In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 19 - Castle by the Sea

Something seems not quite right at this castle, and not just because of where it’s built.


Traveling by the seashore turned out to be markedly different than going overland. The horses liked walking on the beach, but the shifting, sinking nature of the sand made them tire faster. Food was fairly easy to come by, but water had to be rationed carefully and harvested whenever possible from any small fresh streams they passed draining into the salty waves. Salt, a precious commodity everywhere else, was simply found lying in little depressions on the beach as though waiting for someone to pick it up; John had gathered a small paper full of it just on general principles. What few people they met were sea-weathered and rather salty themselves but not at all unfriendly, and they were more than happy to share their stories with a new set of listening ears. In one small village an old man even thought he remembered a ‘couple of fancy people on horseback’ passing through many years before, although he could not remember in which direction they’d been heading, just that they’d refused to give a destination when asked where they were going, which was what had made him remember them.

What was truly odd about that story, however, was the old man’s assertion that the pretty lady he remembered had looked and spoken like Elsa and John rather than Adam. “Ye can always tell ‘em from the North,” he’d explained with a wink. “They says all their words funny and round-like.”

That night around their fire, and this time with a little berm of ice-hardened sand protecting their camp as they’d been warned that ‘the crabs were spawning’ and would be coming up the beach with the tide, Adam was still considering that. “So we’ve possibly found the trail of one set of parents, just not the ones we thought to find.”

“Possibly not,” John countered. “Your mother was a foreign princess, Adam, remember? It’s possible she was from the North – it’s also possible that old man was confused by seeing Elsa, as by this point in his life one pretty blonde lady on the beach might well resemble another to him.”

“True. And my mother was blonde, like me only bright instead of dark, although my father wasn’t and his father before him hadn’t been either.” He smiled at Elsa, who was combing out her hair so she could braid it back up. “I remember watching her brush her hair like that when I was very small, it looked like a waterfall of gold to me.”

Elsa hit a snag, and John took the comb – a fine one of carved ivory and silver gifted to her by the ghosts – and worked the tangle out for her before handing the comb back. “Elsa’s sister Anna has brownish-gold hair, as did their mother, but the king’s was nearly black. The portraits of the royal family in the palace showed most of them with brown-gold hair as well.”

“They’re all gone?”

John shrugged. “There was a plague, years and years before I was even born, but the census records show that it decimated the population of Arendelle. The king and queen and four of their children all fell victim to it, Elsa’s mother was the only one of that family left. My father survived, of course, and he told me that the remaining courtiers tried their best to prepare Princess Astrid to assume the crown – she’d been a middle daughter, not expected to ever take the throne – but she was headstrong and wanted nothing to do with it. So they started looking for someone who could do the job to marry her off to instead, but she wasn’t pleased by any man they found until Elsa’s father showed up and then she insisted she’d not have anyone else. Father thought they let her have him just to put an end to the matter. He mostly let the councilors run things anyway.”

“Where did he come from?”

Another shrug. “No idea, it’s not written down anywhere that I’ve ever seen, and nobody ever spoke of it that I ever heard. I honestly don’t think anyone cared at that point. He claimed to be some king’s younger son and she was willing to marry him, that was good enough.”

 

A few days later they were walking the horses down the verge of a rock-strewn cove when they saw a man walking on the beach as well, coming from the opposite direction. The man waved when he saw them, so they waved back and weren’t too surprised when he moved to intercept them. He was a handsome dark-haired man about Adam’s age, and although his clothing was in the simple style of a seaman it was far too fine to belong to one. “Hello!” the man greeted them happily. “Are you here to visit Lady Vanessa?”

“I’m afraid we don’t know anyone by that name,” Adam told him. “Is she the owner of the palace I see farther down the beach?”

“She is,” the man confirmed. “That’s where I’m staying – I was shipwrecked, her ward found me on the beach some little distance up the cove where the rocks are.” He bowed. “Prince Eric, at your service.”

Adam bowed back. “Prince Adam of Valeureux, and my companions Princess Elsa and John Kepperson, our Royal Bookkeeper.”

