Please, please don’t die on me… not now… not when we’re so close!
Ariel lugged the Prince’s body out of the water and onto the sands of the beach. She wanted to lie down next to him and catch her breath. Swimming all night with that extra weight wasn’t easy, even for a mermaid. But she couldn’t abandon the Prince to such a cruel fate… so handsome… so brave… The gentle rise and fall of his chest felt like the grand prize at the end of a race.
Oh thank heavens, he’s alive!
Somewhere in the distance, bells were tolling. The faint pink in the sky told Ariel it was dawn already and reminded her of Ursula and the stone. She didn’t have the stone yet! What was worse, she had lost the gold cuff that was supposed to transport her back to Ursula when she jumped into the water to save the Prince. What a disaster!
Ariel was desperate. As she searched the Prince, the stone fell out of one of his pockets. She reached for it, hoping it was all finally over, when the gorgeous blue stone burnt her on touch.
Her fingers reddened where the stone had touched them and Ariel could not fathom why. The sand around it was cool and yet the stone burned like a coal amidst fire. She tried to pick it up again but in vain. She was tired and frustrated and worried about the Prince waking up to find her in the middle of blatant robbery. Just then, she heard voices. Human voices…
There was rustling in the trees nearby. Someone was coming… She had to get out of there, having heard enough horrific stories to know what would happen to her if she were caught. Ariel slithered back to the ocean, where she belonged, hoping the Prince would have no memory of his saviour.
“So… you’re not angry?”
To Ariel’s utter astonishment, Ursula had taken the news well.
“Oh, I should’ve known. When the cuff returned to me without you, I knew something had gone wrong. And now you tell me you can’t touch this stone?”
Ariel nodded. “I tried but it… it seemed to repel my touch somehow!” She showed Ursula her reddened fingers.
The Sea-Witch was lost in thought. Could the myth about the stone be true? If so, the stone was practically lost to her. She would have to find another way to break the curse…
“Not your fault, Red. There were stories… about the stone… that it recognized possession. You see, the Prince slayed the beast, so the stone now rightfully belongs to him. The only way it could ever pass on to someone else would be if the Prince willingly gave it to them. Or… if it was taken from him by force, precisely murder. Either way, I don’t think…”
Ariel wasn’t listening anymore. Her brain seemed to have frozen on a singular thought… the Prince… lying dead, as a faceless man holding a bloodied sword stood over him with the stone in his hand.
She tried to push the image away but the Prince’s lifeless face swam before her eyes and stuck there. She couldn’t let that happen. Not after all that she had done to save him…
Oh what the hell! Ariel closed her eyes and spoke the inevitable.
“You’ll have your stone, Ursula. Just get me to him again.”
Father and her sisters were waiting at the breakfast table to hear all about her close encounter of The Upper World kind. Ariel just wanted to curl up in her bed and sleep off the exhaustion. She had no patience to make up a fancy story while Ursula’s warning was still ringing in her ears.
“It’s not easy, what you’re trying to do. The Prince won’t give up the stone.”
Of course, Ariel knew that. But she had to try.
To any ordinary person, he wouldn’t. But maybe to the girl who saved his life?
Her plan sounded rudimentary even to her. She kept reassuring herself that all she needed was to get close to the Prince and convince him she was the one he owed his life to. And it would all work out. It had to.
Ursula’s words echoed in her head all night.
“It’s your party, Red. The only help I can give you is by enchanting the gold cuff again and giving you legs. But be careful. The longer you use them, the more unbearable the pain will become. Every step you take will be a torment.”
The next morning, within minutes of arriving at Ursula’s lair, she found herself transported to the beach where she’d last seen the Prince. She slipped on the gold cuff, and the pain of her tail disappearing to form a pair of slender legs made her wince.
Brace yourself, Ariel. There’s more pain to come.
The first step she took was agony. With every step after, she wished death upon herself. And yet, she kept walking towards the castle, muttering curses inside her head, her lips sealed shut from the fear of letting a scream escape.
A few minutes later, she had wandered into the most spectacular garden she had ever seen. There were roses everywhere in full boom, their heavy heads shaking in the cool sea breeze that passed through. Despite her pain, she smiled.
“You have a beautiful smile, my lady.”
Ariel turned on the spot, and found herself staring at the handsome face she had crossed a world to save. The Prince was smiling at her, waiting for her to say something. Ariel was speechless, though not out of choice. The pain had worsened and she wouldn’t be able to get a single word out without screaming in agony.
She tried to smile coyly and curtseyed, hoping the Prince would understand that she meant to thank him. Her eyes had started to water from all the effort it took to rein in the pain.
