Cheveyo felt somewhat relieved as he left the cottage that night. Neela was safe in her own bed, with her scars possibly healing, and Henry seemed to be accepting of the way he’d handled the pirates. He was amazed at just how much Henry’s approval meant to him. Perhaps the only approval he sought more was that of the king.
Cheveyo was grateful that the king had been willing to help, surprised that he was still alive after defying him, and worried that he would still face consequences for his treasonous acts. He knew the king to on occasion delay his sentencing. He seemed to like to wait until the traitor believed they were in the clear and then lower the boom. He was especially keen to delay if it meant that his point would be made that much clearer at a different place in time.
Cheveyo hated the idea of spending any amount of time wondering if and when the king would seek to punish him. He also hated the idea of Neela ending their relationship to keep him safe. There was only one way that he would be able to move forward without all of this uncertainty. He had to go to the sea king, again ask forgiveness, and beg for permission to be with Neela.
He jumped into the ocean as a human and transitioned as he moved through the water speedily toward Samsaria. He was fearful of the king’s response to his presence, but more uncomfortable with waiting for consequences to come his way. Upon entering Samsaria, he noticed that it was much darker than his last visit. No light dripped down from above or peeked through any of the cracks in the walls. The total absence of light and imperial spirits made it much more unsettling and difficult to navigate. He did his best to search each cavity and maintain the motivation to continue, despite swimming against a strong opposing current. He entered what he believed to be the innermost cavity of the system and was once again halted by the king.
Azul wasn’t poised on his throne like before, quite the opposite. He looked a bit bedraggled, with his tousled hair and his appendages unraveled all over a large accumulation of rock. He sat with poor posture beneath his lantern, which illuminated his look of displeasure.
“Why are you here?” the king asked somberly.
The king’s strong hold over Cheveyo didn’t allow him to move or respond to the question. Eventually, he let go and permitted Cheveyo to return to an autonomous state.
Cheveyo was freed from the invisible restraints, but he moved cautiously forward. He could feel some resistance in the waist-deep water between him and the king.
“Your Majesty, if I may—”
“You may not. You have failed me once more. You asked for a new purpose, and I granted pursuit of it.”
“I had permission?”
“You have my permission and a direct order to guard the girl.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
“Go back now and watch over her. See that she remains safe. If any harm comes to her, you will experience ten times that inflicted upon her.”
“I understand, Your Grace. With your permission, I need time in the water to recuperate before I return.”
With a slight flick of the wrist, the king wafted a strong and unfamiliar force through Cheveyo’s body. It wasn’t painful, but it took a few minutes for him to adjust to such a strange feeling.
“Now you will be able to stay on the surface for as long as you need, until I see fit to take this ability away.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Cheveyo waited to be excused by the king. He was uncertain of how to proceed without his instruction. He waited what he thought was an acceptable amount of time before he started to leave the cavity without word from the king. He was stopped again.
“Before you leave, understand this: you are not to marry her nor perform any other forbidden act.”
“Yes, most fully.”
He had barely voiced his understanding when the king waved his hand again, generating a robust current that quickly washed Cheveyo out of Samsaria.
On his way back to the surface, Cheveyo’s head echoed with the words of the king. His forbiddance of marriage meant that he must have heard Cheveyo’s spoken desires on land. This was an ability Cheveyo had been unaware the king possessed. He would have to choose his words more carefully from then on.
He was overwhelmed with worry that his love—and lust—for Neela would persuade him to betray the king’s orders, especially with an unlimited amount of time to spend with her. He couldn’t stop thinking about how soft her skin felt and how badly he wanted to continue to explore it. However, he knew at this point that any further failure would certainly mean a most painful and drawn out death.
He reached the surface and transitioned to human form without any drain on his energy. He wasn’t sure how he would explain everything to Neela. He didn’t really fully understand the king’s motivations himself. He’d never known him to place much value on human life, and now he’d deployed his strongest asset to the surface to ensure the well-being of one he barely knew.
