niro: version 3.

PROLOGUE

It was a warm spring night. After a long day in the heat of the blacksmith’s workshop, I collapsed under a slowly rustling willow tree. My eyes grew heavy as I peered over the ridge to the village below. I had been living here my entire life, never leaving our small island. The village was quiet, a few candles were slowly blown out as everyone turned in for the night. Behind me, waves slowly fell onto the soft sand down the hill from where I lay. The moon shone bright, casting a jagged shadow through the leaves onto my face. I smiled as home fell asleep below my feet and let my eyes plunge me into darkness.

I found myself sitting, crossed-legged on a cold stone floor. I looked around, only seeing unmoving silhouettes in the darkness. Hello, I called. There was no answer. The silhouettes stayed still, save for the slight rustling of their clothes in the breeze. They glowed slightly, their eyes shining through the darkness. There was a distant light somewhere in the distance that I couldn’t make out.

Suddenly, there was a hand on my shoulder. I turned, startled, to see a the most beautiful girl that I have ever seen. Her black hair seemed to sparkle in a light that was all her own. Her eyebrow twitched nervously and she scanned the silhouettes before turning to her. When she looked at me, my heart jumped. Her large, blue eyes blinked nervously. They were the colour of the sky just after dawn, a deep blue that seemed to stretch forever. I couldn’t have noticed, but the sight of her eyes curled my lips into a grin.

Niro, she called cautiously, We have to go. She turned her head upward, looking toward the silhouettes, breaking her spell on me. I blinked back to life. Whirling around, I followed the girl’s gaze to see the shadows of the other men slowly growing. Their mouths began to glow a dark red. I turned back to the blue-eyed girl; she was tugging on my arm. I pushed myself to my feet and she pulled my hand toward her.

Lets go, she cried. Her voice trembled melodiously, almost as if she sang her words. But her worry was evident even with her beautiful voice. She pulled me father into the darkness, away from the growing shadows. I followed her blindly, her luminescence the only light I could see. Her grip tightened on my hand as she peeled through the void, letting me stumble in her wake.

Where are we going? I cried, my feet pushing off the cold stone floor. She didn’t respond. Who are you? The words seemed to spill from my mouth before I could discern what they were. I tried to turn my head to see what had become of the shadows, but my neck grew stiff and held me steadfast, stumbling after this beautiful, mysterious young woman.

Suddenly, she let go of my hand. My foot slid forward and my face collided with the smooth stone. My body turned over itself and I lay motionless for a moment. The shadows had disappeared and the blue-eyed girl was nowhere to be found. I clutched my paining sides and groaned slightly. I pushed my hand against the wooden floor and sat up. The floor rocked slowly beneath me. I clambered to my feet.

I stumbled to the edge of the ship. Stars stretched out across the sky, glowing in various colours. But their reflection was swallowed by the swelling sea of blackness below. I held fast to the railing and turned around slowly. The deck was empty, no wheel, no mast, not even another edge. I turned back to the sea. The moon had disappeared and stars began to move faster across the sky.

Niro, I heard a soft voice behind me. The sound seemed to dance through the air and caress my ears. I recognised the voice as the blue-eyed girl and turned around quickly. She was standing at the wheel, her hands steadying the ship carefully. I stepped forward, my body feeling numb, and fell onto the mast. The blue-eyed girl chuckled lightly, her laugh filling the air with its beautiful harmony.

Niro, she continued, her voice like music, we’re here. We made it. I looked around. From the darkness, a towering castle had emerged. It’s stone walls seemed to raise from the deck of the ship. Its gates were wide open and light in all colours came flooding from within.

Niro! I heard another familiar voice. My sister, Liya came leaping through the curling streams of lights. She leaped into my arms and spun me around.

Liya, I chuckled, I’m glad you’re here. You would not believe what just happened. I laughed, looking into her brown eyes. I had always been told that my sister and I have the same eyes, but now hers were distant. She looked past me, ignoring my words. I followed her gaze across the lush patch of grass that separated us from the blue-eyed girl.

Who’s that, Niro? Liya purred softly, not taking her eyes off of the blue-eyed girl, who now stood still, her red scarf blowing in the heavy wind. I looked from her to Liya, and back.

That’s Korah, I smiled. Korah smiled too, and stepped toward us. Liya held out her hand.

It’s nice to meet you, Korah, she beamed. Korah took her hand and held it gently for a moment.

Nice to meet you too, Liya, Korah smiled. Her voice musical voice floated through the air. Niro’s told me so much about you.

I forced a chuckle. I don’t know who Korah is.

PART I

CHAPTER 1

I woke up to Liya peering over my face, her brown eyes blinking expectantly.

“What are you doing,” she demanded as soon as my eyes opened. I gently raised my hand to her shoulder and shoved her to the side. Groaning, I pushed myself upright and leaned against the willow tree, holding up my arm to block out the early morning sun.

“Have you been here all night?” Liya pressed. “Why didn’t you come home last night? I was worried.” I forced a chuckle, wiping the sleep from my eyes.

“You’re a big girl, now,” I teased. “You’re more than capable of taking care of yourself.”

“Yeah, but what if someone broke into our house?” A frown creased her face. She looked like our mother.

“Did anyone break into our house?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“No, but-”

“Then it’s fine.”

“But, what if someone did?”

“But, nobody did.”

“What if-”

“Nobody did.”

Liya exhales, her shoulders falling in a slump. “You’re impossible.” She moaned, staring at the grass.

“I try,” I laughed and pulled myself to my feet. I reached out to Liya and she took my hand. I pulled her up and fell against the tree again. “So, what’re you up to today?” Liya sighed.

“I have school,” she coughed. “D’you remember what that was like?”

“Of course I remember school,” I laughed. “That’s why I’m not in it anymore.”

Liya frowned. “You should’ve stayed in school.”

“I dropped out so I can afford that house that you’re living in.”

“The house that you’re not living in? You’ve been sleeping under this stupid tree half the time.”

“Fair enough,” I sighed. I’m not going to win this argument. “But you’re going to be late for school.”

“I don’t have school today,” Liya glared at me. “But you’re going to be late for work.” She threw a small leather sack at my feet. “Here’s some food.” And turned on her heel and trotted down the hill.

“I hate you,” she grumbled over her shoulder.

“I hate me, too,” I called after her. She shook her head and continued down the hill.

I reached down to the sack and pulled it open. There was a small bit of bread and a fruit. It wasn’t much, but it’s really all that we can afford.

I walked down the hill quickly, heading toward the edge of the village. As I approached the small, stone houses that lined the outskirts, I could hear the bustle of routine among the villagers.

The village seemed to come to life, people rushed here to there, each with their own reason, but no direction as a collective. All I can see is a sea of villagers, with clothes of all colours, ebbing in the streets between the close homes and shops.

I pushed through the crowded earthen paths. Turning around the first small shop, selling fruit and crops, and continued back to my own home. Surrounding me was the overwhelming chaos of shouts, and bartering, and commerce.

As I reached my door, I finally broke from the billowing crowd. I pushed my door open and stepped inside. The house was desolate; the walls muffled the noise from outside. It was only one room. Liya’s blanket lay crumpled on the lone sleeping pad in the corner. In another corner was a series of cauldrons, and a small table holding what little food we had left.

I walked toward the table and replaced the fruit from my leather sack. Again, I left the fruit on the table for Liya and, taking only bread with me, I left for the blacksmith shop.

“Niro,” Garph called. His towering figure filled the small doorway of the shop. “You ready to work today?” I nodded tiredly and pushed past the blacksmith into the boiling shop. Fires burned in every corner and smoke clouded the ceiling, finding a chimney to seep out.

“Niro,” Garph called again. “I need you to find more wood, today.” His voice rumbled, complementing the roar of the fires. I brushed my hair against the side of my head. “Do you think you can do that for me, son?”

“Yeah,” I sighed. Gathering wood was my least favourite job as a blacksmith apprentice. But, I couldn’t do anything about it. I need the money from this job so I can support Liya.

I turned back out of the doorway and followed the wall around to the back of the shop. There was a rusted wheelbarrow upturned against small stump with a hatchet lodged in it. I pulled at the wheelbarrow and turned it right side up. With a clang, I threw the hatchet into its hull. Its wheel creaked loudly as I pushed it beyond the shop and along a small dust path. The barrow shook on its old wheel and lurched from side to side as it crawled over the gravel path, rattling the hatched against its sides. I continued down the path as the forest grew thick around me. Towering trees surrounded the winding trail on all sides. After a while, I dropped the wheelbarrow on the side of the path and reached for the hatchet. Glancing around, looking for nothing in particular, I stepped off of the path, my boots crunching against dead twigs and branches on the ground. I swung my arm loosely, letting the weight of the hatchet pull my arm through the warm air.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of red. I whirled around to see a scarf hanging from a tree. Its bright red colour stood out from the dark foliage. But that’s not what caught my attention.

I’d seen that scarf before. It was Korah’s scarf. She had been wearing it when she met Liya last night. Or was it yesterday? No. It was a dream. She hadn’t met Liya. But, she was wearing this scarf. But she’s not real. She’s just a dream.

Before I could break the trail of thoughts, my feet had carried me to the tree. The hatchet had absently fallen to the ground. I reached up to the branch that held the scarf and my fingers reached for the red fabric. A light breeze blew and wrapped the scarf around my hand; the soft fabric caressed my skin. A smile secretly crossed my face. I’ve found Korah.

I gently lifted the scarf from the branch and held it close. The scarf flitted across my face in the cool breeze, yet it was somehow warm. Its aroma wafted to my nose. It was sweet, like fruit, but its identity was all its own.

My mind drifted into darkness. The trees grew lighter, their leaves glowing a bright green. Light filled every crevice of the forest floor in an ambient glow.

Niro, I heard Korah’s melodious voice once again. I turned and saw her walking steadily toward me, wearing the same red clothes that she had been wearing before. Her clothes, bright as the scarf that I held, waved slightly in the wind. Korah’s broad smile stretched across her face, revealing perfect, white teeth.

I found your scarf, I said softly, holding it out to her. She reached out and took it, spreading it between her hands. Her blue eyes twinkled brightly. My arms fell limp by my side as I fell headlong into the depth of her bright irises. Their vastness engulfed me, sending a numb stupor through my body.

Korah lifted her scarf lightly over my head. The soft fabric fell across the back of my neck and Korah pulled me closer to her. Her smile slowly faded, but I only saw her eyes soften. Soon, her eyes were inches from mine, her eyelids closed slowly, pulling me out from the sky surrounding her pupils.

In a moment, her lips pressed against mine. She breathed heavily, wrapping her arm around my back. My body softened in her embrace and my eyes closed.

I opened my eyes to see the dark brown forest. The leaves of the trees rustled angrily, fighting the sunlight from reaching the ground.

I reached down blankly to pick up the hatchet. The red scarf hung from the back of my neck. A drying log lay behind the tree I had taken the scarf from. Raising my hatchet over my head, I brought it crashing into the cracking wood. The bark splintered off of the trunk and fell to the dusty ground below. I swung again, barely leaving a chip in the wood.

I have never been the strong type, and the work was strenuous. But I had my family to think about, and the thought of Liya being happy kept me going.

When we were young, I used to tell Liya stories. She wasn’t much younger than I, so the stories we shared were those of magic and wonder. A princess lived in a castle that floated high in the air.

“Do I get to be the princess, Niro?” she would ask. Her brown eyes would light up.

“Always, Liya,” I would reply. “You’ll always be my princess.” She would giggle and snuggle closer to me. “And one day,” I continued. “You can live in a castle and have your own kingdom.” She would close her eyes and lean back waving a twig before her, commanding her subjects with her bejewelled sceptre. “I promise,” I added. She smiled and threw her arms around me.

Often times, I wish I could go back to that age, when I was young and full of wonder. Everything was possible, and nothing was out of the reach of our young fingers.

The log finally split apart. I dug the hatchet into its cracks and swung the splintering wood against the ground. It slowly fell apart on the dusty ground.

I dropped the hatchet with a clunk on the ground and bent down to pick up the shattered wood. I heaved the wood into the wheelbarrow. After I had picked up all the splinters, I stood upright and stretched my back. After flipping one end of Korah’s scarf over my shoulder, I picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and pushed it back onto the path.

The path wound back down to the shop, but it seemed to take longer. The wheelbarrow was heavier now, but something else was drawing me back into the woods.

Garph was working in the shop. He pounded at a glowing piece of steel forcing it into a mould. Sparks flew from each of his hammer’s strikes. He stopped when he door closed behind me.

“Put it in the fires, son,” he called, plunging the glowing steel into a barrel of water. With a hiss, steam flooded from the barrel and wrapped around Garph’s thick arm.

Sighing, I trudged toward the nearest hearth, half-dragging the wheelbarrow behind me. I picked up some wooden shards and pushed them carefully into the glowing embers. The tiny flames leaped up around the new wood, but failed to catch onto the fibres. I turned to the next fire and added more wood, not really paying attention to whether or not the fire caught.

“Some fashion sense you have,” I heard Garph chuckle. I turned around to see him hunched over his table, pounding at the glowing steel again.

“I’m sorry?” I asked. He plunged the steel into the barrel again and turned to me, wiping his hands on his black apron.

“That scarf,” he laughed. “It really goes with that outfit.” I looked down to see Korah’s scarf still around my neck. It’s bright red clashed against my dirty brown shirt and dark pants. “Just don’t let it catch fire, or it’ll burn the whole place down.”

I frowned and looked back at the scarf. Holding it gently, I pulled the soft fabric over my head and rolled it carefully. I placed the scarf in the leather sack. My hand hit the bottom of the sack, it was empty. The bread that Liya had put in it was gone. I looked up at Garph, who was holding the steel in another raging heart.

