Cheveyo walked Neela to her bedroom and helped her get into bed. She lay down and was immediately sleepy, even though it was only early evening.
Cheveyo felt restless and full of energy, even after his altercation with the king. He knew he would not be able to sleep, but he wanted her to feel comfortable and rested for the morning. He pulled the covers up around her and lay beside her on top of them. He had been slowly stroking her hair for several minutes when Mari knocked on the bedroom door.
“May I come in?” she asked.
Cheveyo quickly blended into his surroundings. Neela recognized the change in energy and knew Cheveyo wouldn’t be discovered.
“Yeah, come in,” she replied.
Mari walked over to the bed. “Are you sick?”
“No, I’m just tired.”
“I don’t blame ya, kiddo. Can I do anything for you?”
“Tell me something good.”
“Let’s see… something good… Well, things are going really well with Henry.”
“I’m happy to hear that.”
“That’s a relief; I was worried.”
“I didn’t know how you might feel about my being over here so often.”
“I love you both very much and want you both to be happy. If you’re happy together, that works out even better for me.”
“Thanks, doll. And what about you, how are things with your Cheveyo?”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s a little complicated right now.”
Mari laughed. “Isn’t it always.”
“I guess so.”
“I’m sure the two of you will figure things out.”
“It’s not really us; it’s more everyone else.”
“Don’t let other people stand in the way of what is shaping up to be a heck of a good love story.”
“I’ll try not to.” Neela laughed, thinking of Mari following her relationship like a storyline from one of her novels.
“I have to tell you, deary, now that we have a minute to ourselves… He is absolutely gorgeous and intense and fiercely protective of you—there’s nothing not to like.”
Another voice entered the room before Neela could respond. “Can I come in?”
“Come in,” Neela projected her voice from her bed.
“But beware, Henry, you’re walkin’ straight into girl talk here,” Mari warned.
Henry was worried about Neela. He looked at her curled up in the bed, snuggling with her pillow, and felt a little helpless. He looked over at Mari. She mouthed to him, “You got this.”
Mari patted Neela’s arm softly. “I need to go pick out a movie and get the popcorn going.”
“Nothing too sappy,” Henry instructed.
“Aye-aye, Captain.” Mari playfully saluted him from the doorway before she left the room.
Henry and Neela both chuckled.
Henry sat on the end of the bed and patted Neela’s leg. “Ya all right?”
“I can imagine.”
“I need to get some rest so I can go back to work tomorrow.”
“Don’t get mad, but I called your boss and asked for some more time off for ya. She was happy to hear that you were home safe and said you could come back whenever you like.”
“Thank you, Grandpa.”
“You’re not mad?”
“No, I appreciate it.”
“You’ll get some rest and be right as rain before you know it.”
“I hope you’re right. I’m ready for things to settle back down. I changed my mind about wanting adventure.”
“Neela, you’re special. Things will never be all that settled around you.”
“I wish they would be.”
“No, no you don’t. You’re a chip off this ole block—you’d be bored with settled.”
“I find myself dreaming of normalcy lately. You ever wish you were like everyone else?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Seems like others are content with normal.”
“Content shouldn’t be anyone’s life goal, sweetheart.”
“I guess you’re right. What do you dream of, Grandpa?”
“It ain’t normalcy. I usually dream of all the adventures I wanted to have with your grandma.”
“That makes sense.”
“And sometimes King Azul creeps back into the ole brain.”
“He shows up in your dreams?”
“Yeah, in fact, just this mornin’ I dreamt of him showin’ up on one of my fishin’ trips, and as a human, to boot.”
“That is abnormal.”
“Yup, but it is par for the course for me.”
“What do you think it means?”
“Why, that the weather will be perfect for my fishin’ trip tomorrow, of course.”
Henry stood up and straightened Neela’s covers. “Now, you get some rest. I’m gonna watch a movie and call it a night.”
“Don’t let me wake you in the morning. I need to be up at the crack of sparrows if I’m gonna be first in the lagoon.”
“I’ll try to sleep in a little.”
