Song of the Sea Spirit

By K.C. May

Fantasy

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362
19 mins

Chapter 1

Working under the glow of two lamps, Jora Lanseri sat hunched at her workbench. The scent of tanned leather and oil had long since faded from her notice, for the night was late or the morning early. She wasn’t sure which. With every tap of her hammer on the awl, the moment grew closer that Jora would have to say goodbye to her dearest friend. It was no wonder the tools felt so heavy in her hands. The holes she punched into the leather strap might as well have been going directly into her heart.

She tried to imagine life in the small town without him and couldn’t. In every scene, he was there: Jora trading half her meat for the vegetables he didn’t like; playing Winds and Dragons together so late into the night that their tired eyes could no longer distinguish one tile from another; sharing thoughts on the stars, the god Retar, the meaning of life, the secret ingredient in the bread pudding that made it irresistible. Boden would have plenty to occupy him in the coming days and weeks and years, far too much to miss her, but she couldn’t say the same. For her, his absence would leave a gaping hole in her life.

“You’re here early,” said a deep voice.

Jora flinched, turning to find Boden at the shop’s door. “Goodness, you startled me.” It was then that she realized the sun had peeked over the horizon. In the distance, she could hear the sounds of people outside, talking, getting started on the new day. She stood to hug him.

“Sorry,” he said with a grin. He returned the embrace, patting her back affectionately. “I heard the pounding and figured it was you.”

Sometime in the last two years, he’d grown from being her own height to towering over her by a head. Like most boys, he let his dark-brown hair grow long, and it trailed nearly to his waist. Jora pulled a handful of it over his shoulder and smoothed it across his chest. In only a few short hours, it would fall to the floor in a heap and be offered to the chickens for nesting. It was a shame to have to cut it off, but Boden wasn’t one to question tradition, much less hard and fast rules imposed by the Legion. “Want me to braid it one last time?”

A slight blush crept into his now-angular face, a face whose once-chubby cheeks she’d pinched countless times over the years. He’d become a man right under her nose, and yet, she was seeing it for the first time. “Thanks, but I’ll pass,” he said.

She lay her hand against his prickly cheek and smiled warmly. Oh, how she would miss him and worry about him. Only one out of every seven men ever returned from the war, but Jora pushed that thought aside. Gunnar had prepared him well. He would come back.

“You’re not going to cry, are you?” Boden asked.

“Of course not. Do I look like your mother?” She went to the window, wiping her eye surreptitiously when her back was turned to him, and opened the shutters. Outside, the marriage council members stood about in their ceremonial garb, conferring about the details of the upcoming ceremony. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready? It looks like the council is gathering.”

“Soon,” he said. “I wanted to talk to you first.”

“Ooh, here come the musicians.” Jora heard a couple of them warming up with runs and exercises. When she heard the delightful sound of the flute, she put her hands over her heart. “The flute. I hope they play Song of the Sea Spirit.”

“That’s the one with the long flute solo?”

“Yah,” Jora said. “It’s so lovely, it always makes me weep.” She’d tried a few times to talk to the flute player, but she was a twitchy dame who seemed disinclined to talk about her art. Or anything else, for that matter.

Boden chuckled. “Sap.”

She didn’t mind being a sap if she could hear that song again, or better yet, learn to play it herself. Of course, she would need a flute for that, and such a thing was made only for those apprenticing in the musical arts. At twenty-two, Jora was too old to begin a new apprenticeship now. Besides, Nuri kept her busy in the leather shop, making items to sell to the traveling merchants so the town could pay its taxes.

“What are you working on so early?” he asked, picking up the knapsack on her workbench. “It must be important.”

Jora rushed over and tried to take it from him. “You’re not supposed to see it yet. It’s not finished.”

