In Deeper Waters by F.T. Lukens
Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Tal hates the sea, he’s at the ship's railing with a death grip when his older brother Garrett calls to him and saunters over. Tal is part of the royal family of Harth, the fourth of five children, and his older siblings are set in their royal roles. Isa is next in line to the throne, Garrett is the head of the navy and Kest is a renowned scholar, but Tal still feels adrift, no pun intended. His coming-of-age tour will hopefully help him grow into his own and he's anxious to get started despite the nausea, but Garrett has had to stop to investigate a burning boat.
Amongst the wreckage, one of Garrett’s crew spots a crest and Tal recognizes it as belonging to the previous king of Ossetia. His sister, Isa, is set to marry Ossetia’s prince which means Tal has been forced to study everything about the place instead of anything interesting, like magic for instance. Also found on the burning ship is a chest of newly minted coins, and more interestingly, a survivor. The boy, Athlen, has been shackled to the derelict craft’s mast. While Tal is talking to Athlen and promising to keep him safe, the winds change, warning of an incoming storm. This causes magical sparks to flit between Tal’s fingers, which Athlen sees.
Garrett questions Athlen who gives very little information other than to stake a claim on the chest of coins because he found it fair and square. Yeah, royal chests don’t work like that. All the while Tal is shaken, he accidentally let someone see him use magic. It was a mistake, but it still breaks his promise he made to his mother to keep his ability hidden. Meanwhile Garrett has given orders to get Athlen and the chest on board the War Bird and to cut the derelict ship free. Tal is made to look after Athlen and try to get more information out of him.
In the hold of Garrett's ship, Athlen complains his legs are tired from being on them so long and begs to be set free and says he doesn’t see why Tal doesn’t use his magic to get the iron fetter off his ankle. Tal is wary of his magic and of keeping it secret. He is the only person alive with magic and is worried what others will think about him should they find out. There are already rumors circulating through the different kingdoms about him and whether he has magic like his great-grandfather or if he's just frail and weak.
Eventually Athlen reveals that the derelict ship's crew fled after the mast was struck by lightning three days ago, but he’d been aboard for several weeks. Then he makes a deal with Tal. If Tal breaks the irons on his leg which are causing him great pain, Athlen will tell them all about the chest of coins. Tal manages to magically burst the fetter apart and Athlen is so elated that he grabs Tal's wonderful, magical hands and presses a kiss to his palm. Now he is free to go on deck and is finally able to get some light and air. Once above deck, Athlen promptly dives over the rail and into the sea.
Tal is distressed by Athlen throwing himself overboard, so Garrett consoles him and tells Tal it is a good thing he cares so much as the last person to wield magic, their great-grandfather, did not care at all. Tal's being able to wield magic is rare, but it's not the only kind of magic in the world. His brother Kest, for instance, can shift into a bird, and tales used to be told of the existence of other magical beings like unicorns and mermaids.
A short time later, the War Bird docks at the port city of Bayton, and Tal goes to explore with Shay, the royal family's most trusted soldier, following him. Tal hears a familiar voice and spots Athlen in the crowd trying to barter for medicine with pearls and sea glass. The merchant is greedy and says the pearls are poor quality, so Tal intercedes and sets the man straight. His royal signet ring gives a very clear signal to the merchant not to mess with him and to do what he says. In gratitude for the medicine needed to heal a friend's sick mother, Athlen gives Tal a shark tooth and takes him to his friend Dara’s house in a poorer area of the town.
Dara isn’t impressed by the prince and is downright rude to Tal when he expresses concern for her mother. The other royals have never done anything for folk like her, and so they have not earned her respect. In addition to her rudeness, Dara knows something about Athlen and mocks Tal for his ignorance. Before Tal leaves, Athlen promises to thank him properly. Back on the ship, Kest arrives in bird form. He was sent by the Queen to check on her youngest son after Tal sent her a missive. There is a piece of parchment in his mother's study that he can magically transmit letters to. Kest also updates his brothers on the arrival of Isa’s betrothed under much pomp and ceremony.
