Out by the sea, in a calm cove surrounded by a grove of orange and lemon trees, one could find the Girls Academy and Convent of St. Louisa. It was once a secluded sanctuary from the world where pure girls of various backgrounds could be kept safe from corrupting influences. After generations of abbesses who felt that girls should be taught what they liked so they could improve the world, St. Louisa’s was now known as one of the premier schools for a girl’s education. Some girls stayed in the convent all their lives out of devotion to God; many others went back out into the world to become respected leaders and experts.
Benedicta loved being at St. Louisa. She could study out on the beach, listening to the waves and staying out until the sun set. She could go on picnics with her friends under the lemon trees, take walks in the countryside, or help the nuns with their work. While other girls could study what they wanted, she had a study program as the crown princess of a neighboring kingdom. Her history class taught her about great queens of the past, with wonderful stories that she read through many times. As she was fifteen and her mother still reigned, she wouldn’t be a queen for a long while. Until then, she would study and figure out what would make her a great queen too.
One day, she went out with the other girls to walk along the beach. There had been a storm the night before, which always brought extra things onto shore. Sea shells, sea glass, driftwood… but that day, Benedicta found a man lying in the sand. She called over the other girls. As usual, her roommate Matilda had some smelling salts in her bag to wake the man up. He was able to tell them after a bit that his name was Valdis. He wasn’t able to enter the convent, but there was a guest house they helped him too.
But on the way out, Benedicta thought she saw someone else in the waves. She looked closer and it was just sea foam. Or was it? Eyes seemed to blink in the foam. But then Matilda asked her something and she kept walking with the group to the guest house.
That night, she had a dream that someone had been watching them from the waves. But who?
The Prince was safe; he would live. That was good. She wanted to go with him, to keep taking care of him and talk with him… to kiss him when he was awake. Thinking of him, his thick black hair as dark as the night sky and his strong body that danced with such energy… it made her heart ache not to be near him anymore. But she couldn’t go far across the dry sands of the upper beach; the air couldn’t hold her like the sea could. She couldn’t be with him now.
But, he could come here to meet with her.
She would wait for him.
Was he truly the only one who survived?
What had brought the wrath of the sea on them?
Who had been singing that mesmerizing song?
Who was that beautiful girl who saved him?
Well one thing was clear: he had the favor of God to survive. Not that such a thing had ever been in question. Valdis knew he had the favor of God. He was handsome, he had the adoration of everyone he came across, he never had to worry about a thing, and he was the prince of the greatest nation on Earth. Truly, he was the most blessed person alive. It sucked for every other person who celebrated his sixteenth birthday on that ship, sure. But he was blessed. He ought to live on, for their sakes.
But still, who was that girl who saved him? He’d woken up surrounded by lovely girls in their little seaside paradise. Unfortunately, their school was strictly females only and he had to keep off their sacred grounds. He was told that the one who found him was Benedicta, the one with lovely copper-red hair and eyes like emeralds. She had been the most beautiful of the bunch, with the most melodious voice to match. In this kind of place, it was difficult to tell if she was a noble or an orphan. St. Louisa’s school treated their girls as equals, as silly as it was.
Well if she wasn’t highborn enough to satisfy his parents, he could always bring her in as a courtesan. Then she would be his with or without marriage.
But while other girls came to visit him, Benedicta didn’t. What was keeping her?
The day after the prince showed up, a mermaid appeared on the beach. She was like a dainty doll, with fine silver hair and the fairest white skin. The little mermaid seemed strange sitting there on land, her elegant finned tail tapping the sand. If she were in the sea, Benedicta was sure she’d be graceful and wondrous. Curious, she went over to talk with her only to have the little mermaid slither back into the sea as quick as a startled bird. Benedicta did her reading on one of the beach rocks and occasionally caught glimpses of her. But she had to go back inside for a class at the start of the hour.
For a few days, time passed like that. Benedicta would take her studies out on the beach when she could, trying to get to a reading rock before startling the little mermaid. The mermaid started sitting in the tides, watching her and the rest of the beach from a safe spot. She would take off if it seemed Benedicta was trying to come closer. But as they grew accustomed to each other, the mermaid went back to sitting in the middle of the beach, her deep blue eyes searching for something.
Then came one wonderful day when the little mermaid slid across the fine sands closer to her. Benedicta hid how she noticed until the mermaid shyly asked, “What are you doing? You’re here every day.”
“I’m reading this book,” Benedicta said. “It’s about economic science and ways to encourage fair trade.”
“Um, what?” the little mermaid asked, her head tilted and her eyes utterly baffled.
As far as Benedicta knew, the great oceans and seas were complete mysteries. “It’s about how people buy, sell, and trade things,” she explained. “Also how to make sure one group is not taking advantage of another group. That’s so everyone is prosperous, not just a few.”
“That sounds difficult,” she said. “But everyone should be fair already? It’s not good to make others unhappy.”
“There are greedy people in the world who believe that they deserve to have more,” Benedicta said. “One must have discipline and empathy to avoid such pitfalls. Anyhow, I’m glad you came over today. I’m Benedicta, and you?”
“I’m Ondine,” the little mermaid said. Then she reached towards the book, unsure if she could touch it. “How does this book tell about complicated things about trading and fairness? It does not speak. I’ve seen them before in my father’s kingdom, but they fall apart and get eaten by fish.”
Setting the book down in her lap so Ondine could see it better, Benedicta put a finger near some words. “Books do get ruined by water, but look. These are all words. People write to record things, from what they know to how they feel. Then others read what was written to learn those things.”
“That’s an amazing magic!” she declared, staring at the book in wonder now.
“Yes, but anybody can learn to read,” she said, smiling at the mermaid’s enthusiasm.
“Even you.” Benedicta then drew a few letters in the sand, showing Ondine her name and other words that she asked about.
