He had not skimped on any of the fine details and he had accommodated all the adjustments she had required. That made her nervous.
The original dress he had chosen was a sleek, hip hugging, fishtail affair that shimmered as she breathed, but walking was hard enough without her thighs bound together. She reluctantly asked for something else. What came back was a grey satin ball gown. It flowed against her legs like the lapping waves she pined for. When she touched the seed pearls on it with horror they disappeared and a single diamond as large as a turtle’s egg flashed at her throat.
Walking was a new art for her, the high heels with tiny straps that bit into the untested flesh of her feet were replaced by velvet lined slippers. Of course the Devil had the best seamstress and boot-maker at his beck and call, or perhaps he had anticipated her complaints, engineered them in some way to make himself seem kind. She could find no fault with how generously he had observed their contract so far, but she feared there would be a sting in the tail.
He came into her dressing room with a bunch of flowers, out of season, dripping with dew and filling them room with a pungent sweetness she had never known at sea. “Are you sure he will be here?” she asked.
The Devil smiled. He had chosen to look older, gentle and avuncular. She knew it was the Devil from the faint shimmer that surrounded him, as though an inner fire baked the air he occupied. He wore the age well, straight-backed and clear-eyed in his evening wear, the bow tie and pocket square just so. With a gloved hand he waved her to the window and drew back the curtain. She looked out over the curving drive and gardens that fell steeply to the ocean.
A carriage pulled up and her heart stuttered as a familiar form stepped out.
She jerked back in case he saw her. There was no doubt it was the Prince. She had watched for years from the rocky shore waiting for him, but was too shy to approach. She had felt torn with fear and desire as he searched for the woman who had saved him from drowning, spending lonely hours scouring the coast as bored guards looked on.
The Devil said in a reassuring tone, “He’s here, as I promised he would be.” He reached out a hand and caressed her cheek, his fingers trailing down to her throat. He went on with an edge to his tone. “Sing to him all you wish for him to hear, my dear. After this evening your voice is mine.”
Then he was gone. She stood still for a while, excitement and terror warring in her, unable to control her breath. She forced her shoulders down, breathing deeply. This was real, it was happening. In a few moments the Prince would know her, and her life would change forever.
There was a knock at the door. Her curtain call. The corridors faded. She felt as if she was floating through the halls and stairwells, not using her newly formed legs.
The sense of motion ended. There was a well of darkness in front of her, and a single bright light above, illuminating her flame red hair, burnishing her dress to steel and silver. She became aware of a deep murmur, as if the wind thrummed against the surface of the sea.
The Devil appeared at her shoulder, younger now, sleeker, but still in his evening wear. He didn’t shout, but his words carried around the chamber. “Your Highnesses, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen.” The murmur stopped. She heard a gasp, suddenly stifled, but could see nothing of the audience.
Into the silence he spoke again, “You all know who I am. I am here to fulfil our contract. You gave me the souls of your Kings and Queens, and in return I give you the alliance that can bring peace between your nations. You have mourned, as you should. But tonight we celebrate the prospect of peace, and a royal wedding.”
Her breath caught in her throat. A light blazed out of the darkness to illuminate a balcony. The Prince shaded his eyes from the brightness, while a woman sat beside him, clasping his arm. The Prince’s hand came down, his eyes met hers. He had recognised her in the spotlight. The hall lights came up a little and she could see the assembled nobility of two nations, shackling him into the agreement he had made.
The Devil whispered in her ear, “We have a deal Ariel. Sing for me now. You have your legs, and the Prince is here.” She tried to breathe but the air would not reach her lungs. “Sing for me Ariel, or I shall have not just your voice, but your legs as well.”
The Prince had half risen from his seat, but the pressure on his arm pulled him back. She watched as the expression of the new bride went from startled, to heartbroken, the groom’s eyes locked on the red-haired beauty on the stage, and realising the decades of loneliness they were doomed to share.
The suave tones were gone, the Devil hissed in her ear. “I win. Everyone else loses.”
Ariel fled. Ungainly but desperate, she barrelled down the aisle towards the grand double doors. The slippers and the diamond faded, she stumbled as the ball gown melted away and her precious legs began to fuse together, at first as though bound in a dress, but then beginning to scale over. She choked for a moment on the cold, damp sea air and then finally drew a ragged breath as she fell, rolling down the steep foreshore into the sea.
Behind her, carried on the breeze, she heard her own voice raised in triumphant song.
Ali Abbas is a writer, carpenter and photographer born and bred in London. He is the author of Image and Other Stories a collection of seven short stories that examine themes of love, loss and the haunting nature of bad decisions; and Hajj – My Pilgrimage a light-hearted and secular look at the pilgrimage to Mecca that is at the heart of the Islamic faith. Ali maintains a blog here.