Chapter One: Ta Raman

Silver flashed in the midday sun. I remained crouched on the rocks, my muscles complaining after being in the same position for so long. Tendrils of long dark hair swept in front of my eyes and the fish I’d been pursuing darted away, scared by the movement.

“Argh!” I smacked my hand against the water, my reflection rippling. “Gods curse it!”

My companion sighed. “Just because you lost your fish doesn’t mean you have to ruin it for the rest of us, Ilsa.”

My temper, which had been ebbing away, now coursed back and I stood, making Philben squint up at me. “Where are you going?”

“Back. I’m hungry.”

“Well so am I – even more so now that you scared off my dinner!”

I gestured rudely in his direction and began to head back to our village, stooping to pick up the string bag my mother had gifted me on my sixteenth birthday. Slinging it over my rough-hewn tunic, I started the long walk back, hardly feeling the sharp stones beneath my bare feet.

The sun soared overhead, warming my skin quickly. I was already regretting my decision to return, knowing how much cooler it would have been next to the water. I tied my hair back, my shoulders glistening with sweat.

Coming to the top of a small rise, I paused for a moment to examine my village below. Made up of a few dozen different huts, and even a town hall made from stone and mortar, the community huddled together in the heat. From this elevation, I could see figures scurrying about on the beach, some hauling in nets, others splashing in the shallows. Out to sea, I could see several dark blots – the only evidence of our fishermen out for the day. I grinned, knowing my mother would still be absent. She wouldn’t return until the last boat had come in.

I hurried down the path and into the tangle of jungle, desperate to get out of the heat. Salt glittered on my tawny skin, which had deepened to a rich brown under the summer sun. My long black hair brushed against my skin, instantly annoying me again. How I wished I could cut it off! My mother had taken to brushing it nightly, saying that young girls should have long hair to attract a husband.

Even just recalling the memory, I barked a laugh, scaring a small monkey back up a tree. I watched it disappear into the leafy tops, catching a glimpse of other monkeys swinging back and forth, their forms silhouetted against the bright sky. I listened to their chatter as I meandered along the path. Amongst the tangled trees, the sunbeams couldn’t reach me, dappling on the leaf litter underfoot instead.

Though I couldn’t see the ocean, I could smell it. The salty tang of seaweed wafted on the breeze and without thought, I broke into a jog. I never liked being out of sight of the sea – something in me, something primal and deep, rebelled against the idea of being inland. I was never truly at peace until I was standing amongst the waves.

Ta Raman, my village, might be small and cloying at times, but I knew I could never leave it. I’d been born on its shores, learnt to swim on its beaches. I’d grown up alongside Philben – of all the reasons I couldn’t leave Ta Raman, he was the biggest, the most important. He’d never survive without me.

“Ilsa, wait up, would you?”

I grinned but didn’t turn around. It was as though my thoughts had summoned him. I pretended to ignore him until he caught up, huffing and puffing, sweaty but elated for some reason. It became clear why when he dangled a fat silver fish in front of me.

“Where’d you get that from?” I asked indignantly.

He grinned, wrapping the fish in a large waxy leaf and returning it to his satchel. “Turns out without you around to scare off everything aquatic within two leagues, I’m an okay spearman.”

I shoved him playfully. He staggered off the path, pretending my blow had had more force behind it. “Well, I was going to give you one of the fish but now…”

We emerged on the outskirts of the village. The shadows of the jungle reached the nearest huts, sheltering them from the sun. The settlement was basically deserted; everyone had places to be when it wasn’t raining. I glanced up at the sky, calculating how long we had until the rains came. In the summer, they fell as regularly as the sun came up. We’d always known when the rains were going to be falling, so we could have our work completed and our boats docked when the weather turned foul.

“Coupla hours,” Philben commented, squinting at the azure sky. His hair was longer than most of the boys’ in our village and flopped into his dark eyes. His locks were iced with silvery salt flecks, just like mine – evidence of our swim earlier in the day. “Whatcha reckon, Ilsa? Time for another dip after we gut these things?”

My grin was the only answer he needed. With our sharp filleting knives, we set to work on the fish, hanging them on lines over a smoky fire when we were done. My stomach growled at the smell of cooking fish, but my thoughts had already turned to the water.

We trotted down the path to the beach, passing several villagers who were busy with their own fish or crafts. Grains of sand pushed between my toes, and I dumped my string bag on a mound of seaweed and dashed towards the waves. I was barely knee-deep in the foam before I flung myself into the water. Under the surface, sound was muffled, the water stirring with silt as waves passed overhead. I struck out in a long stroke, seeing how far I could travel underwater before I was forced to return to the surface. I did so with a grin, coming up next to our wooden dock. One of the fishermen had returned early, and eyed me off as he coiled rope.

“I reckon you were swimming before you were born, Ilsa-gais.” Netku said, his stern face creased into a frown.

“Haven’t you heard?” Philben asked innocently, paddling alongside me. “Her father was an Ularair. It explains her slippery nature, especially when asked to do chores.”

I pounced on my friend, forcing him under. He came back up spluttering and wailing, pretending I’d half-drowned him, but he was a better swimmer than even I was.

“I’m not half-Ularair,” I couldn’t help protest, though I knew it was a jab. “Water serpents don’t exist, Philben.”

“They do. I heard some of the fishermen talking about seeing one off the coast, in the Dua Shoals.”

“Is that true, Netku?” I turned back to the man on the docks, my hair swirling around me like ink. “But there’s no such thing as an Ularair, right?”

“You should be a storyteller, son.” Netku hoisted a basket full of fish onto his shoulder. “No, Ilsa-gais. There’s no such thing as an Ularair.”

“Why does Netku call you ‘girl’?” Philben asked curiously, as the older man walked back towards town. “Everyone else calls you ‘nita’ now that you’re sixteen.”

I shrugged, not wanting to answer. I’d always suspected that Netku hadn’t liked me much, even less than everyone else; a thought that had only been reinforced when Laru, the new preacher, had taken up residence in the old cottage. Supposedly, we had new gods to worship, and Laru had gotten right to work, finding out everything about each individual townsperson. He’d immediately disliked me, as though a lack of a father was my fault. My mother had flown off the handle when she’d found out that he was focussing on me, but Laru’s work was done. The town remembered my… differences with vehemence.

No, I didn’t haven’t a father. He’d left before I was born. I’d been brought up under the stern hand of my mother, until I was a model village girl. It wasn’t until I reached my teen years that I discovered no matter how perfect I was, how well behaved, I would never be a favourite of the villagers.

Oh, they treated me well enough. Eventually some of them managed to see past their prejudice and became my friend. But all the kindness in the world couldn’t erase my memories of early childhood. There would always be a stigma about me, and I knew that if anyone discovered the secret my mother had sworn me to, it would only become worse.

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Posted in Novellas, the golden empress

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