By the time the Sea Storm Festival rolled around, Max was ready to get on his ship and sail away from Reach forever. The previous week had been nothing short of hellish for him, and it didn’t fail that he went home every night boiling with suppressed rage.
Everywhere he went, he was followed by whispering, giggling people. Out of the corners of his eyes, he would see them pointing or making rude gestures as he walked by. When he entered a room, the conversations would stop, and the people would plaster fake smiles on their faces while their eyes laughed and mocked him. They knew better than to treat Kadijah in the same manner after what happened to the first few people to do so. It enraged him that the god was watching, listening, close enough to the gossip and chatter of the town to be able to protect Kadijah from hurt feelings. He hated the look she had gotten in her eyes when she realized that’s what was happening. It had been soft and grateful under the guilt she felt at being the cause of someone else’s (well deserved, in his opinion) suffering, and he resolved again and again that she would never look at the god like that in his presence if he could help it.
There was no such protection on his account, and as soon as the town gossips and busybodies realized this, the rumor mill went into overdrive. It was romantic, they whispered, that the Sea God defended his consort’s honor so diligently. Sure, Max had punched the first guy who’d spoken ill of his wife, but the Sea God sucked all the water out of the man’s body! Nevermind that it was Max and Kadijah who looked after the man’s grieving husband and children and got them set up with the correct benefits programs to help support them! Oh no! It was the Sea God, that stupid, stinking mutant fish, who was seen as the hero in all of this, and he, steady, reliable Max who’d pledged his very life to maintaining the health and prosperity of the town, who was seen as the failure, the fool.
So by the time the dawn of the first day of the celebration broke over the sleepy horizon, Max was already emotionally done with everything to do with the Sea God and honoring him. Still, he was First Among Captains, and so he would go through the motions with a smile on his face, pretending with all his heart that he did not loathe the very god he would spend the next two weeks giving thanks to.
“You ready, bae?” Kadijah was standing next to him in the small dressing room off the side of the main celebration hall. She had a vest made of old fishing net and studded with electroformed pieces of metal, a tribute to both gods, in her hands that she was holding up for him to wear. He sighed heavily and stripped off his shirt, scowling as he snatched the vest from her fingers and shrugged it on. The entire thing was itchy as hell and poked painfully into his skin. Kadijah blew out an impatient breath.
“What? I’ve got the damn thing on,” he muttered, a twinge of irritation bleeding into his voice. She rolled her eyes and placed her hands on her hips.
“Look, Max, you’re the one who wanted to be First Among Captains, and this is something that you have to do. I know you don’t care for one of the gods we’re honoring, but you can at least keep your negative opinions about it to yourself.” She said. He rolled his eyes, suddenly angry but doing his best to push it away. Every time he turned around, she was defending that creature as if it hadn’t ruined their lives, as if it wasn’t still ruining their marriage.
“This isn’t exactly easy for me, Kadijah. It’s barely been a week since that thing basically raped you in front of my eyes, and you walk around like it was no big deal! How can you still worship that thing, and how can you pretend like everyone isn’t laughing at us?” He hadn’t meant for all of that to come out, but he couldn’t stand to listen to her scold him again as if he was in the wrong. Unwittingly, he’d cut to the core of what had been bothering him all week.
From the moment that creature put its hands on her, she acted as if it was perfectly ordinary to be spread out like a feast and consumed in front of a crowd for the enjoyment of a god. It was as if her loyalty to him was nothing compared to what she felt for the Sea God, and part of him suspected more and more that she would have lain with that creature even if the town wasn’t being threatened. A suspicion she did nothing to counteract. He couldn’t count the times he’d caught her gently touching one of the many healing bites and hickeys the Leviathan left behind on her gorgeous skin, a look of reluctant longing on her face that was always guiltily wiped away when she realized he was watching.
She tossed her hair angrily, the colorful seashells and bejeweled thunderbolts tinkling wildly amidst the ink black braids. The stare she leveled his way stopped the boiling crest of his anger in its tracks, leaving him feeling cold and ashamed.
“First of all, Max, no one is laughing at us. The very few people who were have already been taken care of, so please get over yourself. As for what you said about me,” she paused and stepped into his personal space, glaring up at him through narrowed black eyes, “even if the alternative was something I couldn’t live with, it was still my choice to lay down on that dock and have sex with the Great Leviathan. Despite what you think, he’s not a cruel god. If I had refused him, he surely would have chosen someone else or another method of atonement. He wouldn’t let innocent people suffer for the sake of his pride.”
He bristled at that, anger kindled anew and surging hot through his veins.
“So why didn’t you say no if you’re so sure he would have done those things instead?” He snapped. Her glare turned incredulous then, as if she couldn’t believe she had to spell it out for him.
