All right, another chapter! I admit I wanted to cover more ground storywise here, but I'd rather let everyone know that this fic isn't dead and then just cram a lot of exciting things into the next one. Enjoy!
On their return to Atlantica, Belle and Ariel were met by the royal guard, including Lt. Sebastian. His black beady eyes betrayed no anger or resentment. They were icy depths that left Belle dreading the worst. Ariel was too dazed to care when the guards swarmed around them and brought them to the palace and the king.
Triton's old face - even merfolk started to age after a hundred years - wrinkled with a scowl and clamped lips. He drummed his fingers on the stem of his trident and beat his tail against the sandy throne room floor.
"It is nearly dawn," he growled.
"Forgive us, your majesty," said Belle, emoting as much humility and remorse as possible. Ariel offered no response.
"I understand that you are young and foolish, but I had hoped you had more sense, Lady Belle." The king huffed through his large nostrils. "It seems I was wrong."
"There was a storm, majesty. It carried us away and we lost track of time."
Triton stomped the butt of the trident. "Of course there was a storm! Of course I let my daughter go into danger with no protection! I blame myself, but that does not excuse you from responsibility!"
Belle meekly confirmed his assessment, as expected. Ariel stayed quiet. Her eyes were fixed on some object that was not her father, and while she did keep her head angled downward, the blank, distant expression illustrated her detachment from the situation and its outcome. Something was bearing her away - maybe a dream she couldn't shake even in her father's presence.
"Lady Belle," said the king, still angry but not as tempestuous, "you will be sent home. Your father will be informed of your disappointing behavior. As for you, Ariel, you will be restricted to your rooms until I say otherwise."
Ariel woke up with fast blinking. "What? Daddy, we didn't do anything wrong!"
"You snuck off early before I said you could. And then, Poseidon help me, you were gone almost all night when I gave you two hours to be at the surface! You most definitely have done something wrong! I won't allow it!"
Belle did not look forward to her father's reprimands, but she did not object to her punishment. She did, amazingly, manage to return Ariel home safe after their human encounter. To reveal that fact, though, would have incurred a penalty far worse than being sent home.
"I'll do anything," said Ariel, desperate and serious. A sob hitched in her throat. "Barnacle duty, snail watch, kitchen clean-up, anything. Don't lock me up like some prisoner. And don't send Belle home, please! We'll make up for it!"
"I have made my decision." King Triton banged his trident twice. The guards closed in around the mermaids. "Have your belongings packed, Lady Belle, before the end of the day. You will not return to Atlantica until I have given you pardon. The same goes for the rest of your family."
Belle felt a figurative punch in the stomach. Her father had never expressed fondness of the capital, yet he often visited for courtly business and to speculate about the market. He was going to be upset. Her older sisters might try to kill her. She cringed and bowed her head. "If there is anything I can do to earn your forgiveness, your majesty, I will comply."
"The best thing you can do is stay away from Ariel, for both your sakes." The king's words sliced deep with their anger and an inkling of disappointment. He took no delight in this. Severe as the sentence was, Belle swallowed her indignation and hurt. As they departed from the throne room, her eyes started to ache with waiting tears.
A soft hand touched her wrist. She looked to see Ariel suffering from the same compulsion to cry. "I'm so sorry, Belle!" she said. "I didn't think it would be this bad."
"Of course you didn't think!" Belle blurted out. "You never do! You never think things can go wrong. Now we won't get to see each other for who knows how long!"
Ariel's pained expression mingled with shock. Belle expected her to retaliate, make a fuss about how this was as much Belle's fault (which it was). Instead, she bit on her lip and looked away.
After some resistance, Belle touched her shoulder. "I'm sorry. It's my fault, too. I let myself get carried away. I didn't think through the consequences. But we're paying the price now, and we have to stay strong. My banishment can't last forever, right?"
"I won't let it," said Ariel. "I'll talk some sense into Daddy. He'll cool down and things will be back to normal."
Belle hoped so. The last thing she wanted was to be always parted from her dear friend, and to share tight quarters with two irate sisters.
