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Chapter no 32

Fable

We sat in the window of the cramped teahouse, waiting.

North Fyg was the only district of the city where the cobblestones were dry and children didn’t run barefoot in the streets. Many of its residents were Bastian-born, stationed in Ceros to represent their guilds or oversee their employer’s interests outside the Unnamed Sea. They were used to a different way of life than the one we led in the Narrows. The smell of Ceros didn’t exist here, where the sun reflected off stone-faced houses trimmed in bronze ornaments that had turned green with the passing of years.

I’d never been in North Fyg, because my father refused to step foot anywhere west of Waterside. When he had meetings with city officials or guild masters, he made them come to the heart of the city, where he could negotiate and conduct business on his own turf.

Every eye on the street had followed us as we made our way to the teahouse, and I wondered when the last time any of them had been down to the docks was. Our kind wasn’t exactly welcomed in North Fyg, but they weren’t going to turn down our copper either. We paid extra for our seat at the window, where we could watch the red door across the street.

“What the hell is this?” Auster picked up one of the small cakes on the tiered platter, holding it before him. The layers of thin, brittle pastry were covered in a crumbling powder the color of blood.

A woman stopped beside the table with a rolling silver cart and laid the tea, setting two hand-painted pots on the table. She kept her eyes down, as if we weren’t there, and I realized it wasn’t disapproval that kept her from looking at us. She was afraid. And for a fleeting moment, I found that I liked the feeling.

I turned the teapot before me, studying the intricate purple flowers and painted gold along the rim. The matching cup alone was worth more than my entire belt of tools.

“Is he going to show or what?” Willa huffed impatiently, filling her cup with the steaming black tea.

“He’ll show,” Paj said, his eyes still pinned on the red door.

“How exactly do two Bastian-born crewmen know an affluent tailor in North Fyg?” Willa watched Auster over her cup.

“He’s a Saltblood.” He looked to Paj before he answered. “And Paj did him a favor once.”

“What kind of favor?” I asked.

“The kind that needs repaying,” Paj cut Auster off before he could speak.

They’d already said more in front of me than I would have expected them to. I wasn’t going to push it.

Willa picked up a cake from the platter, taking a bite and talking around a full mouth. “What if he refuses?”

Auster smirked. “He won’t. He’d do it for one hundred coppers if that’s what we offered.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he hasn’t made a set of sails in years. He’ll jump at the chance.”

I leaned back in my chair. “Then why aren’t we offering him one hundred coppers instead of eight hundred?”

“We’ll pay him one hundred for the sails. And seven hundred for his silence,” Auster said.

Willa laughed. “Saltbloods don’t stick together, then, huh?”

“Here we go.” Paj stood, leaning into the window as a man with a white mustache in a speckled scarf appeared across the street, a bundle of packages in his arms. He fumbled with his pockets until he found a key and unlocked the door, pushing inside.

I finished my tea as the others stood, and Auster opened the door for me, Paj at my side as we stepped out into the sunlight.

He looked up and down the street before he gave me a nod, and we moved together, crossing in lockstep. But there was no going unnoticed in

North Fyg for a ship crew. Our leathered skin, sun-streaked hair, and worn clothes gave us away. A woman leaned out her window in the next building, watching us with a scowl on her face. Everyone else on the street stared as we stopped in front of the tailor’s door.

Paj lifted the latch, letting it swing open, and we went up the steps. Inside, the walls of the small shop were painted the palest shade of lavender, bolts of fabric in every color lining the shelves.

“One moment!” a voice called out from the back.

Paj took a seat in the armchair beside the window, where a threefold mirror stood in the corner to catch the good light. Beside it, a tray of crystal decanters filled with amber liquids sat on a small table, and Paj unstopped one of them, filling a little etched glass before he brought it to his lips and took a sharp sip.

I reached up, touching the fraying edge of unrolled white silk, dotted with tiny yellow flowers, curling my fingers into my fist when I realized how dirty my hand looked next to it.

Footsteps trailed toward us, and Auster leaned on the counter with both elbows, waiting. The man rounded the corner, stopping short when he saw Willa, but his eyes widened when he caught sight of Paj. The scarf around his neck was tied into a neat bow, his white mustache curled up at both ends with wax.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” His thick accent unraveled the end of each word.

“I thought you’d be happy to see me, Leo.” Paj smiled.

He huffed. “My customers will not be happy when word gets around that a bunch of urchins were in my shop.”

“If you remember, it was an urchin who saved your ass back in Bastian. You wouldn’t have this fancy shop if it weren’t for me,” Paj said, tipping his head back to empty his glass.

Leo went to the window, pulling the lace curtains closed before he pulled a pipe and a small round tin from his apron. We watched in silence as he filled the chamber with crushed mullein leaves, and he lit them, puffing until the white smoke was pouring from his lips.

“Isn’t it dangerous to wear that?” Auster looked at the ring on Leo’s middle finger. It was a merchant’s ring, set with carnelian. I looked around the shop again, confused. If he was a sailmaker, why was he running a tailor shop?

“Worried about me? I’m touched.” Leo spread his fingers before him, eyeing the stone, and when I looked closer, I saw the seal of Bastian imprinted into the silver. So, he was a sailmaker, but he hadn’t been given a merchant’s ring by the guild in Ceros.

