Prince Sebastian, his Cousin, and a Mermaid

Prince Sebastian had been training his whole life to one day be king. He studied history and laws. He met with foreign leaders and learned foreign languages. He studied problem solving and negotiating and diplomacy.   He sat with his father during the open court sessions and listened to the needs of the people. He answered letters and offered advice.

And then suddenly, one day, his father became very ill.   A week later, he died. Sebastian and his mother sat in tears by his father’s bed. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said.

The door creaked and they looked up. Sebastian’s Uncle Roderick was standing in the doorway, and a group of soldiers stood behind him. “Selma, Sebastian,” he said. “I like you both. But I want to be the next king. You can leave if Sebastian promises to never return to become king, or you can both die now.”

“I promise to never return to become king,” Sebastian said. “Now let us go.”

“Start packing,” Uncle Roderick said. “You leave at dawn.”

They left without looking back. They had tickets for a boat that would take them across the sea where they planned to stay with Selma’s sister and her family. During the trip, there was a storm and the ship began to sink.

The next thing Sebastian knew, he woke up on the shore next to his mother. A girl was sitting and watching them. “Sebastian, are you all right?” his mother asked.

“I think so,” Sebastian said. “How are you?”

“Wet and cold and grateful to be alive,” his mother said. “This girl saved us, but she doesn’t talk.”

“Bring her along. We need to see if there’s a town nearby where we can ask for help.”

A week later, they arrived at the palace.   Sebastian’s cousin Ferdinand came out to greet them. “I’m so sorry to hear about what happened. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you’d like. Aunt Selma, Mother is waiting for you inside.”

Sebastian’s mother hurried away. Sebastian sighed. “She’s been handling all of this so well. It will be good for her to finally have a chance to mourn.”

Ferdinand nodded.

Sebastian looked around. “Where did the girl go that came with us?” he asked.

“I think she’s looking at the rosebushes. Should I send her in with your mother?”

“No. Honestly, I’m not sure what to do. She saved us from the shipwreck, but I don’t know who she is. She doesn’t talk and doesn’t know any sign language. Mother calls her Anna, but we don’t know her real name.”

“We can do what we did last time I met a mysterious mute girl,” Ferdinand said.

“This happened before? Did you teach her some sort of sign language?” Sebastian asked.

“No, I asked my advisor. You’ll see. Invite her to follow us in,” Ferdinand said.

“Anna,” Sebastian called. He waved her over and she stopped trying to eat the flowers and smiled. As they walked inside, she followed.

“So what happened the last time you met a mute girl?” Sebastian asked.

“It turned out she needed to be left alone to weave coats for swans. So, we just made sure to send her food and check on her every so often,” Ferdinand said.   “She went home with her brothers when she was done.” He entered an empty office and stopped and turned. “Here we are. Meet my advisor.” He waved to a mirror.

“Your advisor is yourself?” Sebastian asked.

A vague face appeared in the mirror. “No,” it said. “I’m the advisor. How can I advise you today?”

The cousins turned to see that the mysterious girl had followed them in and was pulling books off the shelves to build a tower.   “Ah,” the mirror said. “She’s a mermaid princess who signed an unwise contract with a sea witch.”

“We should send a note to her father,” Ferdinand said.   “Do we know anyone who knows mermish?”

“I do,” Sebastian said. “My father believed in a classical education.”

“Excellent,” the mirror said. “Let me show you the contract. It has some obvious loopholes.”

“I’ll call in the lawyers,” Ferdinand said.

The next day, they sent a message by dolphin to King Triton. They met him a week later in a deep, sheltered cove. Some burly mermaid guards surrounded the sea witch.   The King greeted them in mermish.

“He asked if he can cast a translation spell,” Sebastian said.

“That’s handy,” Ferdinand said. “Say yes.”

They explained the contract to King Triton.   “My daughter needs to come home,” he said. “How can we break the contract?”

“It can be broken if you kill the prince,” the sea witch said with a cackle.

“Or you could kill the sea witch,” Ferdinand said. Everyone looked at the witch.

She sighed and snapped her fingers. The contract appeared in front of her and she tore it in pieces. In a puff of smoke, Anna was once again a mermaid princess. At the same time, the sea witch escaped her guards and swam away.

“But I don’t want to go home yet. I wanted to try chocolate cake again,” the princess said. “It’s not fair.”

“We’ll send you some,” Ferdinand said.

The king thanked them and offered to meet later to discuss possible trade agreements. He and his daughter went home.   So did Ferdinand and Sebastian.

“You know there are loopholes in the agreement you made with your uncle, too. Right?” Ferdinand asked.

