When I was younger, my father called me his little nest—his little heir. My earliest memories were of him holding me close, like he couldn't bear me being too far away, like I was the lightning rod that kept him grounded in the middle of a thunderstorm.
His skin always smelled of freshly tilled soil and mint leaves; his hair of the honey-and-fruit scented pomade that my An'na specialized in making.
Other warriors reek of death but father is different. I remembered sneaking in with the farmers after hunts to till the fields, just to pretend that I was everything he could be.
For the longest time, I knew that wherever I was was where he would come home to. It didn't matter that my mother left when I was nine—for the fifth and very last time—or that my grandparents had disowned us, I was the only one who mattered.
It had been foolish of me to think that I was the only one who noticed that. Maybe if I had also taken note of the many enemies my father had managed to acquire for himself just by being a good man, I would not have been here right now.
"Cease your grumbling," someone hissed—though I was gagged, with a hood over my head—then punctuated the sentence by shoving the butt of their spear into my gut.
I doubled over and heaved, gagging at the taste of the rag stuffed in my mouth, rancid with a mix of my saliva and bile. There could have been blood too, theirs and mine, from cuts that must have already healed.
Rough hands dug into my arms to drag me back onto the path, aggravating the wounds beneath my sleeves. The pain made me hiss and the sound earned me a slap that had my ears ringing.
I bit into the gag to silence myself and let the pain wash over me. That seemed to please them, and I was left alone except for the occasional prod to urge me forward.
Kidnapped. Captured. I wondered what the ransom note to my father would demand, if he had already noticed my absence.
There was no way he hadn't. He watched me like a hawk watched prey.
My only friends were the boys and girls he had personally trained to be my shadows, my future retinue for when it was time for me to succeed him as chieftain.
In hindsight, their betrayal had been a long time coming. They were the children of my father's political rivals, selected for the sake of placating their families with a certain increase in status—but human greed was difficult to satisfy.
I treated them like blood, lied for them, killed with them, yet now it was their fathers' men who had snatched me right from my cot.
It made me wonder what had gone through their minds when they planned it. If it was discovered that they plotted to kill me, they would be executed without a trail. And much before then, they would have to face my father's wrath.
Having grown up with me, how could they not fear the torture that awaited them when we had punished our fair share of dissenters?
"Move!" A harsh tug on the rope binding my wrists had me stumbling forward. My feet slid over solid earth to find purchase on a swaying platform.
For a moment, I was able to balance myself, then another shove had me fumbling to right myself and grabbing onto the nearest person to break my fall.
My stomach churned as I listened to the quiet hum that rose all around me, piecing it together with the wet and salty air that tainted the wind as it filtered through the sack that blinded me.
I didn't resist when I was pushed down to my knees. There was nowhere I could go, not anymore. In what felt like a few minutes, I had walked too far away from home to make it back without a guide, farther than I had ever explored on my own.
For the first time since I was born, I was leaving our island.
We had many maps in our house, some so large that they took up space on an entire wall. I studied them often to bury the lust I had for the ocean. I itched to explore every inch of it, to find out whether all the islands on the maps were all the islands that existed.
It was what my father did, what he said my mother did. He drew his own maps, charted his own courses.
I liked looking at his maps the most—liked imitating the curves of his letters when I drew my own.
The ocean is dangerous, darling, his phantom whispered in my ear now. You may look, but never touch. Never.
The sea had taken my mother from him so I was forbidden to go anywhere near it, but I had imagined it so many times that I could see it now, the four islands that surrounded ours and the one farther off in the distance, always depicted in a shade of grey to contrast the otherwise colorful map.
Uncharted territory: the Island Of Death.
That had to be where we were headed now.
Though tales of the cannibals that lived on the isolated island were classified as myth, no one who ended up on the island, even stragglers from shipwrecks, ever came back. They disappeared without a trace. No bodies or bones, not even their boats, washed out back into the open sea.
They couldn't even be buried properly.
The rope tugged on my wrists when the rowboat hit something: shore. In my mind, I imagined my skin rubbed raw and red; my lips chapped; my toes blistered; my heels bruised. I flexed my fingers and took in a deep breath to ease the sting.
I had to leave here, even if I drowned on the way back home. I couldn't let my father waste time searching for me. I had to warn him about the traitors he had surrounded himself with.
For the first time in hours, the sack was pulled off my head. I was being led off the boat.