“Oh,” he said softly. “I ate some of your lunch,” he chuckled. “That was mighty fine bread, by the way. Send my compliments to your sister.” I glared at him. I had spent all of last month’s pay to afford to make that bread, and I barely had enough to last until tomorrow. “And, next time bring more.” He pulled the steel from the fire and replaced it in his mould. Before I could respond, he continued pounding away at the glowing metal, the clangs echoing through the shop. I could only let out a sigh and turned back to the untended fires.

CHAPTER 2

“What’s with the scarf?” Liya sat down next to me, biting into a fruit. She had spent the day on the other island, Ro’is, which was connected to ours by a towering bridge. She played on the beach and swam in the warm sea with her friends.

“It’s a long story,” I sighed, not really wanting to explain. I stared at the fruit in front of me, it was orange with smooth skin.

“I have time,” she smiled, taking another bite. “Do you have a girlfriend? Is that her’s?”

I almost want to say yes, but I hesitate. “No,” I said finally. “I found it in the woods.”

“What were you doing in the woods?” a look of concern crossed Liya’s face; I caught a glimpse of our mother’s face in her expression.

“I was gathering wood,” I said slowly. “For my job,” I reminded her. She crossed her arms, craning her neck to take another bite of fruit. “What about you? What were you doing in the ocean?”

“Having fun,” Liya scoffed. “Something that you need to learn how to do.”

“Yeah,” I breathed, only half agreeing with her. I don’t have time for fun. I don’t have time for a lot of things.

Liya curled on the sleeping pad and pulled her blanket up to her shoulders. Her hair rustled slightly as she shifted under her covers. Her eyes closed and she lay motionless, stolen by sleep. I repositioned myself against the wall, keeping my eyes on my sleeping sister. She didn’t stir. I let my eyes close as my body fell limp and fatigue consumed me.

I felt my arm being lifted. I opened my eyes to see Korah pulling my arm around her waist. She breathed softly as the curves of her body settled against my side. She snuggled against me and nodded off to sleep, laying her head on my shoulder. Her chest heaved slowly and her soft breaths tickled my skin. I leaned my head forward a little and kissed her forehead gently. A tiny smile crept across Korah’s lips as her eyes opened once more. Her blue eyes seemed to glow in the darkness. I smiled back, staring deep past her eyes. She turned back down and closed her eyes again. Drifting to sleep, her body softened on mine and I let myself relax.

“I love you, Korah,” I whispered, almost inaudible even to myself. Liya coughed lightly and turned in her sleep. I leaned my head back onto the cold wall, my eyes closed, and drifted to sleep once more.

I slowly pulled the door open to the shop. Garph was still hammering steel into the mould. He didn’t look up when I walked in.

“What’re you making anyway?” I asked. He looked up, startled.

“Niro,” he chuckled. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet. Niqo!” he shouted toward a corner of the shop.

Slowly, a girl peeked her head out from behind a crate. Her dark eyes blinked and pulled herself up from behind the box. She looked to be about my age when she walked around the crate and sat on top. She had short brown hair with straight bangs that covered half of her face.

“Hi,” she said, waving to me, her voice was sweet and young. I raised my hand slowly and returned her greeting.

“That’s my niece,” Garph explained. “She’s going to be working with us for the next little while.”

“Hi,” the girl said again. “I’m Niqo.” she extended her hand to me. I stepped up and took it cautiously.

“Niro,” he said softly, then chuckled. “Kinda like your name.” Niqo laughed a little and leaned back on the crate, turning her head to look off into the distance.

“If there’s anything you need her to do, Niro, around the shop, I mean,” he added quickly. “Just ask her.” He glanced over to his niece, whose smile disappeared. “She’ll be happy to oblige.” Garph pulled the steel from the barrel of water and placed it in the forge once more. “But right now, I just need you to tidy up around the shop. Pick up scraps and stuff. D’you think you can do that?”

I nodded quietly and walked toward the opposite corner. I reached for the broom laying against the wall. I pulled it up and and began sweeping the shop. Niqo leaped up and walked over to where I was working.

“Do you need help with anything?” she asked, looking around the shop for something to occupy her.

“No,” I replied quietly, not looking up from the floor. “I can handle this.”

“Are you sure?” Niqo shoved her hands into her pockets and rocked on her heels. I continued sweeping, turning away from her.

“I’m sure,” I grumbled. “If I need anything,” I added. “I’ll let you know.” I wouldn’t let her know.

“When do you get a break?” she asked, still rocking back and forth. Garph started pounding away at the steel again, each strike echoing across the shop. I caught a glint of something silver on the floor and knelt down next to it.

“I don’t.” I peeled through the dust to get to the silver piece.

“Why not?” The silver piece was a small wire of iron. I picked it up and held it in my hands. It was soft and bendable.

“I don’t know.” I stood up, pushing the piece of metal into my pocket. ” I just don’t.”

“That’s stinks,” Niqo sighed. She had stopped rocking and looked toward the ceiling. “Are you sure you don’t want any help?”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “I’m sure.”

Garph finished his piece and went to deliver it. After squeezing through the doorframe, steel plate in hand, he left Niqo and I alone in the shop. I watched after Garph, waiting until he turned the corner.

“Now what?” Niqo asked when I returned to the shop. Without answearing her, I took the piece of wire from my pocket and headed toward the hearth. Using a heavy set of callipers, I held the wire in the fire until it softened.

“What’re you doing?” Niqo asked, walking toward the hearth. I pulled the wire from the forge and dropped it on the table.

“Don’t tell Garph,” I cautioned as my only response. The wire glowed softly on the table. Pulling on a pair of Garph’s thick gloves, I reached for the wire. I could feel the heat of the metal through the glove as I picked it up and pushed it against a peg that protruded from the table. I quickly wrapped the wire around the peg until the metal grew tough. I pulled the wire over the top of the peg and held it in the callipers again.

“What are you doing?” Niqo pressed, watching my hands carefully. I held the wire in the heat once again, but only for a few moments before pulling it out again. I wrapped it around the peg again, squeezing it tight against the wood. The peg began to sear around the metal. I pushed the wire around itself and held it tight. After a few seconds, I let go of the wire. It stayed tight around the peg.

I reached for a file from the table, and began rubbing it against the metal ring.

“What’re you doing?” Niqo repeated. I ignored her, I needed to work quickly. The ring began to shine under the file, catching what little light seeped into the shop.   After rubbing frivolously for another moment, I dropped the file on the table with a clang.

“What’s that,” Niqo asked finally. I pulled the ring from the peg and held it in the air, turning it in between my fingers. “Is that a ring?” I blinked at her for a moment.

“Do you want it?” I asked quietly. I held the ring out to her.

“What?” she hesitated.

“Do you want it?” I emphasised each word.

“Um,” Niqo reached for the ring. “Okay. Thank you.” She smiled and slipped the ring onto her finger.

“Yeah, no problem,” I sighed. I took off the gloves and replaced them on the table. Niqo stood quietly, turning the ring around her finger. I cleared the table, replacing the hammer and file in their rack. With one more glance at the cleaned table, I turned to Niqo.

“Now what?” I said, leaning against the heavy, wooden workbench. Niqo pushed herself onto the table and sat quietly, swinging her legs beneath her.

“I don’t know,” she whispered. I looked around the shop. The floor was clean and the tools were all arranged. The fires in the hearth glowed dimly, not as much as they usually did. I turned from the fires to Niqo. She stared down at the ring, still turning it around the base of her finger.

“Have you ever gathered wood?” I asked finally. She looked up at me in suprise. I smiled lightly. She blinked at me and shook her head. I pushed off the table and turned my body to face her.

“You want to try something new?” I reached out and took her hands in mine. She smiled and leaped from the table. Laughing, I pulled her by the hand toward the door.

The woods seemed kinder today. Niqo smiled as we gathered twigs and branches from the forest floor and piled them into the wheelbarrow.

“So,” I asked, looking up into Niqo’s brown eyes. “Where are you from?”

“Ro’is,” she smiled. “I’m not from far away at all.” She brushed the hair from her eye and looked into the sky.

“Do you like it here so far?” I asked, just to make conversation than any real inquiry.

“I guess it’s alright,” Niqo shrugged. “It’s not much different than here. What about you? Do you live here?”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I’ve lived in Lo’is my whole life. I have a small house with my sister back on the North side of the island.”

“You have a sister?” she asked. I nodded.

“Liya, she’s my whole world, now,” I said solemnly. Niqo nodded. I could hear the rustling of leaves in the trees above us.

“I’d like to meet her,” Niqo said finally. I smiled. She looked up at me and dropped another branch into the wheelbarrow.

“She’s in school right now,” I said softly, lifting the handles of the wheelbarow. “Maybe later.” Niqo’s smile faded a little.

“Alright,” she said quietly. She swung a crooked branch at the ground as she stepped back onto the path.

We continued to the shop in silence. By the time we reached, the sun had kissed the horizon. Niqo smiled as I stepped toward the doorway.

“It was nice meeting you,” she laughed. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” I nodded.

“I guess so,” I said, glancing at the ring on her finger. I hesitated a moment and turned outside.

The streets were almost empty. Only a few people stayed out, talking in doorways and saying their goodbyes at the end of the day. The setting sun left a read glow on the tops of houses, casting the streets into shadow.

“Who’s she?” I heard a beautiful voice behind me. I turned around to see Korah rushing to catch up to me.

“Who’s who?” I asked, reaching up to her hand. Korah’s fingers slipped between mine and she slowed next to me.

“That girl you were with,” Korah’s gorgeous blue eyes searched mine for an answer.

“Oh,” I turned away. “That’s Niqo.” Korah leaned forward, still walking by my side.

“And,” she pressed. I shrugged. “You’re going to have to elaborate, I don’t know Niqo.”

“She’s Garph’s niece,” I said quietly, casting my eyes to the ground, swinging Korah’s arm lightly. “She’s working for him now.”

“Do you like her?” Korah said flatly. She stopped walking. I turned to her, confused. She saw my hesitation and dropped my hand.

“No,” I said quickly. “Of course not. I don’t know her.” Korah smiled, taking my hand up again.

“I’m only joking,” she laughed, pulling me closer. I forced a smile. “You don’t know me, either.” She leaned her head on my shoulder.

When I finally reached my house, I found it empty. Korah walked in quickly and hoisted herself onto the table. She looked around the room curiously.

“Where’s Liya?” she asked, pushing her hand into her lap. Her legs swung playfully over the edge of the table.

“I don’t know,” I said quietly. I walked over to the table and began arranging the fruit, not for organisation, but just out of boredom. “She’s probably with her friends.” I shuffled what little food we had left. Korah reached over and picked up a fruit.

“I don’t think so,” she stated dully, rolling the fruit in her hand. I looked up at her. “I don’t even think she went to school, today.”

“What?” I stepped back from the table, watching Korah carefully. She began tossing the fruit lazily into the air and catching it with her other hand. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” Korah shrugged. She dropped the fruit back onto the table. “Just ask her about it.”

“Maybe I will,” I retorted. I heard the door close behind me. I turned to find Liya staring across the room. Her bag fell to the floor, but her eyes didn’t leave me.

“Who are you talking to?” she asked cautiously, taking a step toward the table.

“Um.” I turned hastily to Korah. She just shrugged her shoulders silently, her lips curled into a wiley smile. “No one,” I added quickly. “Who are you talking to?” Not the smartest statement.

“My crazy brother,” she replied calmly. “And, he’s scaring me right now.”

“I’m sorry,” I shuffled nervously. Liya nodded slowly. “You want some dinner,” I said finally. Liya nodded, walking over to the table. Korah smiled, watching her pass. I glared at her. “Get off,” I mouthed. Korah shook her head in confusion. “Get off the table,” I whispered gruffly, tugging on her arm.

“What?” Liya looked up from the table. “What did you say?”

“Nothing.” I shook my head. Korah laughed. I pulled her off the table and she stumbled to the floor. “Stop it,” I warned her with my lips.

“Are you okay,” Liya piped. I nodded in frustration. Korah, still smiling, sat cross-legged on the floor next to Liya.

“I’m fine,” I sighed and picked up a fruit. I sat across from Liya and silently took a bite.

“Ask her about school,” Korah offered. I looked at her confused. Liye looked up and followed my gaze next to her. Korah laughed.

“Niro?” Liya asked nervously.

“Do it,” Korah said, looking back between Liya and me.

“Fine,” I sighed, turning to Liya. “How was school.”

Liya hesitated, staring at her fruit. “It was,” she started finally, “alright, i guess.”

“Good,” I nodded.

“She’s lying,” Korah growled. I waited a moment for Korah to explain herself. She didn’t.

“You didn’t go to school, did you?” I asked, not looking up from the floor. Liya shook. She stared at me nervously, her fruit fell to the floor.

“What?” she demanded.

“Did you go to school?” I asked quietly.

“Of course.”

“She’s lying,” Korah cackled.

“Okay,” I sighed. Liya nervously picked up her food and raised it to her mouth. She held the fruit there for a moment.

“No,” she whispered. “I didn’t go to school.”

“I knew it,” Korah shouted, pumping her fist in the air.

“Shhh!” I cauttioned Korah, turning then to Liya. “Why not?”

“I,” Liya hesitated again. “I got a job.” I stared at Liya, waiting for an explanation. “Well, I thought that you might need some extra help with money, and stuff. So, I got a job.” I sighed deeply. Korah shrugged, her smile still broad across her face.

“Quiet,” I growled at her.

“What?” Liya stood up.

“No,” I leaned back, frustrated. “Not you. I mean, you dropped out of school.” I stood up, letting my fruit fall to the ground.

“So you told me to be quiet?” Liya growled.

