Aikana had not yet risen when Dewer rounded the final curve on the cliff road and beheld the bay of Kaelunis. The sun was setting, throwing long arms of gold over the waves and across the beach. He had not laid eyes on this place for an age, yet the sight of the palm trees gently swaying in the distance and the smell of the warm salt water rushing along the shore still felt as familiar as the rhythm of his own heartbeat.
Dewer heard the Kaeluni before he saw them. It sounded as if drums were booming along the shoreline, rebounding from the cliffs and scattering gulls who cawed and wheeled away over the electric blue waters of the Kalee Sea. The Kaeluni spilt from a wide gap between two cliffs where they made their cave-like homes in the soft rock, spreading over the sand and into the sea so that from Dewer’s perspective, they appeared to be a writhing carpet of people. Their hands were clapping in the air, their feet pounding on the sand to a tuneless rhythm. They joined their voices as one in a deep, guttural chant. As the sound rose higher, it vibrated with an intensity greater than that made by a hundred drums.
Perched astride his weary horse, flanked on either side by two Salt Sword guards, it did not take Dewer long to pick Aliona out from the crowd. He watched her turn and sway, her body rolling like the swell of a wave as her long pale hair fell across her face. She had entered what her people called a ‘dreaming state’, the chanting ringing in her blood, no longer aware of the constant movement of her own feet. This was a state in which great truths were made clear and stupendous beauty revealed. Dewer had often envied the Kaeluni’s ability to leave the world and even their own bodies behind. It was something he had never been able to master.
He stiffened when Aliona suddenly stopped dancing and turned to face him, cold and dark upon the cliff top. He wondered how many hours she had been dancing barefoot on the sand. Her face was the only point of stillness amongst the tumultuous sea of undulating bodies.
Across the gulf of beach and rock, they faced each other, both waiting for the other person to make the first move. Dewer broke first. He nodded at Aliona, motioning towards the far end of the beach, indicating the further cove where he knew her living quarters were. He dismounted, handing the reins to one of his Salt Swords, and began making his way down to the sand. On the periphery of his vision, he could see Aliona carving her own path through the crowd.
Dewer finally stopped before a deceptively small house, hidden beneath an overhanging cliff shelf. The flat roof was covered with determined little sea poppies, their petals blazing yellow as they nodded at the sun slipping into the sea. Dewer looked out over the waves, already beginning to sparkle with the dazzling luminescence that made the waters of Kaelunis famous throughout Joria. It looked as though a million strands of tiny, glowing sapphires were floating in the water, washing across the beach to glitter on the sand.
Aliona glided across the cove on feet so swift and silent she almost took Dewer by surprise.
“Why are you here, Dewer?” she demanded. The cove was a private, peaceful place even though it was just around the curve of the cliffs that walled the main beach. It was Aliona’s sanctuary and usually, only her most trusted confidantes ever dared set foot there. Dewer was painfully aware that he was no longer one of them.
He turned to look at her, hating the way his breath betrayed him by catching in his throat. Even after all these centuries, her beauty still mesmerised him. It was sickening.
“You are as exquisite as ever,” he admitted.
Aliona simply watched him. She had never been a fan of tedious small talk.
“I’m sorry I interrupted the festivities,” he tried again.
“No, you’re not.”
“Direct as ever, too,” he said.
“Why are you here?” Aliona asked again.
“You’re not going to invite me in?” Dewer looked towards the little house, seemingly cobbled together from sandy brick and driftwood.
“Certainly not,” Aliona retorted, flipping the long waves of her hair back over one shoulder. Her eyes burned with a sad fury that made the mighty Lord Dewer want to turn and flee.
“Ali,” Dewer pleaded, feeling unsettled by his rising desperation. “It’s been two lifetimes, when are you going to forgive me?”
“Maybe I will never forgive you. Only one other has betrayed me as you did, and she no longer possesses the use of her right mind.”
Dewer flinched as he thought back to the night Aliona had discovered him beneath this very cliff, entwined with Launa, one of her most beloved Kaeluni daughters. In truth, it was not the affair that hurt Aliona as much as the betrayal of her secrets.
Dewer had felt compelled to pursue Launa. She had an innocence that shone from her pretty face like a flame. He did more than seduce her though, he took her under his wing. He taught her how to draw down power from the silver moon and use it to conjure fancies. Her favourites were the butterflies formed from sand that rose, trembling, only to fall apart and be blown away on the sea breeze as soon as they opened their grainy wings. He showed her how to divine the future from the way the seaweed lay after calling it forth on a wave, how to summon seashells and gems washed smooth against the rocks from the shoreline. These gifts were meant only for Aliona’s most treasured disciples and were certainly not to be shared. When she discovered them together, the Kaeluni queen had dragged the helpless Launa by her hair, still half-dressed, and burnt her at a stake quickly erected on the beach. She made her people watch as the poor girl struggled and screamed beneath the cold stars. The sea soon swept in to extinguish the flames, but not before they had consumed her.
“You exacted your revenge, did you not?” Dewer said, still bitter at the memory. After putting Launa to death by fire, Aliona had turned her attention to Dewer. She stripped him of his magick with a binding spell so strong, all the druids in Armoria could not undo it. All those long years of training, practising, honing his craft under Aliona’s patient tutelage had crumbled to dust that night.
