THE PRINCESS AND THE PAUPER

(NOTICE: This story has some scenes that may be too frightening for preschoolers. Use your own discretion.)

It was Ariel's ninth birthday, and King Triton went all-out for his youngest daughter's party. Her other sisters attended, of course, as well as many of the birthday girl's friends. Flounder swam excitedly from game to game; he even won "Pin the tail on the seahorse". Sebastian was there too; providing the music for "Musical chairs" and sneaking nibbles of plankton pate' from the party table. Ariel's eyes glowed with happiness, as the party peaked with the bringing out of the cake: a beautiful, nine-tiered blue and white masterpiece from Otto, the royal chef. As everyone enjoyed a slice, Triton went to his youngest daughter and presented her with a small coral jewelry box. Ariel opened it and gasped with happiness: inside was a beautiful blue pearl neacklace.

"Thank you Daddy!", she cried, as she hugged his neck. Now, she had a blue pearl necklace, just like her sisters! Ariel held it up to show everyone; then proudly put it on. This was her best birthday ever!

Far from the joy of the palace, a solitary woman growled with frustration. She had been banished from Atlantica, but still schemed to take over, in Triton's place. From the depths of her magic globe, Ursula stared at the gleaming towers of the palace. If only she could see what was going on inside! Then she might invent an evil plan to overthrow the King! The Sea-witch heard a sound at the entrance to her lair, and turned around to see her newest victim. It was a young mergirl. Merfolk would visit her, from time-to-time; aware of her magical powers and hoping that she would fix their problems. Few escaped from being Ursula's slaves forever. The woman managed a forced smile. "Come in, child. You certainly are a young one."

The mergirl swam up; unafraid of the Sea-witch. "I'm eleven years old; although that's no business of your's."

Ursula lowered an eyebrow. "Cocky, aren't we? Don't waste my time, child; you have nothing I would want."

The girl raised her head, proudly. "I'm Beau. I ran away from home. I want to be a Princess."

Ursula laughed through grinning teeth. "Is that all?" She rose before the girl, but Beau didn't shrink back. "I have half a mind to feed you to my Morays."

Beau made fists and yelled, "I demand to be made a Princess!"

Ursula smiled; amused. "You are so haughty! Where is your home?"

"None of your business", replied Beau.

"If you want to be a Princess,..."

Beau shrugged. "Okay. It's Sargassum City."

"That's a long way. Travel all by yourself?"

Beau laughed. "Yeah. So what? I can take care of myself."

Ursula turned and sat back down. "Aren't you afraid to be so far from your Mommie and Daddy?"

"It's nice not to get beat every day. Look; are you gonna make me a Princess or are you gonna talk all day?"

Ursula put a hand to her chin with a sudden thought. Yes! This was the answer! She turned a sly smile onto the mergirl. "Yes. I'll make you a Princess. For a price."

"What price?", demanded Beau.

Ariel waited until the time was right, then snuck out of the palace to join Flounder. They were exploring a beautiful coral bed. It wasn't far from the palace, but it was further than her father would allow her to go; so she had to do it secretly. They gazed in wonder at the pretty pink animals which glowed in the sunlight; waving their tiny fans in the current to catch bits of food.

"Just think, Flounder: every little fan is an animal! There's zillons and zillons of them!"

Flounder looked over the coral, to see the countless little fans. "Wow!", he exclaimed.

While Ariel went around the huge rocks to see the other side, Flounder looked into a crevice and discovered tiny yellow and black fish. "Ariel! Come look at these little guys!"

Flounder didn't hear a response. He swam around the rock, but Ariel wasn't there! "Ariel? Ariel, where are you?!" Flounder swam; terrified; all over the coral bed, but his friend had disappeared! "Ariel!!"

When Ursula returned to her cave, she was carrying a young mermaid in her arms: Ariel slept peacefully under the Sea-witch's spell. Beau laughed when she saw the girl.

"That's a Princess? She looks like a baby!"

"And you act like a baby", growled Ursula. The Sea-witch lay Ariel on a bed of seaweed; then turned to her cauldron.

"This spell will get us both what we desire; you will become a Princess and I'll have my inside source of information in the palace."

"If that's what you want, why don't you just change yourself?", scoffed Beau.

Ursula glared at the child. "The last thing I want is to be one of Triton's brats! When I return to Atlantica, it will be as it's Queen."

"That's a good story! I bet you ain't even got magic! How you gonna make me a Princess, huh?

The Sea-witch took some bottles out of her cabinet and threw them into her caudron. A green mist billowed out from the broken bottles.

"If you'll shut your mouth for a moment, I'll tell you. This spell doesn't change your shape, but it affects how others see you. To all but yourself, you'll appear to be the Princess there. Of course, she'll appear to others to look like you."

"That's not bad!", chuckled the girl. "So; will it last forever?"

"It will last as long as those around you think you are who you seem to be. If they begin to doubt, then the spell will be broken. And that's why you need to curb that tongue of your's. This Princess would never act like you; so you've got to act nice to others if you want to stay a Princess."

Beau rolled her eyes up. "Why couldn't you find a nasty Princess!"

"Take it or leave it", answered Ursula, dryly.

Beau shrugged. "It's better than going home. Do it."

Ursula turned back to her caudron. Raising her arms, she spoke in a cold voice," By the powers of deceit, let these two be the other to those who they meet!" The geeen mist flowed over Beau and the sleeping Ariel; when it cleared, Beau appeared to be Ariel and Ariel (still sleeping) appeared to be Beau.

"Beau looked at herself. "I still look like me." She looked over at Ariel and gasped. "She looks like me too!"

Ursula sighed. "You're the only one who sees you as you really are; you look like the Princess to everyone else. Now; take this necklace." The Sea-witch handed her a twined-seaweed necklace with one large black pearl strung on it.

"I'd rather have her's", scoffed Beau, as she looked down at Ariel's blue-pearl birthday present; still around her neck.

"This is my link with you", explained Ursula. "I'll talk to you once a week at low tide. Keep me well-informed and I won't break the spell."

"I know the deal", huffed Beau.

Ursula smiled, coldly. "Time you got back to the palace. Your little fish friend will be worried about you."

"What about her?", asked Beau; shrugging at Ariel.

Ursula gave an evil chuckle. "She's going home to Sargassum City."

Flounder wasted no time in rushing back to the palace to inform Triton of Ariel's strange disappearence. The King started to admonish the little fish, but saw how terrified and worried he was, and decided to postpone it for a better time.

"Take me to the last place you saw her," demanded Triton. Flounder nodded and darted back to the coral rock. The King looked around the rock carefully.

"How long was it before you noticed she was missing?", asked the King, after his fruitless search.

"It was less than a minute! She just disappeared!", cried Flounder with dispair.

Triton looked around at the ocean floor. "Well,...there's plenty of corals and plants to hide behind. Perhaps Ariel is playing a prank on you."

"No, your Majesty! I called and called! Ariel wouldn't do a mean thing like that!", declared Flounder.

The King stroked his beard. "I think you're right, Flounder. Ariel wouldn't hurt you on purpose. I'll organize a search immediately!"

"No need to do that. Here I am."

Triton and Flounder turned to see Beau swim out from behind a large rock. Triton's face beamed with joy. "Ariel! You're safe!" He swam up to hug his daughter, but Beau didn't seem to like she wanted to be hugged. She swam back a pace, and patted Triton on the arm.

"I'm okay, Dad. A rock hit me on the head and I was knocked out."

