She laughed and danced with the thought of death in her heart.
~ The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Anderson
Mother had been right. A couple guests had arrived before Shira had even finished readying, and she hadn’t been more then an hour and a half, still with plenty of time to spare before the mid-morning luncheon.
Keira had finished up a little bit before Shira had, so she was currently entertaining the guests. But before that, it had just been Mother and poor Aristotle. Father had probably not been all that much help.
When Shira walked into the main drawing room, she stopped just inside the doorway. She made eye contact with Keira, who politely excused herself from her current conversation, making her way over.
It was, to say the least, uncanny seeing her sister looking just like herself. Sure, they had always had the same strawberry blonde hair and warm, brown eyes; snub noses and round features; short physique. But dressing the same was just plain scary.
“Shira, darling, you’re here!” Mother gracefully rushed over to Shira, giving her a dainty hug. While they embraced, she whispered, “My second cousins and the Duke of Castor and his family.”
“Thank you,” Shira murmured, hugging her mother back.
She followed Mother and Keira back to the couches where there were four men and women, along with three small children, one of which was a baby.
Shira, as was protocol, curtsied to them and they, in turn, respectively bowed or curtsied as well. The children paid her no mind. No amount of nagging from their mother could convince them otherwise. The woman – the duchess, Shira presumed – gave her an apologetic look. Shira waved it off and settled herself between her sisters on the couch.
Keira fell back into an effortless conversation with Mother’s cousin. Though Keira was generally a reserved and somewhat anti-people person, she had a real knack for small talk. That was a skill that Shira envied.
Aristotle, on the other hand, had her arms crossed and was leaning against her knees. It wasn’t really proper for her to do so, but nobody had the mind to correct her.
“What’re you doing?” Shira whispered. There were only a few precious moments before Mother would notice that she wasn’t talking and would be captured into a conversation.
Shira followed her line of sight. She was watching the two non-baby children playing mindlessly on the floor. They both looked not older then five.
“Shira, do come and talk to Duchess Prim.”
Drat. Mother’s discovered me.
Shira pasted on a polite smile and walked over to sit with her mother, the duchess, and the baby.
It wasn’t so much that Shira found conversing difficult or displeasing … well, she sometimes did. It was just that she would rather observe. Besides, whenever she spoke people seemed to realize that they weren’t talking to some doll, but rather an intellect and that seemed to frighten people.
“How do you do?” Shira smiled at the woman, but looked reproachfully at the baby. Children had never been her strong suit.
“Well, thanks. And you?” Immediately, the lady – Prim – seemed to regret it. The Ceremony wasn’t something that people commonly spoke of. “I’m sorry, I-” Panic was flashing across the woman’s face.
“Oh, no worries. I’m doing fine, all things considering.” She added a little laugh, as if it were the funniest joke in the universe but etiquette confined her from barking like a seal.
“So, Heiress Shira, your mother speaks of your love for the sciences and politics?”
Shira cast a look at her mother. Just what did she say? “Yes, actually. It is something that I do enjoy.”
As it turned out, Duchess Prim really knew nothing about those two topics, but at least she gave it a valiant effort. Every once in a while, Shira would look at either one of her sisters longingly or for help. Neither would return the her gaze.
More guests arrived until the number reached just over thirty-five and everyone was ready to eat. Shira herself hadn’t eaten all that much for breakfast, so as she got to her feet, her hand resting at her stomach, she didn’t complain.
As was tradition, Father sat at the head, Mother to his right. Shira sat next to her with Keira across from her, and Aristotle on her left. They formed some sort of disjointed Z, with nobody sitting at Father’s left hand side.
Father toasted the meal. It was short and sweet, much like he was. Shira could really appreciate that, and so could her increasingly-audible stomach.
Shira soon found out that with her restricting corset she couldn’t shove in a lot of food. It was something that she experienced nearly daily, but had to reacquaint herself with the idea quite often.
All Shira wanted to do was to eat her meal, have the Ceremony, and then get on with her life. But the little things kept getting in the way, like the corset problem.
Her stomach was slightly sick. It had been all morning. Every time the thought of the Ceremony entered her mind, her stomach reacted by twisting up in knots. But still Shira made herself eat.
Another block to her first goal was the woman sitting next to Shira. The seat was a coveted position, to be up close and personal with the royals and Shira was trying to figure out just why Mother had seated her there.
