Twin mermaids flitted past, though it was hard for Polly to tell whether they were swimming or hopping or making their way by some other magical mermaid mode of travel. They giggled and called each other flower names, and swished their violet tails and rose pouches, and then they were gone. Polly shook her head, bewildered; all mermaids looked the same to her.
“There certainly are a lot of mermaids here,” said Polly, “What do you do?”
“What do we do?” puzzled Louisa, as though it was a silly question, “We be ourselves. We relax. We take whatever duty we are given and we do it to the best of our ability. We are mermaids, and that is what we do, and what we have always done. We are proud.”
Polly nodded her head, although not quite understanding, and heard footsteps approaching. Queen Elizabeth returned, her outfit shimmering, followed by what Polly assumed were her attendants. An elderly merman with a staff and a fur-lined cape around his shoulders stood at her side, his coral face and weed-green hair accentuated, as were his wise wise eyes. The King!
Behind the King hid a small girl in a gold silk dress. Her feet were visible, a fact that shocked Polly because she expected there only to be mermaids in the palace. The girl’s limp brown hair slung down and covered one side of her face like a mask, and, at Polly’s glance, she looked away.
King Jacque was in a deep conversation with a familiar face: Brandi!
“Brandi!” Polly cried, “I wondered what had happened to you!”
“Oh, I’m fine, Polly!” Brandi giggled, “I’ve been enjoying the company of my royal friends here. Thank you for worrying anyway. By the way, this is a merhippo. I bet you’ve never met a merhippo!”
Polly was greeted by the large beast that Queen Elizabeth had on a lead. It was like normal hippos in every way, except that its amethyst skin changed at its middle, becoming flexible and scaly like mer-tails.
“I’ve never seen one of these before, no.” laughed Polly, as she lowered her hand to stroke its head. It was as playful as any puppy. For a second, the girl forgot her predicament and felt at home amongst these creatures and her doll companion.
“I heard my daughter was telling you about the roles of life here,” King Jacque spoke up in a grating voice, “They apply to any place, you know.”
“We have roles and orders here in the palace. Don’t worry, you’re safe with us; we only exist to help humans,” The Queen announced, “That’s our role, and you too, Polly, have a role in your life.”
“Then why am I a doll now?” asked Polly, “I want to go back.”
“Brandi? I think you saw what happened?” Queen Elizabeth said.
“Yes,” replied Brandi, “Random acts of magic like this happen. Arielle must have wanted to become a human, and so she cast a spell on Polly. But she belongs with us, as a doll; she shouldn’t try and be something she’s not. She must be missing us,” Brandi added sadly.
Queen Elizabeth turned her graceful head back to Polly.
“As for getting back to normal, we may have something that will help reverse Arielle’s magic. That’s what we have been talking to Brandi about.”
“There’s one catch though,” piped up the voice of the gold-robed girl behind the royal couple. Polly could see now that she was carrying a large vial of bubbling liquid the same colour as her dress. It shimmered and sparkled, infused with magic.
“Once you drink this, you will need to return to the place of the body-swap before five minutes is up, otherwise the potion does the reverse and keeps you in this doll-form. I know, it happened to me,” she perked up, “But I have become part of life here; mixing bathwater with the mermaid magic has revived me. I whole-heartedly thank the mermaids for their hospitality.”
“And so starts a race against time,” Queen Elizabeth murmured. Her daughter walked to her side and took the merhippo lead from the lady.
“Well, it’s up to you, Polly. Do you think you can do it?”
Polly, the only one now facing the opposite way to the others, studied their faces carefully. Brandi was smiling, and the others wore expressions of serenity.
“Okay, yes. I would like the potion.” Polly said, mainly to the golden dressed doll.
The girl tiptoed forwards, carefully extending the tall magenta glass. At Polly’s touch, the liquid became more violent, bubbling as though it knew she was special and it wanted to help her.
One hesitation, a glance towards the girl, then Polly drank the fizzing liquid in one gulp. It was strong and sweet, popping stars on her tongue as if she were just eating fizzy sweets, and had no distinct flavour but was a rainbow of them all.
She grinned, although it felt like something was draining her energy, and passed the glass back to the other girl. The golden one studied her, and finally flicked her wrist as though swatting away a fly.
Brandi was brought towards Polly, and the two of them were led out the hidden door of the chamber into what might have been the main courtyard of the Mermaid Palace.
“Now, go!” commanded the golden girl, raising her hands dramatically to the sky.
Brandi rolled her eyes, but Polly watched the girl with more open curiosity. The potion-mistress must have once been like Polly herself, but now had such a place of standing in between the mermaids; it was her job, as Princess Louisa had said. But Polly didn’t even know her name.
The merpeople waved the two cardboard dolls off, and they felt themselves being lifted out of the bath, as though by an invisible hand or a gust of wind. As they touched down on the linoleum floor, Brandi observed:
“The mermaids must have used some of their magic to help us climb out the bath! How nice of them!”
“They’re lovely people.”
Polly looked out for the twins who had helped her earlier, but they were nowhere to be seen. They had done their duty, she guessed, and now were off being mermaids. The thoughts brought a smile to her tired lips.