Eric bowed again. “I’m Prince Eric,” he repeated. “So you weren’t coming to visit Lady Vanessa?”

Adam exchanged a look with John, who shrugged. “I suppose we could, as we’re already here,” he said. “We’re following the trail of my parents, a man in one of the fishing villages remembered a couple who might have been them passing this way some years past.”

“Do you think they came to visit Lady Vanessa?”

“Perhaps they might have,” John told him when Adam didn’t appear to know what to say. “Does Lady Vanessa receive a lot of visitors?”

Eric shook his head. “No, I believe I’m the only one.”

Elsa tried this time. “Doesn’t she like visitors?”

“Well, she likes me being a visitor,” Eric told her. “I don’t know about any others, as she hasn’t had any while I’ve been here.”

“How long have you been here?” Adam wanted to know. “You said you were shipwrecked, were you the only survivor?”

Eric shrugged. “I’m the only one her ward found, so I’d assume so. As to how long I’ve been here, though…perhaps a few days? I’m not really sure. Lady Vanessa is delightful company, though.”

“She must be,” John murmured under his breath. Which the strange prince apparently heard anyway, because he nodded most enthusiastically. John cleared his throat. “Prince Adam, I’m not sure we should intrude on the Lady Vanessa, it sounds like she…may have her hands full with her current guest.”

“Well, sometimes she does, but not all the time.” Eric’s dark eyes went wide. “Why, you don’t think she’d want to do that with both of you as well, do you?”

Elsa and John both went red – for different reasons, and Adam just hoped Prince Eric didn’t notice the sharp little icicles protruding from the princess’s suddenly clenched fist. He shook his head quickly. “No, I don’t think she would – that would be most irregular and highly unlikely.” He really needed to have a talk with Elsa sooner and not later, he decided, if just the mention of some other woman possibly taking an interest in John could cause a reaction like that. Thank goodness she hadn’t noticed the…interest expressed in that direction by some of the female servants in the Castle of Asher, and John himself had been mostly oblivious to it as well. He shook his head again. “I suppose since we’re here, and we’ve met you, Prince Eric, we really should stop and pay our respects to Lady Vanessa. We’ll be sure to let her know we don’t want to intrude, though.”

“Oh, I’m sure you won’t be. Things are rather boring around here right now.” Eric thought for a moment – it didn’t look like it came easy to him – and then nodded. “I’ll just go back and let her know you’re coming. That way if she doesn’t want visitors I can come back out and tell you so.”

“Perfect,” Adam assured him. “We’d appreciate that, thank you.” He watched the other man hurry back up the beach with a rather disbelieving expression on his face. “I…am really not sure what to make of that, I’m really not.”

John shrugged. “Maybe he was injured when he was shipwrecked? I’ve heard a head injury can make a person go a bit off.”

“I suppose that could be it – either that or his kingdom isn’t missing him all that much.”

“Point.” John shook his head, frowning. “I’m worried about stopping to visit this palace, Adam. This Lady Vanessa will be obligated to ask us to stay once he tells her we’re here, and I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” He waved a hand at the pretty little palace perched on a rise just above the beach. “That’s too close to the water and sitting right on top of the sand, from what I can see. We have buildings on the coast back home, of course, but they’re supported by piers with very thick wooden posts sunk deep into the ground because the sand shifts so with the pull of the tides.”

Adam considered that – and the idea that John had no doubt also noticed Elsa’s jealousy-induced icicles – but he didn’t see a way out of visiting now that they’d been met and probably announced. “We’ll be careful,” he said. “And if things look odd, we’ll leave.”

