As a prince, Alfred was used to getting his own way. The combination of his winning smile, large blue eyes, and cheerful demeanour, he was often given anything he asked for, whether it was a special occasion or not. The cooks would slip him chocolate and sweets, the maids would clear up any messes he made before he was discovered, the gardeners made sure the lawn was trimmed just right for him to play. In his room, he had teddies and toy soldiers, fake horses and fake swords. He had his own horse and sword, as well, of course.
So, when Alfred was nearing his sixth birthday, his parents were unsure what to get for him. What do you get a small prince who has everything at his fingertips? They ventured to ask him, three weeks beforehand and the answer, said with a large grin and a laugh, was a 'surprise'. And so, a surprise they got for him.
Little Alfred rose early on his birthday and, after dressing in his favourite blue tunic, he skipped down to the kitchen. There he managed to talk the cook into giving him some toast before he hurried off to the dining room for his proper breakfast. He was pleased to see piles of bacon and pancakes as well as boxes and parcels waiting for him.
However, after ripping into them he found that it was much the same things as the years before. Teddies and toys. Not that he complained – in fact, he beamed up at his parents and told them how much he loved every single present. But he had been expecting something much bigger, much more epic.
Finally, they finished their breakfast and opening presents and his parents turned to him. "We have one more present, Al," said his father, smiling at him.
"Really?" cried the child, excitedly bouncing in his seat.
"Yes. Follow us." Obediently, Alfred did so, passing through the endless halls with their tapestries and murals and history. Eventually, he realised that they were heading to his room and he frowned, confused. Before he could say anything, his father scooped him up and grinned at him. "Close your eyes now." Alfred pouted but did as he was told. He bounced in his father's grip as the man walked until, finally, he was set down. "Now, open them!"
When Alfred did so, he gazed in shock at the huge container which now resided in his room. His parents must have had it installed while he was at breakfast. The container was made of glass and was tall, attached to both the floor and the ceiling. It seemed to be filled with water. But none of this was as surprising as what was inside it.
A boy his own age floated within it, his blonde hair dark from the water, floating around him like a halo. His thin arms shifted slightly as he bobbed. However, it was not an ordinary boy. His waist merged with what appeared to be a large fish tail. It was a beautiful tail, a brilliant, shining green. Alfred's eyes returned to its face and he frowned. The boy's eyes were closed and its head lolled as he drifted in the water. "Is it dead?" he asked.
"No, no. We would never give you something that was dead, darling," said his mother with a smile. "He's just unconscious."
His father knelt on one knee so that he could look into his son's eyes. "Now, when it awakes, it will be disoriented and unhappy. But I'm sure it'll grow to love you like we do. Us and Prince."
At the mention of his cat, Alfred tilted his head. "So he's a pet?"
The King and Queen glanced at each other. "Well... Yes, if that is what you want to call it."
For a few quiet seconds, Alfred stared at the creature, wide-eyed. "Wow," he eventually breathed and his parents let out their own breaths in relief.
"We'll leave you to your games, dear," said his mother. "We have a big party to organise, after all."
Alfred grinned up at them as they left, his father pausing to ruffle his hair. When they were out of sight, he turned to the glass cylinder and wondered how long it would be before the merboy woke up. Turning to the pile of toys that had been brought from the dining room by the unnoticed maid, he decided to occupy his time until the thing woke up.
An hour later, Alfred had played with all of his new toys at least once. However, the merboy had still not awoken and the young prince was getting impatient. He wanted the creature to do something. It was there for his amusement, after all.
With an annoyed grunt, he got to his feet, abandoning his shiny, new toy soldier. He strode across the room, his head held high like his father did. At the glass barrier, he frowned at it before rapping on the glass. "Hey! Wake up!" he demanded.
In the water, the boy's eyelids flickered, its eyelashes hitting its cheeks. Alfred jolted in surprise – he hadn't really expected that to work. Taking a small step back, he stared at the wakening thing. The merboy blinked before its eyes blearily opened and Alfred could finally see the colour of its eyes. They matched its tail in both colour and brilliance and, for a brief second, he considered that he was staring into a pair of fish scales.
