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The Mer-Prince's Sacrifice by Whittaker
Isaac was riddled with guilt. What had he been thinking!? Any sea captain with a shred of decency would have pretended that an encounter with a Merperson had never happened. Isaac was a fool. He had become entranced by the mysterious, androgynous Merman that he had met 5 months ago off the coast of Singapore. He had encouraged their meetings, drawing the subject of his infatuation further into danger each time they interacted.
Merfolk were stigmatised across the planet. Originally, they had been feared as beasts of temptation. Legends circulated of Mer who could make a man plead for death with a single bar of song. Mer were said to drown anything that dared to enter their territory. Humans left them alone.
Those stories ended up being false. A dramatic shift was seen when a story went public of a Mer who had fallen in love with a human male. According to the man, he had intermittently noticed the Mer watching him as he operated his lighthouse for the better part of a year. Then suddenly, gifts began appearing on the shore of his homestead; shells, beads, and pieces of polished and stamped metal. The man was properly frightened.
It was two years before the Mer introduced himself. When he did, and expressed his interest in the human man, the man asked why he hadn’t simply sang a song and hypnotized him into a watery death. The Mer was perplexed. He had never heard of such a thing, and expressed as much…
What came next was one of the worst genocides in recorded history. An open-season of Mer extermination. Mer were still viewed as sub-human, but they were suddenly helpless, no longer shielded by sinister rumours. People began fishing them from their homes, harvesting their scales to make lightweight armour and their hair to weave the softest cloth. They mixed their blood into creams for "eternal youth", and they ground their bones into powders said to cure everything from arthritis to the common cold. They stole their art and jewelry and precious metals. There was nothing that humans wouldn’t take.
Not all humans, of course. In any crisis there were those who stood against injustice. Isaac liked to think he was one of those humans, but in all honestly he had been complicit as a bystander.
Now he was in love and his love was in mortal peril.
His love was conveniently (or inconveniently), a member a Mer royalty. A prince, if he understood correctly (he didn’t trust his grasp of Mer political rankings), with some power to rally a resistance.
His love had also inconveniently exposed himself to Isaac’s ship’s crew last night, and then, even more alarmingly, appeared silently the next morning in Isaac’s chambers wearing a very human-looking pair of legs instead of a tail.
Isaac was speechless. His eyes blew wide, his mouth flopped open and he gesticulated wildly without communicating anything besides confusion and alarm.
Monowai grinned sheepishly, lowering his gaze to his toes. A heavy lock of newly dried hair fell in front of one eye. "Good morning?" was his tentative greeting.
Isaac snapped into alertness. He jumped out of bed and threw himself into the nearest set of clothing he could find. Green breeches and a billowing cream coloured hemp shirt.
"Did anyone see you?" he asks sternly. He can’t seem to resist rushing to Monowai and cupping his face with his palms.
"What are you talking about? They all saw me yesterday. It was a disaster! Are you feeling okay…?"
"No, I mean like this. With--- Jesus put some pants on!", Isaac grabs another pair of breeches, these ones lighter and looser, and tosses them at his love’s immodest condition. "With legs."
Monowai slips the pants clumsily over his legs, as if he is unfamiliar with the motion. Isaac makes a sudden rush to lock the door to his cabin and draw curtains over the portholes.
"No, nobody saw me like this, I was able to sneak past the watch."
Isaac’s body deflates with relief. His heart had been trying to escape through his throat for a moment there. "I told you to leave. I told you to get as far away from me as possible. It’s not safe for you to be near my ship, or this close to shore."
"It’s not safe for me to be anywhere anymore. Even the deep sea tribes are being hunted. Your people are trying to bring about an extinction!" He bit down hard on his words, and regretted the insinuation that Isaac was somehow involved. He didn’t need to place any blame on Isaac, the captain was already doing that himself.
"I’m sorry", Isaac goes and sits down in his desk chair. Rubbing his temples with the palms of his hands. "I’m so freaking sorry, Mon. I don’t know what to do."
"I want to become a crew member."
