Chapter no 8


My knuckles bled as I wound the heavy ropes into neat stacks at the foot of the foremast. I’d been working since before dawn, stowing the stays as Paj changed them out with new lines. Both the foremast and the mainmast had been strained in the storm on the way to Jeval, and the weakened ropes might not hold if another came. And it would.

We were still sailing north, almost half a day off course on the route to Dern. It had been a number of years since I was on the water, but I still knew how to navigate by starlight, and I’d spent half the night out on the deck, mapping out the sea in my mind. The only two directions to sail from Jeval were north into the Narrows or south to the Unnamed Sea.

I’d never been to the Unnamed Sea, but my mother was born there. Her leathered skin and callused hands made her look as if she’d grown up on a ship, but she’d come to the Narrows on her own when she was no more than my age, finding a place on Saint’s crew as a dredger and leaving her past in the Unnamed Sea behind. She would wrap her arms around me as we sat up on the mast with our feet dangling, and she would tell me about Bastian, the port city she called home, and the huge ships that sailed those deep waters.

Once, I asked her if she’d ever go back. If she’d take me there one day.

But she only said that she’d been born for a different life, and so had I.

My bare foot slid on the wet deck as the Marigold slowed, and I looked up to see Hamish, Willa, and Auster taking up the sails. Paj didn’t even look up from his work, tossing another pile of rope onto the deck. It landed in front of me as the door to the helmsman’s quarters opened and West came out of the breezeway.

He buttoned his jacket up to his throat, pulling a cap onto his head as he climbed the steps to the quarterdeck. From the look of him, we were headed into port. But we were in the middle of nowhere, hugging the edge of the waters that opened to the Unnamed Sea. Hamish followed on his heels, and as if he could feel my stare, he looked over his shoulder at me, his eyes narrowed in warning.

I dropped my gaze back to the ropes, watching from the corner of my eye as Auster unlocked the anchor and loosed the lines along the railing. Willa and Hamish worked the pulleys to the rowboat secured to the back of the ship and when it was free, West climbed down.

I set the next coil of rope down and leaned over the starboard side to look down the length of the ship. In the distance, a cluster of small coral islands sat atop the clear blue water like a pile of stacked stones. Below, West turned the rowboat about, leaning back and pulling the oars to his chest as it drifted away.

But the little islands were stark and bare, the coral whitewashed by the sun. I watched West disappear behind them. He’d gotten into the boat with nothing, and from the looks of it, there was nothing on the skeleton enclave. “Eyes on the deck, dredger,” Paj muttered, throwing more rope toward


I obeyed, taking the lines up and dragging them to the foremast, but Paj’s eyes didn’t leave me.

He crossed his arms over his chest so that his shirt pulled across the expanse of his shoulders, watching as I carefully wound the rope and knotted its end. “We cast bets, you know.”

I shook out my hands as I stood, stretching my fingers and then clenching them. The raw skin stung as it pulled over the bone. “On what?”

“How long it will take you to steal something.” He grinned.

I realized then that Paj, too, had an accent that curled his words just slightly. But he was much better at hiding it than Auster.

Willa looked down at us from the quarterdeck as she locked the anchor’s crank, Hamish behind her.

“I’m not a thief,” I said. “You want to check my belt? Go ahead.”

“You wouldn’t be stupid enough to keep it in your belt, would you? Dredgers are cheats, but they aren’t stupid,” Auster spoke from behind me, and I turned, pressing myself against the mast.

All four of them stared at me as a silence stretched over the ship, leaving only the sound of the wind sliding over the canvas sails above us. They were baiting me, pulling at my edges to see what I was made of. And I didn’t blame them. They had no reason to trust me, and their helmsman had taken me on without asking them.

“I don’t care what you’ve got in your hull or what’s written in your ledgers. I just need to get across the Narrows,” I said.

“You’re lying.” Paj took a step forward, standing a whole head taller than me. “Not that you can help it. It’s in the Jevali’s nature.”

“I’m not Jevali,” I said. “And I’m not a thief.”

Auster threw the last trap over the side and it splashed in the water below. “The last person who stole from us is at the bottom of the sea.” His long, raven hair was unbound, falling over his shoulder. He raked it back, tying it as he came down the steps to the deck.

“Look, I’m going to go ahead and give you some coin before you steal it.” Paj reached into the pocket of his vest, pulling out a single copper.

Willa leaned against the foremast, watching.

Paj held the copper up between us, pinched between his fingers. “This is what you want, right?”

I gritted my teeth, trying to read him. Wherever this was headed, it wasn’t good. And with their helmsman off ship, this crew would take liberties.

He snapped his fingers and the coin flew into the air, over the side, before it plunked into the water below.

“How deep are we, Auster?” Paj didn’t look at him as he asked it, his smug gaze still set on me.

Amusement lit on Auster’s face as he answered. “I’d say about four hundred and eighty feet. Maybe five hundred.”

Hamish’s spectacles scrunched up on his nose as he lifted one hand to smooth the combed, sandy hair at his brow. “Guess I was wrong, Paj. Looks like there are some things a dredger won’t do for coin.”

