Sofi arrived at the beach well before dawn, tired of pretending to sleep. She had to come up with a plan by midnight or her parents would sail through the enchanted mists without her. Again.
She set a basket firmly in the sand, stripped down to her chemise, and ordered her black-and-tan hound, Bron, to stand guard. He sat obediently, ears perked, but she knew it was a ruse; the moment her back was turned, he’d chase shorebirds and roll in seaweed. Not that it mattered. Few bothered the girl with the crimson starfish etched on her cheek.
They called it the mark of Jurata, goddess of Lithuania’s seas. To the Merfolk who kept pirates away from Palanga, the cove where Sofi lived, the mark was a sign of honor. Most people in town, especially those anxious to gain favor with their guardians, acknowledged her status with a nod or slight bow. Some scrabbled at their own faces and made signs of protection when she passed, as if she carried a plague. Others called out taunts she’d learned to ignore; acknowledging bullies only worsened things.
Gods above, did they not realize she hated her face? She’d tried washing with powdered pearls to lighten the skin, exfoliating with grains of sand, scraping with seashells until her face bled. Nothing worked. The best she could do was pull black curls from beneath her headscarf and drape them over the scar.
But she didn’t need a babushka during her daily swim. It was the only time Sofi felt wholly free and alive, as if she had a special bond with the sea. She usually came when almost all of Palanga was abed, the sky gray as ashes, the town’s fishermen departing to fill their nets with cod and herring and eels. Venturing out in the dark was the exception, spurred by a misery no amount of tossing and turning could dispel.
The surf glowed silver. Gulls circled above the tide and landed on the wet sands to peck for crabs. Mid-cove, a dolphin leaped in greeting, eager to race. Sofi acknowledged him with a high-pitched chirp, swam to his side, and counted to three: “Vienas . . . du . . . trys!”
They sped across the bay toward the rocks that bordered the ocean. Sofi broke the surface first, holding a silvered fish. She tossed her catch into the dolphin’s open mouth, waved goodbye, and then climbed onto a boulder shaped like a serpent’s head. Its mossy surface was a favorite spot to sit and ponder. What would it take to gain a seat on her father’s boat?
Hours passed. She watched the moon set and the sun climb, slipped into the sea from time to time to cool off, hailed the fishermen as they headed home. Finally, she returned to the shore and whistled for her kelp-covered dog as she rummaged through the basket. “We might as well stay here, Bron. I’m out of ideas. They’re going to leave me behind.”
She worked a comb carefully through her hair, wishing she could fall into a swoon like the beauties in her books. Not forever. Just once a year when the harvest moon shone full. The night her parents dined with Rúonis, Mermaid Queen of the Baltic Sea.
Sofi begged to go with them every fall. It was like talking to stones. Only last night at supper she’d tried anew, hoping this time they’d relent.
As always, her mother, Undine, sighed at the request. “I long to take you, darling. The queen refuses. Children’s voices irritate her ears.”
“I’m sixteen,” Sofi argued. “Most girls my age are betrothed or married.”
Her mother smiled indulgently. “The Merfolk live for centuries. You are a mewling babe to them. Have patience.”
“It’s my face, isn’t it?” Sofi clawed at her cheek. Why couldn’t she have a flawless complexion and silken hair like her mother? “I’m ugly.”
Undine cupped her daughter’s chin. “You are beautiful to those who can truly see. That is little comfort when people speak harshly, I know. There is something special about you—some would call it an aura—and those who do not value their own worth become afraid when you near. Try to let their words wash over you, darling. And know this: The queen holds those with the mark in high esteem. You can be sure, when the time comes, she will welcome you with open arms.”
Sofi appealed mutely to her father, Andrezj, glowering at the table’s far end. He tugged at his mustache and pushed back his chair. “I need to attend to my stallions. Don’t wait up for me.”
“Mother, please. Will you at least ask?”
“I do, Sofija darling, each time we visit.”
And each time the answer was the same—no.