He pushed her hands away. “This is for me?” He turned the bag over, inspecting it. “I don’t know what to say. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s supposed to be useful. Here, look.” She tugged it open to show him the pockets. “I made a pouch for your papers to keep them smooth and dry, and on the outside, a pocket for your flint and a strap to carry a knife or axe. And…” She lifted a flap inside. “A false bottom, in case you want to keep something hidden, like a journal or other flat thing. There’s even a loop here to hold a lead pen for when a quill and ink are impractical.”

His face glowed with the boyish excitement she knew so well. “It’s excellent. Thank you. Now I won’t have to use my father’s old one.”

“Did you come just to see what I was making for your journey tomorrow?” She retook her seat and gestured to the stool at her mentor’s workbench.

He cleared his throat and dragged the stool closer. “Actually, no. I came to ask, uh, if you’ve decided yet whether, um, you’re going to perhaps consider…”

“Am I going to submit?”

His cheeks reddened, and he nodded, sitting heavily.

The question had tormented her over the last few months. In fact, she was surprised he’d waited until the day of his Antenuptial to ask. On one hand, Boden was one of her dearest friends. There was no doubt that they would get along beautifully and raise wonderful children. On the other, she’d long thought of him more as a brother than a potential lover and had only recently begun to notice his manly qualities. Whenever she envisioned the two of them kissing, her mind at once rejected every mental image she conjured. And yet, she wanted desperately to have children of her own.

Part of her feared Boden was the only one who would take her as a wife, that her only chance to be a mother lay with him. Then she would admonish herself for thinking so selfishly.

For every decision she made to submit, she made another to abstain. It didn’t feel right and proper to marry Boden, no matter how much she cared for and respected him.

But he wasn’t the man she thought of as she went about her tasks every day or imagined in her arms as she hugged her pillow at night. The one she’d developed an intense doe-eyed fondness for when she was fourteen, the man she’d grown to respect and care for and fantasize about wasn’t Boden but his father. Gunnar.

The mere thought of him made her heart pitter-patter, but that was a secret she’d shared only with Tearna. She’d mastered keeping her expression calm, her voice steady, and her words cordial but distant whenever she interacted with him or spoke about him to others. He was thirty-six years old, for Challenger’s sake. She should have been considering a younger man.

She leaned forward and took Boden’s hands into hers, stroking his fingers with her thumbs. His skin was no longer soft and boyish but calloused and rough. “Boden, you know I love you, right? You’ve been like a brother to me since we were both small.”

“I know,” he said softly, staring at their entwined hands. “I… feel the same.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “If you want me to, I’ll submit, but it would be… awkward. Besides, I don’t think I’d qualify anyway. The timing isn’t right.”

He snapped his eyes up to meet hers. “No!” He swallowed. “I mean, I agree it would be awkward. Your friendship means the world to me, and I don’t want to ruin it.”

“Good,” Jora said, squeezing his hands before releasing them. She was glad he understood, but part of her wondered whether he shared the misgivings of the boys who’d had their Antenuptials before him. The boys who, time and again, had chosen someone else over Jora as their First Wife.

Boys turning eighteen chose the comeliest and most likable girls as First Wives. That was almost an unwritten law of life in Kaild—perhaps across all of Serocia. The other girls remained unmarried until they turned twenty-three or beyond, at which point they could marry an older man, one who had already returned from the war. Those with a homely face or an unpleasant disposition sometimes found themselves maidens well into their thirties, or perhaps forever, but Jora was confident no one thought her unpleasant. True, with her oversized eyes, crooked teeth, and big nose, she wasn’t a raving beauty, but it wasn’t her appearance that turned the boys’ heads away.

It was her talent for Mindstreaming.

Who wanted a wife with the ability to scrutinize every moment of their lives or spy on them from afar? Visiting whores while fulfilling his duty as a soldier wasn’t only common but expected. Most men were away for ten years, after all, sometimes longer. Few among them would relish the notion of having a wife at home who could Observe those acts in excruciating detail through the mystical power of Mindstreaming.