Isaac stills. "You’re joking."
"Do you have a better idea? Nowhere is safe anymore. I’d rather be unsafe and with you than unsafe and anywhere else."
"We’d have to disguise you pretty heavily, and even then, my men may still become suspicious."
"I think we could make it convincing enough. I already look fantastic and Human-like in these pants." He was trying to be cheeky to diffuse the situation.
"We’d have to cut your hair…"
Aaaaand, the situation was suddenly "un-diffused". Monowai grimaced and audibly gulped. Isaac raised his brows pointedly as if to say. ‘Yeah, exactly. You didn’t think of that now did you?’
"I don’t think we’d HAVE to, necessarily… My tail has changed into legs after-all. No human but you knows that Mer can take on a legged form. They shouldn’t suspect that it’s me?" he asked hopefully.
Isaac traces his eyes over Monowai’s form. His lithe and delicate shoulders and chest are pale and tinged green even is his land form. His fingers still carry a hint of their former webbing. His legs are disproportionately strong and chiseled. Isaac supposes that must be the law of conservation of mass, seen as his tail had been grandiose.
It would still be grandiose, whenever Monowai slipped back into the water and it returned to him.
Monowai’s vibrant green eyes are eerie enough in their colour alone, never minding that when lights dimmed they began to fluoresce, allowing him to see in the dark, or more importantly, deep out at sea.
His most noticeable feature, however, was his iridescent hair. It was predominately turquoise, but as sunlight caught the heavy strands the colour flickered through the visible light spectrum from light green all the way to violet, just like the wings of a butterfly. It hung heavy and straight to pool on the floor when he was standing. In his previous secret visits to shore he had taken to twisting it into a loose coil and then wrapping it around one arm when he walked around. Sometimes he tucked it into a pocket.
In his Mer form it had never seemed so long, seen as his tail was almost twice as long as his human legs. When he swam he never bound his hair. It was an extension of his sensory system and enhanced his connection with the ocean. It danced around him effortlessly and never tangled.
"Oh Honey", Isaac sighs. "There is nothing about you that isn’t memorable. Legs or no legs, they could pick you out of a crowd of a million."
Monowai bows his head in remorse. "I--- I guess we have to--- to do what you think is best..."
Isaac reaches to grab one of his love’s hands and gives it a squeeze. "I have a couple hours before my men will expect me to be awake. We’ll start small, okay?"
"Okay." Mon agrees.
Isaac gets up and begins rummaging through his possessions for a couple pairs of pants and a couple shirts. He scrounges up an old grey vest and a brown coat that is fraying slightly along the hem and cuffs.
"You can have these clothes," He says. "It’s been a very long time since I’ve worn them so hopefully none of my men will recognize them."
Monowai nods and accepts the pile of clothing, setting it down on Isaac’s bed.
"Boots will be harder to track down. I don’t have any extras. It shouldn’t be too suspicious if you go around barefoot on deck, but on shore it will seem weird. I’ll have to sneak out and buy you something."
Boots were not something Monowai had thought about. He had just assumed that every human’s feet looked slightly different, in the same way that each Mer had a slightly different fin shape and colour or pattern to their tail scales.
Isaac continued rummaging. He tossed out a random dirty old bandanna, a pair of stockings, a threadbare scarf. He found a small wooden box that he had forgotten he owned. He pulled it out and found it had some random worthless trinkets in it. He grabbed a couple pieces of paper and a pencil and added it to the box.
"Here", he said, and tossed the box onto the bed. "This will make it look like you at least have a couple of possessions."
Monowai picked up the box and peeked inside. He fingered the paper; it was a beautiful, rare texture for him. He didn’t recognize most of the other objects inside, except for an earring. It reminded him to take off the ostentatious jewelry that he was wearing. He pulled his gold circlet over his head and pulled his massive length of hair out after it. He unclasped the gold and turquoise earrings from his lobes and the gold cuff from his cartilage. Beautiful, ornately embossed gold cuff bracelets were around both his wrists and upper arms. He slipped those off as well. It made a very pretty pile next to the bland seamen’s gear he was trading it for.