“No!” I retorted. “I wasn’t telling you to be quiet.”

“Then who were you talking to?” Liya shouted. She began backing toward the door. “What’s wrong with you?”

I stood silently. What’s wrong with me? The words stung in my chest. I fell to my knees.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “I’m sorry.” It was all I could say. Liya knelt beside me, placing her hand on my back.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. I looked up. Korah stood in the corner, gripping her arm tightly. The smile was gone from her face, leaving an anxious expression.

I felt dry tears roll down my face. “I’m sorry,” I repeated under my breath. Liya wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close to her chest.

“Shhhh,” she whispered. “It’s alright.”   Korah pushed the door open slowly and walked into the twilight.

CHAPTER 3

Niqo sat quietly on the table, her legs pulled up to her chest. She glanced around the blacksmith shop which was eerily silent. The fires were dead in the hearths, and Garph was not there.

“Hey, Niqo,” I called as I entered the shop. “What’s going on?” She turned around and leaped from the table.

“Not much,” she smiled. “Uncle Garph isn’t here today. He’s home sick.”

“So what’re you doing here?” I asked, stepping toward the table.

“I’m bored,” Niqo laughed. “I think I’ll just go home.” She hoisted a bag over her shoulder and walked toward the door, lightly brushing past me. “What’re you going to do?” she asked, stopping in the doorway.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. I looked at the dusty floor of the shop.

“Do you,” Niqo hesitated for a moment. “Do you want to come over?” I looked up at her. Her smile was broad and welcoming.

“Sure,” I shrugged. She laughed as I walked toward her and out the doorway.

Korah waited just outside the doorway. When I came out of the shop, she leaped into step by my side.

“Where’re you going?” she asked, glancing from me to Niqo and back at me.

“Ro’is,” I said quickly.

“What?” Niqo slowed a little, looking at me curiously.

“You live in Ro’is, right?” I asked, covering for my response to Korah.

“Yeah,” Niqo nodded. She looked forward and kept walking.

“Ooh fun,” Korah laughed. “What’re you going to do there?”

“I don’t know,” I responded. Niqo looked at me again.

“What did you say?” she asked cautiously.

“I said, um,” I thought about a response. “I said I don’t know what Ro’is is like, because I’ve never been there.” I forced a smile.

“Liar,” Korah growled.

“Okay, I’ve been there,” I corrected, “just not for a while.” Niqo nodded silently.

“Are you going to her house?” Korah asked. “Is that why you’re going to Ro’is?” I tried to ignore Korah’s question. “What’re you going to do at her house, huh?”

“You’re so immature,” I shouted at Korah, but only Niqo heard me.

“I’m what?” she stopped and turned to me.

“No,” I apologised. “I didn’t mean you, I was talking to.” I looked around. Korah stood quietly, her weight on one leg and her hands on her shoulder. Her blue eyes dared me to say something. I stared into her beautiful eyes for a moment.

“Are you feeling alright?” Niqo questioned. I shook my head.

“I’m fine,” I said quietly, not taking my eyes off Korah, she flinched a little, threatening me. “It’s just…” Should I tell her? Probably not. “Nothing.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked calmly.

“Not really,” I replied, finally turning from Korah. She’d think I’m crazy if I told her.

We soon reached the edge of the island. We stood in front of a massive stone bridge erected from the sandy beach. A few people wandered across, but it wasn’t busy.

On one side of the bridge sat a long, wooden dock that stretched into the distance. The dock branched out and reached in all directions. One arm of the dock followed the stone bridge to another island only a few metres away.

“Niro,” I heard Liya’s voice calling me. I turned toward the dock to see my sister rushing toward me. She wore thick gloves and an apron covered in scum.

“Liya,” I stepped toward her. “What’re you doing here?” Liya reached her arms out to hug me, but I stopped her. She looked down at her apron and her arms fell limp by her side.

“I work here,” Liya smiled. Her eyes sparkled through the dirt on her face. “I clean off boats as they come into port. It pays pretty well.” I frowned.

“I don’t like you working, Liya,” I said sternly. “You should be in school.” Niqo walked up beside me and Liya turned to her.

“Hi,” she called. Her face lit up.

“Oh, right,” I sighed. “This is Niqo,” I said to Liya before turning to Niqo. “Niqo, this is my sister Liya.” Liya took off one of her gloves and offered her hand to Niqo.

“So,” Liya chuckled. “You’re Niro’s friend?” Niqo nodded her head. “Good,” Liya continued. “He doesn’t have any of those.” Niqo laughed nervoulsly. Liya smiled and put her glove back on. Korah chuckled. I shot her a glare before turning back to Liya.

“I need to get back to work,” Liya said quickly. You can yell at me tonight, okay?” She kissed me quickly on the cheek and turned away, brushing her apron. I watched her walk back to the dock.

“Aww,” Korah cooed. “How cute.” She leaned over and kissed my cheek, making a loud puckering sound.

“Stop it,” I warned.

“I wasn’t doing anything,” Niqo said. She had turned toward the bridge.

“No,” I stuttered, following her. “Not you.” Korah stuck her tongue out and followed behind me.

We walked up the bridge. I walked close to the edge, peering over into the estuary below. Water rushed under the bridge and toward the docks. Korah walked in front of me, taking exaggerated steps backward.

“Wow,” she whistled. “That’s a long way down.”

“It is,” I agreed. Niqo looked up at me. “A long way down,” I added.

“What if someone fell off?” Korah’s smile was quickly replaced with concern. “They’d hit the water,” she continued. “And swept under the bridge. And they’d crash against the pillars on the dock, and be scraped by ships.” I visualised the words she said. “And they’d drift into the ocean.” I saw myself laying in the water, carried by small waves. “And never be found again.” I closed my eyes briefly in Korah’s silence. The peaceful idea of drifting on the sea, lifeless, filled my mind.

“Well,” Korah spoke finally, her playful tone reemerged. “Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, yes?” I opened my eyes slowly, staring at the stones under my boots.

“What’re you thinking about?” Niqo asked quietly. I shook my head.

“Nothing,” I replied. She sighed and we continued walking.

The bridge sloped down to the shore of Ro’is. As we neared land, I could hear the roar of the water, slashing at the rocky edge. I turned to Niqo, her smile had faded somewhat.

“What’s wrong,” I asked softly.

“Nothing,” she replied.

The island of Ro’is, though very near to my home, is very different. The trees are more lush and the soil softer. There’s more grass in the village and the trees seem to grow into the houses. There’s an ancient fort protruding from the far bank of the island, but it can be seen from anywhere. Its purpose has long since ended, but the villagers have filled it with shops and use its spacious courtyard to host events.

Both Ro’is and its neighbour Lo’is are built on hills, they both slope toward each other. That means that from my house, near the highest point on the island, you can see all of Ro’is across the bridge and from the Ro’is Fort, you can see all of Lo’is.

The buildings on Ro’is were made mostly of stone, contrasting the wooden and clay buildings of Lo’is. Architects worked for years to build sturdy houses for the soldiers of the Ro’is Fort, but the houses became so expensive, that most of the soldiers lived in Lo’is and crossed the bridge each day to reach the fort. Ro’is was built as a warring city, and the buildings stayed erect over the years.

Niqo’s house was near the base of the hill, near the shore. It was small, but not as small as most of the homes in Lo’is.

When Niqo opened the door, light flooded the small room. The small room had a table, chairs, a kitchen, and a long, cushioned bench.

“This is a really nice home,” I said quietly, remembering the emptiness of mine and Liya’s. I looked around at the furniture. There were a few doors that presumably lead to other rooms.

“It’s not that nice,” Niqo shrugged. Korah whistled approvingly.

“I could get used to this,” she called, falling into the cushions. I watched her as she reclined as if she was used to this kind of furniture.

“Do you want anything to eat?” Niqo offered, ushering me into her home. “Drink?”

“No, thank you,” I replied softly. The house seemed spacious and the furniture pristine. The walls were lined with shelves filled with trinkets and books. I walked over to the shelf to admire the artefacts. There was a picture of Niqo with two older people.

“Those are my parents,” Niqo said, seeing my curiosity. “They’re merchants. That’s why we have all this stuff. I go with them sometimes, her voice trailed off.

“That must be fun, you get to see the world,” I sighed. There were seashells and small brass contraptions from various parts of the world.

“Yeah,” Niqo turned away from the shelf. “I guess it’s alright…”

“Alright?” I retorted. Niqo fell onto the cushions next to Korah. “That’s better than what I have. I’ve been an apprentice my whole life; give anything to get out of these islands, if not only for a little while. I want to see the world.” Niqo smiled weakly.

“It’s not all it’s worked up to be,” she coughed. “Always going from place to place, never settling anywhere. I can’t make any real friends.” She fiddled with the ring I had given her the day before. “And there’s the pirates.”

“You’ve met pirates?” I interrupted. Niqo shook her head slowly.

“No, she replied, not looking up. “But, I’ve heard stories. And, when you’re on the sea, you always have this fear that they could come. And on a merchant ship, we’re defenceless, we don’t have any weapons.”

I stayed silent, pirates are only a minor inconvenience for a life of adventure. “I’m sorry,” was all I could mutter.

“It’s okay,” she replied, looking up at me.

“You do have some nice things, though,” I added. Niqo smiled a little, pushing herself up from the bench.

“Do you want to see the Fort?” she asked. Walking toward the door. I nodded quietly, Korah pushed herself from the cushions and followed Niqo through the door, pulling me behind her.

“This is great,” Korah cried when we reached the street. “We get to live like queens.”

“What?” I asked. Niqo turned to me quickly.

“What?” she replied.

“What is the Fort,” I said quickly. “I’ve never been there.”

“I don’t know,” Niqo replied slowly. “It’s just this really fancy place where wealthy people like to go. They have a market and a theatre.” I laughed.

“I don’t think I’ll fit in, Niqo,” I smiled.

“Why not?” Niqo reached for my hand and pulled me closer up the hill.

“I’m not really,” I hesitated. “You know.”

“Why not?” she laughed. She didn’t know where I was from, who I was. I looked down at my feet. Korah’s mile had disappeared. “You know, Niro.” Niqo stopped. She dropped my hand and looked into my eyes. “Wealth isn’t about how much you have, it’s about what you do with what you have.” I laughed. “Why are you laughing.”

“That’s something that the rich say,” I laughed. Niqo frowned. Korah laughed with me, tapping my arm.

Soon, we reached the towering, stone arch of the Fort. On either side of the entrance hung two giant iron gates. Lining the top of the Fort was a row of cannons, each protruding from the massive stone wall. Inside a small crowd formed around a stage in the centre of the plaza.

“Looks like there’s a show,” Korah said, watching the crowd fill the seats.

“Do you want to see what’s playing?” Niqo asked. I shrugged. The stage was massive and the set beautiful. I’ve only seen small performances by the children on Lo’is, never anything this grand.

“Come on,” Niqo pulled my hand toward the stage. “Let’s find a seat.”

We found an empty row near the middle of the audience. Niqo sat three seats in, and I sat down next to her. Korah sat on the third seat, anxious for the play to start. As the crowd settled, more people found their way to our row, sitting next to Niqo.

“Is someone sitting here?” I heard a sweet voice call from the end of the row. I turned to see a beautiful girl standing next to Korah’s seat. Her skin was tan and her brown hair was tied to the sides. Her eyes glowed bright green. She smiled slightly and pointed to the empty seat next to me.

“No,” I stuttered. “You can sit here.” I motioned to the seat nervously and she plopped down happily next to me. Her eyes twinkled as she looked up at the scenery on the stage.

“I’m Niro, by the way,” I said softly offering my hand. She looked at me for a moment, her smile fading slightly and then took my hand.

“Aradia,” she replied. “It’s nice to meet you, Niro.”

A hush fell over the crowd and everyone’s attention was focused to the stage. We could still hear the bustling in the markets behind us, but even the merchants seemed to hush at the beginning of the play.

Music began to emanate from behind the stage as the first of the actors appeared in the set.

Their costumes were elaborate and colourful, each distinctly different. The actors paraded across the stage, delivering their lines in pure articulation. The crowd jeered at the villain, cheered with the hero, and swooned at the love shown on stage.

The play followed the story of a cursed prince who needed to find true love to break the spell. He travelled through a swamp with a princess with a warlock in pursuit.

The motion on stage was so intoxicating, I lost myself in the story. I felt something rest on my shoulder. Suddenly back in the audience, I turned to find Aradia’s head leaning against me. Her eyes stayed fixed on the actors and a bright smile still crossed her face. I slowly turned back to the wonderful story unfurling before us.

The prince finally fell in love with the princess and the curse was broken with his marriage to the princess. With the warlock defeated, the actors took their stage with a deep bow.

The audience stood up and cheered for the performers. Aradia lifted her head from my shoulder and smiled. I turned from the stage and looked into her sparkling green eyes.

“That was a nice play,” Aradia commented softly and pull me close to her. I nodded my head quietly, leaning away from Aradia’s closeness. Niqo glanced down at her. I returned her glance with a light shrug. Aradia was holding my hand now, her fingers interlaced with mine. I stood up to leave and her hand fell slowly back into her lap.

“It was nice meeting you,” I called quickly as Niqo ushered me down the row.

“Bye, Niro,” Aradia sang after me, waving her fingers. Niqo pulled me toward the markets.

“Who’s that?” Niqo asked once we were out of earshot.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. We continued to the row of shops.

“I don’t like her,” Niqo said flatly. She looked disgusted and turned back to see if Aradia was still sitting in her seat.

“Fair enough,” I shrugged seeing the crafts in the shops. The merchants were shouting over the crowds, trying to call attention to their goods.

