It rained all night and all day. Fat drops inundated the deck, making it impossible to see beyond your own face. The storm made them all grateful to be in the middle of the ocean, away from anything they could run into.
Below deck, everyone was nervous. Thali’s strictness in deck duties paid off as everyone and everything below deck was dry. But there was only so much time that anyone could stand cramped in small quarters.
Thali heard the urgent thumping of Ban on deck who was taking his shift at the helm. She thanked her father for the hundredth time as she shrugged on her waterproof cloak, tucking all of herself into it before opening the hatch to the downpour. She dragged herself into the rain – it felt like fat drops were falling from above and below.
The skies had been dark for three days, but as Thali joined Ban, she saw the break in the clouds ahead. She didn’t have to say anything as Ban was already on course to the patch of sunlight.
“Could it be something bad?” he yelled over the rain.
Thali shrugged her response. As they got closer to the sunlight, the rain got worse. She felt as if she were standing in a waterfall. As the ship reached the light, the waterfall pounded on their shoulders and Thali struggled to standing upright. Ban grabbed Thali by the shoulders, placing her between his hulking frame and the helm. Despite their history, she was grateful to Ban for sheltering her body.
All of a sudden, the helm spun sharply to the right. As Ban and Thali grabbed for the spokes, they couldn’t even make it budge as the ship threw them to the right and they struggled to keep their feet. The ship dove for the rim of the lit patch of sunlight and a moment later, the helm straightened and they blinked in disbelief.
The rain had stopped. The sky was now filled with fish. Above them, giant lithe bodies of orange, white, black and gold leisurely swam. There were so many of them that they blocked out the sky – if that was what was beyond them.
Since the pounding rain stopped, the other students had come on deck. Everyone turned their faces upwards, staring at the dozens of fish bellies, tails and fins that filled the sky above them.
Thali ran to the bow of the ship. Gripping it, she closed her eyes and searched her mind for familiar threads. Instead of threads of varying colours, she could see memories like tiny strips of moving pictures descending from the creatures above into her mind. She chose one at random and focused on it:
A young boy played in a muddy puddle. He laughed gleefully, splashing his hands in the dirty water. The little boy grabbed at something in the murky puddle and his little hand emerged with a little orange berry. He looked at it and was about to pop it into his mouth when a howl from the forest startled him into loosening his hand. The berry dropped out of his hand and the entire image got sucked into the berry as the berry was swallowed by the puddle.
In her mind, Thali recognized the berry as poisonous. Looking along the lines of the other strands, she confirmed her suspicion. Each fish embodied the memory of what could have been a fatal occurrence. Each fish had died in place of someone.
“Have you seen anything like it?” Isaia had come up next to her. He couldn’t see the memories like she had, but the fish alone were impressive.
“No. But I think I know what it is.” Thali said.
“My parents keep a koi pond in our house back home. It’s a custom from my mother’s side of the family. I used to love sitting and watching them swim around. One winter, when I was six, I became very ill. I was in a hallucinatory fever for two days – my parents had me drinking all sorts of disgusting herbs.” Thali made a face as the taste resurfaced in her mouth. “ On the third day, my fever finally broke and quite suddenly, I was back to normal. But when I went to visit the pond, my favorite fish was bent in half, floating at the surface. I cried my eyes out, but my mother told me that fish were the most noble and grateful creatures. In thanks for raising and caring for them, they would take bad things and gobble it up to protect their families. My mom believed Blackie took my illness and died so I could live.”
Isaia looked at Thali, then shrugged as he looked to the surrounding fish in the sky. “So you think we’re in some kind of after life?”
“I’m not sure if it’s an afterlife, but it’s definitely magical.” Thali said.
“With all that’s happened, this isn’t unbelievable.” Isaia was the steadiest personality Thali had ever met. “It feels like we’re at the bottom of a river, looking up through the water at the fish.”
A big black fish with orange rimmed white patches slowly made its way towards them. As he approached, he started to descend towards their mast.
Thali recognized him right away as her favorite fish from childhood.
“That one looks exactly like Blackie.” She said.
They watched as he swam lower and lower until he bumped into their mast. Without much effort, the ship lifted up off the water and Blackie pushed it higher and higher into the dense bodies of fish.
