Chapter Three: Not in this Lifetime

Something glittery caught my eye. Wedged in the cracks of the ancient granite boulder was a small shell, worn thin by time. I picked it up, my fingers carefully brushing the grains of sand from it. A cowrie shell, no bigger than my thumbnail. It had been polished by the winds and water, and gleamed in different, muted colours. Gold and pearl if I turned it this way, turquoise and sienna the other. I tucked it into my string pouch, alongside the cockles I’d dug from the damp sand near the water. Alongside the fish I knew I’d catch tonight, I was content to feast on the small clams.

When the sun set on my fourth day on Dead Man’s Beach, I was feeling the ache of loneliness again. Philben hadn’t come to find me, though he’d surely know I was here. What was keeping him away? His family liked me… perhaps he was on another fishing trip with his father. Whatever the cause, I knew I had to return.

With the cowrie shell I’d found woven into my long hair, I returned to Ta Raman after five days of solitude. Though I knew I should go home, I found myself walking the path to the clifftop temple, to where I could worship the gods of the ocean – in my eyes, the true gods. I wanted to thank them for the days of peace, living comfortably and safely on their shores.

There was no preacher; there hadn’t been since Jakum had died last spring. Laru had taken his place, but worshipped Sarhi, an all encompassing spirit who seemed cruel and dangerous. The Yani temple, with its driftwood beams and beaded curtains, stood abandoned on the cliff high above the beach. I seemed to be the only who tended to it regularly, taking small offerings to the altar and clearing away the ash of old incense. Today, I knelt before the shrine and signed the god’s symbol across my chest. A gust of salt-rich air blew around me, and I closed my eyes, smiling. The gods were with me.

I felt the shell braided into my hair swing forwards, against the pull of the wind. I felt my power rise with it, and fear began to knot in my stomach.

Not here! I didnt want to set the temple ablaze like I’d done with my hut. I wrestled down the magic, tears beginning to brim under my eyelids as my efforts were in vain. The power grew, rising around me, and the peaceful aura of the morning shattered as sparks of pain began to twinge in my stomach.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

I surged to my feet, my heart thundering in my chest. “Philben! You know you shouldn’t scare me!”

He sat down next to me. “What are you going to do, burn me up?”

I shoved him. “You shouldn’t joke about that, Phil.”

“You’ve been away for the last five days, Illy. I didn’t know if I should come and find you.”

“You know I always welcome your company. What’s wrong?”

He turned to me, rising to his knees. “I don’t know how to ask, Ilsa.”

Now I was quite worried. He almost never called me by my name. He’d never had to, to get my attention. I covered his hand with mine. “Phil. You can’t talk to me about anything.”

He withdrew his hand, his cheeks stained red. “Okay, well… we’re about the same age-”

“I’m older.”

“By a month!” Despite my teasing grin, Philben seemed more agitated than ever. “Ilsa, we’re the only two in the village who are even close in age.”

“So?”

He addressed his next comment to the alter in front of us. “So, I think we should announce our intention to marry when we turn eighteen, otherwise your mother will be pressed to find a match for you outside the village.”

His words gushed over me like a wave breaking on the shore. “Our intention to what?”

He turned to me, still unable to meet my eyes. “I don’t want them to send you away, Illy. And with Laru whispering in everyone’s ear… I think it would be safest for us to announce our engagement to marry.”

Hearing the words spoken aloud, I realised they weren’t as new to me as they should’ve been. How long had I been unconsciously considering Phil as a husband?

It made sense. As he said, we were the only two even remotely close in age, and we had no blood relatives; miraculous in a village the size of Ta Raman. Announcing my engagement to him would grant me his status as well, secure in the arms of his family. It would certainly be a relief to Kerul, our headman, though he’d grown spineless and weak since Laru had arrived in town. It was Kerul’s responsibility to find a match for me, and I knew the amount of work that went into arranging a marriage within another village.

“Alright,” I whispered, the sea breeze blowing strands of my hair into my face. “I’ll marry you, Phil.”

He looked up at me for the first time since his arrival at the temple. “Are you sure?”

I raised an eyebrow, trying to look unconcerned. “Well, who else am I going to marry?”

Something lit in his dark eyes, something I’d never seen there before. Deep within, I felt myself respond. It was certain, reassuring. We were creating a bond that could never be broken. We would never be apart.

His arms were around me, pulling me close, and I leant into his embrace. Tucked against his lithe body, I heard him exhale and say in a rush: “I thought you’d leave me, Illy.”

Nestled in his grasp, pressed against his tunic which smelt of smoke and fish, I smiled. “I could never leave you, Phil. Not in this lifetime.”

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Posted in Novellas, the golden empress

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