Ballad of the Monsoon Seas by Avra Margariti
Kyran clutched his hat between both hands. He felt along the inner rim for the small blade concealed under the seams. Though he was in no apparent danger, at least not anymore, the motion soothed him as he climbed the steep steps carved into the mountainside toward the priestesshood’s temple.
At the top, he lowered himself to his shaking knees and pressed cautious fingers against his ribs. He would have to find a healer before he set sail. But every pirate knew that a priestess’ blessing was more important than some cracked ribs, especially when said pirate was headed to monsoon-infested waters.
“You come to me on your knees,” a lilting voice spoke from above, infused with mirth. “Not many bother to do so anymore. What do you seek, traveler?”
Kyran looked up, taking in sandaled feet peeking out of a gold-woven robe. He scrambled upright, flushing in the sticky heat. Meanwhile, a smile graced the woman’s plump lips.
“Just looking for a quint-elemental blessing,” Kyran mumbled.
The priestess’s smile widened, a star-like glint to compliment the sky-dark of her eyes. “A pirate. It’s been a while.”
Not exactly the reaction Kyran had been expecting. People were usually quick to show their reproach at his chosen profession. Never mind that he wasn’t all that good at being a pirate who stole from the ships of the rich.
The priestess trekked back toward the apricot-colored marble temple, and he followed half a pace behind. The outlines of the fluted columns seemed to shiver under the sun blaze.
“I’m Astrid. What happened to your face?”
“Ah.” His hand went to the puffy skin around his left eye. “I ran into some mercenaries on my way here.” The port cities harbored some nasty folks. They took all the coins from his pouch and would have taken his clothes too, had he not put up an alley-cat fight. He could part with his money, but not with his shoulder-padded jacket and linen shirt and pants. If they glimpsed his body underneath all his layers of clothing, he feared he would get more than a few kicks to the ribs and a black eye.
“You see, the problem is,” Kyran began, and Astrid spun around without warning so that they were eye to eye. “The problem is, I have no money, priestess. I came here hoping you’d find it in your heart to help, because sending me out into the monsoon sea without a blessing is as good as murder.”
Astrid kept up her brisk walk through the dappled shade of citrus trees lining the path. He thought he caught another gleaming smile hooked in the corner of her mouth. “You mean you came here to exploit the priestesshood’s goodwill. A pirate, indeed.”
Before Kyran could protest, she continued, “I’ll help you, Captain Kyran, but I still require payment in the form of a favor.”
Kyran hadn’t introduced himself; this was a testament to the priestesshood’s clairvoyance. He sighed inwardly. He didn’t like anyone prying into his head, but at least Astrid used his correct name.
“I suppose a favor is an acceptable term.” It wouldn’t be the first time he procured loot for a member of the priestesshood in return for some spell or talisman. They weren’t meant to have attachments to earthly objects, but Kyran had found that the priestesses could sometimes be tempted by magical artifacts and rare books.
Inside the temple, the air smelled of myrrh, sandalwood, and orange blossoms. Some of the tension snared in Kyran’s muscles since the mercenaries’ attack uncoiled like a nautical rope untied by dexterous fingers.
Astrid folded herself on a red satin cushion in the middle of the vaulted chamber. Her hand emerged from the flared sleeve of her robe, motioning for Kyran to sit across from her, on the other side of the open hearth. The temple was empty, as far as he could tell. The priestesses of Hallowed Cliffs were known for their blessings as much as for their penchant to wander off into the mountain woodland for days at a time.
Kyran grasped the chance to watch Astrid more closely. The flames brought forth the bronze tones of her brown skin and the deepness of her laugh lines. When her long-lashed, night-sky eyes looked up at him, he didn’t glance away.
She arranged four objects in front of her, then motioned toward Kyran. “I’m going to channel the blessing into the charm around your neck. The protection is stronger if it’s tied to a specific object.”
Kyran tugged at the rope spanning the front of his shirt. His fingers grazed the top of his binder as he pulled out the necklace and smoothed his shirt back into place. The necklace was made from rare black coral beads that glittered under the firelight. It was his lucky charm, and he never took it off.
