The wicked heroine, p.44
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.44

           Jasmine Giacomo
 

  Chapter Eighteen

  “Are you sure? I don’t see anything,” Rhona said, squinting into the evening gloom. The cliff she was looking at was sheltered from the fading sunlight, making it even harder to spot anything out of the ordinary.

  “They’re there. Come on, Rhona,” the young man named Mahal said, taking her hand. “I’ll show you.” He led her down the start of the switchback trail.

  Far below them, through the massive swaths of giant fire ferns, Rhona could see the rocky beach and frothy shore. She smiled at the sight. The scent of the sea air brought back memories of adventures with Ruel aboard her mother’s ship, Harbinger.

  “So what is the secret of the fire ferns, Mahal?” she asked curiously, as he led her carefully between their overarching dark green fronds.

  “Don’t touch, remember,” he reminded. “See the orange tips?” He stopped and pointed, keeping his finger a good handsbreadth away from the fleshy orange nubs that lined the edge of the frond. His other arm rested warmly against Rhona’s as he clasped her hand in his. “One touch, just a single brush against them, no matter how gentle…” he demonstrated by holding their hands up and brushing a knuckle across the back of her fingers, “will leave fiery welts for a day. It burns with all the wrong kinds of fire.” Mahal stepped closer, looking down on Rhona’s turquoise eyes as they glowed in the dim evening.

  She smiled eagerly up at him. “Really. Tell me more about the right kinds of fire, then.”

  Mahal licked his full lower lip and grinned. He leaned down and kissed her, and she did not pull away. “Right this way, my lady,” he said, turning to pull her further down the trail. “The dragons I told you about are the second best kind of fire,” he said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.

  She laughed softly. “You Kirthans.”

  “Ah,” Mahal said in mock disappointment. “I’m not your first Kirthan?”

  Rhona chuckled. “That depends on how you mean it.” She wasn’t about to tell him that she’d threatened more than one with scarring if they didn’t hand over their goods.

  Now it was Mahal’s turn to laugh. He slowed and stopped at a corner in the trail, then he pointed into the greenery that clung to the nearly sheer slope. “See in there? The green roof?”

  Rhona squinted. It was hard to make out anything in the shadowed green jumble. She was used to staring at flat horizons and looking for masts. “Yes, I think so,” she finally said.

  “That’s one of the dragons inside. Shall I show you? Are you too frightened?” he teased.

  “I’ll go if you go,” Rhona said, lowering her chin and giving him a warm, direct look.

  “All right. I’ll protect you if it decides to try and eat you, Rhona.” Mahal held her hand more tightly and led her carefully from the trail. They only traveled a dozen steps into the jungly growth, but Rhona glanced over her shoulder once and nearly panicked. She had no idea where the trail was, and she was afraid of touching the fire ferns.

  She clung tightly to Mahal’s hand. “You’ll definitely need to protect me. I can’t see the way out anymore,” she said, her voice a few notes higher than usual. Mahal only chuckled.

  And then they were under a green roof. It was copper, weathered to a green patina, making it blend in well with the ferns and other flora on the cliffside. The roof had room underneath for them and for a squat, wide device the likes of which Rhona had never seen. Most of the contraption seemed to be a swinging section, hanging below metal braces in a pyramidal shape. The swinging portion, a fire-blackened metal vat fashioned into the likeness of a dragon’s head, looked like it could be locked into place at one end of its arc. There were ropes and pulleys as well, along the short floor, arranged in a block and tackle grouping. But while Rhona understood that part, she didn’t grasp what the purpose of this ‘dragon’ was.

  “It’s…amazing,” she said, not wanting her ignorance to make her appear foolish.

  “Isn’t it? Since they were built, and the fire ferns planted, we haven’t had a single successful raid by the Sea Rats. These beasts can hurl fire many hundreds of feet and burn their ships before they get close enough to land.”

  Rhona looked up at Mahal’s handsome smile and felt her blood run cold. “S-sea Rats?” she asked.

