Lucia was born in Augusta, Georgia, and has lived there long enough to enjoy southern summers. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Writing at SCAD Atlanta. While the majority of her experience has been in journalism, Lucia’s love for writing and reading begins and ends with fiction, and she hopes to one day balance the two.
The sun was already beginning to dip behind the horizon by the time Rachel made it to her aunt’s, rosy red hues painting the sky where it met the dark line of the sea. It was a sight she was long familiar with, and normally she’d spare a moment to appreciate its beauty.
Lately, however, it just meant she was late again.
“I don’t see why you’re always in such a hurry nowadays,” her aunt remarked, clicking her tongue as she hovered over her client’s hair. Rachel couldn’t see their face from where she stood, but with the leafy green tint of their hair, they had to be a dryad. Her aunt would be busy well into the evening, then.
“It’s not like fishing’s getting any more exciting,” her aunt continued. “You think they could spare you an evening, at least. I could use the help more than their rickety old ships do.”
“You’re moving to the mountains in a month, you don’t need my help here. And there’s more to the sea than just fishing,” Rachel sighed, long familiar with this argument. “Our ships are important.”
“Ships, you say,” the dryad spoke up. “That’s rich. We’ve got nothing more here than boats. You’d best to stay away from the sea, girl. Land’s much safer, especially for you human folk.”
Privately, Rachel thought it was quite a biased take, coming from a dryad, but she knew better than to speak back to those with magic.
“Listen to Maelor,” her aunt said. “You’re much safer here, where those merpeople can’t get you. There was another sighting yesterday, did you hear? Some poor shrimper scared half to death. Barely avoided being devoured, too – you know how sharp their teeth are.”
Rachel shifted from foot to foot, but she said nothing. She knew.
“What do you think they’ve come back here for?” her aunt questioned the dryad, as she began to brush through their thick hair, wrinkling her nose at the moss that gathered on the bristles. “Any word among the fae folk?”
“Fae folk,” the dryad scowled, rolling the words in their mouth like an unpleasant taste. “We’re not all fae. Stop lumping us together. You humans are nothing special, with your nervous look and your spongey skin.”
Her aunt made a noise in the back of her throat. “Humans don’t have teeth like you do. And we certainly don’t have magic.”
“And we do?” the dryad said. “All we do is live in trees. At least your legs don’t disappear on you come winter.”
Spotting the way her aunt’s cheeks began to puff up before she spoke, Rachel figured now was her best chance to slip out.
“I’ll be going, then,” she said quickly, making for the door. She paused on the doorstep, her hand faltering on the handle. “Oh, auntie, what did you call that braid again? The pretty one you did earlier.”
Her aunt paused her argument with the dryad, eyebrows furrowing. “That easy little one? It’s called a fishtail, I think. Did you like it?”
“Very much,” Rachel said. Before her aunt could continue, she let the door slam closed, pulling her windbreaker tighter across her shoulders against the growing winds.
A fishtail braid, she thought to herself. How appropriate. She wondered if Llyr would find it insulting.
The coastal town of Merdan was an older one, and it showed. Roadways were riddled with cracks and potholes, old billboards advertised peeling paint more than anything, and almost every building carried the musty scent of old seawater. Compared to the larger seaports in the north, Merdan was entirely unremarkable, save for the overwhelming scent of dead fish that wafted from the harbor on the evening breeze. It had been a semi-successful trading port once, back when the wars had left other ports too deadly to risk, but the long years of peace had done away with that advantage.
Its residents didn’t mind, though, and Rachel could almost convince herself that she didn’t, either. There was a charm to the quiet calm of Merdan, and the easy coexistence beings had here. The bigger ports were more diverse, certainly – she’d heard wild stories of dragons and dwarves that lived there, or even the occasional vampire spotted in the evening. Merdan was home to mostly humans and dryads, with a few elves habiting the nicer residential areas, but it was safe. Uneventful, maybe, and a festering ground for breeding fear of the outside, but a dull town was better than a dangerous one. Anything bigger had the tendency to swallow her kind up, quite literally.
