What’s the Word?
Prince Eric’s overworked brain just barely registered that his name had been called at all, as he sat hunched over the desk in his private study. Shuffling some papers around, he picked up a pen and signed the bottom of a particularly important document. Unfortunately for the soon-to-be king, the pen exploded in his grip just as he scratched the final letter of his name—a generous blob of black ink pooled on the page in front of him. The document was ruined, no question. The papers would have to be drawn up again—an unwelcome and time-consuming task.
“Great,” Eric griped, using a handkerchief to wipe the excess ink from his hand and fingers. “This is gonna stain.”
He haphazardly tossed the soiled handkerchief aside, and the square-shaped cloth hung limply off the corner of his solid mahogany desk.
“Hmm?” the prince grunted, finally acknowledging his new bride who sat patiently in the study waiting for him to finish his royal duties for the night.
“Huh?” Eric looked up, this time, to see Ariel seated in a plush armchair overlooking the fireplace. From his vantage point behind the desk, he could only gaze at her profile, but he could tell that her features were twisted in a profound concentration. The gears in that wonderful brain of hers—under that shock of voluminous red hair—were quite obviously turning, and Eric thought her completely adorable.
“What’s fire?” repeated Ariel, stretching her hands toward the flickering flames in the hearth.
“It’s heat and light,” Eric answered plainly, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.
“But how do you make it?” Ariel persisted. “When we entered the study earlier you struck a... a... what’s the word?”
“Oh, right... a match. Then, you tossed it in the fireplace and the logs caught flame.”
“How did you do that? Do humans wield magic, too? Like Daddy? Like Ursula?”
“No, it’s a chemical reaction.”
“Is this related to more of that... what’s the word? That science stuff you’re always talking about?”
“Yes, that’s right—chemistry, in this instance.”
“But... why does it—what’s the word—burn?”
“Fire occurs when a flammable material, in combination with an oxidizer, is exposed to a heat source—” Eric automatically began rattling off what he remembered from his lessons during his schoolboy days, but stopped abruptly when he noticed Ariel staring at him quizzically. ”—It’s... it’s a chain reaction.”
“I still don’t understand,” Ariel groaned, grabbing fist-fulls of her wild, flowing hair. “I feel so incredibly stupid since becoming a human bean—”
″—Being, darling, a human being.”
“Interesting. Daddy just called all people barbarians... or fish-eaters...”
“Well, now, that’s somewhat offensive. A fair number of us are vegetarian.”
Naturally, some other folks were strictly pescetarian, but he wasn’t dumb enough to tip her off about that. He had already banned all fish dinners from the palace out of due respect for his bride’s unconventional origins... what more could the prince possibly do?
“Human being, is it?” Ariel queried.
“Are you sure?”
“That settles it, then. I just barely comprehend how anything works here on land. I’m just... dense, that’s what it is.”
“You’re not stupid,” Eric assured, before rising from his seat and strolling over to her. “These concepts take time to learn. Most people amass their body of knowledge over a lifetime... as they grow from a baby to a child, to an adult—you’re doing it all at once! So... no, darling, you’re not stupid. Please, don’t sell yourself short—I won’t stand for it.”
At about this moment, Max padded into the room and dropped a slobbery rubber ball at Ariel’s feet. She giggled, and apparently not the slightest bit bothered by the copious amount of saliva that coated the toy, picked up the ball, and gave it a hard toss. The ball sailed out the open door, and Max—a massive fur-ball on four legs—bounded after it, barking happily.
“He’s a good dog.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a man telling his wife that she’s unearthly beautiful, is there?”
“No, but we weren’t talking about—”
Eric suddenly grabbed Ariel by the hand, pulling her from the armchair, and planted a kiss square on the lips. She didn’t miss a beat, however, and threw her arms around his neck, matching his kiss in perfect rhythm.
“How’s about a quick science experiment?” Eric asked when they finally parted.
“You wish to know how fire burns. Is that right?”
Ariel nodded vigorously, her big blue eyes twinkling at him.
“Um...” Eric ran his fingers through his thick hair. “Ah. Okay, here.”
The prince snatched a silver candlestick from its spot on the mantle, dramatically plunked it on his desk, and rhymed, “Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack jump over the candlestick.” Then he reached into a side drawer and pulled out a box of matches.
“Who’s Jack? Is he a friend of yours?”
“Uh, never mind that for now, but we will certainly have to carve out some time to read nursery rhymes together. All right, back to the experiment.” Eric looked up at her as he struck the match, “Fire requires three ingredients, if you will, to burn: oxygen, fuel, and heat. You learned fire is hot the hard way, didn’t you?”
With a frown, Ariel looked down at her pointer finger. “Yes, and it still hurts just thinking about it.”
Eric chuckled, “I warned you not to poke around near the fireplace.”
“Yes, you did... but I was far too stubborn to listen to your sage advice.”
Here he paused to light the candle’s wick and then blew out the match. Ariel was hanging on his every last word, and Eric reveled in her rapt attention.
“Fire is a result of a chemical reaction—that’s called combustion. Notice how the wax melts and gets smaller? Once something’s been burned, it can’t ever be un-burned. It’s forever altered, chemically.”
“It’s so beautiful and captivating,” Ariel said, admiring the dancing orange flame.
“It’s also dangerous,” Eric cautioned seriously. “But to put out a fire, you simply remove at least one of the ingredients—then it can’t burn. Do you remember the three ingredients?”
“Oxygen, fuel, and heat.”
“Precisely! That’s my girl!” Eric grinned, proudly. “We’re going to remove the oxygen.”
