“Use your brain a little,” Athena scolded me, “you can’t marry a guard.”
“That’s up to the elders to decide tomorrow.”
“Even if they do vote in your favor, it won’t be unanimous, do you have any idea what kind of trouble you might start?”
“If I as well as the elders approve, nobody will dare cause any kind of trouble.” I tried to assure my younger sister who always thought herself wiser and better suited to be the oldest.
“Approve? The elders giving you permission doesn’t mean that they approve! You’re a princess, Ursula!” she yelled back at me. “You must marry a prince! It’s the rule, it’s our tradition, it’s what all the elders want, it’s an insult that you’re even making them discuss this, and it’s mortifying that you’ve threatened never to marry if they don’t bend the law for you. You’ve put them between the offensive position of having to renounce what they believe in and the dangerous one of having to go on without a king and a queen.”
“The law is offensive for us, Athena,” I reasoned. “Why must we marry for power and not love when we’ve already been born into power? We’re born princesses, and our parents’ throne is our birthright, why must I marry someone I don’t love to secure what is already mine?”
“Because the power is ours so long as we remember that our lives aren’t.” she sighed. “Our lives belong to the kingdom; we must always think and act by what is best for our kingdom.”
“The queen and king being in love is what’s best for the kingdom.”
“Oh?” she challenged. “Suppose you fall out of love? Suppose you disagree because you both let your emotions get the best of you? Suppose he breaks your heart? How would that reflect on your ability to make decisions for the Three Seas? Father had it carved in his will that you mustn’t marry someone who stirs in you emotions that might submerge your mind, and lately you’re behaving like you’ve completely lost your mind.”
“Roka would never fall out of love with me or disagree with me or break my heart.” I twirled my hair as I looked down at him guarding our court. How could he ever fall out of love with the most beautiful mermaid in the seven seas? Who could he possibly replace me with? How could he disagree with his princess who turned him into a king? How could he break my heart when he couldn’t go a day without seeing my beautiful smile?
“You think if the elders succumb to your whim, all Three Seas will?” she countered. “Princes and princesses are raised in the public eye so that everyone can know and trust them. Almost nobody knows who Roka is, how can they accept him as their ruler? His own comrades detest him.”
“They’re just envious of him.” I resisted the urge to add ‘Just as you are of me.’
Athena had always loved the throne, she raced to be the first one to sit on it when it was decorated for ceremonies, and she chose it as her mourning spot after our parents died; she wouldn’t leave for days, but not once did I see her cry.
She was even supportive of my relationship with Roka at first, urging me to follow my heart and do what felt right for me until I refused to relinquish the throne to her.
Had it been possible for anybody else to take the responsibility of the throne off my shoulders, I would’ve gladly dropped it and swam with Roka away from the burden of both our duties. Had Athena been somebody else, I would’ve gladly handed it to her, but my sister, who accused me of only thinking with my heart, only ever thought with her mind, which everybody had always deemed worse since we were just merkids.
Athena always did what was logically best – best for her, that is - regardless of her constant lecturing about us owing our kingdom of Three Seas all our actions and thoughts, even her lectures I believed were rehearsed in case of overhearing because that logically put her in better light. She didn’t care who got hurt, who she had to hurt, to get what she thought was best for her, which did not make for a good ruler. I, on the other hand, did not have it in me to hurt anybody, not Roka by rejecting him based on his status, not myself by suppressing my own feelings, not even Athena who casually threw in my face father’s will by reminding her that the words specifying my marital details had come immediately after his insistence that she never sets tail on the throne.
“He’s not better than any of the other guards, many surpass him, and yet he’s getting ahead for no particular talent or act of grandeur other than being at the right place at the right time, that hardly sounds fair.”
“It doesn’t to those filled with envy.”
“Envy is a very dangerous shark, Ursula,” she swam till her face was merely a sand-shell away from mine, “very dangerous.”
“What exactly are you talking about?”
“I won’t let you bring shame and chaos into our kingdom, but you’ll bring shame and chaos regardless of whom you marry, so I’m giving you one last chance to step down from the throne.”
“Are you being serious right now?” I almost laughed, the elders would’ve allowed me to marry whomever I pleased the day I pleased it had they known Athena was their other option.
“You’re not going to be the queen.”
