Get ready to dive right into your next bewitching read! There are few things more captivating than a villain origin story, and SEA WITCH by Sarah Henning does not disappoint!
We all know the iconic villainess from The Little Mermaid is one wicked witch, but before she stole the mermaid’s voice, she was just Evie, a girl living in a small fishing village who happens to be best friends with a prince. You know—a casual existence.
But everything changes when a mermaid shows up on land, because she happens to bear a striking resemblance to the friend Evie lost to the sea years ago. Evie makes it her mission to help the mermaid fall in love with the prince and stay on land, but it might just cost Evie everything—and everyone—she’s ever loved. This book is the perfect summer read, yes, but we’ll gladly take it all year round!! Take a glimpse under the sea before SEA WITCH hits shelves and read the first four chapters now!
Two small pairs of boots echoed on the afternoon cobblestones—one pair in a sprint, the other in a stumble and slide. A blond girl, no older than five, dragged a raven-haired girl an inch taller and a year older down the sea lane toward a small cottage.
The dark-haired girl’s lungs were sputtering, each inhale a failure.
She was drowning on dry land.
As the house came into view, the blond girl opened her mouth to scream for help but before any sound could come out, the other girl’s mother burst through the door. Like she knew what had happened—she always seemed to know what they’d done.
“Evie!” the mother cried, cradling her daughter in a heap at her chest and running toward the cottage. “Anna,” she said to the little blonde, who was panting from carrying her friend so far, “fetch the royal physician—”
The girl didn’t protest again, fine boots clacking against the cobblestones as she regained speed.
When her mother shut the cottage door tightly behind them, the raven-headed girl knew the physician’s medicine wouldn’t heal her.
Only one thing would.
“Gianni!” The mother called, and the girl’s father poked his head out of the bedroom, his face slack with the sleep he wasn’t allowed on his latest whaling trip.
“Evie . . . what—”
“A broken rib. Maybe a punctured lung.” She laid the girl in her bed and ripped the girl’s bodice to her navel. Blood under the skin showed black across the expanse of the little girl’s ribs, fissures like spiderwebs crossed from spine to sternum. The mother tried to read her daughter’s dark eyes. “What happened?”
The girl licked her lips before inhaling just enough air to speak.
“I saved Nik.”
That was true. And the little girl was proud. Daring to smile despite the pain.
They’d spent the morning together—the blonde, the raven-haired girl, and their boy—running through the waves, climbing rocks, dancing in the sand. But then the afternoon came and it was time for them to part. The boy sent back to his castle, the little girls home—the younger one to her mansion, ten times the size of the other girl’s tiny cottage.
Mischievous and sunburnt, they ran in protest, the boy leading the way, holding the girls’ hands as they raced across the stepping-stone rocks that led into the cove. They giggled and shrieked as they hopped from rock to rock, the boy’s minder chiding them from the shore.
But one rock was slick with moss. The boy slipped—falling backward, the base of his skull aimed directly at a crook of solid stone.
In a blink, the little girl made her choice.
She threw her body between the boy and the jagged edge of the rock. Her back took the hit with a huge crack. Her head snapped back, her skull missing impact by a hair. Just as she hit, the boy’s head bounced onto the pilled cotton of her bodice rather than smashing into the rock.
It was a thing of magic that she’d made it in time.
They were caught then. The boy’s minder yanked them back onto the beach and told them in stern tones to never do that again. Then the old woman hauled the boy away without a good-bye, leaving the girls on the sand.
As they turned for home, the little raven-haired girl stumbled, the shock wearing off and the pain beginning. It radiated up her back, around her rib cage, to the front of her dress. She couldn’t catch her breath, each inhale stopping short. The little blonde said she’d walk her friend home but by the time they made it to the sea lane, the raven-headed girl couldn’t stand, all her weight on the blonde’s shoulders.
“Oh, Evie . . . ,” the girl’s mother said. As if she’d seen it all. Immediately, she sent her husband for her bottles. Her inks. Not that one. This one. She laid the girl in her bed and lit a fire with a snap of her fingers.
And tried every healing spell she knew.
It only took seconds to know none of them would work. The girl’s breath withered until it was almost nothing at all.
The mother wept, wishing for her sister—the strongest witch. Healer of Kings, reviving those in power who turn a blind eye to magic when their lives depend on it, but banish it when it doesn’t. She was the reason the physician might come at all—though he would be too late. As would Hansa, a day away, healing yet another noble.
The girl’s father pressed his hand into his wife’s shoulder and wiped away her tears. Then he squeezed his daughter’s hand, already growing cold, her circulation failing.
“I’ll go fetch the minister—”
“Not yet,” the mother said, determination ringing in her voice. The girl’s mother stood at the edge of the bed, her shoulders now pin straight, her voice calm and direct. “There is one more spell I can try.”
With gentle fingers, she painted octopus ink across the little girl’s cheeks, down her neck, and across her chest. Then her mother laid her hands gently over the girl’s chest.
“Don’t you worry, Evie.”
The words she said next were old and dark, and the little girl didn’t understand them. They made her blood crackle like the fire across the room. Stole the air from the cottage. Made her mother shake, violently, as she held her hands to her daughter’s skin.
