Glittering lights in the darkness. The twinkle of the distant ones, the steady shine of the nearer. And between, behind, before, and beside them, spires and towers and peaks raised their rocky fingers to the invisible surface, pointing unerringly to the world of those that breathed air.
Candace slid out of the tunnel with a flick of her elegant tail and paused a moment to survey the city below. The tallest tower was about four fathoms below where she floated, twitching her tail to remain in place as she looked down over the place where she ought to have been living full-time, but could only afford to visit on week nights when there wasn't too much happening the next day. Being sleepy through a school day wasn't ideal, but it was better than going mad from feeling trapped on the land, to be sure.
Taking a deep breath, she gloried in the feeling of the water passing through her gills and the feeling of the water around her. Like the sound of a space could tell her human ears whether the area she was in was open or enclosed, small or large, so the currents of the water here told her that it was a huge chasm, or maybe a cave with no roof. It was a protected place, where the storms couldn't beat at them, and the predators didn't usually come. The water was deep here, deep and cool, and it granted her the sort of pleasure she thought normal people felt when they went hiking in a mountain valley or strolled on the beach. It was clean here. Clean and good.
Turning her fins toward the surface, she shot down into the city, quickly approaching the lights and smiling as she saw what they were. In the surface world, there might have been streetlights or lampposts lining the central avenue. Here, there were huge stems of bull kelp, kept upright by bulbous swellings at the top of each stalk, filled with air and some sort of bioluminescence that shed yellow-green light on the weedy terraces of each rocky tower. The gardens marked residences set into each of the skinny spires. There were even eyes gleaming in the darkness of some, watching her as she passed. Not as many as their were homes.
A cluster of lights deeper down led her toward the base of three close-set towers at the end of the avenue. There were two merfolk floating near the kelp. When they saw her, one raised a webbed hand to beckon to her, the scooping motion he made in the water actually pulling his body nearer to her. There were still a lot of things she was learning about mer culture, but one of the things she liked was that when they asked her to come with the gestures, they were actually offering to meet her in the middle.
"It's good that you're here," said the male that had waved to her. "The queen is ill, and has called the breeding females together to choose the new queen after her."
Candy twitched, accidentally flipping herself sideways in her surprise. "A new queen? She's not that sick, is she?"
The male shook his head. "She won't die, I don't think, but if it's the same as what happened last year, she won't be able to service the royals and provide new blood to the kingdom. She will need to be replaced."
"Oh... dear." A midnight jaunt had just become much, much more serious.
"Me? I mean... me?" Cadance was tapping her chest in disbelief, shivering from her wiry hair all the way down to her flukes. The queen lifted an eyebrow, looking very much unimpressed.
"Yes, you. You were the choice, you fill the necessary-"
"I can't run a city!" Candace gestured wildly with her hands, spinning herself in a circle without meaning to. Reaching out, she caught the wall to stop herself and shook her head to clear it. "I'm not a queen! I'm just a high school student!"
"Well, now you're the queen. And you don't have to run anything. Your only job is to make babies and serve as the bridge between the common mers and the Council." The old queen was pale, drawn, and obviously tired. Still, she stayed upright with practiced twitches of her long, elegant blue-grey tail. She watched Candace, clearly wondering if they had made the right choice.
Candace blushed. She'd known when she'd been Turned that part of the reason she'd been given this chance was so the mers could have more babies, but she had thought that would come later, when she was an adult. Not right now.
"Why me?" A stupid, self-pitying question to ask, maybe, but she thought it was legitimate when she didn't actually know the answer.
"Because you have no magic. No one can claim you were chosen to benefit one Councilor or another. You're just you."
"I'm just... me," Candy echoed, looking a little unnerved. But she didn't resist as the old queen drew her into the royal chamber, where she sank into her warm bed, which was a soft sand bank where the sand seemed to bubble and shift as a hot spring rose up through it. In the chamber with her were three males, each clad in what passed as formal garb in the mer culture. Thick ropes of charms about their necks, sashes about their waists, beads twisted into their wiry hair, and heavy metal rings about their tails. They watched Candy with intense black eyes. Two of them were as old as her father. The third was about four or five years her senior, if she was any judge of age.
The eldest swam forward to meet her, executing something like an elaborate bow, exposing the back of his neck to her in a gesture of submission. It made Candy extremely uncomfortable. The second swam forward to repeat the maneuver, and she tried to remember what she'd been taught about the royals. These males, the strongest and cleverest of the city, were chosen by a grueling competition held every other year. With so few fertile females, the number of royal males had been reduced from five to three, but that had only enhanced the competition between them.
As the third and youngest swam forward, he had the audacity to take her hand and kiss her fingers. Ah. This one was more recently Turned than the others, and remembered what it was to live as a human. Or perhaps he still did. Candy blushed and looked away, which seemed to please the males, who still said nothing as they looked toward the old queen.
"You will service them as you come into season," she told her successor, sounding weaker and more tired than she had in front of the other females. "Your duty is to produce strong new younglings and represent the people to the Council, who you shall meet tomorrow. This means you'll be needed down here more often than you have been. I trust you'll be able to handle your business on the surface world adequately before your next cycle?" She looked at Candy with raised eyebrows as the young mer blushed scarlet. This was a subject she didn't talk about out loud, not even with her own mother, let alone with complete strangers.
"I've never," she muttered, flustered, "I mean, I haven't... I'm only sixteen."
The males were smiling at one another, as though this were a good thing and she was revealing exactly the sort of secrets they wanted to hear from her. The queen smirked faintly. "Yes, of course. And that's a good thing. You are young and strong. You will serve them well, and I will be here to guide you, at least for a while. There's nothing to worry about, Candace. The Council will crown you tomorrow evening. Be here."
"Yes. Yes, ma'am."