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The waves were choppy, but for Grace, this made sailing that much more fun. After a crash course on the basics, she learned how to handle the main sail, jib, and rudder. She still had trouble with all the different kinds of knots, and understanding the wind wasn't easy either, but she liked the challenge. She also liked when the waves were choppy because the boat jumped and whitewash leaped from the sides. The mist and brine that sprayed her skin smelled enlivening and felt equally refreshing. With a strong wind to their backs, the boat tore over the water at a powerful speed. Looking to the side, she could truly appreciate the velocity as the clouds and waves rolled by. She had never traveled this fast in her life. Her heart pounded with excitement. For her, sailing for the first time was an exhilarating experience.
"Ease up on that rope! It should be forty-five degrees!" Wake shouted over the wind.
He was working the main sail, and his position was quite unfortunate. The misty sea spray that lightly brushed Grace manifested itself as a full-on splash that always seemed to slap Wake at the worst possible times.
Grace smiled, her long hair streaming in the wind.
"What?" she yelled, still looking forward.
"Ease up! Give it some slack! It should be forty five-"
Another splash blasted in Wake's face, filling his nose and smarting his eyes.
Hunter looked down from his perch and cackled as Wake spit out a mouthful of saltwater.
"Some friend you are! I'm over here suffering and all you do is laugh! Why don't you make yourself useful and help out?" Wake snapped.
With a sigh, he returned his attention forward and yelled.
She held out her hand, thoroughly enchanted by sensation of catching the mist.
He yelled again, this time louder.
The second shout caught her attention.
"What?" she asked obliviously.
"Give it some slack!"
He thought for a second and took a deep breath.
"Actually, just let it go altogether. We're going to break for a bit."
Slowly, the boat decelerated and came to a floating stop. Wake wiped the water from his face, sat back, and let out a sigh of relief.
"Water has been spraying me in the face for the better part of an hour. Besides, it's been awhile since we last ate, so we should probably do something about that. Being hungry at sea is asking for trouble."
"You're right, but you have to admit, we were flying. I bet we made up a lot of ground."
She corrected herself.
"Technically, a lot of water."
"Trust me, I know. I'm well acquainted with the water."
He frowned as drips fell from the tendrils of his hair.
"Very well acquainted."
Remembering the cause of his anger, he turned his attention to Hunter.
"And this guy over here kept laughing at me!"
He pointed to the bird sitting comfortably atop the mast. In response, Hunter ruffled his feathers, flaunting how dry he was.
"You're just lucky your skin secretes oil so the water rolls off, or I swear I'd chuck you into the ocean."
He pondered for a moment.
"Now that I think of it, I still want to chuck you into the ocean!"
The bird flew down and sat next to Wake, nuzzling its head against his arm.
"How dare you even try that? Your nerve never fails to surprise me! Cuddling, of all things, is not going to make me forgive you. If you want me to stop being mad, then do your fair share and get us something to eat."
As rising to the challenge, Hunter fanned his head feathers and spread his enormous wings. In a burst of wind, he exploded into the late afternoon sky. High in the air, Hunter circled the ocean, his large shadow following on the rippled surface. With pinpoint vision, he searched the depths for prey. Using the wind streams, he glided gracefully, turning smoothly as he continued his search. This circling only lasted for a brief few moments until he cocked his head to a certain spot. With his target locked in, he tucked back his wings and dove like a torpedo. He penetrated the water like a white blur and made no splash at all. Almost instantly, he emerged with a seven-colored bass flopping helplessly in his talons. Finishing the job, he pierced through the scales with his razor sharp claws, and that was that.
He tossed it to Wake.
"Fine. Now we're even."
Grace raised her eyebrows.
"That's some pet you've got there."
Hunter screeched angrily.
"He's right; he's not my pet. He's my best friend though," Wake explained.
"Even if he's a big pain in the neck," he added sourly.
"I raised him since he was a chick. You would never believe how much of a feather-ball he was back then."
He began cleaning the seven-colored bass with a knife.
While he cleaned the fish and tossed the guts to Hunter, Grace made her way to the bow of the boat. Hanging her legs off to the side, she traced circles in the water. The water felt cool as it lapped her ankles.
It's so odd. The ocean can be so nice, beautiful even, but it can also be heartless and cruel.
She remembered the freezing first night and shivered.
One moment the sun is shining and the air sweet. Next thing you know, the wind pierces through your skin and bones.
The late afternoon sun descended, and she looked at her wavy reflection in the water.
The last time I looked at my reflection was when I combed my hair the night Mom and Dad broke the news.
She tried to remember the smoothness of the porcelain comb in her hand, the way her hair fell to the small of her back, and the comfort of plopping into bed and closing her eyes. She remembered her parents whispering in excitement.
"It's like we've always dreamed."
