• The ocean is the most beautiful place in the world.

    Beyond the waves, it is a mostly flat surface, stretching on for thousands of miles.

    Yet under the surface, it is bursting with life, beautiful life.

    I wish that I could live in there.

    To be free.

    To escape my-

    "Lia! Lia! Come from the balcony at once!" my maid and caretaker, Mary, shouts out at me. She must have opened the glass balcony doors, but I didn't hear it. I was lost in my own world. The sun is sinking down into the waters, casting such pretty colors for miles.

    "Did you hear me, girl? You will get freckles, and no man will have you! Now come! Come back inside!"

    "Mary," I say, turning to face her. My auburn hair, loose from its tight bun, flips in a light breeze. "The sun has nearly set. There's no danger of that." And personally, I don't care much for having a man.

    Mary's face turns an unseemly pink as she storms out to take me by my ear and drag me back inside. "No backtalk!" she barks.

    "Aren't I a little old for this type of thing though, Mary?" I ask, wincing and looking up at her. "I am sixteen."

    "You must learn to obey promptly. I say, you are a fine nightmare for any suitor!"

    "Good," I mumble under my breath. And then I smile meekly and say sweetly, "I'm sorry, Mary. I just wanted to watch the sunset. I will obey you next time before you even finish your order." I let my eyes grow big and innocent-looking.

    Mary sniffs. "Good." She lets go of my ear and steps back. I resist the urge to rub at it. She used her fingernails this time. "Now, I will be going down to my chambers," she says, brushing back a strand of a gray strand that escaped from her bun. She has a tight, firm face with tight, firm wrinkles, and a permanent scowl is always worn on her mouth. "Goodnight."

    "Goodnight," I say. Mary turns and leaves. As soon as the door is closed, I turn and open the doors to my balcony. A last ray of sunlight shines up into the sky before the entire disk disappears. The sky still has a faint pinkness to it, but the light is fading fast. The sea turns into a dark, mysterious, place.

    I take one last wistful look outside before closing the doors and sighing.

    I know I should be lucky. Both my father and my mother come from a long line of blue-bloods who never spent any money, practically, and we have it all. A gorgeous mansion, fine clothing, luxurious pillows and beds, and some of the finest food around. Many others would dream for a life like this.

    Yet...Sometimes I feel as though I don't belong here. I feel almost as if I were in another life, and then I was plucked out of it and set in this one.

    Sometimes I dream that the life before was the sea. As though I were a fish, or maybe a dolphin or a whale. Or...even sometimes, I dream of being one of those creatures from the legends, a mermaid. How my mother would have a fit if she knew that! "A scandalous creature!" she would say. "Wearing nothing but their skin and some fins!"

    "But Mother," I would say, "Clothes would only drag them down."

    "Better dragged to the bottom of the ocean than to be a scandalous fishy wench!"

    I giggle at my thoughts as I flop onto my bed, the silk of my nightgown flopping around my legs and rubbing against them in a pleasant, cool way. I tug the bits of my hair that haven't fallen out out of my bun and fall back into the pillows. I stare up at my canopy and think how I would like to be a mermaid, even if my mother would call them scandalous fishy wenches.

    ~ ~ ~

    Every morning, I like to see the sun rise out of the water, and every evening, I like to watch the sun set. But Mary has just never understood that.

    "Child!" she barks at my balcony doors. "Come back inside, now." I turn away from the amazing, lovely sea and scuffle back inside like the slave to my own servant I am.

    "Pick up your feet, Lia. It is most unladylike to scuffle."

    "Lia, sit up straight. Pretend to be a lady. Besides, it will take me that much less time to finish your hair."

    "Lia, the gowns I have ordered for you are here from the dressmaker. Pick one, now. Do refrain yourself from making that face. Yes, I know that the skirts are fuller and heavier, but remember, there are suitors coming to call today. Now, do pick one."

    "Lia, don't slouch over your food. Anybody would take you for a lowlife peasant. How many times must I tell you this before it gets to your head?"

    "Lia, don't slurp your tea."

    "Lia, try to make straighter lines with your embroidery. They're very sloppy. Here, start over."

    "Lia, stop looking out of the window. The ocean is not going anywhere."

