Once, on a small island on the other side of the world, there lived a prince named Wilfort. Now his subjects considered Wilfort a good ruler, since generally they lived in comfort and security, but he was a man who was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted.
Prince Wilfort lived in a grand palace on top of a rocky clift. Beneath the clift lay the town and beyond that, the sea. Often as it grew dark, the Prince would stand on a balcony high in his palace, look out over the sea as the sun set. One day, just as the sun was setting, a lovely sound drifted up to him from the dusk. Never had Prince Wilfort heard anything so beautiful. He could not do anything but stand enchanted and listen until, when the sky had grown dark and filled with stars, the song ended.
Back inside his palace, the Prince called for his Chamberlain, "Nevil! Come here at once!"
The Chamberlain, a tall, bony man with a sour face and scheming eyes, entered the hall and bowed low. "What do you wish, Your Highness?"
"Did you hear that singing, Nevil? I swear there can not be another voice in all the world half as beautiful as that one. I command that who so ever was singing tonight must come to the palace and perform in my presence."
"It shall be done as you say, Your Highness." The Chamberlain bowed again and left to do the Prince's bidding.
By the next morning the word had spread throughout the town that the Prince was seeking the mysterious singer from the preceding evening. To Benignus the Fishmonger there was no mystery, for he knew very well who the Prince had heard. He rushed through the streets of the town, past his little house on the beach to the edge of the sea and shouted, "Merrine! Merrine! Prince Wilfort heard you singing last night. He wants you to come to his palace and sing for him."
Moments later, a young woman's head rose above the surface of the sea a short distance from the shore. Her skin was the sandy color of the beach and her hair was brown like kelp. She looked up at the steep, rugged clift the palace stood upon and laughed, "If Prince Wilfort wants to hear me sing, tell him to come down to the beach. It'll be much easier for him to come down here than for me to go up there."
"Merrine, I can't do that. I'm just a fishmonger. A prince doesn't let a fishmonger tell him what to do."
"He should if the fishmonger knows something he doesn't." She swam to the shore and pulled herself up onto the beach, then ran her hand along her tail. "How do you think a mermaid's supposed to get all the way up to the palace, Benignus? You know I can't walk and I'm certainly not going to drag myself along the ground that far."
Benignus sat down on the beach beside Merrine and sighed. "I should have thought of that, but I was just so excited about you going to the palace and singing for the prince. There must be some way you could get there." He stared out to the sea, to where the fishing boat were trawling their nets in the distance and a smile suddenly lit up his face. "I know what we can do, Merrine! I can take you there in my fish cart. It'll be perfect."
"Your fish cart? Maybe that isn't such a good idea for someone who's half fish. You might decide to sell me to someone along the way for lunch." They both laughed at this, since merfolk are no more fish than whales and dolphins are. Some foolish people think they are part fish because they see the scales on their tails, but living in the sea, merfolk naturally make clothing from fish skin, just as land folk sometimes wear the fur of various animals. In any case, Merrine knew that Benignus would never to anything to harm her.
Benignus ran up the beach to his house, then hurried back, pushing his two-wheeled fish cart. He tilted the cart so Merrine could climb in. Although she had no legs to walk on, she could actually move about on land quite well. Seals and walruses to get around with just flippers and she had two strong arms. Her fingers were nearly twice as long as those of land folk and she had webs of skin between them, but she could grasp the sides of the fish cart firmly in her hands. She was not used to riding in any kind of vehicle and the fish cart did not seem that stable to her.
It was difficult to push the cart in the soft sand of the beach with Merrine sitting in it. The thick layer of fat that protected her from the cold waters of the sea made her rather heavy, although not as heavy as a full load of fish. With a grunt, Benignus got the cart moving, but he was glad when he reached the pavement of the streets of the town. Although the cart made her a little nervous, Merrine was delighted to be going through the town, since she had never been beyond the beach before. The townspeople looked back at her with surprise. Many of them had seen merfolk before, they had never seen one riding through town in a fish cart.
The determined fishmonger kept pushing his cart along the streets that wound up to the top of the hill. He was very tired by the time they reached the gates of the palace and one of the guards called out, "Halt! What is your business here?"
Merrine answered, "I've been told the Prince heard me singing last night and he wanted to come to the palace so he could listen to me in person. I sure hope that's true because my friend's worked very hard to get me here."
