The Mermaid's Tears Part 2
By Lauren Derrick
Part 2 of 3
Three months later.
Stone walls enclosed Nauni. The large fort was sturdy and gray, and she felt like a hermit crab hiding within its walls. She could go where she wished inside, but this hardly felt like freedom.
A few servants bobbed their heads respectfully at her as they hustled tea over to the island's lord. She smiled courteously and nodded back, but then she frowned.
Of course, she couldn't expect them to keep reverencing her like they had at first. She was just beginning to feel as though she could understand their language, but she knew that they still spoke about the day she had come to their shore. They whispered about how she had been gently carried to the shore in a turtle's shell, adorned with more pearls and precious shells than anyone had ever seen. The son of the Island Lord had been there and seen it himself. A beautiful maiden, dressed in shells and pearls and in a deep sleep carried to the shore—the same woman who had rescued the young lord from drowning the previous night.
Nauni was an ocean goddess. That's what they said, anyway. These strange and careful people bowed to her whenever they saw her. She was appointed fine rooms, fine clothing, fine food. She had never been so pampered in all her life.
At first her voice had been weak. Now she knew she had her voice back, and she understood enough that she thought she could probably make herself understood, but she didn't know what to say. She did not want to lie to these people who had been so kind to her. But she certainly did not want to tell them the truth of who she was.
Still, silence had worked well for her so far. They had assumed a goddess would not speak their tongue, and they worked around it by showing her pictures and gesturing. By now she could understand most yes or no questions and could regally nod or shake her head to convey her will.
She felt trapped, though. There were soldiers and sailors that went out on the boats with the young lord (Chang was his name) onto the ocean all the time. She envied them. The first time she had been allowed to go, she had been a little too enthusiastic to prove her skills. She dove into the water only a few minutes into the trip. The men had gone into a panic. From what she gathered, they worried that she would disappear into the sea and then they would lose her divine favor. They still wanted her help finding fishing spots and navigating sometimes, but they always hovered around her, ready to thwart her escape.
There was a man named Chen Wu who often went out on these expeditions too. When she had first arrived, she had noticed that he seemed to be out of favor with the island lord. Lately, from what she could gather, his task was to make better maps. He found the notion of an ocean goddess ridiculous and kept asking Nauni where she had learned to navigate. Or how she knew when there would be a storm. She tried to avoid him as much as she could, but it was hard. Though the Island Lord and Lord Chang seemed to blame him for some terrible accident, they kept him close and often asked him for calculations or predictions.
Nauni was determined not to make herself a burden and eagerly made known the best fishing spots, the best places to find conch shells, and had been able to use the ocean to predict two storms. She thought perhaps Chen Wu would see she wanted to help and stop asking her uncomfortable questions, but he didn't. Her skills, of course, only cemented the belief that she was some sort of ocean deity—and made Chen Wu bitter. Chen Wu bothered her.
Nauni really liked Lord Chang, though. He had a gentleness about him. He reverenced Nauni and treated her with respect, but he also smiled a great deal. She had never heard him shout at anyone.
Nauni had recently decided Chang was better than Haui'no. Chang hadn't given his assent to her exile. All the hurt and betrayal that she felt from Haui'no did not apply to Chang. With him she could have a fresh start.
Chang had gone away this morning, unfortunately. The servants in the mess hall whispered about him meeting someone at the docks. There was some title to the name as well, but Nauni didn't understand what it meant yet. Another island lord or lady? A king or queen? A prince or princess? A chief?
As she sat at the wooden table, a few men in white scuttled over and set a cloth over the end of the table. They were very exact, these people. Everything had to be just so. They put a beautiful plate in front of her, topped with a bowl of some fruit-topped mush that Nauni had grown accustomed to over the past few months. It wasn't bad tasting, but it was bland.
“Is the food of mortals so unsatisfying?” A sardonic voice asked from behind her.
Great. Nauni thought. It was Chen Wu, the odd gadget of a person that Nauni still did not see the purpose of.
She simply ate her meal, doing her best to completely ignore Chen Wu and hide her distaste for the breakfast. He didn't goad her. She imagined that her divine status probably presented a challenge to his position. Who needed someone to provide information when the ocean goddess could tell you? Surely he was just jealous.
“Are you jealous?”
The memory stung suddenly like a jellyfish. She shoved it down with another spoon full of fruit accented mush.
Those memories wanted to resurface now that she could no longer give her tears away. Sometimes she had nightmares about them. They were clawing at her mind, but Nauni refused to relive them. She was determined to start afresh and let go of her past.
