Actions

Work Header

the wonder that's keeping the stars apart.

Chapter Text

The story of the Little Mermaid begins not at the beginning but at the very ending; when a man tells children a story.

“Can I tell you a story?” the man asked.

From the moment he saw their faces, he knew he had to tell them.

The rain raged down on Chicago, down on the streets and down on the river and almost brought down the glass roof of Union Station. The rain was coming down, drop by drop by drop per second and by a trickle, into buckets that the janitors had to mop up and the train officers had to phone the engineers, all in the case of where the glass roof was to join the rain and come down, down, down intertwined on the train-waiters, in dancing sheets of silver.

The rain came down on Jodi Erikson; it came down and nearly left her soaked, her dark hair sticking to her neck and almost coming undone into frizz and curls (despite her earlier attempts to straighten it). The rain came down on the roof and filled the grand corridors of marble with sound, to replace the words Jodi was looking for (mind your language, remember how damn lucky you are, the social worker reminded her, make a good impression because don’t count on something like this happening again.)

The rain came down on Carlo Washington also; it came down and left Carlo shivering where he was already trembling with the nerves that rattled his insides, blue now tinging the clay of his skin (hoping he cut his hair short enough for today). The rain was coming down and Carlo could only hope that water didn’t seep into his bag of store-brought hormones (as for you, the social worker noted, her voice clipped, it’s best you say little about what and… why you’re taking those things, Carla. At that stage, Carlo was too tired to fight with her.)

The rain was coming down on Chicago; down on the roofs, down on the old streets and gathered in Ned Andersen’s blue eyes, tears gathering and but not coming down; rain making his ankle-foot orthoses sing with each swing of his feet, the rain caught in the strands of his reddish-pale hair.

The rain came down and down and down, wet and pulsating and shining, and filled the silences between the three, those three sitting right next to each other on the bench, waiting for the train to come and take them away.

“Would we know this story?” Carlo asked.

A brief pause. “I would hope so,” the man mused.

“What’s it about?” Jodi sharply said.

He paused, thinking. “About mermaids.”

A light filled Carlo’s eyes. “Mermaids?”

“Like the Little Mermaid story?” Carlo asked

A smile, soft as the down of a bird, bloomed on his mouth. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a story about mermaids. And, Mr. Washington, you are most certainly right.” Carlo smiled. “But you’re also wrong.” Carlo’s smile died just a few seconds later; an expression of befuddlement replacing that recently-killed smile.

“How can someone be right and wrong at the exact same time?” Jodi piped, her cheeks now red with second-hand anger, second-embarrassment (everything about her second-hand; the clothes she wore, the hair dye she burrowed, the colour of her eyes – Ned looking at her from the corner of his gaze and seeing his own eyes, a flowing river-colour of grey and silver and dark blue, looking back at him).

“They can be right about one thing,” the man explained, the tone of his voice apologetic, “and be wrong about another thing. Because Carlo is right about it being the story of the Little Mermaid. He definitely is. But, you see, it’s more than just the story of the Little Mermaid. More than the story you’ve heard about, that is.”

“More than the Disney version?” Jodi asked.

“Yep,” Ned replied.

“Then, well,” Carlo asked, his face now wide with questions, “what is it about?”

“It’s about many things,” the man started. It’s about a place that is like Paris but isn’t Paris, a place that is like New York but isn’t New York and many other places. It’s about a time about the 1900s but isn’t the 1900s. It’s about about world that is like this world but isn’t our world.” He turned around, faced them fully in his seat, his sad eyes now meeting theirs (them looking at him and seeing déjà vu; him looking at them and seeing jamais vu instead.)

“It’s a story about the impossible becoming possible," he said, his voice low, warm and sultry, luring the two children in, his voice a siren’s voice reeling in two sailors. “It’s a story about stars and oceans and humans being humans. It’s about mermaids becoming humans, or wooden puppets becoming little boys, or even women becoming men and men becoming women.”

“Really?” Carlo asked (like me, about people like me, was Carlo’s unspoken question, his heart fluttering).

“Oh, yes,” Ned said, “it’s about change, the ways people change, big or small. It’s a story about adventure, about crime and politics and royalty and the poor. About wars and revolutions, exploration and discovery, science and magic, lust and temptation and family.

