Modern Fairy Tales Ch. 05byKarennaC©
Once upon a time, in the palace of the Sea King, a party was in full swing. It was the eighteenth birthday of the king's youngest daughter, Ariana, and every merperson in the area had come to celebrate.
But Ariana wasn't enjoying her party. She preferred peace and quiet to the loud celebrations that often occurred in the palace, and usually managed to slip away after an obligatory few minutes of attendance. Unfortunately, leaving her own birthday festivities wasn't an option. Too many people wanted to speak to her, to congratulate her on becoming an adult, or to dance with her. If she left, everyone would look for her, and her father would be furious.
Instead, she stayed in the palace ballroom, chafing in the decorative shells and anemones her grandmother had adorned her with. How much longer would this torture go on?
In addition to her discomfort, Ariana had another reason for wanting the party to end. On this, her eighteenth birthday, she finally had the option of rising to the human world to see the wonders her sisters and friends had told her about. Granted, she would have to remain in the water, and would therefore be unable to see everything she was so curious about, but at least she could get a glimpse of the life humans lived. If she could ever get out of the ballroom.
Her father came over to her, followed by a merman Ariana hadn't seen before. "Daughter, I wish you to meet Lord Havian," the Sea King said. "He has traveled quite a distance to attend your birthday ball."
"It's a pleasure," Ariana lied. She didn't want to meet yet another potential dance partner.
"The pleasure is mine, Lady Ariana." Havian took her hand and brought it to his lips. "I have heard of the beauty of the king's youngest daughter, and wanted to view it for myself."
Ariana rolled her eyes. She'd heard many compliments and propositions that night, but none as corny as this. "I hope I meet your expectations," she said.
"You surpass them," Havian replied.
"Daughter, Lord Havian has requested the pleasure of your company tomorrow," the king said. "He wishes to court you, and I have agreed. Your maid will accompany you tomorrow, and you and Havian may spend the day becoming acquainted."
Court her? Ariana was just eighteen! True, three of her sisters had married at her age, but she had no intention of marrying so young. There were too many things she wished to do, too much to see. "Father, Lord Havian, I appreciate the attention and the compliment, but I do not wish to be courted."
"Daughter, you will follow my wishes," the king replied. "Lord Havian made a respectful request, and you will grant it with your company tomorrow. And if all goes well, a wedding will be planned."
Over her dead body. Ariana didn't even like the looks of Havian. She could hardly imagine spending her life with him, let alone sharing her body as she knew a wife would be expected to do. Ariana didn't intend to marry at all, and certainly wouldn't marry someone her father had chosen. He might have her best interests at heart, but he, like the rest of her family, did not understand her in the least. "Father, I don't feel that one day's acquaintance would be sufficient basis for a marriage," she said.
"And as your father, I overrule that decision," he replied. "This is a discussion best held in private, daughter. You do not wish to argue in front of Lord Havian, surely."
Ariana didn't actually care who they were arguing in front of, but she knew that to her father, appearances were everything. "My apologies," she said through gritted teeth. "Father, I wish to take advantage of my option to visit the surface. When might I do so?"
Havian chuckled. "I have heard that you are quite fascinated by the tailless beasts who live outside the sea, my dear. Perhaps we could visit the surface together tomorrow."
"Perhaps. But for my first visit, I would prefer to go alone." Ariana turned back to her father. "Father, when, please? When might I go on my own?"
The Sea King paused. Ariana was his favorite child, the last his wife had given him before her death, and she greatly resembled her mother. Ariana knew that he might not wish her to go to the surface unaccompanied, but she was certain he would allow it, if for no other reason than he might see its importance to her. Finally he said, "Remain here for a short time longer, and then you may go."
Ariana flung her arms around him. "Thank you, Father! I promise, I'll be careful not to be seen by the humans."
"I trust that will be the case."
"I would be pleased to accompany you tonight," Havian said.
"That would be unwise," the Sea King said. "Ariana's maid has been dismissed for the evening, and there would be no one to chaperone. I am not willing to permit you to be alone with my daughter until the engagement is definite. It would not seem right."
Havian inclined his head. "As you wish, Sire. Ariana, perhaps I could trouble you for a dance before you go?"