If only the past would let go of her.
Nauni saw Chen Wu in his ridiculous cap from the corner of her eye, studying a framed map hanging on the wall to her right. She recognized the layout after a few moments. She didn't think it was entirely accurate—one of those islands was certainly larger than the map showed. Without thinking, Nauni stood and glided towards it to get a better look.
Chen raised an eyebrow at her. “Come to share your divine wisdom?”
Nauni rolled her eyes before she could stop herself.
He sighed. “If you could just deign to speak to us, I think you might have some useful knowledge.”
Nauni's eyes fell to the floor and she seethed. Why couldn't he just assume she was mute?
Chen Wu noticed her expression and softened his voice. “I would very much like to know your story. We are trying hard to map all of these islands, to secure them against threat of invasion. Couldn't you at least tell me what island you're from?”
Nauni looked back at her unfinished breakfast. How could she explain? Who would believe her? And yet...
“The beauty of the island is truth. The love of the island is the love of its people. The beauty and love of the island grow in the hearts of the people, and the people are one.” The mantra of her people pierced her to the core.
The accusation from her chief so long ago haunted her. Mother Ocean had warned her. The beauty and love of the island had to be inside of her.
Her home was not on this map. And it was horribly inaccurate. She could see that clearly now. She simply pointed to the map and shook her head.
He didn't dismiss her, though he looked confused. “It's not right?”
Chen Wu scratched his head and then turned, stroking his tiny triangular beard. “But how can you know that?”
Nauni pursed her lips together. She felt sure that she should say something.
It was then that the Lord Chang's official entourage crowded into the mess hall. Oh good, she thought. Chang has returned.
And he had—with a beautiful woman on his arm.
She had the palest skin Nauni had ever seen and was dressed in a long, red silk robe with flowing sleeves. Gold accents. Her hair was so black and shiny it was nearly blue, and it twisted up into a beautiful, flowered knot atop her head—not one lock of hair escaping. Nauni's heart sank. Ignorant as she was, she knew what this meant. Her shock froze her into place.
Chang approached Nauni with the lovely statuesque woman, and knelt before her. Her breath grew shallow and frantic.
“Divine goddess of the sea, please bless my marriage this day.”
Nauni wasn't able to speak or move for several seconds, but eventually she just nodded to him awkwardly, unsure of what else to do.
Was that a lie?
“Are you jealous?” The question stabbed her. Memories came, unbidden.
She retreated to her chamber as quickly as she could get away.
She remembered walking on the rocky beach with her two best friends, off to hunt for clams. Her netted bag was slung casually over her shoulder. The breeze whipped her hair around.
“Are you jealous?”
Nauni cocked her head, feigning confusion. “Jealous of who?”
“You've had eyes for Haui'no for years, his parents made an agreement for his marriage...any of this sound familiar?”
“Why would I be jealous?” Nauni asked, stepping into the ocean and feeling her feet sink into wet sand. “The girl he’s supposed to marry can barely swim.”
Her two friends shared a look, one that said Nauni wasn't completely wrong but that the insult was a little harsh. Nauni continued. “I find more conch shells than anyone else on the island. I may not have rich parents like some people, but I'll make my future husband rich. I have nothing to be jealous of.”
One friend folded her arms. “And Haui'no?”
Nauni faced the ocean, hiding the tears in her eyes, masking the worry in her voice. “He won't marry someone who is so worthless in the water. I'm sure he'll reject the arrangement.”
She wasn't sure at all, so she looked back to see her friends’ faces—only to see a very distraught girl running away just behind them.
The shorter and quieter of Nauni’s two friends saw her too. She spoke up, turning to Nauni. “That was a little harsh, Nauni. Maybe you should apologize.”
“Serves the little princess right for listening in on us.” Nauni muttered.
The memory stung, and Nauni soaked in the old jealousy like a sponge. Wealth and a pretty face. A girl who had never had to work to support a crippled father like Nauni had, who couldn't swim half as well as Nauni could. She had never found a conch or pearl in all her life.
Nauni didn't mind work—working had made her strong. But the engagement to Haui'no—that wasn't fair. Nauni had always known that she was too low born to marry him. But she was a hard worker, and she saved up every shell and pearl she could spare to pay her father's debts and give herself a dowry. Nauni's father had ruined his leg in an accident and couldn't support the family, so most of what she acquired couldn't be saved, but she always believed that with time she could earn enough for a dowry. Then that useless girl came into the picture, and all of her planning and effort was undone by someone who simply had been born with more than what Nauni could ever earn.
