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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy

Kinned to the Sea

 

KINNED TO THE SEA

BOOK I

A Novel

Melissa Stacy

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © February 2017 by Melissa Stacy

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Published in the United States by Melissa Stacy.

Cover design by Beth McMacken, Athena Communications.

Ebook design by 52 Novels.

Shakespir Edition

To the plankton,
the diatoms,

To the coral,
viruses, fungi, bacteria,

To all the microbes at work on this earth
every day,
The heart of life in the ocean
the blood of this planet

I wrote this for you

Contents

Title Page
Copyright
Dedication

KINNED TO THE SEA
Part I: THE JUSBEL OF LLYR
Part II: GUARDIAN OF THE SEA

Acknowledgments
Author’s Note
About the Author

Part I

THE JUSBEL OF LLYR

1

Ceto called herself a sea dragon, a rare and powerful kind of water sprite capable of astonishing magic. She stood three and a half inches tall in her prettiest sea dragon shape, with four clawed feet the size of tiny pebbles, her eyes shining like two black pearls. Ceto was small enough to fit in my palm, but strong enough to run off with my tools, and right now she had my favorite knife in her teeth.

She sprinted across the stone floor of the room, and skidded to a stop at the door, where she dropped my weapon long enough to yell at me. Her translucent body shimmered like sun-dappled water, a piece of the ocean come to life.

“You see, Rowan? If I were an obakee, how could I carry something this heavy? Admit it—I’m a dragon, a real dragon! And you’re only a—”

Ceto broke off her speech the instant I left my work bench to sprint after her. She clamped her sharp teeth around my knife again and raced down the hall. Her scales and spiny fins flashed in the lamplight, impossibly bright against the dark basalt of the floor.

She warbled and shrieked as she ran, looking back several times in a mad hope to evade me. Obakee were shapeshifters, water sylphs able to change form at will. A true dragon could cast a variety of battle spells, and even manipulate their environment, but Ceto didn’t have those gifts.

She craved power though, and I was sure that was why she sought out my company so much. We had that desire in common, Ceto and I: the wish to be something else. Something stronger and better than what we were now.

When she darted into an unlit storage room, I followed. To catch Ceto wasn’t difficult, but I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t play along with her game. Her antics made me want to laugh, stealing a weapon more than three times her size. While I was careful not to mock her by laughing aloud, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

“I’m only a what?” I asked, staring into the rock crevice where she’d chosen to hide.

“Just a boy!” Ceto snapped. “I could swallow you whole if I wished!”

I knelt so I could peer into the crevice. “Why don’t you kill me then? Why spend your time with a mortal?”

A faint silvery light glowed deep in the darkness, emanating from Ceto’s body. “You are ugly and gross, Rowan. Better to keep you alive so I look nice in comparison.” She snorted with a sound that resembled a sneeze. “Plus, everyone knows an eminent sea dragon should always have a mage around as a servant. So you can worship me and do all my bidding.”

I reached into the crevice and snatched back my knife. “Shouldn’t you be at least two hundred feet long, and fifty feet tall, if you expect me to grovel in fear?”

As I returned my knife to my belt, Ceto shot toward me, baring her teeth in a squeaky growl. She scrambled up my leg, jumped on my arm, and closed her jaw around the skin of my wrist.

“Oh no, I’m done for,” I said, as I grasped hold of her tail and pried her away. Ceto sputtered and twisted as I lifted her to eye level. She had an elegant face, with a graceful snout and invisible ears. Her decorative fins flared along the lines of her body, iridescent when she was angry, like now.

Her voice rose, high and clear. “Tremble in terror, you pathetic mage! I, Ceto, will one day be your doom!”

“And what is my crime, great sea dragon? How have I wronged you, to deserve such a punishment?”

“By being ugly and gross!” Ceto shouted, clawing the air with her wee talons. “And disrespectful! You are a blight in the ocean, calling me an obakee. I will devour you in my vengeance.”

I lifted my other hand, and placed Ceto in my palm. “So you were spying on me again, is that it? You overheard someone complaining about the puddles you leave on the floor?”

Ceto snapped her teeth in response, fuming.

“If you creep around hiding in walls, and I don’t know you’re there, you can’t hold me responsible for what other people might say.”

“Yes I can!” Ceto cried. But her tone was so strident, she knew as well as I did that she was being irrational.

I lowered her to the floor. “Then maybe you should go ahead and transform, so you can eat me alive, and everyone can see what you are.”

My words infuriated her, and she expressed her rage by leaping back onto me, tearing off one of the pouches on my belt, and dashing away.

So I hurried into the hall and gave chase. Ceto had a lot of speed despite her tiny size, and I set a pace that would let me follow her for a while. When she finally darted into another work room, I switched to a faster sprint, prepared to lean over and catch her.

But Ceto hadn’t led me to just any room, and I figured that out a second too late.

2

The instant I stepped through the door, the cold chill of decay brushed my skin, along with the sharp, electric frisson of bone magic. The heavy air sparked with a powerful craftsmithing spell, particular to the alchemy of the dead. An icy pain throbbed deep in my body, and I halted.

Piled on the dark sandstone floor, almost covering the entire length of the room, lay the partial remains of a ghost net. A clear plastic driftnet, one that tumbled loose in the sea, unattached to any ship but propelled forever by currents, entangling and killing anything in its path.

A piece of garbage that fished without fishermen.

Trash that cut me with grief, no matter how often I took in the sight.

Sliding to a stop at the edge of the mesh, Ceto froze, dropped my pouch with a shriek, and spun around toward me in horror. Frantic for a place to hide, she leapt onto my leg, digging her talons into my skin. She squeaked in fear when she slipped, but I’d already reached down to grab her, keep her from falling, and then let her scramble from my hand into one of the remaining pouches on my belt. Her body trembled enough to make her “puddle,” when her body lost some or all of her shape, and she leaked. Saltwater drenched the soft fabric of the pouch, then soaked the front of my breechcloth and ran down my leg, like pee.

Nothing sexier than to look like I stood around wetting myself. Which Ceto did to me a lot. I rubbed my face with a sigh.

“Ceto,” I said quietly, as I stepped over to pick up my pouch. “You’re okay. The net can’t hurt you now.”

This ghost net had been over a mile long, but Pierce hadn’t dragged the entire mess into the grotto. He’d cut a small portion away, and the team must’ve helped him maneuver the haul through the tunnel, because the mesh on the floor held a young leatherback turtle, a dolphin mother and calf, and a pregnant blue shark. All with eyes flat and staring, mouths gaping in death. Each empty gaze so much heavier than the weight of their bodies.

Pierce walked through the far door, and spotted me before I turned back to leave. He wore an excited grin as he knelt over the net and placed his hands on the leatherback, trying to free her corpse from the trash.

“Rowan!” he called. “You’re just in time for the good part! Come and help me with this.”

Ceto gave a strangled little cry, and my heart sank with dread, but I circled the room to arrive at his side. No matter how much these alchemy spells reacted to my own magic, I kept the pain to myself. Pierce was my commanding officer, and I did as he said.

He gestured with his chin for me to take hold of the shell, so I grasped the thick, oily skin of the carapace, and loosened the mesh from the turtle’s head and neck. Pierce and I were the same size, stood the same height of six-two and had the same build. Equally broad, muscled shoulders and biceps, thick wrists and wide-knuckled hands with blunt fingers. We were a well-matched team as we worked.

“Thought you had enough for this mission,” I said. “Don’t you want a break from making keys?”

Shaped into the form of a sea urchin, bone keys resembled bladed stars, small enough to hold in two hands. Infused with the maker’s blood from the spell, the bones became hard as iron, razor-sharp, so that even the most careful holder could be nicked by the spines.

Pierce’s hands bore the fine scars of his creations, marks he’d never flinched from receiving. Keys were weapons of transformation, vital tools in this war. The thought of stopping his task made Pierce laugh. “Maybe I like harvesting bones,” and he flashed a dark smile as his fingers wove through the clear filament.

I knew he would much rather shape rock with his magic, using his craftsmithing skills to build song caves and homes. But I grinned anyway, the way Pierce expected me to, the way any good soldier would.

Pierce was older than me by nine years—the same age as my brother, twenty-five—and though his voice sounded lighthearted and casual, blood stained his breechcloth and the heavy fabric of his belt, as unsettling as the currents of power lingering in the air. Keys took enormous amounts of magic to make, and the task began with a grim butchery, carving out the bones of the dead.

Ceto remained hidden, trembling and wetting me with fresh puddles. Which was embarrassing, but rather easy to ignore. Practice made perfect, sometimes.

We rolled the leatherback free of the net. I recited a prayer over her body, and once I finished, Pierce removed the knife from his belt. I drew out my knife as well, and together we cut off the turtle’s fins and head, then split open her shell so we could slice out her ribs.

Her corpse smelled of rot, and triggered the healer’s magic in my skin to fire with heat, reacting to the presence of so much dead tissue. An uncomfortable sensation, like pushing against a bruise.

Pierce kept up a stream of talk as we worked, his thoughts trained on the use his bone key would be put to: eliminating a nuclear reactor. “Aiden thinks we might go out tonight. He’s been tracking one of the fleets we’ve already attacked. Two frigates, two cruisers, three destroyers, and one submarine with this carrier. They might pass through our water, and he’s got a team prepped to leave if they do.”

Ceto poked me with her talons, a sharp pain I dismissed. She didn’t want me to leave the ocean again, but that wasn’t her choice. Despite her ideas that I should worship her as a sea dragon, in reality, I served my tribe, no matter how often Ceto scratched me.

We’d been targeting aircraft carriers for the last two months. Sinking military ships had always been our sole focus in fighting this war, and now that taking down aircraft carriers had become our main goal, we’d already sunk three.

Regardless of my desire to be a good soldier, I felt too tired for another mission so soon, and dreaded the task far more than helping Pierce with a bone key. No one ever died in a craftsmithing spell.

“This’ll be our last ship,” Pierce said with conviction. “After we wipe out this carrier, we’re heading to shore. The Qarin has already left with a war party. Brevyn went with him, and several of the Lokren. They should be in position tomorrow.”

The Lokren were the most powerful magi of Llyr, and they’d appointed Brevyn as our chief healer last year. The Qarin was the War Leader. Tirone Zroba. My father.

“The Qarin!” Ceto squeaked. “The Qarin took the Lokren to the shore? Already?

Pierce lifted his brows and glanced at my belt. “I hear that obakee again.” Ceto’s words were unintelligible to Pierce, who heard an archaic language punctuated with growls. While I was pretty sure Ceto had the ability to speak Llyrian, the effort took a tremendous amount of magic for her, so much that I’d never heard her use Llyrian words, though she could translate them quickly enough. When she stopped making noise, Pierce poked at the fabric of my supply pouch, which made Ceto puddle an atrocious amount. “What are you doing in there?” he asked her. “Don’t you have better places to be?”

Ceto hissed.

“She’s all right,” I said. “The net scared her, is all. She needed to hide.”

“Everything scares that foolish sprite,” Pierce said. “She ought to go hide in a cave somewhere, and leave you alone.”

Ceto snapped her teeth, hissing again, while I shrugged. “She likes feeling important. And you’re discussing the Qarin, and the future of Llyr. Nothing more important than that.”

My heart twisted with sadness and pride when I mentioned my father.

Sometimes, right after a mission, I was sure the Qarin noticed me, and recognized that I was his son.

But outside of those moments, I didn’t exist. My father was busy and distant, and didn’t have time for anything else but his duties.

As to the news the Qarin had already left, I said, “Aiden told me about the trip to the shore.” I’d seen my brother about an hour ago, passing through the hall inside headquarters, and he’d shared that update already. Aiden was the Qarin’s favorite officer, and every major decision the War Leader made took place with my brother.

As a Captain, Pierce attended officer meetings, enjoyed access to privileged information, and vied for position as my brother’s closest confidant.

But Aiden and I were bound together now like the animals killed in this ghost net, so close in our work with each other that officer protocol no longer applied to us. Maybe nothing applied to us anymore. Not our holiest vows, not even morals or love. With each ship I boarded, I became more certain that everything became luxury in a war. Disposable for the purpose of winning.

Or maybe that was only my fear talking. My terror in the face of my death.

The people of Llyr called me a war hero. Invincible. Honorable. Sanctioned to kill.

Aiden assured me I’d broken no vows. He believed my actions were noble and just. In my brother’s eyes, I was fearless and brave, worthy of celebration and awe.

But inside myself, hidden from everyone else in my tribe, I worried my fear held the truth: that I was destined to die for the things I had done, no matter how loudly the people of Llyr cheered my name.

I wanted to be the hero though. So I kept my fear out of sight.

When I admitted to Pierce that I already knew the Qarin’s war party had left, his hands stiffened a moment, the only sign I could detect of his jealousy. As the ship-boarder, the jusbel, I held an important position, and made sinking ships possible. But my physical strength and my magic gave me only a title, not a rank.

Pierce held his irritation in check, resumed his easy behavior, and remained affectionate toward me as he brought up Aiden again. “Did he mention you’re to stay in the city when we head for shore?”

Ages ago. And that had always been my choice, not Aiden’s. Aiden and I first devised this plan right after I’d become the jusbel, and I’d never been part of the mission to shore. Maybe my brother understood why I’d made that decision. Or maybe he never suffered the fears that I had, and never doubted his certainty that what we were doing was right. I was just glad he hadn’t urged me to change my mind.

I grinned at Pierce with a cocky assurance, as if this weren’t my life on the line. “Sure, I’ll hang back and wait here. Why would that bother me? I’ll be lounging around, stuffing my face with biscuits and stew, thinking fondly of the search team sweating it out on the hunt.”

My gaze swept over the jagged scar on Pierce’s left shoulder and arm, the result of a mine explosion he’d survived as a child. A whorled swath of tissue that darkened whenever he felt genuine glee. Not every Sërenmare lost control of their skin cells after suffering damage like that, but Pierce had. His scar deepened from coral to ruby as he laughed and elbowed me, though his touch wasn’t cruel, and his voice warmed with enthusiasm.

“What about that sweetheart of yours? Think she’ll come to see you at the sendoff?”

“Sweetheart?” Ceto screeched. “You kissed her one time, Rowan. She’s hardly your girlfriend!”

I blushed in surprise, and to hide my shock at his question, I bowed my head, pretending to concentrate on cutting out the spine of the turtle.

Not only was Ceto correct to point out that one kiss hardly turned anyone into my girlfriend, Pierce assumed far too much about the execution of strategy. We still had a carrier to sink, and after the Qarin’s search team located what we needed on shore, Brevyn had to complete an ancient summoning spell, a task as dangerous as my work as jusbel. Pierce downplayed the risks the same way Aiden did, but I knew Brevyn could kill himself with that magic, and hurt other people as well, the level of power involved in a summoning was so high.

And even if these missions were all guaranteed not to fail, the question of inviting the surrounding tribes to witness the final ceremony was still under debate. My supposed sweetheart—a soldier named Dahlia—lived with a tribe of the Rishki, far from Llyr, and the Qarin thought only members of our own tribe should be present for the sendoff.

Plus I hadn’t seen Dahlia in months, and we weren’t promised to each other, had never discussed anything that serious. Pierce knew I’d spent hours dancing with Dahlia at the last big celebration, an experience that was one of the happiest nights of my life.

But even bringing Dahlia’s name to mind now couldn’t distract me from the putrid scent of the leatherback soaking into my hands, the hot ache in my skin from touching a corpse, or the prospect of boarding another carrier soon.

So I changed the subject, and tipped my head toward the ghost net beside us. “Did this drift into Llyr, or did your recon team find it?” There were so many ghost nets rolling loose in the sea, this one could’ve been hauled in from anywhere.

Pierce took the shift in topic in stride. “Both. They were headed east when Luke picked it up, about thirty miles from the canyon.”

I nodded, pleased to hear my friend’s name. For the first three years of my service, I’d been a scout under Pierce, and I’d often been partnered with Luke. Once I became the jusbel, I stopped going on scouting missions. Now I only left the city with Aiden and one of his teams. Pierce always came along on those missions, disposing of hazardous waste with his bone keys.

But if he’d had his choice, he’d have been the jusbel, doing the primary work of destruction.

I’d have traded him places in a heartbeat, anything to escape climbing onto another ship. And that certainly would’ve made Ceto happy, to see someone else leave the water on a mission. But Pierce didn’t possess the peculiar combination of talents I had, the specific gifts that allowed me to keep surviving these trips. If Pierce boarded a vessel, he’d be gunned down in minutes, maybe less.

He wiped the blade of his knife on his breechcloth, and started tossing the parts of the turtle he needed into a basket lined with abalone shell. The leatherback’s severed head landed atop the pile, one vacant eye facing me, staring me down. The scent of rot felt thick in my mouth.

“You worried?” Pierce asked. “About tonight?”

Ceto snorted, making that sound that seemed more like a sneeze. “What kind of question is that? Of course you’re afraid. Who wouldn’t be?”