“’Night, darlin’. ”
Henry went back to the living room and movie night with Mari, and Cheveyo reemerged from his surroundings. Between Cheveyo and Neela, no words were spoken for the rest of the evening. He carefully took Neela’s single braid out of her hair and recommenced stroking her head until she drifted off to sleep. He stayed beside her throughout the night and anxiously awaited what the morning might bring. He played out different scenarios throughout the night. Some were positive and some terribly negative. He did his best to focus on the positive outcomes. He felt strongly that whatever the king had to say wouldn’t provide normalcy, as Neela had said she wanted, but he hoped it would bring her clarity that might give her some peace.
* * *
Before the sun came up, Henry awoke in high spirits. He hadn’t gotten much sleep after Mari left in the wee hours of the morning, but he was still riding high from their time together. He got ready quickly, then loaded his equipment and some necessities (rum, cigars, and beef jerky sticks) into his small, single-motor fishing boat. Once everything was poorly organized in the boat, he headed toward his usual spot in a small lagoon.
He was pretty far out when his boat began to travel in the opposite direction from which he steered. He did everything he could to regain control of his craft, but nothing worked. Thankfully, the ocean was calm enough for the hijacked journey to not be all that treacherous. The sun started to come up during his ride on the possessed craft. He thought it was far too early for it to rise, but sure enough, there it was. The sun made it possible to see what looked to be a small island in the distance.
He knew these waters like the back of his hand and had never seen an island at these coordinates before. The boat slowed to a stop as it came to the shore of the island. Henry tried to restart the motor several times without any success. He thought that since he was stranded, he might as well make the most of it and try to fish, as he had set out to do that morning.
He had just climbed out of the boat when he heard something move within the large amount of foliage at the center of the island. He tried to ignore the sound and go about the business of removing his equipment. He sang an old drinking song to distract himself from his own frustration, the mystery in the brush, and the bizarre happenings that had brought him to the island. He mumbled the tune to himself but could hear the support of a faint Irish fiddle in his head.
He clapped his hands here and there while he prepared his rod and reel. When it was ready, he cast his line out and lit up a cigar. He continued to sing, but his words were a bit muffled by the cigar in the corner of his mouth. Suddenly, the sound from the brush returned and interrupted Henry’s gleeful song. He looked behind him. Nothing. After a moment or two, he heard it again, much louder this time. He pulled in his line and placed his rod in the boat. He walked toward the brush, still puffing on his cigar. No sense sitting at the shore, uncomfortable, when he could investigate the matter, prove to himself that it was nothing, and return to his leisure.
Before he had the chance to locate the origin of the noise, it found him. A man emerged from the center of the brush. He waltzed toward Henry, who stood perfectly still, only the smoke from his cigar creating any movement. A gust of wind swayed the stranger’s silver mane away from his face. The sunlight shining on his porcelain skin highlighted its flawlessness. Henry’s cigar fell to the ground as the wind and sun revealed the stranger’s identity.
The king in human form was no less frightening than his true form had been all those years ago. Henry could still feel the painful aftermath from their last encounter. His fear kept him speechless and limp as the king grew near. Once again, he found himself face-to-face with King Azul and utterly defenseless.
The king spoke slowly and clearly. “I summoned you here to express my appreciation. If I knew how our lives would later intersect, I would have shown you more mercy. I wish to bestow the gift of restoration upon you and let it stand as my atonement.”
Henry could hear the king, but he did not truly understand his words through a fear-crippled auditory system. As the king drew in even closer, Henry’s stillness was replaced with a subtle tremble. The king raised his fist in the air. The memory of his previous blow flashed in Henry’s mind. He closed his eyes and braced for impact, just as he had before.
He felt immeasurable pain as each disk slid back into place along his spine. After his spine was perfectly aligned, the pain subsided. He stood perfectly upright as a tingling sensation replaced the pain and traveled all over his body. Henry could feel the strength and balance of his youth returning to him. The king ran his hand down the façade of Henry’s face, restoring the sight in his left eye and with it his depth perception. The scar and memories were all that remained from their previous encounter.
