“Who are you?” Jessica repeated.
“Amellias, Lady of the River,” came the response, and again the words pulled at Jessica’s thoughts as she looked at the detail of the dress, the stitching blending flawlessly into the woven moonlight. “And though my debt is not with this one, it is with his kind. Debts must be paid, young one, and this one is far overdue.”
“And what if he doesn’t want to accept the repayment?”
“It would be a grave insult to the Lady,” said Libus’ voice behind her, and she turned to see him deep in a bow, so low that his nose almost brushed the wood. “Forgive us, Lady. We are grateful for safe passage on your waters and most honored to be speaking to one as regal as yourself. Tell us, is there another way for the debt to be paid?”
“He was in the process of receiving payment,” answered Amellias. “He bore no resistance to this, the most suitable repayment. Tell me, young one, do you not wish to come with me?”
“Yes,” said Cinis from the water, his voice slow. “No, I… I don’t know.”
“I am sure he would be excited to accept,” said Libus, holding his palms up.
“He most certainly would not,” interjected Jessica, but Libus turned toward her, and the look on his face silenced her.
“Lady,” continued Libus, “we are most honored to have you visit us. So honored, in fact, that we present you with a gift of our own. Pearls, dark as night, imbued with shadow, and claimed from the depths of your sisters.”
Swiftly, Libus’ hand reached into the crate that held the pearls, and he cast a few into the water, the orbs sinking as Amellias raised a protesting hand.
Her gaze turned to Libus, her eyes sharp and wide, her voice icy.
“Your gift is accepted,” she said, “and I am in your debt, for such a gift is most valuable. But do not pretend that I do not know the intention of your action.”
“Lady, I simply offered it as a formality, a token of friendship.”
“Then allow me to offer something back to you, something in return. I have diamonds, dropped by those who have trespassed my waters, turned azure from the touch of my presence. Should that suffice?”
“I am sorry, Lady, but I have diamonds of my own, and do not wish to dilute your offering with ones that are inferior. I wish to have a gift that I can truly remember your greatness by.”
“Perhaps a pet, then,” she said, her voice even colder. “One of those that I hold dear, a fish of brilliant color, one truly unique.”
“Alas,” said Libus, “had I a way to keep it alive on our journey, I should immediately accept. But I fear insulting you should it perish, and I wish no defamation of your character or blemish upon our relationship.”
“Then request,” said Amellias. “Request what I can offer you to match your kindness.”
“All I wish, Lady,” said Libus, bowing again, “is for you to allow Cinis to return to us and continue his journey with us. I ask that you present him with another token of your appreciation, which he will most gladly accept. And should he ever return to these waters, I promise not to keep him from you again, and that you may interact with him as you see fit.”
Amellias frowned, frost flashing across her face, though she did not approach.
“You border upon insult,” she said, “but I accept, and the debt is paid. But the age-old debt remains, and that I shall pay now.”
In the water, Cinis’ eyes widened, and he shook his head, taking a sharp breath inward.
“What? Where?” he said, suddenly alert as Jessica pulled him onto the raft. “How?”
“Just listen,” she commanded, and Amellias spoke again, pulling a bottle from a fold in her dress, a bottle the color of algae and encircled with golden writing.
“Once I was trapped, held for years and years within this bottle. Freeing me is the great favor that your ancestors performed. By returning this to you, I hope for you to remember that there are those that deserve to be free, and it is wrongful for someone to bind them. It is wrongful to devise a prison for them. Even if you have the power.” She placed the bottle into the water, and it floated to the raft. A small wave bore it onto the surface, where it rolled to Cinis. She then produced a small vial and raised it to her cheek, shedding a tear and catching it within.
“Water, water is pure, young one. You too must learn to be pure. The gift I give you now is to remind you of that, of purity. Of purity, and of debts.”
“What is it?” Cinis asked.
“Should you find yourself in great need, break it, and my tears will scatter with the wind. Anyone you have ever helped, from the tallest giant to the smallest minnow, will feel them and be compelled to come to your aid. Let this gift serve to remind you that all acts, good and bad, will someday be repaid. Let it remind you of debts.”
Then the vial floated to Cinis, who picked it out of the river and cradled it in his palm.
“Thank you, Lady, for your gifts. One day I will repay them.”
“Your forefathers have already,” she said, and she started to sink. “Now it is time for me to depart, to run with the current and follow the moon. Sleep soundly, for I will keep you safe until morning.”
“Will you not stay?”
“No. And do not try to stop me. For I am Amellias, and I will never be bound again.”
Then she descended, her voice bubbling upward as the river claimed her.
“Tread softly, young one, for I am not the only one who will recognize you for who you are.”
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