The door swung open and Julia was engulfed in pandemonium. The members of the clan were more excited, if possible, than they had been the first time they had met her. Cries of “Julia!” and “Alani!” filled the air, and she was embraced by hundreds of loving arms. She saw Lorelei with a big smile on her face and Triton with a bigger one. He approached and took hold of her hands in his formal manner.
“Princess, it’s so good to see you back safely. But where is Odin?”
“He isn’t here?” Julia was shocked, then realized that of course he wouldn’t have had time to reach the home grotto yet.
“What do you mean?” Triton looked worried. “Didn’t he come back with you?”
Julia explained what had happened, leaving out the details about Chac. Even so, she saw a shadow cross Triton’s face at the mention of the young fisherman who had behaved so gallantly. He’s jealous! thought Julia.
The young merman called several of the other mermen.
“A patrol should go to meet Odin,” he said. “He’s going to be tired and discouraged since he thinks we’ve lost Alani, and he may be less careful than usual.” The others agreed and went to get ready. Julia was impressed by Triton’s obvious authority. She said,
“I suppose you’ll tell him as soon as you meet him that I’m back.”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t we?”
“I just thought it would be fun to surprise him.” Her face reddened as she realized how infantile—and how selfish—she sounded.
Triton said gently, “You must understand how much he is suffering from having lost you. It would be cruel to keep him in ignorance.”
Julia nodded, her cheeks burning. “Can I go to my room to rest now? I’m exhausted.”
Triton was solicitous. “Of course, Princess. I’m sorry I didn’t suggest it myself.”
Julia turned away and swam toward her chamber. She had barely fallen asleep when she was awakened by an explosion of noise in the main room. Putting up her bed, she swam out into the crush of merpeople around Odin. The crowd parted, and he turned to her. His eyes were joyful at the sight of her, but his face was haggard from the intense grief he had experienced. He held out his arms and she rushed into them.
“Alani, I thought we had lost you forever. How in the sea did you escape?”
Laughing and crying, she hugged him, surprised by the force of her emotions. “It was easy. I had help.”
“From a human?” Odin looked grave. Triton nodded, mirroring Odin’s look. Julia rushed to reassure them.
“You don’t have to worry, really! I know this boy would never try to find us or tell other humans about us.” She remembered Chac’s earnest face and the unguarded admiration with which he had looked at her. “He risked his life to free me, so why would he tell anyone else about me? Besides, the place he released me is a half-day’s journey down the coast.”
“You swam all that way and managed to find the grotto on your own?” Odin looked impressed.
“Well, if you can do it, why shouldn’t I?” answered Julia. Now it was Triton’s turn to look at her in admiration.
“I’d like to say, Princess. . .” He stopped, embarrassed.
“What?” Julia said, laughing at his formality.
“I think you’re going to make an excellent queen.” The others nodded.
Julia looked around. There were Triton, Odin, Lorelei, the little red-haired girl who had brought her breakfast the first morning—what was her name?—oh, yes, Coral, and a few others she had met but whose names she had forgotten. Then there were all the other members of the clan she had yet to meet. She saw Amphitrite, Sirena and Calypso at the back of the crowd, nodding at her benignly. Odin was smiling and shaking his head as if he still couldn’t believe it. Julia felt a rush of affection for them all; these were her people and they really cared about her.
“How’s Nereus?” Julia asked Odin.
“He was upset when I told him what had happened to you, more upset than I thought a hermit could be. I wouldn’t have credited him with that much emotion.”
“Poor Nereus! Is there no way we can let him know of my escape?”
“I’m afraid not,” Odin began, and then, with his old joking spirit, “unless you’d like me to swim there tomorrow.”
“That would be a nice gesture,” responded Julia. Both she and Odin laughed at the horrified expressions on the faces of the rest.
They were interrupted by a call from the dining room, where a feast had been prepared to welcome them. It was a merry atmosphere, with much laughter and joking about Julia’s encounter with the fishermen. Finally Triton asked Odin what had happened at the merscholars’ grotto.
“I had almost forgotten about that, in the excitement of Alani’s escape,” chuckled the old merman. “There was good news and bad news. The good news is they assured Alani that she will find the ring. The bad news is that they couldn’t tell her when or where.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Triton said, “We’ll start looking first thing tomorrow. We’ll comb the coral reefs and the sea bottom from here to Xcaret. I know it’s been done, but this time we’ll literally leave no stone unturned. Who wants to help?”
Several eager hands went up, including Julia’s. Odin smiled as he looked around the table. “I’m glad to see so much support. I feel confident leaving the search in younger hands. Right now I feel as if I could sleep until you find the ring!”
Julia agreed. Her nap had taken the edge off her weariness, but with the heavy meal, she felt as if her head would start nodding at any moment. The party broke up and the conquering heroes went to their rooms for a well-deserved night’s sleep.