Above the sea, the sun quickly rose up out of the tropical waters, coloring it with a rosy flush. The tops of the spirals which crowned Atlantica sprang out of the darkness as morning came to the city. All was quiet, as the merfolk took in some last few minutes of slumber. One merlass, in particular, seemed quite content to sleep the morning away; having spent a busy yesterday exploring sunken ships.
Ariel curled beneath a pale blue-green blanket of seaweed which covered her soft warm bed. This is how Coral found the princess; as the woman entered the girl's room. Coral was the princesses' nanny; a gentle gray-haired merwoman who helped keep the place tidy and performed minor chores for the girls. Coral was humming softly as she entered, and Ariel stirred at this precursor of the day. The woman floated up to her; one arm had a seaweed blouse draped across it; the other reached down to gently push back Ariel's curl.
"Ariel, dear. Time to wake up", said the woman.
The girl curled and stretched; with her eyes still closed and a wide smile on her lips. Then she straightened; with her arms stretching out and part of her flukes poking out at the end of her blanket. With a gentle yawn, her eyes opened and she rose up. "Is it morning already?"
The woman nodded and turned to leave.
Ariel's eyes brightened as she sat up in her bed. She wore a thick soft night-shirt of blue seaweed. "Coral! You'll never guess what I was just dreaming about!"
The woman raised an eyebrow. "Did it have something to do with humans?"
Ariel smiled. "Oh,...that was too easy! There was all these human couples. The ladies had on long seaweed gowns, and they were dancing round and,..."
"You'd better not let your father hear that", warned the woman as she made for the door. "Now, off to the bath with you!"
Ariel clasped her arms around herself. "It was so romantic!"
Coral pointed out the door. "Bath!"
Ariel sighed; then hopped out of bed. She went to her dresser and pulled out her familiar purple shells. Then she swam out of her bedroom, with the shells in hand.
The mermaid entered the princesses' mirrored dresser room, just as Arista was coming out of the bathing room. Arista smiled wickedly, as she sat down at a mirror and started to brush her hair. "Sorry, Ariel. I just used the last of the hot water."
"Fibber", returned Ariel, as she went through the seaweed curtain. The bathing room had seven tubs brimming with hot water; filled by hot springs. Bath sponges and seaweed-wrapped bars of soap sat next to each. Ariel reached down to touch the water and sighed pleasurably: it was just right.
Outside, Arista had just finished combing her hair and swam back to the seaweed curtain to give Ariel a parting shot. Arista pulled the curtain aside and looked in; Ariel was sunk in the tub. Bubbles hid everything except her head and her flukes.
"I'll tell Father you'll be along for breakfast,...sooner or later", she quipped.
"Thanks", answered Ariel, dryly.
After the little mermaid had finished brushing her hair, she went to the royal kitchen to see what Otto was doing. The octopus was busy flipping seaweed pancakes with three of his arms, while two others were holding a bowl as another arm stirred the contents within.
"Good morning, Otto!", said the girl, brightly, as she swam in.
The mustached cook barely looked up, as Ariel peered into the bowl. "Good morning, Princess. I'm making some sea-grape jelly and I want you to eat plenty."
Ariel sighed as she smiled at the octopus. "Now Otto, not that again!"
One arm shook the coral spoon at her. "You need to eat! You're too thin!"
"I'm fine! See?" Ariel gave a twirl and raised her arms over her head.
"Too thin. You don't eat enough. Princess Adella now; she listens to me."
"Oh, Otto! You're hopeless!", said the girl. She took her finger and got a little of the sea-grape jelly from the spoon and tasted it. "I'll tell Adella you made some", she said with a grin and swam out the door.
When Ariel came into the dining hall, everyone was already seated. Triton cleared his throat angrily as the girl took her place; looking sternly at her for a second, before turning to Aquata. "You were saying, Aquata?"
"Well Father, since I am getting old enough, I've been thinking of finding a new place to live. Not too far, of course, but with a little more privacy."
Triton put his hand to his chin. "Hmmm,... Well; I'll have to think about that, Aquata. It's a big step. You are almost a merwoman now, but moving out,..."
"Can I move out too, Daddy!?", asked an excited Ariel. "I can live close to Flounder and we'll go exploring every day,..."
"No", answered the King.
"No. You're still a child, Ariel", returned her father.
"Aquata's not that much older than me,...well,...just a few years,...", answered the girl with growing uncertainty.
"No!", finished Triton.
At this, Otto brought out their breakfast. Adella squealed with delight. "Oh boy! Sea-grape jelly!"
Ariel glumly rested her chin on one elbow as she watched Adella heap jelly onto her plate.
By the time that their breakfast was over, Ariel was in good spirits again; she even had a little of the jelly. Triton was touched, when the girl came up to give him his good-bye kiss before she went off to school.
He smiled lovingly down at her. "I hope that you're not still angry with me, Ariel", he said, gently.
The girl's downcast eyes rose to meet his. "No,...I understand, Daddy. I guess I'm still a little too young right now."
"You won't be "too young" forever, you know. You'll be grown up before you know it,...my little Ariel."
