The baroness and her daughter, though, would not give up so easily. Especially not now that they knew the king was on their side. They frequented the palace, and because of that, the prince avoided the place. Since Leila was unkind to our mute mermaid, the prince often took her sailing with him. Again, another opportunity she didn’t take advantage of. When the prince tried conversing with her, she just nodded and smiled, and that was the end of it.
One day, though, the baroness arrived bringing along with her one of the nephews who were dependent on her for their allowance.
“My nephew, Pig, your highness,” the baroness told the prince.
“P-pig?” The prince asked.
“Yes. We call him that because he eats like one. For a living, he uh… plays with rocks.”
“I am a sculptor, Aunt,” Pig corrected the baroness. “I do not play with rocks, I make art.”
“How do you do?” The prince greeted the newcomer unenthusiastically.
“Very well, your highness. Thank you,” the sculptor replied with so much flair that the prince couldn’t help but roll his eyes.
“Pig, this is the prince’s mute, um… friend,” the baroness told her nephew, leading him to our mermaid.
“Pleased to meet you, my lady,” the rakish nephew said as he took our mermaid’s hand and kissed it. “May I know your name?”
“She’s mute, you idiot!” The baroness barked. “She can’t tell you her name.”
Pig looked reproachfully at the baroness. “She’s not deaf, Aunt. Do watch your language.” Then he turned back to the girl. “You look so beautiful, like one of the marble statues in the opera house. And almost as white, too. Though, not quite snow-white. Not marble white, either. I’d say your skin is more of pale ivory.”
Unsure of what to do, our mermaid gave an awkward little curtsy. And the sculptor returned it with a theatrical sweeping bow.
“Milk White,” Pig said. “I shall call you that. I plan to name one of my ivory statues that. Isn’t that a nice name?”
The mermaid, who only had eyes for our prince, just shrugged.
“Why don’t you take the mute— I mean, Milk White, for a ride in town?” The baroness suggested. “I’m sure she would love to see the sights.”
Our mermaid loved the idea. She looked happily at the prince.
The prince groaned inwardly but smiled. “Of course. I shall accompany—”
“That’s a wonderful idea, your highness!” The baroness exclaimed. “I’m sure my daughter would love to go on a seaside walk with you on this fine day.”
“I’m sure Pig can handle the mute,” the baroness said.
Milk White turned questioning eyes at the prince.
True, the baroness’ nephew was a bit of an idiot. But he was a nice idiot. Apparently, the prince knew this for he nodded to our mermaid to go on without him. And that was how the baroness effectively got rid of the mermaid for the day, and cornered the prince into spending time with her daughter.
As one would expect, though, when he took Leila on the walk, the prince’s mind was elsewhere. His eyes scanned the sea while his companion rattled on about how fine the weather was.
“It was so dreadful the last time I went for a walk with one of the counts,” the baroness’ daughter said. “It was very cloudy, and it even rained a little.”
“Mmm,” was the prince’s reply.
“Are you even listening, your highness?”
“Your highness, aren’t you even going to—”
“What’s that?” The prince pointed towards the sea.
There was a figure in the waves. As it approached the shore, they could see that it was a woman, but she swam funny. When she reached shallow water, instead of standing up and walking to the shore, she dragged her lower body and used her arms to get to the shore. And her lower body was glimmering sea green in the sun.
“A mermaid!” The prince exclaimed and he ran towards the woman, Leila and her concern for the weather forgotten.
When he reached the woman, however, she turned out not to be a mermaid, but someone he was pleased to see nonetheless.
“Ella!” The prince exclaimed.
“Your highness?” Ella looked up in surprise.
The prince laughed, took her up in his arms and spun her around in delight, much to the alarm and annoyance of Ella’s stepsister. “I’ve found you at last!” The prince stopped spinning and looked at her.
“How did you know it was me?” She asked.
“I’d know that… unusual…fashion sense anywhere.” He motioned to the long sea green skirt she paired with a hideous peach blouse. He noticed her legs… or rather, the lack of them. “What happened to your legs?”
“I, uh… had to give them up.” She said sadly.
The prince looked sympathetically at her. “If you had told me, if I was there when you needed the money, you wouldn’t have needed to sell your legs.”
“I didn’t know one could sell legs now. But I can imagine why someone would want yours. I mean… yours must have fetched quite a decent price.”
