Actions

Work Header

Part of Your World

Chapter Text

Spray sprang up from the sea, a massive glittering mirror parting before the ship’s prow where a mermaid, carved from the flesh of the vessel, arched toward the sky.

But the figurehead was not alone.

With an arm slung around the statue’s neck, a sailor clung to the great boat. White shirt billowing with wind off the water, much like the sails above that carried the Royal Navy’s flagship, and salt stinging soft skin, the seafarer gazed out across the endless crystal horizon and whooped joyfully against the blinding rush. Up on the ship’s deck, her crew’s voices rose into the rigging, booming old tunes to the sun and surf.

A single shrill cry pierced the stew of song and the deafening crash of currents against her hull.

“Princess?!” It was Hawthorne, the royal advisor. “Princess Lilith?!”

The mermaid’s dangling mariner sighed, placed a departing kiss on her cheek for luck, and caught the end of a loose rope, swinging back aboard and landing before her reluctant, queasy chaperone. Hawthorne swayed where he stood, never having found his sea legs and taken aback by his charge’s sudden appearance.

Despite her rugged, masculine attire, the young woman was undeniably beautiful, with regal features and sparking blue eyes like the ocean she adored so. Her cheekbones were nearly as sharp as her wit and humor, her chin strong and steadfast as a king’s. She was a slender, agile creature and moved with the fluid flair of underwater weeds. Hawthorne swept her black tricorn hat away, letting thick waves of dark curls tumble down over her shoulders like sea foam upon jagged, rocky shores.

“Your Highness, if you insist upon stuffing your hair up in that thing, you’re bound to be mistaken for a man,” Hawthorne entreated. Lilith scoffed, echoed by the sea below, and snatched the offending ornament back.

“Oh please, George, perhaps I’d like to enjoy a man’s freedoms. What does it matter?” She settled it atop her head as if it were the crown she’d left on land. A sudden swerve in their course sent Hawthorne to urgent business at the starboard side, allowing Lilith a sweet escape to the helm.

“Captain Walker,” she called, arriving at his side with a skip in her step.

“Princess.” The man kept his eyes ahead, but a fond smile snuck into his voice and onto his face.

“I’m just Lilith off-shore, Captain. Hello, Roz.” The captain’s daughter perched on a rail behind him, nose buried in a book as always.

“I smell a storm brewing,” the girl said, marking her page. “We should head back to port soon. The lord of the deep is stirring up trouble.”

Rosalind had the best trusted instinct of any shipmate, having grown up on the seven seas. Her father nodded. “Can’t take any chances with our future on board.” He began shouting out to his men, and Hawthorne joined them, still green in the face.

“Sailors’ superstitions aside, my lady, it’s high time we return home and find you a husband. Plans for your coronation are already underway, and you’ve yet to choose a suitor. We can hardly crown you Queen of Aradia without a king.”

“And why not?” Lilith mused. “I’m perfectly capable of ruling alone. In fact, I’d prefer it, at least to your proposal of marrying without love, without even knowing the person meant to stand by me.”

“You know very well the way of things. These are our traditions, princess, and your father’s dying wishes.” Hawthorne cleared his throat. “Besides, love is such a fretful, unpredictable thing. How can you ask your people to depend upon something so flighty?”

“How can I, in good conscience, expect my people to accept some stranger as their ruler?” Lilith countered, drawing her sword to slash and stab at thin air so Hawthorne bit his tongue. “It’s my duty to lead them and protect their interests. I’ve no stake in the politics of marriage, George, I am devoted to my people and my people alone. If I find happiness with another along that path, so be it, but I will not be manipulated by any historical precedent or lack thereof.”

Roz chuckled into her pages. “A queen with your bold, headstrong spirit would surely fare well on the throne, whether or not she shared it.”

Lilith bowed to the girl with an elegant flourish. “Why, thank you, Lady Rosalind.”

Just as Hawthorne prepared to protest, the symphony of the sea seemed to soften, making way for a single song. A voice clear and pure as a cathedral’s bell or a tide pool at dawn, spiraled sweetly between the ship’s masts. It seemed to harmonize with the breeze, haunting and hopeful as poetry.

“Do you hear that?” Lilith breathed. Roz squinted and shook her head.

The princess scaled the ship, climbing higher and higher through lashings and canvas until she reached the Crow’s Nest. She whipped her spyglass from her belt and searched the surrounding waters for the source of the angelic sound with no success. So Lilith closed her eyes, allowing the music to flood her, ears and lungs and soul at its mercy.

There.

“Follow that voice!” she ordered, leaping down to the deck. The Walkers shared a look, but the captain obeyed nevertheless.

“What about the storm, princess?” Hawthorne pursued her as she dashed down the length of the boat, hoisting herself up to direct Captain Walker.

“We’ll dock at the first sign of danger, I promise. I wouldn’t jeopardize the Siren or her crew. Now hush, George.” Thoroughly dismissed, he grumbled off below decks.

She stood there, listening intently to each delicate modulation, watching and waiting for an apparition to become a reality. When day fell into night, she settled at the prow, staring up at candlelight stars. The song had long ended, but she could sense it like a sweet dream trapped in the twilight between asleep and waking. The melody crooned inside her head, becoming a lullaby as the shimmering silver moon tucked itself behind a cloud like a squid’s startled ink spilling across the heavens.

Chapter Text

Fathoms below the star-spangled scene, a coral palace shone in icy moonlight. Flaming geysers lit innumerable amber window panes like embers underwater, laying a warm, honeyed glow across the expanse of peach sand. Fish swam about spindled spires like scaled birds of paradise, and anemones carpeted the sea floor.

It was the hallowed hall of royal merfolk, the mysterious people that presided over the world’s oceans. Graceful as the tides’ endless ebb and flow, the beauteous beasts entered the royal theater in schools, kaleidoscopic tails writhing through rich cobalt waters.

Deep within the palace’s bowels, six of the Seven Sirens awaited the rise of their kelp-woven curtain. All accomplished witches and musicians of high skill and birth, the seven mermaids formed a selective brigade of sea witches that guarded their kingdom with enchanting songs and charmed their benevolent sovereign as it pleased him.

King Edward was beloved by his subjects. A righteous ruler possessed of great knowledge and unprecedented philosophical convictions, he afforded his domain revolutionary protections and liberties. His people worshipped him as if he was their Lord of the Dark Depths, rather than His corporeal conduit.

The king had two sisters, both revered ladies of the court, one serving as composer to the Seven Sirens.

Hilda devoted herself to orchestrating the most magical music for the women she directed. Ever nurturing and patient, she taught gently, assisting each mermaid with an understanding caress of her golden tail. High society bubbled with her praises, but Hilda was much too humble for such attentions, preferring to spend her days in the company of the abundant aquatic fauna that inhabited the palace gardens she tended.

In their rooms, with walls fashioned from gleaming mother-of-pearl and mica glass, the women lounged, warbling to warm up and dining on assorted succulent shellfish. Tableaus of inlaid lapis lazuli on the ceiling depicted ancient oceanic lore in vibrant scenes.

The full moon called them together that night to debut their newest member and material in honor of their Dark Lord. Hilda had written a new piece to showcase the freshly initiated mermaid’s sweeping, seemingly effortless gift.

But her sister was nowhere to be found.

 

 

Earlier that day, Zelda sunned herself across the rocks. The midday light glinted off her copper scales, displaying the bountiful hills and valleys of her body, bolder than her niece and nephew.

Ambrose poised himself just at the edge of the ragged outcropping, caramel toned arms holding him half in and half out of the water, suspended there with his cerulean plates camouflaged.

Sabrina was mostly submerged, exposing only her folded arms like banks of snow upon which her head rested, pale young face upturned to soak up the summer day. Much as she wished to join her aunt and cousin, Zelda’s staunchest conviction in allowing Sabrina’s presence there was that she stay in the water, cardinal tail hidden away, easily able to escape at the first sign of danger. She drew the line at jeopardizing her brother’s child.

Especially considering her own mother’s death at the hands of brutish mortal pirates. Zelda had hardly been more than a babe, Hilda even younger.

As it was, pirates no longer stalked the bays of Aradia. Centuries ago, a land-dwellers’ war had left a new royal family in its wake. This new line, the Morningstars, banished corruption and darkness from their azure depths. Though his subjects were grateful, Edward was unmoved, decreeing that merfolk would no more fraternize with the likes of men.

But, band of rebels they were, the trio harbored an inexplicable fascination with the mortal world. Shared curiosity drew them together, thick as thieves. Far from the public spectacle of the palace, they kept a grotto of treasures, a collection of oddities they’d salvaged from shipwrecks. It had been Zelda’s hideaway as a child, then Ambrose’s, then Sabrina’s.