“It’s about love,” he said. His voice wavered, almost losing strength, as if the rainwater in his eyes was now filling up his throat and stopping the words from leaving his tongue. “If this story, the story of the Little Mermaid, is about anything, it’s about love. It’s about how a mermaid looked up at the sky and fell in love with the stars. How a mermaid looked at the world beyond the sea and loved it, and all the people in it so much, that she decided she wanted to become a part of it and didn’t want to leave it”

The rain was thundering down onto Chicago and, according to the news, would do so well into the night. From what Jodi heard, there could only be sunshine and warmth in Los Angeles, where the train was to take them down the railways.

The rain fell down onto the first day of Jodi Erikson and Carlo Washington’s trip to California; a special treat from Ned Andersen, an author in his 40’s, a man who held of adopting the pair and wanted to spend a little treat on them. A treat regarded as a miracle, seeing their circumstances of age (Jodi being 15 and Carlo 12) and other circumstances.

The rain fell, blue eyes meet two pairs (one blue, one dark).

The rain fell and three souls regarded each other and Jodi and Carlo didn’t want to leave his side; not for anything or anyone.

Jodi and Carlo didn’t want to leave the storyteller until they left knowing the story (even through, somewhere, in the shifting shadows of their skulls, the story dipped in and out, they remembered but also didn’t remember.)

And the man had waited so, so long to tell this story that it might as well have grown as a second heart in his chest.

Southwest Chief, Chicago to Los Angeles on aisle 21 is now boarding. The attendant called out, people rose to their fee, their feet carrying them down to the aisle with baggage in their hands.

“Do you want me to tell the story?” Ned asked.

A pause, a shared look between the two.

“Yes, yes, tell us the story,” Jodi and Carlo said back.

The rain fell and Ned told Jodi and Carlo the story, gathering their luggage, the three heading forward and not looking back. He told them the story as they boarded the train, helping them up the steps and easing them into their seats. He told them the story, as the train rushed out to the open air of the world made wet and silver and new with rain, towards Los Angeles.

Dear reader, be it raining wherever you are or be it not, the story that Ned Andersen told Jodi and Carlo is the story I’m telling you now. Just as the rain fell in another world, in another time, down on a little mermaid when she made her first encounter with a human, hard and fast and unrelenting.

Her first encounter trying to save that human and by that action, went from breaking one rule to breaking more rules until, by the end of the story, she had broken all the rules.

(A cruel coincidence when you understand, that in the beginning, the true beginning, no matter what story of the Little Mermaid by Andersen or Ashman, all the mermaid wanted to do was just bend one rule.)

Chapter Text

The beginning of a little mermaid’s law-breaking and fate-shattering starts as it usually should for stories about mermaids; in the lightless depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

There is no light – be it the sun’s gold or the moon’s silver – that touches Færriagite. The beating, buzzing, living heart of the Mer is instead alit by the colourful bioluminescence of the coral that Cair Thalattē was created from millenniums ago; by the houses and streets and windows decorated by lanterns and candles lit by the orange-gold sparks of submarine submarine volcanoes. No light from above the seas can ever touch Cair Thalattē but never make the mistake of there being no light at all. As the Mer commonly say, the sea provides for her children all that they need.

Cair Thalattē – the capital city of the Færriagitean Empire, where the tomb of the Tiamat lay and the official residence of the Imperial Palace was placed – had centralized itself where the south and north of the Atlantic Ocean meet, the way the skies meet the oceans to become the horizon, caught perfectly even between the continents of Amèriga and Europa.

This city was alive, no matter what hour of the night or day, with the movement and sound of music. There was the plainsong dedicated to the goddesses of old that poured from the temples and into the currents for all to hear; the shanties, crooning under their breathes of wives that lived far away from barracks, that rose from the mouths of Imperial officers who patrolled the streets; the lilting hymns of young mermaids, faltering but learning, being taught the ways of magic by more, practiced voices.

There were the bright ditties that rang out in the alleyways, by children a-swimming in play; the calling tunes of merchants in Cair Thalattē’s city square, singing of their fares, of sea-silks and fish-meats and sweet-wines and glided-jewellery and other little delights; the popular love songs, chanting of the miracle of breath-bound lovers and the tragedies of old fate-crossed pairs, that echoed from the theatres of the west of Cair Thalattē’s more wealthy and glided sections.

For all the music that was born upon the mouths of Cair Thalattē’s people, these songs, the talk of the people was not all done by its official language of Færriagitean (the lingua franca, so to say, for the seven seas). People from all seas and oceans brought themselves to Cair Thalattē’s steps – from warm waters like the Erythraean Sea or the Indós Ocean, or cold places such as the Southern and Northern Kína Sea or the Ursian Ocean.

