sat under curved windows. The glass was no longer there, but wooden mullions still stood strong. Ornate carvings covered the four-poster bed, and slips of gauzy material still trailed like spider webs where a canopy once draped for privacy.
A large table and six chairs waited in silence as if eager for the ghostly figures of long dead sailors to enter and pull them from their resting place. Inspecting the room, he realized it was perfect for his purposes. Smiling behind his mask, he departed the eerie wreck. Swimming with ease, he reached the surface and the boat waiting to take him back to Tortuga.
Mark watched a body break the water’s surface near the boat. Tiro’s strong, steady strokes brought him within reach of a ladder in seconds. Mark waited while his brother climbed onboard and removed his mask and air tanks before asking, “Did you find it?”
“Yeah, I found it.”
Mark cocked an eyebrow. “And?”
Tiro shrugged his shoulders. “And it’s perfect.”
“I told you it would work.”
Tiro flipped his wet fins in Mark’s direction. “Yes, you did. Do you want a prize?”
He swatted the fins to the deck before they could hit him in the face. “No, jerk. I’m just saying I was right about the wreck, that’s all.”
Unzipping his wet suit, Tiro changed the subject. “We’ll have to move the table and chairs outta there. Oh, and what’s your plan for those windows?”
It was useless to try and get praise from his brother, so he simply answered the question. “Board ’em up.”
“Covering those windows with wood will make the room very dark and frightening,” Tiro reminded him, tugging jeans up still-wet legs and butt.
“You’re not getting soft on me are you, big brother?”
Struggling to snap his jeans, Tiro reached over to punch his arm. “No, I just believe we can accomplish this faster if we try to make things comfortable, even a small comfort like the ability to see out of one’s prison.”
Mark huffed at Tiro’s continued attempts to toss obstacles in the way. “Installing bars isn’t gonna fly. They’re expensive and difficult to work with underwater. Glass breaks easily, so, damn it, our only option is boarding them up.”
Tiro exhaled with resignation. “I know. You’re right, I just thought—”
“Fuck, Tiro,” Mark interrupted. “The time for thinking is over.” He was tired of hearing Tiro bitch about a situation they could do nothing to change. “Look, we need to get this done. We’ve only got a month to break this curse, or our family is doomed to hell on earth forever.” Mark hesitated, noticing a dark shadow fall over his brother’s face.
“Maybe I don’t find it hell on earth.”
Trying to control his anger, Mark nevertheless attempted once again to reason with his stubborn brother. “Don’t you think I’d take your place if I could? Only Cyrus’ oldest son can break the curse, so too fucking bad. You were born first. The job’s yours. Get over it already!”
Tiro’s face turned red and mottled. His jaw clenched. “Don’t tell me what my job is. I had no part in this bullshit. I wasn’t responsible, yet I’m expected to give up my life and dreams to do what no one else supposedly can!”
He decided to hold his tongue before Tiro popped him in the mouth.
Still unsure whether Tiro could complete the task laid before him, he bent to pick up the discarded air tanks. Stepping toward a storage box, he lifted the lid and secured the tanks. He took a deep breath, swallowed his annoyance, and tried to make his voice sound normal. “We should get underway. The sun will be up in less than thirty minutes. Want me to drive?”
Tiro seemed to relax a bit, and his broad shoulders slumped in defeat. “Hell, no. You finish stowing gear. I’ll get the engines started, radio in, and let them know we’re coming.”
Mark smiled. “Tell Mom to have something hot ready to eat. I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving,” Tiro called back as he climbed a ladder to the upper deck.
He finished packing the gear and headed for the wheelhouse to join Tiro. He’d given up trying to figure out what made his brother crave a life above the waves. Mark stood at the table reading charts and tracking their course with the GPS system. He noted Tiro’s relaxed stance and figured at least for now he’d cooled off. “Did you reach Mom?”
Tiro nodded. “Yeah, I told her to expect us in about nine hours.”
“Did you tell Father about our find?”
“Nope.” Tiro shook his dark head. “We’ll wait until tonight.”