They were now in the thick of them, sailing on air, tails and fins gently bumping into the sides of their ship. Thali noticed the fish were swimming in a giant circle around something. She closed her eyes to see what Blackie had in his mind. Following the thread, she saw herself as a child, pale with illness in bed; going further back in his memory showed her as a healthy toddler, feeding him and reading to them every morning.
Blackie was pushing their ship closer to the center of the whirlpool. They spotted the tip of a turret among the dorsal fins of the fish.
As they approached the center, the density of fish increased and two more fish joined Blackie to help push their ship into the center. As they got closer to the tip of the castle, it was as if the castle itself pushed its way through the fish and they barely saw the landing area before their ship settled on a giant stone nest that protruded from the castle wall like a plate wedged between two bricks in a wall.
The castle itself shimmered silver and blue like the sun reflecting on the ocean. Not knowing who or what awaited them, Thali decided to take a small group into the castle. Isaia was the best swordsman, Ari was good with her knives and the fastest runner, while Deru was one of the most resourceful people she’d ever met. She left Ban on the ship in case anything should happen to them with the specific instructions to leave -if they could, if they did not return in five hours. Until then, they were all to waterproof the deck again with wax.
Their landing party was armed and ready as they walked off the ship onto the platform. Immediately, a large school of small grey fish darted out, forming a line from an open archway to their ship. They stayed hovering in their line, wiggling back and forth as they waited for them to follow.
Checking the threads in her mind, Thali only saw the small fishes’ communal joy and hope that they follow them. She reached her mind out further to search for any other threads that might be in the castle. She wouldn’t be able to read the thoughts of people, but she could sense two presences inside the walls.
They walked cautiously into the castle. From the inside, the castle walls looked like woven coral. They followed rainbows of corals that wove every which way to form a solid wall and arched ceiling. The line of little fish led them down two hallways to an open room that must be the throne room. Great columns of sparkling, colourful coral lined the open hall. As they approached the other end of the room, the columns seemed to intensify in color. The floor was a simple sand like the ocean floor might be while the ceiling was a great dome of clear material revealing the giant swimming fish sky they had just sailed through.
A proportionately gigantic orange anemone stood at the end of the hall and as Thali, Isaia, Deru and Ari approached cautiously, scanning the coral columns for danger, they stood in front of the anemone. All was still for a moment before the arms of the anemone waved as if they were in the ocean just as a voice boomed out of them:
“My dearest children!” The arms of the anemone parted and suddenly, a large, elegant looking man with white hair and a long white beard and dark blue eyes stepped out of the anemone. He was dressed in robes of various blue and a golden belt that’s buckle had an anemone with a ring of fish carved into it.
All their hands went to their weapons.
“Please, welcome, welcome! Welcome to my humble abode!” Isaia, Deru, Ari, Thali, you all must be so weary. Please bring everyone in, we shall feast tonight in all your honor!”
They didn’t know what to make of the man, but Thali could feel no malice or mischief from him as she moved her hands away from her sword.
“Dearest, you’re scaring them.”
A beautiful wispy lady with midnight blue hair and light blue eyes walked out of the anemone. She wore a dress of the same blue colors as the man’s robes. Thali also noticed the necklace with the same crest of anemone with a ring of fish.
“Did you even introduce yourself?” She turned to the four of them and inclined her head, “We have so few guests, please forgive my husband’s enthusiasm. My name is Kiera and this is my husband Pater. We are the caretakers of the noble Koi and the protectors of humans.”
Thali bowed instinctively and the other three followed suit.
“Thali, Isaia, Deru, Ari, we’re so happy to finally meet you! I know you’re confused and you must have many questions. All that terrible weather must have made you weary and so we’d love to host you and your crew as our guests of honor for a few days so that you may recover, restock and continue on your journey refreshed.”
Thali put on her elegant smile and bowed again, “Thank you, Lady Kiera, it is most generous of you to host all of us, but we’ve been through quite a strange ordeal to arrive in front of you and we would be much more at ease tonight if we had some answers to our questions first.”
Lady Kiera’s smile widened, and Pater laughed, “Of course, of course, please, go retrieve the rest of your crew and ask away. We will have merriment tonight, so let us put your minds at ease.”
Thali could feel the sincerity of their offer and accepted on her crew’s behalf. She sent Ari to get the others. In a few moments, as Deru, Thali and Isaia all took in their surroundings, Thali noticed Kiera and Pater’s unusual stillness as they waited.
When her crew joined them, Ban took up his protective position on her other side, opposite Isaia.
