A short while later, after they had packed only the essentials into Lumina’s pearl purse, Kuda and Lumina set off through the sea.
“This has to be the right way,” Lumina said, examining her surroundings. They swam through a colorful coral reef, passing schools of tropical fish and fields of anemones along the way. “I’ve seen Aunt Scylla head this way every time she goes to town.
Suddenly, Lumina stopped. Kuda bumped right into her. Oof! On the wall in front of them, red-orange fire coral rose as far as the eye could see.
“It’s a dead end,” Lumina stated.
“Darn,” Kuda said, pretending to be dis-appointed. “We gave it our best. Let’s go home.”
But Lumina wasn’t ready to give up. She examined the wall more closely, looking for some way around it. She noticed a tiny opening high above. “There!” she exclaimed.
“Where?” Kuda replied, not looking all that closely.
“That opening! I bet that’s her shortcut through the coral,” Lumina reasoned, swimming toward it.
“That? That’s not an opening, that’s a dot!” Kuda objected. “Not even a big dot! You couldn’t push a guppy through there!” Lumina reached the opening and squeezed her way in. It was just barely her size. “Follow me, Kuda! Don’t be afraid!” Reluctantly, Kuda followed Lumina’s lead.
The friends entered a massive cavern covered with fragile fire coral. It was dark and dangerous, with giant slabs of coral hanging close to their heads.
“Slow down, Lumina!” Kuda begged. She smacked into a coral stalactite by accident.
“Uh-oh!” It broke off and started a chain reaction. Coral rained down from the ceiling of the cavern.
“Kuda! Swim faster!” Lumina urged as the tunnel started to break apart around them. They made their way through the collapsing coral until—crash! A giant boulder of coral smashed to the ground right in front of them, blocking their path. Lumina and Kuda retreated, but the path back was jammed with coral, too.
Lumina tried not to panic. There had to be another way out. She looked around frantically and spotted a side tunnel. “In there!”
They plowed through the tunnel’s narrow entry. Twisting and turning to dodge falling coral, Lumina coached Kuda. “Don’t be afraid!” she called. “Swim faster! You can do it!”
With a final burst of speed, Kuda and Lumina lunged to ward the opening at the other end of the tunnel. They swam through just as the tunnel collapsed behind them.
“That was fun!” Lumina cried, her eyes twinkling with delight.
“That was horrible,” Kuda mumbled.
Soon they arrived at a forest of waving kelp. Lumina noticed a thin path winding through the tall, dimly lit seaweed. “This is it! I know it! See that path? We just need to follow it.” She zoomed down the path, Kuda racing to catch up. They were so busy looking forward that they didn’t notice two gleaming eyes peering at them from behind the kelp.
Meanwhile, at the castle, preparations were under way for the royal ball. Everyone was excited—except Fergis, the ball’s honorary attendee. He wanted to stay at home with his plants. In fact, he wanted to skip this whole “inheriting the throne” business completely. But he also wanted to make his father proud. He wasn’t sure how to do both.But, Father, do I have to go to the ball?” he whined. “Yes, Fergis,” Caligo replied impatiently. “The ball is being given for you. Once His Majesty places the Pearl of the Sea medallion on you, no power on earth can stop me—I mean, you—from someday being king.”
Fergis pouted. “But I’ve told you—I don’t want to be king. I want to be a botanist.”
“And I’ve told you,” Caligo thundered, glaring at Fergis, “you’ll do what I say! You’ll go to that ball, find a suitable wife, and be named the next ruler of Seagundia!”
Fergis wilted like a flower under his father’s harsh words. “But I love plants, Father, I just love them,” he said in a small voice. “I love all of them: the Syringodium and the Rhizophora and the cheeky little Sargassum.” He smiled as he pictured a beautiful garden containing all of his favorites. He pulled a tiny flower bud from his pocket and sniffed it happily.
Caligo snatched the flower and threw it to the ground. “Forget about plants!” he ordered. “You’re going to be king and that’s the end of it, understood? Now get back to your waltz lessons.”
