“What will you do after you get to your ship?” Laurel asked over the campfire.
They had stopped to rest after a full day’s journey. According to Keahi, they still had another day’s travel before they reached the human settlement.
“Sail,” Keahi responded, smirk painting his lips.
“What’s the ocean like?” Laurel watched him with big eyes.
Vorca watched as Keahi got a dreamy look on his face. He smiled as he spoke, describing the way the salt air feels, how the endless blue makes you feel like you’re flying. He told of the boundless night sky and uncountable stars that made him feel like part of the universe. The money he got from pirating wasn’t even a factor in his enjoyment. The ocean was his home.
Laurel smiled. He laid down on the ground, looking up at the stars.
“I want to go on the ocean someday,” he said with a sigh.
Keahi cleared his throat. Vorca thought he saw a slight blush in his cheeks. He poked at the fire with a long stick.
“I’ll take you there someday,” the human said. “Just got to be patient.”
Not that Keahi was the best when it came to patience but watching Keahi trying to pass down life lessons to Laurel made Vorca toasty inside. He barely even noticed when the crickets started chirping and Keahi’s diary came out. He saw Keahi sketching him softly and took that vision with him as he contentedly fell asleep for the first time since this entire adventure had begun.
The village rose quickly out of the forest, like the buildings had stepped out in front of the trees. Vorca had never seen the human town, but his sisters had told him so much — human men had beards down to their bellies, the women painted their faces, and they lived by the light of fires that needed no wood to burn.
Vorca had tried to imagine it, but the details never seemed right to him: The humans wouldn’t use coral for their houses like the merfolk did, but he couldn’t imagine what they would use instead; How did the women keep their faces painted without it all running off?
Vorca held fast to Keahi’s arm. He was still a little unstable on his new legs, but he also felt a tightness growing in his chest at the sight of the buildings. His instinct was the hide from the humans, to run back to the water, but he knew he couldn’t.
“What’s the matter?” Keahi looked down at him, evidently picking up on Vorca’s tension.
Vorca shook his head a little. He didn’t like the idea of Keahi thinking he was scared or weak. He wanted to prove his worth to this human, who was taking him on an adventure he’d always dreamed of. He wanted to prove he was more than just a Finder.
“I haven’t seen this many humans before,” Vorca admitted. “At least ones that weren’t trying to kill me.”
Keahi hummed and stopped walking, “That reminds me…”
Laurel stopped after a couple steps, clearly excited but still aware of his companions. Vorca considered that a good thing, especially if any of them were in danger — fish were safe in schools because they could all sense each other, all know when a shark was coming.
“You two need to lay low,” Keahi said to them. “Or at least not talk much. No offense, but the people here will know instantly you’re not like them, so let me do the talking.”
They both nodded. Laurel looked at the pirate with bright, curious eyes, not aware at all of the peril they were in. Vorca knew Finders were kept in cages, but he couldn’t image what the fate of fairies were here…
As they stepped from the forest onto the path leading to town, Vorca could feel Keahi getting excited. He saw the human grinning from ear to ear. Vorca tilted his head, watching him. It had dawned on him for the first time that Keahi had been out of his element, away from what he’d known. Vorca had been nervous to return to the Sea Witch, scared to be in the forest, but the entire time, he had known what was waiting for him there, who to expect.
Keahi had had no point of reference for the journey he’d gone on these past few days. He’d faced discomfort and death without backing down, knowing it was what had to be done.
Behind Vorca’s admiration of the pirate, he felt something tugging at his tail. Guilt, perhaps, that he hadn’t stopped to consider him. Vorca squared his shoulders. Whatever happened from this point, he told himself, he would face it without faltering.
Keahi took a deep breath as his boots clicked on the cobblestone. He felt at ease for the first time in days. He was among his own people, didn’t have to worry about getting eaten or cursed. He could eat real food like meat and potatoes, not oysters and seaweed. It was practically heaven.
He entered the first tavern he saw. It was early still and the majority of the tables were empty. Fine by him. He motioned to his companions to find a table as he walked up to the bar.
“How much for a room?” he asked the portly barkeep.
The bartender looked him over with one eye, the other having a patch over it. He then glanced at Vorca and Laurel across the room. He hummed.
“Twenty for the week,” he grunted.
Keahi baulked at the price, his eyes bugging a bit. “Twenty silver?”
“Gold,” the barkeep picked up a glass to clean.