Isaac was grumbling in frustration, muttering soft curses for an object he couldn’t find, until evidently it appeared because he exclaimed with glee
"Ha ha!" He said. He held up a small jar of something unknown to Monowai, who cocked his head to one side in question.
"It’s this thing called blush cream", Isaac explained. "It’s supposed to make human females look more youthful. It’s tinged red, so I figured, since red and green make brown, we could put it all over your face and neck and hopefully make you look a human-ish colour."
"That sounds helpful."
Isaac grabbed his hand and pulled Mon to a seated position in his desk chair, which he had turned to face the full length mirror on his wardrobe.
"May I?" he asked, and Mon nodded. Isaac began dabbing the concoction on Monowai’s brow.
"Hey, this isn’t going too terribly!" He remarks. The cream is spreading evenly and turning Monowai’s skin a natural looking tan colour. Isaac covers his entire face, neck and décolleté area. "You’ll have to wear a shirt at all times if we want this cream to last, but this might just work." Isaac is beginning to feel optimistic.
Monowai leans forward to get a better look at himself in the mirror, then he looks down and his pants, and bare feet, and hands.
"Should we cover my hands and feet as well?"
"I’ll try to find some fingerless gloves so that you can still work but the webbing is hidden. I think the colour will be okay though. You’ll get dirty pretty quickly. It should cover it up."
Monowai nods. He stands and goes to Isaac’s bed, where he shucks off the temporary pants that Isaac had thrown at him and trades them for one of his new pant and shirt combos. He comes back to the wardrobe mirror and examines himself. It’s a strange feeling, seeing himself like this. It looks like he’s been photographed through a sepia filter. Everything about him has been muted; a far cry from the bold colours and patterns and adornments typical of his people.
The only things still vibrant are his eyes, and his turquoise hair. It looks so peculiar now, a shimmering trail of dancing colours set against a plain and dim background. He has pulled the entire mass over one shoulder, and is trailing his fingers through it protectively. He knows what’s coming next and he’s getting cold feet.
‘What else could he do to protect himself?’ He’s thinking. He supposes that he could take his chances at sea, but he has a plan. He wants to survive this catastrophe and create a safe haven for other Mer refugees. He wants to protect his people, and maybe one day, they could lead a fight for equal rights. The easiest way to do that will be to first go into hiding, and then encourage other Mer to follow suit.
Isaac can tell that his love is fixating on his beautiful tresses, but they’re running out of time before Isaac will be expected to be awake and leading his crew. They can’t save this task for tomorrow. This is the ship’s last day docked, therefore their only opportunity to ‘take on a new crew member’. They can’t have someone randomly appearing on the boat while they’re in the middle of the sea….
"Alright love, hair is next on the list." He tries to sound blasé, like he could somehow make this less of a big deal by demeanor alone. "We’ll have to colour it as well, I don’t know about you but I’ve never seen a human with blue hair before." He attempts a laugh but it is strained and awkward.
Monowai returns to sit in Isaac’s chair. He wraps the bottom half of his hair protectively around his left forearm, clutching the end in his fist.
Isaac has gone back to rummaging for something. His heart drops when he finds the clippers, hoping for a moment that he wouldn’t and they’d have to call the whole thing off. He carries them to Mon and sets them beside him on the desk. Monowai side-eyes the object with trepidation.
"D—Do you think we could m—m—aybe… just dye it?" he asks hopefully.
Isaac sighs and scrubs his face with his hands. He doesn’t want to do this.
"It would seem really weird. Human hair can’t grow like Mer hair except on rare people. Even if it could, almost no one keeps it this long."
"I could be the one exception human?"
"It would never work for a labourer. Impractical, and it invites attention, often the wrong sort. It’s just as likely one of my men would cut it off you as soon as they met you. Besides, I don’t think I have enough hair dye to colour your whole head."
