Nesrin was floating in the living room with her legs crossed as if she were sitting. She was reading The Necromancers while Isabelle and Jason poured over their school books. Isabelle had a psychology test coming up, and Jason was half-way through the rough draft of a business paper. Nesrin had completed her formal education centuries before the modern version of graduate school came into being, and from the sight of her roommates studying she was grateful for the fact. Isabelle had subconsciously twisted her hair around her wrist, and Jason’s laptop keyboard was so covered in scraps of paper and corn chips that Nesrin failed to understand how he saw the keys. At some point they had also scattered plates and containers all over the kitchen. All this on the day it was Nesrin’s turn to clean up the apartment.
She sighed and vanished into the air. A few seconds later she re-entered from the hallway carrying a tray with three pink frozen drinks. She sat one down in front of Isabelle, one in front of Jason, and took one for herself.
“What are these?” Isabelle asked. She tried to pick up her drink, then realized her wrist was restrained and stopped to untie it.
“Strawberry daiquiris; properly strong ones. You both looked near death, and fascinating as I find death, I don’t want to lose you yet.” She produced a deck of playing cards out of her sleeve. “I thought some diversion was in order.”
Jason shook the crumbs and scraps off his computer. “I don’t know. We’ve kind’ve got a mountain of stuff we’ve gotta get through if we wanna pass this semester.”
Nesrin waved a hand. “Oh please. Your paper is a mere fifteen double-spaced pages, and Isabelle knows psychology as well as I know the stories of Scheherazade. Besides, it is not productive to work when your mind is so frazzled. Take a moment to refresh yourselves by playing a game with me, then you can do better work after I leave you alone.” She opened the deck of cards and dribbled the deck from one hand to the other.
Isabelle took a sip of her drink. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to clear our minds for a while.”
Nesrin grinned. “Excellent.” She sat down on the floor and motioned for the other two to come closer. She held the deck in her left hand and performed an intricate single-handed shuffle, which she repeated a few times. When she was satisfied she dealt them all seven cards. “We’ll play Rummy since we have alcohol to hand, and I won’t make us go to 300 points. I’m older than both of you by millennia, so I’ll go first.” She took the top card off the stock and put it face-up on the floor to start the discard pile. She looked over her hand, resisting the urge to rearrange the cards.
Jason and Isabelle were both carefully studying their hands and moving cards, looking for connections and trying to create a sequence. They took their time deciding whether or not to keep a card, too, and if they kept it, they took equally long deciding which card to discard.
Nesrin let them play in silence for a bit. Soon Jason put down a sequence of A, 2, and 3 of clubs. Isabelle had a satisfied smirk on her face, but it was hard to tell if it was fake or not. When Nesrin’s turn came she picked up a card from the discard pile and seemed to look at it absently. “Can I ask you both something?”
Both their eyes shifted towards her.
“Sure, what is it?”
Nesrin discarded the card she’d picked up. “Is it weird that I think about death? Most hidden ones just ignore it since we’re immortal.”
Isabelle crinkled her eyebrows. “Yeah, but you’re half human, too, aren’t you?” She took a card off the stock, glanced at it, and discarded it. “Maybe subconsciously you’re wondering if it’s a possibility for you because of that.”
Nesrin shrugged, assembling some of her cards into a sequence of Q, K, and A of diamonds. “Maybe that is it. That might also explain some of my other non-hidden one traits.”
Jason leaned forward. “Like what?”
“Well, like singing. Hidden ones have inspired songs and poems ever since we began relations with humans, but we are not traditionally singers. Then there’s my love of water, but maybe that one comes from living with merpeople for awhile.”
Jason flung a card into the discard pile. “What?” His eyes ran back over his hand, then shot to the discard pile. “Wait, I put down the wrong card.”
Isabelle shrugged. “Too bad, no redos. Now what was that about merpeople?”
“Well, sort of. They were not what you probably think of when you hear that name. Outwardly no part of them looked aquatic at all, but they lived under the sea. Me living with them seems counterintuitive in more ways than one, since hidden ones are made of fire and humans need air, but I suppose my magic made it possible.” She picked up a card, added it to her hand, and discarded. “It actually happened by accident, but I’m sure the story would bore you.”
“I doubt it,” they both said.
Nesrin shook her head. “You need to focus on your cards. It can wait.”
They both made disappointed faces.
Nesrin tried not to smirk. “Of course, we could always make a bet so you have motivation to stay focused while I tell the story.”
Isabelle and Jason looked at each other, shrugged, then nodded their heads.
“If I win, you two clean up the apartment today. If one of you win, I do it for the next week. Deal?”
“Very well.” Nesrin rearranged her cards. “When I arrived in their city I was still trapped in a lamp after the Great Capturing. The Great Capturing occurred in 945 BC, and I was in my lamp for one thousand years. That’s as much as I wish to dwell on it. Apparently my lamp was thrown into the sea and drifted in the current until it arrived in a sea dweller city. That’s where Julrane found it. She was the simple, curious sort. She would have to be to become so fascinated by an old object she saw in her garden and break the lead seal by picking at it. I was so relieved to be out I would have sworn loyalty to whoever released me. I was lucky it was her.”
Nesrin watched Jason pick up the card he’d accidentally discarded, and the ones that had been put on top of it since then.