Then the merboy's eyes widened and it tried to swim backwards, hitting the back of the cylinder with a dull thud. A small noise escaped his lips – perhaps it was a cry of alarm – and the creature turned around. Clearly confused, its arms came up to feel at its glass prison. Then it swam up and down, its arms feeling at the glass. Twirling around, distressed noises slipped past its lips, its arms hitting the glass with small thumping noises. Despite its distress, its movements looked elegant, like the women at the balls his mother insisted he attend.
"Hey," Alfred said once again and gained the attention of the thing. He flinched slightly as those wide eyes were turned to him, confused and pleading.
"Wh-What...? Who are you?"
"I am Prince Alfred of Libertia," said the boy, drawing himself up to his full height. "And you're my birthday present."
At these words, the merboy shrank away, pressing himself against the glass. "Y-You... Why haven't you killed me yet?"
Alfred was taken aback. "Killed? Why would I do that? That would be like killing Prince."
"Who?" asked the merboy, baffled.
"My cat," explained Alfred.
There was a brief pause. "Cat? Is that an animal?"
"Yes, he's my pet."
"So I'm your pet, too?" And now the merboy's tone had changed from fear to irritation. Alfred blinked. No-one ever took that tone with him. "You and your people are too full of yourselves, human."
Folding his arms, Alfred frowned. "We are not the ones killing innocent people. You are the reason I can't go swimming in the sea!"
Those green eyes blinked in bewilderment. Then it snorted in disbelief. "Oh, brilliant. I've gotten myself stuck with an ignorant, selfish child."
"Hey!" cried Alfred. "I am not!"
"You clearly know nothing of the world outside." At this he glanced around the room, taking in his surroundings.
"I do too! I know about Commersia and Oropa and I know that the sirens are dangerous 'cause they sing and kill people. And so do merpeople and-"
The merboy laughed. "That's what you humans say. I have always been taught that humans are the ones who are dangerous. And it looks like they were right." His face darkened and he turned away from Alfred.
Frowning deeper, Alfred rushed around to the other side and the merboy groaned. "You can't just turn away from me! You have to keep me company and amuse me."
"How exactly do you hope to do that with this in the way?" It hit the glass and Alfred jumped in surprise.
"Don't you do anything special? Like the sirens and their singing."
The merboy sighed. "Well, my special trait is that I have a tail and can swim. What can you do?"
"I... I can... I'm a prince! I'm all heroic and stuff!"
With a snort, the creature shook its head. "That's not what makes a prince. Your silly human stories give all of you human princes inflated egos."
Alfred was at a loss now. "I... I..." He gave a growl and stormed from the room, ignoring the harsh bark of triumphant laughter behind him. How dare that thing make fun of him! No-one made fun of him! Nobody ever had harsh words or scowled at him or refused a request from him!
It didn't take long for Alfred to stomp up to his parents who seemed to be in the middle of a hurried meeting in one of the long halls. Normally, he would have waited to the side until they were finished, tuning out the words. This time, however, he was too incensed to be ignored.
"Mom! Dad!" he called to them as he neared. They seemed shocked at the interruption and they and their advisers turned towards him. "That thing in my room is- is-! It said that being heroic isn't princely! Or- Or something like that! And it won't do anything!"
The Queen sighed and leant over. "Alfred, darling. It's okay: it's probably just a little sore at being put in its special container. I'm sure you can win it round – you're always so charming, after all."
"Cheer up, son," said his father. "Mattie's in the dining room. We were just coming to get you." This successfully diverted Alfred's attention. With a cry of joy, he rushed off, his parents' relieved sighs going unnoticed.
Barrelling into the room, he noted with satisfaction that Matthew jumped slightly at the noise of the abused door and turned towards him. "Mattie!" he shouted, rushing and jumping at him, intent on a hug.
"Oof!" said Matthew as he managed to catch him just in time. The little boy patted the prince's back before pulling away and Alfred was able to grin at him. Matthew had bright, violet eyes and soft blonde hair with a strand which curled. They looked so similar that Alfred sometimes persuaded him to take his place for the boring ceremonies he had to be present for.
"Where's my present?" Alfred demanded.
Matthew rolled his eyes. "Hello, Alfred," he said pointedly. "Nice to see you enjoying your birthday." From the seat beside him, he lifted a small parcel. Alfred pouted a little but took it and ripped off the paper. Inside were a pair of matching necklaces, though there were different runes on each one which seemed to have been carved into something hard, perhaps bone. Thick leather was threaded through a hole which Alfred couldn't tell if it had been naturally made, man-made or made by magic.
