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Mermaid's teeth fetch high prices on black markets. That was what her mother told her, a monotone warning. Her mother before her had told her, and her mother, and several aunts, a whole lineage of caution. She wondered aloud, what they should do to avoid capture.

"Kill them," Apate's mother murmured one hot day. She was brushing her long salt-wrecked hair with a comb made from driftwood. There was something hypnotic in it, but Apate was too invested in the story.

"Kill them, mama?"

"Kill them before they kill you." She mumbled this from behind her straggly hair, bleached from the sun and the age. "They come for our teeth, but that isn't all they take."

Apate stared up into the endless sky. It was always summer there, but with the summer came storms, and one lurked on the horizon now, a gathering of heavy purple clouds. They would have to return to the water soon, and Apate was sad: her mother was only talkative on land. She said it came with the land-legs, this sudden desire to share stories. So human of her, so unlike the rest of their ilk.

Apate tried to ignore the storm while she could. She stared at the moon, still visible in daylight, pale as milk, a silver penny for her thoughts. She raised her sea-wrinkled hands to her mouth and traced her teeth with a finger. They were sharp but still relatively harmless. They were made of calcium, like the humans', but when she grew they would sprout anew, diamond and perfect. She would have to spend years sharpening them to fine points, the better to gut fish and tough-shelled crabs, years for her mouth to get used to housing weapons. She would live off the soft flesh of oysters and seaweed while she adjusted; adolescence was tough on a mermaid.

She sighed and laid back against the wet rock. It had warmed under the sun and it was not an unpleasant sensation. She closed her eyes and wondered when they would come for her teeth.

"Mama," she said dreamily, "What will I do if I can't kill them?" She had never thought of killing before; it was not in her nature to be cruel. She pictured a desperate human clawing at her, a knife aimed between her lips.

"Then they will kill you, sweet one." Her mother was not looking at her, was already thinking of slipping into the ocean like a cresting dolphin, lithe and shiny with the telltale fins of their people—the fins, tail, gills that marked them apart from the humans; the teeth of polished carbon.

Apate's mother touched her daughter's bare leg. Everything felt different on land: her mother's odd caress, catching on her bone-dry skin. She shivered, and her mother tutted.

"My sweet," she said and leaned in close. "They must catch you first. The gods have given us great strength and speed, but they favour humans more. They will try, but you must be better."

Apate listened hard. She doubted her strength. She did not hate humans, but she did fear them, and wasn't that the same thing?

She turned to ask something else of her mother, to ask how to be better, but she slipped away before Apate could speak. She dove through the sea like a practised orca, her long legs morphing into her tail as she went. She sent up a great splash and a roar of water, and Apate giggled, all thoughts of killing lost to the tide.

She told the story to her own daughter in time, and that was where it went wrong. The little girl, still growing into her scales, was too much like Apate. She sparkled in their subterranean village. Apate was forever telling her slow down, take care, but youth was an intoxicating drug.

Apate had long lived in fear of being captured for her teeth, ever since they'd grown in at fourteen. They were sharp, clean, and priceless. She brushed out her daughter's hair as the little one kicked lazily through the water.

"Mermaid's teeth fetch high prices on black markets," Apate warned her child, and Sora blinked up at her in understanding. They started the warnings early.

"Why, mama?" The young girl's voice came out as a stream of bubbles. Everything was muffled underwater.

"Because humans are evil." She was not sure she believed it until she said it. The words hung heavy between them. "Never let them catch you, dearest. Be faster."

"I'm very fast." Sora kicked off the sandy ocean floor and shot upwards in a trail of somersaults.

Apate laughed. "I see that. Now go, find your father. Be swift!" That was their traditional farewell, a way of wishing good luck.

Sora was swift as a tetra, her scales just as bright, as she twisted this way and that with the rhythm of the sea until she was little more than a speck in the murky distance.
Apate herself bobbed in place. She loved her daughter, truly, but she was grateful for the alone time. She floated still, letting the water soak into her thirsty gills, and she just! breathed. The silence was beautiful. In the distance she could see a shadow growing closer: a storm perhaps?