The guard replied as calmly as if fishmongers brought cartloads of mermaids to the palace every day, "If you are the one who was singing, His Highness will certainly want to hear you. Wait here and I shall inform the Chamberlain."
Moments later, the guard returned with the Chamberlain. Nevil stared sternly at the mermaid for a while before he spoke. "So you claim to be the mysterious singer. Of course, I shall need proof, lest I let His Highness waste his time on some impostor." He frowned at Merrine with narrow eyes. "Pray that you are not wasting my time either. Now, sing!"
The mermaid began to sing. It was a song of joy, of flowing like the waves, of sparkling like the sunlight on the water. Benignus, and even the guards stood enraptured by the sound. If it affected Nevil at all, he did not show it, but when she was finished he said, "Yes, I believe you are the one. Come, and I shall present you to His Highness."
The Chamberlain entered the hall where Prince Wilfort was sitting on this throne, followed by Benignus pushing Merrine in his cart. Nevil bowed low to the Prince. "Your Highness, as you requested, I have located the person who was singing last night and brought her into your presence. As always, I is my pleasure to serve Your Highness."
Wilfort nodded to the Chamberlain and stared at Merrine. "So, you are a mermaid. I suppose that should not surprise me. I have heard it said that mermaids are the most enchanting singers. Let us see if that is true. Sing, mermaid!"
Merrine frowned at the prince. "You should be a little more polite, you know. You could at least ask someone their name and how they're doing before you start ordering them around. I ought to leave right now, but I came to sing, so that's what I'll do." She sang the same song she had sung for the Chamberlain.
The Prince listened, even more enchanted now that she was singing before him than he had been to hear her in the distance. When she was finished, he seemed speechless for a few moments, than cried out, "Marvelous! You must stay here in the palace so that I might enjoy your beautiful voice whenever I wish." Turning to the Chamberlain, he said, "Nevil, prepare a room for our guest. Something befitting a person of great talent."
The mermaid shook her head. "That sound's very nice, Prince Wilfort, but I don't think it's right for me."
The Prince looked bewildered, "Are you refusing my offer, mermaid?" Suddenly, he smiled. "Ah, now I understand. You are a water creature. We can deal with that easily. You shall live in the pool in my gardens."
"I do not want to live here, either in a room or in a pool. I'm happy I got the chance to come here and sing, but the sea's my home and that's where I'm going back to."
"Nonsense! If I say you shall live in the palace, you shall live in the palace. Guards! Take this mermaid to the pool and see that she does not escape. And escort that fishmonger and his grubby little cart out of the palace at once."
Merrine struggled, but the guards were too strong for her. As they carried her away, she shouted at the Prince, "You may be able to make me stay here, but it won't do you any good, because you can't make me sing."
When the mermaid was gone, Prince Wilfort sat glumly on his throne. "What do you suggest now, Nevil? I must say she seems very determined."
"There are many ways to make a person obey, Your Highness. I recommend we consult with Amazeus the sage. He is skilled in the arcane arts and no doubt he could use them to subject this mermaid to your will."
The Prince nodded. "Yes, I agree, Nevil. Inform Amazeus that I have a task for him."
Later that day when they entered the hall where he was waiting, Wilfort could not noticing the contrast between the two men. Amazeus was as short and fat as Nevil was tall and thin, and he resembled a large ball bouncing alongside the solemn Chamberlain. He stopped before the throne and grinned widely. "Your Highness, your Chamberlain tells me you have a mermaid who refuses to sing for you."
"That is true, sage. You must have some spell or potion that could compel her to sing."
"Yes, I know a potion that could do that, Your Highness. But, I do not think her singing would give you any pleasure if we used that. Remember, it is written, the song of the caged bird is never sweet."
Wilfort stared at Amazeus and asked harshly, "Then what do you think we should do?"
"It is also written, that which one will not use, one shall surely lose." Amazeus reached into a pouch hanging from his belt and held up a large, blue crystal. "If I hold this before the mermaid as she speaks, her voice will be captured in it. Then, I need only lay the crystal upon a person's tongue and they will be given the mermaid's voice."
The Prince smiled. "Ah, I see. We shall take the voice away from that ungrateful mermaid and give it to another who will use it properly. But to whom should it be given?"