“It’s your last chance to be a First Wife,” Boden said. With the tips of his thumbs touching, he tapped his fingertips together as he always did when he was nervous. “I wouldn’t deny you if you had your heart set. Tearna and Briana are both First Wives.”

“Eagle-boy to the rescue,” she said with a smile. It had been his favorite game as a child, pretending to be half-eagle, half-boy, flying high above the land and diving in to snatch up invading armies and dropping them into the sea, saving the women and children of Kaild.

Boden chuckled and blushed, looking more boyish than manly. “Yah. Like Eagle-boy.”

She would rather not marry at all than take a husband who chose her out of pity. “Don’t worry. I’ve made peace with not marrying. It’s like Oram said; no man wants a woman like me.”

Boden scowled. “That’s not true. Don’t listen to that nonsense, Jora. You’re good and kind, fun to be with, hard-working, and clever. And you have a way with children. Any man would be fortunate to have you as a wife.”

The fact that he hadn’t called her comely did not escape her notice, but his other kind compliments brought a smile to her face. “You’re sweet, but truly I’m at peace with it. But if you want my advice…”

He exhaled hard, his body seeming to deflate, and nodded.

“You should choose Micah. She’s wonderful with the little ones, and she has quite the pitters for you.”

One side of his mouth curved into a smile, reminding her of his father. A twinkle gleamed in his eye. “I noticed. But what about the Molnar girl? She’s of age now.”

Larke Molnar, widowed from her first husband and remarried to Jora’s father as his Third Wife, was one of the comeliest women in Kaild, but Larke’s eldest daughter Hanna was so beautiful, she inspired poetry and caused minor accidents. Since she’d turned sixteen a week earlier, Boden was the first man with the opportunity to choose Hanna as his First Wife, if she submitted. Jora would bet a new cloak that younger men whose Antenuptials were approaching prayed silently to Retar every night to save her for them.

“She’s beautiful beyond words,” Jora said, “but she’s conceited and snobbish. Who else can turn a conversation about the mechanics of well digging into praise for her beauty? Do you want a woman whose zealous concern for her own figure will permit you only one child, or a woman who’ll welcome you home from the war with open arms and open legs?”

Boden’s eyes flew wide, and his face turned nearly as red as the eastern sky. “Jora!”

“Let’s speak frankly. Micah would give you as many children as her body can manage. I can’t see Hanna doing the same.” Boden was all about duty and responsibility. Fighting and fathering sons to fuel the war effort was drilled into the head of every boy from the time he was old enough to understand his role in society. Girls were raised and trained to keep the cities running while the men fought to protect them. “The choice is yours, of course, but I suggest Micah.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You should go get dressed. The Antenuptial’s due to start soon. They’re probably wondering where you are.”

“I know,” he said, going to the door. “But I have a gift for you too, and I wanted to give it to you before I got caught up in the wedding and… what comes after.” He stepped outside for a moment and returned holding something behind his back.

Jora’s face warmed. “A gift? I’m not going anywhere.”

“No, but I am. This is a little something to remember me by.”

She thumped him playfully on the chest. “As if I would forget you.”

“Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”

“You needn’t give me a gift. I’ve done nothing—”

“Hush and do as I say or I’ll marry Hanna Molnar and give this gift to her instead.”

She closed her eyes, smiling with excitement, and held her hands out together, palms forming a cup. She’d never received a gift before. The townsfolk crafted, grew, raised, and gathered everything they needed, and so gifts were generally given only to men leaving for war or a woman marrying a man from another city. Boden laid something long and stiff across her hands, like a cane. She curled her fingers around it and felt several small, round holes drilled in a row along its length. It couldn’t be. She opened her eyes, certain she wasn’t holding… “A flute?”

“Do you like it?”

Mouth agape, she stared at it as she turned it in her hands, gently so as not to damage it. “God’s Challenger! How did you manage this?”

“I asked nicely. It helps when your aunt is the one who crafts the instruments.”

“And she made you a flute,” she said in a tone of wonderment. “Because you asked nicely?”