"What...?" he began, unsure as to why there were two.
"The man at the stall said they were companion necklaces," explained Matthew with a fond smile. "You could get ones for you and your sweetheart, your family or your friends. Those are the ones for 'best friend'." He pointed at each rune as he said the words.
"Oh!" said Alfred and instantly held out one of the necklaces.
"No, silly!" laughed Matthew and held out another one. A different rune was carved into it. "I bought myself the one for cousins."
Grinning, Alfred looped all three over his head. "Awesome! Thanks, Mattie!"
"Looking forward to your party?" asked Matthew, which opened the dam and Alfred's excitement burst forth, occupying him for much of the afternoon.
He had almost completely forgotten about the merboy until he was making his way to his bedroom. On his way, he remembered the brief exchange with his mother when she had told him that he could win the merboy in his favour. And Alfred thought this was a great way to get his revenge – when they became friends, he would hold it over the thing's head. However, when he opened his door, he was immediately tested.
"Where have you been?" demanded the creature as it floated in the middle of the cylinder, glaring at him. "Don't you know how to take care of 'pets'?"
"You haven't given me any food all day, you dolt!"
Before Alfred could sheepishly exit the room again, bending to the creature's veiled command, there was a knock at the door. Startled, Alfred turned to see a maid in the doorway, pushing a trolley. "My Prince, may I come in?" she asked. "I have food for..." She trailed off as her eyes settled on the container. The merboy rolled its eyes at her reaction.
"Oh, thanks, Mary!" said Alfred, grinning up at her. A thought occurred to him and he turned back to the merboy with a confused frown. "But... How're we gonna get it in there?"
Mary then proceeded to point out that the bottom of the container was attached to the floor by a metal ring, two hands thick. Within it was a small drawer which one could pull out. After inserting a fish and some seaweed, the drawer was pushed back in before the handle was slid to the side, releasing the food into the water. The merboy watched all this with disinterest until the food appeared inside. It flipped itself over and swam to the bottom, retrieving the food.
Alfred waved Mary off and turned back to watch the merboy eat. However, the creature only stared back at him. "Do you mind?" With an over-exaggerated sigh, Alfred turned away, going to his drawers and pulling out his nightshirt. As he undressed, he heard the voice behind him. "Why do you need all those clothes?"
"That's what people wear," said Alfred, shrugging. Though, now that he thought about it, he wasn't really sure of the answer.
"Hm," was the non-committal response.
"Do merpeople not wear clothes?"
"What? Us animals?" The sarcasm in the merboy's voice was so thick even Alfred understood what he was hinting at. He scowled in the privacy of his nightshirt as he pulled it on. "Not always. But we can."
Turning back, Alfred found that the merboy had already finished eating. He was a little surprised – he hadn't imagined him being such a quick eater. In fact, he was sure it had been faster than him, which was rather saying something.
"Cool," said Alfred before yawning. "I'm tired so I'm going to bed. Why don't you sing me a lullaby?"
"Excuse me?" asked the merboy, incredulously.
"Sing," ordered Alfred.
A sound like a sigh escaped the thing's lips and it seemed to take what would have been a deep breath. Then, as Alfred settled into his bed, the candles lighting up the room to ward off monsters like the sirens, he began to sing.
At first, Alfred smiled, relaxing. The merboy had a beautiful voice, though he resolved never to tell it that. Then the tone changed, the words changed, something changed and Alfred found himself feeling sad. He had never felt this sad before in his life: it was a painful clenching in his chest and he could feel tears beginning to slip past his closed eyelids. With a cry, he sat up, the merboy faltering to a halt.
"What are you doing?!" gasped Alfred, glaring at the merboy. His gaze softened, however, when he realised that the boy also had a pained expression. If he could, would he be crying as well, Alfred wondered.
"It's something my mother sang to me. I'm not sure on its meaning but I think it's about separated lovers. It always put me to sleep when she sang. Then again..." It sighed. "Her voice was magical..."
"Well... Well, stop it." Alfred lay back down feeling his exhaustion weigh him down. He couldn't even react to the mocking tone the merboy used to say his next statement.
"Yes, my Prince."
Their relationship did not change for an entire week and, the more time that passed, the more Alfred was irritated, snapping at servants. The merboy seemed amused by the deterioration of his happy mood which just made Alfred's mood sink further. His parents noticed, of course, especially when he viciously stabbed his fork into his dinner.