But the pearl of the oyster that was Cair Thalattē, the stewing and thinking brain to the capital city, was that of the Imperial Palace. The palace was a harmony of mother-of-pearl and limestone and coral, married as three to create an airy composition of balconies and loggias and high-reaching windows and depth-defying towers and turrets.

Schools of jewel-toned fish – clown-fish and tuna and red-fish and mandarinfish - flitted in and out of the windows and through loggias, passing by the almost thousand soldiers at their posts. Seals sailed on the smooth and polished sea-shell roofs, shining so bright that the roofs were almost mirrors to the Surface above. A palace placed in a sea of anemones and coral and kelp-trees, part of the high-walled Imperial Gardens that surrounded the palace at every side.

In the north of the palatial gardens, a mermaid, our mermaid, sat amongst the brilliant-golds and eye-searing reds of the anemone-flowers she attended to.

The warm and orangey hue of the lanterns that was decked at every palace windows set the mermaid’s tail alit – the lush green scales that covered her sinuous tail, the scales that freckled her shoulders and arms and torso, were glittering like little emeralds. Waves of melted cooper, rich and thick, was pinned up upon the nape of her neck – strands falling in front of steel-silver and Arctic-blue eyes.

The long, scarf-like fins at her muscled tail, flaring at the blades of her powerful shoulders and small and delicate at the insides of her wrists – the fins sheer, light green, no matter where they were – fell and moved to the gentle passage of the currents. The gills at her ribcage – underneath her dress, rich ochre reaching to her muscled wrists and flaring to her slender, scarred neck – flared, in and out, with every breath that entered her lungs and made its leave soon after.

She wasn’t alone. Eight guards – four at each side of her, as decreed by the regent, Emperor Tristan - held by; ten feet away, their eyes sharper than flint, their constant stare a cold patch on her back. One she grew used to (but never could find the ability to fully ignore).

By her side, seating upon one of the garden benches, was another Mer; her advisor, her carer, half-man and half-crab. Half-man in having a human-like torso, gills breathing in and out underneath his waistcoat of sea-silk and crisp shirt and upon his neck, under his kinking bearded jawline. Half-human in his rich amber complexion, the dark kinks of his beard and hair laced with grey, his voice lilting and soft, a remnant of his life within the azure depths that surrounded the Iëre island. Half-crab in where his humanity ended at his waist, where it emerged from the rich rouge that was his shell where hips should have been, eight spindly, hard crab legs emerging from below.

The mermaid was within her garden, being read an old epic from the reign of Empress Ptolemais by her advisor, something soothing to listen to in the small time without duty to steal her away, when it happened.

It was in that garden, under the sea, that the first rule was broken.

(Then again, reader, I would be wise to assume this is not the first story of a rule that was broken in the bliss and shade that is a garden. And you, reader, would be wise to know that the differences between the garden of Eden and the garden of the Imperial palace, when it came to what happened, was the fact that Eden had no rose coral-trees or golden sea-pens for the scenery.)

It was broken started when Ariel Alighierioo, the Empress Regnant of the Færriagitean Empire, the little mermaid, found it.

It being an object, half-buried in the white sands up-taken by the roots of seaweed-choked anemones Ariel was tending to – as she always did, after visiting Princess Consort Delphina’s burial grounds, offering up the needed hymns to the old goddesses.

The object in question had a spine which connected to two sheathes of what looked like the thick skin of an eel, the outer skin almost falling apart in the current when Ariel found it. A thick skin covered, crystallised, made stiff when it was not soft with what seemed like decades of collecting sea-salt. Picking it up, the object almost fell apart in her fingers, Ariel quickly laying it once more in the sand.

“May I ask, your Imperial Majesty, but what is that?” Sebastian, his neck craned to see what Ariel was handling, no longer occupied with the tablet of a battle won long before he and Ariel were born (or his mother and father were born, for that matter).

“Something I was asking myself,” Ariel quietly noted, her voice hushed, still regarding the object. “Would you have an idea?”

Looking closer, squinting, Sebastian could not make sense of it. Even leaving the bench, slowly scuttling to Ariel’s kneeling side, all he could do was have a questioning sound, a hmmmmm, leave his mouth. Already, Ariel could feel the cold patch of the guards’ gaze turn hot (potentially suspecting another seizure, perhaps, the second for this week?).

