When I had finished in my room I headed out onto the landing to make my way downstairs and find out if anyone was around, since I had no idea when my parents would have arrived home the night before or whether they would actually remember anything of the party. I was surprised to see Noah heading up the staircase halfway down, his attention so closely focused on a piece of paper he was holding that the two of us almost collided before he spotted me.
"Oh – Sara. Sorry."
I hadn't failed to spot the expression that had been on his face before his surprise at almost walking into me had overtaken it; somewhere between disbelief, incomprehension and horror. "Noah?" I asked immediately, instantly concerned. "What's the matter?"
He simply looked at me, before turning his gaze back to the sheet of paper in his hands, which I could now see were trembling violently, and then back to me again. Then he swallowed, muttered, "Um," and then seemed lost for words again. After a moment, he gently turned me to face the way I had come and pushed me back towards his bedroom, which we headed into before he pulled the door slowly closed behind us and locked it. My eyes followed him as he did so, observing the shaking of his hands and the tension in his shoulders; dread was beginning to come to life in my heart, as I wondered what on earth could have happened to cause him what looked like so much distress.
Eventually, I couldn't stand the silence any longer and demanded, "Noah! What is it? Show me!"
He looked at me, blinked as if he had forgotten I was there, and then silently handed the slip of paper over. It was a letter, but my eyes didn't focus straight on the words; my gaze immediately flew to the two other pieces of paper that were clipped to it. They were photographs. In the photos, it was dark, with only the glow of a couple of streetlamps breaking up the shadows on the left of the images. One photograph had been taken from more of a distance than the other, and both showed two people leaning against a pale wall, cast into dappled semi-darkness from the tree above their heads, locked in a tight embrace, and kissing. In the distant one they were more difficult to work out, but faintly recognisable. In the close-up one, they were unmistakeable. One with unruly brown hair and pale skin, the other with dark skin and thick black hair with one section strung through with brightly-coloured feathers – both male.
Silently, my own hands trembling, I pulled back the photos to read the letter beneath. It had been put together on a typewriter, I presumed so that the sender couldn't be recognised by their handwriting.
Dear Mr. Redfern,
We understand that this is of course a regrettable matter, but this is our only available course of action left. We know what you have, and there is little point in mentioning it – similarly, others with you may not know the truth of the matter and thus we wouldn't want to get you into any more trouble than you already will be in. Give us what we are owed, and these photographs will not find their way onto the front page of the city's most widely-read newspaper. Deny us, and they will. The choice is yours.
The letter wasn't signed with any name, or even a polite ending such as 'Yours sincerely'. It seemed that this – whatever 'this' was – had gone past the stage of false politeness. Blankly, I simply stared at the letter for a while longer, eyes scanning the words as if desperately hoping that they might change each time I looked at them, but there was no hope of that. Eventually, a stunned whisper left my mouth.
Noah nodded numbly, staring blankly over my shoulder at the opposite wall as if unable to even make himself look down at the letter.
"Who is it? Do you have any idea?"
He shook his head, inhaling a slow, trembling breath. "No. I have no idea. I just... I can't think... How do they know we have the mers?"
"The mers," I realised, staring at the letter with renewed horror. Of course. With the words 'give us what we are owed', I hadn't even made the connection to the creatures. "But... what does it mean, 'give us what we are owed'? And... and 'we know what you have'. And it's addressed to you... How could they know? Is this... Oh my Goddess, Noah, is this the person who wanted to buy them?"
"Probably. Maybe. I don't know!" Noah turned away from me, striding agitatedly to the other side of the room, clearly desperate. "I don't know what to do!"
Seeing the terror in his expression, I threw the letter onto the bed and headed over to him, gently resting my hands on his shoulders. "It's OK. Calm down. We'll work something out. We can't do this if we panic."
"How can I not panic, Saralynne? Someone knows about us. They know about me and Kalexi! If that information gets to the Malenshians... What's to say it hasn't already?" A strangled sob left his throat, and he pulled away from me, running his hands through his hair and striding to and fro desperately.
