Pt. I--1. Talent that I always have possessed

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The seahorse lay on the sandy floor of the temple, motionless, its tail smashed flat. Ursula crouched over it, murmuring something low and quick and repetitive, as she traced over each ridge of the injured tail with a fingertip.

The circle of seafolk around her pressed in closer, trying to get a better look. Ursula squinted her eyes in concentration. She had to ignore the whispering above her head and the rustling of so many tentacles at ear level—the soft thud of octopus arms, the shifting sounds of squid, the whoosh of countless jellyfish tendrils. It seemed that the entire community of healers had gathered in the central room of the temple to witness her work today.

She wrapped a piece of dark green seaweed around the horse's delicate tail, then clasped the entire body gently in her hand and held the creature to her heart. She fell silent and still, and gradually, so did the others in the room. Ursula closed her eyes and relaxed her face until only a hint of a smile remained at the corners of her lips. Her eight charcoal-hued tentacles lay in loose heaps around her.

Minutes passed. She felt faint movement in her hand and her smile widened, exposing small white teeth and oddly pointed bicuspids. She opened her eyes to watch the seahorse wriggle free from her grasp. It cast off the seaweed as it repetitively furled and unfurled its perfect tender tail. A delighted gasp rose from the crowd as the seahorse swam to Ursula's eye level, studied her a moment, then drifted down and pressed the end of its snout to the tip of her nose.

Ursula laughed as the seahorse swam away and passed out of sight. She stood up and looked at the faces of her elders with sparkling, excited eyes. They beamed down at her in return, all of them: the priestesses and priests, the counselors, the doctors and shamans and prophets. She could feel herself flushing with pride, and knew her lavender cheeks had turned the color of plums.

A voice spoke from above. "Ursula, it is your eighth birthday, but it seems you are the one giving out gifts today."

Everyone watched as Ephram, the High Priest floated down from his platform, which was situated behind the child and three quarters of the way up the temple walls. He landed noiselessly before her small form. His black eyes glittered in his kindly ancient face. Like all members of her tribe of mystics and healers, the High Priest had the same form as a human or merman from the waist up, but his lower half was composed of tentacles. He had eight gleaming, pearlescent limbs like those of an octopus. His white suction cups glowed faintly with benevolent magic, as did his white hair.

He continued: "You show most excellent promise as a healer, dear child. We are so glad to have you among us. We celebrate you, Ursula, today and every day!" Ephram prompted the crowd to repeat with a grand, upward swoop of both arms.

"We celebrate you, Ursula, today and every day!" they shouted merrily.

The crowd engulfed the child into a tumble of hugs, head pats, and kisses. Some stroked her dimpled cheeks, still violet from all of the attention. Some squeezed her hand or her upper arm, while others entwined the end of a tentacle around one of hers and raised them overhead, creating that universal gesture of victory. There were birthday songs, little gifts pressed against her palm, and questions about the seahorse.

And at the center of it all, there was one very happy, very kind, very gifted little cecaelian that knew what she wanted to do the rest of her life: help and heal anyone she could, just as she had today. 

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Ursula had lived among the healers for most of her life. Her mother had brought her to the temple when she was three. She couldn't contain Ursula's magical tendencies, and being non-magical herself, she couldn't teach her daughter how to channel or develop her talents appropriately. It was a bittersweet blessing, then, to live in a kingdom where such children were taken in by the priestly class and nurtured so that their skills could be used for the good of all.

Atlantica was unique in this way. In most other underwater kingdoms, powerful tentacled beings were more likely to be mistrusted by merfolk than revered. In some places, individuals like Ursula were persecuted to the point that they only worked in secret. Atlantica welcomed such unfortunates coming from foreign seas, and as a result, the range of supernatural abilities on tap at its temple was unparalleled.

The temple sat behind the royal palace, which was a shimmering, sandy-gold spread of magnificent towers and spires. Most of the palatial rooms were reserved for the royal family--King Nepp, Queen Galataye, their sons Alphon, Ganeon, and Triton, and their twin daughters, Halimede and Psamanthe. But Ephram the High Priest also lived there, as Atlantican tradition dictated. The private quarters reserved for the standing High Priest or Priestess opened into an enormous garden with a brilliant coral labyrinth at its center. The temple sat at the other end of the garden, and the enchantment of the place spilled over, causing the coral to arrange themselves into a new maze daily.

The holy temple was a series of domes. There were three main rooms inside the large building, each with rounded walls and arched ceilings. These halls were for rituals, ceremonies, and large meetings. Then there were countless small chambers that bubbled out from the main structure in vertical rows that ran from the top of the building to the bottom. These rooms were spaces for private study, reflection, and counsel. Even smaller spherical nooks encircled these chambers, and these pockets were used to grow patches of medicinal plants or to hold supplies. The construction extended beneath the sea floor to house an impressive library.

The outside of the temple was white now; it emitted the same kind of gentle, pale glow that the Ephram did. But it had been other colors throughout history. It had a way of taking on the essence of the person that ran it, and Ephram the Venerable had done so for a very long time.

Those that worked under the High Priest lived in dwellings scattered around the temple, outside the palace grounds. Ursula was raised in the humble home of an elderly couple that had been appointed for her care. Melisande was an incredible surgeon that made clothing and jewelry in her spare time. Ursula loved watching her work in the temple and at home; there was nothing she couldn't make—or make better—with a simple needle. Her husband, Dismas, prepared the dead for funerary ceremonies. He too was skilled with a needle, and sometimes let Ursula assist him. She wasn't allowed to touch the deceased, but she could hand him tools and fetch things he needed. She absorbed everything he told her about anatomy as he worked.

Ephram tracked Ursula's magical development with interest. Her natural gift lay in the realms of healing work and protective spells, but she showed remarkable progress in any area she chose to study. And study she did—she was a most industrious little scholar. He believed she had an important role to play in the near future, because he believed the near future to be a time of likely upheaval. Her ability to shield and mend others would be crucial. The clairvoyants he convened with agreed, but they differed on exactly what kind of crisis the kingdom was nearing.

Shortly after Ursula's eighteenth birthday, the picture came into sharper focus. The good King Nepp was failing, and at an earlier age than a merman might expect. The healers worked diligently to sustain him. He was beloved by all, and furthermore, there was a general consensus in the temple halls that his heir to the throne—eldest son Alphon—was, at 25, too young and inexperienced to make a decent ruler.

The problem was that nothing was working. The king fell ill again and again, never fully recovering before the next round of infirmity hit. This was when Ursula, famous among her circle of menders but unknown outside of it, was introduced to the royal family. 

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