Just For Fins Excerpt
“How can you not know how to use the royal seal?”
I glare at Dosinia across the kitchen table. She looks fashionably bored as always, her perfectly glossed mouth pursed out in a disapproving pucker. If there weren’t stacks of kelpaper and pots of waterproof squid ink between us, I’d be tempted to jump over the table to throttle her.
Besides, with Brody practically glued to her side—as close as Aunt Rachel’s wooden chairs will allow—he’d get equally doused with the thick liquid. And I’m sure Prithi, the furry little traitor, is curled around her feet. They’re innocent bystanders in this family squabble.
So instead of lashing out, I grumble, “I do. I’m just out of practice.”
Of course I’m not so sure I know what I’m doing. I’ve never sent out invitations to a council of kings and queens before. I’ve never even sent out any sort of invitation other than to birthday parties, and those usually had bubbles and seahorses on them, not royal seals. This is a level of responsibility I’ve never faced before.
I need to get used to it.
As of my eighteenth birthday two days ago, I am officially Crown Princess of Thalassinia, which means all my correspondence—my underwater correspondence anyway—has to bear my royal seal. It looks just like Daddy’s, except that instead of saying King Whelk of Thalassinia it says Crown Princess Waterlily.
Every time I stamp the seal onto a sheet of kelpaper I smile with pride. And to think, I almost gave all this up. I glance sideways up at Quince and find him sniffing the open pot of dark blue squid ink. I bite back a laugh when he jerks away at the disgusting smell.
He must sense my attention because he looks over at me. His expression shifts from scowl to sultry in a fin-flick when he finds me watching him. He winks at me and I feel my cheeks burn hot with a blush. If we weren’t surrounded by friend and family right now he’d probably be saying, Like what you see, princess?
Oh yeah, he would have been worth the sacrifice, for sure. But I’m glad I found a way to keep both him and my title.
“On an official state invitation like this,” Dosinia says, interrupting my moment with Quince, “your seal should be placed at the bottom of the correspondence. Not the top.”
“You—“ I start to argue with her, but then a long forgotten lesson from the royal tutor resurfaces. Before I came to live on land with Aunt Rachel, I had hours and hours of training in royal protocol. How to enter a dining room. What to wear to a state funeral. And, as much as it pains me to remember, where to place the royal seal on official correspondence.
That doesn’t mean I like admitting that Doe is right. I never like admitting that.
Rather than give her the satisfaction—and the chance to say I told you so—I slump my shoulders, grab the stack of mis-stamped kelpaper, and drop it on the floor behind me.
“Is it that big of a deal?” Shannen asks.
She’s my best human friend, a certified genius, and always ready to lend a helping hand when I need something—anything—but she’s not at all up to speed on mer world etiquette. She doesn’t know that a misplaced seal could mean the difference between an invitation being placed on a ruler’s desk or tossed into the nearest trash bowl.
“Yeah,” I say with a resigned sigh. “It kind of is.”
Across the table, Doe sits up straighter. I can practically hear the gloating already. I keep my eyes on the table, pulling over another stack of kelpaper to start the whole stamping process over, and ignoring my cousin. If she doesn’t want a bottle of squid ink sent flying her way, she’ll keep her little bubble of pride to herself.
“See, I told you I could help,” she says. “I had just as many hours of protocol training as you did. More since you left.”
Prithi meows in agreement.
I slowly slide my hand across the table toward the foul-smelling dark blue squid ink.
Brody doesn’t release Doe’s hand as he scoots his chair a few inches away from the line of fire.
“Who wants lemonade?” Aunt Rachel pushes back from the table. “Everyone? Lily?”
As everyone else says yes, I look up at her pointed use of my name to find her giving me an equally pointed look. Below raised brows, her wide-eyed gaze flashes to the pot of squid ink my hand and back to my eyes. Busted.
I release the pot. “Yes,” I say, dropping my gaze to my now empty hands, “I’d love some.”
I stare at my fingers, covered in smudges of squid ink like when I was a little guppy just learning how to use sea cucumber quills to write on kelpaper scrolls. Normally I would just us a pre-filled pen, but official correspondence requires a more formal calligraphy.
Still, if my splotch-covered fingers are any indication, maybe someone should change that law.
“Relax, princess,” Quince says, reaching over my hands to grab the stack of kelpaper and the royal seal. “Shannen and I can do the stamping. You focus on the writing.”
I give him a grateful smile. “That would be great,” I say. I point to a spot in the center at the bottom of the kelpaper sheet. “The seal should be stamped right there.”
Shannen nods. “Got it.”
She takes the squid ink-doused sponge, presses the seal into it with a squish, and then carefully stamps the mark into the exact spot I indicated. Shannen is the neatest person I know. If anyone can make precision stamps on kelpaper, it’s her.