“All right, maybe I begged her and cried at her feet a little. And she made it for you, not for me. She made it because she knows how much you love its song.”

“Everyone knows how much I love its song. Boden, I don’t know what to say.” It was a thing of not only incredible beauty but… music! With this she could make music, though she’d need to play it on the beach at first, where no one would hear her mistakes.

“I hope you like it.”

She set it carefully on her workbench and threw her arms around him. “I love it so very much. Thank you. From the depths of my heart, thank you.” Tears blurred her vision, and she buried her face against his chest, trying to refrain from openly sobbing. Never would she have imagined receiving a gift such as this.

“Aren’t you two supposed to save that for after the wedding?” Nuri asked, entering the shop.

Jora and Boden stepped apart as if they’d been caught doing something they shouldn’t. “No, it’s not like that,” Jora said, wiping her eyes.

“Mmm hmm. I think it’s exactly like that.” Nuri went to her workbench and started laying out her tools, a dubious expression on her face. She was an older woman with three grandsons serving in the Legion and five great-grandchildren hoping to meet their fathers someday. Though Nuri wouldn’t admit her age, Jora guessed she was in her early to mid-sixties, but she wasn’t stooped over and half-blind like the master smith next door.

“I came to give her a gift,” Boden said.

“Yes, a flute. See?” Jora still couldn’t get over the fact that she had a flute.

Nuri’s eyes sparkled, and she smiled knowingly. “A promissory?”

“What’s a promissory?” Jora and Boden asked in unison.

“Dear girl.” Nuri clucked her tongue. “It’s not often done anymore, but if a boy wants to declare his interest in a girl who’s not submitting for his Antenuptial, he offers her a gift as a promise to marry her if she doesn’t take a husband by the time he returns from war. Such an extravagant gift must surely be a promissory.”

Boden blushed deep crimson and lowered his gaze to the floor.

“Boden?” Jora asked. “Is this… a promissory?”

“I didn’t intend it that way, but I wouldn’t object if you want to consider it so. If you’re not married by the time I return, I’ll take you as my Second Wife. I-If you wish it.”

His kindhearted offer touched her deeply, and she put her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “You’re such a dear.” Now she questioned his agreement with her decision not to submit. Had she disappointed him? Surely not. He’d brought the flute with him, had arranged for it to be made well before knowing whether she was going to submit. If she submitted, there would’ve been no reason to give her a gift aside from the reason he gave—a remembrance. Besides, he hadn’t known what a promissory was any more than she had. It was merely a gift to a dear friend. That was all.

She released him and patted his chest. “You’d better go. You’re to choose a wife soon. What a scandal it would be if you were late to your Antenuptial because you spent too much time in the company of other women.”

He grinned and wagged his eyebrows. “Creating a scandal just before leaving Kaild? That sounds like good sport to me.”

She reached to slap his butt, but he skittered out of reach, laughing as he jogged away. Jora leaned out the door. “Thank you again,” she called. “I’ll treasure it always.”

He turned and bowed to her while he walked backward toward the civic hall.

“It’s a promissory,” Nuri pronounced.

As Jora returned to her seat, she shook her head, refusing to believe it.


§


When Jora heard someone rattling around in the smithy next door, she set down her work and picked up the flute before wandering over to greet her friend. At one time, she’d considered an apprenticeship in blacksmithing, but only because that was the path Tearna chose. The two girls were born in the same month of the same year and had been close friends all their lives. They’d done everything together. It only made sense to her young mind that they would continue to work side by side in adulthood. Now Jora was glad Nuri had recruited her into leatherworking instead. Leather yielded in her hands, and with Tearna working next door, they often talked through the open windows. In effect, they were working side by side.

Tearna was opening the window shutters when Jora knocked on the door.

“Good morning,” Jora sang.

“Morning, dove. What’re you so cheerful about this early in the morning?” Tearna’s black hair was tied back into a simple bun and secured with a wooden stick. Jora could tell by the haphazard way it was wrapped that it would come loose before the day was done, and Tearna’s hands would be too dirty to fuss with it.

