I admit that in the past I was a princess. They weren’t kidding when they called me … well, a spoiled twit.” Tentacles rolling and churning beneath me, I turn to the newest member of my little garden with effortless grace. Arms thrown out wide, I grant the shriveled polyp a beguiling smile. Those around him tremble in fear, pulling as far away from him as their roots deep within the ocean floor will allow. “Through rather unfortunate circumstances it became mandatory I mend my ways. And, yes, some of the techniques I employed earned me the title of villain.”
“Never, my Queen,” Floteson murmurs. Coiling around my upper arm, he drapes himself across my shoulder.
Jetteson’s oily scales lovingly brush my cheek. “Every one of them was deserving of your wrath.”
Shoulders curling in, I pucker my lips which are freshly glossed by a crimson sea-flower and tenderly scratch each of them under their chins. “How horrible can I be to be so adored by such sweet babies?”
“She shows us nothing but love,” my darling zebra sharks chorus.
Their unwavering dedication soothes me, allowing me to expel a calming breath that bubbles in a wreath around my face.
“I am not the horrible beast many think me to be. Yet I feel it is your own misconceptions that brought you here, and led to … well, you know.” Floating passed my ornate vanity mirror, which seems out of place in the dreary cave I call home, I suck in my cheeks. Turning my head one way and then the other, I inspect my reflection. A smug smile curls the corners of my lips. The woman staring back at me is positively voluptuous with power, mayhem swirling within her clay-gray eyes. “Undoubtedly, you’ve heard rumors of my banishment.”
Hitching one eyebrow at my newly planted polyp, I watch him squirm under the weight of my attention.
“Do you even know my true given name, I wonder? Before hateful whisperings from the farthest reaches of the Seven Seas dubbed me The Sea Witch, I went by another name: Princess Vanessa of Atlantica. I harbored dreams of bringing peace and happiness to the kingdom … as their noble queen.”
Jabbing my hands on to my ample hips, I turn in a swirl of black and purple. “I’m not sure if that pitiful pout is caused by your deep longing to hear more, or if you’re mourning the loss of your shriveled limbs. But,” with a theatrical roll of my wrist, I snap my fingers—my cauldron sparks to life, an ethereal green glow simmering from within, “I choose to think the former because it’s about me … and all of my favorite things are.
“It would be predictable for me to say it all began with the death of my mother. Predictable and false.”
Water rushes beneath me with one mighty flap of all my tentacles. The power of the act propels me over to my alchemy shelves, where my fingers flick over the exposed vials. Some days I seek to terrorize my captives, calling out each ingredient or dangling it over their heads before tossing it into my brew.
Tongue of porpoise.
Eye of cuttlefish.
Shell of sea turtle.
I won’t lie and say watching their complexions green and bug eyes bulge isn’t a guilty pleasure of mine. For the moment, however, a wave of generosity—brought on by the mention of my mother—prompts me to toss them in without my usual theatrics. Each is received into the cauldron’s wide-mouth drum with a puff of smoke and spray of sparks.
“As much as I loved my mother, losing her didn’t drive me to madness as some would have you believe.” Hearing the melancholy in my tone, I bristle. “Far from it, in fact. I would have subjected myself to an abysmal existence of the mundane in honor of her memory. No, it was after the black flags of mourning had been strung through the kingdom, after the spectacle of her funeral procession had passed, that my descent began.”
Throwing one final ingredient into the cauldron, a veil of greasy smoke wafts from its rim. Images begin to form within the haze: the king’s regal quarters, and a formidable frame seated in a high-backed chair behind a massive stone desk.
Crouching down, I position myself eye level with the miniscule scene unfolding. My tentacles coil into tight knots beneath me. “This was the night … the night when I was touched by magic for the very first time … and loathed it to my very core.”
