Ariel has always taken after her father. She shares his temper and his strong will. She has always been the quickest sister to snap when Attina gets unreasonably bossy. It might not seem intuitive, but this tendency has actually made it easier for her to slip away. After all the times she has swished loudly out of the palace with all the speed and force of her royal temper, no one ever notices when she slides quietly between the columns toward the darker edges of the city.
It took her until she was fourteen to realize this was possible, slipping out unnoticed. In two years, she has left nearly every day. She has slipped out of studies, of grooming, of endless gossip sessions. She still rages and exaggerates her exits sometimes, just to keep everyone complacent. The palace guards know to follow her when she does that, but they don't notice her vanishing when she keeps quiet.
Today, Ariel slips away from the rehearsal for a seaweed harvest blessing ceremony. So many people are there that no one will notice one mermaid’s absence. In theory, it’s Sebastian’s job to keep an eye on her and make sure she stays where she’s meant to be, but it’s never too hard to get around that. Especially at a time like this, when he’s deep in stage directing mode.
“And if the King will just step here,” Sebastian says. “Then the orchestra will swell, and…” Ariel inches backwards, silent and careful not to stir up any currents as she disappears from the concert hall.
After she reaches the outer walls, she keeps to the back ways and darkest paths. The main avenues of Atlantica, like the palace, are well lit with bioluminescent matter, but Ariel has taught herself the shape of the darker paths. Her mind holds a map, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the inhabitants of every sector of the city.
Atlantica is large in one way, but small in another, so she must still be careful. Ariel is known. If people see her, they ask for her blessing as a princess, or send their greetings to her father, or worse, tell their neighbors who tell their neighbors, who tell their neighbors until eventually it gets back to the palace. And that invites all kinds of trouble. Not that Ariel is a stranger to trouble, but she’d rather choose her battles.
Flounder finds her within fifteen minutes of her leaving the palace. She’s brought him a special snack from the kitchens like she always does. He is her lookout, her messenger to the far deep when she can’t get away, and she would pay him well for that service even if he weren’t also her friend. He’s young, younger than she is, but that makes him more open to exploring. And like all young, he has endless energy.
“Where are we going today?” he asks. “Want to hunt for shells? Or count sea stars?”
“I thought we’d visit the ship,” Ariel says.
“Again?” Flounder asks. He’s disappointed, but not so much that he stops bouncing in circles around her head.
“There’s still so much of it to sort through,” Ariel says. “There are whole rooms we haven’t explored!”
“There are also sharks,” Flounder points out.
“They’ve already gotten to the meat that’s there,” says Ariel. “They’ll be gone now.”
She’s right. This time. It surprises her a little, to be honest. She was expecting to have to put up a fight, or create a diversion and make an escape. But the ship is quiet today. She swims through the break in the side of it and makes her way through the darkness, pulling herself with her arms through tight passages when she needs to. Like the city, she has the ship mapped in her mind.
She passes the hold where food was kept, not bothering to go in. The barrels of salted meats and so forth are long since empty, and the bottles of a dark liquid called Burgundy hold no interest for her. She pried one open once, wondering if it might be a potion of some kind, but all that happened was the seawater turned red for the barest moment before the Burgundy dispersed. She wasn’t sure what the purpose of it was, but today wasn’t the day to try to figure that out. Today she had more pressing goals.
There were sleeping quarters down the way. She’d seen them last time, right before she’d had to bolt from the sharks. She’d gotten a tantalizing glimpse of beds and cabinets. She has longed to explore them ever since.
Ariel finds her way in and pulls a glow globe from her bag. She is always careful to keep light with her when she goes on these adventures, but she’s learned the hard way to hide it until she’s sure she’s alone.
The sleeping chamber has a bed with coverings like the sails of the ship. Humans are always draping themselves in these things. Like giant sheets of seaweed, but heavier. This one, for sleeping under has a symbol on it, like a royal seal. It is half blue and half green, and overtop of that is a yellow flower. Ariel wonders where this is from. It’s not close by. The closer ships fly red and white flags.
