Home > To Kill a Kingdom

To Kill a Kingdom
Author: Alexandra Christo

1

Lira

I HAVE A HEART for every year I’ve been alive.

There are seventeen hidden in the sand of my bedroom. Every so often, I claw through the shingle, just to check they’re still there. Buried deep and bloody. I count each of them, so I can be sure none were stolen in the night. It’s not such an odd fear to have. Hearts are power, and if there’s one thing my kind craves more than the ocean, it’s power.

I’ve heard things: tales of lost hearts and harpooned women stapled to the ocean bed as punishment for their treachery. Left to suffer until their blood becomes salt and they dissolve to sea foam. These are the women who take the human bounty of their kin. Mermaids more fish than flesh, with an upper body to match the decadent scales of their fins.

Unlike sirens, mermaids have stretched blue husks and limbs in place of hair, with a jawlessness that lets their mouths stretch to the size of small boats and swallow sharks whole. Their deep-blue flesh is dotted with fins that spread up their arms and spines. Fish and human both, with the beauty of neither.

They have the capacity to be deadly, like all monsters, but where sirens seduce and kill, mermaids remain fascinated by humans. They steal trinkets and follow ships in hopes that treasure will fall from the decks. Sometimes they save the lives of sailors and take nothing but charms in return. And when they steal the hearts we keep, it isn’t for power. It’s because they think that if they eat enough of them, they might become human themselves.

I hate mermaids.

My hair snakes down my back, as red as my left eye – and only my left, of course, because the right eye of every siren is the color of the sea they were born into. For me, that’s the great sea of Diávolos, with waters of apple and sapphire. A selection of each so it manages to be neither. In that ocean lies the sea kingdom of Keto.

It’s a well-known fact that sirens are beautiful, but the bloodline of Keto is royal and with that comes its own beauty. A magnificence forged in salt water and regality. We have eyelashes born from iceberg shavings and lips painted with the blood of sailors. It’s a wonder we even need our song to steal hearts.

“Which will you take, cousin?” Kahlia asks in Psáriin.

She sits beside me on the rock and stares at the ship in the distance. Her scales are deep auburn and her blond hair barely reaches her breasts, which are covered by a braid of orange seaweed.

“You’re ridiculous,” I tell her. “You know which.”

The ship ploughs idly along the calm waters of Adékaros, one of the many human kingdoms I’ve vowed to rid of a prince. It’s smaller than most and made from scarlet wood that represents the colors of their country.

Humans enjoy flaunting their treasures for the world, but it only makes them targets for creatures like Kahlia and me, who can easily spot a royal ship. After all, it’s the only one in the fleet with the painted wood and tiger flag. The only vessel on which the Adékarosin prince ever sails.

Easy prey for those in the mood to hunt.

The sun weighs on my back. Its heat presses against my neck and causes my hair to stick to my wet skin. I ache for the ice of the sea, so sharp with cold that it feels like glorious knives in the slits between my bones.

“It’s a shame,” says Kahlia. “When I was spying on him, it was like looking at an angel. He has such a pretty face.”

“His heart will be prettier.”

Kahlia breaks into a wild smile. “It’s been an age since your last kill, Lira,” she teases. “Are you sure you’re not out of practice?”

“A year is hardly an age.”

“It depends who’s counting.”

I sigh. “Then tell me who that is so I can kill them and be done with this conversation.”

Kahlia’s grin is ungodly. The kind reserved for moments when I am at my most dreadful, because that’s the trait sirens are supposed to value most. Our awfulness is treasured. Friendship and kinship taught to be as foreign as land. Loyalty reserved only for the Sea Queen.

“You are a little heartless today, aren’t you?”

“Never,” I say. “There are seventeen under my bed.”

Kahlia shakes the water from her hair. “So many princes you’ve tasted.”

She says it as though it’s something to be proud of, but that’s because Kahlia is young and has taken only two hearts of her own. None of them royalty. That’s my specialty, my territory. Some of Kahlia’s reverence is for that. The wonder of whether the lips of a prince taste different from those of any other human. I can’t say, for princes are all I’ve ever tasted.

Ever since our goddess, Keto, was killed by the humans, it’s become custom to steal a heart each year, in the month of our birth. It’s a celebration of the life Keto gave to us and a tribute of revenge for the life the humans took from her. When I was too young to hunt, my mother did it for me, as is tradition. And she always gave me princes. Some as young as I was. Others old and furrowed, or middle children who never had a chance at ruling. The king of Armonía, for instance, once had six sons, and for my first few birthdays, my mother brought me one each year.

When I was eventually old enough to venture out on my own, it hadn’t occurred to me to forgo royalty and target sailors like the rest of my kind did, or even hunt the princes who would one day assume their thrones. I’m nothing if not a loyal follower of my mother’s traditions.

“Did you bring your shell?” I ask.

Kahlia scoops her hair out of the way to show the orange seashell looped around her neck. A similar one just a few shades bloodier dangles from my own throat. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s the easiest way for us to communicate. If we hold them to our ears, we can hear the sound of the ocean and the song of the Keto underwater palace we call home. For Kahlia, it can act as a map to the sea of Diávolos if we’re separated. We’re a long way from our kingdom, and it took nearly a week to swim here. Since Kahlia is fourteen, she tends to stay close to the palace, but I was the one to decide that should change, and as the princess, my whims are as good as law.

“We won’t get separated,” Kahlia says.

Normally, I wouldn’t mind if one of my cousins were stranded in a foreign ocean. As a whole, they’re a tedious and predictable bunch, with little ambition or imagination. Ever since my aunt died, they’ve become nothing more than adoring lackeys for my mother. Which is ridiculous, because the Sea Queen is not there to be adored. She’s there to be feared.

“Remember to pick just one,” I instruct. “Don’t lose your focus.”

Kahlia nods. “Which one?” she asks. “Or will it sing to me when I’m there?”

“We’ll be the only ones singing,” I say. “It’ll enchant them all, but if you lay your focus on one, they’ll fall in love with you so resolutely that even as they drown, they’ll scream of nothing but your beauty.”

“Normally the enchantment is broken when they start to die,” Kahlia says.

“Because you focus on them all, and so, deep down, they know that none of them are your heart’s desire. The trick is to want them as much as they want you.”

“But they’re disgusting,” says Kahlia, though it doesn’t sound like she believes it so much as she wants me to think that she does. “How can we be expected to desire them?”

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