Lady Kiera and Lord Pater’s smiles only grew in excitement as the others filed in and a wild light danced in Pater’s eyes.
“Husband, please calm yourself, I’m sure our young guests have many questions.”
Pater took a deep breath, visibly slowing his movement as Thali explained to her crew their kind offer.
Then Thali stepped forward, “What is this place? How did we arrive here?”
“How silly of us. Welcome to the land of the Koi. We are the keepers of the Koi. Our land exists inside a cloud and we travel where we’re needed most. We can appear anywhere. Our job is to take care of the Koi as they arrive – we grow food for them and ensure their health after they’ve done their duty. We ensure a happy life for them.”
“Surely all this doesn’t fit inside a cloud?”
“We have been blessed by the Gods to have as much space as we need but take up very little space in your world.”
“Where in our world are we and how did we get here?”
“We were passing through this area on our way to another place when we saw the misery your ship was going through and decided to give you a little reprieve.”
Thali knew that it was a lie, but she also sensed Lady Kiera was not a normal person and didn’t want to push their hospitality.
Her crew was weary. They inhaled together as the smell of hot food wafted into their nostrils.
“Does that satisfy your immediate questions, Captain?” Lady Kiera raised her eyebrows, arms open. Thali sensed that Lady Kiera was trying very hard not to stare at her alone when she addressed her crew.
“Yes, milady,” Thali bowed and her crew followed suit.
“Now, please follow the fish to your rooms to freshen up and then we shall feast tonight!” Pater exclaimed, throwing his arms out wide.
They were each directed to the guest wing, where each member of her crew had separate chambers. After being cooped up in such small quarters, they were all thrilled to have some much needed space and privacy.
Thali was given the room at the end of the hall and as she was admiring the beautiful sand doors, she gasped when she pushed them open. The room was a midnight blue, but all the stone furniture glistened with a pearlescent sheen as if the stone was made of pearl. The bed looked soft as a cloud, but when she sat on the edge, it was also firm like a sand bed. Yellow and orange coral lights and decorations accented the furniture, but the most amazing sight was the window. One entire wall was a window that looked out to what looked like an ocean on a beautiful sunny day.
She stepped up to it, peering in, trying to determine where the mass of koi had gone.
“It’s an illusion. We always thought it might be a little strange to have so many fish staring at you.”
Thali jumped as Lady Kiera stood in her doorway.
“I apologize if we seem a little eccentric. My husband and I spend a lot of time on our own and we do not have the opportunity to keep up with trends as well as we’d like.”
“My lady, you are a most generous hostess and we are grateful for your hospitality.”
Kiera just smiled as she gestured to the couch. As Thali took a seat opposite her, she saw that Kiera had eyes that seemed a lot older than she appeared.
“Thali, you saw Blackie on your way in. You recognized him, no?”
Thali just nodded.
Lady Kiera looked out the window, “Many years ago, a young immortal fell in love with a mortal woman. He was forbidden by his father to gift her with immortality, but the young immortal was incredibly fond of his pet fish, so he bred them and trained them to watch over her and the fish were so much in love with her that they ate whatever tried to harm her. They even managed to eat death. She took great care of them and the koi flourished. She was having difficulty caring for their numbers in the pond she had by her home, so she moved some into the village water, and begged help from her village. Pretty soon, the fish had become common honoured pets by the entire country.”
This wasn’t news to Thali, she’d guessed her mother’s story was actually truth and seeing Blackie proved it.
“What happened to the mortal woman?”
“The immortal never stopped loving her, so his father eventually relented and turned the woman immortal. But he banished his son from his company.”
“You and Pater?”
Lady Kiera smiled. “Thali, we are honoured to watch over all the humans in the world. Where there is a koi pond, we try our best to offer what protection we can.”
Thali nodded. She was familiar with the story.
“I know it is a lot to take in, but I was wondering if I might take up some of your time tomorrow after breakfast?”
“Of course.” Thali had the feeling she’d find out exactly why they were all here tomorrow.
“Now, we will have more time for questions later, but I believe you will want to freshen up for the evening’s festivities. My husband has not been this excited in decades and he will be cross with me if I hold up his little party. There is a lovely dress that I thought would suit you in the other room.”
“Thank you.” Thali had more questions than when she had arrived, but saved them for later as she smelled a warm sea breeze drifting from the bathing room. Lady Kiera rose and disappeared just as quietly and Thali went to scrub off weeks of dirt.