Those were good reminders to keep in mind, when Rachel took to longing. Excitement was nice in theory, but it was something humans ought to avoid. Her aunt made sure to remind her of that. Any of Merdan’s excitement came from the sirens that lurked further out to sea, occasionally leading careless fishing boats to rocks, or singing poor sailors to an early, watery grave. Or maybe they would even hear of some foolish soul who had sought out a siren on purpose, desperate for their fabled wishes.
“Better than genies,” the old sailors would say. “Sirens have sharp teeth, but they won’t twist your wish. They’re honest murderers.”
But sirens were a distant threat, one that rarely came near shore. If they did, it was a sure sign of the end of Merdan’s peace. Even rumors of siren sightings could spell disaster for the town.
Which is why Rachel had to take extra care never to be seen as she slipped down to the old docks. Long unused, the water-logged wood felt as if it could crumble any moment as she skipped across it, picking her way to the furthermost one. It probably wouldn’t have held any more than three people, and certainly not a dragon, but Rachel’s family still had enough sea in their blood that it held for her.
Or at least, that’s what she liked to tell herself.
“Llyr,” she called as she sat on the edge of the dock, dangling her shoes just above the dark water. She felt foolish yelling out across the empty docks, as she always did. She wished Llyr wouldn’t make her wait so long. “Come out, you big dolphin, I’ve got a new style for you.”
There was a pause of silence, in which Rachel could just pick out the quiet sounds of rippling water – then a sudden wave splashed up on her, soaking her shoes and socks.
“You fish bastard,” Rachel hissed, swallowing a cry of surprise. “These are my good shoes.”
“I told you not to call me a dolphin.” Llyr eyed her, yellow eyes glinting from just above the water.
“It’s just a joke,” Rachel assured him, watching carefully as he drew closer, the currents billowing his pale hair out around him. “You do know what a joke is, right?”
He made an odd clicking in the back of his throat, before splashing more water up at her. Rachel gave him a look of disappointment.
“Stop being so rude,” she said. “Or I won’t show you the new style I learned.”
As predicted, Llyr’s eyes lit up, the hostile expression on his face melting to excited curiosity. Without warning, he dipped beneath the water before pushing himself up, hauling his heavy tail halfway on the dock, until he was sitting next to her. Rachel shifted away from the saltwater that dripped off him, rivulets puddling between them on the dock. The sun had almost set by now, and the dying rays of light barely caught in the glint of his fish tail, turning the dark green scales to iridescent shades of rainbow. Rachel forced herself to look away. Llyr didn’t like her staring at his tail, almost as much as he liked her staring at his teeth.
“They’re sharper today, I think,” he said, sounding pleased. “Enough to bite through a whale.”
“I think a whale would swallow you whole,” Rachel told him.
“It would not,” he said petulantly.
“No,” Rachel agreed. “You’d make a poor dinner for it.”
“You’re being rude now,” Llyr whined. “Do your braid thing, or I’ll sing your hair into snakes.”
“What if I’d like that,” Rachel murmured under her breath, even as she knelt behind Llyr, pulling the long-bristled brush she’d swiped from her aunt’s counter from her bag. Llyr slung his wet hair over his back, straightening his shoulder expectantly. Rachel tried not to laugh at how childishly eager he was.
“I think you’ll like this one,” she said, as she began to drag the brush through the thick, pale locks, silently marveling at the unnatural way his hair shimmered. “It’s called a fishtail braid.”
“A fishtail?” Llyr’s nose wrinkled. “How insulting.”
Rachel was not as successful at hiding her laugh that time.
“You shouldn’t be going out after dark,” her aunt had told her once, while icing her twisted ankle. “Promise me you won’t stay out so late again.”
Rachel had just burst through her front door earlier that evening, panting heavily, eyes wide as moons. She was never sure what particular being had chased her that night, except that being caught by it would have been her end.
Rachel knew how her aunt worried. She knew how she longed to leave Merdan, to bid the sea goodbye and move somewhere that wouldn’t steal anyone else from her. So, Rachel had promised.