Astrid picked up a clear vial from her makeshift altar. “Saltwater collected from the Monsoon Seas,” she explained before swallowing the contents, wincing slightly at the taste.
Then she took a fistful of pale sand and rolled the granules between her palms until the skin was raw and bleeding from a hundred tiny abrasions. Kyran grimaced. A marine blessing was no easy feat, which explained why it was so expensive in the first place. Next Astrid retrieved a sackcloth pouch tied closed with twine. With swift, practiced movements, she unwrapped the twine, brought the pouch to her face, and sealed her mouth around its opening. Even as her breath came in airless, choking gasps that crinkled the sackcloth and caused her chest to heave, the placid expression on her face never changed. At last, she removed the pouch from her lips and captured the Southwest winds back inside. Slowly, the pallor crept away from her cheeks and the rosy bronze color returned.
“Don’t look so glum,” she told Kyran. “Only one element left.”
He nodded, and the priestess used a long pair of tongs to pick up a flat black pebble from among the lit coals before her. She placed the stone in her mouth, closing her lips around it, and this time she did hiss from pain. Kyran found himself squeezing his injured ribs in an attempt to commiserate with her bodily.
Astrid’s hand shot out to still his. “No need for that,” she said as she spit out the scorching stone. The flames in the hearth died out. “It’s all right. I’ve done this before.”
She expelled a smoky breath, her miraculously healed fingers still curled around his wrist. The gray-tinged air ghosted over the charm of Kyran’s necklace. He could feel the black coral’s warm glow against his chest even through the layers between skin and necklace.
Astrid’s fingers released him. Kyran settled back on his cushion, his breath coming in ragged swells not unlike choppy waves. The intensity of a quasi-elemental ritual never failed to shake his defenses. The fifth element, of course, was Astrid herself.
“This is it, then. Your ship is guaranteed safe passage. Now, I believe I’m owed a favor.” Astrid’s tongue was dusty pink as she spoke, rather than charred black. “I want to come with you on your voyage.”
“No.” His voice rang harsher than necessary, but Kyran needed her to understand. “I’m headed through the monsoon seas. Even with your blessing, it’s a dangerous journey. The water churns, and the wind tosses my ship about like it’s made of walnut shells. I steal from the same people who offer you a small fortune for protective wards against the likes of me. The ocean is no place for you, priestess, especially with a pirate by your side.”
Amusement slithered in Astrid’s eyes. “Are you aware, pirate, of what makes the priestesses of Hallowed Cliffs so special?”
“Your souls belonged to animals in past lives. You retain their memories, therefore their wisdom,” Kyran recited.
“That’s right. I was an albatross, once. My mouth always tasted of salt and my eyes used to devour a hundred shades of blue.”
Of course. “You miss it,” Kyran said, feeling foolish for his previous grandiose speech.
Astrid nodded. Her mouth had softened with melancholy. “I want to roam the seas again, even if it’s only on an ocean vessel. I thought you might understand.”
Kyran was familiar with the calling of the sea. However, he didn’t like to think much about souls or past lives. He knew how to turn that ocean-longing on its head, had known since he was fifteen, when he squirreled himself away inside the cargo hold of a pirate ship. And he never looked back.
“All right, priestess,” he said. “Astrid. You can come abroad and help around the ship while my ribs heal.”
Astrid beamed, a smile too big for the tiny, empty temple to contain.
After picking himself up, Kyran proffered a hand to Astrid without thinking. He was about to mumble his way through an apology, but she grasped his hand and let him pull her to her sandal-shod feet.
“Have you packed your belongings?” he inquired.
“Oh, yes. Long before you arrived.”
Kyran’s booming laughter started deep in his chest and rolled all the way up to the domed ceiling, then out toward the ragged cliffside. Together, the pirate and the priestess climbed down the mountain-stone staircase, following the direction of the sea breeze.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Vastarien, Liminality, Arsenika, and other venues. You can find her on Twitter.