Cheveyo sat on the beach just outside Neela’s cottage in silent contemplation. He stayed for the remainder of the night and stood watch, per the king’s order. His mind continued to race throughout the night. When the sun awoke, he made his way to the pier, as promised. Unfortunately, his time spent alone with his thoughts had not provided him with a clear way to explain everything to Neela without endangering them both.
He leaned on the side of the pier and waited for her to arrive. He could see her walking toward him in the distance. She had returned to her knee-length dresses; the balm had worked, as the Boogolli predicted. Cheveyo typically wanted her in his arms as quickly as possible, but on this day, he hoped her pace would slow. He needed more time to come up with an acceptable explanation of the king’s interest in her and his stance on their relationship.
“Wait there. I will come to you.”
He jumped over the railing of the pier and walked briskly toward her as she waited patiently.
He greeted her with a hug and a much more conservative kiss than usual. “How are you this morning, my pearl?”
“Much better after getting some rest, but are you okay?”
“I have never felt better,” he tried to respond convincingly.
“Weaving your web again?”
“Nonsense,” he said as he distanced himself slightly from their embrace.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Are you ready for our walk to begin? Maybe we should try exploring in a different direction today.”
“I spoke with the king.”
“What? I thought we were going to talk more about this before we decided on anything.”
“I could sit with the uncertainty no longer.”
“Well, what did he say?”
Cheveyo struggled to find the words.
“Did he say we could be together?”
“Yes and no,” Cheveyo answered.
“What does that mean?”
“He has permitted me to spend more time with you on the surface.”
“Won’t you still get tired after a while?”
“How is that?”
“He has provided me with an enhancement of my natural abilities, you might say.”
“That’s good news then, right?”
“Everything is in good order.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, but what all did he say?”
“We do not have his permission to marry… as of yet.”
“But it is a possibility?”
“Anything is possible.”
“You’re not answering my questions.”
“I think we should focus on what he has permitted.”
“Why would he allow us all of this time together but limit our future?”
“I do not know the answer to that question.”
“Then I want to speak with him!”
“That is not possible.”
“You said anything is possible.”
“You are a human, and he is a king.”
“So? He talked to me before.”
“It is not going to happen. Just stop it, Neela,” he said, with a slight elevation in his volume and agitation in his tone.
She didn’t care for his volume, nor his tone, nor his refusal to help her arrange a meeting with the king. Frustrated, she stormed off.
Cheveyo knew he should run after her, but he didn’t know what he would say if he caught up to her this time. He was worried about how the king might react to any further explanation, but also about what he might do if Cheveyo let Neela out of his sight. He was in quite a fix. He decided to follow the king’s orders to keep Neela safe but keep some distance until he could come up with a better way to explain things. He watched her take her frustration out on the sand with her feet and cane, until a familiar scent softened her movements.
Neela had caught a faint whiff of her grandfather’s cigars, and she walked toward the smell.
Cheveyo hung back in a bit of brush, but he could see Henry well from his vantage point. Henry sat not too far from their back door, in ratty clothes, on an old makeshift yoga mat that had become slightly buried in the sand by his weight. He was in a meditation pose that Cheveyo didn’t recognize as anything he had seen a human do, especially since it included a cigar hung loosely out of Henry’s mouth.
Startled from his peaceful state, he choked on the smoke a bit before answering, “Back already?”
“Yeah, what are you doing out here?”
“While you smoke?”
“Yup, I found one dry one hidden in the cupboard. Funny things, those cigars, they keep finding ways to get themselves soaking wet.”
Neela chuckled. She walked closer to his voice and reached out for him. She took his face in her hands, leaned down, and kissed him on the top of his head. She was surprised to find his head without his favorite cap and his breath without a hint of rum.
“I’m happy that you are trying to relax, but what’s the cigar about?”
“Meditation is about relaxin’; cigars are about relaxin’—it makes perfect sense.”
“It’s, like, seven a.m., though.”
“Yes, it is, and I have already accomplished more than most by polishin’ up on my ole yoga poses and smokin’ half of this here cigar.”