“Let me braid your hair. It’ll come undone by noon.”

Tearna grinned and pulled a stool over. “I was hoping you would offer. Your braids look pretty. Can you do mine like that?”

“Sure.” Jora pulled the flute from behind her back. “Look what Boden gave me.”

“Challenge the god!” Tearna said, her wide brown eyes set on the wooden instrument. “How did he manage to get a flute?”

“The crafter is his aunt. He said he begged her and she made it for me. Isn’t it gorgeous? I cannot wait to try it out.” In fact, she would make sure to find Boden’s aunt and thank her profusely before the Antenuptials began.

“Go on then. Play something.”

“Oh, no,” Jora said, setting the flute on a small table. “This is something I have to do in private. Sit, sit.”

Tearna looked at her flatly before sitting on the stool with her back to Jora. “I don’t expect you to be good. I just want to hear you play one note.”

Jora began to untie her friend’s hair. “I don’t know how to play one note. That’s why I have to do it in private—so I can figure it out before someone hears me be awful.”

Tearna laughed. “I’ll bet you’re naturally good at it.”

Jora wrinkled her nose at the back of Tearna’s head while she separated the hair into strands for braiding. “I’ve never even held a flute until this morning. I don’t know how to blow into it.”

“You’re too modest.”

Jora continued to braid Tearna’s hair while they talked about Boden’s upcoming Antenuptial and the preparations that were underway. When she was finished, she patted Tearna’s shoulders.

“Thank you. Are you doing Hanna’s hair for the ceremony?” Tearna asked, standing.

“She hasn’t asked me. I don’t know if she’s submitting.”

Tearna went out the back door and returned momentarily carrying a bulky burlap bag across her shoulder. “Have you told Boden you’re not?”

“Yah, we talked this morning and agreed that we like our friendship the way it is. Besides, I’m not fertile right now. If I submitted, I’d be disqualified anyway.”

“You tested yourself?” Tearna untied the bag and dumped its contents, charred wood, into the forge.

“No, but a girl gets a sense of her own cycle after so many times being disqualified.”

“So what are you going to do?”

Jora shrugged. What could she do besides become a latterly maid? Tearna and Briana, her two best friends, had both been chosen as First Wives. For years, they tried to reassure her that someone would choose her, too, that she wouldn’t have to suffer the humiliation of spending years as a latterly maid, hoping a returning soldier would propose before she was too old to bear children, but Jora knew better. That boy Oram had been right: no man would want a Mindstreamer for a wife.

She leaned against the doorframe and looked down the road toward the boys’ training center where Gunnar conferred with Boden outside, one hand on his son’s shoulder. He looked directly at her, his gray eyes seemingly darker and filled with something that made her insides flutter. Desire? Jora held Gunnar’s gaze long enough to communicate her interest, then let her eyes drop to the flute in her hands, a dream come true. If Gunnar proposed to her, then her other dream would be fulfilled. First a flute of her own and then the husband she wanted? She would owe Retar something truly special for granting her two dreams in one lifetime.

“You know,” Tearna said, “that’s a pretty extravagant gift for someone who’s not leaving. Are you sure he didn’t give you that flute as a bribe?”

“A bribe for what?” Jora asked with a laugh. She stroked the flute lovingly. Something this beautiful could never be a bribe.

“To convince you to submit for his Antenuptial?”

Jora shot her an annoyed look. “Retar smite you.”

Tearna chuckled. “I was jesting. Don’t be so sensitive.” She went out for another bag of charcoal. “Speaking of gifts, how’s Boden’s bag coming along?”

“Slowly. Maybe if I move my workbench in front of the shop’s door so no one can come in, I’ll be able to finish.” So many people interrupted her during the day to ask about their loved ones away at war that she barely managed to finish her regular work, let alone work on an extra project, and Nuri was adamant that she only work on the bag in the mornings and evenings. She’d stayed awake all night to work on it, and her eyelids were heavy and sticky.