  “Yes, that’s what we call the Sea Pirates here. They try to scurry up our cliff, like wet little rats blown ashore from the wrecks they call ships, and take our hard-earned money and goods. They’re petty thieves, but they fight like demons. So we built the dragons to protect us.” The pride in Mahal’s voice was clear. “We’re far enough down the coast from Yaren Fel that the sultan’s forces don’t patrol here like they should. We’re on our own most of the time, and we take care of ourselves.”

  “Well…good for you,” Rhona managed to say. All warm thoughts for the young man who’d lured her away from the Springfest with promises of dragons had now vanished. Rhona was alone on a cliff full of dangerous plants with someone who would likely attack her if he learned who she really was.

  Mahal noticed the trembling in Rhona’s hand. “You’re not really worried about Sea Rats, are you, Rhona?” He slipped his arms around her and pulled her against him, his warmth seeping into her. “I really will keep you safe. I’ll fire these dragons off myself if I have to. I know how,” he bragged, his throat rumbling against her temple as he held her.

  Rhona forced a laugh and stepped back from him. “Afraid of Sea Rats? That’s just silly. I’m just…just cold, is all. Maybe we should go back.” She tried to tug his hand in the direction of the trail, but he just stepped up to her again.

  “Come on,” he teased her. “What about all that talk of the right kinds of fire? I bet we could get it pretty hot in here,” he said, bending down to kiss her again.

  As his lips moved against hers once more, Rhona trembled. She’d never been alone and unarmed when confronted with someone who hated her kind. She knew his current passion for her would turn into a fire of hate if he learned she was Clan, and she could feel that fear taking over, beginning to show on her face.

  “Wait, wait,” she blurted, pushing away from Mahal. “Uh, which clan attacked Fernwall? Who climbed up the cliff?”

  “What?”

  “Which pirate clan attacked your town?” Rhona repeated.

  “How the deeps do I know? They’re all pirates! Each is as bad as the other.” A contemplative squint came over his face.

  “Not true. Agonbloom would never have attacked like that. That’s more Deeplight’s or Leviathan’s style. You can’t just…just lump everyone together like that.” Faced with Mahal’s indiscriminate hatred, Rhona suddenly realized she was guilty of the same in regard to all the different nations that surrounded her watery empire. To the Sea Clans, a dirtbound was a dirtbound. She tucked that thought away for later, though.

  “Why are you defending them?” Mahal asked, his voice slow with the beginning of comprehension.

  “I’m–” Rhona’s instinct was to say that she wasn’t defending anyone, but she couldn’t get the words out. This was her culture, and it was all she had known until just a few days ago. “Just…every story has more than one side,” she said.

  “And how does a girl from a landlocked country know different clan names for Sea Pirates?” He took a step toward her.

  Rhona knew she was giving herself away when she turned and bolted. The look on his face terrified her. She made it about four steps before he grabbed her arm, but his grip slipped on all the lace on her sleeve, and she lost her balance and fell to the ground, crushing small flowers and plants beneath her.

  She panicked, whistling a Clan call for help, though she feared she was out of earshot from the entire Springfest.

  Mahal seized her by the back of her hair and hauled her to her feet. “Do your friends know what you are, little rat?” His other hand grabbed tightly to the back of her skirt’s waistband, and he headed for the trail, making her stumble along in his grip. He started to run, to angle Rhona toward the outer edge of the next
switchback.

  She could see her final fate now: she’d drop from cluster to cluster of fire ferns, until she smashed against the rocks at the base of the cliff. If she was lucky, she’d be dead, and not feel the burning sting of the fern’s poison.

  She began shouting at him in anger and fear, but Mahal talked over her. “I think I should save them the trouble of finding out, and just chuck you back into the sea–”

  A thick crunching sound arrested Mahal’s movement, and his hands jerked free of her. He cried out in pain, and the evening sky tumbled about in Rhona’s view as her momentum carried her, head over heels, toward the fire ferns that lined the edge of the switchback. Her hands scrabbled against the trail, against the greenery, and she screamed in terror.

