A blue diamond as big as a man’s fist rolled onto the square wooden table.
“Hope Diamond, they call it,” its owner, a huge dark-skinned man, explained as he clasped his sausage-like hands about his round belly. “Got a kingdom in exchange for getting it off their hands. Cursed, you know.”
“A kingdom?” The young woman on his right laughed. “Jabiri, I can sell your diamond for two!”
“Well, it’s yours if you win, girl.”
Twirling the edges if her long black curls, the woman raised a brow at Jabiri. “Given my age, I’m hardly what you’d call a ‘girl.’”
“You should take it az a compliment, Brey,” the small man across Jabiri said with a smile. “You don’t look your four hundred sirty yearz.”
“Thank you, Viggo, for announcing my age for all the universes to hear.” She crossed her legs, her thigh-high leather boots squeaking her displeasure.
Viggo inclined his head in a gracious gesture. “You are velcome.”
Jabiri called one of the maids working in the small dimly-lit tavern to wait on them.
“Ready to order?” A thin girl with a low-cut blouse asked as she approached their table.
“Yes, I’ll have a pint of beer, lass,” Jabiri told her.
The maid took a small notebook from her faded billowing skirt. “Aye, sir,” she said as she scribbled. “And you, sir?”
Viggo shook his head. “Nossing for me.”
“Sherry,” the tall man in a black suit on Jabiri’s left said.
“Sherry, got that.” Then she turned to the young woman. “And what are you having, Miss Brey?”
“My usual brew, thank you.”
When the maid left, the tall man in black turned to Brey. “You know the girl?”
“Did business with her when she was younger.” Brey said. “A lot younger. Matches.”
Brey turned to her right. “Viggo, what are you throwing in?”
Viggo twirled the edges of his mustache as he studied his cards. “Hmm, I’m going viz fame zis time.” From the pocket of his striped trousers, the small man took out a piece of glowing gold string about a foot long. “A measure of ze String of Fate.”
The tall man in black raised a monocle to his eye. “For the egotistical hero. Impressive,” he commented. “How long is it worth?”
“About a year or two. Vhat are you betting, Mortimer?”
“Power for me.” The tall man reached into his coat pocket.
Everyone watched intently as the black-clad man slowly dropped his bet on the table.
Then his bet started to play with the String of Fate.
Brey could not hide the look of surprise on her face. “Um, Mortimer,” she began, not taking her eyes off the table. “It’s a kitten.”
“It’s a Witch’s Familiar.” Mortimer lit his pipe. “Ninth kitten of the ninth litter. Can work on practically all your spells.”
“And chew on practically all your stocks.”
“Vhy do you carry it in your coat pocket, Mortimer?” Viggo asked.
“The kitten or your stocks?” Jabiri asked.
“Both.” Then Mortimer looked at the young woman across him. “That leaves love to you, Brey.”
“I’m throwing in a Mermaid’s Voice.” Brey rolled to the middle of the table a glass sphere with a faint blue glow inside it.
“Nice vork,” Viggo commended her. He put down one of his cards on the table. “Sree of Cups. How did you get a mermaid to part viz her voice?”
“Well, it started when this prince from world Beta-E-Two fell off his boat. Five of Coins.”
“Beta-E-Two?” Mortimer asked. “I’ve had dealings there. Eight of Coins. What’s his name?”
“He doesn’t have any. Years ago, his frog of a father sold his own name and the names of his future sons to me when he asked for humanity.”
“Ah, so that’s why so many princes there are nameless,” Mortimer deduced.
“Well, start at the beginning, girl!” Jabiri said. “This game’s not going to finish in a hurry.”
Charming. That was what everyone called him and his two brothers. That was as close to a name as they got. It all started when our prince, Charming number two, fell off his ship while mermaid-watching… And then got saved by an actual mermaid. Our little mermaid. Don’t bother asking me what her name was. I can never pronounce mermaid names. Suffice it to say, she fell head over tails for the charming prince. So, I saw opportunity, and I took it.
“You can make me human?” She asked me when I appeared to her.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’ve done it before.”
“You can make me walk? You can make me go to him? You can make it possible for me and the prince to be together?”
