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Chapter no 18

Daughter of the Siren Queen

TALK WITH NIRIDIA and Riden in private. “I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up in case this doesn’t work.”

“The crew needs hope right now,” Niridia says. “How about if I tell them after you’ve gone?”

She knows that I don’t want to face them. Not after I took away their chance at water. I don’t want to offer a new one. How much will they hate me if it doesn’t work?

“All right,” I answer. Then I turn to Riden. “Are you comfortable with this?”

“I’m willing to try if you are,” he says. “Then let’s be off.”

The two of us approach the gap in the railing, the one used for climbing down to board the rowboats. We step up to the edge, peer down into that blue abyss. Probably thousands of feet deep. It is such a scary mystery, the ocean.

I look at Riden nervously.

“It’ll be the same as in the tub,” he says. “It had better be.”

Behind us, the crew must be watching, curious as to what we’re up to. “This is your last chance to—” I start.

He wraps his arms around me, and we fall.

Warm salt water encompasses us after the splash. Riden has both arms and legs wrapped round me tightly, the side of his face pressed firmly

against my own.

The siren is nowhere to be found. Not with him here.

The most profound sigh of relief escapes my lips as I kick us both to the surface. The power of the ocean floods me, soothing my guilt, my fears. They’re still there, in the back of my mind to pull out and process should I wish to. But right now those things will not be helpful.

I feel Riden’s breathing against my ear. It tickles my wet skin. His arms and legs grasp me so tightly, as though he’s afraid I might leave—be lost forever.

“Riden, I’ll swim more easily if you loosen up.” He pulls back then, stares at my face. “It’s you.” “It’s me.”

We just stare at each other, water dripping down our faces, holding on to each other.

Every time I’ve been in the water with him, danger was riding on our heels. But now, there’s no immediate threat, even if we have a job to do.

So I take just a moment to enjoy this. Feeling empowered by the ocean. Having Riden pressed so close to me, trusting me to keep him afloat, to not hurt him.

Swimming is as easy as walking for me. And Riden’s weight does very little to slow me down. I could stay with him like this forever.

Whispers float down to us from above. I look to see most of the crew staring over the lip of the ship at us.

“We’ll be back,” I say. Then I start to swim.

I don’t know how fast I can swim. I’ve never had the opportunity to figure it out. But I know I am faster than a ship. Much faster. And when I am in the water, with all its power rushing to me, I won’t tire. I can maintain this speed forever if I need to.

The water is warm—the ship has taken us into a tropical climate. A good thing, too, otherwise Riden would freeze.

He is silent as I swim. I’m careful to keep his head above the water as my arms and legs make silent strokes through the sea. It’s almost nightfall, and I hope to reach the ships just as darkness takes over. We cannot risk

them spotting us in the water, and I cannot swim under it when I have Riden with me.

When the sky finally darkens completely, we are upon the fleet. The lookouts won’t be able to spot us, not that they’d know to look for us anyway.

I select one of the smaller ships, a vessel along the edges of the fleet formation. Fewer chances for us to be seen, this way. And should we get caught, there will be a smaller crew for us to battle.

The Serpent is the perfect choice. Lanterns are lit on its decks, but there is little movement. The majority of the crew must be below, hopefully already asleep.

I find a handhold on the ship, a line tied down along the side. Riden reaches an arm up and begins climbing first, water running down his body, trickling into my eyes as I follow after him.

He stops at one of the gun ports and pokes his head inside. After a few breaths, he hauls himself through, and I follow after.

The gun deck is empty, but not quiet. We can hear voices below us, trickling up from the open stairway at the opposite end of the ship.

The water from my clothes pools onto the floor. I whisper a song to expel some of the power before absorbing the water and drying myself.

Riden huffs out a breath before pointing to himself.

We won’t make it far with his boots squeaking or the sound of water dripping.

Without saying a word, I press him back against the empty wall between two cannons, and cover his body with mine. More words float on the air from my mouth, much too quiet to be heard by anyone other than Riden. Then I start to draw the water from him.

He lets out a little gasp as he starts to dry. Of fear or awe or something else entirely, I’m not sure. My head is over his shoulder, my hands roaming his hair, his back, drawing every last drop into me.

“My backside is still wet,” he teases. “Deal with it.”

