Chapter 7: Sabotage
Dawn in Erryn’s kingdom was surprisingly busy. The sky was
just gaining a pinkish hue as Averil rose to the sound of Carlotta’s sharp
knock at the door. The kindly woman pressed a new change of clothes into
Averil’s hands, pinched his cheek, and told his that the carriage would be
waiting as soon as he arrived downstairs. The young man nodded his thanks, and
closed the door to get ready.
As he changed clothes (a much easier task now that he had done it once or twice), Averil got to listen to Sebastien’s lecturing.
“Now you gotta look your best today,” the frumpy old crab was saying. “If you want that girl to kiss you. Stand up straight, and make sure you don’t let your eyes pop out of your head.”
Averil rolled his eyes. He was confident about today. He knew for a fact that the princess liked him, what was there to worry about?
“Remember, you only got two days left,” Sebastien reminded him.
Averil turned and flapped a dismissive hand at the crab. He didn’t want to think about deadlines, they weren’t really his style. Unfortunately, Sebastien knew that.
“Don’t you shake your hand at me young man,” the crab added sternly. “No distractions this time. You think you can just float around with your head in the clouds, well, no sir! You keep your wits about you if you want to win that girl.”
The former merman’s eyebrows contracted in irritation. He would never admit it, but Sebastien did have a point. Averil had spent his life doing things the way he wanted to, without much regard for the script everyone wanted him to follow.
Averil crossed his arms over his chest. This time, there was no room for error. Ursula’s script was life or death. He had chosen to play her game, and now he had to be serious enough to win.
Shrugging off the uncomfortable thoughts, Averil tugged on his shoes. He slipped Sebastien into his pocket, in case of emergency, and took off for the front doors.
When he arrived, the princess and her servants were already waiting. Max was romping around, panting as usual. He looked as excited about today as Averil felt.
“Good morning, Averil!” Erryn said cheerily. She was dressed in her usual sensible blue skirt and boots, but something was different. Today, her long black hair had been pulled back into a ponytail, tied off with a red ribbon. A few tendrils had escaped the ribbon to blow freely around her face, but the overall effect was lovely.
“Here,” she said, moving to press a warm roll into Averil’s hand. “You look like you need something to eat.”
Smiling, Averil nodded his thanks and took a bite of the roll. It was still warm from the oven, a bit crispy on the outside, but soft and sweet in the center. The taste was so heavenly, Averil thought he might conspire to remain a human just for the food. Erryn returned to discussing the details of the day with Grimsby.
“I was thinking we’d avoid the beach today,” she was saying, “Try to stay inland. We should be back in time for dinner. If anything happens, we’ll send word.”
“Very good, my lady,” Grimsby replied. “The carriage is waiting outside.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take one of the footmen with you, miss?” Carlotta asked.
“Oh, no,” Erryn answered gaily. “I’ll have Averil with me after all. We should be fine.”
Max barked, but Erryn quickly laid her hand on his head.
“Not today, buddy,” she said, scratching behind his ears. “We’ll play later.”
The large dog barked again, more softly, and then laid down on the floor at Grimsby’s feet.
The princess turned to her companion, an excited smile on her face.
“Are you ready?” she asked Averil. He nodded enthusiastically. Without waiting for her guidance, he reached out and took her hand, dragging her toward the door. He wanted to get out there and see what all this fuss was about human life. It had to be interesting, the way she talked about it.
Erryn just giggled, and let him drag her along.
“See you later, Grim!” she called behind her as the pair of them disappeared out the door.
“Oh, just look at them,” Carlotta said, like a mother hen clucking after her chicks. “Aren’t they adorable. He’s just like Max was when she first brought him home.”
Grimsby raised a brow, but was momentarily prevented from speaking as the dog in question suddenly collided with the back of his knees. The old butler cast a withering look at the rambunctious dog.
“What an interesting notion, my dear,” he said drily, as the sound of the carriage wheels faded off into the distance.
The town in which Erryn’s castle was located was perched precariously on a mountainous little island that sloped sharply into the sea. Averil suspected it had once been a volcanic island, formed under the sea until it grew so large that it broke the surface. Today, however, it was covered with green and stone.