Triton looked at her, with concern. "We'll go see the royal Doctor at once!"

Beau laughed and shook her head. "No need for that! I'm fine now. Just a little dizzy."

Flounder swam up and hugged her; Beau pushed him off. "Hey, fish! I'm not your mom!"

Triton and Flounder gasped with shock. Beau paused; as if she thought she had made a mistake. "Do I know you?", she offered.

"I'm Flounder! Don't you know me?!", asked the fish, with worry in his young voice.

Beau laughed again. "Sorry! I guess that bump must have done something to my memory. Let's go home, Dad."

Triton took her arm; gently, and led her towards the palace. "I'll send for Doctor Cuttlefish at once."

"Don't bother; I'm fine", insisted Beau.

Triton looked down at her, with worry in his eyes. "I don't think you are, and you're going to see Dr. Cuttlefish."

Beau shook her arm free. "I am NOT."

Triton's face turned stern, "I know what's best for you, young Lady! You will do as I say!"

Beau huffed, angrily, and said no more. They swam in silence back to the palace.

Ariel came out of her deep sleep from something pulling at her neck. She opened her eyes to see a young merboy over her; his hands gripped her pearl necklace. When he saw that she was awake, he fled in terror. The girl shook her head, to shake off the sleep, and looked around. She stared; confused. Where was she? Ariel lay in what appeared to be a dark alley-way between brown coral buildings. Trash surrounded the girl, and rat-fish crawled through it. Ariel rose up in alarm when she saw nasty hagfish slithering under the garbage. Their eyeless faces turned towards her, with slavering mouths full of rasping teeth.

Ariel swam out of their reach and called, "Flounder!! Flounder!! Are you here?!" Dodging the hagfishes' sucking mouths, the girl searched the length of the alley-way; looking for her friend. After an exhaustive search, Ariel swam out of the darkness and stared around her at a strange and lothesome city. Dirty buildings; shoddily-made, hung-out over the garbage-filled streets. Sargassum weed grew everywhere; giving the place a depressing brown hue. Merfolk swam by; with unkempt hair and bodies. Many were arguing with each other, and one pair of men were actually fighting. Children swam, unsupervised, through the streets; throwing rocks at the phosper streetlights, or rummaging through the trash. One youngster, about Ariel's age, swam up to her and gaped at Ariel's pearls.

"Wow! Beau! Where'd ya find the necklace? That outta fetch some clams!"

Ariel shuddered, and instinctively clutched her birthday present. "I,...beg your pardon?"

The young boy laughed; showing a set of rotten teeth. "Ha! Ha! Pardon! That's a riot, Beau! Mind my own business, huh?"

Ariel felt like she was in a dream. "I,...I don't know where I am."

The boy's face grew puzzled. "You all right or what? Old Man must've walloped you good, this time."

"Do you know where my father is?", asked the girl; hoping for something she knew.

The boy shrugged. "Guess he's where he always is, this time of day; at tha' pub." The youth brought his dirty face closer to her's and Ariel shrank back.

"Got some zebra-fish spines, today", he whispered slyly. "Just two clams each!"

Ariel backed away from this nauseating child. "Uh,...not,...now,...Thank you,..."

The boy yelled at her as she retreated, "See if I offer you anything again! High and mighty with dem pearls; ain't ya!! Hey!! Everybody!! Beau's got Pearls!!"

Ariel swam away in a panic, but hardly anyone turned to see what the boy was shouting about.

"You sea-flea bitten, ratfish eating sea-slug!!", screamed the boy. Ariel swam blindly; trying to get away, and bumped into strangers, who angrily pushed her. The girl finally found a dark place to catch her breath and slow her pounding heart. Tears welled in her eyes, and soon she was weeping with frightened confusion. No one noticed her, or cared, as they swam past. After a while, Ariel felt the cool pearls on her skin. Sniffing her runny nose, she took her birthday necklace and hid them in her shells.

Dr. Cuttlefish examined Beau's head with the skill of many years as Ariel's doctor, but he could find no trace of a bump. Beau squrmed impatiently in her chair. "No; you moron! It's over here!" She rubbed her hand on a vague spot on her head.

Dr. Cuttlefish seemed at a loss with confusion. "I've looked everywhere, dear! I just don't see a bump!"

"Are you callin' me a liar?!", raged Beau.

Triton put a hand on Beau's shoulder. "Now, dear! He didn't say you were lying."

Beau glared up at him. "Being a Princess, I'd think my subjects would believe me!"

Triton turned to Dr. Cuttlefish. "I'll take care of her now, Doctor. Thank you for your help."

"Yeah. Thanks for nothin'," added Beau.

Triton looked at his daughter, with a face drawn with concern. "Ariel; maybe you should go to bed now and get a little rest."

Beau jumped out of the chair. "I don't want to go to bed! I want to see my royal jewels!"

The King looked at her and his puzzlement grew. "Royal jewels? Do you mean your jewelry, Ariel?"

Beau waved her arms, "Yeah! Jewels, jewelry, whatever!"

"Your jewelry is in your bedroom", answered the King, gently.

"And where is my bedroom, may I ask?"

Triton suppressed his growing worry in order not to alarm his daughter. "I'll take you there."

Ariel didn't know how long she lay curled-up against the slimy wall, but a loud drunken voice brought her back to the miserable place. She looked up with red eyes; then cowered down as a filthy merman reached for her.

"Here you are; you little worm! Been gone a week, you have! Maybe two! I'll give you a treat for that!"

Ariel cried out, as his rough hand tightened around her arm and he yanked her up. His grizzly face stank of seaweed whiskey, as he held her up to get a good look. "Red eyes, huh? Been sticking zebra-spines, haven't you? Where'd ya get tha' clams?!" He shook the girl, but Ariel was too senseless to speak.

"Little monster!", he growled. Then he belched. "Probably stealing off of me. Gonna tan your hide!" The horrible merman dragged her down the street; Ariel could only whimper, as she tried to keep up without getting close to him.

At last, she found the courage to speak. "Please Sir,..."

The man jerked to a halt and looked down. "Huh? You givin' me lip?!"

Ariel stammered, "I'm,...Princess Ariel,...of Atlantica,..."

The man ground his rotted, crooked teeth. "WHAT'S THAT?!", he asked, as if he didn't hear her.
Ariel swallowed. "I'm Princess Ariel,...from Atlantica."

The merman let out a barrel-laugh from his fat belly, and began to drag her again. "PRINCESS! Oh, Beau! That's a good one! You're really swimmin' high!" He gritted his teeth and turned a glare on Ariel, as he shook her. "Got any left?! I want em!"

Ariel shook her head urgently, and the man snarled in disgust. "Little monster!" He dragged her along, as children watched and laughed.

Beau nodded her head, when Triton ushered her into the bedroom. "Not bad!", she admitted. "It's big enough. Nice bed. Where's my jewels?"

Triton took her to Ariel's vanity, and opened a jewelry box. The King hoped that this familiar place would bring Ariel's memory back.

Beau looked in the box and slapped here flukes with rage. "This is it?! A little box?! I'm a Princess! I should have jewels stacked to the ceiling!"

Triton's heart ached. His daughter seemed like a totally diffferent girl. "Dear; you know how I feel about spoiling you girls. Didn't you get a beautiful necklace today?"

Beau shrugged her shoulders. "Yeah. Well,..I lost it. I want another one."

