The fire popped and crackled, its warmth already lulling Anla to rest. She curled herself up into a tight coil and drifted off, remembering the time when all the security and laughter in her life had ended.
In the summer of her twelfth year, Anladet’s father had returned from his normal tour with excitement gleaming in his eyes. After hugs and kisses, he opened his riding bag and gave each of his children a piece of clothing, waiting to see who would be the first one to get it. Anladet’s was the same as her sisters’, a white suit made of linen that cinched at the elbows and knees with red ribbons. Her brother’s was the same, but with straps instead of sleeves and no frills around the pant cuffs.
They were stumped for some time. The material was too thin for anything involving the colder climates or the mountains. It seemed too risque for casual wear in a city. Anladet held her tongue, trying to picture a place where everyone was so accepting of exposed limbs. Some place warm and tropical, like Genale made sense, except their mother had packed regular clothing for them. So, they were for respites of some sort. And that’s when she noticed the extra padding. “Are these suits to go swimming in?”
Her father pulled out a piece of candy and handed it to her. Her siblings grumbled, since for three years in a row she had guessed correctly. She would share it later with Garlin, her favorite sibling. “You’re right, Anla! Good job. Yes, we’re going to a place called Analussia. It’s on the coast, east of here, and we’re going to see the ocean.”
There was much excitement over this. They had never been to the ocean before.
“Why can’t we swim naked like we do at the pond?” her brother asked.
“Well, in Analussia, everyone dresses in these suits when they go swimming. There are lots of people there and they all like it that way. Since we’re visitors, we should do what they ask. That sounds nice, right?”
They had all chorused their agreement. Anladet liked the funny outfits. She’d wear anything her parents demanded, so long as she got to swim in the sea. Her father had told her about the ocean more than a few times. It was a place where you couldn’t see where the water ended. Not like the pond, where she could swim from one side to the other in mere minutes. Her father told her she’d never be able to swim to the other side. “Only boats can get you there. I took one across the Gamik Sea and arrived here many years ago from Arvonne. I would have drowned from exhaustion if I had tried to swim all the way across it.”
They finished packing that night, putting all their clothes, toys, and books in the leather suitcases their father had bought them years ago. Anladet, Garlin, and Sildet were far too excited to go to sleep. Raidet, fifteen and annoyed by her younger siblings, was sufficiently detached from the situation and yelled at them to be quiet.
They hitched up the horse to the cart, put all their clothes and supplies in it, and left early the next morning. There was only one grassy path that led out of the village, which led to a dirt road. That, in turn, led to the signpost that pointed north to Krifar, east to Sharka, and south to Ekistol, but not west back to their home.
The game began when the signpost was first spotted.
“Who am I, guys?” their father asked.
“Dada!” they shouted in a chorus.
They traveled down the road for a few minutes, then he repeated, “Who am I, guys?”
“Dada!” they shouted again.
They kept this up until they reached the sign. He turned around and give them all a knowing look, changing his tone into something more lilting. “Who am I, guys?” he asked as the cart paused at the crossroads.
“Martin!” they shouted.
Garlin said, “Sir…”, holding out the ‘r’ for a few seconds. Anladet and her younger sister, Sildet, burst into a fit of giggles and mimicked him for miles.
They camped when there were no towns. If they could find an inn, they would share beds, their father, mother, and Garlin together, and Anladet with her two sisters.
After eight days of bumpy travel, they reached Analussia. Her father made sure they kept inhaling the air, telling them they could smell the sea before they saw it. They heard the terns and gulls before spying the ocean, too, wondering what sort of creatures made those noises.
Their hotel rooms weren’t the most luxurious in town, but they were quite adequate. The innkeeper was a cheery man who asked no questions and gave them two rooms with a shared washroom that actually had plumbing. Their mother made them unpack their things before they changed out of their traveling clothes and explored the town.
Analussia was an amazing sight to behold. They had been to many other amazing places, cities, mountain villages, even a large park with many different sights, but never a resort town. This was where the rich migrated to get away from the stressed of urban life for a few months out of the year. They would bring an entourage of staff, colorful and beautiful garments, and plenty of money. Over time, the town had invested the windfall into improvements, which caused more people to come, which caused the town to grow in its lavishments each year.
