Stars blazed in the night sky
They sky above was clear and cloudless, stars blazing in the inky blackness. A figure moved beneath them, taking extra care over water-slicked rocks and uneven ground. It was a strange sight, for one with such great black wings to be crawling over the ground like a worm. It would have been but the work of a moment to fly down from Above, but there were rules, and with sentries patrolling the cliffs throughout the night he wouldn’t have had a chance if he’d taken to wing.
This was the only way down, and the winged man breathed a sigh of relief as he finally reached a sheltered cove at the base of the cliffs. He nearly wilted from the effort and stress, and nestled himself up against a rock to get his breath back. Part of him wasn’t even sure why he’d given in to the impulse to come down here, but as he drew in lungfuls of the salt-scented air, his shoulders slumped, the tension leaking out of him.
He looked up. The stars were an ever constant presence, no less here than up on the cliffs. It was comforting. They even shone on the water. There was no gently sloping shore in the cove, just a pool with a sharp drop off. The water here was calm and almost gentle, but black as pitch. It was a perfect mirror for the sky above, though the stars swayed gently on the water’s surface.
He should not be down here. Goings and comings from the aerie were very carefully controlled. Even more than that, none of the winged elves ever dared venture down from the safety of the cliffs at night. The desire to get away had finally given his feet more power than his mind, and this was the furthest spot from anyone else he could get without flying.
He picked up a rock, rolling it between his fingers for several long moments. The rough surface against his skin made things feel real. He sighed, and tossed it into the water with a little plunk. The stars shook on the surface, and he laid his head back to watch their frantic dance.
The ripples had nearly died down when the water suddenly broke once more. Another stone came flying out of the water, as if in reverse. He stared as it bounced off a rock, just inches from his head. Shaking off his shock he looked down and hesitantly took up the rock.
It was the same one he’d thrown in.
His stomach twisted, and the realization that he should not be here blossomed suddenly into his mind. Even so, he was intrigued, and tentatively leaned toward the water, seeking any shape in that black mirror.
The stars began to sway again, then folded over a head that rose from beneath the surface. The hair was black and long, flowing silkily as the water cascaded from it. A dusky-skinned, and very handsome, face followed it. The figure rose only up to his shoulders, but already the winged man could see the edges of the gill-slits that marked the necks of their watery neighbors.
He could hardly believe what he was seeing. He’d never expected to meet one of them tonight.
“Y-you’re a scal-” He bit his tongue to stop the rest. The pejorative his people used for those who lived Below was widespread, but they were generally polite enough not to use it to their faces.
The figure’s dark eyes narrowed slightly.
The man’s voice bit, and Sesha couldn’t help but wince. He’d insulted him already. Before he could say more, the man continued.
“Yes, I am. One of the brutish creatures from Below. And you’re a wingling, all knowing, who looks down on us from high.”
The sarcasm was impossible to miss.
He felt his face burn. For a moment a feeling of indigence rose in his chest. He didn’t look down on anyone, but he quickly realized he’d insulted the other man first. He supposed he couldn’t fault the merman for calling him such a name in return, nor for his displeased response.
He held up his hands in a gesture of peace.
“I’m sorry. I really am. That was very rude of me.”
He spoke honestly, and didn’t try to excuse himself. It must have carried through; the other man looked momentarily surprised, but then the frosty look melted.
“It’s all right. Though, to be honest, I expected your nose to be up in the clouds by now.”
Again his face burned, but there was plenty of truth to the words.
“I don’t really like the air up there. Sorry about the rock, too. I- didn’t hit you, did I?”
To his surprise, the merman laughed. For a moment he feared it would draw the sentries down, but the man kept his voice low, as if he were aware of the potential danger.
“Your aim isn’t that good.” The merman winked, teasing instead of insulting.
He instantly felt more relaxed, wings drooping a bit, and he couldn’t help but laugh softly in return.
“Yours is. You almost hit me square in the face. It was quite a throw.”
“Sorry.” The man smiled, giving a little shrug. “It probably helped that I could see you, even if you couldn’t see me.
“All I saw were the stars on the surface. How long were you down there?”
“Long enough. I saw you climbing over the rocks to get down here.”
The thought was a little disturbing. What lay Below was a frighting enough prospect during the day, let alone at night. Anything could have been down there. He couldn’t help but glance upward at the safety of the cliffs. It might not be too late to go back up.
When he looked back down the merman was watching him with an appraising eye.
“You don’t have to worry, you know. I’m not going to grab you and drag you under with me.”
“I-it’s not that. I just didn’t realize I was being watched. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
“What are you doing down here at this time of night, anyway? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of your people at the waterline after dark.” The merman looked more curious than suspicious.
“I just…” He trailed off for a few moments, looking down. His people would have laughed at him, but there was little point in lying to the merman. He’d probably never see him again after this. “I needed to get away for awhile, is all.”
The man arched a brow, question clear on his face.
“You wouldn’t think it, but the aerie can get stuffy at night. No one but the sentries are allowed to leave after dark, so you’re sort of trapped until sun-up. The entire sky is only a few steps away, but out of reach. I just needed a bit of space to breathe. It’s stupid, I know.”