The little girl couldn’t do anything but watch her mother, her veins singing. Soon, her mother’s palms on her skin became more than damp. They began to burn.
And then the pain stopped. Air rushed into the little girl’s lungs, and her chest rose. She exhaled, long and deep.
At that the girl’s mother smiled—just before her own body began to seize, her eyes rolling back in her head.
It was too much. The mother’s chest compressed, a long breath pushing out—but no inhale following.
“Greta! Greta!” The girl’s father placed his hands on his wife’s face, his palms burning and flying away, suddenly red.
The prickle in the little girl’s blood spiked with fear. She struggled to pull herself to sit, her mother’s hands sliding away as her form slumped over and her pale cheek smashed into the bedsheet. The little girl didn’t hesitate, reaching for her mother’s potions. She turned her mother’s head to face upward before smearing ink across those pale cheeks, her little fingers blistering with the touch. Her own skin was pink and warm and full of life as her mother’s skin turned as white as snow, as hot as ash.
The girl was smart, though. She’d watched her mother enough. She knew how these spells worked. Magic was barter—the right words, actions, potions for the right result.
She put her hands on her mother’s face and began repeating those strange words.
Words of life.
“Evelyn, no!” Her father didn’t move, just screamed, fear freezing him to his spot at the foot of the bed.
But the little girl had fumbled her way through the words enough that her own skin began to grow hot. The pain returned. Her breath became shallow. Then her mother’s eyes flew open, showing beautiful hazel instead of the whites.
It was working.
Her father looked from his wife to his daughter. Those words were dark. Old. Powerful. He knew this as much as he knew his native tongue.
Her mother’s lips began moving. She took a deep breath. “Gefa!” With this single command, she stole the words right from the little girl’s mouth. Dark words and dark magic and all sound gone from the girl’s powerful tongue.
Still, the child kept going, chest heaving—she was yelling but could not be heard. Tears as dark as night flowed down her little cheeks. Black coating her vision, the girl began to wail without sound, her whole body shaking.
And, with her last wisp of energy, the girl’s mother looked to her father.
“Bring Hansa home. Tell her. Promise.”
As he nodded, her mother whispered one last spell, and the little girl’s screams filled the air, black tears dripping onto her ruined dress.
“No, Mama, no!”
The little girl grabbed her mother’s hand, still burning to the touch, and saw the light flee from her hazel eyes.
The sea is a fickle witch.
She is just as likely to bestow a kiss as to steal the breath from your lips. Beautiful and cruel, and every glimmering wrinkle in between. Filling our bellies and our coffers when she is generous. Coolly watching as we don black and add tears to her waters when she is wicked.
Only the tide follows her moods—giving and taking at the same salty rate.
Still, she is more than our witch—she’s our queen.
In all her spells and tantrums, she is one of us. The crown jewel of Havnestad, nuzzled against our shores—for better or worse.
Tonight, dressed in her best party finery, she appears calm, anger buried well below her brilliant surface. Still, there’s a charge in the air as the stars wink with the coming summer solstice and the close of Nik’s sixteenth birthday.
Formally: Crown Prince Asger Niklas Bryniulf Øldenburg III, first in line to the throne of the sovereign kingdom of Havnestad.
Informally: just Nik.
But “just Nik” isn’t quite right either. He’s not just anything to me. He’s my best friend. My only friend, really.
And now he’s dancing with Malvina across the deck of his father’s grand steamship. That is, if you can call her violent tossing and whirling “dancing.” My stomach lurches as Nik comes within inches of tipping over the rail after she forces an overenthusiastic spin. I wish she’d just give it up.
Malvina, formally Komtesse Malvina Christensen, is a perpetual royal suitor. She and her father have been vying for King Asger’s attention for years, hoping he will make the match. Yet despite Nik’s good-natured patience for her dancing, I have my doubts there will be a royal wedding in their future.
I want to look away from the pink silk blur of Malvina, but Nik’s eyes are begging me to rescue him. Pleading. Silently calling my name across the distance—Evvvvvvieee.
I am the only one who can save him. Every youth in town is here, but no one else can cut in on a girl like Malvina. For the others, there would be consequences—lost invitations to galas, the oldest horse on the weekend hunt, a seat at the table next to one’s senile great-tante instead of the Komtesse. For me, there are none of those things. You can’t fall far in society if you’re not part of it to begin with.
After another aggressive turn, I finally stride onto the makeshift dance floor, ignoring a chorus of smirks as I go—they’ve seen this play before. Malvina will be the victim, I’ll be the villain, and Nik will let it happen. It can be a messy business, being the crown prince’s confidante; enduring small humiliations is only a fraction of the cost. But I won’t apologize for helping him. We all make compromises in friendships, and having Nik’s loyalty when no one else will even look me in the eye is worth every criticism I face.
I tap the girl on one sturdy shoulder, screw my face into exaggerated panic, and point to the eight-layered, blue-sugar-spackled monstrosity she insisted on crafting.
“Oh, angels, Evie! What is it?” Malvina barks.
“The cake’s icing—”
“Fondant,” she corrects, as if I’ve spit on her oma’s grave.
