My prince kills my sisters before they can come to me, their deaths my bride price, the payment for an unwanted humanity. His fishing ships and his harpooners drive them into the rocks and the salt-whetted cliffs, into the maw of the coral. They chase them with nets and explosives purchased at great expense from China, until there is nowhere for my siblings to go but up, up into the searing blue air.
My sisters die voiceless in a froth of red foam, gasping mouths and gaping eyes, no different from common fish.
Then, when all the life has been bled away, when all is still and silent, and there are only coils of drifting entrails, the ships lower men into the water to retrieve the bodies. The youngest are processed quickly; deveined, deboned, skins removed and crusted with salt and spice before they’re left to dry under the sun; the meat carefully separated and stored in chests dripping with ice. The oldest they preserve with formaldehyde and meticulous stitching, with pins and steel rods and hooks no wider than a strand of hair, anything that can allow them to pretend that this was a crusade, not a slaughter.
Their trickery succeeds. The kingdom celebrates and my prince, he devours my littlest sister at his soothsayer’s behest, marinating her first in cumin and cilantro. She was barely more than a fry, too young to emulate his idea of human. In a few months, that would have changed. Her skull would have flattened and grown sleek with long, silvery hair. She would have been beautiful, perhaps even beautiful enough to have taken my place.
“I saved you,” my prince says as he picks the soft meat from her spine.
I say nothing, look down, pick through the kelp heaped on my plate, try not to think about the first time I saw my sister, peering from between my father’s teeth, freshly hatched and clumsy, still viscous from the egg.
The ocean is not like the territories of man.
My father sends no armies in retaliation. My mother does not poison the seas with her grief. The fish do not mourn. Even the wind is silent, indifferent. Ten sisters are nothing, less than nothing.
He gives me no salt, only sugar.
Acres of caramel, drizzled on pastries and baked into sinuous eclairs, layered between crumbling shortcake and bittersweet chocolate. Endless cakes, all intricately made, some infused with strange fruit, others with crushed wildflowers and ginger. Scones dripping with cream. Glittering jellies. Macaroons and marshmallows and meringues fragile as hummingbird eggs.
Only once did he make the error of feeding me meat, a tender cut from the leg of his latest kill. Seven men died mangled for this mistake, that gift of power, and I almost, almost reached the shore before he snared me in barbed wire and dragged me away.
From then on, he kept me sequestered in a windowless room in the highest tower of the castle, buried in organza and lace, in books devoted to domesticity, in the green smell of the hills, and flowers that drown me in pollen every spring. My prince allowed me nothing sharp, nothing dangerous, nothing that could be used to cut or maim.
Not even my teeth, which he wears on his crown like a warning.
Occasionally, my sisters visit me.
They are not unhappy, for all of their new ephemeralness, their inability to taste or touch. Death has given them color, imbued their deepwater pallour with indigo and orange and filaments of gold.
They flick through my prison in iridescent circles, less tangible than a soap bubble. Though they do not say it, I think they’re grateful they’re not me.
“A queen should know how to write.”
I raise a careful look between my lashes and smile at the doctor who’d spoken. My new teeth are blunt and perfect and white as salt, a strange weight that I cannot cease exploring with my tongue, like an old woman and a spiced knot of boiled sinew. The doctor could be male, female, a combination of both, or perhaps neither, a sexless thing unlike the prince.
“We will deal with that soon. For now, there are other concerns,” my prince replies, sullen. He rubs more olive oil into my skin. Once, his touch would have made me nauseous, but I’ve grown accustomed to his presence, his endless attention. “I won’t tax her. I’m already asking for too much. But soon.”
“So, she is to be illiterate and a captive until you’ve beget her with your spawn?”
He tenses his arm. “I am not a monster. The pregnancy is necessary. It will free her. It will—”
The doctor sighs. The sound whistles peculiarly through its mask, the top half of some dead bird, bruise-blue and sunset-orange. The doctor drums fingernails against the crook of an elbow, head cocked just so. There is no fear in its stance.
“Turn her into a proper wife?”
To my surprise, the prince supplies no admonishment, only a cold stare. I offer him no comfort, of course, a glance and little more. After everything that has happened, not even my father would be able to demand such an obscenity from me. So, instead I slope forward, leaning into my curiosity. Who was this person? And why did they dare to speak so boldly to my prince?
“But since you insist—” the doctor stares straight at me, “—I suppose I should be the first to congratulate you on your fatherhood. The princess is pregnant.”
In his euphoria, my prince takes no notice of my indifference, or the way the doctor tilts its skull one way and then another, as though to say it knows. I touch my belly, press down. Under my fingertips, I can feel the myriad pebbling of a thousand eggs.
In my dreams, I see the Sea Witch, sometimes.
She is not terrible, not magnificent.
It takes exactly three months for my condition to become unmistakable. In that time, my prince transformed from captor to curator, perennially hungry to discuss how he met and loved the mute girl he found on the beach, how he saved her from sea, how a new joy—a future, he gushed once—was now gestating in my belly. To display me where and when possible, on the balconies of the palace, in a banquet of dignitaries, anywhere so long that people can look and exult in our matrimonial glory.