“As my smoke folded out of the lamp, it automatically returned to my human form. When my bones and muscles reformed they were surprisingly stiff, but the warmth of the water helped to ease the discomfort away. When my eyes focused I saw a young woman with skin that shone like the moon, and hair that glinted like sapphire as it floated around her. At first I thought she must be a statue; she was frozen from shock.” She allowed herself a chuckle at the memory, but didn’t let it stop her from picking up the 10 of diamonds and putting it in her sequence.
“I said ‘Do not be afraid. I am Nesrin of the Hidden Ones, and bare you nothing but gratitude for bringing about my release.’ After a few moments she stammered out ‘I am Julrane of the Sea Dwellers. You have come to the waters near Persia and Arabia, to the Citadel of Gulfia. Please, let me prepare you a place to rest and some food.’ She led me through the halls of the Citadel, and there were so many people I thought their entire society resided in those walls. The floors were made of pure pearl, and the walls of opulent shells. Despite being underwater, there were silk tapestries depicting scenes of their history.”
Isabelle was looking above her cards at Nesrin. Jason had to nudge her to get her to make a move.
Nesrin continued. “Julrane was generous, too. She prepared me a place in her rooms, and I stayed with her as long as I stayed in Gulfia. On my first night I insisted on becoming her servant to repay her for releasing me from the lamp. She told me that wouldn’t be necessary; she couldn’t imagine herself with a servant. When I pressed the issue she said ‘I will only accept you as my servant in the very loosest sense of the word. If you must serve me you will do so by being my friend and providing me with company while I work in the gardens.’
“I bowed to show my agreement, and she pulled me upright. Our waters were shallow enough that we could see the sun rise and set, so we knew the hour was late and that we should rest for the night. The next morning I began to help her in the gardens. I wasn’t expecting the variety of plants she was able to grow in that place. The entire area was covered in blueish green seagrass, and there were white bushes of anemone, even types of fruit and vegetables.
“She handed me a basket and said ‘If you pick the sea grapes, I shall trim back the kelp and seaweed. Watch out for the waterwheel plant. It has a tendency to tangle around your feet and trap you in place.’ She could have saved her breath; I didn’t watch out and it was only three days before I got my ankles caught like a child. I could have made my feet transparent and gotten out easily, as you have seen, but before the thought occurred to me Julrane said ‘Here, let me.’ There was almost a pleading tone in her voice and it caught me off guard. While she cut me loose I looked around and realized I never saw anyone but us in the gardens, and it dawned on me that Julrane never entertained visitors other than me.
“She had only gotten one foot free when we noticed a light glint across the Citadel walls. We turned and saw a dendan—a vicious creature best described as looking like a giant sideways stingray—coming towards us. Julrane looked me in the eyes and kept cutting away at the waterwheels. I made my foot transparent, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her away from the odious thing just as it swooped through the garden. We watched from above as it circled the Citadel. Without thinking I grabbed the beast by its uppermost fin and wrestled it up into the more open water above the city. Even there its tail threatened to remove the roofs of buildings.
“My people have the natural strength to move castles, but castles are not alive and struggling. The dendan kept bucking and jumping out of the water. At last it knocked me loose and caught me on its tail, then circled its tail around to its mouth. The sight of teeth that size approaching shocked even me. Just then Julrane swam up with a net of waterwheels to tie its tail around its body so that it couldn’t move freely. As soon as she got the net over it the dendan became wild trying to free itself, but it couldn’t make forward movements or mount further attacks. Now that I had the plants to grab onto it was easier to wrestle the creature to a cave where Julrane could trigger a rock fall and trap it in. We had to journey nearly to the open ocean to find one. When the task was done we took our time returning home, congratulating ourselves on our feat. That night we sat up making a tapestry of the event for ourselves to hang in our rooms. I still have the tapestry on my wall. Remind me and I’ll show you sometime.
“Rummy.” Nesrin concluded her story by putting her entire hand down and revealing a sequence of 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, and A of diamonds. There was no sense counting points. Jason had only put down two small sequences, and Isabelle hadn’t put any cards down at all. Nesrin reached out in a lightning movement and collected the cards. “I’m holding you two to our bet. Sorry to make more work for you now of all times.” She put her cards back in their box and flashed a crooked grin at Jason and Isabelle.
Isabelle made a ‘give me more’ motion with her hands. “So, why did you leave? Did something happen to Julrane?”
Nesrin took a swig from her drink. “Julrane eventually met the fate that all mortals do. I did not find it so interesting that time. Gulfia didn’t have the same luster without her, and I felt an irresistible urge to return to the surface and find some of my brothers and sisters. I did try to go back there, but found that human explorers had pillaged the city for the shells and pearls of its buildings. Now even the ruins have been wiped out by drilling and pipelines. I still have my tapestry, though. Not all of the treasures were lost.”
The two siblings looked down, as if a decent response could be found on the floor.
Nesrin stood. “Now, you two better get back to your work, and don’t spill those drinks on the floor; you’ll just have to clean them up.” She returned to her room while Jason and Isabelle stretched and started to move.
Half way through getting up Isabelle stopped and looked back at Jason. “We have to clean the apartment now.”
Jason replayed the card game in his mind. His mouth dropped as realization dawned.
Isabelle nodded in the direction of the hallway. “Bein jugado, Nesrin. Bein jugado.”