Often, the cavern played the triplicate role of treasury, library, and sanctuary. There, they stashed their secrets. There, they dove into research, learning all they could about the objects they procured and their places in the mortal world. There, they contemplated in solitude and compared ideas they’d read about in blurring mortal script.

“Ambrose, what have you found?” Sabrina’s bright inquisitive tone drew Zelda’s fern-framed attention. The boy held up a slim, pronged thing that flashed burning sunbeams over slick, grey stones.

“What does it do?” Sabrina blinked otterish brown eyes until he beckoned her to him and combed the newfound novelty through her blunt blonde locks, cut to her chin after her own coming of age ritual; Her first time breaking the surface, which would have been her last, if her father had his way.

The king trusted his sister’s judgement and care of his daughter with good reason. Wild as she was, Zelda behaved within the confines of his court, a powerful core advisor whispering shards of wisdom to his right hand while Hilda tempered them with soft skill to his left.

Well, what Edward didn’t know couldn’t hurt him, and a bit of fresh air every so often made a girl more sharp and aware than the best royal tutors in all the oceans ever could.

The grotto wasn’t the realm’s only keeper of secrets, and the only place to truly clear one’s head, especially Zelda’s, was the world above.

They were approaching a momentous realization of her devotion to the Church of the Deep and her people, and though she never spoke of it, fear floated over her like a shark’s ominous shadow. So she swam, companions in tow, until she broke pristine quicksilver with ripples and the rampant floodwaters of her mind.

Zelda basked in divine luminescence there for hours and rehearsed when she was finally alone, knowing children having disappeared with matched flicks of their tails and mild-mannered claims of preparing for their aunt’s debut.

She lost herself in the rich, lyrical riptide of her serenade and let it drag each dulcet note across the bay, carrying her along like a satin-skinned dolphin that might bear her into unknown lands.

Chapter Text

To say Edward was angry when their sister missed her own presentational concert, would be a grievous understatement. Incensed, furious, and livid failed to describe it. As a lyricist, Hilda took pride in her way with words, her ability to articulate emotion and truth in every phrase. But she was at a loss.

Her brother’s face had gone lobster red under his dark beard, and he’d roared like a wounded elephant seal. All in the seclusion of their quarters, of course. At the ceremony, he’d been a perfect gentleman, gracious and genial for his guests. Only without the weight of his mantle to keep his mouth closed, alone with his sister, did he set his demons free.

She departed the palace shortly after soothing him to sleep. He commanded her to drag Zelda home by her ear, from the farthest corner of the ocean if necessary. Hilda, ever the peacekeeper between her volatile older siblings, made her practiced promises and went to retrieve Zelda once her calming draught took hold of her king in its undertow. Her sister-in-law, Queen Diana, thanked Hilda quietly before joining Edward in their bed.

She knew all Zelda’s favorite spots, had known them since they were children. Her always acerbic sister was prone to sequestering herself, and Hilda was the only one who could coax her home, until their niece and nephew came along. Privately, she knew she was still the best practitioner of that particular art. And the best place to clear Zelda’s head was nowhere in Edward’s kingdom.

Hilda headed for the surface.

She dove into the depths of her role at court quickly, setting aside the childhood obsession with mortals she and Zelda had long shared in favor the history and art of merfolk. Zelda, though, held her high, disregarding the consequences and traveling the world after Edward was crowned, exploring the wonders of the sea, studying life on land from afar. She finally returned when Ambrose was born, intending to visit, meet him, and disappear into the wide blue once more, but the first time she held the boy, she took one look at Hilda, and they both knew she was going to stay.

Zelda swore that one day she’d take him and Sabrina to all her favorite places, all over the world.

Hilda was never invited.

Arriving at Zelda’s sunbathing slab under a haze of pre-dawn fog, she found the imposing, vivacious, dignified mermaid curled up, russeted tresses washing over the rocks. The tips of her fins dipped into the still sea, loosely tethered home even as her dreams crested into the clouds. Begrudging fondness flooded Hilda, a few short strokes through the surf bringing her to her thick-shelled sister’s side. Fiercely independent and stubborn as Zelda was, with twilight’s misty fingers brushing over her scallop-soft skin, she looked sweet and pure as a freshwater pearl.

“Zelds,” she burbled, keeping low and cautious in the eddies around Zelda’s bedrock. “Zelda, love, wake up.”

She stirred, rolling over onto sharp stone and snapping her eyes open. “Hilda?”

An inelegant splash and she was back in the water where she belonged.

Before Hilda could offer answers or explanations, a whale of a ship emerged from the early morning murk like a ghost, a looming vengeful spirit of the deep. Lit by a small beacon wavering in the dousing of darkness, it dwarfed the pair of startled mermaids as the gloom turned turbid and thunder drummed in the distance.

 

 

Above, Hawthorne stumbled across the damp plain of the deck, lamp like a buttercup in the storm’s dusky soil, and called out for Lilith where she lay burrowed beneath the worst of the brewing gale. The princess woke to the lantern light, already banishing the tears she felt on her cheeks.

It wasn’t her though, but the sky that was crying. No night terrors, but a waking nightmare as it began.

Rosalind burst from the cabin, pajamas rumpled, eyes wild and bloodshot with fear.

“It’s not just a storm,” she shouted, over rising gusts. “It’s a hurricane.”

Rain pelted them then, weeping giving way to sobs that wracked the ship’s very bones. The percussive crashes rumbled closer and lightning illuminated the roiling ocean with shattering electric blue. Mates poured forth from below-decks and took to their posts, bellowing lost under the rabid howls of the tempest.

Hilda and Zelda braced themselves, clinging to one another between hacking, violent waves and whirlpools. Flotsam and jetsam cracked from the hull, the deck, torpedos shooting into the sea. The sisters looked on in abject horror, speechless as the main sail of the majestic creature went up in flames.

A call to abandon ship slipped through the squall, mortal voices clamoring. Rowboats fell like heavy, more deadly rain, crew and royal envoy leaping down to their deliverance.

Zelda caught sight of the last sailor on board.

A woman balanced on a beam, ebony curls turned to whips by the charcoal cyclone, ushering her comrades to safety. A bolt of lightning cast her shape aloft and across the sea in harsh silhouette, splitting the ship in half and littering burning wreckage through dark waters. And the woman tumbled into the raging black chasm.

Zelda shoved her little sister toward the crew’s lifeboats, full of people and panic, away from the debris, and plunged down, down, down after the limp mortal body, a speck of light in an ocean of night.

 

 

Her tailfin’s strong strokes skulled through the fitful currents, carrying her human treasure close to her chest. Zelda let the tide wash them up on shore, dry sand on her scales strange and fantastic. She laid out the raven-haired woman, smoothing tangled locks from her face and casting a quiet charm to drain the water from her lungs. Her wispy frame seized, wracked with wet coughs.

The mortal blinked awake as sunrise stretched rosy across the beach, haloing her savior from behind in a fireburst of red and gold. She reached a shaking hand up to the angel’s soft white cheek, wonder muddled by incomplete consciousness.

Just as she parted coral lips to rasp in awe and confusion, something more guttural and bracing than a shout broke over the crashing of the waves, a kinder echo of menacing thunder.

Zelda watched a big black thing bound along the shoreline, a wiry, greying man trailing behind.

“Lilith?!” The man squinted against the bright horizon, and the creature by his side yelped happily, dashing toward the bleary-eyed human.

And, Zelda realized belatedly, her.

She hauled herself back to the security of the sea, glancing over her shoulder to see the coal-colored creature lap at the woman’s face with a salmony tongue. The mortal’s worrisome, pinched companion lifted her into his arms and carried her up, up, up to the coastline castle, reigning the kingdom from on high.

Chapter Text

They slipped through the throne room early in the morning, before the seahorse stewards rose to prepare it for their king. It was the fastest way back to their chambers, the easiest route around suspicion and further embarrassment.

For Hilda, at least. She had done her due diligence for the kingdom in retrieving her sister, but Zelda was safe, despite the perilous escapade that morning, and that was the only thing that mattered. Neither of them had spoken of the wreck or the rescue, both islands of introspection on their journey home.

Merfolk had always hidden from mortals, avowed never to interfere with their lowly affairs. It was not their place to complicate human history or evolution. Their Lord of the Deep decreed that the people of the land and sea should be ever separate in order to maintain the balance of power and forces in time. Magic was a gift to children of the ocean, never to extend beyond their coastal borders.

The sisters did not discuss how close Zelda had brought them to discovery.

Drifting silently through towering columns that lined the entrance, the mermaids’ hands found each other in the briny space between, fingers fitting together like twin halves of an oyster.

Torches erupted into bioluminescent light, momentarily blinding.