At breakfast, Tal tells Garrett he wants to spend the day giving out medicine to the people to help with the illness that is spreading through town. This is not the way that Garrett spent his coming of age tour! As Tal is getting ready to head out, one of the sailors on their ship calls him a perversion and attacks him, but thankfully Shay intercedes, though the sailor gets away. This does not put Tal off from helping the people and with a list of supplies provided by Dara, he spends the day giving out medicine. After his good deed is complete, Tal, Garrett and Shay head to a tavern where Tal finds Athlen badly singing bawdy sea shanties. He greets him, but their exchange doesn’t go well. Athlen says Tal is too soft to be a prince which puts Tal in a bad mood and so he heads back to the ship. He wants to go alone, but Shay won’t allow it. As a compromise, she gives Tal her dagger and follows twenty paces behind, so of course something happens to him. Athlen pops up and pulls Tal into the shadows and takes him to his sea cave home.
The cave is covered in trinkets and jewels all of which remind Athlen of his family. He tells Tal the one he has picked up reminds Athlen of his sister's tail. Wait. Tail? Athlen finally tells Tal why he was chained on the pirates’ ship. He was forced to dive for the treasure chest dropped into the bay because he’s a merman, the last merman. At this revelation, he goes into the pool and shows Tal his beautiful red tail. Athlen then tells the story of how he lost his family. One day, the sea floor shifted and cracked and he was separated from his family. He tried to find them, but the water around the cracks was too hot and burned his scales. Then dead merfolk filled the sea. Athlen was so lonely and desperate to find his family that he made a deal with the sea witch to have legs but didn't tell Tal the bargain he made with her.
After this tale, Tal needs to return to the ship and Athlen escorts him from the surf. When Tal reaches the dock, however, he is attacked by some ruffians and a wild cat shifter! Despite his attempts to fight back with Shay’s dagger, he is kidnapped. Tal wakes up injured and imprisoned on a ship, his signet ring gone. He could break free from his prison but can’t risk the pirates finding out about his magic. The Captain, Zeph, tells Tal she picked him up for ransom, assassination, war, and magic. He learns that his kidnapping has something to do with his sister Isa’s wedding, but he isn’t sure if it is to ensure it goes through or fails. Zeph assures Tal she will keep him alive, but if he wants to eat, he must work. Before the labor begins, Tal is taken to see the healer, Poppy, who is nice, but pretty intense about the magical folk of the sea and believes in mermaids and the sea witch, and desperately wants to meet her.
The days turn to weeks of back breaking labor and abuse for Tal at the hands of his captors. They are determined to get him to reveal that he has magic and are trying to punish it out of him. He’s almost broken and keeps looking at the sea for a familiar tail. One night in his cell, Tal spots a scrap of sail and using his magic, he wills it to move into his cell. He then takes the shark tooth, cuts his finger and uses his blood as ink to write to his family telling them he has been kidnapped but to continue with the wedding and sends the message by magic to the parchment on his mother’s desk. Zeph visits and sows seeds of doubt in Tal, and Poppy visits with water, but he knows he can’t trust her as she also pushes him to use his magic. Finally, Poppy reveals they are in the Morreline Sea. At last, he has a location to tell his family!
Two nights later, a sound wakes Tal. It’s a bird… it’s Kest! He shifts to human and tells Tal that Garrett will be here by sunrise and that he only needs to hold on for a few more hours. Shifting back to a bird, Kest flies off though Tal begs him not to go. When Garrett’s ship is on the horizon, the pirates prepare themselves. Zeph doesn’t believe Tal is magic, considering he’s told her over and over that he’s not and all the punishment he’s endured. It’s a shame, she says, if he was magic, they were going to pass him to Ossetia to use as a weapon in Isa’s betrothed, Prince Emerick’s, name. Now they’re just going to kill him and blame the Kingdom of Mysten who protested the alliance and start a war. Magic boils in Tal and he releases a pillar of fire and the ship starts to burn. Zeph cuffs Tal in iron restraints and as she goes to kill him, Kest flies in and attacks. As the ship starts to go down, Tal spots Athlen in the water, and he grabs Tal and manages to get him into a jolly boat.
