Kolbat rose from her blankets as the moon crested the night sky. This ceaseless tedium of sleeping as the sun reigned and working as the night dragged on had finally brought her to the final and inevitable conclusion.
"No more," she said to the empty room. Kolbat draped her arm across her eyes and sighed. "Just… no more."
She'd known it wouldn't last. Too good to be true. At first, the money had been enough. Now, she'd rather be out on the waves and penniless again if she could only sleep through an entire night. It wasn't worth the trouble.
Kicking the blankets from her quilted futon, Kolbat rolled onto the hardwood floor and pushed herself to her knees. The night air still clung to a vestige of warmth; it rarely grew cold in the Isles. Even bare as she was, Kolbat rarely felt a chill at night.
She experienced a moment of despair, knowing this little place was all she could dream to afford. Even this small, two-room hut on the shoreline cost four silver marks a month for her to occupy.
A month's rent cost a month's pay. No mention of food, clothing, or other expenses. Spirits save the soul that dared to purchase a luxury, when such was all that could pull her life from simply… existing.
Kolbat could hear her landlord now. "If you can afford a bottle of whisky, you can pay me on time," he'd say.
Ashes take the bastard. He'd love nothing more for every tenant and renter to be nothing but joyless souls that worked all day and night, handed over their coin, and never experienced a scrap of life outside of the cannery.
Kolbat washed herself at her cistern, feeling the aches that had accumulated over the last week. She used a razor to shave her legs, a necessity for someone about to survive out on the ocean currents for a time. She needed to be as swift underwater as she could make herself, so excess hair needed to go. Kolbat balked at shaving her head, however. Darva liked her hair, and even if she meant to leave the island, she wanted to keep it if only to think of him. She had a sealskin cap that she could wear when it came time to go beneath the surface.
She nicked herself more often than she used to. Kolbat's arms were still sore and clumsy from hauling the latest catch of tuna from the wharf. She would take the fish by the barrow-load to the cannery, cut them up, throw them into the boilers, then finally see them pressed into steel cans for shipment to the mainland. The Highest King had funded the cannery, seeing the technique's potential for non-perishable foodstuff production.
It was hard work. A hard life. And she had finally grown tired of trading her freedom on the waves for something so paltry.
Slowly, Kolbat began to notice that bells were ringing further inland.
Something was going on, but Kolbat couldn't bring herself to care anymore. She found her old rucksack, unused for the past two years and began stuffing it with what possessions she had. She had a muslin dress she never wore; when would she ever have the chance to go to a festival or village gathering? Her only other clothing were three threadbare shirts and two loose pairs of trousers.
Kolbat picked out the worst shirt and trousers she had. If she was about to start island hopping again, she wouldn't want to get her best clothes all salt stained. Cleaning clothes was a pain, which was part of the reason why she slept in the nip.
When Kolbat first came to Zumé Island, she'd truly thought this was the end of her island hopping. The cannery sounded like an opportunity to finally settle down and make something of herself. The lack of coin, the disdain shown her by the other workers, not to mention the way both her landlord and the foreman leered at her… It all chipped away at her initial optimism.
Kolbat was only surprised she had persevered as long as she had. She'd never stayed on the same island for so long before. Island hoppers rarely stayed longer than a season, and Kolbat once took pride in being the same way.
Why'd I even stay this long? she asked herself.
She'd find her boat and head out to sea tonight. Kolbat wouldn't give anyone the chance to convince her to remain. If she had her way, she'd be gone before another soul realized she intended to leave.
If Darva found out and tried to get her to stay, Kolbat wasn't certain she'd have the resolve to leave.
"Back to old habits," she whispered while stuffing a few pilfered cans of fish into her rucksack. A canning knife, too. Wouldn't want to forget the means of opening the spiteful things, thereby making them worthless. "Stay long enough to earn some coins. Maybe break a heart or two."
Kolbat sniffed and wiped her eyes with her wrist. This time, leaving hurt worse. Darva had been much of the reason she thought she might like to stay for good this time. He loved her, or so Kolbat had come to believe. In turn, she liked to think that she held him in something besides the purposeful indifference she gave to every other mortal in the Shoto Islands.
She realized she was already distancing herself. The truth was plain. Kolbat felt decidedly more for Darva than simply "not nothing". Long silences spent watching the sunrise after a hard night of work, stolen kisses on the walk home, and one unforgettable night beneath the stars all made it impossible for Kolbat to deny one simple fact.
Kolbat had fallen in love with Darva.
Yet, she couldn't stay. The very idea of remaining on Zumé Island made her feel itchy and nauseas now. She had to escape— take her little boat and sail for somewhere else in the archipelago. She hadn't yet seen every island of Shoto, not to mention the mainland of the Continent. Perhaps the next shore she landed on would have what she was searching for.