At a loss of what to do, I picked up the letter again, studying the photographs closely. There were no recognisable landmarks in the image, but I was sure that Noah was wearing the outfit he had had on the night before. "Wait... when did this happen?"
"Last night." Noah was standing with his back to me, leaning on the windowsill, head bowed with what already seemed to be despair. "He heard about the party, and about you and Rafe, and wanted to come by and offer his congratulations... and then we saw each other and... and we couldn't help ourselves. We thought no one could see us... so stupid... I'm so stupid!"
"You're not stupid," I protested. "You just wanted to be with the person you care about."
"And look where it's got us!" Noah turned round with a humourless laugh, an almost mad look of desperation in his eyes.
"Shhh. Just stay calm. We will work something out, Noah."
"We can't work something out." Noah slumped onto the bed, covering his face with his hands. "It's either one or the other."
"Well... maybe they might not decide to execute Kalexi," I replied in what I hoped was a placating tone, rummaging around for some logical thinking in the depths of my chaos-ridden mind. "After all, he is their ambassador. He's an incredibly important part of their society. They wouldn't just decide to kill him because of one thing."
"Yeah, 'one thing' that just happens to be everything they hate," Noah retorted venomously, then groaned and ran a hand restlessly through his hair again. "There's just no way out of this."
"I'm sure the Mythralian monarchy wouldn't just let the Malenshians kill their ambassador, even if they're royalty too!" I exclaimed, desperate to find an answer to all this. "They can't – you can't execute people here, it's illegal in itself!"
"They're not going to do it here, Saralynne, obviously," Noah growled in exasperation, getting to his feet and beginning to stride to and fro again in agitation. "They'll wait until they get back to Malenshi, then they'll have him killed."
Temporarily quietened, I paused to think for a few more moments, feeling myself shaking with the horror of the situation that had been laid out before us; it was a case of choosing one life over another, or rather, one life over another two. Instinctively, deep down, a part of me knew that I had already chosen, but at the time I knew I couldn't possibly go ahead with that choice, no matter how much my heart screamed for it. I was completely lost; I literally had no idea what to do.
Then again, a tiny part of my mind, the part that was still attempting to remain at least partly logical, pointed out, it could be considered a case of the possible death of one person over the certain deaths of another two. There was no way to know whether Noah had been right about the custom of executing homosexual men in Malenshi; their laws and way of life were kept so secret from the other empires and kingdoms of the world that the rest of us hardly knew anything. He could be completely wrong. Perhaps Kalexi would simply be exiled and then the problem would be solved. Alright, so he would have no money and no home, but he could live here, and gain Mythralian citizenship, and the two of them could be together without any threats looming over their heads – any threats apart from that of being on the receiving end of closed-minded idiots' jibes, that was, but that would be a thousand times better than Kalexi simply being killed. Whereas in the case of Ikurei and Sarrien, they would certainly die, wherever they ended up. Since so few humans understand the creatures' needs and diets, and someone who only wanted them for the money they would fetch them wouldn't have bothered to take the time to read up on it, they would die soon after being taken into captivity. That was, if they weren't slaughtered as soon as they came into the person's possession, to be served up as rare delicacies on a noble dinner plate.
I already knew I had made my choice. The problem would be convincing Noah of the same thing, and that was not going to be easy.
"I don't think they'll kill Kalexi. I think you're making it seem worse than it is."
Immediately Noah lifted his head from his hands and stared at me in alarm. "What? Have you even heard a single word I've said?"
"I'm being honest. Kalexi's an incredibly important part of their society – he's the link between them and the countries they need to communicate with. I'm not sure there'd be many like him. They need him – they wouldn't kill him, even to make an example."
"You're not getting how important these laws are to them, Saralynne! Their kingdom revolves around their laws and rules. Don't you think their matriarchical society would have evolved over the course of thousands of years if that wasn't the case? It would have changed, and yet it hasn't. They're still stuck in the same society they had hundreds of years ago. Their rules are strict, and they stick to them. It doesn't matter who's committed the crime."
"I think you're wrong. They must have some sort of level of tolerance that means they won't make an example of the most important members of the society. For example, what if... if Princess Kaleya did something really wrong and against the law? They wouldn't punish her, because she's the heir to the throne."