When she had to go back to the convent, she asked one of the sisters about teaching the mermaid to read. The nun wasn’t sure what would come of teaching a mermaid to read and write, but she was also delighted with the idea and agreed to go out to teach Ondine. Ondine herself was happy to learn, and amazed that they weren’t frightened of her. While there were a great many tales of wicked mermaids who sunk ships, ate humans, and made the seas dangerous, Ondine didn’t seem wicked. The nun felt there must be some misunderstanding going on and the best solution to that was communication and education. Benedicta was mostly happy that she had a new friend and could spend time every day with her.
The rest of spring and the following summer were full of wonderful days. Benedicta would go out to the beach to find Ondine studying her letters and they would talk for hours, exchanging tales of the sea for tales of the land. Sometimes, they went out swimming in the shallow waters, laughing and splashing each other with water. Other times, Benedicta would carry Ondine further inland to see the convent and its gardens. The flowers delighted Ondine and she loved to smell them; according to her, the flowers of the sea had little or no scents, although they were almost always in bloom.
“What happened to the Prince that I saved?” Ondine asked one day early in the summer.
“You mean Valdis? He was moved into town to recover from the injuries he took. And you saved him?”
She nodded. “I was watching him when a lovely storm brewed up. But it destroyed their ship. I didn’t want to see him die, so I got him back to shore; it was a tough night.”
“That’s good. Humans can’t survive underwater for long.”
“I would love to see your kingdom someday, if we figure out a way how,” Benedicta said.
Although she would love it if these days continued on forever.
In early fall, there was a festival in town. Valdis had been fine for a couple of months now, but he’d lingered here hoping to see his beautiful savior. The convent girls weren’t strictly secluded from the world anymore; the townsfolk said the girls came into town regularly. However, he’d not seen Benedicta again. He’d tried to arrange a meeting with her, but the nuns wouldn’t let him since he wasn’t a family member. Why was he so unlucky with her?
But this festival was a big deal. All of the convent girls should come over to celebrate. Valdis prepared by hunting down some game to donate to the local butcher. People loved when he did that and he loved hunting; there was no downside to this easy generosity. The game was well prepared by the locals and it was given out for free. As a result, many people thanked him.
Benedicta was not one of those people. However, he did finally see her again, in a group dance at the town square. Her skin was tanned and she was wearing the same long brown dress as all the other convent girls. She made it beautiful, with a smile brighter than the setting sun. With the other girls around (and him having a clearer mind), it was clear that she was stronger than the rest, a beautiful huntress. Unable to resist, Valdis went up to her between songs. “May I dance with you?”
“You may,” she said, offering her hand.
Valdis took her hand and was once again entranced by her presence. “You wear the humble robes of the church, but your grace reveals a regal soul.”
“So you think,” Benedicta said, still smiling. “Our order sees no difference between classes, nor circumstances of birth. True grace has no such requirements.”
“But it would matter to you and anyone else,” Valdis said, leading her to move closer to him.
She refused to follow and kept her distance. “It doesn’t matter to you. At least, it doesn’t matter enough for me to tell you.” She laughed then.
“Then what would get you to tell me who you truly are, Benedicta?” he asked, turning so that she had to come closer. “I’ve been seeking you out.”
Any other girl would have stumbled into his arms. Benedicta put their hands between them to keep her distance. “You would have to prove yourself interesting to me, at the very least. Can you do so, Valdis?”
If she knew who he was, there was a strong possibility that she was royalty as well. That was the only kind of girl who wouldn’t be struck with total awe to get a prince like him to ask for a dance. “I hunted down the beasts that make up tonight’s feast, for one.”
“And what exactly does that prove?” she asked, unimpressed.
“Is it not obvious? I am skilled enough to hunt down strong game, thus I can protect you well and provide you with a life where your any wish is granted.”
Chuckling again, she clasped his hand tighter to prove her strength. “I have no need for a protector and a life of leisure is not what I seek. Surely you can do better than that.”
“What, are you strong enough to protect yourself?” he asked, trying to tease her.
“Certainly, and others with me,” Benedicta said. “Would you care for a demonstration?”
Somehow, this led to other convent girls bringing out some practice swords for them to duel with. “These foils won’t pierce the skin,” the girl handing him the sword explained. “Instead, they make a noise when blood would be drawn. And good luck; you’re gonna need it.”
“I don’t need any luck,” Valdis said.
One of the town guards came forward to supervise the duel. “Let’s have a fair fight here, by the common standards of dueling,” he said. “First strike decides it, no moves above the shoulders as you’re in normal dress. Ready… duel!”
Valdis figured this would be like any other match; clash swords a few times until he knocked her blade aside to strike. Benedicta waited for him to make the first move, then immediately threw him off his usual rhythm. Stepping back, he readied himself to try a second time. She repelled him once again, then moved in unexpectedly and prodded his hip to produce a loud ding. The guard waved a hand to declare the duel done, with Benedicta as the victor.
“Now hold on,” Valdis said, pointing his sword downward. He didn’t like accepting a loss, but didn’t want to be rude towards her either. “I wasn’t expecting this; this isn’t how things usually go.”
“It was a good duel,” Benedicta said, handing her practice foil over. “But that will be all; we should be heading out shortly.”
“Must you leave so soon?” he asked. “I thought your order wasn’t as strict anymore.”
“Goodbye.” Once his sword was collected, the convent girls called goodbye to everyone and headed off. Benedicta only paused to go over and pick up a mermaid that Valdis hadn’t noticed before. She carried the sea creature on her back and was soon merrily chatting with the other girls.
This was not how Valdis had imagined this meeting going. Benedicta was the first girl who challenged him to interest her… but that made her all the more enticing. Whatever man earned her love could be assured of her loyalty for life. Since he was blessed by God, he deserved to be that man. Whoever she was, whether princess or pauper, Valdis would make her his wife.
