Chapter 1: we can never be born enough - part i | chapter i, book i
Ariel, Empress of Faerrigate, discovers an ancient text containing a dead language - English. In doing so, she is set upon finding a way of negotiating with her father with concerns of been allowed to adventure away from the palace walls, to continue on her linguistic thesis through fieldwork.
Whilst up in Amèriga, a worn and tired Patriot physician, James M. Augustine, sets upon an ocean liner with only some money, the clothes (his old uniform) on his back and the promise of a job across the wide and cold ocean.
In the course of one night, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, two souls met - and are changed forever.
We can never be born enough.
We are human beings;
for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,
the mystery of growing:
the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves.
You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming.
Life, for eternal us, is now;
and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,
~ an excerpt from e.e cummings, collected poems 1938.
Dedicated to Aisling and my grandmother - the closest thing to encountering Athena and closest thing to encountering magic in real life. Thank you for telling stories to me, so I may make stories of my own.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The story begins where everything usually begins (through, if you value honesty, it began at the ending that not a soul remembered); when a man tells a woman a story.
“Can I tell you a story?” the man asked.
From the moment he saw her face, he knew he had to tell her.
The rain raged down on Paris and almost brought down the roof of Les Deux Magots. The rain was coming down, drop by drop by drop per second and by a trickle, into buckets; the rain had come down on the woman called Eline Collin, her clothes drenched and soaking into her blue-tinged skin, as she nursed a cup of hot chocolate.
The rain was coming down on Paris; down on the roofs, down on the old streets and gathered in the man’s dark eyes, tears gathering and but not coming down.
“Would I know this story?” Her voice – her voice being her hands – trembled with the cold, the sinews of her fingers twitching.
A brief pause. “I would hope so,” the man mused.
“What’s it about?”
He paused, thinking. “About mermaids.”
A light filled Eline’s eyes. “Mermaids?”
A smile, soft as the down of a bird, bloomed on his mouth. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a story about mermaids. About a place that is like Paris but isn’t Paris, about a world that is like this world but isn’t our world.” He turned around, faced her fully in his seat, his sad eyes now meeting hers.
“It’s a story about the impossible becoming possible, he said, his voice low, warm and sultry, siren-like, luring Eline in. “It’s a story about stars and oceans and humans being humans. 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 water in his eyes was now filling up his throat and stopping the words from leaving his tongue. “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. Do you want to hear it?”
The rain was thundering down onto Paris and, according to the news, would do so well into the night. The rain was thundering down onto Paris, onto Eline’s last day in France before she had to leave for Copenhagen.
The rain fell, dark eyes met blue eyes, a soul saw another and Eline didn’t want to leave Paris.
Eline didn’t want to leave Les Deux Magots until she left knowing the story.
And the man – the man named Charles Andersen – had waited so, so long to tell this story that it might as well have grown as a second heart in his chest.
“Yes. Tell me.”
The rain fell and the man told Eline the story that I, reader, am 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.
The beginning of a little mermaid’s law-breaking and fate-shattering starts as it usually should; 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 colorful bioluminescence of the coral that Cair Thalattē was created from millenniums ago; by the houses and streets and windows decorated with lanterns and candles lit by the orange-gold sparks of 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 breaths 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 were 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 of 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 – clownfish and tuna and redfish and mandarin fish - 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 seashell 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 were 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 copper, 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 – flared, in and out, with every breath that entered her lungs and made its leave soon after.
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).
It was there, amongst the garden (as it was in the very beginning), the first rule broken started when Ariel Alighieri, the Empress Regnant of the Færriagitean Empire, found it.
It was 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 Caterina’s burial grounds, offering up the needed hymns to the old goddesses.
The object in question had a spine which connected to two sheaths of what looked like the thick skin of an eel, the outer skin almost falling apart in the current when Ariel found it. Picking it up, the object almost fell apart in her fingers, Ariel quickly laying it once more in the sand.
“Your Majesty?” The guard called out; Ariel not being the only Mer to catch sight of it. (Porfirio, Ariel remembered – she met his wife and son at the Summer Ball when she was given time away from the Imperial Librarian discussions of old Ursian texts found frozen in Arctic ice. The last time Ariel seen a sight of Porfirio's wife, Isla, was at a military event – Isla’s belly round as a pearl with pregnancy, Porfirio's smile brighter than the moon.)
“It’s alright, Porfirio,” Ariel called back; turning back to face him, still kneeling at the sands. Reassurance was found in her small smile, her eyes solemn. “It’s not alive, it’s not dangerous, just a little odd thing that blew into the garden.”
Porfirio hesitated, only nodding back a moment later. Feet away and Ariel could feel the stare of the guards gain intensity, the cold patch on her back going hot.