The King looked at Beau with shock. "You lost your birthday present?" He took her to him "My poor little girl! What a terrible day you've had!"

Beau slid her arms under the King, and pushed to free herself. Triton was surprised to see how strong his daughter was now. "That's right, Dad. I've had a terrible day and I want to be alone now. Just get me another necklace and I'll feel better. And send in a slave, too; while you're at it."

"We don't have slaves, dear", corrected the King.

Beau rolled her eyes. "What kind of palace is this,... Okay! Okay. Just send in something that will run my errands. Is that too much to ask?"

Triton almost felt like a total stranger was talking to him: so great was the contrast with her old personality. "I'll summon Coral to help you", he promised.

"Thank you, Dad", said Beau, as she lay down on Ariel's bed.

Sebastian was swimming through the palace; delivering a message to the King, when he suddenly heard music. His jaw dropped with amazement when he entered Ariel's bedroom. Beau was in bed; wearing every bit of jewelry that Ariel had. Two mermen held sea-fans over the girl; fanning her; while a merwoman filed her nails. A group of sea-creatures was playing music nearby. Coral, the Princesses' housekeeper, was kneeling at Ariel's bed; awaiting further orders. A fish was feeding her sea-grapes.

Sebastian swam up to the ridiculous group. What is going on here?!"

Beau turned a glare on the crab that made Sebastian cold. "I did not give you permission to speak", she answered, with menace in her voice.

Sebastian couldn't believe those words came out of Ariel's mouth. "Child? Are you all right?"

Beau rose up with a red face. "I am NOT a child!", she screamed. She snapped up her arm and pointed at the crab. "Guards! Seize that intruder!" From out of nowhere, two merguards swam up and grabbed Sebastian.

"Ariel! Dis is crazy! What's wrong with you?!"

Beau turned her face away and looked at the ceiling. "I want this creature beheaded immediately", sighed the girl.

Her merguards gasped in shock, "But Princess! Only the King has that authority!"

"Everywhere I go, I get insolence!", screamed Beau. "I'll have both of your heads too, if my order is not carried out immediately!"

The elder of the two merguards bowed to the girl and looked at the other guard. "I'll take care of this, myself. You will remain here to guard the Princess." The man looked at Beau,"if that is all right with your Highness."

Beau motioned him away by flicking her hand.

"Ariel! Don't do dis! You're not yourself!", cried Sebastian, as the guard took him away.

After they had left, beau smiled. "I'll teach all of you how to treat a Princess!"

Ariel sat, curled in the corner of a dark dirty room. The place stank; with garbage littered on the dirt floor. At a nearby table sat the merman who had brought her there; as well as a merwoman with long, nasty, stringy-black hair. The two of them were chewing on some sort of meat, and drinking seaweed whiskey. Closeby was a mangey-looking dogfish, which continually growled at Ariel.

"Shut your trap!", shouted the merman and kicked his tail at the dogfish. The animal would cower-down for a moment, then start it's growling again. Ariel cried in misery, but the couple hardly noticed her in the dim phosphor-light.

"Been stealing clams from me again", slurred the man, as he guzzled whiskey. "She's been buyin' zebra-spines with my clams!"

"She never was any good", mumbled the woman. "I never shoulda' birthed her,...never shoulda'."

My kid wouldn't act like that,... Little monster. I don't know why I stay wit' you; with that brat around", growled the man.

The woman tore off a piece of greasy meat and chewed noisily. "She's a good thief,...that's why. Ain't ya, Beau?" The woman turned around, when Ariel didn't reply. "Hey! Ya mamma's talkin' to ya!" Ariel was too frightened to look up out of her curl.

The woman turned back to the table. "Ahh,..she's still swimmin'. Good for nothin'."

The merman wiped his mouth with a dirty hand. "Ain't forgot yer beatin', girl. It's comin'. I'll give ya a good un!"

The woman grabbed a hunk of meat and shook it at the girl. "Ya hungry? Hey! I'm talkin' to ya!" Ariel curled up tighter. "Little brat. I won't ask twice." The woman turned back to the whiskey bottle.

Ariel heard the man's chair move, and her heart began to pound. She felt his movement, as he swam to her. His terribly-strong hand grabbed the girl's tiny arm and shook her out of her curl.

"Now I'm gonna give ya a beatin'. Do ya good!" The man raised his hand, then paused. Something shiny glimmered at the girl's chest. "What's this?", he growled, and pulled out her pearl necklace.

Ariel tried to get them back, but the man shoved her , without effort, into the floor. She whimpered, "No! That's Daddy's present!"

"SHUT YER TRAP!", screamed the man. He looked at the necklace and his eyes went wide. "Will ya look at this? It's a bloody fortune!"

The woman quickly swam up. "It's pearls! Real pearls!" She tried to take them, but the man jerked them away. "Hey These are mine, see?", he growled.

The woman laid a greasy hand on his arm. "We're rich now, honey! We're gonna have everything now!"

The man smiled through rotten teeth. "Yeah, baby! We're gonna be high-classed now!" The two swam over to the seaweed couch; all thought of Ariel was forgotten, as they gawked at the necklace.

Ariel crawled into a far corner; shivering with fear at the horrible couple and their growling dogfish.


THE PRINCESS AND THE PAUPER, PART TWO

Triton could only sigh, as his guard explained what had happened. Sebastian still looked pale from the experiance. "I could see that only Sebastian's execution would please the Princess, so I told Ariel that I would carry it out, myself. We came here, to tell your Majesty, as soon as we could."

"I couldn't believe my ears!", exclaimed Sebastian. "Dat sweet little girl saying those tings! I just don't understand it!"

Triton shook his head, sadly. "My poor little Ariel. she bumped her head today, and has been acting like that, ever since. I don't know what we can do to help her." He sat down, lifelessly, on his throne. "I've sent her sisters to see her; perhaps they will spark some rememberance in her."

"What I don't understand, your Majesty", said the crab, as he put a claw to his chin, "is how Ariel got dese notions to start with! Dere's never been an execution in Atlantica! How would she even know of such a ting?"

"It is all so terribly puzzling", agreed the King.

Just then, the other Princesses came rushing into the throne room. All of them were upset, and Arista had plankton pate' all over her.

"Ariel is just impossible, Father!", she cried. "She's like a shark! Some haughty, bloodthirsty shark!"

Aquata nodded her head in agreement with her sister. "She doesn't act like the Ariel I knew."

"She called me a fat slug!", cried Adella.

Alana spoke quietly, "There's something about her now. It's not like she's altered her behavior; it's like she's got a whole new behavior. And something's,...missing."

Triton looked down at his daughter. "Alana; I think you're closest to what's wrong. I've noticed that missing "something" all day. Her spirit is gone. Let's only hope that it will return, and our Ariel will get back to normal."

The terrible evening turned into a lonely night. Ariel listened, in fright, as the couple sat on the couch; cursing her for hiding the pearls and promising to beat her to death. They never seemed to have the will to get up, however; but continued to laugh over their new-found treasure, as they guzzled whiskey. The laughing and belching grew softer, until they were replaced by the sound of snoring. The lamp on the table was perilously dim. The girl didn't want to be in the dark, with that terrible dogfish so near. Her heart pounded; as she inched towards the table. The snarling got louder and more menacing, until Ariel was shaking with fright; knowing that it was going to attack her at any second. Her trembling hand reached the cold, greasy meat, and she tried to speak with a dry mouth.