The next day, he finally left for home in order to retrain himself.
Ondine had written Valdis a message outside of the house he was staying in: I love you, Valdis. She was quite proud of it. What other mermaid knew enough about letters to write out their feelings? But if he noticed it, she didn’t know.
The festival had been a fun time, for the most part. The other humans looked at her with amazement at first, but they soon accepted her as one of the convent girls. There, she had eaten foods she’d never dreamed of before and seen people give marvelous demonstrations of their abilities. A child had handed her a sparkler, a little stick that shot off sparks as brilliant as the stars right at her fingertips. While she couldn’t dance on land, she got to enjoy the music and tales that went on all day. She even got to seen her Prince again.
But he didn’t speak to her. He didn’t notice her sitting at the sides of the dance square. Instead, Valdis danced with Benedicta. He even dueled with her, although he lost. Why didn’t he notice her? Ondine thought about calling to him, but her heart trembled at the thought of doing so. Maybe he had noticed her, but had been ignoring her for all this time? If she could just talk with him…
Unfortunately, they had to leave the festival early to get back to the convent. Benedicta carried Ondine along to bring her back to the beach. Patting her shoulder, Ondine asked, “Um, do you love him?”
“Love who?” Benedicta asked, glancing back up at her.
“Valdis,” she said, leaning closer to the back of Benedicta’s neck so she couldn’t see her blush. “You danced with him.”
“Only because he asked me to,” she said, looking back ahead. “It would’ve been impolite to say no when he’d done nothing wrong. Besides, I know you love him. Did he talk with you today?”
“No.” Her heart sunk as she said it. “I don’t think he saw me.”
“I’m sorry, I should have brought him over to you.” Then she patted Ondine a little where she was supporting her. “We’ll get him over to talk with you somehow.”
Unfortunately, they got news that Valdis had left town the very next morning. Ondine waited at the beach all autumn, waiting in case he returned. She kept learning from the nuns; it was an interesting distraction, but the days felt so empty without Valdis there. When she was brought into the classrooms, she tried studying a map on display to figure out where Valdis lived. He was a prince, so he lived in a castle. Ondine tried a few times to swim along the coast to what the map showed, but she wasn’t sure she had it right.
Then shortly before winter came, her sisters told her that they’d found the Prince’s castle. As much as Ondine liked to learn things, she wanted to be with Valdis more than anything else in the world. She took off with them to be closer to her love.
As suddenly as she came, Ondine had left. No warning, no words, she was just gone. It was getting colder, so perhaps she left to keep warm in the ocean. Or more likely, she had gone to track down Valdis. Benedicta watched for her but the beach was not as welcoming on cold days. The sands and sky were gray while the sea was a dark mystery that went on forever but would not reveal what it hid… she’d never felt a loneliness as sharp as the winds that winter.
In the last days of winter, her roommate Matilda gave her a strange thing. “Here, would you try this on, Benny?”
“What is it, Tilly?” she asked, looking at the odd helmet in her hands
“It’s called a waterlung,” she explained. “The basic waterlung allows humans to breathe underwater for long dives, but I’ve been working for weeks on adapting one to have other functions, including making it easier to swim and see underwater, and allowing you to communicate with anything able to speak. So it needs to cover your face and your ears, but it also needs to remain secure and comfortable. Put it on and tell me how it is!”
“Huh, you can do that with your alchemy?” Benedicta asked, her eyes wide.
Matilda nodded. “Of course I can. And I can’t stand to see you so sad looking because your little mermaid isn’t around, so I’ve been working on a plan for us to go out and visit her in her homeland! I’ve even got a submarine chartered. It’s experimental too, but I can vouch for my friend’s abilities.”
“Wow, thank you so much!” She hugged Matilda out of excitement. “I thought I might never see her again, didn’t even think of going out under the sea for her.”
“You can thank me when we get there,” Matilda said, patting her arm. “But we’ve got to be prepared!”
Trying on the waterlung was just the start. Matilda had her own waterlung and they swam around the shores at the convent with them on. The winter waters were very cold, but Matilda was prepared with warming body suits and other protection. While in the bay, they asked the fish living there where they might find the underwater kingdom of the mermaids. Some did not know beyond a general ‘deep within the ocean’. But one evening, they came across a pod of whales who could tell them the way. With their preparations complete, Benedicta, Matilda, and Matilda’s friend took the submarine deep into the ocean to find the castle of the merpeople’s king.
They sailed underneath the waves for several hours before some curious merpeople approached their vessel. The radio allowed them to ask for permission to visit their kingdom. Due to visitors from land being such a novelty, the merpeople quickly agreed and led them the proper way. The white castle was an incredible wonder, more than any castle they’d seen before. Colorful corals decorated flowing white walls, while gorgeous sheets of clear amber served as windows, currently open to let the waves and fish move through. Since the merpeople swam through the waters and didn’t need to walk, the ocean floor was covered in amazing gardens of sea flowers and stones.
While rank didn’t mean anything within the convent, they introduced Benedicta as a princess in case rank was valued here. It was enough to get them brought before the sea king Ondorus and five of his daughters. Benedicta and Matilda left the submarine through an airdock with their gear to do so, while Matilda’s friend stayed behind to keep watch over the submarine. “Thank you for meeting with us on short notice,” Benedicta said, after giving the best bow she could while being underwater.
“It’s no trouble,” Ondorus said with a smile. “We never expected to meet with humans in our own kingdom, so we welcome you most heartily.”
“We wanted to see what was possible,” Matilda said. “We were even teaching one of your kind how to read and write like us.”
Benedicta nodded. “Yes, she was our friend, but she left abruptly. Do you know of a young mermaid named Ondine? We wanted to speak with her again.”
