Ruya Lily appeared across the entire ocean. She was so beautiful I hated her.
Red hair swayed long behind her and red silk covered her arms outstretched. Her smile was warm and bold. She smoldered like the shield mountains. Ocean waves swashed through her skirts as she hovered there. If you squinted hard enough, you could see through the illusion.
The other sailors, fifty burly men in polished breastplates, stopped rowing. They gazed transfixed.
Captain Avex bellowed. Avex kept his eyes averted from the angelic vision and he roared in his men’s ears to cast off the evil beauty. “Cruel seductress! Don’t be tricked. The last ship that followed Ruya Lily hit a reef!”Flayson, the first mate with a face like black-mossed stone, shook his head. “Nay, Captain. We’re not enraptured by her beauty. Listen to her words.”
“I don’t listen to sirens!”
“When was the last time you just listened, Captain?”
That made the Captain stumble and stutter. Yeah, it happens too often. Captain can blow himself into a red balloon but he can’t handle backtalk for anything. Odd he made it to captain. Flayson won out, and we all listened. Even I did from my perch on the crow’s nest.
Ruya Lily danced her arms with her words, subtle yet prominent twists and shimmers, like each sound was an incantation. “How long have you been at sea? And for what? There’s beauty on the islands you wish to conquer. There’s people who would care for you when you’re sick, there’s food in abundance, there’s art, there’s green meadows among quiet streams, there’s beauty here. Why burn that all to nothing when you could taste it all, if only you’d lay down your swords, turn blade to quill, turn shield to parchment?”
The red silk ghost faded into the waves. Ruya was gone, and the gray seas rolled and roiled once more. The cold rain fell harder.
Today, the message touched the sailors. Yesterday, she’d listed nine other ships that the islands had destroyed. She’d taunted us, tried to scare us, but the sailors’d hooted and jeered at her. But sympathy, that tickled some spines. Not me, though.
Avex stood stiff at ship’s prow. “Men. Why do we fight?”
“To right the wrongs the island inflicted on our realm!”
They shouted louder.
They howled and howled until Avex was satisfied. “Don’t forget that. Don’t forget about the island’s privateers, don’t forget their raids on our ports, how they stole our goats, our glass, our coin.”
“Land ahead!” I pointed at a flicker of black rock that danced up and down the horizon.
Avex changed course. He signaled to the three warships at aft to follow.
The island swelled. Even under gray skies, I could see the flashes of green jungle, the promise of beauty. A lighthouse appeared atop the rocks, but though its light was dead, I knew it swam with the island’s watchers. Maybe even a war party awaited us.
Ruya Lily glimmered from beneath the depths. She lay far below the waves, a red blur like a leviathan about to swallow the ship.
“I feel hesitation in your heart.” She spoke soft so only I heard her. “The soldiers aboard this ship lounge in sin. They’ve evil in their souls. But you. Your heart’s pure. You’ve never harmed even a roach. Reefs protect the island on the north. Guide the ships into the reef, and you’ll spare thousands of innocent lives.”
I studied the approaching island. The way the waves lapped, the way the volcanic rocks laid, a reef made sense. Yellow dots flickered on land.
Ruya Lily’s eyes moistened. “Please. I want to live. I want my people to live. Why conquer us when you could live alongside us as equals?”
I waited for her to fade again. “Captain! Reefs on the north shore! Let’s go south!”
Avex nodded and steered the fleet in a wide circle around the island. A city and farmlands came into view. We reached the southern tip of the island, where another lighthouse loomed, and then Avex sent us forth. The waves and wind pushed our backs as if nature drew us closer to destiny.
The fleet raced for land, the ships flew over the water, and the wooden hulls shrieked. The ship jerked and hurtled me out the nest. I grabbed air for two seconds, then the icy water smashed into me.
I swam to surface. Frost burned my skin. Avex’s ship twisted. The hull split open on a hidden reef and water roared inside. The ship keeled over and sailors leapt off. I swam and swam and swam. The salt tasted bitter and my eyes screamed.
My foot hit a rock and I scrabbled up a slippery beach. I crawled up a jagged throne and lay there gasping. Avex’s ship had already slid most way into its final rest. The rest of the fleet tried to turn away, but the wind and waves pushed hard and shattered the other ships on the reef. The spars groaned and cracked and splintered, and sailors spilled into the sea.
The wind roared in triumph and the sea drank the men, drank the timber, drank deep. I shivered as rain turned to deluge. I wrung out my soaked clothes and hid in the shelter of a shallow cave. It was so cold.
Many minutes passed, but the sea spat out a few survivors. Captain Avex was one. He’d cast off his armor, his helmet, and even his jeweled sword, and for that price, the sea’d spared him. Flayson had followed his lead. Both crawled up the black rocks and made for the windless cave.
Avex’s face reddened when he saw me. “You idiot! You said the reefs were on the north shore!”
“She told me they were! I thought she was telling the truth!” Too late I realized my folly. I thought I’d been clever, pretending to fall for Ruya Lily’s sympathy, only to be betray her. But she’d seen through me.
Avex kicked me and I bowed and cried apologies. Once he let up, the three of us sat and waited for the storm to subside. The rain trickled by the entrance and began to fill the cave. The wind hissed and hissed outside. The sea ate the ships and the reef grew.
Ruya Lily, tall as a ship’s mast, glimmered in the storm clouds outside. She spoke to no one in particular. “What a terrible thing to survive! My people will clothe and feed you and warm you up from this calamity. You only need to swear you’ll never take up arms against the island again. We’re waiting in the lighthouse.”
