Ariel poked her head out from around the column she was hiding behind, narrowing her eyes as she studied the seemingly empty corridor. She didn't see any guards, but that didn't mean they weren't there.
She didn't know why her father had to be so strict about her not being allowed outside the palace without an escort. She was almost nine now. It's not like she was a baby who needed to be looked after. And she wasn't going to try to leave the city, even for a little while, like she knew Attina did sometimes when she slipped off with that pretty mermaid with the braids in her hair.
It wasn't fair. All she wanted to do was explore the marketplace.
Ariel glanced around again, looking for any sign of movement. Nothing. If the guards were there, then they were doing a good job of hiding.
"Now or never," she said quietly. Then, with a quick burst of speed, she hurriedly swam forward.
Nobody stopped her.
Ariel let herself grin as she made it through the small side door of the palace without any sign of the guards or her sisters or anyone else. She'd hoped that slipping out through the servant's corridor would let her make it outside without drawing any attention, and it looked like she had been right.
The city was hers to explore. For a little while, at least. Eventually someone was going to notice that she was missing, and she knew that they'd take her right back to the palace. Until then, though, she was going to make the most of it.
It was easy enough to slip mostly unnoticed through the crowds of people. Most people swam higher up than her, and the few who didn't had other things on their mind than a small mergirl.
That was part of what Ariel loved about slipping outside the palace without anyone else. If she was with the guards or even her sisters, people knew who she was and treated her differently. But when she was by herself, she was almost invisible. It was a lot of fun, if she was honest. She saw a lot more when people didn't really know that she was there.
Speaking of which...
Ariel's eyes widened at the small stall she'd noticed. It was new since the last time she'd managed to slip out and visit the marketplace, and the merman running it was unfamiliar. She barely even glanced at him, though. Her attention was focused on his wares.
"Have you ever seen human thingamabobs before, little one?"
It took a lot of effort for Ariel to pull her gaze away from the odd round – what had he called it, a thingamabob? – she'd been staring at. She looked up at the merman running the stall and shook her head, her eyes darting back and forth between him and the odd item sitting on the counter. "No," she said. "I've heard about them, but I've never seen them."
The man grinned at her and reached down to pick up a few more items, each of them more odd-looking than the one before it. He then placed them on the counter so that she could see them more clearly.
Ariel felt her eyes getting wider and wider as she stared at them.
"What's that?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper as she reached out to touch a pronged thing that looked kind of like a triton. She remembered herself at the last moment, stopping her hand before she actually touched it.
It was a dark golden brown, with a thinner white stick coming out of the top of each of the prongs. She'd never seen anything like it.
The merman shook his head. "I have no idea," he said with a shrug. "I just sell curiosities. I don't know enough about the world up there to know what they are."
Ariel glanced up. All she saw was water above her, as far as her eyes could see. Still, she'd heard stories about the Surface, a strange world that existed above their ocean. She'd never seen it, not that she remembered at least, but everyone knew it was there.
"You can touch it if you'd like," the merman said gently. "You won't break it."
Biting her lip a bit, Ariel moved her hand forward a bit more and touched the odd pronged thing. It was harder than she'd expected, and it felt cool to her touch. Then she moved her hand up to touch the white part, surprised that it felt completely different than the golden brown.
Behind her, someone cleared their throat. The merchant's eyes went wide with surprise.
Ariel jerked her hand away from the item she'd been touching. Then, almost dreading who she was going to see behind her, she turned around.
One of the royal guards was swimming just above her, an unamused look on his face. He raised his eyebrows at her. "Your father made it quite clear that you were not to leave the palace without an escort, Princess Ariel."
Ariel sighed. "I know," she muttered. Then she grinned, just a little. "But it took you longer to notice I was missing than last time."
The corner of the guard's mouth twitched, ever so slightly. It wasn't a smile. He was trained too well for that. Still, Ariel counted it as a win.
"Did you wish to continue exploring the marketplace?" the guard asked, his gaze drifting down to the stall she'd been studying with a hint of distaste on his face.
Ariel hesitated for a moment before shaking her head. "No," she said with a sigh. "It's not nearly as much fun when people know who I am."
She looked over at the merchant. He had lowered his head respectfully in her direction the moment the guard had said her name, and he was pointedly not meeting her gaze any more. It was like she was a completely different person just because he knew she was a princess.
As she turned to swim away, she let her gaze linger on the thingamabob for a moment longer. She just wished there was a way to know what it was used for, up on the Surface.
Maybe someday she'd find out.