Fergis sighed heavily. “Yes, sir,” he mumbled, stooping to pick up the crushed bud his father had discarded. “Forgive me, Sargassum,” he whispered to it as he trudged out of the room.
Caligo rubbed his temples in frustration. He was so close to the throne he could taste it. He would not let his son’s flowery dreams stand in the way of the power that rightly belonged to him. Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t notice Murray slip into the room.
The eel cleared his throat, announcing his arrival.
“Ahhhhh! Don’t do that!” Caligo cried, practically jumping out of his skin. He did not like surprises.
The eel chuckled. “I can’t help myself.”
“Well? Did you find Scylla?” Caligo asked impatiently.
“I did, and she agreed to do it,” the eel hissed.
Caligo smiled nastily. “Excellent. Once she’s poisoned the king at the ball, I will finish off Scylla.” He drew his finger across his neck to illustrate his point. “I’ll be hailed as a national hero, and my son will be crowned King of Seagundia.”
“What if the guards grab her first?” Murray asked, poking a hole in Caligo’s master plan.
“They won’t,” Caligo answered confidently. “The Trident Squad is loyal only to me. And I’ve arranged that they will be the ones guarding the ballroom.”
Murray nodded in approval. “My, you have thought of everything.”
“I make it my business to. And once my son is king, I will hold the real power in the kingdom.” He rubbed his hands together greedily. Reaching into his desk, he retrieved a small sack of gold coins. He tossed the payment to Murray for a job well done and looked at a picture of Fergis on his desk. “Now comes the hard part,” he continued. “Finding someone to marry Fergis.”
Murray slithered toward the door. “Perhaps you should talk to Scylla,” he said slyly. “You know, she has quite a lovely niece.”
Caligo yanked Murray back into the room by his tail.
”Niece?” he asked.
“Goodness me,” Murray said, acting innocent. “Did I fail to mention that? Blond, about seventeen years old. Interesting coincidence, don’t you think?”
Caligo dropped Murray and stroked his chin in thought. “Hmmm.” Seventeen years ago he’d hired Scylla to make that blond baby princess disappear. Could this be the same mergirl? He eyed Murray dangerously. “Bring me that niece. I want to ask her a few questions.
Lumina weaved her way through the narrow pathway of kelp, Kuda behind her. A pair of yellow eyes watched them, unnoticed.
“This forest goes on forever,” Kuda commented. “And it’s getting kind of dark. Can’t we go back now? My fins are tired.”
Lumina peered through the sea grass in front of her and saw lights in the distance. “Lights!” she cried. “Could that the city already?” She picked up her pace and strayed from the path to check it out.
Kuda gulped. Leaving the path did not seem like a smart idea.
Lumina raced toward a clearing. She screeched to a halt when she saw giant squid floating in front of her. Their red eyes glowed in the deep dark water and their cloak-like tentacles reached toward Lumina.
“This can’t be as bad as it looks,” Lumina said, not wanting to scare Kuda.
But Kuda, hiding behind her, was already terrified. “It’s worse! Those are vampire squid!”
Lumina gulped. “Well, I’m sure if we don’t bother them, they won’t bother us.”
The vampire squid moved closer.
“Tell that to them!” Kuda cried.
Slowly, Lumina and Kuda tried to back away. But the vampire squid had them trapped on three sides! The squid opened their gaping mouths, and Lumina saw what looked like sharp teeth inside.
Kuda grabbed a nearby stick with her tail. “Well, I’m not going down without a fight!” she cried, waving the stick in front of her.
Suddenly, the squid stopped in their tracks.
“Wow, nice going, Kuda!” Lumina cheered.
Kuda looked proud. “I guess they knew better than to mess with us!” She shuffled back and forth like a boxer. “Float like a butterflyfish, sting like a jelly wasp!” she cried.
Then Lumina realized that the squid were staring at something behind them. Uh-oh. She whirled around and screamed, “Whooooaaa!”
A giant vampire squid the size of a boat drifted toward them. Its huge underside glowed a ghastly blue.
Thinking quickly, Lumina reached into her pouch. She threw fistful after fistful of pearls toward the giant squid.
