Her groom, who in a few moments would have been her loving husband, blinked. “Come again?”
“It wasn’t me!” the bride all but wailed. “It wasn’t me who saved your life! When you woke up and said thank you, you mistook me for someone else! And I let you!” In agony and self-loathing, she covered her already-veiled face in her hands.
“What?” The prince had been shocked when his bride had dragged him away from the awaiting ceremony and into a deserted corridor below the deck of the ship. His confusion had only multiplied at her confession.
“At first I thought you were just talking feverishly, but then you said a girl had saved you from the ocean and sang to you in a beautiful voice-- ! It wasn’t me, Eric. I can’t even sing!”
“Now, hold on,” Eric said, all of his princely composure coming through. “Is that what’s been bothering you this whole time? I thought you were having second thoughts about marrying me.”
His bride looked up in indignation, half-formed tears on the long lashes of her blue eyes.“Second thoughts? Of course not! Who wouldn’t want to marry you?!”
“Well, thank you! So that’s what it was.” Prince Eric laughed and ran a hand through his black hair, relieved. “Why did you lie?”
“I didn’t mean to. At first I thought you meant to thank me for finding you, and feeding you-- in a way that was saving you, but before I knew it, I’d already taken the credit.” She hung her head. “I’m so sorry.”
“Why did you lie?” Eric repeated gently.
“Because I liked you,” she said in a low voice. “Telling you there was a gorgeous girl out there who could swim and sing much better than me was too much. I didn’t want to lose you. But it was wrong of me. I should have tried to find her. In the end, I stole you from her. I even stole you from that pretty, mute girl who worships you. Eric, I’m a horrible thief, and I don’t deserve you! You don’t belong to me.”
“Now, if you’re going to try and sell me some fairy-tale nonsense about stealing me from some destined soulmate that I obviously couldn’t even recognize if I saw her-- that’s a lot of bosh!” Prince Eric exclaimed unromantically, startling his fiancee. More calmly, he took her by the shoulders and drew her closer. “Even if she saved my life, and had the voice of an angel, it’s not her I fell in love with. It’s your face I know, and it’s you that I want to marry.”
Her heart melted, even under the guilt she still felt. “But I...”
“And about my mute girl-- she’s a sweetheart, but I fell in love with you first. She was like a wonderful little sister to me when I thought I‘d never see you again. She doesn’t care for me like that! And even if she did, she’s too good natured to hate you for stealing me. Don’t feel guilty for that too!”
She hung her head, not wanting to say more. How could she not feel guilty when he loved her, but was completely oblivious to that poor girl’s regard? The mute girl, always so graceful, had danced very prettily at the bonfire on shore with the others, but her deep and delicate sorrow had not escaped the agonized princess who was about to undeservedly marry her prince.
“You should have told me sooner, it’s true.” Eric went on. “It would have saved us a lot of trouble. Especially all of those fibs and excuses you made in order not to sing to me! I thought your vocal chords were permanently damaged or something! My darling heart, you carried that burden all for nothing!”
“You mean-- you can’t mean-- it doesn’t matter to you? You can forgive me?” She didn’t dare to hope.
“Oh, I don’t know if I can quite forgive you... I can’t make flowery speeches about my rescue at banquets anymore. And I won’t feel any more gratitude to you for saving my life. Do you think our relationship can live without it?” There was a mocking gleam in his coal-black eyes, but they still looked into hers tenderly.
“I may be a very wicked woman,” his bride said with what dignity she had left, “but no matter what, I will love you with all of my immortal soul.”
“Then marry me now!” Her soon-to-be husband smiled, holding out his hand. “Everyone is waiting.”
The ceremony took place on board the ship, the mute girl held the bride’s train, and the happy couple spent the night in each other’s arms. The bride thought she might have heard, at some point in the night, a creak of hinges, like the sound of the door opening. It did not quite wake her, but stirred up the leftover feelings of self-inflicted anxiety.
God, she prayed silently, unconsciously. Forgive me. I don’t know who that girl was, and I can’t apologize to her. Please... grant her some sort of happiness for the life she saved. Bless her as I cannot.
She felt some sort of tender feeling, then, some relief and forgiveness that she hadn’t known was possible, as if someone had kissed her forehead-- the prince’s too, and left. With a sigh, she fell back into deep slumber.
The next morning, the mute girl was gone. The prince and princess stared at the foamy sea in sadness, knowing there was no other place she could have gone. In time, the mysterious, angel-voiced girl, and the devoted girl who could not speak blended in the princess’ mind. She prayed for her every night, for without her, she thought, there was no way she could have had such a wonderful love, or such a happy life. She and her husband, their children, and their children’s children, would forever be in the debt of that unselfish, ethereal creature.