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Chapter no 24

Fable

I walked the bridges in the dark.

The salt-soaked wind blew in from the sea, and I ran one hand along the knotted rope walls, following them in whatever direction they took me. I didn’t care where. There was no place to go anyway.

People with skirt hems and boots painted in mud passed me, and lanterns flickered to life below as darkness swallowed Ceros one rooftop at a time. When the bridge finally came to a dead end, I found myself alone above a pocket of the city that was tucked behind Waterside. I climbed down the ladder, and my boots splashed in the muck as the last bit of orange light found its way through the crooked streets.

“You should get inside, girl,” a woman with a crimson shawl draped over her head called out to me from a cracked window.

I pulled the hood of my jacket up and kept walking.

The city was a tangle of narrow paths, buildings covering every inch of it. My mother used to say that Ceros was like the coral on the reefs, except for the noise. Living things were stuck into every crack and crevice, but underwater, there was only a deep silence that vibrated in your bones. She’d never loved this city like Saint did. The sea was where she belonged.

I pulled the necklace from my pocket and held it up so the pendant dangled in the moonlight.

I hadn’t meant to take it. Not really. But with every poisonous word that dropped from Saint’s lips, my fingers had wound tighter into its chain. Until it felt like it didn’t belong to him anymore.

I clasped the necklace around my neck and pulled at the chain with my fingers until it bit against my skin. If Isolde hadn’t drowned with the Lark,

maybe we’d be walking these streets together now. We’d wander the bridges while my father inspected ledgers at his post and met with merchants at the harbor. We’d buy roasted plums at the market and find a place to watch the sun go down over the rise of land, the juice of the warm fruit sticky on our hands.

The vision was too painful to hold in my mind, like boiling water filling my skull.

“Hi there.” A man stepped into the alley, blocking my path. His eyes glinted in the lantern light, his lips spreading over missing teeth.

I looked up at him, reaching for the knife in my belt without a word. “Where are you going?” He took a step toward me, and I slid the blade

free.

“Let me pass.”

He leaned in closer, stumbling forward as he reached clumsily for my belt. Before he could right himself, I swiped up in one clean motion, catching the edge of his ear with the knife.

He threw himself backward, the drink suddenly clearing from his eyes, and I followed, taking three quick steps until his back was against the wall. I lifted the blade, setting it at the hollow of his throat and pressing down just enough to draw a single drop of blood.

He froze, straightening, and I looked him in the eye, daring him to make a move. I wanted a reason to hurt him. I wanted an excuse to lean forward until the edge of the steel sunk into his skin. It was the only thing that seemed like it may dull the sharp pain inside me. Cool the raging heat that still burned on my face.

He stepped to the side slowly, moving around me, and a string of curses trailed off into the dark as he disappeared. I stood, staring into the brick wall until the sound of glass breaking made me turn. At the end the alley, a window with one dangling shutter was lit. When the wind picked up the familiar sour scent of spilled rye, I exhaled, heading straight for the door.

I ducked into a dimly lit tavern where every bit of space was filled with people, the grime of Ceros on their skin and on their clothes. Traders. Dock workers. Ship repair crews. They were stuffed into every corner, small

green glasses clutched in their hands, and the peppered smell of unwashed bodies filled the small room.

There was only one stool free at the counter between two towering men, and I lifted up on the toes of my boots and slid onto it. The barkeep tipped his chin up at me, and I reached into my belt to fish out a copper.

My hand stilled as I took the weight of the purse into my hand. It was heavier. Fuller.

I pulled at the strings, opening it, and looked inside. There were well over twenty coppers that hadn’t been there the day before. I felt down the length of my belt, trying to make sense of it until the realization hit me like the burn of a flame.

West.

The vision of him standing in the breezeway that morning resurfaced. He had filled the purse. That’s why he had my belt when he came up from the cabin.

“Well?” the barkeep huffed, his hand held out before me. I dropped a copper into his palm, cinching the purse closed before anyone could get a look at it.

I crossed my arms on the counter and laid my head down, staring at my boots.

West had known who I was all along. And he knew exactly what would happen when I went to Saint. He was looking out for me, like he had been for the last two years, buying my pyre on the barrier islands. Even if he’d done it under Saint’s order, he’d done it. But the extra copper in my purse didn’t bring me relief. It was only a reminder that none of the copper had ever been mine in the first place.