Paying attention back to the object, Ariel noticed the sheaths between the thick skins. A careful, tentative hand pulled the thick skin up, revealing another skin – washed down with gray, assumedly with what appeared to be ink? – underneath that. Skin that was connected the spine (like the thicker sheaths); skins that fell apart, 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 sheaths of material (possibly constructed out of fan coral, Ariel could only rationalize) were shapes.
Carefully, thumbing through the delicate sheaths 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 –
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.
The English language lay under the sea, on the palms of a mermaid empress. That’s where the law-breaking began.
Which, by irony, started with Ariel trying not to break the law.
(only flex it by a little, as Ariel thought to herself).
The plan was drawn by 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 on 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 - was 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, about the Old Seraldi dialect scratched into stone. Findings she found interesting, a stimulation away from lack of 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.)
“The fuck 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 molted into goose bumps.
“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 with English or French or, other languages.”
“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 – lamplights and beaches and carriages and a thousand of words that had no meaning, only nonsensical ideas, for Ariel’s mind.
“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 couch shell and looked up at him. “It’s also because of my odyssey.”
“Your odyssey?” Phineas asked, incredulously, an eyebrow raised.
“I think you’ve passed the mark to do your odyssey by some time?”
(By nineteen centuries, Ariel missed her odyssey.
Her odyssey, her coming-of-age where a Mer left the constraints of home and into the infinite blue of the oceans. Traveling 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 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. How she got them, Ariel never knew. For all she knew, they were stories for when Ariel grew inches taller and into her oversized tail tins.
Ariel never got to know; Ariel got many scars but not one held stories that she wanted to tell. Maybe, Ariel thought, reflecting back when she was older and wiser, that’s why Mama never wanted to tell her stories.)
“So, basically, you think that studying an 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; her slender, callused hands now nervously chapelling and playing around with her fingers. “I’d need a better excuse than that. Like, for example, you know how Father 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,” Sebastian said, nodding in agreement (still feeling rather unsure, on the other hand).
“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 six months,” Ariel started, her voice taking on practice-like quality (seeing she had been practicing 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 six months?” Phineas asked.
“Well, yes, just six months. Because Father is Regent, it would be the simple case of Father going from acting as supervisor to me to acting as supervisor of the Imperial Council until I come back. And it would just be six months 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. Six months I spend at the palace, doing my official Imperial duties as Empress while the other six months I do my odyssey. All over the period of one century, during which time, the people would always have a monarch in control in the case of an emergency.”
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 now dampening, “you and I know Father would never allow me to leave the palace. Not without people there to ensure that Ligia,” – 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 my 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 traveling 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 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 gilded 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 Father.
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 Father 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 four whole centuries - after Ursula was lead to the executioner sea caves and the dead was finally lead to rest, Ariel still seeing sea-foam that stretched by miles 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, from cultural studies and linguistics and mathematics, 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 apply the principles of cultural relativism in language, 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 Father.
Said nothing and allowed the freedom-hunger in her belly to 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 at 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 for 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 an injury to my people.”
(Ariel knew that; she knew it well and knew it from the white foam 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 foam-bloodied hands, set upon her head and set upon remaking herself – and by extension, her kingdom – back to greater heights.
Ariel Alighieri – 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 in the Coral Sea, how to make the weight of the crown – fourteen generations and ghosts, one of whom is her mother, bound into gold ore – easier to bear.
Even if it meant taking off the weight for a little while.)
“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?
“I know Father is unlikely to listen to me,” Ariel said, her fins flaring in frustration. 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 that 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 colorful 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 of sending 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, the claw wounds on her arms rawer still, the pressing feeling on her chest - of pride or despair or simply both, held back by a stoic face - feeling rawest.
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.
Ariel knows of 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 warmth of the lamps, sitting in rapture amongst her sisters, raptured and wishing to have her great-grandmother’s grace in warfare.
Ariel knows the stories of the Unfinned. How they moved with tails split 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 crimes, no sense of personhood – only pitiful beastliness at best – could be found in their looks.
Ariel 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-three centuries. Even worse that she was to put another century onto her life this week, on her thirty-fourth birthday.
And more importantly, Ariel knew what it was like to ache with the visceral want and need and desire to know.)
And Phineas knew he simply couldn’t say no; not to his sister and the bright blues of her eyes. All Ariel could do was look upon Phineas with that look; her regal jaw and chin held upwards by her straight-backed posture, fourteen years of practice shown, an apprehensive hope growing in her ribcage.
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.) How could he say no without feeling guilty?
“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 a certain grandmother...”
(Ariel would look back, almost a hundred years back, look back to her past and trace her sins and mistakes to that long-ago moment, to that desire to know more, to ask for more than what she was given.
Ariel would look back with a thousand words that crowded her tongueless mouth, as the world turned underneath her bleeding feet, as Ariel faced three old headstones by the seaside (three graves without three bodies to fill them up with death and bones), and wonder to herself, was it truly worth it - all of it - to know what I know now?)
