MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I HAVE A HEART for every year I’ve been alive.
There are seventeen hidden in the sand of my bedroom. Every so often, I claw through the shingle, just to check they’re still there. Buried deep and bloody. I count each of them, so I can be sure none were stolen in the night. It’s not such an odd fear to have. Hearts are power, and if there’s one thing my kind craves more than the ocean, it’s power.
I’ve heard things: tales of lost hearts and harpooned women stapled to the ocean bed as punishment for their treachery. Left to suffer until their blood becomes salt and they dissolve to sea foam. These are the women who take the human bounty of their kin. Mermaids more fish than flesh, with an upper body to match the decadent scales of their fins.
Unlike sirens, mermaids have stretched blue husks and limbs in place of hair, with a jawlessness that lets their mouths stretch to the size of small boats and swallow sharks whole. Their deep-blue flesh is dotted with fins that spread up their arms and spines. Fish and human both, with the beauty of neither.
They have the capacity to be deadly, like all monsters, but where sirens seduce and kill, mermaids remain fascinated by humans. They steal trinkets and follow ships in hopes that treasure will fall from the decks. Sometimes they save the lives of sailors and take nothing but charms in return. And when they steal the hearts we keep, it isn’t for power. It’s because they think that if they eat enough of them, they might become human themselves.
I hate mermaids.
My hair snakes down my back, as red as my left eye—and only my left, of course, because the right eye of every siren is the color of the sea they were born into. For me, that’s the great sea of Diávolos, with waters of apple and sapphire. A selection of each so it manages to be neither. In that ocean lies the sea kingdom of Keto.
It’s a well-known fact that sirens are beautiful, but the bloodline of Keto is royal and with that comes its own beauty. A magnificence forged in salt water and regality. We have eyelashes born from iceberg shavings and lips painted with the blood of sailors. It’s a wonder we even need our song to steal hearts.
“Which will you take, cousin?” Kahlia asks in Psáriin.
She sits beside me on the rock and stares at the ship in the distance. Her scales are deep auburn and her blond hair barely reaches her breasts, which are covered by a braid of orange seaweed.
“You’re ridiculous,” I tell her. “You know which.”
The ship plows idly along the calm waters of Adékaros, one of the many human kingdoms I’ve vowed to rid of a prince. It’s smaller than most and made from scarlet wood that represents the colors of their country.
Humans enjoy flaunting their treasures for the world, but it only makes them targets for creatures like Kahlia and me, who can easily spot a royal ship. After all, it’s the only one in the fleet with the painted wood and tiger flag. The only vessel on which the Adékarosin prince ever sails.
Easy prey for those in the mood to hunt.
The sun weighs on my back. Its heat presses against my neck and causes my hair to stick to my wet skin. I ache for the ice of the sea, so sharp with cold that it feels like glorious knives in the slits between my bones.
“It’s a shame,” says Kahlia. “When I was spying on him, it was like looking at an angel. He has such a pretty face.”
“His heart will be prettier.”
Kahlia breaks into a wild smile. “It’s been an age since your last kill, Lira,” she teases. “Are you sure you’re not out of practice?”
“A year is hardly an age.”
“It depends who’s counting.”
I sigh. “Then tell me who that is so I can kill them and be done with this conversation.”
Kahlia’s grin is ungodly. The kind reserved for moments when I am at my most dreadful, because that’s the trait sirens are supposed to value most. Our awfulness is treasured. Friendship and kinship taught to be as foreign as land. Loyalty reserved only for the Sea Queen.
“You are a little heartless today, aren’t you?”
“Never,” I say. “There are seventeen under my bed.”
Kahlia shakes the water from her hair. “So many princes you’ve tasted.”
She says it as though it’s something to be proud of, but that’s because Kahlia is young and has taken only two hearts of her own. None of them royalty. That’s my specialty, my territory. Some of Kahlia’s reverence is for that. The wonder of whether the lips of a prince taste different from those of any other human. I can’t say, for princes are all I’ve ever tasted.