“I don’t think it’s pearls he wants to eat!” Kuda exclaimed.
Lumina ignored her friend and commanded the pearls to form the outline of an enormous eye against the boulder behind them. It made the boulder look like a sea monster twice the size of the vampire squid. Lumina conducted the “eye” to glare dangerously. The giant squid swam away in terror! Score!
Kuda grinned. “Not bad!” Then she frowned. “Uh-oh.”
Lumina groaned. “Stop saying that!’ ”
Kuda’s eyes widened with fear. “Move. Away. From the rock,” she ordered.
“Why?” Lumina asked, still feeling great about defeating the vampire squid.
The boulder behind her sprang to life. It wasn’t a rock at all but a giant stonefish! And it was angry. ROOOOAAARRRR! Its cry thundered through the sea.
“That’s why!” Kuda cried, shaking. “A stonefish! One of the most poisonous—”
“The most poisonous!” the stonefish bellowed, his voice shaking the water around them.
Kuda cleared her throat quietly. “Make that the most poisonous fish in the sea,” she said in a tiny voice.
That’s right, mergirl! You are looking at the face of certain doom!” the fish shouted.
Lumina took a deep breath. She held out her hand to greet the menacing fish. “Uh, nice to meet you, Mr. Doom,” she tried.
“So you better move it! ROOAAARRR!” the stonefish shouted.
“I vote with him,” Kuda said, spinning to leave. “Let’s do what he says.”
Lumina grabbed Kuda by the tail. “Hang on.”
“I said, ROOAARR!” the stonefish tried once more.
Lumina cocked her head thoughtfully. Something about this stonefish caught her attention. He seemed almost sad. “That is one powerful voice you have there,” she remarked.
The stonefish charged toward Lumina. She felt his hot breath on her face as he glared at her.
“Aren’t you listening?” he yelled. Then he pointed to the thirteen sharp spikes along the ridge of his back. “You see these spikes? They’re poisonous! One prick and game over. Kaput! You’re finished.”
But Lumina wasn’t fazed. She knew her pearl powers could render his spikes useless. Besides, she wanted the chance to talk to him more—to find out what made him so angry. So she waved her hand and thirteen large pearls zipped out of her pouch. They darted through the water and landed, one atop each of the stonefish’s sharp spikes. “There,” Lumina said.
The stonefish eyed his back. “What?” he bellowed. “What have you done to me?”
Kuda ducked behind Lumina for safety. “Y-y-yeah,” she stammered. “What have you done to him?”
“I just de-spiked your spikes,” Lumina replied matter-of-factly. “Now no one needs to be scared of you.”
The stonefish looked worried. “What? Nooo! You can’t do this! I’m the scariest thing in the ocean!” He thrashed around and let out a deafening roar to prove his point.
Kuda peeked from behind Lumina. Something about a huge fish covered in pearls didn’t seem so scary after all. “Not so much the scariest. Just the loudest,” the sea horse ventured.
The stonefish looked miserable—as if he wasn’t sure how to act without his weapons. “Great. Just great. What am I supposed to do now?” he asked, deflated.
Lumina swam closer. “Just be nicer,” she suggested. “Stop trying to frighten everyone. Get to know your fellow fish.”
“Easy for you to say.” The stonefish pouted, sinking into the sand. “Everyone runs from me.”
Lumina sat beside him and patted his fin gently. She hated to see anyone—even a big scary stonefish—feel lonely and left out. Having spent so much time by herself at the sea cave, she knew what it felt like. “Well, I think you should give the pearls a chance. Once no one’s afraid of you, I bet you’ll have loads of friends,” she said sweetly.
The stonefish considered Lumina’s words. “You think? I don’t know. It seems wrong for a stonefish. And I’m not so good at friendliness.”
Lumina waved her hand through the air, sweeping the stonefish’s concerns away. “We’re heading to the city. There’s lots of fish there, Mr. Doom. And you could practice being friendly to them.”
“The name’s Spike,” the stonefish replied, showing a hint of a smile. “You don’t mind if I come along?”
