I REQUIRE CONSTANT UPDATES on the fleet now. They’re drawing closer and closer. It occupies my mind at all hours of the day. That and the havoc I almost unleashed on my own ship.
On top of that is the guilt I feel at my parched crew. It’s so strong, I find myself taking my meals later than most, just so I don’t have to watch them drain their meager rations.
I sit down to my dinner a few days later, the galley nearly empty. Kearan and Enwen are at a table together, Enwen doing all the talking, of course. Kearan slumps in his seat, the rationing affecting him more than the others. He’s refused to drink rum with his dinner.
“What you need, Kearan, is to take your mind off things,” Enwen says. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Want to hear a joke?” “No.”
“A pirate at sea has a peg leg, a hook for a hand, and an eye patch. One of his companions asks him how he lost his leg.”
“Please stop,” Kearan begs.
“He answers, ‘A cannonball.’ Then his companion asks how he lost his hand. He answers, ‘A sword.’”
“Enwen, I will knock you unconscious,” Kearan threatens, but I can tell he doesn’t have the energy to carry it out.
“When the companion asks how he lost his eye, the man says, ‘A spray of the sea.’”
Kearan stares at Enwen. “That doesn’t even make any sense.” “It was his first day with the hook.”
Kearan groans and leans his head down on the table.
I grin at the two of them, if only to mask the guilt building within my chest. I wish my abilities included extracting salt from water.
Across the galley, only one other duo is seated: Wallov and Roslyn. Roslyn upturns her cup over her mouth, trying to get the last drops. She sets the cup down, looks at her father, whispers something to him.
He hands her his own cup.
I stand so quickly the bench behind me tips over. “Wallov,” I say, perhaps too sharply, “don’t.”
Kearan and Enwen’s bickering instantly quiets, their attention now drawn to the scene I’m making.
“She’s so thirsty, Captain,” Wallov says.
“We’re all thirsty. But no one will die under the current rationing. If you start giving your shares to her, you will die. She won’t thank you then.”
I turn my attention to little Roslyn next. “You are never to accept his portions. Do you understand? It will be hard, and your throat and belly will hurt, but you will lose your papa if you take his water.”
She swallows, never breaking eye contact with me. “I understand, Captain. He won’t hear any complaints from me again.”
Such conviction from someone so small. I believe her.
“We’ll be upon that island soon,” I say. “Then we can all drink our fill.” The two nod at me.
When I take my empty plate and cup up to Trianne, I tell her, “You watch those two.”
I’m still thinking over the exchange when I get back up top. I’m forcing a father to watch his daughter wilt away in front of him.
Niridia rushes to me, pulling me from my thoughts. “We have a problem.”
“What is it?”
“We can see them now.”
My gaze turns toward the horizon behind us, where that brown line is darker than ever. From the crow’s nest, one can see miles farther than on the deck. If I can see the fleet now with my naked eye—
“He’s taunting us,” I bite out. Keeping himself in our sights, now. He’ll keep at it for days if he wants. Not drawing closer, just invoking fear.
It’s what he excels at.
My suspicions about his brutal games are confirmed just a few days later. He’s grown closer, but not by much.
Radita has brought me no new ideas for how we can make the ship lighter. It’s the cannons or nothing at all.
I can count the days we have left before we’re completely out of water on my fingers. The fleet is right there.
Half the crew is staring over the railing behind us, watching the fleet draw closer. And closer.
A few cheers float up on the air, but they’re only half-hearted; the stamina of my crew is at an all-time low.
But we have a bigger problem.
We cannot stop with the king on our heels. If we do, he’ll catch us for sure. It could take us hours trekking on the new island before we find water. Then more time still to haul it back to the ship.
Time is the very thing we don’t have right now.
Kearan and I take turns looking through the telescope and examining the Allemos map. In the end, our findings are in agreement. It’s the large island from the map. We’re so close to the Isla de Canta. It’s just past this island we’re approaching now. And through the telescope we can make out a junglelike terrain. So green. So full of water.
My stomach drops at our salvation right ahead of us, our doom right behind us. We cannot have one without the other.
Those who were staring behind us at the fleet now turn their gazes toward the bow. Toward their hope.
“How many should go ashore, Captain?” Niridia asks. So many hands go up into the air.
“You need me,” Athella says.
“I will not be left behind,” Deshel says defiantly.
“Please take me this time.” That comes from little Roslyn.
So many hopeful faces, so many bodies desperate to go ashore and find water first.
“None,” I croak.
So many eyes widen. So many thirsty mouths swallow. So many of them stare at me as though I’ve suddenly sprouted a tail.
“None?” Niridia asks. “Captain, I was speaking of the island. The very green island that’s sure to have water.”
“I know. I didn’t misunderstand. We cannot stop.” “We’re dying!” Deshel insists.
I point emphatically at the fleet behind us. “If we stop, they catch us.
“If we don’t stop, we die of thirst!”
