10/8/21

Epilogue: The Price of Legs...and Other Things

Previously: The Cold Wedding

Palace of the Southern Kingdom

Aquiel stood before the fountain of Ursula, eyes red and dry from weeping. She was alone in the garden; everyone else was in mourning and prayer. Everyone was wearing white now, and for once, none of the Ursas were dolled up. They set aside their jewels and perfumes, and even began a fast to mourn their dead Ursa.

Meanwhile, the castle bells tolled for the late Princess Gregoria, on the hour, every hour...Aquiel was over it.

"Are these the lessons you wanted me to learn?" the young mermaid grumbled to the goddess's statue. "Is this why no mermaid falls for temptation?" She raised her wrist, the split sleeve of her gown falling to reveal her silver bracelet, set with lapis lazuli. "You charge a price too high, my goddess. Tomorrow I will walk to the harbor, and toss your 'gift' into the sea."

She turned to walk away from the statue when she heard a familiar voice.

"As always, the mermaid passes the test."

Aquiel spun on her heels to see the First Ursa of her temple, dressed in plain blue-gray robes. The older woman casually stepped down from fountain, flashing a small, mysterious smile.

"I'm not staying," Aquiel told her immediately. "You can't make me stay here with these people."

"Nor do I want to," the Ursa smiled more broadly now. "That was the lesson Savia could never grasp."

The mermaid was flummoxed, unsure of what she was hearing. "So I...I've passed?"

"As if I'd ever thought you'd fail," the Ursa chuckled. "Yours is the purest heart, Aquiel; you could never live among humans." She tilted her head to the side. "I wonder how you'll fare among demons."

***

"The fuck do you mean Gregoria is dead?"

As long as Lord Godric had known King Everard, he'd never seen him get enraged. Everard was known for his cool head and compassionate heart, which fortunately had passed onto his children.

Now only one was left.

The royal family had returned to a palace turned tomb, with servants courtiers alike dressed for mourning, and bells tolling every hour. Standing in the throne room behind the king, the prince and his new bride exchanged confused glances, while the Duchess of Easterland clearly resisted the urge to smirk.

"Poison, Your Majesty," the nobleman humbly replied. "It appears the First Ursa of the shrine was experimenting with a very rare and incurable poison."

"Savia?!?" the bewildered king exclaimed. "Why in the name of Ursula would she poison my daughter?"

"And my mother," Florian added softly. When his father turned to face him, he explained, "She did this for me."

"Gregoria was no threat to you," Everard growled. "Savia knew that. Poisoning Lavinia, I could almost understand--half the kingdom wanted your mother dead. But your sister was loved."

"And that would've created factions," Celestina suddenly interjected, her voice cold and precise as a sword. "Your Ursa foresaw this."

"Celestina," Everard blinked, finally reaching the end of his patience, "you never knew my daughter. Gregoria was strong, wise beyond her years, competent, and an admirer of your mother's, by the way. She would have supported her brother and protected the treaty by any means necessary."

"Your daughter may have been strong and wise," the Northern princess conceded, "but your son is weak and woefully inexperienced. If half your kingdom loathed your queen, how do you think they feel about her prince?

"No," she shook her head, when both son and father would interrupt, "your Ursa knew there could be no challenge to your son, no threat to his reign...," she trailed before adding with a slight chuckle, "no temptation to revert the line of succession."

"Godric," Everard's head snapped back to his vassal, "send the Ursas from my palace."

Godric balked. "Majesty--"

"And then write to the Isle of Ursula that I require more disciplined acolytes in the future," Everard coldly continued. "Quiet ones who will know their place and not to meddle in matters of the crown."

Godric bowed his head. "Sire."

"And you two," the king turned back to Florian and Celestina. "I don't know what honeymoon you thought you had planned, but you will spend the next several days in mourning. In fact, the entire castle will remain in mourning until everyone gets the message that we do not suffer the murder of royals in this kingdom, no matter how well-meaning the intent." He paused briefly to catch his breath. "Where is Savia's body now?"