Turning the brightness of her lantern lower as she stood on the dock late at night, she supposed she ought to feel remorse for breaking that promise so often. But it was difficult to feel sorry as she watched Llyr twist his braided hair between his fingers, his yellow eyes admiring.
“Llyr,” she called once more before he left.
He paused to listen to her, his tail creating quiet ripples in the dark water around him.
Rachel tightened her sweaty fingers around the lantern handle. “Will you give me a wish?”
Llyr smiled at her, all sharp needle-teeth. “You know you have to catch me, first.”
Rachel sighed, her shoulders slumping. “Another time, then,” she murmured. Llyr’s eerie laugh echoed into the night, and Rachel left the dock with her hair standing on end.
She didn’t even own a rope strong enough to hold him, anyways.
He should’ve eaten her when they first met.
It had been months ago, in the dead of summer, when Rachel had taken her uncle’s boat out again, skimming along the shallows. The days were longer, and the sun lingered enough in the sky for her to dare taking it out so deep. It was safer for humans in the light, though never a guarantee. Nowhere in the world could promise complete safety for humans.
Rachel had felt the chains stronger than ever that day – like shackles around her wrists, holding her down, marking her as prey for others. The town had felt too small, too suffocating. Even the eyes of the dryads had felt dangerous, staying on her too long. They weren’t supposed to devour humans, not like other beings might, but who knew? Safety was an illusion for her kind. They had no claws, no wings, no sharp teeth to bite back with. Rachel longed for those teeth more than anything – the curved knives of dragon’s teeth, or the razor needles of sirens. Without them, she could go nowhere alone, and she would never see the larger seaports. She would never see the open sea stretching out before her and be able to take it, miles of blue and nothing else.
She had the sea she could reach here, though, so she took to it, as far and as fast as she could push the boat over the waves, until the coast was a mere pale line on the horizon. She imagined she was a dragon, with wings and claws and teeth of steel, and no one would ever look at her with anything but awe.
She was so caught up in her imaginings, that she’d nearly missed the sudden stutter of the propeller as it caught on something. It was only Rachel’s many years of experience and the strong necks of the merfolk that had saved the unfortunate siren. She cut the engine and halted the propeller before she could think twice, and instead of shredding his head, the propeller had only caught in his long hair.
But it had been a close call, and it must have been more than enough reason for him to devour her in retribution. A lone human far out at sea, with only a fishing net as a weapon, Rachel would have made for an easy snack.
But Llyr had only watched her with his yellow eyes, hissing once or twice with his terrifying teeth, but finally let her submerge in the water with him, carefully untangling his hair with gentle fingers. He looked nothing like the sirens Rachel had seen in books, but she supposed it was unfair for her to expect every siren to look like a beautiful, winsome woman. She disliked when other beings expected her to be a gentle, harmless human, even if they almost always had a point. Floating underwater with a siren, her arms growing tired from going up and down to gasp for air, she had never been more vulnerable prey. And yet, his teeth never once drew close to her.
“It was your hair,” he told her later, when he’d nearly scared her half to death by popping up at the docks late at night. “I’ve never seen hair done like yours.”
Rachel had been wearing her hair in double braids that day, the ones with the fancy twists her aunt liked. She never imagined they would save her life.
Llyr wasn’t his real name, but it was the closest Rachel could get to it. His language was meant for underwater, all hissing and clicking noises in the throat that Rachel couldn’t hope to imitate. He didn’t seem to mind, though – he hadn’t eaten her yet, at least.
“I don’t think my vocal cords will do that,” she repeated, as he croaked out another slew of odd-sounding syllables from the water. She had come in the earlier morning today, so she could check the crab traps she set out the night before. Only two had taken the bait, but they made for a decent breakfast.
Llyr gave a despondent sigh. “I suppose it was too much to hope for,” he said. “I was trying to teach you the word for hair.”
“Is that what that was?” Rachel winced as the sharp edge of the crab shell cut her finger. “How about the word for braid, then?”
Llyr’s eyebrows furrowed, and he shook his head. “We have that word,” he said. “But it does not mean the same thing as your braids.”
“Do the merfolk really not have braids?” Rachel asked.
