Daughter of the Seven Seas
Would you risk your life to befriend someone who hates you?
When I was a four, Lammy told me about the Dunites, the people who thought that we, the Khorish, were animals. I had asked him why they thought this. Even though he did not stop smiling, I saw that he was sad. He said that many years before Osric the Great drew his first sword, the Khorish and the Dunites were brothers and sisters, like we were. But something bad happened, and we started being mean to them. We called them bad names and hurt them, and made them do hard things for us without saying "thank you." He said that was why they did not like us, and why they were so afraid of us. He told me that we needed to teach them that we were not animals that wanted to hurt them, but that we were their brothers and sisters. It was because of what he said that, when I was a seven, I agreed to talk to the only Dunite I knew: Maxine Njalsdottir.
She asked me to meet her at the Shrine of Ea, which was in a large sandstone building in the center of the gardens of our school, Nineveh Academy. She wanted me to meet her at night, and to come alone. I'm not going to take a star-torch with me, I thought, leaving the glowing bluish-white ball suspended in my room. I'm going to travel by sound so that I can remain hidden from wild animals and the other children! I blew mist onto my hands, which made them glow with white and golden light before they turned back to their normal color, so that I could fly out the window.
It's so dark! I realized when I was outside, turning around and clinging to the windowsill. I don't want to go out by myself! I started crying, and was about to crawl back inside. But then I remembered that I had promised to be there, and Lammy told me that I should always keep my promises. How can I go back inside now and make him angry with me? I wondered, looking up north to where his spirit now lived in the sacred palace of Skadi, the Goddess of Winter and Death. Still holding on with my left hand, I grabbed the bottom of my tunic with my right and thought about him to make myself brave. I need to do this, I thought. I need to be a big girl and make him proud! So I prayed to Ea, the goddess who watched over the garden, for protection, and flew from treetop to treetop towards the shrine.
I froze on a Svana blossom tree a few cubits away from the shrine when I heard the voices of other children below me. Someone screamed, and then there was laughter. Mean laughter. I clung to the branches, not wanting to look down, because I knew what happened. My schoolmates were doing what my teachers ordered us to do ever since we entered the school: killing off the weak. The adults said that they only wanted the strongest students to graduate: big and strong boys to go off and win wars, and big and strong girls to have lots of babies. We had to fight to the death every two years because of this, and play other mean games in which they made us torture and kill each other! If we refused, they would beat us with rods of iron and wood, and they would not give us food until we did it. But every time they gave me a dagger or a club to attack one of my classmates with, I threw it away, and I would not use my bow if we were practicing on human targets. I'm not going to kill my cousins and friends just because the adults want to win wars! I swore to myself during my first day of class. I don't care how much they hit me or starve me! I'm going to be a good child who is nice my classmates, just like you, Lammy!
Most of the other children killed because they wanted to live. Even my sisters did it, which made me very sad. Some children would cry after they murdered someone, but others laughed and did it even more! The ones who laughed were called "stonehearts"; they got the most food and the least amount of beatings. Sometimes, they even got medicine when they became sick and warm clothes to wear in the winter. In class, they got coins to buy dolls, balls to play with, and other nice things whenever they hurt someone whom the teacher thought was weak. At night, they joined gangs and went hunting for children who were alone, so that they could kill them and take their things, like the girls below me were doing.
"I lay claim to her earrings!" One of them, who sounded like a thirteen, yelled.
"Her coin purse is mine!" Another girl replied. Her voice was cracking, so she was either an eleven or a twelve.
"Who wants her bracelets?" The first girl asked.
"I'll take them! Oh look, a finger-doll from Alcania! Praise Tiglath!" A third girl cheered, who sounded like an eight.
Please make them go away, Ea, Holy Goddess of the Waters! I prayed, trembling. I felt cold all over, as if it were winter instead of spring, even though I was wearing the woolen mantle that my best friend had given me. I stopped breathing, praying that they would not hear me. Then a giant serpent hissed. All the stonehearts below me ran away, dropping things on the ground. Someone came towards my tree. I clung to the branches until the bark dug into my skin.
"They're gone." Maxine whispered.
I looked down. I saw the tail of something huge disappear into the bushes as she stood there with her hands on her waist, a reddish-white star-torch hovering in front of her. How did she know that I could hear her whisper from all the way down there? I wondered, floating to the ground. I stared at the bushes as the snake slithered away from us. As soon as it was gone, I turned around. Maxine picked up the earrings, then threw them away, and did the same thing with the bracelets and the coin purse, scattering money all over the ground. Then she picked up the finger-doll, and looked it over.