“Another trap!” Avex whirled about. “The siren never ceases.”
Flayson shivered. “The fleet is dead, the invasion crushed. Why bother with more deceptions? She might be telling the truth.”
“You like the look of her, don’t you son?” Avex grinned a nasty grin. “You still have visions of her soft touch on your chest, her lips beside yours.”
“What’s our alternative? Freeze to death in this storm? This cave offers scant shelter. I vote we surrender to the island’s people.”
“We don’t vote on my ship.”
“Good thing we’re not on your ship. What do you vote, boy? Surrender or freeze? You’re the tie breaker.”
Both men looked at me. I’d hoped they wouldn’t remember me. Avex’s eyes burned bright. Flayson could break me in half.
Outside, Ruya Lily swayed in the rain, her hair firebrick red against the gray sea. “Come out, come out, you wretched souls, you poor men, you misguided dreamers. Come out, come out!”
I gulped. “Attack. Strike the lighthouse.”
“With what? With tree branches and rocks? Can you even lift a branch, boy?”
“I can. And we don’t just have rocks, we have surprise.”
Flayson stroked his mossy beard. “Why do you hate these people so much, boy?”
Avex snarled. “Don’t you have a wife, Flayson? What would she say if she saw you so enraptured by Ruya Lily? Why don’t you hate these people?”
“We’ve been months at sea. My wife is across a gray ocean. The realm is across the ocean. Everything we’ve known or loved is so far gone. We’re just a few sailors on a mission of vengeance for a realm we barely know.”
“You sound like a traitor!”
“Maybe I do want Ruya Lily’s warmth. Maybe I do want her lips. It’s more than my wife ever gave me. It’s more than my realm ever gave me.”
Flayson fled. Avex roared in rage and chased, and I followed. Flayson darted amongst the jagged stones to the lighthouse. He shouted out that he’d surrendered and waited.
Ruya Lily appeared tall beside the tower. Lightning flickered behind her and gleamed through her chest. She smiled down at him. “Come inside.”
He ran to the lighthouse. Avex leapt out and tackled him and they crashed down to mossy gravel. Flayson wriggled free and reached the door, but the ground gave away. The mossy rocks were not rocks at all, but mossy sticks over a pit. Flayson fell, and a field of spiked stones ate him. His body cracked once, then ocean waves lapped at his blood.
Avex and I turned to flee, but Ruya Lily perched atop a rock a ways behind us. Normal-sized, not blurry, not translucent. She looked less luminous than her illusions. She looked human. The rain bounced off her skin. We froze.
She twirled her red hair. “All I wanted was to keep my people safe, to keep my island safe. Can you blame me?”
We approached slow. Avex kept his fists up. His eyes darted about, ever wary of another trap. “Raiding our realm never kept your people safe.”
“We ran out of food and medicine and supplies. Your port cities were all we could turn to. And we had no means to pay you.”
Avex laughed. “Well, now you are paying us. In blood!”
He hurled a rock at her and she dodged it. She dove to the ground and whirled back up. Avex threw a handful of gravel at her feet so she slipped and stumbled. He lunged at her and caught her neck. He roared in triumph.
But his hands only held air. She’d never been there at all. The ground suddenly looked like an incline. Avex tumbled down. The slippery gravel slid him off the rocks and into the sea. The waves hissed and pulled him down.
I ran to the edge and waited for him to resurface. The waves crashed and crashed and spattered me with sea foam, but Avex never came back. The ocean’d taken him.
Ruya Lily was beside me. She’d been peering into the ocean too. I jerked back and held my palms up. “Please. I don’t want to die.”
She smiled. She said nothing, just reached out a hand. Though rain seemed to fall on her, it was different rain than what I stood in.
I tried to touch her hand, but she sat just a little too far away. I’d have to take a step towards her to touch her. Just one little step towards her. I shook my head, then backed away from her.
I froze. She’d shown me truth earlier and I’d believed it to be a lie. Maybe this was the same trick.
I stepped towards her and grabbed her hand. I caught air. She frowned and vanished. I’d seen through the ruse.
I crept about the rocks with total caution. A dozen loose rocks tumbled into the sea as I touched them. Gravel slides abound. Several more pits covered by mossy sticks. It took many long minutes but I made my way back to the lighthouse. The rain fell lighter.
I spied her in a gap between rocks. She was naked, and she jerked up in surprise at me. She covered herself and scrambled to get away.
I shook my head and ignored her.
The lighthouse door beckoned. The pit Flayson had fallen through lay before it. The lighthouse was warm inside and glimmers of cheerful torchlight came down through the stairs within. I smelled cooked meat within.
No. I leapt and latched onto the lighthouse exterior. I scaled the jagged bricks, much as I oft scaled the slippery ship’s mast. I reached the top and crept in.
There was a bright light here, yet a dozen different lenses and covers obscured it. Mirrors and telescopes aimed the light in different directions, on the land, on the coast, out to sea, even to mirrors fixed on poles atop the reef that glinted with views far past the horizon. Tubes and horns which hummed and buzzed with sound, with words, lay strewn about. Some sound tubes reached down the lighthouse and onto the beach. Some slid deep into the ocean and formed horns atop the reef too. Some tubes reached far beyond. Amidst the machines, Ruya Lily stood, awash in golden light.
I stormed in. “You can’t disappear anymore, witch! I found you!”
She didn’t flinch as I stomped closer. Her tone stayed flat. “So you did.”
Then she drew a tiny crossbow and shot me dead.