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Seren picked her fork up and poked small holes into the orange mashed potatoes on her plate. She held herself back and waited until the last scrape of wood against wood had died down, finished off by a small gurgling as her dad poured red wine into two cups. Her father shook out a napkin and placed it on his lap. All of them were ready to eat after a long day, and this was the perfect time to catch them off balance.

“So, I was think—”

“Prayer first,” interrupted her dad, a small eyebrow raised even as she noticed the amused quirk of his lips. “Then we’ll listen to your thoughts.”

She nodded as she dropped her fork, face flushing a little at being overeager. Fifteen, almost sixteen years they’d been living together on this island, and she should know better than trying to skip past blessings.

“We thank the five elements to drink and eat: air, water, metal, fire, and earth. And thank the five elements for all we’ll meet: luck, dowse, charm, thread, and fate. Together these ten bring us laughter and mirth, while filling our soul and topping our plate.”

“Nicely said Seren,” her dad praised, his smile splitting his thick black beard. He picked up his spoon and began patting down his potatoes to make a dry lake for butter to melt in. “Now, you had something you wished to say?”

“I was thinking,” she started again, trying to regain that thread of confidence she’d felt minutes before. It was no use. Both her dad and father were staring, and the small bit of her heart not invested in this whispered that she didn’t have to go through with it. She could just stop right now, change the topic, and dinner wouldn’t be ruined.

But an emotional landslide, created by years of longing, buried that voice.

“I’ve been thinking it’s time I leave the island. Just for a quick visit somewhere.” She popped some of the mashed potatoes into her mouth, focusing on their salted goodness instead of either of her parents. She knew the looks they’d be wearing. A quick peek confirmed her mental image; dad had his “this again?” face while her father’s looked more like one of the frequent storms that fizzled against her dad’s air shields.

“Why bring this up?” Dad asked as he sawed off a small piece of whitefish. Chewed on it. The action made it seem as if his beard was talking to her. “The answer’s still the same.”

“Why?!” She looked up and flinched as they both pinned her with dark looks. Those weren’t enough to shut her up though, not once she’d finally gotten this rock rolling. “This would be my last year to take on an apprenticeship, IF there was anyone with us on this island.”

“If,” reminded her father, “there was anyone here who shared your element.” He drained his cup of wine and held it out for a refill. “I would have been more than happy to teach you the fickle art of charming others.”

“And there’s that!” Seren gestured wildly enough that her fork flew out of her hands and splattered in the soup bowl. She felt her face grow hotter in embarrassment, but she didn’t dare apologize. She knew her parents, and if she did, they would use it as a confession for bringing the subject up. Then they’d tell her everything was fine, say how much they loved her, and finally change the subject quicker than it took a stone to sink.

“There’s what?” asked her father, checking his shirt for stains. He let out a sigh of relief when he found none, then accepted his refilled wine glass from her dad. “Thanks, love. I feel I’ll be needing this.”

“Seren,” commented her dad, “what exactly do you mean?” He took a slice of soda bread from the middle of the table and set it to the side of his soup bowl. “Use your words, we know you have them.”

“Charming others. The key word there is ‘others.’ What if I want a lover someday? Someone to spend nights snuggled under a blanket with. Or how about having a friend?”

“You do have friends,” said her dad, ladling himself some soup as he rescued the fork. It was set next to the remains of the mashed potatoes, the green of the spinach soup curling toward the orangeness. “Or are all those weekly letters I send going to ghosts instead?”

“Friends I can be with,” retorted Seren. “There’s only so far a level of friendship can go when I still haven’t met the person. Haven’t shaken their hand. Wouldn’t even be able to pick them out of a crowd.”

“Seren, we’ve talked about this.” Her father took off his glasses, using the tablecloth to polish them. That was a warning sign. She had about two minutes to convince them, and then they’d close the topic again.

“I can go to the next island and come back. Dad can manipulate the balloon we have-”

The sudden intake of breath reminded her she wasn’t allowed near the transport area, and that the balloon should have stayed a secret. One small, stupid mistake was going to cost her everything.

“Father—”

“Don’t!” he snapped. This was where, on any other day, he would have placed his glasses back on his face. Today, they stayed on the table, the wires a dull gold in the sunlight coming through the curtains. She knew what was coming, but she turned to her dad.

“Dad, I didn’t mean to see the balloon, I was just—”

“Proving to us once again that we cannot trust you.”

She didn’t speak, a tightness in her chest feeling as if she had stopped breathing for a couple of seconds. That was the start of the end. Making it her fault. Talking about how much of a disappointment she was to them. And then having her leave to go “cool off” somewhere.

