Wanting the legs was my first mistake.
I had watched the humans, admired them from afar. The fishermen who cast nets to the sea, the bathers who took sun on shallow beaches. Their bodies were astounding. Streamlined hips, parted thighs that fit so gracefully to their knees. The bendable appendages that served them so well upon both land and sea. But it was only when the young King of Lemuria sailed into Azure Bay with his warships and one hundred armed men that I felt the need to actually become one of them.
King Troy Rosetower of Lemuria was handsome, charismatic and loved by all. And although his country was in the midst of a devastating war he led his people with grace and hope. I watched from the rocks as the King de-boarded his ship and rode on horseback with the army of Lemurian soldiers. They paid him tribute with a line of firing cannons. Such a leader! Such a king.
I longed to meet him, and being the headstrong mermaid that I was, I immediately set about making my wish come true.
Becoming human was not really a difficult task. Suria the Sea Witch had a potion for everything, shape-shifting the least of it. And so I swam to her cave, braved her staff of moray eels and dodged the anemone that surrounded her doors. When I entered, Suria stood over her percolating cauldron with her back to me.
“I know why you have come,” she said without turning around. “And you are a fool! To trade your lovely fish tail for two stumps the humans call legs. It is ridiculous!”
“I have fallen in love with the King of Lemuria,” I said, knowing all the while this was not much of an argument.
“Love?” Suria scoffed. “What could a child like you possibly know about love?” She then turned from her cauldron and shrugged. “Nonetheless, your life is your own. You may do as you wish, Undine.”
Suria gave me a potion, a noxious combination of snail juice and whale sperm, along with some other peculiar ingredients which would never be revealed to me.
“Go now and sit on the rock where you first saw the King,” she instructed. “Sleep there beneath the full moon and when you awaken you shall have your legs.”
And so I swam out to the jagged rocks of Azure Bay. From where I sat I could see the whole war camp. The moon rose like a bright silver coin, shining its light where the soldiers slept in their fortresses.
This war, it was a long and devastating affair with a death toll in the thousands. The countries of Lemuria and Saxssoar had been fighting for over fifty years in a complicated battle which involved many ideologies and righteous causes. I daresay none could remember how it had even begun.
Being a mermaid, I had little understanding of war, for my race was one of pacifism. (We even named one of our oceans Pacific.) But one thing I knew was that the humans of the villages were weary of this fight. It brought only death and grief, soldiers returning from battle missing arms, legs or eyes. Never were they given adequate medical attention, for doctors were scarce. All prayed for the long war’s end, hopeful that King Troy, skilled as he was in diplomacy and strategy, would be the one to bring about peace. All faith was in the King.
I fell asleep beneath the full moon.
When I awoke it was exactly as I had imagined. My glittering green tail was gone and instead I possessed a set of long slender legs. My new feet were unsteady as I rose on the rocks. By force of habit I dove into the sea. Although I now had less speed without my fins, I was still as strong a swimmer as ever. I bobbed in the ocean’s waves, imagining how delightful it would be to use my new legs to finally walk upon land!
It was a sailor who sat high in the bosun’s chair of the king’s warship that spotted me first. The crew, thinking me some drowning victim, scooped me up in a net and carried me on board.
I lay before them on their deck, fish-naked. The men gawked at me, eyes wide. Some grinned and some blushed. I remembered that humankind were not accustomed to nudity and they probably thought me quite strange.
The king himself then stepped forward and wrapped me in a blanket. He assumed I was sick and waterlogged, and commanded the ship’s doctor to attend to me. I assured them I was perfectly well but the doctor insisted I sleep in the bunk below deck.
The next day I was given trousers and a navy coat to wear. “This attire is only for the time we are at sea,” King Troy assured me. “When we dock I shall take you to the palace and the maids in waiting will clothe you in the finest attire.”
Aboard ship I proved myself a worthy sailor, for none knows the sea better than a mermaid. Once I got used to my legs I was able to hoist the sails, judge the wind and navigate better than any map reader. The king was quite pleased and took kindly to me.
After three days the ship docked in the port of Shorestone. With the king’s entourage I was taken to the palace and received by the privy council. I was given my own suites within the palace and my own servants. My maids clothed me in damask. I was taken to grand dinners and events where I entertained everyone, shocking them with my siren’s song, for a mermaid’s best gift is her voice.
