Marjorie M. Liu has created and hope to visit them many more times in the future. These books have earned a special place on my keeper shelf. - Kathy Boswell, The Best Reviews
Kitala’s own future is in peril. From the ocean’s depths rises an impossible blend of fantasy and danger, a creature whose voice is seduction incarnate, whose song can manipulate lives the way that Kitala herself manipulates the strings of her violin…even to the point of breaking. He is a prince of the sea, an enigma-a captive stretched to the limit of his endurance by a woman intent on using him for the purest evil. And when survival requires he and Kitala form a closer partnership than either has ever known, the price of their bond will threaten not just their lives but the essence of their very souls.
“Kitala Bell made quite an impression in Liu’s first novel, Tiger Eye, as the heroine’s best friend. Now the truth behind Kit’s exceptional gifts is revealed in this riveting new novel that unravels even more mysterious threads in the Dirk & Steele universe. Liu’s books always come satisfaction guaranteed.”—Romantic Times
“Liu’s latest is a clever, finely constructed take on the ‘Little Mermaid’ story and delivers great paranormal suspense…All the other elements Liu fans expect—a strong heroine, a damaged hero, sharp dialogue and funny, fanciful details—are well-represented, making this a satisfying return to her universe.”—Publishers Weekly
She said her name was Elsie, and that she had a gun in her car.
A foolish confession, spoken without promise or bravado. Just the truth, from a woman too frightened for artifice. M’cal tasted her fear in every word, in the brief negotiation of price and time. He knew, without a doubt, that this was her first encounter with the kind of man she believed him to be – a prostitute, a stranger from the street – and though she wanted his services more than she wanted to be safe, M’cal was big and strong, could hurt her with his hands.
M’cal did not care, either way. Taking the human weapon would be easy, if it came to that. He did not think it would. He sat stiffly in the narrow passenger seat of Elsie’s little red Jetta, his legs cramped, one shoulder pressed against the cool rain-spattered window. He was too big for her car. He had to twist so that he would not brush against her body, even by accident. M’cal did not want to touch her. Not ever. Not until he had to.
He expected Elsie to speak to him. Most women did, in her situation. He had become accustomed to the attention, to his position as an object of desire. Had learned to accept it as one more punishment to endure. But Elsie stayed quiet, and her silence made M’cal more curious than was healthy; he glanced sideways, taking in her soft face and full mouth, unevenly lit by passing streetlights.
Pretty, solid, pale. Not a woman who should need to pay for sex. Not the kind of woman who would want to.
And not a woman who should die young.
M’cal’s wrist hurt. He rubbed the silver cuff chafing his skin. The metal was warm; a low tingling shock radiated up his fingers into his bones, worsening as he stroked the rough engravings.
Elsie made a small noise; more breathless than a hiccup, but just as involuntary. She covered her mouth, glanced at M’cal, and said, “I never asked for your name.”
“No,” he said quietly. “Most don’t.”
Her gaze flitted away, back to the road. “What do you call yourself?”
M’cal hesitated. “ Michael.”
“ Michael,” she echoed, voice still tumbling with fear. “How long have you been doing this?”
Long enough, he thought. Elsie drove down Georgia Street toward Stanley Park. Coal Harbor was on their right, the shoreline crowded with apartment high rises. M’cal peered between the buildings, glimpsing slivers of the opposing shore; the Vancouver city skyline, glittering against the choppy water. A wet night, windy. Poor visibility.
“A little over a year,” he lied, staring at the sea.
Elsie’s knuckles turned white around the steering wheel. “You’re older than the other guys. That’s why I chose you.”
M’cal still watched the water. “Most of the boys on that block are still in their teens. The youngest is thirteen.”
Elsie said nothing. The car did not slow. Georgia Street curved right, swinging into Stanley Park. They passed the long dock and Tudor office of the Vancouver Rowing Club, and between the road and rough stone seawall, M’cal observed late night joggers and bicyclers braving the rain on the paved pedestrian trail. Beyond them, across the harbor, the full expanse of the downtown core perched like a neon gem on the water’s edge, trailing light against the waves.
Elsie drove past the first parking lot, but edged into the second. Eight totem poles filled the border of a landscaped garden, which was nothing but shadows in the evening dark. Ten o’clock at night, and the parking lot was mostly empty; M’cal saw a few steamy windows.
Elsie parked the car in the most isolated spot, near the totems. He sat quietly, waiting, staring at the sea. The engine ticked. Rain pattered against the windshield.
“I don’t know if I can go through with this,” Elsie said.
“All right,” M’cal replied, though her feelings changed nothing. Elsie let go of the steering wheel and stared at him. He stared back. She could not hold his gaze for long, and ducked her chin, brushing long hair out of her face.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, and then, softer, “Why do you…do this?”