The first thing I looked at was the sky. The sun was setting, painting it in warm pink-purple hues. My father would have finished discussing with his war council by now. He would be looking for me.
My gaze drifted to my captors next. They were untying their masks and I was not surprised to see that one of the men was the second-in-command of my father's closest councilor. The other three were the boys I grew up with. My friends.
I held my head high and tried not to look betrayed but knew I failed when Baynit smirked and grabbed me by the jaw.
He forced our faces so close that I had to breathe in his steamy exhales and stare nowhere else but at his eyes. The feel of his fingers on my skin was too familiar. Memories of him teaching me how to shoot a bow merged with those of him beating me up to curb any notion of resistance.
He reeked of iron, like all of our hunters did. A blood-forged warrior with more kills than the months in my age.
I was disciplined enough to not jerk away when he whipped out a knife and pressed it to my cheek, sure that he would have gutted me if I had.
He slipped it beneath the cloth holding the gag in my mouth and cut it. "Don't even try to scream."
I spat out the rag. "My father will have your head for this. All of you."
The men laughed, strangers in the skins of those who had helped raise me.
Baynit laced his fingers through my hair and pulled me even closer. This was familiar too. Any other day and he would have kissed me. "Your father is dead, Avery."
"No." I bucked against his grip and felt my hair rip between his fingers. "You're lying. You're lying! My father—"
"—is dead. How else could we have taken you so easily?"
"Let me go." I glared at him. "Let me go right now or I'll kill you."
They laughed again.
They knew that I couldn't take the four of them. That was why I hadn't bothered fighting. To conserve my energy.
But it would be easy to kill just one of them, to avenge my father before I joined him on the other side.
I was just about to slip a knife out of my sleeve when a native approached us.
"Ho! Weary travellers," they greeted in rough and patchy common tongue, waving. "In need of assistance?"
I backed away as Baynit let go to wave back, only to turn and discover that we were surrounded.
The islanders had crept in from behind us and before I could cry out in surprise, something hit me from behind and knocked me out.
The sun had disappeared far beneath the horizon when I opened my eyes again. I was tied to a post beside the only window in the room.
This time I didn't hesitate to wiggle a knife free from the one of many sheaths hidden in my clothing. I cut my ropes silently then sawed the wooden bars of the window until there was a wide enough gap for me to slip through.
My kidnappers had been captured along with me and were passed out on the floor, bound like I had been.
Blood rushed to my ears when I looked down at my knife and imagined sinking it into their hearts—wetting my hands with their blood and offering it to the gods of my father.
I only managed to take one step towards them before launching myself out the window. I didn't look back.
Since all the cannibals seemed to be gathering at a fire lit at the center of the island, I went in the opposite direction, breathing slowly to remain undetected whenever a handful of them passed by my hiding spot or turned in my direction.
Somehow, they weren't able to hear my thudding heart and I was able to escape unscathed.
I ran until I cleared all the huts and only trees surrounded me in every direction, then my knees buckled and I fell.
I palmed the soil in my bruised hands, squeezing it between my fingers with the same force that was crushing my heart.
I couldn't breathe.
"Papa, tell me they're lying. Tell me," I cried, stabbing my knife into the forest floor over and over again until my hand slipped and the blade cut a gash into my palm. Tilled earth and honey.
"You can't be dead. You promised." My tears fell to soak the dirt. "Why would you let them kill you?!"
I picked the knife up and slashed at a tree's trunk. "How could you? How could you? How could you?!"
My throat ached by the time my senses returned and I realized that my screams could have given my position away. I let go of the defaced tree, wiped my muddy hands on its leaves and dried my face on my sleeve.
I circled around the path I had walked, giving a wide berth to anyone who might have been tracking me, and searched for a point overlooking both the village and the sea to help me regain my bearings.
I didn't notice that there was someone else also looking into the distance, just a few feet in front of me, until I got too close to retreat without being spotted.
I snuck towards them from behind and held the knife to their neck. When they stiffened, Baynit's grin flashed before my eyes.
"Demon," I whispered, with all the intensity I could muster, but my eyes were already roaming, up the tattoos on their arms and over the muscled chest that marked them as male.
"How do I get out of here?"
When he did not answer, I loosened my grip and cut him. Blood beaded out of his dark skin, shining in the moonlight almost like rubies would. It dripped from his neck to his bare chest in a slow crawl that tempted me to follow it down his torso.