Tal wakes up cold, still cuffed, but in Athlen’s cove. Athlen urges Tal to use his magic to break free, but Tal feels extremely guilty for using his magic so violently against the pirates. After some gentle coaxing, Athlen convinces Tal to snap the irons, but he’s not doing very well and Athlen can’t look after him by himself, so he enlists Dara to help. As Dara is about to toss Tal’s shirt, he grabs the shark tooth from its pocket and Athlen is shocked he still has it. Dara insists that Tal must go home and he’s willing but too afraid to travel by boat. He needs to talk to his mother about the alliance since he learned that Zeph kidnapped him to use as a weapon in Emerick’s war.
A little later, Dara and Athlen come to Tal with news. Tal has been officially declared dead, though murdered, not assassinated, so not politically motivated, yet. The perpetrators have been captured or killed but there is a bounty for information and the townsfolk have implicated Athlen. What?!? Athlen has heard that Isa has married prince Emerick and that the wedding was brought forward so as not to conflict with the funeral rights. On the plus side, he found Shay’s dagger in the sea.
Athlen and Dara nurse Tal, if not back to health, at least enough so he’s ready to travel home. This is fortunate as Dara tells them about seeing a funeral procession of kingdom knights and soldiers led by Shay. Tal needs to speak to Shay, but Dara refuses to go get her because she’s scary and will think Dara had something to do with Tal’s “death.” She still refuses even when Tal tells her she’ll be safe from Shay if she mentions the crush Shay has on the second prince! Athlen volunteers instead and wearing a ludicrous disguise, steals a bag of apples in front of Shay which causes her to chase him straight to Tal’s meeting spot. Shay grabs Tal, hugs him and tells him Garrett and Kest searched the sea and the burning ship for him until it nearly killed them. Tal tells Shay that he was rescued by Athlen and he and Dara nursed him while he recovered. Meanwhile, Tal’s death is invoking sympathy for the impeding war after it is declared an assassination, and Tal needs to stop it. Tal tells Shay that Mysten isn’t to blame, it’s Prince Emerick, but Shay doesn’t believe him and says Emerick couldn’t find his way out of a rose garden and that Isa picked him because he’s easy on the eyes, easily managed and they share genuine affection. Tal doesn’t believe her. Tal insists he needs to get home and orders Shay to leave a horse for him the next morning.
The following morning, Dara gives Tal and Athlen a bag of food and a map she has marked with their route, ordering them not to leave the path, to only make small fires and to take care. They are off! Athlen’s legs hurt as they ride and they get worse as the journey progresses. He insists it is only because he is not used to riding a horse, but Tal is not sure that is the real reason and is feeling the loss of their intimacy. In Athlen’s cave they became close but now Athlen is pulling away from him. Tal regrets his fear of traveling by boat because if they had, they would be making port soon instead of having three more days’ travel ahead, plus Athlen would have the relief of the sea which Tal is convinced is the real reason for Athlen’s leg pains.
Athlen can sense a storm coming but Tal dismisses his warning. When the violent storm hits, they are forced to find shelter at a tavern. For a coin, the tavern boy gives Tal the news and he tells him of the rumor of Tal’s magic and that his assassination was falsified so the Queen can go to war. In their room, Tal and Athlen share a couple of kisses before Athlen pulls away and leaves. Now it seems Prince Tal and his responsibilities may be the cause of Athlen’s distress.
Tal follows Athlen and he finds him hiding behind a curtain because the pirates who kidnapped him are there. As they both hide, the cat-shifter from Tal’s kidnapping dramatically strides into the tavern in her human form. Tal and Athlen listen to their conversation and learn that the cat-shifter's mistress wants to expand her borders and to do so, they are to go after another of Tal’s family, the bird, Kest! Suddenly, the curtain is pulled back and the cat-shifter stands over Tal and Athlen. Not recognizing Tal and not knowing who Athlen is, she assumes they are finding company in each other, so she throws them a coin and tells them to find a room. Tal and Athlen don’t need to be told twice.