She tried to imagine what it would be like if none of this ever happened, that it was all just a bad dream, and that she'd wake up in her room, her father calling, "Gracie, it's time for breakfast!" She pictured her mother, her soft hair and fair skin. She tried to remember all of the nights when she didn't have a care in the world, just sitting cross-legged in the grass, listening to that tender voice tell her everything about The Way of the Sword. As best she could, she cloaked herself in these sacred memories, but the distinct touch of saltwater against her ankles reminded her of this harsh new reality. The rocking of the boat reminded her those days were nothing but memories and they could never happen again.
She stared long and hard at her reflection. There was something missing, something she couldn't quite place. She forced a smile, but no matter what she did, she couldn't return the joyful cheer to her cheeks. Brushing a strand of hair from her face, she peered deeply into the eyes of her own reflection. In a way, they seemed faded and weathered. Maybe it was the grey circles underneath, or perhaps it was simply her being tired, but deep down she knew it was neither of those things. Gradually she began to admit to herself that her life would never be the same. She smirked hysterically to mask how much it hurt to accept the truth.
Everything is so different now.
Her attention returned to the skinny kid fumbling with a fishing pole.
"I thought you were supposed to be cleaning that fish."
"First of all, it is no ordinary fish. It's a seven-colored bass. Second of all, I need to cook it."
"First of all, it isn't even seven colors. It's clearly red, yellow, and green."
"Second of all, what are you doing with that fishing pole?" she asked without the slightest attempt to mask the bluntness in her tone.
"You already have the fish."
"Ah!" he raised his index finger, ignoring her sarcasm.
"You see, we are running extremely low on tinder for a fire."
His excitement faded, and he cringed when he spoke these words.
"But fear not! I have devised an elegant solution! Watch and learn."
He poked the pole deep into the water, as far as he could, and he held it there as the boat floated forward. After about thirty feet, he gritted his teeth and levered the pole out of the water. On the end hung a sopping wet mass of tangled kelp. With struggling effort, he swung the pole back into the boat, dumped the pile of vegetation onto the floor, and exhaled in exhaustion. After regaining his breath, he stood up straight, put his hands on his hips, and gazed profoundly at the fruit of his labor.
A long, drawn out period of silence ensued.
"You dumped a lump of soggy kelp on the floor of the boat."
"What exactly does this accomplish?"
"When you're cast away at sea, you need to improvise with your materials. Once this stuff dries, it will be pretty flammable," Wake explained.
"And! Though you may not expect it, the fish takes on a really nice flavor. Trust me, I've tried it, a *italics zesty sort of char."
He knelt down and began sorting through the strips of wet kelp, lining them flat to maximize the drying.
He didn't look up as he spoke, "It would've been better if I had thought of this earlier while the sun was high, but it doesn't really matter. With enough airflow, these puppies will be dry in no time. Then I'll cook us up some sushi."
"You know, fish and seaweed."
"You need rice to make sushi," she pointed out.
"Oh whatever. I was just trying to be funny."
"It was a valiant try," she laughed.
Pausing for a second, she started to say something but then stopped herself.
"What?" asked Wake.
She wore a dissatisfied frown.
"I had an idea but I forgot what it -"
Her face lit up.
"Oh! Got it! Instead of watching kelp dry, why don't we just hang it from the sail and travel for a bit? That way, we kill two birds with one stone!"
Hunter glared at her from his perch.
She blushed ashamedly.
"I didn't mean literally kill two birds with a stone. You see; it's a figure of speech."
"Good idea Grace, but this time I have dibs on the jib."
"Hey that rhymed!"
With that desperate, pathetic excuse for a rhyme, Wake and Grace rigged up the sails and caught the wind. The green strips of kelp fluttered like little flags. As the boat surged forward, the sun lowered in the West behind them. At the same time, the pale moon became visible in the darkening sky. Occasionally, Wake glanced back at Grace to see if the whitewash was as brutal to her as it was to him. He squinted in slight dismay at the fact that she remained perfectly dry and seemed to be the fully enjoying her post.
At one point she noticed one of his glances.
"Is there some reason why you're making that dull face at me?"
"Oh, no reason," he scowled, returning to his job of controlling the jib.
"Must be my bad karma," he thought.
Then he wondered: Is thinking about bad karma a cause for bad karma? Darnit... I must think of something else!
They lost track of time for a bit, to say the least. The rush of travel, constant wind, and waves has a hypnotizing effect on the mind. Sailing becomes such a comfortable pattern that it can be hard to shake out of the trance. Before they knew it, they had sailed for close to an hour, and the stars were beginning to twinkle.
The onset of night is so common yet indescribable. The lights gradually dim, but it's nearly impossible to notice until it's completely dark. Perhaps it's the speed of the night as the sun gets lower and lower, or maybe human perception is unwilling to give up the day. Either way, neither Wake nor Grace remembered the kelp, or the fish for that matter, until nighttime.
