In one day, Cove would be old enough to see the surface.
He was almost fifteen now, which meant a massive coming-of-age ceremony. Then, at the end of it, he was just let free for the rest of the day.
Of course before that, he had to get fitted for his ceremonial outfit.
Cove stared up at the intricate coral ceilings. The shells that lined the edges of the huge columns. The mosaic of coral bits that hung off of the ceilings. Anything to stop him from looking at his own reflection.
In front of him, his mother was combing through his hair, pulling it up into a ponytail. He stole a glance at himself to see the shirt that his mother forced him to put on. It was tight-fitting, showing off all the curves that he hated so, so much.
He almost wanted to cry at the sight of himself, so he went back to looking at the room. He knew it too well. The rugs were made out of woven kelp that had been found on the sea shores. The doors to the room were small tunnels that led from one room in the palace to another.
He wanted to leave so badly.
“Coral, are you even listening?” his mother asked.
He looked down at his mother. Her black hair floated above her head, swirling with the small current that managed its way into the palace.
He blinked in surprise, accidentally seeing himself again. “Yes?” he hazarded.
“Alright then.” She went back to playing with his hair. She grabbed a pearl the size of her palm and stuck it to a tiara. “You know, don’t tell any of your sisters this, but… I think you’re going to be the prettiest out of all your sisters when you grow up.”
He grimaced, but tried to morph it into a smile. He didn’t want that, though. “Really?” He hoped that sounded enthusiastic. He hoped to Poseidon that sounded enthusiastic.
“Of course,” she said. “I mean, you’re growing into a fine young mermaid already.”
She swam behind Cove, her tail’s teal scales shining in the diffuse sunlight. “How does it look?”
Cove was forced to look at himself. His hair was tied into a tight bun. His lips and eyelids were painted white. He had necklaces strewn all over him, and bracelets made of seashells floated off of his tiny wrists. He hated it.
“I really like it,” he said. He looked at the form-fitting shirt again. “But… maybe I can wear a shawl?” he asked. “Marina looked really nice in one,” he added on hastily. Truthfully, if he saw his chest at all right then, he might’ve thrown up.
She looked confused for a second, but appeared to shrug it off. “Why not. After all, this is your big day!”
Cove sighed, his gills flaring up to take in the water. He closed his eyes and imagined himself in different ceremonial garb. Of course, it would be completely unacceptable for someone of his… disposition, but it would make him far happier than even the prettiest necklaces.
“Thanks, mother,” he said.
“You’re welcome, dear.” She flashed a smile full of sharp white teeth and twisted away from him. “I’ll go tell the tailor that. Excuse me.” She darted away, her huge sails for tail fins flowing in her wake.
Cove sighed again, and then looked at the mirror. This was all too much. He was just going to the surface. It shouldn’t be such a ritual. He stared down at his body, then wanted to disappear. He shut his eyes, but didn’t feel anything happening.
He was distracted from his thoughts when he heard the sound of bubbles rushing behind a group of mermaids. Three of his sisters showed up. They stopped at the door of the expansive room. He didn’t even have to see them to know their expressions. “Hi guys,” he said. He hung his head, trying to indicate he wanted to be left alone. “Oh my gosh, Coral!” his oldest sister, Marina, said. “You look great!”
He shrunk in his shoulders as he heard them swimming up to him. Cove tried to dart away to the ceiling, but he was grabbed by the tail and dragged down. Wake twisted him around. “You don’t need to be so modest,” she said. Her white hair was thick and curly, so it didn’t flow near as much as the other sisters’.
He grimaced. “It’s not modesty,” he said.
“Then what else?”
Cove was about to say something, but stopped. “I don’t know!”
His other sister, Dalis, socked the others in the arm. “It doesn’t matter, you know,” she said. Her voice was soft, pristine. Her face looked otherwise. It was completely ecstatic, with a smile that spread from pointed ear to pointed ear. “Also, we came in here to tell you about the surface,” she said. She laughed, then swam up to the ceiling.
Marina rolled her eyes and then sat down next to Cove in front of the mirror. She tugged a lock of cove’s hair and pulled it down. It floated limply by his face. “That’ll do,” she said.
Cove grimaced, again looking in the mirror. He did have to admit, that the hair at his side ended up looking better. Hopefully his mother thought the same way. “Well, what’s on the surface?” he asked. He watched as a school of parrotfish swam out the window.
“When I first went up, the first thing I saw was the sky!” Dalis offered from above.