“The fondant—it’s bulging.”
True panic colors her features as her feet refuse to move. Torn between dancing with Nik and rescuing her masterpiece from a bulbous fate, her eyes skip to my face for a moment, incredulous. She fears I’ve purposely stolen her turn. It’s just the sort of thing the girls of Havnestad think I would do—the ones whispering in the shadows about us now. Except in this case, they’re right.
“Do your duty, Malvina. It was lovely dancing with you.” Nik bends into a slight bow, royal manners on display, not a hint of displeasure in his features.
When his eyes cut away, Malvina sneaks a glare my way, her disdain for me as clear as her worry that I’m actually telling the truth. She doesn’t need to say what she’s thinking, and she won’t—not if she ever wants to dance with Nik again. So, when Nik completes his bow, she simply plasters on a trained smile and leaves him with the most perfect curtsy before running off in a rush of golden hair and intent.
Now Nik bows deeply to me as if I’m his newest suitor, his mop of black hair briefly obscuring his coal-dark eyes. “May I have the remainder of this dance, my lady?”
My lips curl into a smile as my legs automatically dip into a polite curtsy. My lady. Despite how good those words feel, they’re enough to earn me the ire of everyone on this boat. To them I am just the royal fisherman’s daughter abusing the prince’s kindness, using him for his station. They won’t believe we’re just friends, as we’ve always been, since we were in diapers. Before I knew what I was and he knew who he was meant to be.
“But of course, Crown Prince Niklas,” I reply.
He meets my eyes, and we both burst out laughing. Formality has never worn well between us—regardless of Nik’s training.
We settle in and begin to waltz across the deck. He has a good foot on me, but he’s practiced at leaning in—whispers are often our most convenient language.
“Took you long enough,” he says, twirling me through the last bars of the song.
“I wanted to see how long you’d stay dry.”
He gasps with false horror in my ear, a smile tingeing it. “You’d send your own best friend swimming with the mermaids on his birthday?”
“I hear they’re beautiful—not a bad present for a teenage boy.”
“They also prefer their presents not breathing.”
My eyes shoot to his. I can feel the slightest tremble in my jaw. Today would’ve been our friend Anna’s birthday too. It still is, though she is no longer here to celebrate it. She was exactly a year younger than Nik. We’d each had our share of close calls in those days, the great and powerful goddess Urda seeming to want us all for herself. But we lost Anna. I glance down, feeling tears hot against my lash line, even after four years’ time. Nik sighs and tugs a curl off my face. He waits until I finally glance up. There’s a soft smile riding his lips, and I know he regrets pulling us from a place of joy to one so fraught. “Well, thank you for saving me, Evie. As always.”
It’s as good a subject change as any, but it’s not enough—and we both know it. I take a deep breath and look over Nik’s shoulder, not trusting myself to say more. I swallow and try to concentrate on the party. Everything here has been borrowed for Nik’s celebration—the ship, the free-flowing hvidtøl, the band, two servants, and a coal man—and it’s beautiful. I focus on the miniature lanterns ringing the deck, the golden thread of my single fancy dress catching their glow.
Suddenly, Malvina hoists herself onto the dessert table, still frantically trying to control the cake’s growing bulge. I expect Nik to laugh, or at least knock out a very royal snort, but instead he’s looking over my shoulder, portside, at the sea. I follow his eyes, and my heart sputters to a stop when I make out a swift schooner, the familiar line of a boy—a man—adjusting the sail.
“Iker . . .” His name falls from my lips in a sigh before I can catch it. I meet Nik’s eyes, a blush crawling up my cheeks. “I didn’t know he was coming.”
“Neither did I.” He shrugs and raises a brow. “But Iker’s not exactly one to confirm an invitation. Missed that day at prince school. The lecture about being on time, too.”
“I believe it’s called ‘fashionably late,’” I say.
“Yes, well, I suppose I wouldn’t know,” Nik says with a laugh.
The little schooner closes in, and I see that it’s only Iker—he hasn’t brought a crew with him from Rigeby Bay, not that I’d expect him to. He’s a weather-worn fisherman trapped in a life designed for silk and caviar. He redirects the mainsail perfectly, his muscles tensing tightly as he aims straight for his cousin’s form.
Nik leans to my ear. “There goes my dancing partner.”
I punch him on the arm. “You don’t know that.”
“True, but I do know how you’ve looked at him since my cake had about ten fewer candles on it.”
I roll my eyes, but I can’t help a smile creeping up my lips. He’s somewhat right, though now isn’t the best time to argue that the way I looked at Iker changed from brotherly to something else entirely about four years ago, not ten.
I clear my throat. “I’m sure Malvina won’t mind—she’s almost finished with your cake,” I say, nodding in the direction of the blue monstrosity but never taking my eyes off Iker as he readies to throw up a line to the steamer.
Nik hugs me close and dips down to my ear. “You’re such a ravishingly loyal friend.”
“Always have been. Always will be.”
“’Tis true.” Nik grins before waving a long arm above his head. “Well, if it isn’t the crown prince of Rigeby Bay!”
“And here I hoped to surprise you,” Iker says, laughing. “Can’t surprise a lighthouse of a man on his own boat, I suppose.”