“It’s not time to go back yet,” Sebastian said.

“Fair enough,” Ferdinand said. “Let’s check on Aunt Selma and see how she’s doing.” And they did.

The Princess Test

“I don’t know,” the queen said. “She doesn’t look very royal.”

Prince Ferdinand looked up from his paperwork and rolled his eyes. “She was caught in a rainstorm.”

“I certainly don’t recognize her,” the queen said. “With how few monarchies there are left in the world, it’s certainly suspicious.”

“We’re related to all the royalty we know well, and most of them are a little crazy. It’s probably a point in her favor,” the prince said. “Besides, I told you that her name checks out. Her parents just never allowed their daughters to be photographed.”

“Well, I won’t allow a liar at my dinner table.   Until we can test her claims, we’ll serve her dinner in her rooms,” the queen said.

“Do you expect her to carry her birth certificate in her coat pockets?” the prince asked. “If she was fleeing a military coup, she probably didn’t have a chance to pack a bag.”

“I’m sure there’s some way to test her,” the queen said.   “I know! I’ll pile up a bunch of feather mattresses and put a dried pea at the bottom of the pile. If she feels it and doesn’t sleep well, she’s obviously of noble blood.”

“You mean if she’s unusually sensitive and is impolite enough to complain about it?” the prince asked.

“You say it like that’s a bad thing,” the queen said. “How would you test someone to see if they belong to the nobility?”

“I don’t know,” the prince said. “An etiquette test at a formal dinner? Filling out paperwork? Public speaking? Speaking politely to the media without really saying anything?”

“Done. If she can pass all those tests, she can have your hand in marriage,” the queen said.

“Isn’t that going a little fast? Perhaps we can grant her asylum while her country fixes its issues. Then we can go from there,” the prince said.

“But if she really is nobility and not related to us…” the queen said.

“She’s traumatized and doesn’t know what happened to the rest of her family. I think it may not be the best time.” Prince Ferdinand patted his mother’s shoulder.

She sighed. “You’re probably right. I’m still going to test her though.”

“I’m sure you will, mother,” the prince said. “Or you could ask my magic mirror.”

“That thing is a liar. It said that we won’t have another ball this year, and I’m planning one for midsummer,” the queen frowned.

“I gave you the expense account. You can only have your ball if you can find a way to independently fund it,” the prince said. He raised an eyebrow. “It’s not a bad thing to only host a ball every other year. People will appreciate them more.”

The queen huffed. “I’ll find a way. Wait and see. When I do, you need to toss that lying slab of glass down the well.” She paused. “No, throw it out the window. If we dropped it into our drinking water, I’m certain it would poison us.” She turned and stalked out.

A face appeared in the mirror hung to the left of the desk. “The girl is a noble,” the mirror said. “Her family is looking for her and will arrive in about a week to bring her home. A servant heard the alarm and sent her out the back gate, but the army never made it to the family quarters. The palace guards defeated them.”

“All right,” Prince Ferdinand said. “We’ll do our best to care for her while we wait.   Oh, and don’t worry, I won’t let mother throw you out the window.”

“I know,” the mirror said.

The girl was invited to dinner, where the queen carefully watched which forks she used. Throughout the next week, the queen asked for help with various tasks, such as filling out paperwork, addressing the royal decorations committee, and speaking to a reporter from the local newspaper. The girl was polite and performed all the tasks well.

“I think she may be the one,” the queen said to Ferdinand at the end of the week.

A face appeared in the mirror. “She’s already engaged and her fiancé will arrive with her parents tomorrow to take her back home,” the mirror said.

“I hate you,” the queen said to the mirror. She stalked out of the room. Prince Ferdinand laughed and went back to his paperwork.

 

A Beast and a Ball

Prince Ferdinand opened the next folder on the pile with a sigh. Some of this paperwork was ancient. Had his father ever done any paperwork? Had his grandfather? Prince Ferdinand snorted. Knowing the state of the nation’s finances before he took charge of the accounts, it wasn’t likely.

He started skimming through the papers. Wait, this was a missing person report. Wasn’t it a job for the sheriff? He read further. The baron and his household vanished a decade ago, but the lights were still on in his manor every night. No one from town was allowed inside. He’d managed all business with his tenants and the village through letters.

This could be interesting. The prince looked back down at the paperwork. Right. It was probably time for a break. He left on his fastest horse in the morning.

It was evening when he arrived. The manor did have its lights on. He knocked on the doors, but no one answered. “Open, by order of your prince,” he said in his most official voice.