Her father was looking at her dad, and her dad was shaking his head.

“Seren, there is so much potential in you. Too much, if I’m being honest. We can see it every day in what you put your mind to. But if you’re going to go anywhere in life, be anyone in life, you need to learn to listen to us. To trust us.”

She nodded.

“I do trust you!” Her gaze switched to her father. “And you too, even when other people would say—“

“Careful—”

“Even if other people say I shouldn’t,” Seren ended, looking directly into his eyes. They were dark amber, the same shade as the buckwheat honey she loved to dribble on warm bread. They were also just as sticky sweet, as dangerous to people as honey could be a trap for other insects.

“Seren, this is not what we wanted to hear from you,” her dad said, drawing her gaze back to him. “Time and time again you flaunt breaking our rules, and then you wonder why we can’t trust you to ‘go to the next island over and quickly come back.’ I’m disappointed, and I know your father is as well.”

The anger that had been clawing up her throat, hot from the acid bubbling in her stomach, spewed out.

“Well, I feel the same about you two!” she shouted, knocking her chair to the floor as she stood up. “If you’re always disappointed in me, and I’m the product of your raising, then shouldn’t you be disappointed in yourselves first? And I’m not flaunting it! I really did see it by accident!”

“Seren, look at me,” commanded her father. She did, for a second. Her vision started at his waistline above the table, and had gone up three intricately carved fish bone buttons before she reigned herself in.

“No!” She folded her arms around her chest and shut her eyes, facing the front door. “I don’t want to be shut out anymore, I want to continue this conversation! If I can’t leave this island, and no one else can come here, at least give me a better reason than what you’ve given me since I started asking!”

“Seren.” His voice wasn’t angry. It was soothing, understanding, and she hated herself for letting it get to her. It promised that no matter what, everything was going to be okay… and while it felt often that he used his voice on her, she’d never before heard him use it on her dad, which always told her where she placed in comparison. “Seren, dear heart, open your eyes.”

As every single voice inside her screamed yes and wanted to obey, she counted. Adding up every odd number, chanting their equations in her head, doing what little she could to prevent that tone from burrowing into her brain.

“Serri.”

His nickname for her since forever. She opened her eyes to see him staring at her.

“We all need some time to think about what happened here tonight.” He stood up, not breaking his gaze. Walked closer. “I want you to take some time and cool down. Go outside. Walk for a bit around the island. Find something else to think about other than visiting our neighbors. Duck your head underwater. When you come home, eat your dinner and go to bed. There will be no further talk tonight, and we will discuss your punishment in the morning.” His hand reached out and ruffled her hair. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, father.” And that was that. Utter defeat in less than five minutes.

“Good. Go on now.” He removed his hand from her head and gave her a small push toward the door. She didn’t fight it, banishing the numbers and flowing with the order. It was when the door had clicked shut behind her that she brought the numbers back up, added colors, and put half of her mind to work on deciphering how the number totals could turn into hues, tints, and shades.

“Gods, I hate doing that!” Her father’s voice was ragged, the opposite of what it had been earlier. “It makes me sick to my stomach every time I have to charm her.”

Seren rolled her eyes. Too bad for him; hearing that still didn’t make her feel any better.

“I know.” There was a small sound, most likely her chair being tipped back to an upright position. “We do what we must because we’re the only ones who can.”

“This is just going to get worse as she gets older. What are we supposed to do then? Drug her meals to keep her here?”

Seren felt her eyes widen. And within her, a small need for a walk grew.

“This isn’t going to last forever—”

“Which part, her still obeying or her deciding she doesn’t want to stay here?” There was a heavy sigh. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I know you’re bound to this as well.”

“My being bound has never bothered me. It netted me a kind husband, after all. And a smart, vibrant daughter.”

The need to move was growing. Itching the inside of Seren’s soul. She took a finger and laid it on a whirl in the door’s wood. Tracing rings and lines might buy her another minute or two.

“What do you think we should do?”

“We can always bring a few people we trust here. Create jobs for them. We’d have a community.” Her dad’s voice was in that flat tone where what he thought and what he said were on opposite sides. “Or… We could take to the skies again. Fly the old airship and raise the flag.”

“And go back to being in daily danger…” Her father’s voice trailed off and she could almost see him shaking his head. “Tempting, since I at least know how to deal with all that. Still…no. No, we can’t do that, we’d lose her in the first market we came upon.”

Seren’s foot took a step. Then another. Holding back a sigh, Seren let go of her mental equations and submitted to the charm, walking out of hearing range.

