(TYIP) Protea

There was a giant white crocodile suspended on the ceiling.

“Goddammit,” he hissed after it’d made him jump. His violent intent to beat the shit out of the captain was disrupted by a crocodile lamp.

He’d received a letter inviting him to ‘Enjoy the night’ in a godforsaken tavern hidden in the backwaters of the moors, far enough that the chaos wreaked by the arrival of pirates went unheard. He was keenly familiar with the ambience, the loud laughter and the constant tension of fights brewing, threatening to erupt; it was air that invited dirty secrets to come to surface, along with indecency and the general absence of basic human integrity.

But he was familiar for the wrong reasons, how he stood on the other end of the law. He’d chased countless criminals in this setting or around it, vagrants smelling of piss in fetid alleyways, and pirates who’d just docked to drink and raid the businesses of poor old vendors.

Hyder kept an eye out for the owner, looking for a cowering old man or a tavern wench who looked like she could snap his neck. But when he found her she was a young, sweet thing, who, to his surprise, seemed a good friend of the entire crew. With her light steps around little round stools and the too-big men on them, effortlessly navigating dangerous waters with a tray full of drinks, it was easy to tell she had memorized their poisons by heart and served them unprompted.

She approached Hyder, doe-eyed and her lips like petals. “Haven’t seen you before,” the barmaid said, brightly. “New recruit? Never too late to be a deckhand, huh?”

“I suppose not,” he responded, desolate. What else could he tell her? The truth? That he was a Captain in the Navy with ships and men to his name, upholding a role in command of the sea and maritime security, held currently against his will by pirates using a girl he secretly raised as leverage? On top of which he was sick to his stomach with worry over said girl, and that itself was a problem, seeing as he’d already thrown up once into this pirate captain’s face after he got squeamish thinking of how two of his fingers were crushed while he was getting sacked? Should he just ask her about the crocodile?

“Can I fetch you anything?” The barmaid asked, dragging him back to the din under her roof. In response he shook his head and thanked her; he needed all the wits he could muster if he was to attack tonight.

Rigel, captain of the crew that filled the tavern was man whose notoriety traveled seas ahead of him, and whose arrogance was not suited for a man of his size. When Hyder had met him first, Rigel’s tunic had been stained with blood, and so were his breeches and the black leather boots he strode so proudly in. He had left behind red footsteps behind him. “Sorry for the wait,” he’d said. “I was humoring my other guest. For information, of course. I’m not cruel.”

He’d feared it’d be Willow, that guest, but it wasn’t. The screams of a man had filled up the galley beforehand, and afterwards Hyde was taken to see Will. She hadn’t been crying before he went in, but she broke into tiny sobs when she saw him— then burst wailing, but he wasn’t released to break her out of that secluded room, and it shattered him how helpless he was. “I won’t hurt her,” Rigel had said later. “She’s of no use to me dead.”

The bastard, with that audacity he threw in his wake was playing cards while a long-haired girl leaned onto his bony shoulder (‘I’ll get to you as soon as I kick these bastards’ asses,’ he had said to Hyder when he saw him enter the bar. The crew cheerfully responded to that, “Oh, you’ll be waiting for a long time, Doc, Cap never wins shit.’)

He’d left Hyder uncuffed, bound to the crew with nothing but his adopted kid, Willow, held captive. They even let him keep a weapon. A brass display of underestimation, he thought while wrapping his fingers around the hilt of the dagger at his belt. But Gal, Rigel’s right-hand man and the only true raw strength protecting the captain, was nowhere to be seen now. It made Rigel as vulnerable as he could be; distracted with a game and a pretty girl in a pale yellow dress. His guard was down, Hyde could tell from the way he bit the tobacco roll between his teeth, a tiny smile tugging at the scarred corner of his lips as he contemplated his next move.