At breakfast on the seventh day, his parents tentatively suggested they go for a ride. Alfred was ecstatic and grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He suppressed the stubborn part of himself which was telling him that he didn't want to leave the merboy – that would be admitting defeat.
It watched him getting ready, fishing out his riding clothes, deliberately placing his helmet on the bed. He didn't want to wear it – there was no way a helmet was princely. As he turned to leave, his eyes met the merboy's. The creature scowled at him.
"Finally leaving me alone, huh? Is this my chance to escape?"
Alfred merely rolled his eyes. "Yeah, of course. Have fun while I'm gone," he added, a little cruelly, even for him. The merboy merely turned his back on him.
Without waiting for an answer, Alfred rushed from the room, running along the corridors and bounding down the stairs. Bursting out of the doors, he found his parents already in their saddles, their entourage chattering amongst themselves. He wanted to be on one of the tall horses, as well, eyeing his small pony with distaste.
"Ah, there you ar-" His mother cut herself off with a glare as she noticed his lack of helmet. "Alfred," she said, warningly.
"Yes, mother?" asked Alfred with his most winning smile, the kind that always got what he wanted.
Pouting, Alfred turned back to the palace doors, not impressed with its immense size as others might be. This argument happened every time they went riding and Alfred was always frustrated that his parents' desire to keep himself safe overwhelmed their spoiling. Of course, this was why he had learned to place the helmet on the bed: the quicker he retrieved it, the quicker they could go.
As he approached his room, Alfred noticed that his door was slightly ajar. He had obviously not closed it properly in his rush to be away from the creature in the container. Grinning at the thought of what was on the other side of the door, Alfred crept to the door and quietly pushed it open – giving the merboy a surprise would be such wonderful fun.
The scene which greeted him on the other side, however, caused him to stop. The merboy had floated to the bottom of its container and was curled up on the cylinder's floor. Its tail was bent where its knees would have been and its arms were hugging it tightly. The creature's shoulders were shaking and Alfred could here sniffing and muffled sobs.
It was crying.
Gaping in shock, Alfred found himself silently stepping over the mess in his room, making his way towards the cylinder. He could hear the fear and despair in the thing's sobbing. And he recognised it – he made those same noises when he got scared from ghost tales.
That was the moment that Alfred realised that, despite all the stories he had heard of half-humans, despite all the snippy remarks, despite the scowl, the merboy was frightened. Alfred bit his lip and found himself picturing himself captured by ghosts and trapped in a glass cage, unable to move much, nothing to do but watch his captors and bend to their every whim. He shuddered but managed to stifle his whimper. How had he not realised that?
How had he not realised that the merboy was just like him?
Hesitantly, he continued up to the prison, terrified of startling him. When he reached it, he gently tapped at the glass and knelt down. The merboy twisted round, alarm clear in his eyes, though Alfred couldn't see any tears. "Hey," muttered Alfred. "Are you...?" He stopped himself from asking the question with the obvious answer. Biting his lip, he placed his hand flat against the glass. "Hi," he said, quietly. "My name's Alfred. What's yours?"
The merboy's eyes widened further, those green orbs shimmering through the water. There was a silence for a few minutes before he seemed to steel himself and nodded at Alfred. A hand was placed against the glass at the same spot as Alfred's. "Arthur," he said, a little shyly.
"Hey, Arthur. I... I'm sorry. But I don't think you can go back – my parents wouldn't be happy if I asked them to. But I won't let you be alone after today."
Arthur laughed. "What, are you going to stay in your room all day?"
"If I need to," said Alfred, firmly. "But, maybe... Well, I'm the prince – I can totally get someone to help carry you around."
Shaking his head, Arthur flicked his tail and floated upwards, away from Arthur. "You're still as stupid as you were a week ago."
"He-!" began Alfred but he was cut off by another shout in the distance.
"Alfred?! Where are you?! We want to leave soon!"
"Coming!" he shouted back. Hurriedly, he got to his feet and collected his helmet. Turning to Arthur, he grinned at him. "Mom said I'd be able to charm you!"
"Hardly," said Arthur, looking decidedly unimpressed. "I simply tire of hearing you call me 'Merboy'. It's not my name."
