Akela knelt on a stony outcropping only a little larger than herself, a solitary fang jutting from an ocean painted crimson and mango by the setting sun.
In her lap, a worn travelsack gaped open to spill a riot of delicate blossoms against the rough wool of her trousers. Reverently, she lifted her favorite wreath from her lap — rare yellow orchids with speckled pink hearts against a background of deep magenta freesia. She and Dancer had spent all week gathering the blooms, and the previous day had been lost to weaving unruly stems together.
It was a fitting gift.
She lifted the wreath over the jagged tip of the outcropping’s highest point, looming just above her head while she knelt. As the flowers drifted down to encircle the stone, the wind picked up the clean scent of the blossoms and swirled it around her.
Quietly, Akela began to sing.
Her voice was nothing particularly special. She hit most of the notes she aimed at, but that was the kindest thing that could be said about it. Still, she was the only one here who could sing to him, even if no one was here to listen. Not even him.
Koapuo, Koapuo, beautiful and strong.
First born, first blest, home to one and all.
Koapuo, Koapuo, we cheer and sing along.
The simple tune had been taught to every child old enough to speak. Every year on this day, the residents of the island would sing it to him and bring him flowers and laughter and love.
The wind picked up her singing and spun it out over the ocean around her, bouncing off the glassy surface and shattering it against the few jagged fingers of black stone that pierced the water to stab upwards at the sky. These lifeless spires were all that remained of what had once been the brother-twin to the island Akela now lived on.
On a nearby outcropping, Dancer’s familiar darkness perched. Her clawed forepaws dug into a thin rocky spire and her wings flared half-spread to aid her balance. Her long tail curled forward to draw a perfect curve against the sharpness of the rock and her eyes were half-closed as she added silent prayers to her friend’s song.
The sun completed its dip below the horizon. For a brief moment, the sky held on to its colors, using them to paint the water with every shade of the rainbow.
Akela’s song faded and so too did the daylight.
The last echo of her song drifted away and replaced itself with a silence that draped over the pair like wet wool.
“We miss you,” Akela whispered, and the wind stole that, too.
She closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to the dead rock in front of her, nose buried in the flowers she had brought.
She imagined him as he had been when she was a child. The smallest of all the islands of Oa, Koapuo had boasted waterfalls so clear you could see rainbows through them. Mountains rising up like green-furred shoulders, with lush valleys home to flowers you could find nowhere else in the world. Her village had been high on the broadest mountain, where the air was so crisp that the other islands had looked like toys floating in the distance.
Clouds would crash against the mountain and her mother would put her in a carry-sling so they could stand on the edge of the cliff as their fluffy whiteness rolled in. She still remembered the sound of her mother’s laugh, even if she couldn’t quite remember her face.
Koapuo had been perfect.
He had been home.
When he erupted, he’d killed most of his people. The entire south-facing slab of his largest mountain blasted outward and a slab of rock and debris fell to the shallow slopes and beaches of his largest towns.
The members of Akela’s village who survived did so only because they lived on the northern slopes … and because of the gryphons.
The avians had been able to ferry five loads of people through ash-choked skies over to the sister-twin island of Koapua while the earth tore itself apart in violence and fire below them.
Akela’s mother would have been on the sixth load.
She still had her father and her sister and Dancer, who at the time had barely molted into her flight feathers.
Nobody knew why Koapuo had died, or why he had taken his people with him when he went. His volcano had been dormant for longer than anyone could remember, and even the hot-headed younger islands contented themselves with infrequent eruptions of slow lava rather than violent explosions.
Akela’s frown furrowed. She wasn’t even sure why she came out here anymore, except that it felt important that someone remember him.
Feathers rustled nearby, and she smiled. At least she wasn’t alone.
She opened her eyes.
Day was over, and it was time to return to Koapua. Being twins, the islands had shared the same calendar day for their celebrations. Firstborn, the brothers like Koapuo held their festivities during the day, allowing the sister islands to revel under a starlit sky.
Akela reached out a hand to the stone in front of her to clamber to her now-numb feet. As she did, her fingers brushed across a weak point in her flower wreath. The breath left her chest in a painful squeeze as the braid snapped, sending a chain of orchids sailing to the inky shimmer of the ocean below.
Unthinking, she lunged for it.
Well, that was really stupid, she thought as cold seawater closed over the back of her head and Dancer’s startled squawk rippled across the water.