  Strong arms gripped her waist and slowed her slide, and she and her rescuer skidded a few more feet toward the edge. Only when she’d fully stopped did she dare open her eyes and see what had happened.

  Ruel stood at the corner of the switchback, short sword in hand, resting its blade against Mahal’s throat. Her attacker’s nose bled freely. He tried to wipe the blood away, but Ruel took his eyes from his cousin and smacked the back of Mahal’s hand with the flat of his sword. The storms in his blue eyes easily promised death.

  It was Geret who had saved her from tumbling through the fire ferns to her death. Their skidding slide had deposited her on her belly in his lap. “Thank you,” she said shakily, pushing herself to her knees. “You saved my life.”

  Geret was equally as shaken, having been sure moments earlier that he wasn’t going to be fast enough to catch her. His success flushed him with glee, and he got to his feet and helped Rhona stand as well.

  “You’re a bit dusty, Rhona,” he said, grinning.

  More quick footsteps on the trail brought Sanych pattering to a stop, eyes wide. “You found her,” she panted.

  “Thanks, Sanych. We did find her,” Geret said, putting a comforting arm around the still-trembling Rhona and starting to walk back to the bend in the trail.

  Ruel turned his full attention to Mahal. “You. Did you touch my cousin?” he asked, lowered brows banking the storminess in his eyes.

  Mahal squinted in outrage at this other Sea Rat. Ruel flicked the tip of his sword, and it cut a thin red line across the young man’s cheek. Mahal hissed, then nodded in reply to the question.

  “You bastard dirtwalker!” Ruel snarled, drawing his blade back for a more serious attack. Sanych, newly arrived to the situation, gasped.

  “Ruel, no!” Rhona shouted, reaching out a dirty, scuffed hand.

  Ruel frowned and looked at her, waiting for instructions.

  Rhona swallowed, looking from Ruel to Mahal. “The Clans attacked Fernwall, Ruel. He’s got reason to hate our kind. Don’t make it worse on my account. Please.”

  Speaking seemed to drain the rest of her energy. She leaned heavily against Geret, who said, “Sanych, can you go find Meena, please? I’d like her to escort Rhona back to our camp, then I’ll have to see the mayor. Ruel, will you please take the prisoner back up the cliff and turn him over to the caravan guard? You both are under my protection, and I’ll do what I must to make sure you’re not unfairly treated.”

  Sanych jogged back up the hill to get Meena. Ruel twisted Mahal’s arm behind him and pushed him up the path. Geret and Rhona came last. The sky was dimming; stars were visible above. In the silence following the conflict, they could hear crickets resume their chirping.

  “Thank you again,” Rhona said, relief making her eyes prick with tears. She leaned on Geret’s chest as he escorted her up the trail.

  “You seem surprised. Yet another detail of our culture, Rhona: we like to be heroic and save people from danger.”

  “Even girls with scat for personality?”

  “Well, we might not like it, but we’ll do it anyway.”

  They walked back to their horses, where Meena was waiting for them. Geret helped Rhona mount, charged Meena with taking care of her, and turned to go find the mayor.

  “Wait, Geret, please?” Rhona asked. Geret stepped closer to her horse.

  “You want me to argue for or against leniency?” he asked her.

  “Neither. Do what you want. I just need to do this first,” she said, and bent down toward him. Her warm lips brushed his for a moment. Before he could think of anything to say, she got her horse to head generally in the direction of the caravan. Meena remained, watching his expression.

  “Whoa,” Geret breathed, putting his hands on his hips.

  Meena’s dark eyes glittered in the light of the Springfest torches. “I guess you’ve managed to endear yourself to her after all.”

  “I guess so.” Geret gently rubbed his lower lip with the back of a finger.

  “Best go talk to the mayor, princeling. And, Geret.”

  Geret turned to look up at the Shanallar. “Yes?”

  “There’s very little I owe to anyone. But I’ll gladly owe you a life debt for your actions tonight. You saved my grand-daughter’s life.” She nodded and turned her horse after Rhona’s meandering mount, leaving Geret stunned in the Springfest torchlight.

 
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