Nevil spoke up, "If I may be so bold, Your Highness, might I suggest my daughter, Lady Ivy. Not only does she have the knowledge of proper etiquette that horrid mermaid so obviously lacks, but she has the benefit of years of vocal training. In the mermaid, that voice is like a pretty pebble you might pick out of a stream, but in my daughter, it will be like a gem, cut and polished to perfection."
So both Merrine and Lady Ivy were brought before the Prince, who proclaimed, "Mermaid, you have insulted me, and in doing so, you have insulted the crown. But, I am a most merciful monarch, so I shall give you one more chance. Will you agree to live in the palace and sing for me whenever I wish?"
Merrine stared angrily at the Prince. "I told you my decision! I would never..." In her anger, she had not noticed the short, fat man or the crystal he was holding, but now she was startled as the crystal began to glow brightly. She tried to speak again, but was not able to make a sound.
Holding the crystal up, Amazeus walked over to Lady Ivy and said softly, "If I place this crystal on your tongue, your own voice will be gone forever, for the crystal can only capture one voice. Are you certain you want to do this?"
She glanced at her father, then answered, "Yes, I am certain, sir."
"Then it shall be done." Amazeus touched the crystal to Lady Ivy's tongue, then quickly slipped it back into his pouch.
Nevil encouraged her, "Speak, so we may hear your new voice, my dear."
Lady Ivy approached the Prince and curtsied. "Your Highness, I thank you for your kindness. I only hope that you will find me worthy of this wonderful gift you have bestowed upon me. If it pleases you, might I entertain Your Highness with a song?"
It was very strange for Merrine to hear her voice coming out of someone else's mouth, saying words she never would have said. But when Lady Ivy began her song, no one, not even Merrine herself, could deny she was a more capable singer than the mermaid had been.
As soon as Lady Ivy finished singing, the Prince applauded her. "Excellent! Your father spoke the truth. You are truly a marvelous singer."
The Chamberlain nodded. "Thank you, Your Highness." Then he scowled at Merrine, who glared back at him defiantly. "Now we only need to teach that mermaid to show some respect."
Prince Wilfort looked at Merrine, frowned a bit, then turned to Nevil. "She has lost her voice. That is enough. Summon the fishmonger. He brought her here. He can take her away."
That evening, as the last traces of the red faded from the sky, Benignus sat on the porch of his little house, looking out at the sea, with Merrine beside him. "It's all my fault," he sighed. "I'm the one who told you the Prince wanted to hear you sing. I'm the one who took you there in my cart. If it wasn't for me, you'd still be able to talk. You must hate me." Merrine shook her head and laid her arm across his shoulders to comfort him. Benignus bowed his head. "I'd do anything to get your voice back."
"Would you give her yours?" Standing on the beach was Amazeus, the fat little sage. "I still have the crystal if you are willing to do that."
"Of course I'd do it. My voice isn't anywhere near as good as hers, but I'd...mmmphf". He was unable to continue because Merrine had clasped her hands over his mouth to keep him from speaking by the crystal.
Amazeus reached into his pouch and pulled out the blue crystal, which was still glowing brightly. "Oh my," he said in mock surprise, "once the crystal captures a voice, there is no way to remove it. I suppose I shall just have to give you your old voice back, if that is all right, um--I am afraid I never learned your name. I am called Amazeus and there are people who say I am a sage."
The mermaid openned her mouth and the sage touched her tongue with the crystal. "I'm Merrine, and this is my friend Benignus. If you can give me my voice back now, why didn't you do that back in the palace?"
"I doubt the Prince would have been as willing to let you go if you were still able to speak, Merrine."
"No, I don't suppose he would've. Well, thank you so much. Is there anything I can do for you, Amazeus?"
"If you do not mind, I would love to hear you sing."
"I'd be happy to, but do you think the Prince might hear me?"
The sage grinned, "It is written, do not bury your treasure unless it is dead. If you are so afraid of losing your voice again that you never use it, it might as well have stayed lost. Besides, I think Lady Ivy will be keeping the Prince's ears busy in the palace for quite a while."
Actually, however, Prince Wilfort had let Lady Ivy rest her voice while he went out to watch the sunset. It was strange, but as he stood there he could not help feeling something was missing. Lady Ivy's singing was very beautiful, but it was music that belonged in a palace. It was not music that belonged to the sky or the sea.
He was just about to go back inside when he heard the mermaid's song in the darkness. The Prince smiled for he was a man who was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted.