Chapter 8: Sunset
The stars flickered in the night sky as the fog rolled in.
It blanketed the entire kingdom, dampening every sound. It was a suffocating
calm, as though some force commanded the atmosphere itself to sleep. Most of
the inhabitants were tucked away carefully in their beds, awaiting the sunrise.
Some, however, could not have found the peace to sleep if it had been right in
front of them.
A large, furry sheepdog snuffled to himself as he wandered on his nightly rounds. The kitchen scraps had gone out with the garbage, thanks to the snobbish chef Louis, and Carlotta had long since retired for the night. Even Grimsby was nowhere to be seen, most likely having barricaded himself in the library for some late-night reading. The new boy and princess had returned from their outing several hours before, soaked to the bone, and had been nearly invisible since then.
Max shook his head, shaking away his discomfort, and resolved to find his mistress. Perhaps she would let him sleep on the soft rug in front of the hearth in her room tonight.
As usual, Princess Erryn was out on the balcony that overlooked the sea, with her (silent) flute in one hand. She smiled when she saw her fluffy companion, and stooped to give him a hug around the neck. Max nuzzled at her face, his long ears flopping every which-way. The princess mumbled something unintelligible, burying her face in Max’s fur. He sat down, and she tightened her grip on him. Max nuzzled her again, and the princess laughed. Still, the strain in her voice told him that she wasn’t really laughing. That was how Erryn always told him she was unhappy, when she pretended to laugh. Humans didn’t always hear it the way Max did.
“Oh, Max,” Erryn whispered quietly. “What do I do?”
She sat back on the ground, eye-level with her beloved hound, who cocked his head in confusion. His heavy brows covered his eyes, as usual.
“I’m starting to think I really did imagine him, you know,” Erryn said, reaching out a hand to scratch Max behind the ears. His stubby little tail wagged at the sensation.
“It’s just not fair,” Erryn continued with a huff.
Max responded by letting his long tongue loll out of his mouth, more attentive to the scratching than to his mistress.
The breeze picked up. Erryn’s long black hair rippled in the wind, freshly washed after her dip in the salt lake. Her blue eyes were intensely focused, almost haunted. She barely seemed to see the world around her. Her hand scratching behind Max’s ears slowly stopped and fell away.
Max wuffled softly, displeased. He raised his heavy brows to give Erryn a doggy glare, but found that her attention had strayed very, very far away from him. Her flute, too, lay forgotten on the ground. Her eyes gazed off into the distance. Absentmindedly, she bit her lip. Max nudged at Erryn’s hand, but she did not move from her spot.
Then he heard the sound. Faint, in the distance, was the sound of someone singing. It was a somewhat familiar voice, but Max couldn’t place it. He only knew that it wasn’t anyone he knew well. Instinctively, the sheepdog rose to his feet, searching out the source of the sound.
A few moments after Max’s ears perked up, so did his lady’s. Erryn gasped when she heard the lyricless tune that stretched out across the sea, capturing her attention instantly. She scrambled to her feet and dove for the balcony rail, looking desperately for its origin.
Max growled when he saw the shadowy figure, down by the beach. He couldn’t make out any familiar details, the fog was too strong. All Max could see was a glowing, golden light hanging from a necklace. That masculine figure was the source of the sound; he was singing as he traversed the beach, gazing up at the cloudy sky. That voice was the only familiar thing about him, but once Max placed it, his hackles were raised instantly. He did not like this person.
Max barked a warning, but found that Erryn didn’t shush him like she usually did when he was loud. In fact, she didn’t say anything at all, she was too distracted by the stranger. The reflection of the golden light shone in her eyes, as they slowly slid out of focus.
Worried, the princess’ furry companion whined. His tail stuck straight up, and his eyes were clearly visible. He shook his head in distaste, realizing that she wasn’t going to pay him any more attention. Without delay, he turned tail and ran to find someone- anyone –who could get the princess back.