And now that she could finally set her eyes on someone new it still didn't matter. Island outcast, ocean goddess—it was all the same.
A soft knock came at the door, and then it creaked open. Nauni was surprised to see Chen Wu. He seemed a little embarrassed.
“I thought,” he began, “that maybe in private you'd be willing to speak?”
Nauni hung her head, biting her lip and letting her hair hide her wet, angry eyes.
“You left the mess hall rather abruptly. I take it that Lord Chang’s engagement was a shock?”
A sigh escaped from Nauni. Well, if it was all the same then, what did it matter if someone knew the truth? Chen Wu was a professional guesser. He was bound to figure it out eventually anyway.
“Are you jealous?” Chen Wu gently prodded.
Nauni stared him right in the eye. “Yes.”
Her voice came out nearly as a croak. She hadn't heard her own voice in so long that the sound of it nearly made her jump. Chen Wu's eye brows did jump a little. He glanced around, then inched forward. “Who are you?”
In a broken version of the language, Nauni began her tale. She told Chen Wu about how much Chang reminded her of Haui'no. She described Haui'no's engagement. She told him of the hurtful things she had said about Haui’no’s fiancé. And then she told him the truth—the pure truth—about the death of an innocent girl.
“She want to prove that she get shells,” Nauni explained awkwardly, “after I drag her name through mud. But she never swim well. She don’t know to avoid current in best spot. Many girls there hunting shells. She want everyone to see what I say not true. She did go out really far. Much too far—all alone—and current pull her down. Girls tell me to swim out, to go save her. I don’t see how far out she is or how much danger. When I see, I did start swim to get her. But current is too strong, and...not fast enough.
“I find her body and bring it. But everyone did hear me say bad things. Everyone know I jealous. Everyone think I did let her drown, or I drown her on swim back.”
Nauni paused and sobbed a little bit. Chen Wu just stood and nodded slowly, listening carefully.
“I am exile. Cast out from island.”
“I see.” Chen Wu silently furrowed his eyebrows, his eyes calculating. “But how did you get here? And why haven't you said anything?”
“I...” Nauni blushed. “Trouble speaking, then I did not want cast out again—and I not want lie. I try to help.”
Chen Wu breathed out through his nose but nodded in assent. “You know a surprising amount about the ocean and the islands. Knowing your fishing spots was very helpful to Lord Chang. I have been utterly unable to predict where the fish will be. I've only been here for a year. Your knowledge of the area, well, it outweighs my own by far.”
He only sounded a little bitter.
“So...you tell everyone now?” Nauni asked.
Chen Wu grimaced. “I suppose not. You have good knowledge, and they listen to you. They still don't listen to me since...the firework incident. Did you really save Lord Chang? I still have so many questions. Where did you get all those shells and pearls they found you with? How far away is your island?”
Nauni stammered. “I—I not sure how to...”
She let the silence hang in the air. Chen Wu's forehead wrinkled, but then he seemed to relax the frustration out of it with a sigh. “Well, you are a good asset, I suppose. Lord Chang and his bride will be glad to have you. Their marriage is an important one. The people of the island may not accept his new lady since she is not from here. Lord Chang’s mother was from this island, and the people love him, but they may not support this marriage. You will attend the wedding and formally give your blessing?”
Nauni's heart sank. “You want me? But I not really goddess...”
“True.” Chen Wu said. “But a great many people on the island now believe you are, and blessing their marriage will help create unity between the people of the island and the people of our mainland. It will help Lord Chang and his new lady to reign in peace.”
She knew Chang wasn't Haui'no, but the more she watched him with the new arrival, the less enthusiastic she grew about blessing their marriage. She nearly ran into the couple as Chang gave his fiance the grand tour of the fort. He smiled. His fiance didn't. Nauni folded her arms, trying to give herself a hug. The woman seemed more a sculpture than human. Nauni seethed. What good was a woman like that? What would she do all day—sit tall and proud, looking down on others? How could anyone love a woman like that?
Of course, when they passed, Chang just smiled at her and bobbed his head reverently. His bride-to-be copied the gesture. Then Chang continued his tour, and they walked away.
Nauni noticed that the tips of her fingers were tingling. She looked down at them, and saw the very tips of her fingernails had begun to produce tiny bubbles like the froth of a spiteful wave crashing to the shore. Her breath caught.
Damaged heart. The love and beauty of the island. Sea-foam. Right.