As she brushed out her hair, she heard a knock at her door.
“It’s Isaia. Are you decent, Captain?”
“Yes, or else I would not have said come in.”
Isaia walked in with a beautifully tailored dark blue suit that made his blonde hair shine like the sun.
“Wow, Isaia, that suits you really well.”
“You too Captain.”
Thali looked down at the flowing blue green dress. It had large sleeves and reminded her of flowing sea kelp.
“What do you make of it all, Isaia?”
“I don’t believe they are dangerous people. I haven’t seen a weapon here at all. We’re all grateful for the hospitality. I don’t think they picked us up just because we were miserable though. There must be another reason. Do you think we are hostages?”
“No. Not yet. I agree with you. I think they want something from us, but I’m not sure what and I don’t think they’re just going to come out and say it.”
“Shall we do anything about it?”
Thali shrugged, “Enjoy the food, don’t get carried away, stick close to each other?”
Isaia laughed, “Alright Captain, may I offer you my arm to the dining hall?”
“Thank you.” Thali wobbled a bit on her shoes. She tripped, but Isaia had grabbed her arm, preventing her from falling on her face. She couldn’t bear to wear her dirty boots with the beautiful dress but she wasn’t used to the elevated heels. Everything fit unusually perfectly.
As they followed their little fish guides, she found her crew waiting for them. She swept her eyes over them as if seeing them for the first time. Everyone looked beautiful in their blues and greens – all perfectly fitted as if personally tailored.
They faced the entrance where the little fish were squirming in place patiently. She noticed all the men in her crew had tucked daggers into the waists of their belts. She was glad for her own dagger strapped to her thigh.
The doors looked like giant sea shells and as they opened, it was as if the banquet hall was made of sand and glass. Thali felt like she had entered the inside of a sand castle. All the walls, ceilings and floors were made of sand, hard enough that her shoes did not sink into the floor. All along the walls, lamps of clear blue glass in the shape of conches lit the room with a soft blue white glow. In the middle there was a table completely made of clear blue glass and tall high chairs that lined the sides of the table. Their hosts stood at the head, arms open and welcoming, faces beaming.
“Please, everyone, you must all be hungry, please be seated and let the merriment begin!”
Isaia guided Thali to the right of Pater and took his own seat next to her. She knew he wanted to be close in case he needed to spring into action.
Ban had been right behind Thali and Isaia and took his seat next to Lady Kiera. She recognized her crew’s nervous wariness as they all sat, grateful to be clean and in fresh clothes. They all looked stunning – each person wearing what suited them best even if it was from different fashions.
Pater clapped his hands and human sized lobsters appeared from one side of the room, balancing on their tails as they glided vertically with dishes clamped in their claws laden with mounds of food. They glided to the table and placed dish after dish on the table in front of them.
Thali had assumed it would be foreign to them – that they would be eating dishes familiar to Pater and Kiera, but to her surprise, they were all quite familiar with the dishes – except it was all vegetarian. They didn’t necessarily look vegetarian, but not a beast or fish or fowl had been killed for their meal. Her crew didn’t care. They had been eating dry rations for weeks and fresh, hot food was a blessing no one was about to throw away.
Kiera and Pater dove right in, as Isaia, Ban and Thali took from the same platters they had picked from, deliberately taking their time as they waited to see if anyone had any reactions to the food.
Thali carefully sampled a plump mushroom, keeping it in her mouth for a moment as she searched for the taste of any of the poisons she might recognize. Nothing but delicious flavour was there and she finally let herself dig in to their meal.
Isaia was the last one to abandon his caution, but there was more than plenty of food to go around. The giant lobsters were a little startling, but no stranger then the giant fish they had seen earlier today.
After their meal, Pater clapped twice as the dishes were cleared.
“We have a special treat for dessert.” Pater’s eyes twinkled like a little boy keeping secrets.
Octopuses of every colour and size twirled into the room. Each tentacle held a small lollipop and they twirled in diagonal lines in the air as if the air was water. Up and down and around, they floated above the table, presenting the lollipops to their guests.
As a small purple octopus with lighter purple spots neared her, Thali saw that the lollipops were actually little creatures. Small lobsters, fish, seahorses, crabs, and octopuses on a stick. Turning to Lady Kiera, she raised an eyebrow.
“These are a favorite pastime of our cook. She melts and hardens sugar to make them look like different creatures.”
Her crew had lost their mistrust of their situation and were happily licking and chomping down on their sugar creatures. She carefully licked her small seahorse as the octopuses had found scarves and were dancing in graceful aerial loops.
The rest of the evening was spent in wonderful merriment as they were entertained by various sea creatures including a group of koi that tumbled across the floors like acrobats.
It felt late when Thali and her crew returned to their rooms, following their fish guides.
As Thali stripped out of her dress and into a nightgown laid out on her bed, she wondered where all the clothes came from and how Lady Kiera knew their sizes so well. As she got ready to fall face first onto her bed in exhaustion, she heard a knock on her door.
Groaning, she padded over the smooth cool floor. When she opened the door, she found Isaia and Ban standing there, in similar sleep tunics and pants, holding their swords slack at their sides. Thali just raised an eyebrow.
“Captain, we would feel much more comfortable sleeping on your floor just in case.”
Thali rolled her eyes. Pater and Kiera had multiple opportunities to kill them already, at this point she just wanted to sleep.
“Please, Thali, we know nothing about this strange place.” Ban gave her his best charming smile.
Thali just opened the door further and stumbled back to her bed.
Luckily for Ban and Isaia, there were two long couches in the sitting area, so they set themselves up there, with their swords leaning up against their couches.
“Good night Captain,” Isaia and Ban said.
The only response they received was a snore from Thali’s bed.
The next morning, Thali awoke to find Ban and Isaia snoring on her couch as she tiptoed across the floor to change into her tunic and pants and sneak back out the door to find somewhere to practice her sword drills. When she eased the door closed, she found the little silver fish waiting in the hallway in a group. She didn’t know whether they understood, but she whispered to them:
“Is there somewhere I can practice my sword drills? A big empty room, perhaps?”
The fish darted off and led Thali down the hall to the right where they waited by a plain set of worn wooden doors. She pushed them open and found a large bare room with a softer floor and various weapons along the walls. Looking at the weapons, Thali noted they were older and heavier than what she was used to, but well cared for, if not a bit rusty.
She picked up a sword that resembled her own, but heavier, and began her drills. She closed her eyes, getting lost in the dance, paying special attention to her footwork and balance points. When she was finally done, she opened her eyes to see her crew had also assembled in the room and were going through their own various drills.
“Shall we?” Isaia appeared next to her with a blunter, heavier sword in his hand. Isaia had been her sparring partner for years and she had been honored when she found out that Isaia came from the famed Quinto family –reknown for their swordsmanship and fighting skills.
“Of course,” Thali bowed and they squared off, carefully controlling their swords as to not actually injure each other.
Thali was drenched by the time the growling in her stomach got her attention. They all returned to their rooms to bathe before following the fish back into the banquet hall for breakfast.
This time, the same room was filled with bright light as if sunlight streamed through the ceiling. The tables were filled with pastries, grains, warm milk and even coffee. Thali rushed over to the source of the smell of coffee and poured herself a cup, revelling in its delicious aroma.
Kiera and Pater strode in as they were finishing and they all stood, then bowed to their host and hostess.
“I was hoping to take you all to visit the koi and get your assistance in their daily care today.”
Thali’s crew excitedly wondered what they would be doing, when Lady Kiera glided up behind her, “Thali, if I could take a few minutes of your time, as we discussed yesterday?” She eyed Isaia and Ban as they both leaned towards them.
“Where our captain goes, we go.” Isaia’s hand went to his dagger at his side.
“Ban, Isaia, it’ll be fine, please go with the others.”
“I respectfully disobey, Captain,” Isaia raised his chin.
“Really?” Thali sensed that there was something specific Isaia was not saying.
“If it means that much to you, you may both accompany us until a certain point, but I will leave the choice to your Captain.”
Thali nodded and they followed Lady Kiera as the rest of her crew went out the main entrance to see the koi.
There were no little silver fish as Lady Kiera led them through the hallways of brightly coloured coral. They started going down stairs and as they went, the hallways were less cheerful and more plain looking. After ten minutes of winding lower and lower into the castle, Kiera finally came upon a wooden door and stopped.
“Isaia, Ban, please wait here a moment.” Lady Kiera watched them as she led Thali a little further down the hall, out of earshot, before whispering to her, “Thali, Pater and I, we need your help. Help only you can provide, because of your specific talents with…animals.” Lady Kiera raised her eyebrows.