Of the many things that could be said about the youngest merprince, the most irrefutable was his not being a morning person. Therefore, when the foolhardy Scuttle came soaring in the window screeching Averil’s name at the top of his lungs, it was no surprise that he found himself at the mercy of Averil’s wrath. Within moments, the mute young man had his feathery friend pinned against the headboard of his bed, with enough pressure on his throat to render him quiet.
“What is all this racket?” Sebastien demanded sleepily from the bedside dresser. Averil began to shake his head in exasperation, but paused. His ears pricked as he heard a soft shuffling at the door. Exchanging curious glances with Sebastien, Averil let Scuttle go and got to his feet. Carefully, he crossed to the door and opened it, wondering what it could possibly be.
His feet collided with a warm, furry mass. Looking down, Averil found Max the sheepdog curled up against his door. The dog must have been twitching in his sleep and rubbing up against the door. Now, however, the sound of the opening door had awakened him.
Max leaped to his feet immediately, and in a splitsecond, Averil was accosted with wild barking. Behind him, Sebastien groaned, covering his head with his claws. He wasn’t a morning person either.
Concerned, Averil dropped to his knees and placed his palms around Max’s face, trying to calm the frantic sheepdog. Max’s eyes were wide, and no amount of scratching or rubbing seemed to calm him at all. He danced from foot to foot, nuzzling against Averil’s hands and face in a frightened manner.
“What on earth is going on?” Sebastien growled, looking back and forth between the somewhat-dopey Scuttle and the noisy dog on the floor. Averil shrugged, and mouthed, ‘No idea’.
“As if you didn’t know,” Scuttle crowed from the bed. His words were a little raspy, but he was beaming with excitement. “Congratulations, kiddo! We did it!”
Averil stood, and raised his brows in question. Max rammed forcefully into the back of his knees, trying in vain to knock him over.
Scuttle chuckled, his mussed feathers poking up in odd directions.
“The whole town’s buzzing about it,” the seagull said patronizingly. “Everyone’s talking about the princess getting herself hitched this afternoon!”
Where he expected excitement and applause, Scuttle’s revelation was met only with confused stares. He sighed.
“She’s getting married,” he amended, a scowl briefly crossing his beaky face.
Immediately, Averil’s face contorted with confusion, and some other emotion he couldn’t name. His heart wrenched in his chest. On the one hand, there was the possibility that Scuttle was right, and Erryn had secretly decided she was going to marry Averil, not say anything about it, and surprise him with it...but that was the sort of thing that made him want to know what suspicious bubbles she’d been snorting. More likely, Scuttle was very, very confused.
In the back of his hazy mind, Averil could hear Sebastien berating Scuttle for his foolishness, but his thoughts were too busy connecting the dots. He glanced at Max, who was still dancing frantically around his feet, demanding attention. When he saw Averil looking, the dog barked and raced for the door. He barked again from the hallway, forcing Averil to follow him, dressed only in his nightshirt.
The second-floor landing overlooked the entrance hall, connected by a grand staircase. Max paused at the top of the staircase, growling under his breath. When Averil caught up to him, the voices that echoed up from the entrance hall gave Averil all the explanation he needed.
“Well, my lady, it appears I was mistaken. This, er, mystery man of yours does, in fact...exist.”
There was no mistaking that disdainful voice. That was Grimsby. He didn’t sound particularly happy. Averil leaned over the side of the railing, and found that the old servant and the lady he addressed were not alone down there. A chill raced instantly up his spine.
Erryn looked as lovely as usual, though her dress was a bit nicer today. It was a gaudy pink thing that reached all the way to the floor, with puffy sleeves and pearl lacing. It looked more like what a princess should really wear, and less like Erryn’s usual casual wardrobe. However, Averil’s surprise at the princess paled in comparison to the shock of the person standing next to her.