I smack his shoulder and glimpse his amused face before turning away. I realize now that I’d been touching, well, a lot of him. Something I haven’t

done since the last time we kissed. A time that seems forever ago.

But there’s no time for those kinds of thoughts. Thirsty crew. I have a thirsty crew.

The galley is one deck above us. We take the stairs carefully, watching the lower decks to make sure no one looks up. I can see two heads of hair from up here. A couple of men sit on the stairs, laughing loudly at some joke a person I can’t see said.

We veer around tables and benches to reach the storage rooms in the back. Drying meats hang from the ceiling in the kitchen. The stove is full of nothing but soot and ash. The dishes from their dinner are already clean and put away.

A locked door provides us little trouble. I didn’t bring my lockpicks with me, but I use a knife to pull apart the hinges.

A light scraping noise is all the sound I make. We freeze, but no one comes running. Not with all of the chatter below to mask what we’re doing. Inside, we find an assortment of foods: breads, pickled vegetables, flour,

sugar, and other cooking ingredients.

And in the back: water barrels.

Riden cracks one open, sticks his whole head in, and drinks. “Careful, you’ll make yourself sick,” I say.

“I don’t care,” he says and dips his head in again.

When he’s done, we carry the barrels (one at a time, the two of us using our combined strength) down the stairs, back to the gun deck. From there, we tie them together with rope found on the ship. Then we toss them out the gun ports.

Riden starts to climb through the hole, but I halt him. “Just a moment.”

I open the storage rooms off the gun deck, these ones unlocked, smiling when I find what I’m looking for.

I sling an ax through the belt around my corset.

Riden eyes it, but doesn’t ask any questions before holding me again as we fall back into the water. When we surface, we’re both smiling at our success.

“Can you wait here for a moment?” I ask him. “Where are you going?”

“To slow down the fleet.” “With an ax?”

I grin wider before dunking my head below the surface. I swim far below the ships, sizing up the hulls, until I find the largest of them at the head of the fleet.

And just like I did with the harpoon during the sea battle, I swim like a shot for the Dragon’s Skull, the ax held out in front of me with two hands, angled so the honed blade will hit first. It connects with the rudder, sending a sharp reverberation up my arms. The whole ship must jerk at the contact. I wonder what my father will make of it.

I brace my feet on the base of the ship, tugging at the break until the rudder comes clean off. With my work done, I return for Riden and the barrels.

The swim back is the best swim of my life.

I’m me, fully in control. I’m towing the water that will save my crew’s lives right behind me. Four glorious barrels’ worth. And the best part is, if we need more, Riden and I can make the trip again to another ship.

It’s nearly dawn when we catch back up to the Ava-lee. “Toss down a hook and line!” I shout.

The call is obeyed, and I place the hook around a section of rope looping the barrels together.

“Tug!”

They pull the barrels from the water. I hear them bounce onto the deck.

Another line is thrown down to help Riden and me up.

As we step onto the deck, we’re met with the sounds of slurping, swallowing, laughing. Laughing.

They take turns, sharing freely, passing cups around.

And when they’re done, they have me surrounded. Hugging me, clapping me on the back, murmuring sorrys and thank yous.

“I couldn’t have done it without Riden,” I say, and then they leave me to surround him.

Niridia catches my eye, and I stride over to her. She scratches at the bandage over her left hand.

“Captain, I apologize,” she says. “I shouldn’t have argued with you in front of the crew. I shouldn’t have spoken so directly, I—”

“Don’t you go calling me ‘captain.’ Not right now,” I say, hugging her.

She lifts her head from my shoulder, looking behind us. “The fleet is gone.”

I grin. “That’s because I took out the Dragon Skull’s rudder before Riden and I left.”

“Of course you did.”

I would love to stay and celebrate with the rest of them, but I’ve been up all night. “I’m going to sleep. Keep things running out here?”

“Of course.”

* * *

I hear them out on the deck, their laughter and singing. Someone else must pull out Haeli’s lute and strike up a song. It makes my heart warm to think of how they’re honoring her. By keeping what she loved most alive.

I’m so tired, still fully dressed in my corset and boots. I take off the latter and pad over to my wardrobe.

Knocking.

I hope Niridia doesn’t have bad news for me. “Come in,” I say, searching for some nightclothes.