“Athena, I love you, sister, but let’s keep the pearls in the oysters.” I looked her straight in the eyes. “It’s my initial that’s already been carved on the crown. Tomorrow, the elders will hold an emergency meeting that commissions me, as well as you and every future prince or princess of the Three Seas, to marry whomever they please. The public will be introduced to Roka and they will learn to love him for all the things I love him for. And I’m sorry, but there’s nothing that you can do about it after.”
“Perhaps there is something that I can do NOW!” she screamed and distant screams echoed on cue, I looked down to find several guards down with spears in their backs having been stabbed by fellow guards.
“What should’ve happened a long time ago!” she charged at me.
“Athena!” I clapped my hands against her wrists to keep her from driving her dagger into me. “What are you doing?”
“You were supposed to go with mother and father and die with them. The Three Seas are meant to be mine.” She fought against my hold. “I’m not going to let you take what’s mine and run it to the sand.”
She was angry, she was desperate, she was hopeful, and she was strong. I felt the sting of her weapon against my chest for a moment before she flew off me as Roka rammed into her side.
“We have to go.” He quickly pulled at my arm and led me ahead, my tail flapping furiously with terror.
“What…? What…?” I couldn’t even fathom what was going on to put my confusion into a question.
“I don’t know,” Roka shook his head with his own bafflement. “It’s Athena, I don’t know how she did it, but she turned most of the guards on you. We can’t trust the guards to keep you safe anymore, we have to go to the elders.”
But the elders’ compound had a guard too and, while he didn’t attack us, he refused to let us in, as ordered by the elders themselves. He told us that the elders were informed by a messenger about the events of the night, and they had decided to claim neutrality on the matter because their loyalty was to the throne, and the throne belonged to the better ruler, and the better ruler had to win.
“What do we do now?” I stared wide-eyed at Roka, it was a fight, a battle, it was his domain.
“We fight, of course.”
“With what army?” my arms and tail began to shake. “You said it yourself that we don’t know who’s on our side and who’s not. I can’t get my guards in line only to have the ones at the back stab those before them.”
“Then we fight alone, even if it’s just the two of us, we levitate our ground and fight.”
“Fight whom? My own people? How will they ever trust me to lead them if I’ve killed those loved by them?”
“How will they trust you to lead them if their weak-minded and treacherous defeat you? How can they trust you to protect them against the outside and the king of the Four Seas if you can’t even protect them from within?”
“The king of the Four Seas!” I gasped. “That’s it! We have to go to the king of the Four Seas!”
“Why would the king of the Four Seas help us after you rejected his marriage proposal twice?”
“He’s been on the throne for decades, he’s proud, but he’s also wise and sensible, he’s known to value loyalty and tradition, he wouldn’t allow for his neighboring kingdom to be ruled by a deceitful second-born.”
“Ursula-” he started, but I quickly grabbed him and pulled him behind a reef as a few guards swam our way. “I don’t think this is a good idea, but I can’t think of a better one. Go. They’ll think you’re with me, so I’ll lead them away, and you do what you have to do to save our kingdom.”
I watched as Roka swam away, very soon followed by several guards he once trained and lived and formed intimate relations with.
I blew the whistle my father had taught me to always keep around my neck and waited for my dolphin to follow the signal to me then rode him to the edge of the kingdom of the Four Seas. The guards recognized my crown, and I was instantly escorted to king Triton’s palace.
I found myself just as nervous about seeing him as I was about the future of my kingdom. I’d only met king Triton twice before.
Our first meeting was at a festival arranged by our parents before he ascended the throne. He spent the event admiring my beauty and ended it with admitting he couldn’t imagine not looking at my face every day now that he’d seen it and knew it to exist. I refused his proposal, and my parents humored my young age at the time by not making a big deal out of it and telling him to give me a few decades.
The second time was after my parents’ death on the day I was declared the pending queen, he once again offered to unite our kingdoms, confessing that he’d spent every tide since our first meeting imagining my beauty and searching for its like within his realm to no avail, but I was in love with Roka and had no intention of marrying another, especially not someone who knew nothing of me and was interested in knowing nothing of me but my beauty.
I expected him to be a bit shocked to see me, a bit happy to be needed, a bit repulsed at the injustice, but he looked at me with utter boredom as I relayed to him the events of my day and how my people were killing my people, and I shuddered at the thought that Roka might’ve been getting hurt while I took my time detailing and insufficiently pleading for help.
“Why should I help you?” he raised an eyebrow. “I offered you my protection and power before. What does it matter to me who rules the Three Seas?”