“I can tell you this much, Ariel,” Sebastian said, addressing her by her name in low tones, “it is no shell to bring as a present for one of your nieces.”

“I can see that,” Ariel drily replied. “Question is, should I handle it?”

Another regard; Sebastian, cautiously (now praying to Tiamat that the fates be kind to him and not prove disastrous) poking at the object with his leg, almost expecting for it to fling to life, to attack, to scurry, to do something worthy of calling the guard. Only to disrupt the sand, sending it dancing in the water current, and push the object further into the anemone patch.

“Seeing I still have a leg,” Sebastian noted sarcastically, “and there’s no orifice for some damned animal, we could reasonably assume it’s not alive.”

“From what I remember,” Ariel recollected, “red algae is technically not alive but won’t stop it from killing you if it gets in your pores.”

Grabbing her garden gloves (usually reserved for the hardier sections of the Imperial Gardens), swiftly putting them on, Ariel looked again, her mind racing. Paying attention back to the object, Ariel noticed the sheathes between the thick skins. A careful, tentative and gloved hand pulled the thick skin up, revealing another skin – washed down with grey, assumedly with what appeared to be ink? – underneath that. Skin was that connected the spine (like the thicker sheathes); skins that almost fell apart if it were not the glittering sheen of sea salt, like the softest jellyfish flesh Ariel’s fingers encountered, when Ariel tried to pull back that skin.

However, it wasn’t the most peculiar part, interestingly enough. What was highly peculiar was what was on the skins, as Ariel found. On the cover, on the thin sheathes of material (possibly constructed out of fan coral, Ariel could only rationalize) were shapes.

Now the guards were curious, the gaze on Ariel’s back even hotter. “Your Majesty?” The guard called out, Sebastian looking behind at the guard.

“Your Majesty,” Sebastian quickly said, worry seeping into his voice, “it may be a good idea to turn over the object to the guards.” (Because Sebastian did not want to find himself hip deep in another battle of words with Tristan about Ariel’s activities; especially seeing it took weeks of convincing to allow Ariel time to garden, a privilege, Ariel was frightfully aware, could be taken away.) “Please.”

“Just give me one more moment,” Ariel pleaded, “and I’ll do as you ask. Promise.”

A sound of disagreement was all that left Sebastian’s closed mouth; his hands now fiddling with the forgotten tablet, looking between Ariel and the guards (as if now watching for Tristan to come into view).

Carefully, thumbing through the delicate sheathes slowly, Ariel looked through it. Intricately drawn shapes – drawn in ink that meshed into the thin skin, almost incomprehensible. Scribbles, nonsense that made no sense –

Wait. Symbols.

Looking closer, squinting her eyes, Ariel held the book in the palms of her hand – her anemones now abandoned, soft grains of sand getting underneath her scales. She recognized these symbols. Symbols that stood for phenomes and vowels; for a and e and i; for strangely-drawn symbols that became letters, letters becoming words that formed sentences, Ariel’s eyes widening, gasping with shock that turned to fear, fear to realization, realization to utter wonder

In her hands, lay what appeared to be the guide to a language thought dead.

English.

The English language lay under the sea, on the palms of a mermaid empress.

That’s where the law-breaking began.

Chapter Text

The plan was drawn over the method of months.

It would have been done in weeks – if Ariel was not occupied with trading negotiations with officials, meeting with Imperial diplomats, meeting with the Imperial Council concerning the state of the Ursuline Order, attending events to raise resources for the Widows of the Basileian War Fund that Ariel started, help train the Imperial Army and several other roles that required her presence.

Life since the end of the Basileian War, since Ariel’s rise as Empress, was busy.

"Um, Airs… Phineas asked, floating over to the desk, where Ariel had her face almost pressed to it, writing words onto the water with the ink and sweeping it into a conch shell nearby. ““How’s the… thing, by the way?” Sebastian says, quickly, swimming over to the desk and (cautiously) pointing to the object, immersed in the protective bubble.

The laboratory – the holder of materials recovered by scientists commissioned by the Imperial Household (one of them being the Empress herself) – left its bright whiteness seared to Phineas’ and Ariel’s eyes.

The observatory rooms – where Ariel was busy writing - walled in sheer but strong sea-glass, the room lit up by strongly lit jellyfish, illuminating the tablets and scrolls and statues and texts held in their protective charms. The linguistic teams’ latest discovery – a ten-foot statue dedicated to a destroyed Nanna temple – was at the far left of the room.