"Alcanian," she grinned, wiping it off and putting it in her pocket.
Maxine stepped right over the body on her way to the shrine. She did not even look at it, I thought, following her. I did not want to look, either, but I did!
I know this girl! I gasped, wiping away my tears with my mantle.
I picked up two of the coins that were scattered on the ground and put them on the girl's eyes. I held my hands over her body, praying to Skadi, begging her to let my classmate into her palace in the afterlife. Then I walked into the shrine.
I washed my hands off in the purification bowl. After that, I took three swan feathers out of the chest next to the altar, and, whispering a prayer with each one, put them in the fire. Then I bowed five times, and walked up the blue stone steps onto the bridge, where Maxine stood. She faced the giant dark blue statue of Ea, whose body was covered by the wings of two guardian spirits, which looked like men with the heads of swans. The water flowed out of a silver bowl in her hands down into a glowing green pool below. The pool was full of beautiful swans with blue-and-white feathers. Red-and-gold striped serpents, which the Dunites called Morrigan vipers, swam beneath them in the water. Seraph doves, white-and-gold striped birds that gave off sparkling dust every time they shook their six wings, gathered at the water to drink. Outside in the gardens, I saw Morrigan vipers eat these doves, but at the pool, they left them alone, living off the magic of the sacred water.
Beside me, Maxine moved her hand from left to right, making the serpents dance in the water. She had long hair, which was the color of a black, shiny rock that Lammy called obsidian. Her eyes were large and golden-brown, the color of something we made necklaces out of that he called amber, and she had pale-golden skin. She was pretty! So pretty! I knew that I, with my dirty light-brown hair and nasty freckles, would never be pretty like her. She was going to be an eleven that winter, and she was tall! So big and tall! Tall enough to lean over the railing! She wore a tunic that was a dark red color that my brother called burgundy, which had golden grapevines sewn all over it, and black trousers with silver stringy things that my brother called tassels hanging from each side of her waist. I feel so ugly, I thought, wearing tan-colored halfies, which were trousers that only covered my legs above my knee, and my lucky white tunic underneath my mantle. Both were stained with grass and dirt because I loved to play in the gardens when it was raining. I was also barefoot, while she wore polished black leather boots.
I stared up at Maxine, waiting for her to say why she asked me to meet her here. But she did not say anything. She just stared at the pool, making the serpents dance in the water.
"Seven golden skies to you," I said in Ulresh, the language of her people.
She did not even look at me. I floated up onto the iron railing to sit and watch the serpents dance. Neither one of us said anything for what seemed like forever.
"Who taught you my language?" she asked.
"My older brother," I said.
"Did he tell you that it's forbidden?" she asked.
I tapped my chin to say yes. She stared at me. Hard. I clutched the railing until my knuckles turned moon-white. She looked at my hands.
"Afraid?" she asked me, giving me a mean smile.
I tapped my chin again. Maxine's smile became bigger. And meaner.
"Because the other children told you that I am really a snake in a girl's body?" her eyes turned into those of a serpent, "That I strangle sixes and sevens like you, and swallow them whole?"
I tapped my nose to say no.
"I'm afraid of you because I saw you cut someone's throat in the middle of the dining hall." I looked away.
"So you've been watching me, too?" Maxine asked.
I tapped my chin again.
"Then you know why I do what I do." she said. "It's because I hate you. All of you."
All the warmth fled from my body.
"Why?" I asked, "What did I do?"
Maxine closed her eyes, "Remember that name...that your sisters called me...before they beat me until I was breathing scarlet?"
I remembered that day! That horrible day! My sisters attacked her with fifteen other girls! She was all alone! And no one came to help her!
"Fish," I said, trying not to cry at the memory.
"Fish," Maxine repeated. She was not smiling anymore, "Do you know why the children here call me that?"
"Because you are a Dunite," I said, "Our teachers tell us that we, the Khorish, are descended from dragons, and that your people are descended from fish. Just like real dragons prey on fish, we are supposed to prey on you. But I think-"
"Think what?" she interrupted me, "Let me guess...that I'm just as good as everyone else? That the 'poor little Dunite girl' deserves to be treated just as well as you?"
Maxine snickered. She's mocking me, I realized, but chose to answer anyway.
