He knew who she was before her features had resolved in the dim moonlight.
“Rangi,” she said, “did you really want to spend your last night alone?” He smiled, closed his eyes.
“Talk to me, Kahua. I want to hear your voice.” She laughed, and he felt his heart leap.
“Husband, you should be at home, with your family.” He felt her sit next to him, her bare legs hot against his.
“I’m protecting the family from the vicious sea crabs,” he said, vaguely gesturing towards the water. She laughed again. When she didn’t speak, he opened his eyes and looked at her. She noticed him move and smiled at him.
“What is it, husband?” He hesitated, looked away over the water. She waited quietly — she knew he was working up courage to ask the question he’d asked her in secret moments they’d shared apart from Tua and the children. Since he was young, he’d wanted nobody but her. Their courtship was long as was the tribe’s custom, and for two years as they grew into adults he’d thought she had felt the same way about him. But when the marriage ceremony day came, she’d called out Tua first, and Rangi second.
Tua was a good man, a good father to both his own and Rangi’s children. They’d had a rocky start to their relationship, but over the years Tua and Rangi had grown to be close friends. A mutual respect had developed as they settled into their roles; Tua the head of their house, Rangi its protector.
“Why him?” he asked, not looking at her. He expected the usual answer, but at the same time it felt as if his heart would burst from his chest, as if his skin was on fire, as if all the stars pivoted around this moment.
He looked at her, realised he was holding his breath. “I love you, Rangi,” she told him. Her eyes were locked on his, and he slowly exhaled. “You’re stronger than any man I’ve ever known. Wiser than most of the elders. I wanted you to head our house, but choosing you first would have held you back. You’re destined for greater things than there are in our world.”
He stared at her, felt the tension let out of the moment. She smiled like a mother smiles at her children; knowing them wholly and understanding they have to leave the nest someday.
Then her smile changed, became mischievous. “But I still wouldn’t let anyone else have you, so I chose you second. Tomorrow you’ll go with the pale ones, and you’ll protect not just our house but our people.” She placed her hand on his chest, leaned in close.
“But tonight, I have you all to myself.”
He woke on the beach with the sun on his face. The sky was spotted with clouds and a cool breeze was blowing in off the water. Kahua was gone, and he stood and stretched before dressing. Already he could hear the noise of morning in the village, an urgency and excitement. As he walked back through the trees, he could hear children yelling and running. One of his own — not Tua’s, but his by blood — found him and yelled out, “Rangi! Come, come, the airship is almost here!” He scooped up the girl onto his shoulders and ran as she directed him.
They emerged from the trees onto a beach on the other side of the island. The airship was just off the coast, already coming in low. As he watched, he saw ropes drop from the deck. Men from the village had already come to assist in mooring, and he took his daughter off his shoulders, watched her run to where Tua and Kahua smiled at him. As the ropes came in over the sand, he ran out and took one, heaving hard on it.
They pulled the ropes and tied them to the trees. A voice called from above and they made room, the airship dropping anchors too heavy to lift by hand alone. The pitch of the engines changed, and the ship settled head-on into the wind.
Rangi watched the marines, resplendent in their uniforms, descend the ropes to the beach and form rank at attention. They were followed by a number of officers, as nimble as the soldiers were, who formally greeted the elders on the beach and began the ceremonies.
Rangi and the other chosen men returned to their families and began their farewell ceremonies. By that evening he’d be aboard and over the water.