Niki Island, Southern Isles
The crushed shell gravel crunched under Rhia’s feet. She’d abandoned her fish cart—to the bleeding seas with it—and went to work looking for Fawkes. The sun’s rays glistened on the path before her, lighting it bright in a wash of red, like fire. The village was waking, or rather, had been silently awake for the past few hours; after all, early risers were typical in Niki.
Tiny round beach huts were huddled together in a myriad of aquas, light blues, and whites. Clustered together so tightly, the roads turned like a finely thin snake through tall grass. They were painted in specific shades of cool colors: aquamarine for the Water Spirit, blue for the Sky Spirit, and pale white for the ever-watching Moon Spirit. A nod to the religious reverence, and fear, that the villagers held for their deities.
As Rhia ambled through the twisting streets, heading deeper into the city, she noticed people staring, as they always did, their fear as thick as mud. But she let their looks slide off her like cascading water, smooth and cold.
“A lovely lechen for your thoughts,” Rhia mumbled and thumbed the small tin lechen coin in her pocket. I can only imagine what those thoughts entail.
It wasn’t long before she reached the center of town, a buzz of tourists and locals meshed together in cacophony and lunacy. The winter months were fair in Niki, and rich travelers paid much to gawk at the sweet, hidden gem of the Southern Isles. But Rhia couldn’t help but marvel at the outsiders’ looks. Their skin, fair and untarnished by sun, shone white as coconut meat, while her people were as brown as its shell. And just the way the tourists dressed, in browns, grays, and boring blacks, was completely different from her people and their clothing’s citrus and ocean colors.
Besides, Niki was cheap, and coin went far. Rhia caught sight of a tourist, done up in neutrals and finery, who passed money to a shop owner without so much as a second thought. The local smiled stunningly and snatched the silver up, drawing it close to his chest as if to say, no refunds. Once the tourist’s buttoned back was turned, the local sneered and spat.
Further down the market path, Rhia found him. In fact, she heard Zhorios before she saw him. He tipped his bald head to each customer then proceeded to name off prices for each handmade trinket. Every time there was a lull in his shouts, he’d scowl. It wasn’t that he was angry, it was just his “thinking face.”
“Zhorios,” she shouted above the roar of the crowd. A tourist shoved her aside and made for a look at a glass bead necklace.
But Zhorios, all muscle and mass, had heard her and met her eyes. Squinting—Zhorios really needed spectacles—he barked out a laugh so loud it startled the tourist who’d pushed past her.
“Shouldn’t you be selling fish, girl?” Zhorios bellowed. He’d been her father’s friend since they were both boys and upon Rhia’s first meeting with him, they’d got on quite well, thanks to their shared dislike for Rhia’s mother.
“Mind your own business,” Rhia said and slammed her hands onto the table, shaking the flimsy setup. “Listen, old man, I’m looking for someone. Since you trade in jewelry, thought you’d spot a thief pretty well.”
Zhorios raised an eyebrow. “Lost something, my girl?” His eyes trailed down to fall on her bare throat. “Ah, haven’t seen that. Though, I feel bad for you. Spirits aren’t pleased when you don’t take care of their gifts.” Like in the stories, Rhia thought. She recalled one tale that spoke of a man tasked with keeping the Water Spirit’s mirror safe. The poor man had broken it on accident one day and by next morning, he’d been cursed. Whenever he’d attempted to drink, the water would turn to shards of glass. In the end, he had died. Though, whether it was from thirst or internal bleeding, Rhia hadn’t the faintest idea.
“Never mind that. Any thieves?”
“Damn,” she said, making the young man, the tourist, gasp and scurry off.
“Stop scaring off my customers. Rhia, you’ve got to act like a lady now and then.”
She cursed in her native tongue and Zhorios just rolled his eyes.
“Well, you’ve been useless.” She huffed and made to leave.
“Wait.” Rhia turned, hopeful, but Zhorios had resorted to crossed arms and frowns. “I’m sure he wouldn’t sell with me if he had a lick ‘a sense. My guess is he’d head to one of the ports tomorrow.”
“Which one?” She knew that tomorrow two ships set sail, one at each port.
“Both are going to Central, that much I know.”
Central? Hm, well if he were to collect any kind of money from her necklace, it would only make sense to head to Central. “Like I said, which port?”
“Eleventh damnation if I know. Like I said, both ships sail for Central and either one would do.”