“And your lot looks rich,” the grizzled man nodded towards Keahi’s companions across the way.
Ki looked at them, too. Vorca sat wide-eyed as he looked around the establishment, fair-skinned and dressed in fae-made cloth, clearly never having worked a day in his life. And Laurel spoke non-stop, clad in rare furs not seen on this side of the island. Keahi sighed. He would have tried to get as much out of them as he could, too.
“Upfront?” Keahi turned back to the man, hoping that he seemed at least slightly trustworthy.
“Half now, half at the end of the week,” he responded.
Keahi dug into his pocket and set out a ten-piece he’d nicked from Vorca’s grotto, hoping the merman didn’t recognize it. He’d have a week to make up the rest of the money. That wasn’t too bad. He’d be able to make up the difference easily once he found his ship.
The barkeep grabbed a key from a hook behind him. He slid it across the well-worn wood of the bar to Keahi.
“Upstairs, third on the left,” his voice rumbled, and he moved his attention to another task.
Keahi gave a quick smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He walked over to his companions. He rubbed his eyes with his hand. This was… not ideal. But it would turn around. If he could just find someone from the crew…
“Third on the left,” Keahi tossed Vorca the key. “Go up and get settled. Don’t open the door for anyone but me.”
“Where are you going?” Laurel tilted his head, a pout on his lips.
“To look around,” he said. “I’ll be back before dinner.”
Keahi was not back before dinner. But when he did arrive, it was with a furious banging on the door, rattling the old wood on its hinges.
“It’s me!” he shouted into the room. “Open up!”
Vorca was stretched out in the tub that came with the room, splashing gently. He tensed when he heard Keahi’s voice — it sounded near panicked. He nodded to Laurel, who was staring at him, frozen.
The fairy hopped off the bed and cautiously moved to the door. He opened it just a crack to see out, but Keahi pushed his way through.
“The ship’s not here!” the human was standing over Vorca within three strides of his long legs.
“W-What?” Vorca sank deeper into the water.
“The Jolly Roger!” Keahi motioned with his good arm towards the window overlooking the harbor. “She’s not here, Vorca.”
“She–” Vorca sat up in the tub, his chest going tight. “She has to be.”
“I’ve asked every sailor in town,” Keahi’s face was red. Vorca had never seen him angry. “She hasn’t been to port in weeks.”
“Then–” Vorca’s mind spun. When he thought of the ship, his gut told him it was here. “Then it must be on its way.”
Keahi took a couple deep breaths. It seemed to calm him, though he didn’t seem entirely convinced.
“I’ve never been wrong, Keahi,” Vorca straightened his back, meeting the human’s gaze as he stared down at him.
A few more breaths. Keahi’s face returned to its normal color.
“Never,” Vorca reassured him.
The bluster left Keahi’s sails. His shoulders slumped and he went to the bed.
“Sorry,” he said as he sat. “I just…”
“Miss home?” Vorca finished for him. Keahi nodded. “It’ll be here, Keahi. We just need to be patient…”
Keahi hummed in response. He shook his right hand as though it hurt. He’d started wrapping it tightly with bandages and rags to cover his curse ever since they’d arrived in town.
“I’m taking a nap…” he said, though to Vorca’s ears, he sounded less tired and more resolved…
Vorca looked to Laurel, who still stood thunderstruck by the door. Vorca felt his ears heat up. He sank down below the water, closing his eyes.
If they really were staying here for a week, Keahi told them, they were going to need a source of income. He had gone off to find someplace that would take him, leaving Vorca and Laurel alone. The room had cost Ki everything he had, and Vorca had a guilt in his chest that compelled him to move.
After Keahi had left, Vorca came out of the tub. Laurel was by the window, gazing out at the world beyond. Vorca knew he would be more than willing to join him then.
He looked around the room. Keahi had said their clothing would make them stand out. So he needed to find something to cover themselves with. He grabbed the sheets from off the bed and draped it over his head and shoulders. A belt would make it seem almost normal. When he was satisfied, he turned to Laurel at the window.
“Want to go on an adventure?”
If Keahi asked, they had left to get ocean water so they didn’t have to rush at the next sunset. They brought Laurel’s bucket, since he carried it all this way for some reason. Vorca decided the fae was sweet, though clueless. He wondered if people thought the same of him…
“Are all humans this scruffy?” Laurel whispered beside him.