“Yes, yes, and yes. But I can only grant you one wish so, choose wisely.” They never do, though. Teenagers.
The little mermaid thought for a while.
She was a pretty young thing with golden hair and pale almost translucent skin. The prince could definitely fall in love with a girl like her if she knew how to play her cards right.
The mermaid turned to me at last. “Legs,” she said. “I wish for human legs.”
“I can grant you that. But in exchange, I ask for your voice.”
“Yes, your voice for human legs.”
“But how can I talk to him if you take my voice?”
“You can’t. But you’ll be able to go on walks with him.”
“And… and that means I can never sing again.”
“True, but then you’ll be able to dance.”
The mermaid dropped her gaze. I knew she was bothered. Her voice was among the prettiest in the sea. But I had to ask for something as valuable to her as the prince. She can’t have them both. That was the Rule of Conservation of Fortune. She couldn’t have her cake and eat it, too, you know.
“All right.” She looked up at me. “I agree.”
“Wait, it can’t be that easy,” Jabiri protested. “A mermaid’s most prized possession is her voice.”
“She’s an adolescent,” Brey said. “You know how impulsive they are. Besides, she thinks it’s true love.”
“Fine. So she and the prince lived happily ever after.” Mortimer put down a card. “Three of Swords.”
“Well, no,” Brey said.
“Vhat, ze prince didn’t love her because she vaz not a mermaid anymore? Six of Swords.”
“Not really. It’s not as simple as that.”
After his arrogant elder brother got himself turned into a beast spurning the love of a fairy, Charming the Second got promoted to Heir to the Throne. But as an heir, the prince had to have a wife. The problem was the second prince was an anti-social geek! Can you believe the old king had to throw a ball just so the prince could meet some girls?! Oh, and not just any kind of ball. It was a Masquerade ball because, according to the king, the anonymity of that kind of ball made the prince more confident. As if anybody wouldn’t recognize the prince.
Anyway, one of those who so desperately wanted to attend said ball was a girl named Ella.
“I can help you get to the ball,” I told her.
“Who are you?” She asked, tears in her eyes and pans at ready in her hands. I think I startled her when I appeared in her kitchen.
“I am a Wish Merchant.”
“A… Wish Merchant?”
“Yes, I trade wishes. You have a wish, don’t you?”
“You… you can… get me a nice gown?” She slowly lowered her pans.
“Gown, shoes, transportation, the works. If you really wish it.”
“Oh, I do! Even if it’s just for a night, I’d like to forget about my mean stepmother and my horrible stepsister. For once in my life, I want to attend a fancy party and enjoy myself. And maybe even dance with the prince.”
“I can grant you that… for a price.”
I seemed to have popped Ella’s bubble here for she suddenly slumped back on her stool. And in a frustrated voice, she said, “Oh, I would give an arm and a leg to go to that ball. But I don’t have any—”
“I don’t need an arm,” I told her. “Two legs would do.”
“You asked for her legs?!” Viggo exclaimed in disbelief.
“I had to get the legs from somewhere.”
“Are they nice?” Jabiri asked, a smirk on his jolly fat face.
“Vhat does it matter?!”
“Many women would give up a lot for a pair of shapely legs,” Jabiri said. “More so with mermaids.”
“And she actually agreed to give you her legs?” Mortimer was staring at her, not quite believing her.
Brey shrugged. “Again, a teenager.”
Viggo shook his head regretfully. “Silly girl.”
“Not really,” Brey disagreed. “That girl knew how to make the most of her situation.”
I told her I could loan her a gown, a mask, a pair of shoes, and a carriage. She asked if she could pick her gown and shoes. I agreed… Which was a wrong move. This girl was the embodiment of tackiness! I mean, hello! Glass slippers? Don’t even get me started on the dress. It looked like she was trying to cram every ribbon and lace she could find on that dress. Horrid!
“I love these shoes!” She exclaimed when she was fitting her attire. And I could see on her face that she really meant it. “May I please keep these? Just these.”
“Uh, Ella, you won’t… be able to wear shoes anymore after tonight.”
“I know,” she said, staring longingly at the shoes. “But I’d like to keep them as a remembrance of the ball.”
