New Orleans. I spent the rest of my week thinking about the Crescent City. It was true that she had been calling me back for a while now, even before Ka’ahupahau set me on this path. To then learn that Alaran was also there and that Valen knew about it set my teeth on edge. Something, or someone, wanted me back in that city—the city where it happened. The city I vowed to never return to. And yet, I had called up my manager at Ocean Guardian and told him I would head that way once my vacation was over. I would not rush away, and I was spending some quality time with Valen. I had to say, being the fiancee to the Regis of the weresharks had its perks. But I would get into that some other time.
Valen and Leon had left the day before, informing me that Valen had business to attend back on the Island but that I would see him again soon. Leon snarled as Valen pulled me into a deep, passionate kiss, and I could tell that he was one of those sticks in the mud Valen had been telling me about. When I returned to my hotel room that afternoon, my last day in Hawaii, I found a box. Every day this week, Valen had left me gifts, little parcels appearing on my bed. Being doted on was a feeling I had never had before, and I wasn’t sure I would ever get used to it.
I picked up the box and lifted the lid. Inside, I found a glittering silver chain studded with diamonds that glittered in the afternoon light. There was a note there as well, and I lifted it out, adoring the fine script I knew as Valen’s.
Valeria, I had this chain crafted for when you need protection. You can wear it as a necklace, or a bracelet, however you see fit. This is all I can offer you when I am not around. It will change into a whip made of pure silver. Hopefully, you will use it, but I also hope that you will never have to.
Valen, The Regis.
I smiled brightly and lifted the chain out. It felt smooth, silky, and powerful. I could feel the magic radiating through it, and I chuckled softly. “Oh, my king, this is a royal gift,” I muttered softly. When I held one end and let go of the other, it changed form into a whip. “Oh, oh! This is perfect!” I whipped it to the side, hearing the crack and grinning brightly. I shook it gently, and it changed back into the chain. I pondered how to wear it, and then the idea of an accessory I used to wear when I danced to pay tuition came to mind. I gasped as the chain immediately reacted.
“Well, this is the perfect addition. It will go with everything.” I wrapped it around my waist, clicking it into place, and looked in the mirror. “You still got it, Valeria.” I winked at myself and walked out to enjoy a swim in the afternoon heat.
A week later, I was back in Miami, sorting my affairs aboard the Spring Tide. I was getting ready for my move to New Orleans but was hesitating as long as possible. I could have flown right there, Ocean Guardian would have sent my stuff to me, but I was afraid. New Orleans terrified me, between Cecelia and the dark magic that I felt last time, to the brackish lakes between the city and the Gulf. It was a hard city for me, and that was why I wanted to bring Spring Tide with me. It was my safe space, my home. I could be me, out on the sea, free from any attachments. But now I was attached. I was not free. I looked down at the ring on my necklace, a symbol of my unofficial engagement, and sighed.
The news had spread quickly, and by the time I got back to Miami, I had received both well-wishes and death threats. Notes were stuck to the stern, and I shook my head angrily as I carefully peeled them away. I tossed the letters into the gash without reading them and made my way to the galley. I needed to prepare for the trip. Spring Tide was my single-mast sloop. Not a large houseboat, but definitely big enough for me. I looked out the portcullis above the sink and saw a storm brewing on the horizon. “Fuck,” I murmured under my breath. That was going to delay me. I placed a quick call into Pontchartrain Landing, the marina I had bought a berth at, and informed them I might be later than anticipated if I needed to sail around the storm or wait for it to pass.
Secretly, I was hoping to delay the trip. I could afford the fees, and I really did not want to go back. And yet, there was the calling from each Ka’ahupahau, the search for Alaran, and my quest to find the Source. That last was honestly low on my priorities. Alaran was the reason I was going back. I needed to find him. Valen called yesterday to inform me he had heard some more rumors filtering his way about Alaran’s location, somewhere in the Metairie. His voice also held a sadness to it.
“I am facing a lot of flack here, Valeria. As much as I wish I could come and stay by your side while you are in New Orleans, I don’t see that happening in the near future. I do not know if our engagement is actually legitimate since I went behind everyone’s backs to do it. I am…” I heard him sigh, and my heart went out to him. “I am creating an opening for you, my Valeria. If you find love again, take it. I do not wish to keep you bound to a promise neither of us can keep. I only hope that you find someone who will treat you like the queen I know you can be and will respect you and your boundaries.” And with that, he hung up without letting me respond.