The king descended back into the brush as swiftly as he had emerged. Henry walked back to his boat in a sort of daze. He sat on the shore of the island in total disbelief. He covered what had been his good eye with a flat hand and marveled at the clear images the other eye was once again able to perceive. He felt better physically than he had in many years but couldn’t mentally digest what had just happened. He believed he must have been dreaming again, so he slapped himself in the face to be sure.
“Nope, it’s real,” he said aloud as he felt the sting of his own hand on his cheek.
It was hard for Henry to accept this verified reality. He moved cautiously, worried that the wrong movement would revert his body back to its previous injured state. He carefully placed all of his equipment back in the boat but left there in the sand the unhealthy delights that had been longstanding comforts to him. He expressed his gratitude to the rum for numbing the pain in his heart, the cigars for filling his idle hands, and the jerky for adding a little spice to his dulled life. He would see his old friends again, but they would no longer be his daily companions.
It took a bit of time to get his boat back into the water. Henry climbed in but waited to start the motor. He sat in a moment of reflection, surveying the island as if to capture the clearest picture possible and store it in his memory. He started the motor without a hitch and steered the boat in what he figured was the direction of home. He treaded slowly and vigilantly through encroaching, dense fog. He knew it would take quite some time to get home under these conditions but wasn’t at all vexed about it. He passed the time by rehearsing a new story about the great King Azul that he couldn’t wait to share with Neela.
* * *
Neela had awakened just after Henry headed out for the day. The first thing she heard was Cheveyo’s voice rather than her typical alarm. She was happy to have some time off from work and overjoyed to hear his voice next to her so early in the morning. She imagined what it would be like to have him by her side every morning. It felt wonderful, peaceful, and safe.
As much as she wanted this moment to last forever, reality came rushing back to her. When was the last time she’d showered? Or brushed her teeth? she thought to herself. She jumped up quickly and ran to the bathroom. Cheveyo marveled at her closet while she showered. He could see that Henry or Neela—or both—had built a custom closet in her small space, with labels fashioned out of a system of wooden pegs inserted on each shelf.
Neela returned to her room in a robe to fetch her belongings, and Cheveyo observed her use of the impressive system. It seemed she no longer needed the shelf labels, as she swiped her sandals quickly from the lowest shelf. However, she did appear to still need the handmade braille clothing tags attached to each of her dresses with a piece of yarn and a safety pin. She ran her hand over a few different tags before selecting the right dress for the occasion. She removed the tag and placed it in a moderately sized clam shell displayed on one of her shelves. She carried the dress, along with her sandals, into the bathroom.
When she was dressed and her routine almost complete, she opened the door to more easily communicate with Cheveyo. He was in awe of the efficacy of her routine and surprised to see her with an expression of anything but pride as she stood in front of the mirror with a sadness about her.
“What is it, my pearl?” Cheveyo asked.
“I wish I could see myself, so I would know if I look suitable for my meeting with the king.”
“You look beautiful.”
“I feel like I need something extra today.”
“You look beautiful, but if you want to add a braid, flowers, or shells, I am certain the king will love whatever you select.”
Neela tried to braid a few strands of hair against her scalp, as she had seen on the beautiful Ojigong of her dreams and of Cheveyo’s memories. She was typically very good at braiding her hair, but she was so nervous that the strands kept slipping through her fingers, making for a sloppy braid. Her frustration showed in her expression and heavy sighs.
Cheveyo walked closer to her and offered his help. She let go of the hair and stood still. He swiftly and painlessly went about braiding a small portion of her hair tightly against her scalp.
“I can’t believe you are braiding my hair.”
“Well, it is kind of a girl thing to braid someone’s hair.”
“Humans are very hung up on labels. Ojigong only denote differences by age and trade.”
“Really. You are either youth, mature, or elder. And then you can be a number of trades, which we divide into classes. For example, I am of the warrior class.”
Neela ran her hand down her braid and snickered again.