Hyde looked at his reflection on the blade, contorted and made into a monster. Though in truth he didn’t look much better, his eyes deep in their sockets and his face gaunt; but he didn’t even look as horrible as he felt. His dominant index and middle fingers had both been broken during the crew’s first attack, when they mauled him then hurled him at their captain’s feet. That runt was barely bigger than the girl by his side— the knife Hyde had in his palm was more than enough to penetrate straight to his heart if it were pushed right, and dismember him afterwards. With his knowledge of the human body, it wouldn’t take much, he thought. He was a surgeon before everything, had studied anatomy through and through, knew every tendon and every ligament, every point of a man’s body that could kill him. He’d known it all before he was trained to wield a sword, and before the insignia on his uniform gave him his rank. He could tear this bastard limb from limb with a pair of scissors from a suture kit.

But he wasn’t going to. He only planned to turn the tables, take the captain as leverage and force the crew to give his girl back; that was all.

The dimming light glossing over wooden planks made the air warm and pleasant, and in any other circumstance (and in the absence of the crocodile), Hyde would’ve found a comfort in it, that din and the scent of polished hardwood; it reminded him of his childhood and something long forgotten in it. It made him want to sleep.

Before he drew his next breath, he heard the chime of steel meeting its kind. He’d darted and pounced atop the round table, knocking glasses to the floors and the breath out of the girl’s chest. Cards fluttered around him to the floor, then for a second, all else made no sound.

Rigel had drawn his sword, partially, only to block the tip of the dagger coming his way. From where he crouched, Hyde could see the eyes behind the blade, something otherworldly or wild, serpentine in its yellows and green. “You bastard,” he heard, whispered from beneath him. “And I was finally winning.”

Then he unsheathed his weapon, fully.

The force had Hyde instinctively recoil, kicking his foot firmly on the edge of the table and drawing back. They had the attention of everyone in the tavern by now. He blew it, he thought. The crew will interfere soon.

But all he wanted was to take his Will and get the hell out of here, wash up and go to bed. He’d bet all he had on that first strike, and it got blocked by the half-pint.

Hyde took a defensive stance, the knife pointing towards the opponent staggering his way. But in a beat Rigel was sprinting, sure-footed and swift, until their blades met again, the clink louder this time as two forces collide, opposing.

Hyde dropped to avoid the attack— did this kid want him killed? In the midst of strikes and parrying, his mind wandered to that first meeting, when Rigel had made what he sought clear. ‘Be my eyes and ears’ he’d told him, with no reserve. ‘Betray the Crown.’

His words had come as unbridled as his strikes. ‘How would I be your eyes and ears if you end up killing me?’ Hyde lamented, dumbfounded. He could hold his ground, but Rigel’s feet were all but planted in the planks, sea-legs accustomed to duels on water, and movements fluid and decisive.

Rigel attacked, his blade drawing a clear arch above Hyde’s head. Lower down, Hyde finally found an opening. He drove the pommel of his weapon into Rigel’s stomach and felt it hit his hipbone, pulled the dagger back in a blink, and thrust it into Rigel’s gut this time, harshly.

Rigel toppled forward, but his sword was still in his grip. Hyde was vaguely aware of a betting pool forming around them, and as Hyde reached down to seize Rigel, finally..

He felt the impact on his shin, a kick that had him grit his teeth in pain as he fell to the ground. In the second it took him to rise to his feet, he heard Rigel hissing to his crew, “You shits are betting against me?!”

“He’s a big shot in the Navy, Cap,” one of them said, laughing.

Rigel grunted something with the crude gesture he raised to the men behind him. “No choice now,” he said, pointing his sword towards Hyde again like the duel started anew. “I can’t have my own men look down on me”

How cocky.

Hyder looked down to his feet; he was a big shot in the Navy, but he’d rusted after being shackled behind his desk for so long, a pile of documents growing by his side, waiting to be signed. Ignoring the protests of his joints, he pointed his own blade towards his opponent, and watched as a small grin stretched along his lips; if he’s in this neck-deep, he might as well enjoy it.