DIVISION OF CHAPTER AND THANKS.
First and foremost, thank you so much for reading the first chapter of it's always ourselves we find in the sea. I really and truly appreciate it and I would love it if you could leave behind some kudos or, even better, leave behind a comment telling me the things you liked or disliked -even if it's just criticism about grammar or characterization or anything - just to help improve how this series is portrayed. It seriously gives me the motivation to keep writing, knowing people are reading.
Now, about the chapter, the chapter - with the introduction of Ariel, negotiating with her father, encountering humanity and saving a human (with an introduction to some of our human characters) - was supposed to be published in one chapter. Only for me to write 6000+ words and realize this first chapter can't be published in one, long wall of text. Since why this is part one to the first chapter, with me still writing part two and part three. All the better, seeing my writer's block has cured up.
But, again, thank you so much for taking the time to read this first chapter. If you liked it, please leave kudos and comments (again, even if the comments are just critcism and questions).
From there, let this be the beginning of a grand adventure into retelling the story of the Little Mermaid!
Chapter 2: in freedom we're born (and in freedom we'll live) - chapter ii, book i (sneak peek).
A sneak-peak of the second chapter to the first installment of the Little Mermaid retelling, the wonder that's keeping the stars apart. As history is made and the earth of a newborn nation is stained with its peoples' blood, three lives - Dr. James M. Augustine, Lady Wendy Baird and Aide-de-Camp Lockwood - are caught in the madness that is the last hours of the revolution.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
From here, we must trade one ocean for another, one world before the surface for the one above, if only for a little while, reader.
From a mermaid to a man drowning
(Which if anything, should not be surprising; what man, in a story about mermaids, does not end up drowning – be they drowning in love or seawater or blood or potentially all three of these things?)
Reader, James Augustine would end up drowning – drowning in love, drowning in seawater and drowning in blood, throughout all parts of this story.
But for now, James Augustine was a man who wanted to know if he would die that day, all as he drowned in his blood.
(But really, on that day, who wasn’t asking themselves that question?).
The first drowning of James Augustine (who, honestly, was already drowning – drowning in what is a story for later) started in the form of screams, that gained volume and strength and urgency with every shriek that echoed through the pine trees of Morristown.
The first shriek made James look up from the opened-up private; a nurse was at the side of the make-shift surgery table, monitoring the make-shift anesthetic gas. Dying and half-living men – souls weighed down by bullet-wounded, bomb-burned, bayonet-slashed and illness-bloated flesh – were at James’ north and south and east of west, under a linen sky of the tent.
Already, six hours into the battle – the battle raged on the gas-lit and stone-paved streets and alleys and roads of York City and its results filled the stretchers of Morristown’s tents and lay bleeding on York City’s streets, be they Amèrigan or Albionian. Almost every half-an-hour, nurses were forced to resort to horse-drawn carts to bring bleeding and screaming and pleading masses of soldiers to James’ aid. All he could do was lay his knowing hands to them with intent to mend and pray no civilian found themselves in the crossfire of bullets or cannonballs.
(Pray that maybe, just maybe, he could finally see the goddamned end to the Second Revolution. Anything to stop adding anymore faces to his nightmares, anything to be anywhere but here.)
Screams soon coupled with the beat of hooves a-galloping against the frost-hardened earth.
The screams grew louder and louder, shrill and piercing the air like a lance, the sounds sending James dashing to the outside of the surgery tent, joined likewise with others – of washerwomen, of the child-swaddling wives of soldiers, of hurried nurses and military officers, either recovering or ailing or forced to stay behind the lines of battle.
“THEY’RE COMING, THEY’RE FUCKING COMING!” A women’s voice, young and clear and brittle with terror, echoed out to them.
And suddenly, with a burst of beating hooves and flurry of speed, a woman came a-galloping, decked in the uniform of a nurse, her night-dark hair wild from its bun and her horse flaring with shallow breaths. “THE ALBIONIANS, THE ALBIONIAN ARMY!” the young woman screamed, her round face speckled with blood and white with terror, “THEY’RE COMING, THEY’RE COMING TO MORRISTOWN, THEY’RE COMING NOW!”
And coming, they were; for soon, behind the nurse could the sound of horses, of gallops that gathered together to create a building buzz of rapid beats, be heard rushing towards the direction of the nurse.
A buzz joined by faint shouts; a song of cavalrymen coming towards Morristown, the heart of the Amèrigan Revolutionary Army.
James Augustine ran back into the surgery tent, rushing back to the man on the table, the worried nurse at his side handling the blood bag; holding his face to a practiced mask of calm beneath the panic.