Nik laughs, standing even taller. “Not if I’m turned the right way.”
Iker laughs even deeper. There is salt in his hair and few days’ worth of scruff lining his strong jawline, but he strides across his deck with the elegance of a prince. He glances up at me, his eyes briefly betraying a hint of doubt about the sturdiness of my frame, but tosses the line to me anyway. I catch it, securing it with a knot I learned from Father.
Iker hauls himself up the rope and onto the ship. He manages to land on the small patch of deck just between Nik and myself. Behind us a crowd has gathered.
“Happy birthday, Cousin.” Eyes laughing, Iker claps Nik on the back and brings him in for a hug, his toned arms fully encasing Nik’s spindly-yet-strong form.
When they release, Iker’s eyes go right to me. They’re the clearest of blues—like ancient ice in the fjords of the north.
“Evelyn,” he says, still retaining an air of formality from his upbringing, but he then shockingly pulls me into a hug.
I freeze, eyes on Nik as he and everyone else on the ship stares. Iker doesn’t seem to notice or care and pulls me tighter, his arms wrapped around my waist. Warm from ship work, he smells of salt and limes. His shirt is freckled with water droplets, onyx on the starched gray fabric—the sea leaving her mark.
When the moment is over and he lets me go, an arm lingers across my shoulders. I try to ignore the question nagging me, the one I’m sure everyone else is asking too. Why me? We’ve known each other since we were children, but he’s never shown me this kind of affection before. I’m not his type. I’m not anyone’s type. Yet Iker continues to act as if it’s all completely normal. He turns to Nik, to the crowd, and grins that perfect smile.
“Good people of Havnestad,” he says, his voice commanding yet sincere. Then the grin grows wider. “Let’s give the prince a celebration so hearty, he’ll never forget it.”
I feel as if I’m living in a dream.
Still warm from Iker’s strong embrace, I twirl across the dance floor in his arms.
I tried to tell Iker we shouldn’t, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “Let them talk,” Iker said. If only he knew how much they already did.
I can sense Malvina’s eyes following me. Yes, Malvina, this is what it looks like when someone dances without fearing for his life. But I try not to think about her. I want to remember this moment, even the smallest details. Everything about him wears like oiled leather and loved muslin. His hands are rough and worn from the sea, and yet they are gentle, his thumb delicately caressing mine.
My twelve-year-old fantasies were never this detailed—hardly anything beyond me in a grand purple gown and Iker in his royal finery hand-in-hand on a stroll through the palace gardens. The reality is so different, so intense, and I’m not sure I’m handling it well. I know I’m not. Can he feel my palms sweating? My heart beating loudly against his chest?
“I saw you from my deck, you know,” he whispers in my ear. “Before coming aboard. You’ve never looked more beautiful, Evie. And I’ve never begged the gods to steer my ship faster.”
I don’t know what to say, my voice seizing in my throat. I look around instead, trying to organize my thoughts. The sun has completely set, the last strands of light gone with our plates in a rush and clatter of tiny quail bones, torsk tails, pea pods, and strawberry hulls. And though the entire ship deck is still lit by a ring of miniature lanterns, the remaining shadow is enough that it almost feels as if we’re alone.
Just a boy, a girl, and the sea.
The song ends and he hugs me tight. When he pulls back, he runs his fingers along my jawbone. “I shouldn’t have stayed away from Havnestad so long,” he says, capturing one of my curls between his fingers. “You have the same hair you did as a child.” His gaze lifts to mine. “The same starry-night eyes.”
I struggle not to look down—down to where he’s still wound a lock of my hair lightly between his fingers. I bite my lip to silence the sigh there. His fingers wind tighter around the curl. It almost seems as if he doesn’t know he’s doing it—this boy made of smiles and grand gestures doing something so small it’s escaped him.
Iker’s eyes drift to the band members who have circled around a bench where someone has begun to play a guitaren. Though we can’t see him, the shiny, precise plucks are a dead giveaway that the musician is Nik. He’s always been the kind to pick up any instrument and immediately know exactly how to play it, ever since we were children. He’s strumming the song I used to sing on the docks as a girl to wish my father safe travels on his fishing trips. Nik said it always got stuck in his head.
Iker drops the curl.
Clears his throat.
Adjusts his body so that we’re not touching in so many places.
It’s over. I know it. Perhaps fantasies are only meant to come true for a moment. Surely a trick of the gods.
His eyes linger on the band when he eventually speaks, but his tone has changed. “Evie, I love visiting Havnestad, but I don’t like to step on my cousin’s toes.”
Now my voice isn’t right. Why did Nik have to play that song? I swallow. “But you aren’t,” I say, hoping he can’t hear the pleading in my tone. “Besides, I don’t think Nik would mind seeing more of you, and there is the Lithasblot
festival coming up in a few days.”
“Ah, yes, when you people go nuts for Urda, throw bread at anyone without a double chin, and run in circles until you pass out.”
“You people?” I say and give him a jab. Iker may be from across the strait, but he’s just as much an Øldenburg as Nik. Their family has ruled Denmark and Sweden for four hundred years. They know better than anyone not to discount the harvest the goddess has bestowed on us. “Don’t poke fun at the games. We take them very seriously.”