Niqo approached the first booth: a jeweller. The man behind the counter had countless pendants and chains hanging around him. Niqo leaned on the counter and te merchant turned his attention to her.

“Greetings, fair maiden,” he swooned. I smiled, but Niqo was unaffected by the compliment. “Care for a beautiful necklace? I made all of these myself.” He gestured to his collection. Niqo looked past him at the glittering chains and the merchant turned his attention to me.

“What about you, fine sir,” he cried. “Would you like to purchase a lovely piece?” He reached for a shining pendant with a red jewel encrusted in its surface. Two silver wings spread from the jewel which twinkled in the sunlight. “I’m sure your bride would love such a gem.”

“I’m not his bride,” Niqo injected. The merchant waved away the comment.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “I don’t have any money.” The merchant cackled.

“Perhaps we can bargain,” he sneered looking up both Niqo and me. “This is, after all, my most precious piece.” His eyes fell on Niqo’s hands, which still rested on the table. I followed his glance to the ring I had made. He scratched his bearded chin and weighed the pendant in his hand.

“Say,” he mused. “How much did you pay for that lovely ring?” Niqo followed the merchant’s eyes and quickly hid her hand under the counter.

“It’s not for sale,” she growled. The merchant laughed.

“I made it,” I said softly. The merchant’s eyes lit up as he turned to me.

“Really,” he said slyly. “Such fine handiwork, I must say.” He thought for a moment, still weighing the pendant in his hand. “I’ll tell you what,” he said finally. “If you make me, say, ten of these lovely rings, I can give you this piece right here.” He offered the pendant in his hand.

“Ohh,” Korah mused. “It’s so beautiful.” I looked up at her. Korah’s blue eyes sparkled at the beautiful red gem in the centre of the piece.

“Do you want it?” I asked her, not taking my eyes off her beaming face. The merchant looked bewildered. Korah stared at the pendant for another moment before responding.

“No,” she said finally, shaking her head. “Don’t get it for me.” Her beautiful blue eyes still longed for the pendant in the merchants hand. I thought for a moment, looking back at the merchant who opened his mouth to speak.

“I’ll take it,” I commanded before he could say anything. I reached my hand across the counter and he shook it vigorously.

“Thank you, kind sir,” the merchant smiled and placed the pendant in a small box. “I’ll keep this here for you,” he smiled. “And I didn’t get your name.”

“Niro,” I said. Niqo grabbed my arm and turend me away from the merchant.

“What’re you doing?” she spat. I shrugged my shoulders. “You should never make deals with traders,” she warned. “Only purchases, but not deals.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because,” Niqo cried. “They’re not trustworthy. They always cheat and lie.”

“But,” I started. “Aren’t your parents traders.”

“Yeah,” she retorted. “That’s why I know all the tricks, all the schemes. Just watch, you’re going to come back with your rings and he’s going to be gone. Then, what are you going to do?”

“Sell the rings,” I replied calmly. “I could probably get more for them than that pendant, anyway.” Niqo sighed deeply.

“Still,” she pouted. “You shouldn’t make deals with traders.”

“Don’t worry,” I sighed, placing my hand on Niqo’s arms. I looked deeply into her brown eyes. “I got this,” I laughed. Niqo’s expression didn’t change. She only shook her head and brushed my hands off.

CHAPTER 4

Korah woke me up in the morning. The sun was far from rising, and Liya still slept on the pad. She breathed softly with the blanket wrapped up to her shoulders.

“What is it?” I whispered, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. Even in the dark, I could see the fear in Korah’s eyes. Liya grumbled in her sleep as I stood up. I pulled Korah outside the door so I wouldn’t disturb my sister.

I followed Korah into the street and closed the door behind me.

“What’s going on,” I demanded quietly. Korah took her red scarf from around her neck and placed it in my hand.

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

“What?” I demanded, stepping forward and touching her arm. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know,” she cried. “Just promise me you won’t”

“Alright,” I said uneasily, shift my weight.

“Promise,” she repeated sternly. I hesitated. The moonlight twinkled in her deep blue eyes.

“And one more thing,” she added, stepping closer to me. “Tell someone about me.” I stayed silent. “I’m sure Liya will understand, and maybe it’s too early to tell Niqo, but you have to tell someone.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s not good,” Korah cried. “It’s not good to keep someone like me in your head. It’s not healthy.”

“So,” I looked down at my feet. “I’m crazy? Is that it? I’m insane.” Korah placed her hands on my shoulders, trying to be reassuring, but I already knew her response.

“Yes, Niro,” she choked. “You are.”

The night air filled with deafening silence. Korah held her breath, waiting for my answer.

“You,” I said finally. “You have to go away, now?” Korah shook her head.

“No,” she whispered. “No, I don’t have to go anywhere. I’m here for you. I’ll always be here for you when no one else will listen. But that’s just it, Niro,” She paused, taking a deep breath. “I’m here for you when you have no one. But you have someone. You have Liya, and you love her. And you have Niqo, the first friend you’ve had in a very long time. They’re here for you now,” she reached to wipe an icy tear from my cheek. “And you need to be here for them, too.”

I nodded silently. Korah pulled me into an embrace. I laid my head on her shoulder, letting her take my silent sobs. I held Korah close to me, as close as I could.

Korah’s hug loosened, and I stumble back a little.

“I may not be here,” Korah said softly. “But don’t forget me.” I nodded silently, wiping away my our tears. “Now,” Korah continued. “Go to your sister, she’s worried about you.”

I turned around to see Liya standing in the doorway. He rubbed her eyes in the moonlight.

“Are you okay?” she asked quietly. I brushed away the last of my sadness and walked toward the doorway.

“I love you, Liya,” I said quietly, wrapping my arm around her. She coughed lightly.

“I love you too,” she whispered.

Garph was still sick, so Niqo and I had the entire shop to ourselves. I started working early, taking iron wires and molding them into rings. After a while, I started teaching Niqo how to make them, but she learned more from watching. By noon, we had already made twenty rings and both of us were rushing back and forth from the table to the hearth.

I looked up at Niqo, who was busy filing another ring. Glancing at the two piles of shinig jewellery on the table, I smiled.

“I think we have enough,” I said quietly. Niqo looked up startled. She looked from the ring on the peg in front of her and the piles of rings we had already made.

“Okay,” she said, pulling the ring off of her peg and tossing it in her pile.

“Should we take them to the fort?” I asked. She nodded slowly, brushing the hair from her face. “Okay.” I reached for my leather bag and pulled it open. Niqo did the same, pushing her rings from the table and letting them cascade into her bag. I reached into my bag and pulled out Korah’s scarf. I held it up and watched as the dusty sunlight illuminated the red fabric.

I stared into the waving folds of the scarf, remembering what Korah had said last night. But she was gone now, she’d never talk to me again. I squeezed the scarf absently, crushing the threads in my hand.

“Niro?” Niqo’s words broke the scarf’s spell and I blinked back to the shop. I hung the scarf from my neck and swept the rings into my bag. “What’s that?” Niqo asked, gesturing to the scarf around my neck. I shrugged.

“Just a gift from a friend,” I said quietly, hoisting the strap of my bag over my shoulder. “Let’s go.” We closed the door to the blacksmith shop and made our way toward Ro’is.

We crossed the bridge again and climbed the hill to the Fort. When we reached, we found the merchant that we had spoken to the day before. He smiled as we approached.

“Niro,” he called. “Back so soon?” I nodded and fished into my sack to find ten rings.

“Marvelous,” he called when I showed them to him. He reached out for the rings, but I closed my hand around them.

“The pendant,” I demanded. The merchant stood still for a moment before recoiling.

“Ah, yes,” he breathed. “Of course.” He reached below the counter and found a small wooden box. He held the box toward me over the counter. I took it with my free hand and opened it. The pendant sparkled in the box, but it seemed to have lost it’s shine. I looked up at Korah to see if she still wanted it, but she was no where to be found. I looked back at the dull red gem and the grey wings.

Reluctantly, I closed the box and dropped the rings onto the counter. The merchant smiled and gathered his spoils, taking a few for examination.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” he cackled as I turned to leave. Niqo followed close behind me.

“Are you alright?” she asked, taking a step in front of me.

“Yeah,” I coughed. “I’m fine.” Niqo frowned.

“No,” she retorted. “You’re not fine. What’s wrong.” I tried to push past her, but she held fast to my arm.

“Nothing,” I insisted. “I’m fine. What’re we going to do now?” Niqo held for a moment before allowing me to change the subject.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I guess I can sell the rings that we have left.” She looked into her bag and I could hear the metal rings rolling over each other as she shook the bag. I nodded slowly, my eyes looking around the crowd.

“You know what?” I said finally. “I think I’m going to have a look around.”

“Alright,” Niqo said, pulling a ring from her bag. “Try to find me when you’re done, okay?”

I nodded silently and stepped back slowly. I let people crowd around me before turning around. I made for the stairs against the far wall. They led up to a balcony that surrounded the entire fort. I climbed the wooden stairs and reached the platform. There was a small stand vending various fruit juices and people leaned against the short stone wall, staring out over the sea, and conversing.

I smiled at everyone’s friendliness. I saw smiles and laughter in the faces of everyone I passed. There were old cannons set up against the wall, each rusted with age. I stood next to one, leaning on the warm stone wall. The sea rolled from beyond my gaze, just an expanse of blue. I could see the crests of the waves falling over themselves and forming again. There were a few ships scattered across the surface, each making their way to or from the port behind me. I smiled at the vast grandeur of the sea, its openess and the way it seemed to strectch out forever. The light sea merged into the sky, blurring the horizon.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” I whispered, hoping that Korah would be here to share my experience.

“Yes, you are,” I heard a sweet reply. I turned to see Aradia leaning on the wall next to me. The light breeze tugged at her curling, brown hair. She was wearing a long purple skirt that blew in the wind.

“I got one of your rings,” she smilled, holding up her hand. The silver ring glinted in the sunlight. “I really like it.”

“Thanks,” I said quietly, turning back to the sea. Aradia leaned against my arm.

“It’s so wonderful isn’t it,” Aradia said suddenly. I tried to ignore her, staring out at the tiny waves below. “How the sea seems to stretch out forever,” she continued. “And somewhere beyond the horizon, there’s more islands.” She squinted her eyes. “With other people who are looking out across the sea and thinking the same thing.” I shrugged, imagining what other people would be doing in far off lands. They couldn’t be doing the same thing we were. Why would they?

“Niro,” I heard Niqo call from behind me. I turned around to see her hurrying toward me, her broad smile slowly disappearing. Aradia scowled at her.

“Niro,” Niqo continued. “I sold all the rings, you wouldn’t believe how much I made.”

“More than the pendant?” I asked. Niqo nodded.

“Way more,” she cheered. “If we keep doing this,” she continued. “We could be rich.” Aradia turned back to me.

“That’s great,” I replied. “We should do this more. Tomorrow, we’ll make more rings and sell them here.” I smiled. I thought about the prospect of being rich. I could buy more food for Liya and me. We could get a better house, maybe a castle; Liya could be a princess. She wouldn’t have to clean scum from boats anymore; she could go back to school.

Niqo bounce on her heels, excited with her new prospect. “Well,” she said. “I’m ready to go home, are you?”

“You go ahead,” Aradia replied. “He’ll catch up with you.” Niqo’s smile disappeared.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” she growled. Aradia pulled herself closer to me. “Niro, you ready to go?” Niqo asked. I shrugged.

“I don’t know,” I said quietly. Niqo looked again at Aradia. “I think I’ll catch up,” I finished uneasily. Niqo hesitated for a moment.

“Okay,” she said finally. I nodded and she turned and continued down to the end of the balcony.

Aradia pulled me close, her green eyes twinkling.

“Who’s she?” she asked playfully.

“She’s my friend,” I smiled. I liked the sound of that.

“You’re not romantic, or anything?” I’d never really thought about that.

“I guess not.”

“So,” Aradia pulled on the scarf around my neck. “She wouldn’t be mad if I did this?” She tugged on the scarf and pushed her lips against mine.

My heart skipped a beat, I felt my eyes close as she pushed herself against me. My body fell limp and my arms slowly wrapped around her waist. She pushed her chest against mine and pulled my hips against hers. Her lips pushed mine slightly apart and her tongue found its way into my mouth. She breathed deeply before breaking free, her arms still across my back. Her beautiful green eyes opened slowly and gazed deeply into mine.

I smiled slightly. Aradia bit her lip. She leaned back and pushed herself onto the short stone wall, perched on the small edge. She tugged on my hand for me to come closer. Still delirious from her kiss, I stumbled forward. She wrapped her legs around my back and pulled me closer.

“There’s a festival tomorrow,” she whispered. “Do you want to go?” I looked deep into her pleading green eyes. I nodded.

“Of course,” I said. “Should I bring Niqo? I’m sure Liya would love it.”

“No,” Aradia blinked. “I just want you.” She smile coyly and bit her lip again. I thought for a moment before agreeing.

“Great,” Aradia smiled. “Meet me right here when the sun goes down.” She kissed my lips again before unwrapping her legs from around me. She pushed herself off the wall and skipped down the balcony. I staggered backward a little as Aradia’s scent hung in the air.

“You look abnormally happy,” Liya said with a frown. She bit into a piece of cooked fish. I had a few rings left over and sold them on my way home so that we could have good food. “What’s going on?” I laughed, taking a bite out of some fresh bread.

“I made a new friend,” I said calmly. Liya’s eyes widened.

“You did?” she exclaimed. “Another one?” I nodded.

“But,” I added. “I think she’s more than just a friend.”

“What?” Liya dropped her food.

“She kissed me.”

“She kissed you?”

“Twice.”

“Twice?” I laughed at my sister’s astonishment.

“Why haven’t I met her, yet?” Liya demanded, clearly offended.