Much to Belle's relief, the king's guard did not bully her as she oversaw the packing of her cosmetics, garments and accessories by her maidservant. He even let her leave her room to say goodbye to Ariel. Had it been Sebastian, he might have made it impossible. She had tricked him, after all, and might have even jeopardized his standing with the king. It worried her, then, to see him standing at the door to the princesses' chambers. She would not be afraid. Belle approached him and wished him good morning.
"Good mornin', Lady Belle," said the cancerean lieutenant dryly, even for him.
"I want to apologize for my insensitive prank last night. It was very unkind to trick you like that. I was just buying Ariel extra time to be at the surface. I didn't realize we would be gone so long, anyway."
"Apology accepted, milady. I was merely followin' orders, and you were tryin' to act in da princess's best interest. While I don't tink it was in da princess's best interest, it's no really me place to criticize tose above me station."
Belle smiled. "You're a good fellow, lieutenant. I wish you the best."
The cancerean nodded, then reached for a pouch on his uniform belt. "Dat reminds me: metinks dis is yours." His claw took out the shell necklace Belle had dropped. "Tought you might still want it back."
"Oh, thank you!" Belle accepted the lost necklace and put it on. "It really was my mother's. I'd hoped you would find it."
"It's me duty to serve, milady." Sebastian tilted his domed head forward. "But I no fool, either. I know ya here to see Princess Ariel."
"Just to say goodbye," Belle quickly said.
"She's not to receive any visitors witout da king's permission." He immediately stepped to the side and opened the door. "You better make it quick."
Belle gaped before regaining her senses. She gave the lieutenant a grateful grin. "You are full of surprises, sir."
"You and da princess are troublesome," said Sebastian in that wry fashion she was starting to appreciate. "But you have a real friendship, metinks. If I may say so, milady, be dat real friend now."
Belle nodded at his advice and swam inside. Yes, she needed to be more than Ariel's partner in crime. She needed to give her what wisdom and comfort she could before their forced separation.
She found Ariel curled up in her shell bed in her private chamber. It wasn't all that private, sadly. The sisters shared what was really one enormous room divided by seaweed curtains - not exactly optimum seclusion. Belle didn't hear or see anyone else on her way through the room. She still spoke in quiet tones. "Hey."
Ariel rolled over with a little shudder. Seeing Belle relaxed her again. "Hey. Oh! You got your necklace back."
Belle smiled and touched it. The sapphire-blue shells complemented the white ones and reminded her of her mother's eyes. A familiar yearning filled her chest. She loved and respected her father, but her mother had understood her better than anyone. She could glimpse into her heart and know what to say to ease her anxieties. They didn't always agree on things; her mother often sided with Maurice when it came to the more traditional roles of a mermaid of noble status. Her greater concern was Belle's tendency to favor tomes, maps and council meetings over excursions with girls her own age. There had been moments, however, when in a breath of tender intimacy her mother held her close and whispered how much she admired Belle. She liked how Belle swam in her own current. She sometimes wished she had been more like her daughter at this age. Belle regarded these loving comments with some skepticism until her mother told her, shortly before she died, that no matter how often other people would push her to do this or that, she alone decided her fate.
"As recalcitrant as you can be," her mother explained, "I know you care about our people and your duty to those you love. That is important. But you've also always decided who you are and want to be. Never change that, sweetie. You'll need that as you get older, and as more is expected of you. It won't be easy. But whatever happens to you, or us, remember that."
She'd followed her mother's advice, even when she let Ariel talk her into things she knew would land them in trouble. Look where it got them. But she wasn't all that sorry. It had been an amazing, harrowing, unforgettable experience. She and Ariel had glimpsed the world that painted their dreams. Banishment would not erase it. With the moment behind them, though, they had to return to their lives. With a quick gulp and letting go of the necklace, Belle settled on the foot of the bed beside Ariel's tail fin.
"I can only stay a minute. I shouldn't even be here."
"I know," said Ariel, propping on her elbows. Her mouth curved into a grin. "I knew you'd come, anyway. I told Sebastian that I'm going to be miserable without you. I guess that's the point - Daddy wants me to be unhappy and more obedient. But you're the only one I can talk to you about . . . things."