“I need you to get this man stitched up,” James said, voice low, worry tinging his tones, “and put onto a stretcher and I need you to gather as many patients as you can onto stretchers or braces or wheelchairs, and be ready to head towards Valley Forge. Can you do this?”
The nurse nodded quickly, James leaving the tent even quicker, his heart thumping and beating against his chest the quickest.
(James didn’t even want to be apart of the Second Revolution; James didn’t wish to be here, having swapped one hell for another, death and disease and chaos his loyal attendants. But then again, by a stray bullet or contact with typhus, James could very well be a part of the men that left choking under the weight of their disease-bloated and death-wasted bodies; none of them wished to be amongst this hell.
James knew that, all too well, and figured some wishes should be made true.
Even if they weren’t his, never his.)
“Get all of these men onto stretchers and to the horses, immediately!” His voice was a call to the rest; mothers and daughters and sisters whose hands itched with the desire to be anything but idle during this war. Already, their wishes were being granted.
(Their earlier wishes - let their husbands/sons/brothers/lovers live; let the war end; let their lives mean something in the end - not so much.)
The buzz of movement turned to a flurry, a panic, a great movement of rustling skirts and limping legs and stretchers accommodated with patients being lifted to the linen skies of the tent and straight outside.
James was amongst them; the creak of iron from knee-ankle-foot orthoses accompanying every frantic movement to rush a wounded man onto a wheelchair, onto a stretcher, James praying underneath his breath-
A piercing whistle; a dull thud of bullet meeting flesh; a young nurse’s fresh white smock now seeped with dark red from the stream of blood coming from her neck. James seen it all, the young nurse (he couldn’t remember her name, goddamn him) at the opening of the tent; her eyes already empty as her body fell to the frost-hardened ground.
The staccato was now coupled with whistles; a death-song sung by firing rifles and speeding steeds.
They were here.
A prayer was born upon James’ tongue, a low-voiced plea to St. Francis (saint of stowaways, of people running away, how damn appropriate), a rhythm punctuated by the sharp creaks of his rusted brace frames, the cuts into his legs even sharper than the creaks of the knee-ankle-foot braces.
The nurses – their arms filled and thin shoulders pressed upon by limping and ailing and bandaged soldiers – half-ran and half-walked to the back of the tents; a swarm of blue-coats and white-smocks speedily hurrying, over the twisted maze of tree roots and bushes, to horses and carts (no horseless carriages with oil-enlivened engines instead of horses, not in such dense forests). Just as James planned (and planned would never actually happen).
By the fourth lyric (…san áit a bhfuil amhras go gcuire me creideamh …), the carts lead by horses (no horseless carriages) was filled with patients.
By the second lyric, (…in áit na dorchadas go gcuire me solas…), there were nurses at the front seats and physicians at the reins, James scurrying behind, intending for the horse.
And by the third (…san áit in a bhfuil brón - )
Already, the horses bolted; bolted to the commanding pull of the reins, bolted to the desperate cry in James’ voice and more importantly, bolted to the screech of the bullet, whizzing and flying, a straight line that almost meet with James’ head and, instead, hit the tree in front of him.
(don’t look back, don’t look back – )
James leapt upon the horse and the world sped ahead of him, the voice far behind, the horse galloping forward, right behind the carts of wheel chaired and tied-down patients and accompanying nurses. “Keep going,” he called out to his fellow officers, their knuckles a blood-drained shade of pale as they gripped the reins, “keep going to Valley Forge and don’t stop –”
BANG. BANG. BANG. Each bang of the bayonet made James’ jump, his lungs startling as if shot; a tree releasing wood-dust for every bullet that entered it.
How could one single word be dripping with so much venom and fire and rage, James would wonder many years later; that scream (that familiar voice) a sharp knife against James’ back.
“Keep going and don’t stop!” James’ heart beat a fast tattoo against his chest, faster than the beat of hooves against the winter-hardened ground, repeating what he said. Repeating what he said and, suddenly, galloping to the west, away from the group.
“Major Augustine!” …
( End of Sneak Peek. )
First and foremost, before anyone asks, I ended up in the hospital with a sprained (almost broken) ankle. Yikes. Having been heavily medicated and on crutches (now on braces) and basically doing university work, I've only been able to write a little bit here and there. That and left researching about railway routes and speed rates of passenger trains in 1900s America, the Expulsion of Loyalists in 1700s and medical practices in the American Civil War.
I'm sorry I haven't been able to write more but, very hopefully, you should see the full chapter uploaded very soon. Either way, please leave kudos and comments (compliments or criticism or even both) to help motivate me to keep going. Plus, when I publish the full chapter, I'll explain more about the alternate history aspects of this magical realism/historical fairytale fanfic.
P.S The Golem and the Jinni is a big influence on the writing of this story - alongside with the The Stargazer's Sister, Deathless and The Lost Crown. Those books are wonderful and have influenced my writing.