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A thousand twanging instruments

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Darkness lay over the island when she first came. She could not remember if she had always been there, or had come from elsewhere. It seemed like she had been there forever.

Ariel, who had spent years obeying his master, was uneasy at the prospect of freedom. Wasn't even sure what it would mean, though he surmised that there must have been a time, before Sycorax and the cloven oak, before Prospero's staff, that he had had freedom. He observed Miranda often and though that she must surely have it. But in time, her father imposed more rules on her, observed her every move the same as he observed Ariel and Caliban.

Caliban had the misfortune of having a body, which had desires, and Ariel observed how this drove him to do things Prospero considered unforgivable. Prospero considered Ariel the good servant and Caliban the bad one, though for which reason, Ariel could by no means say. If he had a body, he wasn't too sure he wouldn't have done the same things as Caliban. He'd given up on understanding human morality a long time ago. It seemed that whatever Prospero said was the law, and whatever Caliban did was against it, though through what this was justified, Ariel could not fathom.

Right now, here, as he surveyed the broken ship and the tired though still living bodies of her passengers on the beach, Ariel wished he had a body. Ferdinand was only the third man he had ever seen, and differed markedly from both his master and Caliban. Where Caliban's skin was red and scaly, Ferdinand's was a smooth tan colour. Prospero had lost all his hair a long time ago - Ariel missed tousling it in his spirit form - but Ferdinand had a full head of dark curls. His clothes were clinging to him, full of seawater that thanks to Ariel's magic hadn't managed to drag him down.

As a breeze of air, Ariel caressed Ferdinand's body; rested on his cheeks, his hands, his thighs. When Prospero touched Miranda, kissed her forehead at bedtime, he had often wondered what that touch felt like. He knew it made his master feel something, even if Prospero thought he was hiding this very well. Even the most powerful magician forgets himself sometimes; forgets how many eyes and ears his servant could have if he was so inclined.

He should have share in this shipwreck, should have a prize. He had done all the work his master had bidden him do, and yet there was never any reward worth the name.

Ariel left off from these thoughts. He must get back to his master, must tell him that the work was done, and maybe they could discuss rewards then.

***

He might have guessed that the reward would be Miranda's and not his; might have guessed that the good child came before even the good servant; that Prospero regarded Ariel's freedom as the highest reward he could give. Yet humans, Ariel had realised, did not do well with solitude. Even as Prospero released Miranda, he did so because she had bound herself to another. Ariel would be bound to no one, neither in bondage nor out of his free will. Caliban would beg the sailors to take him away from the island, away to somewhere where he might find willing company and wouldn't have to be alone as he had been in the days before Prospero.

There was a longing here which was not part of his nature. He had spent too long around humans, Sycorax would have said. Air couldn't grow a heart, couldn't have feelings; yet she had given him the ability to feel pain and imprisoned him in a tree, so why shouldn't he be able to feel other things?

He felt it deep inside him when Prospero's staff broke. He had no words for what freedom felt like, except as the absence of something that had been there for as long as he could remember, and now it wasn't. Caliban felt it too, and Ariel saw how he walked taller, like a weight had been taken from his shoulders.

He had no notion of what to do next, how to act, where to go. The island boundaries, he realised with astonishment, were not the ends of the world, though he had thought of them as such for no clear reason he could name. There was air across the water, air all the way up from the island to the high heavens, air even beyond the ocean and on the lands the ship was sailing to.

He could go anywhere, observe anyone and anything.

It was a terrifying thought, and a sobering one all the same. He would be an observer for the rest of his life, would inhabit the air around someone's face, or hair, or body, but never able to see or be seen, understand truly what it meant to be human, understand what it meant to bind oneself to another being voluntarily, not out of servitude or as part of a contract.

Yet, it was what freedom meant for him. This, or staying on the island, within the bones of the soil, the roots of the trees, becoming one with the sound of the waves on shore.

Ariel released the control of his human-shaped form; dissolved into the air between the trees, became the scent of the pines and the sound of the waves and the area between the grains of sand flung back on the beaches.

There must be others like him. Across the waves, on other islands maybe, in other places not yet inhabited by humans, or even in the human cities, unknown by them.

Humanity was not Ariel's nature, and his people had not left him an instruction manual for how to be whatever it was that he was. He realised with a start that, even though he had spent so many years around humans, served one of them, he was now not bound by their rules, laws and restrictions, could go wherever he wanted and do whatever he chose, and trust that he would find another of his own kind.

Solitude might not lie in his nature either, might just be something that first Sycorax and then Prospero had imposed on him in different ways.

He drew the disparate parts of himself together from the trees and the waves and the sand on the beach. He would wander at the speed of the wind, hither and thither, and experience whatever it was that Prospero didn't want him to experience; find another of his own kind.

He laid human-shaped eyes on the island one last time. The heavens opened and rain poured on the soil where Ariel was standing; right through his form, melting the sand under his feet.

He transformed into air and blew away from the island for the first time since he could remember.