“We need a set of sails,” Auster said simply.

Leo’s mustache twitched. “I’m not supposed to make sails. You know that.”

“That doesn’t mean you won’t.”

His eyes squinted. “Why not go to one of the sail lofts on the other side of the city?”

Paj refilled his glass. “We did. They won’t do it.”

“So, you’ve found a bit of trouble.” Leo chuckled to himself. “What do you care? Will you do it or not?”

“That depends on how much coin you’ll give me to make risking my neck worth it.”

“Eight hundred coppers,” I said flatly. Willa looked at me with a stern reproach.

But we were beyond negotiation. We were desperate, and there was no point in acting like we weren’t. “We don’t have time to barter. We need sails and we need them now.”

Leo looked over us, thinking. “What kind of ship?”

“A double-mast lorcha,” Auster answered. “It should take you no time.“ “This wouldn’t be the lorcha that had its sails slashed two days ago,

would it?” A twinkle lit in Leo’s eye.

Willa glared at him. “How fast can you have them done?”

I watched him think. If he was caught making sails without a merchant’s ring from the Ceros Sailmakers Guild, he was as good as dead. And he wasn’t hurting for coin if he worked in North Fyg. If he did it, it was because he wanted to. Not because he needed anything from us.

“Two days.” He smiled, the pipe clenched in his white teeth.

“And how are you going to make them in two days?” Paj cocked his head to one side. The light coming through the window shadowed his face, painting his skin ink-black.

Leo shrugged. “I have people.”

“Well, they better know how to keep their mouths shut.” I untied both leather purses from my hips and tossed them to him. “There’s two hundred. You’ll get another two when the sails are finished, and the last four when they’re strung up.”

“Deal.”

Willa took a step closer to him. “You don’t deliver, and I don’t need to tell you what we’ll do to you.”

His smile faltered a little. “I said I’d do it.”

Paj stood, setting down his empty glass. “I think we can call it even, then.”

Leo nodded, opening the door. “It’s about time.”

We filed back out into the street, the weight of the coin now missing from my belt, and Paj and Willa walked ahead of us as Auster and I followed.

“What did Paj do for him?” I asked, speaking low so only Auster could hear me.

He checked to see if Paj was listening before he answered, “Paj crewed a ship out of Bastian before we came to the Narrows. Their trade route ended in Ceros, and he smuggled Leo into the cargo when he needed to disappear.”

“Disappear from Bastian?” He nodded.

“So, he was a sailmaker in Bastian.”

“Not just any sailmaker. He was Holland’s sailmaker.”

I stopped midstride, gaping at him. Holland was the same trader Willa said had it out for Zola. The same trader whose coin controlled the gem trade.

“He fell out of her good graces. It was leave Bastian without a trace, or meet whatever end Holland had planned for him,” Auster said. “He paid Paj sixty coppers to get him on the ship to Ceros. It was more money than we’d

ever seen, so he did it. But no trader or merchant would touch him when he came to the Narrows, so he set up shop as a tailor.”

That’s what Auster meant when he said that Leo wasn’t supposed to exist. He’d found a desperate kid to hide him in the belly of a cargo ship and ran. As far as anyone in Ceros knew, he was just a tailor.

“So, you’ve been with Paj a long time,” I said, looking ahead.

He knew my meaning. I wasn’t just asking how long they’d known each other. I was asking how long they’d loved each other.

A crooked smile twisted on his lips, his eyes meeting mine for a moment before he nodded. But then his hand absently went to the sleeve of his shirt, tugging it down over the tattoo on his arm and a shadow passed over his face.

Two intertwined snakes coiled together, each eating the other’s tail. It was the kind of mark that had meaning, and the symbol was one of infinity. Forever. But as far as I knew, Paj didn’t have one.

“The crew knows about you two?” “They’re the only ones.”

And now I knew too. “That’s a long time to keep a secret.”

He shrugged. “You know how it is. It’s dangerous for people to know.”

The thought made me happy before it made me sad—the idea that you could find love in this world the way Saint and Isolde had. Even if you had to keep it hidden to protect the one you loved. When I was alone on Jeval, I’d thought many times that love was no more than folklore. And that my mother had only been able to give it flesh and bone because she wasn’t like the rest of us. She was mythic. Otherworldly. Isolde seemed connected to the sea in a way that no one else was, as if she belonged beneath the surface of it instead of up here, with us.

But in the next breath, I thought of West.

I hadn’t spoken to him since I shook his hand, agreeing to his conditions for taking me on. I’d dredge for the Marigold, but I was to keep my distance.

West said that Saint taught him everything he knew. That’s why he was dealing in debts and running side trade. Pocketing from the ledgers and dumping men in crates into the sea. There was a certain amount of darkness

it took to live this life. Saint had always told me that, but I didn’t really learn it until Jeval. I’d done plenty of wicked things to survive on the island, but I couldn’t find it in me to feel badly about any of them. It was the way of things. Maybe that made me more like my father than I wanted to admit.

And though West had said again and again that he didn’t do favors and that he didn’t take chances, he’d done both. Over and over.

For me.

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