Chief of the Islands
He was underwater.
But no, that couldn’t be right. He could feel a breeze, not a current.
The earth all around him seemed to be rocking slowly, back and forth. The motion made no sense to him at all until he forced his eyes open and discovered he was lying in someone else’s hammock.
The grass-woven rafters above him were decorated with shells and dried flowers. A salty breeze drifted through the open doorway, and the warm sunlight of mid morning fell through the open doorway.
A moment passed before he put together that he must be on the South Islands. How did he get on the islands…?
Memory jagged through his mind. The syphant. An underwater race. A battle he didn’t win, and Amie Avi, who had apparently thought it best to drag his bleeding form to the islands, of all places, so his humiliation could be complete. This was the exact picture he wished to present to Nari’s father—that of a man who could not win his battles and had to be plucked from the sea like a child by someone stronger and wiser than he. Gray stifled a groan.
“Oh, Shel,” he murmured, staring up at the rafters. “I might have—at last—done something truly terrible.”
Another tendril of warm breeze slid across his skin.
He pushed himself up and, as the hammock swung, glanced down to see what he was wearing. It was less than he anticipated. From his hips to his knees, he was wrapped with orange fabric. It looked to be made of hyssatha, a sea plant that grew in the shallows. He looked like an Islander.
A healer had done fine work putting him back together; all his scars were gone. Gray’s stomach used to be covered with tiny holes left by an encounter with a snarling alchemist in King’s Barrow. Hamal had been the one to piece him back together in that case. He had done an excellent job, save for the skin—the skin always gave Hamal trouble. But now it didn’t matter, for the slate had been wiped clean. Not a single scar remained anywhere on Gray’s stomach.
But the island healer had left the rendeik scars wrapped around Gray’s arm. White lines and pockmarks. When Gray saw them, a smile slid across his lips. A healer from the islands.
The distant blast of a pathal shell wafted through the humidity. He looked up and peered through the doorway, seeing sand, palm trees, and an array of large, brilliant flowers growing in clusters outside the hut. This, all of this, reminded him greatly of the southern beaches of Theraine—all the sand, the breeze that smelled like sea and flowers, the water dancing in the air. This was the sea’s land and the soil knew it.
Easing around in the hammock, he swung his legs over the side until the balls of his feet touched the floorboards. Particles of sand brushed the bottoms of his toes.
As if the entire island had been waiting for Gray to move, a shadow stepped into the radiant light falling across the floor, and Gray lifted his head to see a man standing in the doorway.
The Islander wore the full ceremonial dress of his people. Orange fabric, similar to what Gray wore, wrapped the man’s waist and the upper half of his legs. His black hair hung in ropes down his back, like Nari’s did when she left it loose, and thick white paint covered his face, neck, shoulders, and arms. The man was large; his shoulders filled the doorway, and his face read like a stone.
“E’nethaine,” he said in the language of the sea, a tongue full of salt and life. But even with that one word, Gray could tell the man’s accent was poor; this was not a language to which he was accustomed. “The chief requests your presence on the Plain of Decision.” He paused. It lasted less than a heartbeat. “If this is agreeable to you.”
Gray simply looked at him. What had Amie Avi done? What had she said to them? He straightened slowly in the hammock, his attention arrested by those four words: the Plain of Decision. That did not sound like a place he wished to visit, not now, when all he could offer Nari’s father was words.
The Islander waited.
With a sigh, Gray climbed from the hammock. He adjusted the completely foreign garment that covered him and, only when that was done, followed the Islander out into the sunlight.
The hut where he’d awakened was the only one in the area. It was the only sign of life here at all, which immediately told Gray that the chief had set him apart. Perhaps nothing was meant by the separation, other than the fact that Gray was e’nethaine and therefore held in honor on the islands. But his steps slowed as he scanned the clearing, and he had to work to keep the frown off his face.
Tall, ancient palm trees surrounded the sandy clearing like walls. Gray’s guide, fully silent now that Gray was doing what he wanted, led him down a side path that Gray didn’t see through the trees until they were nearly on top of it. They walked until the smell of salt grew strong. Gray could sense the tug of the water more and more clearly and knew where to look for it as he and the Islander stepped out from under the trees.
This, Gray gathered, was the town. The path widened into a sand-streaked road lined with huts, torga poles, and what he assumed were lampposts, but these were made of wood, with globes of blue glass hanging from the hooks. Through the huts he glimpsed the sea.
The town was wide and large. Yet its main street was empty. This was supposedly the most populated island in the entire chain, yet no one was here. Every hut they passed was vacant.
