[This is a work of fan-fiction and not for profit of any kind. All Aquaman- related characters are the property of DC Comics; all rights reserved. Archivists may use this story upon written permission from the author, provided that this disclaimer is shown at the top of the reprinted story.]
Women. A room filled to the brim with giggling, yakking, happy women. Mera is overjoyed within her element. As for me...? Not really. This is no place for a teenaged boy, especially not one accustomed to previously living solely with a big, brash fellow like Aquaman.
"Isn't that the most precious thing? Baby clothing is so tiny and sweet!"
"Cute, cute, cute!"
"Perfectly suited for a little Prince or Princess, whichever our little sovereign will be."
"You mean whichever it IS! And it won't be long now, will it Queen Mera?"
"No, not much longer now, and frankly it couldn't be too soon!" I can hear Mera complaining. "My back is killing me and no matter how lovely Arthur keeps saying I am, in my heart I know I look like a whale after a big lunch of creel!"
"Now now now! You're simply glowing with maternal love and charm, Your Highness." There goes one of those ladies again, trying to make Mera feel better. "Here, open this one! It's from our family, one of the oldest families of Atlantis, you know."
"Oooooooo! I can't wait...oh, it looks like....awwwww, how nice! Just what we needed! The baby's going to look so darling in this! This is all so much fun. It's almost a shame for it to end, though my back won't believe I said that. We've been having a great time decorating and Makaira has been busying herself with her duties heading up the household staff and getting the rooms prepared for the baby's arrival. Everyone's been so nice and it's all so exciting!"
Then one of the ladies takes notice as the hall doors open. "Errrr....Your Highness? What's that boy doing sitting out in the hallway?"
Hmmmm...'that boy.' That would be me: Aqualad. One would think that 'that boy' is my name, as often as I hear that remark directed my way. I don't know why my mother bothered to name me 'Garth' when I was destined to spend my life being referred to as 'that boy' by everyone around this stupid palace. Of course, to my mother it was just a name, just something to call me for the brief time she might have held me before she handed me off to Atlantean authorities to dispose of me. Any wonder they can't be bothered to remember my name?
Now that I've got the eyes of a roomful of simpering, cooing females all pinned upon me, I feel strangely like I've been spying on some curious ritual practiced by a long-hidden tribe like the Maarzon Savages, an ancient tribe whose lands lie far beyond the huge dome which protects Poseidonis from the far-flung realms of the rest of Atlantis. Some of the women even get up from their seats and lean out toward the large, arched double doors which separate the royal reception chamber from the wide, cold hallway which spans this vast palace. And the looks on their faces are telling. Some of them eye me with a suspicion born of their long-held legend that a boy born with strange-looking purple eyes like mine would be destined to be the physical embodiment of all that is evil. Several of them frown and turn up their noses as if I had just tracked in the foul, decaying scent of a red tide. A few of them glance my way and quickly return to cooing at the array of baby clothes, curious contraptions and soft toys that they have brought to celebrate the impending birth of the first Prince or Princess to be born to their King---my friend Arthur---and his wife, Queen Mera. Even the Justice League sent him home with a gift to honor this momentous occasion in the life of their 'Aquaman,' though I doubt there will be any need of an electric bottle warmer down here under the waves. Surface dwellers just do not understand.
"Garth? We're going to be at this for a while," the flame-haired Mera calls out to me before she returns to the gaggle of ladies and the mountain of gifts before her. "Why don't you go to the kitchen and get your dinner."
That's my cue to get lost, so I may as well. I'm not in any hurry and have no particular place to go, so I do it slowly. As I rise from the window seat, I note that the women, satisfied that this male intruder is no longer a problem, have gone back to eating and grinning at each other while the ever-patient Mera continues to explain as they do. "He probably didn't feel comfortable coming through here to get to his room. Boys are silly that way, but then he's not used to being around other people. He's been too sheltered by my husband, I'm afraid."
As I leave, I hear one of the women say how unseemly it is to have me in a room right off the Royal Bed Chamber and how all of that will be remedied as soon as the new palace annex is completed. There hasn't been a real royal 'family' in this place for a long time because the previous king, Juvor, never wed or had any children of his own, except for this orphan girl named Tula he took in because her parents died while pioneering for the Crown. She remains holed up with a wing of the palace and a garden all to herself while I am stuck in a little bitty closet of a room which we think was at one time meant to be a nursery, right off of Arthur and Mera's bedroom. Some luck I've got: all bad.
