I laughed because that was what she wanted from me, but it was hard—especially when I looked into Liam’s forlorn little face. I’ll see you later, I told him, holding out my own hand for a fist bump.
He gave me a hug instead. I hugged him back, then turned away before I started crying all over him. That wasn’t quite the tough, in-charge image I wanted to project.
Then again, nothing down here was living up to my expectations. Why should I be so concerned about living up to everyone else’s?
I grabbed dinner on the way to Hailana’s chambers, throwing it down on the run. Tonight it was shrimp ceviche and kelp salad, which were both delicious, especially the way the merQueen’s cook prepared them. Still, I found myself longing for a burger and fries, which was funny since I was never much of a meat eater when I lived on land. Lately though, I practically salivated at the thought of a steak. And don’t even get me started on how much I missed Cherry Garcia ice cream …
Despite my rush, I was a few minutes late getting to the Council meeting. Shifting took a few minutes, as did examining the brand-new scar that ran the length of my calf. Thank you, Zarek, I said silently. The cut was bad enough that I wouldn’t have wanted to walk on it if it wasn’t fully healed. When I got to Hailana’s chambers, everyone turned to stare at me. Which was a little intimidating, considering the fact that Hailana’s entire Council was present. But I’d done the best I could—shifting back to my human form had been crazy difficult this time around and it had put me behind.
Hailana was sitting at the end of a long, polished table carved from the wood of a sunken Spanish galleon (I knew this because she was very proud of that table and took every chance to extol its heritage). On either side of her were Veracruz and Rafael, the two mermen she trusted almost as much as she’d trusted my mother. Both wore fierce frowns on their faces, which softened a little when they saw me but by no means disappeared completely.
Next to Rafael was Alastair, the newest addition to the Council (even newer than I was). He’d been a member of Hailana’s staff forever, but it was only a few months ago that she’d seen fit to promote him to the Council. Mahina said it was because they’d been having an affair since forever and Hailana hadn’t wanted to show favoritism, but I wasn’t so sure. One, because she’d had no trouble showing favoritism toward me—at least in the beginning, before she realized what a pain in the butt I was going to be. And two, because Alastair, despite his very austere name, was one of the nicest men I’d ever met. I couldn’t imagine him being caught in Hailana’s web for long. At least not voluntarily.
Next to him was Faith, who had been one of my mother’s closest friends. She’d spent the last eight months looking out for me and I liked her a lot, except I could never quite shake the feeling that she wasn’t really seeing me. She was seeing who she wanted to see—namely, Cecily.
And finally, across from her sat Violet, who I absolutely adored. Hailana couldn’t stand her, only put up with her because she was her sister, but I thought Violet was the coolest mermaid I had ever met. Though she was almost as old as Hailana, she still dressed like a teenager. Her bikinis were skimpy, her body jewelry plentiful, and I’d never seen her when she didn’t have some kind of object woven through her hair. Today it was glittering abalone shells and ribbons in the same shade of hot pink as her tail.
I hurried across the room and sank into the chair next to hers, grateful that she was the one on this end, especially since the alternative was sitting next to Sabyn. Which so wasn’t an option, considering my stomach still burned from the cut he’d given me that afternoon. The only thing that made my failure against him bearable was the large, bloodstained bandage around his bicep. At least he hadn’t gotten away completely unscathed.
No one specifically acknowledged my presence and I relaxed a little as the conversation continued to ebb and flow around me.
“I’m telling you, Hailana, this is it!” Rafael’s fist slammed down on the table. “Tiamat will be here any day now and we are completely unprepared.”
“We are not unprepared,” Alastair answered. “Our defenses are better than they’ve ever been. Halaina’s powers are at their peak. And now we have Tempest and Sabyn to help us. If Tiamat comes, we’ll be ready for her.”
“I think you mean when she comes,” Rafael corrected him.
“Whatever.” He shrugged.
“That won’t be now,” Faith told them both, stretching lazily, as if she were sunning herself on the beach instead of locked in a meeting about the fate of her entire clan.
Our entire clan, I reminded myself.
“You don’t know that, Faith,” Veracruz told her. “Tiamat just attacked Stormy Point. It’s shortsighted and suicidal not to assume that we’re going to be next.”
“It’s shortsighted to assume that we are,” Faith countered. “Yes, she just decimated Stormy Point. Yes, she’s been gaining power consistently ever since she escaped Cecily’s prison. And yes, we should be concerned. We should take every precaution, but I still assert that we have time. She isn’t ready to come here yet.”
“You sound awfully sure of yourself,” Rafael told her.
“I am sure of myself.”
“But what are you basing that on? This isn’t the first city she’s taken in the last few months and, if you plot coordinates on a map, we’re the logical next choice.” Alastair rubbed his eyes as if the whole discussion was giving him a headache. Of course, it could be the situation and not the discussion that was upsetting him so much. I knew it was upsetting me.
“She’s afraid of us.” Violet spoke up for the first time. “She won’t come to Coral Straits yet because she’s too afraid of Tempest to show up here. Not until she’s garnered more resources, more power. More magic.”
I started to protest, to tell them that the last thing Tiamat was afraid of was me, but then Sabyn laughed. The jerk actually laughed.
“Tiamat isn’t afraid of anything or anyone,” he told them. “If she isn’t planning on coming here yet—and I’m not saying that I think she is or isn’t—it’s because her plan doesn’t call for it. She’s too cagey to let emotion get in her way.”
“But she is letting emotion get in the way!” I told him, speaking up for the first time. “This whole thing is motivated by emotion, by her need for revenge.”
“That’s not the same thing—”
“Of course it is! I agree that she’s powerful and scary and definitely operating from a plan, but her biggest weakness is the fact that she will do anything to avenge the time she spent imprisoned.”
“She’s already done that,” Veracruz told me. “When she killed Cecily.”
I winced at the matter-of-fact way he said it, like my mother’s death was barely a blip on the radar. At the same time, though, I appreciated his candor—everyone always tiptoed around my mother with me, even Hailana. It wasn’t nice, but at least it was a relief to find someone who talked about it without lowering his voice and gazing at me with pity.
“Cecily’s death wasn’t enough,” Hailana said, voicing the same thought that was currently in my head. “Tiamat’s out for blood—my blood, Tempest’s blood, Malakai’s blood.”