"Is she to have any wages? And what is to become of her when you've finished your teaching? You must look ahead a little."
George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
Act III, Scene ii
Days bled into weeks and soon enough something the prince called a season changed from one into the next.
The sea did this too. The currents would change, as would the tides, the storms would come and go, and a bitter chill would enter the water or else abate.
However, on land, perhaps because she was not used to it, it felt far more dramatic.
The air, that thinner water that rested above the sea, changed temperature dramatically. Suddenly the furs she had arrived in seemed much too heavy underneath the heat of the sun. The plant life became larger and more vibrant seemingly overnight. In another few weeks, she was told, they would then whither, die, and prepare themselves for winter.
During all this time Nøkkerosen lived in the palace, just as the prince had promised. She was given her own, human, quarters, close to his. A carved angular den decorated in soft pelts and strange human furniture. She spent most of her days learning how to read and write, either at the prince's instruction, or more often than not on her own with only her vague understanding of the human alphabet and how it corresponded to spoken sound.
Otherwise, she spent her time watching the human court, looking from the outside in and trying to make sense of her strange new world.
It was immediately clear, that whatever these humans mistook her for, it was not a friend. Not a threat, per se, no one seemed to look at her as they would a predator. However, more like… the vermin that would nibble away at your wares if you turned your back too long.
Something beneath them, irritating, but something not worth their time and effort to banish.
She knew that they knew that she was here because of Tom. She wasn't sure if this was good or bad, but it was something humans remarked on. The few that did approach her always made sure to bring it up, that it was something they had never dreamed the prince would have done. Out of character, they called it, for a man so cold and on such thin ice to have invited something like her openly to court.
However, as it became clear that she could not speak, that she was something referred to as 'uneducated', and 'common', interest waned. She was more often than not left to her own devices.
And her mind spun.
She felt as if she were in a state of limbo.
Per the witch, her goal should be to win the heart of the prince and her own half of his human soul. However, she was not sure if she had done this already. Marriage, the witch had said, Tom the prince must marry her and no other.
But what was marriage to a human?
She had tried to ask the prince himself, in her stilted, unpracticed, handwriting, but his answer had involved so very many human concepts she didn't understand. He spoke of alliances between families and a sharing of wealth, children and legacy, this strange thing called the church which held power even over the king himself, and more besides.
She often found she could not tell which humans were married and which were not. Those who were bound together too often seemed to dislike, if not loathe, the other entirely. Some flitted from partner to partner, taking many lovers, with a spouse sitting idly on the side. Those who truly seemed compatible with one another were often simply given the label of friends.
Tom was unmarried, he had easily confessed as much, and per his own words he expected to remain so.
If that first night she had found him had not been marriage, marriage in the sense that she and her people understood it, then she did not know what was.
Perhaps she had won her human soul already, then. Perhaps even now, his soul burned within her, her task over and done with.
She did not feel different.
She did not feel different, and if it was done then she was not sure what to do now.
She had found him, she had found his world of men, had been introduced to it in a fashion but… There seemed to be nowhere left to go, as if she had come to the edge of a great cliff within the sea and staring out past it was nothing but the endless expanse of ocean.
She'd thought, not so long ago, that once she came to this place everything would be over. She would finally have what she wanted, like minded peers and a foreign world filled with wonders. The world was foreign, certainly it was filled with wonders, but…
It was not as she imagined it.
Sometimes, she insisted to herself that it was the voice. The witch had taken her voice and with it most possibility of connecting with others. However, she would admit this was a weak reassurance to herself. She had the written word, had taken to carrying a notepad with her and scratching her thoughts on paper, and no one read those either.
Most of the humans simply did not care.
The world still dazzled her, was still so full of wonder, but it was a real place and not a fantasy at all.
And now, she had infinite possibilities and in having them had no possibilities at all.
At some point, she decided she would wait.
Tom confessed he was waiting for his father, the king, to die. He seemed eager for this, blood thirsty and shark like, circling his prey while dark nearly sightless eyes trained in on his father's corpse.
She was certain that she was not waiting for that, for a human king's death, but waiting in and of itself did not seem a bad strategy.
She would wait on human legs in this human world, trying to join in the human dance until something occurred.
It was in this period of waiting that three things happened.
Rather, three humans sought her out.
The first found her almost immediately, the very night the prince brought her to the land palace, still dressed in the furs of a nun.