Ariel smiled; embarrassed. "Daddy!"
Triton chuckled. "Okay. You girls swim along now, or you'll be late for school."
With lunch sack in hand, the Princesses swam out of the room. They made their way to another section of the palace, where their tutor awaited them in a small cozy room. The girls sat down at their desks and looked to the front, where an elderly merman was studying some scrolls on his desk. After a moment, he looked up with a kindly face. "Good-morning girls", he said with a rather high quiet voice.
"Good-morning, Mr. Dab", answered the girls. They all liked the man; in addition to being the finest teacher in the kingdom, he was also very good with his students.
"Today, we're all going to be participating in the same lesson. We're going to visit the farming fields."
The man turned his back to the Princesses as he pointed to a map of Atlantica. Aquata put her hand to her mouth and imitated a yawn for Ariel and Alana. Ariel looked innocently at her sister.
"I know that you older girls have already seen them, but this will give Alana and Ariel a chance; and it won't hurt to refresh the rest of you, either. Now, here's where we usually plant our crops which feed the city,..." Mr. Dab pointed to a wide open section near Atlanta. "All of our seaweeds are harvested here, as well as much of our sea-fruits and kelps. This will be where we begin our field-trip."
Ariel looked out over acres of tall green plants; all growing in rows and reaching almost to the ocean's surface. The seaweeds differed in color and shape, as they did also in taste. The kelps and sea-fruits could be seen close-by. Widely dispersed among the plants were merfolk who tended and harvested the crop. Her older sisters looked bored, but, although Ariel had often seen these fields before, she listened attentively to their teacher as he described the operation.
"And after they're harvested, the crops are distributed among the families of Atlantica, who, in turn, pay the growers for their labor. In addition to the main crops, individuals also grow other crops which they sell directly in the marketplace. Among the more exotic foods are nuts and coconuts, which a few brave mermen gather from the world above."
Ariel's eyes lit up. The world above? Her father had never mentioned this before! "You mean they visit the surface?", asked the girl eagerly.
"Yes. The surface. Now, once the seaweed has been,..."
"Where do they go?;...the mermen who get the nuts and coconuts, I mean", interrupted Ariel.
Mr. Dab looked at the mermaid, in puzzlement. Ariel was a good student (even if she did tend to day-dream), but such eagerness about one subject was rare coming from her. "Well, I'm not quite sure, Ariel. If you're really that interested in exotic foods, you might try visiting the marketplace after school and ask around."
Ariel grinned. Her sisters looked at her with frowns: they knew she was up to something. Ariel caught their looks and put on a face of innocence; but she couldn't help smiling.
Flounder looked at his best friend and shook his head nervously. "I don't like this; Ariel! Un uh!"
The girl gave the fish a teasing grin. "Oh Flounder! Those men at the market do it all the time." Ariel and Flounder floated outside the girl's bedroom. The mermaid had her familiar "treasure sack" in her hand.
"Yeah,...but they know where to go and when to go,..."
"I got directions", answered the confident girl. "And they said they never see humans around."
Flounder gulped upon hearing the word "humans". "Humans! We're gonna get caught; I just know it!"
"Stop worrying! It'll be fun!" The girl grinned and started swimming. Flounder, with a groan, followed after her.
The sun was just setting, as Ariel and Flounder broke the surface of the sparkling water. Close-by was the shoreline of a small island. Coconut palms waved gently in the evening breeze, and Ariel gasped as she watched their beauty.
"Come on!", she urged the fish, with an excited, almost breathless voice. As they neared land, darkness fell, and the cool greens of the palms faded into gray.
"I can't see a thing!", moaned Flounder miserably. "Let's go home!"
Ariel turned to the fish. "The man at the market said to go at nightfall. It's safer."
"Well; in that case,..." answered the fish and he swam ahead. Ariel smiled and followed.
When she got to the sand, Ariel tried to pull herself a little way onto the beach. "It's still warm!", exclaimed the girl. She let some of the sand run through her fingers. "It feels different,..."
"Ariel! Be careful!", urged the edgy fish, as he watched his friend hop in the sand.
"Look Flounder! It's a coconut!" She pointed to a dark round object lying close-by. Ariel looked up to gaze at the swaying coconut palms towering over her, but they were hidden in gray shadows. The girl stretched to grab the coconut, then she put it in her sack. She looked back at Flounder. "It sure is hard to move around on this stuff,..." Then she lay on her back, closed her eyes, and sighed. "But it's so warm and soft!"
"What's that?", asked the fish, as he sniffed the air.
Ariel breathed deeply the scent of tropical flowers. "Mmmmm! It's sweet! Like sea-flowers!", whispered the mermaid. She opened her eyes and twisted; to rest on her elbow as she looked inland. "I wish I could see something! I bet it's so pretty!"
"Yeah! Then the humans could see you and they'd come and get you!", warned the fish. He looked nervously into the shadows beyond the beach. "I bet they're looking at us right now,...in the dark,..."