An urgent yelp interrupted her reverie. Bron nosed a hole he’d dug while she was lost in reverie. She reached inside and pulled out a tangerine jewel as big as a duck’s egg. Her heart skipped. Traders paid well for amber from this region. Legend said the gems came from Jurata’s ruined palace, deep in the cove. With a piece this big she could bribe a fisherman to follow her father tonight.
She held up the stone, inspecting each crevice until her eyes squeezed shut against the glare. Such a brilliant jewel, she thought. It could dazzle anyone. Her eyes popped open. Anyone.
An idea formed in her mind as she paced the shore, tossing the precious stone back and forth. Maybe she didn’t need to bribe anyone. She could refuse to accompany her parents to the boat tonight, wait until the last minute, and then run down to the dock and insist they take the amber to Rúonis.
Amazed and distracted by the jewel’s gleam, they wouldn’t see their daughter sneaking under a pile of blankets at the rear of the craft. The boat would already have begun its journey by the time Sofi revealed herself; it was impossible, as far as she knew, to change course. She’d finally meet the queen.
She hugged herself, imagining the delights ahead—swimming with mermaids and mermen, feasting on crabs, riding the royal dolphins, everyone admiring the gleam of her jewel. Wait until the girls she read to each week heard this story!
A flock of pelicans passed overhead, blocking the sun. Sofi’s hopes crashed in their shadow. It was dark at night—how could her jewel sparkle? She groaned. Just when she’d found an answer! Then she remembered: the boat sailed under a full moon. Sunlight and moonlight were nearly the same. The amber would still shine.
She held out her prize. “See this, Bron?” He gave it a quick lick. “This is how I’m going to meet the queen. I’m sorry, but you can’t come to the boat tonight. You have to stay in the house. Understand?”
Bron looked away and snuffled. Sofi scratched his ears and knelt to untangle the slimy green strands wrapped around his torso. “Don’t be mad. I’ll stop by the butcher on the way home, all right? But you have to do what I say.”
Her dog’s ears perked up. Sofi giggled and kissed the top of his head. Dear Bron. He’d do just about anything you asked if it meant a treat. She rubbed a towel over her wet slip, pulled on dry clothes, tucked the amber into a leather purse tied around her waist, and headed toward the pines that bordered her town.
* * *
The amber clinked against a handful of coins in Sofi’s purse. Their family had grown rich selling her annual birthday gift from the queen: herring stuffed with seaweed known only to mermaids. Traders came from every part of the country during the Harvest Festival to purchase the delicacy. One bite, they claimed, left you dreamy-eyed and smiling; your tongue tingled for hours. And when you washed it down with ale—well, every year at least a dozen men swore they’d seen pixies.
The traders’ gold and silver transformed Palanga from a sleepy fishing village to a thriving town. A community hall with an outdoor stage hosted weddings, parties, and performances from traveling theater troupes and minstrels. The inn boasted of downy beds and the best blini north of the Tatra Mountains.
Merchants of every stripe filled their coffers during the festival as well. In the town plaza, they hawked wares under banners of local foods and crafts: smoked and salted meats from mutton to pheasant to wild boar, savory brown breads, pastries dripping with honey, beets as red as roses, potatoes dusty brown, tart green apples, blueberries so purple they looked almost black, clothes, toys, amber from the Baltic Sea fashioned into necklaces and bracelets and rings.
At the far edge of the square, Sofi checked that her cheek was covered, and then made her way to the pennant of a smiling cow. Inside the butcher shop, built with double-thick walls to keep the salted and smoked meats fresh, she appeased Bron with three thick bones.
She paused before moving on, her attention caught by the sight of colorful Gypsy wagons and tents pitched in the forest to the north. Never welcome in Palanga itself, during the Harvest Festival they were tolerated—as long as they remained in the woods.
Their camp bustled during the day, catering to wives who wished to have their fortunes told. When night descended, men stole away and threw coins at the exotic ladies who danced around campfires to the music of violins and accordions.
Though Sofi longed to visit, it was forbidden. She didn’t see the harm in having an old woman read her palm or gaze into a crystal ball. But her parents insisted. She had to respect their wishes, especially after Andrezj hired men to stand guard at the camp’s entrance, and promised a handsome reward to anyone who saw her trying to sneak inside.