The carriage itself was a mystery. It worked just as his father’s shell coach did under the water, but this one required round mechanisms to keep it off the ground. It was pulled by creatures Erryn had called ‘horses’- that made some sense, but Averil thought that his seahorse friends might be offended at their being named after such unintelligent creatures. Or perhaps these ‘horses’ were named after seahorses?
As usual, it was the princess’ voice that pulled Averil away from his thoughts and back to reality. She had a broad smile on her face as she held onto the reins.
“You must be a daydreamer,” she said with her usual giggle. “I always have to call you twice.”
Blushing, Averil’s eyes fell to his feet. He hadn’t meant to be a bother, there were just so many things to think about....
“Oh, don’t get all worried about it,” Erryn said. “I don’t mind at all. It’s just funny.”
In response, her redheaded companion reached over and playfully flicked at her ponytail, which sent both of them dissolving into laughter (though silent on Averil’s part). Before they knew it, the town rose up before them.
Even so early in the morning, it was bustling with activity. Shopkeepers were opening up for the day, shops of all sorts. There were men pulling carts, children running in every direction. Averil saw so many things, he didn’t know what to look at first. Now he understood Sebastien’s warning about not letting his eyes pop out of his head.
He leaned forward, the better to catch a glimpse of everything. There, a baker was setting out a tray of rolls just like the one Erryn had given him just minutes before. Up the way, a woman who sold clothes was setting up a rack of dresses.
On their left was a large stone-walled canal, which presumably led in from the sea. While Averil was busy taking in the sights, his sidekick Sebastien was scanning the waters. Just as he expected, a blue-and-yellow fish came splashing out of the water alongside the carriage.
“Did he kiss her yet?” Flounder asked earnestly.
“Not yet,” Sebastien hissed.
Disappointed, Flounder fell back, his fins crossed in dismay.
Erryn brought the carriage to a halt in what looked like the center of town. There were shops and stalls all around them, circling a large fountain. Averil leaped out of the carriage, excited to get started. After a sharp pinch from Sebastien, he remembered his manners, and offered his hand to the princess to help her out of the carriage as well.
Once her feet were on the ground, Averil was surprised to find out that the princess was just as excited as he. Instantly she grabbed his hand, dragging him this way and that. She found a puppet show that made her laugh, complimented a baker’s wife and earned a free tart, and convinced a chicken farmer to let her feed the chickens. Averil found himself entirely at her mercy. Still, he couldn’t help but smile as Erryn poured chicken feed into his hand, instructing him in how to give it to the chickens without being pecked to death. Her face was nearly glowing with happiness.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to come to town,” Erryn said brightly. She was almost as distracted as Averil was, the pair of them trying to take in all of the sights at once. The people of the town came in all shapes and sizes, and they had a myriad of tasks to be done. Erryn wanted to do all of them. After only half an hour, Averil was dizzy.
The princess fetched them a pair of sticky buns from the baker’s stall, and the dynamic duo sat down on the fountain’s edge to rest for a moment.
“Are you having fun?” Erryn asked, her mouth half-full with sticky bun. Averil nodded brightly, taking a bite of his own and savoring the sweet taste. He was beginning to think that this princess had a weakness for sweets.
Oh, how he wished he could ask her all of the questions he wanted to ask. But most of them, he figured, were stupid questions that any normal human would know. He couldn’t very well ask her what things were, or how they worked, without blowing his cover. Still, the more he watched, the more he learned.
There was a young woman with a book sitting on the other side of the fountain from them, completely immersed in the story to the point where she didn’t seem to realize that there was a fluffy creature nibbling at the pages’ corner. Across the way, at a table in front of a food stall, were a pair of men in military garb with drinks in their hands, laughing loudly. Off to their right, a group of young girls in matching clothes were spending the morning braiding one another’s hair. Averil watched them all, intrigued and amused by it all.
Somewhere off to their left, Averil suddenly heard music. Erryn immediately perked up.
“They’re dancing today!” she said excitedly.
Averil felt a chill across his neck. He had only the vaguest of idea of what dancing even was. She was so excited, and if he didn’t look excited too...
Stuffing the rest of her sticky bun in her mouth, Erryn started pointing over to where the music was coming from. It appeared to be a musicians’ stall, where they sold musical instruments and played songs for people.