Ariel tries slipping her tail into the bed, trapping herself with the sleep sail. It is not comfortable at all. She twists and turns, attempting to make some kind of nest, but in the end all she succeeds in doing is tangling her fins in the scratchy material.
Humans are so strange.
With a not inconsiderable amount of effort, she frees herself from the trap she made out of the bed, and swims back to the hallway to peek at Flounder. He’s swimming in circles by the corner and singing a little song to himself.
“One fin, two, all in the deep blue,” he sings. He’s flapping his tiny side fins as he does and Ariel has to cover her mouth to silence the laughter that bubbles up at the sight of it. How can one tiny fish be so adorable?
She goes back to the chamber, her tail positively quivering with anticipation now. It’s time to open the cabinet.
Inside, Ariel finds more of the human drapes. There are ones for the legs, so odd and quaint. And then others that are more… open. She knows from portraits that these are what the women wear, and she is dying to try one.
She finds a set of drapes in purple tones and lays them on the bed. The first one is meant to go over the head and arms. Ariel shimmies into it, getting stuck only a couple of times along the way. It has fastenings at the wrists and throat, but Ariel doesn’t stop to struggle with those. She is too excited to try the next part.
The bright purple middle drape is another over the head one, she tries holding the bottom open and swimming through, but this quickly becomes impossible as the drape’s opening collapses and tangles together. She tries a number of different ways before finally bunching it up with her hands and jamming her head and arms through as fast as she can. It works. Sort of. The whole thing is twisted around in awkward ways and Ariel is pretty sure she looks nothing like a portrait of a human woman.
Ariel is nothing if not determined, though. She came here to try the human drapes and by the barnacles, she will try them!
After straightening the middle drape as best she can, Ariel assesses the overdrape. It’s black with purple and gold patterns on it. The craft of this pattern is a marvel in itself, Ariel thinks. The way the threads weave together is like a bit of magic. Ariel’s mind is logical and keen. She studies the drape for a moment and then arranges it on the bed so that she cane practice opening it and closing it. It is not an over the head one, but a simpler one. She needs only to put her arms through the holes and then fasten the front with the clasp.
This goes much more smoothly than the last part, and then Ariel is draped! Like a human! She tries twirling one way and then another, wishing there were a mirror around to admire her handiwork. There isn’t, though, and unfortunately, the twirling leads the drapes to twist and tangle around her in rather uncomfortable ways. How do humans manage these things? And why?
Ariel sighs. There is still so much she doesn’t understand about life on land. One day she would like to know everything. She will know everything. This is not just a wish, but a feeling of certainty that thrives in her heart. She doesn’t know when, or how, but someday she will see that world properly.
“I’ll take part in it,” she vows as she struggles out of the drapes.
As she is putting them away, her fingers find a groove on the inside of the overdrape’s clasp. Curious, Ariel holds her glow globe to the place and gasps. There is writing etched into it!
She reads the words aloud. “Made in Arendelle.” Where is Arendelle? Another piece of human knowledge to hold close. Another mystery to chase.
But not today. Today it is late and she owes Flounder some laughter and games for being so patient with her.
“Flounder,” she calls, “Want to hunt for shells?”
“Oh!” The guppy flips over in excitement. “Can we? It isn’t too late?”
“It’s not too late,” Ariel promises. Making time for her friend is important, even if it means cutting things closer than maybe she ought. She hopes she hasn’t been gone so long that her father will miss her, but it can’t be helped. And besides, Sebastian will try to divert his attention from that if he can, not because he wants to protect Ariel, but because he won’t want Triton’s wrath on him for losing her again.
“Come on, I know a really good spot!” Flounder calls, swimming ahead so fast she’d think a shark was on his tail.
Ariel gives one last glance at the ship as they move back towards the city limits. “Arendelle,” she whispers. “One day I’ll find you.”