Rhode stepped aside, and Iliana quickly moved towards the edge of the village before the siren could change her mind. Her head protested the speed, but it was easy to push the dizziness to the back of her mind. Coming across a few unknown sirens as she walked, she quizzed them about the best route to the cliffs. They gave her curious looks, but answered with clear directions.
As Iliana stepped through the willows, her mind returned to Aran.
Now she had two reasons to find a way out of here. The sirens’ offer, and a reaper. Sure, he could be an alright guy, but she’d rather not hang her hopes on someone who could rip her soul from her body.
The hike through the forest was spent thinking about the different ways she could escape. A raft would get her killed. Constructing a decent boat might work, but it risked taking too long to finish. It would have to be strong, but small. Something that could fit through the narrow opening without being bashed to death against the rocks.
As Iliana flipped through mental images of different boats she’d seen while traveling, she finally arrived at the base of the cliffs. She wrinkled her nose while studying the steep climb she had ahead of her.
For around three hundred feet, the path was surrounded by greenery, but then it sputtered out as the ground changed from earth to stone. From there, it was a rapid incline that had her head aching at the sight alone. Iliana finally realized that perhaps her first thought might not have been the best escape route. Stubborn to a fault, however, she forced herself to stride forward.
Iliana wasn’t out of shape by any means, but within a short time she’d been reduced to heavy breaths. The trek required both hands on occasion--as the cliff grew nearly vertical in one location, before evening out into a somewhat easier incline--and had her muscles screaming when she neared the top. By the time she finished climbing, the sun had risen to a pinnacle in the sky. The entire trip must have taken her around an hour to complete, most of it spent tackling the cliff.
As she caught her breath, she took a moment to study the view. The cliff held a good hundred, two hundred feet of flat rock ahead of her before it reached the edge. Beyond that, there was an equal amount of empty air before her eyes reached the matching cliffside that lined the cove. Ignoring Rhode’s earlier warning, Iliana strode right up to the edge before sitting down, allowing her feet to dangle in open air.
She settled her hands behind her, rocks biting into her palms, and leaned back, eyes turning towards the sky. Her boat plans had halted when the climb became harsh, her mind unable to divert focus from the task at hand. Now, however, her thoughts had turned elsewhere.
For all her thoughts of escape, what would she do afterwards?
If her fears were true, Iliana was alone outside of the cove. She’d have to travel miles of ocean, and the closest country was foreign to her. Many people in Eol spoke Empor, the standard language of traders, but a good majority spoke Eolis. If she could learn the language--and that was a big if given Iliaha had never been great at anything requiring book learning--there’d be the question of money. Without a penny to her name, it wasn’t as if she could hire a ship back to Aeolis.
And did she really want to go back?
All her home country offered her was the temptation of returning to her sister. Mara might have been clueless about the lies Kyril fed her, as well as the fear and pain he’d heaped upon Iliana, but she was the only family Iliana had left. Her elder sister had raised her after their mother’s passing, and the pain that came from those memories was sometimes too much. Iliana couldn’t think about her sister without wondering if there’d been a way to stay while still avoiding marriage.
If she hadn’t feared for her life… If Mara had listened…
Iliana shook her head. What ifs and imaginary futures would do her little good. She needed to focus on the now, not on tangent possibilities.
Aeolis held nothing but pain, so staying in Eol, or settling elsewhere would be her best plan. Cieon and Reotak were out of the question. Their war was infamous, and refugees were often met in Eol. There were even those who’d sold themselves into a temporary slave contract to barter their way out of the dangerous lands. Iliana had no intentions of involving herself in all of that.
There was Letia. The small, mountainous country bordered Aeolis, but had long since been deemed part of Reotak’s empire. She wasn’t sure how long it could continue to avoid the conflict. Nubella--a large island country devoured by the empire ages ago--was the same.
She could try one of the other, smaller island kingdoms, but most of them tended to be secluded. Language would again become an issue. Plus, she had a feeling that when Reotak had finished with Cieon, they would still be hungry. Small, independent kingdoms would be prime real estate.
Perhaps staying in Eol was best. The country had pledged itself to neutrality centuries ago, and had managed to avoid any of the constant bloodshed that Ceion dealt with. Or, she could try and sign up with another merchant ship. Her gender was a challenge, however. Plenty of ships clung to old superstition, viewing women as bad luck aboard a ship. Then there were those who were simply biased, viewing her role in life much as her brother-in-law had. Women were meant to be married off and producing children, not working hard hours on the treacherous sea.
