Shift of the Tide

Shift of the Tide by Jeffe Kennedy

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Date Published: Aug 2017

ISBN: 978-1977637550

Once in the shallows, I shifted back to human form, swimming with a relaxed breast stroke until my feet found the bottom. While the Nahanauns had become more accustomed to my presence around the palace, they weren’t accustomed to shapeshifting. After a few early displays to impress them with my abilities—at my companions’ behest, mostly to demonstrate that we weren’t captives to be underestimated—I preferred to shift discreetly. I rarely cared to make a show of it, regardless. It’s a private thing. Intimate.

Also, swimming the short distance gave me a moment to settle back into my birth form. My muscles stretched out anchored to the longer, harder skeleton, articulating at different joints, the water now feeling cooler against my thinner human skin, with less subcutaneous fat insulation beneath. The fine sand sifted pleasantly against the soles of my feet—something a dolphin never experienced. Compared to the dolphin form, being human felt less powerful in the water, but also more sensitive to sensation. My light gown swirled in the water, too, clinging here and trailing there, my usual dress that manifested out of long habit. As I waded to the shallows, it clung wetly to my upper body, but the thin silk would dry quickly enough, if stiff with residual salt.

Jepp loved to natter at me about trying to return to human form with different kinds of clothing, and even with an arsenal of weaponry. Trust the warrior woman to come up with such schemes. That’s how she thought. A very mossback way of seeing the world, too. All focused on things.

Of course, I didn’t discuss with her how critical habit could be for returning to my birth form. You’d think it would be the easiest to attain, as it’s our natural form, the one we have before we consciously understand that we even have bodies, much less that they’re mutable. In fact, we don’t tell children—or adults learning to shapeshift late like my cousin and the Tala queen, Andromeda—how fraught with danger the return to human shape can be. Better to maintain that perfect confidence.

We find out soon enough on our own how dicey it can be.

For most of us, having a standard, very simple, garment as part of our return to birth form is a key part of that confidence. Some shapeshifters have to return to human form naked, but that can be problematic for many reasons. We drill in having something to wear, just in case. Personally, I’d also fixed a habit of including a pin for my hair in a little pocket along one hem. Getting the sometimes wild locks out of my face counted as more than convenience.

For the moment I left the pin where it was, wringing the water out of my long hair as I walked, shaking it out again to dry, and wiping the dampness from my face—then glimpsed someone standing on the sand. Waiting for me? I had to reorient my senses to the human focus on vision. No echolocation for me, and the sudden lack felt as if I’d left a hand behind. One of the many reasons settling into human form again can be fraught. For all that we have opposable thumbs and busy brains, human senses are sadly dull compared to other animals. I’m forever reaching for the more acute senses of my other forms. Recognizing people when I’ve recently shifted back can be a strange experience. I often want to sniff them, which is really not appropriate in most any human culture, but particularly among mossbacks.

“Marskal,” I said, by way of greeting. The water caressed my ankles as I moved through the last of the shallows, stepping onto the packed damp sand where the waves gently lapped.

He dipped his chin in a nod. The Hawks lieutenant was a man of few words, which I appreciated. Most mossbacks seemed inclined to extensive conversation. Not that the Tala weren’t effusive and fond of company, but I think the time we spend in animal forms makes us more comfortable with silence.

I raked my wet hair back from my face so the water from it dripped down my back. Marskal gazed, not at me, but just past my face, as if at the sea. With some amusement, I realized he was determinedly averting his gaze, out of politeness or embarrassment. I didn’t think he was one of those who found the Tala revolting and thus avoided looking at me for that reason. More likely the wet silk clung to my body enough to leave little to the imagination, something the Nahanauns didn’t mind, but the men of the original twelve kingdoms sometimes did. The mischievous Tala trickster in me wanted to see if I could make him look, but I hadn’t come on this journey to cause trouble. Quite the opposite.

There would be plenty of trouble surrounding me soon enough, if my visions of the future—and those of the ones who sent me on this journey—told true.

“Were you waiting for me?” I asked, to put him out of his misery. I’d begun to get the trick of asking the questions with obvious answers—another mossback courtesy—rather than the actual questions, which they seemed to regard as invasive. Better to let them volunteer information on their own terms, rather than feeling interrogated. I, myself, didn’t quite understand why they felt that being asked a question demanded they answer it, but that’s the onus many of the twelve labored under and I tried to be careful of it.

Marskal’s brown eyes flicked to mine, and back to that point over my shoulder. “Yes, Lady Zynda. My apologies for intruding on you, but Her Majesty Ursula and Her Highness Queen Dafne Nakoa KauPo request your presence in the library.” He put his fist on his heart in the Hawks salute, and inclined his upper body in a slight bow.