The door creaked open. No one was there. He stepped inside and the door closed behind him. He heard footsteps coming down the hall. A tall man entered. He was hairy and horribly disfigured, but dressed neatly.

The prince smiled.  “Hello, I am Prince Ferdinand and I am hoping to meet with the baron. He hasn’t been seen in some time and the local villagers are worried.”

The tall man huffed. “I am he.”

“Are you all right? Has something happened?” Ferdinand asked.

“Do I look all right? Have you not seen my face?” The man’s large hands were tightened into fists and he was nearly roaring the last few words.

Not for the first time, Prince Ferdinand considered the merits of spending the money to hire a personal guard. If he made it home, he’d have to speak to his advisers. Hiding his fear, he spoke in a calm, cold tone. “You claim to be a baron, yet you are yelling at your prince.”

The man seemed to shrink into himself. “I apologize. Please, come to my study and I will tell you what happened.”

They sat in the study. The prince heard the strange story and nodded. “Cursed to look like this until you fall in love with someone and they with you?” The baron looked down at his hands. “Well that’s not going to happen if you continue to stay hidden in your manor.   Come back to the castle and I’ll throw a ball. My mother will be delighted to spend the money.”

The baron looked up. “But my hideous appearance?”

“Fine, it can be a masquerade ball.” The prince smiled.

‘I don’t think this will work, but it would be nice to get out for a bit.”   The Baron sighed. “Come, you must be hungry. Let’s have dinner.”

They left the next day. The baron wore a cloak with a large hood. Luckily, the weather was still chilly, so no one seemed alarmed. The trip home was uneventful. They held the ball a month later.

By then, the baron had grown a little more hopeful. He still refused to look in the mirror, but he’d regained some of his confidence. He enjoyed speaking with the palace scholars and spent a lot of time in debate with the advisers in charge of defense and finance.

The ball was lovely. The queen had been so happy to throw a party again that she’d spent every moment she could on the planning and preparation. “Perhaps you’ll find someone too, Ferdinand,” she said.

“Perhaps,” Ferdinand said. “Thank you for your hard work. It looks great.”

The baron spent most of his time with a girl that had arrived late. They only danced with each other. Ferdinand hoped that the midnight unmasking wouldn’t crush the baron’s hopes.

When midnight chimed, the girl ran away. Strangely, she ran before the unmasking. The baron ran after her, but came back alone.

“What happened?” Ferdinand asked.

“I don’t know. She just left. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” The baron sighed and pulled off his mask. His face was no longer furry and disfigured.

“She loves you,” Ferdinand said.

“She couldn’t. She left,” the baron said.

“Come here and look.” Ferdinand led the baron to a mirror. “Look.”   The baron looked at his feet.   Ferdinand sighed. “As your prince I command it. Look at the mirror.”

The baron looked up and patted his face with much smaller hands. “She loves me.” His eyes were wide.

“Perhaps she left early because she’s ashamed of her own looks. Would you love her if she’s ugly?” Ferdinand asked.

“Yes. But how will I find her?   I don’t know what she looks like.”   He slumped into a chair and then stood again and pulled something out of his pocket. He smiled.   “She left this slipper. We can try it on all the girls in the kingdom. I’ll marry the girl it fits!”

“That’s ridiculous. Lots of people have feet that are the same size or nearly so. Plus, do you know how long that would take?” The prince smiled.

The baron slumped again. “You won’t help me?”

Prince Ferdinand patted his shoulder. “Of course I will.”

A voice came from the mirror and a hazy face appeared. “You mean, you’ll ask me where to find her, of course.”

The baron looked behind them, then back at he mirror. “Is that a talking mirror?”

“I’ll tell you another time. It’s a long story. Just write down what he says,” the prince said.

The baron and one of the prince’s lawyers left the next afternoon. The lawyer returned alone. “I assume it went well then,” the prince said.

“The girl’s father died without a will. The stepmother was treating the girl like a servant. She ran because she didn’t want the stepmother to know she’d come to the ball against orders,” the lawyer said.

“That’s terrible. I assume the baron swooped in to help?”

The lawyer smiled. “He proposed on the spot. I’m certain you’ll be invited to the wedding.”

“Well, that’s good.” The prince frowned. “I suppose I need to send out another reminder about the importance of estate planning. And seeking immediate help in the event of being cursed.” He sighed. “I’ll make a note of it. Time to go back to the paperwork again.”

Mirrors and Dwarves

Prince Ferdinand’s adviser on international relations came stumbling into his office. “What happened?” Prince Ferdinand asked.

“I tripped over this pile of paper outside the door. Who left it there? It’s quite unsafe,” the adviser said.