Rhia would try the closer port then, Port Helè. She could only hope it was the right one.
“Thanks, Zhorios.” She made to leave once more.
“Kalieté, young one.” A dual purpose word meaning health and good luck. She’d need all the luck she could get.
Making her way through the swarming crowd, she broke for the woods. Towards home, towards supplies.
“Bad luck for me. Seems I’ve stumbled upon a demon.”
Rhia stopped and turned to see the dreaded Selina, hands on hips. She was all bronze skin and lush, long hair, one side of her skirt’s bottom tucked into her wristband, revealing bare legs and a hint of undergarment. Though they had been classmates, Selina and Rhia were far from friends.
“And what did this demon do this time?” Rhia asked while walking straight past Selina. She didn’t have time for this.
“My boyfriend, Jayson—”
“Jayson eyes every girl. He’s a pig, and my suggestion is that you drop him like Piti dropped that rock on Rev the Giant.”
“Well I—” Selina hesitated before blurting out, “At least everyone isn’t frightened of me. You know, if you aren’t careful, you could turn into a murderer. No one’s forgotten what you’ve done. Do you hear me, taropo?”
Rhia pretended like being called cursed one didn’t sting, but it did. Though she hadn’t ever murdered someone, there had been a few close calls. That’s why she had to leave, to run from the jeers and unkind words. And now was her chance. The tourist ships would fulfill her dream, to see the world and learn if she could be cured, because no matter what she tried, she kept making the same mistakes and causing the same pain.
Rhia tugged at her gloves the whole way home.
Her mother threw another plate at her head. A few gray and black strands of hair escaped from her tight bun.
“Mama, please,” Rhia pleaded.
“You dumped all of our hard earned fish on the side of the road. You deserve worse.”
“But—if you would just let me—”
A string of curses flew through the air, as did another round of plates and silverware, which crashed against the wall behind her. So many clay shards scattered the ground. Rhia sighed and stepped forward, wincing as pottery bit into her bare feet.
A knife this time flew past her and thunked dully into the table to her right. Curse it all, she knew she shouldn’t have left the fish cart behind, sure, but she really didn’t have time to spare. She needed information, and she had to follow the trail while it was still warm. Well, maybe she could have waited until after selling the fish but still.
“I’ll make it up to you, Mama. Truly, I will.”
“And how do you propose you do that?” Her mother glared at her. Her greenish–gray eyes were the same shade as Rhia’s, though instead of bright with mischief, they were bright with fury. And if Rhia were being at all truthful with herself, she knew her mother’s eyes also held drops of hatred, a touch of fear. “Where is your necklace?”
Weeping seas! It never ends.
“There was a thief—”
“An outsider has stolen from you? From the spirits?” Her mother threw up her arms, sending another plate spiraling up and through the air. “My child will bring about the destruction of our family. The curse shall be swift and—”
“Mama, I will retrieve it and…” Rhia took a breath. “Bring back riches for all of us.”
Her mother raised an eyebrow. If there was one thing that never failed to intrigue her mother, it was money.
“I will go to Central and find the necklace as well as our fortune.” When did she decide that? And was she telling the truth?
No… not entirely. She wanted adventure, just like in the fables. She also wanted something else, something much more blasphemous, to be rid of her moon magic forever. Riches were never part of her quest.
“Foolish child. You don’t have the coin.”
“I will make do.”
“Then leave, Rhia myos.” My Rhia. The term of endearment was false and sweet on her mother’s lips. Rhia pushed down the urge to retch. “And don’t come back until you’ve found our fortune.”
Rhia was drenched in rain. She’d been soaked since last night when she had to find a sea cave to sleep in, but she had gotten used to it. At least now it was letting up, bands of rain would come then go. At one point, Rhia thought she’d spotted a rainbow.
But the weather wasn’t the worst of it. Absolutely, not. No, the worst of it was that she now stood, hands on hips, in front of a man that could have passed for a giant. At least four heads taller than Rhia, and covered from neck to ankle in muscles, the man never so much as broke a smile, not even when Rhia had told her best joke. And after he revealed the price of the voyage and Rhia asked if there was another way to board, he grew even more menacing, his cattail eyebrows scrunched together while his lips pressed thin.
Her mother was right; she didn’t have the coin. The cost of fare was at least a third of her family’s annual income. And even if she could sneak aboard, most passengers were of non-island descent, with their wide blue eyes and thin, cracked lips. There would be no hope to blend in.