With a shrug, Alfred headed to the door. "I'll be a few hours but then we can... I dunno, play some sort of game, I guess."
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Hurry along, my Prince. Your doting servants await."
As it turned out, Alfred's parents had thought ahead, making sure the cage was easy to detach from its moorings. It was even light enough to be put in a custom-made wheelbarrow and pushed around by servants. Thus, Alfred could still go out to the gardens to play with Arthur. The merboy was restricted, of course, but Alfred made sure he was included in conversation. However, although Arthur now spoke to him a little more civilly, he refused to open up beyond that.
This didn't daunt Alfred; sometimes he would even force the merboy to play in much more quiet games like chess and cards. It still seemed like he was playing himself as he was moving the pieces or holding up both hands. But, rather than the servants letting him win when they noticed his pouting, Arthur would completely annihilate him. At first, the young prince had been upset and huffy at his losses, refusing to talk to Arthur while the other taunted him. Now, his competitive streak had erupted and he would play game after game in an effort to beat his opponent.
Two weeks after his new friend had arrived in his room, Alfred was sitting on the floor in front of the container, frowning at the eleven cards in his hand. "Any threes?" he asked.
"Go fish," Arthur replied. He sounded further than the last time and Alfred looked up to find Arthur at the top of the container. As he watched, Arthur twisted round and swam to the bottom where he twisted before pausing as he caught Alfred's eyes with his own. "What?" he demanded.
"Can't you stop that? It's kinda distracting." Alfred frowned again. "Why're you doing that, anyways?"
Arthur sighed. "It's the only way I can do what my people like doing most."
"Wha-? Oh," said Alfred, glancing down and finding that he had three in his hand. He sighed and showed them to Arthur who smirked and told him which of the cards to place in his winning pile.
"I miss being able to swim large distances," Arthur admitted, suddenly, staring pointedly at his cards. "Any Queens?"
Alfred handed over one of his cards, placing it in Arthur's hand which currently sat on the floor face down. "You know my parents don't want to let you go. They think you'll come back and kill me or something."
"Hardly. If I ever touch the ocean again, I will go home and never come to the surface again."
Pouting, Alfred looked up. "What, not even to see me? I thought I was your friend."
"Friend?" Arthur glanced up in surprise.
"Well, I consider you a friend. Even if it is annoying that you keep beating me at this game."
"I have a good memory," Arthur explained. "Threes?" Alfred handed his cards over. "Why do you think I'm your friend?"
"We have fun, don't we?" asked Alfred, grinning at him. "And you don't talk to anyone else about my secrets."
Arthur made a sound kind of like a snort of disbelief. "I would hardly call them secrets. Being scared of ghosts at your age is perfectly fine. But if you retain that fear..." Arthur grinned at him with a wicked glint in his eye.
"My age? How old are you?"
"Six years," said Arthur. "But I was born in the spring so I'm older than you. Fours?"
Alfred rolled his eyes at Arthur's attempt at being superior but did, indeed, hand over a four which made Arthur smirk and instruct Alfred to set aside another winning pile. As he was sorting it out, Alfred spoke. "Y'know. My parents built me an indoor pool for swimming in. Maybe I could convince them to let you swim in it." When he got no reply, he looked up at his friend as he sat back. The merboy was looking at him in shock. "What?"
"You... You would do that? For me?"
"Sure! You're my friend: I keep telling you that."
"But... I'm a merboy. That..."
Sighing, Alfred shook his head and picked up his own hand again. "C'mon, Artie. Don't put yourself down like that. It doesn't matter whether you are or not – you're my friend now. And my parents give me everything I want." He levelled Arthur with an intense, sincere gaze. "I swear to you, on my honour as a prince, I will do everything in my power to get you into that pool. And, later, when I'm King, I'll make sure my first act be to let you go back to your people."
It was the first time he'd seen the merboy speechless. His mouth hung open slightly, his eyes wide. "You..." he finally managed. There was another pause before he shook his head slightly, his lips forming a small, hopeful smile. "You don't happen to have any fives, do you?"
It took a lot of convincing and wheedling and whining and tears for Alfred's parents to agree to let the merboy swim in the pool. However, they forbade Alfred from getting in with him which he reluctantly agreed to – though 'forgot' to mention this to his new friend or the servants transporting him to the other building, hoping his parents hadn't told them. He took his swimming trunks with him, intent on swimming once he'd gotten rid of everyone.