Two swift strides ate the distance between them, and Hyde crouched seeing Rigel’s sword come for his neck. Shoving a breath past his teeth, he pressed his entire weight on the point where their swords met, sending Rigel sprawling on his ass; but then he was up again in seconds, striking like he knew how— fiercely, and without reserve.

The roar of the blades filled the tavern to its brim and mingled with the cheer of the crowd, looking after their bets. He felt his shirtsleeves clinging to his back, and the trickle of sweat down his brow.

And then it hit him.

‘No,’ he thought, his eyes opening to the truth, bound by a piece of cloth and the air of authority. He was blind to it by choice, but it all made sense, too much sense. Rigel’s palm was splayed flat behind the pommel while his dominant hand was wrapped around the hilt, firmly driving it forward. He really was coming for the kill; and distraction meant Hyde’s end, but he couldn’t stop his mind from spiraling, repeating all the little instances of the past two or three months when he found himself staring at this Captain, considering his size and his slender forearms and his narrow frame and his choice of weapon; a short sword, a small, deadly thing— just like him.

No.

Wait. Wait.

But he didn’t, not for a second. His sword spun on the apex of his wrists, then hit the back of Hyde’s hand. Hyde’s weapon shot to the planks with a loud clank.

Rigel sneered, trapping him between himself and the wall behind, and when Hyde grabbed his collar to defend himself, he was kneed between the legs. Hard.

The pain sent him sliding down the wall with a grunt, and, “Yield,” Rigel said, triumphant, holding him by the collar like it was payback, and placing the tip of his sword beneath Hyder’s chin.

God.

Rigel was so close Hyde’s voice caught in his throat, the tips of their noses almost touching — he drew a shuddering breath, and tried to avoid looking straight towards the scars between them, under Rigel’s white tunic, three ragged lines starting below his collarbones and disappearing into the bindings. Hyde wasn’t sure why right then he was reminded of the morning after a storm at sea, that unbelievable stillness and the first breath of relief. He was tortured with it, some longing or pain, and what was it that dropped his heart so desperately, reaching out for something he didn’t know. It was the booze, he decided, that made light look like this on Rigel’s scars, that made him tremble with the need to touch them. It fucked him up, and he couldn’t help but direct his eyes towards the ceiling.

He knew it somewhere inside him, that he’d seen Rigel before, amidst fire and carnage and death; Rigel’s head was shaved then, and his bony body was barely covered with rags. He remembered the scars; how could he possibly forget the hands that placed the tiny red-haired Willow into his own, then pointed at a dead body nearby; a woman with hair like fire.

“Because you’re a woman?” Hyde hissed, defiantly. He waited for a reaction of shock or offense. He knew, after all, and he could very well announce it to the world, that the pirate that turned it on its head was a woman. “Or because you kicked me in the groin?” Hyde continued.

“Because I have a sword at your neck.” Then, once more, and more fiercely this time, “Yield.” It was the only word said loud enough for the crew to hear.

“Make me,” he challenged, rashly, like a man much younger than he was, like he hadn’t seen as much of the world, like the exhilaration was worth living for.

But then she did. She made him yield— crushed her lips onto his, caught his breath and his entirety and closed her eyes in reckless abandon, and she smelled of the sea and gunpowder and something like ink. Soft, he thought, like it was criminal— how did she feel so soft? This pirate who was all shards and anger and sharp edges, leaving him stupefied like he had turned back into a boy, unsure of where to put his hands. Push her back by the collar he had in his grip? Slide to the rounds of her shoulders to draw her nearer, then sink into it?

What?

Then it ended as fast as it started, with him left breathless and overcome on the floor and their audience ignorant of what had happened. “What?” Rigel asked, hunching overhead. She was so close he could count the scars on her face, pale ridges and curves against her lips and down her collarbones. “Never been kissed by a pretty girl before?”