Next to Erryn was an unfamiliar young man, of about Averil’s build and height. He had short chocolate-brown hair that naturally stuck up a bit at the top, and shockingly bright green eyes. His clothes were simple- a plain white shirt and dark green pants. Curiously, he wore boots like Erryn’s, that came almost up to his knees, and a black belt around his waist, where she wore her sash. His bright white teeth shone in a razor’s-edge smile as Erryn looped her arm through his, pulling him closer.
Suddenly, Averil wished he could growl, as Max did.
“We wish to be married this as soon as possible,” came Erryn’s firm, no-nonsense voice. She was staring down her old butler as though he were no more than scum on her shoe. He seemed very discomforted by her countenance, but as a servant, could say nothing to sway her.
“Of course, my lady,” he said cautiously, “But as you know, these things do take time.”
“This afternoon, Grimsby,” Erryn snapped. Averil and Max both winced at the uncharacteristic sharpness in her tone.
Like a dog that had been struck by its owner, Grimsby backed down immediately. He bowed to the princess, his eyes darkened.
“Yes, my lady,” he said. “As you wish. The wedding ship shall depart at sunset.”
Averil’s heart fell out of his chest and landed, writhing, on the floor at his feet. Or at least, that’s how it felt. He wasn’t sure what to think, or which emotion to feel more. Scuttle’s mindless babbling made more sense now. It also confirmed, at least to some degree, Averil’s suspicions about the previous night, and the rowboat accident. There was no denying it now- someone (and he had a fairly decent idea who) was actively trying to keep the young prince from winning his bet. The way it looked, he didn’t have a human’s chance in Atlantica of succeeding now. Bile rose in his throat at the thought of it.
Unsure of what to do exactly, Averil turned and quickly ran back to his room, with Max hot on his heels. Once they were both inside, he closed the door quickly, even turning the lock for good measure. The blood had drained from his face completely. Scuttle had vanished, but Sebastien immediately asked him what was wrong. Averil said nothing. He couldn’t have answered him, even if he’d had a voice. He sank to his knees, his hands shaking with suppressed rage and heartbreak.
As the sun rose high outside his window, the youngest merprince had to face a truth he’d been running from for a very long time- he had no idea what to do. He was in over his head, and the consequences of a loss now were dire. For the first time since his deal with the sea-witch began, Averil fervently wished that he had his brothers or even his father nearby.
For the entire day, the castle buzzed with excitement. Everyone was anxious to meet this new young man who had so suddenly captured the heart of the princess. Averil stayed in his room, and simply listened to the ruckus outside his door without adding to it. More than once, he heard whispering voices outside wonder if it was he whom the princess had chosen, only to be hastily shushed and corrected.
The glowing sun slowly made its way across the sky, casting shadows through Averil’s window and onto the floor. Staring at them reminded the room’s occupant how fleetingly his time was passing. Averil had taken up a lonely seat on the floor at the foot of his bed, and had been nearly immobile all day, entirely lost in thought. He had been so close, but in the end, his opponent was more treacherous than he had expected. Now, Averil couldn’t help but feel that he had lost it all.
The voices of his father and brothers became twisted and gnarled in his mind, hurling insults at him with the same hatred Averil felt toward himself.
You had to have seen this coming. You’re not that stupid, are you?
In Averil’s mind, Amery glared disdainfully at him, disappointed in his usually-bright companion.
You had two whole days to get the girl, imaginary Ansel mocked. Needing three’s just greedy.
Now you’ve done it. Gotten yourself in trouble again, but this time there’s no one to bail you out.
Arren’s hallucinated criticism hurt almost as much as the real thing.
Sebastien had long since given up getting Averil to explain. He had managed to piece together the story, after hearing the voices outside the door, but was just as devoid of ideas as the young former merman. Now the little crab just sat quietly at Averil’s feet, wallowing in similar despondence. Without Averil’s upbeat personality to combat his melancholy, Sebastien had succumbed to depression. Scuttle had yet to return.
