The Subject of Payment
Choice of attention - to pay attention to this and ignore that - is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.
-W. H. Auden
There are advantages to dealing with Rumpelstiltskin.
He's a slippery eel, to be sure, but at the end of the day he's eminently reliable. Trustworthy, in his own twisted way. You can lay your life on the fact that he will stick to every last letter of a deal. (The trick, of course, is knowing every last letter of the deal. Those who don't deserve what they get.) For good or ill he will do exactly what he promises, exactly when he promises it. Always.
And he's punctual.
Which is why Ursula is surprised when he doesn't show for their exchange.
Of course, the Sea Witch is a busy woman - nearly as busy as Rumpelstiltskin, thank you very much - and has a great deal to occupy her time. So she doesn't exactly lose sleep over the missed meeting. She's got her own deals to see through, her own collections to make; if the imp got held up for a day or two, well, there are stranger things.
A week passes, though, and surprise gives way to vexation.
He should have come by now. They have a contract.
Nobody breaks a contract with her.
Including the Dark One.
It's with narrowed eyes and pursed lips that Ursula opens her cauldron, raises power with several potions she had plans for (potions the imp will absolutely be replacing), and watches as a glowing orb coalesces to float before her eyes.
"Whom do you wish to contact?" asks the orb, all politeness.
"Rumpelstiltskin of the Dark Castle. And be quick about it."
"One moment, please." The light dims.
Five minutes of pacing later (and a shrimp snack - they're always best when still wriggling), the orb sharpens back to bright gold. "My apologies," it says, "but there's no answer."
Ursula nearly chokes mid-swallow. "No answer?"
"Don't be absurd - the Dark One can always be contacted. You've made a mistake, you stupid spell."
If the orb is offended, it keeps it to itself. "I am sorry, mistress. The Dark Castle cannot be reached."
Ridiculous. "Maleficent of the Forbidden Mountain, then," she snaps.
This time the call goes through; the dark fairy's face appears in moments, thankfully not as a reptile. (Not that Ursula has difficulties communicating with a dragon, but that form usually indicates Maleficent is in a foul humor and thus will be irritating.) "Ursula," she says. "What a delightful surprise." Her tone indicates it is anything but.
"Don't worry, angelfish; it's not you I'm after." (The Mistress of all Evil has a few outstanding contracts of her own with the Sea Witch; one day Ursula will collect, and it will be glorious, but right now she's got bigger fish to fry.) "Where in the seas is Rumpelstiltskin?"
Maleficent's expression turns even more sour. "An excellent question; I've been wondering that myself."
This is a surprise. "You can't find him?"
"Well, I haven't gone hunting," says Maleficent. "I'm rather busy, you know, with royal gatherings and whatnot-"
"Really. I heard you'd been removed from a few invitation lists as of late."
"-and I don't have time to go traipsing after magicians having mood swings." (Maleficent must be quite certain the Dark One isn't listening, to speak so aloud.) "All I know is, he isn't responding to summons."
Ursula taps three tentacles along the edge of the cauldron. "I don't suppose he's been killed."
"I'm the most powerful sorceress in this realm, Sea Witch; if the Dark One died, I rather think I would have noticed. Now if there's nothing else?"
She stores the insult for later. "Helpful as always, Maleficent. Enjoy your gatherings." And Ursula dissipates the fairy's face with a wave of red nails.
Most powerful sorceress in the realm, indeed.
She gives it another day before she stops stalling. Like it or not there is one person in the world who can always find Rumpelstiltskin. Ursula could have contacted her first, but, well... that would involve talking to the petulant child-queen, which is one of her least favorite things to do.
But needs must.
Still, she applies a layer of lipstick, reorganizes her potion cabinet, and feeds her garden a bucket of leftover shrimp shells before she raises the calling spell. "Regina of the Enchanted Forest," she tells the orb, and if there's a hint of sullen reluctance in her voice, well, she's not perfect.
Rumpelstiltskin is going to pay for this.
Regina's not as quick to answer as Maleficent - another odd event, they're adding up - and when she finally appears, the usually impeccably put-together queen seems surprisingly frazzled. "Ursula," she growls. "What do you want?"
Ursula promises herself that if Rumpelstiltskin is dead, she will drag this little upstart into the depths and feed her bones to the sharks. But for reasons unknown, the Dark One has taken a special interest in the fair queen; that makes Regina untouchable. For now. "Your master owes me something," she replies (with impressive equanimity, if she says so herself), "and he's under a rock, not answering my calls. Do you must know where he is?"
The queen makes a dismissive noise. "Of course I do. He's at home."
"Don't waste my time, girl, I've already tried the Dark Castle. The spell didn't go through."
"That's because Rumple has covered all the mirrors. It's blocking the connection."
Ursula blinks. "What? Why?"
"How should I know? Maybe he's working on potions. Or spinning. Or sulking. All I know is, anyone who wants to talk to the wretched little imp has to go to him these days - unless he's started locking the castle doors." Regina sniffs her collar, then wrinkles her nose in disgust. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I cannot get the smell of peasant off of these clothes." And her visage vanishes.