Now that she was getting her way, Ariana felt more gracious toward the lord. "Of course. It would be my pleasure."
"Again, lady, the pleasure is mine."
He took her hand and they swam into the center of the dancing crowd. Ariana loved to dance, and was generally very graceful. But Havian was clumsy and clunky, and Ariana found herself unable to move the way she wished. Havian seemed to notice no problem; he smiled and chattered as though they were the most graceful couple in the room. Ariana was thankful when the music stopped. "Thank you for the dance," she said.
"Thank you," Havian replied. "You're a wonderful dancer."
Ariana couldn't bring herself to return the compliment; that would be too untruthful. "Thank you," she said instead.
"Havian!" A large merman swam to them. "You old dogfish! It's marvelous to see you." He realized who Havian was with. "Princess Ariana. I apologize for my rudeness, lady."
"It's fine," Ariana said. "I can see you know Lord Havian. I'll leave the two of you to talk."
"I'll find you afterward," Havian promised.
Not if Ariana could help it. Havian's friend was giving her the opportunity to escape for her visit to the surface. "Until later," she said.
As she swam away, she heard Havian say, "I can't wait until her father approves our engagement. She's a gorgeous little piece of tail, isn't she?" His friend rapidly hushed him; one didn't say such things about a princess. Havian's comment made Ariana more determined than before to avoid spending any time with him.
Without bothering to tell anyone where she was going, she left the ballroom. After overhearing Havian, she had no desire at all to remain. Her father would figure out where she had gone, and she would make her apologies to him and to any remaining guests when she returned. But now she needed to be away from the noise and the crowd. She needed to see the surface world.
Once out of the palace, Ariana swam swiftly upward. Her older sisters, who had already made this journey, had pointed her in the direction that would bring her to what they claimed was one of the most interesting parts of the surface world. "Buildings higher than the palace!" they'd claimed. "And so many humans! You'd never believe it if we told you."
Maybe not, but Ariana had always wished they would tell her more. Now, at last, she would have the chance to find out for herself.
She broke the surface of the water and looked around. Above her hung a large, white globe, surrounded by many points of light. "Moon and stars," she reminded herself from what she had learned about the human world. "They're beautiful!"
Ahead of her, she saw the city her sisters had told her about. She swam closer, drinking in the sight of the glowing lights and huge structures. How had humans built such enormous things?
A roar sounded from above her. Frightened, Ariana looked up and saw blinking lights passing over her. What was it? It appeared not to notice her, so Ariana relaxed and continued her swim.
As she neared the city, she saw some familiar things. Boats. She'd only seen them from below, of course, but they were immediately recognizable. Humans walked about on the decks of the boats, and in the still night air Ariana could hear their voices, though she couldn't make out the words they said. They were fascinating creatures, even more than she'd imagined they would be: the way they moved about on what she knew were called legs, the strange items that covered their bodies. Perhaps these items were needed in the air; it seemed colder than the ocean to her.
Cautious not to allow herself to be seen, Ariana swam still closer. Nearer the land, the boats were smaller, each occupied by only a few humans. Music played from some of the boats, some soft and beautiful, some loud and painful to Ariana's ears. But all of it was fascinating. Despite the stories from her sisters, she'd never expected anything like this.
Suddenly she heard a scream from one of the boats. She turned in time to see a human body hit the water. Rapidly, Ariana dove beneath the waves and swam to the site. She knew humans couldn't live below the ocean; this one might need her help.
When she reached the place, she saw a beautiful young man. His eyes were closed, and bubbles came from his nose. His long legs dangled beneath him. He seemed unable to swim to the surface. Ariana knew she wasn't supposed to interact with humans, but she couldn't allow this one to die. She grasped him beneath his arms and pulled him toward the land.
As she got closer to the land, the water became shallower. Long posts sank from above the water down into the sand below her, holding up flat structures to which some boats were tied. Looking up through the water, Ariana saw humans on the flat structures. Perhaps they would be able to help the young man. She pushed him ahead of her to the surface and held him, hoping that none of the humans would see her.
She heard a shout. "Someone's in the water!"