Oh wonderful. I'm barely away from the sneering throng at the maternity party when I come across more bad news: Dardenialle, the High Priestess of the Shalakite sect. Shalakites, I have come to find out, are an ancient religious sect of ultra-right-wing zealots who live in fear that someone, somewhere, at some time is thinking happy thoughts and just might be harboring feelings of joy. Arthur says that they foster beliefs in all sorts of weird mythology, especially the ones which get people like me killed, as in State-sponsored infanticide. The Shalakites had managed for many years to keep their sunken city-state free of 'undesirable elements,' such as people with maladies they didn't understand and those with a lineage, appearance or abilities that they feared.
At birth, both Arthur and I were victimized by the Shalakites' hysteria campaign. Both of us were put out to die as babies because of our visible genetic traits. The ocean, in her infinite compassion, had mercy on us when these people had none and, by some miracle, we were able to survive until rescued. In Arthur's case, it was a passing dolphin family unit who took him in and nurtured him until he came into contact with humans. In my case, my savior was Arthur, at that time the then future King of this hateful realm, though I somehow survived for over ten years without a kind hand or heart to nurture or guide me. One of Arthur's first acts as king was to sweep away the laws enacted during centuries of the Shalakite's influence over the throne. Though loyal to their King, his actions have raised their suspicions of him and all who side with him. I am Arthur's best friend, partner in heroism and his ward: the Shalakites hate my guts.
I stroll past Dardenialle in the same way by which a naughty boy tries to slip past a stern teacher who believes ill of him, evidence to support wrongdoing or not. I try not to look guilty of anything, but that is silly of me, for to this woman I am guilty of a grievous crime: being alive, guilty of having defied my death sentence. Everything in me wants to look defiantly at her, maybe even grin as a reminder that I have the King's favor and she has not. But as it happens, all I can do is barely look up at this tall, sallow, vain, self-righteous woman and what I see sends chills along my spine. A dour face with piercing dark eyes, she stares down her nose at me, the hate-filled glance perfectly capable of cutting me to the quick. Hurriedly, my eyes dart back to the ground, my head drops and I solemnly continue along the hall. I don't even have to look back to feel her sharp, searing stare stabbing holes into my back.
Since I get the same kind of treatment from the kitchen staff that I have just experienced in the hallway, I figure it is worth less than the small amount of battered self-esteem I still have left to go into the pantry and beg for a meal. I don't think those folks are Shalakites but they sure treat me as if their beliefs are the same, always looking at me as if I am some lowly beggar boy charity case. I don't have much in the way of pride; that's just natural for me. Still, I am justly proud that I have always been able to fend for myself, even from the time I was a very small child. I am 13, nearly 14 years of age now, as best as we've been able to figure from the Order Of Execution records we've found. I feel just as capable of caring for myself now as I did before I met Arthur, maybe even more so because of my treatment at the hands of these people. I don't know how I survived out in the open ocean as a child. I just...did. Remembering that, things around here don't bother me as much as they did when Arthur first brought me here months ago. As I survived life around sharks, sea snakes and all kinds of other marine hazards, I figure I can handle anything thrown at me here, even impending unclehood.
Having nowhere else to go, I mill around in the pretty little garden below the main balcony and just beyond the palace forecourt. It is quiet and a good place to duck out of sight when I don't want to be reminded that I don't belong here. 'Course, that would work so long as I am not caught here but my luck is still running a bad streak.
"They won't let you play with it, you know," says that annoying girl's voice that I detest. "Boys are germ-riddled, clumsy and too rough to be around babies."
Tula. *Sigh* Without warning, her remark floated in on such a shrill voice that she nearly scared the life out of me. And then, unfortunately, she continues.
"It's going to be a Prince or a Princess. That means it's special, as in R-O-Y-A-L. They may not even let you near it 'cause you're just a commoner. Well, you're not even a real citizen, after all. I'll get to babysit, of course, you know. Girls have a knack for that sort of thing. And I thought I told you to stay out of my private garden. You don't belong here."
