Aslan arrived at the dock an hour late, screeching motorbike tires muffled under blasts of EDM. He propped up the kickstand and dismounted, slinging the Domino’s Pizza pannier around his shoulder as he approached a group of college students. “Finally!” one hollered. It felt more like a barrage of condescending customers than a coincidental reunion of classmates. He recognised Ethan from their Marketing and Management lecture, but the realisation did not seem mutual.
“You better give us free pizza, Ali Baba,” Brad from Business Comm chimed in, shooting Aslan a glare. Man can neither pass a class nor place a proper order, but he’s as racist and entitled as ever.
You could have given me an actual address, Aslan thought, but aloud he said, “I’ll cover half the order and throw in a bunch of coupons.”
YACHT, MARINA DISTRICT SF left a lot to be desired – all the Islamophobic idiot had to do was drop a pin. As Aslan unzipped the thermal bag, keeping his head down in a poor attempt to get through the uncomfortable altercation unscathed, a familiar voice spoke up. “You don’t have to do that.”
He glanced up to find Krish handing him a stack of bills, his kind smile splitting into a grin as their gazes locked. “Aslan?”
“You know this pizza terrorist?” asked Brad. Ethan added, “Dude, he said he’d give us half of it for free.”
Krish bit his tongue, earning a small smile from Aslan. “You sit beside him in class, Brad,” he muttered, deadpan. Aslan and Krish did not know each other well enough for the latter to stick up for him like that, but Aslan appreciated the save. “I’ll bring the rest,” he told the group, hanging back as their collegemates returned to the rave.
Aslan overheard one of them refer to him as the antisocial Arab kid.
“Jerks.” Krish scratched the back of his neck, offering him an apologetic look but not the pitiful tip that often ensued, much to Aslan’s relief. He figured Krish understood the plight of being the bullied foreign student better than most. “You alright?”
“I’m fine,” Aslan murmured, feeling his cheeks tighten. “Just tired. I’ve been delivering orders all night … this was the last. Yachts are harder to find than houses, believe it or not.”
Krish let out a startled laugh, balancing stacked pizza boxes. “You should join me,” he said. His bronze skin held traces of scarlet as he rushed to correct himself, “I mean, us. Our entire class is here. Ethan’s dad owns the boat.”
“Oh. Uh, I wasn’t invited,” Aslan muttered, embarrassed – judging from the massive turnout, he must have been among the few people Ethan didn’t invite.
“You don’t need an invitation,” Krish assured him. “You have me. And pizza.”
Aslan smiled, albeit reluctant. “I don’t know,” he admitted, shuffling his feet. “I should get home.”
His little sister, Amira, needed a ride to school in the morning. “You’ll be home before sunrise,” Krish promised, offering Aslan his hand. “Please?”
Aslan glanced back at his bike, but his outstretched fingers laced through Krish’s. If Aslan Al-Amari had known he would never walk on land again, he might never had taken his hand.
Aslan and Krish sat at the stern, feet dangling over the surf. Krish’s copper irises shone like the surface of the ocean, impish features illuminated beneath the stars and the receding lights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Ethan’s 21st entailed lots of bass and barrels of booze. Aslan had found himself a straggler at parties before, but this time he felt right at home talking to Krish, letting the rave music and ruckus melt into the background like an iceberg in the Atlantic.
Aslan tuned out the noise, counting the freckles on Krish’s face. He admired the effortless dark curls that fell across his forehead and the dimples that spread across his cheeks like ripples in the tide. Krish wore khaki shorts and an unbuttoned shirt, bearing a rope necklace that rested against his tanned chest. Aslan figured he looked like a mess beside him, dressed in his Domino’s uniform and sporting helmet hair. Alas, the admiration in Krish’s gaze as he looked at Aslan made him feel as if no one else existed.