A few days ago, Ariel had sent in her linguistic findings upon the Old Seraldi dialect scratched into stone. Findings she found interesting in the lack of interesting letters from her sisters from far away.

“The thing, apparently,” Ariel said, her voice brightening, “is called a book.”

The way she said it, book, is clipped, her English off, compared to the slipstream vowels of Færriagitean. There were so few texts inside the laboratory, where Unfinned texts were kept, always handled with gloves that reached to the elbows, handled behind the thick walls of sea glass.

(The oils that came from Unfinned skin was naturally assumed to be poisonous, the possibilities of Unfinned sicknesses been passed on to unprotected immune systems enough to create pause. Those were just two amongst many reasons – besides cultural and moral and legal objections - to why Ariel was one out of ten linguists in all of the seven oceans who dared to handle Unfinned objects.)

“What in the damned gods is a book?” Now, Sebastian looked at it, edging away, fins raising around his neck and on his wrists, similar to the way a human’s skin moulted into goosebumps.

“It’s not alive,” Ariel said reassuringly, “and it’s not a weapon or anything like it. God knows Sebastian would let me a mile near it if it was possible. It’s a form of communication, how Unfinned Folk tell stories. They put stories down onto… whatever books are made of – and write it in English or French or, other languages.”

“French? English???”

“Unfinned languages,” Ariel explained, answering simply.

“Well… what kinda story is it telling?”

“So far, I can’t tell.” Only because the concepts talked about – Egypt and streets and fire and a thousand of words that had no meaning, only nonsense, words without ideas connected to them, for Ariel’s mind. She was able to string words of English to Færriagitean, to understand a single phrase, the phrase of age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

(A phrase of words, across the stretch of years and Ariel’s narrative, would be found appropriate to a great degree of foretelling and eeriness.)

“And this is your prime reason to get permission to leave the palace? Because of a book?” Phineas gestured sarcastically at the thing. Ariel could only raise an eyebrow, crossing her arms together across her chest.

“More or less, what’s inside of it,” Ariel noted, honestly. She paused her water-writing, tucked the conch shell and looked up at him. “It’s also because of my odyssey.”

“Your odyssey?” Phineas asked, incredulously, an eyebrow raised.

“Yes, that.”

“I think you’ve passed the mark to do your odyssey by some time?”

(By twenty centuries, Ariel missed her odyssey. Her odyssey, her coming-of-age. Her odyssey, where they left behind their childhoods, their old names and perhaps, even their old bodies, for new names and new bodies to mark the next era of their lives. Where a Mer left the constraints of home and into the infinite blue of the oceans. Travelling upon the sand-old currents, wandering and searching and exploring the kelp forests and coral reefs and gulfs and valleys.

Leaving home – with kisses and hugs and much advice from parents about the best pods to join and how to avoid rip currents and what fish were dangerous to young stomachs – at the age of fifteen and coming back centuries later, not as a child, but as an adult.

Grand Princesses made their odysseys – half of Ariel’s childhood was waiting for sisters to come back home with new lovers that would become husbands or wives and adventures to spoil upon her, like little treasures. Better than strands of pearls or intricate wind-up toys.

They came back with new songs, more elaborate, more clear and intricate than the little practice lullabies they half-sang and half-talked through as children; they came back with adventures about underwater cities brimming with lights and languages and parties and people, coral reefs brimming with fishes of thousands of colours and sizes and sounds, kelp-forests alive with seals and dolphins that danced.

Adventures that left scars upon their scaled and finned bodies, that told of warring pods and shark attacks and jellyfish burns and feisty rapier fights with duelists in the middle of city squares. Ariel once dreamed of all the scars she’d get on her odyssey, like the little medals that soldiers received from her mother.

Her mother, Basileia, had many scars. One of them leaving Basileia with a golden false eye, modelled as the moon, to replace the eye Basileia was born with and Basileia lost in a fight. How she got them, Ariel never knew. Her mother, for all her vicious love of the battle and her knowledge of warrior arts, was silent on the subject – lost eye and all. For all she knew, they were stories for when Ariel grew inches taller and into her oversized tail tins.

Ariel was able to complete her odyssey by half; to leave behind her old name, her childhood name (her dead name), for the name she chose, from an old childhood story her mother told her, the old legend of Ariel, the Trickster Queen. But, either way, Ariel never found out the stories behind her mother’s scars. Only for Ariel to receive her own scars, with stories best left forgotten. Maybe, Ariel thought, reflecting back, that’s why mama never wanted to tell about how she got those scars.)