A splash sounded beside her. Quickly she let go of the man and swam away. She didn't want to; she wanted to remain with the young man and make sure he was all right. She wanted to stay with him in his world. She had never seen anything like him; she wanted to see more.
But she couldn't stay. She wasn't human, and it made no sense to her that she would want to stay with such a strangely-shaped creature. Nor would it be safe to do so; her entire life, she had been taught not to let humans see her. She waited until she saw the young man pulled from the water, then returned to her home. The party had ended; her father awaited her to confront her about leaving without notice. Ariana pretended to listen, but all the while, her mind was on the young man she had rescued. When she finally retired to her room for the night, he filled her dreams.
* * *
The next day, Lord Havian arrived at the palace before Ariana was fully awake. Reluctantly, she allowed her maid to assist her with the shells a princess was required to wear in her hair and on her tail. Her breasts, of course, were left bare; mermaids had no reason to cover themselves. Ariana was aware that mermen considered breasts alluring, but they were as much a part of the body as a tail or hair. It would never occur to her, or any other mermaid, to hide them.
Havian awaited her in her father's throne room. Her father stood beside him, indicating without words his approval of the man. Ariana's maid followed her and waited politely at the doorway to the throne room. "Daughter, Havian has arrived to spend the day with you," her father said. "Your maid, of course, will accompany you as chaperone. I trust that you will allow Havian to take you where he will, and that you will make an honest attempt to become acquainted with him so that you might make a wise decision as to his proposal."
Ariana had already decided. She wouldn't marry Havian under any circumstances. But it would only anger her father to hear that. He wanted what was best for her; she just didn't agree with his assessment of what was best. "Of course, Father," she replied.
"Enjoy yourselves." The Sea King returned to his throne, dismissing them.
Havian took Ariana's hand. She cringed at his touch, but managed to hide it. "Where shall we go, lady?" he asked. "What have you always wished to see?"
The city above the waves, she thought but did not say. "I shall go wherever you wish to take me," she replied.
"Very well. I know of a beautiful area nearby, filled with rocks and anemones. I think you will enjoy it. It is nearly as lovely as you."
Ariana rolled her eyes at the compliment, and did not thank him for it. Something about his words rang insincere. This man thought nothing of her, save what he would gain by marrying a princess. He would play the part, she could see; he would act as though he loved her until he had what he wanted. But she hadn't forgotten the overheard comment at the ball. What he wanted was something far less innocent than her time.
At least with her maid along, he would be unable to make any attempt at anything inappropriate. The maid had served Ariana nearly all her life, and would allow no harm to come to her. Ariana trusted the woman with her life.
As he had said, Havian brought them to a small garden-like area not far from the palace. Ariana wondered that she had not discovered it herself on one of her exploratory trips. "It is lovely," she said. "Thank you for bringing me here."
"Its loveliness pales in comparison to yours."
Havian pulled her to him and pressed his lips to hers. Ariana struggled, but he was much stronger than she. His tongue insinuated itself between her lips; his hand came up to cover one small breast. Ariana slapped his arm, but he did not let go. And her maid did not speak up to stop him.
Finally, Ariana was able to break the kiss. But Havian did not release her breast. "I suggest you move your hand," Ariana said coldly.
"Do you not enjoy my touch, lady?" Havian asked. "All women like to have their bodies admired by men."
"I do not wish you to touch me at all." Ariana looked around for her maid, who waited at the edge of the garden. "Why don't you help me?"
"Lord Havian is doing nothing wrong." The maid smiled. "This is what womanhood is, my lady. This is what marriage will be. Enjoy what he offers."
"Indeed, enjoy it," Havian said. "Your maid already has."
Stunned, Ariana looked at her maid, who met her eyes with a lascivious smile. "You planned this," Ariana said. "You planned to bring me here and- and-"
"Of course, lady," Havian replied. "Surely you don't expect me to propose without sampling you." He caressed her lower back. "What shall I sample first?"
"Nothing!" Ariana jammed her elbow into Havian's ribs and rapidly swam away.
Once out of danger, Ariana burst into tears. How could her trusted maid have betrayed her this way? She had expected no better from Havian, but she had thought she would be able to depend on her maid to ensure her safety.