"That's actually why I'm here, besides to say goodbye." Belle tried to loosen her muscles. Her anticipation of Ariel's reaction resisted the effort. It took a while to arrange herself on the bed, and she finally had to lounge uncomfortably along the rim of the shell, reasoning that she wouldn't be there long. "The adventure we had up top - it was the most exciting thing I've ever done. I'm not sorry for it, although I feel sorry for those sailors. But . . . now that we've indulged in this indiscretion, you're going to be under more surveillance."
"You mean, the guards are going to be breathing down my neck," Ariel grumbled.
"Exactly. Which means that if anyone finds out about the cave, you'll be in even hotter water."
Ariel scooted closer. "Are you saying I shouldn't go to the cave anymore? Or just not for a while?"
Belle laid her head so the corner of her mouth pressed against the back of her folded hands. Her stomach clenched from what she had to say next. "It's not just about getting caught. If it were, I'd say wait until this blows over. But it's more than that. It might be for the best if we . . . put this whole human thing behind us."
Ariel's face darkened. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe we should start focusing on other things. Humans, fascinating as they are, are not part of our lives. They're just a fantasy for us. And maybe it's time to lay the fantasy to rest."
"Are you saying we should forget about everything? All the things we talked about? What about all our questions? The clothes, the food, the houses, the towns. What about fire? And all the things we found - we can't just let them sit there gathering algae!"
"I think we have to." Belle's voice dropped to a whisper.
"No! Not after yesterday! I can't just forget him!" Ariel gasped after the last sentence, then rolled away from Belle. She went still and mum enough to resemble a sea cucumber.
Belle dropped on the squishy mattress and all but climbed on Ariel to look over her hunched shoulders. "What?"
"What?" mumbled Ariel.
"Why did you say, 'I can't just forget him'? Him?"
"I meant 'them'. The humans. My souvenirs." Ariel went to whispering, too. She was so stiff even her tail didn't twitch.
Belle felt her throat freezing up. She wrapped a hand around Ariel's arm. "Please, please, please tell me you're not talking about the prince."
Silence answered first. Then a sniffle. Ariel's shoulders began shuddering. Her whole body soon carried the shockwaves of her contained sobs. Panic threatened to rob Belle of her sense and composure. Her normally cool skin heated up, and her heart threatened to explode like a volcano. She focused on breathing to stay calm before gently rolling Ariel back to her. It didn't require much effort. The touch alone had Ariel all but tumbling into Belle's arms.
"It's not like I wanted it to happen! Well, okay, I wanted to see one up close. I just didn't expect to see one so perfect. And then I saved him, and I thought he was going to die and I was so scared . . . and then he woke up and I wanted to kiss him so bad. I haven't stopped thinking of him since then. I can't help it! I don't want to help it! What's so terrible, anyway? Don't you remember everything he said? He just wants to be himself and do what he loves. His voice was so bright and strong, but so sad, too. He has to be the saddest thing I've ever seen."
"Really?" said Belle. "I guess I felt bad for him, but he didn't seem miserable."
"That's just it! He did so well pretending he was okay with obeying his parents and going home to a life he doesn't want! He had to put on a convincing front for his friends. That made it even worse!" She suddenly pulled away from Belle's chest to look at her face. Ariel's eyes went wide, emanating awe and desire. They had a burning, frightening effect. "And, oh, Poseidon, is he gorgeous! Not just to look at, either! His skin - I wonder if all humans have skin like that. It was soft and firm like a dolphin, but not so rubbery. He had soft dark hair on his arms and chest. And his legs! They were weird but beautiful. Not like tails at all. They've got long bones and a joint in the middle. And there was something between his legs. His . . . male-bits, I guess. Weird, right? Just out there! No wonder they wear clothes. I didn't peek, I swear. I was curious, but I didn't want him waking up and seeing that. But Belle, there's something about the way humans breathe . . . it's hard to explain. Their whole chest moves, and if you put your ear to it you can hear the air rushing in and out. It's like waves on the beach or wind during a storm. Air is so thin - how can humans live on it? Every breath he took, I was afraid it'd be his last. I was so scared for him. Nothing has ever scared me that much. It's crazy, isn't it, to care so much for someone you barely know? But I came close to crying just from worry. Even when he seemed okay, I didn't want to leave. That's love. It has to be. I love him, Belle. I need to find him again. I need to see that he's okay. I need him to know that I saved him and I care for him. He needs to know someone understands how he feels. And if I do find him, we can make peace between humans and merfolk. We won't have to worry anymore about hunters or fishermen."