“Maybe if you said ‘no’ now and then.”

She found herself looking at Gunnar again, as if he were steel and her eyes magnets. “No isn’t really an option. Have you ever looked into his eyes?”

“Whose eyes?”

Startled by her blunder, Jora lifted one shoulder in a nonchalant shrug. “The eyes of the parent or wife or sibling or child asking me.”

“What are you looking at?” Tearna went on tiptoe to look out the south-facing window and smiled. “Ah. Gunnar’s eyes. Ha! I should’ve known.”

Jora’s six-year-old twin nephews went running past Gunnar and Boden, followed by a red-faced girl of about twelve. “Come back here or else,” she hollered.

“Leave them,” Jora called to the girl. “My nephews are old enough to accept the consequences for arriving late to class.”

The two boys stopped short and looked at her with surprise in their matching faces, as if the notion that being late to school having consequences had never occurred to them.

“And if they don’t get to class on time from this day forward,” Gunnar said, his arms crossed and a scowl on his face, “they’ll wish they’d been born girls.”

When the boys broke into a run, headed directly toward the schoolrooms, Jora and Tearna both laughed.

“No wonder he has such a tough reputation among the boys,” Tearna said. “He instills it early.”

Gunnar walked toward the smithy, a pleasant smile replacing the scowl.

“Shh! Here he comes,” Jora said. “I wonder what he wants.”

“You,” Tearna said. “Go talk to him.” Then she busied herself with firing up the forge, leaving Jora to speak with Gunnar alone.

“Good morning,” Jora said in a pleasant tone. Her heartbeat quickened with every step of his approach. She couldn’t help but admire his smooth gait and the way his broad shoulders glided evenly through the air, despite his slight limp.

“And good morning to you, dear Jora.” He stood a half-step closer to her than a man normally did when conversing with an unmarried woman, perhaps a query as to how far into her personal space she would allow him. “Did you not sleep well?”

She shook her head. “I stayed up all night to work on Boden’s departure gift.” Her throat felt unnaturally thick, and she swallowed in an attempt to normalize her voice. “Perhaps I can sneak away for a nap later.”

“Would you sit with me a minute? The boys are beginning their lessons under your brother’s expert guidance.”

She looked around quickly and spotted a bench outside the tailoring workshop.

“How about there?”

They took a seat on the bench, their bodies angled toward each other, knees nearly touching. “What’s that you have?” Gunnar asked, his deep voice so gentle, it raised goosebumps on her arms. What would it be like to hear him murmur her name late at night?

She swallowed down her nervousness and stroked the flute’s smooth wood. “A flute. Boden gave it to me earlier this morning. I’ll have to learn to play it in private so I don’t annoy people with my mistakes.”

“I see. You and Boden are…”

“Just friends,” she said quickly. “In fact, he’s more of a brother to me than Loel is.” She remembered a day when Boden boldly stood up to older and bigger children who’d been teasing her about being a freak while Loel and their elder brother Finn looked on.

“You’ll miss him,” Gunnar said quietly.

She nodded, lowering her gaze. “Of course. And worry.” Of course, her own anxiety was nothing compared to the pain and fear that must have gripped Gunnar’s heart and Anika’s. “I can’t imagine the pain and fear parents must endure while their sons are away fighting. Do you think the war might finally end in our lifetime?”

He slumped his shoulders as if in defeat. “I fear we’ve forgotten how to live any other way. I’m about to send my son into a war to defend a damned tree. It seems so senseless to me now, especially considering…” He shook his head. “When I was Boden’s age, I was as excited and proud to do my duty for Serocia as he is, but fifteen years of fighting leads a man to question things.”

“What kinds of things?”

He met her gaze, and the sun peeked above the roof of a building to shine his eyes like they were liquid silver. “How can we possibly serve the greater good by killing?”