Tula is enough to make a sea serpent sick. How such a scrawny, skinny, baby-faced girl can be such a royal pain, I'll never know. I gaze on ahead, pretending to ignore her, but she knows better. She will NOT be ignored.
Tula knows everything, or at least she thinks she does. She's always yakking with Mera about 'girl stuff. She wouldn't talk to me at all before Mera came and she was only just barely cordial to Arthur. He told me to be nice to her and had guessed that she was kind of nervous because she didn't know if Arthur would let her stay on at the palace after her regal guardian died. Of course Arthur let her remain in her sizable wing of the palace and private chambers and all...while I got that lousy little nursery off the Royal Bed Chambers for my room. He said, "You have to treat the womenfolk 'special,' Minnow," in that grand, commanding voice of his. I don't know how this creepy girl figures in as a 'womanfolk,' but she's sure getting the royal treatment, all right. She and her haughty ways make me so mad sometimes that I'd like to give her a treatment like the working over Arthur gives pirates and their shipmates, 'cept Arthur says I oughtn't to punch out girls. I never knew how many rules there are in life until I came to this rotten city. Somehow, few of them seem fair.
"I apologize, Miss," I say to Tula as I turn to leave. "I didn't think I was hurting your garden just sitting here to think. By the way, there's a bed of oysters making a home for themselves under your garden bench. They said they hope you'll leave them undisturbed. They also said the nudibranchs are feasting upon your ornamental sea grasses."
As I walk away, I notice her screwing up her face in disgust as, on hands and knees, she peers through the murky water to inspect her garden for sea slugs, her long braided hair dragging along the edge of the sandy rectangular plot.
"Ewwww! Hey, 'Shrimp!'" she calls out in my direction, "Oysters can't talk, you weirdo!"
"You know best..." I call back to her over my shoulder. Gotcha.
Just when my spirits have hit rock bottom and I feel as if I'll never see a friendly face around here, I see what appears to be a group of men coming in my direction through the twilight waters of the courtyard. At the center I can see a tall, handsome figure, a shock of blonde hair swaying with the flowing water around him as he sternly shakes his regal head. Arthur's the kind of man who commands attention and obedience. Even if you didn't know who he was on first sight, you'd know him to be someone of high importance.
Before we came here, Arthur used to be fun. He played games with me and let me ride on the back of his seahorse, Storm, as we raced through the waves, chasing adventure. Foolhardy and blissfully independent exiles, we had no fear of danger nor real understanding of the consequences of trying to apprehend maniacal criminals on the high seas. I didn't care about anything else and had no fear for my safety as long as I could be with him. I knew he'd always be there to protect me against any aggressor and I'd always be there to do the same for him. So where has he been this even'tide while my feelings are getting trampled and I've been tossed out of the palace like yesterday's garbage...?
"Arthur?" I call out quietly but firmly, hoping to get his attention. He's nodding to the council ministers, advisers and palace staff, including his friend Dr. Vulko's wife Makaira. It is soon obvious that Arthur didn't hear me. He doesn't even notice me waving at him or jumping up and down. I follow along in hurried double-steps trying to keep up with him and the throng surrounding him. I call out several more times. All I get for my troubles are a few irritated looks from the back end of the group of ministers intent on not missing the intense and thoughtful words of their sovereign. Then an elbow catches my chest and deliberately knocks me to the ground, the owner of which gives out with an evil grin as I fall. I am again reminded that I am considered to be inferior to Arthur's people, no more than a deficient, unwanted waif. I hate it.
My last hope at finding a caring face dashed to the barnacle heap, I sulk off to return to my perch in the hallway upstairs. I don't have anywhere else to go. I thought to travel to the surface world to visit some friends I have there, but I am not allowed to exit the city gates without Arthur's permission. Finding the window box seat as empty as I had left it and the doors to the Royal Bed Chamber still closed to me, I decide I may as well curl up for a nap. It appears that I may be out here for hours. No one will notice.