Edward was a sight to behold. Seething waters radiated from him, hovering above his throne, pulsating trident in his clenched fist. Heat rolled off him, his whole body turning to a spectacular, terrifying ring of fire. Attendants scattered as he approached his sisters.

Zelda dropped Hilda’s hand and, keeping her gaze locked on his, sent her away with a quiet enchantment.

She would face the king’s wrath alone.

 

 

The princess couldn’t be restrained for long. She spent all of a one day in bed, under her servants’ care before she was up and about again.

George complained, lamenting that Lilith’s commitment to shredding his nerves was far greater than any she showed to her upcoming coronation, and the rest of the staff, loyal as they were, tended to agree.

The castle was deep in preparations for a suitors’ ball, coinciding with the festivity of her birthday and eligibility to her late father’s crown. She would be their queen before a fortnight passed, provided she chose a proper king.

Trapped ashore while Captain Walker and his men rebuilt the flagship, she had no respite from the constant crush of planning, fittings, and inane resumes of noble bachelors across the lands.

Everyone kept busy, polishing and primping every damned thing in the damned place until it sparkled like the ocean in the afternoon. Aradia was a seaside kingdom, and with such a relatively young line of royals, they had prestige to achieve and retain, and the neighboring princes and dukes, for their part, were curious concerning the elusive Princess Lilith, who rejected all advances with no regard to social stature or convention.

As often happens with their sort, each believed himself to be the knight in shining armor that would shed light on the error of her unladylike ways and entrance her with the prospect of being his wife.

Would that women had half as much self-respect as men had ego.

But Lilith was wily, and she managed moments alone, far from the celebratory hubbub she couldn’t force herself to feel. For all the household’s euphoria, its very subject’s heart was miles away, somewhere beyond the shallows.

She climbed the turrets, roosting with the pigeons and gulls, her violin tucked under her chin. Vinegar Tom, her canine comrade, was her audience, curled at her feet, and Lilith played, strains of stringed music swelling over the sea, hoping to mingle with that glorious voice or reach her mysterious savior.

Or perhaps, she wished, leagues underneath the taut surface of her mind, both at once.

 

 

The grotto was gone, Sabrina and Ambrose told her later, blasted to bits by a royal rampage. They arrived at her chambers shortly after Edward locked her there.

Her little brother, with his sterling reputation and scales, ordered that Zelda sequester herself in her rooms. He revoked her acceptance to the Seven Sirens, swearing she’d attend every audition for her replacement alongside her sister.

Her niece and nephew delivered the last vestiges of their treasures, tucked them into the satchel they found within minutes of arriving. They knew she was leaving. Their aunt was a fierce, wild woman, and they knew she could not abide a life without freedom or power. That she could no longer abide life in the palace.

Or, by proxy, life with them.

Zelda held them each tight, whispering her love in their ears and promising to return someday, promising that she would still show them the world. They smiled sadly and promised they believed her.

She opened her window when all the lamps were snuffed out, all the guards asleep, and torpedoed westward through Hilda’s garden.

And found Hilda waiting there.

“Sister!” She drew up short beneath an underwater willow, Hilda’s blonde curls shimmering in the watery moonlight.

“Zelds,” Hilda sighed and met her frozen form amongst the swaying scarlet branches.

“Hilda, I can explain, I just-” Her baby sister hushed her, pressing her hands into Zelda’s. When they broke away, gifts graced both her palms: a cleanly split piece of sea glass in half a woven silver frame and a crimson blossom, its petals following the breeze of the current.

“You broke Mother’s magic mirror.”

“Yes.” Hilda smiled, placing the flower delicately in Zelda’s long auburn locks. “It’s alright, love. I know you have to go. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop being sisters. I’ll keep the other half. Keep you close until you’re ready to come home.”

“And if that day never comes?” Hilda just shook her head, chuckling in her soft, knowing way.

“I love you, Zelda.”

“Hildie, I-”

“Tell me when you get back.” Overcome, Zelda swept down to kiss her sister’s cheek. Hilda blushed pink as sunset. “Now, go. Be free, sister of mine, and know you always have a home here, should you ever need it.”

Fighting back tears, she obeyed, torpedoing toward the kelp forests, blazing a path of her own through the dark.

Chapter Text

Murky green filtered down through the seaweed, each wide, veined leaf coated with dripping mucus. Her skin crawled as slimy fronds licked at her tail, sticking lightly to rusty scales like algae. Wrapping her arms around herself, Zelda shivered, clutching her few possessions to her chest.

She could hardly see in the gloom. Night’s cover shielded her from the prying eyes of guards, but every slight flick of her fins sent her deeper into the shadows, further from any change in course. Sludge, ripped from the muddy floor by an unfamiliar runaway, heaved and muddled the water ahead, blinding Zelda, opaque and dizzying as she searched for a cut to clarity. As the dust settled, she found six tiny suns staring at her from the dense underbrush.

Tall, undulating stalks morphed, lowering three heads full of starlike teeth. Eels, their flanks lanky and slick, parted from the copse of kelp to encircle the lone mermaid.

Zelda raised her hands, a defensive charm already crackling at her fingertips like the miniature lightning that ran the lengths of their fluid bodies.

“Who are you?” she barked, watching razor-sharp spikes glint with a mirrored glow from each other’s eyes.

“We come in peace, princess.” The creatures spoke with a single voice creeping off their forked tongues. “We are but messengers, heralds, to our master.”

“What does your master want with me?” Triplet grins dazzled unsettlingly, as if they might grow their own means of movement and attack at any moment.

“Only to help you, Mistress Zelda. He has seen your plight and offers his services to you, that you might walk upon land. Amongst humankind, free from your monarch brother’s tyranny.”

She did not yield, magic pulsing readily. “And why do my troubles move him?”

“He gives what he can to all wayward folk, but old friends are particularly fit to garner his attention,” the trio hissed.

“Old friends?”

“Father Blackwood carries revelations from our Lord of the Deep and lends his power to poor unfortunate souls, such as yourself.” Zelda balked.

“Blackwood? Faustus Blackwood?” Her old lover’s name was bitter in her mouth as it had been in their youth.

“The very same,” the largest creature affirmed. “The Dark Lord delivered him visions of your approaching need, and he has prepared for it with great anticipation. Allow my sisters and I to guide you to his lair, and he will perform your miracle.”

Zelda considered. Her magic alone could not sustain a spell so powerful. Otherwise, she would have left the sea long ago. Now, in her hour of need, perhaps his singular connection to the Lord of the Deep—paralleled only by her brother’s—might be of some use.

She knew how to handle Blackwood, how to manipulate him and manage any danger he might pose to her. Her wiles of character were nearly as great a gift as her musical talent, and she’d learned how to play his twisted minuet to perfection decades ago. The juggle of power between them was a delicately balanced game, but she was an acrobat if there ever was one.

Besides, she didn’t have much of a choice.

“Take me to him.”

 

 

Sabrina and Ambrose appeared, quite literally, out of the blue. The royal household had awakened in a frenzy, Edward ordering everyone to a scouring frenzy. Amidst the chaos, Hilda had sent them after her sister, a premonitory dream having forewarned her of Zelda’s predicament.

Panicked and confused, they insisted on accompanying her. Wary of the Weird Sisters, for so the trio of eels called themselves, in their slippery woven braid, they whispered admonishments into their aunt’s ear, begging her to reconsider entanglement with the reclusive warlock. Blackwood was the stuff of Zelda’s history and their childhood fables. He was a crooked nursery rhyme, a means to instill fear and caution, yet Zelda was unruffled by their distress. She knew him in ways her niece and nephew did not.

They entered her benefactor’s lair: the half-rotted remains of a sea dragon. Gaping jowls welcomed them toward the bulbous belly of the beast. In a dark reflection of the cornucopious palace grounds, warped, sightless worms wriggled throughout the tunnel of its throat. Toothless mouths snapped empty gums at the merfolk, menacing and malicious. The Spellmans flinched away from their filthy maws until the eels separated and slithered along below them like a mortal’s raft.

Deep, rich colors draped Blackwood’s conjuring chamber, black and red banners fluttering in the gentle currents of the water emblazoned with his complex crest. Ambrose and Sabrina hovered in the arched doorway, barred from entry by two of their elongated escorts.

Zelda went forth alone, the cauldron at the center of the room already boiling and lighting her in fiery jade.

“Zelda Spellman.” Faustus’s full bass swam from the shadows at the far end of the hall. “At long last, we meet again.”

She steeled herself, setting her jaw as oily tentacles emerged from the darkness. He picked his way toward her, bare chest heavily tattooed by his own ink. Eight long limbs extended in her direction, two wrapping the vat of green liquid between them, another pair rifling through shelves on the far wall for additional ingredients, yet another coming to caress the scarlet flower in her hair. Zelda cringed away from the invasive arm, and it recoiled, offended.