Speaking her name brought a sad look to the merking’s face. “Ah, you mean my youngest daughter. So you were the ones teaching her such wonders; I thank you for your kindness. However, she hasn’t been here for a long time. She fell in love with a human prince and left the seas to be with him.”
“She’s in for a terrible time, we know it,” one of Ondine’s sisters said in worry. “She asked the sea witch for help and had to pay with her voice for the draught that split her tail. We hope that she will win his love and can be with him as she wishes. But the sea witch has told us that if she fails, she will turn to sea foam when her prince marries another, and that that will happen within a year. She also said that if all of us sisters gave up our hair, she would give us the means to turn Ondine back into a mermaid. It’s a really big sacrifice, but if that brings our sister back home safely, we’ll do it.”
They must be talking about Valdis, Benedicta realized with a sick feeling in her stomach. If that would make Ondine happy, then she should feel happy for her. But Benedicta didn’t feel happy at all with this news. “I see…”
“Well now that we know where she is, we can go talk with her and the Prince,” Matilda said. “Don’t do anything so drastic yet; we’ll figure out what can be done.”
This was a diplomatic visit of sorts; that thought let Benedicta put on a diplomatic mask and continue on with the discussion. Over a few days, they came up with a proposal for the coastal kingdoms about an alliance with the underwater kingdom. It included allowing education from land schools to merpeople. In exchange, they wanted the merpeople to be better educated about how humans couldn’t survive underwater and for each side to treat the other better. King Ondorus apologized for their previous behaviors, saying that most merpeople kept their distance from humans based on superstitions. But they seemed as interested in the mysteries of the land as humans were about the mysteries of the deep. If the coastal kingdoms agreed to this, they could both learn a lot from each other.
Before Benedicta and Mathilda left, Ondine’s sisters brought them to see the garden that Ondine had kept all of her childhood. She’d left it overgrown after falling in love with Valdis, but they had been cleaning the garden up just as she’d once had it. It was unlike any garden the convent girls had seen, full of bright red flowers like an imitation of the setting sun. A strange tree like a weeping willow sheltered a beautiful marble statue of a princely man, not Valdis but the resemblance was strong. After asking about it, Benedicta took one of the red flowers as proof that they had been here.
Back at the convent, strange news awaited them. Benedicta’s mother had called for her to return home; she even offered to let her bring Matilda along to study alchemy in their country. And the reason behind the sudden summons? Valdis had asked for her hand in marriage and would be waiting at their castle to meet with her.
But would Ondine be with him?
That winter was a strange but pleasant time. Valdis had come back home with every intention of dedicating himself to fencing, to prove himself worthy to Benedicta. While he did so, he set one of the castle ministers to investigating who she was. His parents were okay with him choosing his bride as long as she was worthy; being at the original St. Louisa Academy was a good sign. But if she turned out to be one of the orphans, it would take more convincing for both Benedicta and his parents to accept each other.
Since the fencing master felt that training on the beach was helpful, Valdis took to running along the shores in the morning. It was on one of those runs that he came across a naked girl lying in the sand. She clearly wasn’t human as her long hair shone like the finest polished silver, flowing behind her like wings when she walked around. However, she was a darling creature with eyes full of adoration. She danced with the grace of an angel and always smiled. She never made a sound, never laughed or cried. Valdis thought his little foundling was adorable and allowed her to follow him around. It made him feel a lot better about his practicing.
But there was so much more to do at home than just practice: watching the courtesans and the foundling dance, attending the theater’s winter productions, showing off his archery skills with the other young men around the castle, going out sailing to fish and trade tales with the sailors, going on hunts for tough beasts and monsters. The castle’s horses and hounds made the best teammates for the best hunts; Valdis was sure he could take down a dragon with them. In fact, he’d always figured that he solve the problem of getting married by rescuing a princess from a dragon. Now, he didn’t want to end up rescuing Benedicta from a dragon. It would surely impress her, but she could end up hurt and that was not what he wanted.
Ah, Benedicta! She grew more lovely in his mind every day. Her strong will made her different than most women, but would make it more rewarding when she became a good loyal wife. After all, that was how one of his favorite plays ended, with the most troublesome girl becoming the most docile wife. Benedicta would surely be the same as she was the most difficult girl to woo that he’d come across. He would make her the most worthy and happy queen in the world and all of their days together would be wonderful.
At the end of winter, the castle minister come up to him with good news. Benedicta was the only princess of a nearby kingdom, a strong nation full of beautiful lands. Their marriage would unite the two nations into one of the greatest around. Now with his parent’s blessing, Valdis went straight over to court Benedicta properly. He would win her heart and everything would be wonderful.
Why slay a dragon when he could find his happy ending in one more duel?
That winter was tough, but happy for Ondine. She had to learn a lot of things to live in a human castle, like how to dress in clothes rather than pearls and clams (although that was much less painful than her grandmother’s love for clamping bivalves onto their tails). While she preferred to be quiet, not having her voice at all made it hard to get along with people. The sea witch had said that she didn’t need her voice to earn Valdis’ love. She should be able to communicate everything with her eyes, her expressions, and her body language. With some people, that worked. The castle chef liked to let her try new foods; he could tell exactly from her reactions how she felt about them.
But was it working with Valdis? He smiled at her often and would stroke her chin, affectionately calling her his pet or foundling. Ondine tried not to worry him when her feet bled; it was getting easier to ignore the constant pain in her legs when she moved around. As long as she smiled, he would smile back and a powerful joy filled her whole body. Pain like walking on knives and never being able to sing again was nothing compared to making Valdis smile.
He was handsome and everyone seemed to love him. Lots of girls and women would come up to talk with him; people frequently thanked him for his generosity and bravery, or to say how glad they were that he had survived the shipwreck. It made Ondine glad again that she had saved him. When they went out with the horses on hunts, he was confidant no matter what creature he was after. Ondine had trouble staying on the horse, especially when it moved when she didn’t want it to. It was a beautiful creature, though, and she tried to be nice to it for carrying her.