The woman was very chatty. Talking so much that she wasn’t even eating! Mainly she discussed frivolous things, nothing cluing in to her identity. On and on she went. After nearly a half hour, Shira discovered that she could tune the lady out and she still wouldn’t notice, so she did just that.
Shira guessed that the spiced hash was good, if a little tasteless. Not very spiced. Or maybe it was her nerves at work. Either way.
The end of breakfast was both welcomed and dreaded. Nearly immediately, she and Keira would be kicked out of the palace to go to the Ceremony, and Shira wasn’t sure that she was ready for that just yet. But she also wanted to get the whole affair over with.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Father’s sweet, quiet voice had difficulty reaching the people at first. Mother had to repeatedly tap her wineglass with a fork to get everyone’s attention. Father cleared his throat. “As you know, today is a very big day for my two beautiful daughters. They have been preparing for this Ceremony for years now, and I think that I’m not the only one to wish them the best of luck!” Then Father sat down.
It ended a little abruptly, but overall, not bad. It did take a few seconds for all of the guests to realize that he was done and to clap.
When the applause faded, everyone just sat there in silence.
“Well, go on, girls,” Mother whispered to them.
No. Shira couldn’t do it. Her stomach felt sick. Oh god. She was going to throw up then and there.
She looked up at Keira and saw that her sister didn’t look any better. Shira swallowed what little spit she had in her mouth and stood up. She wished that her chair had made some sort of loud screech or something, just to draw the attention away from her face, but she had no such luck.
It took only a split second for Keira to follow and stand up, as well.
Not quite sure what else to do, Shira looked around the room, curtsied, and then hurried out.
Once in the hallway, she leaned against the wall, breathing heavily. Her dress had to be stained with sweat and she was sure that her skin had grown dangerously pale.
“Shira?” The whisper belonged to Keira.
Her sister stepped out into the hall and saw Shira leaning against the wall.
“I-I think that we should go,” she said.
Shira nodded, but didn’t move.
Keira held out her hand and Shira hesitantly grabbed it. Her hand was sweaty, but so was Keira’s. Overall, it wasn’t a big deal.
“Oh god, Keira. I don’t remember where to go. What we’re suppose to do.”
“It’s fine. I remember.”
“Keira. I don’t want to do this. I don’t. I can’t.”
Keira’s tears from the night before had vanished. “Yes, you can, Shira. If anyone can, it’s you.”
Shira took a shaky breath and nodded. She could. She could do anything.
When Father had said that they had been training, he was lying.
The old woman who had coronated every ruler for the past three hundred years had simply said that the girls would be tested when their coronation came. Mother and Father had pressed for information, but had received none. The old witch was never prone to releasing information.
Shira was almost surprised when she and her sister stepped out of the front palace doors. Four soldiers were flanking them, though they kept their respectable distances. Often times Shira was deep in scholarly thoughts that she would past through the world as if some sort of ghost.
She also was surprised to see hundreds upon hundreds of people swarming the city. A great cry rose up when Shira stepped out with Keira. What had the girls done to receive their adoration? Was it just simply because they were born royal? The people weren’t even expecting the sisters for hours still.
Shira squeezed her sister’s hand tightly before letting go. They both had to face the crowd with strength.
As subtly as she could, she wiped her sweaty hands off on her dress before waving to the crowd, another uproarious cry coming from their lips.
She and Keira made their way down the great marble steps side by side. Miraculously, the people parted before them as if they had practiced it for months.
The whole thing made Shira feel uncomfortable, as though every single eye in the kingdom was watching her. Which, they sort of were.
Shira fixed her own eyes on the statue of her father. It was in the middle of the street in front of the palace. The artist had made him look stronger, sterner. It was back when he had his bushy beard – something he had rid himself of when Shira was still quite little – and he held a trident in one clenched fist.
She smiled and waved at the crowd, but kept her eyes on the statue. Just one foot in front of the other.
Since Keira was the one who knew the way, Shira slowed her steps up enough that she could follow behind her sister by a few paces, almost glad to let her sister take the lead.
They both walked – nearly – side by side through the streets. There were more then just hundreds of people, there were thousands. All of these people … though a wave promised to overthrow them soon … were there for them. Shira could feel the tears form in her eyes, and this time it wasn’t just from nerves. She was in awe.