(Later when what sat between them was no longer malice and hungry rage, after he’s seen all of her— burned off the secrets on her back with iron and fire, and called her real name— she tells him about every scar and ragged old wound, and shudders when he touches the lines on her neck like they hurt still. Then she closes her eyes, eyelids heavy with burdens and memories of crueler things, not wanting to see his expression for fear that it would be disgust or pity. “Hey,” he starts, but she only responds with a sigh, and by then he’s learned how happiness truly looks on her, and how anger does, too, and other things. By then he’s run his fingers across her ribs enough times to know by heart which ones haven’t properly mended after being broken in her past, and how the curve of her ribcage fits in his palms, but her eyes don’t part until he reminds her of that night. “You know,” he tells her, lightly. “Those scars were the last thing I saw before a pirate once kissed me. She was so pretty my legs buckled.”)

What?” Someone from the crew asked, disappointed and not bothering to hide it. “Cap won?”

“Hah!” She exclaimed, gloating. “Serves you bastards right.”

While coins were begrudgingly passed around, Gal barged through the batwing doors, leaving them creaking as the clatter quieted down. His imposing presence was acknowledged thoroughly, and the brows above his deep-set silver eyes were drawn together. “What the hell?”

“Cap got into his first bar fight,” said one crew member. “And won, somehow. Or at least it looks like it.”

“Gal,” Rigel called. “Your shitty crewmates bet against me, their own captain.”

Gal picked Hyder’s dagger up and flung it towards his captain. “I would’ve done the same,” he said, a scoff following his words.

“Saved your coins then.” Rigel bent down again towards Hyder, her presence fierce as she handed him back his weapon. “No one hears of this,” she told him, about the kiss or her secret, he couldn’t tell. He nodded to his own surprise, not hers, and then she laughed. As she headed to the dark staircase, “Oh, my darling scalawags,” she announced to her crew. “This’ll teach you to trust me a little more. And sorry for the mess, Eli. The boys’ll take care of it,” she told the barmaid.

(The crew had their protests, though. “Take care of it yourself, Cap,” they laughed. But when the owner fluttered her eyelashes and asked, “Won’t you?”

“Of course we will!” They exclaimed, and got to work.)

A large arm extended towards him. “Get up, Doc, Rigel’s going to be waiting,” Gal said. “We’ve got government secrets to discuss.”

He looked again at the crocodile, no longer the most absurd thing of the night. This crew had a nickname for him, and they called him by it like he hadn’t spent the evening trying to kill their captain, like they were friends.

He’d just become Doc.

Flower prompt: Protea — transformation, courage

A/Notes: The croc lamp was a gift from Rigel. She thought it was cute.

(TYIP) Hibiscus

One time I wrote a story about a woman with steadfast eyes, a surgeon whose little island saw pirate flags approaching and closed upon itself, held its breath.

My girl left her little house, though, when she was called to the ship to treat an illness that was eating away at the crew. I wrote her amputating a man’s leg because she saw no other choice, then I wrote her watching, with an enduring heart, her husband slowly dying.

That story sits abandoned in my drafts, an old, dusty thing— descriptions of island plants and thatched roofs, of an unlikely affinity growing between a criminal and a doctor. I went back to it when I meant to write about hibiscus flowers and what they signify, and found that I’d written my doctor as the embodiment of that flower with no inhibitions. I wrote delicate beauty literally; deft hands and a tender appearance, but a roaring heart in her still. It sounds as though it will shatter, that beauty, but I see it as a fleeting thing, something hopelessly alluring but unafraid to leave; and even if it weakens and withers and dies, it remains tethered to you, like a single gentle breeze on a sweltering day.

Anyway, it’s a waste to leave it unread forever, so here’s a relevant little piece of it:

“Nothing about the affair was effortless, but he could see it, the efficiency of a doctor, comparable to the best naval surgeon he’d seen, mapping the joint and finding the last of the broils, and the first motion and the blood, and other than his first mate tying the limb tight and holding its owner up, she had no hands to assist, none to wipe the sweat beading on her brow.”

(Really, will I ever stop writing about women being so fierce, so fearless? I don’t think so.)

Flower prompt: Hibiscus— delicate beauty, glory, immortality.