"What am I searching for?" Kolbat wondered aloud. She was applying black greasepaint to her eyes. She'd be grateful for it once the moon got closer to the horizon. She'd known mariners who'd gone blind by staring too long at the moon's brilliance.
Maybe this time, she'd actually go to the mainland. Her light gray eyes, tilted and almond-shaped, weren't so different from the eyes of the Althandi. Her fine, black hair would make it easier to blend in. Only, her skin was brown like cinnamon, and the Althandi were almost painfully fair. Though, from what she knew of mainlanders, they preferred darker skin tones; the people of Melcia had skin that was nearly black, and they were considered the standard of beauty on the Continent. Kolbat liked to thing that she'd be thought of as beautiful there. Unlike here, where she was looked down on for being a detestable hirogeru. The shimatte, the dark-eyed, believed that light-eyed people like Kolbat were cursed by the spirits.
The Shoto Isles were a minor kingdom, not even considered one of the five in the inaccurately named Five Kingdoms. The Isles owed fealty to the Highest King of Althandor, just like everyone else, but sometimes Kolbat believed the mainlanders forgot the little archipelago nation even existed.
Shoto wasn't Melcia, Nadia, Altier Nashal, or even Gaulatia. They weren't even an influential hub of trade and culture like Irdruin, Japax, or any one of a dozen other minor kingdoms. Tucked into the corner of the Gulf of Teularon, north-east of the Gaulatian coastline, the Shoto Isles didn't much factor into the affairs of the world.
Kolbat had always thought she preferred things that way. She could live removed from the constant wars that plagued the Five Kingdoms as of late, for as long as she could remember in her twenty years. Now, maybe that wasn't as desirable a thing as she believed. Perhaps the future and life she wanted, whatever that may be, would be found on the Continent.
"Good, you're up," a man's voice said from Kolbat's doorway. "I thought we'd get to work early today and see what all the commotion is."
Kolbat startled and dropped her full rucksack. It now held everything she cared to keep. Everything, but not everyone.
"Don't sneak up on me," she growled while picking up the bag.
Darva chuckled. His rich, deep voice sent tingles down Kolbat's skin. "Not like I came on tip-toes. Come on, I want to see what's happening."
"What're you talking about?" Kolbat pointedly refrained from turning to face him.
"The bells," Darva said. "Hard to miss, aren't they?"
"I…" Kolbat hesitated. She owed Darva the truth. "I'm not going to the cannery tonight."
"Miss your shift?" Darva exclaimed. "Hanzo won't be happy. He'll let a hopper fill your spot and might just let them keep it."
"Good," Kolbat said. "Lot of them need the job."
She shouldered her pack with an exaggerated motion, then turned to face Darva. It would have made this easier if he could have refrained from looking so handsome tonight, but Kolbat had never been all that lucky.
His eyes widened when he saw the greasepaint on her face. Dark blue eyes, dark enough to make him shimatte. He wasn't Shotoese, Kolbat actually had no idea where he hailed from, but he appeared similar enough to be accepted. His skin was brown, but more chestnut than cinnamon. His eyes lacked an epicanthic fold, lending him the features of one of the races of the far south. He might have been part Altieri or Irdish.
Darva's most striking feature was his tattoos. They were unique on the islands, as far as Kolbat knew. The Shotoese, when they did so, more often inked themselves with characters from the old writings or with the crests of noble houses they served. Darva's tattoos were more like works of art. Deep, swirling patterns of indigo were inked down the sides of his face and across his arms and bare chest. From experience, Kolbat knew those patterns continued down the full length of him.
"You could… come with me," Kolbat offered, doing her best not to blush. "Not all that much room in my boat, but I'd be willing to scoot a little further starboard."
Darva pulled himself up into her hut— without permission, she noted with some annoyance— and took her by the shoulders. His eyes traced over her as if searching for something that simply wasn't there.
"That's it, then?" he asked. "You just leave? No warning or…"
"I don't need permission," Kolbat interrupted, forcing some ice into her voice. "My life is mine. Mine, Darva. Not theirs, and not yours either."
His lips parted, and he drew back slightly. Kolbat had stung him, and the knowledge that she had made her want to hit her head against something solid. She hadn't intended to be cruel, but she knew she was being exactly that.
Darva's grip on her shoulders loosened, and he let her go. "It was never my… I never wanted you to think…"
Kolbat looked away and closed her eyes to keep tears from spilling out. "You didn't," she said. "I'm sorry."
"Of course your life is yours," Darva said miserably. "That's what I l-…" He balked, swallowed, and started again. "That's what I've always liked about you."
Letting her rucksack fall from her shoulder, Kolbat pressed herself against him. She wrapped an arm around his neck and placed her lips over his, her other hand running down the hardened muscle of his abdomen.
