When the Tourmaline Seas docked in Atalya, Raelin expected a normal port of call: trade, exploration, loading cargo.
What she got was a stunning offer, threats from the Delbhana and an unexpected need to step into her elder’s shoes.
The rest of the trip home to Aingeal raised the stakes for Raelin and her beloved ship as the lives of everyone on board rested in Raelin’s unprepared hands.
Facing the Storm
By Meyari McFarland
Raelin snapped her mouth shut. Her heart pounded so hard that she could barely hear Captain Vevina’s quiet growl. Bahb’s worried murmur of ‘Rae?’ was a distant tremor of sound that barely reached her ears.
The Ladies wanted to talk to her directly. Personally. Not good, not good at all. As curious as Raelin was about the Ladies and their City, she didn’t want to risk any of the problems that they’d gotten after Anwyn’s visit. Or the chancy temper that all her relatives had. It seemed as though the people closest to the Ladies, the ones most favored by them, were the ones most likely to get into huge fights at the drop of a line.
Even if it offended the Ladies, Raelin didn’t want to be that way. She had her goals for her life and getting into brawls every other day wasn’t on the plan of action.
“I… will do so, of course,” Raelin said once she’d managed to swallow down the scream that wanted to erupt. “Did they say why?”
Wouter chuckled, nodding. His eyes wrinkled up as he grinned at her. “The babies thought your hair was beautiful. They wanted to see it closer.”
Raelin stared. From the corner of her eye, she saw Captain Vevina start, stare and then put a hand over her forehead as if she’d just gotten the worst headache of her life. Bahb, as always when something weird happened to Raelin, snorted and shrugged as if it was only to be expected.
“Oh,” Raelin finally said. “All right. That’s fine. It’s um, just red hair.”
“Red hair is very rare in Atalya,” Wouter said. He leaned on his wife’s arm, always presuming she was his wife, and then stood. His knees nearly gave way before he could maneuver his cane into position to take his weight. “We have many with brown hair and some blond but red hair is very rare. The Ladies have always favored those with red hair.”
He hobbled off towards the edge of the grass where it shifted from solid earth to reeds mixed with tiny channels of sea water. Raelin followed, glancing over her shoulder once to make sure that Captain Vevina and Bahb were okay. To her relief, they were already following Femke towards one of the bigger braziers. Bahb waved at Raelin to go on, using the hand gesture for ‘get your task done’. Raelin waved back ‘on it’ and then let her worries for them go.
After all, there were baby Ladies to meet and that was both exciting and worrying. What would they be like? Anwyn had said many times that the Ladies didn’t look at all like popular depictions. They didn’t have a woman’s body on top and a fish’s tail on the bottom. What Anwyn had seen was so much weirder that Raelin still wasn’t sure that she believed Anwyn’s story.
How could someone be nothing but head and arm? Or tentacle, anyway as the Ladies only had tentacles, not arms and legs and hands and feet. Their eyes were supposed to be as big as saucers and their mouth was above the eyes, not below. It sounded strange and incomprehensible to Raelin.
“The babies are very curious,” Wouter said as they reached the edge of the salt marsh. “Their mothers watch over them carefully. If you are invited to touch the water do not be surprised if it is solid, like ice. The Ladies have the power to protect the babies by hardening the surface.”
“My sister saw that!” Raelin exclaimed and then blushed as Wouter stared at her. “She visited our city and walked out to it even though it was in the middle of the river. The water was smooth and hard, like ice but it wasn’t frozen. It was just the power of the Ladies making it happen.”
Wouter beamed at her, nodding. “Yes, exactly that! They are incredibly powerful. We are blessed by their presence in our country. We believe we would not exist if it were not for their support.”
Raelin nodded. Some of the old legends suggested that the Ladies had saved them when the Goddesses got tired from carrying everyone out of the Morrigan’s Hell. She could almost believe it if the water thing was true.