“What are you babbling about?” Ella couldn’t help but smile.
“I’m sorry! I should have been there for you!”
Ella laughed. “I’m fine. You can put me down now.”
The prince obliged and saw her walk on her leg stumps towards a chair with wheels not far from the shore.
She turned her smiling face towards the prince. “I don’t normally go swimming fully clothed like this. But my hat flew into the sea and I had to go after it.”
The prince laughed. “Was that where you had been hiding when I set the entire palace looking for you?”
“No, but close. I live in a cottage nearby.”
Leila approached the prince’s side just as Ella was lifting herself onto the chair. “Who’s your crippled friend?” She asked haughtily.
The prince, too excited with finally finding his Ella, failed to, or chose not to, notice her hostility. “Oh, this is—”
Leila gasped. “You!”
Ella looked up at her. “Ah,” she said pleasantly. “Hello, Leila.”
“What are you doing here?” Leila asked angrily.
“Taking a swim.”
“You know each other?” The prince asked.
“Yes, she’s my stepsister.” Turning to Leila, Ella asked, “Did my shoe fit?”
“You stole it from me!” Leila insisted.
“You sold her your glass slipper?” The prince asked Ella.
Ella shrugged. “I needed the money at that time.”
“To move out of your stepmother’s house?”
“Among other things.”
“The legs were not enough?”
Ella laughed again. “Please, your highness, enough with the legs already.”
“It was my glass slipper!” Leila interrupted.
“And how are you now?” The prince asked Ella as if Leila had not spoken.
“I’m great!” Ella spread out her arms. “I’m loaded and I’m free now. I can do whatever I like and go wherever I want.”
“That money was extorted!” Leila screamed.
“Come with…” The prince began, but hesitated. “At least come to the palace once in a while. I miss our conversations.”
“No, she can’t!” Leila shouted.
Ella smiled. “I will.”
“Why don’t you come for dinner? There’s someone I’d like you to meet. She’s a very shy girl. She can’t talk. Maybe she would open up to you.”
“She’s mute! She can’t open up to anyone!” Leila screamed.
“It’s just great to see you again, Ella.”
“Same here, your highness.”
Jabiri threw down a card. “Ace of Coins.”
“King of Coins,” Mortimer countered.
“Five of Wands,” came Brey’s card.
Viggo threw down his card triumphantly. “Two of Vands. I vin!”
Everyone else groaned and threw down their remaining cards.
Jabiri took all the cards on the table and shuffled them.
“What was the mermaid’s reaction to seeing Ella?” Mortimer asked. “Did they get into a cat fight or something?”
“No, Ella was a nice girl. In fact, they became good friends,” Brey said. “Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t think our mermaid suspected Ella and the prince were in love with each other at that time.”
Viggo snorted. “Now she is stupid and dense.”
“No, not dense,” Brey corrected. “Just self-centered.”
“Self-centered?” Jabiri asked. “I thought our mermaid was a good girl.”
“Being self-centered doesn’t always make one nasty. Sometimes, it just makes one blind. All she saw was that the prince was polite to her, that he took her sailing, and that she was in the same room with him. She didn’t see that the reason why the prince and Ella were not too polite with each other was because they were closer; or that when they were sailing, Ella was there, too; or that even though she and the prince were in the same room, his eyes only looked for Ella.”
“So the prince married Ella?” Mortimer asked.
“I assume they would. Last I heard they were engaged.”
“And ze mermaid?”
“And Leila?” Jabiri added.
“And the king?” Mortimer also added.
“The king was angry at first, of course,” Brey recounted. “But he gave in, in the end. He grew to like Ella after a while. Besides, it was the only way he could get grandchildren. Leila stopped visiting the palace about a week or two into Ella and the prince’s engagement. She was no match for Ella. Ella had the support of the palace staff, and had no qualms about fighting back. As for our mermaid…”
The announcement of the prince’s engagement came as a huge shock for our mermaid. I remember seeing her at night walking by the sea alone. But as Mortimer said, we only grant what they wish. And notice how I still call her a mermaid, even though she has legs now? Well, she still was a mermaid. She just had legs. She wished for legs, not humanity. And when a mermaid dies, she turns to sea foam. And she was dying. Her heart was breaking.