The time seemed to pass as slowly as a century, yet when the sun finally began to set, Averil wondered where the day had gone. He had only a vague memory of Carlotta knocking on the door at some point, but he hadn’t answered. The orange glow of the sunset was soaking into the cream and brown décor of the room, and reflecting from the golden fixtures. It was as if everything around him sought to remind Averil of his failure. What he wouldn’t give for the cool blues and greens of the oceans.
Before the sun sets on the third day.
Those words had seemed so heavily loaded when he took the deal...yet that was nothing in comparison to how much they weighed upon him now. He had risked everything, with the impulse of a child, and now the world was throwing it back in his face. Maybe his father had been right, Averil thought wryly, in some twisted way. No good could come of involvement with humans, even if they weren’t really carnivorous monsters.
The part that hurt the most was the look on Erryn’s face when she had spoken so harshly to Grimsby that morning. She wasn’t a harsh or hating person, the Erryn that Averil had come to know would never have said something so cruel to the old butler. Even when Grimsby had been hard on her, she had responded kindly, with a hug and thanks for his concern. Such a lovely girl, even through all of the hardships in her life...it made sense that she wasn’t perfect, but this was too much. That girl wasn’t Princess Erryn.
Averil sighed, and put his head in his hands. He rubbed at his eyes, hoping to erase the red-orange glow from his sight, but it only penetrated his eyelids all the more. His mind burned with the heat of the sun, it was to much. Even his ears were filled with an atrocious screeching.
Averil raised his head, just in time to see the source of the screeching- Scuttle –flap his way noisily into the room. He was panting for breath, and for the first time since Averil had come to know him, the ridiculous seagull looked completely focused. His eyes were bright, sharp even. He looked almost frightened.
“Averil!” he squawked.
The young man got to his feet, concern written ever so lightly across his face.
“I was-” Scuttle panted. “I was flying- I, well, of course I was flying, and I saw- the watch! The witch! He was- she was? He was watchin’ a mirror, and- it’s her!”
The poor seagull was so distraught, he was barely making sense. Averil shook his head, indicating that he didn’t understand, but Scuttle wasn’t having any of it. His eyes bugged out of his skull as he screeched at the top of his lungs.
“DO YOU HEAR WHAT I’M TELLIN’ YOU?” he squawked loudly. “THE PRINCESS IS MARRYING THE SEA WITCH IN DISGUISE!”
For the second time that day, it was obvious that Scuttle was hoping for a better reaction than he got. Sighing heavily, Averil simply shook his head once more, and resumed his place on the floor. He hadn’t known for sure, but the situation was obviously so far out of control that even this confirmation meant little. If it hadn’t been Ursula, it would have been her minions. It was no shock to hear that the witch was interfering. That much had been clear a while ago.
Scuttle’s beak dropped open.
“You- you gotta be kiddin’ me!” he hollered. “All this, and you- you’re just givin’ up?”
Averil scowled at the ground.
Frustrated, Scuttle flapped his bony wings wildly, sending feathers flying everywhere.
“No, sir!” he screeched. “This is- you can’t just- what you need, kid, is some positoovity! You can’t just sit around and wait for it to get better! That girl needs you!”
While Averil only raised his brow at the gull’s questionable choice of vocabulary, it seemed that Sebastien was the one who really caught Scuttle’s point. He developed a scowl to match Averil’s, which sent him about halfway back to his normal grumpy expression.
“Poseidon help me, the bird’s got a point,” the grouchy crab said darkly. “Listen here young man. We’ve indulged you long enough. Now you get your tail out of this room and go do what you came here to do.”
Averil shook his head emphatically, crossing his arms over his chest.
Sebastien’s scowl deepened.
“I did not come all the way to the human world,” he growled, “Just to watch you flounder about like a fish out of water! Do you want to be human or not?”
The tears of frustration and hate that had been building all day long began to sting as they filled Averil’s eyes. He was frozen, stuck in place. Half of him just wanted to lay here and wait. Better that he die a merman stranded on land than in the clutches of the sea witch. The other half...desperately wanted to make a break for the finish line. What did he have left to lose?