A surge of adrenaline coupled with anticipation coursed through his veins at the thought of finally returning home and claiming his birthright. He admitted to himself that his own motives for going back to Caspia were strictly selfish, but Tiro needed to get over his bullshit issues and accept his fate as Caspia’s Crown Prince. With the family honor restored, their father could once again rule Caspia.
Their course was laid in, and his brother at the wheel meant Mark was free to relax on the deck and enjoy the ride. As he exited the wheelhouse, a smiled lifted the corners of his mouth.
“Yep, that’s what needs to happen, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let Tiro fuck it up.”
“Callista.” Tiro tested her name out loud. It flowed nicely, sounding rich when spoken. Enough! He shook his head trying to dislodge any thoughts of the traitor’s daughter. With more force, he growled to the emptiness around him. “Callista, daughter of Metri, traitor to all Caspia, soon you’ll know the vengeance of Tiro. Nothing can save you.”
Tiro’s dark thoughts lifted as he watched the coast come into view. Pink hues lit white sandy beaches nearby, and soft light from buildings reflected on twilight waves. Entering the breakwater, he slowed. Maneuvering around buoys and other small boats, he headed toward the dock, the sound of Mark’s feet on metal steps echoing over the stillness. Tiro sensed his brother’s excitement. “Almost there.”
“Yeah.” Mark smiled. “I can smell Mom’s cooking from here.”
Tiro laughed. “You can only imagine what it smells like. We’re not that close yet, little brother. Now, get your ass moving. Toss those lines around a cleat and make it fast.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Mark taunted, as he headed back down the stairs. Jumping to the dock, he pulled fenders over the boat’s side to protect its pristine white paint from harsh rubbing by the dock’s old wooden planks.
Once the two lines were fastened on cleats, Tiro turned off the engines. Sliding down a forward ladder, he tossed another rope to Mark. “Secure it tight. We’re supposed to have a storm tonight.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know.”
“And no granny knots this time.”
“Shut the fuck up and let me do this.”
Tiro stood with his hands in his pockets. “Sure. But if a storm hits and breaks the lines, you’re gonna be the one swimming come morning.”
“Back off! I’ve been lashing down boats longer than you have.”
Tiro laughed. Teasing his little brother took his mind off things—like the coming battle for Caspia and the inevitable loss of his current lifestyle. Leaving his present life with no choice and no alternative sucked.
Tiro shook himself. Stop it! Thinking about it won’t change anything. Tossing another line to Mark, he helped his brother and quit thinking about things he couldn’t change. Once they’d tied off the last line, he joined Mark on the wooden pier and walked to the Jeep.
Mark climbed in the driver’s seat, turning the key and gunning the engine to life. Gears ground when his brother shifted into drive, giving Tiro only seconds to fasten his seatbelt before the Jeep shot forward, speeding toward home. They drove in silence, allowing Tiro time to relax, his eyes closed and his mind blank.
Ten minutes later, the family home came into sight. As the jeep pulled into the driveway, Tiro could see his father, Cyrus, standing on the terrace waiting for them. “Hello, Father,” Tiro called out. Even though he’d always been comfortable with the humans’ informal use of the word “Mom,” Tiro had never felt at ease calling his father Dad; Cyrus was, after all, a king.
“Did you find it?” His father’s voice sounded optimistic.
“Will it work?” Tiro noted a soft gleam in his father’s eyes and a hopeful tone in his question.
“Yes, Father. It will take a little work, but we can have the boards in place and the room secure with about two days of work.”
Cyrus’ lips split into a smile. “This is wonderful news, son.” Never one to show overt affection, Cyrus surprised Tiro when he put his arm around Mark’s shoulder. “Come tell us what needs to be done.” His arm resting on Mark’s shoulder, Cyrus turned to walk inside. “We can finally put this plan in motion.”
Tiro followed his father and brother into the house. The smell of spicy gumbo assailed his nostrils, making his stomach lurch in hunger. He dropped onto a high-backed chair and waited for the family to join him for dinner. Tonight, with the last piece in place, they could finally move to reclaim Caspia, and he would discover if a return to the sea and a life he had all but forgotten was worth losing the life he had.
* * * *
Cyrus’ wife, Amara, ladled large helpings of gumbo into bowls and handed them to him to pass around the table.