Escaping to their room, Tal and Athlen hurry to pack their things. They need to leave! Tal takes a moment to look at the coin the cat-shifter tossed him and realizes it is stamped from Ossetia. Before Tal and Athlen can escape through the window, the pirates charge into the room. Tal makes a stand, summons fire and grabs a sword. He is able to take out two of the pirates, and a third stops in her tracks seeing the magic on display and makes a run for it. Tal and Athlen make their escape but are met by more pirates outside. They banter, they curse, they fight and magic is thrown, then Athlen takes a dagger and stabs it into the Captain’s heart. At this, the other pirates run off giving Tal and Athlen the opportunity to escape.
Eventually they reach the castle and Tal demands to be allowed in with an urgent message for the Queen. It takes a little persuasion for the guards to believe he is actually Prince Tal demanding entrance to his own home, but they ring the warning bell at his command. Tal uses his magic to make a very dramatic entrance into the throne room where Isa, her husband Emerick, Garrett and their guards are. They are so relieved he is still alive but Tal’s more concerned over Kest, who they assure is in his room with guards. He’s also concerned by Emerick, who is stunned at his magic. Tal accuses him of knowing what his sister Vanessa has been plotting, because TWIST, it was his sister the whole time.
Tal tells Isa and Garrett everything he has found out, but Emerick calls them lies and says his sister would never do that. Vanessa enters the throne room at that exact moment with her maid and states her brother is too dimwitted to conspire to anything and confirms that all the accusations about her are true. Vanessa is confident she can blackmail Tal and the Harth royal family since she’s sure they wouldn’t want the rumors of Tal’s magic to be confirmed. Meanwhile the maid shifts into a cat and lunges, causing a fight to break out as the Queen walks in with Corrie, Tal’s youngest sister. Before the maid and Vanessa can escape, they are caught and are taken into custody along with Emerick.
Tal reunites with his mother and introduces Athlen to everyone. The Queen leaves to stop a war and his siblings crowd in. Tal insists on seeing Kest, who is thankfully in bed and not assassinated, but he is hurt from an archer shooting at him when he was a bird. Kest returns Tal’s signet ring that was sent to the castle without ransom. Later, in his rooms, Tal finds Athlen fast asleep in his bath, tail hanging over the brim. Sometime the next day, strange noises wake Tal and he pulls his magic for protection, but it’s just Garrett and Corrie. They tell him there is to be a meeting and that Tal and Athlen’s presence is required, but not until after they eat.
The Queen’s council room is filled with the royal family and Tal recounts the events of his kidnapping, his rescue, the days spent in the cave, and the journey home. His family is very proud of him, but they wonder about how Athlen saved Tal from the middle of the sea when everyone thought he was dead. Athlen tells them the truth about his rescue and shows them all his true form. Tal realizes that his mother knew about merfolk as she stares at a tapestry covered with all sorts of magical folk. She reveals that her grandfather, Tal’s great-grandfather, King Lon, attacked all magical creatures either killing them or driving them away, including the merfolk. It seems that all the myths they read as children were true. Now they all wonder why Athlen has legs, so he admits he made a bargain with a sea witch for them but still doesn’t say what the bargain is.
The discussion then turns to Emerick and Vanessa. Isa doesn’t believe her new husband was involved and doesn’t want to annul their marriage. She decides the situation will be better handled if they keep their vows; however, the king of Ossetia needs to formally apologize for his siblings. They also agree that Tal can no longer hide his magic, so he will show the other kingdoms he is not his great-grandfather and will not use his magic for evil. Isa says they will have a celebration of joy which will bring the other kingdoms to them and Tal can show them all his true nature.
The discussion takes one more turn as the queen asks for Corrie and Athlen to step out. She tells her older children that the king of Mysten has a seventeen-year-old bastard daughter he wants to make legitimate and that he may forgive the war if she were to marry into the Harth royal family. Tal believes, since he’s the closest in age, that he will have to marry the girl, but Garrett won’t let him because he sees the way Tal and Athlen look at each other. Kest steps up next, but Garrett also refuses to let him do it knowing that he and Shay have feelings for each other, so he volunteers. He’s twenty-three, not an old man! It’s time he settles down! The Queen agrees with all of this.