“This just happened today,” I shrugged. Liya picked up her food again slowly.

“So,” she said finally. “What are you going to do with her.”

“I don’t know. She said something about a festival tomorrow-”

“The one at the Fort,” Liya beamed. “Are you gonna go with her?”

“She wanted me to,” I started, but Liya cut me off.

“You should go!” she squealed. “Here, I’ll help you get all prepared.” I laughed.

“I’m sure it’s not that big of a deal.”

“It IS a big deal,” Liya scolded. “My big brother is going to a festival with a girl. It’s a very big deal.” I laughed, finishing the bread that I had.

I didn’t sleep well that night. Images of Aradia flooded my mind. I remembered how her skin seemed to glow in the falling sunlight. Her dark hair curling against her face in the wind. The way I seemed to melt when she kissed me. Her beautiful blue eyes. No, her green eyes. Aradia doesn’t have blue eyes.

The sunrise was soft in the morning and I went down to the blacksmith shop to make more rings. Garph was still no where to be seen. I worked hard, trying to make the rings as fast as I could. I had finished almost twenty when Niqo walked into the shop. She looked from me to the pile of rings on the table.

“How long have you been here,” she asked.

“Since morning,” I said quietly, filing down another ring. Niqo walked over to the table and looked over the glittering jewellery.

“Oh,” she said quietly. I finished filing and pulled the ring from the peg. “I’m leaving,” Niqo said softly. I looked up at her, feeling the ring slide onto the table.

“What?” I mustered to say.

“I’m going to be going back onto the sea with my parents,” she explained softly.

“But,” I felt like a child abandoned by his mother. “What about our plans? We were going to be rich.”

“I don’t know,” Niqo looked down at the floor. “I might come back later, and if I do, then we can keep doing that.” I frowned. “I’m sorry,” she pleaded. “I don’t really have a choice.” She held her arms out, offering a hug. I graciously accepted.

“I’ll miss you,” I said quietly. She patted my back before pulling away.

“Just stay away from that girl,” she warned. “She’s bad news.” I nodded quickly and she turned to leave. She hurried into the street and closed the door behind her.

I stood in the silent shop, alone.

Turning back to my work, I swept the rings back into my bag and doused the fire. I hurried toward the bridge to Ro’is. It was near the shop and I reached it quickly. Liya was sitting by the docks, chewing on some bread. I walked up to her.

“Taking a break?” I asked, nodding at her scum covered clothes. She leaped up to greet me again.

“Niro,” she called. “You need to get ready for the festival.” I shrugged. “Where are you going?” I held up the bag.

“I’m going to get some money so I can buy some half-decent clothes,” I smiled. Liya laughed.

“Get me some, too,” she joked.

“Oh good,” I replied. “You’re going, too?”

“Yeah,” Liya blushed. “A boy from school asked me.” I adopted a stern look.

“Do I know this boy?” I demanded.

“Um,” Liya held her arm and rocked on her heels. “Not exactly.”Her eyes fell to the ground.”

“Then,” I said, still feigning contempt. “Let me meet him tonight.” Liya smiled.

“Thanks, Niro,” she cried throwing her arms around me. I could feel the marine mess squish against my shirt.

“Liya!” I shouted. She quickly backed away.

“I”m sorry.” She looked down at my shirt and reached forward, trying to wipe some of the scum off. I pulled her hand away.

“Don’t worry about it,” I laughed. Liya looked genuinely apologetic. She always got worked up over every little thing. Liya reached again to wipe my shirt, but I stepped back.

“I’ll get you a beautiful dress,” I called, stepping backward. “You’ll finally be a princess.”

Liya smiled a little bit and I turned back to the bridge. At the top of the bridge, I looked over the edge to the racing water below.

It would be a long way down. And after that, there’s the rusing waters slamming against the thick pillars of the docks. I looked beyond the docked ships and into into the vast sea beyond. It would be a wonderful place to be forgotten. Every direction has salvation, some island, somewhere to start a new life. But there is no life between. The rolling waves rock in an eternal slumber.

I found a beautiful, long, purple dress hanging in a shop. Its thin fabric flowed freely in the wind. I blinked and could see Liya swirling around, the bottom of the dress licking at her ankles, with her mystery friend. I smiled at the thought and purchased the dress for my sister. The merchant gave me an odd look, but handed the dress over anyway.

“It’s for my sister,” I explained. The merchant nodded and smiled. I carefully draped the dress over my arm and left to find myself some clothes.

By the time I’d left the Fort, I had spent all the money I had made from selling rings on clothes and food for tonight. Liya sat on her sleeping pad, waiting for my arrival.

When I opened the door, she jumped up to greet me. But, I held her dress in front of me and she stopped in her tracks.

“It’s beautiful,” she stuttered. She held the dress carefully and stared at the fabric. “This must have been so expensive,” she exclaimed, looking back at me. I shrugged playfully.

“Anything for my princess,” I smiled. She leapt toward me and swallowed me with a hug.

“I love you, Niro,” she cried, kissing me on the cheek.

She laughed and held the dress against her, swirling around our small home. I smiled at her gayity. I haven’t seen Liya this happy in a long time, and I’m glad that she is.

She stopped spinning; dress curled around her leg.

“I love it,” she stammered. She looked again at the dress and her squeal pierced the foundations of our house.

“I’m glad,” I said, rubbing my ringing ear. “Now, you have to get ready,” I continued, holding out my hand for the dress. “You have a big night tonight.” She threw the dress over my arm in her excitement.

“So do you, Niro,” she retorted. “What did you get for yourself?”

“Not much,” I replied, looking into my leather bag. After what I spent on Liya’s dress, I didn’t have much for food, let alone myself. “Just this shirt.” I pulled some turquoise coloured fabric from my bag and held it up. Liya smiled. “I could probably just wear it with something I already have.”

Liya’s smile faded.

“I’m sorry,” she cried. “You didn’t have to spend that much on me.” I laughed.

“You deserve it, Liya,” I retorted. “There’s no reason for a beautiful princess to not have a beautiful dress.” She smiled a little.

“But what about a handsome prince?” she asked.

“Why don’t you go ask your prince at the festival?” I pushed. She laughed.

“I meant you,” she smiled.

“Go get ready.” With another laugh, Liya turned and pranced toward the washing pots. I laid her dress on the table and stepped just outside the door.

I slumped against the wall of our house, pushing the shirt back into my bag. My hand hit something hard. I wrapped my fingers around it and pulled out the small wooden box.

Carefully opening the box, I found the winged pendant that I had gotten for the rings. I smiled at the thin designs that traced the wings and curled around the red gemstone. I closed the box slowly and replaced it in my bag. There was anoter small, wooden box under the shirt.

“Niro,” Liya called through the door. “I’m ready.” I quicky stood up and opened the door, holding the box behind my back. I stepped inside and dropped my bag next to the doorway.

Liya spun around. The long dress fit her perfectly, and the bottom whipped around her ankles as she twirled. I felt a smile pull at my lips.

“How do I look,” Liya asked, her brown eyes twinkled.

“You look beautiful,” I said softly. Liya spun around again, feeling the soft fabric brush her skin. “But,” I added. Liya stopped, the dress twisted around her. She stared at me. I slowly held the wooden box in front of me. “It’s missing something.” I smiled and opened the box. Liya’s eyes widened as she saw the sparkling earrings in the box. Her hands clasped over her mouth with a gasp.

“Niro,” she stuttered. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yes you are,” I sneered softly, remembering what Aradia had said the day before. Liya’s hand fell from her mouth and she reached for the box. I held it out for her. She took one earring and put it in her ear. Then she took the other one.

“Thank you so much, Niro,” she sighed.

“Anything for my little princess.”

CHAPTER 5

Music filled the Fort. Everything was covered in brightly coloured decorations. Candles and torches lined the thick stone walls. Everyone gathered in th plaza, conversing and eating food.

I climbed up the stairs to the balcony Aradia stood quietly against the short stone wall. She looked out at the sea, its waves had turned bright red from the sting sun. She was wearing a dark, turquoise dress with black flowers embroidered around the waist. Her hair was tied back with a black ribbon.

“You look beautiful,” I whispered as I leaned next to her. She turned to me and kissed me lightly on the cheek.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said softly, snuggling against my shoulder. I curled my arm around her waist and pulled her closer. She turned to me, her green eyes twinkling in the setting sun. I felt lost, not really understanding what I was feeling. Aradia’s beauty was drawing me in, but something felt out of place. I tried to ignore the feeling and pulled Aradia closer to me. She leaned forward, closing her eyes, and kissed me again.

When I opened my eyes, the sun was already on the horizon. Aradia’s eyes sparkled blue for a moment before turning back to their bright green shine. I blinked a few times to clear my vision. Aradia blinked too, her smile still broad. I pulled away slightly.

“I have to go,” I muttered. Aradia looked confused. “Um,” I continued. “I have to meet someone.” I remembered Liya. Aradia puffed her lower lip. “I’m sorry,” I said hastily. “I’ll be right back.”

I pulled Aradia’s arms from around me and stepped backward.

“You’ll be back, yes?” she pleaded. I leaned forward and kissed her briefly. She smiled and I hurried toward the stairs leading down to the plaza, leaving Aradia holding her arms next to an ancient cannon.

I took my time finding Liya. I needed to think about what I saw. Aradia’s eyes are green. But I saw blue. Why did I see blue? Who do I know with blue eyes? Korah.

I stopped in my tracks. Is Aradia some sort of manifestation of Korah? It could be, maybe that’s why I see her when I look in Aradia’s eyes.

“Niro!” I heard Liya call my name from the crowd. I turned around to see her walking toward me, her arm wrapped around a tall boy. His black hair was swept to the side and her wore a pressed, dark blue shirt. He smirked uneasily, but Liya beamed.

“Hi,” I said cautiously, holding my hand out to the boy. “I’m Niro.”

“Hi,” the boy replied. “I’m Jame. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Funny,” I laughed, shooting a glance at Liya. “I’ve heard nothing about you.” Liya blushed. Jame smiled.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he laughed and held out his hand. I shook it graciously, thankful for the distraction.

“So,” I said, thrusting my hands into my pockets. “Should we do the interview now or later?” Liya glared at me. “I’m just joking,” I laughed. Jame chuckled nervously. “But seriously,” I looked into Jame’s eyes. “Don’t hurt her, yeah?” Jame nodded vigorously.

“Of course not, sir.” Jame stood up straight. I laughed.

“Calm down,” I chuckled. “But seriously,” I placed my hand on his shoulder. “I will end you.” Liya held an expression of utter terror as I patted Jame’s shoulder.

“He’s not always like that,” Liya stuttered nervously.

“Oh, of course,” I agreed playfully. “I’m worse.” My eyes flickered straight to Jame and he stood uncomfortably, staring at the floor.

“It was nice meeting you,” Jame said finally as I stepped backward.

“Pray you don’t have to do it again,” I called, falling back into the crowd. I laughed aloud at my own act and worked my way back to the balcony.

I found Aradia still leaning against the wall. Her tanned skin glowed softly in the moonlight. I touched her hand gently. She didn’t look up at me as I leaned next to her.

“I’m sorry about that,” I managed to say.

“It’s alright,” Aradia replied sweetly. Her fingers twitched uneasily under my hand. My smile faltered. I turned my body so that I was in front of her and she straightened up just a little.

“You look beautiful,” I whispered. She looked up at me; her green eyes seemed to glow on their own.

“You’re just saying that.” Aradia blushed and looked down at her feet.

“No,” I said, reaching my hand to her chin. “I mean it.” I lifted her head slowly, leaning closer to her. Her scent wafted over me. “You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met.” It wasn’t far from the truth, and Aradia smiled. She pushed herself up and kissed me.

“I love you,” she said softly.

The music grew louder, and Aradia asked me to dance. We made our way to the plaza, where a small crowd had formed in front of the stage. The music was joyous and the musicians merrily plucked their strings, smiling broadly.

Aradia held my hands and swayed slowly. She tried stepping to the side, but she couldn’t find the music. We just stood close, in each others arms, and swayed independent of the music. Aradia laughed playfully and I smiled.

The moon shone over the Fort, which glowed itself with candles and torches. Aradia and I had returned to the balcony, I sat on the wooden floor, leaning against the wall, Aradia curled up against me. We could hear the cheers from below echoing off the stone walls.

I leaned my head against the cold stone, and Aradia rested her head on my chest. Her one arm wrapped around me and I held her tight. I felt at peace between the silence of night and the noise of celebration. I stayed silent, just sitting, with a beautiful girl resting quietly against me. I smiled inwardly, the world around me seemed to fade away. All I could feel was the warmth of Korah’s sleeping head against my chest. It wasn’t Korah, though, but I hardly cared. For now, she could be mine.

A piercing explosion of dazzling colours jerked Aradia awake. She looked up to me and then to the fireworks dispersing up above us. Another boom and more colours filled the sky, a golden green stretching over the fort.

Aradia smiled and pressed herself closer to me. I silently kissed the top of her head, her scent wafting into my mind and filling it with wonderful thoughts of serenity. I felt her smile under me. The sky filled with explosive lights again, reds and blues rained down around us. Aradia pushed herself up, looking up into my eyes. They still glowed green, even in the darkness of night. Another firework and they began to twinkle in the dazzling starburst above.

The crowd soon began to die down, people getting tired and going home after the music died away. Aradia had fallen asleep again, still laying against me. Liya came by and told me that she was going home, and I greeted Jame again.

By the time Aradia had awoken, the moon was high in the sky. She blinked her eyes slowly and looked up at me again. She had become just a shadow toward me in the faltering glow of the torches.