“If we have a daughter, I can only pray that she is as beautiful as her mother,” my prince declared to a company of neighbouring kings one night, his hand warm around my wrist.
Daughters, I thought to myself, as he joined our mouths, his lips sticky with mulberry wine. And they wouldn’t just be beautiful, they would be clever too, and quick as a lie, and always so very, very hungry.
The first clutch comes too early.
I hide them in the jewelry boxes of a visiting countess. If the noblewoman notices her windfall, she makes announcement of it. She leaves almost as she came, slightly richer but no less unremarkable.
Months later, they’ll tell me of a haunting in a distant castle, of the salt-smell in its corridors and the figures in the spires, silks trailing from their skin like fins. Of how they sing so desolately, like birds who have never known the sky, or sirens exiled from the sea.
Everyone who is anyone knows the story of the little mermaid.
She falls in love with a drowning prince and surrenders her voice for a man who can’t even remember her name. She walks on knives for him. She aches. In some versions of the tale, her sacrifice cuts her a kind of happiness. They marry. The story ends, and what comes after can only be presumed to be happy.
In others, they do not. Instead, he falls for someone else, a woman with a voice, a woman with property and the accoutrements of a noble title, a woman with value he can measure in parchment and gold ingots. The mermaid’s sisters come for her in these versions. They give her a knife to cut herself free. In some endings, she does. In others, she does not, dissolving into a gasp of sea foam, forgotten except as an example although of what exactly, no one seems to know.
The stories aren’t entirely wrong, but they’re certainly not right.
“It’s been a year.” My prince paces the foyer like an angry tomcat. “An entire year. What’s wrong with her? What happened to the pregnancy? She—”
“Calm yourself. This isn’t about you,” replies the doctor.
I catch my smile in my teeth, unwilling to bare emotion.
“No. It’s not. It’s about the child,” my prince snaps and for an instant, I experience a frisson of what I can only imagine is love. He adores our daughters. Even though he has no knowledge of their physiognomy or their personalities, he is entirely devoted to them. “It can’t—it can’t be good for them to be inside her for so long.”
“If she was human, no,” the doctor tsks as it stores its equipment in a leather satchel. “But the ‘princess’ isn’t human, is she? I’ve checked her vitals. She’s as healthy as a mermaid can be while being kept away from—”
“Stop.” He massages fingertips into his temples.
The doctor stops.
“I don’t want to hear any more of your nonsense. She is not returning to the sea. She’s won’t—she won’t be a monster. She’s human and she is mine.”
“Yours,” the doctor repeats. It sniffs, disdainful. “And you’re worried about her pregnancy.”
My prince snarls. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“If you can’t figure out the answer to that, Your Highness, it’s not your knowledge to have.”
Something is wrong with the second clutch.
The eggs are smaller than they should be, clouded not crystalline clear. Their inhabitants sit motionless: tiny, barely more than a tendril of meat. As I arrange them on the sheets, my sisters in attendance, I weep. This should not have happened. They had deserved better.
As the sun bleeds from the horizon, brass and gold, molten, I devour the remains of my stillborn daughters. They are bitter. They reek of tragedy. The future will be better, I assure the rest of them, hoping against hope that the flesh of their sisters would be insurance against an uncertain tomorrow.
Everybody has a theory about where mermaids come from:
Sea foam. Goddesses, pale as milk. An act of spontaneous genesis, precipitated by a circumstance of oceanic currents. The semen of sailors dripped into the mouths of tuna. There are a hundred thousand million suppositions.
Only mermaids, who no one ever ask, are ever right.
It was time.
I squeeze my prince’s arm and he startles, his free hand already groping for the sword he keeps on the bed. A curse loops itself around his voice, as he migrates from sleep to awareness. I hold his wrist throughout. Wait. Slowly, his panic transmutes into concern, into dawning excitement as his eyes settle on the hand I have rested on my belly.
I mouth the words at him, hoping he understands. It’s time.
And he does.
Gore spumes from between my legs. There is blood, blood, more blood than I had thought imaginable, brackish and thick. I scream, soundless. Unseen by my prince or his subjects, my sisters cluster around the bed, crooning reassurances, even as they slip, one after another, into newborn bodies.
The last of my daughters do not arrive in silence, contained in their eggs, delicate, vulnerable. They come shrieking instead, full of teeth and rage, full of power.
I stroke my fingers over the tatters of my prince’s face and he gurgles, somehow still impossibly live, his throat bulging with daughters.
The room drips crimson.
My children look up as I slip from the bed, their eyes shining black, their mouths razored and round. If this were the ocean, they’d be floating in the tangles of kelp, in their father’s hair, darting between his teeth, safe, safe from the world.
But they’re here instead, and we, like everything else in the world, will make the best of what we have.
I wait until they are ready, until all the noises have ceased before I open the doors and the windows, and watch silent as they spill into the night, hungrier and more dangerous than any prince and his kingdom.