I stop when I see not Niridia, but Riden enter my bedroom.

“Aren’t you tired?” I ask him. I’ve had the sea nourish me for hours today, so if I’m sleepy, he must be exhausted.

“I don’t think I could sleep right now,” he says. “Why not?” I step away from the wardrobe, face him.

“I can’t stop thinking about what we’ve been doing together. All the practicing. Can’t stop wondering why it’s me that keeps you human.”

My heart pounds heavier in my chest, but I shrug. “One of life’s mysteries,” I say.

I turn my attention back to the clothing in front of me, but his footsteps grow closer.

He stops before me, putting himself between me and the view of my clothes. Suddenly, any desire for sleep vanishes.

“I think you have an idea,” he says. “Why won’t you share it with me?” “I don’t know why,” I whisper.

But it’s a lie. Such a lie.

“Why me?” he whispers back, so gently. So invitingly. Unbidden, the truth rises to my mind.

Because you love me, I realize, but don’t say aloud. That’s why. That special relationship—the one more powerful than anything else. The most human thing there is. That’s what does it.

“Alosa?” he prompts.

“I have a—different relationship with you than I do anyone else.” “Different,” he repeats, amused. “Different how?”

“You know.”

“I want to hear you say it.”

Maybe it’s the thrill of being able to stay myself while under the water. Maybe it’s the realization of why he is able to keep me human. Or the realization that whether or not I call it what it is, that relationship between us is there. I only need to choose whether or not I want it.

He’s been so open with me. If I want to take this jump with him, it’s my turn.

“I think you love me,” I say. “I do.”

“And I think I love you.” “You think?”

“I know.”

He steps even closer to me. One hand slides up my arm from my wrist to my shoulder. He grabs a strand of my hair and twirls it around one of his fingers before bringing it up to his lips.

“What are you thinking about right now?” he asks.

“Just you.” Not anything that’s worrying me or frustrating me. There is only Riden.

He slides his hand to the back of my head to bring my lips to his. He kisses me softly, languorously, savoring every time our lips connect. I melt

under that pressure, but manage to yank at his still damp shirt. He helps me take it off. I run my hands over his smooth chest. A torso as perfect as Riden’s should never be covered.

His lips slide down to my throat, and I tilt my head back. He supports me with his hands at the small of my back.

“And what about that girly fellow?” he asks. “Hmm?”

“Your lover.”

“Oh, I lied about that. I can’t stand Tylon.”

He pulls away just enough to look me in the eye. “Why would you do that?”

“You were being cruel, and I wanted to make you jealous.”

“I think we could argue about who was being more cruel at the time.” I smile and bring my lips to his shoulder. “Are you saying it worked?”

Instead of answering, he picks me up with a hand under each thigh and braces me against the wall. His lips are on mine again, hard and unrelenting this time. I connect my legs behind his back. My arms tighten around his neck.

I can barely breathe, and I don’t care one bit. Air isn’t what I need to live. It’s him. It’s always been him. Why did it take me so long to realize?

Riden sets me back on my feet so he can roam my body with his hands.

They slide up my sides, into my hair, down my back.

This is usually the part where I talk myself out of what I’m doing. Not this time. There is no reason not to kiss Riden. There is no reason not to let him in. No reason not to trust him. He’s what I want.

I spin him around, planting him against the wall. I nip at his lips, trace them with my tongue, listen to his breathing hitch and feel his muscles tighten.

Without breaking the kiss, I start to pull him backward with me, toward my bed. I must have been moving too slowly, though, because he picks me up again and carries me the rest of the way.

He sets me down, lays himself on top of me, but the pressure of his lips never softens, never stills, and I don’t want it to.

I realize my corset is loosening. His fingers, so adept and featherlight, pull at the strings, slipping them from one hole after the next. When he finally gets it open, he splays his fingers across my stomach, which is now covered only by a thin blouse.

His lips leave mine. I’m about to protest when I feel them where his hands once were. They inch lower, and I feel my blouse slowly rise. I shut my eyes, awash in sensation.

Riden pauses with his lips at my navel. And he sits up.

“What are you doing?” I ask. “Get back here.”

He doesn’t look at me. Instead he starts for the door. “Riden—”

That’s when I hear it. Singing.

Oh hell.

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