How the woman had found out so quickly was a mystery to Nøkkerosen, or at least, it was at the time. Later, she would learn that humans had lips so quick they seemed faster than the wind, that news, especially scandalous news, would reach the ears of any human who wanted to listen faster than the event itself could take place.
That night though, she had been surprised to find the woman pounding on Tom's door in the dead of night.
She was beautiful, in a very human way, Nøkkerosen had decided. Her hair was a bright red, a color she hadn't seen in human hair thus far, and her eyes a clear green. She looked not too unlike the merfolk herself, the giveaway to her humanity mostly in the two legs she easily stood upon and the ineffable human air to her mannerisms.
"What do you think you're doing?" she had hissed without preamble, not even looking at Nøkkerosen, but instead staring at Tom.
Tom stared defiantly back, not looking at all surprised by the woman's presence, but instead almost invigorated, "Impressing your husband and my brother, for once in my life."
The woman looked anything but pleased by this, "Oh, I heard all about it, and he would be pleased if he could get over his surprise that you, of all people, not only took a whore for a night but brought her back to the palace."
Tom just smiled back, that bitter smile that Nøkkerosen later came to realize was the only smile left to him, "I hardly see how that's your business, Lily."
Here the woman, Lily, did look at her. The sight of Nøkkerosen seemed to shake her to the core, her eyes were caught on her like a fish on a human's hook, and in quiet horror she asked, "God, Tom, how old is she?"
"At least my age, if you can believe it," Tom said, his smile never abating.
The woman didn't even look at him, instead, she asked Nøkkerosen, "How old are you?"
Nøkkerosen stared dumbly. Even had she the ability to speak the answer was… complicated. She did not think she aged as men did nor did she think time passed for her the same way it did for humans. This was not her world; it was becoming increasingly clear that she could make no assumptions as to how it worked.
More, even if that weren't the case, she had lost track of the years in her wandering.
"She doesn't speak," Tom clarified.
"You mean she's mute?!" Lily asked in growing horror, "God, look at her, she doesn't understand a word I'm saying. Tom, did she even give consent—"
"We're old friends," Tom said, apparently having had enough of this conversation, "Remember that mermaid I told you about, years ago?"
Lily looked at him dumbly, clearly uncertain of why he would bring this up, "Yes, but what does that—"
Tom meaningfully looked at Nøkkerosen, the woman turned to look with him, at first in confusion and then growing realization and horror. She must have recognized something in Nøkkerosen, something inhuman if you stared at the right angle, because the questions all disappeared.
She simply stared, taking her in piece by piece, and after a long while left.
Later, Lily would learn that the woman was the wife of the crown prince, who would become queen when the king died. Like many of the humans Nøkkerosen observed in the palace, there was a weight upon her shoulders that never seemed to lift. Although she smiled, laughed, and seemed a joyful participant in human society, her expression never reached her eyes.
The woman did not seek her, nor the prince, out again in private.
Sometimes though, the prince would stare at her from across the hall, a dark shadow in his pale eyes.
The second human, she met later.
By the time he came across her, or rather, by the time he sought her out, she had taken to carrying a notepad with her and started recognizing human names and faces. She knew the king, the king's two sons (one a bastard the other in line for the throne), she knew Lily the wife, and she knew Harry, the crown prince's son.
Harry was the spitting image of his father.
By that time, she had grasped enough of the royal human family's sordid family history to realize this was devastatingly important.
He found her in the gardens, lost in wonder as she stared at the vibrant human plant life, and by the look on his face he had been deliberately seeking her. This was strange, because for all that Tom half-heartedly instructed her on appearing human, he was strapped for time and often away. Most of humanity's rules, its strict seemingly arbitrary demands on what furs to wear, how to walk, how to eat, and everything in between, were still things she had only a vague awareness of.
The prince seemed to like it better when she played the fool so that he could better scandalize the court. He said it was only fair, as they had always been scandalized by his mere existence.
When Harry spotted her, his frustrated frown turned into an uncertain smile. He hesitated, clearly having been looking for her, but now having found her having no idea what to say.
"You're Uncle Tom's woman, aren't you?" he asked, but it was not really a question, because it was clear from his expression that he knew the answer was yes.
"Look, I—" he hesitated, glanced up and down, and waited for inspiration to come to him. Or, apparently, to come to her. His eyes widened in horror as he remembered, "Right, you're mute."