Isaac had recently stocked up on a barrel of powder from the indigo and henna plants. He used it to colour his naturally red hair black, as red hair was seen as bad omen, particularly by superstitious sailors. Isaac didn’t want his men knowing the true colour of his hair.
Monowai is deep in thought. His heart is racing and the skin of his face feels uncomfortably warm. Butterflies are swimming in his stomach.
"Sorry", he sighs. "This is hard. Hair is so important in Mer society. It may as well be our fourth limb."
"Hey you’ve got yourself four nice limbs now though!" Isaac attempts to joke. "I’m sorry", he amends. "Now isn’t the right moment for this. The truth is, I don’t know what’s best", he admits. "Like you said, everywhere is unsafe. If we’re going to commit to you living on board my ship with me, I sincerely believe that cutting your hair is necessary. If there is some other way to keep you safe, believe me I want to help you find it."
"No, I’ve made my choice. I have to do it."
Isaac responded with a light kiss to Monowai’s cheek.
Then he fired up the clippers.
Monowai shrieked in panic, throwing himself out of the chair and under Isaac’s desk in less than a second. His back pressed up against two walls.
Isaac lowers his voice to a whisper. "Mon, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you like that!"
"What in the sea was that!? They came to life!", he shudders. He has grabbed his two meters of iridescent turquoise hair and is cradling it protectively.
"No, sweetheart, I promise they aren’t alive. They’re made of metal, and they have something inside them called a battery. It makes the metals move across one another but it doesn’t make them alive."
"That sounds made up."
"I promise it’s not. Now please I beg of you, let me get this over with. The window of time that we have to disguise you is closing."
Monowai bows his head in embarrassment.
"Come here", Isaac beckons. He guides Monowai back towards the chair and sits himself down, pulling Mon into his lap. He gazes up into his eyes, threads his fingers into Monowai’s hairline and brushes the heavy curtain back from his face. He massages the scalp in slow, languid motions. Monowai hums and leans back into the sensation. The rest of his hair is coiled around his wrist and held with a vice grip.
"I’m sorry Mon, you know I wish this wasn’t our best option for protecting you. I would love it if we could save your hair; leave it untouched and hope for the best. But I would never forgive myself if you were poached because of my complacency."
"I know", Mon sighs. "It should be easy, to choose life over limb, but it’s not. There is so much meaning tied up in the hair of my people. It is my status, the mark of my bloodline, my connection to my ancestors and my homeland. It is a mark of my honour. If I cut that off, has a part of me not already died?"
Isaac begins to tear up, hearing the agony this dilemma has brought to the man he loves.
"When times are hard. Sometimes we have to keep those things in our hearts and minds instead of visible to the world. That doesn’t make them any less meaningful. I know your mind; it is honourable, and your connection to your ancestors and the sea runs deeper than your hair. It’s in your bones. Your status? That’s just a label. You know who you are and you show the world each day in the way that your carry yourself with grace and dignity and treat those around you with respect. You are so strong." Isaac embraces him harder and Monowai drops his face onto his shoulder and begins to sob softly.
"This is a political tsunami we’re facing, and right now, we just have to grab the thickest tree trunk and hold on while the tide rips itself away from the shore. Then we scour the beach, pick up the pieces, and rebuild. This is a limb that can grow back."
Monowai sobs harder. Not because Isaac has said anything wrong, but because what he has chosen to say is exactly right.
"I’m not ready", he gasps out between sobs.
"I don’t think anyone can be ready." Isaac extracts himself from beneath Mon and walks to where he had set down the clippers. He fires them up from the opposite side of the room, so that the sudden noise isn’t quite as loud and startling for Monowai’s sensitive ears.
He walks towards the chair slowly and kneels down in front the cowed and broken Mer. He pops the guard off of the clippers. "This is how they work", he says, as he runs them through a swath of his own sun-bleached arm hair, peeling it away cleanly in one swipe.
Monowai gulps. "Is that how short it will be, when this is all over?"
"No baby, they’re just a tool for cutting. They can leave your hair longer than that. See this guard?" He shows him a #6. "This will leave your hair almost an inch long. I promise I won’t cut any piece of hair shorter than that."