"You're not getting it." Abruptly, Noah got to his feet and walked across the room again, coming to a halt facing the wall with his hands in his pockets. We fell into an uneasy silence for a long moment, then Noah turned back to face me again, a tiny, desperate smile forming itself on his face. "Come on, Sara, you must already have your answer. You can afford to give up the two mers. What are they to you? Nothing. You just rescued them – for all you know, the person who wants them might not even want to hurt them. They might be... protected, looked after. You're the one who's imagining it to be a thousand times worse than it could be. They could be better off than they are here – in fact, they probably will be, because one's in a tank and the other's in a bath, and they're hardly free now, are they? They could be treated really well."
I simply looked at him in blank incomprehension. After all the anxiety and effort we, as a group, had gone through to rescue the mers from their dire situations, I couldn't believe I was hearing these words from Noah. "Have you lost your mind?"
"No, I think you're losing yours," Noah protested, a hint of anger crossing his face, followed by an almost insane look of pleading; I couldn't blame him for being so stressed in this situation, but this threat appeared to have almost driven him mad with terror. "Please! Please, Sara, you know this is right. You've got Rafe now, you don't need to focus all your attention on rescuing mers, or whatever else takes your fancy. I know you were only doing that to get away from the life we lead here, weren't you? Weren't you? You can go with Rafe and... and the mers will go to whoever it is that wants them. They'll be safe. They'll be fine."
"Noah!" I protested, exasperated. "This is Ikurei and Sarrien's lives at stake versus your reputation! The choice is obvious!"
"Kalexi's going to die if you let this go ahead!"
I let out a wordless growl of frustration and slumped onto the position on the bed he had recently vacated to go storming about the room. "You can't just tell me to let Ikurei and Sarrien fall into the hands of someone who's going to kill them!"
"And you can't sentence the person I want to be with to death because you don't want to let go of your little mer friends!"
I stopped partway through unconsciously mirroring him by running my hands through my hair, staring at him in disbelief. "Are you even taking me seriously, Noah, or was you helping me save them all part of some big plan just to make me feel completely patronised? I didn't decide to save them on a whim, whatever you think – I care about them. I don't know Sarrien very well, but I know that I care deeply about Ikurei. I will not let them get killed." I paused, then took in a shaky breath, unable to look him in the eye. "I won't let them get killed, even if it means salvaging your reputation. I'm sorry, Noah, but I can't."
He simply looked at me for a long moment, looking lost and desolate and hopeless. I could see the tears forming in his eyes, and they just made me feel worse, but I had made my decision and I couldn't change my mind now. "Saralynne... please. Please don't do this."
I shook my head, avoiding his gaze. "I've made my decision."
"Saralynne, you know how I feel about Kalexi! You can't let him die!" To my surprise, Noah threw himself to his knees in front of me, looking up at me with sheer desperation. "Please!"
"He's not going to die. They wouldn't do that." My voice was shaking slightly, not from the fear that I could be wrong, but from the sight of the uninhibited terror on Noah's face. I had never in all my life seen him looking so frightened. It hurt me to have to put him through all this, but I couldn't sacrifice Ikurei, especially not after the discovery of how we felt about one another. Of course, Noah couldn't know this, and I wasn't going to tell him. Besides, a small, vicious part of my mind whispered, even if they did decide to execute Kalexi in the end, it was nothing to do with me. He was nothing to me, it murmured, and even if he meant something to Noah, he'd soon get over him. There were millions of people in Crysta alone – there would always be someone else. It might take a while, but he would be alright. I just needed him to understand that, but it hadn't been as easy as I had expected, not just for him but also for me. Seeing Noah in such pain was making my heart feel as if someone had gripped it in an icy hand and was trying to strangle it.
"You don't know that!"
"I know that I can't sacrifice Ikurei. He'll die if we give these people, whoever they are, what they want." My voice sounded almost emotionless to my own ears as I attempted to control the wayward maelstrom of feelings that raged behind it. Unable to face my brother any longer, I gently pushed him out of my way and got to my feet, heading towards his bedroom door and opening it.