"At the shrine, Your Majesty, lying in state," Godric replied.

Everard's eyes burned like coals. "Throw the bitch into the sea."

***

"The Borderlands???" Gisela scowled, as their carriage slowly rolled northward. "Savia goes on a killing spree and we end up banished?"

"We're not banished," Aquiel sighed wearily. "We're just being...reassigned."

"As if that's any better," Gisela snapped. "That old witch fucked us, Aquiel! It doesn't matter where we go; anyone who takes us in will think we're nothing but opportunistic murderers."

"Aren't you supposed to be the history buff?" the mermaid stated tersely. "Savia wasn't the first to fall to temptation and she won't be the last. The worship of Ursula has endured for centuries and will endure for centuries more."

Aquiel suddenly realized just how exhausting it was being the voice of reason. She wondered if this was why Gisela was such a grouch.

"It's cold in the Borderlands," Gisela grumbled, giving her woolen cloak a hitch. "And winter is literally fucking coming." After a bitter pause, she added, "They don't even worshi Ursula in the Borderlands."

"Which is why we are going," the mermaid patiently replied. "We are to set a good example for the Queen Idalia. It's a great honor, Gisela."

"I didn't sign up for missionary work, Aquiel!" her follow acolyte railed. "Isn't that the job of a senior Ursa anyway?"

"Yes, but seeing as senior Ursas don't have the best reputation right now, it's believed that the royal shrines will be tended by acolytes who are...purer of heart."

Gisela remained incensed. "The things we do for religion."

"Aren't you curious about House Frost?" Aquiel asked her.

"They're people," Gisela scowled. "More royal people. Didn't we just establish we don't do well with people???"

"Except they're not," the mermaid raised an eyebrow. "At least...not fully."

Gisela paused in her fuming as fury slowly gave way to intrigue. "What?"

***

Neverland, the Isle of the Unaging

Ursula hadn't stepped foot on the island in centuries. Indeed, it seemed like an entirely different lifetime the last time she was here. Everything that happened, happened so long ago she almost didn't believe it was real...just a story she told her followers.

But once she reached the mountain peak and stood where her boy was buried, centuries melted into yesterday. The anguish came back in a crippling flood, so much she clutched her chest as her eyes began to tear.

"He was beautiful, our boy," said a soft voice behind her.

"You should have concealed this island better," Ursula chastised him without turning. "A mermaid was here."

He came from behind her to stand at her side. He briefly looked at her, to see what form she'd taken this time.

"The matronly look suits you," he mused gently. "It'll take some getting used to, of course."

"Merlin, I'm not in the mood," she bit out, as hot tears ran down her face.

"So I gathered," the sorcerer politely nodded. He appeared to be a man in his twenties, with light brown skin and a shaven head. But as an immortal, he was far older. "Did you really have to kill that Ursa?"

The goddess flashed him a dangerous look. "All magic comes with a price," she bit out. "I needed to send a message."

"Oh, you sent a message all right, my love," he nodded again. "You called attention to the dreamshade. If Savia had had her way, everyone would've thought the princess and the queen simply fell ill. But now everyone knows this plant exists, Ursula."

"And you," she spat, "were supposed to make this island inaccessible! Mortals cannot be trusted. They will not be able to resist a poison that has no cure!"

"Since the death of our boy, I placed all manner of enchantments upon this place," he assured her. "Interestingly enough, they never last."

Ursula shot a bitter look upward. "The gods' will."

"Gods' will," the sorcerer echoed sagely. "Same as yours," he reminded her. "Do you not send your own daughters into the lap of luxury, into the beating heart of power, all so they can find out who they really are?"

She had no answer, of course, so they stood in silence as the sun set, listening to the waters of the enchanted spring.

"He was beautiful," Ursula finally said. "Our boy."

Merlin smiled warmly, fondly. "That he was."

~ FIN ~

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