“Oh yes, a life-or-death game of carrying around the heaviest rock.”
“Or running the length of a log. All useful skills.” I laugh, happy to have lightened the mood again.
Iker turns to me. “If I stay for this Lithasblot extravaganza, you must promise you will scramble across some recently murdered tree for my entertainment.”
“If that’s what it takes, then I promise,” I say, dipping in a mock curtsy.
A laugh escapes from my lips, but Iker’s attention is locked on my face. Almost as if he can’t help himself, his thumb grazes my cheekbone again, down my jaw and to my mouth. The touch of his finger to my lips sends color rising in my cheeks as I meet the glacier blue of his eyes.
“Gooooooood people of Havnestad!” Our heads whip around as Nik’s voice booms across the length of the ship. He is still holding the guitaren, but now he has a crown fashioned of lemon wedges squashed on his wavy flop of hair. There’s a huge smile tugging at his cheeks, and his long arms are thrust high into the air. He’s actually doing quite the unintentional impression of Iker, though only after a few mugs of King Asger’s special brew. “As your crown prince, I hereby issue a royal decree that we sing for me on this, the sixteenth year of my life.”
“Hear, HEAR,” yells Iker, followed by the rest of the crowd, which has suddenly crept back into the corners of my vision.
“Excellent. Ruyven has sent the signal for fireworks. But first, a so—” Nik’s voice cuts out as Malvina’s strong hand jerks him down so her lips can meet his ear. The other hand is gesturing behind them, toward the cake. Nik stands back up slowly and resets the guitaren. “The lovely lady Malvina has informed me we are at a loss for candles.” Nik points the instrument’s neck at me, feigned formality still thick in his throat. “Evelyn?” He raises a brow.
I raise one back.
“Come on, I know you know where they are.”
And I do. Exactly where Nik left them when he “borrowed” the king’s boat for the first warm day after a long, ice-filled winter.
“Yes, I do, good prince.”
As much as I don’t want to leave Iker’s side, I step away, the warmth of him clinging to my skin for a ghost of a second as we separate. I snag a lantern that’s dipped low on the line ringing the deck and move away from the crowd.
Boots clomping on the stairs, I disappear belowdecks to the captain’s quarters. The space is much larger than something that should be a captain’s anything—the whole place is nearly bigger than the home I share with Father and Tante Hansa. The miniature lantern struggles to keep up with the vastness, illuminating a halo barely beyond the hem of my party dress. It’s utterly annoying.
Glancing up the stairs, I confirm that I am alone; no one followed me below. My back to the door, I reach a hand into the lantern. Softly muttered words of old fall from my lips as my fingers pinch the tip of the candle. “Brenna bjartr aldrnari. Brenna bjartr aldrari. Pakka Glöð.”
The candle begins to glow with the full force of one three times its size.
It’s a small act—something so subtle I probably could’ve done it in full view of everyone above. But even something as run-of-the-mill as a strengthening spell is dangerous here.
Women burned for far less under the Øldenburgs of yesteryear.
My relatives burned for far less.
Which means there are things about me Nik and Iker can never know.
Besides, I already took a risk tonight when I silently urged Malvina’s cake to shed its sugary skin. I hadn’t tried something like that since I was a child, but it worked well enough. Strengthening the candle in the open would have been pushing my luck, though, and I’ve never had much of that to begin with.
Now the cushion of light is more than enough. I ease my way through the vast space and toward the pair of chairs under one of the starboard portholes, a chessboard painted into the oak table between them.
I’d watched Nik stuff the ship’s allotment of extra candles into the table’s drawer while helping him clean up evidence of his warm-weather get-together. Not that his father wouldn’t know about our little celebration—dishonesty has never sat well in Nik’s royal mind—he just hadn’t wanted to leave the castle’s harbor crew with more work.
With rescued candles and matches in hand, I grab the lantern and spin toward the door. But suddenly in my peripheral vision, I catch two flashes of shocking white and blue. I spin back around to where a small halo of light beacons through the porthole.
My heart sputters to a dead halt as I realize I don’t know of any fish with markings like those.
Like human eyes.
Lungs aching for me to remember how to breathe, I raise the lantern to the porthole, my mind churning to account for everyone onboard the ship. Yes, everyone had been there when I descended the stairs.
Yet, when the halo of light reaches the thick glass, a friend’s eyes are there, deep blue and framed by luminous skin, water-darkened blond waves, and a look of surprise on parted lips.
But in the instant I say her name into the damp cabin, the face vanishes, and I’m left staring into the indigo deep.
My lungs release and draw in a huge gulp of air as I race to the next porthole, my breath coming in rapid spurts as I repeat her name. But there’s no sign of her beautiful face at that porthole or the next two.
I stand in the middle of the king’s great cabin, heart pounding, breath burning in my lungs, as a heavy sob escapes my lips. Tears sting my eyes as I realize that even with Nik’s brotherly friendship and Iker’s new affection, I’m still just a lonely fisherman’s daughter.
A lonely fisherman’s daughter wishing that I could have my sweet friend back. Wishing hard enough that I’m seeing ghosts.
Wishing so very hard that I’m losing my mind.
I wipe my eyes with my wrist, the candles and matches still clutched in my fingers. A couple of deep breaths, and I will myself through the door and up the stairs, my legs leaden.
“The good lady has returned with the candles!” Nik shouts when he sees me, his voice half-singing in tune with the guitaren.
“And the matches, my prince,” I hear myself say in a much steadier voice than I’d have thought possible.
“My dear Evie, always rescuing her prince from his own lack of forethought.”
“Someone has to, Cousin,” laughs Iker, rising to his feet while Malvina snatches the goods from my arms. Immediately, she bustles behind Nik, spearing the beautiful layers of fondant with the fat ends of the tapers. No thank-you from her, even though for anyone else, her trained manners would require it.
Nik begins the song before they’re all lit. His voice soars above us all, even over Iker’s baritone. As usual, I just mouth along to the words—my singing voice was ruined the day I lost Anna. Tante Hansa says I’m lucky that is all the sea took. Nik has his eyes shut and isn’t even facing his cake, the flames flickering and twisting behind him, manipulated by a strong wind from deep within the Øresund Strait.
My gaze follows the wind into the dark distance. Just past the edge of our wake, the indigo skies go pitch-black, the furrowed edges of an angry line of clouds moving in at a furious pace.
“Iker,” I breathe.
“. . . Hun skal leve højt hurra . . .” Nik hits the final line of the traditional birthday song and turns to blow out the candles, opening his eyes just as the first of the fireworks shoots off from the beach. Bursts of white and red stream across the sky in quick succession, illuminating Havnestad below and the ring of mountains surrounding the city proper.
“Iker,” I repeat, my eyes still upon the clouds closing in. He turns, hand still set heavily about my waist, and I point to the storm line as a tendril of lightning strikes the water just beyond the confines of the harbor.
A flash of recognition hits his eyes as they read the distance between the rain and the ship. “Storm!” he yells, a clap of thunder cutting off the end of the word. “Everyone belowdecks! Now!”
But, of course, our party turns toward the storm rather than away, human curiosity flying in the face of safety. Iker, Nik, and I rush into motion as the first fat drops of rain splatter onto the deck.
Nik begins directing the crowd belowdecks. Iker is up at the wheel, working to right the ship toward the harbor after sending its previous driver—the coal man—down below to feed the steam engine.
With the rain already sheeting, the boat tips as I climb the stairs to the stern. I cling to the rail. There is no magic I can do in the open to stop this, which makes me grateful to be the salt of the sea and the daughter of a fisherman. I’m not helpless in the least.
Thunder rumbles deep and rich directly overhead. The cake’s candles and the lanterns ringing the ship have been blown out by the blustery wind, and I’m thankful when a flash of lightning cracks across the sky just long enough to show me the scene.
Iker—getting the boat going in the right direction, his feet planted and muscles straining.
Nik—trudging up the stairs after barring the door down below, his crown of lemons fed to the sea by the flying wind.
The cake—tipped over and beached on its massive side as the boat lurches starboard.
Another clap of thunder sounds as I reach Iker and help him hold the wheel. Iker is strong enough to steer it by himself, but the boat’s line noticeably straightens when I help him maintain control.
“A birthday pleasure cruise!” Iker yells across the booming skies as I smile at him through clenched teeth. His eyes dance even as every tendon in his neck strains to keep our course. “All clear skies and fancy drinks. Isn’t that what Nik promised?”
Muscles already screaming, we both focus on the lighthouse at the edge of the harbor, still minutes away. A heavy wave crashes along the deck, taking the remainder of the cake with it. Nik manages to hold tight to the stair railing, his white dress shirt plastered against his skin.
“We’re too slow,” Iker yells into my ear between peals of thunder.
I nod and grit my teeth further as a gust of wind pulls the ship portside, yanking the wheel with it. “I’ve got it,” I say. “But we won’t go any faster unless—” I nod toward his prized craft, a present from his father.
Iker nods, heeding my suggestion. “Nik!” he yells over the whipping wind and angry waves. “My schooner! Help me cut it loose!”
Somehow Nik hears him and immediately pulls himself portside, where Iker’s little boat is adding too much weight.
Another wave tips up the ship, sending us starboard. Boots sliding, I manage to keep us steady, pinning the wheel in place with all my weight. On the main deck, Nik has made his way over to the portside rail. He hooks one long arm around the rail to steady himself, and then works furiously with his free hand on my knot. Iker is on his way there.
The boat lurches again, and I close my eyes, willing land to get closer. When my eyes open, we might be closer to Havnestad’s docks, but only by a few feet. I twist my head to the side and see that Nik nearly has the knot free.
A whitecap splashes over the side, drenching Nik. He shakes his head, wavy hair splaying out to the side. He rights himself, the slick railing and new floorboards doing him no favors in traction or leverage. With one final pull, the rope is completely loose, and slides over the side of the ship. Nik, much stronger than he looks, hangs on as the steamer’s equilibrium changes with the loss of Iker’s schooner.