The pool had been built after he and his parents had gone for a day at the beach. When Alfred had tried to go into the water, his parents held him back, telling him it was dangerous. Unfortunately, the idea of swimming in the sea was implanted in his mind and Alfred's parents decided that it would be safer to build a pool which would be separated from the perilous ocean. Stones similar to those used in building the palace were used to build it in an effort to make it blend in. However, the building still looked newer, the stone brighter and cleaner than the palace's, despite the rigorous upkeep. Large glass windows made it possible to see inside, mainly so that Alfred's parents could watch their son as they sat in the garden.
Arthur was astonished when he was taken to the building and shown the massive pool inside. It was several metres long: it would have been bigger had there been more unused garden space. He seemed to be even more surprised when his container was laid on its side and the two servants helped each other to open the glass door, some of the water cascading to the floor.
"Is this...? Are you-? I'm allowed in?" he asked, barely speaking above an awed whisper.
Alfred nodded quickly. "Yup! You can swim for however long you want, Artie!"
Blinking, Arthur seemed to survey the water. Alfred wondered if he needed help to get out of the container but, before he could ask, Arthur's hands gripped the edge of the glass and pushed himself up. The container was close to the edge of the pool and the boy flipped himself over both, diving in smoothly. Water splashed up in arcs and Alfred rushed to the pool's edge, leaning over to see Arthur at the bottom.
Briefly, Alfred wondered if he was all right, since he didn't seem to be moving. Then, suddenly, he watched Arthur flicking his tail and he shot forward along the bottom. Awestruck, Alfred continued to watch as Arthur swam up and down the pool, never pausing, never coming up. After a while, Alfred became a little downhearted – Arthur hadn't acknowledged him since hitting the water and he wanted to talk to him.
It was almost as if the merboy had telepathy. For, just as soon as Alfred had had his selfish thought, Arthur was looking up, their eyes locking through the water separating them. Arthur twisted around, swam a distance away and, finally, swam quickly towards the surface. He broke free from the water but didn't stop, continuing up, arching over as he leapt through the air. Alfred's jaw dropped open as he gazed at the thin form of the merboy, his scales glistening and reflecting the light. The sight was more beautiful than anything Alfred had ever seen before and he found himself gaping.
Arthur dropped back to the water, going under, before popping up right in front of Alfred. He smiled at the prince, a genuine, happy smile. "Thank you," he sighed. "Thank you, Alfred. I'll never forget this."
This jolted Alfred from his daze. "No problem!" grinned Alfred. Then he turned to the servants. "You can leave now," he told them.
"But, sire-" began the more nervous of the two.
"I said, you can go."
The other tried a protest. "Your parents have tasked us-"
"Don't they trust me?" demanded Alfred. "I would like to be left alone, okay?"
The smaller man bit his lip and glanced at the other. The sterner one shrugged a shoulder and they both bowed before leaving. Once the door closed behind them, Alfred turned back to Arthur who had his head tilted slightly, a confused frown on his face.
"My parents don't want me to swim with you," Alfred explained.
Arthur leaned his elbows on the side of the pool. "Smart people, your parents. To an extent. For humans." He grinned up at Alfred who rolled his eyes.
"Well, now I'm free to get in," said Alfred with his own grin and began to undress.
"Is that really such a wise idea. Your parents obviously worry about me killing you in some way." Arthur rested his head on his arms, smiling up at him. "What makes you say I won't?"
"Because you're my friend," said Alfred as he pulled on his trunks.
"I do wish you'd stop going on about that," sighed Arthur. The prince was a little surprised to actually hear the sigh this time instead of the odd noise he was so used to.
"Why?" asked Alfred as he sat at the edge of the pool and dangled his legs over the edge.
"Because..." Arthur gave up on his explanation and sighed. "Never mind. You're still the same idiot from two weeks ago. Are you sure you can trust me, though?"
"Definitely!" exclaimed Alfred, his voice echoing.
"You're my best friend, that's why! In fact!" And with that, Alfred turned away from Arthur's shocked face to look through his pockets. Finding what he knew was there, he pulled them out and looped one over his head. "Here! This is for you."
The wide eyes on the merboy made his eyes look more green than before. They shone and reflected the light as he slowly reached out a hand to the necklace dangling from Alfred's fingers. "What... What is it?"
"It's a best friend necklace! We each have our own but they're part of a set. So, although we may be apart, we'll know we're still best friends. I got it for my birthday and-"
However, at the mention of his birthday, Arthur retracted his hand and shook his head. "I can't take that. It's special to you. Why would you...? You can't."
Alfred frowned and slipped into the pool, water splashing into Arthur's face, though the merboy didn't flinch. Steadying himself with the edge of the pool, Alfred turned to Arthur and looped the necklace around his slim neck. "I can do whatever I want in Libertia. And I want you to be my best friend. Well, you already are, but I want you to have this. If I ever have to leave you alone for any length of time, just look at this and think of me." He gave Arthur a stern look as the surprised merboy grasped the piece of bone.
"I..." He gazed down at it in wonder and Alfred grinned when he looked up at him with a soft smile. "I will treasure it forever."
Nodding, Alfred let his grin widen and splashed Arthur in the face. "Heh!" he said at Arthur's surprise. "Betcha can't beat me in a race, Artie!"
"Oh? You dare challenge a member of the merfolk for a swimming race?" His tone was probably supposed to sound intimidating but Arthur's happy grin ruined it. "Come along then. We had best start at the end."
Alfred had never had so much fun swimming. They raced and splashed each other, wrestled and dove for items, laughing when Alfred could breathe. Meanwhile, Arthur looked happier than Alfred had ever seen him. It was as if, having been given the room to move, he could forget his captivity for a while and show his true self. This made Alfred grin wider, happy for his friend.
Eventually, Alfred grew tired and pulled himself out of the water to lie, panting. Arthur once again leant his elbows on the edge, propping his head up with his hands. For a few minutes they stayed silent, comfortable. However, something seemed to be bothered Arthur as Alfred watched him glaring at the floor.
"You... I need to tell you something."
"What?" asked Alfred, reluctantly pushing himself into a seated position, his legs dangling off the edge of the pool once again.
Raising his eyes, Arthur fixed his stern eyes on his. "You don't know. You don't know anything."
"Geez, we've been through this bef-"
"No, Alfred!" cried Arthur, grabbing his leg. Alfred tensed, rather alarmed by his outburst. His large, blue eyes stared back at the merboy, waiting for an explanation. "Listen to me, please. Your parents are keeping things from you. It's obvious you don't know about the world outside this palace."
"I said listen!" commanded Arthur, his grip tightening. "Your parents have told you that merpeople drag people to sea, that they kill them. But that hasn't happened in so long – and there was a reason for that in the past. Now it's too dangerous for us to go to the surface, never mind drag someone to the depths. It's too dangerous because, if we go up there, we will be killed or captured. By your people."
Taking a startled breath, Alfred said, "I don't understand..."
"Alfred, please! Please understand! We are not dangerous! Can't you see that? You know what I am. Your parents know what I am. Yet you are not dead, lying at the bottom of this pool. I would not kill anyone – why would I kill someone I didn't know? Or someone I barely know?" He gazed at Alfred with pleading eyes, perhaps gauging if his point had gotten across.
The human's frown was so pronounced that Alfred was afraid he would never smile again, would be constantly confused. "I still don't-"
"Half-humans aren't dangerous!" shouted Arthur, his voice echoing in the quiet. Silence descended, the lapping of water from Arthur's movements the only sound for a moment.
"Well, you're not," said Alfred, cautiously, eyeing the merboy. "I know that. But sirens... And there's those scorpion men and the harpies. I hardly think-"
"You still don't understand!" growled Arthur, throwing his hands in the air. He turned and swam away, Alfred noting how he took deep breaths, perhaps to calm himself.
The prince scrambled to his feet. "Then explain it to me!" he called to his friend.
Arthur turned and straightened his back. Somehow, despite him being below Alfred and despite not actually standing, he seemed to the Libertian that he was taller than him. "Half-humans are scared of humans. They try to hide themselves away, keep to themselves in their own lands, with their own people. But you- But the humans... They keep using us since we're under their rule. They think they can tell us what to do despite our own governments. They keep oppressing us. And my being a present for you is the ultimate oppression. The ultimate humiliation for my people. Do you understand now!"
Not breathing, Alfred could hear Arthur panting from his exertion. Was the merboy right? Had he been blind to this? Sure, he had thought that it was a shame that Arthur had been taken so young. But he hadn't felt guilt or regret. It was just a part of life, like the servants in his palace. Although...