Lumina rose and held out her hand toward Spike. “I’d be honored,” she said with a curtsey.
Kuda inched her way toward Spike. “And I’d be more nervous than honored,” she half joked, offering her tail. “But I’ll give it a shot.”
The three new friends joined fins and took off through the wide-open sea.
As Lumina headed toward the city, Murray snaked his way through the kelp forest to her sea cave. He carried a coil of rope and a mermaid-size sack. When he arrived, he knocked on the front door. Rap. Rap. Rap. “Candy-gram!” he shouted in his best girly voice.
He knocked again, louder this time. “Bob the Birthday Squid!” he tried.
Still no answer.
RAP. RAP. RAP. RAP. “Eel Scout Cookies!” he called. “Collecting for Snails Without Tails!”
Where is that girl? he thought impatiently. He peeked through the open window. Nobody home. He slithered inside and inspected each room. In the kitchen, he found a note Lumina had written. He read it aloud. “ ‘Aunt Scylla— You left behind your ball invitation, so we’re bringing it to you. See you at the castle. Love, Lumina.’ ”
With his tail, Murray crumpled up the note in frustration. “Victims! Never there when you need them,” he mumbled grumpily. He poked around the room, looking for something—anything—to make his journey worthwhile. Nothing! He zoomed into Scylla’s room next. “As long as I’m here . . . ,” he reasoned.
He nosed around Scylla’s dresser, looking at her various knickknacks. Then he spotted a keepsake box covered in seashells. He opened it with the tip of his tail and peered in. “Oh,” he gasped, admiring a small pearl baby bracelet at the bottom of the box. He picked it up to examine it more closely and flashed an evil grin. The bracelet carried the royal seal.
He’d found the proof. Now all he needed was the girl.
Lumina, Kuda, and Spike wound their way farther through the dense kelp, cracking jokes along the way. It’s nice, Lumina thought, to have a new friend along.
Suddenly, Kuda got snagged in a bit of kelp that seemed to come alive and trap her!
“Huh?” Kuda cried, surprised. “Help! Kelp! Help! Kelp!”
“Whoa!” Spike cried, lunging toward Kuda. “She swam right into a bed of SnarlyKelp! That stuff never lets go!”
Lumina and Spike struggled to free their sea horse friend, but the kelp tried to grab them, too. Lumina bobbed and weaved, ducking out of the SnarlyKelp’s reach.
“Spike, quick! If I uncap one of your spikes, do you think you could use the point to cut Kuda loose without stabbing or poisoning her?” Lumina asked.
Spike bit his lip, unsure. “Maybe,” he said. “There’s a first time for everything.”
Lumina nodded. She waved her hands and a large pearl popped off one of the stonefish’s spikes. “Be careful,” she said.
Spike swam underneath Kuda and tried to sever the SnarlyKelp strands without touching the sea horse.
Kuda’s eyes grew big with panic. “Hey, wait!” she cried. “Isn’t there another way?” She struggled to move away from Spike.
“Hold still!” Spike pleaded. “You’ve got to hold still!”
As Kuda forced herself to remain calm and still, Spike carefully jabbed at the last strand of SnarlyKelp. Snap!
Kuda broke free. “Thanks, Spike. Okay, that’s it. I’ve had it. I’m going home. Scylla was right. We’ll never make it in one piece to the—” Kuda stopped speaking when she noticed Lumina and Spike grinning goofily at something behind her.
Kuda turned around slowly to see a stunning, glittering mermaid city. In the center of the skyline, the royal castle sparkled. They’d made it!
Overjoyed, Lumina floated down the hill, toward the bustling, brilliant streets. In all the commotion, she didn’t notice that her aunt’s invitation to the ball had fallen out of her pouch.
Lumina couldn’t believe her eyes. Seagundia was even more beautiful than it had been in her dreams. The city’s tall floating buildings were decorated with scalloped doorways and starfish topiaries. Its avenues teemed with merfolk riding in gilded carriages pulled by orca whales. Street vendors sold delicacies from turtle-shell pushcarts.