"Here,...here you go, doggie." She threw the meat to the dark, snarling shape. Immediately, the growling became slavoring and chewing. Ariel swallowed; she knew she didn't have much time. Soundlessly, she crept up to the horrible couple. They were sprawled on the couch; an empty coral whiskey bottle nearby. Ariel could hear the pounding of her heart, in her ears, as she drew near the unshaven merman. With every sudden snort or snore, the girl's heart leaped; she knew he would awaken and get her. Her hand shook so badly; she took her other hand to steady her arm, and reached for the necklace. Her fingers touched it, as it lay in the man's half-opened hand.

"Little monster,...", he said in his sleep.; Ariel shuddered in fear; her eyes were wide. She hooked her fingers around the necklace and pulled it away. The man didn't move. Ariel started to breathe again. Then the lamp went out. She tried to control it, but she couldn't help but whimper in fear. The snoring continued. The dogfish was still gnawing on his bone. Ariel crawled towards the door; feeling her way through the dark. Every bottle or broken coral that she hit made a horribly-loud sound to the girl. She would freeze, until the voice in her head, screaming "Get out of there!!" would force her to move again. The room seemed to go on forever; she thought she heard the terrible growling again. She could hear the dogfish moving in the room. It was coming to get her! Suddenly, Ariel felt cool water on her face. She was near the door! Her heart ached, as she pushed at the door. It wouldn't open! In a panic, she ran her fingers over the door; she could sense something behind her. She found a latch and worked with desperation to undo it. Her arms lost all their strength, from her fear. The door moved and Ariel almost fell outside.

She was free! She was free! It was night, but the city held more than enough light for the girl to see. Ariel tried to swim, but she felt so weak. She wanted just to get away; get away from those horrible people. She felt herself crying. She cried until she ached, but she kept on swimming. Faster and faster and faster. She had never swam this fast before. She longed to leave this horrible city far far behind her. She didn't stop, until she was gasping from exhaustion. The city was now only a faint glow. Ariel cried; aching with joy to be free, and sank down into a bed of seaweed. She cried until sleep took her.

Beau sat on her bed, as the merwoman manicurist began to polish the girl's scales. She was only half-finished, when Beau's black pearl necklace began to glow. With a groan of irritation, Beau pushed the merwoman away.

"Okay. Enough! Enough, I said!" The music ground to a sudden stop. "Everybody out! Stay in the hall; I'll want you back in a minute." The group quickly fled the room. Beau looked down at the pearl; like an unwelcome visitor that had just arrived. "You bothering me already?"

The pearl glowed with malevolence, as a voice filled the room. "You've got to pay the price, child," growled Ursula. "What have you found out?"

Beau sighed and played with her jewelry. "I'm the youngest of seven wimpy Princesses. Triton sits on the royal treasure like a fish on an egg; he won't let me have anything!"

"What else?", asked Ursula, coldly.

"Well,...I think I am Triton's favorite; he's alway's lovey-dovey to me. Poor little Ariel! My poor little child!" Beau snickered with amusement.

"That could be of use, later on", admitted the Sea-witch. "How many guards around the palace?"

"I haven't counted", growled Beau. "I've got two, but they're lazy. I had to force them to behead a stupid crab making himself a nusiance."

"You're not doing a good job of being nice", warned Ursula; "they'll see through you, if you keep beheading everyone!"

Beau twirled her diamond necklace. "Okay,...okay. I'll try to be nicer."

"See that you do", warned Ursula. The pearl's light went out.

Beau yelled at the door, "Okay, slaves! Everybody back!"

When Flounder showed up, it was Beau's chance to be "nicer". The girl forced a smile. "Well! Halibut!"

"Flounder", offered the fish, meekly.

Beau's smile seemed stuck on. "Flounder. How's it going?"

The little fish swam awkwardly up. "I've been worried about you. Are you feeling any better?"

"Well,...except for creatures continually barging in; I'm doing pretty good."

Flounder blushed and started to leave, "I'm sorry! I'll go right now!'

Beau sighed and waved him back, with resignation. "It's okay, fish. I'm always happy to see my,...buddy."

Flounder swam back, but he didn't know what to say. Beau wasted no time, however. "Tell me,...Flounder. Where do I go around here to get some zebra-spines?"

Flounder looked at his friend, dumbly.

The girl put her hand to her head and sighed. "Never mind; wanna play hide-and-seek?"

Flounder grinned. "Sure, Ariel! That'll be fun!"

Beau's eyes went wide. "I was just joking, idiot! Oh boy! I see a lot's gonna hafta change around here!"

When morning came, Ariel felt tearful joy from the sun's light. The dreadful room was a dim memory, and she turned now to what was important: feeding her hungry body. Wild sea-fruits tasted delicious, after going so long without eating. After getting her fill, she began to ask around, as to where Atlantica was. Few fish even knew the name, and those who did were uncertain of it's location. Finally, an old sea turtle nodded his head.

"Yep. I know where Atlanteeca is. Right that way, young Lady." He pointed a flipper.

"You're sure?", asked the confused girl.

"Yup", answered the turtle.

Ariel began to swim, and her heart felt light as a bubble. With every swish of her flipper, she was closer to her home and her family. She imagined how happy her father would be to see she was safe! The only problem would be that, now he'd watch her twice as close; she'd really have to be sneaky to go exploring! A dark shape rose up, and Ariel stared at it for a long time before she accepted what it was. It was Sargassum City! A flood of fear swept over her and she backed away; trembling. Instantly, she took flight; swimming with desperation, away from the horrible brown slums. She suddenly felt like she would never escape it! A small dwelling appeared, off to the right of her. She decided to stop and ask these folks where Atlantica was. Ariel's knocking was answered by an elderly merwoman, who looked down at her with spectacles on her nose.

"Yes, child; how can I help you?"

"Please Ma'am; could you tell me how to get to Atlantica? It's my home, you see, and I've lost my way", said Ariel.

The woman smiled and opened the door wide. "Come in, child."

Ariel felt uncertain about entering another stranger's home, but the woman looked kind. She swam inside and looked around. The living room was warm and cozy; with well-worn seaweed chairs and a couch. A coral table displayed a centerpiece of red sea-flowers. A sleepy catfish lay curled-up in one of the chairs; purring softly. The merwoman smiled at the girl. "Please sit down and rest a while. I'll be right back." The elderly lady went swimming towards the kitchen.

"I really can't stay long," insisted Ariel, "Please tell me the way to Atlantica!" The girl looked towards the kitchen door and a merman came out; carrying a cup of sea-bean coffee. He had a grizzly face and a fat belly. Ariel's eyes suddenly grew fuzzy, as she almost fainted. The stringy-haired woman came out too; ushered by the smiling elderly lady.

The man dropped his cup with amazement, and a wide, rotten-toothed grin spread across his face."MY BABY! YOU'RE SAFE!"

Ariel felt as if she was falling into a black pit; she didn't even know that she was backing-up, or that the elderly woman was speaking to her.

"I knew this would be a surprise! Your folks arrived just a little while ago; asking about Atlantica too! Said that their poor little girl had run away from home."

The man's bloodshot eyes shone with lust; as he stared at Ariel's necklace. His hands clenched and unclenched with barely-controlled rage. Slowly, he came towards the girl. "You had your folks worried, Beau", he rasped. "You've been a naughty girl."

The elderly lady smiled", Don't be too hard on the child,... I think we've all thought about running away from home, haven't we?"