The shadow grew nearer, and darker, and Apate was worried about how terrible the storm must be, when she found herself tangled in a net.

It was not uncommon for sea creatures to accidentally become tangled in errant fishing nets, and so she thrashed and tore at it with her ineffective hands. She rolled in the water, only succeeding in getting more tangled. She even tried to use her teeth, primed as they were, but before she could work her way free she was aware of the sensation of being tugged upwards.

She began to panic, and that was her doom.
The net pulled her up and up, out of the water and into the unforgiving sunlight. She blinked, dazed. She wailed in fear until she was roughly deposited onto the deck of a boat. She landed hard on the damp plastic surface and was shocked silent.

A group of men crowded around her, keen to see the new curiosity. Humans.

"Would you look at this?" said one of them. "A bonafide siren."

Another looked her up and down. "She don't look beautiful. She looks… wrong."

Apate was very aware of how little she was wearing. She covered her mouth with her hands but it was useless, really, to try. Now that they had caught her, they would certainly want their prize.

As they watched, her tail melted away to become two slim, human legs.

"Do you speak, monster?" asked the third man. He looked disgusted at what he was seeing. Was she his first?

"I speak," she said, careful not to show her teeth. "Let me go, please."

The first man threw back his shaggy head and laughed, a rough barking sound. "Let you go? Please?"

It seemed to be a joke because the other two men laughed too. Was it really so funny, her begging for her life?

"Show us the jewels," the second man said, and grabbed her jaw in a calloused hand, prying her lips apart with the other. The diamonds glinted in the sunlight; there was no hiding them now. The man pulled her mouth open in a sick mockery of a grin.

"Lookit them Bert!" he crowed, and Bert leaned in with his hungry eyes.

"A full set of 'em. And clean too. Not like some I've seen." Bert slapped his knees, then grabbed her scalp and pulled her upright.

"You ain't gonna give us any trouble, are you?"

Apate was crying openly. The tears mingled with the saltwater drying on her face. "Please let me go. Don't kill me."

The second man rolled his eyes. "We just want your teeth. We ain't gonna kill you."
"You… ain't? Aren't?" She could not keep the disbelief from her voice. Everyone knew humans killed mermaids, it was legend. She'd told her daughter the same stories: humans hunted their kind and left no survivors. No one had ever come back after an encounter.

Bert laughed again. He was an ugly laugher. "It thinks we're going to kill it lads. Did you hear that, Dave? You're the monster," he spat at her.

The third man held out his hand. "I'm Rich." What did he expect her to do? "You shake it. Honestly, you people, so primitive."

She took ahold of one outstretched finger and wiggled it somewhat, and Rich let out a delighted cackle.

"Did you see that, lads?"

Dave looked unnerved. "Don't be touching it Rich, you don't know where it's been."

"Do you have a name, o lady of the sea?" asked Bert.

"Apate," but it came out all mangled. She was trembling still.

"That's a… weird name," said Dave.

"You aren't going to hurt me?"

Bert sighed, as though he had been in this situation before. "It might hurt when we inject you with the anaesthetic, but otherwise no, you'll not feel any pain."


"Anaesthetic. It stops the pain. For your teeth?"

"You aren't going to hurt me, but you still want my teeth?" It seemed contradictory if she was being honest.

"We're diamond hunters," explained Rich. "Three teeth and we're out of your hair. Three teeth and we'll let you go, if you want."

She was no longer panicking. Her heart rate had returned to normal. Her hair was curling at the ends, and her hands were still shaking. She was not sure if she could trust these men. Humans were liars, everyone knew it. And yet…

Dave looked her up and down. "Which of your teeth are you least attached to?"

"Are you serious? You'll let me go?" Now was the time to be strong. She could be strong, for Sora.