Keira finally stopped in front of an unassuming house at the edge of the city limits. There was a large clump of people standing around the house, but none got closer than twenty or so feet.
Shira shifted her weight from foot to foot. Her feet were killing her, just as she would her mother for choosing these shoes for her to wear.
When Keira didn’t enter, or even knock, Shira sucked in a breath. She had to be the brave one.
Gathering every last ounce of courage that she could, Shira stepped up to the door, her fist poised for knocking. It was as if every person in the kingdom had inhaled and then refused to let the stolen breath go. Even Shira wasn’t breathing.
But no. That was nonsense. Then again, Shira believed in nonsense.
Her resolve firm, Shira let her knuckles rap against the wood once, twice, thrice. She was about to do it a fourth when the door was jerked open.
Shira wasn’t quite sure what she was expecting – perhaps a warty old woman with elastic hair and a cantankerous attitude – but it definitely wasn’t what she got.
The woman before her didn’t look a day over twenty-five. She was slim. Unnaturally slim. Slimmer than either Shira or Keira, that was for sure. Her hair was cut short, all except for waves on top, which was a stark white. She wore all black, which matched her solemn features and, somehow, her sharp nose. Rings adorned her fingers and ears.
“Well, do come in. The stares are making me itch.” Her voice sounded as if it belonged to someone who had smoked their whole life.
Shira startled, but followed the woman inside, motioning for Keira to do the same.
The house was actually only two rooms: the greeting room which was no larger than a broom closet, and the room that the woman led them to.
It was a wide open space, covered in, oddly enough, rocks. Shiny ones and just plain lumps that looked like coal. Tanks were placed on the floor, fish floating leisurely inside. Some of the enclosure were merely bowls of water.
A table was placed in the center, a chair behind it. The whole affair was reminding Shira of a fortune teller and her set-up.
Keira slowly migrated towards Shira, and Shira took her sister’s hand. We’ll be fine, she silently mouthed. She wasn’t quite sure if she believed it.
“Come, come. Now, which of you is which?”
“Um, I’m Shira and she’s Keira.”
Keira’s hand was growing sweaty. She was never very good in confrontational situations.
“And who are you?”
The woman settled down into her chair, running her fingers through her hair. “Oh, of course. I’m sorry, my dears. I’m Ursula.” She stopped fidgeting with her hair and propped her elbows up on the table, placing chin on fist. “Pull up some chairs.”
Shira looked around a second before noticing four chairs haphazardly stacked in a corner. She hadn’t noticed them before.
She looked at her sister a little hesitantly. Keira motioned for her to go first, so she did. Shira walked across the room and hefted down one of the chairs. It was over her head, and she was worried that it would collapse on her face and she would walk around without a nose for the remainder of her days. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
She handed the chair off to Keira, who held it but didn’t move. Shira took down another for herself – the chairs actually weren’t all that heavy … made from some sort of light material.
Once Shira and Keira had settled into their chairs in front of Ursula’s table, she was unnerved to see that the woman had barely moved. Her head hadn’t rotated and her eyes hadn’t been taken off of the girls for a second.
Still Ursula looked on. Shira was going to say something, but every time she tried, her voice seemed to be taken away from her.
Finally, the woman spoke. “It’s a lie, isn’t it?”
Keira began to sputter. Shira, herself, was wheeling. How had she…?
“I beg pardon?” Shira asked.
Ursula waved her hand about distractedly, finally removing her elbows from the table and rocking back in her chair. “This whole ordeal. It’s all lies. Slander.”
Shira fell silent. Should she admit defeat? Would Mother be in trouble? But mostly … would Shira’s chance of rulership be gone?
“It’s of no matter.” Ursula rose to her feet, walking the perimeter of the room. She trailed her fingers in many of the tanks’ waters. Shira watched with a sort of grim curiosity. Some of those appeared to be electric eels and premature sharks.
“Keira, dear, do come here.” The woman didn’t look up.
Keira shot Shira a petrified look, but pulled herself together enough to rise to her feet and approach the old sea witch.
Ursula tugged Keira down to a crouching position beside her. Keira’s forehead was knitted together, but otherwise her face was serene. Shira was proud of her sister.
But curiosity also tugged at her with an ungodly pull. Shira rose to her feet, as well, but immediately the witch waved her back. She hadn’t even looked up!