It was a few seconds before a look of sudden realisation spread across the Prince’s face.
“Forgive me, my lady, I wasn’t aware of your predicament. I am sure, if you could speak, your voice would be as melodious as your smile is beautiful.”
Wait, what? What did that mean? Did he think she was mute?
Ariel opened her mouth to clarify the misunderstanding but a cry of pain threatened to escape. Resigning, she smiled. Again.
“I believe this is your first visit here? I would have remembered such a beautiful face had I seen it before.”
When Ariel blushed and nodded, the Prince offered her his arm.
“These gardens are my favourite place. It would be an honour to show you around.”
A walk was the last thing Ariel wanted to go on. But she didn’t want to let go of the Prince’s arm. Holding him, listening to his voice, it made her heart race. And those jolts she felt in her stomach every time he smiled at her? Now that was something new. If only she could talk to him!
Unbelievable, that Ursula! Can’t manage a spell for painless legs and calls herself a Sea-Witch!
When the afternoon sun was upon them, a royal guard arrived, waiting to escort the Prince back to the castle. To Ariel’s surprise, the Prince sent him back but not before asking him to return with refreshments. Soon enough, a picnic was laid out under the shade of one of the trees and the Prince continued to entertain his speechless audience.
He sure loves to talk…
They resumed their walk and Ariel’s thoughts wandered off to places in her heart she never knew existed. The Prince was by her side in each and every one of them. She wished she could forget everything and stay there forever…
A tiny voice in her head snapped at her. Focus, Ariel! Focus. Remember what you came here for? Remember Xandria? Get your sappy emotions together and get the stone!
The royal guard cleared his throat and announced that the Prince’s presence was requested at the castle.
“Forgive me, my lady, I didn’t realise the time! You must have thought me inconsiderate. I didn’t mean to keep you here all day… It’s just… I was really nervous about tomorrow and what better distraction than talking to a friend, right? At least, I hope we’ve become friends after today, though I don’t even know your name!”
Ariel’s heart leapt in her chest. She’d never really had a male friend before. Her sisters were going to be so jealous!
The Prince continued without waiting for her answer.
“Everyone in the castle has just one thing on their mind and that’s all they want to talk about. It was a little overwhelming, so I came here to catch my breath. I guess, I just needed to get through this day at my own pace. I found you and, well, you listened. I am grateful!”
Okay… what was that about?
Ariel was lost and the Prince seemed to have realised it. He gave an embarrassed little laugh that caused Ariel’s heart to leap again.
“You really are new here, aren’t you? I just assumed you were one of the wedding guests but I suppose you haven’t found out yet.”
Found out what? What wedding?
“It’s hard to believe but just two nights ago, I almost died in a terrible storm at sea. I thought it was the end when I fell overboard but somehow I was swept ashore. Our ship must have been pretty close to land…”
The hell it was! It took me forever to bring you ashore!
“Well, I was unconscious for long but when I finally came to, I saw the most beautiful girl looking down upon me, trying to expel the water from my lungs. I realised she’d saved my life… and… stolen my heart, all at once!”
Ariel was fuming. Well, that’s just perfect, isn’t it? You would have woken up by yourself just fine but Little Miss Heart-Stealer had to swoop in to take the credit!
“What happened next was the most marvellous coincidence! When she brought me to the castle, I found out she was the princess I was betrothed to by my father! They wished to surprise me with the good news upon my arrival! Imagine my joy! The wedding wasn’t supposed to be for another month but seeing as I almost died… she didn’t want to wait. She saved me… we were meant to be. So I just…”
Ariel’s body was devoid of any sensation. Everything was gone. The pain, the funny jolts in her stomach, the racing heart… Her world seemed to have collapsed and reduced to a single thought.
He was getting married. To the girl he thought had saved his life. Tomorrow.
The Prince was rummaging in his pocket for something but Ariel didn’t seem to care. Not until…
“I got this made for her as a wedding ring. The blue reminds me of the day we met on the beach. Do you think she’ll like it?”
Ariel felt her insides churn as she stared at the blue stone, Ursula’s blue stone, now adorned in silver to form an exquisite wedding ring.
The Prince put the ring back in his pocket and took Ariel’s hand in farewell.
“I’m afraid I must take your leave, my lady. I wish I knew your name! But I hope to see you at the wedding. I would love for you to meet my wife. She could join us for our next walk in the garden!”
But Ariel was done… with the walking, the pain, and the stone. The Upper World could go to hell.
To be continued…