Niki Island, Southern Isles
Rhia brought her gloved hands up to cup the hollow crystal sphere on the end of her necklace. She held it up to the sunlight and the liquid in the crystal caught it, throwing rainbows along the sand.
Though it looked harmless, the sphere did not merely hold water; rather, it captured spirit tears, said to cure those with disease. It hung on a long, ordinary silver chain around her neck, and she imagined that the crystal was the Great Moon, fitting snugly in her palms. She tightened her hand into a fist, and if she gripped it tightly enough, it would break. If only spirits could bend so easily to mortals’ wills.
Truthfully, she’d been using it to focus, trying to call upon Kengiki, the moon spirit and king of the double moons: the Great Moon and the Lesser Moon. It had already been hours and still no answer. But, if the all-powerful spirit did answer, how would she even begin to make her request? If she begged, would Kengiki make it so she could touch others without draining their life force?
No, he’d find it offensive that she disliked the power he’d given her. He’d say it was a blessing, especially since technically she could still have human contact; after all, she just had to be mindful of the moons since this power was only useful when the moons were in the sky. Rhia snorted and thought, that’s almost always the case.
Because of this, there had been accidents in the past, which brought upon scowls and created distance between her and the rest of the islanders.
Sometimes, she’d imagine they were ogres and she was the hero and the only reason why they would throw grimaces her way was because she was trying to defeat their leader, the ogre queen. But if she were being at all truthful then she would have to admit that she was the true monster terrorizing the townspeople.
All because of her powers, their dangers.
“Curse you. Curse you and your gifts,” she whispered the words, afraid the moon spirit would hear, but that fear didn’t stop her from saying it anyway. Saying it like it was lava, like it burned her tongue.
This was no gift, she thought as she slowly extracted her glove to examine what was beneath. It was so misleading, for she saw merely olive toned flesh, mortal flesh tainted by gods. She ran her fingers through her dark hair, brushing out the tangles left after her swim from earlier. Her hands came away salted and slightly damp.
Bringing her hair up to her nose, she inhaled, breathing in the ocean. The gentle sea breeze caressed her cheek, and she couldn’t help but smile. She would never get enough of the brilliant blue sky and how it kissed the crystal green waves. The ocean brought sustenance, food for her people; it brought beauty, with endless supplies of seashells and glittering stones.
She loved the sea and she wasn’t sure if it was because of Nera, the water spirit and the one who spoke to her most often, the one who treated her much more kindly than her own mother. She was the one who had encouraged her to ask the moon spirit one more time.
Rhia wasn’t a fool, though. She knew to keep her distance from the spirits because spirits don’t love. They don’t feel. They only use. And that was fine because she was used to being used.
She looked past the glimmering white sands and the lush cropping of palms, towards the town. She couldn’t make out the brightly colored huts from here, because of the thick tangle of vegetation, but she could see Eitau—temples built for the island spirits—rising above the sea of tropical trees. Instead of wearing blues and greens like the island homes, the towers were dark stones stacked neatly on top of one another. There were three of them in all, and each held the same magnificent, dark beauty.
The other islands, from what Rhia had heard, worshiped the same deities. But then, there had been a few islands to the north that worshiped solely the sun spirit. Most people were unable to even speak the sun spirit’s name, for fear of the moon spirit. But now that she was looking at the deep, black towers, she wondered if other islands had the same temples and if other countries had similar religions and ways of worship, if her ways were the right ones. Could there be more than one way to please the gods? And if so, did that mean that other islands received magic from the spirits?
Niki had a handful of magically abled, each gifted like Rhia. But then, all of those people were so unlike Rhia. She could use magic without a dire aihue, the greatest consequence for using magic. But while some people became sick or turned into the soulless ones, she merely got headaches.
Why wasn’t she like everyone else?
She brought a finger up and wound it round in a circle, watching as the seawater breaking against beach turned course and eddied around her toes. Pushing herself up, she stood and swung her hands up in an arc, graceful and quick, brought them above her head and breathed deep. Her blood ran cool, and she imagined instead that it was salt water. It tingled under her skin, sealife skittering in her blood.