I gazed at the mess we had made, and pictured myself cut to pieces and strewn over the floor. Victim of one of the bombs I had planted. Perhaps one I’d place on a carrier tonight.

But I smiled and told Pierce, “Of course not. I’ve got this.” As a sign of my confidence, I dropped the turtle’s spine in the basket, then stood and lifted the container into my arms.

I’d have followed Pierce through the doorway that led to his work station, but a woman yelled my name in the hall, her words addressed to one of the guards on patrol.

Where is Rowan Zroba? I’ve brought him my child! Tell him I’m here! I’ve come to see the jusbel!” She spoke with a Durrivan accent, one of the tribes to the south, but she formed her words clearly enough.

Pierce took the basket from my arms with a weary sigh, and placed the container back on the floor. “Another refugee in the building,” he muttered. “Fantastic.”

I stepped toward the rock wall, rinsed my hands in the freshwater pool of a seep spring, and started to walk toward the door I’d come in, but Pierce grasped my arm.

“It’s fine,” and I tugged myself free. “I’m fine.”

Pierce outranked me though, and his words were sharp. “He said you’re not to heal anymore. If we’re leaving on mission tonight, you save your magic for boarding. That’s an order.”

Aiden protecting me from myself.

“I won’t heal anyone. I’ll send them with you.”

Pierce considered a moment, then nodded. “You don’t touch anyone. No matter what’s going on.”

“Sure,” and I strode to the door, left the room with Pierce at my heels.

The instant I spotted the woman, and saw the tiny child she held in her arms, my heart rate increased, my stomach twisted with nerves, and I drew in a shocked, ragged breath.

Before I could even guess what had happened to them, a young boy jumped against me. His thin arms locked around my legs, and Pierce immediately reached down to yank him away.

The boy had no hands, only smooth skin where his wrists should have been, surrounding both stumps, and a thick patch of scar tissue stretched over his left eye socket. Lacerations covered his cheeks and neck, and open red sores ran down his back. I saw the same wounds on the woman and baby. The boy was six, maybe seven, and at the sight of Pierce grabbing for him, he squeezed me even harder, shaking with terror.

Ceto popped her head from the pouch on my belt, and shrieked, glancing from me to the boy.

“Stop!” I told Pierce, catching his forearms to hold him at bay. “He’s all right.”

I smelled death again, bodies dying, an odor that didn’t come from the room I’d just left. The scent rolled off the woman, her baby, and this young boy. A level of damage no healer could ever repair.

I released Pierce before he could conjure a charge and shock me in anger. He wouldn’t purposefully burn me with a volt of electricity—at least, I hoped not—but his skin flared a deep purple and gold with his rage, an unmistakable sign that he could lash out at me.

3

Ceto bared her teeth at Pierce, hissing and snapping, though she was powerless to block any spells he might cast. The boy trembled against me, feeling the rush of my magic coursing over his skin, while Pierce called to the guards standing agape in the hall, “Get them out of here! They should be at the clinic—these people haven’t even been processed—is there no one watching the doors?”

The guards hurried to explain, but I didn’t listen. I already knew what had happened. I’d read the memory in the boy’s mind.

His mother had smuggled them into headquarters with a handful of powerful smokeseeds. They’d been spelled to plume with an odorless vapor, hiding their bodies and obscuring their trace, long enough for them to slip through the ward in the mess room, which was the weakest barrier in the building. Then they’d passed through the halls undetected.

The boy smiled at me with an expression of rapture, like he’d won first prize in a game he’d been waiting his whole life to play, and he brightened his skin to a pale, pinkish-blue. He couldn’t feel my pull in his mind, couldn’t sense how my magic cast for the thoughts I needed to read him, but he certainly felt the rush of power that flowed over his skin. He giggled and thought I was trying to tickle him. I could’ve screened my energy from him, kept the magic from leaving my body, but I wanted to know what was killing him.

His right eye was a beautiful indigo, the color of water after a perfect sunset. As I continued to follow his thoughts and allowed my healing magic to search him, I realized he’d been gifted with vision—with the power to see all forms of magic, even when the energy had been hidden. The penance mark that covered my chest, deep under my skin, was visible to him, as clear to his sight as if Aiden had flared the lines with a spell.

With her head still exposed from the pouch on my belt, Ceto calmed as I studied the boy, taking him in along with me. Her dark eyes blinked slowly, assessing his wounds, and even though the boy was surprised to find an obakee here, his attention remained focused on me.

I tapped my sternum, indicating the emblem of magic invisible to everyone else, and spoke in the boy’s native language of Durrivan. “You see that, don’t you?”

He nodded with excitement, proud of himself and his talent. A number of internal lesions coated his throat, cancerous growths that had already devoured his vocal chords, but I felt him try to voice a response. I’m a seer like my dad! The answer that popped into his mind, and made his mouth and lips move. Words he forgot, for an instant, he could no longer use.

As Pierce and the guards continued to argue, trying to decide who was at fault for letting these people inside, I knelt and placed my palm against the boy’s brow, certain I could do something to help him while Pierce was distracted. The only injuries the boy possessed that I could repair were his lacerations—the deep cuts on his cheeks and his neck—so with a reparative sending, I sealed the wounds shut.

The spell needed no words, and only took a few seconds, but there’d been a lot of infection under his skin, a significant drain on my magic to heal. As I dropped my hand, I felt lightheaded, almost dizzy.

I knuckled my brow, inhaled a deep breath, and steadied myself. “Did you swim all the way here on your own?”

The boy nodded again, and held up his handless arms to me. I wrapped my fingers around the skin stretched over his missing wrists, a gesture like holding hands. He continued to grin at me, while his indigo eye shone with delight.

I knew you were the jusbel, he wanted to say. I knew it was you.

Poison swarmed through his body, concentrated deep in his lungs. I felt the energy shadows of plutonium, cesium, americium… as well as strontium, curium, and uranium. Smaller amounts filled his kidneys, liver, and bones. He’d been exposed to high doses of nuclear waste, encounters he had no memory of, as the radioactive material had been invisible, beyond any sensory detection, and taken in steadily throughout the last year of his life.

Some healers could strengthen a body enough to perform surgery, and cut out harmful debris with a knife. A dangerous and time-consuming process that required an exceptional amount of focus and skill.

This boy was already dying though, his internal tissues so irradiated he could never recover. Even if he underwent fifty surgeries, his body would fail now, regardless.

A pressure rolled through my body, sharp as knives scraping under my skin, as my magic assessed how little time this boy had left to live. Less than three months… maybe only a few weeks.

I hated that I couldn’t heal him. Hated that he was sick to begin with. That he’d inhaled toxic garbage someone had dumped on his home, someone who didn’t care who died from that trash. A woman, a baby, a small boy.

I helped make bone keys, and star-guides, and then I boarded the ships we destroyed with our bombs, trying to stop this from happening. To let our enemies know they couldn’t kill with abandon. That someone had the power to fight back.

But none of my work as a soldier could save this little boy. I fell speechless in the face of his suffering, unable to offer any kind words of comfort. So I chose to lean forward and kiss the boy’s brow, the same way I kissed my little sister when I sang her to bed.

Ceto made a long stream of saltwater bubbles shoot from her nostrils, crystalline spheres that quadrupled in size before they spiraled around the boy in an invisible current. The bubbles rose to the ceiling, where they popped and rained down in a drizzle. The boy tipped his head back, shaking with silent laughter.

Pierce ended his argument with the guards at the same moment, stormed over and lifted the boy into his arms.

“I cannot believe you,” Pierce said to me, exasperated and leaving no doubt he’d report me to Aiden. He carried the boy down the hall, and they disappeared around a corner.

The guards flanked the boy’s mother, and led her away after Pierce, while she cried out in Durrivan, “Thank you, Rowan Zroba! Thank you for helping my son!”

I hadn’t helped him though. I’d sealed a few cuts, and witnessed the fact he would die. So would his mother, and the baby. The knowledge made me lower my head for a minute, and my breath felt shallow and pained.

“Rowan, you did what you could,” Ceto said, pressing one of her paws against my hip. “There’s no shame in that.”

Her words didn’t make me feel any better. I wiped my face with my hand, smearing the saltwater away as I collected myself, then stood and walked in the opposite direction, into a corridor of small meeting rooms. I picked one at random, entered the open door and took a seat at the table.

I sat facing the hallway, with my elbows propped on the armrests of my chair.

Ceto crawled onto my knee and lowered her voice to a murmur. “Let’s just run away. Please, Rowan. You’ll never have to board another ship if we leave. Another tribe could take you in, I’m sure you’d be welcome somewhere, if we look. You could even use a journey stone and seek amnesty—”

My heavy voice cut her off. “I’m not running away.”

“But you know this is wrong!” Ceto cried. “Your tribe has turned evil. You’re bringing death to your people!” She grew so agitated that she puddled again, and the saltwater ran down my shin to pool on the floor. “I, Ceto, command you to leave! Save your people and put a stop to this mission! You must not board this ship!”

I scooped her up in my hand, and lifted her to eye level. “If you don’t want Aiden to spell you, you need to calm down or leave.”

“No, Rowan! You’re the one who should leave! But you won’t—you’d rather kill yourself than see reason!” Ceto jumped to the floor and dashed into the hall. In an instant, she was gone, and even the squishy sound of her wet feet disappeared.

She’d find a place in the walls where she could eavesdrop, no doubt. Ceto had become obsessed with spying on me.

A half hour later, a much heavier set of footsteps approached.

I waited, feeling my heart pound in my throat.

Before Aiden arrived at the door, I rose, and bowed as he strode into the room. I screened my anxiety from him, made sure he couldn’t sense any fear. But with Aiden, sometimes even my strongest screens didn’t matter.

He’d colored his skin midnight blue, his hair a black sapphire, and his gaze took me in with swift scrutiny. I straightened my shoulders and swallowed, aware of his anger, his disapproval, and the weight of the mission before us. The chance I might fail.

I wondered how bad this would be, if we would have a real fight. Aiden stood three inches taller than me, almost as tall as our father, and I couldn’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to grow up to be just like my brother—an exact copy of Aiden named Rowan.

We were so different though, and I’d known for a year now that I would never catch up to him, or equal him. But the yearning remained.

Aiden’s broad shoulders and arms bore the tattoos of his magic, talents I’d never possess. He also wore silver rings on his fingers and matching cuffs on his biceps, each decorated with the runes of First Warden. Symbols of the energy he could draw from and channel.

I possessed no tattoos, and no jewelry. I didn’t have enough conjuring power, and couldn’t pass the tests to receive them. Each failure shamed me, an unspoken disgrace I suffered alone. The reason my magic had decreased so much lay buried in fear, ignored and unwanted, leaving only the bitter truth: I wasn’t a strong enough mage to advance as an officer. I’d never follow in the footsteps of my brother and father.

But I kept hoping I would.

Aiden’s voice was deeper than mine, the tone of a commander. “You know who gave her those smokeseeds?” He didn’t bother to check if I knew what he was talking about. Pierce had already reported to Aiden what I had done, and that was all Aiden needed to know.

“Xalea,” I said. Who else but a sea sprite could make smokeseeds like that? And there was only one sprite that powerful hiding in the canyons of Llyr.

Xalea never visited me at headquarters the way Ceto did, but Aiden had seen her plenty of times inside our clan grotto. Even if Xalea never took physical shape around Aiden, he didn’t need magic to see her incandesce when she flitted through water or walls, or to hear her voice when she spoke. My friendship with Xalea, much like my interactions with Ceto, had never been secret. But whereas Ceto was a sylph, and lacked the ability to cast battle spells, Xalea possessed significant magic, enough that Aiden considered her a threat.

If mages could ward away sea sprites, Aiden would’ve cast a ward against Xalea years ago. The thought of her meddling with his work put every bit of the anger into his voice. “Is she trying to kill you? Weaken you so much you can’t board a ship?”

“No, of course not.” I darkened my skin to obsidian, marbled with ruby, outraged he would even suggest that.

“Then why would she send people in here like that?”

I shook my head, and my throat tightened, remembering the face of the boy. “She was trying to help them, that’s all. She knew—”

—they were dying. But I clenched my jaw and didn’t finish the sentence.

Aiden’s voice remained hard. “Refugees flood into Llyr every day. We turn no one away. Food, shelter, work, tribal membership—we offer that freely to everyone. And Xalea doesn’t think we’re doing enough? So she sends dying people in here to see you?”

My voice became gruff. “That’s not it.”

“Then explain it to me. Tell me why I shouldn’t have her name brought before the Lokren.”

I stared at the floor and shook my head, too ashamed to respond. I’d disobeyed Aiden’s orders, and I’d seen the memory of those smokeseeds—but I hadn’t intended the backlash to fall on my friend.

Sometimes Aiden seemed to understand everything concerning what had happened to my magic, and why. The dark fears I never spoke of to anyone in my tribe, the terror I could never confess.

And sometimes there were moments, when we were alone after missions, when Aiden met my gaze and embraced me, and his eyes burned with horror, anguish, and regret.

But those moments were fleeting, and Aiden’s screens were so powerful, maybe I only imagined those looks. Maybe that was why his anger with me was always quick and ferocious, a predictable and frightening blaze. And still so much easier for me to face than endless fathoms of guilt.

There was nothing I wouldn’t do for my brother, my tribe, or my people. If I’d sacrificed part of myself for this war, how could I complain about lacking tattoos or jewelry, when children were dying?

Except my mouth still tasted sour, and my stomach twisted with pain, as Aiden blamed Xalea for what I had done. I didn’t want Xalea in trouble, the same way I didn’t want that refugee family to be sick.

I just wanted to be a good soldier. To do my duty, and help people whenever I could.

But no matter what I did, I kept causing problems. Evil, Ceto said. What I was doing was evil. Misery pulsed like extra heat in my blood, and I wished I could be anywhere but right here.

Aiden set his hands on his hips, his tone as severe as if he were addressing a crowd. “Our enemy doesn’t care how many people they kill. Do you understand that? The ocean is filling with poison. With garbage, with toxins, with carbon dioxide. The atmosphere keeps growing hotter, and so does the sea. We’re not going to survive unless something changes, and our enemy is dumping more trash in the ocean than ever before. There’s almost more plastic garbage in the water than fish, and as soon as the plankton can’t live in this murk anymore, we’re all dead. Yet I’ve got a sprite sabotaging our missions, doing everything in her power to exhaust the last of your magic and stop you from boarding a ship—as if her own life wasn’t tied up with ours. As if she’ll survive on her own after the plankton and coral and krill are all dead, and the tribes have gone extinct along with them.”

Aiden held up his hands, and tiny sparks of a shocker charge danced on his fingertips, a sign of how furious he’d become. “Does Xalea just think we should die? Let the saltwater turn into acid and kill us all off? Is that her idea of our future?”

“No,” I said roughly.

“Then you tell her if she ever enters this building again, or I catch her handing out smokeseeds to anyone, I’ll tithe her name for a banishment.”

A tremor ran through my body, and my skin paled to a sickly cream. “Aiden, that’s not necessary—”

His voice rose with disgust. “Necessary? We’re facing extinction, Rowan. Everything in the ocean is dying. Don’t you dare try to tell me what’s necessary.”

My skin colored to blue, though I didn’t dare match Aiden’s shade, as any false concession of peace would only anger him more. “I’m plenty strong enough to board a ship safely. Xalea hasn’t done anything to my magic—”

Aiden cut me off, his expression as closed to me now as when he spoke to our father. “Then we’re swimming out to the fleet tonight, and sinking a carrier. We’ll leave in an hour. And so help me, I better not find any more refugees coming to see you, or Xalea is going to find herself outcast from this city, and you’ll never see her again.”

He strode to the door, but paused before walking into the hall. “That obakee you rescued—”

“Ceto,” I said.

But Aiden didn’t care what her name was, and he didn’t look at me as he spoke. “If she’s been helping Xalea, then I’ll banish her, too.”

He left the room, and I listened to his footsteps carry him away down the hall. Before I could follow him out, I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes, fighting a sudden jolt of pain in my body that cracked through my skull, building into the force of a headache.

Then I balled my hands into fists and walked through the corridor, still sensing the rage Aiden had left in his wake, like the faint heat of lava smeared on the walls.

I’d sunk plenty of ships. Time to take down another.

4

As I rounded a corner, on my way to the weapons room, Ceto snarled and leapt on my head from the ceiling. She used her talons to mess up my hair, creating snarls and knots that stuck up every which way.

“Take that, mortal!” she cackled, and then she ran down my back, scraping her claws through my skin to keep herself from falling. “I, Ceto, have ruined your hair!”

“Yeah, I got that,” I sighed. My punishment for allowing Aiden to call her an obakee.

Ceto jabbed my waist with her talons. “Ignorant mage.”

I glanced down at her, and tapped a fingertip on her snout. “Don’t forget ugly and gross.”

“That too,” she snapped, trying to bite me. Then she scrambled into the pouch she’d hidden inside earlier. Her voice sounded muffled from inside the fabric. “You’re too hideous to even look at anymore. Plus you smell worse than octopus barf.”