Instead of laughing, the merman regarded him with those dark eyes of his. He moved through the water, barely making a ripple, and crossed his muscled arms on the rock ledge, resting there. He looked up at Sesha, a knowing look in his eyes.
“I know how you feel. We’re under a similar edict Below. There are guard patrols through the night, and for most the punishment for being caught isn’t worth the risk. The whole of the ocean is our domain, but we are restricted to the reef each and every night.”
The winged man’s eyes went wide. He never would have expected to find someone who understood, even more so a merman. He hadn’t known they suffered the same.
“It’s awful isn’t it? There are days I just want to fly out and never come back.”
“I feel like that too, sometimes. The ocean is vast, and there is so much unseen.”
Silence fell for a few moments, but it didn’t feel uncomfortable.
Sesha realized something and he scooched a bit forward, coming to rest at the water’s edge, nearer the other man.
“You said it wasn’t worth the risk to go out. What are you doing here, then?”
The other man grinned, a mischievous look touching his face.
“I said it wasn’t, for most. I’m not most of my fellows. I don’t follow rules very well, in case you couldn’t tell.”
Sesha was surprised to hear such an admission. He’d never heard a merman speak like this. The majority of his interactions with them had been frostily polite.It was oddly refreshing, though, and he laughed softly.
“I suppose I don’t either. But even if I can’t just fly away it helps to look up at the stars.”
The other man followed his gaze upward.
“We don’t see them like this Below, though you can see the moon some nights. It does have its own beauty.”
“I’m not sure what I’d do if I couldn’t see the sky. I admit, I’ve always thought of underwater as being very claustrophobic.”
The other man smiled gently.
“Well you would, if you’re used to walking through air. Above, everything is so light, as if it weighs nothing. Everything is ephemeral. It is rather disconcerting.”
Sesha had never considered that before. Just walking through knee-deep water felt like a slog to him, and he couldn’t help but notice the definition in the merman’s arms and shoulders.
“We must look like sticks to you.”
“Not everything is solid and hard. The water can crush, but it also lifts. You can float, if you try. There are many things Below you could only imagine. Creatures so thin and insubstantial you’d hardly know they’re there. Others that can swim far deeper than any merman. We even have our own stars.”
“You do? How?” He was intrigued.
“In our homes in the reef, we cultivate a type of plant that glows when it’s dark. We grow them across ceilings, and very often in large caverns that serve as our meeting places. Sometimes, when it’s particularly dark, they glitter just like those stars. Imagine it just like this, only you can swim up and pluck them from their place.”
“It sounds beautiful. I wish I could see it.” For a moment he forgot that all of that would have been underwater, a place he could never go, even if he had ever wanted to go beneath the waves.
“I would happily show you, but you could no more descend to see than I could visit the tops of your cliffs. I have come here many a time, wondering what is up there.”
“Oh! That’s where we keep our instruments for tracking the weather and the stars. The observers keep their base up there, and take down everything they see. No matter how many times I see it, it’s still fascinating.”
The merman was now the one listening, entranced.
“What does it look like?”
Sesha did his best to describe it; the building of stone and brass, how they traded for the metal in the far off markets, the instruments that lay within.
The other man looked wistful, and in turn spoke more of his home down Below.
Sesha lost track of time after that, burying himself in the stories they shared, but at some point he looked up and noticed the moon had drastically lowered. He’d only planned to be out here for an hour or so, but dawn would be coming soon.
“I hate to leave, but I have to head back up. I need the dark to hide from the sentries if they fly over.”
“I will also need the time as well. Getting back is not as simple as just swimming down.”
Strangely enough, neither of them moved to go. Sesha had enjoyed himself. He felt at ease with the merman in a way he didn’t think he ever had, even with his friends. It wasn’t just the stories of Below; the man’s personality was easy, and welcoming. He got the feeling the merman felt similar about him.
“We should do this again,” the merman said, meeting his gaze.
Sesha didn’t even hesitate. He didn’t care about the potential danger, not after a night like this.
“I’d love to. What do you say to next week, same night?”
The man looked pleased, and nodded.
“I’ll see you then. I can’t wait. You must tell me more about Above.”
He turned in the water, as if to go, but stopped and turned back, when Sesha called out to him.
“Wait! What’s your name?” They’d been talking all this time, and hadn’t even asked each other.
“Domerin.” The man smiled at him. “Yours?”
“Sesha. It’s good to meet you.”
He leaned forward, reaching his arm out over the water without fear now, holding out his hand to the other man.
After a moment Domerin enveloped it in his own. It was warm, and soft. Not like a fish at all.
They lingered there a few moments more, letting their hands rest, and smiling at each other.
Domerin gave his hand a squeeze, and then pulled gently away.
“It was good to meet you too. See you next week, Sesha.”
“Be well, Domerin.”
The merman turned. A blue tail sent splashes of stars up into the night air as he disappeared under the surface.
Sesha waited until the water had become a mirror again, smiling a bit dreamily at the star-studded surface. He couldn’t help but wonder if Domerin was down there still, watching him.
The thought no longer filled him with dread. Instead he smiled, and waved, just in case, before making his way back up the cliffs to home.