“It’s custom to wear our hair loose,” Llyr said absently. “We are proud of long hair. Sometimes our warriors will tie theirs back, or the royals wear pearls, but it’s considered odd to alter it.”
“Seems silly,” Rachel said. “I’d imagine it gets all in your face.”
Llyr’s tail splashed her, gently this time. “It’s our custom, not yours.” He paused, then ran a sharp-nailed finger through his own messy hair. “But yes, it does get ‘all in my face’. Quite often.”
“Or stuck in boats.”
“Or stuck in boats,” he sighed.
Rachel stifled a laugh. “Here,” she said, setting her crab aside. “I’ll do yours in the double style you like again.”
Llyr’s hair was dreadfully tangled today, like Rachel’s dark hair was after being blown in the coastal winds all day. It gave her time to stare, as he was content to let her work in silence, humming some haunting tune as he often did to entertain himself.
Rachel’s eyes drifted across his back as she divided his hair into sections, knotting the left one before starting in on the right. He had scaly freckles running across the tops of his shoulders, like the scales that lined his arms, but these ones were marred, torn and distorted by numerous scars. Some were faded, long lines that looked like they could have been claw marks, while others looked more recent, red and ugly against his dark skin.
They matched the ones that ran across his face, a set of jagged lines carved into his right cheek she had never been brave enough to ask about. She knew what sirens could be like. They had sharp teeth and sharp nails; it wasn’t difficult to guess.
“Share,” Llyr suddenly demanded, jolting her from her thoughts. His webbed hands gestured at her half-dissected crabs. “I’m hungry.”
She nudged the crab away with her leg, frowning. “This is my lunch. Get your own.”
There was a flash of needle-like teeth. “I can always eat your leg. It’s been baking nice in the sun.”
“You’re horrid,” she snapped, giving his hair a sharp tug. She knew that he wouldn’t eat any part of her by now. Or she hoped, at least.
Instead of growing angry, Llyr seemed to shrink in on himself at that, his shoulders drooping sadly. Despite herself, Rachel felt a pang of sympathy, and cursed her weak heart.
“Here,” she finally sighed. “Do you want the crab’s leg, then?”
He moved to shake his head, but he stopped as she gave his hair another threatening tug. “Just the shells.”
She stared at him in silent confusion, but he had already taken this as an invitation, snatching up a discarded shell from beside her. She watched in fascination as he crunched the sharp shell pieces between his teeth, snapping and cracking them like popcorn.
“I can never understand why you humans don’t eat the shells,” he mused, licking a finger. “The skin is the best part, you know.”
Rachel figured it was best not to comment, and she returned to braiding his thick hair. She still preferred peeling the tiny white pieces of meat from inside the crab, leaving the shell firmly untouched. Her own teeth would crack on the shells, the sharp edges cutting into her gums. Human teeth were much too soft for the sea.
“I wish you’d come with me, Rachel.”
Rachel blew a clump of curls from her face as she packed the last of her aunt’s boxes in the old vehicle, barely squeezing a crate of brushes in with the heavy stacks of old blankets.
“I told you, auntie,” she said. “I’ve got a good job here. I’ll come visit lots, I promise.”
“No, you won’t,” her aunt replied, and she sounded sad. “You’ve got your sea here. You won’t leave it for some little mountain town.”
“Then I’ll write until you believe me,” Rachel said, trying to ignore the bitter flare of guilt.
Her aunt shook her head, stepping closer and brushing the rebellious clump of hair back, twisting it into the smallest of braids. “It’s alright. I know how you love it here.” Her aunt’s eyes grew dark, staring at something far away. “But I can’t bear it anymore, Rachel. You know what we’ve lost to the sea.”
Rachel knew. She’d lost her parents both at once, their ship swallowed by a kraken before Rachel had even known how to read. Her uncle had been a harder blow. She had been older, old enough to learn all the things she loved about him. He was the one to teach her how to patch boats, the one who secured her a job repairing fishing vessels even when the other workers had frowned at her. The elf he worked with told them how his boat had been lost at sea, washed away by the powerful waves with no magic to protect him. Her aunt had always suspected sirens.