Later, Garrett and Tal go to question Vanessa’s maid, the cat shifter, in the dungeon. On the way, Tal hears a familiar voice. It’s Poppy, the woman who helped keep him alive on the pirate ship, and she’s very pleased she didn’t kill him, and he agrees. Poppy asks if the merfolk or sea witch saved him, which is shocking because not many people know of their existence. Tal pushes her for more information and Poppy says the sea witch was a mage driven into the sea by fire, his great-grandfather’s fire to be exact. She begs Tal to free her, but Garrett comes back and drags Tal out of the dungeon.
Tal is disappointed Athlen isn’t waiting for him in his room. He wants to share the news that his mother approves of their relationship and wants to make sure Athlen is comfortable at the palace should he choose to stay. When Athlen does return, it’s when Tal is fast asleep, and he wants to know if Tal is going to marry the princess. When Tal says he is not going to marry her, Athlen’s relief is visible. Then Tal notices Athlen is fully dressed, with shoes, a waistcoat, a collar and no holes! Tal confesses that he wants to be with Athlen and shows him a hidden garden with a sea water pool and offers it to him if he wants to stay. He does! They kiss passionately and return to Tal’s room.
During the early morning, Athlen can feel the pain of the sea witch calling in her debt. He finally confesses to Tal that the blood of his beloved was the price for his legs, but he made that deal because he never thought he would find someone to be his beloved. As his love for Tal grew, so did the pain in his legs. Tal says he will pay whatever price the sea witch asks to take away Athlen’s pain, but Athlen won’t allow it. A messenger interrupts them then, bringing word from the king of Ossetia, and tells Tal his presence is needed.
There is a formal gathering as Vanessa is escorted out to be sent home to her very displeased brother, and the crowd boo and toss rotten fruit at the disgraced princess. Vanessa spits hatred toward Tal and bemoans not killing him herself, especially after his family had her maid killed; but she can rectify that and kill a sister perhaps. Tal then spots an archer taking aim at Corrie and sends a burst of fire at the arrow, but he only singes it. It wasn’t Corrie who was hit, but Athlen who pushed Corrie out of the way. Tal orders Garrett to take Athlen to the sea before running to the dungeon for Poppy. Tal demands to know the sea witch's name so he can summon her, and frees Poppy for it. Her name is Morwen.
At the sea, Garrett has brought Athlen and helps Tal carry him into the surf. Tal begs the sea for Morwen. The sea witch’s magic is palatable as she appears. Tal wants to save Athlen and offers her his blood, but now she requires a life for a life. Poppy screams from the beach and runs into the sea. She will gladly give her life and pledges herself to Morwen. Tal throws in some of his blood too and slashes his arm with the shark tooth. The bargain is struck and the sea witch produces a shell for him to fill with his blood as Poppy walks into a wall of water and emerges as a spirit of the sea. Athlen’s life is saved. Tal wakes later, surrounded by his siblings, having nearly drowned after making the deal with a sea witch and they tease him mercilessly. Athlen is sitting in his mer-form with Corrie a short distance away. Tal goes to Athlen and confesses he may have damned his descendants by giving his blood to the sea witch, but he doesn’t regret it. They roll around the beach kissing.
Months pass and now it’s time for a wedding. The arranged marriage between Garrett and the illegitimate Mysten daughter was rejected and she eloped with her handmaiden and her fencing instructor. This is Kest and Shay’s wedding! Before their ceremony begins, Tal will announce himself to the officials in attendance, no longer hiding who and what he is. Everyone is curious about the last great mage who bargained with a sea witch and lived and who is betrothed to the last merman. Now though, he’s surrounded by Athlen, Kest, Shay, Isa, Emrick, Garrett and Corrie. They banter and jibe as only a loving family can before the Queen enters and orders everyone out so they can begin the celebrations.