“This supper is a special occasion, Coralline,” said Trochid.
Coralline frowned at her father. The eighth of July meant nothing to her. But her mother had set the table with their finest limestone plates, which did suggest that it was, in fact, an occasion of some sort. But it was not Algae Appreciation Day or Horrid Humans Day. It was not Coralline’s birthday, nor was it either of her parents’ birthdays. That meant it had to be…Ecklon’s birthday—his twenty-sixth! They hadn’t been together long enough to have celebrated his birthday together, but he had recently mentioned the surprise party his fellow detectives had organized for him last year. Coralline had neglected to note the date.
His birthday would explain why he looked particularly handsome this evening, in a jet-black waistcoat with half a dozen large lettered olive shells forming a column of buttons down the center. Coralline’s mother was also elegantly attired—in a white corset with wispy sleeves that fluttered gently about her shoulders—as was Coralline’s father—in a new, tan waistcoat. Come to think of it, Coralline herself was also well dressed, though it was not intentional on her part.
She had returned home late from work, swum into her bedroom, and proceeded to do what she usually did at the end of a long day: massage the muscles in the back of her neck with her fingertips, in an attempt to loosen the knots formed over a day of bending over medications at The Irregular Remedy. She had then burrowed under her blanket and, closing her eyes, had thought of her most unusual patient of the day: ninety-one-year-old mermaid Mola, who suffered from dementia, and whose memories of her husband kept falling as irreversibly out of her mind as her molars had fallen out of her mouth.
Coralline had been about to drift off into a nap, when her mother rushed into her bedroom, flung off her blanket, and, surveying Coralline’s corset, pronounced, “You can’t dress so hideously for supper. Ecklon is coming, remember?” Her mother then handed her a new corset she had sewn for her, with emerald vines that met and separated over a glistening bronze fabric that precisely matched the bronze scales of Coralline’s tail. Coralline had slumped on a chair in front of the mirror as her mother had tugged her long black hair into a pillowy mound at the crown of her head, and circled the bun with a string of little white spirula shells.
How embarrassing that Coralline had forgotten Ecklon’s birthday, especially given how he had spoiled her on her own birthday, a few months ago. He had taken her to their favorite restaurant, Alaria, where he had presented her with The Universe Demystified, the latest book by the stargazer Venant Veritate. Like a telescope into the universe, The Universe Demystified had opened brilliant new galaxies in Coralline’s mind. Ecklon admired Venant just as much as Coralline, describing him as “the detective of the universe,” but she still couldn’t imagine how Ecklon had managed to get the book autographed, for the stargazer was known to be just as reclusive as he was illustrious.
It was true that Coralline’s wages as an apprentice apothecary at The Irregular Remedy were meager, but she could still have gotten Ecklon a pen as a gift, perhaps an engraved one, which he could use in taking notes during his investigations. In the absence of any gift, the least she could do was sing. Clearing her throat, she began:
Happy birthday to you
May you have friends old and new
May life jolt success your way
As grand as a manta ray
Coralline smiled at her parents across the table, encouraging them to join along, but her father’s dark-brown eyes squinted at her, and her mother gaped. Undeterred, Coralline continued:
May your sight never fade
Nor your hair gray
Happy birthday to you
May this year all your dreams come true
“My birthday isn’t for another month, Cora,” Ecklon said, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
He had the gall to be enjoying her confusion. Well, she was confused no longer. If it wasn’t his birthday, there was just one other possibility that would make this supper a special occasion. But she didn’t want to be wrong again; hoping to obtain a hint, she asked, “How was work?”
Coralline sighed. Ecklon had been like this since their very first date. He listened intently to her chatter about her patients but divulged little about his own work until Coralline prodded. The trouble was: He was too modest. His work was more than fine, Coralline knew. He had been promoted four times during his six years at Urchin Interrogations, the local Detective Department of the Under-Ministry of Crime and Murder. Just a few weeks ago, his boss, Sinistrum Scomber, a middle-aged merman with an enormous nose and perpetual grimace, had told Ecklon that he was the best detective Urchin Interrogations had ever hired. Sinistrum had sworn that as soon as Ecklon solved his next case, he would tenure him, making Ecklon the youngest detective to ever hold a lifetime position at Urchin Interrogations.
“You got tenured, didn’t you?” Coralline gushed.
“Not quite, no…”
If it wasn’t his birthday and he hadn’t been promoted, what else was there to celebrate? Coralline crossed her arms over her chest, in part because she was annoyed and in part to suppress the growls of her stomach. She eyed the scarlet fronds of dulse at the center of the table. Patients had swum through the door of The Irregular Remedy from morning well into the evening, and she hadn’t had a bite to eat since her rushed breakfast. Why did she have to work so hard for her supper?
“This day is a special occasion,” Ecklon said softly, “because it marks six months since the day we met. Remember the day?” He grinned at her, dimples forming triangular wedges in his cheeks.
She couldn’t believe he’d been counting the days, but she smiled back—even if she were to ever have dementia like her patient Mola, she would not forget the day they’d met.