"No," I tapped my nose, "I don't think you're as good as us. I think that we're just as bad as you. You are really mean, but no meaner than the Khorish children. People shouldn't be nastier to you just because you are different from us."
Maxine raised her eyebrows at me. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it, and looked away.
"Why do they hate your people so much?" I asked her.
"You don't know?" Maxine asked.
"Well, my sisters say that Dunites aren't people like we are, and that we can do whatever we want to you because we are cultured and civilized, and you are crazy and savage." I said, "But I've observed you, and you act the same as anyone else here, so I don't know why they think that."
"You know a lot of big words for a girl who is just a seven." Maxine said.
"I read." I said, looking down. I did not tell her that I did not know what "cultured" and "civilized" actually meant.
"Good for you, sib," Maxine said, "But I am going to tell you something that the teachers will never let you read about. The true reason why you and I are, and always will, be enemies. It's because, although the Khorish have tried to erase all memory of it, Yangvaad was ours first. We ruled this land when, across the Green Sea, your kingdom was overthrown by your mortal foes, the Alcanians. We welcomed you here with open arms when your enemies were hunting you down and killing you like animals. But you saw our land, our pearls, our coral, and our seas of fish, and were overcome with greed. You betrayed and conquered us, and made us your slaves. You took away our land, our homes, even our names and language. That is why we hate you. That is why we call the Alcanians our closest friends. That is why even here, where it is a sacrilege to shed blood," Fangs sprouted from her mouth, "I could slay you, and laugh while doing it!"
I wanted to shriek! But I couldn't! My muscles were frozen, as if someone had buried me in snow!
"But I won't," she said.
Her eyes became normal again and her fangs shrank back into teeth.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because, even though you are one of the Khorish, you act nothing like them," she said.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She pulled her hair back to show me her earrings. They were shark tooth earrings that hung from tiny amber beads. The ones my sisters tore out of her ears after they almost beat her to death.
"You came to my chambers, unarmed, and gave me my earrings back. The ones my Da gave me before he died," she said, softly.
She did not look mean anymore. She looked confused, like I did when I was trying to figure out a big word that I could not understand.
"And after you left, I found this on my windowsill," Maxine said, showing me a small bronze jar of healing salve that I had stolen from the teachers to give her, "And remember what you asked me the next day, before I walked into the dining hall?"
I thought for a minute, remembering how she was hurt so badly that she had to lean on a staff to move around.
"I asked you if you were feeling better." I replied.
"Not only that, but you apologized for what your sisters did to me." Maxine said, "You apologized!"
I had, and she gave me the same look that she gave me now, staring at me like I was a dragon that had turned into a little girl. It was after that day that she began following me. I couldn't see her because she was able to change her skin color like a lizard, so that she blended into the stone walls, the trees of the gardens, and even the windows. But for four starths, I could hear her breathing as she watched me during my classes. When I practiced martial arts and spell-casting, and studied at the library, my ears told me that she was there, staring at me from the shadows. Even when I collected Svana blossoms from the trees so that I could make bracelets out of them with my best friend, she was there, spying on me from the branches above. Sometimes, I would enhance my hearing even more, so that I could hear her heartbeat. Normally it was really slow, because she was always calm, but whenever she looked at me, it beat really fast, like mine did when I saw a tiger-rat or an eel-mouse. My sisters and my best friend were always with me, but I did not tell them that she was there. Too many children died at our school already. I was not going to let her be one of them.
Finally, one night, I got a message in my room. She wrote that she would not kill my sisters, or my best friend, if I agreed to meet her at the Shrine of Ea. She's going to slay me! I cried until my eyes were red and puffy. Because of what the other Khorish children do to her! Because of what my sisters do to her! Then I fell asleep, and that's when I saw my brother.
He was tall, with tan skin and black hair that was long on the sides of his face. His sea-gray eyes glittered as he smiled at me. Lammy! I flew up into his arms and kissed his cheek. He kissed me back and lowered me gently to the ground. He took me by my hand and led me along the Svana blossom path towards the shrine.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because she needs you to show her that not all of us are bad, Sandy," Lammy said.
"But she hates me! Because I am Khorish!" I told him.
"She does not hate you, Sandy. She is afraid of you. She does not believe that you are as nice as you seem, but she wants to with all her heart. That's why you need to go to the shrine." He stroked my cheek, like he always did right before he told me to do something very important, "To show her that you are her Khorish sister."