"Hey Wake, I'm pretty sure these are done"
She motioned to the hanging kelp strips.
"Oh yeah!" he laughed.
"Completely forgot about those! Let's tie her down for the night."
As Grace slackened the main rope and folded the sail, she asked, "Do all sailors refer to their boats as females? I feel like it's a common trend for some reason."
He momentarily clamped the jib rope between his teeth as he worked to tie up the sail, but he was able to utter an incomprehensible sound.
He spit out the rope.
"It's customary to refer to a boat as a female, but never refer to a female as a boat. That's what a very wise man once told me."
Wake wrapped the fish in dried kelp and lit a starting fire with the flint. Blowing and fanning the little cinders, he watched the tinder slowly ignite, and then once it was ready, he placed the fish in the middle. Delicious aromas rose from the fire, and wispy smoke unfurled in the darkness. It was a different kind of night than before. The temperature was fair, albeit a bit chilly, but that comes naturally as the sun goes down. The fire provided sufficient heat for comfort.
The three survivors sat in the boat, wordlessly staring at the calm fire. Pleasant moonlight twinkled on the black waves as the boat floated gently over the water. Something about the relaxing tranquility and camaraderie reminded Grace of dinner with her mom and dad. A fish wrapped in kelp was far different from stir-fry, a weathered deck wasn't a wooden table, and a puny fire didn't compare to candlelight, but the feeling of togetherness remained.
Even though they were effectively trapped in the middle of the ocean, stuck in a cramped boat with a single fire for a light source, and without the slightest clue about where they were headed, at least they weren't completely alone.
"Your strategy is reckless, brother," said Dai.
"Perhaps you're right..." Tai's voice tailed off.
"Or! Perhaps you underestimate me as always!"
Candles flickered and cast shadows on the stone walls of the dormitory. Past midnight, the twins slouched over a small Pai Sho table, their expressions bent in fierce determination. Every now and then, they checked the doorway to make sure nobody could hear their whispers. For them, it was an invigorating adventure to stay up later than everybody else. They felt like rebels, unbound by the laws of day and night.
"I can tell that you're losing focus. You're blinking for longer and longer periods of time, and your yawns are more frequent; both of which are signs of your mind's deteriorating," said Dai.
The orange glowed on his devilish grin, and he continued.
"Because you are so tired, you're trying to play reckless, trying to take a chance and end the game quickly. I bet you're thinking to yourself, 'Hmm I bet he'll make a mistake, and I can take advantage.'"
"What if I'm not tired at all? What if I want you to think I'm being reckless while I'm actually in control? What if I intended for you to think you knew what I didn't know, but all the while I actually knew you thought you knew what you thought I thought I knew."
Even Tai didn't completely comprehend what he just said but decided to roll with it.
"Didn't see that coming, huh?"
"You literally just made that up!" Dai hissed.
The intermission of smack talk was interrupted by the distinct sound of Jifu's snores. The little boy lay fast asleep in the bed on the opposite side of the room. Curled up in a blanket, he snored constantly, the resonance falling and rising in tune with his tiny chest.
"No...no..." he mumbled in his sleep.
"They want it..."
"They won't stop..."
His voice fizzled out.
Tai turned his head to the sleeping boy.
"Spirits? Egg custard? What the heck was that?"
His brother shrugged.
"Must have been some dream."
Dai tapped the board.
"Are you going to move or what?"
"Oh yeah, sorry about that," Tai grinned sheepishly.
He placed down a tile while his brother rolled his eyes.
"A white lotus tile?" Dai sneered skeptically.
"You, like many people, undervalue its importance," the twin said with an air of dignity.
"Don't underestimate the White Lotus like you underestimate me."
Dai was about to comeback with some kind of improvised counter, but he was interrupted by a sound from outside. At first it seemed like the wind rustling some bushes, but the constant noise of movement confirmed that something, or someone was outside. The combination of darkness, late night, and silence struck fear into the twins' hearts. Their eyes darted from side to side, and their fingers trembled.
"Go see what it is! You're closest!" Tai reasoned.
"Dude, there's no way I'm doing that. For all I know it could be some kind of spirit monster! Wake up Jifu! Tell him to do it!"
"I don't trust him."
Tai thought a bit deeper about potential repercussions.
"He'll probably piss his pants, and I don't want to be the one to clean it up. Let's just go together."
To this proposal, they mutually agreed. Carefully, they tiptoed to their window and peeked out ever so slightly. In the shadows they could see the outline of a person walking calmly along the paths. He was simply strolling along, ignoring the fact that it was past midnight and almost pitch black. As the figure neared, they began to barely recognize his features.
"Is that Sikhi?"
Suddenly, the forest to the left of the shadowy figure began to move, trees shaking violently. The figure stopped and turned his attention to whatever created the disturbance. Before he could even react, a large, dark form burst out and attacked.
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