He had swum into The Irregular Remedy with a purple-colored right elbow, the joint stiff and unmoving at his side. Discerning at a glance that it was fractured, Coralline had opened the medical textbook Splinters and Slings on her counter. Upon perusing a section titled “Elbow Ligaments,” she had directed Ecklon to extend his arm to her across the counter. Warning him that it would hurt, she had felt up and down his arm, pressing into its length with two fingers. Other patients would have whimpered, but he hadn’t even winced.
Upon concluding her examination, she had dabbed horned wrack salve onto his elbow, to reduce the swelling. Then, clasping his shoulder with one hand, she had leaned over her counter to crook his elbow at a ninety-degree angle against his chest. She had wrapped the joint with a gauzy bandage of pyropia, and she’d started slinging red strands of spiny straggle around the pyropia, to hold it all in place. But a lock of hair had fallen across her cheek.
Reluctant to recommence her sling, she had shrugged to encourage her hair back behind her ear, but her effort had only resulted in another strand tumbling across her cheek. Ecklon’s hand had crossed the counter between them to push her hair back in place. Coralline had drawn her breath—her counter formed a barrier between herself and her patients—he’d crossed the line. She had made the final knot of spiny straggle rather tight around his elbow, then, worried it might restrict blood flow, had loosened it with her fingers.
“Thank you for your attention, Cora,” he’d said.
“Coralline,” she’d corrected emphatically, wondering how he’d known her name. But of course: He would have read it on the badge pinned to her corset.
“I’ll collect you here for supper tomorrow evening,” he’d continued.
Don’t bother, she’d been about to retort, offended by his assumption that she’d be free for supper (though it was true), but she’d found herself speechless when he’d dropped a scallop shell in the carapace crock on her counter. Patients paid what they could afford—no one had yet given her a ten-carapace scallop shell.
When Ecklon had swum through the door of The Irregular Remedy the next evening, Coralline had been tending a mermaid with pustular calluses across the pale blue scales of her tail. “Wait for me outside,” she’d told Ecklon coolly, in part because the clinic was small, and in part because he’d arrived at his convenience, not hers. With a nod, Ecklon had slipped outside The Irregular Remedy.
Patients had trickled in one after another for Coralline’s attention—a wiry merman complaining of weak gills, a shivering insomniac, a mermaid with hyperthyroidism—and it was not until the waters had started to turn dull and dark and the clinic had been about to close, that Coralline had slid out the door. Her tailfin had flicked to commence her swim home, when a voice from behind had startled her. “Ready, Cora?”
She’d whirled around. Ecklon had been leaning against the wall of The Irregular Remedy, his arms crossed over his chest. She had not known then that he was a detective, but the sight of him lurking in the shadows, seeing but unseen, hovering so still that he was almost as hidden as a seahorse, had made her think she was being pursued by a detective. “I’m sorry,” she’d said. “I forgot you were waiting.”
He had regarded her without impatience, without insult—rather, with respect—and had never mentioned it again.
She smiled at him now, sitting at her left at the dining table. That very first evening they’d met, she had found his face to be a handsome study of contrasts, and she found it to be so still. His jaw was hard but softened by a vertical cleft in the chin. His hair had the varied shades of pebbled sand, but its texture was always sleek and uniform between her fingers. His mouth formed a resolute line, but his lips were tender in shape—they made her think of a poet lost in verse.
In their six months together, not once had they bickered, not once had their opinions differed. Coralline had initially assumed their lines of work to be a world apart, but had soon gleaned that they were more similar than different. He pursued clues, she pursued cures. He kept merpeople safe, she kept merpeople well. He dealt with murderers in the form of criminals, she dealt with murderers in the form of maladies.
“I’ve spoken with your mother and father, Cora,” Ecklon pronounced, his silver-gray gaze locked on her own. “I’ve told them what I now tell you: I love you.”
That was a notable difference between them—his sense of propriety. His job was to investigate those who broke the law and he possessed an equal reverence for societal law, in the form of tradition. Coralline, meanwhile, regularly swam out the window rather than the door, even though her mother often told her that to do so was “the hallmark of an ill-bred mermaid.” Maybe Coralline should have been elated at Ecklon’s declaration of love, but she wasn’t, for she already knew in her heart that he loved her, just as she knew she loved him. It felt strange to verbalize it for the first time in front of her parents, though, so she managed no more than to mumble, “Er, thank you.”
She then reached eagerly for her stone-sticks, pleased his “special occasion” announcement had been made, and she could finally eat her supper—
“I wish to marry you.”
Coralline’s stone-sticks clanged against her plate, and her gills fluttered wildly along the sides of her neck. She looked at her parents. Her father’s eyes shone with happiness, the lines around them spreading like sea fans. Don’t ruin the best day of your life, her mother mouthed to her. Coralline tried to pull the muscles of her face into a semblance of normality as she turned back to Ecklon. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to have noticed her reaction, for he was extracting something from his waistcoat pocket.
His hand unfurled before Coralline to reveal a shell with a pale pink center melting into smooth alabaster along the edges, like a slow summer dawn. The symbol of engagement, a rose petal tellin.
“Cora,” Ecklon began solemnly, “will you make me the happiest merman in the Atlantic by marrying me?”