“It would seem so,” she countered. “Your friends told me you might assist me with-”

“Yes, Zelda, I already know what you’ve come for,” he said, dismissively. Something squirmed in her spine each time he spoke her name, as if he were defiling it. “I’ve already prepared the draught you seek in anticipation of your arrival. Surely, the girls advised you of that.” A free tentacle retrieved a vial and filled it with the elixir.

She shook her head, chin still held high.

He dangled the vial in front of her, like tormenting a catfish. “This potion will turn you human for three days. A trial run, if you will. That should give you plenty of time to decide if it’s truly what you want.”

“I’m rather certain,” Zelda replied, ignoring his taunts. “How would you make the spell permanent?”

“Oh, my dear, I can’t do that. Permanence is entirely up to you.” She squinted at him, prompting an explanation. “You’re leaving your family behind, here, under the sea. If you’d prefer a life on land, you must find family up there.”

Zelda raised her eyebrows, incredulous. “And how do you suggest I do that?”

“Before sunset on the third day of our contract, you must attain True Love’s kiss.” Sabrina and Ambrose started to protest behind her, but Blackwood tutted them into silence.

“That’s absurd,” Zelda scoffed.

“But it’s the only way to prove you belong ashore, alas.” Dramatic as always, Faustus slumped against the edge of his cauldron.

“And if I’m unable to gain this precious commodity?”

“Doubtful of your charms, Zelda?” he teased. “Well, we must come to some sort of compromise. I can hardly send you back to your despot brother…”

Blackwood feigned thought for a moment, then exclaimed with a snap of epiphany. “You can join me here! I become terribly lonely with only the girls for company, and perhaps you could learn the ways of the Lord of the Deep. I could be your teacher and your anchor to this world.”

A steep bargain to be sure, but Zelda well versed in her own seductive qualities. It couldn’t be too difficult to capture a mortal’s heart. She knew there would be some risk in escaping Edward, and if that risk came with the prospect of becoming the Dark Lord’s oracle, it was hardly a risk at all. Faustus would be an engaging adversary, if nothing else.

“Fine.”

“Ah, well, all that’s left to discuss is payment.”

“Payment? I was led to believe this was a favor. To an old friend.”

Faustus sneered. “My dear Zelda, everything comes with a price. Particularly spells of this intense caliber.”

“And what sort of price did you have in mind?”

He looked her dead in the eye. “Your magic.”

“What?!”

“You’re to be mortal, Zelda. And we can hardly have you enchanting your way to an undeserved eternity on land.” She stared at him in abject horror. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep it safe until you return.”

If I return. What if I do as you’ve said and find a mortal family? What then?”

“Then your rightful power will be reinstated, provided you never use it in any manner that might expose us or yourself.”

She mulled it over, trailing laps back and forth. Finally, she gripped the edge of the cauldron opposite Blackwood, presenting her hand to seal the deal. He took it firmly, squeezing his more thick, calloused fingers around hers. Their palms glowed the binding confirmation against one another, and Faustus held out a nautilus shell over the bubbling brew.

“Sing.”

And Zelda did. She poured the song into the shell, her interlaced magic beaming brilliant gold.

Behind her, Sabrina made to cry out in alarm, but an eel’s thick hide gagged the girl and her cousin.

Zelda finished her performance, and Blackwood handed her the vial of his potion. She downed it in an instant, feeling the spell take hold as Faustus pulled her close.

“I forgot to mention, Zelda: our little agreement includes that entrancing voice of yours.”

Her eyes flew wide open, brimming with shock and indignation, but when she opened her mouth, water rushed in, leaving her speechless. In a scythe of pain, Zelda’s tail split in two, and the Weird Sisters released her niece and nephew, who rushed to her side. Both flung one of her arms over their shoulders and pulled their aunt between them on a mad dash for the surface to relieve Zelda’s new desperately human lungs.

 

 

Blackwood and his accomplices watched the Spellmans scramble for the surface in sadistic enjoyment.

“She’s mine, girls,” he declared. “Doomed to my clutches for all of time.”

Prudence spoke up. “Or, Father, she may win True Love’s Kiss before her time is up.”

Faustus laughed. “My dear, naïve Prudence, for that she’d have to find True Love.” The rest of the draft exploded violently from its cauldron. “And there is no such thing.”

Chapter Text

It was almost too late by the time they reached the shore.

Sabrina kept hold of her aunt’s arm as Ambrose started to pull her away. “Let me help you-”

“No, cousin. You know the rules.” He gathered Zelda to his chest and lugged them into the sand, gentle waves blending his path into the beach as he went. Seeing her aunt lugged gracelessly through the sun-dried ivory bank, Sabrina’s lip trembled, pearly tears budding at the corners of her eyes as Ambrose drained the last traces of the sea from Zelda’s bared mortal body with a reverent charm.

A hatchery of questions teemed on Sabrina’s tongue, but before she could ask a single one, smashing, loud noises jarred the scene. Previously quiet but for the ambience of the ocean, shrieks from a flock of fleeing seagulls overlapped with human voices, and Ambrose dove into the shallows, hushing Sabrina and pushing them both behind a nearby bundle of rocks.

A human, dark hair playing in the wind, came around a weatherbeaten boulder, meandering vaguely toward Zelda’s crumpled figure. Ambrose recognized her.

Rattled by the realization, he replayed his Aunt Hilda’s harrumphed mutterings after the shipwreck fiasco and, with a heavy heart, made a decision.

“Ambrose-!” Sabrina sputtered before her cousin slapped his hand over her mouth and pulled her below, out of sight. Their aunt would be safe with Aradia’s princess, but his responsibility remained under the sea.

 

 

 

Lilith spotted the hapless creature instantly, motionless in the mussed sand, bathed in harsh sun and utterly uncovered. She knelt beside the poor soul and tenderly turned her over, lifting her face toward the light. There were no obvious signs of distress, no blood or bruising. No overt awareness either, but Lilith found a stuttering pulse in the otherwise marble-like column of her neck. Remembering Captain Walker’s training, she wrapped the woman in her own linen tunic, shielding her from the biting, briny wind.

The fabric practically swallowed her, burying her in a cloth avalanche, so small next to the roaring ocean, the swathe of sky, and the sweeping cliffs like crystal. So small and still so beautiful, fire woven into her hair. She was painfully familiar, with ethereal, elegant features out of a dream Lilith couldn’t quite remember.

 

 

 

Zelda woke stiltedly, strange hands on her face, a strange softness encompassing her chilled body. But the gaze she found above her wasn’t strange at all. Sharper than when they first met, surely, but bold and sapphire as the moon from the ocean floor.

She couldn’t help but smile. Oh, how the tables have turned.

But the playfully snide comment lodged itself in her throat, searing there like a trapped star.

Shocked, she scrabbled at her throat, her mouth agape like a breathless fish, but the only sound that scraped forth was the heaving of her lungs.

Human lungs.

And yes, there they were as promised.

Long human legs like sculpted alabaster, human feet with sweet little toes white as the sand between them. She reveled in the grit of it, marvelously tiny pricks of pain.

Her hero, as it were, grinned, presumably at her antics, and Zelda scuttled to sit hastily, knees like two pale shells popping up between them, knocking the princess back. Rather than yelping, though, the brunette laughed, rocking with the rebound. Scattered, she brushed stormy curls out of her eyes, and extended a labor-hardened hand.

“I’m Lilith,” she wheezed, strong grip catching Zelda’s.

Lilith. Lil-ith. Lilith. It was an unusual name by mermaid standards, even more so by mortal ones, the sort that rolled off the tongue with a flavor all its own.

Well, it would, if her tongue were any use. Damn Faustus and his fine print.

She could only smile. First impressions were everything, and there she was, marooned in her own mouth.

Double damn him.

“What’s your name?” Her voice was so earnest, her eyes so bright. Who was this woman? A royal with palms rough from a lifetime of work and the eagerness of an innocent child? Zelda could not answer, apologetically pointing at her throat. Lilith was patient, if somewhat surprised. “Can you speak?” she asked carefully.

Zelda shook her head, and the motion exposed something warm and wet to the wind. Inquiring fingers returned to her field of vision with wine-stained tips. She was bleeding.

“Oh, dear. Here, let me patch you up. Then we can figure out how to get you home.” The princess of Aradia paused, wary. “Are you up to that?”

Zelda stared at her sticky, marred fingers and nodded absently.

Lilith kept hold of her hand, helping her up before she had a moment to suspect her easy kindness. Legs were a stranger business still, and she stumbled, falling against Lilith’s chest before tentatively finding her balance.