The glasses sloshed as the barkeep slammed them down before me, and he moved to the next hand raised in the air. The emerald-green glasses sparkled like jewels as I picked the first one up, breathing in the peaty smell of the rye before I took a small sip.

The scent reminded me of Saint. A little green glass sat on his desk every night in the hazy smoke of the helmsman’s quarters on the Lark, even though there wasn’t supposed to be any rye on the ship.

I wanted to hate him. I wanted to curse him.

But in the minutes that had passed since I’d walked out his door, I’d been plagued with the truth that I didn’t only hate him. I didn’t know anything about where he’d come from, but I knew it was something he didn’t like to talk about. He’d built his trade from nothing, ship by ship, and even if he’d left me and betrayed me, there was still a small part of me that loved him. And I knew why. It was Isolde.

My mother had loved Saint with a love that could set fire to the sea.

It was a truth that made it hard to wish him dead. But after three glasses of rye, I thought, anything was possible.

I tilted my head back, swallowing the whole of the glass down, and pinched my eyes closed as it burned in my throat. It travelled all the way down to my stomach, making me feel instantly lighter. The warmth of it spilled into the weight of my legs, and I leaned into the counter.

The only soul left in the Narrows that I could run to was Clove, but he was gone, like my mother. The thought hung heavy inside of me, more tears filling my eyes. In all the time I’d spent on Jeval, I’d never felt as alone as I did now.

“Dredger,” a deep voice sounded at my back, and I picked up the second glass, turning on the stool.

Zola stood, leaning into the wooden beam beside the bar, a smile on his face. His cap was gone, revealing a head of long black hair streaked with silver.

“I thought that was you.”

I stared at him wordlessly before throwing my head back and draining the glass.

He set his sharp eyes on the man beside me, who immediately stood, leaving his stool open. Zola took it, setting a copper on the bar.

“What are you doing in a tavern alone at night in the most dangerous city in the Narrows?” He looked as if the idea amused him.

The barkeep set three rye glasses down before him slowly, taking extra care not to spill, and I glared at him.

“None of your business.”

“Where’s your crew?” He leaned in closer. “They’re not my crew.”

He half laughed. “Probably for the best. Don’t think the Marigold will be on its feet much longer. Neither will its helmsman.”

I turned my last rye glass in a circle on the bar top. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Zola shrugged, staring into his glass. “Only that West knows how to get himself into trouble. And eventually, it’s going to catch up with him.” He picked up a glass and shot it back. “I heard something about a dredger in Dern no one had ever seen before, spotting gem fakes. That you?”

“No.”

He set his elbows up on the bar, folding his fingers together. “You’re a good liar. Anyone ever tell you that?”

My eyes slid to meet his. Koy had said the same thing right before he tried to kill me.

“Not a bad trait in the Narrows. You can dredge, you’re good with gems, and you know how to lie. You looking for a place on a crew or not?”

“Not your crew.” I turned to face him. “Why not?”

“I know what you did to Willa.”

His eyes glinted, the grin on his face spreading even wider. “I don’t think I have to tell you what it takes to survive in the Narrows.”

“I don’t care what your reasons are. I’m not interested.”

He surveyed me as I swallowed my last shot of rye, and when I looked up again, the expression on his face had changed. His eyes narrowed in thought, his head tilting to one side.

“What?”

He blinked, as if for a moment he’d forgotten where he was. “You remind me of someone.” The words were almost too low to hear. He took his last two shots in a row and dropped another copper down, signaling the barkeep.

The sounds of the room quieted as my heart slowed with the race of rye in my veins. Everything was stretched. The light was softer.

Zola’s voice deepened as he stood. “You be careful out there, dredger.”

Three more rye glasses landed on the counter, and I looked over my shoulder. Zola was gone, his stool empty beside me. The day I’d first met

him in Dern, he said that Crane was his stryker, but Zola’s ship, the Luna, was much bigger than the Marigold. He ran a much larger crew. Did he know the man I’d watched West and the others kill, or was it just a face he’d barely recognize, sent out on a dirty errand? And what else had that man done on Zola’s order?

I finished the next glass and rubbed my face with the heels of my hands. That night on the Lark, the years on Jeval, the days on the Marigold. They came marching toward me in the candlelight of the tavern like a screaming mob. I wanted to close my eyes and not open them again until winter was bearing down on the Narrows.