Jora had no answer. She was technically still a girl in the eyes of her people, a girl from a medium-sized town in rural Serocia, not worldly like Gunnar was. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know, either, but as I prepare my son to leave the relative safety of Kaild to kill other men’s sons, I think about it. A lot.”

And of course, those other men’s sons were planning to kill and not be killed, just as Boden was. Jora’s eyes welled with tears. She didn’t want to think about losing her friend the way she’d lost her eldest brother. She didn’t want to consider the possibility of Boden falling in battle with a terrible, painful wound or bleeding to death on the battlefield. “Did your father ask the same question when you were going off to war?”

“I never knew my father,” he said softly. “He died in battle when I was six. I only remember the corpulist delivering his body, wrapped in a shroud, in the back of a wagon along with the bodies of three other men, stinking of death and drawing flies.”

Tosh had been returned home the same way almost ten years earlier. She was only thirteen when she witnessed her brother’s death in the Mindstream, seeing Tosh being struck down from behind, a sword going into his back and through his heart. Jora had watched in mute horror as his body arched, his head snapped back, and his mouth fell open with his last gasping breath. She shook her head to dislodge the image. Such a violent death was something she hoped never to witness again, especially if it was someone she loved. “We’ve all lost family members, but I’m certain we’ll see Boden home safely in a decade.” This she said more out of a desire to convince herself than of belief in what she was saying, but to speak her mind, to say aloud what they both surely feared, would have felt like a condemnation. Hope was all they had.

“Right. Enough of such morose talk,” he said. “Are you excited about this afternoon’s ceremony?”

In the three years since he’d returned from the war, Gunnar had never asked her that, never shown any interest in her participation in the Antenuptials. She supposed that this time, because the boy becoming a man was his son, he would have an interest in who was chosen to be Kaild’s newest First Wife. “I’m happy for him,” she said, “but I won’t be submitting for the Antenuptial.”

He lifted one eyebrow, but he didn’t look offended. “Did my son do something to displease you?”

“No,” Jora said. “Not at all. I won’t qualify, and so I don’t care to go through the humiliation of being tested and denied in front of the whole town. Again.”

He looked at the flute in her hands. “Is that a promissory, then? You’ve agreed to wait for his return?”

She felt warmth flood her face. “No, it was just a gift, not a promissory. We have no such agreement.” Why did people assume the flute was a promissory? True, giving a gift to someone who wasn’t leaving Kaild was highly unusual, especially when the one giving was a man about to choose a wife, fill her with seed, and then leave for war. That didn’t make the gift a promissory.

“So you’ll be seeking a husband from among the returned soldiers.” His was a kinder way of putting it than pointing out that she would join the ranks of the latterly maids, the unmarried women of age. The ones desperate to avoid ending up like old lady Xerba, childless and alone. Although half the married women in Kaild had at one point been latterly maids, it was an embarrassment every woman wanted behind her.

She nodded. “Two men are due home within the next few months. Perhaps one of them would overlook my… talent and offer his hand.”

“I submit myself for consideration.”

She blinked twice, unsure what to make of his words. Was that a proposal? Surely not. A man as respected as Gunnar Sayeg, or as handsome, or as virile, didn’t take homely women as their wives. And no sane man wanted a Mindstreamer.

“I’ll keep you warm and safe at night and try my best to give you at least one daughter to carry on your family name.”

Her arms ached with the need to hug him. “My sister has a daughter,” she heard herself say. “As do my cousins.”

His eyebrows lowered, and his eyes darkened. “Is that a no, then?”

“No! It-it’s not a no. I-I meant that I don’t need a daughter. I would be happy enough to bear you five sons.” Oh, God’s Challenger! She was gushing at him like a love-struck girl. Warmth spread through her face and down her neck.

And just as quickly, his eyes brightened, though he didn’t smile. “Then it’s a yes?”

Her heart was pounding, and her hands were so wet with sweat she feared they would start dripping. “It isn’t proper to propose to a woman before her twenty-third birthday.”