“Can I help?” the princess offered. After a conflicted moment, Zelda delivered another slow nod, and Lilith braced an arm around her waist. “Easy there now. Lean on me.” Lilith’s whisper carried just over the crashing of the waves. “It’s not far,” she promised.

Implicitly, Zelda believed her.

 

 

 

Slowly, steadily, they made their way down the beach in the direction from whence Lilith came and arrived at the base of a grand castle, the same color as the sun-bleached sand over which it stood. The princess called up for help from the household, and the rumors spread like a plague.

By the time she entered the kitchens with the infamous stranger, every maid and cook and footman had each heard at least three separate versions of the tale: she’d been torn to shreds by hungry gulls, she was blind and one might read the future in her milky eyes, she was a shipwrecked madwoman who danced naked in the surf.

As the princess and the victim/soothsayer/loon stepped over the cobbled threshold, the bustling kitchen fell silent, the head of house gliding forward.

“Your Majesty.” Mistress Jackson, who had heard the story of the madwoman most frequently, curtsied. “How might we be of service to you this afternoon?”

Lilith bit her tongue, forcing a vaguely pleasant grimace. “Miss Jackson, this is my new friend. I’d be most grateful if you would see to her bathing and injuries before dinner. She’ll stay here tonight, and we’ll find her home first thing tomorrow.”

“Of course, your grace.” A dry chuckle strained from Mistress Jackson’s thin lips. “However, she’ll have to reside in the servant’s quarters as all the usual suites are in preparation or use in anticipation of your coronation ball.”

“Nonsense! She is my guest,” the princess scoffed. “In that case, she may stay the night in my chambers.” She turned to the redhead who seemed much too lovely to be mad, lowering her voice. “That is, if it’s alright with you?”

Their unexpected visitor bobbed her chin, quiet and accommodating, just as the kitchen door banged open to reveal a frazzled Hawthorne.

“Princess, there you are!”

“What is it, George?” The spindly man bumbled to her side, shuffling sheets of parchment in his arms as the three women stared unblinking at him.

“You were to sit for your royal portrait a half hour ago,” he muttered. “You chose Mr. Kinkle as your personal artist, despite my advice to the contrary; I did think you might be more considerate of his time.”

“As you can see, George, I’ve had a more pressing matter on my hands.” Lilith tilted her head to indicate the newcomer beside her. George fumbled with his glasses.

“I’d heard mumblings, yes. And who might you be, my dear?”

Zelda rolled her eyes. Typical.

Lilith gripped his shoulder. “We don’t know, actually.”

“She’s yet to speak,” Mistress Jackson added, and they shared a knowing look.

“Oh?”

“Yes,” the princess rushed. “Now, if I attend to my portrait, would you find the kingdom records of missing persons? That’s as good a place to start as any.”

George grunted affirmatively, already halfway out the door, grumbling about proper process, Lilith trailing reluctantly behind him with a last little wave to Zelda.

Immediately, icy water assailed her. Whipping around, Zelda caught sight of Shirley just in time to brace herself for the fall into a large wooden basin that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. She’d heard old fisherman’s tales of mortal witches, but there was more spite than magic crackling in Mistress Jackson’s eyes.

“Well, I must say, we’ve all had our suspicions about the princess. But this?” Another bucket of freezing water crashed down on her head, Shirley’s voice was even colder. “Taking in lone, naked women off the beaches? What a dear sweet foundling. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined. It must be true what they say: old habits die hard.”

A thick rag ripped at her skin savagely. “Her poor mother always said she’d grow out of her unnatural tendencies, but truly, there was nothing else that could come of encouraging such vices at all, much less for so long.” A brush tore into her wet hair as Shirley yanked at her head, wrenching Zelda’s back into a steep arch. “But I trust you’ll keep all this between us?”

Burning with near-instant hatred, Zelda spat in her face. A third frigid tidal wave sent her under the bath’s greying surface, but she could still hear Shirley’s bitter cackle through the water, like thunder over the sea.

Chapter Text

Mistress Jackson shredded a heavy silver brush through Zelda’s hair, still wet and weak, dripping a puddle on the stone floor as she shivered in a thin, ragged wrap and knotted it into a single severe plait down her back, muttering about its indecent length and heftiness. Then, she pulled her through drafty corridors toward the palace wardrobe, pretending to ignore bystanding servants and such who ogled at the sight of the half-clothed Venus practically flying behind, clutching the train of Mistress Jackson’s skirt.

Zelda was dressed in time for dinner with the princess. She selected a cerulean gown with powdered hems and, in a moment of spiteful rebellion, loosened her damp red hair down her back, fastening half of it with a matching ribbon. Somehow, she found a pair of blue velvet shoes that fit her perfectly, and, with a final spin in the mirror, she was ready.

The dining room ran across the back of the castle, wide windows delivering a striking view of the shoreline and the sun setting over the sea, casting the sky in fiery oranges and pinks. Three settings were placed at one end of the long table, and as her escort, a sweet-faced young boy called Theo, slipped back into the recesses of the castle, Zelda huffed in relief upon noticing two saviors awaiting her.

The princess, Lilith held court at the end of the table, Hawthorne already chatting away beside her as she stared into the dancing flame of the centerpiece candle. And, at her left hand, Zelda saw her second, smaller rescue.

A dinglehopper. The tiny trident, much like that which Ambrose displayed with pride a few short days ago, an ache pattering in her chest. Exposed in the dry air, her hair was a tangle of auburn thread, the tides having ebbed from her side, and she sighed with relief, snatching up the thing and running it quickly through her ginger locks.

“Princess, what is she-?”

“Hush, George.”

Zelda turned to find both mortals staring at her, Hawthorne in horror, Lilith in rapt fascination. The princess stood, approaching Zelda as if she were some strange sort of wild animal, and she slowed her rapid strokes to freezing.

“Where on Earth did you come from?” Lilith mused, icy eyes glinting with something Zelda couldn’t name as she tucked a golden red curl behind her ear. She could taste the princess’ breath like a breeze of fine wine.

Zelda blinked. “Perhaps you’re not from Earth at all. In about the eyes, it’s far too-”

“Princess.” George’s voice was low with warning.

“Here.” Lilith slipped the dinglehopper from between her fingers. “I’ll be sure to get you a comb after dinner. How does that sound?” Zelda nodded, letting her sweep her long hair over her shoulders.

“Excellent,” George interjected. “Shall we get on with it, then?”

The princess’ ensuing eye-roll roused a silent snicker from Zelda, and they sat down, a new fork already arranged beside her porcelain plate. Splashed with a delicate stain of color, the plate painted a luscious landscape, rich with greens and the fresh blue of a summer lagoon under her fingertips.

“That’s just at the edge of the Greendale Wild,” Lilith told her, noticing her studious gaze. “I could take you there tomorrow, before the guests arrive. And a tour of the city, if you’d like. Who knows how long you’ll be with us? You should get to know your way around.”

Zelda grinned, nodding again, enthused. The chance to explore a mortal city falling right into her hands? How could she refuse?

“Princess, don’t you need to prepare for the ball? There’s so much still to be done in only a few days’ time.” George’s knife scraped against his plate as he sawed the head off his fish, sound and sight making Zelda recoil slightly in her seat.

Lilith huffed. “George, if I have to prepare any longer, I might as well prepare myself to dive off the balcony.” She leveled him with a dark glance, bright eyes turning tempestuous in an instant, and he choked on his latest bite, coughing furiously.

Leaving him to his fit, Lilith took Zelda’s hand atop the silken white tablecloth. “Darling, can you dance?”

She thought of the merpeople’s midnight revels in the palace, swimming and singing, circling one another in wild celebration. She recalled moonlit nights swaying with the current’s whims, letting the ocean move her body and soul.

She considered the bony cage of mortal corsetry under the bodice of her borrowed dress. The pinched shoes under her heavy skirts and petticoats, the slim human legs, the soft, pillowed hips. Yes, Zelda could dance, but this body was not yet entirely hers.

She shook her head, and Lilith’s face lit up.

“I’ll teach you,” she trilled. “So you can dazzle everyone at the coronation ball.”

Hawthorne’s cough turned suddenly violent. “The coronation ball?” he spluttered.

“Of course, George, she’s our guest.”

George wheezed in disbelief, silverware clattering to the floor. “Our- our guest?! Princess, with all due respect, she is a-” His voice fell too, eyeing Zelda across the table, as if a whisper was enough. “She is some sort of mad, mute castaway you found half dead on the beach, when, I might add, you were meant to be getting ready for the ball. You, charitable soul you are, took her in out of the goodness of your heart and quite outside the order of this household, so we will house her here until we find where she belongs. But she—a commoner—will not parade through the most momentous event of your life, I won’t hear of it!”