I pushed myself to my feet and helped Aradia to hers. Holding her shoulders tight, I walked her slowly toward the towering gate of the Fort. Torches lined the pathway leading toward the bridge. Aradia’s home was just off the main path, and she stumbled wearily toward it. I followed her to the doorway, holding her close.

She leaned against the door, smiling tiredly at me. I moved my hand to her shoulder and pulled her close, bringing my lips to hers. We kissed briefly, holding each other close. Aradia hesitated a moment before opening the door. She stepped inside and turned around.

“Come inside,” she said softly, gesturing to me. I shifted my weight slightly.

“Are you sure?” I whispered. She reached from the door and pulled my shirt toward her. She quickly pushed herself against me and closed the door behind my back. I fell slightly against the door and she kissed me again.

“Do you really have a choice, now?” she whispered seductively into my ear. I smiled slightly at her forwardness. She stepped back and tugged on my hand. I followed her blindly through the small room and through another door.

The moonlight shone through a large window on one side of the room, lighting the edges of the furniture with its dim, blue glow. Against the far wall, just under the window, sat a large bed.

Aradia pulled me toward it and pushed me onto the plush surface. I rolled onto my back and saw Aradia’s green eyes twinkling in the dim moonlight. She leaned forward, placing her knees on either side of my hips. She leaned forward and kissed me softly. Her hands found their way to my face and she held me tightly, kissing with more force.

Her hips began to grind against me as she rubbed her lips across mine. My hand slowly worked their way up her smooth legs until they reached her thighs. She breathed heavily, still bucking against my groin. I thrust my hips, matching her rhythm. Aradia pulled my head up toward her, her tongue thrashing mine. My hands slid over her dress and to her lower back. Pulling her against my body, I rolled over on the bed. Aradia fell onto the soft cushions, her hair spreading across the bed’s surface. She giggled playfully, her green eyes twinkling in the cool moonlight. I held my hands on either side of her, pushing against the bed, I leaned down and kissed her cheek softly. She smiled, panting quickly, her fingers curling through her hair. I kissed her chin, her neck, her shoulder, her chest. Her hand reached around the back of my neck and she pusher her breasts against my face. I kissed her stomach, letting one hand roam her now bare leg. Aradia pulled on my neck, inviting me forward.

She lifted her head and kissed my lips again, her hand keeping me close to her. Her chest rose and fell quickly. Her hand left my neck and reached toward my shirt. Her fingers fumbled to unbutton my shirt. Soon, she finished and pulled the shirt down my arms. I pulled the sleeves over my hands and cast the shirt into the darkness. I kissed Aradia’s chest again, rubbing my hips against hers. She rolled over again and crouched over me.

Aradia leaned forward and kissed me once more. My hands began to rub her thighs more furiously. Soon, Aradia’s entire weight was on me and my hand had found their way farther up. She moaned as my hands reached under her dress. I rubbed her carefully, drawing out her loud moans. She bucked and thrusted on me, straining to control herself. She continued to moan, her lips still pressed against mine.

I slowed my movement and Aradia began to breathe heavily. I could feel her pounding heart on my bare chest. I carefully reached one of my hands toward her shoulder. I slowly pulled at the straps of her dress. She wriggled from the fabric, and soon she lay still on top of me. Her dress fell off the bed in a heap, and I felt her wark skin against me.

Aradia leaned on her side, her breasts lying against me. I wrapped my arm around her back and she drew her finger in circles on my chest. I could only see the dim outline of her hair as she lay panting beside me. My other hand rested on her waist, rubbing her skin softly. She looked into my eyes, and I could feel her smile.

She pulled herself above me once more, and continued to grind her hips against me. She pressed her bare breasts against me and kissed me once more. She took my hand and guided it up her leg. Still gyrating slowly, she placed my hand inside her legs and returned her hand to my stomach.

I felt my body tense up as a wave washed throughout by being, crawling just under my skin. My mouth fell open as my eyes closed in pure ecstacy.

“Korah…” I heard myself whisper just as Aradia moaned above me. She glanced down quickly at me, but rubbed furiously and watched her shadowed eyes turn up.

With her fingers gracefully curled around my neck, she pulled me next to her. I lay on my side, my back to the window. The moon’s light only reached half of Aradia’s face. Her green eye still sparkled in the calm night. She closed her eyes and kissed my lips again softly, before turning over on the bed. She pulled my arm around her waist and let the other under her head. She pushed her back against me, letting me follow the curves of her body.

“I love you,” she said softly.

“Good night,” I replied. Soon, Aradia was fast asleep in my arms. I closed my eyes and slowly succumbed to slumber.

The morning sun shone through the window, illuminating the small room. I opened my eyes slowly to find Korah lying in front of me. Her beautiful blue eyes blinked at playfully. I sat up slowly, rubbing my eyes slowly. Korah sat up next to me, placing her hand against my side. Her smile radiated with the morning sun.

“Good morning,” she said, her voice as melodious as ever. She reached up and brushed my hair gently. I smiled at her serenity. A door opened in the distance and I could hear unfamiliar voices.

My eyes shot open. Aradia lay in front of me, fast asleep, her shoulder rising and falling slowly. The voices grew louder. I placed my hand on Aradia’s shoulder and she groan lightly. I shook her a little until she woke up.

“What?” she asked groggily in the morning light. She heard the voices outside her room, and the house’s door close loudly. She pushed herself up.

“Oh no,” she cursed quietly. “It’s my parents.” I looked from Aradia to her closed room door and back to her. “You need to get out of here,” she demanded. “Now!” She hurriedly pulled her bed covers off of me and gestured toward the window. I climbed as quietly as I could through the stone window frame and into the pathway behind her house. She held out my shirt from the night before and I took it from her hands. Then, she leaned out of the window and kissed me.

“Hurry,” she whispered hoarsely when she broke the kiss. For a moment, I thought that I had seen Aradia have blue eyes again, but with no time to think, I hurried down the past toward Lo’is.

I hastily pulled my shirt back on and buttoned it quickly as I reached the tall bridge. The sun was barely off the horizon and the streets were near empty. Many in Ro’is were still asleep from the party the night before.

CHAPTER 6

Liya lay still on her sleeping mat, facing the wall. I closed the door slowly behind me and crept across the floor.

“Where were you last night?” she mumbled, not stirring from her feigned sleep.

“Out,” I said hurriedly, slumping against the wall and sliding slowly to the floor.

“Were you with your girlfriend?” Liya pressed, sitting up slowly.

“Yeah.”

“Did you sleep with her?” Liya turned to me and I closed my eyes.

“Don’t you have to get to work?” I asked accusingly.

“You did,” Liya cried. “Didn’t you.”

“If,” I claimed commandingly. “If you consider her being asleep and me being asleep and us together-”

“No,” Liya stopped me. “I don’t mean that.”

“Then no,” my head fell. “I didn’t sleep with her.” Liya cast her eyes down to the sleeping pad.

“Good,” she muttered. I hesitated in the uneasy atmosphere.

“Did you?” I asked finally.

“No!” Liya cried. “Of course not!”

“Okay,” I laughed at her assertion.

Over the next few weeks, I woke up early to go to the blacksmith shop. I tried new designs in the rings I made. Sometimes I would braid wires together and make different designs. In the afternoon, I would go to the Fort and sell the rings. There seemed to be new faces everyday, merchants coming from far off lands to trade with each other.

Aradia would be waiting just outside the Fort when the sun was at its highest, and follow me around, always smiling. She held fast to my arm whenever she could, walking along side me with a slight bounce in her step.

I saw Liya less and less, after work, she would be with Jame. Sometimes, I saw them at the Fort, but most times I didn’t see her until the night.

One morning, Liya found me in the bloacksmith shop. She sat on the table, beaming and watched me work. She looked almost like a child, sitting innocently on the work table, swinging her legs. I had worked a rhythm between the fire and the peg while I wrapped the wire around itself.

Aradia politely tried to start a conversation while I worked. My answers were always short, but her smile never faded. Each time I passed the table, to fetch more wood or wire, Aradia would try to steal a kiss, leaning slightly over the edge of the table. I almost always obliged.

One afternoon, while selling more rings at the Fort, I met a tall man. He was from the island Vour’is. He had brought trinkets of all shapes and sizes, and tiny contraptions I had never seen before.

“Look at this,” he mused, holding up a small box. He opened the box to reveal a comb of tiny metal arms held up against a brass cylinder. The cylinder had small bumps on it, lined up in sequence with the arms.

“What does it do?” I asked, looking from the box to the man. He stroked his beard playfully.

“Watch,” he ushered, pulling on a small wire sticking out of the bottom of the box. He turned the wire slowly like a crank and the cylinder began to turn inside the box. The tiny brass bumps pushed each of the metal arms in turn and let the arms fall onto a small hammer in front of it. The hammer struck a tone, and when combined, the tones of all the arms in turn procuced a tinkering melody.

I smiled at the ingenious of the mechanical musician. The man continued to crank the small box until the song slowed and finished.

“So,” he said wriley, closing the box again. “Would you like to purchase this jewel of an artefact?” I almost nodded.

“No thank you,” I said calmly, still smiling. The merchant’s smile disappeared instantly.

“Why not?” he demanding, hiding the box in his pocket as if I would steal it.

“I don’t have any money,” I lied. The merchant huffed.

“Then, boy,” he growled over the tip of his nose. “Come back when you have some money.” He tuned quickly on his heel and marched toward the next potential buyer.

I turned around and headed toward the gates of the Fort.

“That was an interesting thing,” Aradia sang calmly. I nodded in agreement.

“Why didn’t you get it?” Korah asked, falling into step beside me. I ignored her question and continued forward until she faded into the crowd. I’m with Aradia, now.

In the morning, I entered the blacksmith shop early. I found a thin strip of brass and some more iron wire. I quickly used the wire to create a small structure built around a tiny crank. I bent the metal until it stayed in its shape. Then I cut four thin slices of brass and fitted them in front of little iron loops on the structure. I tied them each down and reached for the rest of the thin brass.

I measured the distance between the tiny arms and scratched it into the brass’s surface. Then I took a hammer and began pounding a nail into the brass at various intervals.

I wrapped the brass around the spool I had made in the wire structure. The bumps barely touched the brass arms. I turned the crank slowly and watched as the bump lifted the first arm from the iron loop and let it go, sending it crashing into the hammer-like loop and producing a note.

Aradia walked slowly through the door. I turned the crank more, producing another note, and another. She curled her hands under my shoulders and pressed them against my chest. She kissed the back of my neck. I turned around quickly, almost knocking Aradia off her feet.

“Look,” I cried. I held the small contraption in front of the startled Aradia. I turned the crank slowly and the notes played one by one. Aradia’s smile returned.

“It’s beautiful,” she said quietly, shuffling her feet. She cast her eyes down and fiddled with the ring on her finger.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, seeing her uneasiness. She looked up at me, her eyes seemed hopeful.

“What would you say if I asked you to run away with me?” Her smile faded slightly. I was taken aback at her curiosity and tried to play along.

“I’d say: ‘Let’s get a boat,'” I joked, placing my hand on her warm arm.

“Really?” her smile returned, but it seemed sad.

“Of course,” I said, smiling softly. “Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” she continued to shuffle slightly. “Maybe Vour’is?” Her eyes shot to the floor again. I took a careful step toward her, pulling her close.

“Aradia,” I whispered. She still looked down. “I will take you to Vour’is.” She shivered slightly. “I have enough saved,” I continued. “We can buy a boat and survive there until I can find a job. We’ll live together, just you and me.” She smilled lightly and hugged me. It was as if her smile could fill a void inside of me that I couldn’t quench.

I worked harder and faster, turning our more rings and musical contraptions than before. Aradia helped me to measure the pieces of brass to create tuned melodies. Each time I finished a cylinder, she rewarded me with a long and passionate kiss.

In the market, she helped me sell what we had made. Many people crowded around to hear the twinkles of the music we had built.

Every morning, we entered the Fort with a sack full of metal trinkets and left with more than its weight in gold.

One night, Aradia invited me to a show at the Fort. I stood in the audience looking for her, but she was no where to be found. When the curtains on the stage opened, I took a seat next to an empty one, waiting for her to arrive.

The music started in a grand orchestra, and the first players began to dance across the stage. They were dressed as pirates and they sang gruffly while swinging their swords in the air. They sang about pillaging and sinking enemy ships.

Immediately, I saw Niqo. She was standing on a ship, staring into the open waters. Her parents stood around with deckhands, everyone staring on the horizon. A dark ship quickly approached them. The ship brandished a pirate flag.

I wished at that moment that Niqo would sit in the empty chair next to me. If not, I hoped that the pirates she faced were as drunken and comedic as the ones on stage before me.

The pirates on stage had their sights set on a group of fair maidens who pranced their way onto the stage. I looked among them, admiring their fine costumes and lovely voices. In the group, I saw one familiar face.

Aradia danced the choreography and sang with the other girls. Her dress twirled around her as she skipped and pranced in front of the pirates. Suddenly, the pirates stormed the land from their fake ship and began chasing the girls.

Two pirates grabbed onto Aradia’s arms and she screamed in feigned terror. The Pirates continued to dance around, tugging at the girls’ arms and prancing across the stage with them, until an army general, presumably the girls’ father put an end to the musical rampage.

By the end of the play, the pirates had become friends with the general, and a certain pirate fell in love with the oldest daughter.

The play ended and I hesitated before applauding. The rest of the crowd stood and cheered, but I found myself sinking farther in my seat. After the cheering settled and the crowd started to disperse. Some of the actors began to meet with their families in the crowd. Aradia pushed her way out to where I was sitting. I stood up as she approached.

“That was wonderful,” I cheered, forcing a smile. She quickly wrapped her arms around me and hugged me tight,

“I’m glad you came,” she cried.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “You were wonderful up there.”