Ever since our goddess, Keto, was killed by the humans, it’s become custom to steal a heart each year, in the month of our birth. It’s a celebration of the life Keto gave to us and a tribute of revenge for the life the humans took from her. When I was too young to hunt, my mother did it for me, as is tradition. And she always gave me princes. Some as young as I was. Others old and furrowed, or middle children who never had a chance at ruling. The king of Armonía, for instance, once had six sons, and for my first few birthdays, my mother brought me one each year.
When I was eventually old enough to venture out on my own, it hadn’t occurred to me to forgo royalty and target sailors like the rest of my kind did, or even hunt the princes who would one day assume their thrones. I’m nothing if not a loyal follower of my mother’s traditions.
“Did you bring your shell?” I ask.
Kahlia scoops her hair out of the way to show the orange seashell looped around her neck. A similar one just a few shades bloodier dangles from my own throat. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s the easiest way for us to communicate. If we hold them to our ears, we can hear the sound of the ocean and the song of the Keto underwater palace we call home. For Kahlia, it can act as a map to the sea of Diávolos if we’re separated. We’re a long way from our kingdom, and it took nearly a week to swim here. Since Kahlia is fourteen, she tends to stay close to the palace, but I was the one to decide that should change, and as the princess, my whims are as good as law.
“We won’t get separated,” Kahlia says.
Normally, I wouldn’t mind if one of my cousins were stranded in a foreign ocean. As a whole, they’re a tedious and predictable bunch, with little ambition or imagination. Ever since my aunt died, they’ve become nothing more than adoring lackeys for my mother. Which is ridiculous, because the Sea Queen is not there to be adored. She’s there to be feared.
“Remember to pick just one,” I instruct. “Don’t lose your focus.”
Kahlia nods. “Which one?” she asks. “Or will it sing to me when I’m there?”
“We’ll be the only ones singing,” I say. “It’ll enchant them all, but if you lay your focus on one, they’ll fall in love with you so resolutely that even as they drown, they’ll scream of nothing but your beauty.”
“Normally the enchantment is broken when they start to die,” Kahlia says.
“Because you focus on them all, and so deep down they know that none of them are your heart’s desire. The trick is to want them as much as they want you.”
“But they’re disgusting,” says Kahlia, though it doesn’t sound like she believes it so much as she wants me to think that she does. “How can we be expected to desire them?”
“Because you’re not just dealing with sailors now. You’re dealing with royalty, and with royalty comes power. Power is always desirable.”
“Royalty?” Kahlia gapes. “I thought…”
She trails off. What she thought was that princes were mine and I didn’t share. That’s not untrue, but where there are princes, there are kings and queens, and I’ve never had much use for either of those. Rulers are easily deposed. It’s the princes who hold the allure. In their youth. In the allegiance of their people. In the promise of the leader they could one day become. They are the next generation of rulers, and by killing them, I kill the future. Just as my mother taught me.
I take Kahlia’s hand. “You can have the queen. I’ve no interest in the past.”
Kahlia’s eyes are alight. The right holds the same sapphire of the Diávolos Sea I know well, but the left, a creamy yellow that barely stands out from the white, sparkles with a rare glee. If she steals a royal heart for her fifteenth, it’ll be sure to earn her clemency from my mother’s perpetual rage.
“And you’ll take the prince,” says Kahlia. “The one with the pretty face.”
“His face makes no difference.” I drop her hand. “It’s his heart I’m after.”
“So many hearts.” Her voice is angelic. “You’ll soon run out of room to bury them all.”
I lick my lips. “Maybe,” I say. “But a princess must have her prince.”
THE SHIP FEELS ROUGH under the spines of my fingers. The wood is splintered, paint cracking and peeling over the body. It cuts the water in a way that is too jagged. Like a blunt knife, pressing and tearing until it slices through. There is rot in places and the stench makes my nose wrinkle.
It is a poor prince’s ship.
Not all royals are alike. Some are furnished in fine clothes, unbearably heavy jewels so large that they drown twice as fast. Others are sparsely dressed, with only one or two rings and bronze crowns painted gold. Not that it matters to me. A prince is a prince, after all.
