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Chapter no 14

Fable

Morning came with a hard knock at the door, and I rolled to my feet, opening it with one eye open.

Willa stood with her twisted locks pulled back from her face, amusement playing in the smirk on her full lips. “And how exactly did you swing this?” She looked around the room.

I splashed water from the basin on my face, pressing my palms to my hot skin. The fever had set in, making me feel light-headed.

Willa watched as I pulled the boots on one after the other. “I guess West changed his mind.”

“Uh-huh.” She eyed the jacket draped over the back of the chair.

I followed her down the steps into the tavern, where everyone but Hamish was already finishing their breakfasts. Two pots of tea and chipped, clay plates filled with hunks of cheese and small loaves of fresh bread were laid out in the middle of the table. West didn’t look up at me, his eyes trained on Hamish’s ledgers that were open between them.

West hadn’t told me to keep quiet about last night, but I didn’t think he’d told Willa about it either. I guessed she wouldn’t be happy with either of us if she knew what we did, and I didn’t need her as an enemy.

I took the open seat beside Paj and filled an empty teacup, studying the pages of the ledger from the corner of my eye.

But I wasn’t fooling Paj. He closed the book, leaning on the table with his gaze set hard on me. “I thought we agreed the dredger would stay on the ship.”

“We did,” West said, picking up his cup. His face was drawn and tired, his wavy hair tucked behind his ears. He set his elbows on the table and

sipped, meeting my eyes. “We also agreed that she was to make it across the Narrows in one piece.”

I swallowed the hot tea, and it burned in my throat. Silence fell on the table and the crew shot glances at one another before they looked at me. My cheeks flushed hot under the weight of West’s stare.

So, he did know what happened at the coral islands. Or at least, he had a hunch. And he wanted them to know it.

It wouldn’t be the first time traders misbehaved out from under the watch of their helmsman, but this crew was different. They knew their places, and the rivalry I’d seen on other ships didn’t seem to exist on the Marigold.

West looked to each of them as he took another sip, and I could see by the way they dropped their gazes that the message had gotten across.

Paj muttered something under his breath that I couldn’t hear, and Auster set two fingers on his arm to silence him before he dropped it. My lips stilled on the rim of my cup, watching Auster set the hand into his lap. Because it wasn’t the cool brush of a shipmate in an unspoken message. He’d touched him … softly.

I pretended not to notice, slathering a thick layer of butter from the dish onto a piece of bread and taking a bite. Maybe West and Willa weren’t the only ones on the Marigold who were more than shipmates.

We ate in silence until the morning bell at the docks rang out in the distance, signaling the opening of the merchant’s house. The crew stood in unison, chairs scraping as they buttoned up their jackets, and I drained my cup of tea before I followed them to the heavy wooden doors.

West led the way, walking ahead of the others with long strides through the foggy streets of Dern. His blond hair looked even lighter in the morning mist, the twisting strands peeking out from under the cap pulled low over his eyes.

We weren’t the only ones moving to the east end of the village. From every direction, it seemed, bodies were funneling toward the merchant’s house that sat at the corner of the docks. It looked exactly the same as the last time I’d seen it, though I was never allowed inside. I’d only ever waited in the harbor while my father’s crew traded.

We ducked under the low doorframe and into the smoky light of the warehouse. It was already packed with hucksters and merchants, each with their own stall made of scrap wood and torn canvas. A sharp whistle rang out, and West’s head turned toward it, searching the rows for Hamish. He waved us over, and we followed West, pushing through the warm bodies to the other side of the wide room.

“Saltblood bastards,” Willa muttered, glaring as a trader in a velvet-trimmed coat crossed our path.

The crews from the Unnamed Sea were easy to pick out, the same way their ships were. Neat, trimmed hair, scrubbed skin, and fine clothes. There was an easiness about them that looked as if they’d never had to steal, cheat, or lie to get by. It was the reason people thought Saltbloods were too soft for life in the Narrows.

The goods the crew had unloaded from the Marigold were all laid out, and Hamish’s jacket bulged at his hips, where coin purses dangled from his belt. West gave him the ledgers and they exchanged a few quick words before we headed to the southeast corner of the merchant’s house.

A hand found the sleeve of my jacket, pulling me past the others, and West leaned down, speaking under his breath. “Stay close to me.”

Merchants shouted over one another, their hands in the air, but West walked past them until he reached a man who looked as if he was waiting for us.

“You’re a day late,” he grumbled, his eyes wandering over us until they landed on Hamish.

“Storm got us in late to our last port,” West answered and I studied him. His mouth hadn’t even twitched as he spoke the lie. They hadn’t been late to Jeval. They were never late. But we had taken a detour by going to the coral islands.

West held one hand out in front of him and Hamish pulled a small coin pouch from his jacket, setting it into West’s palm. “Two hundred and sixty-five coppers.” West held the purse out to the man.

The merchant’s face was stone. “That’s it?”

West leaned into the table, ready to argue. “The cider doesn’t sell at other ports as well as it does here. You know that.”