Within the ghostly image, the curtain to the king’s quarters is pushed open. A heavy set nursemaid with stripes of gray in the messy twist of her bun swims in. On one hip she balances a cherub-faced baby that’s only two months shy of his second birthday. Blond ringlets halo his head. Both his eyes and cheeks are ruddy from crying. The frazzled servant’s other hand clings to that of a raven-haired princess who rubs at her tired, violet eyes with a chubby, toddler fist.
“If you aren’t following along yet, that princess is me,” I explain to my captive audience. “The maid softly shushing my younger self is Loriana. Oh, how dear she was to me. She was a servant in the castle, tasked with tending to my brother and I. That little sunset orange tail poking out from behind her belongs to her son, Alastor. He was Triton’s best friend and would become much more than that to me …”
“Sire,” respectfully bowing her head, Loriana readjusted her hold on Prince Triton, “I hate to interrupt.”
My father, King Poseidon, pushed his chair back from the desk in a swirl of water and sand, and rose in greeting. To the rest of the kingdom, he was known as simply the supreme ruler of Atlantica. To me, and my juvenile ignorance, he was the God of the Sea who towered over us all. I envisioned all of his enemies, and anyone that ever wished me harm, falling to their knees and trembling before his commanding presence. His hair and thick beard were the red of Precious Coral. Muscle rippled over every inch of his exposed torso. His narrow waist tapered into an emerald green tail that perfectly matched the shining jewels of his eyes. Countless times I had examined the lines of his face in search of some similarity between the two of us. None could be found. Triton had his smile, and later—when adolescence hit—he would inherit his strong chin. Me? Every inch of me was a lackluster shadow of my mother’s regal beauty. Where her eyes and tail sparkled like freshly polished amethyst, mine seemed dull by comparison. Or, perhaps the lighting from the pedestal I’d built for her in my mind shone for her with a more flattering shimmer.
“The hour is late. I welcome the interruption.” Poseidon set his fish bone quill onto the desk top, and positioned its stone cradle on top of it. “How can I be of service, Loriana?”
“It’s the children, Your Highness.” Her face a mask of maternal sorrow, Loriana gave my hand a quick pulse of comfort. “This is the first night they have ever tried to go to sleep without a lullaby from their dear mother. I’m afraid I can’t seem to calm their troubled little hearts.”
Poseidon’s broad chest expanded with a deep inhalation, and tipping his head he exhaled a flurry of rushing water and bubbles. “This is a troubling time for us all,” he agreed. Crossing the room with one stroke of his tail, he extended his hands to receive Triton. My brother waved his arms in eager delight, wriggling into the security of Father’s strong embrace. Inching forward, I blinked up at the mighty king. He floated past without so much as ruffling my hair. “I’m afraid I don’t have your mother’s gift of song, but perhaps we could sit a spell and find peace in our togetherness.”
Honoring her position outside of the room, Loriana gave me a gentle push forward to follow my father. Casting a tentative glance over my shoulder, I did just that. Poseidon swirled Triton around, eliciting a giggle that crinkled the corners of his ocean blue eyes, before the king collapsed on the sea sponge sofa with his darling son on his lap. I perched on the very edge of the far cushion, uninvited and unnoticed.
Before that moment our father had been more of a … hmm, how to put this delicately? A figurehead in our lives. We knew of him and regarded him fondly, but unfortunately his kingly duties allowed our primary interactions to be those staged for political potency. Our mother, the lovely Queen Titonis, spent her days caring for my brother and I with only Loriana to aid her. Now, Poseidon had no choice but to pick up the yolk. For Triton this transition seemed to be going swimmingly. I, however, was getting as much attention as the Orca-bone end table.
Hands under the little prince’s pits, Poseidon turned Triton to face him. “I was so proud of how you behaved during the processional today,” he gushed. “You honored not only me, but your mother’s memory when you clasped your tiny fist over your heart and held your head high as her carriage passed.”
“Follow Nessa.” Triton looked to me with love, his tailfin a muted clap when connecting with Father’s lap.