“I’m sorry,” Rachel finally said.
“Don’t be,” her aunt said. “Be safe for me, will you? Don’t stray too far from the shallows. You know how dangerous it can be our kind.”
Rachel felt the old ache in her chest burn hot, but she nodded. “Of course.”
She ran for the docks that night like the dragons themselves were at her heels. She’d never seen one before, but she could imagine how hot their breath would feel, and how sharp their teeth would be, snapping at her heels. Powerful teeth, deadly teeth, teeth to fight back with.
The back of her aunt’s van, fleeing their small town for somewhere even smaller, was seared into her eyelids, and the image filled Rachel with a fear worse than the dragons did.
Llyr was already waiting for her when she reached the dock, half-sprawled across it as he stared up at the stars, his glinting tail flicking lazily back and forth.
He opened his mouth to greet her, but she cut over him, winded and out of breath.
“Did you want to eat me?” she gasped. “That first day?”
Llyr’s eyes widened, but he made no other expression. He only jerked a scale-freckled shoulder up in a shrug. “Perhaps,” he said. “But I liked your hair.”
Rachel’s legs gave out from under her, and she sunk heavily onto the dock next to him. “Was that all, then.”
Llyr was silent, and Rachel watched his tail continue to flick back and forth. There were scars there too – ugly, jagged ones that spoke of cruelty.
“What would you ask for,” Llyr suddenly said. “If I let you catch me.”
Rachel’s breath caught in her chest. She knew exactly what she would ask for. She’d known since she had discovered the sirens’s gift.
“I would ask for teeth,” she finally whispered. “Sharp teeth, like yours. So I could go where I wanted, and never fear again.”
Llyr shook his head. “Your mouth isn’t made for teeth like mine,” he said. “They would be too sharp. Your lips would cut on them.”
Of course, she thought. She wasn’t made for such power; she never would be. Rachel fought back tears.
“You are not the kind of person made for sharp teeth,” Llyr told her wistfully. He had a different look in his yellow eyes now, one she thought she might have seen before. “You are not the kind of person that drags people down and drowns them. You are a kind person, so your teeth cannot be so sharp as mine.”
Rachel finally recognized the look in his eyes. It was longing, the same kind that stared back at her from the mirror so often.
Llyr turned over, folding his arms on the dock, staring at the tiny rivers of water than ran down from his webbed fingers to the rotting wood. “I didn’t want to eat you,” he said, as if letting her in on some dark secret. “Because you sounded kind. And I was tired of being cruel. I like your teeth. They don’t hurt like mine do.”
Rachel stared at him, barely visible as he was in the pale moonlight. His hair was still twisted into the braid she’d put in yesterday, though strands of it were now coming loose.
“Then take me with you,” Rachel said, her heart pounding painfully. “Take me with you, and be my teeth. And maybe I can teach you, someday, how to soften them.”
Llyr’s eyes met hers, trapping her gaze in intense yellow. “You know what I am,” he said.
Rachel stared back, unflinching. “You’re Llyr.”
Before he could reply, she wove a strand of his hair between her fingers, holding tight. “And now I’ve caught you,” she said. “You owe me my wish.”
Llyr’s eyes lingered on her hand, then drifted back to her own. “Is that what you wish, then?” he said, his voice cautious. “What you truly want? You’d leave everyone, you know. You wouldn’t have your family, or your friends.”
Rachel thought of her parents, long dead in the salt of the sea. She thought of her uncle as well, and of the three empty graves in a shallow plot of land. She thought of her aunt, running from town to town and never feeling safe in any of them. She would mourn, perhaps, but Rachel could always tell her she’d caught ride on another fishing boat. She could tell her she’d left for somewhere better, for seas that were safer to fish on. It wouldn’t be such a lie.
“I’d have you,” she whispered.
Llyr’s voice was a siren’s song. “You’d have me.”
She let him take her hand this time, webbed fingers catching over her own calloused ones. They felt like the sea did beneath her fingers, open and endless.
“Then that is my wish,” she said. “Take me with you, and give me your teeth.”