Maury looked up from her sitting position on the gnarly oak and smiled as she saw Mikael making his way down the dusty road toward her. He had his head down and kicked a small stone ahead until one kick sent it skittering off the roadside. Maury sighed and patted one of the large roots that protruded out into a kind of natural chair.
“Come on, old man. Sun’s going down and I’ll have to get back to help my Mamay soon. Big dinner tomorrow.”
Mikael plopped onto the tree root and ran a hand through his coal hair. “Really?” I hadn’t heard. Any special occasion?”
Maury grinned and gave him a playful shove. “How amusing. You know it’s been fourteen years since you started talking, and you are still not funny despite your most persistent efforts.”
Mikael narrowed his eyes. “Almost fourteen years. And you know, maybe I should just take my efforts where they’re appreciated.” He made to rise but Maury grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back down.
“Don’t be unrealistic. I’m the only one in this town who tolerates you.”
Mikael shook his head and looked over the harvested Arthuroan fields, littered with black birds picking at the remains looking for any morsel of food to take back to their nest.
When he spoke, his voice was quiet, and he kept his gaze over the field. “Maybe I should just take them somewhere else then.”
Maury looked at Mikael, but he made no move to match her eyes. She slid her hand from his arm down to his hand and wrapped her fingers around his. “Hey.”
Mikael grunted some sort of response.
Maury squeezed his hand. “Hey.”
Mikael turned slowly but his gaze faltered to meet hers and rested at his feet.
Maury sighed. “There are big changes coming for all of us. Think of this trip as an adventure. You get to cross country I’ll probably never see in my life. Who knows, you might even meet a desert princess.”
Mikael shook his head. “Sounds terrible doesn’t it.”
“Sounds fun.” Maury’s voice drifted off. “Everyone one has to do this Mik. It’s supposed to be an honor. You go on your Ala-banam and when you come back, I’ll be waiting. You’ll be here in spirit anyway, remember. You always say that even when I can’t see you, you’re nearby. Right?”
Mikael stood, breaking free from Maury’s grip. “I don’t want to go though. I want to stay here. I want to work in the fields. I want to fish in the sea. I want you to be my princess. I don’t want to march across a hot desert.”
“They say that if you can’t make this trip that you don’t deserve to have a princess.”
“Well maybe they’re wrong. Why don’t you go on it if it sounds so wonderful? You can cross rivers and face monsters and get heat fatigue and visit ancient temples full of ghouls and ghosts.”
Maury’s shoulders sunk. “If only. It would be so incredible to go. See great cities, jewels, parades. But that’s not what’s expected of me. We all must do what we must to provide for the one’s we love. That’s what Mamay says, anyway. And for men in Arthuroan that means going on an Ala-banam to ready you for a life of providing for those you love. So, tell me Mikael, do you love me?”
Mikael felt a rush in his chest. His hands shook a little. “You know I do.”
“I know you do what?”
Mikael took a sharp breath. “I love you.”
Maury felt a warmth inside her. She stood and wrapped her arms around Mikael from behind. “Then you go on this journey, and when you come back, you’ll have the love of the town, the love of a princess, and the only person who puts up with your awful jokes.”
Mikael let out a short laugh. “You’re so romantic when you want to be. The personal jabs really bring it together.”
Maury snickered in his ear and gave him a peck on the neck. “You’re saying I’m the one for you?”
“I’m saying you are definitely unique.” Mikael had been staring off to the Divergent Sea, and now put a hand up to shade the sun. “As is that sail on the horizon.”
“Square sails? Who could that be?”
Mikael shook his head. “I don’t know. But why are they coming here?”
“There isn’t another town for at least a hundred miles in either direction. Maybe they need help?” Maury said.
“Maybe. We better get back to town then.”