At the water’s edge, Raelin paused, looking down. She started and backed away a step because there was so much movement in the water that she couldn’t make out what she was looking at. But looking a second time didn’t make it any easier to separate out individual faces and bodies.
Something, many somethings, moved under the surface of the water. They darted back and forth like fingerling fish hunting for prey in the shallows. After a second Raelin realized that the baby Ladies might be doing exactly that. This had to be a nursery and the tiny fish and insects that lived in the salt marsh had to be their food.
Not that it helped her swimming eyes and suddenly aching head.
Raelin covered her eyes, pressing until sparks showered in black, red and white before her vision. “It’s hard to see.”
“That is a rare response,” Wouter murmured. “Most of our people see the Ladies and their babies easily. A few, less than one in ten thousand, will have trouble as you are. And one in that ten thousand will see a completely different form.”
“Those one in ten thousand women wouldn’t get into endless fights, would they?” Raelin asked, moving her hands so she could see Wouter’s face. Eyes. Whatever.
He laughed. “Oh yes. My first wife was one of them. She was ever ready to do battle and always bored when none manifested.”
“That’s most of my family,” Raelin said. “I’m one of the few calm ones. Most everyone else, even my twin brother, have what we call the Dana Luck. Or temper, depending.”
She wasn’t sure why she said that. Raelin frowned. They weren’t supposed to admit to things like that. Too many people viewed the phrase ‘Dana Luck’ as proof that the Dana clan cheated to get their success, unwilling to admit that Raelin and her relatives just worked harder than everyone else.
“I would say temper,” Wouter said without looking at her face or seeing her frown. “The babies say it is genetics but you are not one they can speak to easily.”
Raelin blinked, turned and then winced because the blur of movement had stopped but she still couldn’t see the babies. Their bodies shifted as she looked, going from something that approximated fish-like to something that looked more like clumps of sea grass waving in the current. There was a pressure against her mind, too, rather like being in the crow’s nest when a big storm was coming in. It felt like that crackle of static that said get out of the crow’s nest combined with the weight of the wind pushing against your lungs so hard that you could barely breathe.
“I… can’t quite see them,” Raelin admitted. She looked away again, trying to think of a way to describe it that Wouter would understand. He’d almost certainly never been to sea. “And I think I almost hear them but it’s… too big. Too heavy. Like. Like carrying three of my little cousins at once and they’re all lumped against my chest, squirming, at the same time.”
“Hmm, come this way, then,” Wouter said, waving for Raelin to follow him.
He hobbled along the edge of the grass-reed barrier, following a little stream of water that led to a deeper pool that was at least five yards across and probably less than a yard and a half deep. Raelin had no doubt that the muck underneath the water went yards down before it hit solid earth. It always was in places like this even if the channels where the water flowed more quickly were hard on the bottom.
One Lady, a full-grown one, floated in the center of that pool. Raelin’s mind tried to see long tentacles and plate-like eyes but then another image snapped into place. She saw a woman with long, dark hair moving gently in the current, her skin as pale as Raelin’s but without the freckles. Her lower half was a long, sleek fish-tail with rainbow fins that gently fanned the water, keeping her where she wanted to be.
“I can see her,” Raelin murmured.
“The babies aren’t as talented at communication,” Wouter said, nodding. “I thought perhaps one of the Mothers would be better. I’m glad that I was right. This is the one who wished to see you, at any rate. She was most curious about you.”
Raelin blinked at him, looked at the Lady and then bowed respectfully. It was hard to calculate the correct angle when the Lady was so far below her but Raelin thought she did a pretty good job of giving her the Bow of Greatest Respect. The Lady laughed, one hand waving away the respect as if she found it amusing.
“Sit,” the Lady said, her voice like music in Raelin’s mind. She smiled fondly at Wouter. “Wouter is to be thanked for assistance which has been given.”
“It was my honor,” Wouter replied, eyes wrinkling so dramatically that they all but disappeared.