“Or you’re pocketing my profit.” The man glared at Hamish, tapping his merchant’s ring against the table. It was set with the striped tiger’s eye of the Rye Guild.

West leveled his gaze at the man, and the room suddenly seemed louder around us. “You don’t trust us to sell for you, hire someone else.” He turned to walk away, pushing back through the crowd.

“Wait.” The man sighed. “Two crates to the Marigold,” he muttered to another man standing behind him. “But don’t think that what you did in Sowan isn’t gettin’ round. Rumors have been pouring in the last three days.”

West stilled, the cool façade of his face wavering for just a moment. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Paj and Willa met eyes behind West’s back, and Paj took a step closer to him, his hand resting on his belt, beside his knife.

The man leaned in, his voice lowering. “We stick together here in Dern. You try to pull something like that here, and you’ll wish it was the sea demons who got their hands on you.”

West’s eyes lifted slowly. “Like I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The merchant smiled, pulling back a spread of burlap to reveal the crates of cider, and West gave a nod in approval. The man’s attention travelled over to Willa, and he seemed to pause when he saw the burn that streaked up and out of her collar. “Heard you met some trouble, Willa.”

Her face was stone, but the slightest flinch ignited in her shoulders. “Two weeks.” West held out his hand, clearly changing the subject. “Two weeks.” The man shook it, and we moved down the aisle without

another word.

I looked back over my shoulder, where the merchant’s narrowed eyes were still watching us. There were goods in the ship’s cargo hold stamped with the seal of Sowan’s merchant’s house, so I knew the Marigold had been there. And whatever they’d done had followed them to Dern. If they were a shadow ship, there was no telling what it was.

I tried to keep up, staying on my feet when someone shoved into me and not losing more than a foot between me and West. If I did, I would be taken

with the crowd back the other way. He haggled with another merchant, and I watched beyond the rise of the stall, where Auster was bartering with a gem trader. One of the red leather purses Hamish had given out was clutched in his fist.

Behind me, Willa argued with a small woman just down the aisle, four sparkling gems that looked to be amethyst in her hand. Another one of the red leather purses sat on the table before her.

West caught Auster’s eyes over my head, jerking his chin toward Willa. “She better not leave your sight.”

Auster nodded, moving closer to her, and I looked around us. There was a lot of coin in this room and a lot of bodies. It would only take a second to lose a purse at your hip. In fact, there were probably people in Dern who made their living that way inside this merchant’s house.

My hand went to my own belt, where the few coppers I had were tucked into the little pocket I’d sewn. Paj watched around us, his eyes scanning in every direction as we moved from stall to stall, and I bumped into West as he suddenly stopped in front of me. His attention was on a man who stood along the back wall, leaning into the frame of a greased window.

“Stay here,” West muttered before he disappeared into the crowd. When he reached the man, he pulled the cap from his head, running one hand through his hair as they talked in hushed whispers.

“Who is that?” I watched the way they turned their backs to the room. Paj didn’t answer, but he looked as curious as I was, his eyes pinned on

West.

Willa rejoined us with a sack of fish hooks slung over her back, Auster on her heels. “Where is he?” She looked around us.

“Price?” Paj gestured to the fish hooks, and I watched, paying close attention to the way he stepped in front of her to block the view to the window. He was distracting her. Covering for West, even if he didn’t know why. And now that I thought about it, they all seemed to do that.

Willa pulled a piece of paper from her pocket, handing it over, and shoved her empty red purse into her jacket. It was then that I understood what they were doing. It wasn’t coin in those purses; it was gems. Just a

little in each one. Every crew member was splitting off one at a time and trading the small amounts to different merchants.

Trading a few pieces of pyre from Jeval was one thing. But you needed a special permit from the Trade Council to actually run a gem trade, and I guessed they didn’t have one. There weren’t many in the Narrows who did, because the powerful gem merchants in Bastian controlled the trade.

It was the perfect way for an illegitimate operation to hide beneath the guise of trading large amounts of anything but gems. Just a little here and there to avoid notice. A few stones wasn’t going to turn heads. But this looked rehearsed. Planned. They probably did this at every single port, and there were probably a lot more purses hidden in the hull than the one I’d found.

If they were Saint’s shadow ship, they’d hold a permit to trade gems because he would have made sure of it. But they didn’t, and that could only mean one thing—they were running side trade and pocketing on Saint’s ledgers.

It was genius. And also, enormously stupid.

West pushed back through the crowd without a word, and we moved to the next stall, where an old man sat before a tray of gemstones and melted-down metals. The onyx in his merchant’s ring said he was a gem merchant. The guild required ten years of apprenticeship for that ring, and even then, it wasn’t guaranteed. The guilds were as cutthroat as the traders. If a sailmaker or shipbuilder or gem dealer was caught conducting business without one of those rings, it was a crime punishable by death.

The bronze scale that sat in front of the man caught the bright light from the window as he dropped three raw emerald stones into one side. “West.” He nodded in greeting. “Pyre?”