I lifted the cover of the pouch, so I could see her dark blinking eyes. “You can go ahead and smite me any time.”

Ceto blew bubbles at me, so I shut the cover again and left her alone.

Outside the door of the weapons room, Luke stood waiting for me. He held my atlatl and spear in one hand, and rested the other on the side of his belt. He studied me with a heavy expression, a measure of fear in his solemn gaze. So I put the night sky in my skin, nebula patterns of darkness and starfire, to tell him not to worry.

As I took my weapons from Luke, our friend Isla left the weapons room and came to a stop at Luke’s side. The three of us had been close long enough that Isla knew what my coloring meant—and she wasn’t appeased. She darkened her hair and skin to cobalt and ebony, ribboned to match the embattled tone of her voice.

“Luke thinks the Qarin left for shore tonight.”

I didn’t respond, focused only on clipping the atlatl and spear to the strap on my back.

Luke’s somber eyes never left my face. “Rowan. If the Qarin’s already assembled a search team, I don’t know why we’re still doing this. What’s the point of sinking more ships, putting you in so much danger, if Aiden will make a weapon of annihilation with Brevyn’s sacrifice?”

From inside her hiding place, Ceto screeched to express her agreement. Luke and Isla were used to her strange noises though, her indecipherable language, and paid no attention.

Isla asked, “Can’t you say something, Rowan? Tell your brother there’s no need for this mission?”

I shook my head. Suggest to my brother we didn’t need the last of the star-guides he’d made? Impossible.

Electric white bolts flashed through Isla’s skin, a thunderstorm of anxiety and frustration, as Luke said, “Aiden should take a team to shore. Help the Qarin locate this victim Brevyn needs for the summoning spell, and make sure nothing goes wrong. Not lead a war party out to bomb one more carrier. This is senseless.”

“But we have the star-guides already,” I said. “There’s no other way to defuse them. They belong on a ship, doing what they were made for.”

“I know you don’t believe that,” Isla said, at the same time Ceto scratched me with her talons. “Rowan—this is your life on the line. If Aiden’s really creating a weapon of genocide, then you don’t need to bomb any more carriers, whether we have the star-guides to sink them or not. Let Aiden’s creation do its job, and destroy the enemy for us. You’re too important for him to treat you like this.”

“I’m a soldier, Isla. No one is treating me poorly. Certainly not my own brother.”

“Listen to your friends!” Ceto shouted. “Your brother is killing you!”

Isla gleamed with lightning again. “Xalea says you’ve been growing weaker—that the All has been taking your power away. Is that true? Are you dying, Rowan? Are these missions killing you?”

“Yes!” Ceto cried. “Tell them, Rowan! Tell them the truth!”

But I ignored Ceto’s words the same way I dismissed her stabbing claws. I copied Isla’s coloring, to mirror her own anger back to her. “Of course I’m not dying—just look at me—I’m fine. Xalea’s the one causing trouble. She never wanted me to be the jusbel, and now she’s making things up. If I’d broken my vows, I’d have been revenanced a long time ago. One more carrier isn’t going to change anything.”

Revenanced. Returned to the sea as pure energy, through death. The same end everyone faced when they died, but also a natural consequence for the misuse of magic, for using the gifts of magic to kill. To forsake holy vows was to forfeit one’s life, and not only had I taken an oath to the All as a child, but I’d tithed my blood to my tribe. The penance mark in my skin was an old, ancient magic. A spell dating back to the first magi.

Though I spoke with conviction, insisting to myself that I couldn’t be dying, the thought of breaking my vows to the All sent a river of fear coursing through me, chilling my skin.

I’d taken so many steps to engage in this war without being revenanced: I fought my enemies on their territory, on their ships; I bombed the hulls of their vessels, an explosion that took place inside the steel structure, not in the water; the star-guides were used to destroy the enemy’s own weapons of death—the ships they used to wage war—rather than individual lives.

But I knew, deep down, that I’d violated my oath to the All. I used my magic to kill.

And yet I hadn’t been revenanced. The All permitted me to keep bombing these ships, and I had a mission to board one tonight.

Luke placed a supportive hand on Isla’s shoulder, darkening to shades of navy and emerald before he responded in kind. “If one more carrier isn’t going to change anything, why risk your life sinking it? If you’re supposed to kill the blood sacrifice for Aiden’s genesis spell, why bother drowning more sailors? There’s no point to this mission, Rowan—and you know it. If Xalea’s right, then you’re in trouble—”

“I’m not in trouble!” I snapped. “I know what I’m doing, and my magic is fine. I’ve just been tired lately, I’m not dying.”

Except I’d never felt moments of such bone-weary exhaustion before, as I sometimes did now. I slept for longer periods with each week that passed by, and still woke feeling tired. There were healing spells I could no longer perform because I didn’t have enough strength. Conjuring any magic seemed to take more out of me, drain more of my energy, than any single spell ever had.

But those were thoughts I pushed from my mind. The diminishing power in my body couldn’t be real, and those changes weren’t anything I needed to worry about. When I took note of them at all, I felt as if they were happening to someone else, some other soldier who wasn’t the jusbel, who wasn’t the only one who could plant bombs on ships.

Ceto fell silent and still, giving up her attempts to argue with me.

But Isla turned her skin black with gold chevrons, calling me out in a lie. “If your magic is fine, then why did Aiden order you to stop healing? You don’t visit the clinic anymore. You even stopped singing prayers with us—you haven’t been in a song cave in months. Xalea says it’ll make you too ill to enter them now. Your penance mark will tear open and bleed, you’ll suffer in agony—and she says Aiden knows that—it’s why he keeps you in here, so you’ll finish the missions he wants, even though the All has started taking your life.”

My voice rose in outrage. “The All isn’t taking my life! If Xalea doesn’t stop saying these things, Aiden is going to tithe her name for a banishment. She’ll be outcast forever, and—”

Isla inched her face closer to mine. “And if Aiden’s wrong, you’ll be dead. So what will it matter to Xalea if she’s an outcast by then? She comes here for you, Rowan. That weird little sprite loves you, and she’s trying to save your life. The least you could do is listen to her.”

At the far end of the hall, Pierce stepped into the corridor, spotted our group, and whistled for us. “You all decide you’re gonna skip prayers, or what? Do I need to walk over there and remind you what time it is?”

Luke shouted, “No—we’re coming,” as he started moving toward Pierce. Isla and I followed in silence. Pierce disappeared, having better things to do than watch us troop down the hall.

We passed by the room with the ghost net, the floor strewn with pale mesh, and I paused by the door. The leatherback turtle had been carried away, since both the basket as well as the unneeded parts of her no longer lay on the floor.

My gaze shifted to the pregnant blue shark, before coming to rest on the dolphin mother and calf. The light shone on their pointed teeth, their rotted black tongues, and I could imagine the sound of their screams as they’d drowned.

My own mother had been killed in a mine blast. A weapon test conducted from onboard the enemy’s ship, a detonation that had ripped her apart. Her death came too quick for a scream.

Xalea said that Aiden missed our mother more than I did. Even though I was the one who’d memorized all her songs, and sang them to our little sister, Xalea said Aiden knew every lyric and melody, and others I had forgotten.

He never sang them though. Wouldn’t even stay in the room if he heard her music.

So whether Xalea was right, I couldn’t say. I’d never seen any proof of her claim.

Luke and Isla had walked on without me, but when Isla realized I’d stopped, she returned to my side, crossed her arms and took in the ghost net with me, the corpses bound on the floor. Luke drew up in the hall as well, waiting for us.

“You okay?” Isla asked. I tipped my head slightly, to say I was fine, but Isla still asked, “Should we move them?” Work their bodies free of the mesh, so they were no longer snared in the net.

But that wasn’t why I had stopped, and when Ceto gasped in dismay, frightened by the idea of reentering that room, I hurried to say, “No, it’s all right. Pierce will come back for these.” And I’d rather not touch a corpse again. Once tonight was enough.

I felt Aiden’s presence before I heard his footsteps. His magic, his heartbeat. My power reached for him with the same longing I had for our mother.

He carried the black bag with his star-guides. Seven total. Each one so much smaller than the bone keys Pierce made.

Ceto gave a light hiss, and then fell silent again.

At the sight of Aiden, Isla shivered, and her skin lost her anger, shifted instead to sky blue. A neutral shade she chose to match Luke, who’d already switched. My friends both had tattoos on their upper arms, which displayed the most clearly when they brightened like that. Neither wore rings and cuffs like my brother though. Only the Qarin and the Lokren had more symbols of power than the First Warden.

Luke gestured for Isla to rejoin him, and she moved down the hall before Aiden reached me, and stopped at my side. He glanced into the room for a moment, and gave me a quizzical look.

When Aiden spoke, his voice was soft, touched with humor, an intimate tone. “Thought you didn’t like being this close to the dead.”

I shrugged without a response, relieved there was no trace of the fury he’d expressed toward me earlier. We remained at the door until I started away, and Aiden kept at my side, taking the route through the hall to meet up with the team. Luke and Isla had already disappeared around a corner.

While we were alone, Aiden put his arm around my shoulders and embraced me with a fierce hug. His lips brushed my brow before he released me.

As we walked toward the prayer room, my heart pounded hard with love for my brother, and power rose in my skin like heat. I felt so close to Aiden. Despite the fractures between us, my loyalty to him didn’t waver. Couldn’t waver. We were a team. Dedicated to fighting our enemy, and saving our people.

That was all that mattered right now: our mission together, and our bond with each other.

Everything else went unspoken, because the words only hurt.

5

At the entrance to the song cave, Aiden and I parted ways. He continued on through the corridor toward the rest of the team, and I walked into a room with an ingress: a small saltwater pool that would take me outside. The water glowed a deep aquamarine, lit by an orb in the tunnel.

I stepped to the edge of the ingress and leapt into a dive. In an instant, I changed my legs in the air, transformed the lower half of my body into an ebony tail with a perfect double fin at the tip.

When I changed form to swim, most of my body remained the same: head, torso, arms, and hands.

But just below my hips, I now possessed the tail of a Sërenmare: a tail which was scaled like a fish, but moved through the water with the thrust of a dolphin. My silken fin arced like a wide crescent moon, and was ribbed with spines I could stiffen or relax, so I could swim through small spaces, areas that weren’t wide enough for the full size of my fin.

My breechcloth was no longer needed, and the fabric rolled into the strap that cinched round my hips, the cloth enchanted to change whenever my body did. I didn’t need to wear clothing when I had a tail, so when I switched form again, and returned my tail into legs, the breechcloth would fall back into place.

My atlatl and spear remained strapped to my back, and my supply belt with my knife and equipment stayed as they were, along with the pouch that held Ceto. My supply belt covered the place where my skin met my tail.

When I jumped into my dive, Ceto squeaked, anticipating the welcome plunge into water. The instant we dropped into the pool, I started to swim.

To lessen the friction and drag of the water, I cast a scythe, an invisible force that sliced through the water ahead of me, and created a slipstream that made movement easier.

A delicate lattice of magic ran over my body—a gentle sensation like swimming through bubbles—as I passed through the summoning barrier, the powerful spell that kept the ocean from flooding the air grotto. Sërenmare required pressurized air to survive outside the ocean: air enchanted to support the gills in our lungs the same way seawater did. But since most grottos existed deep in the sea, the damp, enchanted air in a grotto hardly ever matched the intense pressure of the saltwater outside. The moment I crossed the summoning barrier, I felt the true depth of the ocean, and knew the sea’s surface lay far above.

My skin shone a bright silvery-blue as I left headquarters, weaving and darting around the jagged rock in the passageway, until I cleared the tunnel and arrived in the deep, open sea. The ocean’s energy filled me, charged me with power as I read the sign in the water: pressure and temperature, motion and waves, electrical pulses of every creature passing by, ripples as distinct and precise as a rainbow of color. I registered the taste and smell of the current, the presence and absence of chemicals, and the distant sounds in the canyon and beyond, every incoming signal flashing through my mind like music and light.

Like the ability to read an expression in someone’s face, or interpret the words carved in runes, reading sign was a vital tool for all Sërenmare. Sign was everything I could sense in the water, with my body as well as my magic: all the information I needed to identify my location and navigate the open sea.

I swam through the canyon with a determined pace, aiming for the kutmin, the gathering place for the Order. Where I’d rejoin the others as soon as they finished singing their prayers.

Ten fathoms before I reached the kutmin, I felt a pulse in the water, a thrum like a heartbeat drawing closer. Swift as a sailfish leaping waves, the energy blazed gold and silver in the darkness, then a bright lilac, and arrived in a burst, closing the distance between us in seconds.

Sprites came in all different sizes and types, and Xalea was rather small. She incandesced in an area roughly two feet tall and six inches wide.

“Rowan.” Xalea’s voice held the lyrical sweetness of the centuries she’d survived. A beautiful sound that swirled through my blood and twined in harmony with my magic. “Please don’t do this.”

“Of course I’m going to do this.”

From inside the pouch on my belt, Ceto jabbed me with her talons and growled.

Xalea kept pace at my side. “You know why your magic grows weaker.”

I raised my voice in frustration. “I’m as strong as I ever was. You have to stop saying these things. Aiden knows you gave that woman those smokeseeds—he’s threatening to tithe your name for a banishment now. And you’re telling Luke and Isla that I’m dying—you’re making my life impossible.”

Xalea spoke louder, matching my tone. “You’ve known for weeks that the All is draining your strength. You’ve denied the truth long enough, and if you won’t heed the warnings, you will forfeit your life.” Xalea softened again, though her voice remained urgent and fearful. “Please, Rowan. Stop this mission. Killing these people is not the way of the All.”

I rasped without looking at her, a snarl with a blaze of pearled light through my skin. “Then I should have been revenanced. But I’m still alive, Xalea. Still alive and still killing them. Because the All wants them to die.” Aiden’s words, and my father’s, repeated as easily as if they were here speaking.

Ceto screeched at me, and Xalea glowed brighter, expressing her opposition to what I had said. Her voice remained forceful, insistent. “Every creature on earth is tied to the sea, to the water that made each life possible, and humanity is no different. You took an oath to protect the ocean, to revere all creation as sacred—and now you must remember your promise. To renounce your vows to the All is to ruin your magic and summon your death. You are forbidden to kill. Not for food, not for territory, not for vengeance. This is the gift of your power, and the force that sustains your own life.”

I scowled as we arrived at the kutmin and halted, so irritated with her I could yell. “The ocean is dying. The whole world is dying. It’s us or them, Xalea. I choose us.”

“You say that because you are only a boy. Too young to understand your brother and father are wrong. But there is wisdom in you, a great kindness at the source of your strength. You saved my life, Rowan, and now I must try to save yours. Do not board this ship tonight—please listen to me.”

But I was listening. I just didn’t want to believe her.

My temper simmered low in my throat. “Xalea. I’m sinking this ship. If that makes me a monster in your eyes, then leave. I don’t need your permission to fight for my people.”

Xalea’s violet light flickered, dimmed with pain, and a needle of regret lanced my heart. Some vital, speechless part of me couldn’t believe this was happening. That I’d lash out at my friend so I could bomb one last carrier.

Then Xalea swam away, a streak of light melting into the dark.

Ceto shot up toward my face, transformed into a tiny octopus, and inked me, before she returned to her sea dragon form and chased after Xalea. Ceto’s ink cloud was no bigger than she was, and dispersed through the water with a wave of my hand.

They wanted me to disobey orders, call my family evil, and run away from my duties, like a coward. Leave my people to die, rather than fighting back.

How could I do such a thing? If my missions as a soldier had already made me something evil, then better I stay the course and finish what I had started. Be the hero my people wanted me to be, rather than disgrace myself as the villain.

As I turned away from Xalea and Ceto, I heard my team singing, approaching the kutmin. The final stanza of the hymn coursed through my veins.

May you always find truth,

Close as the salt in your blood,

May you know justice,

And freedom,

Antahna.

Antahna. Grace to the All.

I was ready for freedom and justice. I was ready to kill.

6

The drakhir were guardians—the soldiers and protectors of Llyr—and as soon as we left the kutmin, we swam from the canyon, three thousand feet up to the surface. Of the thirty drakhir in tonight’s raid team, Pierce led a group of fifteen. Aiden took point on the other.

The ocean rolled in soft currents, with power lying in wait. The water felt too warm to my skin, the salt content too high. But the sea remained calm, flexing and twisting in deliberate columns.

Each group traveled in a parabola, spread out like a wedge near the top of the sea. As close as we could swim to the stars. The sky gleamed overhead with bright, perfect beauty, as clear to my sight at this depth as if I weren’t in the water at all. On a calm night like this, Sërenmare used the starwheel to navigate through the sea, the same way other animals did. But unlike turtles and birds, or even the fastest of fish, none of us ever broke surface.

Once the team reached the fleet, I’d be leaving the ocean. Not a moment before. To dwell on that pending torture didn’t help me at all, so I blocked those thoughts, and focused on my swimming instead, matching my pace with the others inside Pierce’s group. Luke and Isla swam beside me, all of us shaded dark colors to blend with the sea.