“Three hundred yards to the royal dock!” Iker yells, making his way to the wheel. I look from Nik back to land. The lighthouse is indeed finally closing in, the blaze atop the tower looming just below the steely thatch of clouds.
But not as fast as the biggest wave we’ve seen yet.
Black as the sky above, the wall of water splashes hard on the portside, sending Nik to his knees. I call out for him to stay down—a lower center of gravity is safer—but my small voice is swallowed up in the storm.
A charge of lightning rips across the sky.
The ship tips, pulled down with the weight of the wave, rocking Nik headfirst into the deep.
I scream his name as loudly as I can. The boat rights itself, but there’s no sign of him along the portside. Only wet wood and sea foam where he once was.
“NIK!” I wail again and let go of the wheel, passing Iker and sprinting toward the stairs to the main deck.
My mind moves faster than my wind-battered body, a string of thoughts running together in the murk as I dash forward, not caring or paying attention to the wind, the rain, the course, or even Iker.
You CANNOT have him, you wicked sea.
Your mermaids will have to take someone else.
Nik belongs to me.
“Evie!” Iker yells. “Don’t! Come back! It’s not—”
“NIK!” I lunge down the stairs. The deck boards are slick under my boots, but I race to the spot where Nik fell. The wind whips my curls about my face as I squint through the rain and night at the churning sea below. “NIK!”
I yell his name over and over, my voice becoming raw and weak, to the point where it’s barely a whisper. Finally, we reach the royal dock. I drop onto the wood before Iker and the coal man even have time to anchor. I scan the horizon for any sign of a long arm, a flop of hair, or a piece of boot.
Iker heaves himself over the railing and onto the dock next to me, leaving the coal man to free the rest of the passengers from the captain’s quarters. “Evie,” he says, his voice much calmer than it should be—the sea captain in him overruling his bloodline. “Look there.” He points to just this side of the horizon, where the stars have returned, unhidden by the clouds. “The storm’s almost over. Nik’s a strong swimmer.”
I nod, my hopes pinned on the reason in his eyes. “But we still need to find him,” I say. Everything my father taught me about the sea kicks in, and I point to a spot in the churning waves. “We were about there.” I move my outstretched fingers in a sloping line in the direction of the wind, following the line until it lands on the cove side of Havnestad Beach. “Which means he will most likely be . . . there.”
I don’t look to Iker for confirmation—I just take off down the dock, tear onto the sand, and race across the shoreline in that direction.
“Nik!” I choke, my voice still raspy and hopeless against the wind. Iker is on my heels for a few strides and then ahead of me in a few more.
Havnestad Cove is part jutting rock, part silty beach. There’s a rolling W shape to it, and a few large boulders form footstep islands toward its center, before the waters become too deep. In good weather, it’s a beautiful escape from the rest of the harbor. In bad weather, it’s a hurricane in a birdbath.
Iker points to the biggest island—Picnic Rock. “I’m going there to see what I can.”
The wind is already calming, the rain tapering off. Even the lightning seems to be behind us, disappearing with the storm into the mountains. The swiftness of such a powerful storm confounds me. The magic in my blood prickles at the strangeness, but I have no time to think of things beyond this world.
I tilt my chin toward a mass of rocks farther along the shore, the point that makes the W by jutting deep into the middle of the cove. It’s just tall enough that it blinds us from the remainder of the beach.
“I’ll climb up there and take a look on the other side.”
“Wait!” Iker says, his face weary. For once, he doesn’t seem to know what to say. He reaches his hand through my hair and pulls me close. My heart is pounding.
“Iker, we ca—” The words are whispers on my tongue—that we can’t delay, that he shouldn’t slow me down—when he tips my chin up and his lips are on mine.
I breathe him in, long and deep, and for a moment we’re not on a gritty beach, soaked to the bone, searching for Nik. We’re somewhere far from here. A place where class, title—none of that matters. Somewhere that surely doesn’t exist outside of this instant. Another trick of the gods.
He pulls back, and I’m stunned still, staring into his cool eyes.
“Be careful,” he says.
Shaken back to reality, I pick up my waterlogged skirts and run along the coastline to the wall of stone. The swift clouds have almost reached their end, their tail nearly directly above the cove entrance. Starry night reigns above the massive sea beyond, calm waters with it. My eyes are constantly scanning the waves, looking for any sign of Nik.
But there’s nothing.
I steal a glance back at Iker. He’s already made it to Picnic Rock, hoisting himself up. I breathe a sigh of relief that the stormy churn didn’t wash him away and turn back to the approaching boulder just steps ahead.
I’ve climbed this giant rock hundreds of times since childhood, as have most of Havnestad’s youth. I know the placement of the fingerholds with my eyes shut; my boots automatically drift to the perfect places to wedge themselves before taking another step up. The rain has all but stopped now, and the crag of stone is mostly damp, not slick.
I lug myself on top and scan the waters again, squinting at every irregularity, struggling to use the limited moonlight to make out what is yet another coastal rock and what might be Nik. I close my eyes, dread piling at my feet as I pivot toward the hidden portion of the cove. When my eyes spring open, I have to blink again to make sure my mind isn’t playing tricks. A flash of bright-white fabric swims on the distant sandy line.