Lilith’s head dropped into the back of her chair. “George, she will parade wherever she pleases. And, I might add, I am the head of this house. I will choose who I call my guest.”

One blustering departure later, they were alone.

“Shall we?” Lilith stood, offering her a hand. Zelda took it, palms and fingers slipping together like the surf and sand. Lilith led her through the halls, into the center of a great marbled, gilded ballroom, set the gramophone needle to the record’s edge, and arranged Zelda in her arms.

“Here, just follow where I lead. And you can come a bit closer, dear. I promise I won’t bite.” Zelda clung to her through a quick spin and gentle flush.

“Marvelous, you’re a natural! Now, imagine it's the night of the ball,” Lilith hummed. “A gentleman asks you to dance. Like this.” Her hands rested on the cerulean sash at Zelda’s waist, rather brazenly. She twirled her away, then back, folded against her hip and all at once, they were nearly cheek to cheek.

“He- he might even... kiss you.”

The record skipped, a thin, shrill scratch through the sting of realization in Lilith’s chest.

Chapter Text

Night fell across Aradia like a great shadow, and Zelda stood on her chamber's balcony, breathing the salt air off the sea while the wind twirled her light linen nightgown. Lilith had shown her the room and gone promptly to bed, burying her blush in blankets.

One of her carefully numbered days was set, and she'd made her decision. She would stay.

Hilda hummed in answer, in the tiny mirror she'd enchanted. First, her sister had scolded her, then given her news of their family, then scolded her again. Only after all that did she invite Zelda's response, expectant and irate.

All she could do was shake her head.

 

 

The next morning, Zelda woke alone amongst rumpled covers. Lilith's place beside her was still warm, but the princess was nowhere to be found.

A dandelion yellow frock awaited her across the room, complete with a matching ribbon, shoes, and leather gloves. She slipped the dress over her shoulders and tied the ribbon into her hair, smoothing the skirt to her hips.

Coming to the top of the castle's grand staircase, Zelda glanced around, down the corridor both ways, before mounting the banister and sliding down in a rush of wind and recklessness. Landing on unsteady feet, her weak ankles buckled, and she tumbled through the air, helpless.

Strong arms caught her, holding her safe and steady against a warm body.

"Good morning to you, too." Lilith was lyrical, melodic as a June violin. Zelda threw a calculated rosiness to her appled cheeks, pairing it with a gently curved smile and planting a quick peck to the princess' cheek in lieu of retort as she was righted. Lilith had no time to linger, ducking her head and taking Zelda's hand.

The princess' usual wardrobe protestations came in the form of simple shift dresses, never wearing anything fit for her high birth. But today, she'd forgone convention altogether, clothed instead in thick trousers and a simple blue waistcoat with silver buttons that shone in the rising light.

"I promised you an adventure today," Lilith explained, leading her back through the kitchens, snatching a few provisions and ignoring the glares from her staff. "And I always keep my promises."

They dodged servants through the castle's side gate, dancing between baskets of vegetables and hulking slabs of meat, diving below a ladder held between two tailored footmen who waved cheerfully at the princess as she and her foundling dashed into the palace stables.

"I want you to meet someone." Lilith took her through rows upon rows of thoroughbred beasts, pale and poised behind locked doors, until they turned a final corner, hidden away. The princess clambered up a pile of hay beside the stall and disappeared inside.

"This," her voice carried from within, "is Stolas."

Sharp whinnying followed and then, with a crash, the gate burst open, revealing a massive, strapping black stallion. Zelda stumbled, startled.

"Whoa there. Easy, boy." Lilith hopped sheepishly down from her equine's back. He calmed, docile as a daisy. She guided Zelda to face him, placing a palm on his silken nose and encouraging her to stroke him slowly. "I take it you haven't ridden before."

Zelda shook her head in awe, gazing into the horse's big black eyes.

"You're entering a world of firsts, aren't you, my strange little one?"

 

 

Stolas trotted through the bustling market, the townspeople cheering at the sight of their soon-to-be queen. Zelda held Lilith tight around her waist to keep her bearings and her balance. Halfway through their leisurely jaunt, Lilith swung a leg over Stolas' neck and slid down his flank, landing on the uneven cobblestones. She'd spotted two young urchins begging at the baker's bread stand. Reaching them in two short strides, she crouched.

"Hello," she said, smiling as she wiped soot from their button noses. "I'm Lilith. What are your names?"

The pair clutched each other, equal parts frightened and bolstered by her friendliness. The little girl spoke softly.

"I'm Elspeth, and this is Melvin. He doesn’t mean to be rude, he's just very shy."

"It's very nice to meet you, Elspeth and Melvin. Might I treat you two to some lunch?"

They stared at each other, then at their benefactor in utter disbelief. She bought them five loaves of bread and a sack of apples, and, as a parting gift, bestowed upon them both a pretty penny. They threw themselves around her legs, praising her generosity furiously until she bid them farewell. Once she was again astride her steed, she called back to them.

“And if ever you’d care to visit the palace, you are more than welcome.”

 

 

The Greendale Wild sprawled along the kingdom’s east coast, green and wild as one might imagine. The canopy was knit tight with rich evergreen shade and lively limes. Lilith had grown up in these woods, scraping knees and climbing trees until her mother decided life as a lady began at age ten and such frolicking simply would not do.

Still, decades later, the princess knew her first domain like any loyal old friend, and she took Zelda to a small clearing with a creek cutting through. Lilith laid out on the sweet jade grass, and Zelda joined her.

They stared up at the sky, the clouds.

“This is one of my favorite places in the world," Lilith said, setting something alight behind a shielding palm. Zelda perked up on her elbows, studying its embered end.

“Oh, do you want to-?” She held the cigarette out to Zelda’s rubied mouth, then watched her cough, inexpert and floundering. “I’m sorry,” she laughed apologetically, covering her grin. “I should’ve showed you how. Here.”

After a few slow but successful puffs, Lilith snuffed the ashes into the sole of her boot and offered Zelda a helping hand, pulling her gently from the earth’s embrace.

“Come on, there’s one more place I want you to see.”

Chapter Text

Stolas slowed at the base of a hill, hooves digging into the give of the dirt, and Lilith hopped down solidly, knees bent, finding Zelda’s waist for the second time in as many days, gliding her back to standing. Once four shoes were planted, the princess took Zelda’s hand and pulled her to the hill’s willow-crowned crest.

“As promised, Greendale Wild’s Sweetwater Lagoon.”

And oh, the painting did the place no justice. The colors were brighter, sharper, more waking even in the fading light, a pure slab of lapis gleaming with twilight, frayed strokes of brilliantly hued flora at its edges. Zelda’s breath caught in her throat. How could she leave all this beauty behind?

Lilith tugged at her hand, and they stumbled down the hill face half-sideways and thrill-drunk. With her free arm, the princess cleared away reeds to reveal a small rowboat and bowed in deference. “M’lady?”

Zelda nodded vigorously, bracing herself against Lilith’s arms step by step of unsure footing into the sinking shell. The boat bobbed below as her companion took the opposite seat and oars, leaning measuredly into each strong stroke, stirring fireflies up in pools of lemon light all around, mist gathering over the surface of crystalline waters.

Zelda bent, reaching out to twirl her fingers into ripples, and when they settled, the reflection gazing up at her wasn’t her own, but Hilda’s waxing grin, eyes soft and sisterly. She choked, plunging in to the elbow before Lilith snagged her other arm.

“Careful!” she yelped, voice coarsed with worry and calming soon as she was shaken. “Watch your balance, dear.”

She was slower to release Zelda’s arm, but eventually she lowered her focus back to rowing and the fast-approaching night.

“I-” Her foundling looked up from her search, inquisitive and unassuming. Lilith cleared her throat. “It’s just, I wish I knew your name.”

A shrug.

“Could I try to guess? Your name, I mean.”

An obliging, if absent, nod.

“Alright then… Alexandra?”

No.

“Annabelle?”

Zelda rolled her eyes, shaking her head, trailing longingly in their wake.

Lilith’s brow furrowed with the quickly curtained sun, clouded with concentration. “Beatrice?”

Zelda sighed, resigned, slumping back into the bow of the boat when a voice she knew all too well came folded into the fog. “Zelda. Her name is Zelda.”

Hildie, what are you doing?

“Wait.” Lilith glowed in the dappling dusk. “Zelda? Is that it?”

Well, I’ll be damned. Zelda nodded, the wonder in her eyes shot electric by the moon

Slowly, the wind through the woods around them began to harmonize with surrounding birdsong, fish drumming their tails to the water, even the crickets on the shore lending their strings to the maestro’s cause. Hilda tuned them from nearby and too far away, the fond twinkle in her eye glimmering on the lake about the two women.