“So sorry I want to do something a little exciting,” she mumbled, keeping her voice low. Her dad was a master of air, which meant that those little phrases the wind usually snatched away were sure to make it to his ears.

Her body leaned left, toward the small freshwater pond; that was right, her father had told her to cool down. Instead, Seren jerked herself to the right and began climbing up their only hill, singing a song about three fishermen in a boat. Her tune wasn’t that good, but the need to voice three different people was enough to assuage the feeling that she was heading in the wrong direction. Instead of enjoying the coming purple haze of dusk, or the golden dragonflies darting about, the topic on her mind went to people, and the lack of others on the island.

“There has to be a way to broach the subject again. And if father agrees to charm them, then maybe dad will see it’s not such a bad thing.” She kicked a rock, listening as it thudded down the side. From here, she was already near the top and could treat herself to a beautiful panoramic view.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if that happened, right?” she asked herself, swinging between two palm trees at the edge to keep that feeling of moving. “I mean, one or two people is better than none.”

Yes, her heart told her, it could be bad. Two could be just as bad as one, and one was the loneliest number. Her dad would argue that zero was, but zero didn’t really count because it was like being dead; a dead person doesn’t care about anything.

A glimpse of white caught her attention. It wasn’t the fact that there was white on the island; one tree had white blossoms every spring, and the petals blew everywhere. This, though…it wasn’t a soft off-white, it had a band of another color with it, but it was dark enough that she couldn’t place it.

It didn’t belong here. She could tell that much… and that made it interesting!

Seren swirled around the palm trees one last time before heading downwards toward the unique color. It wasn’t by the pond, which meant her inner voice was being annoying, but it was near the ocean, which calmed it down somewhat. Water was water, after all.

She crept through the underbrush as she drew closer. It was taller than her, whatever it was. And her dad’s shields should have kept it from landing here, but clearly they hadn’t. Thankfully.

Her eyes widened.

“It’s a seashell!” she half-whispered, half-squeaked, clasping both hands over her mouth. There was no way she could let her parents know about this… well, at least not before she explored it. First, well aware of the standing rule stating that anything strange was to be reported, she took mental notes.

It was a conical seashell. That was obvious, even if she couldn’t bring the exact species’ name to mind. The outside was white, and the secondary color she hadn’t been able to make out earlier was a hard cheese orange. And there were small bits that seemed damaged, chipped away. That was where it differed from what she’d been taught about seashells. This shell, for instance, had a tree growing from the other side of it. Possibly double her height, if it was planted at the ground level the shell rested at, or maybe a little over her height if it wasn’t. There was also a window crafted in the back, the light inside shining brightly through lace curtains. Nailing the idea home that this was no ordinary object, a shiny engine was half stuck in the mud, two parts of the propeller sticking up.

That meant there was at least one more person on the island! Seren stopped and listened. A few night birds called out to each other, bat wings flapped overhead as her favorite mammals came out to feed, but there was nothing she would classify as a human-sounding noise. No singing, no humming, no cursing, nothing.

“Hello?” she called out, creeping forward. The birds stopped, but that was it. She must have scared them. Bit by bit, she walked up to the corner and laid a hand on the shell. It was as cold as the ocean during winter’s midnights, and when she took her palm away, she needed to rub it for a few seconds against her skirt. Seren leaned around, taking in the circular window set above the wooden door with its panes edged in gold. Where the shell would have normally been open, a panel of treated wood had been slotted into place, tight enough that not a single speck of light escaped from the edges.

Another step closer. It was beautiful, if a little eerie. The wood for the door was a sleek blackish-brown with some slight engravings started at the bottom sides, but they didn’t look as if they were complete. If they were designs, there seemed to be too much open space, and if it was a language, then she would guess she was seeing letters, or single pictograph words rather than sentences or words spelled out letter by letter. But that was only a guess.

“Hello? Is anyone home?” Seren took another step closer, a bit more confident with the silence that no one was going to be there. The latch offered no resistance under her hand.

Taking a deep breath, she opened the door wider, winced at the small creak the hinges let out, and slipped inside.

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About the author

CoffeeQuills

  • Tokyo
  • Dust Warrior

Bio: CoffeeQuills is a transplanted Floridian, living in the Land Rising Sun. They write for 4thewords (an RPG for writers) and in the twists of space and time created by caffeine, they enjoy coming up with stories all along the spec-fic range. Anything goes for this Hufflepunk, so hold tight and pretend it's a plan!

“This is who I am, right here, right now, all right? All that counts is here and now, and this is me!”

(Currently back after a long hiatus - apologies to those I owe chapters and mail too. The plan is to update fictions and continue with a once a week schedule.)

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