As she spoke, Ariel relaxed by degrees. Belle stroked her red hair and rubbed her scalp, making Ariel sigh while she paused in her rant. "It's not that simple, you know," she said when her friend trailed off. "Befriending one human doesn't mean the rest of humanity will take Prince Eric's lead."
Ariel groaned and snuggled into the bed. "It should be that simple. Why make things complicated?"
Belle shrugged. "Everybody wants different things. You and I are examples of that."
"But now you've changed your mind. You think we should want what everyone else wants." Ariel deftly crafted her accusation to sound like Belle had committed the worse kind of betrayal without raising her voice to her preferred dramatic pitch.
"I'm just trying to do the right thing." If only it didn't have to go against her inborn curiosity. And if only Belle could say with certainty that their wish to see the world beyond Triton's kingdom was a symptom of youth, not a fixed facet of their personalities. She didn't know either way. "We put ourselves in danger last night. That can't happen again. Your father loves you and wants you to be safe. And if something happened to you because of humans, it would make things even worse."
"So I should resign to being a prisoner for the rest of my life." Ariel snapped her tail to sit up. "Thanks a lot."
"Ariel - "
"That's what it is! Don't tell me it isn't!" The princess's fire suddenly died and was washed over by a cold flood of melancholy. She turned away from Belle to let her tail drape over the bed's edge. "You should go. Sebastian will come in any moment to kick you out."
"Let's not leave things like this." Belle had an idea. She took off her mother's necklace and drew it around Ariel's throat. Ariel gasped but barely turned back round. Her head dropped with shame she tried to hide. When she said nothing, Belle kissed her temple. "Take good care of it. We'll see each other soon."
Ariel's silence stretched on. She held tightly to whatever words she may have wanted to say, of forgiveness or further chastisement. It was a childish tactic with no clear objective. Maybe Ariel was in fact stalling their inevitable farewell, counting on Belle's need for closure to prolong this meeting. But she'd been right about Sebastian, though no restless noise came from the door. For every minute she stayed, Belle increased the chances of having their moment interrupted by a guard. Ariel was already making this a sour parting; blunt interference could not be allowed. Belle stroked Ariel's shoulder one more time. Her fingers memorized the delicate bone poking into the skin of that white slope, which twinkled timidly in the light of the glowing coral torches. The shoulder stood like a frozen mountain. Coral-red tendrils of hair fell past it like a fiery waterfall. Belle brushed her fingers over them, too, before leaving the bedchamber. She swat the seaweed curtain aside and darted to the door without looking at anything but her path of exit. Until the moment after she knocked on it, and when that polished driftwood door swung open for her, she anticipated Ariel's voice calling her back, pleading her to wait so she could swim to her for a proper goodbye hug. Her heart broke to see the door open and hear only the sharkbone hinges creak. Belle left the room. She had just enough patience left to mutter another word of gratitude to Sebastian and wish him well. Mentally she thanked him for his discretion when he returned the gesture and said nothing about the necklace once again missing from her person.
Half the day was gone by the time the porpoise-drawn carriage brought Belle home. The king's message to her father explaining her return reached the castle before her. Sir Maurice prepared himself and his household with admirable speed to welcome his daughter, which sent Belle into a brief spiral of panic and guilt. She didn't know how much Triton had revealed. Her only choice was to hope that she would have a chance to explain in her own words. Her father, big and heavy-set, embodied warmth and support for Belle since her first memory of him, and it distressed her whenever anxious lines crawled into his face and his complexion turned paler than usual. Her heart hurt worse to see him try to smile through his worry as she disembarked from the carriage and he, outside with servants and counselors, greeted her with an embrace. He and she quickly agreed through whispers and short glances that they would act as though her return were ordinary. They both beamed for everyone to see. Belle shook hands with advisers, aristocrats and visiting nobles with a smile supported on what felt like wobbly stilts. She kept it up unflinchingly until they wormed through the crowd, and then the stone-carved hallways, and found privacy in the parlor of Maurice's personal quarters. It took effort to dodge prying questions and inspecting stares. Belle felt as limp as a beached jellyfish while collapsing onto a settee in the parlor. She groaned with gratitude for the walls that now protected her.