Of course that would be her hopelessly romantic sister’s way of helping things along, getting her a binding kiss with just one day left before running out of time, but Zelda knew somehow there was no enchantment at work, no danger of violating the terms of her deal with Blackwood. Only Hilda’s voice, the music of the forest, and whatever mortal magic made Princess Lilith’s smile set tiny schools of flying fish leaping bright and opaline in her stomach. After a long day, slight sheen of sweat at her temple, tousled curls sprawling every which way despite their tie, Lilith still caught stray moonbeams on her skin like they were own, like the night itself kneeling to her. She was a vision, awash in blue moonlight, just the sight of her enough to leave Zelda speechless.

Or, it would be.

The boat passed under weeping flowered branches, curtained blooms casting a soft blush over the unlikely pair as the odd creamy petal floated low. Zelda closed her eyes and filled her lungs with fresh evening air, letting it clear her head and heart of doubt. Then, she took the plunge, catching blue velvet up in her fists, drawing Lilith’s nose to hers, panting in anticipation of sharing her breath, and tilting toward her desperate destination.

And she was engulfed, wet petticoats weighing her down like stones, mouth full of lagoon. The rowboat had flipped, dunking both of them unceremoniously into the deep blue. She struggled against her skirts for a moment, then cut them from her dress instead, strong kicks taking her to break the surface with Lilith waterlogged in her arms.

Upon contact with the lakeshore, Zelda threw a searching glance over her shoulder and thought for an instant she saw three pairs of menacing yellowed eyes glaring from the reeds. But then Lilith was spluttering beside her, and when she looked again, she couldn’t be sure there had been anything at all.

 

 

Below, Father Blackwood purred self-congratulations on his crisp sabotage of Zelda’s almost-kiss. The Weird Sisters had, as always, executed his plans to a delightfully cruel end.

Really, Zelda’s choice was laughable. The mortal, a weak-willed woman was hardly any match for her, no matter what crown she was heir to. The kingdom would never accept Zelda as their queen’s consort anyway. Mortal society was so backward that way. Why, the people were liable to riot, even before finding out she was a mermaid and a witch to boot. They’d be out for blood, and she would throw herself to his mercy in fits of shame and fear.

Besides, a woman could hardly give a decent anchor to Zelda’s wild ways or the firm hand she’d always begged of him in the dark. Zelda required discipline.

But, the little witch had still come a bit too close for comfort. Had the eels taken a fraction of a second more to carry out his orders, he could have lost his eternal bride. No, that simply wouldn’t do.

It was time to throw a heavier stone to her house of cards.

One she wouldn’t so easily swim free from.

Chapter Text

Shattering glass woke Zelda from a sweet slumber the next morning, a gull crashing through the princess’ bedroom window.

Leviathan, a winged friend of Ambrose’s. The bed was cold of mortals, and she greeted the bird with a fond ruffle of his feathers. And it spoke with her nephew’s voice, light with laughter.

“Congratulations, Aunt Zee! We heard news of the princess’ wedding today!”

What?

The messenger carried on. “We’ll meet your ship in the harbor at sunset. Everyone’s so anxious to see you.”

Sabrina’s voice came through alongside her cousin’s. “And meet this gorgeous princess you wooed in a matter of days!”

A bit of fumbling and mischief and Hilda was there too. “We’re ever so proud of you, Zelds. And we’ll see you soon.”

The bird departed soon as it arrived, leaving Zelda alone in Lilith’s empty bedroom, her heart sinking in her chest. There had been some kind of mistake.

Not bothering to change out of her lace-edged white nightgown, Zelda snuck into the hall outside the princess’ chambers, suddenly feeling very small amidst the gold moulding and enormous portraits. Conversation carried from the nearest ballroom, and Zelda peeked in cautiously.

Hawthorne and Lilith stood in a corner, looking out at the view opposite the door. Hawthorne, Lilith, and someone else. Tall, slim, bristled with grey. Distinguished, in a starved sort of way.

And his arm was entwined with the princess, elbow to elbow, hand in hand.

“As I was saying you two, the wedding ship will set sail this evening at sunset. A fitting end to all this madness,” Hawthorne prattled incessantly, vaguely in the direction of the linked pair.

“Marvelous,” the new stranger said, wrapping an arm around Lilith’s strapping shoulders, and Zelda caught a glimpse of her eyes, all green and glassy.

She couldn’t keep quiet, stepping into the sweeping hall with footfalls lighter than the door’s thick creaking.

“Zelda!” Lilith sounded wrong, revoltingly saccharine smoothing over the rough rasps of her voice, and Zelda knew an enchantment when she saw one.

She approached still, eager to understand and undo whatever chaos had occurred while she was sleeping. With the blankness of Lilith’s expression and the sweetness in her tone, the Caligari Spell was a tentative diagnosis, Zelda’s stomach turning cartwheels at the thought. But Zelda was practiced in pretending for her own court, even her own family, and kept calm.

Lilith grasped her hands jaggedly. “Isn’t it just fantastic? I’m getting married!” Zelda said nothing.

Of course.

“Oh, now, where are my manners? This is my fiance,” she trilled, blinking bashfully up at the trim stranger. “Zelda, meet Adam. Adam, this is Zelda.”

In a gesture of greeting, the man extended a hand for her to shake. One look, and Zelda selected another path entirely. Bending at the waist, sharply, she bit the tip of his longest finger, drawing pinpricks of blood along with Adam’s yelp. The shell pinned to his lapel was striking, she noted, almost glowing in the daylight.

“Zelda!” Lilith’s tone was chiding, then apologetic. “I’m so sorry, dear, she’s just a bit odd. She meant no harm.”

Adam glared, jutting out his chin. “I’m sure.”

Quick to forget, Lilith clasped Zelda’s hands again and squealed. It took everything in Zelda’s power to keep from recoiling. “Oh, Zelda, won’t you be my maid of honor? For my wedding?”

And she could say nothing. Zelda was just as trapped. By her useless tongue, by tradition, and by that bright smile on Lilith’s face, though it didn’t quite reach her eyes. So she nodded her assent, helpless. Squeaking with joy, Lilith dragged her off to the royal wardrobe, already envisioning the perfect dresses for her big day.

 

 

The dress was green. A deep, dark forest green, like that of the Greendale Wild’s shadows. Modestly cut, fit for a princess. Or a queen. A green of envy, Zelda thought, her hair twisted up to prestige in the long, silver-trimmed mirror.

Lilith was practically purring at the vanity beside her, babbling away about how Adam had been walking the beach below the castle with his flute in hand when she recognized his song, the one she’d heard at sea. It was all quite sudden and perfect, really. And just in time for her coronation.

And my last day with you.

The coronation ball would take place aboard the ship now, already taking on passengers like sinking takes on water, and the two women, again, shared a bunk for the sake of space. And expediency. Above deck, canopies and frilled decor and cake and elegance ran exorbitantly rampant, Mistress Jackson at the helm of it all.

“Zelda,” Lilith cooed, holding up an open palm, a pair of gold cufflinks at its center. “Would you take these to my darling fiance? They’re good luck for our marriage, they belonged to my father.”

Zelda smiled half-heartedly and obliged, slinking out into the corridor and following her human feet to Adam’s cabin, where she rapped on the door with burning knuckles, a call of "coming" mumbled inside.

Then it opened. Zelda would know him anywhere.

Faustus, she mouthed, shell-shocked.

“Why, hello, Zelda. What have you brought from my blushing bride-to-be?”

Zelda withheld the cufflinks, shaking her head.

“There’s no use in resisting, Zelda. Your time is almost up. Besides, this mortal’s been begging to be taught a lesson.” He leaned in, the doorframe an accomplice to his treachery. “And if you try to stop this? Your little princess’ throat will be slit before she so much as sees the altar.”

Zelda threw Lilith’s gift in his face and ran.

Finding the ocean at the ship’s rail, she pulled out her mother’s mirror and summoned Hilda. She would need all the help she could get to stop this wedding.

 

 

Zelda trudged down the aisle, delicate bouquet in hand, a few steps ahead of the princess who dripped diamonds as she went. Royals from across the globe sat in neatly filed rows, even a far-flung sultan Zelda met decades ago in a seaside opium den. It warmed her to find a friendly face in the field of hostile, jealous eyes. The mortals, all swathed in jewels and gold, took none too kindly to the alien among them elevated to the princess's right hand.

If only they knew.

There was no sign of Hilda, no rescue from home on the horizon, and Zelda’s heart sank with each step like the sun into the sea. Blackwood, shrouded by his thick glamour and smelling of sulfur, stood triumphant in bloody light. Her executioner.

