Iliana's feet hit the ledge seconds after she'd launched herself over the side. The slick surface nearly sent her pitching into the waters below, but she'd spent years aboard the Airlea, and instinct built on experience saved her balance. There was little difference between wet rocks and wet decking. The moment she was certain she wouldn't fall, Iliana strained her ears for any sign that she'd been heard.
The view from behind the falls was completely different from above. Now, she could see a small split in the rock, similar to the alcove she'd hidden away in earlier. Where Iliana stood stretched out into the spraying waterfall, but was surprisingly narrow. To the left laid a sudden cut off, resulting in the only path being a narrow ledge that ran to the hole in the cliff-side. That must have been why Melitta pressed her back to the rock-face before disappearing.
When no sign of detection came, Iliana took a deep breath and shuffled towards the cave. Then, she paused. If she drew any closer, Iliana held little doubt she'd be spotted at some point. And when that happened, there was no escaping from that narrow ledge--not if she planned on making it back to the village without a split head. The water below looked too shallow to be a potential exit. Well, not without seeing how the merfolk handled it.
Still, she had to know.
So, Iliana grew closer, her heart in her throat. When she was only a foot from the entrance she became able to pick up the voices once again.
"--since he passed out again?" Melitta was asking.
"A few hours," Callias answered, tone sour. "I'll need to go soon. The ocean's calling."
There was a moment of silence, followed by the sound of someone moving around. Iliana could almost feel the tension from where she stood. The siblings seemed close, so she found it hard to understand what could cause this divide. Was rescuing someone this horrible? Why?
"I understand. I'll come with you after I replace his bandages," Melitta muttered.
No, wait, the tension had been there before, too, Iliana remembered. They'd been arguing about something when she woke up. Callias had been in a poor mood about some decision Melitta had made, and if Iliana's hazy memory of those moments were right, he'd mentioned something about it not being her he was upset about.
Was this it, then?
Iliana chewed on her lip, fighting the impulse to dart in and see who laid inside. Her heart had already seized hope and ran with it. The timing was too perfect. He had to be someone from the crew--and out of them the strongest swimmer was Kain. Logic told her to be calm, that anyone could be laid out in there. Her entire being urged her to throw all caution to the wind and take whatever came in order to prove the stupid hope right.
"We can't keep doing this," Callias said after a moment of silence. The tone he used spoke of a repeated argument--one he didn't expect to win. "It isn't right. If the sirens find out--"
"If," Melitta stressed. "If they find out. I do not think the sirens know of this place. Do you really believe they swim the tunnels?"
Tunnels? Iliana wondered.
"If someone sees us--" Callias began.
"No one will see us! Quit being paranoid and help me check his leg wounds. They are nearly closed, but I would like to be safe."
There was a pause for a full minute, then the sound of someone moving around once again.
"If you've so much trouble touching him, I should be the one to do it all," Callias grumbled. There was a long pause, followed by his sigh. "Sorry."
"It is fine," Melitta said, voice stiff. "Just take care of the bandages, will you?"
There was another pause, Iliana imagined Callias was tending to the wounds. Then, the sound of movement again. She nearly jerked back, realizing the steps were bringing one of the merfolk closer to where she stood. Her heart raced, but no one appeared in the entrance.
"I still think we should drown him."
What? Iliana sucked in a breath, unsettled by the convention in Callias's tone. It reminded her of before, when Melitta said they could have let Iliana drown.
"Umae wouldn't mind," Callias continued.
"You do not know that," Melitta argued. "Just because he has been touched by the god does not mean Umae wants him below the sea. Look at his hair."
Her mind took those words and went wild. His hair. No one on the crew had remarkable hair, unless the salt-and-pepper look held some sort of weird attraction to the merfolk. Or, repulsion, she supposed, from the way they spoke. Melitta's voice had even held a note of worry, as if something about whatever she'd seen was worth getting upset about.
Kain, Iliana's traitorous heart told her. You've never seen Kain's hair. You respected him too much.
Could it really be him?
Forgetting herself, Iliana edged closer. Every single fiber of her being trembled with the need to see him. She couldn't breathe in that moment. She couldn't think.
"Do you hear that?"
Callias' voice startled her. Iliana's foot slipped and suddenly she found herself plunging forward--then stopping as a strong hand caught the back of her dress and dragged her into the cave. Her back hit his hard chest, his hands releasing her dress to grip Iliana's arms. The touch was gentle, as if afraid she'd break with too much force.
Iliana's heart pounded in her ears, fear mixed with gratitude flying through her mind. Her entire frame had gone tense, a shudder traveling her spine. Despite everything, she couldn't help but react to the hands of another. Still, her head conquered fear, and Iliana resisted the urge to jerk away. Touch-spawned anxiety was better than falling off a cliff.
Already knowing who she'd see, Iliana tucked her head back, peering into the eyes of her rescuer. "Thank you."
Callias frowned, those blue eyes of his seeming much darker than before. Hard, even. Then, he inclined his head in a silent 'you're welcome,' before dropping his hands from her arms. The chill of his touch remained, even as he spun to face the back of the cave. It was a small thing, stretching no more than twenty feet back, and only a good five feet wide. The fool disappeared further in, leading Iliana to guess that's where the tunnels they'd spoke of began.
"Fates! Are you okay?" Melitta gasped.
"I told you we'd get caught," Callias muttered before Iliana could reply. "She's fine. Focus on finishing, Melitta."
A bit of irritation stirred in the back of Iliana's mind at his blunt dismissal, but that was forgotten as her eyes fell to the unconscious sailor Melitta knelt beside. She tensed, legs nearly threatening to give out beneath her as sudden relief flooded her frame.