Aiden led our way to the ships. The route took us far north of the trash island, the enormous swath of floating waste that kept spreading toward Llyr. We swam between the petroleum trails of two cargo boats, rusty hulks leaking poison, their engine noise a low roar twenty miles to the east.

I’d have copied Aiden’s display, a constant habit of mine growing up, but that would only remind me of all the ways we’d never look the same now. His First Warden marks and his jewelry. Each symbol of power he’d earned that I never would.

So I’d chosen bloodstone for my skin: a deep green flecked with red. Dark crimson for my tail and hair. In moments when I phosphoresced with the others, the scarlet in my skin glowed brightest.

Even without the intention of mimicry, my awareness of Aiden remained sharp. I knocked the water with my tail in tempo with him. Felt the presence of his magic brush over my skin, stronger than any electromagnetic field rippling through me. He never turned his face to glance back at me, but I was certain his power sensed me just as clearly.

Aiden navigated the ocean not only by tracking the position of stars; he sensed the geomagnetic lines of the earth, as well as the rest of the sign in the water. I traced his route with my senses, memorized the path he took through the sea, comparing this journey to all the others we’d taken, with or without a raid party.

The team sang a war hymn together, a deep and resonant sound. The refrain rose and fell in crescendos, a rich swell of harmony, casting a shiver of magic into the currents around us.

But in the midst of the song, I heard my name called in a high, squeaky voice. “Rowan! Rowan, I’m here!” Words in an ancient language no one else could translate, the chosen tongue of an obakee who yearned to be a sea dragon.

I turned back to find Ceto in dragon form, swimming as fast as she could, desperately trying to catch up. Her tiny feet paddled with furious speed, but she’d reached the limits of her magic, and the distance between us was already starting to widen. “Please, Rowan! Please help!” Her speech slowed her down even more, and I heard the tears in her eyes as she fell even farther behind.

I didn’t know why she had come. Just to get me in trouble? She never boarded ships with me—leaving the ocean would kill her—and she’d said what I was doing was evil. So why was she here? Simply to hinder my efforts, and make Aiden mad?

I blazed scarlet and gold, so aggravated that I clenched my hands into fists and rasped. But when Ceto squeaked in despair, I broke formation, swam back to her, and caught her in my hands. Once I had hold of her, I didn’t look at her again, or speak to her—I swam as fast as I could to rejoin my place in my team.

Aiden watched me return with a scowl, and snapped the bones in his throat to express irritation. Not all fish made stridulatory sounds, but Sërenmare had a special series of bones in our throats we could strike to communicate, as Aiden did now. I clicked in apology and copied his coloring, worried he might swim over to yell at me and make me let go of Ceto.

My anxiety spiked until Aiden faced forward again, and the tension in my body relaxed. Only then did I move Ceto from my hands and into the empty pouch on my belt. She sighed happily and gave a loud snuffle, her way of saying thanks. I was too stressed out to respond.

My team sang a new hymn, and I picked up the lyrics with a sharp, wary voice. I poured my frustration into the music, and swimming, and soon I just felt tired again. Tired and scared and wishing I could be somewhere else.

When Ceto added her voice to the music, warbling and crooning along in her own language, I found myself smiling. “La la la, Rowan,” she sang. “My voice is so much better than yours.” Which made me laugh. So I opened the pouch to pet her, and rubbed the top of her head with my thumb. She closed her eyes in pleasure, and rumbled with a squeaky dragon-purr, before she went back to singing.

Then I gasped with a start, suddenly realizing how Ceto had caught up to the team to begin with, and why she was here.

“Where is she?” I asked, screening my voice so no one else could hear. I prodded a fingertip against Ceto’s tiny feet, until she opened one of her claws and showed me what she held.

The dark shell of a snail. A baby sea snail.

Xalea in one of her undetectable forms: a sea creature without any magic. So Aiden wouldn’t know she was here.

She’d come to tell me she hadn’t lost faith in me, that we were still friends, even if I kept ignoring her pleas. Without speaking a word, Xalea was saying she loved me.

Overwhelmed with worry and shame, wishing I didn’t have to be so belligerent toward my friends, tears welled in my eyes, and I hurried to blink them away.

Xalea couldn’t board the ship with me, either. If her body left the ocean, she would die.

But she was still holding out hope that I’d change my mind.

When I opened my mouth to speak, my voice cracked. I felt like she was breaking my heart. “I love you, Xalea. I promise I do. But this is my duty. I can’t run away.”

Ceto closed her talons around Xalea, to hide her again, then snorted a stream of bubbles at me, slapped my fingers away, and closed the lid of the pouch.

So I turned my attention to my team, dropped my sound screen, and went back to singing.

As the jusbel of Llyr, I’d killed many enemies, and before this night ended, I’d kill many more.

No matter what my friends thought, my people were dying, and I had orders to follow. If my enemies didn’t want to die, they should’ve thought about that before setting a course to wipe out life in the sea. But those people weren’t changing direction, and neither would I.

Tonight, I’d help Aiden send one final message to let our enemies know death was coming, that death would come for them all.

7

An hour later, when Aiden increased our pace to twenty knots, everyone fell silent with effort. We closed in on the fleet, and the lines of our units separated to move into position.

Our raid party always dispersed when approaching a ship, an extra precaution against sonar. Though our bodies weren’t large enough to register as a threat, and our screens presented our bodies as fish, both to our enemy’s eyes as well as their machinery, the precaution still lowered the risk.

The hulls of each ship were enormous, and I counted two frigates, two cruisers, three destroyers, and—much farther beneath us, in the blackness below—a submarine.

Surrounded by the rest of the fleet, the aircraft carrier slipped along at eight knots. The titan of all war vessels, a floating city of six thousand people: a roving airport of death. The great symbol of our enemy and all their terrible power.

Of the three aircraft carriers I’d already destroyed, one had belonged to Russia, one France, and one had been made in the United States. Tonight’s ship was another American vessel, identifiable to me now by the marks on the hull.

The energy of the ships, and the tremendous noise of their engines, loaded the water with sound and interrupted the flow of sign in the currents. Fish struggled to feed, darting around the massive keels, while sharks battled through gyres, their sinuous bodies twisting and canting against the uneven waves.

Dread seized hold of my body, and threatened to flood me with panic. I took deeper breaths, shut my eyes for long moments, and tried to slow down my heart. Struggled to keep myself calm and focused, to remind myself I’d never have to do this again.

But I lost the battle. Fear raced through my blood, strong enough that my muscles jittered with nerves, my stomach expanded and froze like I’d swallowed an iceberg, and the stress gave me that harsh echo-feeling, when I seemed to split away from myself. Part of me already felt like I was out of the water, up in the air, gazing down on myself from above. I saw myself swimming the way a bird would, soaring over the surface, and the split vision only frightened me more. No magic was strong enough to make me forget what would happen if I didn’t make it back to the water. To suffocate in the air was a horrible death, an agony I never wanted to suffer.

No matter how much I wanted to block that thought, I couldn’t escape the idea that I might not survive. Boarding my first ship had been so much easier, when my courage had felt so much stronger. Instead of growing used to my fear, my terror only increased each time, a spreading sense of certainty that the next ship I’d board would be my last.

Between duty and cowardice, my obedience to orders always took over, and that was the force that broke through my panic. I was a soldier, and if I died, my death was so my people might live. If I didn’t cling to that knowledge, I’d never jump out of the water.

As the team formed a wide perimeter around the target, our best callers—the bentii of our raid party—began to rasp. Creating a noise enhanced with their magic, the sharp, irritating sound would drive the sea life away, and keep those animals safe. As the other drakhir joined the bentii, the noise from their throats sent a pulse through the water, and several sharks fled as soon as the callers began. Cetaceans—whales, dolphins, porpoises—were especially sensitive to the sound, and would flee with the other sea life in seconds.

I left my place in formation and cut toward the carrier. Aiden joined me in the turbulence of the wake, passing me the bag full of star-guides. As I placed the strap around my shoulder, I unclipped the pouch that held Ceto and Xalea, and handed them over to Aiden. He fastened the pouch to his own belt without comment. Then he clicked a farewell staccato, which I barely heard, and didn’t return. Even if Aiden had asked me a question, I wouldn’t have responded. Everything in my mind was too chaotic for words, so much that even snapping a callback was beyond me. I focused on my mission, unable to spare a thought for anything else.

I swam in a sprint toward the carrier’s stern, more than doubling my speed to above forty knots. My split vision stopped, and my muscles no longer jittered. The physical exertion helped me calm, and prepare for the shock of leaving the sea.

Through the clear surface waves, a hangar door gaped open, a large venting space for the exhaust of the planes. My way in.

Then I leapt, burst into the black air, turned my tail into legs fifteen feet above water, and grabbed hold of the ship. I clutched at a railing colder than ice in my hands, and gasped in agony, wishing I could scream.

Unpressurized, waterless air felt like jellyfish tentacles wrapped tight to my flesh, each poison-filled lance pierced into bone. My magic now had to mimic the enchantments that kept me safe within an undersea grotto, cocooned in the pressurized air within a summoning barrier. An incredibly difficult task to achieve, given the pain I was in as soon as I left the ocean. My skin flashed red, then gold, then brilliant green, and burned with raw torture. A different agony filled my mouth, throat, and ears, like having hot needles shoved in my skull. The gills in my lungs struggled not to collapse, but the pain in my chest was nothing compared to the torture in my skin.

I rasped like the bentii, an almost soundless activity outside the sea. In the roar of noise above water, at the stern of the ship, no one could hear the faint ticking I made, even if they’d been standing at the railing above me. The commotion of the carrier breaking through water overwhelmed my distress.

My body possessed far more lateral lines than a fish, my main sensory system for detecting movement in water, and exposed lateral lines produced the most pain. Mine sparked with blue light, illuminating the vertical stripes down my sides. A visual chaos, as if the rest of this torment wasn’t enough.

I fought through my shock and swung myself up, jackknifed once, twice, to gain the momentum to propel myself over the railing. I dropped onto the landing and crouched, buried my head in my arms, and wished again I could scream. The effort needed to blend, such a simple process in water, felt excruciating in the air. I struggled for several moments, my body flashing with color, visible to anyone who might be looking this way, before I managed a cloak.

An air screen wasn’t perfect invisibility, but the enemy was easy to trick. They were over-reliant on one sense—their sight—and even an imperfect air screen was enough to travel through their ship undetected.

Once hidden, I sent a spell through my lungs to strengthen my gills, keep the delicate arches from collapsing. Then I took a moment to block certain nerve endings. Gripping my arms, I used an internal sending, a healing spell that shot through my blood. I cancelled the nerves from my lateral lines, and a few in my lungs, which were lined with my gills. Blocks took extra energy, and drained a considerable portion of magic from my reserves, which were now my sole source of power.

If my reserves ran empty before I returned to the sea, my gills would break apart and I’d die, since I couldn’t replenish my magic in air. My healing spells cost me power, but they were vital to my survival. If I didn’t remove at least some of my pain, I couldn’t think, and could barely breathe through this torture.

As my agony lessened, my body continued to hurt, and my lateral lines were still flashing, but my head cleared, my gills felt stable and safe from collapse, and I took deeper breaths.

My skin glistened pale green as I lowered my arms and stood, gazing through the open door of the landing. Inside the massive space of the hangar, sailors moved a jet toward an elevator, while dozens of other planes remained silent, unattended and still. The acrid scent of jet fuel and exhaust saturated the air. The harsh glare of electrical light hurt my eyes, and made me squint, as difficult to adjust to as the gas I inhaled. Grey paint coated the high walls, ceiling, and floor. Noise washed through my ears in strange ways, leaving static and echoes.

A river of shadows stormed through my body. An emptiness in my skin, in my blood, in the beat of my heart, where I should’ve felt the grace of the sea, sensed the flow of sign in the water orienting me to the world. To be riven from the ocean brought desolation, a panic completely separate from my physical agony, and I fought to stay calm.

As I passed through the aft door and entered the enormous space of the hangar, I counted thirty people nearby. There were many more in the distance, since the hangar stretched on for close to one thousand feet. Soldiers, pilots, and engineers carried clipboards and tools as they glanced at the jets, spoke to one another, or shook their heads as they laughed, going about their work and routines. None of them turned my direction or yelled.

I’d boarded without incident, and now I had to move.

8

I gripped the star-guides against me, so the shadowy bulk of the bag wouldn’t shift outside my air screen, and ran along the edge of the hangar, around back of the jets, to a door that opened to stairs. Down I went, down and down toward the engine room.

As I sprinted through passageways and rooms full of sailors at work, the pain in my body grew worse. My gills had enough in reserves to survive for two hours before they collapsed, but every moment I drew on that energy, weaving past obstacles without slowing my pace, I lost seconds and minutes of strength. Even cloaking myself diminished my magic.

The size of the carrier made the route to the engine room a long, tangled maze, and I had to use a complicated spell called a pull—an energy net I cast over the people around me—to tell me which way to go as I moved. The sailors could feel me, a slight pressure around them, as I searched their thoughts for directions to navigate through the ship. The labyrinth of hallways and busy rooms would swallow me otherwise. Sometimes people turned toward me with puzzled expressions, and searched with their eyes, but found nothing. My bare feet struck the floor with a faint patter, and I hurried past them unnoticed.

The carrier used nuclear power for fuel, a great source of potential for irreparable damage. But I didn’t need access to the reactors. When I arrived in the space that encased the ship’s engines—gargantuan equipment as big as whales—I knelt in an open section of floor off the walkway, reached into the bag, and removed my first star-guide.

Such a small piece of danger in the palm of my hand. Much heavier than volcanic tuff, but lighter than quartzite, the star-guide felt smooth as a pearl and warmer than blood, an elegant disk that shimmered with radiance. The translucent cover sparkled with pinks, oranges, and yellows within, flecked with chips of bright blue.

A star-guide contained the nuclear fusion of stars, the opposite of the fission that powered this ship. Nuclear fission split nuclei; fusion joined them together. Fission made nuclear waste that remained radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years; fusion made waste that decayed in less than a century, rendered harmless in one generation.

Humans understood how to create nuclear fusion, the process inside a hydrogen bomb. But those weapons were fission and fusion, and the fission device had to detonate first.

A star-guide needed no fission, and its fusion process left no waste, would vaporize any atoms left to decay. Aiden drew from his life-force to create each one of these disks, sacrificed energy he could never replace from the store in his body. He swam into a steam vent hot enough to melt lead, and used a level of power even the Lokren didn’t wield.

Aiden had given us the power to sink any ship, with a price he paid with his blood. The star-guide in my hand would blow a hole through the reinforced hull of this carrier over thirty feet wide, and take out a portion of the engine equipment as well.

A familiar rage against my enemies surged through me, and also pride—the tremendous honor I felt that I had the ability to help my people fight back. To stop all life in the ocean from being destroyed.

The memory of Xalea’s voice whispered to me. Tried to say I was wrong. That I shouldn’t be killing these people. Shouldn’t have boarded this carrier.

But I took a deep breath, and blocked her words from my thoughts.

9

I placed the star-guide beneath the metal grid of a walkway, and sealed the air with a screen. The disk remained visible only to body-sight now, sensed with magic and skin, projecting an unmistakable heat that tinged my bloodstream with menace.

I sprinted to the far side of the room and stopped at a watertight door, an emergency exit that would seal off this area after a breach.

To sink a carrier, tearing holes in the hull wasn’t enough. The damaged compartments had to fill with seawater, then the watertight doors could be blown, allowing the extra force of the water to increase the explosion. Do this enough times, and the ship would go down.

My second star-guide went on a watertight door. So did my third.

Fifteen minutes went by as I dashed to a new part of the ship, and positioned a fourth star-guide to destroy another section of hull. The fifth went on a door, the sixth on a narrow walkway, and the seventh in a place that would destroy both a section of hull and a watertight door.

Finished, I ran toward a set of stairs, and cast another pull over the sailors around me. I needed the closest exit, and there were doors that opened to the outside far closer than the one I’d entered. As my net reached the sailors around me, their minds told me which turns to take, the passageways that led up.

Then a wave of fatigue hit like a blow, and some of the thoughts in my cast turned to meaningless noise in my head.

Instead of directions, I picked up unwanted images, memories that came without warning. I lost control over what I swept up in my pull.

I saw pictures of children, heard snatches of music, felt longings for people I didn’t know. My magic filled with whatever pressing thoughts crowded the minds of the sailors around me. There were worries and griefs, anticipations and joys, a thick emotional soup that swelled in my skull with an awful pressure.

The effort of getting off the ship became overwhelming. I dropped my pull, certain I could manage the directions on my own for a while. Elevators terrified me, so I kept to the stairs, though I had multiple stories to climb to reach safety. My feet thumped the steps, loud enough for someone to hear, but no one called out or ran toward me. My screen remained up.

