By the time King Triton had rounded up all seven of his daughters for questioning, it became obvious who the members of the guilty party were: Ariel, Arista, and Andrina had their hands behind their backs, and were looking rather sheepish.
Triton made a gesture at the mess before them. “Girls, care to explain?”
Never one to refrain from reply, Arista glanced up. “We were… playing hide-and-seek?”
Triton gave them the One-Eyebrow-Raise. “Is that a question?”
“Well, it was more like hide-and-seek-tag,” explained Ariel.
“Andrina and I were under one of the beds,” put in Arista, “and Ariel was over by the window—”
“—and then I came around and tipped it over,” added Ariel, “and we sort of started making a whirlpool—” She swung her arms about to demonstrate.
While these two gave their testimony, Andrina kept her mouth shut. The younger ones had always been the more rambunctious of the sisters; it was usually they who got into the most sticky situations.
Once the mer-king had his fill of their excuses, he raised a hand. “That’s enough, now. Just get everything picked up and taken care of before breakfast.” With that, he took his leave of them and went back to his kingly duties.
Andrina shrugged. “Well, it was fun while it lasted.” Turning, she began the task of flipping one of the beds back over.
“Well, you don’t have to do much,” Arista commented as she and Ariel hurriedly began setting the pillows and clothes back in order. “All you did was throw a pillow.”
“Well, I have to live here, too, you know,” said Andrina, smoothing the sheets and pillows in place. “I’d like to be able to get from the door to my bed without hitting the ceiling.”
Once everything was set right again, the girls hurried to get downstairs for breakfast. Andrina hung back to let Aquata and Alana by, waiting until last to head out. Aquata’s beloved Mr. Fuzzyfinkle had slipped behind her bed; Andrina set him to rights before heading out.
Downstairs, breakfast was a normal affair. King Triton and his daughters fell to with good appetite, then went out for their morning swim. As was her custom, Andrina floated along at the back, counting up heads. Up in front, Triton was discussing some important matters with Sebastian, his chief advisor; close behind, Attina was listening to them with good attention, as that sort of thing would be her responsibility someday. Aquata, Alana, and Arista were all quietly talking about some odd matters of their own, Adella was making eyes at several young mermen they passed, and Ariel was flitting back and forth, chasing after small bubbles, pieces of seaweed drifting by, and little seahorses that swam across the path. All seemed well in order, Andrina thought; it was looking to be an average day.
The kingdom of Atlantica was not significantly large, but it was well established. King Triton’s prosperity was well renowned; merfolk from miles around came to the capital, seeking its economic opportune, entertainment, and pleasing atmosphere. While the rules could be mildly restrictive; sometimes outright ridiculous, as was one recently overturned law banning music from the city; the environment was neither hostile nor unreasonable, and most of the ridiculous laws could be safely ignored once at a distance.
The kingdom was located just off the coast of a similar kingdom on land, which no one knew much else about, since interaction with humans was not a common occurrence. Humans were well known for their tendencies to overreact at mermaid sightings, usually resulting in multiple disturbances in their attempts to find one, or frequently hunting said merfolk for sport.
Humans were one anomaly that brought conflicting opinions to the merpeople. Triton’s laws banned any and all contact with them and anything they produced. Human pollution was common enough, being on the edge of a human kingdom with a fair-sized shipping passage; Triton forbade his people from going near ships of any sort, including sunken ships and their submerged goods. In their own homes, the merpeople usually did as they liked, but they never questioned the king’s command in his presence, out of respect for the loss of the queen years before. Tragic accidents like that also gave good reason not to interact with these careless creatures.
“Come along, girls!” Triton called over his shoulder to his daughters. Andrina glanced up; she was lagging behind in keeping pace with Ariel, who had been distracted by a small school of bright minnows swirling past. Adella, too, had been slower than usual; she had just encountered their friend Steve, whom she was currently making eyes at.
“He’ll catch on quicker if you actually talk to him,” Andrina told her sister in passing, casting Adella a devious smirk. Adella glared, but said nothing, hurrying to catch up with the rest of them.
When they arrived back at the palace, Triton turned once again to them. “All right, girls, go have some fun today.” Turning aside, he said, “Attina, you come with me; I’ll need your help with a few things.”
“Yes, Father,” said Attina, following him back inside.
“Just like the good girl she is,” said Andrina to no one in particular, tagging along after Arista, Ariel, and Aquata as they chased each other down the street.
Hovering on the edge of the action seemed to be Andrina’s eternal position in life. While her sisters either conformed and found their places in society, like Attina, or rebelled against it, like Ariel often did, most of the time Andrina was content to act as a wallflower. It wasn’t that she had no opinions of her own; it was more like no one asked about them or cared when she’d given them. Aquata called that sort of thing “insecurity”; Andrina called it be minding her own business and staying out of trouble. Her sarcastic streak had probably evolved as a method of reminding people she still existed rather than an actual desire to be funny. Still, it wasn’t that bad, considering their current situation.
