“There’s no need,” said a voice behind him as his own temporarily failed him and he paused to renew his strength. “It is coming for us.”
He turned to see the stranger standing behind him, but he still lacked breath to question her confidence, so he turned back toward the boat. It had indeed grown larger, and he could even make out a single occupant sitting at the rudder, guiding the small craft over the intervening waves. Even as he watched, the pilot thrust an arm into the air and waved, and he waved back. Over his shoulder, he saw that the stranger was also waving, wearing the first smile he had ever witnessed on her countenance.
When the boat had neared the shore, the stranger waded out into the water to meet it, and she seized the boat by the prow and towed it ashore without saying a word to the occupant, a small woman with pale skin and light brown hair who leaped from her seat and splashed into the water alongside the stranger.
When they had dragged the boat onto the sand the pilot threw her arms around the stranger, hugging her close and crying out, “It is so good to find you well, my friend!”
“And you,” said the stranger, her face resting against the crown of the other’s head. “I have seldom felt so despondent as when I had to watch you fly away from this island.”
“But you knew I would come back,” cried the Aviator, releasing her friend and looking up into her face. “You couldn’t think—”
“Of course I knew,” said the stranger. She turned away from the Aviator and gestured toward the pile of treasure she had retrieved from the tomb. “And I have made good use of my time, you see.”
“Of course you have,” laughed the Aviator. She strode to the pile and began loading her arms with its wealth. “And who is your friend?” she asked, as she began a return trip to the boat to deposit her burden.
“Oh,” said the stranger, with an expression he could not quite decipher. “We never—I don’t know,” she admitted, as she gathered up her own armful of treasure.
“Your servant’s name is Asif,” he said, bowing to the Aviator, who had turned back from the boat to look at him. She smiled, and he smiled back, then volunteered, “It means ‘forgiveness.’”
At this, the stranger looked up, pausing as she dropped her newfound riches into the boat to stare at him with knitted eyebrows. Then, straightening up again, she made her way back toward the pile on the beach.
Gathering courage despite her standoffish manner, Asif continued, “And I would be honored to know the name of my rescuer.”
The stranger made no response, but the Aviator shot a questioning glance at her. For reply, the stranger only shrugged.
“Her name is Sinbad,” said the Aviator. Then, with a wicked light in her eyes, she added, “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It doesn’t have to,” said Sinbad, marching back toward the boat with a lifetime’s wealth in her arms.
With a sudden realization as he watched her carry her irreverently-gotten wealth, Asif asked, “What happened to all the clothes? Why are you carrying everything piecemeal like this?”
“Well,” said Sinbad, dropping her cargo into the boat, “I considered your words, and it did seem as though I could do more good with my time here than only to save your honorable self.”
She nodded toward the mouth of the cave, and he glimpsed a small flash of color flickering in the breeze on the sand. Taking a few steps toward it, he saw that it represented only the tail end of a rope—a makeshift string of garments knotted end-to-end and leading back into the tunnel from which he and his companion had emerged the previous day.
“It leads back to the tomb,” she added, returning to the dwindling pile of treasure. “So others can find their way out, if they choose.”
With a burst of gratitude swelling inside his chest, Asif turned to look at his friend, but she avoided his gaze and continued to fill her arms with a growing stack of silver plates. Striding over to her, he began to pick up pieces of the treasure one by one, slowly at first.
The three of them made trip after trip back and forth to the shore, until all the wealth had been transferred into the tiny boat, which Asif now considered to be perilously full and heavy.
“What now?” he asked, looking at Sinbad as she straightened up for the last time and stretched her back with weariness.
Sinbad looked at the Aviator, who smiled again. “A third of this wealth belongs to you, my friend,” said the Aviator. “And you can sail away with us, wherever we may go. If you don’t like our company, we can set you down at any likely port you desire, and you can live out your days a rich and free man.”
“Or,” said Sinbad, “You can come with us back to our own city.”
The Aviator’s head jerked upward to look at her friend, who smiled to see the unabashed hope in her eyes.
“I have lost my stomach for imprisonment,” Sinbad continued, looking back at Asif again. “And you made a speech about changing everything? Let’s break down the doors of one more prison, at least.”