All at once, she felt a second heartbeat: the ocean’s heartbeat. She made to pull one of her closed fists to her chest and the tides sighed and relinquished control, immediately tumbling forward in a tall wall of water.
Now came the tricky part, stopping the water’s energy, for water does not like to be stopped. She forced her other hand up, palm out, and held firm, gritting her teeth. She could feel the energy of the wave building as it grew to great heights. It rushed towards her as if it were an old friend rather than a monstrous sheet of water.
She was aware of the approaching weight of the wave and wasn’t sure if she would be able to slow it, much less stop it. But she grinned instead and a crazed giggle escaped her lips. This was water, which meant it was malleable, no matter its force. The hard part was grasping at a proper form, but she knew water because she wanted to think it was just like her, or just like she wanted to be, free and wild.
She took hold of the tumbling waves before they could slam into her body. Saw them curve around her, almost like there was an invisible barrier. She smiled, closed her eyes, and dug her toes into the sand as everything settled.
“Here you are, sister.” Rhia gasped in surprise but recovered quickly. It was Lagos, always the tentative middle child. “Practicing the spirit magic, are you?”
Hastily slipping her glove back on, she turned to face him, already knowing he’d have a sour expression and crossed arms.
Sour expression, indeed. Cross-armed as well. And his scowl was so deep, Rhia feared her brother wouldn’t remember how to smile after this. She noticed that he eyed the water around her and approached with hesitance.
“Brother, your Callista won’t be won over by scowls.” Rhia saw her brother blush and shift his feet. Lagos and Callista had been childhood friends since they were five. Now, Lagos wanted more, but did the fair Callista? This always provided a way for Rhia to catch him off guard.
“I woke up and found your bed empty. What have you been doing out here? You were supposed to help us fish this morning but instead I find you enjoying the water.”
Speaking to air and water, trying to ask the moon for a favor. If you’re wondering, the moon doesn’t answer.
“Please, Rhia, at least go to the market. While you were out here lounging around, your family was slaving away catching fish.” Lagos shifted and deepened his frown.
Spirits, today was market day?
How could she have been so forgetful? Feeling instantly guilty, Rhia rose from her spot in the sand and nodded. She’d been working on her stoic expression. She may have been in the wrong, but she wasn’t going to let Lagos know that.
He grinned, and she knew she’d failed to fool him.
She then imagined he was an ogrette, one of the lowest minions of the ogre queen. They were smelly and green and covered all over in carbuncles. As Lagos itched his nose, Rhia could almost see how there could easily be a bulbous boil right upon his nose tip.
“Yes, well. And the fish cart?” asked Rhia. Lagos pointed beyond the dunes. “Are you coming along?”
“Rhia, I’ve done enough. It’s your turn to pull your own weight around here.” Lagos reminded her of mother sometimes.
Rhia, prepare the meal for our guests.
Silly girl, at least set the table.
I don’t care if Meiko and Lagos make fun, you must scrub their undergarments.
He left as quickly as he had come, without even a word of goodbye. When she saw him hobble over the hump of the hill, huh, still nursing that injury, and disappear out of sight, she took the cart, a bulky wooden contraption one had to pull with one’s hands, and made step after aching step down the road.
It was in the moment of pushing that damned cart that she could feel her true loss of strength. She felt drained, almost like she’d aged decades. It always came right after her practice with magic, and it had been getting worse. First, it had been a faint headache, peaking quickly. But now it was a constant throbbing throughout her entire body and the ache, no matter how faint, still worried her. It lasted for days. Maybe she wasn’t as blessed as she’d like to think.
Still not as bad as some of the other people’s repercussions from using magic, and she used the most magic out of the entire island.
“Hey, love. Need a hand?”
Rhia jumped, immediately dropping her cart and, consequently, half the stock of fish all over the dirt path. She groaned before turning to see who’d approached her.
“Bit of bad luck, I’d say.” A boy around her age grinned so wide and so bright, Rhia squinted.
“Only because you surprised me.” She tugged at her necklace, a nervous tic, then let her hand drop to her side.