“So, basically, you think that studying a Unfinned language, that, you know, is related to them,” – Phineas fins flinched at the response, his voice a whisper at the word, as if another party was in the room, “is going to be the one thing that gets you sprung out of the palace and to freedom?”

An ugly pause. Neither Ariel or Phineas had to comment to know Tristan’s reaction would result in something akin to the Ring of Fire. All she had to do was look down, dodging Phineas’s look of you-know-better-than-that.

“No,” Ariel said. “I’d need a better excuse than that. Like, for example, you know how Dad said it might be a good idea to arrange another Imperial Tour around the Seven Oceans? For me to get me to know the people better?”

“Yes, I remember that,” Ariel said, nodding in agreement (still feeling rather unsure, on the other hand, not liking where this was going.)

“Well, this is what the plan is about,” Ariel said, giving off the conch shell to Phineas, the shell soft-pink and smooth in his hand. “The plan details about what I’m trying to do and how I go about it. Because, you see, I checked the Imperial library on the circumstances of regency law and, well, from there, I formed up the idea.

“For four weeks,” Ariel started, her voice taking on practice-like quality (seeing she had been practising for days), “I go out of the palace – under disguise and under a different name. From there, I go around the oceans, doing fieldwork about Unfinned – and Finned! – linguistics and getting more materials to figure out the roots of English and French. During that time, I interact with the people, learn more about the people and culture and history, rather than being cooped up in the palace.”

“For four weeks?” Phineas asked.

“Well, yes, just four weeks. Because Dad is regent, it would be the simple case of Dad going from acting as supervisor to me to acting as supervisor of the Imperial Council until I come back. And it would just be four weeks of me doing fieldwork until I came back. From there, I would be checked out by the Imperial Physician for clarification that it was safe to travel far away. A week or two weeks I spend at the palace, doing my official Imperial duties as Empress while four weeks I do my odyssey and fieldwork. All over the period of one century, during which time, the people would always have a monarch in control.”

A pause. “You’ve really thought this out, haven’t you?” Phineas said, amused at Ariel’s antics.

“I have.” Ariel’s face was filled with pride at the compliment. “But,” Ariel said, her voice dampening, “you and I know Dad would never allow me to leave the palace. Not without people there to ensure that Leigia,” – Alana’s youngest daughter as Ariel mentioning, – “doesn’t end up on the throne centuries before her time.”

It only took a moment for the implications of what Ariel was saying to sink into Phineas’s head. “For the love of Tiamat, do not drag me into one of your shenanigans -”

“Flounder,” Ariel beseeched, voice hushed, resorting back to an old childhood nickname, “you know he will never allow me to leave, even for one fucking minute on her own -”

“Why not get one of the guards?? They know how to protect you-”

“Says the guy who was my fellow comrade in the war and got a high pass for defensive magic? Plus, don’t you think people are more likely notice the girl with eight guards around her than one who happens to be travelling around the city with her brother and carer??”

“You want to bring Sebastian into this?” Phineas snapped.

“If it’s any reassurance, he’s already heard of the plan and gave his permission and willing to back me up on it,” Ariel said. “He thinks it’s a good idea that I get some time out of the palace to know more of the people. He thinks it might actually help my condition.”

“What about… your condition? Going right?” Phineas asked (trying to find any other subject but the one that got him called to her in the first place).

“Last episode was a week ago. Sebastian says it’s probably stabilizing, getting into a pattern so that’s a good change.” Ariel can’t keep the defensiveness from getting into her tone, coupled with sharpness.

(The condition was always called the condition, never called by its true name, like how a mother’s never let the names of sea-witches slip from their mouths when telling warning-stories to their children before bedtime when Ariel was younger.

No one is brave enough to say its name – not even Tristan; Ariel letting the word sit upon her tongue, out of respect to all others.

 Just as everyone tries to avoid looking at the cause of it– a mass of scar tissue, smoothed over like a wrinkled dinner cloth with the years – that hems itself upon Ariel’s hairline; almost bleeding over into the waves of melted-copper red.

No one dares speak its name. All which says much of its power, how it is the one - of many - thing that has kept Ariel behind the glided palace walls for fourteen centuries, all in the name of what goes unspoken.

A lot of things go unspoken in the Palace, far more than just the scar on Ariel’s head or the seizures that come with it.)

“Besides,” Ariel said, tucking away a loose strand of hair to the back of her ear, “you’ve already had your odyssey. You could show me the right places to go, the best people to talk to and make sure I don’t go somewhere bad. You’ve got experience where I don’t.”