“I’m not proposing. I’m planning ahead.” He winked at her, and a tiny smile played at one corner of his mouth.

“When you propose, I’ll say yes. Until then, I can’t give you an answer.” As nervous and excited as she was, her biggest concern was how she would break the news to Boden. Ten years was a long time. Maybe by the time he returned, he would forgive her.

Gunnar laughed, a sound that never failed to make Jora tingle inside. “I look forward to it.” He rose and offered to help her stand. She wiped her hand on her trousers before putting it into his. “I’d better report to my students. I’ll be impressed if Loel has managed to run them through their starting exercises.”

“Thank you for speaking with me, Gunnar.”

He leaned down and kissed her cheek. “The pleasure was mine, dear Jora.”

As Jora watched him walk away, she fought the urge to touch her cheek to see if it felt hot to her fingers. She caught sight of his Fourth Wife, Marja, standing by the door to the dining hall. The woman glared at them with her arms crossed and mouth pinched tightly shut.


§


The first opportunity Jora had to take her new flute to the beach was late morning, before the Antenuptials were due to begin. She hurried across the sand to the rocky shoal she had played on since she was a child. At low tide, the rocks were dry and easy to cross by hopping along a familiar path, though she wasn’t as lithe as she’d once been. The smell of saltwater, the sound of the rushing waves, and the feel of the sun’s warmth on her face sharpened her mind and calmed her soul. She couldn’t imagine living anywhere but by the sea.

She settled on a rock with her legs dangling over the edge, a good two feet above the splash of the waves hitting the rocks. Out here, with only the birds and fish to hear her, she lifted the flute to her lips, covered all but the first hole, and tried a tentative blow. It came out sounding more breathy than musical, but the shy note encouraged her to try again to coax out a clearer sound.

She experimented with rotating the flute by degrees and found the perfect angle that allowed her to blow clear, crisp notes instead of note-flavored breaths. Excited, she tested various positions of her fingers, covering and uncovering holes to get a feel for how to create the notes she wanted.

“Jora!”

From the beach, Tearna beckoned her with waving arms. Had time passed so quickly? It seemed she’d arrived only a moment ago. She waved back. A few more minutes.

She played a few notes of her favorite song, adjusting her fingering when she got them wrong. She played them again and again, getting them right after the third attempt.

A joyful twitter broke her concentration. She looked down to find a bottlenose dolphin eyeing her from the water near her feet, its mouth open as if in a smile.

“Hail,” she said, charmed by the creature’s friendly greeting. “Did my flute playing disturb you?”

The dolphin rose out of the water a few inches and twittered some more.

Jora laughed. “I’ll get better, I promise. In the meantime, you might want to find another place to nap or hunt or whatever you were doing. I plan to come here to practice every spare moment I can.”

To her surprise, the dolphin whistled the same notes she’d played—the correct notes, as if it knew which of her attempts was the right one.

“How did… You just…”

The creature twittered again and rolled in the water. It acted like it was flirting with her.

“Do it again.” She waited, but the dolphin merely watched her with one dark eye. She lifted the flute and played the notes.

And the dolphin repeated them.

“Goodness!” This was astounding. Jora wondered whether she had unwittingly found a way to say hail or something else in Dolphinese. Then it struck her that the name of the piece was Song of the Sea Spirit. Perhaps the enchanting melody hadn’t been composed by a human at all but a dolphin. A sea spirit.

“Jora!” Tearna was waving more frantically now.

Boden’s Antenuptial. “Oh, Challenger’s bollocks!” She scuttled to her feet. This was the one event she couldn’t be late for. She started to run back to shore but stopped and returned to the edge of the rocks. “It was a pleasure meeting you,” she said to the dolphin. “I hope to see you again.”

With that, the dolphin rose up onto its powerful tail, twittered happily, and dove back into the water.

Jora laughed and waved before running back to the beach.



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