After I climbed my first set of stairs, I slowed from a sprint to a jog, but then stumbled, had to grab at doors and equipment, catching myself. Each breath I inhaled hurt worse than the last. I thought I heard the rattle of blood in my lungs, a sign my gill arches were collapsing, but decided that had to be wrong, that I was only hearing the slap of my feet on the floor.

Quiet pops sounded in my ankles and wrists. My internal blocks began to crumble and fail. Pain returned in swift bursts, leaving me trembling and ill. I fought to keep moving.

Halting at a shut door, I blinked for a moment and struggled to think. Was I on the right path? I’d never encountered a locked door before. Should I turn around and find a new route?

The thought of backtracking made me lightheaded with panic. I didn’t have enough energy to retrace my steps. As a new wave of pain racked my body, my screen failed for an instant. A yellow blaze in my skin flared over the walls before I hid myself once again.

When I palmed the metal latch for a sending—to reach into the lock with my magic, and push hard enough to force back the tumblers and bars—my sending failed. My wrist crackled and snapped with misfire, my legs almost buckled. I punched the door in frustration and bit back a scream.

My lungs rattled again, only I wasn’t moving this time. A cold, oily film slicked over my skin.

I gave up on the lock, ran back down the hall, and located an open door into some other room. Then I tripped, scraped my knees hard on the floor, before I ran through a passageway full of blinking machines. Three sailors stood along the far wall, and five sat at panels, monitoring their equipment. I sprinted ahead several feet, turned a corner, and almost slammed into a pair of sailors in the hall. I dodged them, almost fell on a pipe, cracked one of my elbows against a long metal box, then arrived at a door to a new set of stairs.

I jumped the steps two at a time, but had to stop to catch my breath. My heart thrashed in my chest like a shark, trying to break out of my ribs.

Two sailors froze and stared behind me, at the place I had been a moment before. My screen must have faltered again. I rushed through a narrow corridor, into a wider hall and a crowded row of offices. Maneuvering around sailors, I cast another pull, desperate to seize the directions I needed to escape.

Except their words were nonsensical, layered with images I couldn’t block.

I took the wrong stairs. Opened all the wrong doors. Exited the bowels of the ship at the deck.

I’d climbed to the runway.

As I reached open air, and realized what I had done, my body collapsed in a fit of exhaustion and pain. My gills burned with fire. I was starting to suffocate, and my muscles twitched as I coughed up blood. Tears streamed down my face, greasy and hot as the tears of a dolphin. I rasped with the call of the bentii. Tried to stand, but fell again.

In the distance around me, regular night operations continued. Men and women on deck ran practice maneuvers, launching and landing their jets. A plane screamed into the sky, thrown into the air with the help of a catapult, and another jet came screeching down, snagged the appropriate cables on deck and slammed to a stop. People with headsets communicated with the flight tower, another plane returned to the hangar, as each sailor moved with efficiency, intent on their work.

High above everyone, the carrier’s island displayed its permanent warning, the words printed in giant yellow letters:

BEWARE OF JET BLAST

PROPS AND ROTORS

I wasn’t in the midst of a flight path, or anywhere close to a plane. In no danger of being cooked or crushed.

Nothing was going to knock me overboard. I’d have to do that myself.

I crawled ten feet, cutting my hands and knees on the abrasive material designed to grip planes. Stopped at the edge of the deck. Glimpsed the black water below.

Ninety feet to the sea.

A height that could kill anyone. Even Aiden.

My blood fizzed through my system, a torturous sensation worse than the pain in my skull.

I wiped the tears from my face. Drew in a last breath.

Then I tipped over the edge, and fell into the dark.

10

Ten feet, twenty feet, fifty, sixty. My mind became dimmer and dimmer. Eighty feet, eighty-five, ninety. I tried to land in a dive, but I hit wrong. I struck the surface and felt my bones shatter, a violence I thought would have killed me.

But I remained conscious somehow, unable to move, as my body was thrown along in the waves, bobbing through the aftershocks of my fall.

Someone reached me, put an arm round my waist and turned me, and I felt the low hum of a water shield. I couldn’t open my eyes, but I could tell by the current that Pierce had a hold of me. Then I stopped feeling anything.

Time passed. Hours, years. I drifted alone on the sea. Maybe I slept. Maybe I died.

Somewhere in my mind, I registered pain. A faint, distant pain, like a throb in my skin.

Then I heard Aiden’s voice. Yelling, shouting orders. We were still at the ship. I felt the screen shudder, caught in a force that blew through the water. Aiden had fired the first star-guide. His voice disappeared, and my mind went dark.

11

I traveled alone through the sea, within a strange current. The salinity didn’t match the deep pressure, and the temperature was too warm for such a low level of light. The surface lay far above me, an alien cordillera below, and I swam in the silence, wondering why I was alone.

“Aiden!” I called, certain we’d come here together. Maybe I’d fallen asleep and he’d gone exploring.

But if Aiden were close, why couldn’t I sense him? I turned in place, rotated my lateral lines through the current, but his energy wasn’t here.

In all the times we’d gone on mission together, Aiden had never abandoned me.

“Where are you?”

No answer.

So I raced toward the mountains to search for him, terrified something had happened. The sea grew darker, colder.

The salinity increased, started matching the pressure, and I forgot what I was doing. Looking for someone? Checking glyphs?

A scouting mission? Had I been sent out alone on reconnaissance?

No, that wasn’t right. These cliffs ringed the place I’d found Xalea, when I’d freed her, years ago, from her stone prison. She must be close.

“Xalea!” I called, certain she could hear me right now. “Xalea! I’m here!”

No one came. My friend had forsaken me. I was lost, left behind, unwanted, unneeded. Panic rose in my chest.

“Xalea! Where are you?

Then the ocean pulled, cast an energy through me. I felt the current in my body, clear and distinct as the softest command, a light whisper.

This way.

The route lay before me, the seafloor decorated with starlight and runes, and I swam into the darkness. Beyond the edge of a sawtooth gorge, I dove into the fathoms below. The ocean’s energy changed to a razor-sharp crush as I traveled closer and closer to the skin of the earth. Never before had I been so deep.

I slipped between the black jaws of trenches, past sleeper sharks and vampire squid, through waving bodies of rattails and grenadiers and chimaera.

Down and down, into ebony caves, narrow stretches of rock that scraped my tail as I moved, cut open my skin.

This way.

My body felt colder than sea ice, brittle-boned and laced full of pain, pressure squeezing my skull, my spine, as if I would shatter—

And then something ripped me apart. Bolts of agony, lightning, sliced through me with a scream. My body tore open, shredded to pieces. Scattered bits of muscle and bone spiraled away, until nothing was left.

12

I woke gasping, clenching my teeth, damp with sweat.

I lay on the floor of an air grotto, enchanted and pressurized to allow me to breathe. Aiden cradled my shoulders and head. My belt and spear had been placed beside me, and my skin flickered greenish-gold. A pale, eerie color of sickness. The hue matched the shade of my tail, which slapped against the jagged stone floor.

While I still felt shocked to discover I hadn’t just died in my dream, I wasn’t surprised to find myself in an air grotto, since the constant bombardment of sign in the water made sleeping in the ocean impossible. I was alive, I’d been asleep, and that was why Aiden had brought me in here.

But I’d never been so ill before that I would wake in an air grotto with a tail, and the sight of my fin felt as disorienting as my nightmare.

Pain slipped through my body, centered somewhere in my spine. A low, skulking presence deep in my muscle.

Aiden’s dark eyes searched my face, anxious and tense, while I relaxed my jaw and took deeper breaths.

Above Aiden’s head, the yellow rock of the ceiling meant we weren’t in Llyr. A glyph near the door marked the room as Penquram, a northern valley. This cave was one of our redoubts, a fort on the edge of Llyrian land, far from home.

I stared at the glyph until I remembered the carrier. Ending up on the deck. My fall.

Aiden said, “You were calling for her.”

My throat burned like I’d swallowed poison. I turned Xalea’s name in my mind, along with the lingering images of my nightmare. How I’d been searching for her, certain I’d find her in the deep.

And then the All had destroyed me. I hadn’t been revenanced, dissolved into shadow and light—

I’d been shredded.

Aiden’s voice filled the silence, sharp with anger. “You listen to her. You let her distract you. Xalea and that obakee.” Aiden tapped an empty pouch on my belt, the same one I’d given to him before boarding the ship. “I know Xalea uses that sylph to help spread her lies, poisoning your mind against your own tribe.”

My words sounded rough, like my tongue had been singed. “No, it’s not like that—”

Aiden’s skin darkened to sapphire as he cut me off. “It’s exactly like that. Xalea told you not to get on that ship. Told you our magic is dying. And you believe her—”

“Of course I don’t believe her!”

I rolled away from him, clumsy and slow since I had a tail when I should’ve had legs. Too tired to sit up, I struggled a moment, wincing and gasping, propped myself on my elbows and stared at the floor.

Aiden’s words remained barbed, unrelenting. “You think I can’t tell the truth for myself? You speak all those languages, you read all those minds—and you think I don’t know what it’s done to you? You feel for them now, all the humans you kill. You soak up their memories, their thoughts and their dreams, every time you cast a pull, and you forget that they’re murderers, you forget you’re a soldier on mission.”

Yes, my heart thumped in response. Yes, that was true.

Just like my magic had changed, and I couldn’t pass the tests to advance, didn’t have the strength I’d once had.

But I was the jusbel of Llyr, son of the Qarin, and I had to be strong, had to stand up and fight for my people.

I didn’t have the energy to yell at Aiden to shut up, so with every bit of strength I had left, I blocked out his voice. Screened my ears from the sound of his words.

Aiden waited until my magic failed. Ten seconds. Maybe less.

I’d never been this weak before, so drained and empty, with a cold numbness in the place where the steady rush of my power should be.

Aiden gave me no mercy. “How many ships have you sunk? Have you even kept count? Eighty-five, Rowan. Eighty-five. Who else in the sea could have boarded so many death traps and survived? Your power has made you unstoppable, all the talent you have as a speaker and healer, and your incredible strength when you’re out of the water. I shouldn’t even fear for your life anymore, you’ve left the sea so many times. But now you fall? Now? This was our last carrier—our last ship—and you decide to smash your bones into pieces? Did you want to die with them, Rowan? Is that it? Did you forget how to pull for directions—just because Xalea doesn’t want you to kill?”

I glared at him, furious he’d accuse me of such things. “I made a mistake! That doesn’t mean I wanted to die!

Aiden raised his voice to match mine. “You planted the star-guides, but then you jumped from the deck—from the runway! And Xalea knew you would fall! She had that obakee bring her to you, hidden in the pouch on your belt, so she could be there inside our perimeter, waiting for the moment you made your mistake.”

“That wasn’t planned—I had no idea I’d miss the right door!”

“How convenient then, that Xalea was right there when you dropped. She’s told you so many times that your magic is dying, you’ve decided to prove to us all that you’d fail—”

“I did not want to die!

“After you hit the water, Xalea told me you wanted to be released from this burden. Her word, Rowan—this burden. She claimed her own better judgment was to let you stop breathing—so you wouldn’t have to complete your next mission. So you’d be free of your pain. As if anyone has ever forced you to do this! Like these missions aren’t your own choice! But then she merged with the ocean, even her light disappeared for a minute, and whatever she did, she kept you alive.”

So that explained why the fall hadn’t killed me. But how could Xalea have saved me? I had the power to heal others. Xalea did not.

A tithing, perhaps. A sacred bond with the All. The question was: what would Xalea have tithed for my life? Part of her magic? One of her talents or gifts? Sprites had powerful summoning strength, and Xalea was plenty old enough for such a ritual. But the price to keep me alive must have been steep.

As to Aiden’s charge that I’d arranged to jump from the runway before boarding the carrier, the idea filled me with wrath. “I’ve never called my missions a burden. I don’t regret boarding ships, or killing our enemies. And if you think I wanted to end my own life, then send a calling to Xalea. Question her before the Lokren. She can swear an oath to the All to tell you the truth.” I took a ragged breath, and continued to glower. “I’d have stayed on the ship, if I wanted to die.” Letting the air finish crushing my gills would’ve been less painful than hitting the water. I’d been so far gone by that point, I was nearly unconscious. My end would’ve come a lot sooner if I hadn’t jumped.

I moved to sit up, and this time Aiden helped. My spine crackled like the sharp points of murex scraping rock, my repaired vertebrae sliding and snapping with each shift in my bones.

My arms trembled with effort, and my tail flopped with an awkward thump on the stone.

As I came to a resting position, lightheaded and dizzy, my head sagged against Aiden before I could straighten.

“You broke your back,” Aiden said, much calmer now. “Brevyn healed you.”

Brevyn Gesun. Our chief healer. A much more powerful mage than me. Plenty strong enough to have repaired my shattered spine.

“I thought Brevyn left for shore.” Searching for the victim we needed for Aiden’s genesis spell.

“The Qarin brought him here.” Aiden’s tone remained hard, his commander’s voice. “Brevyn said that fall should have killed you. I didn’t tell him what Xalea had done.”

I wouldn’t meet Aiden’s gaze. Didn’t want to discuss Xalea anymore, or my plunge off the carrier.

“I told Father your screen failed. Told him you were attacked, and that’s why you jumped from the deck.”

I gritted my teeth. “I don’t need you to make excuses for me.”

Aiden scoffed. “So you’d rather let him think you’re too weak to kill one more worthless human? That all the preparation we’ve done might have been a mistake? The ritual doesn’t work without you, Rowan. The knife has to be in your hand.”

“I know that. I’m here, aren’t I? Why would you think I’d back out now?”

I was the jusbel, the one the Lokren had given permission to break my vows to the All, annihilating our enemy in the hope that every tribe in the ocean might live.

Up until that last carrier, I’d been determined to believe that myself. That the All had permitted me to kill those people without consequence. That the All would permit me to kill again, one more time, with a knife.

But rather than dwell on everything that proved I’d been wrong, and that anyone who’d made such a claim had been wrong, I put my concentration into transforming my tail into legs. The change took me a full ten seconds to complete, an eternity compared to the instantaneous switch I should’ve managed. My fin curled like sea petals, rolled into my feet, my scales blended to skin, my tail split into two perfect legs. The effort left my heart racing, and a fresh layer of sweat slicked my skin.

Aiden’s face remained solemn, his focus centered on the plan we’d devised. Our final mission to kill—not just sailors on ships, but every human on earth—even those who lived far from the sea. “Father said they found what they needed.”

The human who would be our blood sacrifice.

For Aiden to make what we needed—a biological weapon of genocide—we had to give life in trade. Not only magic and blood, like when Aiden crafted the star-guides. We had to kill one of our own.

Only a ritual death would supply the blood energy Aiden needed to wield that level of magic, a generative force strong enough to create billions of spores: a fungus that would rise from the sea, an invisible living poison carried over the earth on the wind, into the lungs of our enemies.

I couldn’t murder a Llyrian though. Or anyone else who belonged to a tribe of the sea.

But I killed human sailors. And if we transformed a human into one of us, made them a Sërenmare in their physical body alone—not a true member of any tribe—then Aiden and I had reasoned I could take their life as the blood sacrifice.

But if Xalea was right, and our plan was wrong—

If the All had meant to destroy me on my last mission, rather than permit me to kill—

And if the genocide of our enemies wasn’t the answer—

Then what did that mean for the future of earth? What did that mean for life in the ocean?

How could the All let one species destroy the lives of so many? The idea was too terrible for words.

So I flung the thought from my mind, and grasped for the hope that sustained me, the goal I’d sworn my life to: we would fight them. We would win.

Either the Sërenmare would survive, or the humans. There was no future with both.

“Is Father still here?” I asked.

“He left right after he came to see you. He took Brevyn with him. Once they were sure you’d recover.”

I nodded and reached for my belt, trying not to think about the delay I had caused. The sooner we had the blood sacrifice, the sooner Aiden could attempt the generative summoning to create this new weapon.

But rather than put on my belt, I stared down at the clasp for a moment, trying to calm my pounding heart. This was what I’d been waiting for, the chance to vanquish my enemy—and I ought to feel proud.

The surge of joy never lit through my blood. Whatever I thought I would feel was blunted with pain, and a numb, hollow sensation swept through my mind.

Maybe my nightmare had been a dream of my future. A vision of how I’d die alone, in the deep—riven apart by the All, because I kept ignoring the truth.

And what if Xalea was right about this ritual? Not only that I would die, but the other predictions she’d made… What if I slit the throat of this transformed human, and the generative force of Aiden’s summoning spell turned into a curse? A murderous force we’d unleash through the sea… uncontrollable, unstoppable.

Instead of protecting my people, what if I killed them? Like the sailors I blew up on those ships.

How could I feel triumphant, when my mind had become so riddled with doubt?

But if Xalea truly believed I might destroy my whole tribe—why had she kept me alive? Why would she sacrifice some part of herself to save me, if the world would be safer without me?

My heart raced with anxiety, my breathing felt faint, and dread rose like bile in my throat.

