Vanessa was not a very good princess.
She was beautiful, like her sisters, but where they were blonde and fair and favored their mother, Vanessa's dark hair and lanky form favored their father. This, she had been assured, was not a very princess-like look. She was a passable singer, though the same could not be said of her skills on an instrument. She did well at book learning, but she was the bane of her etiquette teacher's existence.
And of course, she had three perfect older sisters who excelled at everything that princesses should. They danced beautifully, walked sedately, and each could name a particularly princessy domestic skill. Vanita grew gorgeous flowers without ever seeming to get a speck of dirt on her. Verity was quite accomplished at embroidering, making elegant portraits of their family. And Vida was superbly charming, able to remember the name and title of every guest at a party, and always knowing exactly what to say to make them fall in love with her.
Vanessa could speak to animals, which was, according to her tutor, only a lesser princess trait. Many princesses could speak to animals, and even some common girls, but they all had additional royal traits. Vanessa pointed out that she swam very well, and for a seaside kingdom that could be considered a valuable skill. However, her mother had declared swimming a ghastly, common, habit and forbade her to continue.
Her sisters had each been presented to society at sixteen, and had become betrothed almost immediately after. Vanessa would be sixteen in a few months, and she had recently overheard her parents talking about postponing her debut until she was better prepared, or until they could find someone willing to put up with her shortcomings.
All in all, it seemed, Vanessa was simply an unacceptable princess.
One afternoon Vanessa snuck out of the gardens and down to the shore. She visited the beach whenever she could, despite her mother's edict, but this afternoon was different. This afternoon, a voice spoke to her from the ocean.
"What a sad little girl," it said. "An unfortunate situation."
Vanessa froze and looked out over the water. She had never before heard an animal that sounded like that. "What?"
"She's so under-appreciated, don't you think?" it continued.
"They're keeping her away from the world she loves," the voice, or another just like it, said.
"We should offer to help," the other voice suggested.
"But would she want our help? After all, she is a princess. She might not want a different life."
"Excuse me, please," Vanessa interrupted as politely as she could. "May I see who I am speaking to?"
There was a pause, before the voices replied together, "Of course my dear. Just return to the water."
Vanessa hesitated, but a distant shout decided her. When her mother used that tone, it meant that Vanessa was in huge trouble. Vanessa didn't want to return to a castle where she would always be sub-par. She didn't want to go back to a world where her best was never good enough, and the few things she enjoyed were forbidden.
"I'm coming!" She told the animals, ripping her shoes and stockings off. Her outer dress quickly followed, leaving her in just her petticoat. Vanessa slipped into the water, gasping pleasantly at the coldness. Once she had waded out to her waist, Vanessa felt something brush against her legs. Looking down, she found two sets of eyes staring back at her.
"Hello, child," one of the creatures said. It looked almost like a snake, but with dark fringy bits along the edges. Vanessa had never seen anything like it.
"Hello. What are you, please?" she asked, curious.
"We're eels," the other replied. "And we can help you, if you'd like."
"How can you help?" she asked. She had never heard of animals that could make someone into a proper princess.
"We can't make you into what your parents want..." the first eel said.
"...But we can give you a new home where you'll fit right in," its twin continued.
"You just have to trust us," they finished in tandem.
Vanessa glanced back at the shore once more, at the huge palace walls that she had always been trapped behind. Then she looked back at the eels. They were odd, and she had never seen an animal like them before, but for some reason, she did trust them. "What do I have to do?" she asked.
The eels appeared to grin. "Follow us."
This morning she had drunk the finished brew, and now, after a painful but satisfying transformation, Vanessa was a completely different girl. Her long brown hair swirled in the water around her shoulders, which now had a bit of a purple tint to them. Below her chest her skin had transformed, becoming black and scaly, all the way down to her new tentacles. That was something she had spent most of the morning getting used to; having eight limbs below the waist instead of two. Once she learned how to coordinate them - with quite a bit of advice and explanation from her friends - she was able to zoom powerfully through the water. It was amazing!
Now that she could swim with her new body, and was used to breathing underwater, Vanessa was ready for her new life. Flotsam and Jetsam had told her about a kingdom underwater where she could live. She would no longer be a princess, but she could be just a normal girl, able to do whatever she wanted. It sounded like heaven to young Vanessa, and she was so excited to really embark on her new life. Maybe without the pressure of being a perfect princess, she could find something that she was really good at.
Once she had everything gathered, Vanessa slipped back into the water. Her friends were waiting, and they smiled their crooked grins at her. Though their appearance had been a bit frightening the first time she saw them, Vanessa now could not imagine her life without the duo. "Are you ready?" they asked.
Vanessa glanced back at her rocky retreat one more time before squaring her shoulders. "Yes!" she declared.
"Right this way," Flotsam said, slipping off with Jetsam right behind.
Smiling, Vanessa followed them into her new life.
"I told you not to call me that," she growled, withdrawing further into her dark crevice. Vanessa had been an innocent young girl who hoped for a better life. Ursula the Sea-Witch knew that no such life existed.
"We have a surprise for you," Flotsam and Jetsam insisted.
With a huff, Ursula slid down into the main chamber. She had fashioned this home for herself after the merfolk had rejected her, and between it and her eels, she had everything she ever wanted. Except for revenge, of course. Throwing a few ingredients into her cauldron, Ursula created the window that would allow her to look through her baby's eyes.
"Is that her?" she whispered, as a clearly heartbroken young redhead came into focus. Could this be the youngest of Triton? Ursula had heard of her, but had never seen the troublesome princess.
"Yes." Flotsam replied.
"And she loves a human - Eric." Jetsam added.
"Eric? Why does that name sound familiar?"
"Verity's son," they said together.
Ursula cackled. Her oldest sister's first-born? This was perfect! She could have her revenge on Triton for banishing her and on her family for driving her to the sea in the first place. She would send the girl to the surface, destined to fail, and the young duo's doomed love would be her vengeance! Great, booming laughter poured from Ursula. This was the moment she had dreamed of for decades, and it was finally here!
"Bring the girl," she ordered. "Do it carefully."
"Yes, mistress," her darlings replied.
Still chuckling, Ursula swept around her home. She needed to prepare all of the ingredients, and of course the look of the place had to be just right. The girl wanted to go to the surface, just as Vanessa had once wanted to slip into the sea, and Ursula knew just how to manipulate those desires.
And just as she had learned the harsh reality of the world, so too would unfortunate little Ariel.