“Because I belong to him, Max. I always have,” she said, and he hated how her gaze turned sympathetic as she took in the angry incomprehension on his face. Just outside the door, the beginning notes of a song were filtering through the heavy wood. Kadijah touched his chest, smoothing the best down on his bare skin with practiced ease. Max couldn’t bring himself to look much farther down than the top of her hair.
“Come on,” she said quietly, taking his hand in hers and leading him toward the door, “everyone’s waiting for us.”
Kadijah resolved to have a good time at the festival in spite of Max. After the commencement ceremony was done, she peeled away from Max’s side and was immediately swept up in a rousing circle dance led by the children of Reach. Children, orphans especially, were said to be dear to the Sea God, who sent them sweet dreams and, if tragedy struck, escorted them to the loving arms of the Spirit God himself. Women enjoyed the same patronage from the Storm God, and during the festival, it was not uncommon to see many small circle dances join into one immense circle dance populated by laughing, screaming, joyous women and children caught up in the frenzy of their worship while the men looked on with envy in their hearts. They were only allowed to join this dance if their own patron god, the Wind God was shown to have been kind that year, something that was an infrequent occurrence.
By the time dusk fell and everyone was gathering from outside into the dining hall, Kadijah was exhausted from a long day of dancing, singing, and hanging out with friends. Many of her closest friends were sailors and fisherpeople and as such were only sporadically at port in Reach. It was always with a wistful heart that she watched their ships sail over the horizon, her heart still yearning for the nomadic life she had known for so long. Sometimes, she wondered if this life she was building with Max was worth the constant ache she felt for the sea. Ah, but what was the use of wondering such things, she thought as she entered the dining hall. There was no going back to those carefree days on the sea.
The dining hall was beautifully decorated. Strings of light encased in blue and purple colored sea glass draped artfully between the pillars, and balloons shaped like clouds floated above the crowd. In the corner, musicians were playing the oft sung “Ode to the Lightning God,” a soft, sweet song written by the first human to ever catch a glimpse of the beautiful goddess. In the center of the room was an intricately carved fountain depicting a whale and a crow, the sacred animals of the Sea and Storm gods. The whale, a strange creature with a pair too many eyes and what seemed like a few too many flippers, was cresting a wave while the crow perched on a cloud overlooking the sea creature. From the whale’s blowhole spurted a strangely musical stream of water while the crow’s eyes glowed an eerie greenish white light. The water fell down the whale’s back to pool below, and the children often threw wishing coins into the fountain in the hopes that the whale god would grant them their dearly held desires.
Max caught up with her then, gathering her in his arms and holding her close as he lead them around the room in a slow dance. There was an apology in his eyes that Kadijah didn’t have the heart to refuse. She rested her head on his chest instead and contented herself with the steadiness of his heartbeat.
All around them, couples started forming on the dance floor, most of them flashing relieved smiles her way when they caught her eye. She returned the smiles, knowing that they, like her, were pleased to see Max in a much calmer mood than he had been when the day first started. Despite what he thought, almost everyone in the town had been able to tell his mood had been off since the visit from their patron god the week before, and they took this new found peace between the married couple as a good sign of an improvement in his attitude going forward. Kadijah could only hope they were right.
“Paolo and Jose have been giving me a stern talking to all day,” he murmured in her ear, his voice alive with the humor that first drew her to him. She chuckled, nuzzling her cheek against the scratchy material of the vest he still wore.
“And what did you learn from those two old heads?” He snorted and ran his fingers through the curtain of her braids.
“That I need to chill out and be thankful the god didn’t ask for more than he did. They’re right: he could have taken you to the bottom of the sea or the void he crawled out of at the beginning of the universe,” Max said, and Kadijah was inclined to agree with him. The Great Leviathan could have asked for anything, and they would have had to give it to him. His displeasure was legendary and feared from port to port. It was not an uncommon sight to come across entire stretches of sea that no fish would swim through despite the rich plant life to be found there, nor was it strange to come to port to what used to be a bustling port town but was rendered a ghost town because the inhabitants had incurred the Sea God’s wrath. It happened all the time, seemingly without any cause, and the atonements were always varied and painful for those involved, but none of them, in the thousands of instances she had heard of, had been sexual in nature. Until now.
What was so different about their town, about her?
“That’s true,” she said, shaking herself free of her thoughts. There was no use in wondering about it. The Sea God (Levi, she thought with a sense of guilty giddiness, he told me to call him Levi) had not been spotted since that day, and he seemed pleased to stay away despite what he’d told her about the frequency with which he intended to have her. Was it disappointment that curled in her gut at the realization that he may have been lying to her, or was it simply relief that she would not have to betray herself, her long held and deeply buried desires, once again?