As time went by the king became more and more fond of me. Finally the day came when he asked me to become his wife. We were married in the grand cathedral followed by a procession through the town. In the streets the peasants cheered and greeted me with cries of “Queen Undine!”
I was happy they accepted me but my heart was torn, for their poverty was unbearable. The children, so thin their ribs protruded on their chests, wore only rags, bare feet scraping the pavement. Women stood in filthy kirtles, men toothless with mangy beards. Their cottages were little more than mud huts and rats the size of terriers scurried in the unpaved streets.
“Your Grace,” I said to my new husband. “These atrocities are most egregious! What, may I ask, is being done to help these wretched people?”
The king smiled and wrapped an arm around me. “Wife,” he said. “Do not worry your pretty little head over such matters. This place is called Beggar’s Bottom. These peasants know no other way of life. There will be poor always, pathetically struggling. Their concerns are not yours and I bid you take no notice.”
My race, the mer-people, had no such class structures. All were equal. We served no king, paid no taxes, answered to no man. All shared the bounty of the oceans. For the first time since I had taken Suria’s potion, I began to miss my sea home.
Our wedding feast was the finest ever held in the palace. Servants carried steaming trays to the long oakwood tables of the dining hall. There was capon, peacock, beef and hog, so much meat that even the vast assembled crowd could not possibly eat it all. The leftovers would be many.
“Can we not send the leftover dishes to the poor of the village?” I asked my new husband. He popped his eyes in surprise. “Certainly not!” he scoffed. “Those peasants eat only root greens and potatoes. Their pallets are not accustomed to luxury of meat! Surely they could never appreciate it.” He stuffed his mouth with fish eggs and guzzled his wine.
This was a most ungenerous answer and left me quite irritated. Being of the sea, where we shared all manner of kelp and fish, I could not bear to see the waste. Luckily, Peter, the King’s servant, fulfilled my request, which I made to him behind the King’s back. At my bidding Peter wrapped plates and bundles, the leftover meats and cakes. In the still of the night he carried them to Beggar’s Bottom. Why Peter took heed of my instructions I could not fathom, but I instantly deemed him a loyal confidante.
Days later, in a grand ceremony I was given my crown of pure gold. I was known ever after as Queen Undine Rosetower of Lemuria.
My life in the palace went well enough, but soon I grew bored with the tedious tasks of my court. I did nothing all day but stitch needlepoint, dine and stroll the gardens. I longed for the sea, missed her salt water, her rising tides and broad storms. It seemed one could take the mermaid from the ocean, but never the ocean from the mermaid. If only my husband would give me a position in his royal Navy, a chance to sail again, then all would be perfect!
“A war is on,” I told my husband. “I am a foreigner to these parts. As such I have broad perspective, and great understanding of many races. Perhaps I could serve the Navy as some type of diplomat?”
King Troy shook his head, furrowed his brow in annoyance. “No. Never. A woman has no place in the affairs of state,” he said. “You must not worry your pretty little head of such matters, Undine.”
Finally I could stand the boredom no longer and, with the help of Peter the servant, I disguised myself as a boy sailor. I wore the britches well enough and still had my waistcoat from my first journey to the kingdom. With a kohl stick I painted the faintest mustache upon my face and tucked my hair beneath a cap.
“How well do I convince?” I asked Peter, to which he answered, “I’d not recognize you, my lady. But remember to keep your voice low.”
With that I boarded my husband’s warship, bound for the port of Azure. For some reason it had been decided we depart in the middle of the night, which was quite strange and irregular. King Troy had told me this sojourn was a ‘special mission’, one he was obligated to perform regularly. The adventure of it thrilled me! I cared not that it was night, for the rippling sea holds her beauty most in the darkness.
Once on board I saw the boat’s cargo contained every type of weaponry; crossbows and spears, arrows and daggers, cannons and pistols, gunpowder and bullets. So bountiful was this ammunition I feared our soldiers must have run out of arms. A fifty year war, and so quick they exhausted ammunition. It must cost the palace a fortune! No wonder the poor of Beggar’s Bottom were starved, as all resources went to the war efforts.