There was a short man with a large stringed instrument that looked somewhat like a lyre, but bigger. It had a large strap across his shoulders, holding it in place. Next to him was a taller man, wearing a floppy hat, with a miniature version of that stringed instrument in his hands. It was almost comically small in the hands of such a large man, but his fingers moved so fast against the strings you could hardly see them. The third musician was a lovely young woman with honey-colored hair, who had yet another stringed instrument in hand. It was small, but instead of plucking at the strings, she braced the instrument against her neck and held a long stick in her other hand, dragging it across the strings to produce the sound.
“On festival days, the musicians bring out their instruments and play, and the whole town gets to dance,” Erryn explained. “And sometimes they do it just for fun, even when it’s not a festival day. Like today.”
Averil watched, as the townspeople began to turn their attention to the musicians. With smiles on their faces, they began gesturing to one another, drawing ever closer to the music stall. The young lady with the book from the other side of the fountain set her volume aside, drifting closer. The little girls with their hair all braided up took each other’s hands and began skipping about to the beat of the music.
One of the military men offered his hand to the girl who had been reading. She nodded and took it. He put his other hand to her waist, while her free hand went to his shoulder. Without even needing to talk, they stepped together, beginning to spin and glide in a more graceful version of what the little braiders were attempting.
Dancing, Aveirl thought with awe. There really wasn’t such a thing under the sea, as merpeople had no feet with which to step. They used the term rather loosely, it applied to almost any kind of movement that involved rhythm. Still, what these humans could do was vastly superior.
More pairs of people came together and began dancing, all the same way, like it was something everyone knew how to do. Averil began to tense up, knowing that any minute, he was going to be expected to join them. How was he going to explain himself?
Erryn rested a hand on his arm.
“Don’t look so scared,” she said, her eyes alight with mirth. “It’s just dancing. It’s not even hard. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Averil jerked his arm away from her, frantically shaking his head ‘no’.
“You’re not afraid of a silly little thing like dancing, are you?” she responded, putting her hands on her hips. “You lived through a shipwreck, but you won’t dance.”
That laughter in her eyes had become a wicked glint. It was an expression Averil knew well- just not from her. She was taunting him, calling him a coward to see if it would convince him to do what she wanted. She probably assumed that living with six brothers had given Averil enough of a competitive edge to keep him from backing down from a challenge.
She was right.
Admitting defeat, Averil held out his hand. With a triumphant grin, Erryn took it, and dragged him closer, so they could hear the music more clearly.
“It’s simple, really,” she explained, placing their hands the same way Averil had seen the other couples do. “Normally it would be your job to lead, but since you’re just learning, I can do it.”
She tugged him even closer to her, pressing themselves together. Averil’s face blushed red, but Erryn seemed not to care.
“Just stay this close to me, okay?” she said. “Stay close, and follow what I do.”
Slowly, she took a step to the left. Averil stepped with her, his eyes focused very carefully on his own feet. Again, she stepped, he followed.
“Now try stepping back,” Erryn suggested. When Averil complied, she stepped forward and twisted her toe, letting go of him on one side to twirl around in a circle, as the other girls did.
“See?” she said, laughing at the dumbfounded look on his face. “I told you it was easy!”
For the next several minutes, Erryn coached, and Averil followed. Eventually he got the hang of moving in time with the music, and he found that he could easily keep his movement simple without holding Erryn back at all. She spun and twirled like the others, laughing gaily at every turn.
Slowly, a smile crept onto Averil’s face. He wasn’t watching his feet anymore, but was entirely focused on Erryn. She was lovely, her cheeks rosy, her ebony hair flying in the wind. It was obvious to see that his role in all of this was to make her look beautiful (though in his opinion she didn’t really need any help at all).
Suddenly and without warning, Erryn’s skirt became caught under her boot, and she lost her balance. She pitched forward, and Averil had to move quickly to catch her before she hit the ground. Still, she was light on her feet, and was able to somewhat regain her balance with only a little help.
The princess met Averil’s eyes with a smile. He smiled back at her, then decided to try something interesting. He placed his hands at her waist, and lifted her high in the air, spinning her around over his head. She laughed cheerfully as her skirt swirled around her, bracing her hands on his shoulders.