The castle had a small library, but most of the books there were too difficult for her to read. Ondine did find a small book of poetry that she could understand, as well as a special book called a dictionary that helped her figure out what written words were. The poetry was a wonder to discover; it put powerful images and feelings in her mind. Thinking that could be the way to get her feelings across, she tried writing her own poem. It was hard. Her mind could come up with hundreds of things she wanted to say, one right after the other. But she wrote slowly to focus on making her letters correctly and spacing them just right. She’d write one line and think that maybe another line would have been better. Between that and wanting to spend as much time with Valdis as possible, it took two months to write her poem.
But finally, she was able to give it to him! A nice woman who was often in the library gave Ondine a pretty envelope that looked like it was tied up with a shiny red ribbon. She folded up the poem nicely, put it in the envelope, then wrote ‘To Valdis, From Ondine’ on the front of it. Then she gave it to him one evening before he retired to his room.
“Oh, you can write?” he asked in surprise. “Not very well; that should be undine, not ondine… which means you’re some sort of water spirit. Probably an escaped creation of a weird alchemist.” He opened up the envelope to read the poem.
Undine? Her mother had named her Ondine because it was a pretty word she’d heard from a human. So it meant a water spirit, which was close but not correct. But the poem should be clear because she’d written it with the feelings in her heart:
I love you Valdis
More than the sun
More than the moon
More than the sea
I love you
With all my heart
“That’s cute,” he said, rubbing his hand over her head. “Did you copy that from somewhere and get someone to show you how to write my name? You probably don’t fully understand what you wrote, but I appreciate the effort. Good night, my foundling.” He then went into his room and shut the door.
Ondine dropped down on her pillow, a painful misery causing her heart to sink. Why wasn’t he taking her poem seriously? Did she mess up on it? She’d written it very carefully, rewriting it to make sure it was clear. But she’d only learned about letters this year; she could have easily made a mistake. Maybe it would take some thought for him to realize it was serious. What could she do to make him fall in love with her just as much as she loved him?
Or maybe he was blind to her love. Maybe the sea witch was right and her foolishness would turn her into sea foam. Valdis talked a lot about how he intended to find Benedicta and win her heart; he was strong and kind, so he was likely to succeed and leave Ondine behind. Those thoughts tormented her through the night, invading her dreams when she got into a fitful sleep.
She dreamed of those long days spent on the beach; the time with Benedicta and the other girls was fun, but Ondine’s heart was still empty because Valdis never came. She dreamed of swimming through the dark polyp forest on her way to the sea witch, how the strange things tried to snatch her into their deadly grasp to remain with them forever. And she remembered the price she paid for this time at Valdis’ side: she would constantly walk upon knives in exchange for perfect grace upon land, she would never again sing or speak in exchange for legs to reach Valdis, she would never again return to the seas in exchange for a chance at an immortal soul gifted by love. It had all seemed worth it if she would always be with Valdis.
And if he did not choose her as his wife, Ondine was fine with dying. What good was living on for three hundred years if her love wasn’t returned?
In the morning, some dreadful news came. They had identified Benedicta as a princess of another kingdom. Without hesitation, Valdis ordered a ship to be prepared so he could go court her in her kingdom, to make Benedicta his wife. Ondine felt devastated. She went into his room to find her poem, then gave it back to him with a plea in her eyes to take it seriously.
“I saw it last night,” he said, giving it back. Then he smiled and petted her hair. “Does this trip worry you? Well don’t worry, my foundling; I love you dearly, like a darling child. But you must understand that Benedicta saved my life once and I haven’t been able to forget about her since. I will do whatever it takes to win her heart; I would’ve gone against my parent’s wishes if she’d turned out to be a forgotten orphan, she is that wonderful. But I am truly blessed by God and she is most worthy of me, as I am most worthy of her. We shall make the greatest kingdom on Earth as man and wife!”
But he was supposed to choose her, to be willing to leave his parents behind to be with her just as she had left her family behind for him. Why couldn’t he see how much she loved him? Maybe there was no hope for her. Ondine felt even emptier than the days on the beach when she was just waiting for him; even being by his side as they left his castle didn’t make her happy.
Time was running out.
Ondine wished with all her heart that something would change.
Benedicta always enjoyed spending time back home with her mother, but they usually didn’t make a big fuss about it. She would arrive to a private dinner with her and they would take some time for themselves as a family. Thus, it was strange to come back to a veritable parade at the docks as Prince Valdis and his retinue welcomed her back energetically. A handmaiden came aboard with Valdis’ insistence that Benedicta replace her convent uniform with an elaborate green dress more fitting of a princess. Benedicta thought it was strange to wear something so elaborate, but perhaps she was strange for not living like a princess. Anyhow, the dress was a gift and she would wear it at least once out of gratitude.
A line of beautifully decorated carriages drawn by costumed horses was waiting to take them all back to the castle, the grandest of which was reserved for her and Valdis. And Ondine was with Valdis, utterly adorable in a pink silk dress with a red ribbon around her head. But she and Matilda were given the back bench of the grand carriage while Valdis took Benedicta inside so it was just the two of them. “I am so glad to be with you again,” he said with a large smile.
“We’ve only met twice,” Benedicta said, adjusting the satin pillows so she wasn’t sitting on them. “And you were lucid only one of those times.”
“But you saved my life by pulling me out of the sea,” Valdis said. “I will never forget your beautiful voice from that night, keeping me from death’s door.”
Was that it? She shook her head. “That? That wasn’t me.”
“But you were the one I first saw when I woke up,” he said, confused now.