 “Airs, look…” He sighed, rubbing a hand up at his neck. For a moment, Ariel thought to herself, he looked like Dad.

Phineas had grown up a lot recently; Ariel had noticed, between the trading conferences with officers and military appointments and all the Imperial council meetings. Watched him grow into his goatee and cut his hair, grow into his strong jawline and go from five-foot-three to five-foot-nine (just inches below her, Ariel unusually tall for most Mer, another inheritance from her mother).

She hated watching him from far away, upon her throne, and that was another reason (amongst all the others) she wanted this plan more than anything.

“It means I would get more time with you,” Ariel said, jumping to say something before Phineas got to his point. “I would be able to complete my thesis and get to know the people of Færriagite and be a good empress and actually get to spend time with my brother.”

“Except, Airs,” Phineas said, the worry in his tone clear as the crystalline walls of the laboratory, “remember the last time you went to Dad with a plan?”

Ariel’s fins deflated at the memory; the hope in her face also dimmed. Floating back into her chair, Ariel could only think back.

(It took five whole centuries - after Ariel could remember speak in conversation rather than bursts of vowels from her injury, after the dead was finally lead to rest, after Ursula died half-screeching and half-laughing with a knife in her throat like her sister, after Ariel was still seeing foam in her dreams - for Ariel to approach her father with the idea of going to university. It wouldn’t be that far, Ariel argued, trying to keep her voice modulated. She would have guards, she would have Sebastian, she would make sure her duties as Empress was done well (just anything, anything to get out of the palace for a small while, anything to just have some slice of controlled but real freedom).

It took five decades of negotiating and talking and pleading and by then, Tristan had the top professors, focused in cultural studies and linguistics and history, so Ariel would not have to take a single stroke of her fins to get out of the palace.

She said nothing. Nothing but thank you, cut the blood-red flowers in her garden and left them on Tristan’s desk, tried not to let the bitterness in her mouth seep into the kiss on the cheek Ariel gave to her father that day.

Said nothing and memorized language systems and pragmatics and semantics, remembered how to tell the differences between myth and history, how to calculate the speed and velocity of speeding fish and mammals, how to find patterns in the numbers and remade herself into one of the finest cultural linguists and mathematicians in Færriagite.

Said nothing and rearranged her timetable for more time with diplomats and studying the Imperial Constitution, as a way of saying thank you to the Imperial Council and more importantly, to Dad.

Said nothing and allowed the freedom-hunger in her belly weigh against her chest, against the long, sleepless nights, eyes raised to the long-windows, eyes raised to the barely-faint light of the moon. Look to the pin-prick that was the moon and ached for all the places the moon touched and turned silver with its light.)

For a moment, Ariel was silent.

“I know that...” Ariel sighed; her left hand coming to pinch her nose in frustration, in resignation. “I know that I’m not a Grand Princess anymore, Ariel said, her voice softer. “I know I’m an Empress and I know that Father means nothing but absolute love in making sure that nothing happens to me. I don’t want anything to happen to me because, well,” – Ariel sighed again, looking up at Phineas’ sorry eyes, “I am the empress of the people and what injury happens to me, essentially is injury to my people.”

(Ariel knew that; she knew it well and knew it from the blood on her hands that she could never truly scrub off. Was it not she who liberated thousands packed, flesh-to-flesh, from the Blackgate prisons? She, who fought against Ursula, the devourer of gods and flesh and light? She, who took the crown in her bloodied hands, set upon her head and set upon remaking herself – and by extension, her kingdom – back to greater heights?

Ariel Alighierio – Ariel the Resolute, as the people said with pride - knew all that.

What she wanted to know was the root of English; what it was like to see her old childhood home, how to make the weight of the crown – fourteen generations and ghosts, one of whom being the ever-present ghost of her mother, bound into gold ore – easier to bear.

Even if it meant taking off the weight for a little to bare it for longer.)

“But, Phineas,” Ariel asked, finally looking up at him, “how am I meant to be a scientist if I can’t explore the world that I’m meant to study? More importantly, how is an empress meant to rule the people if she can’t be a part of the world her people are part of?”

A pause. Ariel looking down, with embarrassment or humility or self-awareness of the great wish she was demanding or likely all three and Phineas still looking at her.