When he set her down, she immediately wrapped her arms around his neck in a tight hug.
“You know you’re the best, right, Averil?” she said, her happiness hardly contained in her voice.
He was glad she couldn’t see his face while hugging him so tightly, because it was flushed red.
All day, Averil’s crustaceous sidekick held his tongue. They were two days into this suicide mission, and so far, he had managed to keep his composure and say nothing (at least, that’s what he thought). But after dinner that night, Sebastien had something to say.
“Alright, now, no more of this foolishness,” he declared, pacing back and forth across Averil’s dresser, his many legs clicking and clacking madly. “You want that girl to kiss you, you gotta do it right.”
Averil raised a brow, unsure what the little crab meant.
“Here’s what you do,” Sebastien said. “She likes you, so you just got to get her to let you kiss her. For that, you need mood.”
Again, the look in Averil’s eyes was somewhat blank. He wasn’t exactly an expert in women, so creating ‘mood’ wasn’t something he knew how to do. That was more Ansel’s forte than his. Averil raised his hands questioningly.
“I have a plan,” Sebastien supplied, much to his relief. “But you gotta do what I say. Now you listen very carefully.”
After dinner that evening, Averil initiated Sebastien’s plan. Carefully (and with many misinterpreted hand signals), he invited the princess to join him for the evening. So far, they had remained on and around land, as most humans did. However, Sebastien reasoned, the water was their strong suit. If Averil wanted the home field advantage, he had to get Erryn to the water.
So he invited her for a boat ride. Nothing fancy, just one of the little rowboats that the castle staff used to traverse the town through the canals. Still, the princess was happy as a clam as the pair of them clambered into the boat at the castle dock. There was a small salt lake on the inland side of the castle, fed by the sea, where they could explore freely.
Erryn chattered contentedly, as Averil leaned out of the boat to push them away from the dock. When he turned around, however, he found that Erryn had commandeered both of the little boat’s oars, and was setting up to row.
Mimicking Erryn herself, Averil raised an eyebrow at her, and placed his hands haughtily on his hips.
“What?” Erryn replied, a sly grin on her face. “I can row just fine.”
Averil rolled his eyes and reached for the right oar. He tried to tug it out of her hand, but she refused to let go. Time to change tactics.
He tugged on the right oar with all of his strength, forcing the princess to abandon the other oar and use both hands. As soon as she let go, Averil sneakily let go of the right oar, and dove for the abandoned left one. He snatched it up before Erryn could switch hands again, and looked at her triumphantly. Now they each held an oar, and had no intention of surrendering.
“Well what now?” Erryn asked. “Looks like an impasse to me.”
Averil shook his head, and motioned for her to slide over. She complied, and he took a seat next to her on the bench. Now she could row on the right, and he on the left, with no trouble at all.
The first few strokes were a little awkward, but they quickly got the hang of rowing together. Sebastien poked his head out of Averil’s pocket to survey their surroundings. Within moments, he had their destination sighted. He surreptitiously tugged on Averil’s sleeve, pointing to a small willow grove across the lake. The ex-merman nodded, and began to carefully steer in that direction. It was perfect for their purposes.
Dusk was beginning to fall all around the castle. The lake glowed with the blue tint of impending moonlight as the boat glided ever closer to the stand of hanging willow branches.
He turned to look at her, the question written on his face. Instead of his usual strong, confident princess, he found her frowning in concern. It was such a drastic change from her ordinary cheerful self that Averil was instantly worried. Had he done something wrong?
Erryn was hesitant to ask her question. She didn’t meet his eyes, but instead focused her gaze on the oar in her hands. She bit her lip, and took a deep breath before asking.
“Are you,” she began tentatively, “Are you going to- you know, go back...home?”
Surprised by her off-the-wall query, Averil momentarily stopped rowing.
“I’m sorry,” Erryn said quickly. “I didn’t mean to- I just, I was just thinking about how- well, how boring it would be. If you left.”