"Wait!" he said. "I can help you."
"I don't trust you."
"You have to. Once they don't find you, they'll start searching." His voice was soft, like silk, and far from the guttural sounds the men at the beach had produced.
I decided that he was honest enough and drew the knife back into its sheath. "If you try anything, I will kill you."
"I know," he said, with something like satisfaction in his tone, then turned to look at me.
When his eyes widened in surprise, I put more distance between us, wary of his compliance being a trick.
"Follow me," he said at last.
I waited for him to walk past me before falling in step by his side. It made me paranoid, having my back to the village I just escaped but it would be equally stupid of me to have him walk behind me.
"What will happen to them?" My eyes watered as I spoke but I blinked them before he could see.
"Disgusting." I tried not to imagine how it would feel, tried to tell myself that they deserved it. At least it's better than getting eaten.
"Yes. My grandmother and cousin were also burnt alive."
"They must have deserved it."
"For trying to help savages like you escape," he said coolly.
The sickness I had felt on the boat returned, sickly sweet at the back of my throat. I looked down at my palm and saw that the wound had healed.
"My name is E'miri." A lie, but still an honest apology.
"A'an," he replied almost immediately, nearly coaxing a laugh out of me.
"We are the same," I said instead. "I am also a second son."
He regarded me carefully as though considering something. "Is your father among them?"
The loss was still fresh but I kept my face expressionless. "He is dead."
"Oh," A'an looked to the trees, "mine is too."
If I had been back home, that would have made us friends by shared loss. We would have mourned together and comforted each other through our grief.
I am an orphan now. The realization was accompanied by a fresh bout of pain. I resisted the urge to ask A'an how his father died and instead followed his gaze, taking in the sights of an island no one had recorded before.
Eventually, we ended up at a cave so close to the sea that I was able to hear it.
It was small and lit up with stones that glowed like firelight—the sort of place I would have used as a fort when I was a child.
"You call us savages." I ran my fingers along the figures carved into its smooth walls. There was an ease to our conversation now, for reasons I did not want to look into.
"You escaped from a hut, didn't you?" It wasn't a question that needed an answer so he didn't wait for one. "We'll stay here. When everyone is asleep, you can leave."
I sat near the mouth of the cave, close enough to see his hands work as he camouflaged it. "Where I come from we make our huts from stone."
"This is better than a stone hut. It is my home, so you are my guest. You will keep quiet."
"We will die," he said, as a matter of fact. "If they find us, kill me first."
A'an walked past me to burrow into a crook of the cave.
I watched him carve up the walls and wondered if he knew that mercy killings were only asked of and dispensed by loved ones, whether he knew that turning his back to me like he was doing now could be taken as an act of submission.
Did he actually trust me, or did he think I would just kill him anyway?
"My father was murdered by the men that were captured with me. I won't mourn them…" For some reason, I couldn't ask whether he had ever eaten a person or not. "Why are you helping me?"
"Because my grandmother would have wanted me to."
I should have stayed quiet, all I had to do was wait and I'd be free. I didn't need to talk to him.
But my best friends want my father dead. I stood up. And A'an wants me to kill him.
If I did, would I be betraying him? If that was betrayal, did that make us friends?
I sat down next to him and tried not to look as nervous as I felt. Are we friends now?
"What are you doing?"
"I was getting cold." It wasn't exactly a lie. "Can we?"
Before he could reject me or ask what I meant, I wrapped my arms around him and held him tight. It felt so good to have someone this close to me again that I shuddered from holding back tears.
I expected him to push me away, but he didn't.
"It must be nice and warm in your stone huts." His hot breath on my ear made me shiver. He smelled of peppercorn and nutmeg, and of the ocean—the open sea and its breeze.
You may look but never touch. Never.
"This," blood rushed to my cheeks, "is also nice."
"Will you stab me in my sleep?" Suddenly, stabbing turned from a brutal affair to a thing of seduction. I would have given him all my knives if I didn't feel so naked without them.
"I still need someone to show me the way off this island." The warmth of his skin and the steady beating of his heart soon lulled me to sleep.
In between dreams, I felt his fingers in my hair and on my face, smooth strokes of his calloused skin over my jaw and lips
If he was Baynit, he would have kissed me.
Are we friends now? I had wanted to ask, but now I knew I shouldn't.
I didn't want us to be.