Maxine paced back and forth, glaring at me as she did it. Just like she did when I promised to meet her here, I thought, remembering the way she was walking in her room when I flew up to her window to tell her that I would meet her.
"Everyone in this school is so cruel, violent and sadistic, but you are so caring, gentle, and kind," she said, "Not only to me, but to everyone, even to the Alcanian children. Even to children who hate you. You don't kill, even when the teachers thrash you until you are breathing scarlet and you are so starved that I can count all of your ribs. Instead, you act as though you value life, and even try to preserve it by healing other wounded students. That girl outside...I saw her try to stab you with a knife in the dining hall two starths ago. But when you disarmed her, all you did was break her wrist, and then you ran away instead of finishing her off. And rather than gloat over her death tonight, you showed her compassion, and gave her the Khorish funeral rites. Why?"
I looked down and did not say anything.
"Why?!" she screamed.
I'm making her mad! I whimpered after I nearly fell off the railing.
"Is this all an elaborate trick, to deceive me into thinking you are harmless, before you reveal the true vicious nature of your ancestors?"
"No," I said.
"Are you trying to set me up so that your sisters can destroy me? Or so you can slash my throat yourself?"
"No," I said.
"You must be trying to do something! To hurt me, or take advantage of me in some way, to accomplish some foul goal in your wicked Khorish heart!"
"I'm not!" I screamed, "Why are you being mean? You're hurting my feelings!"
"You don't have feelings!" she hissed, "You're Khorish! The spawn of dragons! An animal that can do nothing but hurt, maim, and destroy!"
"You're wrong!" I yelled back, "I just wanted to be nice because everyone else is so nasty to you! But because I was born Khorish, you think that I'm wicked and horrible, even though I never did anything bad to you! I came here because I wanted to be kind to you, but if you're just going to yell at me like a big cruelie, I'm leaving!"
I leapt down and started to walk away, bawling. I failed! I thought as I cried. I tried to be her friend like my brother wanted, but I failed! I'm sorry, Lammy! I thought, wiping the tears away from my face. I'm sorry that I wasn't able to show her that not all Khorish people are bad!
"Wait," Maxine said.
I kept walking.
No! You're just going to say more mean things to me! I thought, ignoring her. If you want to hate me, fine! I won't be nice to you or talk to you ever again! I was about to walk down the steps when something grabbed my arm. It was a vine. I turned around and glared at Maxine, who held onto the other end of the vine, which had come out of her wrist through magic. Let me go! I thought, tugging at the vine, trying to get away.
"I'm..." she began.
She's going to apologize? I stared at her in disbelief.
Maxine closed her eyes. Blue-and-white striped Svana blossoms sprouted from the vine, which snapped and turned into a bracelet around my wrist. Her lip was trembling, like mine used to when Lammy got mad at me for borrowing his compass without asking.
"I know what it's like to be hated because of the way you were born, and I shouldn't have gotten angry with you." she said, "It's just that...it's hard to trust anybody, when you've spent all your life getting these."
She showed me the scars on her stomach. Dagger wounds, I realized, wishing that I could heal her. Wishing that I could hug her until the pain went away, like Lammy used to do for me when I got hurt.
"You need to understand," she continued, "I only knew one other person here who behaved as you did. He was a boy who was five years older than me, and he was merciful and kind to his enemies. Like you, he had gray eyes, and wore a white tunic. He would always smile at me, and spoke to me in Ulresh. I was afraid of him because no other Khorish person I knew acted this way. By the time I had worked up the courage to speak to him, he was killed." she looked down, "I wanted to know why he was so strange, to see if it was an act, or if he really was that kind. After he died, I approached two girls with gray eyes, to see if they were anything like him. These scars were my reward. That's why I asked you to meet me here, to see if you were like him, or if you were like them."
She looked away. I walked over to her and reached out my hand. She jerked back as though I was about to stab her. She IS afraid of me, I realized. But I left my hand out, and held out my other one to show her it was empty. To show her that I was not her enemy. To show her that I was her friend.
"My full name is Cassandra Grettirsdottir." I said, "That boy who showed you kindness was Lambert Grettirsson. He was my older brother, the one who taught me your language. At the end of his last year of school, the judges made him fight his best friend to the death. He won, but refused to slay him, so the judges ordered the fight to keep going, and he got killed. My sisters are mad at him for dying, for making us grow up without him, and because they are mad, they do everything that he told us not to do. They rob and kill other children, and are mean to Alcanians, and to you. But I don't do that, because I think they're wrong."