Why did you? M’cal wondered, but stayed silent. He did not want to know this woman. He did not want to be her friend. He did not want to understand what kind of pain would drive someone like her to risk life and limb to pick a stranger off the street and pay for sex. A death wish, a kind of suicide watch; only slower, harsher.
“Michael?” Elsie whispered, hesitantly. M’cal closed his eyes. The bracelet burned against his wrist and the sensation clawed up his arm into his throat, stirring the old monster to life. M’cal felt a surge of hate so profound he almost choked on it, struggling against himself, trying to center his heart with memories of his old life, fighting with all his strength to swallow the compulsion rising hard and terrible inside his mouth. He heard a woman laugh, somewhere distant in his mind – a fine high tinkle of joviality – and he bit back a scream.
Run, he thought at Elsie, pressing his head against the cold window. Run now. Please.
But she was no mind reader. He heard her body shift, listened to cloth rub. Held his breath. A moment later, Elsie touched his shoulder. Light, the faintest brush of her fingertips, though to M’cal it felt like a gun blast inside his heart, the crash of some clumsy human fist. Pain. A lot of it. Followed by that terrible compulsion which forced open his jaw, breath pushing hard and ragged from his lungs.
Elsie gasped. M’cal grabbed her wrist. His hand burned, but he did not let go—could not—though he tried. He stared into her startled eyes, her dark and frightened eyes, and leaned so close he could taste the faint edge of her soul on the brim of her lips.
And then he took that soul, with nothing but a song.
Afterward, if he had been close to a knife, he would have tried to cut off his hand. Again. A hard slash to the wrist, right above the bracelet. Futile, a poor man’s defiance, but all he had.
Instead, M’cal sat and held Elsie in his arms, suffering through the pain of her touch, because he understood now, though he wished otherwise. He saw, inside her head, years of abuse. A life wasted. Unfulfilled. No muse to build a dream upon, and now, after a short existence, a desire to be more, to feel again. To be a woman, wild and winsome and free. Free to hate herself. Free to build upon extremes. All or nothing. Death or life.
So, the street. A slick rainy corner full of men and boys. One choice, the start of a new self, running from the path of caution into devil-may-care. Wasting freedom on humiliation.
M’cal wished very much that Elsie had chosen differently.
She did not speak. She sat against him in the car, very still, staring out the windshield at the harbor. Her face was slack, her eyes dark, empty. All her vitality gone, drained away into a wisp, a shell not long for the world. Her worst nightmare, come to pass.
“Go home,” M’cal murmured, gently pushing her away. “Go home and forget about me. Forget tonight.”
Elsie turned the key in the ignition. M’cal got out of her car. The cool air and drizzling rain felt good on his face. He walked away, across the parking lot, toward the sea. He did not look back, though he was briefly bathed in headlights, in the sound of the Jetta’s engine as it hummed away down the curving road.
Inside his head, Elsie wept.
M’cal crossed the wet grass, the pedestrian trail, and stepped onto the seawall ledge. He glanced around, found himself alone. Below, high tide had drawn water over the shore, and the sound of it lapping against the wall was a lullaby of whispers, old riddles, dreams. His dreams, distant as they had become. M’cal could taste stones hidden beneath the shallow waves, sharp and dangerous. He kicked off his shoes. Stood for a moment, toes digging into the stone, staring at the city painted on the sea.
M’cal jumped. Headfirst, a giant arcing leap that left him, for a moment, almost parallel to the choppy water. He shot beneath the waves, slithering into a soft cool spot just above the jagged rocks. A breathless impact, followed by a quick hard stab of joy. For one brief moment, M’cal could pretend things were as they had been, long ago. He could imagine.
But then the bracelet burned and with it the sea, and he stopped pretending to be something he was not and propelled himself with long easy strokes into deeper waters. Tore away his silk shirt, pushed off his jeans. Sank unencumbered like an arrow, toes pointed, arms crossed over his chest. Allowed his body to finally, desperately, change.
M’cal lost his legs. His thighs fused, then his knees and calves and ankles, feet spreading into a thin fan of metallic flesh, long and flat and scaled. Fine ribbons of silver scales rippled from hip to fin; and against his neck, another change: skin splitting into deep slits, the floating edges tearing into narrow drifting fronds that wove inside his hair.
M’cal stopped holding his breath. Bubbles fled his throat. He tasted metal, chemicals, the etchings of humanity imprinted upon the sea. The scents on his tongue made him cringe, but he inhaled anyway, swallowing long and deep, both savoring and regretting the coarse liquid that spread into his body. The sea burned. Brine in his lungs like fire, in his eyes and nostrils, needling the webs between his fingers, his groin, the scales of his tail. The bracelet burned worst of all. Not that M’cal needed any reminders.