Kolbat recalled that Darva was self-conscious that she was an inch taller than him. The stray thought made her smile as they kissed, and her smile broadened as she felt his hands find their way under her shirt.
His kisses became desperate, like he believed that if he kissed her fiercely enough it would convince her to stay.
Tempting. Supremely tempting, but the moon was past its zenith. The tides were turning, and if she meant to make it to the mainland, she needed to leave sooner rather than later. If she and Darva went much further, there'd be a significant delay.
She drew back. "You never answered my question."
Darva chuckled, a wry sound without any joy behind it. "You know, my elders used to say that I was the sort to go off without a word. Darva the Corsair, they called me."
That was perhaps the first time Kolbat ever heard Darva speak of anything of his life before Zumé Island. He was trying to get her interested enough to remain a little longer. A trap— one she was sorely tempted to let capture her.
Now that she'd made up her mind, Kolbat couldn't bear to stay here any longer. She buried her face into Darva's neck and breathed in the scent of him. "Last chance," she whispered.
Darva embraced her, his hands caressing the small of her back. "My wanderings are over, love. Flames guide you on yours."
Kolbat sniffed and let a tear fall down her cheek. She smiled despite herself. Where in the world did anyone swear by the spirits of fire anymore? Darva was a strange one. Perhaps that was why she loved him.
Without another word, Kolbat stepped out of the hut. Not her hut anymore. She'd already abandoned it in her mind. Before her bare feet landed on the sand, she lingered with her hand holding Darva's. Then, she turned from him and made her way to where she had beached her boat.
She allowed herself to cry as she pulled the tarp away from her boat. The greasepaint on her cheekbones began to run, but she didn't care.
Kolbat didn't take her little boat out often anymore. The occasional fishing trip when she couldn't afford her next meal. Once, she'd taken a brief voyage to the next island over to barter some pearls she dug out of the oysters near her home. Otherwise, the only time she did anything with her boat was to keep it seaworthy.
The boat bucked as it slid down the sand into the receding tide. Kolbat hopped in and unfurled the sail. Once the wind caught it, she was heading at a swift clip out to sea. After she was a good distance from shore, Kolbat looked one last time towards Zumé Island.
Her heart skipped a beat.
There was a glow further inland. The bells clamoring took on a more urgent tone in her ears. It was an alarm.
"Ashes and spite," she muttered as she fumbled in her rucksack for her spyglass. Kolbat put it to her eye.
It was the cannery. Nothing else was in that direction. Perhaps one of the boilers had blown. Hanzo had been getting lax with the procedures lately, but Kolbat never thought it was bad enough to cause an accident like this.
Her boat jostled, nearly sending her overboard. Kolbat lowered the spyglass and found Darva settling into place next to the mast.
"How…?" Kolbat whispered. "You're not even wet."
"I flew," he said matter-of-factly.
Kolbat shook her head. "Whatever. Do you see what's going on?"
She looked through her spyglass again. She could just make out figures running around like milling ants. They were armed, and they moved as if they were searching.
"It wasn't an accident," Darva said. "Right after you left, I headed to work. I heard the guards talking. Hanzo's dead."
"Dead?" Kolbat exclaimed. True, she didn't care for the man. She loathed the way he ogled her, but she never wished death on him.
"Murdered," Darva said grimly. "They're saying he walked in on someone as they were setting the fires."
"Someone did this?" Kolbat asked in horror. "Ashes, why?"
"I don't know, but I heard a few people saying it was the Courtesans."
Kolbat wrinkled her nose. The Courtesans were kooks, separatists that lost their own war twenty or so years ago and had been trying to start new ones for others ever since. The only tie that bound those rebels together was their mindless hatred for Althandor and House Algara.
Returning her spyglass to her rucksack, Kolbat sat and eyed her unexpected passenger. His presence made her heart glow, but she was concerned about why he had changed his mind.
Her unasked question must have been obvious. Darva tried unsuccessfully to meet her gaze before staring at the wood beneath his feet. "Outsiders won't do well on Zumé now. The guards were already rounding up some of the hoppers for questioning. People like you and me shouldn't be sticking around."
Kolbat winced. "Leaving like I did won't make me look good. Oh well. Not like I meant to come back."
"That easy?" Darva asked, raising an eyebrow at her.
She moved to sit beside him and leaned her head against his chest. "That easy."
"You know," Darva began hesitantly, "if this is how it's going to be, there are some things I should tell you. Where I come from. What… What I am."
"Doesn't matter," Kolbat murmured. The wind was blowing strong, and the shoals were already behind them. There was time to rest and simply… be… for a few hours.
"It matters," Darva insisted. "It might make you change your mind about wanting me to come along."
"We'll see," Darva said. "I hope you're right, my love."