“Thanks,” Aradia slumped backward and brushed her hair nervously. An older couple approached Aradia from the crowd. The man clapped his hand on Aradia’s shoulder.

“Oh, Niro,” Aradia continued, turning slightly toward the couple. “These are my parents.”

“Oh,” I said nervously. “It’s nice to meet you.” I held out my hand and the man shook it, smiling. The woman smiled and shook my hand. Then, she turned to Aradia and muttered something in anoter language. Aradia replied to her mother and turned away.

“Bye Niro,” Aradia called over her shoulder as her parents ushered her into the crowd.

I turned around hoping to see Niqo, or at least Korah, but all I could see was a sea of unknown faces.

CHAPTER 7

“We should probably change our names.” Aradia sat on the table and hung her legs playfully over the edge. “You know, when we run away.”

“Of course,” I replied, not looking up from the small music box I was building. “What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know,” Aradia replied casually. “Maybe I could Domina.” I laughed lightly and Aradia scowled. “What’s wrong with that name,” she whined. “I like that name.”

“I’m sure you do,” I replied. “What could my name be, though.” Only half interested, I began measuring the brass for each note. “Maybe Andei?”

“Sure,” Aradia laughed. “You can be Andei and I’ll be Domina. It’ll be perfect.” She pushed herself off the table and slung her arms around me.

“Oh Niro,” she swooned. “Can’t you just imagine it: just you and me in some far away land.”

“I can imagine it,” I agreed. I had been hoping to run away, to just leave this life behind and start over in a new place where no one knows me.

I would find a job in a blacksmith shop, maybe I wouldn’t be an apprentice anymore. I can keep making rings and music boxes and sell them in a market.

Aradia could finish her last year of school, while I work. We could live in a small house, but we’d have more furniture than Liya and I do.

If I make enough money, I could send some back to Liya so she can go back to school. But, I wouldn’t be here to look after us. What if…

“Aradia?” I asked tentatively. “Do you think we could take Liya with us?”

“Who’s Liya?” she asked, her smile fading.

“She’s my sister,” I explained. “If I leave, then there’s no one to look after her.”

“Do we have to?” her tone almost sounded angry. I thought for a moment.

“I guess we don’t have to,” I said finally. “But-” She cut me off.

“Then I want you all to myself,” she grinned and wrapped her hands around me. I forced a smile as she leaned forward and kissed me. “She can just stay with your parents, no?”

I had been using an old pot to save money for Aradia and me. The pot was now filled with gold and silver coins almost to the brim. I closed the lid gingerly as Liya entered the house. I figured that it’s not a good idea to tell her that I’m leaving quite yet. I just sat still and watched her as she arranged her things around the house and reached for some food on the table.

“What’s wrong?” Liya asked, taking a bite from some bread as she sat on the floor next to me. I blinked out of my daze to answer her.

“Nothing,” I said quietly. “Just thinking.”

“Thinking about what?” Liya asked, pushing her shoulder against me. “Are you thinking about Aradia?” I nodded lightly.

“Yeah,” I said before pushing myself up. I needed to clear my head.

“Where’re you going?” Liya called after me. I stopped in the doorway and looked at Liya ove my shoulder.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I asked finally. Liya hesitated for a moment.

“Sure,” she said enthusiastically. She stood up and, dropping her bread on the table, followed me through the door.

We followed a small footpath around a few buildings and over a small cliff. Looking over the edge, we could see the roofs of all the buildings in Lo’is. We stood near the dropoff and watched the sun’s fading rays touch only the edges of the houses and shops.

Beyond that lay Ro’is. The city sat on a steep hill, just like Lo’is, so we could see all of it laid before us. From the bridge at the bottom, the buildings seemed to be built on top of each other, forming what looked like a massive wall where people lived. At the top of the wall sat the Fort. I could barely make out the shape of Aradia’s home just across the valley from where we stood. The purple sky cast most of Ro’is into shadow.

Liya sat down against a precarious tree. Her legs dangled from the dropoff and her back pressed against the soft bark.   Her eyes were fixed in the distance and her hair blew softly in the breeze. I hadn’t realised how beautiful my sister was. Her brown eyes twinkled in the fading light and there was the reminance of a smile on her lips. Brushing her hair behind her ear, she smiled at me to sit next to her.

I sat quietly, leaning against the cold trunk. Liya breathed deeply, still looking across the valley.

“Do you ever think that this isn’t real?” Liya sked finally. I blinked at her.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” she gestured to the valley below. “This scene. It doesn’t look real.” I nodded.

“It looks light a giant painting,” I agreed.

“Like God made a giant mural for whoever comes here to see it.”

“Except that we can go there.” Liya looked at me. “It’s like a beautiful painting that you can go into,” I explained. “But it’s not as beautiful on the inside.” Liya silently watched the village. We could see the shadows of people moving to and fro between the buildings.

“Is it?” she asked. I shrugged. “Why not?”

“I don’t know,” I replied quietly. “There’s something there that just seems unsettling about walking in those streets. It’s not something that you can see from here. But,” I chose my words carefully. “Ro’is is different than us. It has a different feeling than Lo’is.”

“Why do you say that?” Liya asked quietly, finally taking her eyes off the view below and turning to me.

“It’s just that when I’m there,” I tried to explain. “Something feels off.”

“When you’re there,” Liya replied. “You’re with Aradia.” She thought for a moment before continuing. “Do you think she makes you feel that way?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “Maybe.”

“Do you love her?” Liya asked. I thought for a moment.

Aradia and I had been together often. She usually followed me to work and sat while I worked. She talked often, but about nothing I could relate to. And she would follow me around like a small child or a pet. She found every opportunity to kiss me, and hug me. She often said she loved me, and when she did, I said… nothing. I never told her that I loved her.

“No.” It was the first word that came to my lips. “I guess I don’t.”

Liya nodded quietly. We let the silence drift over us with the breeze.

“What about you?” I asked finally. Liya looked up at me slowly. She looked slightly confused.

“What about me?” she asked.

“You and Jame,” I continued. “Do you?” Liya still looked confused. “You know.”

“Love him?” I nodded expectantly. “Yeah,” she shrugged. “I guess so.”

“You guess so?”

“Well,” Liya thought for a moment. “I guess that when I’m with him, I feel really happy. He makes me feel warm in a way I’m never felt before.” I nodded at her explanation. “It’s hard to explain, but when I’m with him, something feels right, you know?”

“I don’t think I do,” I admitted. Liya nodded quietly. We let the silence wash over us with the breeze.

“What about you?” I asked finally. Liya looked up at me, she blinked curiously. “Do you love Jame?”

“Of course,” Liya retorted. “I mean, he makes me happy. When I’m with him, I feel…” her voice trailed away as she searched for the right word.

“Good?” I suggested, but she brushed my word away with her hand.

“I feel whole,” she continued finally. “I feel like nothing bad can ever happen when he’s with me. It’s like I’m taken out of this world and into some magical realm where it’s just me and him, and no one else. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” I shrugged. “I understand. I feel that way too, sometimes.”

“With Aradia?” Liya asked. Her voice was soft and her tone low.

“No.” I thought for a moment, closing my eyes. I remembered Korah. She danced slowly through my mind, her beautiful smile never fading from her mouth. Then, she laughed. She laughed a beautiful, melodious laugh, almost like a song.

“Then with who?” Liya’s voice interrupted my thought and I fell back to my place against the tree. The sun was lower still in the sky, casting the sky into a dark purple hue. I tried to decide if I should tell Liya what I was thinking. Korah’s words echoed in my mind.

“This is going to sound really weird,” I started to say. Liya held back a laugh. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “When I’m with Aradia, it’s almost as if I don’t think she’s there.”

“You’re right,” Liya said. “That is really weird.” I instantly regretted my decision to tell Liya about Korah. “So,” Liya started. “When you’re with Aradia, you’re thinking about someone else?”

“Not exactly,” I tried. “It’s not someone…”

“Niro,” Liya pressed, her brow furrowing. “Who are you thinking about?”

“I don’t know,” I said softly.

“You don’t know?”

“Will you let me finish?” Liya nodded silently. “Okay, now don’t laugh.” Liya nodded again. “A long time ago, I had this dream,” I started. “In the dream, there was this girl. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; she was just there. But then, after I woke up, I started seeing her.”

“She was real?” Liya interrupted.

“No,” I scowled. “She’s not real. I saw her in my head, and I would talk to her and stuff.”

“You have an imaginary friend?”

“I guess so.”

“And you think about her when you’re with Aradia?”

“Yes.” Liya hesitated for a moment.

“You are crazy.” She pushed herself up and turned around putting her hand against the tree. The sun had fallen through the horizon. Only a little light still shown across the village. “We should head home,” she said flatly. “It’s getting dark.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, taking another deep breath. I nervously brushed my hand through my hair and looked over the dark city before me. “You go,” I offered casually. “I’ll catch up.”

“Okay,” Liya shrugged and walked away.

The sun began to set faster. I watched the village fade away below me and thought about what I had said to Liya. I looked around, hoping that Korah would show herself, so I could talk to her.

“Now what?” I called to the darkness when Korah didn’t appear. “I told Liya,” I called, hoping that Korah could hear me, wherever she was. “Now, what am I supposed to do?” I felt myself getting angrier. “My own sister thinks I’m insane. I don’t know if I even like Aradia.” I felt every aspect of my life starting to lose sense. “Oh no,” I leaned forward and dug my face into my hands. “I’m running away with Aradia. We’re going to live together in Vour’is and I don’t even love her.” I looked back up at the dark sky. “What did you do?” I cursed up at Korah. “Why did you do this to me?” I found my screams only reaching out into the vast emptiness. It’s no use screaming at Korah. It’s not her fault. And she can’t hear me anyway.

The sun shone bright in the sky. I had tucked a fair amount of gold coins into my sack. If I were to run away with Aradia, then the first thing we’d need is a boat. I made my way down to the docks.

There was a small shack built on the Ro’is side of the water. Inside sat a small, plump man flipping through an old book. I approached the shack quietly and tapped nervously on the counter. The man looked up from his book, his eyes were bloodshot and his skin was covered in tiny bumps.

“What?” he growled. He wiped his forearm under his nose, peeling away a thick layer of mucus.

“Um,” I mumbled, shifting nervously. The man just stared at me with his red eyes and coughed slightly. “I, I would like to buy a boat.” The man hacked again and turned toward a small door in the shack.

“Well,” he groaned. “We don’t have much of a selection at the moment, but I can definitely help you out.” He pushed the door open and waddled onto the wooden dock. I followed him slowly. “How much you thinking to spend?” he asked, wishing for a monetary value for his efforts.

“I don’t have much,” I apologised, jingling my bag a little.

“That’s not good,” he growled. He turned and continued down another platform. “I can probably only let you get your hands on a sloop.”

“A what?” I asked, stepping carefully over a loose hanging board. The little man stopped and gestured to a small boat tied next to him.

“A sloop,” he grumbled. “I swear, why’re you buying a boat if you don’t even know what a boat is?” I looked the boat over. It was small and had a thin mast with two large, triangular sails.

“This is a sloop?” I asked. The man coughed again.

“Yeah,” he wheezed, holding his sides. “This what you want?”

“Will it get me across the sea?” I asked nervously.

“Depends,” he grumbled, kicking at the dock. “How far you thinking to go?”

“Not far,” I offered. “Just Vour’is.”

“Fair enough. She’ll get you there, alright. But it’s hell on earth to sail alone, you got a sailing partner?” I nodded. “Good,” he coughed. “’Cuz not even morons go out on the sea alone.” I nodded. “Soon as you pay, this girl is yours.” He told me the price and I hastily paid out his amount, anxious to leave his company. I headed up toward the blacksmith shop to make more rings.

CHAPTER 8

I opened the door to the blacksmith shop slowly. Fires roared in the hearth and I could hear tools clanging. Niqo must be back. She’s probably working on some crafts.

“Niro,” the voice I heard was not from Niqo. It was gruff and destroyed. “What did you do?” I saw Garph hunched over the table, fiddling with something covered in his shadow.

“Oh,” I called. “Hello, sir.” He looked up at me slowly, his face only half illuminated by the hearth.

“Don’t,” he grumbled. He dropped his tools and took off his gloves before walking around the table and toward me. “What is wrong with you, Niro?” he growled, his heavy boots pounding the soft floor.

“I’m sorry, sir?” I asked, backing slowly toward the door. “What did I do?” Soon, Garph was upon me. His giant hands squeezed my shoulders and he lifted me from the ground. Throwing my back against the doorway, he moved his face closer to mine.

“You took my metal,” he growled. “You used my tools, my fires, my shop.”

“I’m sorry,” I stammered. The sharp wood of the doorway dug into my spine, but Garph only pressed harder. “I thought-”

“You though I wouldn’t notice?” Garph growled. “You thought that you could get away with taking my things just because you’re my apprentice? Is that it?”
“No, sir,” I moaned, but Garph only pushed harder against the wall.

“My iron wire is almost completely gone,” Garph screamed. “I don’t have enough brass to make a damn bracelet. What were you doing with my supplies?” I could see veins pushing through his neck and his breath was heavy against my face.

“I was making things,” I tried. “Making things to sell in the market, sir.”

“To sell in the market, eh?” Garph growled. His hands loosed and I fell to the floor. I tried to rub the pain from my shoulders as I knelt on the soft dirt. I looked up at Garph. Barely lifting my head, I felt his hand crash into my face. His huge palm turned my head and I fell to the ground, my mind reeling. I tried to clutch my head as the excruciating pain ricochet through my skull.

“And where is my cut of the money?” Garph roared. His fingers pushed into my hair and he pulled me to my knees. It felt as if my scalp would tear from my skull and I screamed in anguish.