Neela laughed at Henry’s response. She worried about his health routinely but also was beginning to understand that being self-indulgent was really who he was at his core. She wished he could find healthy alternatives to the things he enjoyed and hoped that this yoga session was a sign that he was moving in that direction.
“I think I’m gonna go to Delila’s for a while.”
“Take Chevron with ya. I don’t like ya walkin’ around by yourself anymore.”
Neela had agreed to the chaperone but had no real intention of following through. She walked past the cottage and onto the street. She had no idea that Cheveyo was still following her, and neither did anyone else, since he went into camouflage mode. He wasn’t sure how long he could stay blended into his surroundings, but he hoped that the king’s gift of enhancements would allow a prolonged period of time. When Neela reached Delila’s house, her friend readily greeted her at the door.
“Girl, where have you been?”
“It’s still early.”
“I feel like I’ve been waiting years to talk to you. Did the cops come to your house yet?”
“Well, they came to mine, so I’m sure they’ll hit you up soon.”
“You’re probably right.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to be okay; we just have to get our stories straight.”
“Of course we are, we didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yeah, we didn’t, but…”
“Come inside,” Delila instructed.
Neela entered the house and Delila quickly shut the door. Cheveyo didn’t have enough time to enter unnoticed. He hurried to the back to see if he could find another way in.
“Okay, I didn’t want anyone to hear me, but Cheveyo and his friends could be in serious trouble.”
“I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“I get that you don’t feel like talking about everything right now, but—”
“I really don’t.”
“I know, and neither do I, but this is, like, time-sensitive, you know?”
“Listen, you need to know the story me and the girls came up with to save your man and his friends.”
“I just don’t feel like rehashing everything right now. It has just been one thing after the other recently.”
“I know, but they’re looking at some pretty serious charges if we don’t stick together on this.”
“For saving us?”
“No, for mur-der-ing people.”
“Is it murder if you’re rescuing someone? It is probably some lesser offense.”
“Did they die?”
“I think so.”
“Did they mean to kill them?”
“Then, yeah, it’s some form of murder, who cares what type?”
“Don’t worry, girl, we aren’t tryin’ to let them go down for this, even if they are a little cray.”
“That’s good, but they’re not cray, they’re just different.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, Neela, there’s something seriously wrong with them.”
“They’re just kind of… intense, because… they’re in the army,” Neela stammered.
“Whose army?” Delila asked pointedly.
Neela couldn’t decide how to respond. She needed her friend’s support and advice but didn’t want to break her promise to Cheveyo. She also feared Delila’s reaction to the truth. She had responded shockingly well to recent disclosures; maybe she could handle it, Neela thought. Thankfully, Delila didn’t force the issue any further.
Delila pulled on Neela’s arm softly. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Come on, I’ll make you breakfast.”
During their walk from the living room to the kitchen, they could hear what they thought was the wind banging the screen door against the house. Delila secured the door as soon as they entered the room and the movement and sound both stopped. Neela felt for a chair at a small table in the corner of the room while Delila sorted through everything she would need to make breakfast. Neela sat down and quietly listened to Delila prepare their meal. They were both completely unaware that Cheveyo had snuck in the back door and was standing mere inches behind Neela. He was well blended into the god-awful kitchen wallpaper that Delila had begged her mom to change for years. She tried to ignore its existence whenever possible.
“Do you smell that? It’s cinnamon roll waffles, your favorite,” Delila gushed.
Neela could tell that Delila was doing everything she could to ease the tension. In return, Neela tried her best to reciprocate the effort by putting on a fake smile.
“I doubled up the rolls to make yours gigantic, and I have the sweetened condensed milk you like to drizzle. I’m going to pour the whole friggin’ can on there for you.”
Neela managed a small laugh. “I’ll be sick.”
“I’m just playin’—half a can.”
They both laughed.
Delila finished the waffles and brought two platefuls over to the table. They both picked at their breakfast in silence for the thirty seconds or so that Delila could show restraint.
“Okay, I know you are going through a lot, but so am I, and we should be able to be there for one another, right?”
“You have got to tell me what’s going on, Neela.”