He smiled at her. “This smells wonderful, dear.”
Amara’s thickly fringed lashes fluttered at Cyrus’ compliment. “Thank you.” She smiled. “Now everyone eat before it gets cold.”
“Yes, dear,” and “Yes, Mom,” echoed around the room. Cyrus looked down the length of the table at his son, Tiro, who was using a roll to push gumbo onto a spoon held firmly in his hand, scooping mouthfuls of food past his lips. Realizing the boys must be famished, Cyrus waited while they consumed much of their meal before questioning them about their trip. Finally, spoons dropped on empty plates and Cyrus’ silence ended. “Tiro, you said the ship can be made ready soon. What exactly is the plan?”
Tiro lifted his eyes to gaze at Cyrus. “Yes, Father, it will take a couple of days to nail plywood over the windows. We need to remove the furniture and install a strong lock to prevent it from escaping, but as a temporary prison, it’ll work.”
Cyrus’ ire grew and he gripped the table edge in frustration. “Don’t call her it, son. Her name is Callista. Can—”
Tiro’s booming voice caught Cyrus mid-sentence. “I will not call her by name, Father. You have my word I’ll break the curse, but I’ll be damned if I call her by name!”
Pushing his chair back with great force, Cyrus stood tall, placing his hands firmly on the table. He leaned forward over the long stretch of oak, staring down his son. “You will show some respect in your mother’s house!” Each word spilled from his throat in demand.
“I apologize to my mother if my words offended her.” Tiro stood, bent slightly at the waist, and bowed to his mother, his eyes partly closed in an effort to convey his apologies. “Also, to my sisters. However, it’s you, sir, who choose to speak her name.”
Cyrus turned to his wife. “Amara, take my daughters and leave us to discuss this. Doreen, Iris, you will accompany your mother, please.”
After his wife and daughters departed, Cyrus continued. “You have much to learn about women, Tiro, and you can start with understanding you do not use crass language in front of young ladies.”
Tiro’s frustration overflowed, his body grew rigid, and his lips formed a thin line. “I know all I need to know of women.”
“Is that so? Then perhaps you can enlighten your brother and me on what it is you know.”
Tiro’s eyes flashed with obvious resentment. “I know Vickie is a real woman, which is better than being mated to a damn fish!”
“She is not a fish, son!” Cyrus roared. “Callista is a Mermaid and you are a Merman. It is not a mating of human to fish—it is a mating of destiny.”
“To hell with destiny! You and I both know after tonight I have to give up my life as I know it and do my duty for the family. I know I’m required to mate with Callista—to break the curse so we can all return to Caspia.” Tiro’s voice trailed off, his final words barely audible. “And that, Father, is all I need to know.”
Tired of his son’s refusal to accept the inevitable, Cyrus pointed his finger at Tiro and yelled, “I can do nothing about Vickie. I never lied to you, Tiro. You have known from a very young age you are a Merman. Taking a human wife has always been out of the question. You always knew one day you would be mated to Callista and return with us to Caspia.”
Tiro paced the floor in front of Cyrus, his steps brisk and impatient. “And every time we discuss this, you, sir, choose to forget I have lived as a human for sixteen years! I have no memories of the Mer world or what it is like to be a Merman,” Tiro hissed. He flexed his hands and took a deep breath. “I was a child when Metri tore our world apart and cast us on the shore. My sisters, Mermaids though they are, have never known life under the waves. Mark was a babe, barely three, and while he may accept his fate, I cannot, will not, believe he has no regrets about leaving our life here.” Running his fingers through his hair, Tiro sighed. “I don’t want to argue with you, Father. I’ll tell Vickie goodbye tonight. Tomorrow Mark and I will head back to the wreck. By this time next week, we’ll have a prison ready to house the Mermaid. I’ll do my duty to our family.”
Hearing the resignation in Tiro’s voice, Cyrus felt a stab of remorse for his son’s quandary. Unable to offer any comfort or another solution, they had to continue forward to restore Caspia, even if it meant his son’s temporary unhappiness. Cyrus walked around the table toward Tiro, placing his hand on his son’s shoulder, calmly accepting his reluctant acquiescence. “I know you will, son.”