Continuing to conceal her gender was an option. But, without Kain’s help… her mind pulled their last conversation up, unbidden. He hadn’t been wrong. She was bound to be caught, eventually, and the next person might not be as kind as he had been.
Rhode’s offer nudged Iliana’s thoughts. She straightened, casting her gaze out over the endless ocean. While she disliked--no, hated--the idea of joining those who had indirectly caused the probable deaths of her crew, her family, at least the future they offered wasn’t as uncertain the thoughts she’d been musing over. Tears threatened her eyes, and she forced them back again.
She had things to do. Iliana wouldn’t--couldn’t--waste time on grief. She could cry when a solution had been found, when a choice had been made, and an escape planned.
Iliana steeled herself, forcing the emotions back. Her mind began to wander as her eyes dried, the familiar scene bringing a different sort of ache to her heart.
It was around this time that she became aware she was being watched. A glance away from the ocean revealed Aran’s ghostly figure standing a mear dozen feet from where she relaxed. While his eyes left no doubt about his reason for being here--they were focused solely on her--they lacked the intensity of his original visit. If she had to give him an emotion, she might’ve pinned the expression he wore as one of curiosity, and perhaps a bit of apprehension.
“I won’t fall,” she declared, turning her gaze back to the water. “So, there’s no need to watch me. I’ve no intention of becoming a soul today.”
Minutes ticked by in silence following her words. Unable to help herself, Iliana looked over her shoulder once more. He hadn’t moved. A shiver crept down her spine, as well as a sliver of unease.
“If you’re not leaving, at least move where I can see you,” she demanded. “Staring like that is creepy as fuck. Gods.”
His mouth quirked with what might’ve been amusement. She glowered in turn. After a moment, Aran shoved his hands in his pockets and drew closer to her position. He paused just close enough that she could stare at him out of the corner of her eyes while still watching the waves lick base of the island’s rock enclosure.
As time passed, his gaze seemed to switch to the scenery as well. Tension she hadn’t known she was holding seeped out of her frame as Iliana relaxed in response. Still, the silence stretched between them felt as heavy as the pain that’d begun to plague her thoughts before his appearance.
“Want to know why I came out here?” she asked.
Something about this, about the thick silence, and the mute man unable to share her secrets, made an unfamiliar urge well up in her chest. Untold stories held their own weight, and sometimes… they hurt. He was a complete stranger, and somehow, that made it easier, more appealing.
Aran’s curious eyes flicked back to Iliana, and he offered a shallow nod.
“The port town I grew up in was cliffside,” she shared.
The memories flashed through her mind as she spoke. Her words outlining how Ephi was a strange mixture of poor village and important city. How the land had a clear divide between the extravagant grounds belonging to the upper class, and the crumbling buildings belonging to the poor. The rock walls had created a cave-like setting, as the town itself laid at the base, some of it built on aging docks that stretched over the open sea, and some of it in the cliffside itself.
The noble estates, constructed above it all, had literally lorded over them.
“There were gates on the outskirts. My mother once said that the town hadn’t always been enclosed, but the nobles had complained constantly about the threat of pirates by water, and bandits by land, until the lord ordered the walls built. The guards weren’t supposed to allow children without a written pass, or an adult, to leave. I was a familiar face, though, and by the time I took to escaping, they knew my mother had passed, and Mara was too busy to care one way or another.
“At least, that’s what I told them. Really, she hated the idea. Mara was as overprotective as a big sister can be when she’s juggling long hours as a waitress and being courted by a rather controlling noble.
“Either way, they’d look the other direction and let me sneak out of town. On days when I couldn’t find dock work, I’d climb the cliffs and look over Ephi, imagining what it’d be like to sneak onto one of the ships and sail away. After she married, it was an escape. I could sit and watch the ships, imagine myself on one, and forget the horrible town that laid beneath me.”
Her lips twisted up in a bitter smile.
“And one day, I took the chance. Best choice I ever made.”
Even now, stranded, scared and grieving, she didn’t regret it.
Ephi had been a cage. Iliana wouldn’t be going back, not even to sooth the pain that came from thoughts of her sister.