“They did, and travelers would come to see it,” Thea agreed. “They even attracted the attention of gods like Poseidon.”
“Poseidon was the god of the ocean,” Penn explained. “In her naïveté, Peisinoe thought she could entice him with her swimming, and he would fall in love with her and take her away.
“And maybe he did fall in love with her.” Penn brushed the sand away from her legs and stared into the fire. “Many men and a few gods have fallen for her over the years. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t enough.”
“Persephone was engaged to be wed,” Thea said, taking back the story. “She had much to do, but instead of helping her, all four of her handmaidens went out to the ocean to swim and sing. Poseidon had invited them out, and Peisinoe was certain that this would be the day he would ask her to marry him. If she could just impress him enough.”
“Unfortunately, that also happened to be the day when someone decided to abduct and rape Persephone,” Penn said. “The handmaidens were supposed to watch over her, but they weren’t even close enough to hear her screams.”
“Her mother, Demeter, was a goddess, and she was furious,” Thea said. “She told Achelous of his daughters’ failure to protect Persephone. But since Achelous was more powerful than Demeter, she had to ask for his permission before she could inflict a punishment on Thelxiepeia, Aglaope, and Peisinoe.”
“Peisinoe knew their father wouldn’t protect them, as he hadn’t cared about them their entire life, so she went to Poseidon, begging him to intervene,” Penn said. “She pleaded with him, offering him every part of herself unconditionally if he would only help her and her sisters.”
There was a long pause during which nobody said anything. Gemma had leaned forward, her arms resting on her knees as she hung on every word.
“But he didn’t,” Penn said, so quietly Gemma could barely hear her over the lapping of waves. “Nobody saved them. They only had each other to rely on, the way they always had, the way they always would.”
“Demeter cursed them to the life they had chosen instead of protecting her daughter,” Thea explained. “She made them immortal, so they would have to live with their folly every day without end. The things they loved would become the things they despised.”
“What things?” Gemma asked.
“They had been too busy flirting, swimming, and singing when Persephone was kidnapped,” Thea said. “So that’s what they were cursed to become.”
“She made them part bird, with a voice so hypnotic no man could deny it,” Penn said. “Men would be completely enraptured by it and have to follow it.
“But Demeter also made the girls part fish, so they could never be far from the water. When their suitors came for them, following the sound of their voices, their ships would crash into the shore and they would die.”
“That, of course, isn’t the worst part of the curse,” Thea explained with a wry smile. “Every man would fall in love with their voice, their lovely appearance, but no man would ever get past that. They’d never really know the girls for who they actually were, never really love them. It would be impossible for any of the four girls to ever really fall in love and be genuinely loved in return.”
Penn and Thea were silent for a time, letting Gemma absorb it all. But it was fairly obvious what the story was about.
“You’re the three sisters?” Gemma pointed to them one by one. “Peisinoe, Thelxiepeia, and Aglaope.”
“Not exactly.” Penn shook her head. “It’s true that I was once Peisinoe, and Thea was once Thelxiepeia. But Lexi is a replacement for Ligeia, who died many, many years ago.”
“Wait. Lexi replaced one of you?” Gemma asked. “Why do you have replacements? And where’s your other sister, Aglaope?”
“It’s part of Demeter’s curse,” Thea answered. “We chose our friend and sisters over her daughter, then we must always be with our friends and sisters. There must always be four of us, together. We can never leave or be apart for more than a few weeks at a time.”
“If one of us leaves, she will die, and we have to replace her,” Penn explained. “We only have until the current moon is full to fill her role.”
“I’m Aglaope’s replacement.” Gemma swallowed hard as the realization struck her. “What if I don’t want to be?”
“You have no choice. You are already a siren. If you try to leave instead of joining us, you will die, and we will simply replace you.”
“How?” Gemma asked. “How did I turn? That flask?”
“Yes. It was a … mixture of a few things.” Penn chose her words carefully.
“A mixture of what?” Gemma asked.
Penn shook her head. “It’s nothing to concern yourself with now. You wouldn’t even understand what they were. In time, it’ll all be explained to you.”
“Why?” Gemma asked, a new tremor to her voice. “Why me? Why did you want me to join you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Penn asked. “You’re beautiful, you love the water, and you’re fearless. Aglaope was too afraid, and we needed someone different.”
“She wasn’t afraid,” Thea countered. “She was considerate.”
“It doesn’t matter what she was,” Penn said sharply. “She’s gone, and we have Gemma now.”
“So … you expect me to just join you, leave everything I’ve ever known, and spend my life singing and swimming?” Gemma asked.
“That doesn’t sound so terrible, does it?” Penn asked.
“It really is wonderful,” Lexi chimed in. “Once you get used to it. It’s a million times better than anything a mortal life could give you.”
“But what if I…” Gemma trailed off and lowered her eyes, thinking of Harper, her parents, Alex. She lifted her head, meeting Penn’s eyes. “I don’t want this.”
“Then you will die,” Penn said. She shrugged as if she couldn’t care less, but her voice was hard and her eyes burned. “If that’s what you wish, then so be it.”
“Penn.” Lexi sighed and gave Gemma a softer smile. “It’s a lot to take in, I know, and you don’t have to decide today. Once you have some time to think, you’ll realize that this is the best thing that could have ever happened to you.”