I grasped again for my hope. Took comfort in my brother beside me. Our plan to fight back. To win the war, and to live.

The All wanted us to survive. Aiden and I had to be right.

13

Since humans were so poorly designed for life underwater, transforming their bodies was dangerous. The power to change them more often killed them—or so went the old stories. Tales carved into stone thousands of years ago. No Sërenmare in living memory had taken the risk of such a powerful summoning.

The Dev-durvani were the last people who managed to keep transformed humans alive. So Father had sent Brevyn to study their runes.

The Dev-durvani people were gone, killed seventy years ago by nuclear weapons, underwater test detonations that wiped out several tribes. My great-grandparents had been the last generation in Llyr to see them alive. Some of their song caves had survived the bomb blasts, places where their knowledge and stories remained etched into stone.

The runes Brevyn had studied—glyphs of power and music to transform a human to live undersea—were as esoteric and mystical as Aiden’s creation of star-guides. Not something I could ever attempt. Summonings required great conjuring power, a frightening level of magic far beyond my ability.

Father understood the dangers involved. As the War Leader of Llyr, he’d gained the approval of the Council to attempt the ritual, and he was in charge of executing the strategy, even though the task of making a biological weapon would fall to Aiden.

“Are you planning to join them?” I asked, having already guessed how disappointed Aiden must be that Father and Brevyn had left without him.

“Right after I deliver you home,” Aiden said. “I would never abandon you, Rowan. You know that.”

He placed a hand on my chest, over my heart. For a moment, I thought he would flare the emblem of penance deep in my skin.

But Aiden sent no magic through me. He softened his voice to a murmur, and brought up Xalea once more. “I’m grateful to her for saving your life. And I told Xalea that, before I carried you in here. But she’s dangerous, Rowan. She spreads lies, and I don’t want to see her again. Not on mission, not in Llyr. You tell her to keep away.”

I didn’t have the strength to do anything more than agree. With a slight tip of my head, Aiden let go.

He said something else about Xalea, but I didn’t listen. My expression made it clear I wanted to be left alone, and I flashed my skin thunderhead grey.

Aiden rose and walked to the ingress. When he turned to face me, he took on the voice and appearance of First Warden. Shoulders back, chin down, hands on his hips. “We’ve been camped here twelve hours. Brevyn says you can swim. We’ll leave when you’re ready.”

“I won’t be long.”

“Then I’ll signal formation, soon as you’re out.” Aiden jumped into a dive, and the air rippled as he changed. His legs transformed into a midnight blue tail, and his body slipped into the water, disappeared with a soft splash, while I remained as I was, staring across the room in silence.

I touched a palm to my chest, the same place where Aiden had rested his hand. Nothing visible there, no physical marks on my skin, but the magic carved over my heart was unmistakable. A faint heat quite distinct from the warmth in my body.

The words of the ritual hadn’t been spoken in Llyrian, since the ceremony was much older than my tribe, but I could translate the final stanza well enough, the lines right before I’d been bled.

Reconcile the tribes,

Make a gift of our blood.

I knew I’d broken my oath. Renounced my vows to the All when I killed.

But what other choice did I have? Sit back and do nothing, and let the enemy destroy us?

If only the people on land would live in peace with the earth, and stop spreading destruction along with their trash. No nuclear bombs, no oil spills, no factory fishing ships, no garbage dumped in the sea. No underwater mines of any kind. No growing dead zones without oxygen, killing all life. No warming planet, no acidifying sea.

If I gave my life to end the war with humanity, then perhaps one day in the future, the ocean would heal, and the children of Llyr would be free once again, to live in a clean, healthy sea, rich with abundance.

I closed my eyes, and voiced that prayer to the All.

Then I clipped on my belt, strapped my atlatl and spear into place, walked on unsteady legs to the ingress, and dropped into the water.

14

My spine felt tender, every part of me sore, but once I hit the water, my emptied reserves flared with energy, and I transitioned from legs to a tail in five seconds. A much faster change, but still not instantaneous.

Would I recover my strength? Or had I caused myself permanent harm?

Maybe Xalea knew the answer… if I had the courage to ask.

No matter how much damage I’d suffered, using magic still brought solace, reassurance and comfort, even as weak as I was. With a twist of my fin, I cast a scythe and dove into the tunnel, swam through the rocky lanes that led out of the grotto.

For a few moments, my skin shone bright blue as I cleared the passageway and arrived in the open sea. The ocean charged me with excitement as I read the sign in the water, felt the power that rolled through the current, as alive with signal and energy as my blood.

At the mouth of the cave, I met Luke and Isla. They beamed with relief when they saw me.

Luke pulled me against him, careful not to put pressure on my back.

Isla touched my shoulder, kissed my brow. She smelled like iron and sea lilies, and she wore a charm in her bracelet that I knew Luke had given her. The metal tingled against my skin when she placed her hand on me, since all Sërenmare jewelry was enchanted with spells to protect the material from corroding in saltwater. That particular charm displayed the shape of a nautilus shell, and the protective spell bore a faint trace of Luke’s magic.

I wanted to ask about Xalea. If they’d seen her save me. If they knew where she was, and if Ceto was with her.

But Luke and Isla knew I hadn’t listened to Xalea. To bring up her name now would return us to the last conversation we’d had at headquarters, and I wanted no part of that.

So I avoided any mention of Xalea or Ceto, and drew back from Luke. “Brevyn was here.”

“We know,” Isla said. The smile disappeared from her face. “You’ve been asleep a long time.”

Luke’s grin vanished as well. “Aiden tell you?”

“About the human?”

Luke nodded with a swift glance at Isla.

“There’s a specific bacterium that has to be present,” Isla said. “Inside the human—or they won’t survive the change. Brevyn says the runes were explicit about that.”

Luke added, “The Qarin had permission to search the island shores, but Brevyn directed them north. Siersha had a dream he would find the right human there.”

Siersha Havron, Brevyn’s wife. Siersha was older than Brevyn by twenty-five years, old enough to be a Lokren.

“It’s late in the season to look in the north,” I said. Humans flocked to warm water, not cold. Siersha knew that. “I wonder what she saw in her dream.”

Luke sighed with a shrug. “Someone in a scuba suit. Trying not to freeze to death.”

Isla shook her head in disdain. “A miner with a blowtorch, I’m sure. No shortage of those in the sea.” Isla’s baby brother had been killed in a sounding blast, from a ship seeking new areas to drill. A death like my mother’s, when the enemy simply ripped her apart.

The vengeance I’d unleashed as jusbel couldn’t bring Isla’s little brother back to life. She still grieved for him, the same way I grieved for my mother.

Xalea said that was all being jusbel had made me: no longer a guardian who protected the people I loved. Now I was only a person who put more grief in the world.

I bowed my head. Considered telling Luke and Isla about what had happened. How my magic had failed and I’d ended up on the deck. I wanted to tell them how I’d felt staring down at the sea, knowing I wouldn’t survive. How I’d dreamed that the All had destroyed me.

I wanted to share the doubts, the worries that plagued my mind.

But the words never came.

The current shifted, filled with the energy of someone approaching, and Pierce swam over to us. His eyes took me in with concern, his words sharp and quick. “I don’t know how you survived that. I was sure you were dead.”

I tipped my chin, forced a smile. “Makes two of us then.”

“Thank the All the Qarin came,” Pierce said. “Your father swam out with Brevyn as soon as he heard. What happened to you—” Pierce shook his head. “It’s amazing you’re whole. No better proof of a master healer at work, than to look at you now.”

I gazed off toward the open plain of the sea. Wondered if Pierce understood I was only alive because Xalea had tithed her own magic to spare me. “I’ll be sure to sing the prayers of thanksgiving, once we arrive home.”

But I couldn’t enter the song caves anymore. The magic in the walls hurt my body too much. Pierce didn’t point that out though, merely nodded with an appreciative grin.

A clear, steady signal passed through the water, Aiden’s call to assemble, and I moved to comply. Isla circled around Luke, and Pierce fell in beside us.

“I’ll be leaving in the war party with Aiden,” Pierce said. “To help search for that human. We’ll depart as soon as we’re home.”

He sounded so confident about this mission, tingeing the water with pride, while doubt poured out of me like a spring.

And then I did something I shouldn’t. Repeated the same question Xalea had asked me, when Aiden and I first came up with this plan. “You think Brevyn’s strong enough for a summoning?” Master healer or not, Brevyn wasn’t a magi, not yet.

Pierce shrugged. “He can always try again, if he fails. No shortage of humans to experiment with. Besides—” and Pierce waved a hand toward my back. “He fixed that mess. I’m sure he can manage a human.”

But healing was very different from summoning, even for a strong healer like Brevyn.

I thought of my nightmare, still so fresh in my mind, being shredded to pieces by the unseen force of the sea.

Aiden had mentioned before that was what transformation would feel like to a human—being torn open and stitched back together. And if something went wrong with the summoning, given the crushing force of the sea to a human at depth, a body designed to survive on land would implode and shatter.

What had once felt like justice only made me uncomfortable now. I remembered Xalea asking me how I could go through with treating someone like that… telling me if I did such a thing, I’d only become what I hated.

“We’d be better off if we took a whole bunch of them,” Pierce said. “Save us the time of searching again, if the first one doesn’t work.”

Luke must have seen the look on my face, the sudden anguish and dread that consumed me, because he changed the subject, edged forward and asked, “You sure you’re all right to swim home? I thought spinal breaks needed two days to heal.”

“They do if I fix them,” I said, which made the three of them smile.

“Everyone’s so proud of you, Rowan,” Pierce said. “Sinking the ship. That carrier was a sight going down.”

At the thought of the people I’d killed, I fell silent. The others continued their conversation without me.

Everyone was so proud of me.

Except Ceto, who called this work evil.

Except Xalea, who’d warned me over and over not to board any ships.

I’d been cruel to her, ignoring her pleas, telling her to leave me alone. Yet she’d still been there to save me. At some tremendous cost to her magic, she’d rescued me from the end I’d brought on myself.

If I’d died in the fall, would Aiden have realized Xalea was right? Would my death have forced him to give up on the plan we had made?

Or would Aiden have asked someone else to kill the blood sacrifice for him?

A cold, numbing panic bloomed in my chest, and blades of ice slivered deep in my veins.

15

Aiden set the pace home at four knots, five feet from the surface—the slowest pace he’d ever set for our raid team. My back still felt like a great white and a mako were cutting their teeth on my spine, taking turns with each bite.

Never before had I struggled so much to cast a scythe and swim. The pain demanded all my attention. Every breath required effort and focus. Tears came and went from my eyes, passing storms I had to push through. I didn’t even have the energy to change my appearance, and shone a bright golden-green the whole trip.

By the time the cordillera of Llyr began to pass by underneath us, I wanted to stop swimming and drift. Ignore the last few miles home in favor of relieving the slicing, cutting nerves in my back.

But I kept my place in formation, and our team left the surface, dived for home.

Llyr lay toward the bottom of the mesopelagic, a twilight zone with less oxygen than the sunlit surface. Dusk had fallen above, the gloaming night spreading deeper, and our team swam against the great migration of sea life. Food was plentiful in the uppermost layer of water, and brought predators into the epipelagic to feed after sunset. I felt the ripples of swordfish, squid, and jellies in the distance around me, as well as the shuddering commotion of a large school of lanternfish, all swimming up to the darkening surface waters, preparing to hunt and be hunted.

The city of Llyr occupied a basalt canyon, with a labyrinth of ravines and arroyos that cut through the rock. Llyrians made their homes inside the cliffs, hollowed and sculpted the sediment into beautiful rooms, rather than moving the earth to build separate structures. Like the great schools of fish we’d evolved from, Sërenmare preferred night to bright day, and the tribes woke at sunset, not sunrise. As the team swam into the canyon, Llyr blossomed with color and light. The deep blue basalt of the canyon transformed into a bioluminescent landscape full of life.

Groups of cultivators, preparing to swim to the surface to start their work, circled around the kutmin. The flat surface rock gleamed with ancient runes carved in the stone, symbols that glittered with light when the leaders of the drakhir made them glow. As First Warden, Aiden fired the runes with his magic, an invisible sending that shot through the kutmin and illuminated the rock with pearlescent light.

I glanced over the crowd forming around us, but didn’t see Xalea anywhere. She wasn’t hiding amidst the carvings or passageways through the cliffs, or darting between the boisterous people.

Most Llyrians were cultivators, responsible for growing and sustaining the food that kept us alive, and as they swam around the raid team, they cheered and burst into song. The noise brought the Lokren, who left their homes to greet us, along with many children and clan members who’d been inside their grottos, lingering over breakfast.

The population of Llyr had more than doubled in the last ten years with refugees, Sërenmare from other tribes whose homes had been ruined by human destruction. Many refugees had become cultivators, and were intermixed in various work groups. Others, like the little boy Xalea had helped sneak into headquarters, were too sick with poison to help the cultivators produce food, and came to Llyr to ease their incurable symptoms, hoping to find a safe place to die.

As more people in the canyon spotted the returning drakhir, the refugees bonded together and sang their own tribal songs, welcoming us home. Some of them embraced each other with tears in their eyes.

At the sight of those tears, my heart twisted with sorrow, knowing each of those people had suffered something so much worse than I had. Not only the loss of their loved ones, but their ancestral home. And in some cases, their entire tribe. Some refugees were the sole survivors of their people.

The majority were cultivators now because all Sërenmare struggled to survive without the harvesting ability found in a group. To access the magic that kept us alive, we had to honor our vows not to kill, and grow for ourselves everything we consumed. Starvation was common among homeless refugees, and because new crops took time to cultivate, Llyr’s food stores had run low.

Changes in the saltwater had also made the harvests more difficult. Plants took longer to grow in warmer, acidifying water, and even healthy crops could become inedible if they absorbed too much toxic material, like radioactive waste or petroleum spilled by a tanker. Food stores were the insurance that Llyr could survive a disaster, and those dwindling supplies meant all of us were in jeopardy if the cultivators ever lost an entire harvest, or the plants stopped producing one year.

For now though, Llyr had enough to feed everyone, no matter what language a person spoke or whether they could work or not, and as my team arrived at the kutmin, I saw the families of each guardian had gathered around the perimeter.

Since Father had already departed for shore, and Aiden led my team, I only had Brielle waiting for me. My little sister. Seven years old, and slight for her age, she flashed her skin and tail to match mine when our eyes met. Brielle grew her hair long, like Luke and Isla, and she’d braided a strand with black pearls. The gems sparkled when her hair turned bright gold.

As I took my place with my team, and struggled not to pant or break line, or let anyone see me fight a spasm of pain, I saw Brielle start to cry. I hoped she was just glad to see me. Surely Father had sent a messenger to reassure her I was fine, that my spine had been healed and I’d recover. With so many people staring at me, there was no doubt they all knew what had happened. That I’d almost failed this time, almost died leaving the ship. They cheered for the team anyway, the same as they had for the other missions, until Aiden gestured for the crowd to be quiet.

We remained in formation for ten minutes, long enough to sing a short prayer, and for Aiden to praise us for the success of our mission. He spoke in a loud, confident voice, a perfect tone for a triumphant First Warden. “In tribute to the All, to our home, to the sea—we have once again accomplished our goal. We have sent another message our enemies cannot ignore. I am proud of my team. Proud of each one of you. And proud to call myself a drakhir. I am honored to serve beside you. We do not get to choose the battles we are born into, the struggles we are given to fight. But the actions we take are a choice, and I am thankful—I am grateful—you choose to fight with me.”

Everyone on the team called out with a drum-pulse, a noise created by vibrating a bone in our throats, a sharp sound that rumbled across the current, a sign of respect and appreciation for our commander. Then Aiden tipped his head to dismiss us, and we broke formation to join our families.

I didn’t move right away, didn’t want to risk a sudden back spasm, now that I had been still for ten minutes. My gaze stayed on Aiden. I thought of him assembling his war party in the next hour, leaving to search for a human to transform—and new waves of panic lashed through my chest.

Each beat of my heart felt as battered as my spine, like the muscle had been smashed along with my bones, and put back together all wrong.

I wished Xalea were here. More than anything, I wanted to speak to her. Thank her for saving my life, and ask her what she had done, what she had tithed to keep me alive. And I wanted to know why she had chosen to save me, after I had ignored all her warnings.

But even more than my questions, and expressing my gratitude, I wanted to tell Xalea how frightened I was. That I wasn’t sure killing a transformed human for a weapon of genocide was the right thing to do. That I was afraid of unleashing a curse that would destroy everyone inside Llyr.

To put this confession into words was the most pressing need I had at the moment, and Xalea was the only one I felt brave enough to tell.

But what if she couldn’t forgive me this time? What if Xalea could no longer accept that I’d refused to give her what I needed most from her now—to listen? Maybe saving my life had been an act of farewell, a sign that our friendship had ended. Because I’d chosen my brother, and sinking one last carrier, over her.

