His heart was ahead of him–ahead in the sense that he felt it leaving him, over the meadows of singing crickets and swaying blossoms that whistled. He moved as fast as he could, calling on his legs to conquer the ant hills, the sheets of tall grass, the uneven terrain that shifted as he crested the slope. His lithe form was swallowed in the sweltering embrace of the tropical forest. As the world sang to him, his ears burned with the warning from the ship captain.
Ya’ good at’cha keepin’ track an’ all, aren’tcha boi? Den count dis. You gots an hour, strong, to get ja mweze. I’s tired of dat chile’ games.
An hour. An hour. An hour.
“Tai’undu,” he cursed. “Quincy, wikan tai’undu!”
He took a blind leap over an eroded ledge and gave a shout of surprise as he crashed into mud. He was on all fours, the mud in his mouth, eyes, nose, ears–soaking up his thin cotton pants and staining it. The flaps of his vest hung heavy, dripping with filth. He made a clumsy effort to stand, and his bare foot sunk deeper into the mud, up to the knee. He cursed. A sinkhole. He grunted and scraped at the edges of the mud pool, his lean muscles straining with the effort. He managed to catch the naked root of a tall ginger tree and pulled at it. With a yell, he was out of the mud, panting.
Though his eyes burst with stars, Hakeem pushed himself to keep going.
The last he saw of Quincy was at the fisherman’s village, speaking with a traveling minstrel. He’d been busy with an errand for the captain, buying vegetables from farmers, but noted that the girl looked intensely interested.
Swiping the mud from his eyes, the boy burst through a collection of burrflower trees, their fat leaves streaking through the mud on his dark skin. The mud dried and flaked to a pale brown and left him striped. Little Savage, the locals called him. Flitting through the dark of the jungle, he began to believe it.
He was almost a full man, but still so little of life was in his hands. The few things he possessed, he fought for…Quincy being one. Though her sentimentality sometimes irked him, Hakeem would sometimes catch himself staring at the sunset, or searching the stars. …Sometimes he caught himself staring at her.
He had never been shy when it came to the opposite sex. Since he was much younger, the thought of marriage seemed wondrous to him. Though the exact details were still treated as a mystery, he had gathered marriage as a mark of status, a happy partnership, a way of having someone else wash your underthings. To a young boy, it had seemed ideal. Now it seemed…
Living with pirates did much in the way of removing childish ignorance. He had seen men disembowled for having the wrong ‘look’, seen adults fuck in drunken stupor, seen the elderly beaten to death in blind rage. His hands had been employed to snatch away jewels from honest workers, and his feet ordered to kick a crying child in the face. So far, no life had ended because of him, but no life had ever stretched longer from his effort, either.
…None but hers.
As a child, he had considered her a possible candidate for a wife–even though she was ‘too pale’ and ‘spoke funny’. Now, he thought of no other. There was no mystery to the union of a man and a woman anymore, and it left him wanting. Quincy was a good friend, but he didn’t want a sister. He wanted more.
With the possessive nature of his shipmates rubbing off on him, Hakeem had already attributed the word, “Mine,” to her (behind her back of course). It was not a threat, so much as a promise to any of the lustful scoundrels that eyed Quincy’s creamy limbs, her feminine curves, her peach bow lips. “You can’t have her, she’s mine. Bwa-mweze,” My wife. “I’ll kill the bastard that gets too close!”
They laughed at him. “Oh! Demi kuhzwala!” Look at the big man!
But they kept away. Hakeem knew it was a combination of things. The captain had ordered that neither adolescent be touched, if only to keep the peace. There was also some awe surrounding their origins, and some were hard pressed to try their luck. Others were simply superstitious.
A Fanaean virgin’s promise was considered magic in of itself.
Hakeem didn’t believe this, but he let the men carry on thinking what they would. He wasn’t even a virgin anymore. It was luck and an instinctual caution that had kept Quincy and him safe for the time being.
Leaning against the young smooth trunk of a palm tree, Hakeem caught his breath. He willed himself to stay upright but his spine curved in rebellion. “Quincy!” He shouted hoarsely. “Bwa-mweze! Quincy!”
An irritated voice answered him. “Great job. You scared away all the song birds.”
Hakeem slipped down the slope of exposed red clay, wincing at the way the rocks and rough edges jammed into the soles of his feet. He swatted a mosquito from his breast and went to the place he tracked the voice–somewhere behind the tamarind tree. The forest floor was littered with them, and they made a funny smell.
He rounded the trunk, shoulders bunched and his expression livid.
They had twenty minutes to get back to the ship.
“Quincy, have you lost your gods damned mind?” Hakeem snapped. His voice cracked. This incensed him further and he cursed under his breath, kicking at the ground. Why did that always happen when he was trying to sound tough?
His ferocious entrance ruined, Quincy smirked up at him. “Bwa-taika, how upset you are!”
The boy stopped, and his entire body flushed red. He looked at her, mouth open.
The girl laughed, and tucked a russet lock behind her ear. Azure eyes squinted at him in mirth. “Of course I know what ‘mweze’ means, stupid. I’ve lived with you long enough to pick up that much, for heaven’s sake.” She stood and dusted the clay from the rear of her shorts. Some of it had even stained the exposed soft under flesh of her butt.
Hakeem couldn’t help but stare.
She caught him, and her smile turned coy. “Want to get the rest of it, Taika?”
Stupid girl. She had no idea what she was doing to him.
He glared at her and turned away. “That isn’t funny. C’mon. We’re late. The ship is going to sail.”