"Saralynne! Sara, don't do this!"
Trembling violently, I stepped out into the hallway and closed the door slowly and deliberately behind me. I made it to my bedroom before I collapsed into helpless tears.
It was a good idea I had locked my bedroom door when I had entered the room, I considered vaguely later, even if I hadn't done it consciously. Noah thumped at the door with his fists for about half an hour in an attempt to get me to come out, screaming my name all the while, then instead began begging, pleading for me to change my mind. When I didn't reply – in all honesty, I was hiding beneath my bedcovers, trying to block Noah's cries from my hearing, attempting not to look at the door because I knew if I did I would get up to go and open it – he instead simply sat outside the door, asking me every now and then, in a barely audible voice, if I would please consider changing my mind, or even just talking. When I still ignored him, he fell silent, though I could tell from the occasional quiet sob or shaky, indrawn breath from behind the door that he was still there.
I didn't know how long this process went on for. Eventually, the distant clicking of the front door and the murmur of faint voices downstairs heralded our parents' arrival home, and, obviously not wanting them to see him in this state, Noah finally moved away from the door. As soon as I heard the door of his own bedroom thud closed I resurfaced from the bedcovers, wiping tear tracks from my face. I felt terrible for putting him through this – in all honesty I thought I would have preferred us to be at one another's throats as we had been when I had returned from Port City than this desolate helplessness, in which no matter who I chose, I would be hurting someone close to me.
I clambered back out of my bed, leaving it unmade for Cahren to sort out later when he decided to make an appearance – I missed him this morning, wanting the silent security of his presence amidst all this madness. Briefly I considered heading into the bathroom to see how Ikurei and Sarrien were doing, but then decided that I couldn't face them with my emotions still in such a mess. Selfishly, I didn't want either of them to see my weakness, but also, I knew that if Ikurei, who was always incredibly intuitive, noticed my anxiety, he would be worrying about me for the rest of the day.
Eventually, after wandering restlessly around my room for a while, unable to focus my attention on anything, I headed downstairs upon making sure there was no evidence of any tears left on my face. I had presumed my father would have headed straight into the study, since if Noah wasn't there, he usually would be, but when I knocked on the door there was no response, so I headed on into the nearest sitting room, my parents' usual favourite for taking a break from their work. To my surprise, when I knocked on the door and then pushed it slightly open, poking my head inside, they weren't relaxing on the sofa drinking wine or coffee, but standing at the back of the room. On a table beneath the window stood a wood-and-metal radio that was rarely turned on, since my parents weren't exactly fans of music so I presumed it was more for show, but now they appeared to be listening to it intently.
"Mum? Dad? What's the matter?"
Startled, both of my parents glanced around at once, my father reaching for the switch of the radio in the same moment to turn it off. Puzzled, I merely hovered in the doorway of the room as they came to sit down on the sofa by the coffee table, looking grave. Now they were beginning to worry me as well – I couldn't help but think that I really didn't need this on top of everything else.
"You're making me nervous. What's going on?"
"I'm sure it's nothing, dear," my mother replied with a smile, though it was shaky and she probably knew I could tell that. "They just broadcast something on the radio-"
"Something urgent on the radio," my father interrupted, something he never usually did. Immediately I realised that this could potentially be more important than even I had anticipated, considering the uneasy expressions on their faces. "It's from the monarchy's advisors. There's been a message from Port City. They say the city – or clan, or whatever it is they call it – of mercreatures that lives by the city has told them to pass on a warning to us. Apparently their crown prince has been captured."
"I don't even think we should take it seriously," my mother put in scornfully, speaking before he could continue. "After all, they're just animals – glorified animals that can talk. Just because they somehow managed to forge some agreement with the people from that city doesn't mean they can dictate to us as if they're on our level. They probably don't even have a crown prince. They probably don't have a monarchy. They're animals."
Her words made my blood boil with simmering fury, but it was almost overtaken by the shock of what my father had said before she had spoken. Apparently determined to get the conversation back on track, he spoke up before I could.