Short Story: warmth of time

The fluorescence light above flickered, pushing me to an edge I never knew existed.

It pressed me down into the illusion of solitude. It was all white, all white, the sheets and the beds and the walls. My fingertips were pale; stripped of warmth and color and all that would render them human.

I was cold and dying.

I bore a distorted truth, the sense of time and the lie of its shapeshifting. I never sunk into its rhythm, because it is a distasteful thing to have a clock ticking away at the side of a dying patient. The ticking I heard had always been a fragment of my imagination, because time stretches painfully when you’re cold.

Nights were especially long and quiet. They sent me into panic; the definite end that they hold threatened me and what little I had left. I broke into cold sweat when it happened, and felt my body come apart at the seams. I wanted to be released and contained all at once.

But then mornings came, and I heard her laugh across the hall sometimes. It filled the void that the night spent the minutes carving out of me. She was the sun, unapologetically barging into my life with a bustling warmth almost visible around her. She wore white, too, but her skin was dark and rich, a calm contrast to the dull ache that pressed on to me.

Our encounters were all in the company of needles and IV drips. Maybe, I made a drug-induced confession. Maybe I told her how much I feared the tick-tocks in my head, or how much I wanted to see her hair big like she would wear it outside the hospital, or how unfairly fast time passed when her work ethics allowed her to give the convict more warmth than she did her other patients, whose families would give all the warmth they needed, because there was no cold like the cold of hearing muffled voices of laughter and encouragement walls away when you’re withering in seclusion. Maybe I told her that she was a beautiful beginning following the end that crept closer every night, that I was sorry for all that I’d done, that I would give anything for another chance. Maybe I told her that she was the sun, because she spared me a second after her shift once, where she wasn’t putting things in my body or taking things out, and she smiled, not like she always did, because it looked so true and a little sad. It looked like dawn.

And maybe this is the end, because it is so warm I can’t stand it, and it’s everything I’d ever wanted. Time is stretching languidly, and I have nothing to do but to bask and let it seep through me until every piece of me is enclosed in it. I’ll bask until the day is done.

Constellations

They call me the Woodwose.

But they know that I am the forest; I am the canopies and the wind and the soil underneath. I have been, ever since I inhabited its heart long ago, and settled in another still, in the heart of the Great Tree.

“I have come,” she says in a voice far too large for her frame, “to purge you, fiend!”

To that I sigh, and pay no thought to the years that the exhale holds. I have heard it a thousand times, from kings and knights and furious farmers alike. I’ve made their water and their wealth mine, and so have I their harvest and lands.

Their yield is poor this year. Not the fault of rainfall or the sun, but mine. I grow more able to bring suffering upon them, season by season.

Her father owns a nearby land, she says. Her anger is understandable, but she’s a fragile thing. A girl in her homespun skirts and flimsy limbs, with golden hair curiously chopped to her nape. Strange things they are, humans, that a fortnight of starvation could kill them, and yet they defy, and yet they dare.

She comes with a spade, and it becomes clear that no sorcery could flow from those fingertips. She fails on the first day, and she fails on the second. On the third, I ask why, thinking that it’s a redundant thing; because she’s a farmer’s daughter, and I make their crops suffer.

“To be granted knighthood.”

And my belief in the limits of foolishness disappears. It wasn’t a very strong belief to begin with, not with her futile efforts at my sides, digging at roots that recover in instants.

Being a farmer’s daughter isn’t completely irrelevant, I learn on the fourth day, because her mother died. They couldn’t provide what she’d needed; I’d taken their yield. On the fifth, she cries and I can’t distinguish tears from the sweat running down her cheeks, and it’s the bitter, furious kind because she’s miserable and a little broken. On the sixth day, she learns that I forgot the sight of the sky; and on the seventh, I learn that she can chart it.

Days pass, and she brings apples with her sometimes. When she allows herself to rest, she braids flowers into crowns. It grows, that hair, but so do my roots, back into the dirt where they belong. Soon I learn her name, and Constance watches as her efforts become vain.