“What do you mean?”
“With Cheveyo! There’s something seriously wrong with him, what is it?”
“Nothing’s wrong with him. He’s just a little different.”
“No, he’s not.”
“Whatever you say, but I know what I saw.”
“He was trying to help us; he did what he had to do.”
“I think he may have done a little more than what was necessary.”
“I think he’s the only reason we’re still alive.”
“He is, but—”
“I need you to understand that he isn’t going anywhere.”
“Can’t you understand? I feel… I don’t know, normal when I’m with him.”
“You are normal.”
“No, I’m not. There’s this whole other way that I want life to be, and when I’m with him, it feels like I’m closer to that other way.”
“What other life do you want to live?”
“I don’t know. I just know this one isn’t entirely what it’s supposed to be for me.”
“It isn’t for anyone, Neela.”
“I know. I’m not saying I want some perfect life. I just know something is off about this one, and it feels less off when I’m with him.”
Delila was quiet. She didn’t know what to say to her friend, who had always been so levelheaded prior to Cheveyo.
Cheveyo wanted to reveal himself and tell Neela that he felt the same way, but he knew he couldn’t without truly revealing himself to Delila. He thought about it still. He tried to remind himself of how his disclosure might harm the tribe and how the king might react to his betrayal.
Delila tried again. “Do you really think that it’s your destiny to be with this incredibly violent person? I hate to say this, but I think you should stay away from him.”
Cheveyo didn’t entirely disagree with her. He had thought a lot about how Neela’s life would be without him. He could see her marrying a human and having a life that she didn’t have to keep hidden. He could see her twirling with her children on the beach at sunrise and telling them fairy tales at dusk. He could see it all so clearly for her, but he couldn’t begin to imagine his future without her by his side. His life prior to Neela had been free, but simple and empty, despite his dedication to serve the king. She had given life more depth and lightness somehow, all at the same time. He didn’t want to return to life without her, but he could see firsthand the burden that all of the secrecy and lies was putting on her and her relationships.
“How can you say that? He saved our lives!” Neela said sternly.
“I know, but he’s crazy!”
“You are supposed to support me no matter what. You didn’t hear me say all that much to you about Hatari, and I had a horrible feeling about him from the start.”
“And look how that turned out! I wish you had said more.”
“It’s not like that with Cheveyo. He would never hurt a human for fun like Hatari.”
“I meant someone; you know what I meant.”
“I really don’t anymore. I don’t get this whole thing. I want to be supportive, but I want to know what it is that I’m supporting.”
Cheveyo could see how distraught Neela was becoming and couldn’t stop himself from trying to console her with his touch. He reached his hand out slowly as Delila turned away for a moment. His scent had been overpowered by the smell of cinnamon in the room, but as he moved forward, it wafted into Neela. She became instantly nervous and jumped out of her chair before he could make contact.
“I have to go.”
She quickly located her cane and flounced toward the front door.
“Neela, wait—you didn’t even finish your breakfast! Don’t go!” Delila called out.
Neela stayed tight-jawed and continued to walk out the front door. She left the door open with just enough space and time for Cheveyo to slip out before Delila approached.
From the doorway, Delila tried to persuade Neela to stay. “Neela, please, you need to hear the story!” But nothing Delila said seemed to have any effect on her determined friend.
Delila walked closer to the street and yelled out again, “Neela!” She hoped Neela would hear the frustration and worry in her voice and stop, but she didn’t. She watched Neela seemingly argue with herself as she walked furiously back toward her cottage. To see Neela talking to herself was nothing new, but she wasn’t used to seeing her do so angrily.
Delila knew Neela needed help, but she didn’t know how to best provide it. She considered talking to Mari or Henry about it. However, she worried that Mari might tell her to pray to the moon or something useless like that and that talking to Henry may get Neela into some kind of trouble. Neither one of them seemed like viable options at this point. She was concerned for her friend and worried that sharing her concerns with the wrong party might rip apart their friendship forever. She decided to consult Diego. She trusted him and knew that he would have some frame of reference from his own interactions with Cheveyo.