Aunt Rachel returns to the table with a tray of lemonade-filled glasses. She sets one in front of each of us, careful to keep them away from the kelpaper.
I lift my glass to take a sip, waiting for the freshly-stamped royal seal to dry so I can start composing the invitation without smearing the ink.
When Tellin and I talked on my birthday—both before and after the bond-in-name only that allowed me to keep my crown and stay with Quince—we decided that calling a council of kings and queens was the best way to help his dying kingdom.
Ocean warming and coral bleaching are having catastrophic effects on Acropora. Things are so bad Tellin almost forced me to bond with him because he thought a stronger alliance with Thalassinia would save them. When he explained what was going on, I couldn’t swim away. I bonded with him to retain my title and my power to call a council of kings and queens to make a formal request for aid.
His father’s pride kept them from asking for help for too long. We have to act quickly now.
After my birthday ball, Tellin returned to his kingdom to share the news with his girlfriend and to prepare. He’ll meet me back in Thalassinia this weekend for the council meeting. If everything goes according to plan, by the time the meeting is over Acropora with have offers of supplies and support from every ruler in attendance.
With the seal dry on the first sheet of kelpaper, I stare down at the pale blue expanse and nerves kick in. I know this is what needs to be done, and that my responsibilities as Crown Princess will only continue to grow. But still, the idea that I am writing to request the presence of the most powerful merfolk in the Western Atlantic—and on such short notice—is more than a little intimidating.
I dip the quill in squid ink, hold it over the page, and feel the same hesitation I experienced two days ago as I was about to sign my title away. That hesitation made me realize that I can’t just walk away from my duty. I couldn’t then and I won’t now.
I press the quill to the paper and start writing.
I’m only a few words in when Dosinia says, “You spelled ‘requested’ wrong.”
“What?” I scowl.
She can’t be right. She’s on the other side of the table, reading upside down and—
Son of a swordfish.
Even the cat knows I’m wrong. I crumple the kelpaper into a wad and toss it behind me with the ever-growing pile of other screw-ups.
With a frustrated sigh—or maybe a groan, I’m not sure—I drop my head onto the table. I hear the clink of glass on wood, but I don’t care. Why is this so hard? Why do I keep screwing up on something so simple but so important?
Maybe I should have signed my title away. Thalassinia would be better off.
My muscles tighten. Quince only uses my real name in serious situations, like when he’s telling me he loves me or that I’m too good for Brody. Or—I’m guessing now—when a tipped over pot of squid ink is seeping across the table.
“It’s my hair, isn’t it?” I ask, not lifting my head.
“Yeah, it’s all over—“ Brody grunts as something—maybe an elbow to the ribs—interrupts him.
“You look beautiful in blue,” Quince says.
“Very… mermaidy,” Shannen offers.
“I’ll get a towel, dear,” Aunt Rachel says.
Seconds later I feel something wrap around my hair. Holding the towel in one hand, Aunt Rachel pulls me upright with her other. Everyone at the table—Doe, Brody, Shannen, Quince—stares at me like I’m a beaten guppy. Which only makes me feel worse.
“Why don’t you go take a bath?” Aunt Rachel suggests. “It will make you feel better.”
And it will get the squid ink out of my hair. She doesn’t say the second part out loud, but I know she’s thinking it.
I stare helplessly at the mess on the table. “But I have to finish the invitations,” I insist. “They need to go out tonight or the kings and queens won’t have time to make travel plans for this weekend.”
“We’ll get all the stamping done,” Shannen offers.
I shake my head. That’s only part of the process.
“I’ll help,” Dosinia says with a long-suffering sigh, shrugging out of her magenta cardigan. “I can write the invitations.”
She reaches for a stamped sheet of kelpaper and a second, unopened—and unspilled—pot of squid ink.
Prithi stretches up to rub her nose against the sweater.
I’m tempted to scowl at Doe. Since when does she volunteer, even reluctantly, to help beyond her ever-present willingness to criticize someone else’s work?
But as I stare at the mess and the big smear of squid ink on Aunt Rachel’s white table, I think it’s probably best for me to take a time out. If Doe actually helps, great. If not, at least I’ll have a clear, calm—and clean—head when I come back down.
“Okay,” I say as I stand up. “I’ll be quick.”
Everyone nods and goes about their work. Shannen stamping the kelpaper, Quince moving it into a row in front of Doe. Aunt Rachel mopping up the spilled squid ink mess. And Doe scratching a quill across the page in what looks like elegant, legible script.
At the doorway I turn back and see Brody carrying a finished invitation over to the counter, where it can dry safely.
“Thanks guys,” I say, knowing that between the bath and their support, everything will turn out fine. I hope.