Her stomach rumbled. She crossed the square for a mid-morning treat at the bakery. Myko, the miller’s son who handled orders when his father was busy, brought black tea and a slice of poppy seed cake to her table. He pulled up a chair and jerked his chin at the bulge by her hip. “Find something on the beach?”
Sofi grinned. “Could be.”
“I’m not in the mood for games.” Myko tapped his fingers on the table. “Yes or no?”
Sofi hunched forward. “This is a secret. I don’t want anyone to hear.”
“Look around,” Myko said, waving an arm. “The shop’s empty. Most everybody’s gone over to the hall. The new puppet show starts today.”
“Do you swear silence by the spirit of Ovinnik?” Sofi wagged a finger. “He’ll burn your grain if you lie.”
Myko put a hand to his heart. “I promise. Your secret’s safe with me.”
The boy’s brows puckered as Sofi explained her plan. He scratched his head, leaving a streak of flour in wavy chestnut hair. “That’ll never work. Mermaids are a bad lot. They’re the reason my brother went deaf.”
“That’s because he snuck up on one while she was sunning on the rocks,” Sofi remarked. “I’m sorry he was hurt when she screamed, but he shouldn’t have disturbed her. And he isn’t helpless, even now. He makes a good wage caring for the horses in my father’s stables.”
Myko scowled. “Didn’t you tell me Rúonis hates babies and children?”
“I’m not a child,” Sofi said with a huff. “I’m only a year younger than you. We’re nearly grown up.”
Myko shook his head. “What if the queen gets mad that you’ve come without permission? Your pa makes good money off that fish she gives you.”
Sofi leaned back and crossed her arms. “If my parents are good enough for her, so am I.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. If you upset Rúonis and she refuses to see your parents ever again, then what? Think about it. No fish, no buyers, no Harvest Festival.” Myko tilted his head at the shelves filled with dark breads, currant-studded cakes, rum-soaked babkas. “What’s everyone supposed to do with the things they make special every year?”
Sofi sighed. “I know what I’m about, Myko. Trust me. Besides, once I’m in the queen’s good graces, I’ll bring you along and ask if she can heal your brother.”
Her friend’s blue eyes lit up. “Truly?”
Myko rose from his chair, straightened his apron, and, bowing deeply, offered his elbow. “If you would be so kind?”
She smiled at the familiar gesture. Years ago, they’d created their own version of a legend: the tale of Princess Sofija and her brave knight, Prince Mykolas. After battling the dastardly beast, Brondragon, they celebrated his defeat with a royal stroll. She placed a hand on his arm. “With pleasure.”
They walked around tables, chatting with an ease born of long fellowship. “Shall we ask Her Majesty to harness the royal dolphins?” Myko said. “It should be a splendid evening for a ride upon the waves.”
“I’d rather explore the sunken pirate ships.”
“We are not fish,” Myko said. “Whatever shall we do for gills?”
Sofi winked. “I believe the Merfolk know an enchantment or two.”
After a brief promenade, they stopped at the counter. Myko sighed and pointed to the back workroom. “Sorry we can’t talk longer. Have to put together some special orders for the festival. Want to help?”
“I can’t. My reading group meets today. I need a dozen spurgos.”
Myko filled a bag with sugar-sprinkled doughnuts, and walked Sofi to the door. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Don’t expect me early” she warned. “My parents never return before noon.”
“Get here when you can. I want to hear everything.”
* * *
A quintet of seven-year-old girls, daughters of the town’s elite, waited at the square’s three-tiered fountain. They talked up a storm on the trek up the hill to Andrezj’s estate, clamoring like a nest of baby birds impatient to be fed. “Story . . . story . . . we want a story!”
Sofi pushed open the gate that surrounded the grounds. “First one to my cottage door gets to choose.”
