With the wind tugging the locks of her vanilla hair, Leera closed her eyes and spread her arms. She pretended she was flying on her own and not just standing on Andromeda’s bow. The chilly autumn air dug its teeth into her cheeks and nose, turning them bright pink.
As a child, Leera had always dreamed of flying – to float effortlessly through the air – she had never expected that her first trip to the skies would be aboard a strange flying windmill-turned-boat. She had imagined it to be with her brother and not a crazy old man.
Far below, the Sleet Mire sped by. From up here, the naked thickets of Venus Dogwood, which dotted the swamp, looked like giant bird’s nests. When they blossomed in the summer, they turned into white snowballs, which was how the patch of wetland got its name.
Leera glanced at Quick who was currently manning the rudder, which was made out of a millstone. He had his broad back turned against her, but over the howling wind, she could still hear him singing. It was a melody that she had heard somewhere before, but couldn’t quite place. For some reason the song caused her heart to ache.
Her ears strained to pick up the words. The song told a story about the old days when the four nations lived in peace. When fire folks married water folks, and when the people from Caeli and Humus called each other brother. It was a beautiful tale of co-existence and acceptance – of celebrating differences instead of condemning them. Nothing but a fairytale, Leera thought and walked over to the stern.
Quick smiled as she approached. “Want to take the wheel?”
“I’m okay,” she said and hugged herself against the cold. “How long until we reach Oceanpeak?”
“By my estimations, just about seven days.”
“Seven? I thought you said you saw Aelar this morning.”
“Oh, but I did. You see, I can travel faster if I… how should I say…”
“If you didn’t have to bring me along,” she mumbled.
The old man nodded. “But don’t worry, once you get the hang of things, you’ll be able to travel just as fast!”
Leera shook her head. “You still think I’m a bender.”
“And not just any lousy bender,” Quick said and winked under the monocle. “But right now you should get some rest. We’ll arrive in Brimport at dawn.”
Leera had heard of the last neutral city. She had always been told that the place crawled with outcasts from all the four nations and that it was a place of decadence and depravity. The city was only ever mentioned when things were going poorly. People would nod solemnly and say: ‘At least we don’t live in Brimport.’
“Why, yes. I have some critical business to take care of before we go to the capital.”
Leera didn’t dare to ask what that meant. ‘Brimport business’ was a synonym of shady dealings. She hoped she could stay on the ship.
Under the deck, Leera found a blanket and tucked herself in on one of the cots. She still couldn’t grasp what had happened today – meeting the strange Quick, getting attacked by earth bender bandits, and flying for the first time – it all seemed so surreal. She was leaving behind a life of blandness to meet her brother, who had been dead for fifteen years. If he was alive – and that was a big ‘if' – she couldn’t for the life of her understand why he hadn’t contacted her; why he hadn’t told her he was okay. She understood that having a mundane sister was shameful if you were an air bender. But just a letter to let her know he was alive – would that have been too much to ask for?
She held her necklace tightly against her chest. The rocks were from the shore of that lake, all those years ago. It was the only thing she had kept from her childhood. Whenever she had a bad dream or a fit of anxiety, clutching the rocks would console her. They were warm against her skin, and even though she would never admit it to other people or say it out loud, the rocks felt like home.