“I only wanted to help a fair lady, such as yourself.” The boy was fair skinned, faint freckles dotted his neck and randomly speckled his nose. His blue eyes were pretty, like the midmorning sky, and contrasted nicely with his clothing, which were shades of browns and grays. The kid was most definitely from one of the northern isles, judging by his neutral colored clothing, his pale skin, and lilting accent. But she wasn’t familiar enough with the north to be sure from where. Although, she wanted to say Central.
She bent over to grasp a fish, it slipped and rolled some more in the grime. She cursed and tried again. But when she looked over, the boy was helping her retrieve the fallen mess.
“Seems only right to help you.” The boy shrugged and started ably piling fish in his arms.
“I don’t need help from a child.”
“Child?” He was so offended that his voice cracked, and Rhia had to stop herself from laughing outright because his cheeks were blushing red and his anger only made him look younger, cuter. “I’m seventeen, I’ll have you know.”
“A child. Not yet old enough to be called a man,” Rhia said and grabbed for a fish near the boy. He got it first.
How quick you are. She then noticed that he was just a tad shorter than her own average height, and she felt triumphant.
“And how old are you?”
“Nineteen, not that it’s any of your concern.”
They worked in silence for a few peaceful moments before the boy started again. “Fawkes.”
“The name’s Fawkes. Well, Oliver Fawkes, but I hate the first name. Was my father’s and he was an ass.”
She stayed quiet, tried to just ignore the boy.
“Aren’t you going to introduce yourself? You know, it’s rude that I still don’t know your name.”
“Rhia,” she said, midway through picking up a fish.
“Pretty name, Rhia.” He gagged, and she looked up. “My hands will smell like fish guts ‘til the end of time, I reckon.” He tried not to retch and threw the remaining fish onto the wagon.
“Thank you for helping.” Rhia turned to pick up a cart. “But I must be off.” Rhia couldn’t help but roll her eyes as Fawkes rubbed off the fish slime on his pants and stuck his hand out to shake hers. She still thought it a strange northern custom, but she couldn’t help but like the greeting. It was different from how her people greeted others, which was through embracing. This had been the first difference she’d ever noticed and since then, she’d been starved for more information on the outside world. One day, she’d visit all the islands.
“A farewell shake, miss? For helping?” Rhia shrugged and stuck her hand out. Fawkes gripped it tight before he yanked her forward, sending her hurtling towards him.
Before she could protest, he wrapped his arm around her back, trapping her, then kissed her like air would: fast, fluttering, and faint. She was dizzy and didn’t know exactly what was going on until he released her.
“You idiot,” Rhia said and made to slap him, but he ducked out of her reach. Winking, Fawkes’ scurried away through the palm trees before she could make another move.
“That’s right, you better run.” Rhia felt her lower lip. It was throbbing from where he’d bitten her, wretched boy. Stupid boy. No one should touch her…
She huffed and turned to go, drawing her cart handles up beside her again and making her way down the road.
She’d imagined kissing boys before. In fact, many boys had wanted to kiss her because it was dangerous, kiss the cursed beauty and see if you live.
Looking up at the Lesser Moon, hanging terrifyingly between the trees, she wondered how much of an effect it would have on Fawkes. At least it was the Lesser, for if it had been the Greater hanging in the sky, Fawkes would have been…
He was probably fine and, besides, Rhia quite enjoyed it. Fawkes’ kiss was light and playful, not wanting, just full of taking. And for once, she wanted someone else to take.
When she’d finally arrived at the stall, had finished setting up signs and began calling out prices, she brought her fingers up to glide against her necklace, like she was apt to do, but instead found only air.
Peering down at her chest, she saw bare skin.
“That thieving son of a–” she screamed, sending a few potential buyers scattering. Scowling, she banged her gloved fist on the cart and felt like imagining all the ways she’d rip Fawkes a new smile.
One thing was for certain, this was a small island and the next ship wouldn’t leave until tomorrow. She had a day to find the boy, but she wasn’t worried. She rather liked seek and find.