Tekla outran the rest. She entered the one-room bungalow—painted to resemble a gingerbread house—like a proud mother hen leading her chicks. The girls admired Sofi’s newest painting in the area she set aside for art, grabbed their favorite pillows, and settled on the rug by the fireplace. While they argued about which book to read, she passed out the spurgos and mugs of milk, and reminded everyone not to feed Bron, no matter how sad he looked. Finally, she eased into a rocking chair. “Tekla, have you decided?”
“The story of the Flamebird, the one who stole the golden apple.”
The other girls moaned and called out other stories.
“I want to hear about the hedgehog who became a prince.”
“The story of Jurata.”
“The glass mountain.”
“No, the king eaten by mice.”
Tekla’s bottom lip quivered. Sofi clapped her hands until the girls quieted. “Ladies, where are your manners? I won’t invite you to another reading if you can’t listen politely.” She leaned over to find the book, one of many kept in a basket next to the rocker. By the time she sat back and opened the cover, five little girls with the faces of angels sat with legs crossed and hands in laps, eyes shining with anticipation.
“Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a king who had three sons.” Sofi knew the story by heart; the words practically read themselves. She stopped at every page to share the illustrations, pauses that allowed her mind to wander. Once she met the queen, would she have the nerve to ask about healing her scarred face? Perhaps. There was always a chance that, once she met the Merfolk, the starfish wouldn’t be such a bane in her life.
Well, she wasn’t going to fret over that now. Tonight, she’d find her way to the queen’s floating castle. Everything else could wait.
She roused herself and read the rest of her tale with gusto. “. . . And the wedding of Prince Jan and Princess Wonderface was celebrated that very evening.” She closed the book and smiled at the applause. “Next week, I’ll have a special story.”
“Are the merchants bringing you new books?” Tekla asked.
“Better than that.”
“What’s it about?”
“Oh, mermaids and dolphins and magic.”
Sofi grinned at the upturned faces. “Then it won’t be a surprise. Off you go. Remember to hold hands all the way back to the square.” She ushered out the girls and watched them skip off, giggling. When they disappeared past the gate, she took the amber out of her pouch and held it up to the midday sun. Just a few hours more, and her dreams would come true.
The family’s maid, Berthe, plump and rosy with good health, sat on a stool by the edge of a claw-footed tub, working the knots out of Sofi’s raven curls. “I wish you wouldn’t harry the mistress so about visiting the queen. She feels bad enough as things are.”
“I have to keep keep asking, or I’ll be an old maid by the time Rúonis says yes. Besides, if the Merfolk are so fond of the ones who bear the mark, then they should be eager to meet me. I’m someone they revere.”
“Aha.” Berthe pushed back a white hair escaping the bun at her neck and poured out a birch-infused shampoo. “So it’s pride that ruffles your feathers. And here I thought you wanted to be charming like the sweet maidens in your books.”
“Those ladies are royalty. They’re treated special. Children don’t cry or run off when they approach.”
“I’d wager there’s more to their lives than pomp and fancy balls. And I won’t have you belittling your parents with such talk. They take good care of you, always have. Might show a bit of appreciation now and then instead of complaining.”
Sofi slid under the water and let her hair fan out. Wealth had its privileges—she never wanted for anything—but it also created jealousy. When she was younger, most of the village girls had been friendly, but over the past few years they’d stopped coming to her cottage.
She didn’t understand. Everyone prospered because of the traders who came to the Harvest Festival for the mermaids’ herring. True, no other family lived in a hilltop mansion, and no other girl had a private cottage designed to look like the one Hansel and Gretel found. But money didn’t mean much when the ones you wanted to spend time with were always busy.
Her mother spent each day in a garden studio working with herbs, brewing potions, and making salves. Though she’d taught Sofi much about plants, she preferred working alone. At night, she studied the Tarot in the parlor, claiming the cards helped her understand the world. Her father kept a barn full of horses and trained them daily. Most evenings he took to the forest after supper for long walks.
Myko was a good friend, though he’d taken on more responsibilities at the bakery as he grew older, and that left him with less time to visit. Bron had been with her since they were both babes, but she longed for companions her own age. Well, at least she had books. The shelves in her cottage held wondrous tales from around the world. When she read, her loneliness vanished. She lost herself in stories of dragons, fairies, witches, kings eaten by mice, wished her life was more of an adventure.
