Voices filtered down to the mermaid as she swam back and forth in agitation. Everywhere she turned, she encountered a wall. The watery syllables of her name came back to her: Skoliheighi.
"... Doesn't look like a mermaid."
Skoliheighi had never heard the crisp voices of ground-folk until now. She lifted her head above water to get a better look at the two men who stood beyond the pool's edge. Water streamed over her hair and down her fat jowls.
"That can't be a mermaid," the shorter man said in disgust. "Idiot! You summoned a whale." He wore a cape lined with trim that made Skoliheighi think of striped eels.
The tall, skinny man flipped the pages of an object that Skoliheighi suspected was a book. Like most merfolk, she had learned all she could about the world above, studying the contents of sunken ships.
"I'm pretty sure I summoned a mermaid, Your Grace." He flipped more pages. "I might have mispronounced a word in the ninth incantation of the conjuring spell, but that's a mere technicality that shouldn't affect the way--"
"Idiot!" The short man reached over and slammed the book shut. "Everyone knows mermaids lure sailors into the ocean with their unspeakable beauty. The key word is beauty."
Skoliheighi was baffled. She was beautiful. Mermen composed poetry about her huge endowments. Other mermaids sang about her fair skin and massive bulk. No one had ever spoken of her with disgust.
"You're supposed to be the wisest conjuror in seven kingdoms," the short man said. "Is this the best you can do?"
"I'm sorry, Your Grace." The tall man hung his head in shame.
"Well," said the short one, "get rid of it and summon a real mermaid."
Skoliheighi looked from one to the other. "Why am I here?" Minutes ago, she'd been swimming through the indigo depths of her undersea grotto. As she and her sisters harvested oysters for a feast, they'd composed songs about their suitors. Skoliheighi had wanted a break from the teasing songs, so she'd swum upwards until she was completely alone. She hadn't realized how far she'd swum away.
And now she was trapped in a pool of warm, sticky, foul water.
"Send me home," she pleaded to the tall one, the conjuror.
He looked doubtful. "Are you a mermaid?"
"Of course," Skoliheighi replied, flipping her tail in annoyance. Water slopped over the rim of the pool. She rolled to display her obese body, her lack of neck, and her beautiful hair, which was the color of red kelp. "Don't I look like a mermaid?" she asked, surfacing again.
The short man winced in disgust. "You're fat!"
Skoliheighi laughed at his ignorance. "How do you think we stay warm in the ocean? Of course I'm big. Does the whale long for a thinner body? Does the seal want to starve? No, and neither do we."
He struggled to come up with a response.
"I suppose you think selkies are thin, too?" Skoliheighi asked with contempt.
"There you have it," the conjuror said, tucking his book under his arm. "I summoned a mermaid."
"I don't appreciate your sense of humor, Yuris," the short man said. "She has a nice voice, but she needs to lose about a ton before she'll be beautiful. You've failed me again." He whirled on his heel and stalked away. "I have enough worthless treasures."
"Set me free!" Skoliheighi called.
He ignored her, stomping across the polished stone floor and out through a pair of ornate double doors. Armed guardsmen stood to either side of the doors.
Skoliheighi heaved herself onto the floor in a tidal wave of water. She slid and came to rest on her own flesh. Her girth was wider than what a man's arms could encompass, her fish-skin as white as pearls. She was more whale-shaped than human. Her muscular fishtail shimmered with luminescent green scales.
One of the guards groaned in disgust. "Get back in the water, you sea-cow."
Skoliheighi was so distressed, she almost obeyed. But she wanted to face these ground-folk in their element. "Please." She dared to use the conjuror's name. "Please, Yuris."
Yuris paused on his way out the door. "You're one of the Prince's royal treasures, now." He hunched his thin shoulders. "I'm sorry. If I displease him, I'll lose my job. And my life."
"Please." Skoliheighi had no better argument.
Yuris hurried out of the pool chamber.
Skoliheighi slid back into the water. The pool tasted like poison, but she had nowhere better to go. Strange land plants populated the landside portion of the enclosure. She had never seen so many fragrant flowers, or green, leafy trees. There were plenty of oysters to eat.
But the walls were stone.
She rippled back and forth for hours without sleep, dreaming only of going home.
Vibrations through the water woke Skoliheighi. She poked the top of her head above the surface.
A group of guardsmen were dragging some sort of stone edifice across the floor. They grunted and strained with the effort. Skoliheighi realized that the statue was a grotesquely thin mermaid, with a pinched-in waist that made her look frail. The skinny mermaid rested on a rock, as if too weak to swim.
Skoliheighi swam closer to look at it. The guardsmen stared at her and muttered something she couldn't hear.
She rose higher out of the water, proud to show them what a real mermaid looked like. Not delicate or weak. She was strong like the dolphin, energetic like the seal, colorful and playful, like all sea creatures. Water streamed off her white rolls of blubber. She twisted so that her hair wrapped her streamlined bulk.
"Ugh," said one of the men.
The Prince strode through the open doors, followed by more guardsmen in shining armor. "Ah, good," he announced. "She sees it. Let her study and learn how a real mermaid should look."