“Your sister has two whole years of further training and experience than you, my boy.” Poseidon’s shoulders raised, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “You exhibited the poise of a true leader.”
My lips clamped shut to stifle a sob, his words stinging like a slap. I had just as much right to the throne as Triton, but this was the first moment I became painfully aware of who he longed to see succeed him. It would not be the last … or the most painful.
“She held her curtsy so long, merfolk threw flowers!” Alastor, a year and a half older and far more eloquent than Triton, darted into the room to brazenly interject. Mahogany waves curled over his earlobes, adding dimension to his round little face that resembled a bubble. The boldness of his gesture quickly shriveled under Father’s menacing glare.
“The son of a servant entering the king’s quarters?” Father boomed, one eyebrow raising in question. “One might question your upbringing, lad.”
“A thousand apologies, Your Majesty!” Loriana blushed from her neck clear up to her earlobes and snapped her fingers at her wandering boy. “Alastor, come here at once!”
Shoulders sagging like a stone cast to the depths, Alastor returned to his rightful place in the hall. The heat of his topaz stare bore into me as he paddled along, searching for even the slightest acknowledgement of his noble deed.
I had none to offer.
My own gaze had drawn away from my brother, laughing while Father tickled his cheeks with his beard, to scan the items neatly arranged on father’s desk. Inanimate objects which earned his attentions daily just by being. On the right side, closest to his scrawling hand, sat the quill. Its fat little ink pot was perfectly positioned perpendicular beside it. In the center of the desk, weighted by stones carved with the royal crest, rested a stack of scrolls awaiting the king’s notice. On the left-hand corner, Poseidon’s late night snacking needs were met by a plate of rolled and seasoned seaweed puffs.
The ink pot lured my attention back as if calling to me.
I had never had to work for attention in any capacity. My mother had always given it freely, and in limitless supply. Since she had been taken from me, I had unquenched needs: hugs, stories, and all of that … drivel. So, yes, I thought about acting out. I toyed with the idea of knocking over that little clay pot and letting the ink flow to ruin the staged perfection of father’s space. More than that, I wanted to. I wanted to hear him shout out my name in his menacing vibrato, because at least then he would have to acknowledge me. While my hands stayed folded neatly in my lap, as the good little mergirl I was, something within me I had never felt before reached out. Palpable energy, only I seemed privy to, crackled through the water to cradle the pot in its hold. I could feel it, poised and ready, awaiting my command. Biting my lower lip to fend off a threatening grin, my essence gave barely a nudge and the ink pot tumbled. A thick black cloud exploded over my father’s desk, staining the scrolls and ruining the once delectable wraps.
“Vanessa!” thundered my father, rocketing off the sofa. “Look what you’ve done!”
I turned toward him with feigned remorse … and screamed. The howl of terror tore from my chest until my gills ached and my throat was raw.
There was a buzz of activity: Poseidon calling to the nursemaid, Loriana swimming in as fast as her fins could carry her, Triton wailing in fear, Alastor trying to shush his friend from the doorway to which he’d been banished. I neither saw nor heard any of this.
Floating in the center of the room, bobbing with the current, was my mother.
Not the serene vision of loveliness I had known her to be that was full of life and love. Heck, I even would’ve happily settled for the slumbering beauty she appeared to be during her funeral. In vast contrast, the entity hovering before me had chunks of flesh gnawed away by assorted sea beasts. Cracked, ashen lips curled into a snarl. Black ooze bubbled through her teeth, dripping from her chin and clouding the water. My scream reached a fevered pitch, spots dancing before my eyes. The ghoul, who in life sang me to sleep, reached for me with one hand that had been gnawed to bone.
You see, by using magic I opened a door and allowed the darkness in. The cost being more than I could bear, I vowed to myself—as my consciousness waned—never, ever to dabble with such things again.
Oh, the lies we tell ourselves …