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Chapter no 9

Fable

The pain searing under my skin almost made me forget how hungry I was.

I’d been stung by coral many times, so I knew what was coming. Fever would spread and my bones would ache for a few days, but that was better than welcoming more taunting from the Marigold’s crew. If I made myself easy prey, taunting could turn into something much more deadly.

I cracked the shell of another crab on the table, the nausea in my belly twisting. As soon as Auster pulled the traps from the water, he’d dropped one at my feet and walked away. I stood in the breezeway, my hands numb from working the spiny shells. But I’d cleaned an infinite number of crabs in my lifetime, and even if it was a job no one wanted, I could do it with my eyes closed.

Hamish went to the bow, peering over the water, and I looked around the corner to see West coming around the coral islands. He’d been gone long enough for the sun to drop halfway down the sky, but the hull still looked empty.

Auster and Paj hoisted the little boat back into place on the stern and secured it. A moment later, West was coming over the side. He unbuttoned his jacket, letting it slide off his shoulders as he came into the breezeway, and he stopped short when he saw me, his gaze hardening as his eyes ran from my face, down my back.

“What happened?” His teeth clenched on the words.

Behind him, Paj reached up, rubbing a hand over his shaved head, the faintest flicker of uneasiness in the set of his shoulders. And I wasn’t sure why. If I’d drowned in the current, it wouldn’t be West’s problem. Or maybe this was a test too.

“Slipped on the jib and fell into the shrouds,” I said, turning my back to him.

The feel of his stare crawled over my skin as I dropped another empty shell into the bucket at my feet. He disappeared into his quarters, and I let out a long breath, pinching my eyes closed against the sting creeping up my neck.

When I opened them again, Auster was standing beside the table, setting a bowl down in front of me as I picked up another pair of crab legs.

I eyed the steaming stew, swallowing hard. “I’m not hungry.”

“You work, you eat. It’s fair,” he said, sliding the bowl closer to me.

I looked up, studying his face. There was no hint of a trick in his eyes, but some people were better at hiding them than others. Anyone who looked at me could probably see that I was starving, but I couldn’t afford to owe anyone anything else.

“You’ve cleaned an entire crate of crab. It’s a square trade.” He picked up one of the pails and walked away, leaving me alone in the breezeway.

My hand tightened around the edge of the worktable as I leaned into it, thinking. The truth was that it didn’t matter why he was giving me the food. I needed to eat, especially if I had days of fever ahead of me.

I dropped the mallet and took the bowl into my shaking hands, sipping carefully. The salt and herbs stung the broken skin around my lip, but the broth warmed my insides and I groaned. The taste of it resurrected a string of faded, frayed memories that made the knot in my stomach tighten, and I blinked them away before they could fully take shape. I fished a soft bit of potato out of the stew with dirty fingers, dropping it into my mouth and letting it break in my mouth until it burned my tongue.

My eyes went to the closed door of the helmsman’s quarters, and I wondered if West knew Auster was feeding me. He’d been clear he didn’t owe me anything. Maybe a bowl of stew for a couple days of work didn’t count, like Auster said. Or maybe he pitied me. The thought made me want to not take another bite.

I poured the last of the liquid into my mouth, my stomach already sore from being too full, and got back to work. Once the last of the crab was finished, I went down the steps with another pail in my arms. The creak of

the hull was the only sound in the shadowed passageway, where the three doors lined the walls, each one marked with the Marigold’s crest.

“In here.” Auster’s voice sounded in the darkness of the cabin, and I looked up to see the flash of his eyes as the lantern swung on the hook. He unfolded himself from his hammock and met me at the door.

The same grin still wrinkled the corners of his eyes as he pulled at the chain that held the keys around his neck, making him even more handsome than he already was. The cut of his body was lean, covered in skin the color of faded wheat, and I’d thought more than once that I’d glimpsed a kindness in Auster’s face that I hadn’t seen in the others. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up, revealing a black-inked tattoo on his forearm of an intricate knot. It took a moment to realize that it was two snakes intertwined, each one eating the other’s tail. It was a symbol I’d never seen before.

He stopped at the first door, fitting one of the keys into the rusted iron lock that hung from the latch before he kicked it open. I followed him inside, and the cracks of sunlight illuminated a small supply room packed with tarred barrels of water and crates of food. Blue and amber glass jars lined the walls on shelves, and drying, salted meat swung from hooks hanging from the bulkhead. I lifted the bucket up to set it down on the workbench when the pop of floorboards overhead made me look up. I could see movement between them as shadows slid between the cracks. It was the helmsman’s quarters.

I stepped closer to the wall, leaning forward to try and catch sight of West.

“That’s all.” Auster held the door open with one hand, waiting.

The heat burned under my skin as he glanced up to the bulkhead and I realized he’d caught me looking. I gave him a quick nod before I ducked out, and he set the latch into place. He’d fed me, but he wasn’t going to take a chance in letting me linger in the supply room or get too comfortable with the lay of the ship. Really, he shouldn’t. Being the stryker was a meticulous job, not only because they oversaw inventory and were tasked with filling the ship’s supplies at port. He was also the hunter, trapper, and forager among them. I wouldn’t trust a hungry dredger below deck either.

Willa was already in her hammock as I came through the door. I let the lid of the open trunk fall closed and sat on top of it, hissing when my back touched the wall.

She pulled the length of her hair over her shoulder, watching me. “What’s a Jevali dredger want in the Narrows?”

“I’m wondering the same thing.” I bristled as Paj appeared in the passageway, leaning into the doorpost. I hadn’t even heard him come down the steps.