Now that he thought about, the servants had always looked down on Arthur. Everyone called him 'it'. Some of the most jovial of people seemed to frown when they saw him. His parents had always been kind to him, though, so would they really continue this treatment? Would they look down on Arthur? But, of course, they had done so already.
There was a sudden splash and Alfred was brought back to the present. He watched Arthur swimming along the bottom of the pool again, almost as if he was getting as much time to move as he could. Before he could think any more depressing thoughts, Alfred jumped into the water, splashing water over the side. He swam down to Arthur and tapped his shoulder. When the merboy turned around with a frown, Alfred pointed upwards and they swam back up, side by side.
Once they had breached the water and Alfred had taken a deep breath, he turned back to Arthur and looked him in the eyes. "I'm sorry, Arthur."
"What for?" asked Arthur, looking lost.
"For everything. For everything that's happened to you. For the way your people get treated."
Arthur stared at him before laughing. "Prince Alfred, you are a very strange being."
"Says the one with the tail who still plays 'Go Fish'."
"It's a fun game when I always win," retorted Arthur with a grin.
Alfred grinned back. "C'mon. I better get out before my parents find out."
They swam to the side of the pool and Arthur helped Alfred out once again. Grabbing a nearby towel, Alfred dried off and redressed. As soon as he had, the door opened and the two servants from before returned. Alfred frowned a little as they surveyed him, wondering why they seemed more nervous than before.
When they pulled Arthur out, hurting him a little in the progress (which they mumbled an apology for, more to him than Arthur), Alfred began to wonder how long they had been behind the door and how much they had heard...
A few days later, after dinner, Alfred returned to his room to find all traces of Arthur and the container gone. There was just a clean bit of floor where it had been. For a heartbeat, he gazed, uncomprehending. Then his eyes widened and he dashed back to his parents, the cloth of his clothes flying behind him. His shoes squeaked and several times he slipped until, finally, he found them in the drawing room.
They looked surprised to see him but were still rather calm in the face of his anxiety. His mother held her sewing in her hands and his father was taking a moment to have a glass of some sort of brown drink. Smiling down at him, his mother asked him what was wrong.
"Where's Arthur?!" he demanded. "What have you done with him?!"
"Arthur?" his mother asked, looking confused. "Oh, the merboy?"
"Well, it said it wanted to go back to the ocean. So we've decided to return it. After all, you kept asking."
"But I didn't even get to say goodbye!" wailed Alfred, annoyed and very confused.
His father set aside his glass and opened his arms. Alfred took the invitation and jumped up, letting the man hug him close. "I'm sorry, son. But the merboy said it wanted to leave as soon as possible. And that it never wanted to see you again. We thought it would be best to take it away whilst you were busy."
Feeling teary, Alfred tried his best to hold his grief back and sniffed. "He-He doesn't want to see me again?"
"That was what it said."
"But he's my friend! Why would he say that?!"
"Alfred, darling," his mother interjected. "I'm so sorry. But this is what the merpeople are like. They lull you into a false sense of security and then snatch you. Or they trick you into thinking they love you or are your friend before abandoning you when a better offer comes along. I am sorry you had to find out like this. However, we cannot keep the truth of their ruthlessness a secret forever."
"But..." Alfred trailed off. He had thought that Arthur was different, that he wasn't a monster. Then again, why would the merboy want to be friends with the prince who owned him? He was a slave and would probably only show Alfred affection to appease him. Perhaps his parents were right.
This didn't stop him from crying, though, sobbing into his father's tunic. His hand clutched the necklace he had continued to wear since the day in the pool. He decided he hated Arthur. How dare he make the prince cry? How dare he make a fool of him?
At some point during his sobbing, Alfred fell asleep. He woke again when his father laid him on his bed, obviously having carried him to his room. The worn-out boy waited until the King had left before sitting up and rubbing his eyes, trying to erase the evidence of his hurt. He still clutched the necklace and, with a low snarl, he pulled it over his head. Glaring at the rune, he realised that he had the part which said 'best'. With gritted teeth, he threw the necklace across the room. If the container had still been there, it would have hit the glass and bounced off. This thought just made him angrier.
A low growling sound came from his throat as he lay down – if he ever met that merboy again, he would give it a piece of his mind.