He fought his instinct to surface, and instead pushed deeper into the harbor; enduring, taking small pleasure in one of the few acts of free will left to him. Cleansing his soul with ocean fire, skirting the edges of home to rattle the bars of his prison. Being himself, if only for a short time.
Voices eddied, low murmurs of fish and storm. Distant, a golden hum carried by the current, a thread that M’cal reached for with his mind. The music disappeared, replaced by a slight vibration that scurried over his skin, mixing with the burn of the sea. He sensed movement, on his left; a sleek body. M’cal followed, heart pounding, and met a starry gaze, dark and sad. Brother seal, little spy. The creature melted swiftly into deepwater shadow. M’cal tried to call it back, but his throat choked.
Look, but do not touch, he remembered. See, but do not speak.
The bracelet throbbed. He had ventured too far. He tried to resist, but after a brief struggle his muscles twisted, turning him away from the heart of the harbor toward the city shore. Puppet man, pulled by invisible strings.
M’cal swam fast. He had no choice. As he neared shore, he heard the low boom of the city against the water: the speech of concrete shuddering through rock and earth, the groan of steel and glass and thousands of bodies tossing and turning and roaming. A maze of sound – and above him another labyrinth as he swam beneath the boats moored to the crisscrossing docks.
His body knew the way, pulled by the compulsion in the bracelet. M’cal did not recognize the path; the boat had been moved since morning. A frequent occurrence of late; shedding old habits, never staying in the same place twice. M’cal might have called such actions evidence of paranoia, but he was not optimistic enough for that. Still, curious.
M’cal found the boat eventually – or rather, it found him – and he poked his head above water, staring at the long white motor yacht floating like a sleek castle made of pearl. No lights burned. The boat was quiet, with an air of emptiness. M’cal was not fooled.
He drifted close, and only at the last moment did he shift shape, reluctantly giving himself up to humanity. His tail split, his fin receded, toes twitching as his gills faded into flesh – but the sea still burned and Elsie still wept, and he had nothing, nothing to show for himself except that he was still alive, and inside his heart, still fighting.
M’cal heaved himself out of the water, naked and dripping and strong. He climbed the short ladder attached to the stern, but when he reached the deck his legs gave out, knocked from under him by command. He fell hard on his knees. Tried to stand, but could not. He was forced to remain on all fours, head bowed, muscles trembling. He heard the click of high heels, smelled perfume: white lily, white rose, white lilac. The scent burned his nostrils.
“Oh,” purred a low voice. “Oh, the fallen mighty. Merman, mine.”
M’cal stayed silent. Ivory stilettos clicked into view. Slender, creamy ankles, smooth and soft. He closed his eyes and a cool hand slipped through his hair, nails biting deep into his scalp as the seawater dripping from his body continued to burn.
And then there was nothing but air beneath him – nothing to hold on to – and he flipped sideways, slamming hard on his back. The night sky spun, rain drizzling against his body, but above him stood a woman clad in white silk, long hair straight and shimmering like liquid silver, and he could look at nothing else.
The witch planted her feet on either side of his chest. Her skirt was very short, revealing long legs, no underwear. M’cal wanted to vomit.
“You have something for me,” she murmured, and sank slowly to her knees. Her thighs squeezed his ribs, the touch of her skin taking away the pain left by the drying seawater. M’cal wished it would not. He preferred discomfort to the alternative. He tried to move, to kick her off. His body refused him. As usual.
The witch smiled, long fingers dancing against his chest and throat. She bent to kiss the corner of his mouth, and he felt the draw of her power tug on Elsie’s soul.
“My prince,” whispered the witch. “Give me your voice.”
M’cal did not speak. The witch reached between their bodies and touched his stomach, lower still, caressing him with deft long strokes. M’cal willed himself not to respond, but there was magic in her fingers – literally – and his control meant nothing. He grew hard in moments, his human body a betrayal, and the witch slid herself onto him with a sigh.
“Your voice,” she said, swaying against him. “Your voice, and I will stop.” A sly smile touched her mouth. “Unless you want me to finish you. Unless you want me.”
M’cal tried to look away, but the witch held his gaze and rocked harder, forcing terrible pleasure through his body. The sensation tore at him. Disgusting, thrilling; his defiance the same as defeat, which was the custom of their dance. Killing him softly. Breaking him, one impossible choice at a time, when all she had to do was command by force what she wanted.
But the witch surprised him. She stopped her movements. Gave up her pleasure, his humiliation, for a long quiet stare that was far more thoughtful than anything she had thus far allowed him to see. It made him uneasy; a feat, given his already desperate circumstances.