Now, our mermaid had sisters. And, no matter how annoying their little sister was, they were still family, and there still existed a bond between them. Her six sisters felt her pain. They knew she was dying. They saw her. Every night, they watched her walk like a ghost by the shore and on the deck of the prince’s ship.
Then they saw me.
“We want our sister back,” the eldest told me. “We don’t want her to die. She’s still too young!”
“She made her wish,” I said. “She can’t un-wish it.”
“Then we wish it to be undone,” the second sister said. “We wish her back!”
“What would you give for that wish?” I asked.
The sisters looked at each other. “What do want for it?” The eldest asked me.
“Hair. From all six of you.”
“How much hair?”
“All of it.”
Murmurs erupted from the sisters. Now, a mermaid’s voice may be her most precious possession, but a mermaid’s hair is almost as valuable. Mermaids are vain creatures. Having no hair would almost kill them. I mean, who’s heard of a bald mermaid?
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’ll grow back.”
“In a hundred years!” The eldest gave an irritated huff. Oh, yes, she was annoyed with her little sister. And I had a feeling our little mermaid would be in a lot of trouble once she went back to the sea.
“All right,” the eldest said. “Take our hair. But give us our sister back.”
“You talk like I was the one who took her away. She was the one who thought she was in love. Here.” I produced a knife and tossed it to the mermaid.
She looked at the knife, then back at me.
“Give it to your sister. She’s dying because her heart is breaking,” I explained. “If you don’t want her to die, she must destroy what’s breaking her heart.”
“She must stab the prince?”
I shrugged. “It’s a lot quicker than drowning him. Tell her I’ll give her back her fins once she’s stopped what’s killing her.”
And with that, I left with almost fifty feet of mermaid hair.
“So, did the mermaid kill the prince?” Jabiri asked.
“I don’t know,” Brey admitted. “Anyway, I gave her more than one opportunity to be happy. That’s the last I’m giving her.”
“But zis last one is at ze expense of Ella and ze prince’s happiness!” Viggo protested.
“Personally, I’d like to see Ella and the prince happily ever after. But our mermaid’s sisters are my clients now. I have to give them what they wished for.”
“Some people have to suffer for other people’s comfort,” Mortimer said. “It’s one of the rules of life.” He put down two cards. “Jack of Swords, and the Lovers’ Card. Now, the only time you can go higher than me would be if you had the—”
“King and Queen of Swords, of Coins, of Cups and of Wands. Ha!” Brey put down all the cards she had mentioned. Then, with a broad smile, she said, “I win.”
The other three grumbled and muttered oaths under their breaths as Brey took her prizes.
“Aren’t you going to play another round with us?” Jabiri asked when Brey stood up.
“Maybe next week,” the young merchant answered. “But now, I’m late for a client call.” And she turned to leave.
“Um, Brey,” Viggo called her back.
Brey turned to the three, who were still sitting.
Viggo pointed to the curious black ball of fur on the edge of the table. “Ze kitten?”
With a sigh, Brey picked up the tiny kitten and stuffed it in her pocket.
The little mermaid was standing on the deck of the prince’s ship, staring out at the sea.
“Aren’t you cold?”
The mermaid looked around for the source of the voice. What she found was a small black kitten playing at her feet. She picked it up and found a tall woman with long curly hair standing beside her. The woman wore boots that went up to her thighs, and a cloak that fluttered and moved though no wind blew. Her wide-brimmed hat covered half of her face, but the mermaid knew who she was.
“Did your sisters give you the knife?” The woman asked her gravely.
“You weren’t going to kill him, were you?”
She shook her head.
The mermaid remained silent.
Brey sighed. She opened her palm to reveal the glass sphere containing the mermaid’s voice. “Just for now,” she said.
The glowing voice left the sphere and entered the mermaid’s mouth.
“Why won’t you kill him?”
“…Because… Because I—”
“Oh, don’t give me that nonsense about him being your true love. He didn’t return your affections.”
“Just because he doesn’t love me back doesn’t make him unworthy of my love.”
“And just because you’re stupid doesn’t mean I have to keep helping you.”
The mermaid was taken aback. “I… I didn’t ask for your help.”
“I know, I know,” Brey said impatiently. “But like I told my friends, I don’t like seeing things I work hard to acquire go to waste.”
