Linda was running through the cold corridor, following the voice. She wasn’t exactly sure when she had heard it or whether it really was coming from outside or somewhere inside her own head, but she knew she had to find it. The sooner, the better. The message was on repeat, like an old record player: “Linda, can you hear me? Linda?”. It was important, it had to be - the worried tone of the voice was living proof of it.
She got so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t notice the window until the last moment. She went straight through, smashing it into bits before flying towards the hard pavement below...
For a moment she felt as though she was hanging motionless mid-air - with outstretched arms and legs, as if someone was holding her up.
After waking up a bit more, she realized that indeed, two pairs of strong hands were wrapped around her wrists and ankles and were carrying her somewhere. She opened her eyes abruptly and the bright rays of the Day star almost burnt her unprepared retinas. She barely managed to focus them on the still blurry silhouettes that were holding her, when she felt them swing here a little in their strong arms and suddenly let her go. Linda splashed into the water with a scream, which, come to think of it, she would’ve been better off without, considering the amount of bitter sea water that went into her mouth from the incoming wave. She stood up and spat it out, ready to, if nothing else, glare nastily at the eventual enemy who had attacked her as she slept. Instead of war cries, however, the women in front of her started shaking from bouts of powerful laughter.
Linda blinked i confusion a few times to chase away the droplets of salt water clouding her vision, before she managed to finally focus on their images. One of them was Ariya. She was gripping her belly with both hands and was laughing in her deep alt as if someone had just been tickling her for hours. Still, she met Linda’s confused stare head on and managed to speak without sounding too winded:
Linda’s eyes swiped over the growing ring of islanders around her and stopped at two familiar figures, rising from the water, spitting out curses and ocean water. Apparently she wasn’t the only one of their group who got the weird local morning hazing ritual.
She had just managed to catch their gazes when the crowd suddenly flowed forward and pushed all three of them back to the sea.
The wide grins on the local women’s faces were so contagious that Linda felt her annoyance evaporate like a droplet of water on the hot sand. Some of the women were carrying laminated pieces of wood, sharpened at one end, which looked a lot like surfs and jumped on top of them to meet the oncoming waves. Someone grabbed hold of her arm, above the elbow and lifted her effortlessly onto one of these planks. She turned her head back sharply and didn’t feel all that much relieved to see Ariah behind her.
“Yer not much one fer water sports, are ye, little one?”, the local woman shouted, to make sure Linda would hear her over the racket surrounding them. “Where be ye from?”
The girl returned her gaze to the front, as if to prepare herself for the coming waves, but mainly, to cover the crossing of her eyebrows on her forehead. She remembered the dark, dusty conference room in Syfis where Wotar had sat them down to explain the “mission” at least in general terms. Linda was almost certain that before that she had only heard the words “top secret” repeated so many times in movies. Still, there seemed to be enough information they could share with her and Wint - mere mortals though they were - that they kept talking at them in that room for at least an hour and a half, after which they gave Wint a few oval chips - just in case they forgot something… Of course, at that point Linda’s brain was still in a perpetual state of shock and bewilderment and most of her memories of that particular briefing were lost in blobs of incoherent and contextually mismatched images and sounds. Still, she had no other choice but to try and pull out at least one piece of useful information from the mental mess, because she was vaguely remembering being told multiple times to be extra careful what she speaks about to anyone who wasn’t Wotar or Wint.
“I’m a windstorm”, she finally shouted over her shoulder. “Well, I mean, I was born on the Air twin…”
“But the wind don’t listen to ye, huh?”, Ariah’s voice suddenly turned noticeably softer. “Nasty that disease, girl, gets ‘em younger an’ younger…”
“A-haaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”, her muttering suddenly turned into a startled cry as she saw the size of the ginormous wave heading their way.
“Chill, water listens to me still”, Ariah laughed into her ear and wrapped her powerful arms around her waist. “This there pretty fellow waits for us to get atop ‘im!”
To be perfectly frank, Linda wasn’t going to particularly mind if they had chosen to skip this one too, but at least now she realized why the local woman had dissipated the smaller waves coming their way with a flick of her wrist. Perhaps now was not the best time to remind herself that she couldn’t swim, Linda thought, but she did nevertheless.