“Listen, Ojigong pride themselves on their long manes and intricate braids. In fact, an Ojigong is considered young, or weak, if they have short hair without braids—you know, the way most human men look.”
She laughed again. “I was only teasing, but it is funny to hear you get so defensive.” She ran her fingers through his long, silky hair and kissed him ardently.
“It’s the hair. Chicks dig it,” Cheveyo said jokingly in his most humanlike voice.
“Come on, we better get going, dude,” Neela subtly mocked.
They left the cottage and headed out toward the pier. Cheveyo remarked on the change in weather as they walked down the beach. Rapidly, the sun disappeared behind the clouds, and a heavy fog swept in. When they reached the pier, Cheveyo surveyed the area to make sure they were alone. It seemed as though the king had made certain that the weather would sweep everyone inside. Cheveyo asked Neela to sit on the end of the pier and wait for the king.
“You aren’t staying with me?”
“I will be a short distance away. I want to show respect for the king.”
“What if he tries to hurt me?”
“He will not hurt you.”
“But what if he does?”
“Then I am right here.”
“But won’t he be able to overpower you pretty easily?”
“That hurts, Neela, but yes, probably.”
“That’s not very comforting.”
“He is not going to hurt you, Neela. Have a little faith.”
“Okay, but where will you be, again?”
“I will be about ten steps behind you, leaning against the pier.”
“Like, directly behind me, or off to a side?”
“Neela, you wait here. I will come back to you after the king has gone.”
Neela took a few deep breaths to calm her nerves. She swung her feet back and forth through the air and hummed to herself as she waited for a dramatic entry of some sort. The water rose beneath her quietly and gradually, until it was almost the height of the pier. Neela initially pulled her feet back when she felt the water tickle her toes. Then she took off her sandals, placed them to the side of her, and dipped her bare feet into the water. The king floated just in front of her, exposed from the waist up but visible only to Cheveyo within their dome of concealment.
The king admired her face with his crystal-blue eyes and smiled as she opened her eyes wider, revealing a clarity and brilliance that rivaled his own. He tried not to startle her as he began to speak.
“Neela,” he said softly.
“Your Majesty,” she replied anxiously.
“Please do not worry yourself about formalities.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
The king let out a small but deep laugh of amusement. Cheveyo tried not to look in their direction, but the laugh drew his attention. He hadn’t known the king capable of laughter and was dying to know what had evoked it. He walked a little closer to them before he realized that the king had placed a panel of restriction between him and them. It barred him from coming in too close, and in doing so also prevented him from hearing their conversation as clearly as he would have liked.
“Neela, I would never hurt you. I truly appreciate this audience you have granted me.”
Neela didn’t speak, but the king was reassured that she was beginning to calm down by the sound of her breath and heart returning to natural rhythms.
“Do you mind if I ask a question of you?”
“What do you know of your father?”
“Nothing, really. He left before I was born.”
“I know with great certainty that no one worth having as a father would leave such a creature if he knew of her existence.”
“Thank you, sir,” she whispered, as small tears began to form.
“I would like to give you something. Would that be all right?”
Although she had calmed down some since he first emerged, she was still overawed by his presence. She nodded mutely to indicate her willingness to receive the king’s gift.
Cheveyo looked on as the king proceeded to strike the sand nearby with a modest bolt of lightning that failed to produce any sound upon impact. A small mass of oddly shaped clear glass floated up from the target site, drifted across the ocean, and landed in the palm of the king’s hand. He placed the glass against his chest. It separated into two distinct pieces without either breaking. The smaller piece became a lid for the vessel that the larger lower piece had become. A blue light emanated slowly from the king’s chest and traveled into the vessel as heavy smoke drifts away from a fire. His expression of discomfort seemed to signal that the light carried with it a piece of him that wasn’t so easily parted with.