Shira didn’t want to admit it, but she sulked as she sat in her chair, trying to read the lips of her sister and of Ursula, but she garnered nothing.
Eventually Keira straightened up and walked out, her head bowed. She didn’t spare Shira a single glance.
This time when Shira got to her feet, Ursula did not stop her.
“Come. Speak to an old woman.”
Shira planted her feet. She looked towards the door that led to the greeting room. Where her sister had vanished to. “What did you tell her?”
But the woman didn’t respond. Only gestured for Shira to come close.
She looked once more at the door, before walking hesitant steps towards the woman.
Ursula straightened herself and took Shira’s hands in hers. Up close, when Shira was actually paying attention to her, Ursula looked young. No more than her early twenties. How had this woman lived for centuries?
“I’m sorry, my dear.”
Shira blinked. “For what.”
“It is nothing to do of your birth. You … you just strive too far. Were you to reign, the kingdom would collapse to chaos.”
Shira stumbled back, but not far for Ursula still held tight to her hands.
She hadn’t been chosen.
Ursula raised Shira’s left hand to her lips and kissed her knuckles. “My lady.”
The title startled Shira more than anything that the witch could have said. She had always been titled “heiress.” But no longer. Even her title, one which she had tightly clung to, had been taken from her.
Ursula released Shira’s hand, then turned back to her fish in an obvious dismissal.
Shira stood in shock. What was she to do with her life now?
Finally, she gathered herself enough to turn and stumble from the room. Ursula didn’t even look up.
She found her sister sitting on the steps to the witch’s home. Her dress was already covered in mud and sand. Tears were formed in her eyes. When Keira saw Shira she launched to her feet and wrapped Shira in an embrace.
Shira stood, limp. Not returning the hug.
What was she doing? This was a big day for her sister. She had been chosen as enough.
Slowly, hesitantly, Shira raised her arms in an embrace around her sister’s rounded shoulders. The hug lacked heart.
“I’m so sorry,” Keira whispered in Shira’s hair. “If I could…”
But she didn’t finish her thought. They both knew wishful thinking would change nothing. Keira was destined for greatness – the witch had said as much – while Shira was destined to the fate of a retired queen. Held in an esteemed position, but good for nothing but pity and fond memories.
The whole afternoon had been a pain. All Shira had wanted to do was to lock herself in her room to cry. To squeeze a wineglass until it shattered. To yell at her sister and to hug her.
None of those were an option. Shira was still a princess, and as far as the kingdom knew, still an heiress. She had to hold her chin up with dignity.
It had been obvious to their parents what the outcome had been from the first moment that they stepped into the palace. To their credit, neither of them tried to coddle or comfort Shira. They nodded their heads and carried on. That was what it meant to be royalty.
But when the announcement had been made, Shira had been allowed to remain in her room. Keira had chosen to do likewise. Mother had told her that she would announce no visitors for future notice while affairs were sorted out. Shira had never been more grateful.
She lay on her floor, a pillow hugged to her chest. The sides of her head were wet with tears that she had long run out of. She just laid there, thinking both of everything and of nothing.
There was nothing left for her, and she didn’t mean to sound dramatic. It was true.
Shira had to use all of her willpower to pull herself up and to her feet. She walked over to her desk where all of her trinkets collected. Her favorite, the glass object, sat proudly. Shira picked it up fondly, cradling it to her chest. She didn’t know who it was from – many of her gifts had no tags or notes on them – and it would take some of the romance out of it, knowing who it was from.
And while Shira stood there, holding a foreign object to her bosom, she knew what she would do.
The evening crept past even more slowly then the afternoon had.
Shira declined dinner and turned away her sisters and parents. She spent a lot of time pacing her room. She tried to look over some of her favorite textbooks, but it just depressed her. Her time box ticked by slowly, each sound grating her nerves.
Outside her window, the light almost completely faded as the distant light through the water vanished, and the lamps were dimmed.
When her time box struck one, Shira donned her cloak and tugged on her boots. She was wearing only a simple white dress that she had been surprised to find buried in her closet.
Very few servants were out and about this late at night, and none of the ones that she did see talked to her. Perhaps it was due to the fact that in the dim lighting they couldn’t tell if she were herself or her sister, and therefore didn’t know what to say. Regardless, Shira was thankful for it.