"Will that be enough to hide my ears?" He was referring to the fin remnants that didn’t go away when he took on his land form.
"Mostly. I’ll make sure there are enough longer bits to cover everything."
"Okay." Mon is squirming in his seat. His hair is no longer coiled protectively around his wrist, but he still grips it like a lifeline at around hip length. The rest of it coils in an incandescent whirlpool on the cabin’s wooden floor.
Isaac pops the guard back on the clippers and tentatively approaches Monowai’s nape with them. Mon flinches involuntarily. He ducks away from the clippers and throws his hands up to protect the back of his head. The tears flow again and he’s ashamed to hear himself whimper "Please don’t" at an Isaac who looks to be on the verge of tears as well. Monowai presses his face firmly into his knees, his eyes squeeze shut and arms are thrown up to shield as much of his scalp as possible.
Isaac walks around the chair and kneels in front of his love’s folded form. He kisses him one last time on top of his crowning glory and tenderly extracts Mon’s hands from his hair, replacing them with his own. He grips a hank at the base of his neck and plunges the clippers into it.
This is not a fantastic set of clippers, and they scream in protest as they try to sever the strands. As soon as the vile deed has been started, silent tears begin to spill in earnest from Isaac’s eyes. Mon’s head is still tucked between his knees. He has gripped a portion of the length of his hair and twisted it into a tight rope, which he bites down on to muffle his distress.
The clippers catch and tug painfully and Monowai winces, fingernails digging into his palms. Isaac frees them from where they’re tangled and resets to push through the same thatch of hair a second time. They catch and wrench at Monowai’s scalp again. He grits his teeth in discomfort.
Sudden silence startles Monowai and he sits up straight.
Isaac had turned off the clippers after the third attempted pass.
"I don’t think these are working very well", he says.
Monowai doesn’t breathe. One hand jumps reflexively to the back of his head but he stops it before making contact. Maybe if he doesn’t feel it, the damage could be undone. His fist clenches and unclenches, still hovering in the air behind his head. Eventually he slides his fingers into his thick mane, and finds it mostly unchanged. A small lock, only an inch in diameter, comes free from the base of his scalp. He combs it out until it slips free to rest on the floor.
Monowai manages a single shuddering exhale. He is unable to tear his gaze from the strand. It might be his imagination, but it seems to have lost its ability to dance from one colour to the next.
"What do we do now?" he asks Isaac.
"I don’t know. These clippers have always worked fine on my own hair, I don’t think I have scissors anywhere."
Isaac is also staring at the severed lock. He bends down to pick it up, trying to keep it together. He lays it out across his desk with reverence.
"Your dagger?" Monowai wipes his tears away with the sleeve of his shirt.
"I think that’s the next best thing."
Isaac unsheathes the dagger from its place of concealment in his boot. He approaches Mon from the front, blade tip pointed down. He kneels down in front of him, so that their eyes are almost level. Monowai’s hair parts on the left, so that the bulk of it falls over his right shoulder. Isaac runs his left hand through the thick, silky forelock; tracing it past his chin. He begins to raise his dagger. Monowai is frozen like a deer in the headlights. Facing straight ahead but with his eyes trained downward on the lock of hair held in Isaac’s grasp.
Isaac raises his dagger fully and levels it against the forelock, just a couple inches below his lover’s chin. He begins to draw the knife against the hair slowly. The blade is wicked sharp, but that doesn’t prevent the ripping sound as each strand succumbs to its edge. It feels like the sound of his soul being ripped out. Where Monowai’s gaze was previously trained he finds he can’t look anymore. His eyes squeeze shut and the motion causes another silent tear to escape.
With a slight tug the forelock comes detached. Isaac walks away to lay the lock with the one from Mon’s nape. Eyes still tightly shut, Monowai’s hand is immediately on the truncated forelock, grabbing and pulling, trying to bring any little fragment of length back to it. He is trying desperately not to cry anymore. This act is one of the sacrifices that must be made in order to survive the Mer genocide and one day lead his people in a fight for equality. If he were in the place of his subjects, he would want to know that his prince had sat tall and proud as he was shorn.
