The Choice (Reign: Part 5)
Part Five: The Choice
Something changed in the Guardian’s eyes. Had they truly been a soft brown only moments before? Now they were a smoldering black, seizing mine with an intensity that shook me to my core.
It was disconcerting enough to have a man stare at me—it had been many years yet, likely three or four, since the last one—let alone for so long. Usually...or, at least, back in the day of the Commonwealth, men were always coming and going across the treacherous waters, disappearing within the thick coverlet of water within moments as they were carried down, down, down…never to be seen or heard from again.
But today? In the day of queens and Regents and new rules and regulations? With this man?
Hunger gnawed at my insides as my stomach cramped, a thirst for more than water seeping through the scales on my exposed face and neck. The longer I looked...the longer he looked...the harder my job became.
Warning them away was one thing. They could accept the truth, turn around, and move on.
But if they refused to and I led them through the City—assuming I could gain the courage and composure required to offer—I feared he would not make it out alive.
He was positively beautiful, he was, and not simply because I’d been so long without a man. Were he to stand alongside every unfortunate fellow who had traversed through the City or they who had been lost to the ocean at Parvi, he would stick out like a flowering tree in the middle of this lifeless city.
With an aquiline nose and angular jaw, he possessed those gorgeous, elegant features of the aristocracy that had always appealed to me. His hair was light and sun-bleached, cropped in wild waves, and his eyes were like obsidian struck by sunbeams, alight with the colors of topaz and andradite. Of course he was muscular—weren’t all Guardians?—but he was leaner and taller than most, a graceful fluidity in his movements that bespoke a privileged upbringing. Or maybe more than privileged, if his striking coloring were of any indication. Few purebreds in Magni were this intriguing mix of light and dark, or so tall, or so sylphlike.
I nearly laughed at the comparison. What an insult a purebred would find it to be referred to as sylphlike—as dirty a creature as I, though extinct since the flood. Only the gryphons still existed in Magni—high up in the treacherous mountains no human dared to explore.
Ah, ‘twas no more than wishful thinking to presume he could ever be the only remaining half-breed son of the late Queen Myia and her impure husband from the north. After all, didn’t gryphons have feathers and fur? This man was all thick, sun-bronzed skin.
The Guardian’s hold on Ambrosia—Queen Ambrosia, that is—tightened until the girl began to squirm, whispering something harshly in his ear.
Was it not supposed to be the adult who rebuked the child? This grown man had just been chastised by a mere slip of a girl, and he looked it, wincing with remorse in the grooves of his brow.
Then he turned his gaze on me again, chilling the river around me with the icy granite in his expression. “We intend to cross, Siren,” he said simply, as if I’d thought he were here to just stand and chat.
“Of course you’re here to cross!” I had the audacity to float higher, my arms flying into the air. “What else are you to do? Feed me?”
Well, Seira, that is an option.
Queen Ambrosia’s eyes snagged on my exposed upper body—naked, by the human’s definition, and unsightly to a delicate girl. To be truthful, most Sirens were unsightly to even the men we lured. Very few of us could boast the beauty the Naiads did, with their shapely curves and slender figures and fair hair. They were nymphs, one with the elements and as elusive as wind.
Sirens were...well, sirens. Sea serpents, reptilians, monsters. Fanged and scaly, with a tail instead of legs and wispy fingers. We were of strange proportions compared to nymphs and humans, and consisted more of scales than skin. Granted, I much preferred my slick scales to the patches of sticky skin on my arms, head, and breasts. The water glided smoothly over them, and they weren’t half as sensitive as skin, what with fewer nerve endings and all.
I had more scales than my sisters—Sibylla with our matching features; Chryseis with the golden coloring of a human; and Rhea with the ethereal appearance of a Naiad—which I was grateful for in every moment...except for this one.
I almost felt embarrassed as Ambrosia took in my form. She scrutinized me with as much careful consideration and distance as her Guardian did, her eyes steady and hard. Would my queen find me lacking, ugly, and impure? or would she see that, beneath the scales and seduction, I actually had a heart?
Legend had it the women knew. Though Sirens were enemies of the man, all women had a kinship, a common bond. They’d always said that women didn’t see a monster or a seductress but a lost, lonely creature. For years we’d believed that truth and hoped that the rise of a queen, as opposed to the Commonwealth, would bring us deliverance.
Queen Anactoria had proved legend—proved us wrong. In her sight, we were dirty—nymphs, Sirens, gryphons, leviathans, krakens, dragons, and all—particularly the slimy, scaly ones of us.
Would Ambrosia, an innocent little girl, be the same? Or was she yet untainted by her predecessor’s ideals?
It would likely seem strange to squirm beneath the gaze of a seven-year-old, but when that child held your fate in their tiny hands, how could you not?
I straightened just a little bit, rolling my shoulders back to somehow appear prouder, firmer, while in reality my insides were quivering. She could probably tell. I was probably sweating—it was humid up here. And if she looked hard enough, she could probably see the way my attention darted back and forth between her and the Guardian.