Ursula and Dafne had been in the library with their heads together for days—part of what I’d taken a break from—and here they were sending for me, even though they knew I’d be back eventually. Interesting.

I turned my feet in the direction of the palace, the damp sand warm against my bare soles. “Just ‘Zynda’ is fine, as I know I’ve told you before.”

“I know.” Marskal fell in beside me, matching his pace to my amble, and folding his arms behind his back. He’d prefer a brisker march, his usual speed, but conveyed no impatience with me. That quality went with his quiet reserve. For a man devoted to military service, he rarely pushed people. “It seems wrong, however… Zynda, to address you without a proper title.”

I shook out my gown, holding it away from my body so it would catch the air and dry faster, then glanced at him. He stared steadfastly ahead, scanning the long, white-sand beach with that same relaxed alertness Jepp always displayed. “I’m not royalty,” I pointed out. “I have no title.”

“You’re related to royalty.” He slid me an abashed crook of a smile. “In at least two realms.”

“In Annfwn such things aren’t as… regimented.” I settled on that word, though I wasn’t sure it was the one I wanted. I’d learned Common Tongue as a girl, in case I followed in the footsteps of my celebrated relation, Salena, who’d been Queen of the Tala, and then high queen of the Twelve Kingdoms. But, as Dafne—now known as Queen Dafne Nakoa KauPo, since her marriage to King Nakoa KauPo—had bemoaned numerous times, the more literal, unpitched trade language of the original twelve kingdoms had little in common with my native tongue. Since Dafne possessed an almost magical gift for words and language, that made me feel better about my occasionally clumsy word choices. Another good reason to speak less and listen more.

Marskal didn’t ask, but I felt I should follow that up with some sort of explanation. He’d never been to Annfwn and couldn’t know what it was like there. “When I first met Ursula,” I said, “I expected her to be much more royal. Like the stories about High King Uorsin.”

Marskal’s faint smile faded into somber lines. Even in rest, they bracketed his mouth, part of the weathered complexion of a man who’d spent most of his life outdoors, and that in often harsh conditions. “No, she wouldn’t have been, not on the campaign trail. Her Majesty can, of course, assume the manner when necessary, but it always seemed to me she preferred to be on the same level as her Hawks, when she could.”

“You’ve known her a long time.”

“Since she was but little more than a gawky girl, yes, all long arms and skinny legs.”

Something else there he wasn’t saying there, knots of nostalgia, sorrow and worry in his mien. Few Tala possess the ability to truly read thoughts, but even the most thick-skulled among us are sensitive to mood and energy. Unless I work to screen it out, I can sense how a person is feeling, particularly with strong or conflicted emotions. Marskal, along with his quiet demeanor, had a still surface emotionally, but underneath occasional jagged chunks of something pushed against that protective skin. It could be that he’d been in love with Ursula, or still was. Jepp seemed to think everyone was at least a little in love with the High Queen, but that was Jepp.

I found my cousin to be exasperating, high-handed and sometimes abrasive. Both she and Andromeda had a lot of Salena in them, aspects that drew both my love and aggravation, depending. Their sister Amelia had something of Salena, too, but in a very different way.

“How did you come to be at Ordnung?” I asked. “Or were you raised there?”

Marskal tilted his head, sliding me an opaque glance. “Why do you ask?”

I had to smile for his cagey response, then gestured at the expanse of beach, the palace on the point in the far distance. “We’ve a bit of a walk ahead of us.”

“And yet, you’ve never struck me as someone to make idle conversation for the sake of killing time.”

I considered him. An observant man, as the quiet ones often were. I’d never thought he’d paid all that much attention to my nature. “How did you know where to find me, anyway?”

“I didn’t find you. I waited for you to emerge from the water.”

“Yes, but at the exact spot.”

He studied a tree we passed, eyes narrowed in concentration, but I doubted he contemplated the heavy fruit or the strawberry colored Nahanaun bees crawling on the fallen smashed pieces, partaking of the sweetly overripe juice. “You routinely go to that beach when you shapeshift into aquatic forms.”

That startled me, and not in an entirely comfortable way. “You follow me every time?”

Glancing at me, he pressed his lips together, considering the words he’d let squeak through. “Not I, personally, but I am a scout, first and foremost—I recognize signs. It’s also my responsibility to ensure the safety of the High Queen and her retinue.”

“You have spies.” I said it lightly, but my skin crawled. How thick-skulled of me not to be aware that I’d been observed. Careless.

“That bothers you.” He turned his head more fully to study me now. Another exotic bit of fauna to assess and track.

“I’m not accustomed to being watched.”

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