Eric moved back to the mantle where a small, but stately, golden clock rested nobly underneath a glass dome. He carefully lifted the glass from its wooden base and returned to where his wife stood eagerly waiting by the desk. Slowly, steadily, the prince covered the flickering candle with the borrowed dome. Gradually, the flame began to die down, until finally, the light was snuffed out completely, and only thin wisps of smoke remained swirling around the candle.
“See? Once its air supply was cut off, the fire ceased burning altogether.”
“Wow, that was amazing! You’re so smart, Eric.”
“Aw,” Eric felt his cheeks flush slightly, “I’m no more intelligent than the average man.”
“Just accept the compliment, mister,” Ariel poked him in the chest.
“Yes, ma’am, if you insist.”
Ariel kissed his cheek.
“So, that’s why fire burns. Are you satisfied? Is your curiosity satiated? Has your never-ending thirst for knowledge been quenched?”
“I’m glad to know what’s a fire, and why it burns... but...”
“You never explained how the match catches fire, in the first place.”
Eric ran his hand along the side of his face. He would never finish his paperwork at this rate—he was going to hear about it from Grimsby, that much was certain.
“Well, when you strike a match against the rough strip on its box, that creates friction... and friction creates heat. Rub your hands together, Ariel—that’s friction.”
Ariel rubbed her palms together a few times, then asked, “But what’s the fuel source? You said fire needs fuel to burn.”
Eric laughed, “That’s right! And here you were thinking you were dim-witted... the end of the match is coated in some kind of combustible substance, like sulfur or phosphorus, sometimes powdered glass... the particularities aren’t important.”
Ariel smiled at him, “Thank you for always making time to teach me. I know it must be a tedious undertaking, but you’re always so kind and patient... and loving.”
“I’m here for you anytime. Do you have any further questions about our impromptu science experiment?”
“No, you’ve answered all my questions thoroughly. I feel like I’m up to speed.”
Eric chuckled, “That’s all right. Somehow, I suspect you’ll have another whole list of questions for me tomorrow.”
The young prince took her in his arms and kissed her again. He truly loved this woman. She was beautiful and bold, and inquisitive, and the fact that he occasionally had to stop everything to explain seemingly the most mundane aspects of humanity—was a minor inconvenience, when he considered the trade-off. It was all worthwhile if he could be withAriel always.
Eric scooped Ariel up, bridal style, and she squealed with laughter.
“Ready for bed?”
“It’s still early. I’m not at all tired.”
“There’s no law that says beds are for sleeping, only, you know.” Eric wiggled his dark eyebrows suggestively.
“But you haven’t finished your paperwork... and you said it was of the utmost importance.”
“Oh, well. Who cares?
″Grimsby cares—you’re going to get an ear-full from him at breakfast tomorrow morning.”
“Then I’ll deal with that tomorrow. I’ll simply tell him: ‘Grim, I’m the prince and future king—I’ll decide when and if I do any tiresome paperwork!’ ”
“Oh, I’m sure your approach will go over splendidly.”
“Grimsby can’t boss me around, the old dinosaur...”
“Dinosaur, am I?”
Ariel gasped at Grimsby’s unexpected entrance, and Eric, caught quite by surprise, accidentally let Ariel fall from his arms.
“Oh. Sorry, darling,” Eric stooped to help his wife back to her feet. “So, Grim, I—”
″—Your paperwork isn’t completed, I take it, Eric.”
“Not in its entirety...” the prince admitted sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck with his ink-stained hand.
Grimbsy glared sternly at the prince, which caused Eric to shrink back in guilt and embarassment. Sir Grimsby’s frame was pin-straight, his suit wrinkle-free, and his shoulder-length gray hair was pulled back neatly and tied with a single silk ribbon. In short, the gentleman’s whole countenance conveyed an utter lack of amusement.
“I left you to review those documents hours ago. You have had ample time to accomplish this uncomplicated task. Eric, you are to be King within the next year. You must begin taking your royal responsibilities all the more seriously.”
“Please, Grim...” Eric complained through gritted teeth, “not in front of my wife... you’re making me look incompetent.”
“You’re absolutely correct, Eric,” Grimsby replied.
“Indeed. Rather than bore the young lady here, I’ll escort her on a leisurely evening stroll through the palace gardens. You, in the meantime, can remain in this very room until all your work has been finished—and by that I mean—every i dotted. Every t crossed. Every last page dated and adorned with your royal signature, do you understand?”
“Yes, of course, Grim.”
“Very well then... with that, I shall bid you adieu, Your Highness, as it appears you are going to be burning the midnight oil, so to speak.” His demeanor changing suddenly, Grimsby turned to the princess and cooed affectionately, “Come along, my dear, the gardens are lovely this time of night—I’m quite partial to the yellow variety of roses, myself. Did you know that the yellow rose symbolizes friendship and happiness?”
“Why, no, I didn’t. How fascinating...”
“If we’re lucky, Miss Ariel, we just might catch a glimpse of that sprightly little nightingale that has made its nest in the old knobby tree, near the hedge maze.”
“That does sound delightful...”
Speechless, Eric watched as the older gentleman, his cherished friend, left the study while leading his precious Ariel away gently by the arm. He stood there frozen in place for a minute or two, then flexed his jaw a repeatedly. Grumbling, the prince ambled over to his desk once more and hunkered down to finally finish what he had set out to do originally. If only paperwork weren’t so menial, and dull, and long-drawn-out...
Feeling supremely defeated, Eric grabbed hold of his pen and sighed with dejection, “This—what’s the word?—bites.”