Kahlia keeps to my side, and we swim with the ship while it tears through the sea. It’s a steady speed and one we easily match. This is the agonizing wait, as humans become prey. Some time passes before the prince finally steps onto the deck and casts his eye at the ocean. He can’t see us. We’re far too close and swim far too fast. Through the ship’s wake, Kahlia looks to me and her eyes beg the question. With a smile as good as any nod, I return my cousin’s stare.
We emerge from the froth and part our lips.
We sing in perfect unison in the language of Midas, the most common human tongue and one each siren knows well. Not that the words matter. It’s the music that seduces them. Our voices echo into the sky and roll back through the wind. We sing as though there is an entire chorus of us, and as the haunting melody ricochets and climbs, it swirls into the hearts of the crew until finally the ship slows to a stop.
“Do you hear it, Mother?” asks the prince. His voice is high and dreamlike.
The queen stands next to him on the deck. “I don’t think…”
Her voice falters as the melody strokes her into submission. It’s a command, and every human has come to a stop, bodies frozen as their eyes search the seas. I set my focus on the prince and sing more softly. Within moments his eyes fall to mine.
“Gods,” he says. “It’s you.”
He smiles and from his left eye slips a single tear.
I stop singing and my voice turns to a gentle hum.
“My love,” the prince says, “I’ve found you at last.”
He grips the ratlines and peers far over the edge, his chest flat against the wood, one hand reaching out to touch me. He’s dressed in a beige shirt, the strings loose at his chest, sleeves torn and slightly moth-bitten. His crown is thin gold leaf that looks as though it could break if he moves too quickly. He looks desolate and poor.
But then there is his face.
Soft and round, with skin like varnished wood and eyes a penetrating shade darker. His hair swings and coils tightly on his head, a beautiful mess of loops and spirals. Kahlia was right; he’s angelic. Magnificent, even. His heart will make a fine trophy.
“You are so beautiful,” says the queen, staring down at Kahlia with reverence. “I’m unsure how I’ve ever considered another.”
Kahlia’s smile is primordial as she reaches out to the queen, beckoning her to the ocean.
I turn back to the prince, who is frantically stretching out his hand to me. “My love,” he pleads. “Come aboard.”
I shake my head and continue to hum. The wind groans with the lullaby of my voice.
“I’ll come to you then!” he shouts, as though it was ever a choice.
With a gleeful smile, he flings himself into the ocean, and with the splash of his body comes a second, which I know to be the queen, throwing herself to my cousin’s mercy. The sounds of their falls awaken something in the crew, and in an instant they are screaming.
They lean over the ship’s edge, fifty of them clinging to ropes and wood, watching the spectacle below with horror. But none dare throw themselves overboard to save their sovereigns. I can smell their fear, mixed with the confusion that comes from the sudden absence of our song.
I meet the eyes of my prince and stroke his soft, angelic skin. Gently, with one hand on his cheek and another resting on the thin bones of his shoulder, I kiss him. And as my lips taste his, I pull him under.
The kiss breaks once we are far enough down. My song has long since ended, but the prince stays enamored. Even as the water fills his lungs and his mouth opens in a gasp, he keeps his eyes on me with a glorious look of infatuation.
As he drowns, he touches his fingers to his lips.
Beside me, Kahlia’s queen thrashes. She clutches at her throat and bats my cousin away. Angrily, Kahlia clings to her ankle and keeps her deep below the surface, the queen’s face a sneer as she tries to escape. It’s futile. A siren’s hold is a vice.
I stroke my dying prince. My birthday is not for two weeks. This trip was a gift for Kahlia: to hold the heart of royalty in her hands and name it her fifteenth. It’s not supposed to be for me to steal a heart a fortnight early, breaking our most sacred rule. Yet there’s a prince dying slowly in front of me. Brown skin and lips blue with ocean. Hair flowing behind him like black seaweed. Something about his purity reminds me of my very first kill. The young boy who helped my mother turn me into the beast I am now.
Such a pretty face, I think.
I run a thumb over the poor prince’s lip, savoring his peaceful expression. And then I let out a shriek like no other. The kind of noise that butchers bones and claws through skin. A noise to make my mother proud.
In one move, I plunge my fist into the prince’s chest and pull out his heart.
Copyright © 2018 by Alexandra Christo