My heart swells with hope. I scramble down the rock and onto the other side of the beach. My feet work overtime to propel my body forward as the wet sand swallows my boots with each step.
Lightning radiates over the mountains, illuminating the sky for a flash—long enough for my brain to register the outline of Nik’s body against the sand.
And the form of a girl hovering over him.
“NIK!” I yell, my voice coming back to me.
In response comes Iker’s baritone from behind, “Evie!”
But I don’t wait for him. I don’t even turn in Iker’s direction, keeping my eyes only on Nik and the girl leaning over him, her body still mostly submerged. Without another stroke of lightning, I can’t make out much more than her long, long hair—so long it drapes over the white of Nik’s shirt.
The girl’s head tilts up in the moonlight as if she’s just now noticed me running toward her at full speed. The lightning returns in a burst, and though my legs keep moving, my heart skids to a stop.
Large blue eyes. Butter-blond curls. Creamy flush of skin.
It’s the girl. The one from the porthole.
No, it can’t be.
Recognition seems to fill the girl’s eyes, and her features skip from contented calm to a pure rush of panic. Panic that sends her straight into motion. A gust of wind pushes her hair over the curve of her shoulder as she takes one hasty and last glance at Nik’s face before heaving herself fully into the water.
“Wait!” I yell as best I can, but it’s useless with her ears deep under the waves.
In less than a breath, I get to Nik and crash to the sand next to him, pulling his chest to mine, my ear to his mouth. A rush of air from his lips touches my cheek as Iker yells both our names from behind.
Nik’s lungs work in great rasps, but they work. His eyes are closed, but he seems to be conscious.
“Evie . . .”
“I’m here, Nik. I’m here.”
A ghost of a smile touches his lips. “Evie . . . keep singing, Evie.”
Confused, I begin correcting him. “Nik, I’m not—I don’t . . .”
My mouth goes dry. I scan the waters for any sign of the girl. The girl who looks like Anna all grown up. The girl who must like to sing the way my friend did as a child.
At first, there’s still nothing. Just ever-calming waves and starry night, backlit by the summer solstice moon.
But then, just at the edge of the cove, I see it.
Blond hair gone silver under the clear moon, peeking up for a swift moment before the girl dives back underwater. A trail of sea spray flies up in her wake—and with it comes something more.
The perfect outline of a tail fin.
The sun was out, as fierce and as hot as possible in Havnestad. It wasn’t as fierce or hot as it is in other places, but memorable to those in the mild-mannered Øresund Kingdoms, much more accustomed to Mother Nature’s cold shoulder than her steamy smile, though it was the height of summer.
Two girls, one with waves of blond, one with curls of black, pranced along the shoreline. Their voices lifted toward the naked June sun, carried aloft by a deep wind from within the strait.
A boy, already as tall as a man, trailed them, piccolo to his lips, writing a tune for the girls’ merry lyrics.
Despite the sun, the main beach was clear, the majority of Havnestad hauling fish and hunting whales at sea, the bustle of a modern economy weathering a boom. They would flood the shores with catch and tales soon enough, returning that night for the days-long Lithasblot festival and the midsummer full moon. For now, the whole stretch of sand belonged to the two girls and their boy.
The waves, heavy and exuberant, churned in the strong wind, tossing themselves at the girls’ ankles—bare without anyone there to correct them. The boy’s boots were on—his feet were gangly and hairy in a way they hadn’t been last summer, and he didn’t want the girls to see. He stayed on dry sand, just beyond the waves’ reach, coal-dark eyes pinned on the girls’ delicate toes, which also seemed to have changed in a year, but only maybe in the way he couldn’t look away from the flash of skin beneath their skirts.
They went on like that until the girls suddenly stopped—singing, prancing, everything—so suddenly that the boy bumped into the raven-curled girl’s back. She laughed it off, but both girls’ eyes were locked on the sea. Watching the whitecaps with wonder, adventure flashing in their eyes.
The one with the blond waves and ocean-blue eyes spoke first. “She’s angry—foaming at the mouth.”
“Are you calling the sea a rabid dog?” asked the raven-haired one. “She wouldn’t like that much.”
“I suppose not.”
A black brow pitched above eyes blue like midnight. “Touch the sandbar and return to shore?” She smiled, lips pinned in a slight twist. “Dare you.”
The blond girl considered it, chewing on her lip, reading the waves. Finally, in answer, she began unlacing her dress’s bodice.
The boy sat on the sand behind the girls, playing the piccolo so they’d think he was distracted, not paying an inch of attention to them as they stripped to their petticoats. Even in surreptitious glances, their shoulders and arms were things of beauty, smooth as the marble statues his mother had commissioned for the tulip garden. So beautiful they made his cheeks hot. He knew he should not look—it wasn’t right, not at the age they were getting to be—but still, he watched.
The blond girl watched back, her eyes finding him, cheeks pinking as her clothes fell to the sand. The raven-curled girl thwacked her on the shoulder, dark eyes big and knowing. No secrets between friends, except those in plain sight.
When the girls were ready, they stood, dresses neatly folded, and pointed slim fingers toward the sea.
On the count of three, they were gone.
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