Slowly- very slowly –Averil nodded his head. Yes. He wanted to be human. More than that, he wanted to be with Erryn. No self-respecting merman would leave an innocent girl in the tentacles of the deadliest being under the sea- and no man who claimed to love her would even entertain the thought.
A harsh pinch on his arm startled Averil back into reality. He glanced down, and saw Sebastien glaring at him.
“Get going!” the crab ordered. “We’ll do what we can.”
With his mouth set in a grim line, Averil nodded his understanding. He crossed to the door, took a deep breath, and unlocked it....
He stepped waveringly into the hallway. Then, more confidently, he strode for the landing...where he broke into a run.
As Prince Averil of Atlantica emerged from the castle gate and raced for the ship docks, a loud, squawking seagull soared overhead, a small, red crab in its beak. Scuttle swooped down and dropped Sebastien into the water, then soared off toward the wedding ship. It was several hundred meters out into the ocean, but that didn’t stop Averil from plunging straight into the sea, diving in headfirst. He quickly recalled how to swim as humans did, and poured all of his energy into it, stretching out his arms and kicking himself forcefully forward.
The water was warm at the surface, where it soaked in the sunlight, but Averil could feel the familiar cool just beneath him. It was as if contact with the water gave him the strength that he needed, providing him with all of the support deserved by a sea prince. The familiar feel of his wet hair against his neck and forehead seemed to remind him of who he really was. Suddenly, he felt empowered, and confident. Forgetting all of his failings, Averil swore to himself that he was going to do everything he could (and anything it took) to save his princess.
The wedding was as extravagant as could be managed, considering how quickly it was put together. Still, the members of court and higher nobility were present, to show support for their princess (or out of morbid curiosity). Indeed, the princess was a memorable sight in her wedding gown, though the style was never meant for someone of her tastes. It was some awful off-white thing with puffballs for sleeves, and it trailed the floor like a tablecloth. Still, her azure eyes betrayed none of the discomfort she would ordinarily own up to.
Her impromptu fiancé looked radiant beside her, his charming smile almost too good-looking. The ladies of the court whispered about him unabashedly, wondering how their silly goose of a princess had managed such a catch. Still, some of the more salacious gossips likened him to a venus flytrap, and wondered if his charms might be only skin deep.
All whispering ceased the moment the music began to play. In the interest of saving time, the betrothed couple approached the priest together, arm in arm. The dashing groom wore a smile worthy of a prince. Princess Erryn looked nothing less than intensely focused. She did not frown, but neither did she smile. She kept her eyes on the priest ahead of her, and said not a word, even as the nobles mumbled their gracious praise when she passed.
When they reached the makeshift altar, the wizened old priest grinned toothily at them, and began his speech.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today...”
“...to celebrate the union of...”
The wedding guests began to look around, as an obnoxiously loud birdcall filled the air. Soon, it was joined by another...and another...suddenly, the air was filled with the awful calling of birds of all shapes and sizes.
They swooped down upon the ship as birds of prey, every single one of them aiming for the groom. The people shrieked and covered their heads. Erryn’s fiancé, the disguised Ursula, swiped overhead, screeching for them to get away. His- her? –green eyes narrowed in rage.
“Marriage is what brings us together...”
The old priest droned on, his senility shielding him from the attack of the birds. So too, Princess Erryn made no acknowledgment of the chaos, nor her supposed wedding. She seemed to stand like a paper doll, meant to stand there and be wed without a word.
Unknown to all of them, a crimson-haired young man was carefully climbing his way up the ship’s side, using the ornate molding and décor as hand- and foot-holds. The shrieking calls of Scuttle and his avian acquaintances set the blood pounding in Averil’s ears. He forced himself to climb faster, daunting as the task was. As he climbed, he prayed to Poseidon that he wasn’t too late. From the sound of the chaos on deck, Scuttle had been successful in his stalling, but that would only work for so long.