Tom, the canine ringer bearer, crouched at his feet, growling through his teeth, and Faustus knocked the dog back with a quick flailing foot. Tom whimpered, retreating into Zelda’s skirts as the priest proceeded from his pulpit.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”

Had she the presence of mind for it, Zelda would have listened. She’d never heard mortal vows before, after all, but there were more pressing matters at hand, her thoughts drifting out over the sea.

Her last day. The sun, swinging low, seemed to mock her. She’d return to the depths of her home at Faustus’ mercy. Lilith would be a puppet queen to Aradia, emptily mourning a suddenly lost and found husband. Zelda would never see the surface again.

Zelda would never see Lilith again.

It was easy enough to pass off her tears for joy when people stared.

CRASH!

The entire wedding party, every guest, each bedraggled servant whipped around to the bizarre scene of a seal galumphing down the aisle wrapped up in the bridal white of a tablecloth, the wedding cake trailing in smeared chunks behind it. It howled in agitation, almost cheerful, with a glint of mischief in its eyes.

Zelda ran to the side of the ship as all hell broke loose on deck.

Nobility scattered, screaming as urchins were flung up from the ocean and gulls dove like bullets from the sky. All manners of aquatic animals appeared on board, serving as distraction and chaos. Waiters tripped over squirming otters, dropping plates of oer d'oeuvres for the creatures’ feasting.

And down among the chopping water, three faces glowed up at Zelda in the dying light.

A short wave reminded her how little time she had left and sent her leaping back into the fray. She spotted Lilith first, cowering unlike herself under a table, Tom on her guard. But “Adam” wriggled like a caught fish at the center of it all, accosted by every beast that could reach him. Trapped in a whirlwind of squawking, yelping, screeching attacks, the pin at his lapel fell free, smashing into a hundred pieces on the dark wood deck.

A song filled the air, as if it had been bursting for release since Zelda gave it away those three days ago that felt closer to a thousand. Golden light spiraled toward her, and her voice rejoined her body in a blinding moment of cataclysmic reunion that left her overflowing with bound melodies.

And Lilith rose like a ghost, gaunt and pale with understanding but very much alive and lively again. The princess was beside her in a flash, gloriously blue eyes shining with sunlight and tears.

“Zelda?” she breathed, the storm around them calming somewhat as her hand came to brush her foundling’s cheek.

Lilith.” Everything poured into the sound of name, feeling and thought alike. Everything they’d lost to sinking in the silence.

“It was you. That voice on the ocean, the voice I-” The princess’ pride cut into her confessions, but Zelda knew better ways to make her quiet, embrace ensnaring to kiss at long last.

But Zelda faltered, knees turned to rubber and scales in an instant, unbalanced for her true nature, and Lilith’s strong arms braced around her could not ease her fate. The sun was gone, her third day a failure.

Blackwood unwound his glamour, true form revealed in a terror of tentacles, and crawled to Zelda’s capture. Cackling with a rough hand at her wrist, he tore her from Lilith’s protection and dragged her over the side of the ship, fathoms below where they belonged.

Chapter Text

“We had a deal, my dear,” Blackwood crowed. His eels circled her in triplicate and left a ring on her finger more like shackles. Kelp smothered her when she tried to cry out, and he tutted, nails digging into her chin as he held her eyes. “Tsk, tsk, we can’t have that, now can we, pet?”

“Faustus!”

Edward.

Her brother approached, Hilda, Ambrose, and Sabrina holding each other close behind. She wished her niece and nephew away from the horrors that were sure to follow and took small comfort in the return of her magic’s potency as they vanished back home. Hilda swam to her side, tangling their tails to soothe her sister as Edward confronted Blackwood.

“Return my sister, Blackwood.”

“Your sister’s business with me is private, Eddie,” he taunted. “She’s quite grown-up now, you see. What power do you hold over her?”

“Plenty,” Edward spat. “What must I do to free her from you?”

Hilda’s hand slipped into Zelda’s, the other smoothing a loose curl behind her ear. Zelda, bound and gagged as she was, clung tight to her little sister.

Faustus yawned. “You only have two things I want, Eddie. You know very well the price of your sister’s soul.”

His trident and crown. Everything outside name that grounded his claim over the deep. Zelda strained in her bonds, screaming and shaking her head against even the thought of such a sacrifice. But Edward paid her no mind, locked black to Faustus' challenge.

"Let her go, and you'll have your prize." Edward raised his hands in surrender.

"My pleasure," Blackwood said, freeing Zelda with a wave of his hand.

She lunged between him and her brother. "Edward, you can't just let him win."

Edward, her king, her little brother, turned to her and smiled, eyes like the knotted pine trees above. He was consigned to it, resigned already, and broke her heart with an embrace and soft whisper in her ear. "Family comes first."

“Eddie, no!” Zelda yelped.

Time rushed to rapids as she felt Blackwood at her back, her brother's hand in his, binding their contract. Then her arms were empty, the crown sinking to the sand to encircle the worm that remained of their king. The Spellman sisters sagged to shield him, horrified and shaken.

Blackwood snatched the trident as it fell, then ripped the crown from the mud, stirring up silt and redheaded rage. Zelda lunged at him, wrenching the weapon in his hands with twists and fins.

“Now, Zelda, a deal’s a deal,” he growled, yanking back until she was nearly in his teeth. “Don’t make his sacrifice in vain.” He shoved then, the sudden jolt driving her down into the dirt beside her siblings. “Behave.”

From below, Faustus seemed to stretch. Taller, wider, darker.

But no, it didn’t seem so at all. He billowed, swelling to blot out every bit of spilled starlight from the surface, and the deep boom of his laughter thundering through the water.

Zelda followed in righteous fury and froze halfway through her pursuit. She turned tail, casting a quick protective charm over her brother and sister, then her niece and nephew wherever they might be. There was a battle ahead, above, and she would handle the fallout herself, no more of her loved ones as casualties.

Lilith.

 

 

A storm was seething on the sea.

Lilith, shock wearing thin, tore the hem of her white dress, now more grey with salt and soot. Tossing her train to the wind, she directed her wedding guests below deck, kings, queens, and servants alike running rampant from the rage of nature. Her crew stood fast, lashed to their posts like loyal islands, and she slipped a sword from a passing soldier in the chaos. The evening was drenched in sudden rain, clouds knitted across the twilight skies to shroud the ship in darkness.

A beast rose up from pitch depths.

Massive tentacles sent tidal waves over their sides, rocking the boat to and fro recklessly. Bolts of lightning speared down from the heavens to crackle along the creature’s enormous crown as it came in sight.

Lilith scaled the stripped masts of her ship and others cropped up around them, uncovered and ready to wreck, shadowed stone in the bubbling whirlpool.

And there, just a flash of copper and gold in the tempest, amidst wreckage and riptides, a fleck of light.

Zelda.

“Get them back to shore!” she shouted to the helmsman. An assenting nod, and she jumped overboard, alarmed cries trailing down after like unraveling lace.

 

 

Faustus caught her up in a great fist, crushing scales to skin, and stabbed his newly won trident into the sea below. Water glowing red as gutted fish, Zelda squirmed, blasting banishments against his grip to no avail, and looked on, a different sort of powerless as Blackwood ravaged her home, power-drunk. Fire and brimstone cascaded down from the sky, his bulbous body reigning wrapped terror over Aradia’s bay.

Then, he lurched. Sharp and unexpected, surprise loosening his lips and Zelda, letting her fall free.

A ship, one he’d pulled from the sea floor, as the mortals’ ship was nowhere in sight, had driven its barbed bow into his side, black blood and ink flooding the ocean around him as he howled, Lilith triumphant at the wayward wheel. Zelda landed limp on the rotted deck, too far and too fragile for the captain to reach her.

And it wouldn’t be enough. Not to kill a warlock, and certainly not the King of the Sea.

Zelda dragged herself toward the center mast’s rigging, lugging her unwound body up the ropes, hand over hand while her fins flapped useless in the wind. When she reached the crow’s nest, Zelda straightened her spine, poised to strike.

The chanting began slowly, softly, ancient tongues flowing off hers, a waterfall of forgotten prose, magic pulsing in every word. As she went on, her voice grew louder, faster, harmonizing, blending with the wind, whipping the gale into a frenzy of ravenous voices, her own song its beating heart.

Blackwood’s every limb went rigid, then snapped, spiraled, toyed, and twisted until he breathed his last, stolen in a whimper, and he, with his crazed storm, melted, dissolved to nothing, only gentle waves under the watchful moon left behind.

Zelda found Lilith as the ship capsized, dug deep into Faustus’ side, and was submerged in minutes. She laid back, holding the princess to her chest, wrung out and quiet as constellations, as the current carried them inland.