Ferdinand looked out the door. “More paperwork? And of course they just left it and ran off, the cowards.” He picked up the stack of papers and closed the door. “Please sit down. I hope you have something that needs my immediate attention. I’ve been trapped in here all week doing paperwork.” He dropped the papers on his desk with a sigh.

The adviser smiled. “Actually, I might. A neighboring kingdom is in an uproar. The queen regent and her stepdaughter have both gone missing. They’ve asked us for help in finding them. Failing that, they’d like our help determining a successor.”

Prince Ferdinand smiled. “That does sound like a challenge. Let them know I’m on my way.” He left the next morning, riding on his fastest horse.

Once he arrived at the castle, he asked to speak with the queen regent’s most trusted adviser. A page showed him into a room with a mirror. “When will the adviser be able to meet with me?” he asked.

The page opened his mouth, but before he could speak, a voice came out of the mirror. “If my counsel you will heed, no other adviser you will need.”

Prince Ferdinand turned. The mirror was no longer reflecting the room. Instead, a fuzzy, pale face looked back at him calmly. “That’s unexpected. A mirror adviser. Do you have to speak in rhyme?”

“No, but it sounds more impressive,” the mirror said.

“It’s not necessary,” the prince said. “I’m already impressed. So, do you know what happened to the queen?”

The mirror hummed for a moment. “She died after attacking the princess.”

“And the princess?”

The mirror hummed again. “She’s near death, but not dead yet. She’s in the forest with a group of dwarves. The royal huntsman knows which forest.”

Prince Ferdinand grinned. “That’s amazing. How would I find a mirror like this?”

The mirror smiled. “We’ll talk again after you save the princess.”

“Of course,” the prince said.

He found her in an impressive stasis chamber. She looked a little blue around her lips. With the dwarves’ permission, he opened the chamber and checked.   She had a pulse, but wasn’t breathing.

He sat her up and gave her a hard slap on the back. She coughed up a piece of apple and started gasping for air.   The dwarves cheered.

“You’ve saved her! How can we repay you?” one of the dwarves asked.

“Please tell me more about this stasis chamber. Is it some new form of technology?” Prince Ferdinand asked.

“That’s a secret of the dwarven kingdom. We could put in a good word with the king and maybe he’d be willing to discuss opening trade with your people,” the dwarf said.

“That would be excellent. Let me tell you how to reach me.” He pulled out some paper and scrawled out detailed directions. “Now I need to get the princess back to the castle. Her stepmother is dead and she has a kingdom to run.”

The princess fluttered her eyelashes. “I may need some help with that,” she said.

Prince Ferdinand smiled. “Lucky for you, you have a mirror adviser.”

Before he left for home, he talked to the mirror again. “So, could I make a mirror like this?” he asked.

“Not without risking insanity,” the mirror said. “There is one other mirror I am linked to. If you had that mirror, I’d speak to you when you called.   Simply using the mirror wouldn’t be at all harmful.”

“Where is it?” Prince Ferdinand leaned forward.

“It belonged to a rather scary old woman who lived in a hut that walked on chicken legs,” the mirror said. It frowned. “I think she was crazy before she made the mirror, honestly.”

“I’ve heard of her. We recently arranged to provide her with sheep so she’d stop eating people. In return, she patrols the borders for us.   It came out of the defense budget.”   The prince scowled.

“I’m surprised she was allowed to go free.”

“There was some curse that would befall the nation if she was tried for her crimes. The legal department said our hands were tied somewhat, as long as she stopped eating innocents. Does she still have the mirror?” The prince asked.

“No, a young girl took it and threw it to the ground along with a comb.   They had protections that turned them into a lake and wood to hide them. The old woman never returned for them, so I believe you are free to keep them.   I’ll give you the coordinates to find them and the spell to return them to their original shapes.”   The mirror smiled.

“Will the spell make me crazy?” The prince raised an eyebrow.

“No, and I cannot lie,” the mirror said. ‘But you are welcome to check with your royal wizards first if you’d like.”

“All right then. I suppose I’ll talk to you again soon,” the prince said.

After arranging trade agreements with the new queen, Prince Ferdinand headed home. He stopped for the mirror and comb on his way. As he approached his home he sighed. He just knew the paperwork would be terrible. Well, perhaps the dwarves would come visit soon and he’d be able to escape his office for a day or two?

 

Dancing Princesses

Prince Ferdinand had traveled farther than he’d planned. As he wandered through the woods, he was fairly sure he was past the borders of his own kingdom and into the next. He stopped to pull out his map.