I do not have a heart of stone. “Very well. The shoes are yours.” As if anyone would want glass slippers anyway.
We agreed that I would collect payment at midnight. The rent of the gown and the carriage would also end then. And with that, I left her to finish doing her hair.
Meanwhile, our prince was not happy with the ball.
It turns out he was sort of conscious when our little mermaid rescued him. But she was against the sun and he couldn’t quite see her face. But he was convinced it was a mermaid for she was dragging her lower body to get back to the sea. And he could have sworn he saw silvery sea green scales below her waist glinting in the sun.
And this blasted ball was taking from him time that could have been used to search for his mermaid. And no, he didn’t want to dance with the daughter of a lady or something like that. Much less marry any of them. He wanted his mermaid!
But his father was a strict man, and there was no escape from the ball. So, just to spite him, our prince chose to give his attention to the least acceptable maiden at the party: Ella.
As you can imagine, Ella stood out from the other women at the ball, and not in a good way. She wore a very colorful half-mask, and an equally very colorful dress. A little too colorful. Her make-up was so thick that it looked as if somebody had slapped her hard on both cheeks! Her hair, ribbon-filled and curled, looked like what you’d see on a person from an asylum.
“Good evening, my lady,” he greeted her politely.
“Good evening, your highness,” Ella returned excitedly. “I’m very pleased to be here.”
“And I’m very pleased to have you here.”
And our dear Ella, thinking the prince actually meant what he said, was all blush and giggles. “I-I haven’t been to a party like this in a while,” she said as she took his arm.
“It shows. You look… nervous.”
“Well, it’s just that, people don’t normally stare at me like this.”
The prince led her triumphantly out of the ballroom where everyone, including the king, had their mouths open. “Ah, they must be looking at your dress.”
“You think so? A very nice person lent it to me.”
“Indeed? He must be really, um… nice.” He led her to the balcony.
“Oh, she is! She even let me keep my shoes! And they’re very pretty.”
“Are they, now?”
“Yes, here, I’ll show you.”
And the prince closed the glass door to the balcony.
Now, when it started, the prince was only pretending to enjoy Ella’s company. But after some time in her presence, he really did enjoy it. It was refreshing. She was funny for being what she was. And she didn’t have the complete manners high society parents imposed on their children. Now, that would probably turn a lot of princes off, but not our prince. He found her openness endearing (and her ankle very shapely). And by the end of the evening, he almost saw her tackiness as adorable.
“Your stepsister did that?!” The prince laughed heartily. They were sitting on the balcony railing.
“Yes! Just to catch the old duke’s attention.”
The prince shook his head. “The things some women do to catch a man.”
“Yes, and believe me, that dress was meant for someone ten times smaller and ten years younger. I thought her corset would explode.”
“What about you?” The prince asked, sobering. “What would you do to catch a man?”
Ella smiled sadly. “I’m a realist, your highness. I’m just here to enjoy the night.”
“You don’t think maybe I’ll choose you for my wife? I haven’t talked to anyone else tonight.”
Ella shook her head. “You won’t want me after tonight.”
“Of course, I—”
Ella placed a finger on the prince’s mouth. “Let’s just enjoy this night.” Then she stood up and looked at the ballroom. “Do you dance, your highness?”
“I try to avoid it as much as possible.”
“I love dancing.” She turned to the prince. “Tonight is the last time I’ll be dancing. Will you indulge me?”
And the prince did.
Sometime during the dance, the prince quite forgot about the little mermaid. The girl before him was more tangible, more real. And he had just made up his mind to marry Ella when the clock struck twelve.
“It’s midnight!” Ella exclaimed. “I have to go.” And she tried to pull away from him.
“Wait, please!” He didn’t let go of her. But years of carrying buckets full of water versus years of mermaid-watching, who do you think would be stronger?
“I’m sorry!” Ella called back to the prince who had fallen flat on his behind. “And thank you!”
Ella dashed out of the palace. She was on the steps when the last stroke of midnight changed her gown to rags and made her legs from mid-thigh down vanish. She fell and tumbled down the steps. One of the glass slippers was beside her, but the other was higher up the steps. She wanted to go back up and get it but she heard someone coming from behind the front doors. So she took her one glass shoe and hid behind the stairs just as the prince burst through the doors.