Berthe’s red-cheeked face rippled above the water. Sofi let the stout old woman wrap her in a towel and shuffle her down the hall to dress for dinner. She wouldn’t give up just yet. Once she visited with the queen, people might want to know her again.
* * *
Dressed in a purple linen dress edged with a row of embroidered crowns, Sofi entered the dining room and smiled. Golden plates and goblets adorned a table topped with platters: roast venison, mushrooms, potatoes, roasted beets, and a raspberry cream cake for dessert—her favorite. Bron settled beside her chair, nose twitching with anticipation.
Andrezj commanded the head of the massive oak table, shadows already forming on his freshly shaved cheeks. He wore a crisp white shirt, black hair curling over the collar. A red scarf peeked out from one pocket of his dark trousers. At the opposite end of the table, Undine looked like a princess in a blue gown complemented by a string of pearls, her blonde tresses loose and flowing to her waist.
Sofi took a seat mid-table between the two. She’d practiced her story in the front yard with Bron until he took off after a rabbit. Now she had to convince her parents and, more importantly, test the effects of the amber. Her mother rarely challenged anything she said. Her father? He might nod and play with his moustache, but his ebony eyes were quick to glint with suspicion. She had to proceed carefully; his temper flared at the slightest annoyance on the nights they met with Rúonis, for reasons he’d never explained.
“I found a beautiful piece of amber on the beach this morning. Would you like to see?”
“We’ve more jewels than we need,” Andrezj said, spooning out mushrooms. “Save it for the traders. No. Better I take you to them. Children have no head for bargaining.”
Sofi speared a potato, rattling her plate. When would he realize she’d grown up?
“Our little girl is almost a woman,” Undine said with a sly smile. “Soon we’ll have young men at the door, competing for her hand.”
Sofi groaned. Not again.
“Right you are.” Andrezj winked. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I won’t give you away to the first boy who asks for your hand. Myko, he’s the one you fancy, eh?”
“We’re talking about my amber. Rúonis might want it. You said she loves shiny things.”
“You think to persuade her with a trinket?” Andrezj reached for the ale, filled his goblet. “Go to the yard beyond the barn. When you see wings on our pigs, you’ll know the queen wants to meet you.”
Sofi cringed and turned to her mother with a pleading look.
“I think it’s a lovely idea, darling,” Undine said, arching a brow at her husband. “Show us this treasure of yours.”
Sofi’s spirits lifted as she pulled the gem out of a leather pouch hanging from her waist. Even with the muted light from the chandelier’s candles, the amber bathed the table in a shimmering golden-orange glow. Her parents gaped, mouths slack. Sofi bit her lip to keep from shouting. It worked! “If this pleases the queen, do you think she might consider making me an honorary princess?”
A muscle twitched in Andrezj’s cheek. He pulled at his moustache, his stupor gone. “So. My daughter wants to serve in the royal court. She has everything she needs—family, friends, good health, food, shelter from the heat and cold—but no, she wants a royal title as well.”
He jabbed a finger at the amber, his face sour. “You keep that, hear me? Forget these foolish dreams. Rúonis doesn’t want to know you. Ever.”
Sofi hastily returned the jewel to its pouch. Her mind flitted back to the stories in her books, how a twist of fate foiled many a scheme. She had to figure out a way to subdue her father if she wanted to hide away tonight.
Undine stirred, a blush rising up her throat. “Goodness, no more wine for me. What did you say, darling?”
Time for a different approach. Sofi took a sip of cider. “If Rúonis likes my amber, maybe she’ll give me an old crown in exchange. You said she has dozens.”
“The queen?” Andrezj hooted. “Share her treasures? I should live so long.”
“What about the fish you bring back? Isn’t that sharing?”
“The Devil’s lair will turn to ice before that one parts with her jewels.”
Undine’s face darkened. “She keeps pirates away from our cove and blesses us with her bounty. We should be grateful.”
“So you’ll get a tiara for me?” Sofi asked.