“I did,” Aliona agreed. “But then I hear you have proclaimed yourself Lord of Armoria, no less, and built yourself a gaudy citadel. I know what you have been doing, Dewer. You have bent the power of the Armorian druids to your dark will. I wonder what you offered them in return for their labours? Or did you simply threaten them with death and destruction?”
Dewer opened his mouth to reply but Aliona lifted a hand to silence him. “No matter,” she said. “It does not change the fact that you were supposed to suffer when I bound you. You were supposed to end your days alone and powerless. Instead, you crawled away and rose a king.”
“So sorry to disappoint you,” Dewer said. He tried to appear humble, but he knew Aliona could see his smugness flickering just beneath the surface. It was hard to reign it in. He had risen as a king, and he had done it with no help from his former queen.
“Disappointing me is all you have ever done, Dewer. You were the most promising disciple I have ever taught, and you threw it all away for a pretty girl.”
“I was no mere disciple though, was I? You loved me, Ali.” Dewer watched her carefully, delighting when he saw the faintest blush colour her cheeks. “I believe you love me still,” he whispered, moving closer. He lifted a hand to her face but before he could touch her, Aliona batted it away.
“What disgusting arrogance.”
“I thought it was my arrogance that drew you to me, that inspired you to gift me with this unnaturally long life.”
“It is your arrogance that leads you to believe such nonsense.”
Despite her hostility, Dewer could see Aliona was softening. He had always been able to placate her after an argument. Eventually. The fact that this argument had lasted for over one hundred years made no difference. “Have you missed me, Ali?”
Aliona shook her head, her lips set in a thin line, but her eyes betrayed her. The old fury had left them, replaced with a familiar resignation.
“I will admit to missing you,” Dewer continued. “You saved me when I thought I was beyond saving, do you remember?”
“I remember.” Her voice was low and calm. Dewer knew he had her.
“I worshipped you for countless decades,” he said, lifting his hand to her face once more. This time she let him brush her cheek, her long eyelashes fluttering at his touch. “Surely we still mean something to each other?”
Aliona took a step back, letting Dewer’s hand drop to his side. “You presume much,” she said. Then, unable to meet his gaze, “Although perhaps there is some truth in what you say.”
Dewer took this as an invitation. He closed the gap between them and pulled her to his chest before she had time to react, pressing his lips to hers. She stood stiffly in his arms, her lips unmoving, but eventually she relented and her tongue found his, her hands reaching up to entwine in his dark hair. When she finally pulled away, there was a smile playing on her face.
“You are a brute, Dewer.”
“Yes, but a charming one. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Very well,” Aliona said with a sigh. “We are friends once more. Now tell me why you are here.”
Dewer nodded. “My strength is fading, I need…” He paused to summon his courage. Admitting weakness felt like pulling barbed thorns from his skin. “I need that which only you can give me, Ali.”
“Of course your strength is fading,” Aliona replied. “You have lived through two moon-changes since you left Kaelunis. Now the Purple Mother is rising once again and you have always drawn strength and comfort from her cold partner, Mamai, who even now is passing away over our heads. The moons are changing, the world is in flux. I warned you of this. Have the years really been so long you have forgotten all I taught you?”
“No, of course not.” He reached for her again. “I remember everything, Ali.” When she failed to react he shook his head, his voice rising. “Do I have to beg? Would you like to see me on my knees?”
“If I help you, how can I be sure you will not throw this world into chaos? I hear whispers from Armoria, I am no fool. You could bring forth a darkness that will blacken the land.”
“Only you know the true reason for my actions,” Dewer said. He took hold of her hands, forcing her to look into his eyes. “Need I remind you of the promises you made to me so long ago? You vowed to assist me, no matter the cost.”
“I never believed the cost would be all of Joria,” Aliona hissed.
“I have no interest in destroying Joria,” Dewer insisted. He was beginning to worry she would never agree to aid him. “I only wish to take back that which was stolen from me.” He refused to break eye contact with Aliona, tightening his grip on her hands until at last, she pulled them away, defeated.
“This will be the last time you seek life from me,” she said, moving to enter the small house beneath the cliff. “I refuse to be held by this debt forever.”
“One last time is all I need.” Dewer followed Aliona into the house. He closed the door behind them, shutting out the rising lavender light of Aikana that had begun to wash across the sea, rippling upon the sand where the Kaeluni were still dancing.
Inside, the house was simply furnished but deceptively large, cutting back into the cliff face itself. Glistening seashells were scattered about and garlands of dried seaweed hung from the low ceilings.
Dewer followed Aliona in silence as she led him to her bedroom, hardly daring to even tread too loudly for fear he would break the spell and she would change her mind. The last time he had seen her, her face so dark and distorted by fury he could almost believe she had been possessed by some vile spirit, he had thought they would never cross paths again. A part of him was finding it hard to believe she had not banished him on sight, with a new scar or two for his trouble. Another part of him had never doubted his ability to win the Kaeluni queen back to his cause.
Aliona walked into the bedroom, lit with lanterns gleaming dully behind frosted glass, and halted at the foot of her bed. She turned to face Dewer. “You know there’s only one way to draw from my essence,” she said. From the cast of her gaze, Dewer was fairly certain that Aliona had no qualms at all about what was to come next.
“I know,” he said. “In fact, I—”
Aliona silenced him with a single finger pressed against his lips. She pushed him down onto the soft expanse of the bed, draped with silks and coloured scarves. As she hitched up her skirts to straddle him, Dewer forced himself to give way beneath her, letting her take control. He had never been very good at that.