Panic hit Thali first, as she wondered how Kiera and Pater could know.
“Please, Thali, we are grateful to keep your secret, but we need your help. We have a…special animal behind that door and he is very ill. We don’t know what’s wrong with him and need your talents to help us save him. We all depend on him”
Thali was surprised as she realized this must be why they were all here. This was why her crew and her had come to this strange place, Pater and Kiera needed her help specifically.
“Of course, Lady Kiera,” Thali bowed. She had another million questions now, but wanted to ask them privately. She wasn’t ready for Isaia and Ban to know her secret.
“Ban, Isaia, I can take it from here. I’ll just be on the other side of the door, but I order you to stay here. Under no circumstance are you to open that door, understood?”
They both looked at each other, weighing whether they wanted to insist.
“I will be fine. I can take care of myself.”
“Alright, captain,” they both took a position on each side of the door. “If we hear a scream of any kind, we’re coming after you.
Through the door was a small stone chamber. Kiera explained that there was a lot of magic involved in their land – to keep it up, transport it, keep it hidden, and for that to happen, the entire land depended upon a great magical creature. They could not survive without him and lately he had become despondent and they didn’t know what to do. Thali reached into her mind, looking for any threads that might be nearby. She could only sense the fish far away.
Lady Kiera approached the centre of the room. There a small square wooden trap door with a simple brass ring lay inconspicuously. She folded her legs underneath her and sat on her heels at its edge. Thali did the same on the other side of the trap door.
“Are you ready?”
Thali nodded, and as Lady Kiera opened the trap door, Thali felt this sparkly pink thread snake into her brain. Before she could even peer inside, she closed her eyes and saw brilliant scales shining like jewels, felt the sharp talons as if they were her own and her throat warmed as she could feel fire roiling inside her.
“What…” Thali gasped as she stuck her head through the trap door and her eyes bulged as she saw a real live dragon, as big as a house in a sunny meadow, lazily peering up at her.
When their eyes met, she felt the sorrow as he felt it. She clutched her chest from the heartache. He wanted so badly to fly and stretch his wings out and feel the wind beneath them. She felt the throbbing of his feet as they grew sore from having to walk from place to place.
Hello Thali, my name is Xerxes the soft deep voice snaked into her head along the sparkling pink thread.
I see that I am the first dragon you have met. We are higher creatures than most – maybe because of magic, we learn quickly and have a similar ability like yours where we can transcend traditional methods of communication.
“How…how have you come to be here?”
In response, she saw images flash through her mind: Kiera and Pater bringing an egg into the castle, caring for it lovingly until it hatched. A tiny version of Xerxes following them around like a puppy dog throughout the castle and as they did their chores with the koi. Xerxes growing bigger and bigger until they brought him to this meadow because he was getting too big to be housed in the castle. Pater and Keira visiting him every day, fondly wiping his scales and reading to him in the meadow. Xerxes, Pater and Kiera loved each other, but it was still stifling for him to sit grounded and not be able to fly. She saw Xerxes turning away from Pater and Kiera, sulking away from them and laying down, depressed and unresponsive.
Thali took a deep breath and realized that Kiera had been talking to her as well. “And now he just sits there, we’ve tried everything we can to make him happy, but we don’t know what’s wrong with him. I’m sorry we mislead you Thali, but Pater consulted with his father and he mentioned a girl who had the ability to communicate with animals of all kinds and so we’ve been searching for you. When we found you in the ocean, we wanted a plausible way to get you here without raising suspicion so we made that horrible rain storm to be able to give you reprieve of it.” Lady Kiera looked up at Thali with eyes filled with tears, “Xerxes is so dear to us, and not only that, our entire land runs on his magic. Pater and I, the koi, we all depend on Xerxes being happy and supplying us with magic in order to function and stay hidden from your world.”
Xerxes, can you hear my thoughts?
Do you like Pater and Kiera? Do they treat you well?
Yes, except this space is too small. I wish to fly.
How does this space exist?
It is like a bubble of space, created elsewhere with a door as a portal to where you are. It is why we could not sense each other until the door is opened.
How do you eat?
I hunt, this bubble of meadow has animals that I can eat.
Thali reached within her mind to find other threads just barely reaching her through the shine of Xerxes’ thread. Sure enough there were rabbits and deer that lived in the forests.
