Chapter 5 - Calix
The ships cast away across the sea and, despite it all, my stomach tingles with excitement. I’m a Warrior Dancer. And we are about to do our duty for Caerini.
Last night comes back to me in fractals. Wind whipping over the sand. Dark, cool air. Warm, soft, and gentle lips. Raines. How could they send him away? I wish I could help him.
“Calix! Trunks below deck and then come help gather the costumes. They all have need of transport below.”
“Yes, Athro.” Tiernan gives me a nod. I cross the sun-baked wood of the deck and lift my small wooden trunk. I look to the land, fading on the horizon. Raines is still there. Probably loading the boat.
“I’ll come back, Raines. I’ll come home,” I swear it to him solemnly, under my breath.
I grab the trunk and heave it into my arms, following Niall below deck. I am, despite everything, excited to be sailing. Giddiness sweeps through my stomach and I shiver. It’s quickly followed by a wave of guilt.
The cabins are small but well-kept. Two sets of bunk beds stand in each, and most have a small porthole to snatch glances from.
Niall places his trunk down with a soft thump and offers me a smile. I return it and the prick in my heart lessens.
“First year as a Warrior Dancer and they’ve already thrown you into battle. Literally,” he says wryly.
“I’m excited,” I say, stepping out of the cabin and striding lightly toward the stairs. “I have a duty to my tribe.” We reach the deck, squinting in the glare of a spark-ridden sun.
Niall looks at me, open. “I like you, Cal.”
I smile, blinking. “Thank you, Niall. Thank you.” He nods with a grin and strides off. I step lightly across the warm cracked boards of the deck and over to the rail. My forearms rest upon the wood. The mast creaks above me and a clear wind rushes up to cross my face. I close my eyes. My two braids are heavy on my back. The warmth of the sun makes my scalp tingle and I touch the soft shaved hairs by my temple with the tips of my fingers. I shiver and open my eyes.
I miss Raines. I miss him already. One glance to the horizon tells me the Caerinian shoreline is already lost to view.
It takes a majority of the afternoon to clear the deck of trunks, pass out food, and show everyone to their cabins.
Dancers and crew swarm the deck at dusk, chinking mugs and spilling mead. A few of the Warrior Musicians who accompany our dances pull out their instruments and begin to play.
Light notes play around my ears. I approach a group of cheerful crewmembers, all of whom are laughing uproariously.
“Ay!! Join us, lad! Have a drink.” The sailor sweeps me into the circle and presses a mug of mead into my hand.
“It’s a right honor to be riding the seas with you men!” he chortles. I smile, watching his tipsy expressions. “Warrior Dancers, eh?” They look at me with intense interest.
“Yes, sir.” The lantern between us sputters with a gust of wind, the ship rising on a swell of ocean water.
“How long have ya been on the team?” This sailor is blonde, green-eyed. He gives off an impression of youngness, not yet hardened and cynical by years at sea.
“This is my first year. I’ve just been accepted onto the team.” The sailors gasp in surprise. A gentle laugh escapes me and I feel my cheeks flush pink, embarrassed.
“No way….” The sailor leans forward in awe. Then a shadow flits over his face. “That’s got to be….wow. Sending you out on your first tour. In battle, no less….”
In that moment, it feels as if all the ship has quieted to listen. My energy responds, pushing back against the heaviness that’s settled in the air, over my body.
I hesitate. “Yes,” I begin. “But I’m not scared. This is what I wanted - to dance for my tribe, for….Caerini.” I meet their gazes, allowing my eyes to sweep across the rapt faces. “This is my duty. And I will make Caerini proud.”
A moment of silence passes.
“Here’s to you, kid,” an old sailor’s gruff voice tumbles through the night sea air. Salt spray stings my face and I feel the warm glow of the lantern illuminating my flush. He raises his mug in a solemn toast and the rest follow suit. A murmur of assent fills the air and is swept away.
The lantern crackles.
What am I doing?
Panic clouds my brain. The ship's gentle rocking sloshes my thoughts to and fro. Niall’s soft, sleepy breathing huffs below me on the bottom bunk.
I breathe. Air sweeping all the way into my lungs, filling the space. Then sweeping out again, skittish with my fear.
I’ve signed up to give my life away, piece by piece.
Ksh, ksh, ksh. The ocean is sweet in my ears.
Ksh, ksh, ksh. Many moments pass, quiet, peaceful; only my restless brain stirring. How can I do this? I can’t let them down. I have to defend Caerini. A small nation more important than one - my own - beating heart.
Ksh, ksh, ksh.
Ksh, ksh, Raines.
Raines. I could have gone with him.
Should have. He has to live.
Ksh, ksh, ksh, ksh.
Raines, ksh, ksh.
Dawn creeps in through the porthole. I wake. I breathe. A calm washes over me. Warm under the covers, inhaling misty sunlight, temporarily comforted by the notion of running away to sea. If only for a few days, there will be peace. A respite.
For the next hour, I steal peace. I see bits of it flutter through the air and I snatch it, hold it, caress it. Let it go. I’m safe right now. And I will be safe later, even dying, comforted in the knowledge that Caerini will survive. And Raines. And Volcin. My family.
I steer away from the thought and leap from my bed. My fingers find the rough wood of my trunk and open the lid. A soft white tunic catches my eye and I pull it over my bare torso, letting the fabric flow to my knees. I stand, shut the trunk. The tunic is light and reminds me of my ceremonial dance costume at the Natur Festival. I smile.
Up on the deck, the sun is gold and warm. A pale blue sky kisses the horizon line, meeting azure ocean.
A few other dancers are milling about the deck. Athro Tiernan speaks animatedly with the first mate, an olive-skinned Eraviscian Islander.
I sway with the ebb of the boat to face the voice.
“Hei, Tiago,” I greet him with a touch of my hand to his shoulder. He smiles and returns the gesture.
“Join us,” he invites, taking my hand and leads me to a few other dancers. They are circled on the deck, sharing a large bowl of fruit. We settle among them. Natja and Jakob each pass me a kind smile.
Jakob is beginning his first season on the team, like myself. We trained together.
Before reaching into the bowl for a tangerine, Jakob gestures to the southern gods in thanks. I suddenly feel a chill sweep over my body. They don’t know. None of them know I was sold.
I turn slightly to obscure the motion of thanks I make to the North Gods. The gods who watch after Volcin.
Holding onto the memories of Caerini and Raines, I let myself get swept up by the day.
Jakob laughs by my side while we look out to sea, play games with the dancers, transfer supplies from the hold to the deck, and then others back down. At one point, we goad each other into asking the first mate how far from land we are. If all goes well, we’ll reach Trinova sometime tomorrow afternoon. A shiver of giddiness zips through my veins - our first performance.
Later that night, as dusk whisks over the world, Athro Tiernan gathers us on the deck to inform us of our upcoming dance. It’s not announced beforehand - the challenge is released to both teams at the time of competition. It’s all improvised.
We dance, for the first time, unprepared.