“Earth to Aslan.” Krish bumped his shoulder, breaking him from a sober stupor. Aslan hoped the cold coastal breeze hid the heat that rushed to his cheeks as Krish slid closer, taking the former’s hand again – except this time, the pair had an audience.
“Isn’t that cute?” Brad. Aslan felt a firm grip on his shoulders before being shoved against the side rail. “The Pizza Dude and the Paki—”
“Cut it out, Brad.” Krish rose to his feet, unable to keep a measured tone beneath Brad’s mocking laughter. He wrestled him off Aslan, taking a punch to the gut. “Don’t touch him.”
“Relax, Robindian Hood,” Brad spat, shooting Aslan a disgusted sneer. “Your little boyfriend can’t take care of himself?”
At that point, Krish landed a jab to Brad’s jaw. A small crowd had gathered around the stern, but no one came to their aid. It seemed Brad and his wasted buddies had gotten bored of beer pong and decided to be the bullies onboard. Aslan stood, putting himself between Brad and Krish. “Dude,” he muttered, shaking his head. “You can’t be dumb, racist, and homophobic … like pick a struggle, man.”
“Shut up, fa—” Aslan struck a blow before Brad’s lips formed to utter the slur. He heard audible gasps amidst the crowd of drunk college students before Brad lunged at him, knocking the air from Aslan’s lungs as he shoved him against the rear of the boat. Aslan had been pushed and punched before, but this time it felt different – the breath that escaped his chest did not return.
He heard a crash as bones broke the surface of harsh waves, horrified screams silenced as hydrostatic pressure hammered against his eardrums. He had all but glimpsed the shadow of dread across Krish’s face before darkness clouded his sight; the hull of the sailboat seemed to shrink as he sank deeper and deeper.
Aslan kicked and screamed, muscles stiffening as frigid fluid filled his lungs. The current had him chained at the ankles as if his feet were tied to an anchor. If he hadn’t been fighting for his life, he might have heard the inhuman singing sooner; demonic echoes from the depths of the ocean, like a calling for captives of the sea to surrender.
His limbs lost their fight, trembling lips tinged blue. His arms stopped flailing, legs stopped kicking. He reached out, desperate for his fingertips to break the surface and find Krish’s once more …
… but Aslan was too far down.
“He breathes, Your Highness.”
Aslan inhaled an airless, sharp breath as he shot upright, feeling as if a cruise ship had been dropped on his chest. His corneas met cobalt as his eyelids fluttered open, ears ringing like a bell tower at midnight. He felt certain he faced his reflection, but then the man in the mirror spoke.
“I have waited long for this moment, son,” he said, his cavernous voice travelling as if through sonar. “You have returned home at last.”
Aslan blinked. I must be dead, he thought. Jannah looked a lot bluer than Aslan had imagined. Except this wasn’t Paradise and he wasn’t dead. “I can’t breathe,” he choked out, but it appeared he didn’t need to. It was as if his lungs had forgotten to inhale and the rest of him had just been like, Yeah, whatever.
Aslan was underwater. He glimpsed not a single shred of light nor the slightest hint of the surface above. Yet, somehow he could see in the eternal darkness. He saw stone columns rise high into the depths of the ocean, coral and shell forming unbelievable structures all around him. Although light had never touched these regions of the ocean, jewels and pearls shimmered in the void like stars in the night. It’s a palace, he realised, as the opulence and grandeur of it all sunk in.
“You’re the King,” Aslan ventured, inhaling another pointless, sharp breath. “Is this … am I dead?”
The King laughed – an echoing, thunderous guffaw that shocked a passing shoal of fish. “You’re alive at long last, son,” he replied.
“It’s Aslan.” As he uttered it, he realised the King had not called him “son” in a chiding manner. He spoke it like one might the name of a loved one; thought to be lost, but later found.
“No, it isn’t. You are Atlan, Prince of the Sea,” the King declared, brandishing his trident, “and the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis.”
