Ariel is three years old when her mother dies. She and her sisters weep; her father rages. She hides herself behind the tails of her older sisters to try to grieve.
Years later, all that she remembers is the lilt of her mother's singing, and sunlight in red hair, and then a terrible hollow loss. Her memories of grief are always cut through with those of violence, of crashing and the flare of furious magic. It is only from her sisters that she learns how to properly mourn.
Time passes. Aquata teaches her how to do her hair, Arista teaches her how to sing, Attina tries to teach her how to be a princess.
Triton shows her how to shout and roar, how to put fear into his people who come to him begging to be allowed to the surface or to free fish from the nets of humans as they used to. He teaches her that her possessions are not her own; the first human trinket that she shows him is a mistake, when she is only nine years old, and has found a metal drinking cup that has fallen to the seabed. She only picks it up because it is shaped like a fish.
Only later, when Triton's anger is spent and he has dragged Ariel to her room, thrown her in with her sisters and had the door barred and guarded, can Attina explain. Do not bring back trinkets, she says, no matter how much you might think that they will please Father. If they are of merfolk make, they will not interest him; if they are human, this will be the result.
(There is an ache in her voice that Ariel will not understand for many years: the ache of experience.)
Andrina holds her and sings their mother's favourite lullaby, and gently massages her arms with some cream or other. It does not prevent the bruises that raise on her pale skin, but it to helps make them fainter, at least.
She longs to please her father, and mourns that she cannot. If she stays in the palace, Triton admonishes her that she should spend more time with the common folk, meet people, meet someone in particular. If she lives, she is branded wilful and reckless, endangering herself and endangering his reputation as King and father.
Her sisters make their escape in song and gossip and in growing up, but somehow Ariel cannot. Perhaps it is the red hair and the tail that she shares with their mother, she thinks when she sees the pain that flickers in Triton's eyes. But it is only there for a moment, never given voice or acknowledged.
The first time that she puts on the purple shells, he is furious. His voice rings through the palace, and in the centre of the princesses' room he roars and rages, surges of his magic destroying the trinkets on the walls and shattering the mirror where it stands. He grabs her by the wrist, and she thinks that for a moment he might tear it from her skin, but then he casts her to the seafloor.
"Do not wear it again," he commands.
Ariel remembers her mother in these shells. She remembers lullabies, and laughter, and games in the waves and sunlight. When her sisters try to comfort her, she bolts from the room, from the castle, and before anyone can think to follow her she is gone.
She breaks the surface amid the rain, gulping in the air and feeling her lungs burn in the way that her gills never do. It is so novel, so thrilling. She feels so free.
It is that day that she meets Scuttle, admiring his reflection in what he explains is a human Ooglebart. To Ariel, it looks a little like a drinking horn, but flat-bottomed and made of metal, but it is human, and still she yearns to learn.
She searches for hours, until she finds a cave in which to hide it. Her sisters are beside themselves by the time that she returns, but reassure them as she might, she cannot help smiling to herself that night when they are asleep. Just for a moment, she was free.
She makes sure that the next time she wears the purple shells, it is a public occasion, where Triton cannot let his true colours be seen. The anger in his eyes is mixed with a peculiar tenderness, and despite her fears, he does not punish her a second time.
Still she continues to sneak out. Her father tries guard after guard, but she outwits them all, and no matter how he corners her and shouts at her afterwards, she feels little but defiance. She needs to feel the wild ocean against her skin. She needs to be free.
It is on one such trip that she finds a fallen handmirror, made such that she cannot help thinking that surely, surely it is of human make. There is still a trade for such things in Atlantica, despite what Triton has tried to enforce, and she finds someone who will swap it for a finely-made satchel and their secrecy. From then on, it is easier and easier to gather her human artefacts, to secrete them away in her cave. Each one holds a memory, a feeling of freedom, and when she is among them she does not feel so trapped.
Triton comes to alternate between indulgence and punishment, love and fury. Ariel is beautiful. She should not let boys look at her so. She is imaginative. She should not concern herself with the outside world. She is independant. She is reckless. She is brave. She is foolish.
She cannot win.
It chips away at her life, until Atlantica is a prison and only when she is alone can she be free. She comes to the surface in the rain and storms, keeping low so that her red hair is nothing but a smudge on the water's surface, never likely to catch a human eye. She marvels at the ships and hears snatches of sailor's songs, and hides in caves near the shore to see families on the beach. Laughing children. Parents who show their children rockpools and hold their hands as they paddle in the wavelets at the water's shore.
Sebastien is better at following her than any of the others have been, but he is also more worried of what Triton might do if he finds that the crab has failed to keep Ariel within the palace. It almost hurts Ariel to take advantage of that, but she cannot bear the thought of not being free.
It is not Eric. Not at first. It is the human world, and air in her lungs, and the loss of everything that she has gathered and all of the memories it contains. It is the destruction of her happy past, all in one fit of pique, and wishing that there was something, just something, that could be hers.
She fights for him, of course. But she fights for life as well.
It becomes Eric. When he holds her in the night, and walks with her on the beach, and runs and plays with her among the gardens of the palace. When his kisses are never tempered with angered looks, when his hand in hers is support and not possession. From the first time that he sees her looking at something in the market and simply asks, "Do you want it?", she starts to fall in love with him.
When Melody is born, she feels a pang of the old fear again. Unconsciously, she tries to swaddle Melody to her, wary to even allow Eric near their daughter. She sees pain in his eyes, but it is sad and not furious, and when Melody sleeps Eric sits her down to ask her why.
The moment that he asks, she knows that it will be all right.
The next night, when she stands at Melody's cradle and bends to gently kiss her forehead, there are tears on her cheeks. "I promise you, my daughter," she murmured. "Whatever happens, I will make sure that you are free."