Maxine stared at me like I was growing more and more heads by the minute. She thinks I'm crazy, I realized, but I grabbed the bottom of my tunic to make myself brave again. The bottom of the tunic that was sewn together from the shreds of the one Lammy used to wear.
"My brother believed that we should be kind to people, even if they are different from us." I said, "He also believed that we should love and protect our friends and relatives, even if we had to die for them. I do what I do because I think he was right, and I want to be just like him. I was afraid to come here to meet you, because I thought that you wanted to kill me to get back at my sisters. But my brother came to me in a dream, and told me to meet you. When he was alive, he said that there were things that your people's elders would never tell you, just like you said that there were things my teachers would never let me read. One of those things is the reason why the Khorish came to you for help: it's because they knew that our people and yours came from brothers. He said your people erased it from your memory, because we hurt you so badly. He said that it was our duty to reach out to you, to show you the love and kindness that we should have shown you back then. That's why I agreed to come here tonight...to show you that I am your Khorish sister."
Maxine's eyes grew as large as the three moons of the sky. She backed away towards the railing, breathing rapidly, as though I were a dragon that was about to chew her to pieces! Now she thinks I'm REALLY crazy! I panicked. She'll be too afraid of me to be my friend now! I should not have come here! I should have just stayed in my room!
But she stopped. She turned around, and leaned on the railing, taking several deep breaths. I waited, listening to her heartbeat as it slowed down again.
She finally lifted her head, and looked over at the statue of Ea, "That sacrifice you made, when you first came into the shrine?" she said in a soft, trembling voice, "My people do it the exact same way. Only, when I pray, I call myself a Daughter of the Isle of Rivers, whereas you call yourself a Daughter of the Seven Seas."
I kept holding my hand out, walking closer to her slowly, so that I would not scare her anymore. She reached out hers; it was shaking so much that I was afraid that it was going to fall off. I smiled at her, waiting patiently, like my brother did when he offered his hand to children much smaller than him. Then I felt her fingers curl around my mine, and she let out a deep breath. I floated back onto the rail, keeping my hand in hers, and we watched the Seraph doves and Morrigan vipers gather at the pool together in peace. After what seemed like many hours, Maxine squeezed my hand.
"Cassandra, it's getting late. I better take you back to your dorm."
We walked back out into the garden. The three moons covered the plants and trees with a silver blanket. I heard eel-mice and tiger-rats in the bushes, and the taunts of gangs of stonehearts as they prowled the night. I clung to Maxine's arm and whimpered. She stroked my head, waiting for me to calm down. Then she wrapped her arm around my shoulder, leading me back to my dorm. I heard another hiss from the same giant serpent I saw before.
"He's on our side," Maxine said, squeezing my shoulder gently.
"What kind of snake is it?" I asked.
"A big one," Maxine winked at me three times.
We finally reached my dorm, and I blew more mist into my hands so that I could fly up.
"Are you a bird in a girl's body?" Maxine asked, smiling.
"Maybe," I said, giggling as I hovered in the air in front of her.
"It's more fun being an animal anyway. You get to sleep outside in the cool spring night, right under the stars and the three moons." she stared up at the sky, "Oh, and, Cassandra."
"Yes?" I asked.
"If the other children ask why I did not eat you, just tell them I thought that you weren't very tasty. Too many feathers, you see."
I giggled again, then I became serious, "Are you sure you want to go back to your room alone?"
"Don't worry about me, sib. I'll be just fine. Before anyone can kill me, they'll have to find me." She changed her skin so that she blended into the bushes, "And only you have ears that are sharp enough to hear me."
"Seven silver nights to you, Daughter of the Isle of Rivers," I told her, praying silently to Ea, so that she would watch over my Dunite sister.
Maxine smiled at me again. It was a nice smile, the kind that Lammy used to give me when I did the right thing.
"Seven silver nights to you," she whispered, as she vanished back into the bushes, "Daughter of the Seven Seas."
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Copyright 2010, Michael Bonett, Jr.. All rights reserved.
Michael has been writing since before he could talk. He has a degree in English from the George Washington University and has a black belt in karate. He served in the Republic of Georgia as a Peace Corps Volunteer before the conflict with Russia and completed his service in Micronesia in June of 2009. He currently works at ADT Security and is the author of "Heart of Flesh", which has appeared in Mindflights magazine.