    "Lia, your suitors have arrived."

    This is a normal day of my life.

    I let myself have a few calming breaths before making a grand entrance to the parlor, where about ten men are sitting, standing, and mingling, and sipping at their tea that we have graciously provided them. Well, I must admit, my entrance wasn't so grand. I tripped over the hem of my skirts a few times. Charming.

    "Lia, how delightful to see you!" a man about fifty years older than me said, kissing the hand I reluctantly extended to him with wet, slobbery lips. Now, who invited him? "As always, you look positively radiant. Like a diamond." Well, he does seem nice. Perhaps as a grandfather. But as a husband? Yech.

    "More like a diamond in the rough, isn't it?" A man a few years older than me says, laughing arrogantly. I think his name is Robert, but I'm not sure. I don't really remember any of these men, much less their names. They must be a new batch.

    I force a smile to come to my lips as Robert(?) laughs again. He is one of those ridiculously handsome men, and he knows it. And he makes sure that everybody else knows it, too. I do remember him, if for just that.

    "Robert, isn't it?" I say a little coolly as his ever increasing laughter doesn't stop. It does stop now, though, and a hurt puppy look comes to his face.

    "Now I thought you'd remember me better than that."

    "I guess not." I try not to snort.

    "Harsh!" barks another man right in my ear, howling with laughter. "Don't you know, no woman ever forgets Robert!"

    "Well, she remembers my name, even if she doubts," Robert says smugly, smoothing his blonde hair back.

    Why, oh why, did Mary have to leave me in here alone, like bait to the sharks? Doesn't she know how men are? Or just what they prefer in a wife?

    I must have some look of considerable distress on my face, because Robert swoops in and says, "Now what's the matter? I hope I haven't said anything to offend you. Perhaps you would like to take a breather from this stuffy room and take a stroll with me on the beach?"

    "I can't leave my own party," I try to protest, but Robert holds up a hand.

    "Well, technically, this isn't a party, it is a meeting of suitors."


    "And secondly, you should be able to leave if you want to. Isn't that what you want? To get away and be free from this place for awhile, get some fresh air?"

    To be free. I do want to be free.

    "Well..." I say, hesitant. Robert nods, turns and says, loudly enough for everyone to hear him, "Miss Porter has developed a dreadful headache. She respectfully requests that we postpone this meeting. Next month, did you say, Lia?" I dumbly nod my head and wonder why one minute I think he's one of the most arrogant people on Earth and the next I'm letting him step all over me, blinding me with his smooth words. Oh, how I wish Mary was here!

    But she isn't, she's running errands in town. And the room clears more quickly than I would desire.

    Oh, why am I alone? I think that Mary thinks I would open up more if she wasn't at my side, making me for eligible for a husband. And mother or father don't much care what she does with me, as long as I get all of my tasks of the day done.

    "You see?" Robert purrs. "Easy. Now let us take our walk."

    "W-wait," I say, pulling back as he begins to take my arm. "You said that I should like to clear myself of this full room. But it's empty now."

    "Why," says Robert, sounding surprised, "it is, isn't it? And we're all alone, aren't we?" And before I have time to comprehend this, Roberts lips are on mine and I'm being yanked into an embrace that I try to struggle out of. Why, of all the smooth-tongued-

    "What's the matter?" Robert asks, pulling back for a moment. "Any girl would be lucky to have a kiss from me."

    "Lucky isn't quite the word I'm looking for to describe you!" I snap, and my hand flies out and smacks him across the face.

    Robert looks up and grins, like I hadn't done him any damage at all. "Oh, yes, it should be. A lucky bride you'll be."

    "Wha- Bride?! I will never marry you!"

    "Ah, but it's not up to you, is it? Didn't you know, your father has announced to us men that this is the last meeting of suitors before he selects one of us to be your husband. And, why, I'm the only one left!"

    I open my mouth to tell him some very unladylike things when his mouth presses against mine again. I shove his face back and he says smugly, "Now, Lia, when I am your husband, I will be able to do what I please with you."

    "We aren't getting married!" I hiss at him, and turn and run from the room. Oh, why am I such a weak, pathetic, gullible girl?