"Kain," Iliana breathed.
Concern, excitement, and over a dozen other emotions surged through her as she stared at him. His brown skin was pale and there were bandages wrapped around his chest, his left arm, and then yet another wrapped around his upper left thigh. Strange as it was, however, the most jarring thing was seeing that ever-present, knitted-gray cap missing from his head.
Kain's hair was snow white. Not a, 'I'm turning gray prematurely,' white, but the white of newly fallen snow. She'd never seen such a thing. Shaking her head, she started towards him, picking up minor details with each step. The locks were uneven and shaggy, as if Kain had cut them himself. She supposed he probably had. They fell no lower than his ears, but snowy bangs of a surprising length stretched to just above his closed lids.
"A crew mate?" Melitta prompted.
And just like that, Iliana's mind snapped to the present. Her eyes darted from Kain to Melitta, then Callias, and despite how every part of her urged her to drop to his side, Iliana stopped walking.
"You told me you didn't rescue anyone else," Iliana accused.
The siblings shared an unreadable look. Then, Melitta sighed, an apologetic smile on her face.
"We were unsure how close you were," she explained. Iliana's eyes narrowed, but she said nothing as the woman paused, then continued in a rush. "I am not aware how much Rhode and others have explained, but we can feel the potential in someone." Melitta placed a hand over her heart, eyes boring into Iliana's. "Right here. It is an instinct. We could tell you have the potential to become a siren. Which... well, you know what the requirements are. We were not sure what your past with him was, and if you would spill about him to the sirens. That would be... bad."
There were so many things Iliana wanted to ask, but in that single moment Kain's safety mattered more than everything else. "Bad how?"
"Men aren't allowed on the island," Callias answered.
His tone was far from sour sounding, unlike when he'd been speaking with Melitta alone, but there was a distinct, underlying irritation. She knew she should stay calm, but Iliana's own temper rose to meet his-- albeit a bit more heatedly.
"You're here," she shot back.
He stiffened. "I told you before. The circumstances are... special."
"You didn't tell me anything," Iliana snapped. "Why can you be here, but he can't? What will happen if the sirens find out?"
Callias' eyes narrowed as he studied her, as if searching for something. He'd moved towards the side of the cave at some point in the conversation and settled his back against it, arms crossed over his bare chest. Unlike the last time she'd seen him, new details stuck out to her. There were a massive number of old, faded scars etched into his pale skin. Some of them were lines that criss-crossed over each other, holding the look of wounds that had once been quite severe. There were also burns, and... was that a bullet wound?
The mark decorated the skin above his heart. Merfolk came from the dead, and Iliana had the sinking feeling she was looking at the agent of Callias'. No one took a bullet to the heart and lived.
How'd I miss that? Iliana wondered. Melitta cleared her throat, pulling Iliana's attention away.
"We are not sure," Melitta said, that apology still in her smile. "Which is why we kept him here. For safety."
"That doesn't answer my first question," Iliana pointed out.
Melitta hesitated. "I--"
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to," Callias interrupted, his voice much gentler than before.
"I don't mind," Melitta murmured. "Callias is allowed because of me. I was given the chance to become a siren, and even though I chose to become a child of the sea as to not be separated from him, they still view me as one of them. I am unable to live here, but I may visit. After some discussion, they decided to allow Callias to accompany me with the condition he never entered the village."
Something about her tone and the siblings earlier conversation clicked. Melitta was uneasy about touching the wound that laid rather high on Kain's thigh. Callias had apologized for needling her about it. He told her she didn't have to explain.
Just like that, all the irritation in her system dissipated. Something told her that Melitta reasons for meeting the conditions to become a siren was much more serious than Iliana's. The way Callias held himself and kept warning Melitta about the dangers--he was just being protective.
"But that protection could not possibly extend to cover your crewmate," Melitta continued, oblivious to Iliana's thoughts. "So... we have been careful. So far, we've been lucky. No Nightmares have figured out how to enter this place."
'Yet' seemed to be the unspoken ending to Melitta's words. Worry and fear began eating away at Iliana's thoughts, her eyes going back to Kain's face. She no longer had until she healed to figure out a way off this island--she needed a way off now. Before their terrible luck only caused something worse.
"There's a way."
Callias' sudden, cold words snatched Iliana's attention to him. He was studying her again, whatever emotion laid behind his words carefully locked away.
"I told you," Melitta protested. "Drowning him is not an option!"
"I'm speaking of something else," Callias said, gaze never shifting away from Iliana. Her stomach twisted into knots. A way for Kain to survive without actually dying? "You're close to this boy?"
"He's a man," Iliana corrected, uncertain of why the distinction felt important."But... yes."
"Then why not speak for him yourself?" Callias pointed out. "The sirens have no legal system. No leader. If you were one of them, you'd have a strong voice."
Her blood turned to ice. Had there ever really been a choice? Perhaps the gods were playing with her, giving her a short period of time before making it clear that no one ever really controlled their futures.
"I'd be able to protect him," Iliana finished.
She didn't want to do it.
Becoming a siren would break something in her. She'd be trading the old chains of her life for new ones--stronger ones. Sirens weren't seen on the mainland. Despite what they said of being free, she couldn't help but feel that there was a reason behind that. Did it change something in you? Cull whatever desires drove people to life beyond this island?
But... she couldn't abandon Kain.
He needed time to heal. And he needed protection against the Nightmares roaming the island, as well as the wrath of the sirens if they discovered a man within the bounds of their safe haven.
If it was for him, could she do it?
If it was for someone else... could Iliana become a siren?