I had originally intended this to be part of my twisted fairytale series, “Timeless Tales, Modern Morals”, but it didn’t quite fit with the theme, so it ended up here as a short story, instead. Perhaps one day I’ll expand it as an independent novella.
Once, there was a mermaid, by the name of Meri.
She was the daughter of the Sea-King, but he had many children, and Meri served no particular purpose that brought her to the attention of her parents and siblings. As a consequence, she sought her entertainment above the waves, in the world of humans. The very first time she ventured there, she met a young prince, little older than her and curious to learn the mysteries of the sea.
She was very careful to never fully emerge from the water, the under-dress salvaged from a shipwreck concealing her long tail. There were too many tales of sea-folk being discovered for what they were, and being stolen away or hunted. She didn’t think the prince who had befriended her would betray her secret on purpose, but he was young, and not as aware of the danger.
If he accidentally revealed her, Meri could not trust that all who learned would be as trustworthy as her prince, nor as willing to accept her continued existence.
The sea-people were slowly being dismissed as a superstition, after all, and while Meri did feel that her father’s caution of humans was a little excessive, there was no need to be reckless. The amount of trouble that she would be in if she was the one to bring them to the attention of the land-walkers… Meri shuddered at the mere thought.
Her true identity became harder to conceal as they grew older, and he became more curious and harder to satisfy with a vague promise to tell him one day. Still, the disguise held, and the churning waters of the beach were murky enough that any slip of a tail could be excused as a trick of the eye. At least mer-folk, thanks to their hybrid physiology, could breath both water and air, depending on their environment, or she would have had far greater trouble concealing her nature.
Slowly, Meri’s affection for the prince grew, as did her fascination with the Human world. More and more, she longed to see it for herself, not just this tiny strip of secluded beach. What would it be like, to the forests and mountains, similar to the underwater ones she knew, yet so different? Would the people be like her own, secretive and suspicious of outsiders, or more welcoming, like the prince?
But as long as she was a mermaid, confined to water and clumsy on land, that desire remained an impossible dream.
The prince was patient with her questions, willing to share stories of the places he had been and people he had met, and Meri drank it all in. She was less pleased when he would tell her about the latest girl to catch his attention, then a few days later lament that she loved someone else, or was already promised, or that he would never be allowed to marry them.
Meri would make soothing noises, and pat his hand, and reassure him that he would find the right person one day. Sometimes it was very hard not to roll her eyes and become frustrated. Her prince could read volumes into the slightest word or gesture from his latest crush, but didn’t recognise the anvil-sized hints she dropped.
One day, when Meri asked about the mountains that she saw in the distance on fine days, the prince raised an eyebrow at her. “You know, if you came out of the water for once, you could see them for yourself, instead of relying on my stories.”
Meri forced a smile. “Perhaps, but not today.”
The prince looked like he wanted to continue arguing, but one of his guards called him, and he only said that he would see her the next day. Meri waited until he had gone, then dove beneath the waves with a flick of her tail. For a long time now, she had felt less and less like she belonged in the sea, while the call to the land grew ever stronger.
Her family would be no help or support, or at least they hadn’t been when Meri had mentioned the surface world before. There was one, however, spoken of mainly in whispers, who might help her...
The Sorceress of the Sea, Mare Strom, lived outside the city of the mer-folk, beyond a shark breeding ground and a ridiculously dense kelp forest.
Some claimed that she had been exiled there for some unknown (but obviously terrible) crime. Others said that she simply didn’t like people, and chose her home deliberately so that it would be harder for them to bother her. All agreed that she was powerful, and that only the truly desperate would seek her out.
Meri was fortunate that she still had a month before the sharks came to birth their young, though she was mentally cursing enough to turn the sea orange by the time she struggled out of the kelp. The Sorceress was waiting for the mermaid, looking entirely too amused as she spoke, her voice a harsh rasp. “You must want something very badly, to ask for my help.”
At least she was straightforward. Meri bowed a greeting, nodding her head. “I want legs and human lungs, to be able to go to the surface world. What will it cost me?”
To her credit, the Sorceress did not laugh at her, only inclined her head thoughtfully. “I will take your voice in payment, if you truly want this. A warning I will give you for free.”
Meri frowned, but was not deterred. A voice was not the only way to communicate. “What warning?”
The Sorceress’s face betrayed nothing as she created a bubble of air around a large shell, and began to mix strange ingredients in it. “It will not be easy, child. Each step will bring you pain, and the moment you step back into the sea, the spell will break.”
Meri nodded solemnly, determined to go through with it anyway. For legs, the surface world and the ability to be with her prince, she could endure anything. “I understand.”
The Sorceress raised a skeptical eyebrow, filling a small phial from the shell. “Then swim to the shallows before you drink this. It will take effect immediately, and humans cannot survive so far beneath the waves. As soon as your head breaks the surface, your voice will become mine.”
Meri accepted the phial and bowed again. “Thank you, for the potion and the instructions.”
The Sorceress leaned over the shell, kissing Meri on the forehead in benediction. “You have courage, to go after what you desire. I hope you find it.”
Meri spoke to herself as she began the long journey to the beach, detouring through a shipwreck for some human clothes, wanting to savour the last time she would ever speak, and planning how she would ‘talk’ to her prince.