When he finally reached the top deck, Averil was amazed at the pandemonium Scuttle had created. It wasn’t just birds, anymore. Starfish, dolphins, sea lions- all manner of sea creatures had lent themselves to their aid. The witch-turned-groom was drenched from head to toe, and his clothes were dotted with clinging starfish. He was glaring at the seagull directly in front of him, and screaming with anger. Several feet away, a perturbed Grimsby fought to hold on to Max, who was barking loudly and struggling to break away from his leash. The dog looked madder than anyone had ever seen him, including Averil.
Then, suddenly, as if by magic, Max was free. His leash was no longer even attached to his collar. The large sheepdog hurled himself across the deck at the ersatz fiancé, barking furiously. Only Averil caught sight of the completely undamaged leash as it vanished behind Grimsby’s back. He was impressed- the old man had a knack for sleight of hand.
Max bowled the sea-witch over, using his superior weight to drag her- him –to the floor. In one powerful snap of his jaws, he snatched up the golden nautilus shell necklace that hung around the young man’s neck and ripped it free, sending it flying through the air. Averil’s stomach shifted as he realized the he recognized that necklace. How had he not seen it before?
The shell hit the wooden deck and shattered like glass, golden shards scattering everywhere. Instantly, a puff of glowing air was released, shifting and swirling like gold dust in the wind. From it came the echo of a haunting voice, singing a lyricless song that struck chords with everyone on deck...even the princess. She cried out and put a hand to her head, then fell to her knees. Her eyes glowed briefly golden, then returned to their usual sky-blue. Gasping in surprise, Erryn frantically looked around, searching for an explanation.
Averil went dead white, and took a step back as he felt his own voice being drawn back toward him. A chill ran through his veins. He reached for the ship railing to steady himself, fearing that the reconnection of his voice to his body might be as painful as the original transformation. Fortunately, as the glowing orb approached, he realized that it was not cold and harsh at all- no, it was warm. It called to him, as if it knew where it truly belonged.
He held very, very still. His voice, echoing from the glowing orb, grew louder and more confident, in a complete reversal of its original hesitant state. Carefully, Averil let a small smile spread across his face. He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. When he went to exhale, a glorious, lovely sound escaped his throat. His own voice, as though it had never been gone from him, was now back in his control. The witch’s spell was, for better or worse, finally broken.
When he opened his eyes, Averil found the one beautiful face he wanted to see more than anything in the world staring back at him. Well, her and everyone else on the ship- seems Averil’s sudden arrival and vocal display had caused somewhat of a commotion. Now, all eyes were on the pair of them, as Erryn slowly got to her feet. Her veil fell to the floor, forgotten. Shivering slightly, Erryn took a hesitant step toward him, unwanted tears filling her eyes.
“Averil..?” she breathed softly, in complete awe. Her hand covered her mouth in an instant.
Then, like the sixteen-year-old idiot that he was, Averil did the single stupidest thing possible.
He just nodded.
The next thing he knew, the princess had hiked up her dress, strode forward and snatched him by his collar. Tears ran freely down her cheeks, but she never took her eyes off him.
“You can talk,” she said raspily.
“Yes,” he answered, his newly returned voice quiet. “I can.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
Averil felt his cheeks redden, knowing he had no good explanation for his behavior. At least, none that she would believe.
Erryn’s lip trembled.
“It was you, then. All the time,” she said softly. “You were the one who saved me from the shipwreck. I thought I was going mad...and you were right in front of me.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you,” Averil replied, reaching for her hand. He pulled her close to him, wrapping her in his arms like the precious thing she was. He had fought hard for his princess, won her, and now he wasn’t letting anyone stop him from having her.
“Why?” Erryn asked, her voice no more than a whisper. “Why couldn’t you just tell me?”
Before he could even open his mouth to answer, a sharp, sudden pain lanced its way up his spine. Unable to control it, Averil’s back arched, and he let out a painful scream. Blinking through the new spots in his vision, he registered one horrible, agonizing fact:
The sun had set on the third day. He was out of time.