Sorinda appears on the deck, where everyone can actually see her. “I’m with the captain. We should keep going.”
Mandsy speaks up. “I’ve had too many bodies resting in the shade of the infirmary from heat exhaustion. Captain, we have to stop. We won’t make it otherwise.”
“Alosa—” Niridia starts.
“No, don’t Alosa me. I said we’re not stopping.”
Kearan looks apologetically at Sorinda before saying, “I don’t know how much longer I can continue like this. I’m probably the biggest body on the ship and the most dehydrated. I don’t know that I can get us to the Isla de Canta if I don’t get more water soon.”
“The captain gave her orders,” Sorinda bites out. “We’re not stopping.”
Riden, I notice, is over at the side of the ship, saying nothing. Does he not have an opinion?
“But, Captain—” It’s Roslyn again. “We’re so thirsty.”
“If we don’t stop, we’ll die of thirst,” Niridia says. “I think that’s a worse way to go than in the hands of the pirate king.”
I can’t handle this. Cannot handle seeing their distraught faces. Cannot handle not being able to protect them this time.
And I snap.
“That’s because you’ve never suffered at his hands before!” I look around at all the bodies on the deck, watch the wind chafe at their dry skin. Watch their ragged breathing with open mouths. “You’ve seen him at a distance because I’ve kept all of you out of his clutches. But I’ve been there. I’ve been beaten until I blacked out. I’ve been starved until I wanted to eat the skin off my own bones. I’ve been chained up in that dungeon so dark and cold for months on end that I forgot the way the sun felt on my skin.”
I take a steadying breath, trying to pull my mind back out of those dark times. “You must trust me when I say, it is far worse to die at the hands of that man. We. Don’t. Stop.”
They’re silent now. No one has a response to that.
“If anyone tries to leave this ship, I will personally drag you back and lock you in the brig.” And with that being said, I lock myself in my rooms.
I am not at all surprised when the knock comes later.
I debate for a minute whether or not I will let him in. I can’t handle anyone arguing with me.
“Alosa, I’m not here to argue with you,” Riden says.
So he can read my mind on top of keeping the siren at bay? Has he really come to know me so well?
I let him in.
Then I go back to leaning against the mountain of pillows on my bed, crossing my arms, and staring at the royal-red goose-feathered comforter.
“Don’t hate yourself,” he says, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. “This is out of your control.”
“I know that. I hate that I can’t save them, but I don’t hate myself for it.”
I can tell he picks up on my meaning immediately. “Why do you hate yourself right now, then?”
This little secret has become a burden of its own. I’ve pushed it from my mind ever since we ran low on water.
“Because I’m not thirsty.” He cocks a brow.
“Riden, the sea nourishes me. Every time I stock up on my abilities, it’s like eating or drinking. I’m. Not. Thirsty. And my entire crew is suffering.
And I just told them that we couldn’t stop, when I’m not feeling what they’re feeling. I’m selfish and horrible.” I draw my knees up to my body, rest my crossed arms on top of them.
He puts a hand on my arm. “You are not selfish and horrible. You are what you are. There is no changing that. If anything, this is a good thing. It keeps you clearheaded, allows you to make the decisions necessary to keep the rest of us safe.”
“Half of them don’t believe me. They don’t see the threat that my father is. They have no idea what he’s capable of.”
“They trust you; it’s just harder when the pain of thirst is clouding their own minds.”
“And what about you?”
He bends his head down so his eyes are level with mine. “I trust you, too. Alosa, if it were my own father behind us, soon to catch us, I would make the exact same choice you are making right now.”
I take some comfort in that, in knowing I’m not the only one who would have made this decision.
“How did we turn out the way we did when such horrible men raised us?” I wonder aloud.
“Because we are not our fathers. We saw what evil looked like, and we knew we wanted to be different.”
I stare at the hand on my arm, thinking over his words. I may not be my father, but that doesn’t mean I always know the right choice to make.
And right now I’m terrified, desperate for someone to confide in. It can’t be Niridia when she’s at odds with me over this.
“Am I going to be forced to watch everyone I care about slowly fade away?” I say. “Will I be the only one left on this ship? The only one my father catches? It feels like my only choices are to be lost to the sea or to be lost to him. I’m not sure which is worse.”
“Neither of those is going to happen.” He says it with such confidence, like the cocky bastard I’ve always taken him for.
“And how’s that?”
“You’re going to master yourself underwater.” I scoff. “So I can save myself?”
“No, so you can save all of us.”
I shake my head. “It won’t happen. The siren can’t be tamed when she’s in her natural habitat. I almost slit your throat last time. I don’t think you realize how close you were to death.”
“And I don’t want you to be at risk of losing yourself. What if you fall in the water after the Ava-lee takes her next hit? Just like that you’d be lost to us. Unable to save anyone. Isn’t it worth it to try again?”
“Not if it means I’ll kill the entire crew.”