"Anyway, as you can probably guess, the mercreatures aren't happy about this. They think their prince was captured by humans, which I guess is the most reasonable explanation, and they do say they need to keep a watch on that area because the creatures are hunted. They've issued a threat and they want it spread across the empire. They say that if their prince isn't returned to them by noon tomorrow, they'll attack."
"Which, of course, is ridiculous, because they can't even get out of the sea-" my mother began, but I hardly heard her.
"They're what? Are you serious?"
"Yes." My father looked grave, and I couldn't blame him. "Apparently the king and queen of their city possess magic, and they warn us that they're capable of more than we think they are. They say they could destroy every city south of the forest if they chose to."
I simply stared at him in horrified incomprehension for several seconds. Even my mother had fallen silent, having appeared to finally manage to take in the gravity of the situation. Realising that they were probably waiting for a response, I somehow managed to string together a semi-coherent sentence.
"Um... w-well... who do they think has him? Their prince?"
"They apparently have an idea that it's someone in this city," my father replied, making my heart jolt slightly with fear. I hoped desperately that he wouldn't be able to see the truth in my eyes: that I was harbouring the captured mer boy in none other than my own bathroom. "Let's just hope they have the sense to return him to his kind before noon tomorrow, and that they haven't been stupid enough to kill him for someone's dinner or something, because mercreatures have been known to become delicacies."
"What have they warned for if he isn't returned?" I asked hesitantly. "I mean, what are we meant to do to... well, to protect ourselves?"
He shrugged with an expression of helplessness. "Batten down the hatches, basically. I think everyone's torn between believing what they say and dismissing it as a joke or just a weak threat that they'll never carry out. But if they do decide to attack, I suppose it could end up like a tidal wave or a flood, so I guess we'd have to get to the highest ground we can – we should be grateful we're not in the lower quarters of the city – and move to the top floors of our homes."
I didn't need to fake the horror I was sure was on my face. "Bloody hell."
"While I would usually tell you that your language was unbecoming, Saraynne, today I'll let it pass by without comment because I'm feeling much the same way," my father replied with a wry smile, though I could see the unmistakeable grimness behind his expression.
Numbly, I headed out of the room and back towards the stairs as my parents summoned some of the servants to make them some lunch, realising vaguely that I should really have been hungry, but that if I had had an appetite, I had now completely lost it. I had expected the Delt'na clan to be angry that Sarrien was missing, yes, but for them to issue a nationwide threat of attack... It was almost beyond imagining. Not to mention that, even though Ikurei had explained to me the sheer power of the Delt'na king and queen's magic in terms of being able to transform a non-mer person into a mercreature themselves, I hadn't even begun to imagine that they could destroy entire cities with their power. I had no doubt that, if provoked, they could do it. My mother was completely wrong to dismiss them as nothing more than 'glorified animals' – they knew exactly what they were doing, and if they didn't get what they want, they wouldn't hesitate to wipe half of Sola out. That much I knew. I could understand their point, and it was unfair to act as if their actions would be dissimilar to the humans' own – if the heir to the throne of one of our kingdoms or empires was snatched away from us, the offenders would immediately be receiving a declaration of war, that was for certain. This was no different.
Reaching the second landing and then heading towards Noah's room, I knocked lightly on the door, murmuring, "I need to speak to you."
Silence was my only response, but I couldn't exactly have said I wasn't expecting it.
"I'm not coming out. No pun intended."
I waited a few moments more, pushing back my rising temper with a will of iron. Shouting at him before I had even got into the room wasn't going to encourage him to listen to me at all.
"Come on, Noah. This is important. Really important."
There was a pause, then a muffled remark of, "More important than sentencing my boyfriend to death?"
It was the first time he had referred to Kalexi as his boyfriend, and though I didn't think he had done it on purpose to make me feel guilty, it did cause a jolt of regret in my chest. Determinedly I pushed it back and replied firmly, "Yes, it is that important. Open the door."
There was a soft snort, then a retort of, "I think you need to get your priorities right, Saralynne."
"I'm not joking, Noah. This has gone far beyond a joke. Open the damn door."