As Aiden disappeared into headquarters, Brielle launched herself into my arms. She clutched a piece of malachite in her hand, the rock she called Charlie, and as Brielle slammed against me, Charlie struck my shoulder, hard enough to bruise. She wrapped her arms around my neck like a squid seizing prey, held me so fast I had to loosen her grip to keep breathing.

“Hey, Bee,” I said, too drawn with pain and fatigue to say anything more, though I could tell she was weeping. Choking little sobs that made her tremble.

Luke and Isla drew close, and Luke said to Brielle, “Aw, don’t cry, Li-li. It’s all right. He even swam back on his own, see that? Brevyn fixed him right up.”

Isla stroked Brielle’s hair, running her hand down the length of it. “We were in camp a long time, huh? We’re sorry you were so worried.”

Brielle shuddered and kept her face hidden. “I want to go home.”

“But the day’s just beginning,” I said. “Wouldn’t you rather explore a new cave?”

Brielle shook her head no.

I shifted her into one arm, so I could pick up her wrist and jostle the hand that held her jagged green rock. “What’s Charlie say?”

Brielle’s answer was quick. “Ink tea.” Which was what she called borren, the steaming concoction of black-leaf and seawater juniper we often drank after supper. Borren settled the stomach, warmed the body, soothed frazzled nerves.

So I told Luke and Isla I’d see them later. With Brielle in my arms, I swam away from the crowd and crossed the canyon.

“Have you seen Xalea?” I asked softly, once we were alone.

“No,” Brielle said. “Not since you left.”

My heart sank at that news. The need to see Xalea felt worse than hunger.

“What about Ceto?” I asked, even though obakee were the most shy and elusive of all water sprites. While Ceto did enjoy harassing me, sylphs didn’t usually seek out the company of Sërenmare, and neither did sea dragons. I had little expectation that Ceto would be waiting for me at home.

“If you’re not here to puddle on, then neither is she,” Brielle said. Which summed up my friendship with Ceto pretty well.

We reached the mouth of the cave that led into our grotto, the sprawling area where the Zroba clan lived. I swam into the passageway, and followed the serpentine path to our home.

Brielle peered up at me, and changed position in my arms to press a hand to my face. I tried to block her from reading me, but I was too tired for a shield. The instant the receptors in her fingertips picked up my fear, a shadow fell over her face. The color in her eyes dimmed. “Why are you worried?” She pushed a hand through my hair. “Rowan, what’s the matter? Why do you think we’re in danger?”

I shook my head and didn’t answer.

“Don’t feel bad for the human they’re hunting,” Brielle said. “All humans are bad. All humans make poison. Like the ones you destroy. You have to kill them to save us. To save Llyr.”

She repeated the same words I’d used before, when I’d first volunteered as jusbel.

Except now I knew boarding those ships had changed me, had trapped me with a complicated knowledge of humans I didn’t want, emotions and memories that tore at my heart. I didn’t know how to explain myself, could barely recognize how deep my fear ran, the extent of the terror that seized me. So I nodded and said nothing. The silence felt ugly, a heavy weight in my throat.

“Don’t worry, Rowan. The All will forgive you. Because even with a tail, a human’s a human. And if we don’t kill them, we’ll die. The All doesn’t want us to die.”

My nightmare, however, had said otherwise.

I needed to call for Xalea. Share my terrible dream. Ask her what I should do.

I’d make borren first. Then I’d cast the sea with her name.

Wherever Xalea was, I prayed she’d forgive me, and answer.

16

At the ingress, instead of leaping into the grotto together, I let Brielle jump ahead of me, and then clambered from the pool behind her, on my hands. My tail required ten full seconds to transition to legs, and Brielle studied my face, worried and sad. Her skin flashed silver-white with concern, and I turned navy and turquoise to say I was fine.

“Bee, I’m okay,” and as I rose, I lifted her into my arms again, let her press her head to my neck, and carried her down the hall. Amber light colored the basalt in the passageway a rich orange, and the sandstone beneath my feet felt dusty and rough.

Our family had a large suite of rooms inside the clan grotto. Most of our meals were eaten within the big kitchen, in the communal space, but I chose to remain in our suite. Golden sea flowers hung in garlands over each door, and I slipped through the petals with a whispery hush.

Inside our dark kitchen, I placed Brielle on the counter. She watched me pick up the lamp orbs and start them burning, a small sending that glimmered in the pressurized air. Then I took out the ingredients for ink tea. Culinary supplies were tucked away inside crevices, sculpted hollows in the island counter and walls.

“Are you going to have some?” Brielle asked.

“Mm… maybe.” Ink tea was a comfort drink, but it wasn’t the comfort I needed right now. The distraction was welcome though. I liked having something to do.

I chopped a small pile of black-leaf and set it to boil on the hearth stone. Then I mashed the seawater juniper into a bowl, and added the extras for flavor: five scoops of cardamom jelly for sweetness, several spoonfuls of timor for zest, and two pinches of korinna-seed to temper the jelly and balance the taste.

“Yours is better than Aiden’s,” Brielle said.

I removed the pot of boiled leaves from the hearth stone, and poured the water into my bowl. “Aiden never learned how to cook.”

“That’s why the stuff he makes is disgusting.”

I stirred the mixture with a spoon. “He likes the warrior version of borren.”

Brielle frowned. “I’d rather drink octopus pee.”

I grinned as I ladled a mug full and passed her the cup. “Sounds delicious.”

“Only you would say that.” Brielle pressed Charlie against her temple while she blew on her tea, then took a delicate sip. “You make it best.”

I rested my arms on the counter. “It’s the extra scoop of jelly. And the korinna-seed. That’s the secret.”

“Like I don’t watch you mix it.” Brielle stuck out her tongue.

I nudged her with my elbow, but not hard enough to make her spill. She giggled and turned an iridescent spring green, then rainbowed her hair with bands of amethyst, cerulean, and pale silver, shades that gleamed in the light. I knew by the twinkle in her eyes that she wanted me to copy her, so I did, but my colors weren’t as vibrant. She still laughed contentedly though, kicking her bare feet.

Later, she followed me back to my room. I rocked her in my arms for a while, singing the lullabies we’d learned from our mother.

Eliana Zroba. She’d been dead for a year now… a year and four weeks.

Our mother never saw me become the jusbel. She never saw Aiden make star-guides, or teach Pierce how to make bone keys. Never saw us take down the ship that had killed her.

I sang one of her favorite songs, thinking of Aiden already swimming for shore.

Once Brielle fell asleep, I set her down on my bed, drew a blanket around her, and smoothed her long hair away from her face. Brielle never slept at this hour, which meant she must’ve been awake during sendo, the time of rest. Probably waiting up for the raid team to swim home.

The trip had exhausted me, and I wanted to lie down, but I left my room and walked down the hall, away from our family suite and into the communal area. I entered my clan’s blessing room, a large circular space absent of furniture, and empty of people right now.

I walked to the center of the room, but didn’t use magic to light the runes in the walls or the ceiling. I placed my hands in the calling hold, an invisible lock suspended in air.

With a sending, the stone floor in front of my feet cracked open, and a courier stone rose from the ground in a column. A large slab of blue agate and white fire opal had been shaped into an elegant pillar, which made no sound as it moved, and stopped rising the instant the rock touched my palms.

Humans used radio signals to broadcast information, pulses they could send over land and deep into space.

Courier stones were similar to a human wireless system, but the magic required a specific receiver, and that receiver had to accept the message.

I called Xalea’s name with my magic, and the courier stone cast my energy into the ocean, searching for her with a power only she could detect. I couldn’t use a courier stone to locate her position, but I would know if she accepted my desire to speak to her.

Nothing. My magic cast through the currents, traveling the ocean in seconds, but I felt no response. Again and again, I tried to contact her. Xalea didn’t signal anything back. Neither did Ceto, when I called her name several times. My magic met only silence.

I pulled my hands from the courier stone, stepped away from the calling hold, and the pillar of agate returned to the floor.

Then I leaned a shoulder against the wall and took a seat, awkward and slow.

Tears welled in my eyes, so I covered my face with my hands, took deep breaths, and won control of myself. My heart calmed, but I remained where I was, too broken to move.

At some point, fatigue must have overwhelmed me, forcing me to fall asleep and slump to the floor. Because the next thing I knew, someone was shaking me into consciousness.

“Rowan! Rowan, wake up! Please, brother! Wake up!”

Aiden’s voice. Not his commander’s tone. He sounded frantic and scared.

I opened an eye, discovered I still lay in the blessing room, and remembered I’d been calling for Xalea and Ceto. Aiden leaned over me, his gaze searching my face, and I raised myself onto an elbow.

I slurred my words, so groggy and disoriented I worried I’d pass out again. “What is it?”

“Brevyn. Something’s happened with Brevyn. I need you to come.”

“Is he hurt?”

Aiden shook his head. “Please, Rowan, just get up. You have to come with me. You must.”

So I rose from the floor, and followed Aiden into the hall. He gripped my spear and belt in his hands, and as we walked into an exit room, I asked, “What time is it?”

“Midnight.” Aiden cinched my spear onto his own back, and clipped my belt above his. “Come,” and he gestured for me to leap into the ingress. “Now.”

I dropped into the water, took the extra time I needed to transition my legs, and Aiden fell in beside me. We swam into the canyon.

Amidst the people passing by, everyone going about their lives in a usual manner, I didn’t see Xalea or Ceto. Didn’t see Isla or Luke, or anyone else from our raid team. I had no coherent thoughts other than Aiden needed me, and I struggled to cast a scythe and keep up.

He led us through the canyon, past the cultivators busy at work, singing to their crops near the surface. We didn’t pause to listen, or speak to anyone. At the fastest pace I could manage, we headed toward shore.

17

Across the surface currents at night, luminous blankets of plankton and tiny sea creatures decorated the waves. Greens, yellows, blues, and bright reds, with the brilliant rainbows of some animals overpowering others, the bioluminescent coloring used for all purposes: hunting, defense, communication, and mating. The sunscape desert of the epipelagic had become a rich living darkness, a pageant of motion and pressure and sound. The scent of blood permeated the water, along with the electric currents of feasting and frenzy.

“Should we slow down?” Aiden asked.

I debated how to answer, whether to be honest or not.

“No,” I said, too aware of Aiden’s own fear to delay. “Just don’t swim any faster.” We travelled at seven knots, less than two feet from the surface. With so many miles to cover, at such a moderate pace, we had to reduce as much friction and drag as possible. I didn’t have the level of magic I needed to keep a strong scythe, and the lingering pain in my spine increased with each mile.

“Will you tell me now?” I asked. “What happened to Brevyn?”

Aiden sighed. “Brevyn is fine.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

No answer.

“Did the team find the right human? Did something go wrong with the spell?”

Aiden let a full minute pass without a response. I turned my face so I could meet his eyes, and when he still didn’t answer, I halted, and flashed a black marbling through my skin, obsidian veined with brilliant white. The speed and the color broadcast anger, annoyance. Same for the scarlet chevrons I patterned over my body, replacing the lightning imagery with a stronger display, so Aiden would know I was done with his silence.

He stopped, acknowledging my refusal to continue unless he answered my question.

Aiden stared off ahead of us, avoiding my gaze, and his voice became sharp. “Father caught the human, and drowned her—”

Drowned her? I thought we were supposed to transform her!”

“We did. That’s part of the summoning, Rowan. What Brevyn learned in the runes. The human drowns first, then the body can undergo metamorphosis.”

I darkened my chevrons to onyx and burnished gold. “What is the point of the ritual, if she’s dead?

“She’s only dead a few seconds. Twenty seconds, maybe thirty. Then she’s supposed to wake up anew.”

I clenched my hands into fists. “But she didn’t wake up.”

“No, she opened her eyes.”

“Then something went wrong. She didn’t change.”

Aiden sighed again. “She did change.”

Another minute passed in silence before I said, “I’m still waiting for you to tell me what I’m doing here.”

“There’s something wrong with her body. Her tail isn’t fusing, her gills are inadequate. She’s dying, and Brevyn can’t figure it out. Neither can Dennik, or Rachel, or Logan. So Siersha asked me to bring you.”

Which meant Brevyn’s summoning spell had already backfired in some way, and his life was in danger. But if the strongest healers of Llyr couldn’t help this human transform, what help could I be? “Why would Siersha call me?

“Because we don’t need a healer. Siersha doesn’t think the human’s body is the problem. It’s her mind.”

Aiden fell silent again while I pondered his words.

I lowered my voice, comprehension dawning on me. “You need to communicate with her.”

Aiden gave a curt nod. “And you’re the best speaker we have.”

18

I wasn’t the only speaker in Llyr. But Aiden wouldn’t have come to collect me unless every other speaker had failed, their magic unable to decipher the language of a human.

With a bitterness that stole my breath, I felt a sudden helplessness settle over me. Standing on the deck of that carrier and realizing I’d have to jump to my death had been easier than this.

I’d never wanted contact with the blood sacrifice. This wasn’t an enemy I could kill from a distance. This was an intimate death, with a knife.

I would have to cast a pull on this person, form a connection with her, know her mind—and I wanted nothing to do with this human’s mind. Then I’d have to watch her transform, become one of us—always aware that later, after she’d been taken to Llyr, I would shove a blade in her throat.

That was why Xalea and Ceto had forsaken me now. Because this was the nightmare I had made for myself.

“It’s us or them,” Aiden said, trying to soothe me. “You know the extinctions aren’t slowing. You must do this for us, brother. There’s no other way.”

I didn’t respond. My throat felt too choked to speak, my mind too consumed with pain for clear thought. I couldn’t look at Aiden, so I stared back the way we had come. Gazing over the long path we had traveled to get to this point. All the choices we’d made, he and I.

Somewhere inside me, I was still Rowan the jusbel. Destroyer of ships. Protector of Llyr.

Or maybe that Rowan had died. And all that was left in his place was a weak, worthless mage who’d done terrible things, a monster who’d become what he most hated.

• • •

Aiden and I swam through the night. At dawn, I watched the sun rise. The stars disappeared, and the water calmed as sea life returned to the depths. Swimming this high during daylight was unpleasant, but necessary. The greater the sea pressure, the more energy required to cast a scythe and swim. So we stayed in the bright, quiet water, listening to ships in the distance, avoiding their thick trails of sludge, crossing the open ocean toward shore.

As the hours passed, I tracked the sun in the sky, and tried not to picture this human who’d been drowned and only partially transformed. Anxiety gnawed at me, insistent as the cutting pain in my spine.

We left Llyrian territory, and entered water once held by the Fenneru tribe.

The Fenneru had been decimated after an oil spill ruined their entire food supply, made their homes uninhabitable, and coated their gills with so much waste that the majority of the tribe had sickened and died. Those who’d survived the destruction had been absorbed into Llyr.

Ten miles from shore, Aiden and I arrived at a seamount, a massive mountain of rock that rose up from the ocean floor. This one wasn’t quite tall enough to break surface, with at least forty feet between the flattened top of the mount and the air.

Aiden dove and I kept at his side. Down and down we swam, into the cold, welcome darkness.

At the base of the seamount, we reached the mouth of an ancient song cave, built by the ancestors of the Fenneru. The glyphs at the entrance were hard to make out, but my magic identified the markings as Hielett runes, an ancient tribe that had lived here after the time of the first summoners. I felt the faint pulse of old power, almost beyond my ability to sense.

Siersha waited for us at the entrance. Flares of magic lit the water surrounding her hands, a vibrant gleam that illuminated the dark tunnel behind her, cast the rock a pale gold, and made the runes glitter like stars.

She wore a decorative covering on her upper chest, a garment made with swirls of bright silver jewelry shaped with metal and shell, inlaid with shimmering pieces of mica. Her top looked as intricate and elaborate as a necklace, but still gave the appearance of battle armor. Similar jewelry adorned her upper arms, which were muscled and lean. Siersha had the dark red tattoos of a magi on her biceps and wrists. Her scales were solid ebony, her skin shone a brilliant steel-blue, and her long hair was white, thick and sleek, and hung loose down her back. She had heavy lines in her face, the creases of advanced age, but her sapphire eyes were piercing, as formidable as a soldier’s.

Her voice was formal and crisp. “You understand why Aiden has brought you?”

I bowed my head in respect. “Yes, your grace.”

Siersha glanced at Aiden, her expression haughty and cool, before she met my gaze again. Her tone remained curt. “You must convince the human to turn. Accept the change in her body. Read her, figure out how she stopped Brevyn’s spell, and force her to finish transforming. Do whatever you must. But work fast. There is no time to waste.”

As she spoke, I sensed the strength of Siersha’s magic woven into the cave. She’d placed a trapping spell in the seamount, a very powerful one. A spell meant to hold back a curse.

Fear gripped me so fast, I swam back several feet, seized by the instinct of self-preservation. I didn’t want to swim into a tunnel filled with a curse. That was a risk only a magi would take—and I was not only physically weak, but exhausted. The uncontrolled force of a failed summoning spell not only had the power to kill its creator—that energy could split rock, trigger earthquakes, topple mountains—and send a malignant blast of magic through the sea.