Sir Maurice called for a platter of food to restore his daughter's strength. A look from Belle convinced him to withhold his own pressing need to ask what transpired in Atlantica until she started eating. Belle gobbled down the first few slabs of raw tuna without a shred of the restraint expected of nobles.
"I read the king's message," said Maurice, unable to wait any longer.
She nodded and sighed. Shivers tickled her arms. She stretched her neck to unwind a crick the rushed rough carriage ride beat into her muscles.
"I don't really understand it," Maurice continued. "It's not that I don't believe the king—Poseidon help me if I ever dare say he wasn't being truthful—but what actually happened? Tell me, Belle, please. The truth."
She told him the best she could. The only details left out would've unnecessarily confused and worried him, like the creature Rumplestiltskin and Ariel's infatuation with the human prince. She did reveal that she and Ariel had seen a ship, which Triton did not know, and that the ship had been caught in a storm and torn apart. The crew would've been dead had they not intervened.
"You shouldn't have done that! I know you meant well, but what if they saw you? They would not have shown you such kindness!"
"It was the right thing to do, Papa," said Belle steadily. She had no doubts about that. Besides, the sailors had been in dire peril, and that had served as an effective distraction to protect Ariel and Belle from discovery.
Maurice rubbed his eyes and sagging bag under them. "I am glad to know that your prolonged absence wasn't because you were entertaining yourselves." He helped himself to a seaweed wafer and a glob of fish eggs. "It was still foolish, though. I take it you did not tell the king about that part of your adventure."
"It would've been beyond the pale in his eyes. It meant his daughter had put herself in direct danger, and I doubt he would've forgiven himself. Or me."
"I can hardly blame him. It may be just as well that you will be home for a while. Your sisters will be glad to see you."
Belle raised her eyebrows at that. Right. Sure they would. She didn't dislike her sisters, but they weren't the easiest people to get along with. They both lived close by with their rich husbands, as suited their tastes. She didn't know when they were last in Atlantica—perhaps not in some time, and the notion of visiting would not cross their minds until they learned they would not be allowed to go until Triton lifted the ban.
"Please tell me you haven't sent word of my return to them, " she said, wincing.
"No, but word may reach them soon even without my telling them." Maurice squeezed his beloved youngest daughter's hand. "We are family, though. Family is important. Blood is thicker even than water."
It was his favorite syllogism, and Belle had groaned at it many times. Of course family was important, but there was only so much you could do when your family didn't care for your interests. As unmarried mermaids, Annette and Felicite only ever talked about suitors, fashion and what trinkets to spoil themselves with, and what their suitors would spoil them with. Not much had changed. After her mother's death, Belle had few female companions to seek sound advice from. She'd tried to take this as an opportunity to bond with her older sisters. To no one's surprise, it had been a mistake. Felicite was always the harshest on her, and in fact tried to indoctrinate her with her own attitudes about what a noble mermaid ought to think and talk about, none of which appealed to Belle. Annette did not press as much. She preferred to respond with just confusion or disinterest. It was a wonder they were related or shared the same mother. All three of them loved their mother; it was practically the only common ground they shared. Once that was gone, and both Felicite and Annette had married lords who threw lavish parties and toured foreign seas for the sights, though not so much for intellectual curiosity, Belle had to find other companions. She feared she'd always be alone and feel strange for her interests until she and Ariel crossed paths.
"I'll do what I can," said Belle, "but I'm not as worried about that as I am about Ariel. I feel like I've been forced to abandon her. Maybe this separation will do some good, or maybe it will make things worse. She has her sisters, but they have their own lives and interests. I hate thinking about her being alone."
"Are you forbidden from writing to her?" asked Maurice.
Belle's gasped, making the gills on her neck flutter. "I don't think so. Oh, thank Poseidon! Why hadn't I thought of that?"