"Oh We won't be HARD", rasped the man. Ariel was making little noises; she couldn't speak.Her eyes saw the couch and she put it between herself and the man. The black-haired woman was swimming around to cut the girl off from the door. Ariel's heart pounded as she looked around; she saw an open window and dashed for it. She heard the elderly woman gasp.

The man yelled,"COME BACK HERE, YOU LITTLE BRAT!!" His grasping hands just missed Ariel's flipper, as she escaped!

"Swim!! Swim!! Swim!!", she cried to herself; She heard the door slam and the man screaming "I'M GONNA GET YOU! I'M GONNA GET YOU, MONSTER!"

Ariel's heart pounded and her tail beat furiously. She looked back and saw that the couple couldn't catch her! They were in no condition to swim as fast as she could. She closed her eyes and grinned; as tears welled-up. She looked ahead and let her lead grow and grow until the horrible people were lost in the distance.

After a while, Beau was yawning with boredom. This was her second day as a Princess. Since it was Sunday, she had no obligation to go anywhere, so she just sat on her bed; surrounded by her "slaves".

Triton came in and smiled as he gave her another blue-pearl necklace. "I had the royal jewelers work all night to make it. Happy birthday, Dear."

"It's about time", snapped Beau, as she grabbed it from the King's hands.

"I wish that you were feeling better today", sighed Triton.

Beau lay back and groaned. "I'm so bored! Is this all a Princess does all day? Lounge around the palace?"

"No", answered the King. "You also attend school, take singing lessons, and spend your free time bending my rules."

Beau chuckled. "That's nothin' special. Even a slave can do that."

Triton grew stern. "Dear; there is no such thing as a slave. Everyone is equal."

Beau waved her hands and laughed, "This don't look equal to me! Ever lived in a slum?"

Triton crossed his arms. "Would you prefer we move out of the palace and into the street? Ariel; you had the good fortune to be born a Princess. It is your lot in life: for good or bad. You must accept it, and the responsibilty that comes with it."

Beau turned away. "Yeah, yeah. More lectures."

Triton looked at Beau's "slaves". "This nonsense has gone on long enough. You are all dismissed."

Beau rose up, angrily. "I don't want them to leave!"

Triton looked sternly at her. "That's too bad. You'll have to live with it"

"You can't talk to me like that!", yelled Beau. Triton sat down on the bed and took Beau over his knee.

"Let me go! I'm a Princess!", screamed the girl.

"And a bad one at that", answered the King, as he spanked her.

After the spanking, Beau laughed. "That felt like a jellyfish hitting me!", she scoffed.

Triton sighed. "Do you know how many times I've spanked you, Ariel?"

"Probably lost count, haven't ya?", quipped the girl. "Get a kick out of beatin' on a kid; don't ya?"

"This is the second time", answered the King, sadly. "The first time, you broke a vase by accident and told me that you didn't do it. I've always been proud of your honesty, Ariel. If that spanking helped to turn you away from lying, then I don't regret doing it. All-the-same, I hate to hit you." With that, Triton left her alone.

Beau sat on the bed. She looked down at the pearls and touched them. She felt a strange feeling in her stomach, but didn't know what it was. Then her eyes got watery. They hadn't done that in a long, long time.

Ariel didn't know how far she had traveled, but she just had to rest. This time, she took no chances; The girl found a tall patch of kelp and hid inside. She would peek out and ask surprised fish the way to her home. After several had pointed in the same direction, Ariel finally knew the path to her father and sisters. The kelp tasted bitter, but it was better than nothing, so she munched on it as a lunch. She was thirsty too, but sea-fruits were nowhere to be found, and freshwater was out-of-the-question. She swallowed with a dry mouth and started off towards Atlantica; always looking back to assure herself that those horrible people weren't creeping up on her. As the day wore on, Ariel's thirst grew. She was traveling through wilderness; where the animals didn't speak, and the fauna was sparse and unkind. She would see a shadow, and dart for a hideawy until it was safe to come out. It was sharks which cast the shadows: they cruised these waters, looking for fish to eat; but a little mermaid would make a welcome change. Ariel had always heard that it was the one that you didn't see, that would get you, so she swam in fear the whole day.

By evening, Ariel was so parched that she was getting desperate. She even thought about taking a swallow of seawater, but she knew that it would only make her sick. She would ask the fish who swam by about sea-fruits; they would stare at her with big eyes, and go swimming away in fright. The girl tried to eat some seaweed, but she could hardly chew it, so she went hungry. When darkness fell over the ocean, Ariel swam down to sleep, among a sponge bed. Her stomach growled and she felt weak. The girl knew that she wouldn't get much further without water, but the wilderness seemed to go on forever. The darkness brought no rest to the miserable girl; her sickness wouldn't let her sleep. Ariel could only curl-up and stare towards the surface at the dim stars. At least, they were still beautiful; even in this terrible place.

Late that night, the girl's exhaustion finally overcame her and she fell asleep. Her dreams were only nightmares; however. She was swimming, and saw Atlantica. Her father and sisters were there; holding open their arms with loving welcome. A cool fountain of fresh, pure water cascaded down one side of the palace's towers. Ariel could hear it's beautiful rushing; as clear as if she could touch it. She started to swim towards her home, but something was holding her. Soft, clinging hands pulled her back; she smelled seaweed whiskey and heard harsh laughter in her ear. The hands pulled her down into a slimy hole of mud; she couldn't escape! The man was over her; laughing, "GONNA BEAT YA! GONNA BEAT YA! HA! HA! HA!" Ariel clawed out of her dream; screaming. She looked around with wide eyes, into the darkness, but nothing was there except tiny luminous animals, which swam lazily by.

Ariel listened to the wild beating of her heart as it started to slow. When it had quieted, Ariel heard something else. Was she still asleep? She held her breath and listened. She could still hear water falling! Without thinking, the girl swam out of the sponges and started towards the sound. It came off to her right; she listened to it like nothing else mattered. Sharks might be prowling nearby, but all Ariel knew was her body's cry for water. The sound drew her higher and higher; a darkness rose up before her. The water around her began to feel cooler. With a splash, Ariel broke the surface and looked into a dark, starry night. Right in front of her was an island; with a star-glistened waterfall spilling into a lagoon. The girl rushed forward and flopped onto the sand; she crossed a narrow strip of beach, and fell into the lagoon. Instantly, she was under the cool, falling spray; drinking in big swallows of fresh, pure water. She drank and drank; smiling up at her sparkling friend with joy. When she had drank her fill, Ariel hopped back onto the warm sand and fell into a peaceful sleep; listening to the sound of the splashing water.


THE PRINCESS AND THE PAUPER, PART THREE

When Ariel awoke the next day, the cool night was still with her. As she watched, the horizon blushed with a pink light; Ariel could not believe the beauty of it. With breathtaking splendor, the light turned pinkish-red to orange and yellow; as the sun broke over the water. The sky turned violet and blue;as light raced across the waters; putting the night to flight. Ariel's heart ached with the beauty of this sunrise; it unfolded before her like the petals of a sea-flower. Finally, she turned to look back at the island. The waterfall splashed between a narrow span of bare rock; everywhere else was covered with lush tropical plants which grew all the way down to the sand. Ariel visited the lagoon one more time to drink her fill; then she said a silent goodbye to the waterfall. She knew that she had to get home; she didn't know if those terrible merfolk were still after her, but she didn't want to take any chances. Ariel hopped across the warm sand and splashed back into the waters of her birth. The girl's hungry belly forced her to stop at the first seaweed that she came to; it didn't taste very good, but she ate her fill and felt much better afterwards. With no more delays, she began to swim for home.