He stayed standing but waved for Raelin to sit on the edge of the water and reeds. The ground was damp but not so badly that she’d end up with muddy patches on her rear end when she stood. Raelin licked her lips, studying the Lady as curiously as the Lady studied her.
“I ah, am curious why you wished to speak to me,” Raelin said.
“Rare visit of your Chaos line,” the Lady said, her smile going sharper, her eyes more intent. “Unusual to see Daughter of Chaos line here. What reason for visit exists?”
The question was so intent, so serious, that Raelin paused. It felt far too much like answering the judge’s questions when the Delbhana tried to ‘legally’ take the Tourmaline Seas away. There was something more to it but she couldn’t see what reason the Ladies had for being interested in their family’s trade.
“We’re traders,” Raelin explained slowly. “We have a shipment to take from Ranghild to Jaffa. Atalya is half-way. We stopped for food, water, supplies.”
“Why trade?” the Lady asked. Her words carried even more weight, returning the headache that had faded once Raelin left the babies behind.
“In,” Raelin paused, swallowed hard, and then squared her shoulders. This was important for some reason. She had to do her best to answer well even if she had no clue what the Lady really wanted to know. “In general or for this specific trade deal?”
“General,” the Lady breathed, her eyes going wide and her smile delighted instead of vaguely threatening. “Why trade in general?”
“I have always wondered that,” Wouter murmured behind Raelin. He shrugged when she turned to stare up at him. “We do not live our lives in service of money and the gathering of more and more coins. Trade has never made sense to me.”
“It’s fun,” Raelin said, first to him and then as she turned back to the now much closer Lady. “We enjoy it. It’s, well, exciting. Going to different parts of the world, meeting new people, learning languages is enjoyable. I love doing it. All of us love arranging trades, getting things people want to sell to other people who want to buy. It’s not the money. The fun part is…”
She stopped and stared off towards the horizon where the sun was had just touched the dividing line between ocean and sky. It set directly behind the Ladies’ city, setting their crystalline spires afire with light so bright that she could barely look in that direction.
The sky was streaked with bands of gold and red, thin patches of purple closer to the horizon. It was bright enough that the sunset reflected off the sea, making it appear that the sun hovered in the middle of endless flame-streaked gilded clouds.
Raelin smiled, waved her hands wide and then laughed. “It’s everything. The people, the languages, the customs, the excitement of making a trade deal. All of it is wonderful. Almost every single one of us just,” she paused, trying to find a word that encompassed everything she felt, all the joy and excitement and frustration and challenges. “Love it. We love it. Trading. Traveling. Learning. There’s always something new to learn.”
The Lady nodded slowly, her expression serious and speculative now instead of sharp and somehow dangerous. One of her hands reached up out of the water, fingers bending strangely as if they had no bones. Raelin started and then scrambled to her feet as the Lady nearly touched her wrist.
“No, thank you!” Raelin exclaimed, putting her hands behind her back.
“You do not want a gift?” the Lady asked, this time with a far more dangerous feel to her thoughts in Raelin’s head. “You refuse it?”
“Yes, ma’am!” Raelin said even though Wouter hissed as if she’d just offended them all worse than before, cycling through every single way she knew to say no thank you in every language she’d ever learned. “I do not want a gift at all. Thank you but no. No thank you. Uh-uh, no way, no need, I’m honored but that’s unnecessary. Meeting you was honor enough. Really, it’s too much, I must object. Don’t put yourself to the effort for this unworthy one. I am exalted by your regard and shamed by my lack of worthiness for such a gift.”
By the time she reached Atalyani for the last sentence the Lady had pulled her hand back under the surface of the water. She was, thankfully, smiling again, amused Raelin thought but Wouter growled at her, thumping his cane against the grassy earth.
“Why?” the Lady asked, eyes again intent on Raelin’s face and mind pressing at hers so strongly that Raelin went down to one knee as her head swam.
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