She swam toward the palace, but stopped before she reached it. What would she tell her father? Would he believe the truth? He had seemed pleased about the impending match with Havian. Perhaps he had known Havian's intentions. Even if he hadn't, he would be angry, and Ariana was uncertain at whom he would direct the anger. She had done nothing wrong, but her father might see it as rudeness on her part that she had fought Havian rather than simply turning him down.
She didn't want to return to the palace anyway. Ariana knew where she wanted to go. The young man she had saved was still in her thoughts, and she felt undeniably drawn to him. In her current form, she would be unable to find him, but if she were human... And being human, she would be able to live in the human world as she'd often dreamed, and would be away from Havian and others like him who sought to bed and wed a princess. In the human world, no one would know who she was.
Only one merperson could help her with that, and it was one Ariana was afraid to encounter. The Sea Witch, she who assisted the merfolk when she desired and made their lives more difficult when it pleased her to do so. Ariana knew the Sea Witch had the power to make her human, but she would have to offer something in return. What could she give?
As she swam to the Sea Witch's cave, Ariana searched her mind for something to offer. All the treasures she had were at the palace, and she had no way to retrieve them. The only item she had that the Sea Witch might find of value was a beautiful shell that had belonged to her mother. Ariana didn't want to give it up, but if it meant she could go to the human world and find the man who had taken over her thoughts, she would do it.
At the Sea Witch's cave, Ariana was met by two large sharks, who swam back and forth in front of the entrance, preventing any but the bravest from going inside. Ariana swallowed her fear and swam directly toward them, singing as she went. To her surprise, they allowed her to pass.
The Sea Witch waited just inside. "Greetings, Princess," she said. "I have been expecting you."
"Then you know why I'm here?"
"Indeed. You wish to be a human, one of those poor unfortunates who never know the joy of the sea, who are forced to walk about on two spindly sticks rather than gliding effortlessly through the water. Why do you wish this, Princess?"
"I visited the surface last night during my birthday ball," Ariana said. "I encountered one of them, a man who had fallen from a boat. He was beautiful, and I wish to find him again, for I can't stop thinking about him."
"It is unlikely you would be able to find him," the Sea Witch said. "The city which you saw contains thousands of humans. Most of them do not even know each other, and you know nothing of this man save what he looks like. How would you locate him?"
"If you can make me human, you can give me something that would enable me to find him. Please. I can't return to the palace; my father wishes to marry me off, and the man he has chosen is, in my mind, far from suitable. I want to marry for love, and I love the human I saved last night."
"Love does not develop as quickly as that," the Sea Witch said. "It is cultivated over time. However, you are clearly infatuated with the man, and therefore I will help you. I can transform you into a human woman, and I can aid you in finding this man. However, once you find him, you must attract him on your own. You must gain his love. Should you be unable to do so, you will die in human form, and will never see your home again. Are you willing to give this up for a man you have seen only once?"
"I would give up anything for him. If I die, at least I'll have experienced humanity. And maybe I will gain his love."
The Sea Witch nodded. "Then first I must have your payment."
"I haven't much to offer. Only this shell." Ariana held up the shell that had been her mother's. "It is dear to me, but I will give it up for this opportunity."
"Keep your bauble," the Sea Witch replied. "I wish something that is more a part of you. I will take your voice."
"My voice? But without that, how can I speak to the young man? How will I get him to love me if I cannot talk to him?"
"Women have many ways to attract men. Your form, your movements, the swing of your hair, all these things will draw the man to you if you use them properly. Your eyes speak volumes, Princess, without you uttering a sound. You will find a way. Your voice is the payment I require. Will you give it?"
What choice did she have? Return to her normal life and risk being married off to a man she despised, or give the Sea Witch what she demanded and chance finding true love. "I will," she said.
Those were the last words Ariana ever uttered. The moment her agreement was given, the Sea Witch forced her mouth against Ariana's, as Havian had done. The witch's slimy tongue pushed into Ariana's mouth, and Ariana felt something give way and flow into the witch. She wanted to vomit from the sensation of the witch's tongue in her mouth, but mercifully, the witch released her before that occurred. "Open your mouth, Princess," the witch ordered. "Try to speak."