Kiera sat silently watching Xerxes. Pained to see him sad.
“He’d like more space. Enough so that he can fly. A cliff would be good so he can leap off to teach himself how to use the winds.”
“You’ve been speaking to him all this time?”
“Yes. He says you care for him very well, but he yearns to fly. He feels it within his heart and it weighs heavily on him to not soar and experience the wind along his scales.”
Lady Kiera’s eyes overflowed with tears, “Oh Thali, thank you. Thank you so much from the bottoms of our hearts, we’re so grateful!” She threw herself over the trap door to hug Thali.
“You mean, you can give him that?”
“Yes, Pater’s father created this space for Xerxes at our request when he was getting too big for us to keep in the castle. So we will ask him to create more aerial space and some mountains so that he can explore.”
Please ask her if she could also bring in different meat.
“Xerxes would also like different meat.” Thali made a face as she said it.
“Of course. Is there anything else he needs?” Kiera searched Thali’s face desperately.
Thali turned one eyebrow up at Xerxes.
He shook his head.
“Do you mind if I spend a little more time with him?”
“No of course, you’ve saved us all, please, go ahead. Do you mind if I leave you alone with him? You should probably let your guards outside know. I’d like to put in the request for his bigger space as soon as possible.”
Is it alright if I spend some more time with you?
Yes, I would like that.
I’ll be right back.
They both rose and went to the door. Lady Kiera exited and Thali stuck her head out to see Ban and Isaia standing facing the door, weapons drawn.
“It’s alright. Lady Kiera has some other business, but I’m going to be here awhile. You can leave if you like.”
Ban was trying to look past Thali at what was inside, while Isaia tried to read the new excitement that was on Thali’s expression.
“We’re fine, Captain, take your time.”
“Gentlemen, I will send guide fish to you so you know your way back. If you’ll excuse me, I have some urgent business to attend to.” Lady Kiera was halfway down the hall as she finished.
Thali closed the door and locked it as she returned to the trap door and sat cross legged along its open edge.
Where did you come from?
I do not remember. I was an egg, and as an egg, I only remember being in a dark cool box until I was brought out into this castle.
Are there others like you?
I think so. I can feel their presence somewhere. It’s far away, but we are not herd creatures, so I feel no need to call to them.
Thali spent the rest of the afternoon conversing with Xerxes the Dragon, when she finally emerged from the room, she was dazed, but smiling broadly.
“Captain, are you ready to return to our rooms? I believe supper will soon be served.”
“Is it already that late?”
“Captain, you’ve been in there for four hours after Lady Kiera left.”
“Right. Of course. Yes, let’s go back to our rooms.” Thali was all smiles and Ban and Isaia were left wondering what she had been doing all that time.
“So…what was in that room?” Ban finally asked as they followed their fish guides upwards.
A shadow passed over Thali’s face as she squished her lips to the side, “I can’t tell you that.”
“Why? What were you doing for the entire afternoon?”
“Bannick, I am your captain and you will obey orders when I say that you are never to ask me again, do you understand?”
“Yes Captain.” Ban looked hurt, but Thali knew she couldn’t risk telling them about Xerxes. Dragons were myths. It would turn the world on its head. It also meant telling them about her secret too.
As they approached their rooms, Ban bowed and excused himself. Isaia also bowed, but before he could leave, Thali piped up, “Isaia, a word please, in my chambers.”
Isaia stiffened as he stepped into her rooms after her.
She scanned the room before starting, “Don’t think I forgot what you said earlier today. I respectfully disobey? That sounded a lot like you were following someone else’s orders. Do we have a problem?”
Isaia looked at his feet and shifted nervously.
“Out with it Isaia, now.”
“His Highness, Prince Elric. He commanded me to protect you. When I was visiting my family at the palace, he summoned me and gave me my mission to protect you. Even though I’m a merchant by trade now, my family has a blood oath to his, any mission they give any one of us, whether we are in the royal guard or not, is to be followed. And is the highest priority.”
Isaia sneaked a look at Thali’s face, wondering how she’d take the news.
“Really…” Thali had her arms crossed and sucked on her tooth as she contemplated Isaia’s words.
“My apologies Captain, but part of my orders was not to tell you.” His posture slumped.
