Chapter Four: Father

When I returned to eat my evening meal with my mother, she pretended I’d never left. Dinner was eaten in silence around the low table in the middle of our hut, but I caught myself watching her. What would be her reaction to my match with Phil ?

My cheeks burned red as I thought of marrying him. I lowered my gaze to the table, and jumped when someone knocked loudly on the side of the front door. My mother sent a glare in my direction like I’d summoned whoever it was during eating time.

She stood, unfolding like a tall crane. Her legs, taut and strong, marched past me, and she opened the door like one meeting the hangman – her shoulders thrown back and her chin lifted defiantly. She relaxed when Hekam, Philben’s father, stooped to come through the door.

“I’m sorry for disturbing your meal, Hanna,” he told my mother in low, soothing tones. “I wondered if I could speak to your daughter.”

Mother, who’d softened, now threw me a look over her shoulder with narrowed eyes. I scrambled to my feet, ignoring her. Hekam tilted his head outside, and I took great glee in the look on mother’s face when he gently closed the door in her face. We heard her huff with irritation, then stomp away.

Yuri,” I said, inclining my head to him.

He said nothing for a moment. The night was warm and buzzing with insects after the evening rain. The mud under my feet was loamy, and scents of the jungle wrapped around our village like low lying fog. It was one of my favourite times of day.

Then Hekam said, “You plan to marry my son,” and even the wildlife stopped their humming to listen in.

I dropped my eyes to his sandaled feet. My own were bare, and I crossed one over the other, leaving a smear of dark mud against my skin. “Yes, yuri.”

“I want to discuss with you before the announcement. You’ll join me on the water tomorrow, first light.”

My breath caught in my throat. Traditionally, only fathers could take their daughters out on the sea for the first time. Mother had never taken me, almost as punishment for my father disappearing headlong into the jungle at the first sniff of responsibility. I coloured for the second time in moments. “Of course.” I bowed a little deeper this time.

When I entered the hut again, I was practically glowing. Naturally suspicous, my mother plied me with questions, but I gave her nothing and savoured her frustration.

Something roiled darkly in my stomach .

~

The next day dawned bright and fresh. I slipped out of our hut as soon as the first slivers of pale light fell across the village, and when the yellow sun peaked above the horizon, I awaited my new father on the beach. I wore my best skirt, which trailed to the sand and lifted in the slight breeze, and a one-shouldered top that left my flat stomach bare to the elements. I’d even wound and twisted my unruly hair into a heavy bun that sat at the nape of my neck, decorated with a coran flower, whose fragrance hovered around me like perfume. The waxy, white and gold petals stood out against my dark hair and bronze skin.

Usually, this would’ve been a day of ceremony. The entire village would’ve stood on the shores of our bay to watch me climb into a slender boat for the first time. My father would’ve beamed with pride as they accepted me as a nita – a full grown woman.

Unexpectedly, anger shifted through my stomach at the unseen man who’d robbed me of so much before I could walk. Waves wrapped around my ankles, comforting and caressing. I let my shoulders fall with a sigh and turned my face to the pale blue sky. It was going to be a gorgeous day.

“You rise early – good.” Hekam’s voice soared across the sand to me, and I waited anxiously. Idly, I wondered if this whole morning would be him judging my every move, and then decided I didn’t care.

I helped him push the boat from the sand, then jumped neatly on board. I crouched low as Hekam raised the main sail and the eastern winds filled it eagerly. Now we skipped along the waves, the spray dampening my skin and flecking it with salt crystals.

My first breath on the sea filled me with fire. Crawling to the front of the boat, I knelt on the low prow and let both hands dangle in the water either side of the point. Small waves widened and grew, and my fingers tingled. When I looked up, the expanse took me by surprise. We were leaving the Ta Raman bay, to the unseen waters beyond. I knew what was out here; I’d read the maps as though they could possibly compare with actually being on the sea.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” Hekam said behind me, and I spun to face him.

“It is beautiful,” I gushed.  “More than I could’ve imagined.”

Teal waves rose and fell under us, and when the sun shone down, I could see the seafloor. It rippled and wobbled, looking as though it was within touching distance. Like my hands would brush the silky sand if I leant over far enough. I looked back at Ta Raman, taken by surprise at how large our village really was. The jungle fringed the small buildings, but our pier and town hall was easily visible, even from this distance. The bluff hid Dead Man’s Bay from view, and downy clouds wrapped around the green mountain that loomed above our village.

“You get to see this every day, and you still come home?” I asked softly as the wind stirred my hair.

Hakem laughed gently. “I have a fine wife and son to come home to. But sometimes it is hard.”

I sat in the prow with my legs crossed. He had sat on the bench below the main sail, and I knew the time for our talk had arrived.

“Ilsa-nita. I want to tell you of your father.”

Shock hollowed me from the centre, then molten anger rushed to fill the void. I coloured. “I don’t want to hear about him.”

Hekam wasn’t fazed by my rough tone. “You must. Hanna will never tell you the truth – she hopes that by leaving it unsaid, it’ll change what you are. But I know, and Philben knows, that that can never be.” He waited a beat and then said the raw words. “You are a mage, Ilsa.”

I clenched my fists, but said nothing.

“You are a mage, and your father was a mage. Probably his father, too. He is Lotherian – that much Hanna would tell us. When you were small, she wanted to send you to Lotheria as well.”

“I wish she had,” I said harshly, then looked away. Waves lapped at the boat, the gentle plink plunk calming me. “I mean, in Lotheria, I could learn… how…”

“To control your power,” Hekam finished for me. “We realise. Philben told me he wanted to ask for your hand, and I wondered the same thing. Would you ever want to go there? To find him? Know that if you are unsure, I can not allow you to marry my son.”

I cast a glance out over the water, the sea that had bordered my life since I could remember. Ta Raman waited behind us, etched into the landscape like stone. I thought of going to a strange land, with stange people, trying to find a man who never wanted me. When I looked to Hekam again, I saw a father who was trying. A man who’d brought me to the seas to claim me as his daughter.

I thought of Philben, with his dark smile and laughing eyes, the strong arms that he’d wrapped around me and the safety he’d provided. I closed my eyes and smiled warmly.

“No,” I said finally. “I want Phil. Forever.”

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Posted in Novellas, the golden empress

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