Linda stiffened, preparing for the inevitable collision with the monstrous wave. Which never came… Instead, the foaming wall of seawater bent down low, as if bowing and carefully lifted up the board on which they were standing and just as slowly started raising them back up. Linda went through several stages of fear and surprise, before her emotional compass decided to firmly point at excitement and a sudden burst of energy washed over her. At some point she had started laughing out loud, like a little kid, but she had no idea when that happened. She was vaguely aware of Ariah’s strong hand on her shoulder, steadying her on the rocking plank, as the wave was rising higher and higher – like the burst of a geyser. And just like a geyser, all of a sudden the hundreds of litres of water splashed back into the ocean and for a split second, their surf hung in the air, before abruptly dropping down as well.
“Woo-hoo!”, Linda screamed with all she had and spread her arms to her sides, as she felt the plank slip away under her feet.
She could’ve sworn that this was the best feeling in the Universe – she felt like she was flying, even though only after a few seconds Ariah called fourth another, smaller wave, to break their fall. Similar cries of unadulterated mirth could be heard from all around them, in perfect harmony to her own. Linda now understood perfectly why the author of the Alaian truth was heaping so much praise on the Fringes. She didn’t believe she could imagine a place where she could feel quite as happy.
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, little one”, Ariah screamed in her ear, as if in response to her thoughts.
Linda could already see the new mini-tsunami heading their way and her brain lit up like a Christmas tree with excitement. It was several meters away and she could already feel the blissful weightlessness, accompanied by sprays of seawater, when a brusque pull on her left arm made her slip from the surf and splash loud next to it. She stood up, ready to cuss out all the male ancestors of the idiot who had had the audacity to deprive her from her much anticipated adrenaline overdose, but stopped short almost as soon as she opened her mouth. The expression on Wint’s face seemed to mirror the annoyance Linda felt at that exact moment. The girl stared at her wide-eyed with bewilderment, but as usual, the windstorm didn’t seem inclined to waste her time talking. Instead, she just grabbed Linda above her elbow and started dragging her back to the shore.
“Aw, come now yer airiness, don’t go ruinin’ the girl’s mood”, Ariah shouted behind them.
Wint stopped for a moment and turned just her head towards the local woman, but her corner-of-the-eye stare was full of so much menace, that even if the other one had prepared a couple more comments, she decided to keep them to herself and just dragged her surf deeper into the open water. Linda however had managed to shake off her initial shock and decided to try her luck:
“What the hell, Wint?”
It looked like the windstorm had completely ignored her, because she turned and resumed her dragging of the girl towards the beach, but she could’ve sworn she heard her mutter something like “’Tis why I tell ya yer dumb as a rock” under her breath.
“I beg your pardon?!”
“Pardon-shmardon”, Wint barked over her shoulder. “We have business ‘ere, or have ye forgotten?”
Linda fell silent in an attempt to hold back the sudden wave of animosity that took her over. She was so done with people treating her like an idiot. It wasn’t like she wanted any of this to happen to her – was it truly so outrageous on her part to want to enjoy at least a single moment? And what pray tell was this business of theirs that was so urgent now, when they had been dragging around the ocean in that scrappy ol’ bucket for the past few weeks?
Chance smiled upon her in the form of an underwater rock that Wint tripped over, because she had turned to Linda. And for a split second she let go of the girl’s hand, but that was more than enough for her.
Surprising even herself, in mere seconds she had managed to place enough distance between herself and the windstorm, such that her powerful voice was almost completely lost amidst the racket around them. Linda had no intention of turning back to check how far behind the older woman was – she had seen enough horror movies to know what a bad idea that would be. Instead, she took advantage of the group of local women ahead to hide herself from view, then took a sharp left and made for the line of palm trees.
She stopped for a moment next to one of the first stems, to catch her breath, but didn’t linger. It wasn’t wise to underestimate Wint’s tracking abilities or her own sense of guilt, which was surely waiting for an opportune moment to flare up.
And yet, why should she feel bad? It wasn’t as if the windstorm would take a single minute out of her precious time to beat herself over the horrible way she treated Linda? To hell with her! Her and Wotar both. Let them keep running around this strange planet, searching for that crazy prince or whatever. Linda definitely wasn’t going to move even an inch away from these gorgeous islands where everyone was living in such perfect peace and harmony.