Just a few cobblestone streets over from their inn was a tiled plaza with benches, potted flowers, and even a plume of water shooting from the ground. It was just the first of many gorgeous surprises the town held, each more incredible than the last. The plaza was all they needed to hold their attention, though they were all antsy to finally see and swim in the ocean.
They went back to the inn for dinner, their father insisting he eat in the servant’s area. The next day, as promised, they toted their suits and lunch to the ocean.
It had been breathtaking. There had been so many things to do. Their mother ushered them into a changing stall, a tall, striped tent on the edge of the sands near the road, then let them run free once they were suited up. Anladet didn’t know where to start. The waters? The sand? The large rocks along the northern part called to her most strongly. She took Garlin by the hand and led him down to the outcroppings. They climbed the boulders, sliding down the slick sides into the waiting waters. They did that until they discovered the tide pools filled with amazing creatures.
“Look, Garlin!” she said, pointing next to her.
He ran over, slipping on the rocks but maintaining his balance. They both dropped to their knees and leaned over. “What is it?” he asked.
“It’s a tiny ocean. Look. You can see things moving and schools of fish swimming around. There’s a shell-thing right there,” she said, pointing to a mollusk.
Garlin tried to touch it, but the crustacean retreated into its shell and refused to come out. “Anla, do you think big people watch our seas like we’re watching this puddle?”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Wouldn’t we be able to see them? There’s no one above us.”
“What if they’re invisible?”
“You mean like the gods Dada told us about?”
“I forgot to ask him when he was teaching us. Dada said we can’t see or hear them, but what if they’re trying to talk to us? How would we know?”
She thought about this for a second. “Dada said that they can do things to make sure everything is equal. Like, if too many people stop liking Kriskin or Queyella, then there are earthquakes and tsunamis and things like that. That’s how they tell us things.”
Anladet hadn’t like her father’s gods. There were less than the gods worshiped in the village, but Dada’s gods were meaner and vengeful.
“What if they’re happy, though? How do we know?”
Anladet didn’t have an answer for him. She’d ask her dad as soon as it was safe. “Let’s go back to the beach.”
They ran down to the soft, tan sand below and hopped into the waves, a great distraction from her brother’s tough questions. The waves were huge, taller than their father. They ran shrieking from the largest ones for some time before their mother called them for lunch.
They played games of imagination when they returned to the surf. Anladet had asked her father as many questions as she could think of about the sea people, the to’ken, on their way to Analussia. He answered with what he knew, mostly tales he warned her might not be true. They were sea voyagers with floating islands that attacked unsuspecting travelers. They could turn themselves into whales and dolphins. In their human forms, they breathed water and air when in the sea or on land and had scales instead of skin.
These were amazing insights into the sea people. Anladet pretended she was one, marauding after her brother’s ship. She’d slip below the water and try to drag him under the waves by his ankles. Afraid that she might drown him, she would snake underneath Garlin’s legs and lift him up on her shoulders, flopping him over to the side. He laughed every time.
That evening they all took baths. Their mother painstakingly brushed out their hair, trying to remove as much of the brine from it as possible. Anladet fell asleep from exhaustion and didn’t wake until her sister poked her well after dawn.
That was it. That was Anladet’s one perfect day. She had dreamed about it often enough that she had begun to pick up little details she had missed when she thought of it during the day. Tiny things, like the color of the rocks on the beach were a dark brown, not black as she had originally thought. Her mother’s hat, which hid her ears enough to keep people from asking the wrong kind of questions, had tiny white flowers embroidered over its tan felt. Raidet had been talking to a boy for most of the day, ignoring Sildet, who spent her time building sandcastles with other children. There was a smell of popcorn being sold along the side of the road next to the beach. There was a group of people feeding seagulls near one of the stalls. And the people on the beach, those who lived in town or were just visiting, had already been giving them suspicious looks.