She listens when I scoff and tell the tales of her predecessors. Sometimes she laughs too, at the knight who promised the heart of the tree but fled when it talked, and the old king who led his men to where the horses wouldn’t follow, and tripped into the river while he hailed his call.

When I ask if she’s searching for my weakness in their stories, “Perhaps I am,” she cheekily says. But no, and although I am incapable of emotions beyond sins, no tenderness to be offered to humans, I can see it; that earnestness in eyes that should be set on horizons.

“Find my virtues,” I tell her after months she spends visiting, the secret of uprooting the heart of the woods. Seven, scattered across lands and seas far beyond her little village. It intrigues her, and she asks where, not how. And it is a little charming how willful the weaker beings can sometimes be. At least she, whose eyes bear something I can’t read, when she’s told in which scorching desert my Patience I’d left, and in the depth of which sea my Honesty dwells, and how high the mountain that holds my Humility is.

Then they call for her and she heeds. She leaves on a ship, and the wind brings back news of her when he can. She disembarks, and she finds her first companion, a small monkey, on a strange land I must have journeyed during my old life. It wasn’t so robust then.

She spends the year away, guided by voices and the stars. My virtues are gently awakened throughout, but I can’t possess them yet. She is captured and put to suffering for stealing my Sincerity from a land that honored it far beyond its worth, then she escapes unaided. The wind tells me she finds another companion, a boy, and is taught the way of the sword. Beasts become less frightening, and her sobs more courageous and sparse.

Her laughter comes in abundance, and the freckles on the bridge of her nose become more defined by the sun. She struggles still, against mountains of snow and ice and furious skies. But Constance grows and flourishes and takes the world by a storm.

I hear her curiosity finds ways to discover me, and seas away my secrets unravel in old myths and tales of havoc. She knows that I once had the freedom she seeks, and that I exploited it. I raged and plundered; I remorselessly sinned until that heart was spoiled beyond the capacity of a body to contain.

I begin losing myself, perhaps as she finds me elsewhere. I grow weaker in the entirety of my existence. Their crops prosper and her father writes and sends birds with joy. It appears that it soon would be gone, my vision, but it doesn’t shake me, because the wind sometimes carries her voice, but never the sight of her.

She’s carrying trinkets in the palms of her hands when she returns. Seven of them; little, old things that gleam even in the dead of the night, even to eyes that could see nothing else. I’ve become too weak for the year she spent away to feel as insignificant as it should.

She cries again, and it’s a headache how much she does. “Why have you withered away,” she says, her voice barely wrapped around a sob. “We had an agreement, I was meant to purge you.”

I lie and tell her that it was because she found my virtues that I began dying, but she only weeps harder. “But I have many stories to tell,” she says, and a number of them are about me; small, lost pieces of a past. “You’re not meant to just die yet.”

But I am; because finding my virtues wouldn’t take me, but my own desire to leave would. To leave the tree that took me in when the rest of the world refused is how I am made to die.

She tells her tales as I disintegrate. The bark that kept me for centuries falls apart in the circle of her arms, and the roots that held me dissolved beneath her feet. “Stop crying, you fool,” I say, and it’s met by a mess of small laughs and sobs and persevering stories.

“You never told me your Kindness was swallowed by a Kraken. That took a whole crew of pirates to retrieve, and another band of outlaws, too. And a massive carnivorous flower was guarding your Tolerance! I almost decided you could live without it at that sight.”

The Tree vanishes along with all the sorcery that rooted the forest. I feel it in me that it remains behind unchanged, and it could recover and grow without my notoriety keeping it in place. I have lived a burden, and remorse finds its way into me unprompted by the waiting virtues now scattered around her. Her stories are rushed and desperate, and so are her breaths. She breaks a little farther when my past as a human tumbles down her lips. She tells me that she knows and she says it again, that she knows and she knows, and she never says what it is. But it resonates in my body, every piece of the past she unraveled and willfully discovered, that left me with only envy and wrath. I feel it in the form that I undertook, and whether I am a beast or the human I’d once been I don’t know. But I am weaker than I’ve ever been, and even Pride can’t hold me upright against it. My head is cradled in her lap, on the harsh fabric of her breeches. And my eyes are gone, but she shifts me so they’re looking up. Constance pours Benevolence on them, and, “Open your eyes,” she says, “Look at the sky, Woodwose, isn’t it beautiful?”

