Death came for me not on black wings, but white. Sunlight reflected off the water and forced my eyes mostly shut again. The infernal gull didn’t care if I was awake or not. Apparently, breathing and heartbeat didn’t matter—I was as good as dead. So it poked at my head, searching for some tasty morsel.
When it targeted one of my eyes, I swung at it. The bird flew off, but the motion upset the wood keeping me afloat. It flipped and sent me under the water, a swell arching over my head as I clawed for the surface. Sputtering, I broke through to the air again. I clutched the wood with both hands and cursed the heavy skirts tangling about my legs, weighing me down.
The ocean stretched in every direction—blue and empty. If any of the others survived the wreckage, I couldn’t see them. In fact, I couldn’t see the deadly rocks either.
I didn’t care.
I was free.
And they deserved to die.
Sadly, God might well have the same fate in mind for me.
I drifted in the middle of the sea, unable to swim, clinging to an unstable float. And weighed down by skirts I couldn’t remove without releasing the board and sinking into the water where I would drown. With every passing second, my thirst grew and the sun beat down upon my once alabaster skin. My flesh tightened painfully and turned an angry shade of red.
But that agony dulled beside my desperate thirst. I tried holding seawater in my mouth, hoping it would help. Even without swallowing, all it did was fuel my craving. I spat it out and cursed the vast, undrinkable ocean.
The sound of my voice made my skull throb and I closed my eyes again. When my head began to spin, even in the darkness, I forced myself to stare at the sea. I couldn’t afford to fall asleep or faint. So I focused on a tiny speck on the horizon that bobbed into view with the undulations of the water.
I didn’t hear any singing, but that didn’t mean anything.
Over the hours, the speck grew smaller then larger once more—its size ebbing and flowing like the tide.
White flakes began to dance in my vision.
I stuck my tongue out, desperate for the tiny drops of moisture.
When my tongue began burning in the sun, I gave up. Everywhere I turned, I saw snow, but none of its chilly wetness touched me. My lips cracked as a hoarse scream wrenched from my throat. Blood welled in the cut; I sucked on it until it stopped flowing. Not enough. The only thing the salty-sweet taste managed was to remind me what moisture felt like.
I stared at my arms. I couldn’t release the board, but perhaps…
Without allowing time to reconsider, I bit down on my wrist as hard as I could. The pain was just one more agony on top of so many others. My teeth tore at the burned flesh, releasing fluid from beneath the blisters. I lapped at it until I’d consumed every drop.
No denying it. The speck on the horizon had grown. I blinked, trying to clear the snow from my vision, but it only served to make the world tip again.
Too tired to try for another section of my arm, I sealed my lips around the wound, praying a few more precious drops would coat my tongue. I stared at the water, watching as it lapped at the edge of my board, caressing it then withdrawing—the bizarre mating ritual of boat and sea.
The snowy expanse of ocean blurred at the edges and sinuous creatures burst from the water, their bodies dancing to a whispered song. Their tails splashed as they dove back in, dousing me in salt spray. Mermaids. The people of the deep. They’d lived in my dreams since childhood—appropriate they would be with me now.
I smiled and allowed my eyes drift shut, fading to almost-sleep on the strains of an imagined song.
The board shifted under me, and my eyes flew open. A ship passed so close its gentle wake pushed my float aside. Then another block of wood splashed next to me—this one attached to a rope.
I reached for the wood but slipped into the sea. A grinning face flashed past mine, followed by a stream of glittering scales. Then a surge pushed me back to the surface just as my lungs threatened to burst. I clutched at the wood, wrapping my burnt arms around the rope. It jerked, and I found myself flying through the air to land on a rough wooden deck.
Glancing up to thank my rescuers, I gaped at the sight of unwashed bodies, shining earrings, missing teeth, and the odd eye patch. Pirates.
Not more pirates.
Fingers bit into my arms and yanked me upright. “Aye, lads, I’ve told ye before—ye ne’er know what you’ll fish out of the drink.” The captain’s putrid breath washed over my face. “So how’d a morsel like you find its way here?”
I peeled my tongue from the roof of my mouth and tried not to breathe. “I was taken by another ship intent on selling me to slavers.”
The captain raised a brow. “Not our plan for you, is it, boys?” A chorus of grunts told me exactly what their plan entailed. The captain rubbed at his beard, his eyes glittering hungrily. “That other ship still around, lass?”
The curious song met my ears again, and I caught the shimmer of scales in the water, heading away from the setting sun and toward the rocks I’d lost sight of until now. My lips split anew as they spread in a quiet smile. “Yes. When I last saw them, they were headed that way.” I pointed toward the rocks and the sirens waiting among them.