Half way across the Narrow Sea the ship took a detour. We were no longer headed for Azure but toward the Saxssoar coast, to the portal town of Shade Hamlet. I became nervous. What was the meaning of this? Our warship was sailing straight into the arms of the enemy!
None of the crew seemed to mind this fact. Disguised as I was I could not protest.
I immediately reasoned this must be some secret counter attack. Yet as the ship docked a Saxssoar warlord came calmly to the pier to greet my husband as though they were old friends.
I watched in the dark as the two shook hands, exchanging pleasantries. Soon the men of our crew began to unload the weaponry, setting it all on the piers. Not knowing what else to do, I joined in.
“A beautiful sight, ain’t it?” a sailor said to me as he lifted a crossbow.
“What do you mean?” I asked, careful to keep my voice low and husky.
“That there.” The sailor cocked his head toward the bank where King Troy and the warlord engaged in conversation. “The King,” the sailor continued. “Bringing weapons to the Sax. All skane-mates, the two of them, like there weren’t no war going on.”
“He’s bringing…” I watched incredulously as the men piled rifles upon the dock. “But the Saxssoar are our enemies.” I looked desperately at the sailor. “Why would the King…”
“God’s blood, boy! Are you daft? You young deckhands are green as the corn in spring! Must be your first trip.”
“Yes sir, it is,” I lied.
“Well then you best get used to it. The King gives weaponry to the leaders of terrorist groups in order to keep this war going. Gives ’em arms, so’s they start up a new skirmish, somewhere distant. Injure women and children. Make the people crazy, so once again they all cry for revenge. And on it goes.”
My jaw hung open.
“All of ‘em have done it, whole Rosetower dynasty.” The sailor shrugged. “King Troy’s father before him and his before him and all down the line.”
“But why?” I asked. “Why would he want to keep the war going? His purpose is to END the war. To stop this killing and madness and poverty!”
“The King don’t want no such thing.” The sailor spit on the ground, a gob of yellow mucous that glowed in the darkness. “Point is to keep in going. That way, the Saxssoar keep paying us. Big coin. This country’s got gold, boy! Lots of it.” He looked closely at me and I was grateful for the darkness. “Aye laddie,” he continued. “Millions of ducats are to be had for a crew such as us, on King’s special mission! You’ll see. Do it once and you’ll sail again for the pay. That’s the King’s brilliant plan, do you see?”
“But why…” I stammered, still unable to believe it.
“Like I said. To keep the coin rolling and the war going. Only thing that matters in the game. The soldiers fight, the people starve, but the King? Ah, the King gets rich. And you too, laddie will be paid well for your efforts, tho’ a mere fraction of what the King takes in. Still, it’s better than scrounging in Beggar’s Bottom.” He paused and glared at me. “Just know. Keep your mouth shut. Ain’t nobody knows what we do and ain’t nobody GOING to know. You hear?”
“But I still don’t see…”
“God’s heart, boy! You’re a slow one, ain’t you? It works like this. The king has a saying. The King says: ‘War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.’ Savvy that?”
I thought about it. “No sir, NOT savvy,” I finally said, for I could not understand it, this most backward of logic.
“I’ll explain best I can,” he said as he lifted another armful of crossbows. I did the same and followed him to the dock.
“War is Peace,” he began. “Keep these fools fighting for so long they don’t remember no more what it was to have peace. Freedom is Slavery. Keep this lot so poor, they don’t remember no more what it was to be free.”
“But the King keeps no slaves, “ I said as I followed him back to the ship.
“They ain’t slaves, and yet they ain’t free neither,” the sailor answered. “They are chained to their own poverty and servitude. Most in Beggar’s Bottom don’t know no better, and most can’t do no better.”
“I disagree, sir! I have seen Beggar’s Bottom. I think the poor are quite capable of…”
“Shut it boy! I’m trying to learn you this lesson and you best listen.” He picked up a case of gunpowder. “ Now hear this. Ignorance is Strength. Keep them peasants unlearned. Don’t know nothing, never will. That way the King gets stronger.” He stopped and glanced at me over his shoulder. “Now lad. Do you see?”
“Yes sir I believe I do,” I answered as the horror sunk in.