“I’m not going.”
He stopped mid-step, then turned slowly to look at her. His eyebrows were raised high and wrinkled his forehead. “…What was that?”
Quincy had her arms crossed, and her tanned face was set in a frown. “I said I’m not going.”
Hakeem stared at her as if she’d turned a funny color. The lust was gone. Now all he felt was dumbfounded irritation. “You can’t be serious.”
“Well you can’t stay here!”
“I won’t. I’m going to find another way out.”
“How!?” Hakeem shouted, advancing. “That ship has been the only thing we’ve had for the past three years! If it weren’t for them, we’d be–”
“Better off!” Quincy screamed in his face. She’d always met his dares, and had stepped forward as he came towards her. Now they stood, toe to toe. “I can’t believe you can even talk about them like they’re our family! I hate those men! I hate what they do! I hate what they make us do! They’re turning you into one of them, and I can’t take it anymore! I’d kill them all in their sleep if I could!”
“What’s gotten into you? What did that mkundu of a minstrel tell you!?” Hakeem grabbed her arm in a rough grip. “Quincy–”
She punched him in the mouth, with all her might. Quincy knew how to ball a fist, and even better, how to throw it. He reared back, his grip on her lost, his hand at his bleeding lip. “Tai’undu!”
Quincy seethed, red-faced. “Don’t you touch me like that. EVER.”
Hakeem wiped at his mouth and let the blood flow, his eyes squinted dangerously. “Why are you doing this!? We’ve got less than fifteen minutes to get back there now!”
“Because our time with them is done.” Quincy swept back her brown hair with an imperious flip, and glared at him with squinted eyes. “Do you really think we can stay with them safely and not expect them to turn on us? …Do you think I can?”
“I wouldn’t let them hurt you,” His voice was a growl. Everything in him bunched, just at the thought.
Quincy’s eyes turned soft. “You don’t understand. I don’t want you to protect me anymore.”
Hakeem snorted, crossed his arms and glared at the treetops. Her words burned him, but he drew up in anger. Stupid girl, silly girl. Swords were not meant for her hands.
“And what kind of life would you have instead?” He said angrily. He still refused to look at her. “You want to be a hero? Have sonnets to your name?” He cursed under his breath and kicked at the ground again. He went to the ginger trees and felt their bright crimson leaves match the feelings that swirled inside. It was true, their life was not a happy one–but it kept them alive, it kept them going. “The champions are dead. People don’t want heroes anymore, Quincy.”
He turned to look at her, his eyes dark. “If you want to leave Tulki and his ship, then at least wait until we arrive somewhere better–a port city with jobs and places where we could live–”
“I’m not interested in playing house anymore than being a hero, Hakeem.”
He sighed and looked at Quincy, head tilted back far so that he looked at her down his nose. “What did you have in mind then?” Another dare.
Quincy’s eyes shone and she shifted her weight to one foot, her hand at her hip. A slanted grin blossomed on her pretty lips. “We can’t stay on Tulki’s ship because he’s going West, and I want to go to Crysen, which is East. It’s on the Kilemare Coast.”
Hakeem frowned. The Kilemare was a notorious coast line, avoided by all with enough sense. It was riddled with dragons, malicious spirits, and other magical creatures. It was also a magical hotspot, and where some of the best practitioners in the world trained. “And what are we supposed to do there?”
“Learn. I’m tired of having no control in my life. I want to be independent. I want to be strong.”
Hakeem rubbed his shaved head with both hands, mud flaking off as he did so. He was just getting used to the seafaring life, just beginning to find his place in the crew. He hated those men, held no pride in his work…but what he didn’t want to admit was that he was scared. Scared of being completely uncertain of his future, at the mercy of life and the wiles of Fate.
Quincy saw right through him. “Hakeem…how much worse off could we be? Really?”
He let out a rush of breath and let his hands fall to his sides. He gave her a sidelong look. “Okay. Fine. I was getting tired of taking orders from that toothless mkundu Tulki anyway.”
Quincy grinned at him ecstatically and ran forward to give him a hug around the neck. “Bwa-taika, sekaiku!” My husband, thank you!
With his hands at her waist, he pushed her back gently, far enough that he could look into her eyes. She gazed at him, still smiling, but with a puzzled look in her eyes. “What is it?”
“I’m not…kidding…when I say that, Quincy.” He reached up to hold her chin. “I don’t think we’re too young. Sometimes I’m sure I’ll die tomorrow, but one thing I know for certain…is that I want you there with me. Always. As…my wife.”
Her eyes turned lidded. She stood on her toes and brushed her lips against his. His hands flexed on her waist, and his heart was fit to burst in his chest. When Quincy pulled away, her smile was warmer.
“Stupid boy…I wasn’t kidding either.”
Hakeem grinned, forgetting that his lip was still split, that he was covered in dry mud, and that he was supposed to be angry. He grabbed Quincy and lifted her, kissing her full on the lips. When he set her down, she slipped from his arms, laughing, and looked at him over her shoulder with a mischievous grin. He watched as she tied her sword belt around her waist. The thing looked far too thick and brought a masculine quality to her appearance. Hakeem eyed it unfavorably.
Then something occurred to him.
“We now have less than eight minutes to run three miles back to the ship.” And here he crossed his arms, a sardonic grin on his lips.
“…So what’re we going to do about MY things?”
Quincy froze. Her azure eyes flickered to him as a russet strand of hair slipped into her gaze. Her lips twitched into a nervous smile.