There was no response, and for a moment I was convinced he had decided to ignore me, but then there was the sound of movement and a few seconds later the door clicked open slightly. Noah looked down at me with dislike, an expression I had never seen directed at me from him before today. "This better be good."
"No, it's not good. It's terrible." I pushed past him, too irritated to bother waiting for him to step back and let me in, and locked the door firmly behind me. To my surprise I was greeted by the sight of the contents of several cupboards strewn across the carpet, the covers ripped off of his bed and a pile of papers, pens and books that had once been on his desk having, by the looks of it, been swept completely off, all in a fit of anger. I surveyed the damage for a few moments as Noah made his way over to his desk chair, which was lying on its side, righted it and sat down on it with a surly expression. "So... this is you showing your mature and level-headed side, am I right?"
"Shut up and get on with it, Saralynne." He didn't even meet my gaze as he spoke, and I noticed that I had lost my affectionate nickname somewhere along the line.
"As you wish." I stood in a space amongst the chaos and rested my hands on my hips, glaring at him as I spoke so if he happened to glance up he would be forced to look at me. "Long story short, the Silverscale mers have issued a warning and the Mythralian monarchy's advisors have just passed it on in a radio broadcast. The Silverscales want their prince back. And if they don't have him back by noon tomorrow, they'll attack."
Noah's head shot up from where he had been leaning over his desk and he looked at me blankly for a few seconds, his resent towards me temporarily forgotten. "They'll... what? Are you serious?"
"Yes. Mum and Dad just heard it on the radio and told me. The message is being spread nationwide because according to the mers, they have the power to destroy the entire southern half of Sola if they choose to. Everyone's being advised to batten down the hatches and get to higher ground in case the prince isn't returned in time. It's not being taken as an empty threat, as you can probably tell."
"And... the other mer in your bathroom with the tattoos. He's the prince, isn't he?"
"Yes, he – wait, how did you know that?"
"You must have mentioned it when we first got him in from the Rainers'. Plus, it was a lucky guess with those markings." Noah seemed, bizarrely, a little calmer now he had a problem to attempt to unravel, though I could still hear the underlying hint of resent in his tone as he spoke. "But... what the hell are you planning to do now? You already told me you had no intention of giving the mers to the person who was buying them, but how are you going to actually get them back into the sea before noon tomorrow?"
"I'll..." I hadn't even begun to start puzzling over that one. "I'll work it out."
"No, you won't, Saralynne. Admit it, you have no plan for this part."
"I haven't had a plan for all of it and yet we've managed it all, so shut up," I snapped, reaching the end of my tether with his sarcastic remarks. Yes, I had basically told him earlier that I was putting the lives of two mer boys I had known for about a week between them before his boyfriend, but I had made my decision, and besides, I had also listed my reasoning for my choice. I wasn't being unreasonable, and there was no definitive proof that Kalexi was going to die because of my decision. In fact, I thought the chance that he would was incredibly slim. "I'll do it. We'll do it, if you'd be so gracious as to help me." I couldn't keep the sarcasm out of my own voice as I said this. "We'll get them back into the sea and then the mers will have no cause to attack."
"It's not that simple, Saralynne. There is no way we can get them there in time tomorrow." He paused, getting to his feet and running a hand through his hair – which was now beginning to look quite a mess – agitatedly. "Not to mention that this doesn't solve the issue of that blackmail letter. The people who want the mers still aren't going to get what they want."
"Exactly. If anything, this has only sped us up in what we planned to do anyway," I replied firmly, making him turn to look at me in apparent disbelief. "The mers are being freed, Noah, whether you like it or not. I'm sorry about the photos, but... but we can't have it both ways." I was beginning to feel rather stressed again, with his not-so-subtle reminder of what I was doing to him in exchange for returning Ikurei and Sarrien to their rightful home. "This is my decision, and I'm sticking to it. I'm sorry."
Startled, I looked up at him in surprise to see that he was standing in the middle of the chaos of the room, with his hands stuffed in his pockets, avoiding my gaze. After a moment, he hesitantly raised his eyes to meet my own, and I could see the war of emotions that was going on behind the expression he was attempting to keep neutral.