So, this was where he offloaded the pyre. And if I was right about what they were up to, he probably traded the pieces for just a few gems instead of coin. Enough not to draw any notice on the ledgers. It was probably the only trade with a gem merchant he’d make in the open.

West pulled a pouch from his jacket, handing it over, and the man dumped my pieces of pyre onto the cloth folded neatly on the table. “Where

are you getting these stones? The past few months you’ve sold me better pyre than I’ve seen from any trader in two years.”

I smirked, watching him pick up the largest one and hold it against the light.

“If you bring more next month, I might have a better price. There’s a jeweler here who’s been making some new pieces with them.”

“That’s the last of it. We won’t be stopping in Jeval anymore,” Hamish answered.

I looked up at him, confused. When I’d traded with West on the barrier islands, he hadn’t said anything about it being his last time in Jeval. In fact, he’d offered to pay the next time he came.

Beside me, Willa, Auster, and Paj looked surprised too. The only person who appeared to know exactly what was going on in this crew was West. Everyone else seemed to have only broken pieces of information.

It was intentional. It was what a good helmsman would do—what Saint would do. I wondered if any of them knew about the crest painted under the rug in West’s quarters or if that was a secret too.

“That’s a shame.” The man huffed, pulling at his white beard. “I’d say about thirty-two coppers’ worth.”

“What?” I whispered. “You only paid me ten.”

“We trade to profit, Fable.” A bit of sly amusement changed the sound of West’s voice as he spoke.

“How did the quartz do in Sowan?” The merchant tucked his hands into his vest, leaning back in his chair.

“It did well. One hundred and twelve coppers for the lot.” Hamish handed him another pouch. “What have you got for the pyre?”

“I’ve got emeralds here that need selling. They’d do well in Sowan too, I think.” He nodded to the stones on the scale.

I leaned forward, studying the gems in the bronze tray. Before I’d even thought about it, I picked one up, holding it in the palm of my hand. Something about them wasn’t right.

“How much?” West looked at them carefully.

I bit down on my lip, holding the stone between two fingers. The vibration of emerald was low and soft. It moved like a gentle current. But

this was different. I held it up to the light, my eyes narrowing, and the man studied me, a scowl on his face.

I cleared my throat, and West looked down at me.

“What is it?” The merchant was annoyed, leaning on the table to look up at me.

“They’re—” I looked between them, unsure of how to say it. “They’re

—”

“What?” West snapped, growing impatient. “They’re fakes,” I whispered.

The man stood suddenly, rattling everything on the table. “What exactly are you accusing me of, dredger?” His face reddened, his eyes blazing.

“Nothing, I—” I looked back at West. But he was staring at the emerald in my hand. “I’m not accusing you of anything. Only—” The man glared at me. “May I?” I stepped forward, lifting the tray from the scale and holding it up to the light. I tipped it so that they rolled. “There.” I pointed to one of the stones. “It’s not emerald.”

The man leaned over me, pulling the chain of a ruby-studded monocle from his vest and setting it against his eye. “Of course it is.”

“No, it’s not.”

“West.” Paj’s low voice rumbled at my back.

I pointed to the hair-thin line in the center of the stone. “The inclusion catches the light. If it were emerald, it wouldn’t do that. You’d see right through it. My guess is that it’s forsterite. They’re not valuable, but they look a lot like emeralds if they’re heated to a high enough temperature. They’re even found in the same bedrock.” I pointed to the white-crusted edges.

It was only a subtle difference, but one that would cost a purse of coin.

Whoever had made them knew exactly what they were doing.

The man’s mouth dropped open, and the monocle fell from his eye as he stood back, staring at me. It swung from the gold chain above the scale. “I

—I believe she’s right.” He took the tray from my hands, dumping the stones out onto the table.

“They’re not all bad,” I said, sorting through them quickly. I picked out five forsterite stones among the emeralds and pushed them to one side,

away from the others.

“Whoa,” Willa whispered, her face beside mine.

“Those Bastian bastards!” the man growled, his bony fist coming down on the table hard.

I flinched, and West stepped in front of me, his back at my face. “We’ll take the amber instead.” He pointed to the stones in the next tray. “Whatever you’ve got.”

The merchant was flustered, his eyes still drifting to the emeralds and back up to me. But West was suddenly in a hurry, taking the purse without even checking the stones and immediately leading us to the door we’d come in through. We pushed through the crowd until the sunlight hit my face, and I pulled the cool, salty air into my lungs, glad to be out of the stifling heat of the warehouse.

But as soon as we were through the door, West turned on me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

I stopped, almost slamming into him. “What?”

His teeth clenched, his eyes boring down into mine. “Auster, make sure everything gets on the ship. Paj, be ready to push off by nightfall.”

“We aren’t supposed to leave until morning. I’ve still got supplies to get.” Auster looked between us.

“Then I suggest you hurry,” he ground out.

“What did I do?” I said, looking between them. “I don’t understand.”

West stared down into my face, the red creeping up his neck from the open collar of his shirt. “You should have stayed on Jeval.”

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