Escape

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It was the night before Prince Desmond’s royal wedding to Queen Lyni of the neighboring coastal queendom, and the prince was making his escape. He had only a map, a compass, some food, a canteen, and a horse. He had traveled for hours to reach the forest. The prince abandoned his horse at the tree line and ventured in. His plan was to cut westward through the forest and hide out in a border village until Queen Lyni found someone else to marry. He knew it was a sloppy plan, and that he’d be in enormous amounts of trouble when he returned, but his parents and the ministers had not bothered to ask him his opinion of the royal match in the first place.
Prince Desmond settled into the shaded hollow between two trees and closed his eyes. He was prepared to sleep through the dawn. He had almost fallen asleep when he became aware of the chiming of bells off in the distance. At first, the prince was wary and confused. This part of the forest should be uninhabited. What were these bells, to be ringing in a forest in the early morning hours? But the longer he listened, the more his wariness and his weariness melted away. He felt refreshed. Prince Desmond rose to his feet. The bells were enchanting, and he felt compelled to search for them. He turned back onto the trail and followed the chiming. After a few minutes, the canopy became thinner, letting in the starlight. Prince Desmond slowly realized, as the music grew louder, that it had lyrics. It was not bells ringing, but rather, a woman’s melodic voice. He strained to listen as his feet drew him closer to the source. The tune was unfamiliar and the words to the song were in a different language.
The trail crossed a river, and here Prince Desmond broke away and followed the shore until he finally found what he sought. Sitting at the river’s edge was a young woman dressed in the finery of the nobility. She saw him and stopped singing. The prince thought she might be looking at him with curiosity, but it was hard to tell her expression behind the sea-green and sapphire ballroom mask she wore.
It felt awkward to stand there saying nothing, so the prince began. “Your song is lovely.”
The woman tilted her head. “Thank you, stranger.”
“What is the song about?”
“It is a traditional ballad about two sisters who longed for the same man. The older secretly murders the younger, but her crime is discovered shortly before she is to wed her beloved. She ends up on the gallows.” Prince Desmond grimaced, yet the woman looked pleased with herself. “But what are you doing out here at night? Only brigands and bandits roam these hours.” Her accented voice mingled with her safflower and verbena perfume. The sensual combination drew Prince Desmond closer despite the rules of propriety.
“One could say I’m escaping fate,” he said. Without realizing it, the prince was now sitting at the woman’s feet.
“According to the old myths, that is impossible. To deny your fate is an act of hubris and an affront to the gods.”
“I was never very religious.”
“That is unfortunate,” she said. She dipped her fingertips into the flowing water. “Yes. The river sings to me. It tells me that what I lost is to be found here if I only look.”
“What did you lose?”
“A very prized possession.” The woman began to remove her shoes and stockings. Prince Desmond blushed. “I think it’s here. Will you help me wade into the river so I may retrieve it?” The prince didn’t want to seem hesitant to aid a lady despite his apprehensions, so he gingerly took her hand and waded with her into the river. She guided him deeper and deeper until the water reached their knees. He figured this possession must be valuable, since she didn’t seem concerned about her dress. “Stop.” The prince tried to let go of her hand, but her grip tightened. The woman’s strength seemed to triple in an instant. Despite the moderate current, she used one arm to wrest Prince Desmond into an embrace. With her other hand, she removed her mask. The prince gasped. He had seen this face before, in portraits and icons around the queendom.
He screamed and tried to struggle away, but the woman’s grip was too binding. Furthermore, he found his earlier exhaustion returning, which was sapping his strength. The woman’s elaborate dress dissolved into dust, leaving her in only a bodice. Her skin turned a pale silver and her legs fused together and grew scales and fins until she had a fish tail with a deep blue sheen. “It was an admirable attempt, but I’ve had wilier husbands than you.” Queen Lyni smiled, showing off white sharp teeth. “No one leaves me at the altar.”

Author’s Note: Inspired by the prompt “Mask” found at The Daily Post

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