The thought still rolled around in my heart, eating at me. I loved Valen. He knew that, and I knew he loved me, but it seemed like he finally understood the hardships we would face to make this work. It was something I wanted, but not right now. I could not even give him a time frame. I shook my head to clear the thoughts. Valen had given what seemed to be a free pass, but I did not want to take it. At least, that was what I told myself. I think part of me wanted it, a way out, one that would not have me ostracized from the community.
Standing in the galley, I looked around my home and sighed. I could not wait any longer. I made my way back up to the deck, let free the mooring lines, and started the engine. Spring Tide had a small inboard motor, mainly for marina and docking use, and I engaged it now, keeping the main and jib-sails furled for the time being.
Once I got out into the open Gulf, I unfurled the sails and let the wind take me. It caught the mainsail in a broad reach, and I was racing. My heart thudded in my chest. Above the surface, this was one of the few ways I felt like myself. I felt the wind shift and ducked quickly as the boom took a sudden turn, and I tacked in the opposite direction. I forced the Spring Tide into a cautious close-reach, I could feel the wind shifting again, and I made my way back towards the shore. I hugged the coastline for the rest of the day and dropped anchor once the sun went down. I dove off the stern, shifting effortlessly in the water, and hunted down my dinner. The next four days passed in much the same way as I skirted the oncoming storm.
The skyline of the Crescent City came into view as dusk fell on the fifth night. I was exhausted and decided to drop anchor rather than dock permanently. I curled up on the cushions in front of the steerage. Even in the lockdown, the music of the city rang true, and I could feel the magic drawing me forward. I knew, intrinsically, that I had made the right decision in coming to New Orleans, even if the city was not my favourite place. I closed my eyes, wrapped myself around the pillows like a tiny dragon clutching her hoard, and fell asleep.
In the early hours, I awoke to the cries of a woman in distress. I looked around wildly, trying to find any sign of her, but found nothing. Perhaps she was already below? I dove in quickly, not shifting so that I could help if need be, but saw nothing, no one. I made my way back to the surface, confused. When my head broke the calm ripples, the cries started back up, but this time it sounded as though it resonated from my boat. I swam back quickly and boarded as the voice nagged at me.
“Cecelia?” My voice was ragged, scarred from the trauma, and I collapsed as the memory swept over me.
“Those two,” the voice in the club that night was low and gravelly. Cecelia and I were up on stage during amateur night, and we assumed the gentleman had paid enough for two lap dances. It was not unusual for us. The managers paired us together most nights. Mostly because we were friends, but also because when I danced, I was aggressive while Cecelia was demure. The contrast drove men wild.
When we finished our set, Cecelia and I walked to the back table where the two men sat who had ordered the dances. The larger one crooked his finger at me, and I winked at Cecelia, who moved on to the other one. “So, sirs, what have you ordered tonight?” My voice was playful and seductive. I watched as desire flooded the man’s face.
He was clearly the more dominant of the two and was used to being in control. Here in New Orleans, that could mean anything from a human to a supernatural being. I would not feed Cecelia to him. This one I could handle myself. “A dance or three, and some drinks.”
Cecelia and I looked at each other and draped our arms around the others’ backs. We rarely had drinks with the clients, but the manager said these were VIP, very VIP, and to afford them every courtesy we could. Cecelia nodded almost imperceptibly, telling me she was fine with the arrangement. “Alright, we can agree to that. What first? Drinks or dances?”
The smile that crossed the man’s face was horrific and dark. And for a moment, I worried our manager had sold us to the Devil. Not that they sold us per se, but there was an exchange of cash for our services. “Let’s order a round of drinks, to begin with, and then we’ll see.” The hesitant nature of the discourse was giving me the chills, but he ordered two rounds of tequila shots, and Cecelia and I smiled. This was our drink of choice.
We knocked back the shots expertly, licking the little drips off each other’s lips, and turned back to the men. “Now for a dance?” We asked, at almost the same time, and it mesmerized the men. It was a practiced dance, and by the end of the number, we knew we had them in our pockets. Or so we thought. The large man waved one server over and whispered into her ear. She nodded, looked at me apologetically, and then scurried off. When the next round of drinks came, two tall shots each for Cecelia and me, and smaller ones for the men, I began questioning this engagement.
“Bottoms up, ladies, this is a special blend of mine. The manager keeps some for only the most special girls.” Every warning bell was going off in my head, but Cecelia took her two glasses, I took mine, and we drowned them in rapid succession. I did not know something was wrong until I was looking up at the underside of the table, Cecelia’s hand grasping at mine.