“Good,” the sailor said. “Otherwise you’ll not be coming on no more of these missions. And I’ll tell you something else.” He set the gunpowder on the dock. “Don’t get too nosy. I hear the new Queen is getting nosy and the King don’t like it. No sir, he don’t like it one bit. Queen Undine ought stick to her queenin’ duties if she knows what’s good for her. Do her wifely tasks.” He spat another glob of mucous in the dirt. “In fact,” he continued, now lowering his voice to a whisper. “I hear there’s talk in the palace. If Queen Undine don’t get herself with child soon, the King will send her to the block.”
My heart lurched.
‘That’s right, boy. The block.” The sailor chuckled and stroked a hand across his own throat. “Off with her head! Wouldn’t be the first one. That Queen best mind to her business. And you laddie, you best mind yours too.” He gave me a quick punch in the stomach.
“Good to know,” I squeaked.
“I always see fit to help the new crew.”
My head was a muddle. What to do? I could not go back to him. My husband was a monster. I had only one choice. In the still of the night, while all slept, save for one lone driver at the ship’s helm, I jumped into the ocean. So quickly, so silently, none realized I was gone.
Thankful my swimming skills had not left me, I headed straight back to the Sea Witch’s cave.
Suria stood stirring her cauldron as if no time had passed since I last saw her.
“Your adventure with the humans did not go so well.” She grinned, exposing an array of pointed teeth. “Did I not warn you? Silly child. And now. I suppose you are back to regain your mermaid’s tale?”
“If it so please you, Suria,” I said humbly.
“Please me? Ha! Child, you are naïve. No thing would please me less! Oh no, you’ll not have your tail back. Not now, not ever. You’ve begun a mission, and not just that silly weapons mission. You must finish what you started.”
“But what will I do?” I pleaded. I could not believe she was refusing me.
She took a ladle to her cauldron, scooped out the hot liquid and filled a large jar. “This,” she said, steam rising to her face, “is the liquid of enlightenment. You must bring it to the King.”
“And what will I do with it?”
“Why, feed it to him of course! Mix a drop in his food. And not just his! All of the kingdom of Lemuria shall have a taste of it, and all of Saxssoar as well.” With this, she grabbed several jars from her cabinet and began to fill them. Gallons and gallons of the enlightenment liquid flowed from cauldron to jar. “Every human upon planet earth shall have a dose,” Suria said.
“What then?” I was almost afraid to ask.
“What then?” She arched an eyebrow. “Why, they will become enlightened, of course. They will no longer be obsessed with war and greed, no longer drunk on their own power! This potion,” she jiggled a jar and gazed on it fondly. “This potion will be the saving of humankind.”
“All of them?”
“Not all. For some are evil to the core and simply cannot be redeemed.”
“But how will I know which is which?” Again I almost dared not ask.
“The potion shall determine it, my girl.” Suria grinned. “All you need do is be the messenger. “
“And if, say, this enlightenment potion does not work on one of them. What then?”
Suria set the jar down upon her table. “What then? What THEN?” She looked at me as though I were an imbecile. “The unenlightened will die. Of course, girl, they shall die! What else?”
I had no choice. With the help of the local octopi, I carried all the jars back to kingdom of Lemuria.
The enlightenment process was long and arduous, but one well worth doing.
What became of the King, you may wonder?
Suffice it to say that I myself am now the sole ruler of Lemuria. Queen Undine, first of her name, also called Queen of Justice and Queen of Peace.
The long war has been ended. Beggar’s Bottom is no more. Instead there is a thriving village of merchants and tradesman, all means of goods and services, and sellers that take pride in their wares. That village is called Merland.
The Saxssoar tribes now live in peace as well. Their terrorist warlord has been eliminated. The city of Shade Hamlet is a lovely fishing village where all have learned to share the bounty of the sea. If any speak of the war all they remember is that it was long and hard, with no reason for its beginning nor its end.
My Queendom has no servants and no masters. All are equal and all are free to live their lives as they choose. As for myself, in time I remarried, for governing is a lonely business. My new husband? He is called Peter, King consort of Lemuria.
My warships no longer carry weaponry and are now used for exploration. Lately the crews tell me they have discovered a new land in the middle of the ocean, which is not so mythical as you might think.
We have decided to call this place Atlantis.