She thanked her father, too, with a delighted hug. Feeling suddenly better, she bolted from the chamber to her own room. Her pufferfish-spike stylus let her etch a letter to Ariel into a sheet of seaweed papyrus. Unlike the human books they had found, the merfolk scratched their writings into paper without ink to be later read in front of a light source. As schoolchildren they also learned to read the engravings by touch when no nearby light was available. She finished the letter in under an hour and, after rolling it up in a scroll and tying it with a lock of her hair, as was the way to confirm the sender by the scent and color of the strands, she asked one of the castle's messenger boys to give it to Lt. Sebastian of Atlantica, to deliver to Princess Ariel. It was a gesture to the cancerean that she trusted him with her only means of keeping in contact with her friend. He had it in his power to withhold the letter and tell the king about it. In the letter she told Ariel her expectation that she might not receive a response, depending on Triton's restrictions, but she still wanted her to know that she'd arrived home safely and that she hoped Ariel was managing to entertain herself. Even in her haste to reestablish contact, Belle was careful in her word choice, as though the king had been peeking over her shoulder during composition.
Thanks to what would shortly transpire, Belle never knew if her letter reached Ariel and, if it had, whether the king saw it, too. Many waking nights she wondered if it had set off an unforeseeable chain reaction that led to the events that would irrevocably change their lives. For the week she spent at home, she tried not to think about the letter or Ariel. No mean feat with her sisters' expected indignation from not being able to go to the capital anymore, and their usual jibes at her bookish tastes, which persisted even without a suitable partner. Annette showed some kindness by asking about Ariel and the other princesses and showing concern for Ariel's ongoing detainment. But pity for the princess turned on Belle as an accusatory spear. She should've known better, Annette claimed. Belle was always too determined to do things her own way and never considered how that affected anyone else. The remark cut through Belle's skin and brought her to the edge of snapping and shouting at Annette. Only Felicite's keen eyes watching from across the room or across the table, eager to see her baby sister lose her temper and reveal her inner brat - the brat youngest sisters were expected to be - motivated Belle to bite her tongue. Literally at times.
Her sisters weren't the only ones around to irritate her. Sir Gaston visited her frequently with more determination than ever to establish that they were engaged. The wedding itself was still some time away. Maurice was willing to wait until Belle's twenty-first birthday. Belle had argued that she might fall in love with someone else before then, and if so, she should be allowed to marry that man. She had agreed to the betrothal solely because Gaston's family was well-connected in Atlantica and among foreign diplomats. If Maurice wanted to play a part in fortifying alliances with other kingdoms, he would need to give Gaston's relations reason to commiserate with him. Felicite and Annette also advocated the match and reminded Belle that her pretty face wouldn't last forever. And with her perverse fascination with humans and many other things non-merfolk-related (and non-materialistic), who was likely to fall in love with her?
Sometimes it was too much, and Belle simply had to escape. Deprived of her taboo stash of literary treasure, the castle library and its old volumes of merfolk history and poetry were all she had for consolation. They were better than nothing. They helped take away the acidic sting of her sisters' company and the boredom-induced headache of Gaston's. Sir Maurice also entertained her with his plans of improving the infrastructure of the city and surrounding villages. More children should have opportunities to be educated, even those from the poorest families and poorest settlements. There had been talk among the councilors of encouraging enhancements in underwater agriculture and husbandry. Certain mineral deposits could be tilled and cultivated to grow plants from foreign oceans and introduce non-native fish in a confined but habitable space where they would not be threatened by the local wildlife. The idea truly excited Belle - it meant trading with distant kingdoms, strengthening alliances, and promoting freer travel between them. It could also lead to forming a stronger defense against future sea-dragon attacks.
Belle expected that she would have to take the annoying aspects of being home with the comforts and intrigues, and prepared to make adjustments for the sake of her sanity. Before a week went by, adjustments suddenly became moot. A royal messenger arrived. At first Belle hoped, and then briefly believed, he was bringing a message from Ariel. The truth was the farthest thing from that. It was from King Triton, and it was accompanied by a cancerean guard.
"Lady Belle," said the messenger, decorated in a blood-red, mossy sash of Atlanica's court, "his majesty, King Triton, demands your presence in Atlantica immediately. Her highness, Princess Ariel, has gone missing."