Ella was nowhere to be found. All the prince had of her was her one glass slipper, which she left on the steps of the palace.
“The prince tried to find her, didn’t he?” Jabiri asked.
“Of course,” Brey replied. “The thing with these geeks is they tend to be fanatics. He knew her name was Ella, but Ella what? And he didn’t know where to find her. His only clue was the glass slipper.”
“Didn’t it occur to him that maybe Ella didn’t want to be found?” Mortimer asked.
“As a matter of fact, it did. So instead of just looking for Ella, he ordered his guards to try the shoe on all the young girls in the kingdom, and have those whose feet the shoe fit brought to him.”
“But he did not find her, right?” Viggo added. “Ella has no legs anymore.”
“That’s right. He found someone else.”
Midnight on the night of the ball, I gave our little mermaid her human legs. She was overjoyed. Of course, she couldn’t balance on her legs at first. But she did, eventually. But then when she finally managed to start walking, she realized that she didn’t know where to find the prince.
I am not in the habit of helping my clients but I really don’t like seeing goods I had worked hard to obtain go to waste. So I whispered a few words and directed one of the prince’s guards to the seaside, where he found our little mermaid-with-human-legs sitting on a rock trying to break open a coconut.
Oh, by the way, about the glass slipper, it was meant for Ella when she made a deal with me. Wishes are non-transferable, which means the slipper will only allow Ella’s feet to enter it. Since her feet are now our mermaid’s feet, the slipper fit her perfectly.
The prince was surprised, puzzled, and maybe a little distraught when his guards told him only the mute girl they had found by the sea fit the shoe. And he had quite a shock when he recognized the mute’s ankle as his Ella’s. It had been the first female ankle he had seen, and he would not forget it that easily.
“Ace of Swords.” Brey put down her card. “I win this round! One win to go and the diamond and the string are mine.”
“And the kitten,” Jabiri added.
Brey sighed. “And the kitten.”
“What do you have against my kitten?” Mortimer asked in an offended voice. “It is a very valuable product.”
“It’s alive,” Brey explained. “It bites things. And many of my stocks right now cannot be bitten.”
“And it poops everyvhere,” Viggo added.
“It does not,” Mortimer said defensively.
Jabiri lit a cigar. “So, the prince recognized the ankle.” He blew a mouthful of smoke. “Did he think maybe the mermaid was Ella? I mean Ella was masked during the ball, right?”
“At first he thought that. But our mermaid’s personality was very far from Ella’s. You see, our mermaid was beautiful and she knew it. And that was usually enough for her past suitors. She just had to sit there, be pretty, and everyone would be at her fins. But it didn’t work that way for our prince. He was attracted to the unique, the different, the strange.”
“Wasn’t the mermaid’s beauty different?” Mortimer asked as he took out his matches to light his pipe. “Wouldn’t he be intrigued with that?”
“He might have,” Brey answered. “If there weren’t complications.”
“Complications? You mean, Ella’s legs appearing on the mermaid?” Jabiri asked.
“Not just that. There was another girl who came up to the prince and claimed to be Ella. Also, the prince was an intellectual. He needed to be mentally stimulated. Just being pretty would not win him over.”
Viggo crossed his arms. “So, ze mermaid really didn’t have a chance.”
“She did! She had Ella’s legs, she fit the glass slipper, and the prince, intellectual or not, was still a man. Plus, she was now living in the prince’s palace. She had all the opportunities to nab him! But it seemed like she didn’t know what to do with them.”
“Well, that’s not our concern anymore.” Mortimer puffed on his pipe. “We give them their wish. It’s up to them to do what they want with it.”
Viggo shook his head. “Stupid mermaid. To give up everysing just like zat.”
“What happened to Ella, by the way?” Jabiri asked.
Brey smiled. “Ah, now there’s a girl who’s close to my heart.”