My sky is green-eyed and freckled.

“That, she is,” I say, slipping away under her tears, “That she is.”


Notes

100-word story: lo mein

“Grab some Chinese take-out on your way home, would you?”

“You should’ve taken this job if you wanted to eat out, love,” I tell her, and hear her softly laugh through the device in my ear – the voice I sleep and wake up to.

“In paper boxes, please!”

She’s in the same line of work, my partner-in-crime (or against it), and my endearingly insufferable wife.

My breathing is steady, and the din of the city quiets down. I tug between a heartbeat and the next, one silent bullet through the brains of some corrupt politician. A job done. Dinner time.

Constellations Part 2: The Heroine

The hands that had spread maps before me and dotted them like the night sky now cradled my face, rough and dry and wearing away by age. They held worry and an odd form of pride when too little time was between us and the beginning of my journey.

I have yet to find anything as comforting as the warmth of my father’s hands that night.

He pressed his lips to my brow, and his frame was still as large as it’d been, refusing to bend down to age just yet. He was readily graying, though, and I’d given him grief for it. His eyes crinkled at the sides, lines much deeper than they were many springs ago. I thought it was clear why age had suddenly shown its weight on him. It had started once Mother got sick.

What took her was acute. It spared us no time to come to terms with any of it. A fever, short and sharp and the most horrifying thing I’d seen. Then she passed, taking along the light of her laughter from the life of my father and my own.

The yield had been especially poor then, barely enough to feed us. But the urgency of her illness brought surgeons in nonetheless, as many of them as it could. The cure could’ve been a few villages away, but she was too weak, and the limits of humans caught in a drought glared, ugly and desperate.

They blamed the crisis on the Woodwose, but I know the skies, their force too restless, too great, to be controlled by a being. The Woodwose’s roots exploited the richness of our lands, and that, compared to the unbound power of the sky, is a force that people perhaps can stand against.

But my journey was not inspired by revenge; that was that notion that pushed me to dig out his roots. There was the knighthood that I sought, the voice that it all held, one loud enough for the villagers threatened by hunger and illnesses and too much grief.

‘Not revenge,’  I had repeated time and time again, hoping that it would become the truth.

“You really are your mother’s daughter.”

Suddenly, I was brought back to the present, but as young as I had been when the life my father spent laughing under the sun hadn’t etched his lines as deep, back when my mother would bake apples while she answered all my questions, one from every corner of the world.

Who rules the East, Mommy? And the Southern Sea? Where are all the mermaids? Are they pretty?

Until my questions reached the sky, and right until then, she would answer like she’d seen it all.

What’s the brightest star in the sky called, Mommy?

Then Mother would smile and place her hand on my head. “Isn’t that question more suited for Daddy? You know no one knows the skies like he does.” He’d taught me how to chart the stars because I feared the dark.

“Would you grow up like Mommy, Constance? Or will you turn out land-bound like Daddy?

Or better yet, you’d grow your own self. I’m sure of it.”

I’d missed her, so much that it felt like something broke in half inside me, and I was faced with another parting still. The tightness in my throat ached fiercely. I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t, but the sob tore despite it all, and before I knew it, I was a child again, contained in the protection of my father’s arms. My hands grabbed fistfuls of the back of his clothes, desperate, broken things.

I was frightened out of my wits, the world was so large beyond our village, but not once did I doubt my desire to go, to see it and brave its seas. I caught my next sigh and swallowed it, out of the stubborn determination to ready myself for the journey if nothing else.

But what he said about my resemblance to Mother was blurred and muffled by my tears. I didn’t understand any of it then. I couldn’t, until many seas later.