“Because my sister won’t just stop by throwing me off the throne, she’ll come for yours.” I explained. “Athena is ambitious and has no fear or heart, she’ll come for your kingdom too, at least you know I’ll honor our parents’ treaty and continue to preserve the peace and respect between us.”
“Respect?” he laughed out loud. “You showed me respect by rejecting me for a guard?”
“Your majesty…” I was baffled by what he was deeming more important to discuss at the moment. “I hadn’t meant to reject you. It would’ve been disrespectful of me to feign sentiments I didn’t have. I respected you by affording you my honesty.”
“Alright then, respect me by affording me your honesty regarding your sentiments right now.” He smirked at me. “Do you really care for the kingdom of the Three Seas or for just one merman to swim safely within it?”
“I…” I couldn’t think of anything but Roka at the moment, and I would’ve been ashamed of that had I the thought of anybody else to feel ashamed of.
“What exactly does this guard have that I, king Triton of the Four Seas, don’t? What can he give you that I couldn’t?”
“Right now, your majesty, he’s risking his life for me.”
“Ah, is that why you’re so agitated?” He looked at my shaking hands as I kept levitating up and down uncontrollably. “Would you be willing to risk something for him?”
“How about that beauty you’ve always taunted me with?”
“I…” I couldn’t remember ever taunting him with my beauty, I never promised him anything, I never used it to get on his good side or get anything out of him, I never even smiled at him after learning about his intentions towards me. I was simply beautiful. How was my mere existence considered an offensive taunting?
“Give me your beauty, and I guarantee that both you and your lover will remain alive and free to do as you please.”
To be with Roka, alive and free and in love, was all I ever wanted. Unlike king Triton, Roka loved me for who I was on the inside, he fell in love with my ugliest moments before my pretty face, and I knew that being alive and free and in love with me was all he ever wanted as well.
“You just have to give your consent.”
I didn’t have time to argue or discuss my options, I was running out of time. I didn’t know how many guards Athena had tempted into her plot, but I knew that there were many that envied Roka and had tried to poison him before when our relationship was first exposed. I knew that with each passing second, his life was in whaler danger, he could’ve already been caught, he might’ve been tortured as I thought my future through, there was also the possibility that he’d already been killed – no! King Triton was a man of his word, and even if he wasn’t, my agreement to his terms bound him to keep up his.
“Alright.” I nodded. “You can take my beauty.”
He quickly got up from his throne and made a circular motion with his trident. I watched as a golden circle of mist moved towards me until I was in its midst before it seeped into my skin, tearing it apart.
I screamed in pain as I watched my tail split into six parts, each twice the size of what my one tail had been, my hair fell apart all around me, and a different texture sprung up in its place, I couldn’t see my face, but I knew that it was no longer my face. Then, the golden circle of light erupted from within me, in its midst the reflection I always saw in the mirror, but I knew I never would again.
“King Triton, behind you!” I yelled for him when I saw Athena closing in on him.
“No, beside him.” Athena smiled back at me as she stood at his side, taking his arm in hers.
“There you go, my beloved.” He motioned with his trident for my image to fall into her, and I watched with horror as her body and colors and face twisted into an exact replica of what my own had been.
“What’s going on?” I demanded, even my voice no longer the one I’ve always known.
“I’d had it arranged for you to die with father and mother, but you’ve overstayed your welcome in my kingdom.”
“You can’t do this! The elders won’t stand for this!”
“The elders will see your face as you come to your senses and decide to enter a union with king Triton, becoming the queen and king of the Seven Seas.”
“They know me, they won’t believe you.” I shook my head, but it felt too big and heavy and unbalanced.
“It’s my word against a monster’s.” she smiled.
“What have you done to me?” I looked down at my hands that weren’t mine.
“Nothing that you haven’t agreed to.” King Triton shrugged.
“And here’s your part of the deal.” Athena clapped her hands and two guards swam in dragging a hand-tied Roka between them.
“Roka!” he looked up at me with horror, then begged Athena and Triton not to be given to me.
I tried to swim away, but I didn’t know how to in my new body and heard them laughing behind me as I desperately tried.
With my face, Athena announced that there had been a mutiny that cost her sister’s life and to honor her, the beauty changed her name from Ursula to Athena. She solidified her initial on every new crown by the seven daughters she had with Triton, and each one of them inherited something from me along with my looks.
Attina inherited my dislike of conflict, Alana my love for glamour, Adella my obsession with finding love, Aquata my possessiveness, Arista my curiosity, Andrina my formerly fun nature, and Ariel my willingness to do anything for a lover.