As soon as her head emerged into the air, her voice was gone, and Meri felt a brief pang of loss as she drank the potion. It was followed by a much stronger pain in her tail as it tore in two, the scales stabbing like knives as they sank into the pink, human flesh of her legs.
Meri took a deep breath of salty sea air, overjoyed as she swam to the beach, where she could see her prince waiting for her.
People who spend a lot of time together develop an ability to read each other, especially when. Meri and the prince had become very good at communicating through facial expressions or gestures, and it didn’t take long to explain that Meri could no longer speak. The prince darted inside for a moment, returning with a slate, chalk, and a very proud expression.
By that point, Meri had used a rock to pull herself upright, leaning heavily upon it. The sea-witch had been right, and the pain made Meri’s every step a faltering limp. Still, it made a valid excuse for why she had remained in the water until now.
The prince, seeing her struggle to remain standing, instantly helped her to the blanket that he habitually brought, to avoid getting in trouble for clothes ruined by sand and seawater. He handed her the slate and Meri carefully started to write, using the words she had taught herself from inscriptions, waterproof maps and missives, and the odd book that she had brought to the surface before the water could completely ruin them.
Her explanation required some creative editing, but it was believable. “My legs are weak and painful. Water is easier to move on than land. I was embarrassed to show you.”
It was not an unreasonable excuse; many saw physical infirmity as a sign of weakness, and did their best to hide it. The prince frowned at her, “So that’s why you were always asking about faraway places. I hope you don’t think I’d be such a fair-weather friend to abandon you over that.”
Meri shrugged, “My family struggled to accept my … oddity. I didn’t think you would, but hope is frail against experience.”
That, unfortunately, was also not a stretch. Her family did think that her obsession with the surface world was odd at best, and a sign of mental infirmity at worst. The prince, at least, only huffed indignantly. “Well, you’re my friend, and you’ll have a home with me as long as you need it.”
The prince was as good as his word, too, and Meri felt herself falling a little more in love with each day that passed.
He had many responsibilities, of course, certainly more than Mari, who had been both a girl and the youngest of seven. Still, he managed to find time for her each day, taking her on picnics in meadows, to visit the towns nearby, and even to the mountains.
They rode in a coach, or on horses, to spare Meri’s legs, and everything she ever dreamed of seemed within her grasp. She was able to spend time with the man she loved, rather than lurking at the beach, and visit the parts of the surface world that she had only been able to fantasise about before.
Even the prince telling her that they had to put off their daily adventure for him to greet a visiting ambassador and his family could not dampen her spirits.
That changed when he burst into Meri’s room just before dinner, to announce joyfully tell her that the ambassador had come to perform marriage negotiations. Meri reached for her slate to offer sympathies, and froze when her prince told her that it was all right, because the girl in question had come with them, and she seemed like everything he had ever wished for in a potential wife.
For several moments Meri couldn’t come up with a clear reply. How could he choose someone he barely knew over her, the one who had been his friend for years, who had stayed by him through life’s troubles, through unrequited infatuation after unrequited infatuation, sometimes to her own detriment? Why could he never see her?
Eventually, she found the words to express herself, scribbling them on her little slate. “Isn’t this a bit sudden?”
The prince looked a little sheepish, to his credit. “Well, perhaps, but we just feel right together. I feel like she knows me better than anyone except you.”
Meri frowned, picking up her slate again. “What about me? Together forever, you said.”
He hugged her, completely misunderstanding what she meant. “You’re my best friend, and you’ll be the sister of my heart as long as we live. Me getting married won’t change that.”
Meri forced a smile, doing her best not to let him see her grief and wondering why she put herself through this. “As long as you don’t end up with a broken heart - again - I’ll be there for you.”
The prince’s face broke into a brilliant smile, and he hugged her again. “I knew I could count on you!”
He departed at something that was not quite a run, and Meri resisted the urge to scream in frustration or throw herself back into the sea.
It broke Meri’s heart, knowing that despite all she had given up or sacrificed in the hopes that the Prince would notice her, his heart would never be hers.
Another princess, one he had met only weeks ago and barely knew, was the one he loved. He looked at Meri with love, yes, but it was the love of a friend or sister, not the romantic love that she wanted.
Was it really so bad, knowing that she would always be his friend, if not his lover? It would be a very poor friend who expected a reward for spending time together, and the prince’s heart was not a possession, to be bestowed on command.
Meri loved him, yes, but how much of that had been the remnants of a childhood expectation that they would end up together, a supposedly foregone conclusion that both comforted her and prevented her from looking at other possibilities? Perhaps, while the prince and his love were on their honeymoon, Meri could go travelling herself.
Her fascination with the human world did not begin and end with the prince, and it was time to stop using him as a crutch. There would always be a place for him in Meri’s heart, just as she would always be in his, even if it was not as a wife or lover.
Meri could be happy with that.
No one is entitled to anyone’s affection, and friendship is not “second best” or inferior to a romantic relationship. Despite the title, the Friend-Zone isn’t a thing, and if you are only friends with someone in the hopes that they’ll date you, that’s not actually friendship.
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