“And that’s all it was,” she explained. “I found you on the beach first; that might be why you saw me first, although my friend Mathilda was the one who actually woke you up. The one who saved you from the storm that wrecked your ship was Ondine.”
“Who?” He showed no recognition of the name.
Benedicta kept herself from frowning and replied, “The little mermaid who was just at your side, the girl with silver hair. Didn’t she tell you about it herself?”
That he finally recognized. “Oh, the little foundling? It can’t be her; she never says a word and I know I heard a beautiful voice keeping me alive back then. She’s just some creature I found on the beach a few months ago, but she is a darling.”
“She spoke perfectly fine when I met her this past spring, after the storm. And she would be the only one who could have saved you. I was in the convent building during the storm that night and I certainly couldn’t swim in a stormy sea. Anyhow, her name is Ondine and she’s a mermaid, not a creature.”
“She’s still not human,” Valdis said dismissively. “But she’s dear to me. Anyhow, I’ve decided that I will prove myself to you. I prepared a celebration in your honor at the castle; there were some obstacles because your castle is so austere that you’d think monks lived there.”
“It’s not that austere,” Benedicta said. Was this what courtship by princes was going to be like? She didn’t like it.
“You could live a far more comfortable life in my castle,” he said, smiling proudly. “We cut no corners when it comes to comfort and beauty. The castle chef is the greatest chef in the kingdom; we hold a yearly competition to make sure of it. We also keep on top of fashions so that nothing ever grows boring. It is truly a blessed life that I would love to share with you.”
“We’ll see how this goes,” she said, for the moment dealing with this departure from her usual life.
In the castle, her mother welcomed her warmly with hugs and smiles. There was a feast being prepared, one that Valdis had planned. “It’s a lot more activity than this place has seen in a long time,” Queen Laurencia said. “This prince is enthusiastic about you, but he’s quite old-fashioned. That could be a problem.”
“I know,” Benedicta said. “He’s been trying to prove himself to me, but we haven’t spent much time together. I’ll give him a chance, but we’ll have to see how he reacts to having some misconceptions cleared up.”
“That would be prudent; we don’t wish to offend his family. Then what have you been doing? The messenger first told me that you’d gone on an adventure with your friend.”
Nodding, she took out Ondorus’ message. “Yes, we went to visit a kingdom undersea.” She then explained about how she’d been looking for Ondine and ended up negotiating a potential alliance.
Laurencia read over the message and listened, then nodded. “This could change things greatly. Wonderful work, my dear! I’ll discuss this with the admirals. Now what’s going on with Prince Valdis if you haven’t spent much time together?” They discussed the matter and thought up some means to test him.
Once they had that decided, a messenger came in to ask them to come to the throne room. Valdis was continuing his celebration. There were bards to sing ballads in honor of both Benedicta and Valdis, with dancers to entertain them. Eventually, he had Ondine go dance for them too. It struck Benedicta as cruel because Ondine loved Valdis and was his true savior. But she was an incredible dancer, flowing like water across the floor. Even Benedicta was entranced, although the dance made her feel like grieving despite wearing a smile. Did Valdis not see that? Or the red on her white dance shoes.
Benedicta got up and went over to her. “Your feet are bleeding!” she said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You should stop.”
Ondine gave her a puzzled look, like she was wondering why she was concerned.
Valdis stayed in his seat. “That just happens occasionally, she’s never worried about it. She’ll be fine.”
“It doesn’t look fine,” Benedicta said, picking up Ondine to take her to the castle healer.
A healer was available to see her right away, along with Mathilda and the castle’s master alchemist. “I was asking about restoring her tongue so she can speak again,” Mathilda explained. “The potion for that doesn’t sound hard, although the ingredients would be more expensive.”
“I can pay for that,” Benedicta said. “But her feet were bleeding while she was dancing; that’s why I brought her in here.”
“Her feet might be tender because they’re new,” Mathilda said.
But a few minutes later, the healer had some bad news. “There’s a curse on her; I estimate that any movement on her feet is very painful. Something harder like dancing or rough ground would make her feet bleed.”
“Do you have an aura scan of her feet?” the master alchemist asked.
She nodded and handed the paper over. “It should be a breakable curse, but it would require a potent concoction to do so. From what I know, this would be a blood magic curse from a skilled caster.”
“Then the most dangerous thing to undoing it might be the original caster taking offense to it,” the master alchemist said, looking over the scans quickly. “I’ll analyze this for the reversal. Mathilda, I’d like to see your skills with the elixir for her tongue. The ingredients should be in the lab already.”
“Yes, m’am, I’ll get right on that,” Mathilda said, leaving with the master.
“Benedicta, would you go wash her feet and keep her on the bed?” the healer asked. “I’m going to make a poultice to heal up the wounds she currently has; she’ll have to keep off her feet as much as she can, but if she would endure the pain to dance, it might be hard to keep her still.”
She nodded. “All right, I’ll keep an eye on her.”
If her father and sisters saw her now, Ondine knew that they would fret and plea that she come back to them. She had smiled for them when she saw them at the castle docks so that they didn’t worry. She had chosen to do this; she would endure any pain for the happiness of being at Valdis’ side. And he understood that, right? That’s why he didn’t worry about her. It had to be. It was fine.
But her friends from the convent did not understand that and were fretting over her condition. First it was Mathilda figuring out within a few minutes that Ondine’s tongue had been cut out. Everyone in Valdis’ castle simply called her a quiet girl. Even though Mathilda had not spent as many days with Ondine, she asked why she wasn’t speaking in concern and figured out the problem from a few hand signals. She then talked about creating a potion to undo that, which surprised Ondine. The people on land could do that?