“Alosa, we’re already surrounded by death on all sides. We need to take this risk.”
My mind is so exhausted. All those disappointed faces …
“You said you didn’t come here to argue with me. I want to be alone now.”
He takes his arm back, watching me carefully. “You’re running out of options. And we’re running out of time.”
* * *
The next day, the entire crew watches as the island approaches.
And we pass it by.
Niridia can barely stand to talk to me or dole out my orders she’s so furious. Mandsy is in the infirmary with more exhausted patients. Sorinda stays by my side, in the shade, but close nonetheless. A physical support.
It’s too much to hope for rain. There’s not a cloud in the sky. Water won’t be coming that way.
We have days left. Only days.
Niridia approaches me another day later, when the island is at our backs near the fleet.
“Niridia—” “Quiet,” she snaps.
I level her with a warning glare.
“No, Alosa,” she says. “I’m going to talk. I seem to be the only voice of reason on this ship these days. Riden tells me you’re refusing to practice with your abilities underwater.”
“Of course I’m refusing! I nearly killed everyone last time.”
She grabs me roughly by the arm and drags me toward the stern. The crew watches, and I try to decide how I can put her in her place without lowering morale further. The crew can’t see its first mate and captain at odds.
But she releases me before I can think of anything to say or do.
She points a finger in front of us. “Fleet! Right there! We’re out of options!”
I take a step back from her.
“Our choices are death, death, or death,” she says. “Go make yourself useful! We need the siren! At worst, she gives all the women a quick death. At best, you use your newfound control to find us a way out of this mess. You’ve made stopping for water impossible now. This is our only choice.”
I growl. “Damn, Riden.”
“He is the only thing that has kept us alive so far. I owe him my life thanks to what he does to the siren. Now we need her again.”
With everyone looking on, I realize I have no choice. I’m going to have to risk killing them all and hating myself afterward. I have to risk it for them.
* * *
“You ratted me out,” I say to Riden when I find him belowdecks. “You did the same to me last time.”
“I don’t see how the two of you expect different results from last time!
Bad things are going to happen!”
I feel myself close to hysterics. There is no happy ending I see for any of
“I’ve already thought of that,” he says. I look sharply at him.
“If you hadn’t kicked me out of your room last night, I would have had
time to explain.”
I want to snap at him, but I clamp my mouth shut, ready to listen.
“I’ll stay close to you the whole time,” he says. “Last time, all I had to do was touch you, put my face next to yours, and you returned to yourself.
This time, I’ll keep you close while you submerge. You won’t hurt anyone. And you yourself won’t get hurt.”
A good idea.
The fear is still there. I’m absolutely terrified that I will hurt someone. But we are also desperate. And Riden seems so sure that he can help me this time.
And I trust him.
That realization is such a shock, and I find myself giving in.
Sorinda and Mandsy fill the tub. I prepare myself, both mentally and physically. No metal. No laces. No pins or hair ornaments. Breathe in. Breathe out. Try not to kill anyone.
Mandsy stays after the tub is full to help keep me in line should things go south. This time I decide two girls prepared to act if something should go wrong are better than one. I worry that Mandsy won’t be brutal enough to injure me (or more) if need be. I know I can count on Sorinda to do what needs done, but anyone else might hesitate. And a moment’s hesitation is all I need to do some serious damage. The next time, the siren may not be in a playful mood. Maybe she’ll go for the kill right away.
I climb into the tub, my bare toes curling from the promise of power caressing them.
I nearly jump when Riden climbs in with me.
I know this was the plan, but what if it doesn’t work? What if I drown him? Or snap his neck?
I’m edgy, uncomfortable, drained from all the external pressures. He must sense this.
“Relax,” he says.
“You relax,” I snap. “You’re the one who is about to die.”
He shakes his head. “Come here.” Before I can listen, he pulls me to him in an embrace. “Just stay right next to me. Now sit.”
It’s awkward trying to do it with him clinging to me, but we manage. Each inch we descend, the water becomes more and more irresistible. I’m so anxious, so tired of everything—the water promises relief from all of it.
When it reaches my waist, I cannot help it anymore.
I let it in.
And with Riden’s face right next to mine, the siren doesn’t even surface. She stays far away, just where I want her. I let my head sink under the water, and Riden, as though sensing that it’s me the whole time, lets me go.
After maybe a minute of resting on the tub’s base, I return to the surface, step from the tub, pull the water into myself, and smile.
After a few more tries with the same results, Mandsy and Sorinda leave the room. I don’t need them. Riden is the key.
I dry myself off again after the fifth time and toss Riden a towel. He tousles his hair with it, wrings his clothes out over the tub.
“All this time,” I say as I lace back on a corset, “I just needed you to come along and keep me human.”
“Why do you think that is?”
I don’t know yet. Maybe I’m not ready to know yet. Not with danger looming so close.
Danger so close.
The fleet is close.
The fleet will have water. “Riden, I have an idea.”