I looked between them, the prick of gooseflesh racing over my skin. They were curious and that made me nervous. Maybe I’d made a mistake, playing along with their games and diving for the copper. But if I played my cards right, I might be able to use it to get the information I needed. I just had to give them enough of the truth.

“I’m looking for someone,” I said, leaning forward to prop my elbows on my knees.

Willa was the one to take the bait. “Who?”

I pulled the knife from my belt, poising its tip on the trunk beside me. I twirled it until it made a small hole in the wood. “A trader. His name is Saint.”

Their eyes cut to each other as Willa sat up in the hammock, her feet swinging to the floor.

“What do you want with Saint?” Paj laughed, a brilliant smile stretching across his face, but the sound of it was uneasy.

That was where my father’s rules came into play again. There was only one promise he had ever asked me to make. I roamed the ship as I liked, I explored the villages and docks and did as I pleased. As long as I didn’t break that promise, I never fell out of his good graces.

I was to never tell a single soul that I was his daughter. That was it. I’d never once broken it, and I wasn’t going to start now.

“A job.” I shrugged.

Willa leered at me. “You want to crew for Saint?” But corner of her mouth turned down as she realized I was serious. “As what? A dredger?”

“Why not?”

“Why not?” Paj’s voice lifted. “Crewing for Saint is a death wish. Your chances were better on Jeval.”

The cabin fell silent, and from the corner of my eye, I could see a flicker of light as Willa turn the dagger in her hand. The handle was set with faceted gems in every color, the intricate silver scrolling up toward the blade.

“How long have you two crewed for West?” I stood and climbed into my hammock carefully, biting my lip as the fabric brushed against the swollen scrapes on my shoulder.

“Since the beginning—two years,” Paj answered easily, which surprised me. “When West got the Marigold, he took Hamish and Willa on. Me and Paj soon after.”

But then I realized why he’d offered the information so readily. It was part of a story. And the only people in the Narrows who needed stories were the ones who had something to hide. Anything given freely was probably a lie.

I sank deeper into the hammock. “You’re all so young,” I said, though I meant it as a question.

“We were brought up together on different crews,” Paj answered. “Waterside strays—all of us.”

That bit could be true. At least, partly. But the accent in Paj and Auster’s voices weren’t from Ceros.

Willa’s eyes dropped to her dagger. The stones set into the handle were sapphire and amethyst. Not the rarest of gems, but their sizes made them valuable. Far too valuable to be in the hands of a Waterside stray.

It was the way Saint had taught me to lie too—you always construct a lie from a truth. At least a few of them probably were Waterside strays. Trading crews often took on street kids who lived on Waterside of Ceros, offering food and training in exchange for dangerous labor. Most grew up to crew the ships they’d been brought up on, but I’d never heard of a Waterside stray becoming a helmsman.

Even more unbelievable was the idea that they’d been able to secure a license to trade. There were five guilds that controlled almost every aspect of life in the Narrows—the Rye Guild, the Shipwrights Guild, the

Sailmakers Guild, the Smiths Guild, and the Gem Guild. Each had a master, and the five guild masters sat on the Trade Council. They were the only ones who could grant traders the licenses they needed to do business at every port, and there was no way this crew had been able to get one on their own. Whoever West was, he had at least one powerful friend.

When I said nothing, Paj turned back into the passageway, leaving Willa and me alone. Her eyes were half-closed, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen her sleep since I’d come onboard. I wasn’t sure how any of them were able to, when it seemed as if each of them had three jobs instead of one.

“How long have you been dredging?” Willa asked, her voice growing quiet.

“Forever. My mother started teaching me to dive as soon as I could swim.”

Saint always said she was the best dredger in the Narrows, and I believed him. He only took on the best, and the people who crewed his ships never left him. Not when they made more coin than anyone else in the Narrows.

But my mother had another reason.

I’d only ever seen Saint smile once, when I was spying on the two of them in his quarters. My mother took his hands from the maps he was working on and pulled his arms around her small frame. He set his chin on top of her head and smiled, and I remember thinking I’d never seen the spread of his teeth like that before. The frame of wrinkles around his eyes. He looked like a different person.

Saint broke his own rules when he fell in love with my mother. He broke them a hundred times over.

“Is she back on Jeval?”

I blinked, pushing the memory down. “No.” I let the single word hang in the air, answering more parts to her question than she’d asked. Before she could ask another, I changed the subject. “So, you’re the bosun?”

“That’s right.”

“Where’d you learn the trade?” “Here and there.”

I wasn’t going to press. I didn’t want to know any more about any of them than I needed to, and I didn’t need them knowing anything about me

either. I’d given away all I could afford to by telling them I was looking for Saint.

The best bosuns were usually women, able to climb high quickly and fit into small spaces. I’d always been bewildered, watching them from the main deck on the Lark. And there was no shortage of jobs for them, because every ship needed at least one.

The Marigold seemed to be getting by on the barest of crews—a helmsman, a coin master, a stryker, a bosun, and a navigator.

“You don’t have a dredger,” I said, eyeing the boots illuminated by a beam of sunlight on the wall.

Her voice dropped lower. “No. Not anymore.”

The gooseflesh returned to my skin, the air in the cabin feeling suddenly cold as I remembered what Auster said before I jumped the railing.

The last person who stole from us is at the bottom of the sea.

My eyes went back to the trunk against the wall, where the dredger’s belt and tools were left behind.

Because he or she didn’t need them anymore.

The unsettling silence that seemed to rise from Willa only confirmed it. She wanted me to put it together. She wanted me to know. I peered around the edge of my hammock, and she was still watching me, the dagger glinting in her hand.

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