M’cal returned her gaze, studying her flawless face, the crystalline perfection of her eyes, cold as some blue belly of arctic ice. He tried to remember why he had loved her, so long ago, and thought it must have been for beauty, alone. He could not remember for certain. He did not want to.
From behind the witch, a shadow lumbered close; a slow gray hulk with a fat pasty face and red spots the size of nickels on his cheeks; silver eyes the size of shark teeth, and a mouth just as sharp. He watched M’cal just as carefully as the witch. Licked his lips, once.
The witch leaned forward, silver hair spilling over M’cal’s face. He tried to move his head. No luck. All he could do was watch. He did not close his eyes.
The witch kissed him. Inside his head, Elsie screamed. M’cal almost cried out with her, but he swallowed his voice and held on to the woman’s stolen soul with all his strength, fighting and fighting. His fault – his fault – but this time would be different, he would make it different –
The witch inhaled and it was like being kissed by a hurricane. For one brief moment, everything inside M’cal felt loosened from its anchor: heart, bones, lungs. Essentials, floating in blood. Drifting. Elsie, drifting, torn away from his grasp. Until she was gone. Stolen, again. Just like all the others. So easy. The witch always made it look easy. And him, useless, unable to redeem himself. Nothing but a tool.
The witch leaned back, breathing hard. Shuddering. Her eyes were closed and she touched her mouth, dragging her fingertips over her lips.
“Ivan,” she murmured, and the hulking man behind her shuffled close. He held out a soft silver robe, which he helped drape over her narrow shoulders. His hand, a palm the size of a football, came down to rest heavy against the curve of her long pale neck. M’cal glimpsed a silver band glinting against his thick wrist; smooth and seamless. Not quite a twin to his own, but close enough.
The witch rose slowly off M’cal’s body. Power leaked through her skin; he felt scratchy with it, as though barnacles or steel wool rubbed against him. . The sensation did not fade when she stopped touching him. Distance was the only cure, as with most things in his life.
The witch stared down her nose at M’cal. “Up, prince. Up, now.”
No compulsion. Not yet. And with Elsie gone – gone, gone – there was no more need to stay silent. Not that the witch needed his voice to take what she wanted from him.
“No,” M’cal said. His throat hurt.
“No,” mocked the witch. “No, evermore, with you. No and no. I grow tired of that word.”
“I do not care,” M’cal replied. “You know that.”
“And I know that you are mine.” The witch snapped her fingers. The bracelet burned. M’cal fought the compulsion, but his muscles twisted; he pushed himself off the deck and stood. Exposed. Helpless. Raging. The hulk, Ivan, studied him with a narrow gaze. The line of his mouth tilted, just slightly.
“I have another task for you,” said the witch, softly. “A specific target, this time. You will take this woman’s spirit and bring it to me. You will do this now, tonight. I must have her tonight. ”
M’cal listened to her voice. “Something has frightened you.”
The witch tilted her head and Ivan moved. Fast for a man of his size; almost too fast to see. His fist rocked M’cal off his feet, sending him sliding across the deck. He tasted blood; a tooth jiggled.
“Get dressed,” snapped the witch, turning quickly with a flourish of silk and silver hair. “Ivan? Give him the name.”
Ivan knelt and smiled. His teeth were sharp as knives. He tried to touch M’cal’s bloody lip, but the compulsion was gone and M’cal grabbed the big man’s meaty index finger. Yanked backward until bone cracked, then twisted so hard it lay perpendicular to the rest of his fingers. His strength was terrible; he began to crush the bone.
Ivan never flinched. Just shrugged, tossing a slip of paper on the deck beside M’cal – then stood, slowly, jamming his heel against M’cal’s shoulder, forcing the merman to release him with nothing more than a push and tug. M’cal grit his teeth, wary, but Ivan did not retaliate. His expression never changed at all, not even when he grabbed his broken finger and reset it with a sickening crunch.
Ivan turned and lumbered away, following the witch. M’cal watched him go, licking his lip, again tasting blood. A weak breeze brushed his throbbing face; beside him, the paper rustled. He thought about not picking it up, but refusal would only delay the inevitable. The witch would force him, just as she had for years. M’cal preferred to move on his own, even if it was just an illusion.
There was a hotel address on the paper, as well as the whereabouts of the victim, at least for the next several hours. There was also a name. M’cal spoke it out loud, enjoying the rolling delicacy of its sound. A short-lived pleasure – he found himself racked by guilt, hatred; a rage so terrible he shuddered with it, fingers digging into his thigh, against the hard deck. The silver cuff glinted against his wrist, the skin just above the metal covered in thin white scars. Again, he thought about a knife, a gun – something, anything – to stop himself. Or the witch.
But there was nothing. Nothing he could do. Nothing he had not already tried.
“Kitala Bell,” he murmured, gazing once again at the paper in his hands. “Forgive me.”