The mermaid looked at her legs. Tears were forming in her eyes. “What did she wish for?” She asked. “The one who owned these legs.”
“For a night at the ball,” the merchant replied in an irritated tone.
The mermaid gave a small humorless laugh. “She would give her legs for that?”
“You gave me your voice for something as valuable.”
“But her wish was more… petty. Why aren’t you scolding her?”
“Because with her wish, she went and got herself a fortune, freedom, and a prince who adores her and is marrying her tacky little self instead of the mute but gorgeous mermaid whose heart he is currently breaking.” Brey turned away and paced the deck.
The mermaid turned wide eyes at her. “These were Ella’s legs?”
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Brey said vindictively. “You go and ask for legs so you could be with your prince, and he goes and marries a girl with no legs.”
The mermaid turned back to face the sea. Tears fell from her eyes. “So, you’re concerned because… they’re Ella’s legs.”
“Of course not!” She went back to the railings.
“It’s all about Ella to you, too!” The mermaid sobbed.
“No, it’s all about my product! I’ll scold whoever buys your voice, too, if that creature didn’t make any use of it. Fine. I like Ella. She’s legless, tacky, and has no family who loves her. She made what seemed to be a stupid wish, but is the one who is about to have a happy ending because she knows how to take advantage of opportunities. Unlike you, who wasted the countless chances I have given to win the prince. Your sisters have given up their hair to have you back, but it seems like you’re going to waste that, too!”
“You want me to kill the prince?”
“I didn’t say that! I just want to understand how you could waste opportunities and other people’s sacrifices just so you could keep up this image of a tragic love.”
“I am not doing this because I want my life to be a tragedy!” The mermaid shouted angrily.
“It certainly seems that way.”
The mermaid was red with rage. She thrust the sheathed knife into Brey’s hand. “There!” She said. “Take back your knife. I am not killing the prince!”
“Idiot!” Brey opened her other hand, the one with the sphere, and the mermaid’s voice flew from her throat back to the sphere. She forced the knife back into the mermaid’s hand. “If you don’t do this, you will be nothing but sea foam! And what could you say about the life you’ve led? Nothing! You wasted your chances and you gained nothing!”
Brey and the mermaid looked around and saw the prince coming out of his chambers. He stopped when he saw the knife in the mermaid’s hand.
“Milk White, what are you doing?” He asked.
With tears flowing hard, she looked defiantly at the Wish Merchant. She unsheathed the knife and thrust it into her heart.
“MILK WHITE! NO!” The prince tried to run to her, but the mermaid let herself fall overboard.
Brey quickly took out the String of Fate from her coat pocket and whispered a spell. The little black kitten at her feet was hard at work with the same spell. Then, the edges of the string attached itself to translucent silvery threads in a web-like structure, then disappeared.
When the prince arrived at the railings, the mermaid was nowhere to be seen.
“What did you do?!” He demanded of Brey.
“I changed her destiny a little.” Brey turned to leave.
“You made her kill herself!”
“Don’t worry. She’ll live.” Brey looked at the prince over her shoulder. “Oh, if you see her, tell her not to waste the last opportunity I’m giving her pining for you.” And she and the kitten disappeared.
Pig, or Pygmalion as he was born as, watched impatiently as the sailors hauled in a piece of ivory from the sea. The ship transporting his precious cargo had encountered problems and had sunk some five hundred meters away from the port. It had cost Pig his entire allowance to get the sailors to salvage his precious order.
Now, well into the night, Pig stepped back to admire the beautiful ivory he had spent so much on. Others may have seen it as nothing but a wet old tusk, shrouded in seaweeds, and still covered with sea foam. But to the sculptor, it was a thing of beauty waiting to be released by skilled hands. He brushed the seaweeds off the smooth milky surface and sighed, satisfied with what he saw.
“Galatea,” he said to his potential sculpture. “That’s milk-white in the old language. I shall call you that.”
Ria Lu is the CEO of Komikasi, a game development company in Makati. She graduated Computer Science from De La Salle University, and CG for Games from Tokyo Technical College. Talecraft, a set of cards for story-creation, was a game she created in 2007. Her influences include Diana Wynne Jones, Jonathan Stroud, and Megan Whalen Turner. She is also an accomplished artist, and is the one who created the above illustration of her character, Brey.