That thought imbibes him with a glimmer of strength. He takes a deliberate, measured breath, and straightens his spine, schooling a neutral expression onto his face.
"I’m sorry that I tried to cut it so short with the clippers. I’m going to keep doing it like this with the dagger."
"That’s fine", he responds. Pleased to note that he managed to keep the quiver in his voice to a minimum.
Isaac reaches for a second lock of hair beside the first, and Monowai catches himself squeezing his eyes shut involuntarily again. This lock is closer to his ear, so when the blade tears through the hairs he imagines that it sounds even worse that the first cut.
When the second lock is gone, a sizeable portion of the right side of Mon’s head sports a shaggy, neck length cut. He runs a hand through it repeatedly. Trying to get used to the way his hand goes from being stuck in a thick mane, to falling out of it so suddenly. He grabs it and thumbs the strange, blunt ends.
The next lock is from the back of Mon’s neck. He instinctively bows his head forward like a man in penance. At one point the flat of the cool blade touches his skin, and sends a shiver down his spine. This is immediately followed by the foreign sensation of the tips of his hair tickling his neck, instead of hanging heavy against it.
In three more big chunks, Isaac has cleared the last of the long blue strands. What remains is light and fluffy and full of texture. Isaac musses it with his hands experimentally.
"Well", he mutters. "It looks like you tried to give yourself a haircut in a dim room on a moving boat." He’s trying to be funny but it’s spoiled slightly by the fact that he has to wipe a tear from his face while he says it.
"That’s good, I guess… extra convincing."
Isaac leaves Monowai’s side to begin preparing an Indigo mixture. He puts a few spoonful’s of powder into a bowl and mixes it with water into a paste. He brings to bowl to Mon.
"Ready?" He asks.
Monowai slips off his shirt so as not to colour it. "Yep", he says
Isaac begins scooping the paste onto his scalp, massaging it in gently. Monowai finds himself humming in delight at the contact.
"It smells nice," he says.
"Really? I’ve found it kinda smells like dirt," Isaac replies.
"I like the smell of the earth..."
They get lost in the pleasantness of the silence and each other’s tender touches, until they are startled nearly out of their skins by a knock on Isaac’s cabin door.
"CAP’N!" Someone yells. Isaac identifies it as the voice of his first mate. "You up yet? We got a scuffle up here ‘bout to get real nasty I’m thinkin’."
Isaac sighs and mouths a choice curse word.
"Yeah I’ll be out in a minute!" He calls back.
He lowers his voice back down to a whisper. "That’s my summons," he says. "I have to go for the day now. Massage the rest of this into your hair, wrap your head with that bandana I pulled out and leave it until I get back. I’ll try to come back with boots. Gloves as well."
Monowai nods and grabs the bowl of paste.
"I’m going to lock you in. Whatever you do don’t undo the lock, or go near the windows. We’ll figure out how to sneak you off-board so that you can walk back on as a crew member later."
Isaac throws on his coat and hat and tries to shove boots on his feet.
"Oh!! And don’t forget to wash your hands after your done rubbing it in your hair. That stuff will stain your skin. You can use that basin over there", he nods to a corner of his chambers. He’s pacing frantically like he’s looking for something, but he seems to give up.
"Crap, uhh, I’ll be back soon! I love you!" Then he runs out the door and slams it behind him. The lock clicks into place.
Monowai is thrown into stark silence. He must look so strange, sitting there, hair crudely cropped, covered in dye paste, holding a bowl like it’s his child. His eyes drift over to the pile of his cut hair, where it drapes so beautifully over Isaac desk. It’s hard to look at, like looking at a bone peeking out of your own broken leg, familiar yet so horrifically wrong in appearance. He can’t keep holding it in, he squeezes his eyes shut and weeps softly into the bowl.
"I love you too", he whispers to no one.