Aslan hiccupped. “You’ve got me mixed up with Ariel, man,” he chuckled, unable to unsee the striking resemblance between the man floating before him and the image of King Triton from The Little Mermaid. Alas, their faces looked nothing alike. In fact, Aslan could have sworn …
“Humans cannot survive in Atlantis,” the King said, “let alone transform into one of us.”
He dipped his trident in a pointing gesture, and as Aslan tracked its spearhead, he beheld a sight that expelled the seafoam in his lungs as he screamed. He mistook his feet for diving fins, but the unmistakable trail of veins tinted blue revealed that his legs no longer ended in toes. “H–How did this happen?” he stammered, but a third voice cut across him.
“King Atlas, the surface dwellers’ search for our Prince has ceased,” she spoke, her voice echoing like the whispers Aslan had heard before his consciousness faded. “Authorities have pronounced him dead – the coast guard released a statement that he drowned at sea in the aftermath of a freak accident.”
“It wasn’t an accident.” Aslan felt a pang of grief. “Krish wouldn’t have let them believe that.”
Aslan faced the siren. He recognised the creature from the Odyssey, certain that she did not belong to the same species as her king. “You sang to me,” he said, fists clenched. “Your kind uses alluring melodies to entrance sailors. You made me give in.”
“Your kind?” echoed the King. “You mean our kind, son.”
“Don’t call me that. You’re not …” My father, he thought, but Aslan couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. His father had died of cancer and his mother during childbirth. Aslan was raised as one of Uncle Amir’s own. He was even taught to refer to Amira as his sister instead of his cousin.
“I am,” King Atlas said, unable to veil the pain in his voice. “I apologise for not being there, son. Your mother and I had no choice.”
Aslan shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
The King sighed, gesturing for Aslan to follow as he turned his back and stretched his frame like a freefalling diver. Although Aslan struggled, he managed to kick off the submerged precipice he had awoken upon and swim alongside the merman. “Come,” is all the King said, the siren trailing behind them like an escort.
It surprised Aslan that he was able to keep up. After all, he had gone from not being able to swim to propelling himself forward faster than an Olympic gold medalist. “You said there was no choice,” Aslan pressed, in need of answers. “In what?”
The King faced him, navigating the sunken palace and coral reef as if he knew the ocean’s floor plan like the back of his hand. “You were born human, Atlan – the first child of a merman and siren.”
Aslan faltered. “You mean …”
“Your mother, Queen Atlana, was a siren,” he said, reminiscent despite his saddened tone. “Our marriage was frowned upon – forbidden, in fact. Our ancestors had been at war for aeons. It was not until the announcement of our child that the opposing forces began to make amends. You were born gasping for air. At the time, we believed our incompatible bloodlines led to the birth of a human. You were thought to be neither a merman nor a siren, though now it seems that something has changed.”
At this, a small smile tugged at his grim features. Aslan fell silent as the King trailed on. “Your mother passed not long after giving birth, but not before she entranced a sailor to look after her son and care for the child like he would one of his own.”
A lump had formed in Aslan’s throat, as though a lone air bubble were trapped between his Adam’s apple and sternum. “So,” he choked out, “I’m adopted. You gave me up.”
“Your mother wouldn’t have left her son with just anyone. Your adoptive parents are loving and kind, indeed?”
Aslan thought of Uncle Amir, going out to fish before sunrise and coming home past sunset. He thought of Aunt Sadia, the most formidable and caring human being he knew. And Amira, of course – the light of Aslan’s life; even the harshest of tsunamis couldn’t keep him from seeing her again. Before Aslan could speak, the siren called out to her king.
“Your Highness, there was one more whisper I heard from the surface,” she said. “It concerns the bearer of this.”
Aslan felt his blood freeze as the siren unclenched her fist, revealing a rope necklace in the scaled palm of her hand. It can’t be, Aslan thought. Krish had seen him go overboard along with the others, unless …
“A human dove into the ocean after our Prince,” she explained, and though there was no air left in Aslan to be knocked from his lungs, his heart pounded against his ribcage as he broke into an invisible, cold sweat, “in an attempt to save him.”