Vorca followed the fae’s gaze to a group of sailors standing outside what looked like a sawmill. They were covered in hair and dirt, smoking cigars and drinking what Vorca suspected was not water. He flushed a little as one removed his shirt in the midday sun.
“All the ones I’ve met,” Vorca answered, looking away. Keahi was the cleanest pirate he’d ever met, but he suspected it was mostly because he’d been drenched the majority of their time together.
The road led them to an open-air market near the docks. The smell of fish and sea salt was instant the moment the wind picked up. Vorca’s mouth began to water, though Laurel seemed less pleased with the scent. Vorca laced his fingers together, trying to keep himself from grabbing a large tuna they passed by.
Past the fresh fish and other foodstuffs were trinkets and baubles. Vorca’s eyes went through each item on each stand, mentally making a list of the items he would add to his collection if he had the chance.
Vorca heard Laurel make a small noise beside him. He looked up as a gust of wind moved the hanging fabrics, giving him a glimpse of what had caused Laurel to gasp.
In the stall across the way was a mermaid, strung up by her tail like a large fish. Vorca couldn’t tell if she was alive, but her hair was dry. She needed water.
“What do we do?” Laurel asked in a hushed voice.
Do? What was there to do? Vorca had always been told that being captured by humans meant death. He had no escape plans, because he knew there would be no escape.
But it wasn’t him strung up, it was a sister mermaid. He had the opportunity to be her escape plan. He cleared his throat, not realizing how dry it had gotten. He glanced down at the fae, who was still looking at him for guidance. He took a breath.
“We’ll need a distraction,” he said in a quiet voice. “And a knife.”
Without taking his gaze off Vorca, Laurel took a small blade out from under his cloak. Vorca blinked. How long had he’d had that on him? Vorca took it hesitantly. He felt it humming in his hand, magic flowing from the small blade.
“It was a gift,” Laurel said, though Vorca hadn’t asked. “From someone at the village.”
“You had a lot of admirers back there,” Vorca said, though he wasn’t quite sure what all these bits and pieces about Laurel were adding up to.
Vorca led the way, making a long loop around the stall to inspect the situation. The mermaid’s mouth was gagged, preventing her from singing, but she was alive. If they could get the gag off, maybe they wouldn’t need the knife.
The stall owner sat nearby, playing some kind of game with other fishmongers. He was distracted already, so perhaps an extra little stimulus might give them a window of opportunity.
Vorca took a breath. He thought about sending Laurel over to them and engaging the sailors in a conversation, but it didn’t play out well in his head.
“I’m going to talk to them,” he told the fae. “When they’re not looking, ungag her.”
Laurel nodded, a determined look painting his features now. Vorca knew he was scared, but he was pushing this aside to help a complete stranger.
Vorca was grateful they had brought him.
Vorca didn’t know what he was going to talk about, but his new human legs were taking him to the fishmongers’ table. They noticed him, and some gave quick glances, others lingered on him.
“What do you need, little one?” the man closest to him asked once he got close. He barely looked up from his cards.
Vorca swallowed hard, then took a deep breath. “I was hoping you could tell me where you get your fish?”
The sailor threw down a card, finishing his turn. He shifted in his chair to look at him fully now.
“South side of the island,” he said. He looked him up and down. “Where are you from?”
“I’m–” Vorca’s mind searched for any other human settlements he knew of. “I’m from the eastern end. This is my first time out here.” He didn’t know if there actually was a village there, but surely some humans lived alone, right?
The sailor glanced at his cards. “Everyone here gets their fish from the same waters, if that’s what yer worried about.”
“No, no,” Vorca swallowed hard and gave a small laugh. “I was just wondering where you found the mermaid.” Crap, he didn’t mean to draw attention to her, why was he so bad at this…?
The men around the table chuckled. They turned to look at another player who Vorca hadn’t seen before as she sat behind a large, hulk of a sailor. Vorca had never seen anyone quite like her — not a human anyway. Her dark skin was speckled with light spots in a seemingly random pattern. Her hair was sunkissed, pale pink and wind swept, held back by a faded ribbon. She was bejeweled in gems and seaglass, save for a necklace that held a single, fae-made stone, not unlike his own.
“The mermaid’s mine,” the woman said, barely looking up from her cards. Her voice was smooth, unmarred from any accent like her compatriots. “And I suspect you won’t be able to afford her.”
Vorca’s ears went red. This woman… something about her made his scales itch. He shook his head a little.
“No, no I just…” he took a deep breath. “I just wanted to see them in the wild. The mermaids. I’ve heard of how beautifully they sing.”