"Bugger, what am I even doing?" he asked himself, running a hand through his hair, "You know, I just—It's been years since Uncle's been to court. When he left, when I was young, he never came to visit. I don't remember much of him, but mother always told stories he's—"
He trailed off, looking back at her uncertainly.
"I thought if anyone knew what he'd be like, it'd be you," he finally confessed.
At that, Nøkkerosen brought out her paper and wrote a single, scraggly, word, "Why?"
He squinted at it, looked at it as if it were a great mystery, but eventually deciphered its meaning, "Well, I mean—obviously he likes you a lot."
Here he motioned to her, some implied meaning she did not quite grasp in the hand gesture. She kept staring, waiting for him to continue, but it appeared that was all he had to say. Or, rather, he was hoping she would have her answer for him.
But in truth, the prince had always been more of a concept to her than a true being. They had shared one conversation, one moment, and then been separated by many years. And the prince she had left behind in her memory did not often match the prince she had found herself with in the human world.
Oh, he was still in this man, somewhere, but time had changed him as time changed all things.
"This was stupid," Harry suddenly declared, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked, it's just—He's nothing like what I imagined, you know. He's so—cold, sometimes, I just thought that maybe, if I talked to you, I could get to know him better."
As far as she knew, Harry never got the chance.
A few weeks later, Tom informed her that Harry had been sent off for schooling in a foreign country, far beyond the stones of this kingdom. It would likely be a number of years before he returned.
And, perhaps it was because she spoke to this second, to the boy who would become crown prince, that the third found her.
This was a girl Nøkkerosen barely recognized, someone she'd seen flitting about at the edge of court, included but hardly in its center. She was not a member of the royal family, the core of this kingdom, but on the outer edges of the wheel.
Nøkkerosen did not know her name.
She, evidently, knew of Nøkkerosen as all humans seemed to.
She came upon her as Harry had, in the garden, seemingly deliberately seeking her out. Her footsteps were shy but rushed, eager and nervous, and her eyes darted to and fro, as if searching for human eavesdroppers as she approached the former mermaid.
When she sat down beside Nøkkerosen, her first words were asking for a confirmation, "You're mute, right?"
Nøkkerosen simply blinked at her, uncertain what to say to that. It was at moments like these that she was glad she could not speak at all. The girl seemed encouraged by her silence.
She was one of the few, other, red-headed women at court. However, unlike the queen, her eyes were a dark color and her skin littered with freckles. She was pretty enough, for a human, but it was her smile that really brought out the appeal of her.
Her grin was almost infectious.
"I've never told anyone this before," the girl confessed, "But I realized I must tell somebody. Only, of course, somebody that can't say a word about it would be best."
She didn't wait for Nøkkerosen to respond, but instead leaned in close, "Someday, I'm going to marry the prince."
Nøkkerosen's eyes nearly bulged out of her sockets, until, only a breath later, the girl clarified which prince.
"I've always loved Prince Harry, ever since we were little, but I never dreamed it was possible. I'm from a relatively poor family, barely got invited to court, how could someone like me marry him? But, before he left for school, he confessed to me."
Her grin became even bigger, brighter, "He likes me too! Of course, his family doesn't know it yet, and we would still have to get approval from somebody but—We're writing letters, sheets and sheets of them! I save each and every one and I just know, that someday, we're going to get married and I had to tell somebody!"
She'd then dashed off, like one of the strange fish that swam in the sky, birds Tom had called them, and giggled to herself as she thought of a wedding and a prince.
While Nøkkerosen stayed behind and thought of her own wedding that may or may not have happened and her own prince.
Would this girl's future be like hers, getting everything she sought and finding… Not that it wasn't what she wanted but that it didn't have quite the glow she had expected. Would she end up becoming little more than an oddity, a strange bauble in her prince's life, as her prince took care of matter of state.
Or would she truly get everything she wished for?
Nøkkerosen did not know what to make of the world of men.
Only, for all the wondrous things mankind had created, it was not quite what she expected.
Author's Note: Nokkerosen is the dog who has caught the car.
And yes, this story did just update, imagine that.
Thank you to readers, reviewers, and those who reminded me this story both exists and is something people enjoy.
Disclaimer: I don't own The Little Mermaid or Harry Potter