“Hey, ye there!”
The voice startled her so much that, turning back, she couldn’t notice the root sticking out of the ground and tripping over it, fell to the ground on her face.
“Oops, ‘pologies!”, the voice came again, a bit closer this time. “I didn’t mean to startle ye.”
In front of Linda’s concussion dimmed eyes, a slender, well-tanned hand appeared which she took gratefully and stood up. And almost fell back again. The boy attached to the elegant appendage was just as fine. His long, slim legs were smooth and straight and the place where they connected to his narrow hips was covered by his only article of clothing – a piece of white cloth, tied at the front and hanging back like a mini-skirt of sorts. Her entranced stare slid further up, past his thin waist and exposed flat belly towards his perfectly sculpted chest and broad shoulders. His toned muscles were rather nicely accentuated by the dark tone of his skin. Despite that, he wasn’t burly by any means – on the contrary, he exuded a sort of grace that bordered on fragility.
Last, but definitely not least, where his beauty was concerned, her eyes stopped on his face. He had high cheekbones, perfectly chiselled features and sensual lips that seemed to beg to be kissed to the point of insanity and his eyes… Imagine the blue-green waters of the sea, gathered neatly in two irises which seemed to pull her in to their depths like the tide.
“Oops..”, the boy repeated and the awkwardness he seemed to be feeling plastered itself all over his pretty face. “I’m so rude, beg yer pardon. I didn’t introduce meself “ – he stepped back a bit and reached out his hand to her, but her eyes were still on the blush, forming on his cheeks. “My name is Kay, Marina Kay.”
“Any relation to Marina Ariah?” Linda asked, suddenly finding her voice.
“Aw, nah” Key, despite her wildest expectations, managed to turn an even deeper shade of red upon hearing Ariah’s name. “We all be one big family ‘round ‘ere – the lady Ariah’s family, tho she doesn’t like it much when we call ‘er “lady”.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard”, Linda nodded. “Well, Marina Kay of the family of Ariah – it was nice to meet you, but at the moment I plan on getting as far away from that beach as I possibly can, without falling into the ocean, so if you don’t have anything else to say, I think I’ll be on my way.”
“Am, ‘tis why I followed ye”, the boy turned his head bashfully to the side and started digging a hole in the dirt with his left toe. “’Cuz I saw ye run away, but the weather’s so fine… And then I saw that woman – the one with ye, with the black hair…”
“Wint?” Linda offered.
“I don’t know what she calls ‘erself”, Kay shook his head and his light-brown curls danced with the movement. “I just know she ain’t no fine woman. That’s the vibe I got from ‘er “, he added apologetically. “Only a nasty woman can be so angry in such good weather.”
“You know, Kay, you’re absolutely right”, Linda smiled at him. “But I fear you’ve wasted your time if you ran after me just to tell me that – I know it all too well now.”
“Um… well… I mean…” – she leaned a bit to be able to hear him, because he seemed to still be talking to the tips of his sandals and the ground below in general.
His whole posture radiated a lack of confidence and bashfulness that Linda simply wasn’t used to seeing from boys with his looks. But what was even stranger to her was how much she enjoyed it. She felt as though the entire situation was in her control – his reaction depended on what she chose to do or say next and that feeling went to her head. On one hand she wanted to let the silence and the moment linger a bit longer, but on the other she didn’t want to press her luck too much.
“Yes, go on”, she encouraged him softly.
“Weeell…”, he began again, grasping onto her words like a lifeline. “I mean, it’s such a fine weather after all and the beach ain’t the only good place around ‘ere… I was thinkin’ … perhaps I could show ye around?”
Some long since unused part of her brain flared up, screaming that it wasn’t the best idea to go running off in an unfamiliar place with a complete stranger. Even if that complete stranger was on a planet where men had no physical advantage over her. But the more she looked at the worried stance of the beautiful creature in front of her, the more distant and fainter that particular inner voice seemed. And when at long last it gave up, she took a moment to smile at him again:
“Well, why not? It’s not like I have much else to do.”
She wasn’t even done talking when his face lit up as if he had neon lights under his skin. He looked like a small child who had managed to find his birthday presents a day early. Without saying anything else, he grabbed her hand and darted deeper into the woods, dragging her behind him.