“I know Dad is unlikely to listen to me,” Ariel said, her fins flaring in frustration, still evading his gaze. “Not even if I get a note from the physician and the Imperial General to help my case out. All I want to know is if I have my brother’s back during all of this.”

(Ariel knows many things.

Ariel knows the Imperial Palace is seven hectares in area – from all the times she swam around it, getting as far as the guards accompanying her would allow, too afraid she would be too far away from the palace in the case of an attack that would never come, but everyone anticipated.

Ariel knows that there is a secret passageway that leads from the ballroom – brimming with fish schools, glittering like silver coins in the colourful light – to the stables where the Imperial hippocampus sleep and live. She knows all the secret passageways, all the crannies and nooks that are hidden in the palace’s depths, the way spies keep hidden their secrets in their chests – a fact Ariel knows well.

Ariel knows all the names of the twenty-one Imperial Council members – to each, a man and woman and nongendered person, representing the Seven Oceans before the Empress – and the names of the Imperial Ambassadors. She knows this because she’s made the habit to send couch-shell messages every week to check on their progress.

Ariel knows her duty; to be the mother to millions, as she promised with a crown that was too big for her head, with hands callused from wielding daggers, the sting of her new ceremonial tattoos still raw, her chest feeling rawer still.

Ariel knows how to kill someone; this is one amongst few things Ariel wishes can be made unlearned and unknown, amongst all the crimes committed in the name of the people. She could still see the light in her eyes go out, every time Ariel happens to close her own and still, to this day, she wondered if she made the right choice.

Ariels knows all the stories of Ptolemais, the grand tales of her great-grandmothers battles with the Unfinned who tried to invade their world, under the command of the terrible Queen Admina. Remembered sitting by the blue and silver light of the jellyfish, sitting raptured amongst her sisters, raptured and wishing to have her great-grandmother’s grace in warfare.

Ariels knows the stories of the Unfinned. How they moved with tails spilt into deformed stumps of bone and flesh – torn apart by Tiamat’s wrathful hands, punishment for sins too terrible to be recorded; their beastly eyes of black, their claws sharp to slit a child’s throat open with a stroke; their faces so deformed from their ancestral sins, no sense of personhood – only pitiful beastliness at best – could be found in their looks.

Ariels knows earlier stories, once, about the Unfinned; stories promised to secrecy, stories told in a garden as a wee child, by a mother, the old Empress Basileia, who breathed and smiled and sang pretty words about pretty little make-believe things like birds and skies and constellations.

Ariel knew no-one has ever been anywhere less than one-hundred feet from the Surface; let alone actually go beyond it.

Ariel didn’t know what lay above the Surface; no law-abiding Mer did. The only ones are the young mermaids stolen away to become sea-wives to Unfinned husbands; those and those who drowned from above.

Ariel didn’t know what drowning was; apparently, the closest meaning associated with drowning was to be submerged in something. What the something was, was another thing Ariel didn’t know.

Ariel didn’t know what it was like to see the greens of the Pacific Ocean meet with the Atlantic Ocean blues; didn’t know the feeling of soaring upon the speeds of the Eastern Australis Current; didn’t know what it was like to dance in the light of the moon, in the higher depths of the seas, with normal people.

Ariel knew that she knew so little things, at the age of thirty-four centuries. Even worse that she was to put another century onto her life this week, on her thirty-fifth birthday.

And more importantly, Ariel knew what it was like to ache with the visceral want and need and desire to know.)

And Sebastian knew he simply couldn’t say no; not to his sister and the bright blues of her eyes, finally meeting his own eyes. All Ariel could do was look upon Phineas with that look; her regal jaw and chin held upwards by her straight-backed posture, twenty years of practice shown, an apprehensive hope growing in her ribcage. How could he say no without feeling guilty?

Furrowing an eyebrow, battling with himself, he could only sigh, his chest falling alongside like his previous resistances (noting to himself that, in the future, to not look his sister directly in the eyes as so to avoid her spell. An attempt that would go unlucky over the next years.)

 “He might not listen to you,” Phineas said, with resignation, tucking his hands into the pockets of his overcoat. “But I’m sure he’d be far more willing to listen to grandmother.”

(Ariel would look back, almost a hundred years back, look back to her past and trace her sins back to that moment, to that desire to know more.

She would look back with a thousand words crowded her tongueless mouth, as the world turned underneath her bleeding feet, as Ariel faced four headstones weathered by the spray of the sea and the glare of the sun and the passage of time itself and wonder to herself, was it truly worth it - all of it - to know what I know now?)