When Ursula gets ahold of Rumpelstiltskin she might not even give him a chance to fulfill their bargain. Maybe she'll just turn him into kelp on the spot. Normally she would never entertain such a thought - unlike the hot-blooded land-dwellers, Ursula doesn't delude herself into thinking she's match for the strongest sorcerer in history - but she's got the power of a deal on her side. The Dark One signed his name to the Sea Witch's scroll, and her contracts are legal, binding, and completely unbreakable... even for him.
Probably. It would be an interesting test case.
Still, he has something she needs, and as delightful as vengeance for all this irritation would be, she'd rather get what she bargained for. Which apparently means going to the Dark Castle.
The better part of a day passes before the magic is in place. There's a reason the Dark One always comes to her, rather than the other way around; he can transport with a wave of his fingers and a simple underwater breathing spell. Ursula, on the other hand, has burnt through half her reserves by the time she pushes through the surface of the castle's lake into alarmingly bright, hot sunlight, and allows air to fill her wet lungs.
It's not the imp in the garden.
"Ah... hello. Can I help you?"
From behind a fruit tree steps a girl.
A girl with pinned brown curls, a peasant dress, and bright blue eyes.
Isn't this is a surprise.
"Can I help you?" the girl repeats, setting down a basket. "I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting any visitors today..."
A new apprentice? "I'm searching for the master of this castle," says Ursula. She allows her tentacles to curl through a mass of cat tails growing in the shallows; the girl's eyes widen, but to her credit, she doesn't scream or back away. Brave? Foolish? Both? Or simply accustomed to strange sights? "And while I'm ordinarily a very patient woman, if I don't see him in the next thirty seconds-" a ripple of waves spreads across the surface of the lake "-I will do something drastic to his property."
The girl glances around the grounds, an expression of horror on her lovely face. "Oh, please don't, I've only just finished weeding," she says.
Then she calls: "Rumpelstiltskin!"
The Dark One - the very same Dark One who has not answered any summons for weeks - appears instantly at her side.
Well. Well. Well.
"Problems with the orchard again, dearie? I did warn you to leave the peaches be until-" Rumpelstiltskin cuts off as he spies his visitor in the water, drumming her nails against the lake surface. Something too quick for Ursula to catch flickers across his face before it vanishes into one of his customary giggles. "Good gracious, if it isn't my favorite cephalopod. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Not pleasure, I'm afraid; just business." A flick of Ursula's wrist and their (lengthy) contract unfurls; if it happens to hover an inch from the imp's scaly nose, well, these things happen. "Has the great Rumpelstiltskin forgotten one of his deals?"
Rumpelstiltskin pauses, then lowers the scroll with a gesture. "Forget one of my deals?" he trills. "Now, does that sound like something I'd do?"
Ursula quirks an eyebrow.
She knows perfectly well what it means when a deal-maker doesn't give a direct answer.
He knows he's caught, too; she can see it in how his manic grin quirks just a little wider, a little stiffer. "Run along and make some tea," he says to the girl. "Only a half pot; our guest won't be here long."
"Oh, I can stay for a cup or two," Ursula interrupts. She leans to the side, looking around Rumpelstiltskin, and favors the creature he's trying to oh-so-subtly block from view with her sweetest smile. "If it's no trouble, of course."
And Rumpelstiltskin bites. "One can't drop in unannounced and expect to be fed and watered," he says warningly. "We'll conclude our deal, and then back to the ocean with you."
The girl gives the most powerful sorcerer in the world the same look one would bestow on an exasperating merchild. "We have more than enough-"
"Go." He hesitates, then adds, grudgingly, genuinely, "Please."
Rumpelstiltskin waits until the girl's figure disappears around the side of the castle before he speaks; then he's back to the eel Ursula remembers. "Do you have what I want, dearie?"
"I had it more than a week ago. Do you have what I want?"
"Yes. As I said."
They eye each other - then, simultaneously, pull their trinkets from thin air.
Ursula tosses a fist-sized bottle to Rumpelstiltskin; the black liquid sloshes in the glass as it disappears into one of his pockets. "I do wonder why you need quite so much," she says lightly. "Not planning to capture a dragon, are we?" Squid ink is incredibly binding - too much so for the average contract. She doesn't use it. Rumpelstiltskin shouldn't need it. Which means there's something else up his sleeves.
And, by the way, those sleeves are silk.
He's also wearing a brocade vest.
She's always known him to be dramatic, but since when does the Dark One dress like a fop?
Rumpelstiltskin doesn't answer her not-so-subtle inquiry - and frankly, when he dangles her payment from his fingers, she ceases to care. "Now, you do understand how to work this, don't you, dearie?" he asks, dancing closer on light human feet. "It's one of a kind, you know."
"Oh," says Ursula, "believe me, I know."
"Use it wisely, then." He waves his hand; the necklace drops over her head, and the nautilus shell for which she bargained comes to rest as a much-anticipated weight upon her heart. "Don't forget - all magic comes with a price."