“In any case, it seems like he’s done with us, but I have been wondering,” he said pulling her away from him so he could watch her expression, “what was it he said to you that day?”
“That is none of your concern, Max, First Among Captains,” the whale god’s voice rang out over the dull roar of the assembled people, instantly silencing them. Within the cage of her husband’s arms, Kadijah instantly twisted, drawn almost without thinking to his voice, to see his face. Max stiffened, his head turning to the Sea God’s so fast, Kadijah could practically hear his neck bones popping in protest.
He was lounging, unsurprisingly, in the fountain, his arms braced on the lip of the pool as he held himself up over the water. The adults closest to the fountain scrambled away, most of them falling into the proper respectful kneeling position while the children gathered around him with excited squeals and shouts. He smiled at the youngsters, let them touch his arms and face with their fingers dirty from a full day of play out in the dirt, let them kiss his cheeks and nose and kissed each of their foreheads in blessing, and laughed when many of them climbed fully dressed into the fountain so they could run their hands across his fins and tail. When they’d finally sated their curiosity about him, the Sea God turned his attention away from the children and back to the adults.
“Kadijah,” he called out, amused when the adults parted to reveal her still standing in the loose circle of her husband’s arms, “it is time. Come to me.”
Max couldn’t believe it. Just as he was letting his guard down, the creature returns! Kadijah was trembling in his arms, and he pulled her closer, positive her shaking was due to fear and disgust at the thought of having that fish inside her once again. Sure, she had put up a brave front all week, she’d even fooled him, but now that she was faced with the prospect of more time, more humiliation at the hands of the stinking mutant, her true feelings on the matter were revealed.
This time, I’ll keep her safe.
It disgusted him to watch the children interact with the Sea God, to see them slobbering all over the monster as if it was capable of doing anything other than harm to them. Didn’t their parents know the stories? Hadn’t they heard of all the things that creature had done to the people who had the gall to stand up to it? Was he the only one around here who cared about what that thing might do to their kids? More and more, it seemed to be just that way. He was the only one who saw that thing as it truly was, and no one in attendance, no one in the world, was going to save help him save his wife from that monstrous god. He would have to do it alone.
The god called out to Kadijah, and the crowd parted as easily as warm butter under a knife. For a moment, the black eyed bastard caught his eyes, and Max shivered with revulsion at the lust and anticipation he saw directed towards Kadijah. That thing was practically salivating at the thought of having her again. It probably got off on the sight of the still healing wounds it had left on her skin, most in places that weren’t easily concealed. She’d tried to cover them with makeup, but none of it would stick. Max was certain it was the god’s doing.
A small, worried noise left Kadijah, and her grip on him tightened momentarily before she took a faltering step forward. Max’s hands acted without conscious thought, grabbing his wife by the backs of her arms and holding her to him firmly. He could feel everyone’s eyes on him, the weight of their stares nearly driving him to his knees. He stood firm against it and glared fiercely at the god in the fountain.
“She’s not going with you.” He felt rather than heard Kadijah’s sharp inhalation of breath. Vaguely, he registered the shocked gasps and low, scared murmuring of the people, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. His gaze was fixed on the Sea God, trying to read the unreadable expression that had fallen over his features. The whale god looked him over carefully, the exact focus of his gaze impossible to determine, but still Max felt the weight of it pressing down upon him more keenly even than that of his people. He felt the focus of that ancient gaze shift from him to the woman in his arms. Like before, he was basically restraining her. She was leaning toward the god, her every muscle strained as she unconsciously tried to break free of his grasp and go to it. Max gritted his teeth and had to refrain from increasing his grip, reminding himself that it was the monster who was making her act this way. She wouldn’t do this on her own; it had to have her under some kind of thrall.
“You will not yield her to me?” The Sea God asked, and Max scoffed, the very thought absurd.
“Fuck no!” He yelled and was savagely pleased when he saw the god subtly flinch. Kadijah’s distressed whimper went unnoticed by him but not the god, whose mouth pulled down in an unhappy frown when he heard the noise.
“Very well, I take my leave of you then. Kadijah, my love, do not blame yourself for this,” the Sea God said softly before the air seemed to bend around him, and he was gone.
“Oh, Max, what have you done?” Kadijah whispered, her horror tempered by what Max suspected was heartbreak. What she had to be heartbroken about, Max was not sure.
“Everything will be fine,” he said loudly, disrupting the hushed conversations that had erupted throughout the spacious room, “it’ll all be fine,” he said in a softer tone to Kadijah. She pinched the bridge of her nose, suddenly very, very tired.
“I really hope you’re right about that.”