Skoliheighi fell back in the water. Did these ground-folk truly believe the thin mermaid statue was beautiful? They were the ugly ones. They looked pathetic to her.
She churned water into a whirlpool, and had to stop to let the force of it dissipate.
"Hey, fat mermaid," called the Prince. "Here's the deal. My useless conjuror talked me into giving you a chance. If you can look like her--" he patted the statue's fishtail-- "I'll talk to you." He grinned with mad overconfidence. "I might even marry you."
The idea of marrying a puny man with legs made Skoliheighi feel nauseated. "Please, set me free."
"Become beautiful," the Prince replied, "and we'll talk about granting your wish."
Skoliheighi dove. She couldn't look at him or the emaciated statue for a moment longer. She swam in circles, desperate for another option.
Guardsmen dumped fresh oysters and sardines into the pool every so often. Skoliheighi ate them. But as the hours and days passed, the unchanging meals and stagnant water became boring to her. The only thing she wanted was to go home.
The statue taunted her at the edge of the pool. I am what legged men want. I am the real mermaid, in their eyes.
A morbid curiosity began to take hold of Skoliheighi. She hauled out of the water to study the idealized mermaid statue. She searched for beauty in its curves. No mermaid had ever looked like that, in her experience. Such a thin mermaid would be considered fatally ill.
The Prince ordered more artwork installed in her prison. Paintings and sculptures portrayed delicate, skinny mermaids. They smiled with human faces on human necks. Their breasts were small enough to be engulfed by starfish or clam shells. Their pinched waists looked awkward for streamlined swimming.
"If I marry a mermaid," the Prince told Skoliheighi, "I would let her swim beside my ship. She'd have the ocean for her playground." He cupped his hand around the curve of one statue's waist and looked at Skoliheighi with disappointment.
Skoliheighi had never seen such detailed work, or so many references to the same thing. In her undersea home, paintings did not exist.
She twisted around to look at her own body and saw it the way ground-folk must see it. Ungainly. Excessive.
She didn't reply to the Prince's taunts, and he finally left her alone.
"Were you attracted to any mermen?" Yuris asked, kicking his bare feet in the pool water.
"A few," Skoliheighi said. "But they only wanted me for my beauty. I never met one I wished to marry."
Yuris was her only regular visitor, now that the Prince had all but given up on her. Sometimes Yuris sat by the poolside and watched her swim, and sometimes he even jumped in and joined her in the water.
Skoliheighi answered his questions about her home, but she could not summon any warmth for the man who had trapped her. At least he was curious. Unlike the Prince and his guardsmen, Yuris ignored the statues and paintings, and seemed fascinated by real mermaids.
"I've never found a woman I wanted to marry, either." Yuris studied his clasped hands. "You're more interesting than anyone in the royal palace."
This was the first time Yuris had offered any personal information. Despite herself, Skoliheighi was curious. "Have you ever left the royal palace?" she asked.
"Not since I was young," Yuris replied. "I'm not allowed to. The Prince keeps me here almost the way he keeps you. And the court ladies? They're not my type. They're playing a power game, so they all want the Prince."
Skoliheighi swam fitfully around the pool. Hunger gnawed at her, but she forced herself to ignore it. "How long have you been here?"
Yuris laughed without humor. "Years. Years and years."
"Why can't you just conjure yourself free?"
"I could," he admitted. "But then I'd be a hunted man. The Prince has a network of allies in every kingdom from here to the North Sea. I have enemies in the outside world--powerful sorcerers--who want me dead. As long as I obey the Prince, I'm safe. If I displease him, I might as well prepare my own grave."
Skoliheighi wondered if his enemies would think to look for him in the ocean. She eyed his lanky body. Despite his bony limbs, he was a graceful swimmer, for a legged man.
Yuris studied her, as well. "You shouldn't try to look like these statues and paintings."
"I'm not," she said, indignant. But in her heart, she wasn't so sure. The Prince and his guardsmen spoke about her as if she was a monster. She longed to hear words of admiration again. She longed for the vastness of the ocean, and her sisters and the rest of the merfolk. She'd never gone for so long without praise or love before. Now that she knew what she missed, she realized that she needed admiration in her life more than sustenance.
The Prince had promised to let her swim in the ocean if she became thin.
"The Prince is greedy." Yuris scooted forward, submerging his legs all the way into the pool, and lowered his voice. "Don't tell the guardsmen what I'm about to tell you, all right? It could mean death for both of us."
"All right," Skoliheighi said.
"He's obsessed with marrying royalty," Yuris said. "The only princess available to him is his withered old aunt, and he doesn't want her, so he's set his heart on marrying a non-human princess." Yuris smiled. "The first was the dryad. He eventually realized that he can't make love to a tree. Then he tried a banshee. She didn't take well to being told to shut up."
Skoliheighi laughed. She hadn't laughed since her imprisonment began, and it felt strange.
"He wants an exotic wife more than anything," Yuris said. "He's collected a succubus, a fairy, a genie ... but he's still thinking of you. You might be the one he chooses. His ornamental mermaid princess bride."
That seemed like a cruel taunt to Skoliheighi. The Prince would never love her. No legged man would ever find her attractive. She was just a monstrosity in a pool, ugly and pathetic and devoid of enchanting properties.