When the last hut had disappeared behind them, the Islander subtly quickened his pace. The ground began to change; the sand stopped and gave way to dirt, and the path sloped upward where the shadow of the mountain fell across it. Black, jagged stones began to appear in between the palms.
Then the path turned, and Gray suddenly discovered where every member of the town had gathered.
Hundreds of people stood on a long, flat area that afforded an elevated view of the sea. But from one end of the plain to the other, they were like the characters of a painting. No one said a word as Gray and his Islander approached them. The air was eerily still, as if even the breeze didn’t come to this place.
The Islander stepped off the path and walked through the crowd. Gray followed a little more slowly.
This was more than merely “hundreds” of people, as he had first thought; more people sat in the casha trees, and layers of Islanders crouched on the mountain itself and watched from the tops of boulders.
At the far end of the plain, the chief waited with his council.
The man wore the ceremonial crown of the South Islands—a thick circular band made of pearls. His hair was as white as the snow on the slopes, and he was covered from forehead to chest with white paint that didn’t conceal the lines around his eyes and mouth. He was older, much older, than Gray had expected. He looked to be about eighty. Nari was his only daughter, and she obviously had been born much later in his life.
She looked like him. The same eyes. As Gray saw this, something caught in his heart.
A piercing shell blast filled the air, and silence chased away the notes. Gray stopped several paces away from the chief and bowed with the underside of his right wrist held to his forehead, as was custom here.
The chief’s painted shoulders lifted and fell. “E’nethaine,” he said in a voice that sounded much younger than he looked. His accent was superb, like Nari’s. “We know why you have left the water to step upon the land and join us here today.”
And Gray knew who had told him.
The chief’s brows lowered. “We are honored by your request. However—”
A moment passed in stiff silence. Letting out his breath in a long sigh, the chief said in a quieter voice, “We are aware of the desire for legacy among the e’nethaine. Therefore, we will allow you to withdraw your request, for my daughter cannot give you what you seek. She is piadathan. She cannot bear children. Such a union surely would not honor our brothers of the sea, which in turn would not honor the gods.”
The words did not immediately find a place in Gray’s mind. When he did understand what the chief was saying, he stared at the man in surprise. Gray had come this far for that to be the concern? The chief was refusing him—not because of a failing on Gray’s part, but because of Nari and that she couldn’t have children?
Gray had spent weeks considering this moment, and he’d tried to reason through every possible response from the chief: Gray was too old for her, he was e’nethaine, he was unknown, he traveled too much, he gave a poor impression. But he had not anticipated this, that the chief thought his daughter would bring disgrace.
This time, it was Gray who had to pause. He filled his lungs and then breathed out his tension. The movement of air sounded remarkably loud on an island that was quiet and still.
“With your permission, edofan, I do not wish to withdraw my request.”
In the quiet, he heard someone take a breath. One of the many people who crowded here.
“I am aware of the…concern of which you speak, edofan, but it is not a concern to me. It does not matter to me that she cannot give me something that traditionally has been important to my people. She is what I want.”
The chief said nothing.
So Gray cautiously continued. “I am a jeweler, and she has become my goal. I know that you are a jeweler as well and that those words mean something to you. I believe I honor the gods with this union, edofan, for I am only responding to the story they have written for me.”
The chief stared at Gray for a moment that lasted years. Surely it was that long—and the entire time, the chief’s people stood like pillars in the king’s palace, unmoving, without a single intake of air among them.
The chief’s shoulders pulled back. His spine straightened slightly. “Very well, e’nethaine. If that is your wish.” The paint cracked around his mouth as he smiled. “I felt in my bones that Shel Galen would bring wisdom to this case, and I can see that he has. You are welcome here.”
EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, Gray walked up onto the shore of Ra-Faal with the sea dripping off of him and the smell of salt still in his nose. The beach was empty, from east to west. An untouched realm he had chosen on purpose.
But in the end, it was not as untouched as he would have liked.
He was nearly to the tree line when he saw it—a letter pinned to the trunk of a palm, the envelope held in place with a hand knife through its fold. Even from a distance, he recognized the handwriting, the flowing letters spelling out his name along the top of the envelope.
The promised letter of Gannon Dre.
Gray thought about leaving it there.
But then, thinking of Tell, he sighed and trudged up to the tree. Removing the knife, he slid it under the waist of the garment he hoped never to don again, and then opened the envelope and pulled the letter free.
Shel had told him this letter would contain only one word. One single, solitary word, and it did. Shel had been right about something else, too—Gray found this was a word he didn’t mind. He actually smiled as he stood there with the letter in his hand.
(Just kidding. Please visit chapter 24.)
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Copyright notice: © 2019 by Lauren Stinton. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.