"Oh Flounder,...don't be so creepy!", urged the girl; although his words almost made her shiver. "Humans aren't that bad. Remember the one who saved the porpoise? Maybe he even lives close-by!"
Flounder shook his head. "I don't trust any of them. Remember what your father always says."
Ariel grinned and lay back on the sand. "I know,... humans are barbarians,... Maybe some of them are good; just like merfolk."
"All I know is, it's getting darker. Let's go home!", urged the fish.
"We just got here!", sighed the girl.
"Uhh,... but we can come back,...later, maybe."
Ariel sat up, as she got an idea. "Yeah! When it's light! Then we'll be able to see everything!", she said with a grin. "That's a great idea, Flounder!" Ariel quickly wiggled back into the water.
Flounder groaned. "Me and my big mouth."
Sebastian happened to be swimming past the girl's bedroom the next day and glanced inside. Ariel and Flounder were on her bed examining a round object, until they saw the crab. Ariel immediately jerked the strange thing behind her back and smiled innocently.
Sebastian sighed as he entered the room. "Alright girl. What's dat you got?" Sebastian expected a human (and possibly dangerous) knick-knack, but he was surprised when she pulled out a coconut. He couldn't help grinning. "A coconut! Why,...I haven't seen one of dem since I was in Jamaica!"
Ariel was also surprised at the crab's positive reaction; her excitement and delight immediately returned. "Isn't it neat! Listen!" She took the coconut and shook it next to the crab's head; making the coconut slosh.
"Of course, girl! Haven't you ever seen a coconut be,...hmmm; I guess you haven't. Come to tink of it,...how could you even get one,..."
Flounder gulped, but Ariel chimed in, "did you know they sell coconuts at the marketplace?"
"Oh yeah. I heard of dat. Never got one, though. Coconuts make me fat", said the crab, grabbing his belly.
Ariel smiled as she examined her prize. "How are you supposed to,...eat it?"
Sebastian chuckled. "Well, you can't eat it like dat! You got to cut it open."
"Oh!", answered the girl. "Come on, Founder!"
The three entered the kitchen, and Ariel gave the coconut to Otto. "Otto, would you please cut this open for me?"
As Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian watched, the octopus took a hatchet and sliced open the coconut. He poured the milk into some shell cups and handed them out with his arms. "Coconut milk is good for you", Otto explained. "It'll put some weight on you."
Ariel smirked gently at the octopus and took a sip. "Mmmm It's good!"
"Just like I remember", mentioned the crab. "It's good and fresh", added Flounder. "I bet it just fell off the tree, Ariel, when you,...oops!"
Sebastian sputtered on the milk. "just fell off the tree?! Girl,...don't tell me,...no, you couldn't have!"
"Flounder!", moaned Ariel.
Sebastian put a claw to his forehead and shook his head. "Oh, Mon! What are we gonna do with you?"
"It was safe", assured the girl. "It was dark; like when the mermen at the marketplace go."
"It's dangerous to go on land! If your father ever found out,..." Sebastian looked up at Otto.
The octopus put an arm to his mouth. "My lips are sealed".
"Okay. Promise me you'll never go out at night to dat island!", demanded the crab.
"I promise", answered the girl. She and Flounder took their coconut and left the kitchen.
Sebastian stood there a moment and looked up at Otto with a frown on his face. "Someting's not right. Dat girl don't give up on an idea that quickly." The crab sipped the milk and puzzled.
"Drink up", offered Otto. "It'll put some weight on you."
Sebastian looked at the cup with dismay and hastily set it down. "Wait a minute! She promised not to go to dat island,...at night! I bet dat girl,...oh Mon! I bet she's heading there right now!" The crab turned to the octopus. "Where's these islands she's talking about?"
"I don't know. You'll have to ask the folks at the marketplace. Do you want me to tell the King about this?"
"No,...Ariel is in enough hot water as it is", answered the crab.
Flounder looked at the girl with anxiety. "Ariel, you promised Sebastian you wouldn't go." The girl smiled. "I promised him I wouldn't go "at night" It's not night-time yet!"
The water began to shimmer as they approached the surface. "But it's the same thing, really", answered the fish.
Ariel looked ahead, but her smile faded. She turned to her friend. "You're,...you're right, Flounder. It's like,...lying, isn't it?"
Flounder nodded his head.
The girl glanced up to the surface, then turned to her friend and smiled. "Let's go home."
Sebastian swam as fast as he could; hoping that he would catch them in time. "Dat girl is gonna make me a nervous wreck!", he gasped.
Ariel and Flounder passed him as they swam towards Atlantica. Ariel waved. "Hi, Sebastian."
Sebastian waved back as he swam past them. "Oh. Hi, Ariel,..." The crab stopped with a jerk and looked behind him. "Ariel!" He paddled frantically to catch up to them. "I thought you two would be heading for dem islands,..."
Ariel hung her head. "I,...was. Until Flounder showed me that it wasn't right. I,...lied to you."
The crab smiled gently. "Everyone makes mistakes. But you corrected your mistake. I'm proud of you. Now, let's go eat some of dat coconut. You could use some; you're looking kind-of thin."