Tilting my head up, I realized that there was finally light above me—real light, not artificial. I really was climbing back to the surface. Why, then, had I been forced to go so deep to begin with? I wondered as resentment began to simmer.
It’s the only way to get here. Kona again, eavesdropping on my thoughts.
Stop that. I tried to shove him out of my head.
He only laughed. Sorry. You make it too easy.
Well, excuse me. I’ve never had to worry about someone getting in my mind and reading my thoughts before. I paused, then asked curiously, Is there a way to block it?
Of course there is. I’ll teach you.
Soon. Get ready, because you’re almost—
And then I was breaking through the surface of the water, the sun so bright I had to squeeze my eyes shut in self-defense. I tried to take a deep breath, but gagged instead.
Give it a second, Kona cautioned. You’ve been breathing water for hours and now you’re gulping down air like it’s about to disappear. Don’t panic and your body will adjust.
Will it? I answered sarcastically, finally understanding what it meant to be a fish out of water. I felt like someone was holding a pillow over my face and waiting for me to give up the fight.
It’ll get a little easier every time you change. It just takes some getting used to.
I was too busy trying to get my lungs to work like a human’s again to answer. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t wondering—what was he that he knew so much about the change?
For once he must not have been reading my thoughts, because no answer popped into my head.
When I was reasonably certain I wasn’t going to suffocate above water, I focused on my surroundings for the first time. My eyes were still sensitive to light after being under the water for so long, and everything I looked at had that weird, golden halo that came when too much salt water mixed with too much sun, and your retinas felt like they were being burned out.
Still, I could see enough to know that I was in the shallows off an island with beautiful white sand. Palm trees billowed in the distance and in front of me was a gigantic structure that could only be called a castle.
It wasn’t any ordinary castle either. In fact, it put me in mind of the ornate sand creations of my childhood—the wild, soaring imaginings of my mother as she sat with me and helped me build the best fortress on six beaches. We would sit in the sand for hours, crafting soaring structures with minute attention to detail and pining for the beautiful princess who needed to be rescued from the evil witch’s locked tower.
But this wasn’t my mom’s imagination, I realized dazedly as I waded to shore. The pointy turrets, the intricately carved bridges, the long, high windows, were all right in front of me.
My stomach twisted and flopped, knotted and plunged to somewhere in the vicinity of my knees. Was this it, then? Was this her home? Was my mother inside of there, right now, waiting for me?
I’d barely had a chance to formulate the idea when Kona cut into my frantic imaginings. No, Tempest. I’m sorry, but your mother isn’t here. This is my home.
The hope growing inside of me—hope I hadn’t even been aware of harboring—quickly died. Who had I been kidding, I told myself roughly. My mother? Why would she be sticking around waiting for me now, when she never had before?
Please don’t do that. Kona again. Come up to the house. I’d come down to meet you, but I’m supposed to stay in this stupid bed, per doctor’s orders. Disgust crept into his tone. I’m completely fine, but no one wants to take chances with the heir to—
He stopped abruptly. Heir to what? I asked as I made my way up the silvery sands of what I supposed was his own personal beach. Which was kind of a shock, since I’d gotten used to thinking of him as some nomadic surfer dude, his board his only possession.
I squinted at the castle. Boy, had I ever gotten that wrong.
I glanced around as I walked, wondered just how far from home I’d come. The sun was bright here, golden. The ocean a perfect blue that was as clear as glass. It reminded me of the islands we’d visited last summer and I suddenly remembered Kona’s unwillingness to be pinned down when I’d asked about his name. Had my headlong flight last night led me all the way to the Pacific Islands?
Ugh. He was in my brain again. Are none of my thoughts sacred?
I don’t know. Are they?
How had I forgotten how perverse Kona was? Once again, he was taking great delight in tormenting me.
So, if I’m not in Tahiti, where exactly am I? I demanded.
Don’t rack your brain trying to figure out that stuff. We’re not on any map—any human map, that is.
What’s that supposed to mean? The more agitated I grew, the faster I walked. I was almost at the castle.
Don’t worry about it.
I gritted my teeth. I’m not an imbecile, you know. You don’t get to pat me on the head and tell me to be a good girl. You promised me answers and you will give them to me.
He laughed. You’re a real hard-ass, you know that? The way he said it made it seem like a compliment.
I’ve had to be.
That’s one of the things I like best about you. One of the things you’ll need when …
Keep breaking off like that in midsentence and you’re a dead man when I finally get my hands on you.
Ooh, I’m shaking.
You should be.
Nah, you worked too hard to save me to kill me now.
Don’t bet on it. I approached the door, reached for it. I faced down a garden of octopuses for you, but that doesn’t mean I’m a pushover. In fact—
The door swung open before I could turn the handle. A man, about fifty, stood on the other side of the threshold. Despite being dressed in a pair of baggy shorts and one of my father’s surfing tees, he was a dead ringer for Alfred, Batman’s very formal butler dude. And I should know—Rio and Moku watched the stupid movie about ten times a week.
The look he gave me was so full of disapproval that I started to take offense—I’d come too long a way to have to deal with attitude. But then I remembered. Most of my body was bruised or bleeding, and I had shown up at the door in nothing but my bra and panties.
The realization had me glancing down, mortified, but one look made me wish I hadn’t. Make that my completely translucent bra and panties. Ugh.
I crossed my arms awkwardly over my breasts, waited for him to invite me in—or tell me to get lost. He did neither, just continued to stare until I was squirming where I stood. When I couldn’t take the tense silence any longer, I finally muttered, “I’m Tempest. I need to see Kona.”
His eyes widened at my name, the tight purse of his lips relaxing slightly. “Certainly. Come in.” He stepped away from the door, ushered me inside, then eyed my sandy feet with complete repugnance. “Let me get you something to dry off.” And clean up—he didn’t say it, but the words were definitely implied.
“That’d be great.” Part of me wanted to tell him what he could do with his obvious disgust, but I wasn’t exactly coming from a position of strength. After all, it wasn’t like I could meet Kona in my underwear.
Why not? It wouldn’t bother me. I could almost see his smile.
Yeah, I just bet.
“This should help, madam.” The odd surfer-turned-butler held out a brightly patterned towel and navy blue robe. I reached for the towel first, tried to brush off as much sand as I possibly could under his eagle eye. Then wrapped the robe around me, shocked at how soft and plush it was. When I rubbed my nose against the collar, I realized that it smelled like Kona.