“Lass, if you don’t have the coin then you don’t get a seat. Besides, aren’t you happy here on your little island? I suggest you take your spirit prayers and superstitions and shuffle on back to your beach hut. Unless, of course, you’re a friend of the captain’s.” The man scratched his red-blonde stubble. “But, I don’t suppose you would be. Not heard of the captain having many friends.”
Rhia ground her teeth, imagining them whittled to nubs after such an intensive grind, and turned to storm down the road, to fume from a safe distance. Fine, she’d just have to find another way onto that sad excuse for a ship. She took another glance at it with its silver-blue paint peeling and its wood rot that crawled up the side. Maybe it was best she wasn’t allowed aboard the cursed vessel. But it was massive and she imagined the sharp, pointed front of it would cut through water like a warmed knife through butter.
Moon Claimed, the birds sang in unison.
Rhia sighed and tried to tune them out. Sure, she had the ability to hear the language of birds but that didn’t mean she wanted to listen to their twittering whenever they spotted a mate or flew too close to a boulder. Or called her Moon Claimed.
Every so often, she’d listened to their melodious, tinkling language and occupy herself with the meaningless drivel of gulls and parrots to pass the time. She just wished they would give her something useful for once, especially now. But all they usually did was acknowledge her as Moon Claimed or speak of berries and fish. It didn’t help how truly simple the creatures and their thoughts were.
Rhia threw up her hands to shoo them away. The birds just cocked their brightly colored heads to the side, their beady eyes empty as the void.
Claimed. Claimed. Claimed, they cawed.
“Shut up,” she screamed, which only succeeded in turning a few heads.
She is moon claimed? A deep, rich voice asked.
Rhia resisted the urge to gasp. This wasn’t the typical, unintelligent chatter of chirpy tones but rather a weighted and educated voice filled with sharp, pointed thoughts that sounded low and hoarse.
Looking around, it didn’t take her long to spot the large black bird perched on a burly, dark-haired man dressed in navy and midnight, colors that complemented the bird’s plumage quite nicely. The strange creature’s eyes were different from any of the island birds. Rather than expressionless and dull, these eyes were intelligent and calculating. The man shifted to pat the bird kindly, almost like one would to comfort a child.
“Captain,” said the man that had barred her from crossing the entrance plank.
Sweet oceans, maybe…
“Sir. Excuse me.” Rhia stumbled up to the one called captain. He turned to see who had dared call upon him. As Rhia came closer, she saw a sword at his waist and the silvery crisscross of scars on his cheek. Rhia couldn’t help but stand speechless before him, before those intense, soul-boring eyes. Eyes that were strangely similar to his pet’s.
The captain paused, glared, waited for… for what exactly?
Speak up, girl. The raven croaked.
“I need aboard your ship,” Rhia demanded. Maybe, just maybe, this simple request would work.
“No.” The man’s answer was tinged in deep cream and coffee. It was rich and lovely to hear and… wait. Rhia jolted, finally comprehending his answer.
“But sir, you don’t understand—”
He walked away from her then, simply faced the plank and stepped forward. He didn’t even look back when answering, “If you have the proper money, fine. If not, leave.”
Sir Raven, please. I need help. It’s imperative that I get aboard your ship.
The raven craned its neck to see her and replied, My ship? Hm, I like the sound of that. And besides, I don’t normally commune with… mortals? Hmm, you interest me, girl. I suppose that’s why I’ll let you in on a little secret. Can you cook?
Rhia scratched her neck before shrugging. She could make traditional Niki stew.
The cook died at sea, a quarrel of some sort with one of the crew members, so we’re in want of one. At the moment, we have one of the deck hands make our meals. Horrid chef. Burns water. If you can manage, you may come aboard.
“I don’t burn water,” Rhia blurted, then immediately caught herself and added, “I mean, I can cook.”
He swiveled to meet her gaze. “Aye?”
She lost her voice again but decided to nod. Much safer. Her last utterance had come out more like a squeak.
“Perkins, let Little Miss join the crew. Get her a cabin. Show her the kitchen after a time.”
Rhia couldn’t help but smile. She’d find that boy, take back her necklace, and discover adventure in Central. But first, spirits help her, she prayed the crew liked Niki stew because that was the only thing she could make.