"Alright, fine, I'll help you. I know it's important to you. And obviously, I'm not happy about your decision – you can tell that – but... if it matters to you, we'll do this. I guess... if you're determined not to give in to the people who want the mers, we might as well free them tomorrow, or the whole thing with letting the blackmail take place will be wasted. So... I'll do it. I just can't guarantee that I'll be smiling all the way through it."
I couldn't help but think that by tomorrow his face would be plastered all over the city's newspapers, along with Kalexi's, in that extremely compromising photograph, and so of course he wouldn't be smiling, but I didn't mention it. Noah's emotional state was clearly incredibly fragile at the moment; I didn't know if his decision to tell me he'd help me was just the result of a mood swing back into the realms of calmness and that he'd lose his temper and start throwing things around again in a minute, but while he was in a half-decent mood, I wasn't about to rile him up again. "Well. Thank you, then."
He shrugged and absently turned away, beginning to kick discarded papers and other objects aside. Not knowing what else to say, I headed out of the room and closed the door slowly behind me. There was nothing else to say. Our fate had been laid out before us – it would all come to a head tomorrow. I wanted to rush towards the next day to get it over with; at the same time, I was terrified, wishing for nothing more than to just run away and never come back. Our world could be about to be destroyed; the entire southern half of a continent ravaged by floodwater, hundreds dead. Even the thought was too much to bear, and the idea that, indirectly, it had been caused by me, hoarding the mers in my own home, refusing to even attempt to return them to their rightful place until, as I had told myself, 'the time was right' – it was all down to me. If I had just freed them as soon as they had arrived this would never be happening.
Feeling hopeless, I trudged into my bedroom, my gaze flying immediately to the closed bathroom door as soon as I entered. Inexplicably, suddenly all I wanted was to see Ikurei, even though laying eyes on him would only serve to remind me of everything I would be risking tomorrow. When even the most trustworthy, steadfast presence in my life – my brother – had turned against me for my decisions, Ikurei was the only person I knew would be able to help my pain.
When I entered the room he was lying in the bath in what appeared to be a doze, and Sarrien was still in the position he'd been in when I had brought Ikurei's breakfast in earlier. The plates were now empty, so it looked as if Ikurei had eaten his fill before deciding to catch some more sleep. At the sound of my light footfall on the floor tiles, Ikurei opened his eyes and then lifted his head to give me a small, welcoming smile. I attempted to give him one back, but it was weak, and I knew he could immediately tell that there was something very wrong.
"What's the matter?" He whispered the words so as not to wake up Sarrien. Not only did I suspect the other mer boy wouldn't be in the best of moods when he awoke, but I also didn't particularly want him knowing of the way Ikurei and I felt towards one another, or even the fact that we had become close enough to begin teaching each other our respective languages.
Kneeling down beside the bath, I let out a low sigh, not sure how to even begin to explain. In the end, coward that I was, I decided it would be better not to so at all, and instead simply murmured, "Can I... just stay here with you for a little while?"
He looked surprised and a little puzzled, but immediately replied, "Of course," and held out his arms for me to embrace him. The fact that he knew me so well, that the two of us fit together like two puzzle pieces within only a matter of days of knowing one another, told me that this was right. I knew what I was going to do tomorrow when I had returned Ikurei and Sarrien to where they belonged. It would hurt my family, yes, and I would lose all I had known here in this world; but I didn't fit here, I didn't belong. This was best for everyone. A small part of me nagged restlessly at the back of my mind, telling me I was a coward for running away and simply leaving Noah and Kalexi to deal with the scandal and threat of their relationship being uncovered, leaving my parents to attempt to rebuilt the remains of a business that would most likely either have been destroyed by the termination of the engagement between Rafe and I, or the sheer physical power of the mers' attack. And then there was Rafe, of course, who I would be leaving to pick up the pieces of his heart like he had done so many times before. Yes, I was a coward, wanting to throw everything I knew away and leave it behind; but what was anyone if not a coward? I only wanted what was best for me, and what Ikurei wanted. I didn't work here. This was the best possible way things could turn out.
There was no point in trying to convince anyone else of that. By the time they realised what I had done, I would be long gone.