“That, I cannot promise. She has a chest of necklaces. Will one of those do?”
“Perhaps. I’ll hold on to this until you know more. We can haggle with the traders if Rúonis says no.” Sofi smiled inwardly. Now all she had to do was show up on the dock, produce the jewel, and hope its allure gave her sufficient time to stow away.
She slid a piece of cake onto her napkin and left the table, Bron at her heels. She teased him with the amber in the rear courtyard, holding it to reflect the setting sun on the stone pavers, switching to a new spot each time he pounced. Soon he was running in circles, barking happily.
When twilight purpled the skies, she dropped the jewel back into her pouch, sat cross-legged, and tapped her knee. Bron covered every inch of her face with kisses and flopped to the ground for his evening rubdown.
Together they watched the stars blink on. She looked for the constellations Berthe had taught her: the hunter with his club, the seven sisters, the big pot. An owl swooped and screeched, flying from a pine at the one end of the courtyard to another on the opposite side. Sofi hastily crossed her arms over her chest. Owls were messengers of death, their hoots the Devil’s laughter. She closed her eyes and chanted the words meant to ward off evil:
“Away from me, loathsome spirit,
My heart is not your home.
I call upon darkness to claim you,
The light shall be my own.”
She breathed a sign of relief when the bird flew downhill toward the town. One last piece of her plan remained. She returned to the dining room and kissed her parents good night. “I won’t be able to walk you to the docks tonight. My head aches. I must have stayed in the sea too long today.”
Andrezj looked down his nose, as if he didn’t believe a girl who adored the beach could suddenly be sick from sun and water. Undine wished her a good rest.
Inside her room, she braided her hair and discarded her dress for a wool sweater and leggings. The blankets on her father’s vessel might provide some warmth, but the wooden hull would be damp and chilly. Four knocks at the door sent her flying into bed, where Bron lay snoring.
“Darling?” her mother called. “Are you awake?”
Sofi yanked the covers up to her neck and steadied her breath, feigning sleep. Undine opened the door and tiptoed near, a bottle of lavender oil in one hand. “A few drops of this on your pillow and you’ll sleep more soundly,” she whispered.
Sofi’s clothes itched under the hot, down quilt. She tried not to move. Trickles of sweat dripped down her forehead.
“Do you have a fever, darling? Let me feel your neck.” Before she could wriggle away, Undine had reached under the sheets and thrown back the covers.
“What game is this? You claim to be sick and now I see you dressed for what . . . a midnight ride on the sea?” Undine pursed her lips. “Your father knows every inch of his boat. You think he would not feel the extra weight?”
Sofi sat up and crossed her arms. “Shouldn’t you be leaving?”
“I know you want to go with us, but things can’t change right now. You must believe me. It breaks my heart to go without you.”
“I understand.” Sofi flopped back against her pillows and stared at the ceiling. “The queen is more important than your own daughter.”
“That’s not true. Oh, my darling, I wish I could explain. Trust me. I will never stop asking if you may join us.”
Sofi stared. Were those tears on her mother’s cheeks?
“Hurry, wife,” Andrezj shouted. “The mermaids expect us.”
“You needn’t yell, old man!” Undine kissed Sofi’s brow. “I’m so sorry, darling. Truly.”
She rushed from the room. Sofi heard muffled voices from the kitchen, followed by her father’s call. “Come along, sweetheart. Give us a proper goodbye.”
She grinned. The plan still might work if her parents believed she’d stopped trying to trick them. She paused in front of a floor-length mirror and made sure her face drooped with sadness. Slumped over, she plodded down the hall to the back door.
Andrezj wagged his finger, though his eyes twinkled. “So it’s an adventure you want, eh? Trust me, you won’t find one with the queen.”
Sofi slumped against a chair. “Why do you visit if she’s so dull?”
“Must I tell the story again?”
“You saved her daughters from a trap set by the King of the Russian Merfolk, the one who wanted Lithuanian wives for his boys. But I’ve been thinking. Why didn’t he ask if they could marry?”