No doubt it was difficult to tell, though, since my pupils were horizontal slits instead of round orbs, and I could focus on either one of them without moving my eyes.
But maybe she did know. Maybe it wasn’t just the stuff of myths, much like my people had become. Maybe she felt at least some sympathy for me and the sacrifice I was making by holding myself still.
The sacrifice of my life, if you were wondering.
“I appreciate the offer,” the Guardian was saying, a rich, gentle cadence to his voice that could lure me in (he’d obviously missed his calling as the first male Siren), “but you understand I have to decline.”
Wait. Had he just…? Was that…?
My tongue slipped from my mouth, swiping away the sweat that had pooled on my upper lip, and returning just a small amount of moisture to my suddenly dry throat. (I reeled my tongue back in immediately, though, since I was sure the long, blood-red, forked appendage was quite a ghastly sight for the child queen to behold.)
Technically speaking, this was my first conversation—as in, actual conversation about actual things—with a man, so that in and of itself was shocking. But the sarcasm? That was quite the touch. I mean, how often did I get to joke around with my absent sisters or trade barbs with the Naiads? or with a human man?
Did human women always banter with their men? or was that not allowed or considered rude? Because, frankly, I could get used to this.
Now...for a rebuttal…
“A pity, indeed. You look delicious.”
For the record, that was not what I’d intended to say. But the Guardian was just staring at me, the rising sun behind him turning his hair into a fiery halo, looking all gorgeous and aflame and...ugh, yes, delicious.
So of course that came out instead.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Hold that forked tongue of yours, Seira. This man is trying to disarm you, and his tactics are working. He thinks if he can use your wiles against you and turn the tables, he will prevail. But he won’t. Because you won’t let him.
My older sister Sibylla’s wise advice in my mind was very good and so accurate—it always was—but I’d never been known as the ruler-follower or the sister abounding in common sense. I was the one the Naiads had nearly locked away to starve to death because of my foolishness.
So, in short, I didn’t hold my tongue. It was mainly instinct, of course, that kept me from doing so, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least partially thinking when I said, “You can take me too,” and, for all my sins, I tried not to lie.
The Guardian quirked a brow, almost as if he hadn’t expected that sort of reply. He must have forgotten I was a Siren and supposed to be seducing him and eating him and the like.
Eh, I’d forgotten too. Couldn’t much blame him, now, could I?
“How about this: you take me and the girl through the City?”
“And what? I can have you once we’ve left?”
“Once Ambrosia is safe, you can have whatever you want.”
He hadn’t even thought about what he was saying, unless he’d been preparing for it all along.
If so, he obviously hadn’t informed his charge about it, because she stamped her little foot and all but shouted “Brehn!” as she looked up at him, aghast.
Brehn. He has a name.
Well, of course he has a name, you idiot. You just didn’t know what it was until now.
Oh, and it’s just as beautiful as he is.
Before Brehn—oh my, just the thought of it made my stomach clench with hunger—could confront Ambrosia, I piped up. “That isn’t what I meant, you know. You...you don’t have t-to sacrifice yourself for her. I-I can take you through. As long as you keep—keep a safe distance away. And maybe close your ears or something.”
Already on his knees before the girl, he glanced at me queerly. “I assure you, I am immune to your charms.”
But I’m not immune to yours.
Did he even know what he did to me? The seduction wasn’t a one-sided thing, never had been. We were attracted to men—even had our preferences, such as mine for men with sinewy arms and golden curls and aquiline noses—and we needed them to sustain ourselves. We experienced all the same feelings and lusts, only on a different level and for different reasons. And just being near a man made them flare up.
Except, to be honest, my reasons were starting to feel a little more human, a little more emotional, a little more vulnerable—if that were even possible.
Considering no Siren had ever actually interacted with a man apart from killing him, no one would know just how potent they could be or what would happen if a Siren refused to sing to him, seduce him. Probably die of rapid starvation. That was what seemed most logical, anyway.
I cleared my throat, resisted the urge to lick my lips again. I’d only taste the absence of his. “So you want me to take you through the City? to Parvi?”
He nodded, rising and lifting Ambrosia back into his arms. “No questions asked, preferably. I would compensate you in whatever manner necessary.”
“Or perhaps Ambrosia could do so.”
Wait. Did he mean what I thought he meant? That maybe, just maybe, if I helped the queen get to safety (what kind of danger was she in? I wondered), she could rectify what Queen Anactoria had done?
My heart stuttered, my pulse staggering against the weight of his implication. I could be free. We could be free. No more bowing to the Naiads, no more suffering in solitude, no more living in this rotten place.
No more being less-than, ugly, heartless. No more being judged for the actions we couldn’t control. No more hate.
It would be worth the risk. Somehow...we would make it, and it would be worth it.
“I’ll do it.”
Missed Part 4? Read it here!