After her legs disappeared on the night of the ball, Ella didn’t bother to return home. She knew her stepmother would not be pleased to come home and find a servant with no legs. Besides, her house was too far away. So she proceeded to the marketplace with the intention of finding work there. She performed odd jobs for shop owners here and there. It was a little difficult for a cripple to find work. But Ella was pleasant enough, and the shop owners allowed her to do some work every now and then.
Then the announcement came that the prince’s guards were going around looking for the girl whose foot fit the glass slipper. And Ella saw her opportunity.
She went to the fashionable street in town and called the attention of the duchesses, countesses, and ladies shopping there.
“I have the other glass slipper!” She announced.
And it drew a lot of attention, all right.
“Ella!” Her stepsister, who had been to the ball, cried out. “That’s my slipper! She stole it from me! Guards, arrest that thief!”
To which our Ella responded by bringing the shoe over her head and shouting, “Take one more step and I will smash this glass slipper into a thousand pieces.”
“I know who this glass slipper belongs to, and it does not belong to you,” she told her stepsister. And before she could protest, Ella announced to the crowd, “But it doesn’t matter who this belongs to. I’m only giving it to someone who can buy it from me.”
“Rubbish! I won’t buy back what you stole from my daughter,” her stepmother, the baroness, declared haughtily.
“One thousand silver pieces,” a countess put in.
The baroness gasped in feigned surprise. “Have you no—”
“One thousand gold pieces!” Another noblewoman shouted out her bid.
“One thousand and a hundred!” Said another.
“One thousand two hundred!” Said yet another.
“One thousand five hundred!”
And finally, the baroness had to put in a bid of her own before some other mother got a hold of this ticket to good fortune. “Two thousand gold pieces!”
By the end of the morning, Ella was ten thousand gold pieces richer thanks to her stepmother. She got herself a solicitor, a comfortable cottage by the sea, and a new, yet still tacky, wardrobe.
The prince, on the other hand, gained the complication I was talking about: Ella’s stepsister, Leila. After the guards had found the mute girl whose foot fit the glass slipper, the baroness and her daughter paid the palace a visit and announced that Leila was the girl he had danced with. Although even the king knew it was not true, the prince’s father certainly preferred Leila over the tacky girl at the ball, and over the beautiful but mute girl who fit the shoe. So the prince had to ask Leila to try on the glass slipper. Of course, the shoe repelled her.
“My… my feet are a little swollen right now, due to the dancing at the ball,” she tried to explain as she continued to try to push her feet into the slipper, which seemed to shrink with each push.
“Ah. Well, it seems like we’re going to have to wait for your feet to stop swelling before I can make a decision.” The prince bowed his farewell. “Good day, my lady. You may return here when your feet are better.” And he proceeded to leave.
“Wait!” Leila held on to the prince’s arm. “I was the one you danced with last night. Don’t you recognize me? Besides, I can prove to you that this is my slipper.” Leila took out the other shoe and showed it to him. “I have the other slipper, you see.”
The prince was taken aback. “H-how did you get this?”
“It’s mine! It’s what I wore to the ball.”
He took the slipper and studied it carefully. It really looked like the missing pair of the slipper in his possession. The prince glanced from the mermaid to Leila. Here were two girls who claimed to be the girl he had danced with. Well, all right, the mute girl didn’t claim anything. But the fact that she was the only one who could wear the glass slipper counted for something. The prince combed his fingers through his hair in frustration. “I can’t decide right now. I need to think. I need some fresh air.” The prince proceeded to the door.
“Wait!” Leila grabbed at the prince’s arm again. “Why can’t you make your decision now? It’s quite clear I own the glass slippers!”
“Yes,” the old king agreed. “Make your decision now, son.”
“I can’t,” the prince answered. “She is not the girl I danced with.”
“Oh, but I am!” Leila insisted. “We talked and danced all night, don’t you remember?”
“What did we talk about?”
“Oh, uh… many things… like how beautiful the night was.”
“Did I enjoy myself?”
“Yes, of course!”
“How did I like the dance?”
“You loved it. You were so good at it.”
“Wrong. I hate dancing.” And with that he stormed out of the palace, back to his ship, and back to mermaid-watching. Now that he felt people were cheating just to marry him, even our little mermaid had trouble getting a hold of his attention.
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.