    I go to the only place that can comfort me now, the ocean. I run along the beach to a cave near the waves. I like to go in there on the rare opportunities that I have a free day and watch the waves lap up to my feet as I sit in total secrecy. I can slip into the waves unseen and swim there, because there is a place in the cave where the water comes up farther. I yank my skirts up and run to that spot, kicking my shoes off and not caring who finds them. The cave, the cave, the ocean.

    The cave is far, but I finally make it there, puffing out of breath. Robert will marry me. I know his type. He will act the perfect suitor to my father, and he will be approved of. Plus, there isn't any other choice. All the other men have gone.

    I'm not used to taking my own gowns off, but I manage with difficulty. I fell much freer in my drawers and corset than in that heavy thing. I let it fall to the sand and get dirty. How Mary would yell. How she will. When I return to my house and have a family servant boss me around like a prisoner, forgetting the part about helping to raise me, as she always has. To Robert. I have no doubt that he will be the violent type. If I don't do what he wants, when he wants, I'll get it.

    I let a smooth talking man sweep in to ruin my life.

    Pathetic. I grit my teeth as I stand on the slightly damp sand, and then burst into tears and fling myself into the waves.

    Oh, what's the point of it all? Every day I will look at the ocean with longing for something I can never have. Every day I will be forced to be married to that terrible man.

    And then a thought comes to me that makes me freeze in today's gentle waves.

    I don't have to go back. I could just keep swimming out into the ocean and the sun, which is beginning to lower on the horizon, until my head sinks beneath the waves and I am no more.

    I would much rather die at sea than live a death every day of my own life.

    So I start swimming. It is difficult at first, with the waves, but I manage. I keep swimming, and eventually I start to wheeze from my corset. That blasted thing. But then again, I don't really need clothes anymore, do I? So I slip out of my drawers, unlace my corset and push it off, and I swim bare against the setting sun.

    I have never felt so free in my entire life. Free to choose my own destiny, to go where I wish in the water. At least I will have that before I die.

    So I keep swimming. Longer, and longer. My strength begins to fade.

    Soon, I am sure I am hallucinating now, because a gentle voice whispers in my ear, "We choose those who are worthy to join us. We have deemed you worthy, sister." But, of course, there is nobody out here with me, and I have no sisters. I turn and look at the land, which is so far away. I swam much farther than I thought. Then again, it could have been a current.

    But I must keep swimming. Far out into the sea before I meet my fate. So I turn and keep going.

    After swimming a long time, I can't go on anymore. So I let the last of the air leave my lungs and drift beneath the water.

    This is the end. I haven't thought much about how my life would end, but this will be it. I open my eyes and grit my teeth against the pain of salt in my eyes, but I want to see life around me before I leave.

    And I see something most extraordinary.

    A group of girls' faces are near mine, and they are smiling at me and clasping hands. But even that did not shock me the most.

    They each have a fish tail.

    They are mermaids.

    I wonder if I am already dead.

    "Welcome, sister," they all say. And then, at that very moment, the salt from the water no longer pains my eyes. And I find that my lungs aren't empty anymore. And...the strangest sensation is overtaking my legs.

    But what is happening surely cannot be happening. I can't be...

    I suddenly stop when I no longer feel two legs, but rather one, smooth...tail.

    I gasp, and water fills my lungs, but it is not in the least way painful. "Am...Am I dead?" I ask the beaming girls.

    "No," says the one in the middle, with bright red hair. "You are the opposite. You are immortal, like us. You will have what you have dreamed of your whole life. We will never abandon you or mistreat you. You are our sister. We share a special bond now."

    I feel my mouth drop open. Everything has gotten clearer. I can see a much farther distance into the waters. My new...tail...It feels as though I've slipped on a glove with a perfect fit. I feel like I...belong here.

    "I belong here," I say, repeating my thoughts.

    "You belong here," the mermaids say. The ones in the middle...Zalphia and Yemela, I know. I know all of their names now...split apart so that I can slip in and take their hands. And we smile at each other and a feeling that I haven't really felt in a long time, true happiness, settles into my chest. And it is here to stay.

    Now, I am of the ocean, the beautiful ocean.

    I am free.