Beau griped and complained about going to school, but she knew that Triton wouldn't take no for an answer. She also had to admit to herself that she was curious about it, too; she had never been to school before. She, and Triton's daughters, all sat at rock desks, waiting for the teacher. None of the other girls seemed to want to speak to her, which was just fine with Beau; she sat by herself at the back of the room.

Sebastian swam into the room, and Beau started. " I thought I beheaded you!", gasped the angry girl.

Sebastian raised an eyebrow. "You can't behead your teacher,...child."

"I am NOT a child!", screamed Beau. Aquata looked back at her; angrily, "Will you please put a lid on it?"

Beau glared back, "What are ya gonna do? Scratch my eyes out?"

"Maybe", answered Aquata, coldly.

Beau stood up and laughed. "Okay! Come on! I eat wimps like you for breakfast."

Immediately, the other girls all got up and faced Beau. Sebastian banged his stick. "Enough! I want every fanny in a seat right now!"

Reluctanty, the girls obeyed. Beau was the last to sit; she huffed angrily.

"Now,...", said Sebastian, angrily, "If we can put off de riot until later; I've got a lesson to teach!"

Ariel made good speed; even though nothing looked familiar yet. The seascape was becoming more hospitable, and the fish that she met did not flee from her. Atlantica was "some distance ahead"; no one that she asked knew exactly how far.

Around noon, the girl stopped and picked some juicy-looking sea-peaches. As she ate the delicious fruits, Ariel suddenly heard a cry. Looking around, the girl spotted a little worm hiding among the sea-peaches. She bent down to look closer, and saw that the little worm was crying it's little heart out.

"What's wrong, little worm?", she asked gently. The little animal looked up at Ariel with two bulgy eyes. "I'm lost!", it cried. "A big fish took me away from home, but I got away. Now I can't find my way back!"

Ariel's heart immediately melted for the poor lost worm. She smiled at it and whispered, "I'll help you find your way home; don't cry." Gently, she took the little animal in her hands. "I'll swim around, and you tell me when you see your home."

The worm rubbed the tears out of it's eyes. "Okay", it squeaked.

Ariel began to circle around the sea-peaches; going further out with each pass. The worm looked out over her fingers, with it's bulgy eyes, but it didn't see it's home. It began to sob again.

Ariel gently stroked it with her finger. "Don't cry now; we'll find your home. Do you live in a coral bed?"

The worm shook it's head.

"How about sponges? No? Seaweed?"

The little worm nodded. Ariel smiled. "Okay! all we have to do is look for seaweed!"

Ariel began to search again; she swam for what seemed like hours. Even she was beginning to despair, when she finally spotted a big forest of seaweed. As they approached the thick tangle, the worm squealed out: "That's my home!" It wiggled out of her hands and joined it's little friends among the blades. Ariel grinned and continued on her way. She heard a tiny "Thank you!" and she waved goodbye to her new friend.

Ariel looked for someone to ask directions from, and spotted a likely creature: right in a broad sea-path sat an enourmous old squid. She swam up to him and he nodded a greeting.

"Pardon me, Sir; Would you please tell me if this is the way to Atlantica?"

The squid nodded. "It is."

"Thank you, Sir!", she replied, and started on her way.

"That's very odd", added the squid.

Ariel stopped and looked back at him. "I beg your pardon?"

The squid just sighed. "The sea always surprises me. I've lived a long, long time. But it still surprises me."

Ariel looked at him; she didn't know what to say and he said no more. At last, she bowed. "Thank you, again", she said politely, and swam along the path which the squid had advised. Ariel began to feel uneasy, as she went along. Something about what the squid had said made her keep looking over her shoulder, and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck starting to get goose-fish bumps. She saw nothing more ominious than a pack of small barracuda, however, and they didn't even look her way.

After a while, Ariel's fears left, and she began to explore these new surroundings with her ever-eager curiousity. There wasn't many tropical animals here, because the water was so deep: she saw tuna and mackeral; jellyfish and lot's of dolphins. The dolphins would appear in groups of hundreds; playing and splashing their way across the surface, or swimming at the bottom; looking for anything tasty to eat. The tunas preferred to feed on the surface, and any small fish was in danger, if it strayed into their roaming packs. Even the sharks here were different. Ariel had never seen these sleek pelagic hunters in her home waters; they were after fish too; and paid little attention to the little mermaid. Along the bottom, Ariel found, among the rocks, seaweeds and kelps, crabs and shrimps, starfish, sea-cucumbers and little fish. Most of them looked at her with wonder; Merfolk rarely bothered to visit this place. Ariel answered questions for those who could talk, and she tried not to frighten those who could not. One old lobster had even lived in Atlantica for a while, but decided that it was too crowded in the "big city" and moved here. The girl told him of her father being ruler, and he laughed. "That little whippersnapper is King? Why; when I knew him, he wasn't knee-high to an oyster!"

The girl wanted to stay and talk, but the day was wearing away, and she knew that her father would be worrying over her. As the sun's rays began to dim, Ariel started off again; swimming along the path, which she knew, must lead to Atlantica's gates. Swimming near the surface, the girl spent her time watching the great mantas cruise by, or admiring, with delight, the shimmering beauty of jellyfish. The golden rays of the sun turned them into living jewels of light. Some even had lights of their own; with glowing dots arrayed in rings around their see-through bodies.

When the glow above began to turn orange, Ariel knew that she had to rise, once more, and watch the beauty of the sun. She surfaced with a splash, and looked out over the ocean. Every crest, of the countless waves, reflected the orange of the sinking sun; causing Ariel to gasp with this glorious sight. She heard the cries of sea-birds, and looked up to see them bidding goodbye to the day. The puffy clouds, motionless in the warm sky, mimicked the sun's orange and red glow. It all looked so peaceful and majestic to the young girl; here was splendor that she had missed all of her life. She knew that it was dangerous on the surface: her father had told her many times about the terrible creatures called Humans, but she almost felt that it was worth the risk. Like a fairwell kiss, the beautiful light flashed in glory, one last time; then twilight fell over the waters.

Ariel reluctantly sank below the gentle waves and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. Before long, she could see the jellies again; with their green or red rows of lights. Little animals, as small as the girl's pinkie, turned the surface aglow with yellow-green luminousity. As she swam down, Ariel saw glowing red squids, too; and the eyes of strange fish, as they swam through this night-world. The time for day-fish was over, and now a new group of animals came out.

The water was very deep here, so Ariel couldn't sleep on the bottom. The girl looked around until she saw a pod of dolphins resting for the night. She had never done this before, but her sisters had; and they had told the little mermaid about it. She approached them slowly and deliberately; until they all knew where she was. Then she got close to some adult animals; avoiding getting near any babies or oldsters. After they had gotten used to her, Ariel gently stroked them, to show her intentions. Several minutes of this had the dolphins calm and relaxed. Slowly and gently, the girl laid herself over the backs of the animals; she was so tiny and light, that the dolphins hardly noticed her. At first, Ariel was elated and wide-awake from her success. Wait until Daddy and her sisters heard about this! Sleeping with dolphins was rather like camping-out was to Humans; it took skill and knowledge. The warmth of the animals, and their gentle swaying with the currents rocked the girl to sleep. She slept peacefully, the whole night; only waking when the dolphins rose to catch a fresh breath of air. They would sink back down, and she would fall back to sleep again. This was how Ariel passed the night away; as a child of the open ocean.