It all took Lumina’s breath away. “Wow.” She sighed and looked at her dumbstruck friends with a smile. She knew that with time, they would love this city as much as she already did.
Honk! Honk! Just then, a two-orca carriage came speeding up behind them. Its merman driver honked his blowfish horn at them. “Hey, out of my way!” he shouted.
“Sorry!” Lumina replied as she darted from his path just in time and bumped into a passerby. “Excuse me!”
“Everyone is in such a hurry,” Kuda said.
Lumina nodded and glanced at Spike, who was still skulking along in the shadows. She knew he felt nervous about how merfolk might react to seeing a stonefish on their city streets. “Spike, why are you hiding? You have nothing to worry about,” she reminded him.
“Okay,” Spike replied unsurely. He stepped out into the sunlit street. “The screaming usually kicks in about now.” He cringed, waiting.
But instead of screaming, a nearby mermaid approached him. “Love your pearls,” she said.
Spike grinned in surprise. “You do?”
“Oh, yeah,” another mermaid added. “Great look!”
Before long a crowd of admirers had gathered around Spike.
“Let me see!”
“Who does your spikes?
Spike fluttered his eyelashes and basked in all the attention. It was amazing. Lumina beamed with pride. She loved helping a friend feel confident.
“Talk about an extreme makeover!” Kuda exclaimed. Then something farther down the street caught her eye. “Lumina, look!” she cried.
Lumina cast a glance down the road and grinned. Aunt Scylla was walking out of a shop! She had her head down, searching for something in her bag.
“It’s Scylla!” Kuda confirmed. “Have you got her invitation?”
Lumina rummaged through her pouch, but the invitation was nowhere to be found. “It’s gone! I must have lost it on the way!”
“What?” Kuda cried, nervously swimming around in circles. “She is never going to believe us. She’ll be angry we left the reef!”
Lumina cringed. Kuda had a point. “Well,” she said, recovering, “I’ll just explain that we were trying to help out and you’ll be grounded for a year!” Kuda interrupted. “Come on!” The sea horse zipped off, dragging Lumina by her tail.
They dashed down an alley, checking behind them to make sure Scylla hadn’t spotted them yet. Kuda eyed a doorway nearby and motioned toward it.
“Wait,” Lumina whispered urgently. “What about Spike?”
They looked back to see Spike surrounded by admirers.
“He’s doing fine!” Kuda replied. “Quick! In here!”
They ducked through the door and slammed it shut.
Lumina leaned against the door to catch her breath.
“Whew!” Kuda sighed with relief.
Just then, a large, billowy orange octopus with a fancy hairdo bustled toward them.
“Oh, thank goodness!” the octopus cried, sweeping her hair out of her face.
Lumina and Kuda exchanged a look. Huh?
The octopus grabbed Lumina by the arm and dragged her through a curtain. Kuda followed them.
In the next room, Lumina saw a busy beauty salon. Merfolk sat, having their hair done and their faces made up. The walls echoed with their chatter. Lumina heard music playing in the background and noticed photos on the walls of glamorous mermaids modeling gorgeous hairdos. The room was lined with pink and purple drapes. What a fun place to work, Lumina thought.
“This way, sweetie,” the octopus clucked. “I’ll get you all set up!”
Lumina paused. “But I . . . ,” she started. Obviously this octopus—lovely as she was—had mistaken Lumina for someone else. She had to explain.
But the octopus didn’t seem to have heard Lumina. She whisked her by various styling stations for hair, nails, and makeup. There was even a whirlpool for spa treatments!
“So, do you have references? Do you have a résumé? Do you have a hairpin? My bun’s coming undone!” The octopus fired questions at Lumina, making her head spin.
They passed a customer sitting in a chair shaped like a seashell. “Madame Ruckus!” The customer beckoned to the orange octopus. “Are you sure this blush is right for the royal ball?” She examined her cheeks in a hand mirror.
Madame Ruckus swirled the customer’s chair around. “Trust me, honey,” she cooed. “That color is you!” Then she returned her attention to Lumina, hustling her into a styling station by the front window. “Now, let’s see what you can do!” she announced.