There's nothing about her that couldn't be human, Eric thinks. Her hair is the color of autumn leaves, bright enough to turn heads and draw the eye, but it's not green or blue or glittering like light on water. She's a little awkward still, tripping over her own feet and laughing, but that's no more than an endearing flaw. And if she still frets at shoes, shedding them whenever she can, it could be only that she was what he believed her at first, a peasant girl playing at being a fine lady but grateful to put the game aside when she's done.
But he knows that's not true, now. She's the daughter of a king herself, in a world he'll never see and can barely imagine. She tells him stories when they're lying in bed, and he can almost imagine it, lying beside her with her head on his shoulder and her bright hair spread across his skin.
"If you can keep up with the schools of fish, it's like they're dancing around you in the water," she says. "You can't see anything but their colors when you're in the middle of the school, you just have to follow the way they do, feeling them touch you all over, everywhere--" She twists awkwardly as if she expects to be able to twirl in the air, and he traces sympathetic spirals on her skin with his fingertips.
He knows she misses it. She's entranced by bright things -- daylight, fire, paintings, birds' wings -- but there are so many things that she's lost that he doesn't even understand.
"The coral was alive," she says, "and you could hear it singing. Well, not singing, really, but humming. I wish sometimes ..." She shakes her head. "I don't know why the trees here don't sing," she says, a little sadly.
He knows that she can hear the fish and birds speaking, or at least she says so. He's banished fish from the palace tables, to general grumbling, because he can't stand to see the shock in her eyes when it's there, even if she doesn't taste it herself.
"Tell them it's part of a bargain with the people of the sea," he says to Grimsby. "It's a small enough thing for my household to do in exchange for their favor when the winter storms come."
"I can tell them that," Grimsby says. He looks a little wry. "Tell me, is it true?"
"I'm not entirely sure," Eric admits. He's aware that he has King Triton's favor in the sense that he's been permitted to wed his youngest daughter, his cherished darling, and is still alive to tell of it. Whether that favor extends beyond benign indifference, he has no way of knowing.
"I don't know," Ariel says when he asks her about it. "Most people don't go up to the surface. They wouldn't know if there were drowning sailors, or a shipwreck, or anything like that."
"But if you called one of the fish to tell them?"
"My father might help," Ariel says. "He might if I asked him. But you know he still doesn't like humans very much."
Eric knows. He knows there can never really be more than an uneasy peace between him and the people of the sea as long as his own people depend for their livelihood on what they pull out of their nets. He still goes out to the beach in the mornings when he can, with the new pipe Ariel gave him on their wedding day, and plays the tunes that come to him. He's not talking to the wind or the waves anymore, or to an imagined love, but to strangers under the sea who probably can't hear him anyway.
In the evenings, after the days' business is done and dinner is over, they walk down to a secluded beach that everyone else has been duly warned away from, and she strips off her clothes on the beach so he can teach her to swim again. She's angry at her own helplessness in the water at first, but she works grimly to learn, and eventually there's some pleasure in it for her again.
She's fearless about swimming underwater, so much that it scares him, for all that he's spent his life in and out of the water. He dives in after her, once, when she's been under too long without surfacing, and she smiles when she sees him and catches at him, rolling him under her in the water and holding him there. She's the one who must be desperate for air, not him, and so he presses his mouth to hers and gives her his breath until his chest begins to ache. If she won't let him surface to breathe--
And then she kicks up toward the light, and a moment later his own head is breaking the surface, and he gasps. She's laughing, and after a moment he laughs, too.
"I wouldn't hurt you, silly," she says, and he knows she wouldn't, but he's aware now that there's a time when she could have. Her strong arms tugged him ashore and cradled him while he took his first desperate breath, but they could have just as easily dragged him down and held him underwater forever.
"Take a deep breath," he says, and when she does, they both dive, meeting under the water and rotating lazily around each other as long as they can. Her skin is warm against his, and he wonders what it would be like if they could sleep like this, her hair floating around him in a halo.
Instead they make love in the surf, tumbled by the waves and battered by them, not that floating idyll, and not their warm bed in the palace either, but the harsh place between them. He combs out her hair afterwards while she sings to him, wordless songs of the sea or new ones she's learned on land.
It's not that he ever forgets that she's not human, but he's forgotten to keep it in mind when their first child comes. The pains terrify her, nothing like however it happens in the ocean, and the weight of her own body seems to torment her. Finally he insists on a bath for her, and she stays in it until the end, when the harried midwife finally tries to get her to move to the bed.
"Leave me alone!" she cries, and there's a flurry of birds' wings, swirling in the air of her chamber through a window that should have been closed, beating their wings against the shrieking midwife's skirts.
Then there's a new sound, a baby's wail, held dripping in Ariel's arms, the water filled with blood. "Oh, love," she says, cradling the little girl, "oh, my love," and he's not sure if it's welcome or apology or both.
Later that month he comes into the nursery to see her with the baby in her arms, turning the figures of a dance slowly across the floor, spinning as if she could swirl through the water. When she looks up to see him, her eyes are smiling.
"How long until she can learn to dance?"
"You're teaching her already," Eric says.
The first bad shipwreck is the winter after that, a cargo ship driven against the rocks below the palace walls. Every man turns out, because the water is killingly cold, and there are too many men still clinging to the wreckage in the water.
"Ariel," Eric says, meaning to ask her if there's any help she can call, but she's already throwing off her gown to dive into the water in only her shift. She dives, and he thinks that maybe she's finding some creature of the water to speak to, some fish or crab that can carry word to King Triton, but he wonders if there's any fish that can swim fast enough and far enough to bring help in time.
Then she surfaces near one of the men in the water, getting her arms around him and kicking hard toward land. Eric is already in the water himself, its chill biting to the bone, and for a moment all he can think of is to strike out after her, but she's making good headway toward the beach, and there are more drowning men out there.
He grits his teeth and goes after them, and leaves her to her work.
After what seems an eternity, he realizes that the waves are calming and the wind dying down, the sea smoothing out like a pond. He stands up in the surf and staggers, his legs numb and tired, and one of the sailors catches his arm and helps him up the beach.
"Every man's safe ashore," the man says. "King Triton be praised."
It might be true that he should be, but at the moment, the only one he's grateful to is Ariel. She's sitting on a rock with her gown more or less on, though it's still unlaced in the front, and a blanket someone's brought her thrown round her shoulders. He didn't count how many men she brought to shore before she was shaking too hard with the cold to brave the water again.
He comes to sit next to her and puts an arm round her waist. "You didn't have to," he says.
"They're my people," she says, and in that moment he can see that she's a king's daughter. Then she pushes her sandy hair out of her face and smiles up at him. "Let's go inside," she says. "Where there's a fire."
He makes as if to pick her up, but she shakes her head, and he gives her his arm instead.
"I can walk," she says, and he walks with her all the way home.