Chapter Two: Gods and Beaches

My powers flourished when I turned four years old. Just like any other mage, it started with random outbursts of magic. I remembered the day vividly; Mother had just returned home from a short trip to the market to find me chatting with my doll. Made of string and beads, the doll was completely animated, making hand gestures and walking about our hut.

If my mother had been a more suspicious woman, I had no doubt that I would’ve been sacrificed to the Yani that day. Instead, she gathered me up in her arms and distracted me until the doll slumped to the floor. I heard her curse a man that night, for leaving her with this burden.

When I recalled the night a few years later, I realised she’d been talking about me. Since then, we’d been distant from each other. Once, I’d recanted her words to her and she’d grown angry that I remembered, as though I was the one to make her say those words. I’d gotten just as incensed, and before either of us could diffuse the situation, the roof of the hut caught on fire.

Mother’s story was a stray ember from the fire had floated into the rafters, setting the straw on fire, but we both knew what had really happened. I ran away for five days, finding shelter on the shores of Dead Man’s Beach, living on the fish I could catch. I’d been so lonely; having been brought up in a village full of people, my first night away was the worst. Though the nights were warm enough, I built a fire and huddled close to it, sure that each whisper in the night was something, someone coming to take me away – or worse. By the end of my solitude, I’d almost grown accustomed to being alone, but all it took was Philben’s pleas for me to return to the village. I could never leave my best friend behind.

The village remained ignorant of my powers, and I thanked the Yani everyday for it. I shuddered to think what Laru, preacher of new gods, would think of my… abnormalities.

Mages were not born to the Isles. It was another sign of my difference.


The rain fell steadily overhead, the noise eclipsed by the crackling of the fire. My belly was full of salted fish, and I toyed with a bamboo shoot, stirring the leftover coconut milk in my bowl lazily. I could feel my magic prickling uncomfortably under my skin and I rolled my shoulders, attempting to release some of the tension.

“What’s bothering you?” my mother snapped from across our small table. Her small dark eyes were reflecting the firelight, and her brow was furrowed along familiar lines. She’d combed her short hair into a top knot, and was mending a sarong, her gnarled hands working deftly as she glared at me.

I glared back. She knew exactly what was bothering me, and was waiting for me to speak the words so she could snap at me. It had become an unwieldy routine between us, and I was tired of it. “Nothing.”

“It doesn’t look like nothing.”

“Just shoulder pains, that’s all.”

She bit off a piece of thread, then tied the stitch. “It’d better be, Ilsa-gais. You know not to lie to me.”

My temper was beginning to boil alongside the magic in my skin, and I stood up so quickly my chair fell over. I grabbed my string bag and dashed out into the rain before she could call me back. She’d become crabby in her years, though I could never really put my finger on when the change had occurred. When I had returned to the village after running away, she’d been relieved – even grateful – to find me alive. But now, as we sat in silence during our nightly meal, it felt as though she’d like me to disappear again.

Holding the string bag over my head as some protection from the rain that poured down from the clouds, my feet automatically trod the path to Dead Man’s Beach, where Philben and I had been fishing that afternoon. Despite the rain, the night pressed in, hot and suffocating, and by the time I reached the beach I was sweating. I drank from my flask, wrinkling my nose as I realised I should’ve drawn more water from the well before leaving the village. I held the flask up to the rain, hoping it would fill somewhat. But before I’d held it to the sky for more than a minute, the rain cleared, as though someone had stoppered a tap.

I sat on the damp sand, pushing my hands into it and splaying my fingers out. Feeling connected, rooted to the earth like this, was one of the techniques I’d discovered for calming my magic down.

Feeling the push and pull of magic begin to subside, I felt it safe to remove my hands from the sand. Damp grains clung to my skin, and I brushed them off on my trousers. Out to sea, a storm was brewing, and I watched the lightning flicker over the water. I leant back on my bag, using it as a pillow.

What if someone could wield the power of lightning? Summon it at will and use it to fry people they didn’t like? I wiggled my toes excitedly. First on my list would be Laru; the preacher had only been in town a few weeks but was already my most hated associate.

The temple he’d built for worshipping the new gods did not look like the one we’d built for the Yani. Instead of the open air temple near the beach, which allowed the sea breeze to gust unhindered as we prayed, Laru had ordered a new temple built from volcanic rock, which needed to be brought from the next island over. Inside it was hot and stuffy, with too many torches lit and too much scented oil used. I hated kneeling on its prickly floor; the rough rock had been known to pierce clothing and skin, drawing blood. Laru told us that it was the god’s way of taking our sin, of accepting our sacrifice.

“But shouldn’t sacrifices be made willingly?” I had asked during my first sermon. “Isn’t that the point?”

Laru had made a scathing retort and dismissed my comment, but I knew several of the villagers had agreed with me. I’d stopped attending temple after that, stealing away to the Yani shrine when I could, so they would know they hadn’t been forgotten. I thought of them now, watching the lightning dance on the surface of the ocean further out. Almost unconsciously, I signed the water god’s symbol on my chest, giving thanks automatically for the bountiful sea that allowed us to live near its edge.

I didn’t return to the village the next day, or the one after that. The first night, I slept comfortably on the soft sand under the stars, and awakened to a glorious dawn of gold and lavendar. I swam amongst the coral reefs that graced the shore of Dead Man’s Beach, and ate my fill of edible seaweeds, fresh from the sea. As the sun rose hot and high, I started building a small shelter using driftwood and materials from the jungle. It was hard work, especially by myself, but as I lashed the wood together using vines, and sunk support posts deep into the sand, I relished the freedom, the idea that no one could tell me off, or stop me from building my own little hut.

As the sun fell past its crescendo, I stepped back to admire my handiwork. It was small, only a few feet of pacing room inside, and had three walls. On the back wall, furthest under cover, was a small shelf that I’d lined with large palm leaves to use as my bed. More leaves had been used as the roof, tied down to the rafters so they wouldnt take off in the strong sea winds. The entire structure was dug into the beach, to avoid being buffeted by the breeze. I walked a few laps around it, made adjustments, and decided it was far from perfect. But then I leapt into the air and pumped my fist. I danced around in the sand, my toes skimming the beach, whooping for no reason other than to make noise.

I built a fire in front of my new hut as night fell, feeding it for hours until the coals glowed. Then I dug a pit and buried fresh fish, wrapped in the waxy leaves from the jungle. I pushed the ashes and embers back over them, then reclined on my bed and sucked cockles straight from their shells. The salt from the sea was the only seasoning they required.

I walked the length of the beach the next day, from the bluff that topped the cape of Ta Raman, to the rocky breakwater at the far end of Dead Man’s Beach. It took me a good hour, and I swam part of the way, just to feel the water surging around me. Since I’d left my mother in the village, my power had slept, apparently dead and unresponsive. I never tried to call it – I never wanted to know what happened if I tried to use it without proper training.

I’d heard the travelling merchants talk of a country to the east – a land called Lotheria. They spoke of the mages and magic there, the academies and students who learnt the ways of the arcane. I’d listened, enthralled, as a man described seeing the magical ones in the main city, their coloured tunics matching the hue of their powers. Even the little ones, the magelings, had been treated with the utmost respect. It was something I’d never experienced, and even as my mother hauled me off by my ear, using her fingernails to make it hurt more, I’d dreamt of going to the land where magic was not only accepted, but celebrated.

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Posted in Novellas, the golden empress

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