Mathilda had seen her expression and explained that cutting out a girl’s tongue used to be a punishment that older people would inflict on rebellious girls to force them to be obedient. The girls would then turn to magic to find ways to restore their voice. On doing so, they were branded as witches. But the people of the land were changing their thoughts about many things. These days, cutting out someone’s tongue was seen as archaic and cruel. However, many records remained of the witches who refused to remain silent, ignorant, and obedient girls. Their methods for restoring a voice could still be found.
Then it was Benedicta who stopped her from dancing because she was bleeding. It was just as Valdis said, it was fine and she had to endure it as the price she paid. However, the healer called it a curse and the others were already talking about ways to undo the curse. Ondine wasn’t sure what to do. It was nice to be excused from walking or dancing, but miracles didn’t come free. What did they mean to do to her? And, why wasn’t Valdis here discussing how to break the curse with them? If it had been him making a fuss instead of Benedicta, Ondine’s heart might have burst from joy. She could imagine it: his eyes aghast at the sight, carrying her off in his arms so she didn’t hurt anymore, washing her feet.
But, it was Benedicta with her, gently wiping her feet with a soapy cloth. “Ondine, I’m glad to see you again, although I was hoping it’d be under better circumstances. I enjoyed our meetings over the summer and missed them when you left. When I was talking with Valdis, I told him that you were the one who actually saved him from his shipwreck. He should thank you for it, especially when you can talk again. For now, take things easy so your feet can heal up. We’ll help you.”
It wasn’t Valdis doing this, but Benedicta was taking care of her. It gave her a warm feeling and reminded her of happy times spent in her garden, enjoying the flowers and time spent with her imaginary Prince. Although, Benedicta was a Princess… but did it really matter when she was very much like the Prince that Ondine had imagined from her garden’s statue? Kind and strong, happy to teach her about life on land in exchange for learning about life under the sea… and her feet only tingled a bit in response to her rinsing them. If Valdis didn’t care, then it might be better to stay with Benedicta instead.
At least she’d be able to speak again.
Courting Benedicta continued to have its twists and turns. Valdis had planned an entertaining show, full of music and beauty. There would be more gifts, a ride through the countryside, the grand feasts, and most importantly the duel to prove his worth. However, she still had no strong interest in him and she made a weird fuss over the foundling. Some non-humans had strange traits, like crying blood, never getting burned, or getting injured easily. The foundling had been fine; she was happy and affectionate, so there was nothing wrong with her.
There was also the matter of the king, rather, the lack of a king. Queen Laurencia was the kingdom’s ruler and there was no man to ask for approval in marrying Benedicta. In this case, perhaps asking Laurencia was good enough. But when he’d spoken with her yesterday, the queen had made it clear that she wasn’t going to give such approval until Benedicta gave hers. That should have been no problem.
But where was Benedicta? She’d missed an entire three-act comedy. Valdis went to find her to escort her to the feast. On asking around, he found out that she was still in the healer’s room. “Are you not feeling well?” he asked her. “I can ask the actors to redo their play.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I was waiting because they’re going to restore Ondine’s tongue and voice.”
“You can do that?” Valdis asked.
Smiling, she said, “I can’t, but I know those who can. Mathilda just came in to give the potion to her. Please, stay around. She would love to speak with you.”
“Well our feast is about to begin,” he said, offering a hand. “She is invited, of course, so shall we go?”
“She shouldn’t be walking, so I’ll bring her along,” Benedicta said. “Unless you wish to carry her?”
“I can do that,” he said. So he carried his foundling on his back to the dining room so that she didn’t have to walk there herself. While the healer said she could speak again, she didn’t on her ride over.
But once she was placed in a seat near him, the foundling smiled. “Thank you, both of you,” she said.
Her voice stirred memories of the shipwreck, of dreams of a long night in a stormy sea. “You were the one who saved me that night,” he said. “Well then, I’m sorry I didn’t realize that sooner. And thank you; I owe my life to you.”
“I realized when the ship broke apart that only dead men came to our kingdom under the sea,” she said. “But it was only me there; I could only save one, and I saved you. Valdis, I did so because I loved you more than anything else in the world. I waited for you at the beach by the convent for months to speak with you. When you went back home, I made a deal with the sea witch to be at your side again. I gave up my voice, I can never return to the sea without turning to foam, and walking around is like constantly being on knives, but I would endure it all to be with you. I meant that poem I gave you with all my heart; it took me two months to write it, but it was the only way I had to tell you how I really feel when my eyes weren’t enough. But now I can say I love you as much as I want.”
There was a chill in his blood hearing that. Her following him around like a little puppy was adorable when she was just a mute non-human. But walking on knives and giving up all that just to do so? That was the kind of creepy obsession that might get him killed or cursed. She was a mermaid too, one of the soulless creatures who were notorious for sinking ships and preying on people. Maybe she had been waiting on a moment to drown him and keep his bones with her forever; there were tales of that told many times by old sailors warning younger fellows.
“I love you and I would marry you if you want to,” the mermaid said, seeming innocent in saying so. “But if we could stay here until they figure out how to break the witch’s curse on me, that would be even more wonderful!”
“She’s a good friend, so we’re happy to help her,” Benedicta said, a warmth in her voice. “I know you went to a lot of effort to put this all together for the sake of courting me, but she’s your true savior and she loves you more than anything. But you need to take better care of her, okay? She’s the daughter of the sea king Ondorus and no one deserves to live with that much pain every day.”
Was Benedicta crazy? Maybe she just hadn’t heard enough horrific tales to know that trusting a mermaid was a bad idea. “That’s true,” he said, mentally begging Benedicta not to say she’d step out of the way of ‘true love’ because while this mermaid might, in a small chance, be innocent, there was no way on Earth that Valdis was going to marry some non-human soulless being.
Fortunately, Benedicta chose to make pleasant conversation over dinner instead. The mermaid watched both of them, listening attentively. And creepily, now that Valdis had heard about her obsession. What was he going to do about her? For now, Valdis tried to ignore her and told Benedicta stories of adventures he been on, hoping that at least one would impress her.
