The young prince was born to an already half-insane queen. She bore him in a small room that smelt sickly sweet of flesh and blood. Drip. One of attendants took the babe and held him by his feet, like a carving of ham swinging in a butcher shop window. She slapped him four times on the bottom before a loud wail rang through the halls. He woke up.
Until he was eight, the young prince aged normally. He enjoyed playing perverted tricks on the little girls and making the court out to be fools. His mother whispered promises in his ears, Rein. To be king, he was condemned. The queen worshiped him so, obsessively.
He was nine when he fell from his horse and cracked his skull. His eardrums bled, and when the young prince woke to the queen’s beaming smile he couldn’t hear her speak. He could no longer hear at all.
Useless, his mother spat under her steaming breath. She tried rubbing things against his eardrums to combat the unfortunate Disease, but without facing the slightest glint of luck the Queen banished the young prince out of her chambers and refused to look him in the eye.
Honeycomb, one apothecary said. But it did not work.
The king and queen hissed slurs back and forth about what to do with the boy, turning their backs so he couldn’t read their lips. How could he rule if he could not hear?
We’ll let him learn the great sea’s song, my nephew owns a ship! The king told his wife. He would much rather keep her half-insane, so they sent him away.
The ship was vast, but there were many rules:
He could not leave, unless he was told.
He could not eat, unless he was allowed.
He could not speak, unless he was asked.
The young prince was confined to a little room. He was given a little cot for sleeping and a little lantern for reading. A small round mirror hung above his trunk. It was filled with clothes, mostly, and a few books.
The sailors of the ship were cautious of his presence. They did not bow as if he were a noble — royalty did not reach the seas. More envious that he had his own room, even if it were only the size of a closet.
They turned their backs whenever they spoke so that he could not read their lips.
The only one who was not disturbed by the prince was the cook’s hand. Another young boy. He peeled potatoes and filled bottles with rum. He visited the prince’s bedside and looked him directly in the eye.
They sailed for a long month before the Captain ordered them to stop at a small island. It was one they seemed to know well, and during the day the sailors each left in small groups to replenish their supply.
Less than a week, the captain said, and they’d be on their way again.
The young prince was laying on his small cot, staring upward at the curved ceiling. The rumble that the sailors caused during the day ceased at night, and only the soft waves moved the ship. Back and forth. Each night was spent that way, still.
The lamp flickered little bits and flashes. Shadows were casted onto the wall, the reflection of his raising stomach projected against the wooden planks. He watched it fall and held it there until he was forced to gasp. He watched the air rush back in.
Until his eyelids could carry his thoughts no more.
. . .
His head rattled.
The young prince shifted in his bed. It was a sound.
He touched the tips of his ears with his dainty fingers. A soft, slight tingling sensation that felt no different any other day. But now he could hear a sound. Noise.
He quickly sat up and touched the walls, the little circular window. All the same. His trunk was unmoved, the dangling lantern still swinging. Books on the floor, still open to same pages.
The mirror. Himself. Unchanged.
So overwhelming the sensation that he grabbed at his hair until the skin beneath his nails started to bleed. He reached for the door —
. . .
The next morning he woke, still dressed in the same robes from the night before. Ungraciously sprawled across the tops of his blankets and sheets.
The world was once filled again with a nothingness. Empty sounds.
Raising from his bed, he looked into the little mirror and saw himself. The same, unchanged. He pinched at his ears, unchanged.
The cook’s hand pushed open the door and beckoned him over. Face puffed red and smeared with sweat, their Captain had called everyone above.
The young prince followed him out. The hold was bare, not filled with napping sailors or drunks mouthing tunes. It was hollow. Only shadows peeping out from behind lit lanterns were there. Empty.
All of the missing men from the hold were gathered on deck. The Captain stood above, with his own hands at either side. Arms crossed. Stern. His lips flickered, too quickly. Too far away for the young prince to read. The faces of the other men flushed green, gagging. Sick.
Someone was killed, the cook’s hand mouthed. Found dead, on shore. Skin shredded. Was compared to butter. No one knew why. As if they didn’t want to know.
They returned to their work, no one was allowed to leave.
. . .
The young prince awoke.
It was night. The young prince rose, stood up.
He touched his ears, his head. He looked to the mirror, unchanged again.
A woman? Women? He could not tell. Surely not at sea.
A shadow slipped across the wall. It obscured the little moonlight that peeked through the window. A careful little head popped up. Silver hair. Purple eyes — no, blue. Another little head shoved aside the first. Hair golden, eyes red. Then a third, bronze and green. The young prince stared.
The first looked confused, turned to the second and she smiled. The third nodded and they dashed away.
The young prince swore he caught a glimpse. Were they fish?
. . .
Another man was found dead on the ship when the sun woke the first sailor at dawn.
A fugitive. Locked in the only cell the ship had in the cargo hold of the ship. Wrists slit from side to side with a splinter of wood carved out from a post. Splat, swish, splash. Hands reaching outward past the bars — but towards what? Towards nothing. Face frozen in mutilated despair. The red blood. Drip.
Killed himself, body shoved off deck. Can’t keep the dead on board. Someone has to scrub the floors. The cook’s hand. Captain’s orders.
. . .
On the third night the young prince was sitting awake. The ship swayed and he waited. No feet rustled the wood beams above him. The ship was asleep.
He slithered through the bushels of sleeping men. Up the stairs and onto the deck.
The sweeping winds pulled on his hairs and tugged on his coats. The moon looked down. A frown, he thought. It was filled with pity.
The hissing screech scratched at his head. He could hear them.
The young prince looked over the side, and in the waters there they were. Scaling fishtails protruding where women usually had legs. Shimmery scales. Long tangled hair covering bare bosom.
They beckoned him with outstretched arms. But he didn’t move.
The first looked confused, but the second smiled. The third nodded.
But something grabbed at his shoulder, a different man. The prince turned only to get caught by a swing of a bottle. Rum. Could smell the sailor’s breath before catching his face. The drunkard grabbed at the young prince and shoved him to the ground.
The women turned their gazes towards the drunkard. His attention dropped from the young prince.
He jumped into the water after their voices.
The fish women danced around the splashing drunkard, slowly circling inward. Slowly grabbing onto his arms. His legs. Slowly. They meshed so closely together. Tight. They turned into a tangle of outwardly stretched limps. Slowly. And then they tore the drunkard apart.
The young prince stumbled and gaged. Turned green from the flashes of red. He gagged and grabbed at his weak, churning stomach.
They ripped the fats from his torso as meat, and chewed the tissues and muscles like candy. His bones were used as toothpicks. His head, a plaything.
The fish women looked back up at the young prince. Did not outstretch their arms. They had killed the first man, tried to lure the second, but succeeded with the third.
Their mouths stilled, noises didn’t crawl through his ears. Nothing.
Someone ran onto the deck, the young prince noticed the flashing of a lantern. The fish women flushed back down into sanctum. The sea. Two sailors rushed to the edge, and lurched back at the sight of the bleeding red water. Floating limbs.
One pointed towards the young prince and screamed intangible text to read. It was his fault. They blamed. Thrusted him back into his room, and locked the door tightly shut.
How does one handle a killer of men at sea? Kill him. Burn him. Drown him. Whatever it may be.
The young prince reached for the little lantern that hung above his little bed. Smashed it against the ground and gently kindled the flames.