The prince had no memory of the first time he drowned. The salt numbed his mind. But the second time, it stung. Every breath brought a thousand barbs, slicing his flesh to ribbons without spilling a drop of blood. His lungs screamed as never before—voiceless.
He remembered the after, of course, when he woke up ashore, salt in his mouth, sand on his skin, his savior before him.
What makes a man choose to drown? A great many things, the prince was sure. But for him, it was two eyes more vivid than the sky. Her eyes, her hair, her tail of vibrant blue.
Light, almost icy blue, biting in her locks, her eyes, the scales of her tail, and even in the freckles sprinkled across her delicate face. Her skin was pearl—not metaphorically, but real, true pearl—and her ears pointed. White eyelashes framed her sky-blue irises like feathery clouds. Her left hand, hard and soft at once, clasped his chin, and she smiled at the prince.
He forgot all about the tail, then.
Her lips parted as if to speak, but then a dark hand covered them. This skin was richer than the prince had ever known, and his eyes drew, reluctantly, toward the new, toward the other mermaid.
Her hair was a dripping mass of red coils. Not copper or orange or any mortal shade, but a red for apples to envy. She shook her wet head, features scolding, so underwhelming, so boring next to his sapphire angel. So the prince’s eyes shot back to the truer beauty. She was fairer, brighter, perfect in every way, and her eyes never left his. Her hand fell away, and his hand reached out without him willing it, at least not consciously. Then she slipped away, those blue eyes gripping his until her head finally turned to dive, to swim beneath the waves.
The prince stood though he had no bearing, knowing he would fall on to the beach. He had to follow her, to thank her, to ask—
His knees buckled, naturally, and he heard a voice call his name from the shore. He didn't turn. All his focus was on the crashing waves.
Madness? A dream? Salty mirages? But why two? Why one so angry and plain? Why take her away?
Earth witches are not easy to find, even for last born princes. If the old tales are true, they tended to stumble upon magic whenever they sought our fortunes, but magic only returned to this world a generation ago. And the prince sought a different form of destiny.
The witch he found, or who found him, inhabited a cave where the cliffs met the sea.
Light did not touch that place, but the smell would ever linger in the prince’s memory, clearer than any scent he had ever known. The dampness. The unnamable, salty must. Not just mud or mildew—something like raw earth but richer and simpler. The definition of the solid world. The witch herself.
He tried not to stare, but he couldn’t resist. Nothing had prepared him for a face half-transformed into gemstone, shoulders made of malachite, even once human hair replaced by crystals that stretched up instead of cascading down. Her left arm, mostly clay, remained at her side, and she stretched out the right, still flesh and bone.
“What brings you here, my prince?”
There was no slick temptation in her voice, no cool allure, but there was a bluntness to force a response from a stone.
“What is your request?”