Farther up ahead, Alana stopped outside a jewelry store, gawking at a pair of pearl earrings. “Oh my gosh, I so need these right now!”
Andrina peered over her shoulder, giving the earrings a critical onceover. “Yeah, you totally need a pair of oyster spit wads dangling from your ears.”
Alana rolled her eyes. “If I had those, I would so wear them to the Codfish Ball every single year.”
“You said the same thing about that bracelet you got,” commented Andrina, keeping an eye on Ariel and Arista, who were caught in a vicious tickling match. “And where is it now? At the bottom of your drawer.”
“If you get them for me, I’ll loan them to you once a week,” Alana offered in a sing-song tone of voice.
Andrina grinned, shaking her head. “I’d never wear them.”
“You never wear anything pretty!” protested Alana. “Come on, you have to at least once.”
“It doesn’t matter; I’m not getting them for you.” Andrina drifted lazily on after her younger sisters. “If you want them, you get them, or you can ask Daddy for them.” Ignoring Alana’s sigh, she swam on, glancing around for the girls.
Rounding the corner of a sea-dog stand, she suddenly came upon Adella, leaning against the wall. Her back was turned, so she hadn’t noticed her sister’s presence yet. Andrina leaned closer, smothering a grin; across the street was a group of merboys playing catch with an old oyster shell. The nearest one, apparently having caught Adella’s eye, waved to her. Adella returned the wave rather flauntingly, flashing the boy a dazzling smile.
As noiselessly as possible, Andrina slowly floated up behind Adella’s head, then said in her ear, “Having fun?”
With a shriek, Adella spun around, almost smacking her sister in the face. The merboys chuckled, then went back to their game.
“Shut up! Not funny,” Adella snapped.
“Made them laugh,” said Andrina teasingly. “Me too, come to think of it. And hey,” she added, pointing at the merboys, “you’ve got their attention now. You should say hi or something.” She nudged her sister towards the boys.
“I’ve got this,” hissed Adella, resisting. “I can handle this.”
“Sure, you can,” said Andrina, drifting up and over her sister’s head. “You totally have it under control. I was just helping.”
“Well, knock it off,” countered Adella, turning her back to her. As she made off, Andrina heard her mutter, “You’re obnoxious enough without that.”
Andrina rolled her eyes, hugging her elbows. “Whatever.”
Sister spats were perfectly normal, Andrina told herself sternly, focusing her attention back on finding the rest of her sisters. Aquata and Alana were across the street window shopping; Ariel and Arista had disappeared once again. Andrina reasoned that the most likely place they’d be was probably wherever there was some large disturbance going on; those two never ceased to draw attention.
After some thorough searching, Andrina found the girls out on a broad plateau on the edge of town, still wrapped up in their tickle-fight. It had now graduated to include several tall seaweeds, which they would tickle each other with, then hide and weave about in. Andrina noted with mild concern that they were now pushing the boundaries of their allowed freedoms; this was on the side closer to the shipping lanes used by humans.
“Hey, girls,” she called at length, “unless you want to end up as someone’s lunch, I suggest we head back in.”
Ariel did a back flip; she was all over giggles. “Aw, come on, Andrina; it’s not even high tide yet. The humans won’t be coming in until later.” With a mighty effort, she pulled up a strand of seaweed, twirling it around into a giant hoop, and then darting through it.
“What do they even do up there?” wondered Arista, snatching the end of the weed and flicking it at her sister. “All they do in the sea is float around on those giant whatever-you-call-them; do you ever wonder what it’s for?”
Andrina shrugged. “Probably just some human thing, I guess. They’re weird.”
Ariel managed to steal the seaweed back from Arista. “Wouldn’t it be cool to meet one up close for real, just to see what they’re like?”
Arista squealed as Ariel started chasing her again. “As long as they never saw us, maybe!”
Andrina sucked on the inside of her cheek, glancing quickly up at the bright surface of the waves far above them. She’d never been to the surface in a long time; from her early childhood memories, it seemed like it had once been a nice place.
Arista came to a sudden stop, attempting to catch the seaweed again. Ariel crashed into her, and the two tumbled down to the ocean floor, breathless with giggles.
Andrina turned. “Yeah, I think it’s time to head back now…” She stopped, staring at something glinting in the sand.
The girls hadn’t noticed. Ariel untangled herself from Arista, tossing the weed into the current. “Race you back!” she called over her shoulder.
Arista took off after her, but Andrina hung back. Cautiously, she brushed away the sand for a closer look at the strange object. It was like a smooth, round pebble, but it was very shiny, so whatever it was, it probably hadn’t been there long. She knew at once that it was most likely a human object, and that it ought to be left alone; still, the dappled light dancing over its surface intrigued her. Picking it up, she turned it over in her fingers. It was round, rather heavy, and had some sort of markings on the front of it.
“Hey!” Arista was shouting to her. “You coming?”
“Uh, yeah,” Andrina answered, closing her fist tightly on the thing, hiding it from view. Then, as inconspicuously as possible, she hurried after her sisters.