"Of course," said Rich. "We'd never keep one of your lot against its will. Their will, sorry."
Sorry? He was apologising? And they were letting her go?

"Others of your kind would not do the same," she said at length.

Dave scoffed. "It's bad practise in the community to hurt anything you catch. Sort of frowned upon. Not that you don't get some real assholes, but for the most part we let you go. After we've got the teeth, of course."

She could not believe what she was hearing. Was everything a lie?

"Speaking of," said Rich, and approached her with a thin tube of liquid with a point at one end. "Open wide."

They were really going to do it. They were truly going to rip out her teeth, and for what? Profit?

She was in no position to resist, so she acquiesced. Rich got nearer and pushed the tube into her mouth. She felt a rush of saliva and something sharp pinching her lower gum, and then nothing. She didn't realise she was crying again until she felt salt on her lips, but eventually even that numbed.

"Can you feel anything?" Rich poked at her gum line.

Apate shook her head no.

"Great," said Dave, who rubbed his hands together and looked full of glee. "Diamond time." He pulled a tool of some sort out of his pocket and once again forced her mouth open. He reached in with the tool and jostled her tongue. She could not strictly feel what was happening, but she could feel the pressure, and that was bad enough.
Dave tugged and tugged on her tooth until eventually, it came free, and Apate's mouth filled with hot blood, which she spat out onto the deck of the boat.

"Look at that lads." Dave held up the tooth and they admired it as one. It glinted in the noon sun. It was beautiful, even covered in blood at the root.

"We're gonna be rich boys," said Bert in triumph.

"Just let me get a few more."

"Just two more Dave," Bert warned. "Let's leave the poor thing so it can eat."

Dave reached in again, and that terrible pressure returned. She heard the moment her left molar came free, felt it scraping against her tongue. She spat again, feeling lightheaded.

The third was easier coming out, as if her body had given up its hold on it. When Dave was finished she sank down to her knees, blood pooling in her numb mouth.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Rich clapped his hands together.

Bert was cradling his diamonds. "There's one for each of us. These should tide us over for a good while lads."

She knew then, looking at their hunger, that humans were as evil as the stories said. The greed poured out of them like algae blooms. They didn't even try to hide it.

"Let me go now," Apate said, around the blood. "Please. You said you would."

Bert looked confused. "You actually want to be let go? You mean, you wanna go back to the sea?"

What was he talking about? Had the seawater driven him mad? "… What?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Usually they want to come back to land with us, start a new life on solid ground. There's more opportunities, y'see, more prospects. We take their teeth and in return, we ferry 'em back to land. Think of it as a rescue."

Was that why no one had ever come back? Had they swapped their tails for clumsy land-legs? Were they living new lives? Apate did not know how they could stand to be parted from the water, from the push-and-pull lullaby of the tide.

"I don't want to be rescued," Apate said. "I have a family. A daughter. Please, let me go."
Rich threw up his hands, a placating gesture. "Hey, if you really wanna go, you're free to go. We've got what we wanted." And she had three holes to prove it.

"You really don't want to come with us?" said Dave.

"Really," she insisted. "My daughter will be worried." She thought of Sora with a pang of sadness.

"Then you're free to go," Bert shrugged, as though he did not care either way. He motioned to the side of the boat. "Off you go then."

She wobbled over to the gunwale. She was still dizzy from the blood loss, and she knew it would sting upon contact with saltwater but she longed for the sea's embrace. She sat on the side of the boat, certain it was a trick, that they weren't really letting her go.
"Truly?" she asked.

"Aye," said Bert, who had already turned away to go about his business, her treasured teeth in his shirt pocket. "Go on. Get!"
She looked down at the depths below, at the fronds of seaweed being tossed to and fro with the calming waves. She felt her gills itch to be home. Her legs began to fuse into her tail, pinkish scales blooming. She gave one last look at her would-be-rescuers before diving down into the water. She swam, swiftly, and left a trail of blood as she went.

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