Another laugh goes through the group. Vorca’s cheeks grew warm.
“If you ever hear them sing,” the woman said. “You’ll be dead, little one.”
Vorca opened his mouth, but he was cut off by a sound so familiar, it calmed his nerves almost instantly — the song his sisters would sing while defending the Rainbow Falls. Vorca turned and saw the Laurel had been successful. The mermaid’s gag was loose, and she was angry.
Vorca looked around the market. Everyone within earshot went slack-jawed and glassy eyed. Her song was weak, but it would be enough. Vorca forgot the sailors at the table and ran to Laurel.
The fairy was working on the ropes that wrapped around her tail. Vorca lifted the mermaid up so she wouldn’t fall to the ground when she was freed. She wrapped her arounds around his neck, continuing to sing, though her voice cracked. She needed water so badly…
Finally, the rope snapped. Vorca’s knees buckled under her full weight, but he stayed standing. Once he recovered, he didn’t hesitate. He ran out of the market, towards the docks and the nearest path to open water.
The farther they got from the market, the more shouting Vorca could hear. The pirates were coming out of the spell. Vorca wasn’t entirely sure what happened when humans came around. Most of the time, they ended up dead, so he couldn’t ask about memory loss or disconnect. He’d never bothered contemplating it either, and he couldn’t exactly start now.
Here! the voice of his fellow merfolk filled Vorca’s mind.
He skidded to a stop. They were at the far end of the docks, where no humans seemed to linger. Vorca looked around, then set her down on the wet wood of the walkway.
Her tail touched the water and she let out a sigh of relief. She rested only a minute before slipping in completely. She sumerged herself completely, though Vorca could see her eyes just below the surface.
You need to run, her voice was in his mind. Come with me.
I can’t, he told her. I’ve angered the Witch.
Vorca felt a shudder ripple through his mind. She understood. He felt her pity for him.
Someday you’ll return, she said, though there was no feeling behind it. Vorca simply nodded in return.
Laurel reached them finally, panting heavily. It was a wonder that he wasn’t caught, Vorca realized. As his sister mermaid swam away, the impact of what they’d just done came down on Vorca. It was beyond dangerous. If they had been captured…
Laurel sat next to him, then sprawled out on the ground with a groan. He panted, catching his breath slowly.
“We should go back,” Vorca said in a quiet voice.
Laurel gave an affirmative grunt.
Vorca stood, then helped Laurel to his feet. He pulled his makeshift hood down low, hoping to make himself unrecognizable at least slightly. They took the long way back to the tavern, ducking behind buildings and barrels to avoid the fishmongers.
Keahi returned from a day chopping firewood for a local school. He felt practically saintly as well as sore. He had walked away with three coins, which was enough for dinner and breakfast. He’d have to work tomorrow, too. He didn’t mind grunt work, but he preferred being on the ocean. Out on the water was freedom, endless possibilities, and all that crap. It wasn’t a lie when he said it the other night around the campfire, but it was also far more poetic than he preferred to be.
He opened the tavern door, expecting the place to be as quiet as it had been the day before at this time. He was mistaken.
A boat must of come to port, because the place was packed to the gills with sailors and pirates, all of them loud and fairly drunk from the smell of hops and yeast that lingered like a cloud. Keahi squeezed past a table of fellows who were playing some kind of game with a knife, and worked his way to the bar.
The barkeep didn’t seem any more happy than he did when the place was empty. He glanced at Ki when he bellied up to the bar. Keahi set down a coin and slid it towards him.
“Three orders of whatever’s cooking back there,” he said, with a lopsided grin.
The bartender was nonplussed. He looked at the coin, then shrugged.
“Maybe you should check in with your friends before you go buyin’ things for them,” he said.
“What?” Keahi stiffened, standing upright. “Why?”
The barkeep motioned his head to the back of the room. Keahi followed his gaze and saw a rather large group of poker players. At one end of the table sat Laurel, practically glowing as he set down his cards, causing the other players to groan. Keahi blinked, then walked towards them.
Vorca saw him and gave a small wave. He looked entirely uncomfortable in this situation, but he had a feeling that he didn’t have much choice in the matter. He took a chair next to Vorca.
“How much is he in the hole?” He whispered to the merman. Vorca replied with a confused look. Ki sighed. “How much does he owe?”
“Owe?” Vorca shook his head. “He’s won every hand.”