Her voice grew terribly soft. Her oar lay forgotten in her lap, and she seemed afraid to even look at him. The boat drifted into the shady grove of willow. The gentle sound of the wind blowing through the reeds filled the air, with the soft buzz of the crickets. From above came quiet birdcalls, calling their mates back to the nest.
Averil reached over to put a hand on her shoulder, but found that he lacked the courage. His arm fell limply back to his side, as the princess went on.
“I guess I was just never meant to be left alone behind stone walls,” Erryn murmured. “Everyone always ends up leaving, and I- I hate it.”
She sounded truly miserable.
The oar began to slip out of Erryn’s lap. Averil rescued it before it could fall into the lake, carefully laying both oars down on the bottom of the boat. Taking a deep breath, he gathered up what courage he had, and took her hands in his.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. Her voice was shaking. “I suppose it’s not fair of me to ask you to stay. You’ve got a family at home, and all.”
Unable to let her continue down that path of negative thoughts, Averil placed his fingers under her chin, tilting her face up to meet his. Slowly, deliberately, he shook his head ‘no’.
Soft splashes could be heard around the little glade, as some of the local sea life protruded their heads to see what was happening. Among them was Flounder, whose scales practically shivered with excitement.
Erryn’s sky-blue eyes were so close to tears. It was all Averil could do not to just wrap his arms around her. He so desperately wanted to make her feel better- after all, if she would just kiss him, she wouldn’t have anything to worry about. But he couldn’t tell her that.
“You must think I’m so silly,” Erryn confessed, half-laughing. “And to think, we only just met yesterday. It’s ridiculous, really.”
She spoke quickly, talking herself out of her discomfort. As though saying it aloud would somehow make her believe it inside, or at least convince Averil that she believed it. He knew better. Again, Averil shook his head. He kept his eyes locked on hers, unwilling to look away. If he broke the spell now, it would all be lost.
Erryn’s voice faded until it was barely audible.
“If I did ask you to stay,” she whispered breathlessly, “...would you?”
Slowly, Averil nodded.
He felt her fingers tighten against his palms as she squeezed his hands.
Though they sat side by side, as friends, the ex-merman and the princess now faced each other. She was trusting him with her secrets, her feelings. She spoke only truth, and prayed fervently that he would not become yet another disappointment. He held nothing back from her, despite having no words to speak. He let her understand him, in a way no one ever had before. He tried new things with her. She was the one who saw magic in the world where others didn’t. She saw him.
His heart pounding in his chest, Averil leaned ever closer. There was one simple way to answer her questions and put her mind at ease, and they were so very close.
Letting one hand go, Averil reached forward to brush a stray lock of black hair away from her face. He gently cupped her cheek, willing her to understand what he wanted without overstepping his bounds.
She understood. She leaned forward, intent upon letting him give her his true response.
Suddenly, the boat shook and pitched. Within a splitsecond, before either boy or girl could realize what was happening, they found themselves soaking wet, and gasping for air. Their little rowboat had spontaneously capsized. Fortunately, the water was quite shallow in this part of the lake, so near the trees, which provided them the ability to stand up rather than swim.
Coughing, Erryn swiped her hair out of her face.
“Averil?” she called. “Are you alright?”
Averil clambered to his feet, shaking out his red hair. He nodded in answer to her question, but he wore a decidedly sulky expression. Quickly he checked his pocket for Sebastien, and found that the little crab was still present, though just as wet and grumpy as everyone else.
“That was strange,” Erryn commented, as she tried in vain to wring out her skirt. “We must have hit a log the wrong way or something, I don’t know. We should get back and dry off before we catch cold.”
Averil shrugged, then nodded. He carefully slogged through the mud to retrieve the capsized boat. The pair managed to return their vessel to its rightful orientation and make their way back to the castle, but any hope of a life-transforming kiss was entirely lost.
That night, Averil’s thoughts burned with curiosity and suspicion. No boat capsized that quickly, with no warning, and no sign of impact. Certainly none of his friends would have caused it, which left only two options: a complete freak of nature, or intentional sabotage.
Only one person would sabotage such a situation.
Two days down, and only one to go. As he pulled the covers tightly around himself, Averil swore that the next day, he was not going to let anything stop him. It was crunch time, now or never, the final countdown- and no one, sea witch or otherwise, would get in his way.