Thali sighed as she sat down. “Isaia, you are my second in command. You know that I value your personal opinion, but you cannot disobey my direct order on board or in front of anyone.” Isaia visibly stiffened. “However, as much as I disagree with his Highness’ demands, I realize you had no choice in it. I’ll try to keep your orders in mind, but if you disobey my direct orders again, I will leave you in the middle of the ocean with a rowboat. Do you understand?”
“Yes Captain,” Isaia stood straight as a board as he nodded.
“You will go supervise the restocking of our ship and if there is a single thing that rolls across the floor while we’re at sea, you will have crow’s nest duty for the entire trip back, understand?”
“Yes Captain.” Isaia started toward the door. Ready to work hard to prove himself again to Thali.
“And Isaia?” he turned with his hand on the door. “I’m sorry Elric threw you in the middle. I’ll have a talk with him to release you as soon as we return.”
He hesitated and Thali raised an eyebrow.
“Permission to speak freely, Captain?”
“Of course, Isaia”
“I don’t mind the mission. I owe you my life and it’s an honor to protect the future Queen. I hope to serve in your personal guard in the future.”
“Future Queen?” Now Thali was surprised.
Isaia turned a dark shade of red as he turned his attention to his shoes. “It’s no secret how our Prince feels about you, Thali, and I think you’d be a perfect Queen for our Kingdom.”
“I’m sure that’s some kind of treason by pronouncing me Queen before there’s even an engagement announced.”
“So he is courting you?”
“I don’t believe that’s any of your business, Isaia.”
“Thali, I’ve seen the way he looks at you – even from that first ball at school. He’s only ever had eyes for you.”
Thali swallowed hard, she had gone through so much in the last two years. So much that she couldn’t even talk about. She didn’t know what she felt. This had been the trip to take her mind off it all. She thought of Xerxes the Dragon. A real Dragon! The implications made her head spin.
“I’ll be off now, Captain.” Isaia bowed and closed the door behind him.
Thali had wanted to take a nap, but she couldn’t calm her mind so Thali groaned and headed for the large armory hall to tire her body.
That evening, everyone was in simpler evening wear, but they still all met in the great dining hall and had a wonderful meal with their host and hostess. Many of her crew were excited to share with her what they had done that day and what they had seen. They were thrilled to see a process so streamlined in order to take care of such a large number of animals. Thali didn’t have a chance to talk to Lady Kiera or Lord Pater, but she did notice Lord Pater looking more relaxed and Lady Kiera was much more jovial. Her crew looked much more relaxed and refreshed and she knew it was a good choice to leave the next morning. Isaia had reported that their hosts had been incredibly generous and they were extremely well stocked with supplies.
That evening, Thali locked her doors. She wanted to enjoy one evening alone before being jammed back onto a ship full of people.
The next morning, they were getting ready to launch into the air – they weren’t sure how, but Lady Kiera had assured them it would all work.
Lady Kiera and Lord Pater were on the landing nest seeing them off. Thali was the last one to board. She still had so many questions for Kiera and Pater that she was saddened would never be answered. Pater embraced her tightly.
“Thank you dear Thali, we are forever indebted to you. Truly.”
“It was my pleasure and honor. Please give Xerxes my best.” Thali murmured.
She went to embrace Lady Kiera, when Lady Kiera grabbed her hands instead. She pushed a small koin into her palm before embracing her.
“We are so grateful to you for saving all of us and our way of life. If you are ever in need of our assistance, please toss this into any body of water and we will come to your aid.” Lady Kiera murmured. She stepped back and said louder so that everyone could hear, “The Koi will always watch over you.”
Thali glanced down at the koin before tucking it into her inside pocket. It had the same symbol as the medallions Pater and Kiera wore – an anemone with a ring of fish.
Thali boarded the ship and Pater waved his arms up. Two koi swam up against their ship and lifted it gently off the landing. As the ship became airborn, the air around them picked up their ship and swirled as if it was water. They ascended to the masses of koi fish swimming around them and Blackie made his way towards them. Again, he touched the mast with his nose and guided the ship up through the bodies of koi, gently pushing them aside as they climbed higher and higher. When the mass of koi bodies thickened to the point where there was no where else for them to go, light blinded them and suddenly, Thali heard the rush of water as the familiar motions took hold of their ship. She closed her eyes and saw the thread that was Blackie for just a moment before it faded away and her face was sprayed with sea water.
She sighed as she opened her eyes and shouted orders for her crew as they continued on their journey.