“What?” Keahi’s voice was much louder now that he had intended. He cleared his throat. “How the hell is he winning?”
Vorca shrugged, “Beginner’s luck?”
Ki leaned back in his chair and watched a round. He could see Laurel’s hand clearly. The fairy had been dealt a full house. Keahi gave a soft whistle.
“If he keeps that up, they’re going to call him a cheater,” he said.
“They already have,” Vorca sounded tired. “They searched him. They searched me. They’ve put someone behind him to watch his cards. I think the game now is trying to figure out how he’s doing it. They stopped putting money down after he got almost a hundred gold.”
Keahi felt like his seat fell out from under him. “A h-hundred gold?”
Vorca nodded. He looked more stressed than he was pleased. Keahi could imagine Vorca trying to keep this young fae out of trouble, only to have more and more heaped onto him.
Keahi patted him on the shoulder. He stood again and headed towards the bar.
“Let me buy you a drink.”
The bartender put in the food orders, then started digging around for some clean mugs to serve Keahi’s mead. Ki had yet to decide if this spat of luck was good or bad, but he was going to ride it until it broke.
Keahi took his mug, still waiting for Vorca’s, and turned his back to the bar as he surveyed the room. Everything seemed quiet — well, not quiet exactly, but at ease. He found himself smiling as Laurel got another win, causing a rumbling groan from the crowd that he was gathering.
These were his people. He could relax in this place, and not worry about fairies and mermaids, and drowning. Coming into port, having a couple days of shore leave before heading back out again was all part of the cycle of sailing, and he loved it.
The tavern door opened and a ghost walked in. It took Keahi a moment to realize that she was out of place because he was so used to seeing her in exactly these situations. He stopped smiling. Chilali spotted him almost instantly and sauntered over to him.
Chi was the only woman Keahi had ever seen allowed on a ship. They were bad luck, the saying went. But it had been decided that Chilali was so fierce, that bad luck was too scared to mess with her. For as long as Keahi had known her, he fully believed this was true.
Chilali’s speckled cheeks rose into a small smile as she approached.
“I heard the Kelpies got you,” she said once she was close enough.
Keahi downed the rest of his mead before clearing his throat.
“It’ll take more than some singing wenches to pull me down,” he laughed, hoping it sounded convincing. “Why aren’t you with the Jolly Roger?”
A fresh mug appeared next to them, though it wasn’t for Keahi to bring back to Vorca. The pirate woman demanded more expedient service it seemed.
“I sat this one out,” she said as she picked up her drink. “I wanted to try my hand at fishing.”
“Fishing?” Ki laughed. “How’d that go?”
Chilali smiled behind her mug. She took a long drag, then set the drink on the wooden counter.
“I caught a mermaid,” she stated.
Keahi’s skin went cold. In the history of Neverland, only a handful had ever taken a mermaid alive. They were always in packs, always covering for their fellows. Out of everyone here, Keahi was the most experienced in the dangers they posed.
“A mermaid?” He gave a breathless laugh.
Chilali nodded, though her face grew stormy. Her eyes drifted to the table where Laurel and Vorca sat playing. Keahi followed her gaze. He happened to catch Laurel’s attention and the fairy waved at him from across the room.
Chi raised an eyebrow and looked back at Keahi. “You know them.”
Keahi cleared his throat. He shifted from one foot to another.
“We arrived in town at the same time,” he replied. “We traveled the last mile together.”
Chi hummed in response. “They stole my catch.”
“Stole?” Keahi’s chest tightened. He could barely breathe. “The mermaid?”
Chi gave an angry grunt. “When I heard they were here, I figured I’d come by to collect payment due.” She leaned back on the counter casually. “The long haired one has a pretty mouth I’d like to break.”
Keahi’s head spun. Maybe he was suffocating. Could you drown on dry land? Chilali asked him something, but he didn’t understand it as a human language at first.
“Huh?” he said.
Chi rolled her eyes and repeated herself, “I said, how do you plan on getting back on the ship? You know the captain doesn’t stand for deserters.”
“Desert– I didn’t desert,” Ki snapped, though he regretted it given who he was talking to. He cleared his throat. “I figured I’d give a peace offering.”
“It would have to be a mighty prize to get back in Hook’s good graces,” Chi sounded almost curious, though it could have easily been sadism.
Keahi nodded. He looked away from the table where his companions sat.
“Trust me,” he said. “It’s the biggest prize I’ve ever found.”