Dinner ended and his servants began clearing some room for the next part. “Benedicta, you have not left my mind since we met,” Valdis said. “I have put together these celebrations to show all that I can do for you. And now, I challenge you to another duel to prove that I am strong enough to protect you. I will give you some time to prepare, so in an hour…”
“I refuse,” Benedicta said.
“What?” Valdis said, looking at her in disbelief. “I will prove myself to you; I was not well prepared last time and had some ill luck, but I have devoted myself to training up to provide you a better match.”
“I still refuse,” she said, getting up. “I am not looking for a man who seeks to subjugate me; I am not a princess who needs protecting. When we last met, I challenged you on a whim. I would have been more impressed had you shown good sportsmanship and accepted your loss like an honorable person.”
“You cannot expect a man to just accept a loss; that is a coward’s way. We will keep trying until we win!”
She shook her head. “There is nothing cowardly about being humble. Besides,” she gestured to the mermaid, “she has passionately expressed her feelings and you have yet to answer them. You have done nothing but ignore her since then. When I see the cruel way you ignore her, it breaks my heart. Thank you for all the entertainment today, but I will decline your offer of courtship. There is no way you could earn my interest on a personal level now.”
For a moment, Valdis couldn’t do anything but stare at her. He could hardly think. She said no? But whoever said no to him? Once an idea came back to him, he blurted out, “B-but I would make you the greatest queen around! I would bring glory to both my kingdom and yours, and you only need to be adored by everyone around us.”
“Why would I seek someone who will rule my kingdom for me?” Benedicta asked. “I would rather have someone who would rule it with me. That is my answer to you: no. Now will you answer her?”
“She’s not human,” he said. “There’s no way I’d marry some monster.”
“I’m not a monster,” the mermaid said in a weak voice. While anyone else might cry, she wasn’t.
“Of course you’re not,” Benedicta said, going over and putting an arm around the mermaid. “You’re a beautiful, brave, and kind girl; you took a big risk to save someone who might have seemed like a mysterious monster to your peers. You ought to be honored for your devotion. Anyhow, I have missed you greatly since the days we spoke on the beach. I didn’t realize until you were gone how much you meant to me. Look, I even went out into the sea to your kingdom to find you. I brought back a flower from your garden.”
The mermaid looked at the strange red flower in wonder. There was something about that flower that looked like fire, bright red petals that fluttered at any motion. “Oh… yes, that is one of my flowers. But I thought humans couldn’t go deep enough to reach our castle.”
Benedicta gave her a loving smile, something that wretched Valdis’ heart. “We found a way to make the impossible possible. And we’ll find a way to reverse the sea witch’s curse on you. Then you can decide what you want to do from there. Although, I would be happy if you could stay here with me.”
For a moment, the mermaid looked up at him. Then she looked to Benedicta with an equally warm smile, her eyes shining in adoration. “You’re so nice to me, Benedicta. I would love to be with you. Um, but the sea witch said that when he marries another over me, I’ll turn to sea foam. I can see now that he was never going to return my feelings, and he is cruel without realizing it. But that could still happen.”
Benedicta then gave him a sharp look. Feeling uneasy about this, there was a part of him that wanted to go marry some random girl who admired him to spite them. But, he was the only heir to his kingdom, and she was the only heir to hers. The mermaid had saved his life too. “Then I just won’t marry anyone until I get word that your curse has been broken,” Valdis said, not wanting this to lead to war. “This is nothing like I thought this would turn out, but if you both feel that way, I’ll leave. And I swear, I won’t marry until you tell me it’s safe.”
Maybe it would have been easier to marry a girl he rescued from a dragon after all.
By the start of summer, Ondine could walk, dance, and even run around the castle with no pain at all. She sang to entertain everyone there and studied to see what all she could do. She and Benedicta would often go on walks through the garden or horseback rides in the countryside. And whenever they wanted, they could both grow fish tails and swim in the sea instead. They swam between the coastal kingdoms and the undersea kingdom to encourage the alliance between all peoples living on the land or under the sea. It was truly a magical time when they had made the impossible possible.
Midsummer brought to wonderful news that the sea witch’s curse had been thoroughly broke. They sent word to Valdis and began to plan their own wedding. Before they could get far with those plans, however, the sea witch appeared at the castle docks. Splitting her own tail for legs and summoning a sparkling black dress to wear, she went straight to where Benedicta and Ondine were talking. “Hello to you who have subverted the natural order of the world,” the sea witch said snidely. “You who stole back what you paid to me. I have come to recollect my payment and interest.”
“Don’t your legs hurt?” Ondine asked.
“Not at all, since I used my own power to create them,” she said.
Ondine frowned at her. “Then you were being needlessly cruel when you saw that my request was foolish. I paid you once, I do not need to pay again.”
The sea witch shook her head. “There is always a price for change, a price for power. You have undone your price and gone against nature to choose life on land. Little princess of the sea, this is not who you are. We are beautiful and terrible creatures; we devour men and put them in their place, or else they will overrun the world and ruin everything. Your father was foolish enough to call for his weak followers to stay away from humans and not hunt them down. What you are doing will lead to a tyranny of humanity enslaving all the natural spirits of the world. Now you will pay for your true foolishness.”
“That is not so,” Benedicta said, getting up to confront the sea witch. “Ondine owes you nothing; leave her be.”
“Both of you are fools who would ruin everything,” the sea witch said, pointing to them. A burst of black magic came from her fingers.
And it reflected straight back into her, due to protective charms that they wore in case this happened. The witch wailed in pain as she shriveled into a slimy sea cucumber. “There may be consequences to what we choose to do, but we owe her nothing,” Benedicta said.
They returned the cucumber witch to the sea and turned their eyes to the future they would create together.