 

It ended up not being that simple, of course. Lady Vanessa looked to be just a few years older than Adam, with curling dark hair, a voluptuous figure, and a sweet voice that seemed rather at odds with the sharpness of both her features and her words. She appeared none too happy to have visitors, but she still insisted that they at least stay the night before continuing on their journey and they couldn’t politely refuse. Something odd was very obviously going on, however. Lady Vanessa was almost shockingly overt in her attentions to Prince Eric, although luckily for her she seemed to have no interest in Adam or John at all – although her offhanded question about whether Adam and Elsa’s ‘servant’ would be sleeping in the stable with their horses had almost gotten her up close and personal with Elsa’s magic anyway. She’d been suitably apologetic when Adam had somewhat stiffly corrected her, however, and had gone back to what she was doing – or at least, trying to do – with the prince. Her supposed ward was a little limping red-haired girl called Ariel who couldn’t talk and who was mooning after said prince as well, a situation he seemed oblivious to, treating her like a little sister or a pet; the overly-amorous Lady Vanessa, on the other hand, never wasted an opportunity to put the girl down or taunt her somehow. And Prince Eric also seemed oblivious to the reality of his own situation –– no trying to contact his people or even speaking about them, he seemed far too content for a high-ranked shipwreck victim stranded on foreign shores.

Of course, Lady Vanessa’s…attentions may have had something to do with that, but John and Adam didn’t really think so. “I still think something’s wrong with him,” Adam said after they’d extricated themselves from the palace on pretense of having a walk on the beach before dinner. “He just doesn’t act…well, like he’s quite all there.”

“No, he doesn’t, does he? And she’s…well,” John colored up just a little bit, “somewhat inappropriate in her attentions to him.”

Somewhat?” Adam snorted. “You’re too polite, John. She was hanging off him like fruit on a tree, it was all I could do not to clap my hand over her ward’s eyes.”

Elsa was frowning as she listened to this conversation. She’d been unhappy and more than a little agitated in the palace – one reason John had decided a walk before dinner was needed – and she was still upset by what she’d seen and heard. Finally she put her hand on John’s sleeve to get his attention. “Why isn’t he asking her to kill him?”

Adam’s mouth dropped open, but John just patted her hand. “You mean, like the blue butterfly did?” She nodded. “The blue butterfly was created out of water and ice, Princess; it didn’t ask to be alive, and it didn’t want to be alive. Prince Eric was already alive.”

She cocked her head. “So he asked her to make him alive, and that made it all right?”

“Her…Lady Vanessa?”

“No, Ariel.”

This time John’s mouth fell open. Adam had recovered himself by this time, though, and touched her arm to get her to look at him. “Sweetheart…are you saying the prince isn’t actually alive? That Ariel made him alive – not just by pulling him out of the ocean so he wouldn’t die, but by doing…something after she pulled him out to make him live again?”

Elsa nodded. “You couldn’t tell?”

John found his voice, traded a look with Adam. “No, I think you must have to…have that kind of magic to be able to tell. What else have you noticed that we haven’t?”

She thought. “Well, the palace isn’t real, it was made by magic – it’s made of sand and water and things you’d find in the water, enchanted to look like it isn’t. And the voice Lady Vanessa is using isn’t her own.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Do you think Lady Vanessa knows the prince isn’t really alive?” Elsa thought again, then shook her head. “So she has magic, but not that kind. Is there magic on Ariel too?”

But John beat her to it. “Her legs,” he said. “She walks like she’s still learning to do it, and like it hurts her to do it. So she’s really…”

“A mermaid. A teenage mermaid with a crush on…oh dear god, she probably doesn’t even realize she brought him back, she must have found him underwater and dragged him back to shore.” Adam shook his head. “She’s a little girl with a crush. And she wanted to join him on land…”

“So she traded.” John was nodding. “Her pretty voice for legs – or at least the illusion of legs, anyway, it would be some pretty shitty magic that would make real legs that don’t work right.”

“Or some pretty evil magic. Lady Vanessa seems to really like using that beautiful voice to entice the prince, doesn’t she?”

“She does.” John thought for a moment. “How old is Ariel, do you think?”

Adam snorted. “My guess is around fourteen, not older than fifteen or sixteen at the most, but she probably lied to the witch and made her think she was older.” John started to smile. “What?” Then he got it. “Oh…oh yes, exactly!”

Elsa was looking back and forth between them, confused. “What is it?”

“An illegal contract,” Adam told her, smiling now himself. “She’s a little girl, Elsa, she’s not old enough to make a contract. Which means the contract can be voided, it’s not legal.”

“And which means that we should be able to get whoever’s responsible for her to come settle things,” John added. He laid a gentle hand on Elsa’s arm. “Princess, let’s send someone a message, shall we?”