I set the second glass down and pulled up the sleeve of my jacket, laying my arm out before me. The scar Saint had carved into my arm looked like the angry web of river inlets. Smooth, raised paths snaked down to my wrist, and I traced them with my finger, stopping on the farthest tip, near my wrist.

Where the Lark lay in the deep. “Fable?”

I yanked my sleeve back down and cradled my arm to me, looking up to see Willa. The vision of her tipped and swayed, and I suddenly felt like I was falling off the stool. I clamped my hands down on the edge of the counter to hold myself in place.

“What are you doing here?” She sat beside me, leaning forward to look at my face.

I picked up the last glass and drained it, slamming it down. “How many of those have you had?”

I closed my eyes, breathing through the nausea creeping up my throat. “What do you care?”

“All right,” she said, standing. “Come on.”

She took my hand, but I pulled free, almost falling. Her arms caught me, sitting me back up, and then I was standing. Moving. Weaving through the crowded room as it spun around us. When I stumbled, slamming into the wall, Willa ducked down, throwing me over her shoulder.

“Stop!” I slurred, my arms dangling. But she didn’t listen. We climbed dark stairs, and the jingle of keys made my eyes pop open. In the next

breath, I was lying in a bed. “Stupid,” Willa muttered. “What?” I croaked.

“I told you I was trying to figure out if I liked you or if you were stupid.” The words jumbled into one blaring sound in my head. A metal pail landed next to the bed, and Willa rolled me onto my side, opening my

mouth.

“What are you—”

Her finger went down my throat, and I kicked, trying to pull free. But I was already vomiting. Willa lifted the bucket to my face and hit me on the back with the flat of her palm.

“What are you doing?” I coughed, shoving her away.

“You’ll thank me tomorrow when only half of that poison is still in your veins.” She laughed, standing.

“How’d you find me?”

“I’ve been following you for hours. Figured I should make you call it a night before you passed out on the counter.”

“You’re following me?” I pushed her away again.

“Believe me, it’s not what I wanted to spend my night doing.” She glared at me.

“Then why are you here?”

“Orders.” She looked down at me, waiting for the words to settle into something that made sense. When they finally did, I realized she was talking about West. He was still doing his job—keeping me alive. “What happened with Saint?”

I rolled onto my back and fixed my eyes on the rafters, trying to make the spinning stop. “Exactly what you said would happen,” I muttered.

“Oh, I see.” She crossed her arms, leaning into the wall. “So, you think you’re the only girl in the Narrows whose dreams didn’t come true?”

“Go away,” I groaned.

“You want something in this life?” She came to stand over me. “You take it, Fable.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You want to crew on a trading ship.”

It wasn’t just that I wanted to crew. I wanted to crew for my father. But I couldn’t tell her that without breaking my promise to Saint.

“You know the Marigold doesn’t have a dredger,” she said evenly. “So?”

She sighed. “So?

I blinked, thinking. But everything was too fuzzy. Too clouded.

“You want something in this life, you take it,” she said again, louder. “For a girl who lived on Jeval, I’m not sure why I need to tell you that.”

“West will never take me on.”

“I told you. He has a habit of making other people his problem.”

She was right. I didn’t have a chance with a single helmsman down on the docks. No one was going to take on a Jevali dredger they didn’t know unless I showed them what I could do with the gems. That was a risk I couldn’t take. Gem sages found themselves the prey of rival traders and the pawns of gem guilds often enough that it had become just one more thing that could get you killed.

But if I was going to get to the Lark, I did need a ship. “He told you to follow me?”

The hardness that always constructed Willa’s face wasn’t there as she sat back down on the bed beside me, and I wondered if she’d had a few glasses of rye herself. “Make him take you on.”

I still wasn’t sure what exactly the Marigold was up to, but it couldn’t be any worse than the crooked work Saint did. Or maybe it was. In only a few days, I’d found that West’s crew was trying to outrun more than one enemy. If I was going to take that on, I needed to know exactly what I was dealing with.

“What happened with the merchant in Sowan?” I took a chance in asking

it.

Willa stared out the window, her voice hollow as she answered. “West

did a bad thing to a good man because he had to. And now, he gets to live with it.”

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