Sure enough, he should have stayed on the other side of the river. He folded up the map and put it away.   “Where are you going?” A voice behind him asked.

Ferdinand turned. There was an old woman standing on the path. She hadn’t been there before. “Right now, probably back that way,” Ferdinand said, pointing back down the path. “After that, I’m not sure.   I’m seeking my fortune,” he said.

“Let me help you,” she said. “The king of this land has twelve daughters who wake every morning tired, with holes in their slippers. No one knows why. If you solve the mystery, you can marry one of the princesses.”

The prince raised an eyebrow. “I assume the king has already tried leaving someone to watch them all night? The simplest solution is that they are leaving somehow.”

The old woman smiled. “The guards outside their door don’t see them leave. Princes and peasants have tried their luck, but no one who has tried watching in the princesses’ room has managed to stay awake all night.”

“That doesn’t sound likely. Something must have interfered with them. What do they say? Was there a strange smell? Some sort of food or drink offered?” The prince asked.

“No one knows. The king kills everyone who fails to solve the problem after three nights,” the old woman said. “But I know.”

“The king sounds rather harsh,” the prince said. He shook his head. “However, you should tell the king. I’m sure he’d reward you.”

“I cannot leave this wood,” the old woman said.

The prince sighed. “I don’t want to marry one of the princesses, but tell me what you know and I’ll do what I can to help.”

“Thank you,” the old woman said. “Do not drink anything the princesses give you. Pretend to be asleep. Then…” she handed him a cloak. She hadn’t had one in her hands earlier. “…use this cloak. It will make you invisible, and you can follow the princesses.”

“Wow,” he said. “Thank you.   I’ll do it.”

The old woman smiled and disappeared. Prince Ferdinand pulled out his map. It took all afternoon to get to the castle. Once there, he met with the king and agreed to the task.

He did as the old woman said. He poured out the wine the oldest princess handed him while pretending to drink it. Once they thought him asleep, the princesses laughed at him. Prince Ferdinand thought they weren’t very nice.   How many young men had they tricked knowing their father would kill them?

The oldest princess clapped her hands and her bed sunk into the floor and a trap door opened. The prince put on the cloak and followed them. He broke off a branch with silver leaves as they went through a forest to prove he’d been there. Soon, they arrived at a river.

The princesses met twelve princes who rowed them across a river and took them to a ballroom in an underground castle. Prince Ferdinand took a gold goblet from the table. It would be more proof. As he waited, he looked around the ballroom. The people seemed a little off, as though they were in disguise somehow.

This was obviously not a normal castle. He wondered if the princesses could continue visiting once they were found out. They’d probably be sad when they couldn’t go out and dance all night.

This could be a business opportunity. He watched the people dancing, pausing at times to talk and eat and drink. He began to mentally take notes.   When the princesses had worn out their slippers, he followed them back to the river, making sure to slip ahead of them when they reached the shore.

He again pretended to be asleep. In the morning, he told the king everything and showed him the branch and goblet. Shocked, the princesses admitted to the truth. “So,” the king said. “Which princess do you want to marry?”

Time to be diplomatic. “Your highness,” he said. “I’m not yet ready to get married. However, I believe that this problem of yours could lead to an excellent business opportunity.”

The king, who had started to scowl, now looked interested. “A business opportunity?”

The prince smiled. “Yes. I think that a dance club like the princesses visited, one where people had to pay for entrance and any food or drink, could be very popular. Your daughters can help with the details and tell you what they think would work best.”

“That sounds expensive,” the king said.

“I’d be happy to provide start-up costs for a small percentage of the profits,” the prince said.

The king narrowed his eyes. “You have money to throw around so carelessly?”

“I have a small amount of money to invest wisely. I think this could be a good investment, if done well. You should earn enough for dowries for your twelve lovely daughters and more,” the prince said.

The king leaned forward. “How much money will you send?”

The prince shook his head. “I’ll send back my lawyers to draw up the agreement and determine how much money you will need. Once they return, I’ll send the money.”

The king folded his arms. “I’m not sure about this,” he said.

“I think this could be great. Your daughters had so much fun they wore out how many shoes dancing all night? Trust me. You could be very wealthy,” the prince said.

“All right,” the king said. “You have a deal.”

“I’ll leave now and send my lawyers to come meet with you,” the prince said.

Prince Ferdinand headed home. He passed through the forest, but didn’t see the old woman. “Can I keep the cloak?” he asked. No one answered. He decided that meant that he could.

A business opportunity and a magic cloak. It had been a successful trip indeed. Perhaps he could even find someone who could grow a tree from the branch he’d saved. Maybe he should get lost more often?

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