Triton gazed at his daughters, as the family ate dinner that evening. They didn't look as frantic as the previous day, so he hoped for the best and spoke up. "Well girls; how was school today?"

Arista took a danty bite of her seaweed spaghetti and patted her mouth with her napkin. "Ariel threatened to punch me in the nose."

"She deserved it", growled Beau.

Triton slammed down his fork. "Enough!" The group ate in silence for a moment.

"I learned,..." started Beau. Triton looked at her; expecting something sarcastic. ",...about geography today." Beau looked at Triton, and smiled. The King's face turned from anger to great joy. Beau's smile was friendly! Could some spark of Ariel be coming back?

"Tell me about it, Dear!", he asked, encouragingly.

That night, Triton went around to tell his daughters good-night. When he came up to Beau, the girl looked up at him and sighed.

"I'd like to say,...well; I'm sor,...sorry for,..how I've been behaving."

Triton smiled. "That's okay."

Beau hesitated; then continued, "You see,...My life hasn't been a bed of roses. I've had to be tough, ya see. I didn't know that folks could,...care about each other til I met you and your daughters."

"You are one of my daughters, too", added the King, gently.

Beau squrmed in her bed, "Yeah,...well, that's what I gotta talk to you about;....It's not like it looks,..." Beau looked up at the King. For the first time in her life, she was happy! She had a Dad who,...loved her. How could she tell him the truth? She'd have to go back to the slums, and to the beatings. Then she thought of the little Princess. The poor thing must really be hurting,... Beau didn't know what to do! Telling him the truth would save the Princess and condemn her!

"I'm,.....I'm,....", Beau stammered. Triton bent down and kissed her forehead. "You can tell me in the morning. Go to bed and get a good night's rest." The King lowered the phosphor lamp and left the bedroom.

Beau groaned, "Ahhh; What a mess I've gotten myself into!"

After bidding good-night to Beau, Triton swam out and looked out over his city. Darkness had fallen early; due to a storm that was raging above the sea. The King could see forks of lightening dart across the sky, and felt the ominous booms which echoed through the water. He should have felt better: with Ariel trying to reach him again. Instead, the King felt something in the pit of his stomach. Something was wrong. Ariel just wasn't the same anymore. Her kindness; her gentleness; her innocence was gone. Where was that spunky charm; the vitality; that eager driving spirit? His troubled heart feared that his daughter had lost those qualities which had made her "Ariel". He still loved her, of course; but she was a different Ariel now. He had lost his little girl forever. Why had this terrible thing happened? He looked up and shook his fist at cruel nature; only to be answered by the heartless roars of thunder. He floated there; quiet and full of sorrow; watching storm rage above.

When Ariel woke the next morning, she lovingly stroked her dolphin friends and bid them goodbye. When she surfaced, she was surprised to see the sun was blocked by thick clouds on the horizon. The sky was a dim grey, and tiny streaks of red were the only light that escaped across the ocean waves. Ariel submerged and began her homeward journey once more. She was a little hungry, but she knew that she would find no sea-fruits here; and if she came upon any floating seaweed, she would consider herself lucky.

Ariel swam at different levels, until she found a current going in the right direction; then she let herself be pulled along. This was the "lazy" way of swimming, but the girl was starting to feel tired from all the swimming that she had done. Around noon, her belly started growling, but the ocean floor was still deep and cold and beyond her reach. To get her mind off food, Ariel surfaced and watched the flying-fish gliding above the waves. The air felt oddly stuffy; the girl noticed that the clouds were starting to build in the west; foretelling of a storm coming. She hoped that she reached Atlantica before it hit. Although such a storm on the surface didn't disturb the ocean depths, Ariel always felt more secure in the palace; as the thunder roared by, outside. The grey sky was depressing, after the bright blue of the day past, so Ariel dropped back down under the waves.

During the afternoon, Ariel was really getting hungry and thirsty again, and her tiredness was growing; but the ocean-bottom had not yet surrendered it's acessability. To make matters worse, the darkening clouds above made it into twilight where Ariel was swimming, so the mermaid had to struggle to stay on the right course. Again and again, she had to ask directions; double-check the faint light from the sun, and find a suitable current.

The ocean suddenly got darker; and with it, came a boom of thunder which echoed through the water. Ariel felt a creeping sensation, and looked behind her; expecting a shark. Instead, she saw two seahorses in the shadowy distance. They seemed to be swimming towards her. Whether due to her hunger, her nerves, or the approaching storm; Ariel grew frightened and began to beat her tail harder. A crack of lightening forked overhead; illuminating Ariel's world with a strange white flash. Immediately, the boom followed; stunning the girl with it's sound. She looked back in confusion and saw that the seahorses had riders. A merman and woman. The girl floated there a second; her tired mind wouldn't accept what she saw. They were after her again. She couldn't outswim them, this time. She had nowhere to go.

Despite her despair, Ariel turned and started to swim. Adrenaline surged through her little body, and her flukes began to foam the water. She would not give up her life without trying! The thundered boomed and the surface began to chop. Ariel looked back to see the seahorses gaining on her; she could almost imagine seeing the man's grizzly face: frozen with mingled lust, delight and cruelty. The girl began to breathe in gasps. A darker shape rose up below her; the ocean bottom had finally relented and returned, but it was too late for her. The seahorses would be able to cut her off if she tried to reach safety there. It would be easy to give up and let the horrible man take her life, but Ariel's spirit wouldn't give up! She wanted to live!

She looked back again and saw that the time was near. A peal of thunder boomed in her ears and she saw the seahorses start. Ariel swam closer to the surface and watched her pursuers: the seahorses were afraid of the storm! Hope leaped into the girl's heart, and she swam even higher. The couple were still gaining on her, but their seahorses refused to get near the choppy surface. Ariel felt herself beaten by the waves; she tried to find a level near the surface where she could still swim. The lightening flashed terribly, and the girl looked back. They were only a dozen yards from her now.

The man grinned at her through rotten teeth. "GONNA GET YA! GONNA GET YA!", he yelled with sadistic glee. The merwoman's eyes shown with lust for Ariel's pearls; Ariel had a fleeting surge of pity for the woman's real daughter. To have a mother like this was worse than having none at all.

Ariel felt almost worn-out. She could hear the man laughing; then cursing his steed to get closer. "BEEN A BAD GIRL, BEAU! GONNA HAFTA BEAT YA!", he snarled. They were just a few yards away. The man cursed and cursed his seahorse, but the animal refused to enter the choppy, lightening-scored water. Finally he commanded, "LEAVE EM! LEAVE EM, I SAID!" The two jumped off the seahorses; who immediately bolted toward deeper water.

"YOU STAY LOW SO THE BRAT DON'T SWIM BY ME!", snarled the man. Ariel's heart pounded with terror. The man sprang forward and grabbed at her flipper. Ariel screamed and swam as hard as she could. A flash of lightening seared closeby and blinded them for a second. Ariel's eyes recovered enough to see a dark shape, off to her left; she swam towards it with all her failing strength. The blackness turned to rocks; Ariel pulled herself out of the water and onto a tiny outcrop of island. The sky was black; the rocks were black; she had barely enough space to crawl a few feet out of the crashing, frenzied water. Lightening cracked and boomed; displaying the rocks and water under blinding white light for a second, before it went black again.