Willa still stood silently behind them, the look in her eyes different from the others. It was more curiosity than suspicion. As if she could hear me thinking it, her head tilted to the side.

They were trying to put me in my place. Trying to degrade me. Because with traders, everything was a test. Everything was an attempt to measure you.

I met Paj’s eyes as I pulled my shirt over my head and dropped it on the deck.

“What are you doing?” His brow pulled as he watched me climb the railing.

I stood against the wind, watching the movement of the water around the coral islands. It pushed up the shelf gently, and if it was as calm beneath the surface as it was above, I could do the dive in just minutes. I’d made deeper descents more times than I could count.

Hamish leaned over the starboard side as I jumped, falling through the air before I plunged into the cold water in a cloud of bubbles. When I broke the surface, all four of the crew were watching from above, Paj’s eyes wide. My chest filled with the warm wind, and I pushed it out in a long hiss over and over until my lungs felt pliable enough to hold the air I needed. I tipped my head back, sipping in just a little more before I dove, kicking

toward the seafloor.

The ash-white coral above the water was only the corpse of what lay below, where steep walls of the vibrant reef were filled with life. Bubble coral, spiny sponges, and urchins covered every inch beneath schools of colorful fish, and I watched the airy climb of an octopus scale the shoal as I sank down.

The surface stopped tugging at me once I’d dropped deep enough, and I let myself drop with my arms out around me, falling between beams of sunlight casting through the water.

The Marigold shrank to a dark spot far above me, and I watched the silt for the shine of copper, kicking in a circle as I neared the bottom. Challenging me to find a single coin on the seafloor had been an arrogant ploy meant to humiliate me. But these bastard traders didn’t know me. Or what I could do.

Copper was a mineral, not a gemstone. But it had a language, like anything else. I stilled, listening for the tinny ring of it. I sifted through the sounds of the reef until a faint resonance made me turn. A flash lit in my peripheral vision, and I blinked, turning to see the sparkle play against the light. But it was too far from the ship in these clear, still waters. The coin should have fallen through the water in only a slightly diagonal path.

I turned myself around, studying the fronds of coral swaying back and forth gently. And it hit me, sinking in the pit of my stomach, just as the pull of the water brushed the bottom of my feet.

A current.

But it was too late. The tide swallowed me, yanking me down and jetting me over the seafloor like the tow of a ship. I kicked, trying to break from its grasp, but it only dragged me faster. The coral raced by and a stream of air slipped from my lips as I screamed, my hands sliding over the bottom and kicking up a trail of dust in my wake.

The Marigold pulled farther away from me, and I twisted, searching for something to grab as the current slammed me into the reef.

The coral scraped across my back and over my shoulder, tumbling me over the ridges before I found a hold. The cold water rushed past me, pushing my hair back from my face, and I pulled myself up. My muscles screamed, the weakness deepening in my limbs until my hands were shaking on the holds. My skin was already on fire, where the poison of the coral was seeping into my bloodstream.

I pulled myself along the wall until I was out of the current, and clung to the shelf, trying to force my heartbeat to slow behind my ribs before it ate up all the air inside of me. The undertow had carried me at least a hundred feet and I would need to surface fast.

I kicked up away from the grasp of the tide, but a soft glimmer on the seafloor made me stop, my fingers clutching to the sharp rock. I looked up to the Marigold above, cursing, and another bubble of air wriggled up through the water. I wasn’t going back up with nothing.

I crawled back down, holding on to the reef until I was back in the current, and inched along until I reached the place I’d seen the flicker of light. The stream pushed against me as I raked an open hand into the sand,

and when I brought it back up, the current pulled the grains through my fingers until the coin was sitting in the center of my palm.

The ladder was already unrolled when I broke the surface and I gasped, my chest aching with the feeling of the bones caving in. I pulled myself up the rope rungs and dropped myself over the railing, where the crew was still waiting.

A grin was pulled up the side of Auster’s face as my feet hit the deck. I walked straight to Paj, blood rolling down my wet skin from the cuts on my shoulder and dripping onto the deck in a trail.

Hamish muttered something, shaking his head.

“Thought we’d lost you, dredger.” Paj smirked from where he stood behind the helm, but the nerves were showing beneath the calm of his face. I didn’t know what West would do if he knew what they were up to, but I could see that Paj was wondering.

I stopped before the wheel, opening my hand between us. His mouth dropped open before he uncrossed his arms, standing up straighter. “What the…”

My hand tipped, letting the coin fall to the deck with a ping, and I looked up into his eyes without a word. Behind him, Willa’s look had turned from curiosity to inquiry, a question playing in her eyes.

I turned on my heel, shoving past Paj to the steps that led below deck, and muffled voices sounded through the passageway as I slammed the door of the cabin closed behind me. Suddenly, every bit of pain in my back awoke, the sting of blood making my stomach turn. I stumbled to the pail in the corner, falling to my knees and shaking with cold before I retched.

Four years on Jeval and this close to Ceros, I almost drowned on a dive for a single copper. But that was one of Saint’s rules.

Nothing is free.

He wasn’t just talking about food or passage or the clothes on your back. He was talking about respect. Safety. Protection. They were things no one owed you.

And one way or another, you always paid.

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