Aunt Lory stared at Gia, blinked twice, and then sank to the porch steps. “I thought you were staying with Gram!” she said.
“I told Gram I was staying with you?” Gia was glad Hailstorm was still carrying her. She might need to make a break for it soon, and there was no way she’d be able to run from her aunt on her own in all this snow.
To be fair, though: Gia’s mom had asked Aunt Lory to look after her; then Aunt Lory had asked Gram to watch her instead while Aunt Lory snuck off to follow Gia’s mom. So, technically, Gia was just following family tradition.
“Your mother is gonna kill me,” Aunt Lory muttered miserably, head buried in her palms.
“Probably,” Hailstorm agreed. She nodded toward the wooden chest Gia still held. “After we heal her.”
Recognition filled Lory’s eyes as she caught sight of the lily’s box. “This way.” She stood and led them inside, lowering the fluffy hood of her robe as she walked briskly through the door.
Gia felt her cheeks thaw as they followed Lory inside and Kari shut the door behind them. A fire was lit in the living room, warm looking blankets and small pillows littering the couch and floor. They trailed Aunt Lory into a room on the left.
A part of Gia registered the knickknacks scattered about—the well-loved cloth doll with yarn locs and brown button eyes sitting on the dresser, the practice swords hanging on the wall, the all-black clothes spilling from the closet—and she realized this must be Hailstorm’s childhood room, but Gia’s main focus fell to the bed, where her mother lay almost purple with cold beneath a sheet of ice. Her curly hair splayed over a silk pillowcase, the tips sea green like Aunt Lory’s and like Gia’s too before she’d cut hers.
Blurred under the ice, Gia could make out the tightly wrapped bandages and the short, shallow breaths that shook her mother’s shoulders.
She was alive.
Gia held onto the collar of Hailstorm’s coat to steady herself.
Her mother was really, really alive.
Gia had lost track of the number of times she’d cried today, but this time the blubbery, unstoppable tears were in relief.
Not-so-subtly, Gia ducked her head and wiped her nose on the captain’s coat.
Hailstorm simply patted her back in response.
“Allow me,” Kari said, stepping into the room with a mortar and pestle.
Gia opened the chest, and Kari gently lifted the lily from the water inside it. She placed it in her bowl before settling in a chair beside the bed.
As she worked, Hailstorm put Gia down. The two walked closer to the bed, but there was nothing left for them to do as they waited.
Hailstorm’s hand flexed at her side, and after a moment’s hesitation, Gia reached up to hold the captain’s hand in hers.
She’d said a lot of terrible things to Hailstorm when she’d thought the captain might be lying, but Hailstorm didn’t seem to be holding a grudge as she cradled Gia’s hand in support.
Gia watched on as Kari crushed the lily into a smooth paste, the veins of the flower coloring the goo a shimmery, iridescent red. Kari scooped it all onto a small spoon, and it looked like a tiny jellyfish jiggling.
With a wave of Kari’s hand, the ice covering Gia‘s mother shattered and vanished. Aunt Lory gently lifted her mom into a sitting position.
There was no change at first, after she ate the lily, and Gia wondered if the legend of the Life Lily had been just a story after all. But then, glowing red swirls spun into the air from her mother’s wound like dancers. A moment later, the magic sunk back beneath the bandages. Gia felt Hailstorm squeeze her hand.
Then her mother opened her eyes and grinned. “I told you my plan would work,” she said.
Aunt Lory gave a watery laugh, wrapping her sister in a hug so tight it threatened to squeeze the Life Lily right back out of her. “Vanessa, you sea monster’s bowels!” her aunt yelled.
Gia let go of Hailstorm’s hand to rush into her mother’s lap. She joined the group hug, her mother planting a kiss on her forehead as she looked Gia over. “What on dry land happened to your hair?” she asked, taking in Gia’s handy work. Luckily, her mother was looking to Aunt Lory for an explanation.
Aunt Lory glanced around (for an excuse, if Gia had to guess). Her eyes settled on Hailstorm. “Your dear captain picked her up for you.”
Gia didn’t know Hailstorm was capable of looking flustered, but the woman was clearly floundering, her hands wringing in front of her before she hid them behind her back.
Gia giggled. “I did it myself,” she admitted, deciding to cut the captain some slack.
“I should have known,” her mother said. “This has ‘Gia’ written all over it. Honestly, it suits you.” She squished Gia’s cheeks and then turned her attention to Kari. “I was barely conscious when I got here, but I know I owe you a great deal. Thank you.”
To thank a fairy was to become indebted to them, but Kari waved her mother off with spindly fingers. “Think nothing of it.”
Her mother bowed her head in gratitude. And then her gaze settled on Hailstorm. “I told you I’d kill him even if I died doing it.”
Hailstorm finally approached the bed. She took Vanessa’s hand in both of hers and pressed her lips to the back of it. “And I told you death would have to take me first.”
Aunt Lory groaned. “If you two are going to be this sappy, at least wait until the rest of us have left the room.”
Gia’s mom kissed the back of Hailstorm’s hand with a loud smack.
Aunt Lory rolled her eyes in return and plopped down at the foot of the bed. “We still have things to discuss,” she said with a huff. “Fang is dead, but we need to find out who gave him the medallion.”
“We’ll have to get Gia home first,” her mother pointed out.
Gia put a stop to that plan immediately. “Captain Hailstorm said I could join her crew.”
“Did she?” Her mother raised a brow at the captain. “Brooke?”
“Well, I still need to handle that coward in the brig, but other than that Gia should be safe aboard the Ruby.”
“Who’s in the brig?” Aunt Lory asked.
“Someone from Fang’s old crew threatened Gia while he was trying to get the lily from her on our way here.” Hailstorm said darkly.
Gia’s mother scowled. “Why is he in the brig and not dead?”
“Gia said to spare him.”
Her mother looked absolutely appalled. “What nonsense have you been teaching my daughter?”
“Wait,” Gia said, glancing between the two. “Are you gonna kill him? I wanted to make him swab the deck for me.”
“Gianna, what have I told you about skipping your chores?” her mom said.
Gia muttered about choosing joy under her breath and crossed her arms. “Okay, I’ll mop. As long as I still get to go! I’m a really big help.”
She looked to Hailstorm for affirmation. The captain gave a small smirk that Gia now realized must have been learned from Kari. “You’ve curried the ocean’s favor. Mermaid, pirate, or beast, I doubt there’s a force on the sea that could tell you no.”
“And that’s why you’re so spoiled,” Aunt Lory teased.
Gia stuck out her tongue.
Outside, fairy laughter echoed like icy chimes in the wind, and farther off Gia knew the crew of the Ruby Tempest was waiting for them.
Her next adventure was about to begin.