The sun was still a handspan from setting, and the ocean’s blue-green waves were restless and sharp-tipped. They made sure they were out of view of the palace and then John had Elsa lob a few ice-cannonballs into the water, followed by a fat, hollow tube of ice once one of the balls was violently fired back up out of the waves. “Hello!” John yelled into the tube. “Sorry about that, but we need to talk to a girl named Ariel’s parents!”

A distorted, heavily accented voice echoed back faintly a few moments later. “You want to speak wit King Triton?

“We didn’t know he was a king,” John answered. “But we think his little girl is in over her head, she seems to have brought a dead man back to life and now some witch is trying to get him to sleep with her.” Some sort of roar came back, and the ice-tube vibrated into pieces. John shrugged. “I’m guessing that was Daddy and we’ll be seeing him soon.”

“Really soon,” Adam said, pointing. A large, bearded head appeared above the waves, then ducked back under and a large finned tail flicked up. The head reappeared near some rocks, and muscular arms levered a broad-shouldered body connected to a powerful fish tail up onto them; one hand was holding a trident, and the merman used it to point at them. “My daughter did what ?!”

“We don’t think she knows she did it, Your Majesty,” John quickly disclaimed. “My name is John Kepperson; this is Princess Elsa and Prince Adam. We were on a quest when we ran into this situation and decided that someone needed to get hold of Ariel’s parents – Princess Elsa has powers like that, and she didn’t understand what she was doing at first either.”

King Triton considered that. “I’ve heard of that sort of thing, but I’ve never known anyone who could do it.” He raised an eyebrow at Elsa. “You didn’t know?”

She shook her head. “I made a snowman, to be my friend. And then I made a blue butterfly out of ice…but it begged me to kill it. John explained why.”

“Hmm.” The king thought some more, then nodded. “Probably a water power, then – for you it works with fresh cold water, ice and snow, so for my daughter…she must have used the seawater in the drowned man’s body. Without knowing she was doing it,” he hastened to add when Elsa looked alarmed. He held out a hand, and she came closer and took it; he looked into her eyes and then shook his head. “Poor child,” he said softly, letting go of her hand to pat her hair. “It’s all right, my dear, there’s no way you could have known – this ‘gift’ is so rare most think it’s just a legend. Now,” he addressed John and Adam, “what else can you tell me?”

“We suspect your daughter entered into a contract with the witch who calls herself Lady Vanessa, her voice for legs,” Adam told him. “But Ariel doesn’t seem old enough to enter into a contract on her own.”

“Which means that if whoever’s in charge of Ariel,” John waved at the king, “calls the witch on it, the contract should be voided. And then, of course, we’ll have to deal with the dead prince they both have a crush on, who also doesn’t realize he’s dead.”

The king winced. “This is going to be an interesting discussion.” He gently moved Elsa to one side, then did something with his trident and jumped down off the rocks, striding up onto the sand on two sturdy, muscular legs. He was a giant of a man, powerful and kingly and completely naked except for the crown and jewelry he was wearing. He took the princess’s hand again. “If you gentlemen would be so kind as to lead me to my daughter, I believe we can sort this out rather quickly. I can’t stay out of the water forever,” he explained before anyone could ask, “but I’ll have plenty of time to take care of this.”

They walked back up the beach, King Triton following along behind John and Adam, asking Elsa questions as they went. The two men exchanged a look, but didn’t interfere; in this case, Elsa’s thoughts on the matter were probably more valuable to the king than theirs would be. Once they came in sight of the enchanted palace, however, the king stopped walking and scowled. “Oh so that’s it, is it?” he growled, letting go of Elsa’s hand. “My dear, stay behind me – you have great powers, yes, but you haven’t fully mastered them yet and this…witch could harm you, or cause you to harm someone else by accident. If you boys could secure the dead man?”

“We can do that, Your Majesty,” Adam assured him, and then Triton started up the hill to the castle at a run and the three of them followed him as quickly as they could.

Lady Vanessa was in the main room with Prince Eric, and when Triton burst in she screamed. “No, you can’t, we have a contract!”