Rumpelstiltskin's trademark statement reminds Ursula of her ire. "Speaking of which, you owe me quite a few potions."
"You do." She produces a list: everything she had to use in order to transport herself to this wretched land, along with components for the three calling spells she should not have had to make. "You were to come to me, Dark One. A full week ago."
"I don't believe that was stipulated in our deal."
"It's a standing agreement."
"Which is worth the paper it's written on."
"And you were late."
"Exchange dates also lacked contractual specificity, if I recall; I was under no more obligation to appear at a particular time as I was at a particular location."
"Oh, don't try that duplicitous nonsense with me, you little snake - you forgot, plain and simple, and we both know it."
The quick sting of sharp claws digging into her neck isn't wholly unexpected, but that doesn't make it pleasant. "You will remember your place, Sea Witch," Rumpelstiltskin snarls. He hasn't left the lake shore; where he stands his fingers clutch at nothing, but as they tighten, Ursula feels throat constrict. "If I am 'late', as you say, it is because I choose to be so. Do not delude yourself into thinking our paltry little deals are my highest priority."
Ursula may be out of the sea, and on the estate of the Dark One himself, but she's hardly powerless. And the cost she'll pay later is worth the magic to force away his grip - which is more insulting than dangerous. When she can speak, she asks scornfully: "Then what is your highest priority these days? What's so important than the great deal-spinner can't be bothered to leave his house?"
And then, as if on cue, the girl throws open a set of high castle windows and leans out. "Earl Grey or Monk's Blend?"
Rumpelstiltskin looks up.
The breeze pulls the girl's dark curls loose from their pins. They catch against the side of her pale neck, brush across her cheek.
Ursula watches Rumpelstiltskin watch those curls.
"Well?" calls the girl. "Which one?"
The Sea Witch has not gotten as far as she has in life without recognizing that look in a man's eye. "Oh, you poor, unfortunate soul," she murmurs, unable to suppress a chortle.
Rumpelstiltskin's gaze snaps back to Ursula, sharper than she's ever seen it. But his twittering voice is modulated as he shouts to the castle, "Can you not even manage a simple decision without my input, dearie?"
Anyone else in the realm would shrink from the sarcasm in those words. The girl only rolls her eyes and closes the windows.
"And as for you," the Dark One says coldly, "our transaction is completed." The list of Ursula's ingredients vanishes in a puff of smoke. "Back to the depths - and do give my regards to King Triton when next you see him."
He snaps his fingers-
-and Ursula is in her grotto.
Very much without the spell components.
It takes an extra week of brewing to restock the potions necessary (damn that wretched imp), but finally Ursula is able to raise another contact spell. "Regina of the Enchanted Forest," she tells the cauldron, of far brighter disposition than when last she called.
Regina, however, is not in a better mood. "Again?" she snaps, scowling into her mirror and Ursula's orb. "What can you possibly want now?"
Ursula feels too good to be bothered by the other woman's peevishness. (Revenge always improves a day.) "I just thought you should know," she says sweetly, "that the reason for Rumpelstiltskin's... inattention... wasn't nearly as difficult to discover as you land witches seemed to believe."
Regina's scowl deepens. "Does this mean you figured out why he's in hiding?"
"And I suppose that information has a price."
"Everything has a price." Ursula strokes the shell about her neck (such a prize) as the queen - supposedly the fairest of them all, at least until recently - squirms like a worm on a hook. She adds: "I'm not asking much - only a trifle, really."
"I have a particular interest in a certain mermaid. In the near future, I might call on you for assistance on matters involving the chit. That's all."
(There are so many tentacles stretching in so many directions searching for so many weaknesses, but it's the Sea King's pretty little daughter that will be his undoing. Ursula can feel it. And when planning a coup, it never hurts to have indebted allies.)
"Done." (Regina never does pause to think through her deals; it's one of the few things that Ursula enjoys about her.) "So what's the issue with Rumple?"
The Sea Witch smirks. "He's keeping a girl in his castle-"
"Yes, a maid, he mentioned."
"-and he's too infatuated to bother with the rest of the world."
There's a beat, then: "Infatuated?" Regina barks a laugh. "Be serious."
"He's a man, my sweet, and true love is a tale as old as time. Not even the Dark One is immune from it."
"True love. You're telling me that Rumpelstiltskin has found true love."
"In an ordinary slip of a girl with brown hair and blue eyes. I know what I saw."
It's absolutely fascinating to watch Regina's pale skin darken to red; the color would probably be even better in person. "He left me on an executioner's block... at the point of an arrow... for a maid."
"So it would seem," says Ursula. With relish.
This pause is longer than the first. A thousand emotions flicker over the queen's face - and unlike with Rumpelstiltskin, Ursula can read them all - before Regina manages a cold, vengeful smile. "True love. Well, we'll see about that."
As the orb returns to clear gold, Ursula can hear Regina calling for her carriage.
And Ursula smiles.
One ignores the Sea Witch at one's peril.