When the light ceased to flow, he carefully examined the amount captured. He turned the lid gradually until it was tightly secured. The light then transformed into glowing liquid of the same brilliant blue. He blew on the glass gently. His breath spun the object and polished it to a high shine. With his other hand, he swiftly plucked hair from the top of his head, which immediately grew back after it was removed. He wrapped the free strands between his fingers, over and under, until they transformed into one strong silver cord with blue undertones. He threaded the cord through the glass bails that appeared on each side of the vessel. He knotted the cord together behind Neela’s neck and guided her hands up to examine the pendant that rested on her chest.
“I want you to keep this with you always. Never take it off.”
She explored the necklace as she did with any new object. The shape of the lid reminded her of roots on a tree, or the feel of Cheveyo’s appendages when they were almost woven together but not quite.
“Open the bottle,” the king instructed softly.
Neela didn’t recognize the pendant to be a bottle and was confused at the instructions she received. The king gently led her hands through a demonstration on how to open the vessel. She opened and closed it a few times and then separated the pieces from one another. She held a piece in each hand. She could feel a glass pipette grow from the base of the lid and the once-rigid intertwined roots or appendages become malleable. She could feel liquid moving within the bulbous bottom half of the pendant in her other hand. Clearly, the pipette was meant to draw out the liquid, but for what purpose? she thought.
“Open your eyes very wide, and place one drop onto each eye,” King Azul instructed.
Neela was hesitant, but there was something comforting about the king’s voice that she was beginning to trust. She squeezed her eyes tightly after administering the drops. She could hardly bear the strong cooling effect of the liquid.
She suddenly felt warm air wrap around her, as she had felt the day of the king’s hasty exit on the beach. She didn’t want him to leave before they were able to speak of her relationship with Cheveyo but knew the familiar sensation meant that he had departed abruptly once more. She slowly tried to open her eyes. Blinding light filled them. She shut them tightly again, waited for a moment, and tried once more to open them. It took a moment for the sensitivity to light to fade and the images to sharpen.
When her sight was clear, she was surprised to see that the king remained in front of her. She studied his face as he had studied hers. His pale skin, the touch of blue that just barely existed in his eyes, and his fixed beauty that seemed unaltered by the elements… Just as her recognition of their likeness became evident on her face, the king vanished.
Cheveyo ran to Neela.
“Are you okay, my pearl?”
She remained silent. He sat down next to her, hugged her from the side, and rested his head gently against hers.
“It is going to be okay,” he said reassuringly.
She pulled his face up by his chin and looked directly into his eyes.
“I can see that,” she said with a smile.
As she spoke, the fog began to lift. The dark, overlapping clouds dispersed, and the sky gradually became a gorgeous kaleidoscope of colors. Cheveyo looked at nothing but Neela’s beautiful eyes as they absorbed everything around them. She wanted to tell her grandfather of her restored sight straightaway. She stood up quickly, as she typically would, and felt slightly nauseated.
Cheveyo held onto her and placed her hand around his arm for support. “I think it will take time for you to adjust.”
“I am sure that will go away.”
They walked toward the entry of the pier at Neela’s pace.
“How should I explain this to my grandfather?”
“Tell him the truth.”
“What do you think he will say?”
“I think he will understand.”
“I better tell him right away, then; he’ll notice that something’s different.”
“I suppose you can tell him now; I think that is his fishing boat coming ashore.”
Henry yelled out to her. He threw a small anchor out, jumped from the boat, and ran toward the pier. Neela left Cheveyo slightly behind and moved as quick as she could toward Henry, unassisted. She was dizzy, but despite that, she could recognize that Henry’s fluid movements were very different from those that she could remember as a little girl.
“Neela, you aren’t goin’ to believe what happened,” Henry said wistfully.
“I think I might.”
He welled up with tears as he realized that her eyes were voluntarily and willfully fixed on his.
He was in disbelief. “Can you…?”
She nodded enthusiastically before he could finish the question and then wrapped her arms around him. Their embrace was a celebration of their joint liberation from the darkness of their previous lives. Neela rested her head on Henry’s shoulder and squeezed him a little tighter. A surge of electricity secreted from her grasp and coursed through Henry’s newly able body. It was a shocking feeling, but one Henry knew all too well.