The king shook his trident at her. “Ursula, the child isn’t of age to make a deal like that. The contract is void. However, if you want to keep this…man, that is your choice. If not, he must be returned to his previous state and I’ll be teaching my daughter not to make a mistake like that again.”

“Mistake?” Prince Eric was confused – especially since the two male guests had taken hold of him right after the big naked man had come roaring in. He came to a conclusion that seemed right to him and stiffened, radiating offense. “Sir, I can assure you I haven’t touched your daughter. I’d have to be blind not to see the way she looks at me, of course, but she’s just a child!”

“Nice to know you’re not as dumb as we thought,” Adam told him. “Not what he’s talking about, though.”

Elsa came in from a side door, pulling a terrified Ariel along with her. “No, he’s not,” she was saying. “He’s worried about you, Ariel – what’s going on here isn’t what you think is going on.”

The girl’s mouth opened in a silent denial of that. “It isn’t,” John assured her. “And next time don’t lie about how old you are. Although I think that’s probably not the biggest problem we have to deal with.”

“No, it isn’t,” Elsa agreed. King Triton and Lady Vanessa – whose real name was apparently Ursula – were still yelling at each other, and she frowned. And then she hit Ursula in the face with a snowball, which put an end to the yelling pretty quickly. “Stop that!” she ordered. “You have to undo it, it wasn’t legal – and you did it wrong anyway, because if you’d done it right it wouldn’t hurt her to walk.”

“You did what ?!” King Triton bellowed. His trident was pointing at Ursula now. “Call it off, this instant!”

For a moment Ursula looked like she was going to start arguing with him again…but then the trident spat out some blue sparks and Elsa called up a ball of ice and she quailed. “All right! Fine! I declare the contract VOID!”

Several things happened all at once when she said that. A green mist of sparkling liquid magic rose up around Ariel, dissolving the dress she’d been wearing, and her legs turned scaly, green and finned before melting back into a scaled green fish tail. Her human half’s appearance changed slightly as well, eyes becoming rounder and wider, a little trail of iridescent scales running up each side of her neck across delicate fluttering gills and then up the sides of her face to disappear into her hairline. Her hair lengthened and darkened, tumbling down over her shoulders to well past her waist like fronds of curling seaweed in the shallows. The little scream she let out as she hit the floor came out as a multi-tone octave…and John and Adam both froze, their eyes going unfocused. Eric stepped away from them. “What…”

“My wife was a siren,” Triton told him. “It runs in the family. If you would wake them both up, Princess…” Elsa hit both men with a snowball and they blinked and staggered, shaking their heads. “Thank you, my dear. Ariel, not another sound – you don’t know how to control it, and mortal men aren’t meant to hear that unless you’re trying to kill them.”

The little mermaid looked horrified, and Elsa immediately knelt down beside her and gave her a hug. “Oh, sweetheart, it’s all right. You didn’t know.”

“That’s true, she didn’t – she’s still in a great deal of trouble, but not for the things she did unknowingly. You, however,” he glared at Ursula, “you knew all about that. Why the hell would you want to be a siren? You pretty obviously have the same two-legs kink my little girl has picked up – and isn’t someone going to be on my dinner table when I find out where she got that idea – so why would you want to lure these men you want to have your way with to their deaths?”

“Hopefully not because of an entirely different kink,” John muttered to Adam, who choked.

Triton raised a bushy questioning eyebrow at Ursula, who gasped and shook her head. “Of course I wouldn’t…with a corpse? That’s disgusting!”

“You sure didn’t seem to be feeling that way when we came in,” Adam pointed out. “I mean, I can see not being able to read the magic, since apparently it’s rare as hell…but how could you not notice that the man you were climbing all over doesn’t have a pulse?” Eric stared at him in shock, and he rolled his eyes again. “Okay, I am so not explaining this to Prince Clueless.”

“My name is Eric.”

Adam snorted. “I rest my case.”