As she stealthily made her way through the palace and out the front doors, she wanted to cry. To let the tears freely flow down her face and to dampen her gown. But Shira was convinced that there was no water left in her body.
Shira had been outside of the palace many times on her own, but never at night. She had never been out at night, actually. How had she never snuck out before? The sight was beautiful and panged her heart. Everything was varying shades of black and gray and white, except for the areas lit by lamps, casting everything with an orangeish hue. No people were out to admire the beauty, though perhaps that was for the best.
Though she had only traveled it once, Shira found it easy to trace her way back to the sea witch’s home. As if it were second nature.
It wasn’t until Shira’s fist was posed to knock that she considered the situation before her. What if Ursula wasn’t at home? Or what if she was angered at the sight of Shira, thinking her petty and annoyed over her sister’s triumph? What if she turned Shira into a slug? All real possibilities.
Don’t think. Just feel.
It was a strategy that she hated to live by, but found herself doing it more and more often.
The door opened.
Shira was so surprised that she stumbled back, her boot missing the edge of the step and she fell to the road below. All of her joints hurt and Shira moaned. Ursula passively stood over her.
“I know why you have come. I don’t appreciate the late hour, but enter.”
The woman turned on her heel and stalked back inside her home, leaving the door open.
Shira laid on the ground for a few more moments, rubbing her aching wrists and elbows and tailbone. Should she really follow through on this? Once one made a deal with a witch, there was no going back. Even she knew that.
But what more could she do? She had already made her decision, in her heart, back in her room. Her mind was made, and there was no changing that.
So she stood up and brushed off her dress and cloak the best she could and followed the woman inside, closing the door behind her.
Ursula was nestled in a fainting chair that Shira was certain hadn’t been there before. Maybe there was a storage room tucked away somewhere?
Shira grew self-conscious and pulled her cloak around her as tight as she could.
“I know what you come for; do you?” Her voice sounded huskier than before. Had Shira woken her up? She would have felt guilty if she weren’t so terrified.
“I-I-” Shira cleared her throat, ordering herself to make her throat work. “I think that I do. Ma’am.”
Ursula waved her hand nonchalantly. “None of that nonsense. Call me Ursula.”
Shira nodded slowly, swallowing. “Ursula. I wish – I wish to leave this place. To go somewhere else. To live out my life in some-some foreign world. Somewhere I can belong.” Her voice was more wobbly then she had wanted, but better then she had anticipated.
“Mmhmm. That is basically it.” Ursula closed her eyes and leaned her head back. “And, little princess, what do you wish to give me as payment? It is quite a lot that you ask of me.”
Shira’s body shook. Her vision was growing blurry at the center. She knew she would have to pay – of course – but she had hoped that the witch would state her fee outright. Or even better, laugh at Shira and shoo her away.
“I can offer you whatever you desire. I-”
“Tut tut.” Ursula opened her eyes and sat up. “That is a risky thing to say. Do you truly believe that I desire mere bobbles and tokens? Coins? Finery?”
Shira’s words came out as a stumble. No, she hadn’t been so foolish. But she had been a fool to hope. She remained quiet.
“What I desire is something that you will not so easily part with. Do you wish to proceed?”
The witch’s icy blue eyes bore directly into her. Unease flooded every vein in Shira’s body. She wasn’t sure. But she knew that she couldn’t stay. She would grow to resent her sister and their kingdom. Every day she lived would be lived with regret. No, she couldn’t live like that. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Come closer, then.”
Ursula, once again, took her hands. The woman was very touchy. Perhaps she lived a reclusive life and this was the only touch that she received. Shira still wished that it wasn’t hers the woman’s soft hands were holding.
“I require your tongue.”
“I’m not done. Your tongue. And your freedom, in a sense. Every step that you talk will physically pain you. This kind of liberation from your home world does not come cheap. An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth; one freedom for another.”
Shira’s whole body dropped twenty degrees. A shiver wracked her whole body. She couldn’t go through with this. She simple couldn’t!
“Yes. I-I understand.”
“Good girl. Now, swear yourself to me.”
“Wait – why?” Panic like none other filled her. What was she doing? She was a fool!
It isn’t worth it. It isn’t worth it.
But when emotion took her, it took her completely.
“I swear myself to you, Ursula.”