Ariel lay on her back; propped up with her arms; her chest heaving with exhausted panting, as she looked at the water. Maybe he had lost her,... Maybe he was going away,... A black hand rose out of the pounding waves, and a head popped up. The man's crazed eyes shone in the flashes of lightening; his grin was hideous. He screamed over the howling of the wind, "GOT YA NOW, BEAU! LITTLE MONSTER!"

Ariel wriggled her tail; trying to get away, but there was nowhere to go. She might avoid him for a moment, but sooner or later he would get her. Another head popped up, closeby. The woman was grinning too.

I THINK I'M GONNA STRANGLE YA, BEAU!", he yelled over the storm.

The woman screamed out, "Skin her!"

The man reached down into the darkness and pulled out a knife. "SKIN YA!", he snarled. Ariel's eyes stared with horror at the blade, as it flashed cold and sharp. Ariel's hands went to her throat; she couldn't breathe. She felt the pearls around her neck. Instantly, she pulled them off. The man lost his grin. Ariel leaned back and threw the necklace as far as she could.

The woman screamed, "The pearls!!", and dived under the water. The man snarled in fury and stabbed downward at Ariel's tail, but hit rock instead. The girl's tail was pulled against her chest. The man glared at her for a second, then screamed with fury and sank under the waves.

Ariel lay there; breathing in gasps. She had to leave! Now, or it would be too late! She flopped back into the choppy water and began to swim. She was so tired and the water was black. She heard a distant shout, "BEAU! YA CAN'T GET AWAY!" She beat her tail until she was panting. What was that up ahead? Lightening? No. It was a glow. Towers,... It was home. It was home. It was home!!

Ariel gasped with exhaustion. They were chasing her again; they knew that they couldn't let her reach the city. She felt a hand try to grab her flipper; she could hear them gasping now. The light grew and grew; the palace shone out like every beautiful thing that Ariel had ever seen! She felt like her tail couldn't beat another stroke. The palace rose huge before her and she left the gasping breaths behind her. Her father. There he was, and she swam to him; her tired , panting little body squeezed against him. She was crying; crying so hard that it hurt. Triton's hand reached down and stroked the strange child's head. Ariel looked up at him with tears pouring down her cheeks. "Daddy!", she sobbed.

The spell melted away and Triton looked down at his own daughter. "Ariel", he cried, and hugged her to him.

Ariel could only weep for a while; then she looked up at her father. "Oh, Daddy! It,..was,..horrible! She gasped through sobs, which shook her whole body. "Those horrible,...people chased me for days and days! And I tried,..to get home! And they wanted to kill me!! And,..I as so scared!,..And I,..." Ariel's words slurred, as her crying swept over her again. Triton gently held his daughter, as his eyes rose to the two strangers.

"Ah,...your Lordship. It ain't like it looks,..."

"Silence", spoke Triton quietly, but with death in his voice. The man shut up.

Triton's other daughters came out to join him, but Beau wasn't with them. Aquata spoke up, "Father! It's Ariel! She's turned into another,..." Aquata stopped when she saw Ariel in Triton's arms.

Triton looked at his oldest daughter. "Take Ariel inside. I'll explain everything in a moment. Ariel; you go with Aquata now. I'll be in there, shortly." Aquata took her exhausted sister in her arms and the girls went back into the palace.

The King's eyes returned to the couple.

"It was all a big mistake, your Kingship", explained the man. "We thought your daughter was ours! Ha! Ha! Big mistake!"

Triton said nothing, but looked at Ariel's necklace; still clutched in the man's hand.

The grizzly-bearded man immediately looked at it and laughed, "Ha! Yeah. I guess this is your's; huh?" He threw it at Triton's flukes. "Here ya go! No harm done!"

"You were going to kill my daughter", said Triton coldly.

The woman broke down and pointed a finger at the man," He was! He was! I didn't want any part of it, your Majesty!"

The man snarled back at her, "You little slime! Who told me ta skin her?!" He looked back at the King; snarling, "SHE wanted me to skin her!"

Triton's trident began to glow. "Do you have any other children?", he whispered.

"Just our little Beau; Dear naughty little child!", answered the man with a forced laugh. "Ran away from home, you see. We thought your daughter was her! Just a mistake! Guess we'll go now,..."

Triton brought up his trident and a bolt ran down the spikes. Then he turned and swam back into the palace, as two hagfish slithered away into the shadows.

When the King found Ariel again, she and his other daughters were in the lounge room with Beau. Ariel had stopped crying, but was still huddled close to her sisters. Beau looked terribly sad; she was whispering, "I'm so sorry,...I'm so sorry,..."

Triton came up and smiled gently down at Ariel. "Dear; I'm sorry I wasn't there to help. You know I would've given everything, for this not to have happened."

Ariel smiled back, and tried not to start crying again. "I know, Daddy. I feel better now that I'm home. Safe."

He hugged his daughter. "I sent those people away; they'll never bother you again. I promise." Ariel smiled; gratefully.

Triton turned to Beau. "I'm sorry, your Majesty", whispered the girl, "I'm just a misery to everyone I'm around. I wish I'd never been born,..."

Triton stuck out his beard. "Nonsense! You're not really a bad person; you've just been around bad influences."

"Guess you're sending me back now, huh?"

The King stroked his beard. "Only if you want to go back. You can stay in Atlantica, if you like."

Beau looked up, and hope rushed back into her. "I would,...like that very much!"

After Beau, and the other Princesses retired, the King took Ariel into his bedroom. "For tonight, you can sleep with me", said the King, gently.

"Thank you, Daddy." Ariel snuggled up against her father, and fell instantly into a peaceful sleep. Triton stroked her head with love; then kissed her forehead. "I'm so happy that you're back; my little Ariel."

The next morning Ariel ate the first real breakfast she had had for days. Triton felt that the best thing for his daughter would be to talk about her experiance immediately, and get out all of the hurt, so he asked her to tell him about it.

Ariel started hesitantly, at first; explaining her confusion and fear at the strange city; her terrible night with the couple, and her escape. She cried at the recollection, and her sisters gasped in horror, but Triton was full of praise for her courage.

Ariel's face glowed with his words, and continued her story. Her father was more and more amazed at his daughter's bravery, wits, and stamina; and the other girls were dumbstruck by her adventures Ariel smiled, as she told of the old lobster and the little lost worm. She smiled, dreamily, with her remembrance of the waterfall, the sunrise, and the following sunset. Her sisters nodded at her night with the dolphins: they had taught her that. Finally, everyone was frozen with suspense, as she told of her final terrible encounter with the couple, and her idea of throwing away her pearls. "I didn't want to do it, but I just had to, Daddy." Triton smiled; lovingly. "It was a brave and intelligent act, Ariel. You did right." Her sisters joined in; praising her for her courage, until Ariel was grinning; just like she used to. Flounder and Sebastian came in and rushed up to the girl; giving her a "welcome back" hug. Flounder laughed, "Sneaking out of the palace sure got us in trouble, this time!"

Ariel nodded, "It sure did!"

Sebastian smiled. "You picked a good time to come home; young Lady. Today is your music lesson day!'

Ariel groaned and shook her head. She couldn't help but smile.

Triton pulled out her blue-pearl necklace and offered it to her. "I'm not sure if you still want your birthday present after all you've been through,..."

Ariel smiled lovingly and took the necklace. "Of course I want my birthday present!" She put it around her neck and grinned.

"Happy birthday, Dear!", said Triton, joyfully. Everyone joined him: "Happy birthday!"


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