When I dream, I often dream of being safe and protected and little else. I never dream about the sorts of things that my surface-dwelling friends tell me about, like the latest gadgets or having lots of food or of parties and nice clothing. I never even have a hope for things as simple as a real family and a loving home. That is never going to happen to me. I am not like other people and I never will be. That was drilled into me by these Atlanteans long before Arthur taught me to read or write. Before I met Arthur, I had no words, for I had never met anyone else and had no language or means of socialization. I had feelings, concerns and fears but had no way to express them and no one to whom I could communicate such ideas. When Arthur found me, everything changed rapidly for me---for both of us---and we became a brotherhood, a makeshift family of two. We protected and cared for each other. Then he married Mera a few months ago and we extended that care and concern to her as well. I understood that things had changed between the two of us and I had to let go, to step back from the closeness we had once had. Now there will be a new person coming along who will command even more of Arthur's time and attention. I have never felt as alone as I do right now because I now understand what loneliness is: It is being without Arthur.
I could really hate that baby if it were in me to do so...and, thankfully, it isn't. Who could hate a small, helpless, defenseless child? I supposed that's a stupid question to come from someone who was sentenced to death at birth. Obviously, all people aren't as objective when it comes to the innocent. I can't feel anything but some newfound sense of pride that my friend Arthur is going to be a father and his beautiful wife Mera will be someone's mother. Arthur deserves to be happy and to have the family for which he's always longed. I know he'll be a wonderful father because he's been good to me...well, when we weren't fighting or roughhousing with each other, that is. 'Boys will be boys,' people say, and two boys brought up in the wild can make for some crazy behavior. I have a feeling this city will beat that out of us a little at a time, as sure as the tide flows. Civilization is a no-nonsense mistress.
As I awake, I am surprised by a soft, comfortably plush object under my head and more light than I am used to being greeted with when my eyes open at morning. I don't remember having a pillow on the window box ledge but as I poke at the object I am reclining upon, I am sure that is what it is. I guess I must have overslept and Arthur didn't bother to wake me so I could go to my room. Mera doesn't like me walking in on them in their bedroom anyway. She went from that 'blushing bride' act to downright indignant glares really quickly, so I am very careful to ask permission before I enter through those huge double doors. It beats getting chewed out for seeing something I shouldn't.
"How do you like your new room, Minnow?"
I pry open an eye and spy Arthur and Mera standing above me, both of them smiling, arms entwined and her head resting on his shoulder as is their habit these days.
"New.....room...?" I ask, attempting to look around.
"Well, it's a temporary replacement for that tiny room off of our bedroom," Mera interjects as she steadies herself from her kicking 'blessed event.' "Arthur and Makaira have been looking around the palace to find something more suitable for you until the new palace is completed. What do you think of it?"
Amazed, my eyes open wide at the bright little room. It has an ample-sized porthole window---that's something new for me---and it opens to the palace grounds. There's a small closet with plenty of room for things...as soon as I have things to put in it. There's even a little desk so I'll have a place to study, a contented-looking potted plant and a sea chest to keep other stuff in, I guess. I've even got a real sponge mattress bed, instead of the hammock that I'd woven from seaweed for myself and brought to the palace from the cave Arthur and I used to share. Wow...this is really nice.
"You...you did this...for me?" I ask in a stunned voice, casting a startled gaze at Arthur. "Thank you, both of you. This was very kind of you. I never expected anything like this. I don't know what to say."
"You may still have a baby face, Minnow, but you're a bit too old for a baby's nursery," Arthur says with a chuckle. "Makaira and I set about finding a proper room for the little Prince's uncle and we thought you might like this one, at least until we move to the new palace. Now the baby will have a nursery just a few steps from his mother and father and, this way, his uncle will still be close by to help out."
A swift, playful punch to the arm by Mera reminds Arthur that the "Prince" could very well turn out to be a "Princess," a fact he concedes with a kiss to her forehead. That leads to a real kiss, so I head for the window to let their romantic interlude pass. I'm still not used to the mushy intimacy between them, though Arthur says I'll understand it better within a few years when I grow up. Gosh, I am not sure that I want to understand it if it means I will have to kiss icky girls like Tula. Ewwww.
"Gotta get going, honey---morning patrol still has to be done," Arthur bellows as he shows Mera to the door. "Coming along, Minnow?"
As if he has to ask.