“It,” I coughed. “It’s at my house.” My shoulders fell beside me, and my feet began to twitch.   Garph let me fall to the floor and I gripped my head in pain. “I can go get it for you.” Garph pulled the door open next to me.

“Go,” he growled. I crawled toward the door. “And if you’re not back herewith my money, you’re going to be in deep trouble.” I fell into the empty street and scrambled to my feet. My legs shook from the pain coursing through my body. I stumbled to place one foot in front of the other and clamber up the hill to my house.

The door hung open, the hinges broken. I pushed the door slowly, my eyes scanning the scene. The table was empty, all the food had been stolen. I looked in the corner of the small room to see my jar upturned. I raced toward it to find it empty. All of my savings were gone. The gold that I had worked so hard to earn was now nothing. I fell in front on the empty jar and stared into its depths, hoping for one coin to show itself.

The jar sat perfectly still in the silence. I could feel a warm tear roll down my face. My ears rang loudly across the room and danced in the air with the odour of hopelessness. There’s nothing left to do. I can’t buy Liya food. I can’t run away with Aradia. I can’t pay Garph back. Oh no, Garph is going to kill me. I don’t have his money.

When I looked out the window next, the sun had almost reached the horizon. I had spent most of the day sitting quietly in the dust of my home. The jar was still empty in front of me. I pushed it slowly and it rolled a little.

I had resolved to not tell Garph about the money. So, when I stood up, my intention was to find Aradia. I could tell her what happened and hope that she wouldn’t be mad; she’s never mad.

I slowly walked into the street, closing the door tightly behind me. I walked slowly down the road, steering clear from Garph’s shop. I walked near the edge of the island, looking out over the sea below. The waves crashed against the cliff and collapsed on themselves, leaving a mist to waft up to my face.

I looked up from the sea to find Aradia walking slowly toward me. Her smile was gone and she walked hurriedly with her hands tucked under her arms. I couldn’t smile at her as she approached me.

“Niro,” she called, noticing me hurrying toward her.
“Aradia,” I replied. “I was on my way to see you.” I reached out and took her in my arms, but she seemed resistant. I let go of her and took a step back.

“I,” Aradia hesitated. “I wanted to give you this.” She held out a note in her hand and I took it softly. She returned her shaking hand to under her arm and stood for a moment more. “Goodbye,” she said hurriedly and turned away.

“Aradia,” I called after her but she didn’t stop. Soon, she disappeared around a corner, leaving me alone with her note. I waited a moment, wondering about her actions, before looking down at the folded paper I was holding. I opened it slowly and held it in front of me, reading it slowly.

“Right now,” it read, “in my life, I don’t want a romantic relationship with anyone, including you. To clarify: I don’t hate you, not by a long shot, and I hope that we can stay friends. Please don’t blame yourself for anything because it honestly is not your fault.”

She signed her name beautifully, perhaps to dissipate the darkness of the note. I held it in front of me for a moment, reading over the words again. The paper twitched in the light breeze. After looking it over once more, I folded the paper carefully on the creases left by Aradia and tucked it in my pocket.

In a bit of a daze, I stumbled along the path until I finally reached the bridge to Ro’is. I climbed the bridge sullenly, trying to organise the thoughts in my head.

I need to pay back Garph with the money that I was going to use with Aradia to run away. But the money is gone, and so is Aradia. Now, not only can I not live a new life, I can’t support my sister, and I can’t go back to work.

My eyes drifted lazily to the water. It raced past in a blur of blue and white. If something were caught in the rush, it wouldn’t have a chance of escape. It would be pulled away from anything to hold on to. The water would crash it into the supports of the dock, it would scrape under the hulls of boats, twist in underwater plants, and finally be left to drift into the sea, never to be heard from again.

Suddenly, the thought didn’t sound as unwelcome as it did before. The peace of drifting in the ocean washed over me. There would be no responsibilities, no debts, no heartbreak, no need for money, just silence.

“What are you doing?” I found myself crouched on the small wall of the bridge, moments away from embracing the water below. I turned around quickly, steadying myself on the stone wall. Korah rushed toward me. “Get down,” she shouted, pulling my arm. I fell to the floor of the bridge and looked up at Korah. She pulled me to my feet and wiped tears from my eyes before wrapping her arms around me.

I pushed away from her embrace and stumbled backward, leaning against the short wall. I wiped more tears from my eyes as Korah reached for my hand. Hers were trembling and cold.

“Niro,” she cried.

“What?” I growled. “What am I supposed to do now?” Korah held herself strong, and tried to keep me up. “I have no money, no job, no friends.”

“I know,” she said quietly. It wasn’t the response I expected. I didn’t expect anything from her, really. “But, it’s not worth it.” I pulled my hand away from her, and pushed myself onto the wall again.

“Of course it is,” I said. “Nothing can get better. I have no future; I’m a failure.”

“What are you talking about?” Korah scolded, pulling me off the ledge. “You’re so talented. Remember how much money you made off of scrap metal?”

“I made nothing,” I sighed grimly, remembering the empty jar. “It’s all gone, now.”

“But that’s not your fault,” Korah protested. “How were you supposed to know that you would be robbed?” She reached for my shoulder, but I brushed her away, leaning forward.

“It doesn’t matter anymore.” Korah grabbed my shirt and pulled my backwards.

“Then what does matter, Niro?” she cried, pulling be back off the ledge. “It’s not about the money; you know that. You’ve never cared about the money.”

“And now I don’t have any to care about.” Korah ignored my words.

“Then why did you try to get it?” she demanded. “Why did you have this need for money?”

“For Aradia,” I cried. “We were going to go away together and I needed the money for that. But she’s gone now.”

“Good,” Korah sighed, pulling harder on my shirt. “She didn’t deserve you anyway.” I laughed at her irony. “But, that’s not the reason you saved the money. What about Liya?”

“What about Liya?” I growled.

“Where’s she going to be if you’re gone?” Korah asked, crouching down in front of me. Her blue eyes stared deeply into mine.

“She has a job,” I sighed, turning away from her glare. “She can take care of herself.” I could feel the anger forming the words I said. “She has Jame, she can be happy.”

“But she won’t be,” Korah scolded. “You’re her brother.” The words almost meant nothing. “When she has nothing else for her, she can turn to you.”

“She has friends,” I coughed. “Liya’s always with her friends. She doesn’t need me.”

“Is that what you think?”

“That’s what I know.”

“You’re so dumb.”

“I know.” I reached for the ledge again.

“Shut up,” Korah pushed me back, her blue eyes aflame with frustration. “Your sister dropped out of school to help you, are you forgetting that?” I fell back a little. “She left her friends behind so that you wouldn’t have to work so hard.”

“I didn’t know that,” I muttered.

“I know,” Korah sighed. “There are a lot of things you don’t know.”

“Because I’m stupid.”
“Because you haven’t found them, yet.” Korah’s eyes began to tear. She stood up slowly, leaving me lying on the ground. “You know what, Niro?” she asked sullenly, taking a few steps back. I pushed myself up. “If you’re going to do it, if you’re going to kill yourself, do it. But when you’re falling, and when the current carries you to your death, I want you to remember what I told you.” I watched her back away from me. “You’re going to leave Liya, and you’re going to leave Niqo, and you’re going to leave me.”

“What?” I cried after her. “Niqo’s gone! She’s not coming back. And Liya will be fine without me.” Korah shook her head silently. “And you’re not even real!”

With that, Korah had disappeared, leaving me alone on the cold stone bridge, lying above the death racing below.

END OF PART I

Liya curled next to me, sobbing into my shoulder. I place my hand gently on her arm and held her close. I hadn’t told her about the night before, but she had her own bad news.

I had no words of comfort for my sister, but Korah was right. Liya needed me, and though she didn’t know the reason, I needed her, too.

I cleaned up the house as best as I could and used what little money I had left from the boats to buy some food. Just as I was placing it on the table, Liya had flung the door open, her face drowning in tears, and fell into my arms.

She said that Jame had ended their relationship. I couldn’t understand her explanation through her sobs. So, I just let her cry to me until the tears ran dry. She fell asleep in my arms and I gently wiped the tears from her face.

I rose early with the sun. Packing what little food we had left with our few belongings, I made sure to clear up anything we had left. After Liya awoke, I carefully rolled up the sleeping pad and tied it to my bag.

“What’s going on?” Liya moaned, rubbing her eyes.

“We’re leaving,” I said flatly. I pulled some clothes into my bag and tucked it closed.

“What?” Liya sat up, watching me search the rest of our home. “Why’re we leaving?”

“I can’t live here anymore,” I replied. It wasn’t completely untrue; with Garph expecting his money, I wouldn’t be able to find another job. “If you want to stay, you’re welcome to.”

“But,” Liya searched for something to say. “Where would you go?”

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I’ve heard that there’s a place in Vour’is where people con stay until they find a job.”

“What’s wrong with your job here?” Liya asked. I stopped packing and turned to her carefully.

“I don’t have a job here,” I said.

“What happened?”

“Garph came back and demanded that I pay him for the materials I used to make the rings.”

“So, why don’t you just pay him back?”
“Liya,” I tried to calm myself. “I would if I could. But, when I came back to get the money, it was gone.”

“What?” Liya’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

“We were robbed, Liya.” I continued packing. “All the money that I have saved is gone. Now I can’t pay back Garph, and I can’t even buy us food.”

“So, you’re running away?”

“What am I supposed to do, Liya?” I knew she wouldn’t have an answer. Liya sat silently for a moment.

“What about Aradia?” she asked finally. “Does she know what you’re doing?” I fished Aradia’s not from my pocket and tossed it to my sister. She read it over carefully before turning back to me. “She wrote it in a note?” I nodded slowly. “That’s terrible. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” I shrugged, hoisting my bag over my shoulder. Liya sat quietly for a long moment. I stood still with the bag on my shoulder. I’m not sure what I was waiting for, but I waited.

“Okay,” Liya said finally. “I’ll come with you.” She reached for her bag and pulled it toward her, standing up. I tried to smile, but my lips stayed firm. I reached out my arm and wrapped it around Liya’s shoulders. Pulling her tight, I turned around slowly. She looked over her shoulder at our home, one last time.

We dropped our bags onto the deck of our boat and I help Liya to step inside. I untied the sloop from the dock and leaped into it. We drifted quickly into the sea before I let the sails fall. The wind caught in the billowing canvas and pulled our small boat toward the waiting horizon.

I had read a few books about using stars and constellations to give direction. Out of all the pictures in the book, I could only find one constellation in the sky. I used those three stars to steer the boat toward Vour’is.

PART II

CHAPTER 9

By some miracle, we made it to land after only four days. Our food had all but run out, and both Liya and I where worse from fatigue. When we made port, we were still dressed in the same clothes as when we left. Liya barely stumbled from the ship and collapsed onto the dock. She steadied herself on the side of the ship as I tied it onto the dock.

Liya tried to stand up again, but her knees buckled underneath her. Someone reached out to catch her. The boy helped her to her feet and held her shoulders up.

“Thank you,” Liya managed, turning toward the boy that helped her. I looked up from the ropes to see the boy smiling to my sister and lowering her onto a small, wooden bench.

“No worries,” he said softly. “You’re not from here, are you?” I shook my head.

“No,” I answered as the boy handed Liya a bladder of water. “We’re from Lo’is. We were trying to get to Vour’is.” The boy laughed.

“Well,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “You’ve made it.” Liya looked up and toward the island. “What brings you here?”
“Um,” I tried to find a way to put our situation into words.

“Our lives fell apart at home,” Liya coughed. “Niro lost his job, and all our money was stolen.” The boy’s smile disappeared instantly.

“I’m so sorry,” he sighed. I shrugged again.

“It’s not your fault.”

“Hold on,” the boy said, holding up his hands. “You can stay with me if you want.” I looked up at him. “Just until you can get back on your feet.” He looked back between Liya and me.

“Not to mean offence, sir,” I said cautiously, “but I don’t know you.” The boy smiled again.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “My name is Jai.” He held out his hand and I hesitated before shaking it. “I live in the Hasmu,” he continued. “You can stay there, too, as long as you need to.”

“Thank you,” I said. I had not spent more than a few moments on Vour’is and I was already feeling the warmth and kindness the island was fabled for. Liya handed Jai his water and coughed. Jai reached for Liya’s bag and hoisted it onto his shoulder. I pulled my bag and followed Jai, holding tightly to Liya’s hand.

We followed Jai to a long structure. Inside was an open hallway, two stories high. The hallways were lined with doors, each sunken in to the stone walls. There were wooden ladders leaning against the walls and Jai stopped at the nearest one.

“So,” Jai gestured to the long hallway. “This is it. Girls stay on this level, just a general rule, and boys stay above here.” He gestured up to the ladder. “Why don’t we put our stuff away and meet back here so I can get your clothes washed.”

A girl appeared behind Liya. She smiled broadly and turned toward Jai.

“Hey, Sabra,” Jai exclaimed. “This is Sabra,” he introduced Liya and me to his friend. “Sabra,” he continued. “These are some new guests. They came from Lo’is.”

“Hi,” the girl cheered and offered her hand to me.

“I’m Niro,” I said, shaking her hand. “And this is my sister Liya.”

“Hi Liya,” Sabra said, taking Liya’s hand.

“You want to show Liya to a room,” Jai turned to Sabra. “And I’ll take Niro upstairs.” I looked cautiously between Sabra and Liya. My sister smiled, trusting these new faces. Still apprehensive, I nodded and let Sabra lead Liya away.

Jai guided me up the ladder and I climbed after him, clutching my bag in one hand. I followed Jai down the hallway, glancing between the doors embedded in stone and the bright sky above.

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