“Yeah,” Wake agreed. She looked up the ceiling. It’s like an entire ocean that we can’t swim in. It had massive white sails swimming through them. They changed colour from grey to white, and changed shapes too. It was beautiful.”
Cove watched as Marina shoved Wake. “Well, the first thing I saw was the cove.”
Cove responded to the name by standing a little straighter, but hoped nobody noticed. “What… what about the cove?”
“Well, it’s essentially where the ocean goes out and meats the sand on land. It’s covered in black rocks that raise up into piles. I’ve even seen humans sit on them.”
Humans? They had no meaning to him. “What about them?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “All I’ve got to say is that there sure are a lot of them. Oh, and the males wear shirts too. Poseidon knows why, though! They’re so cute!” She twirled around, giggling.
Cove shook his head. “No. That seems gross.” Why would Marina ever think about looking at humans the way she did mermen? He sighed and pretended to laugh. His shoulders felt heavy and his stomach felt empty, even though he had eaten a good meal just a few hours ago.
He looked down at his tail fins. They were just growing out, and looked awkwardly large against his slender tail. He tapped one of the dark sea-green scales, but didn’t hear anything. “Well, okay, he said. “Is it just humans?” he asked.
Marina shook her head. “But you don’t understand, Coral. They have massive towns made out of stone. There are at least twenty of them every time I look at the beach. Some even swim in the water. Then, they don’t have their shirts on.” She fanned herself, smirking at Cove.
It worked. Revulsion danced around his gut. “That’s gross and you’re gross too,” he said. He watched as Marina shrugged.
“Boys are boys,” she said, biting her lips. “Gotta get what I can.”
To this, Cove laughed. “That’s a lie!” he said. He swam out of his chair and went up to the ceiling. “Can you believe her?” he asked to Dalis. She was only a year older than him, so she was probably the first to agree about this subject.
She shook her head, a quizzical expression on her face. Her lips pursed as Marina swam up to meet them. “Well, tell me what princes are living around here? Certainly not you!”
Cove cringed at that. Noticeably.
“Well, I’m not wrong, am I? You’re not a prince.”
He wanted to be. Oh, how he wanted to be.
Cove twirled in the water when he saw his mother crawl through a tunnel. She looked up, obviously seeing her four children. “Girls, what’re you doing up there? You’re going to ruin Coral’s outfit!”
Cove looked down and noticed that in fact, he was missing a few bracelets. He hadn’t thought that swimming would make them fall off his wrists.
His mother swam up to meet them. She glanced at Cove, who felt his face warm in embarrassment. Her grey eyes narrowed. “Well, if you’re just going to wreck ceremonial garb, then I think you should just get out of it.”
Cove nodded, trying to look offended at what his mother said. It didn’t work, because he could feel the corner of his mouth curling upwards.
He floated there while his mother went behind him and pulled out his tiara. Nearly immediately, his hair fell out of its tight hold, looking like a mane.
“Go take the rest of it off. Alright?”
Cove nodded, looking down at his hands. He already started sliding the bracelets off. He shook his head at the sight of them. They were beautiful. He would’ve found them beautiful on any other girl.
He swam down from the ceiling until he reached another stone tunnel system. The black stone was polished smooth, and it was lined with holes that led to each of the royal family’s rooms. He felt around for the fifth hole and twisted into it. There, the tunnel widened out to reveal a small underwater cave. There was some air at the surface, so if Cove wanted, he could feel what gravity was like. He sometimes did, but it wasn’t really that nice.
He threw the bracelets off and dropped them so they sunk onto his bed. He tugged at the necklaces, but tried not to break them. Oysters probably donated their pearls, and they were probably important to those oysters. He didn’t want to hurt those oysters’ feelings.
He stretched for a second, glancing at himself in the mirror. He was starting to look somewhat more natural. He grabbed at the sleeveless shirt lined with old hermit crab shells and pulled it off. He stared at himself for a moment before quickly turning away.
He gritted his teeth and reached for the shawl on a driftwood shelf. He pulled on the tight-fitting piece that was meant to cover his chest when the shawl flared up. Then, he let the shawl sink over his chest.
He looked at himself again. His grey skin mixed well enough with the shawl’s underside. If someone wasn’t looking too hard, they could probably assume Cove was wearing a cape. But such wasn’t the case. He was a princess, so he was probably easily recognizable. He pulled the bun out of his hair, letting it hang down as a ponytail. It looked unnatural, but at least it looked a bit more masculine.
His mother was right about him. He was growing into a fine young mermaid. And he hated it.