This time John rolled his eyes. “Eric, think – I know it doesn’t seem to be your strong suit, but give it a try. Ariel is a mermaid, where do mermaids live? Where do you think you were when she found you?” Eric blinked at him, and John shook his head. He gave the confused dead prince a push, shoving him right into Ursula’s arms. “You know what, he’s your problem, you deal with it. Elsa, would you go upstairs and get our things while Adam moves the horses? I don’t think this palace is going to be here much longer, you might need to stabilize the floor if it starts to turn back into sand.”

She frowned. “You want to talk about something you don’t want me to hear.”

“Yep, sure do.” He walked over and kissed her cheek. “I will explain it to you later, but right now we need to get this settled and get out of here – I have no desire to be buried in a collapsing sand castle. Okay?”

She pouted but nodded, and then Adam took her arm and they left the room. John sighed. “Now that the person who could get upset and accidentally turn you into an octopus popsicle is gone…” He pointed at Ursula’s dress, which was morphing back into tentacles. “Nice illusion, by the way. If you really want power over humans, you should market dress designs to them; fashion is one of those areas where you’re expected to be ruthless and evil. But yes, your idiot boytoy here was drowned and then magic apparently charged the seawater in his body and gave him artificial life. If it works anything like Princess Elsa’s magic does he’ll most likely stay ‘alive’ as long as you let him, but I’m not sure if he’ll stay this…fresh, if you know what I mean, without the magic around to sustain him.”

Ursula apparently did know what he meant, because she used a plump purple tentacle to hold Eric away from her, wrinkling her nose. Which was prominent and lumpy now, because her natural form was apparently a middle-aged overweight octopus woman, wide-mouthed and double-chinned. Eric himself was looking horrified. “You…but you were young and beautiful! And now you’re…” He ran his hand over the tentacle, horror abruptly mixing with a certain amount of interest. “Okay, maybe I don’t mind, at least not this part. My ship docked at this island once, and the people there had these paintings…”

Ursula’s eyes glowed, and the prince turned into a sand statue. “I hate Japan,” she growled, twitching the tentacle to make the sand lose cohesion and collapse into a pile. “Too many lonely fishermen with an artsy streak. I would never use my tentacles with a human for…that!” Ariel shrieked, and John’s eyes rolled back in his head; he collapsed. The sea witch made a face, peering over at him in concern. “He’s not dead, is he? I really don’t want to be an octopus popsicle when his little ice princess comes back.”

“He’s not dead,” Triton assured her, summoning a ball of water and dropping it on the young human, who sat up spluttering and swiping at his glasses. “See? He’s fine.” He strode over and scooped up his now-sobbing daughter. “He’s fine, little one,” he soothed. “And you didn’t know what you’d done to the other one, that wasn’t your fault.”

“No, it wasn’t.” John pushed himself back to his feet, blinking, and made his way over to Triton so he could pat Ariel’s cheek. “It’s okay, really; I understand. You’ll learn to control your powers, just like Elsa is learning to control hers. And you’ve got your father to help you, too.”

Ariel looked up at her father, who nodded. “The gift is rare, but I can teach you how to manage it,” he assured her. “You won’t have any more accidents like this. Shall we go home now? You’re grounded, and I believe Sebastian and I need to have a…conversation about the stories he tells you.” She sniffed, but shook her head and pointed at the door. Triton nodded. “Of course, we can wait until you’ve said goodbye to Princess Elsa.”

He walked out into the foyer with her, John and Ursula trailing behind. The palace was already visibly sandy, ornaments on the walls becoming more shell-like, carpets beginning to look more like sea grass and a fine rain of sand starting to fall from the ceiling. Adam was just coming back inside and Elsa appeared with their packs a few moments later, freezing the crumbling stairs as she came down to keep them stable underfoot. She frowned when she saw John. “Why are you wet?”

“It was an accident,” he told her. “It’s fine. But King Triton and Ariel need to get back home, they’re just waiting so she could say goodbye to you.”

“Oh!” Elsa handed the packs to Adam and hurried forward, giving Ariel a hug and, on impulse, kissing King Triton on the cheek. “You’’re a good father, I think,” she told him. “Please don’t punish her too much. Love can be very…confusing.”

Triton smiled and patted her cheek. “My dear, you don’t know the half of it – yet, anyway.”

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