For my readers, who make the real magic
The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.
MANON LAVEAU, regal on her throne of twining cypress roots, regarded the merman before her. Her eyes traveled over his black uniform, his close-cropped hair, his cruel face. He and six of his soldiers had barged into her cave, deep under the waters of the Mississippi, as she was laying out tarot cards on the mossy back of a giant snapping turtle.
“Captain Traho, you say?” Manon’s voice, like her eyes, betrayed no emotion. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for a mermaid named Ava Corajoso,” Traho said brusquely. “Dark skin. Black braids. She’s blind. Travels with a piranha. Have you seen her?”
“I have not,” Manon replied. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Captain, the cards require my attention. Au revoir.”
Manon’s manservant moved to show Traho out, but Traho pushed him away. “Ava was observed entering your cave,” he said. “I’ve also been told you have a seeing stone that you’re using to follow her. Hand it over and I’ll be on my way.”
Manon snorted. “C’est sa cooyon,” she said with contempt. Fool.
She snapped her fingers, and twenty bull alligators, each weighing half a ton, burst up from the thick mud covering the cave’s floor. Tails thrashing, they surrounded Traho and his men.
“I have a better idea,” Manon said, her green eyes glittering. “How about my hungry little friends eat you alive?”
Traho slowly raised his hands, never taking his eyes off the alligators. His men did the same.
Manon nodded. “That’s more like it,” she said. “I’m the shack bully in these parts, boy.”
She laid her cards down and rose from her throne, her turbaned head high. It was impossible to tell how old she was. Her light brown skin was smooth, but her eyes were ancient. She had high cheekbones and a strong nose. A white tunic and a red reedcloth skirt covered her body and her silvery tail. A belt studded with river pearls and mussel shells cinched her waist. The belt had been handed down from the first swamp queen, a Native American who had journeyed to Atlantis as a human. She’d survived the island’s destruction, had become mer, and then returned to the delta.
Manon spoke with the twang of the swamp. Her language was a mixture of freshwater mer salted with the African, English, French, and Spanish words of the terragogg ghosts who dwelled in the Mississippi. Some of those ghosts kept her company, among them a runaway slave called Sally Wilkes, a Creole countess named Esmé, and the pirate Jean Lafitte.
Manon was not afraid of ghosts. Or thugs in uniform. Or much of anything. As her alligators growled, she circled Traho.
“This mermaid Ava, she’s boocoo brave. She goes into the swamps all alone. But you?” she said mockingly. “You need two hundred soldiers to hold your dainty little hand.”
Manon couldn’t see the rest of Traho’s soldiers from inside her cave, but she didn’t need to. The stone had told her of their approach.
Traho ignored the taunt. “Kill me, and those two hundred soldiers will kill you,” he said. “I need to know where Ava Corajoso is. I’m not leaving until I find out.”
Anger flashed in Manon’s eyes. “You want information, you pay for it,” she spat. “Same as everyone else. Or are you a thief as well as a coward?”
“Ten doubloons,” Traho said.
“Twenty,” Manon countered.
Traho nodded. Manon snapped her fingers again, and her alligators burrowed back into the mud. One of Traho’s soldiers had a satchel slung over his shoulder. At his leader’s command, he opened it, then counted out gold coins, placing them on a table.
When he finished, Manon said, “The mermaid stopped here two days ago. She was on her way to the Blackwater and wanted a gris-gris to protect her from the Okwa Naholo. I made the charm. Used talons from an owl, teeth from a white alligator, and the call of a coyote. Bound them with the tongue of a cottonmouth. Won’t do her any good, though. She was worn-out. Sick, too. By now she’s nothing but bones at the bottom of the Blackwater.”
Traho digested this, then said, “The seeing stone. Where is it?”
Manon chuckled. “No such thing,” she replied. “Stone’s just a story, one I don’t discourage. Mer in these parts are boocoo wild. They behave a little better if they think they’re being watched.”
Traho glanced around. He muttered a curse about the godsforsaken Freshwaters, then left the cave.