“Old feuds, ancient animosities. You understand, eh? The Russians and the Lithuanians desired the same seas. They fought a long battle. One triumphed, the other plotted revenge. A passing stranger saved those in danger and was handsomely rewarded. Your books tell stories like this, do they not?”
“They do. So why does it upset you to accept Rúonis’s gifts?”
“I’m not angry! We wouldn’t need her wretched fish if she––”
“Say no more, husband,” Undine warned. She held a a basket of mirrors and combs at the back door, her lips pressed into a thin line. “You must excuse your father. He had a hard day at the stables. Sleep tight. We will see you soon.”
Sofi mustered a weak smile. “Fair winds.”
Back in her room, she donned a woolen cap embroidered with turtles and gave her dog a bone. “Remember what I said, Bron. You can’t come with me. Stay here.”
She hovered by the window that faced west and offered a clear view of the dock. A tiny figurehead—carved in her image—stared back from the front of the family’s boat. Its emerald-studded eyes twinkled in the moonlight. Goosebumps prickled her arms. It almost looked alive.
Her parents approached the bobbing vessel. Undine stepped down, balance sure and steady. Andrezj began to loosen the ropes on the post.
Sofi left her room, hurried to the rose arbor marking the path from the courtyard to the pier, and gasped. They were nearly ready to push off into the sea. No, they couldn’t leave without her.
She took a deep breath and shouted. “Wait!”
The figures at the dock looked up and waved. Sofi ran so fast that she was certain her heart would burst. By the time she skidded to a stop, Undine was settled near the figurehead, Andrezj at her side. The rest of the boat, some twenty-five feet, was filled with baskets to hold the mermaids’ fish. Both sails were tied down. There was no need of wind. Once they set off, the queen’s magic currents would pull them to her palace.
She bent over, panting. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“We haven’t time to tarry,” Andrezj growled. “Why are you here?”
“I changed my mind.” Sofi held out the stone. “The queen can have this.”
In the moonlight, the amber glittered like a tangerine sun. Sofi gave a silent prayer of thanks when her parents’ eyes clouded. But as her father reached out for the jewel, he stumbled and hit his shin against the side of the boat. When he stood again, cursing, all signs of the trance were gone, vanquished by pain.
“I told you to keep it. You dare defy me?” He grabbed the amber, curled his arm back, and threw the stone into the sea. Sofi wailed in disbelief as her last hope sank out of sight. How could he? Her sorrow subsided, swiftly, shifting into rage.
“I hate you. Do you hear me? I hope you choke at the queen’s table.”
Andrezj pushed the boat away from the dock. “So, you want your papa dead, eh? You think if I am gone, your mother will bring you to her sisters and . . .” He stopped and clapped a hand over his mouth, eyes wide with horror.
“The mermaids are family?” Sofi shook her head, certain she’d misheard. “If I’m kin, why do you leave me behind?”
Undine recoiled, aghast. “Husband, what have you done?”
Before he could answer, a violent wind arose, churning the water, whipping the sea into a foam-flecked frenzy. Andrezj held out his arms in supplication. His lips opened and closed like a fish gasping for breath. “Rúonis, please. Have mercy.”
Giant waves battered the dock, soaking Sofi with frigid seawater, pulling the boat toward the boulders that fronted the ocean. Her parents huddled, clutching each other while the boat tossed about like a toy ship in a bathtub. She held fast to the pilings, wondering why the waters had grown treacherous. Was this the queen’s doing?
Bron dashed down the pier, howling. Sofi grabbed him before he could dive into the water. She squeezed him close with one arm and clung to her pillar. The posts went deep, but this storm raged like no other. She prayed the sturdy timbers would hold.
Her heart seized the next moment. A giant whirlpool was forming in the middle of the cove. The boat changed direction, neared the edge, and spun, trapped in the eddy’s swirls. Suddenly, the water turned golden. From the center of the vortex, a mermaid wearing a pearl crown ascended on a coral throne, her face twisted with rage. Rúonis! She screeched and raised her scepter. A bolt of blue light burst from the wand’s tip and severed the figurehead, slicing it from the prow.