Aslan’s feet locked, hammering heart threatening to burst forth from his chest. King Atlas and his escort halted, looking back to face Aslan as the little colour left in his face drained into the Pacific. “Is he alright?” he asked, his voice a mere whisper of hope.
“I’m afraid not, sire,” the siren confessed. “He lost consciousness after almost a half hour of searching. He’s in critical condition at the Saint Francis Memorial Hospital.”
“He’s alive,” Aslan muttered – that’s all that mattered. He looked up at the King, and his following words sounded more like a command than a request for permission. “I need to see him. I have to make sure he’s alright.”
King Atlas shook his head. “You can’t return to the surface, Atlan.”
“You said I was born gasping for air,” Aslan countered, undeterred. “Yet here I am. I don’t care if it kills me. I need to go be with Krish.”
His father’s expression morphed from fear into despair, but when he spoke, the King of Atlantis forced a smile. “You don’t need permission to leave, Atlan,” he said, “nor permission to return. I understand that a life left behind cannot be forgotten overnight, and that love left unfought for leaves a permanent scar. Go. You were born to fight for love. Your mother would be proud.”
Aslan smiled. “I’ll return,” he promised. “You won’t have to lose me again.”
And I don’t have to lose Krish, he thought to himself, kicking upwards toward the surface. He had to believe it because for better or worse, Aslan Al-Amari had taken Krish’s hand – and he was determined to never let go.
He rose out of the surf as Atlan, suffocating on air as his knees dragged across the coarse sand along the Marina. His limbs regained their fight, blue lips trembling as blood rushed to restore his olive skin. His arms and legs flailed as scales shed. He retched, expelling the liquid from his lungs as air repaid its debt at last. Atlan stood, stumbling as he took his first steps.
He glanced at the horizon, hearing Krish’s voice. You’ll be home before sunrise, he had promised. As it happened, it now fell upon Atlan to keep that promise.
Amira Al-Amari sat on the kerb, hugging her knapsack to her stomach. Aslan was never late. It was unlike her elder brother to forget to pick her up. Amira knew he cherished his time with her as much as she did her moments with him; because of that, she refused to believe the headlines. Her parents had been shattered at the news. Even now, hours after the incident, both Amir and Sadia were down at the police station, demanding concrete answers. Amira wouldn’t go along – she knew Aslan best. He never broke a promise, and he never missed taking her to school.
And she was right. Albeit late, Aslan rode up to the road to their dilapidated apartment block like he did each morning, on his motorbike with a paper bag of pizza stashed in his pannier for Amira to eat during recess. Amira smiled and her brother smiled back. He might have been Atlan, Prince of the Sea; but to her, Aslan would forever be her Prince of Pizza.
“I promise, it won’t take long,” he told her. Aslan dismounted his bike and sprinted through the sliding doors of Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, heading straight for the Critical Care Unit, his little sister in tow.
He noticed him as soon as he turned the corner; propped up on a hospital bed, receiving an intravenous drip and hooked onto a nebuliser; their gazes locked just like the night before at the Marina. Although it felt like, and indeed was for Aslan, a lifetime ago, he couldn’t stand another moment apart from Krish.
He rushed forward, taking hold of his hand upon reaching his bedside. Aslan felt his heart return to a resting pulse, but the tears began falling of their own volition. “You shouldn’t have tried to rescue me, ” he said, earning a small smile from Krish.
“I made a promise, remember?” He laced his fingers through Aslan’s.
Amira arrived at her brother’s side, squeezing his other hand. A stream of light cascaded through the blinds, bathing them in warm hues that bore no resemblance to the ocean. Aslan felt like he could breathe again for the first time in forever. He knew his life had forever changed, but he also knew he had all he needed right beside him. He’d made it home before sunrise.
Written by: Karran Kumar