by Holly Stacey
Merinda the mermaid sighed deeply, letting green bubbles float upward toward the surface of the sea. She had only three scallop shells left in her mer-purse, and her father’s birthday was only days away.
“What in the deep blue sea is a good present for the king of the sea?” It wasn’t as if she expected an answer. She was, after all, alone in her undersea cave. Or at least, she thought she was alone.
A small blowfish had made his way into her private chambers though a small gap in the cave’s ceiling. “What does he like?” the blowfish asked.
Merinda jumped, her tail swishing through the salt water, nearly knocking the blowfish back. She’d never had a visitor in her cave that wasn’t family. “Who are you? And what are you doing in my private chambers?”
The blowfish let out a cough and made himself look important by puffing himself out, nearly quadrupling his size. “I am Bristle. And I am here to help you. It just so happens I know how you can earn some more scallop shells, enough to buy an excellent birthday present for His Majesty. He needs a new cape. The old one he wears has kelp hanging by mere threads from the base. The whole kingdom is talking about it.”
Squashing up her nose, Merinda tried to recall what her father’s cape looked like. She’d always assumed it was meant to have kelp trailing down the back. “Well, if the whole kingdom thinks he needs a new cape…”
Bristle looked eager for Merinda to finish her sentence. “Yes… go on,” he said, persuading her even more.
“I suppose that’s the best present to give him.” She put on a pleasant face for Bristle, but inside she was quaking. Robes and capes were expensive, so much more than three scallop shells, and Merinda had no way of making any more.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Bristle. “You’re worried you don’t know any reputable cape-makers. But I’m here to help you, as I said before.” Bristle puffed out even further, so much so that Merinda was worried he’d pop. “I am the BEST cape maker in the kingdom, and my prices are very REASONABLE,” said Bristle with a flourish.
Merinda perked up considerably. “How reasonable?” She was already digging into her mer-purse before Bristle stopped her.
He swam around, seeming to appraise her. “Yes, I think you’ll work very well in the cape factory.”
Merinda flushed coral rose. “Me? Work? In… A FACTORY?” She tried not to panic. She was royalty, a daughter of the king, and this blowfish was asking her to get her fins dirty?
“You want to get the king what he really needs, don’t you?” asked Bristle, losing his patience. “Well, this is the best and quickest way to do it. You don’t have a lot of time, you know.”
It was true, she didn’t have a lot of time, and it wasn’t as if it would be easy getting a job anywhere else with no experience. Another thought suddenly swam past her mind. She wanted her father’s birthday present to be a surprise.
“Will you keep it a secret?” she asked Bristle. “I mean, about me working.” She shuddered as she said the word “working.”
The blowfish smiled widely, revealing several rows of small teeth. “I’m very good at keeping a secret,” he said. “I’ll expect you at work first thing tomorrow morning.” He deflated into a small fish again and swam back out the hole he had come from, leaving Merinda alone with her thoughts.
The next day, Merinda woke up very early. The sun’s beams were streaming down through a canopy of floating kelp, dimly lighting the seabed and a few walking starfish. “Hey, Merinda!” they all shouted in unison, waving their arms before scampering away to look for breakfast. Merinda waved back, but they didn’t see her. She’d always liked the starfish, especially how silly they looked when they were stuck to rocks during low tide. That always made her laugh.
“I must get to… work,” she said a little sadly. She’d never had to work a day in her life. Being a sea princess meant you didn’t sully your tailfins. But, she really wanted to make her father happy with a special gift, so she gritted her teeth and swam to the factory.
“Good morning!” Bristle called out to her. She was amazed nobody else was in the factory. “We wanted it to be a secret, didn’t we? I sent everyone home today.”
Merinda blew out a few bubbles of relief. It was good Bristle had been thinking about his other workers. The gossip around the sea would have been terrible had anyone found out she’d had to work for shells.
Bristle was quick to show her how to work, and work she did. She sewed, folded, pleated, and stitched until, by the end of the day, there was the most beautiful robe made of the best sea silk.
“Well done!” cried Bristle as he came to check on her. It had grown very dark outside, and Merinda worked all the way through her lunch break. She didn’t stop until she was finished. Merinda found herself turning coral rose again with embarrassment.
“Really? You like it?” she asked, holding the robe up.
“Oh, yes, it’s so much prettier than the cape the king wears now. I’m sure he’ll be amazed it was made by you.”
Merinda blushed again. But she was a little confused. She thought she’d be earning scallop shells to buy something from Bristle, not make it herself. However, before she could ask him about it, she heard a loud rumble of applause, stomps, and whistles. It seemed almost the whole kingdom had come out from hiding and were cheering her.
“Hoorah for princess Merinda!” shouted all the starfish together. Behind them swam up the king himself.
“Ah, my littlest princess, you have done very well,” said the king, looking proudly down at her.
“Were you there the whole time?” asked Merinda, aghast. She didn’t know how the present could be a surprise now.
The king seemed to know what she was thinking and called over to the blowfish. “Bristle,” he said, “can you please explain to the princess?”
Bristle cleared his throat and puffed big again, making his eyes bulge. Merinda tried not to giggle. “I am in the king’s employ,” he said proudly, “to test his subjects of their worthiness. It seems the sea-princess Merinda is VERY worthy of her new crown. She thinks of others before herself and does what she has to in order to make others happy. A very worthy sea-princess, indeed!”
The crowd cheered again, and Merinda was swept up and carried like a champion. “But Father!” she cried out over the crowd, “I still need to give you your birthday present!”
She was gently released and then swam back to Bristle. “How much for the robe?” she asked, pointing to the garment she’d just worked on.
Bristle cleared his throat, looked to the princess, then to the king. He smiled, puffed up again and said, “Exactly three scallop shells.”
Merinda was pleased. She pulled out her mer-purse and gave him her last three shells. Then she picked up the robe and handed it to her father. “Happy Birthday, Daddy!”
“Thank you, Merinda, I love it!” exclaimed the king. He took off his old cape and put on his new long robe. It fit him perfectly. “By the way, Merinda,” he said with a glint in his eye, “being a WORTHY sea-princess means your pocket money goes up.”
Everybody, including Bristle and Merinda, laughed. It had been a hard day’s work, but it was a perfect ending.
1. Whose birthday was only days away?
2. How was Bristle going to help Merinda?
3. What did Merinda want Bristle to keep a secret?
4. What did Merinda make while working for Bristle?
5. Who had sent Bristle to help Merinda?