She swam past pictures of thin mermaids. "I used to be beautiful." Skoliheighi wasn't sure why she wanted to tell Yuris about her home, but it felt good to share something about herself. "I was praised by everyone," she went on. "I was called the Treasure of the North Sea."
Yuris was silent. Listening.
"I'm not real in this palace. These statues ... they're real here." She turned to Yuris. "How can I make ground-folk see me with admiration?"
Yuris smiled sadly. "Don't. They're not worth it, Skoliheighi."
"Well, well," said the Prince. "Hmmm."
It had been six long months since her capture. Skoliheighi bobbed in the shallow end of the pool, desperate to look appealing. Her eyes felt heavy and hollow. Her stomach was cramped and empty. The ends of her hair brushed her tail flippers, seeming to have grown in length because her former bulk was gone. In the ocean of her home, she would have frozen to death. She was emaciated.
"Huh." The Prince sat back and framed his chin with his finger and thumb. He gave no sign of approval or disapproval. He just studied her.
Yuris looked mournful and guilty.
They both spoke at once. "She's improved," the Prince said, as Yuris began, "I should never have--"
The Prince silenced him with a hand flip. "She's not precisely ... pretty ... but she does look acceptable."
Yuris gave him an incredulous look.
Skoliheighi twisted, catching her reflection in the water's surface, desperate to see if there was any fat left. Her skin hung in loose flaps. Was that ugly? And what about her long torso? Were her bony hips too wide? Were her floppy breasts decently covered, or should she show more skin?
"She's prettier than my aunt," the Prince said in a considering tone. "And she is a princess."
"But ..." Yuris seemed unwilling to even look at her. "She looks starved, Your Grace."
Skoliheighi whimpered as if she'd suffered a physical blow. Yuris was the only legged man who had bothered to learn about her culture, and now he was disgusted. His tone said it all. She began to sink, so they wouldn't be able to see her cry.
"You've upset her!" The Prince sounded angry. "I gave her a goal and she respected it. She's not bad looking. Anyway, why should you care so much? It's my future bride, not yours."
Yuris stepped back and made a gesture of acquiescence.
The Prince knelt by the poolside. He would make an ugly merman, but Skoliheighi tried to smile for him. He wasn't awful. Not really. She had to build a relationship with this man in order to escape the prison of the pool.
The Prince nodded in approval at her long body. "Her fishtail makes up for her baggy skin. Won't she look beautiful dressed up in taffeta and lace? My mermaid queen! She'll be the envy of all the nations!" He leaned closer. "What is your name?"
Skoliheighi twirled with joy. She had waited months for the Prince to actually talk directly to her. She drew a deep breath to answer ... and her vision narrowed.
The Prince looked baffled. Skoliheighi was unable to catch her breath. Her heart fluttered.
"You've killed her," Yuris said. "She's starved herself to death. I told you, mermaids need to be bulky!"
As Skoliheighi descended, too weak to swim, she knew Yuris spoke the truth. She was no longer a mermaid but a carcass, a grotesque skeleton. Uneaten oysters floated below her. Oysters that would be her grave.
Yuris began to read from his spell-book. He spoke rapidly and without inflection.
"What are you doing?" the Prince demanded. "Another summoning?"
Yuris kept reading, his voice growing deep, and powerful enough to reverberate underwater.
"You don't read spells unless I order it!" the Prince said. "Shut up!"
Yuris kept reading. The Prince took a step back, and then, with all of his small strength, he shoved Yuris into the pool.
The last thing Skoliheighi saw before blackness took over was Yuris falling through water. The spell-book fell in with him.
Ocean currents tugged at Skoliheighi. The briny ocean surrounded her, vast and cold. It tasted like freedom. She was too thin, but she felt healthier than she had in months.
Yuris floated down towards the black depths. His eyes bulged in panic, and silvery bubbles trailed from his nose.
Skoliheighi dove and embraced Yuris. She swam upwards as fast as she could. Yuris went limp in her arms. This isn't his element, she knew. The Prince must have thought he was just pushing Yuris into the pool. He didn't realize that Yuris had completed the spell.
She broke the surface of the nighttime ocean, and lifted Yuris's head above the waves, holding him close to the warmth of her body. He remained corpse-like. She pressed her lips against his cool mouth and used her powerful mermaid lungs to revive him.
Encouraged, Skoliheighi breathed in and out for him. Yuris coughed. He coughed again, and this time threw up water.
"I wanted to see your home," he said weakly.
"Thank you, Yuris. I will forever be grateful." Skoliheighi embraced him to keep him warm. She laid a finger against his lips. "But you cannot come to my home. You know that. It would be deadly to you, just as your home was deadly to me."
Yuris gazed hopelessly at her. It was the way he'd looked at her that first day they'd met.
Skoliheighi swam southward, where ground-folk plied the ocean, to bring Yuris somewhere he'd be safe. Together, they would solve the problem of his enemies. She would help him build a new life in hiding.
Only then would she dive home, where she belonged.
This story originally appeared in "When Dreams Come True" (2013) by Written Dreams.