No wonder Aiden and I had arrived here alone. Everyone else had cleared out.

Siersha would have to open her spell to admit me, and then she would seal her binding again. Even if I succeeded, and found a way to make this human finish transforming, the curse still had the power to kill. Grounding unhinged energy into the earth—the only solution for disarming a curse—how many times had Xalea warned me that the process could be fatal?

This seamount was a death trap. An object far more dangerous than any ship I had boarded.

Siersha couldn’t read my mind, but what I was thinking must’ve been obvious the moment I backed away. “If the energy I’ve bound in the rock doesn’t ground soon, the curse will break through my spell and spread into the sea. The first of my shields has already broken. You have an hour, maybe less, before my power will fail.”

Before I would die, she meant. That curse would shatter the seamount, and then blow through the ocean, killing everything in its path until the energy had dissolved.

Aiden wrapped his arms around me, and for an instant, I felt his screen fail, and his fear rushed through me, a terror that equaled my own.

Then his screen snapped back into place, the sensation vanished, and he was a First Warden again, the man who gave me my orders.

His voice sounded rough, though he spoke with great confidence. “You’re strong, Rowan. You’re an excellent speaker. You can do this. I know you can do this.”

Aiden pressed his brow against mine, hugged my neck, and released me.

I stared into the mouth of the cave. My words were for Aiden, though I motioned to Siersha I was ready to enter. “Tell Brielle I said goodbye.”

Siersha waved her glowing hands through the entrance, parted her spell, and I swam into the tunnel.

19

As soon as I crossed the threshold, I felt the curse vibrating in the walls all around me, lashing through the rock like millions of sea snakes. A writhing, pulsing, electric force, filling the mount with a terrible pressure. My heart pounded, my skull ached, and the penance mark in my skin gleamed like a rune, blazing with magic in a scorching shade of silvery-white.

I halted and pressed a hand to my chest, expecting to find my blood in the water. The pain in my skin felt like the mark had burned out of me.

But there was no blood, no visible wound. The light in the emblem blistered with heat, raising the lines in my skin so much that they looked like scar tissue.

Nothing I could do to soothe my pain though. My body was too weak to power a healing spell capable of blocking those nerves. I dropped my hand and forced myself to keep moving.

At the ingress that led to the air grotto, I struggled to switch my tail into legs. The transition hurt, a stabbing sensation like hundreds of needles pushed into my muscles, and required a frightening twenty seconds of effort. My slowest switch yet.

Climbing out of the water, the pressure in the air became so intense that I fought to breathe. Gasping and trembling with pain, I rose to my feet and took in my surroundings.

The song cave was small for a tribal gathering place, with a ceiling twenty feet high, and round walls with a diameter of only fifty or sixty feet. Vivid lights glowed in the jagged rock all around me, radiant with the force of the curse illuminating the glyphs. Neon shades of purple and yellow and pink, turquoise and jade, rainbows woven in elaborate patterns in the ceiling and walls. There were spirals and waves and repeating fractals, lavender blossoms and whorls of white-silver starbursts. Great gyres and helices twined through the stone, flowing and rippling like water. In each intricate pattern, darker colors braided through the bright light, flashing and winking, as if the whole room was moving, a painting come to life.

Hielett runes, inscribed with ancient poems, stories, and spells. Given time, I could translate and read every one.

I’d never seen so much power before. The energy pulsed with violence, throbbed in my ears, scratched my skin. The song cave swarmed with revenance current, full of death, and every instinct I had told me to leap for the ingress and flee. The curse trapped in this room held the destructive potential of thousands of star-guides. And grounding that power hinged on the life of one human.

In the same instant I took in the dimensions and runes of the song cave, I saw her. She lay against the far wall, atop a narrow pallet, on a bed made of green moss.

No pillows or blankets had been placed on the bed, only the human, who watched me with a savage expression, teeth bared, a ferocious gleam in her eyes. She clutched a sharp piece of coral in one hand, drawn close to her chest like a knife. Her sole weapon. Keeping her head raised to face me, holding herself up on one elbow, required so much effort that she panted the same way I had on the carrier, like a fish right before its gills collapsed, a tremendous heaving in the face of certain death.

She was young, no more than my age, but much smaller than me. This girl was very short, so petite she seemed closer to the size of a child. Bony wrists, thin arms, a slender neck. Her skin was dark brown, a hue close to black. Her long hair was obsidian, frizzy and thick as a sea sponge, a huge misshapen mass that spilled onto the bed.

She no longer had legs, but two lengths of slimy flesh that stretched from her hipbones and tapered to points where her knees should have been. The skin looked gangrenous, necrotic, like she’d lain there and rotted. Tentacles covered her leg stumps, as if squid arms grew from the muscle. Each wormy mass was about eight inches long, and quivered like pudding when she moved.

Her human clothes were ripped and discolored, stained with blood. She made a soft, grating rumble with each inhalation, fighting to breathe with her half-transformed human lungs.

I crossed the room and located a particular glyph. Placed my hand on the rune, and with a hot burst of magic, I adjusted the pressure inside the air grotto, changed the force in the song cave to match the atmosphere near the surface. The girl’s breathing became far less labored, and the rumbling in her chest disappeared.

I hadn’t realized the pressure had been keeping the girl immobilized—as soon as I finished the sending, the girl launched herself off the bed and shot toward the ingress, scrambling over the floor with her arms and quivering snake-legs like an octopus. She moved with astonishing speed, slapping the rock with sticky, squelching noises as she ran past me, still clutching her weapon in her hand.

I leapt for her, caught her before she could plunge into the water. As I swept her into my arms, she screamed and struck me—tore my chest open, right through my lit penance mark. I snatched the coral from her grip and hurled it away.

Touching her skin, I didn’t need to cast an energy net to make sense of her words. My magic flowed through her body and translated her sounds without effort.

Let me go!” She thrashed her legs in the air, and pummeled me with her wriggling stumps. “I won’t die here! I won’t die here!” Her voice sounded ragged, almost hoarse.

I made my words loud enough to overpower hers. “There’s only one way out of this cave—and that’s swimming through the sea, with a tail.”

As soon as I spoke, the girl startled and stilled, gaping at me in surprise. My magic swept up her terror, her adrenaline, her frantic need to escape. Her racing thoughts told me she hadn’t expected to hear noises she understood. None of the other speakers had managed English at all.

Then her fury returned with the force of a hurricane, and she jerked in my arms again, dark eyes blazing. “Look what you’ve done to me! Look at my legs! I’m rotting to death!

“That’s not decay, you’re transforming, turning into one of us—”

I want to go home!

I stepped to the edge of the ingress, close enough my toes almost dipped into the water, holding her body above the green surface. “You try to leave this cave as you are, you’re going to drown. You need gills to breathe, and right now they’re as deformed as your legs. Do you know the word suicide? Because that’s what will happen if you jump in that water and try swimming away. The sea pressure will crush every bit of you that’s still human, and you’ll drown.”

The girl shook her head in anguish and rage, despair and confusion. “I don’t want to die!”

“Then you’ll need a body that can survive in the ocean. You’re in open water, almost three thousand feet from the surface. Do you understand what would happen to you at that depth?”

The girl panted and stared at the water again. She didn’t answer, but I read her thoughts clearly enough.

Her legs went still, her lungs rattled with the sound of loose blood in her gills, and she collapsed against my chest. I felt her heart pounding, felt her struggling to breathe. She was in a lot of pain, the kind of torture I suffered when I boarded ships, and there was no greater testament to how strong this girl was than the fact she could function so well through her agony. I held her body against me with one arm, and both her wrists in one hand, while she stared at the bloody cut she had made on my chest.

I followed her thoughts for a minute. Saw her memory of her drowning, sinking in the pull of Father’s powerful magic, watched as she battled the invisible barrier that kept her sealed from the air. The memory pained me to witness, feeling her thrash until she couldn’t hold her breath anymore, and started inhaling water, aware she would die. As the girl took in what I had said, I felt her adrenaline ebb, her panic splintered, and her mind refocused on the present.

Her voice was much quieter now, but still angry and sharp. “You’re one of them, aren’t you. You wanted to kill me, except I didn’t die—”

“You did die, but only for a few seconds. Not long enough to do any permanent damage.”

The girl picked up her head in astonishment, met my eyes with a stark, wordless horror, and my magic filled with her terror again. I saw dozens of images of her time in this cave, her memories of the other drakhir who’d tried speaking to her. She’d seen them transition as they dove for the ingress, had caught sight of their tails. Her thoughts flowed so quickly, even as weakened and sick as she was, bombarding me with emotion as she spoke. “Why did you do this to me? Why did you kill me and take my legs?”

“That was part of a spell to turn you into one of us—a Sërenmare. But the transformation isn’t finished, and that’s why your legs haven’t fused. Your body needs to use the rest of the magic trapped in the walls—” and I glanced over the song cave to indicate the curse energy, gesturing toward the lit runes with my chin—“power that was meant to grow the gills in your lungs and seal your legs in a tail. If you don’t finish changing, you’re going to die.”

At the thought of becoming half-fish, and living the rest of her life in the sea, the girl yanked her wrists from my grip, and started thrashing again. “I’m not growing a tail! I want my legs back!”

Struggling to keep hold of her, I was flooded with images of her father, a man who laughed a lot and had only one child, this girl I held now. A man who shared her skin coloring, her black hair, the shape of her cheekbones and nose. I felt how desperate she was to return to him, to reassure him she was alive.

I caught up the girl’s wrists again, and as my magic continued to translate her words—“I don’t belong here!”—I realized this girl wasn’t a sailor. She’d never even worked on a ship. She didn’t drill mines, or use driftnets, or dump barrels of nuclear waste in the sea.

She was just… someone like me. Hurt and scared. Wishing for her father. Wishing she could be home and safe, surrounded by the people she loved.

I didn’t want to kill this girl. Of course the All would revenance me if I took her life. How had I ever believed this was right?

You’ve made a mistake, Xalea had said. But it’s not too late to fix it.

What if it was, though? What if Xalea had saved me just to swim here and die? Blown apart with this innocent girl I’d promised to murder?

Kindness, Rowan. Even if you’re too late to save her. Even if you’re going to die. Be kind.

That was what Xalea would tell me, if she were here now.

So I softened my voice, and followed Xalea’s advice. If I wanted to fix my mistake, if I wanted to be kind, then there was only one thing I could say. “I can’t send you home like this. But if you finish transforming—if you grow your tail and become one of us—then I might be able to help you.”

The girl calmed again, exhausted, and I let go of her hands.

Her tone held urgency, and a whisper of hope. “Help me how?”

20

For the first time in months, I didn’t filter my words through a lie. The truth tumbled out in a rush. What I most wanted to do—deep down someplace in my heart I thought I’d stopped listening to—became my response, a statement I spoke with conviction. “I’ll take you to the caves of the Dev-durvani tribe. We can find the glyphs to turn you back into a human—and send you home.”

Then that harsh echo-feeling hit me, the one I suffered before boarding ships—when stress overloaded my system, and my vision split in two. I suddenly stood apart from myself, stunned by what I had said.

I couldn’t escape the might of the First Warden, or the Qarin. Steal the blood sacrifice from Aiden, from Father, and send her back home? Was I out of my mind?

But wasn’t the alternative worse? Wouldn’t I do more damage if I allowed her to die? Even if this girl had spent her life slaughtering whales and throwing tons of chemical garbage into the sea—everything involved in creating a genocide weapon had already gone wrong.

Each horror Xalea had warned of had come to pass, and she’d said the All would never permit us to complete Aiden’s spell. Like Brevyn’s failed summoning, Xalea had been certain that creating a biological weapon would backfire, and destroy Llyr instead.

Even if Rowan the jusbel was gone, and I was nothing more than some weak, pathetic mage who couldn’t even be a drakhir—

Then I was still alive for a reason. Xalea was too wise to tithe her magic for nothing.

I had to figure out a way to send this girl home, and cancel any attempts at repeating this genesis spell. I had to make Aiden and Father realize we’d been wrong to use our magic to kill.

As soon as I told myself that, I stopped feeling apart from myself. The double-vision vanished, as quickly as it had come.

The girl shook her head at my words. “I don’t believe you. Why would you do this to me, and then just send me home?”

“If I were lying right now, my penance mark would turn red.”

“You mean all the light in your chest? Your magic tattoo?” The girl squinted as she glanced over my torso, and as I pulled from the thoughts that raced through her mind, she called the design a mandala, an intricate pattern representing the cosmos. The cut she’d made through my penance mark was quite deep, and blood smeared my skin as well as the bright lines of magic. “Looks pretty red now.”

I waved a hand toward my chest. “My chromatophores would turn red. Not the color of blood, but iridescent, like pearls. When the mark is powered like that, I’m under the oath of my vows. If I were lying to you, my skin cells would change.”

The girl poked at the glowing white lines, avoiding the jagged slice she had made in my skin. In her thoughts, she still believed I was lying.

“I can taste you, and smell you,” she said. “With my fingers.”

“Your chemoreceptors.”

“Chemoreceptors,” she murmured. “Like an octopus.”

“Like a lot of sea creatures.”

In all my time boarding ships, I’d never touched a human. Now that she was calm, and no longer fighting me, I could register how strange her body felt to my power, since she was still far more human than Sërenmare, with the internal wiring of a land creature. She smelled like land, too. A raw sandy scent full of wind.

The girl stopped tracing my penance mark. A sudden thought struck her, and she met my gaze with surprise. “Were you once human, too? Is that how you can talk to me?”

“No, I am kinned to the sea. Bound forever. Born to the Sërenmare, to life in the water. I’m using my magic to translate your words.”

“Magic,” she echoed, as her eyes darkened again with disappointment, with lost hope. “You grew up as one of them.” In her mind, she identified me once again as an enemy, someone who was not to be trusted.

But another thought rippled through her as well. Some tiny part of her wanted to trust me, wanted me to tell her the truth, heal her body, and get her out of this mess.

Her voice remained steady and strong. “Why make me one of you? Am I supposed to be some kind of slave?”

I walked to the bed and set her down, then took a seat beside her, while the curse flashed through the runes with a pale emerald light. The girl glanced over the walls as the revenance energy snapped through the glyphs, which soon shone again with a rainbow of colors.

“Why does it do that?” she asked. “Turn green sometimes?”

“When the curse tears through a layer of the trapping spell. You can see the death energy then, trying to break free. It means we’re running out of time.”

The girl made no motion to sprint toward the ingress again. Several of the fleshy coils on her leg brushed my thigh, enough contact I didn’t need to cast a net to keep reading her thoughts. She waited for me to answer her first question, and tell her why she was here.

“We needed your blood to make a fungus. A biological weapon to kill an animal.”

“What animal?”

I glanced over the runes above her head, wishing I knew what to say. Admitting that I’d hoped to annihilate her entire race didn’t seem like the most helpful thing to share at the moment. Or ever.

But my penance scar would gleam red if I lied, and that would be even worse. So I settled on delaying the truth. “I’ll tell you the rest once you have a tail.”

The girl gave me a menacing smile. “Of course—after you get what you want, you’ll share the whole story. Who wouldn’t trust an offer like that?”

“I’m telling the truth!”

“Then why don’t you take my blood now, and leave me alone? Why drown me and change me, if all you needed—”

“We needed to kill you,” I said. “You were the ritual sacrifice for our genesis spell.”

The girl clenched her teeth while she took in my words, struggling with her pain. “That, I believe,” she said quietly.

I lowered my voice to match hers. “I’m supposed to slit your throat later. To power the spell for our weapon.”

Tears slipped down the girl’s cheeks, though her expression remained stony and fierce. “You’re planning to murder me, and telling me you’ll send me home—why would I trust you? You think I was lying about not wanting to die?”

I shook my head, upset with myself, angry I didn’t know what to say to convince her to change. “If you want to live, then please listen to me. We’re both going to die if you don’t finish transforming. The power meant to complete the change in your body has turned into a curse, an energy like a bomb that’s circling around us in the rock.” I gestured over the runes with a sweep of my hand. “That curse is cutting through the holding power every second we sit here, and once that force is released, the entire mountain we’re sitting in will be blown apart.”

The girl wiped her cheeks dry, searching my face. “Then why are you here? Why bother to change me, if there’s a bomb in the walls? Isn’t it easier to let the blast kill me, if you needed my death for your spell?”

I glanced again at the runes. “No one can harness a failed ritual. Magic doesn’t work with that kind of chaos. Which is why so many lives will be destroyed if that curse hits the sea. People and animals no one intended to kill.”

The girl glowered and yelled, “So you really don’t care if I die—you’re trying to save everyone else!”

I lashed back just as strongly, frustrated that no matter what I said, I only made everything worse. “Of course I don’t want you to die! I’m the reason you’re here. You’re my mistake, and I’m trying to fix what I’ve done. That’s why I want to take you to the Dev-durvani caves, to change you back and send you home. I’m not lying about that!”

The power in the cave suddenly shifted, broke through several more layers of Siersha’s binding spell, and began coursing through the walls so fast that the light disappeared for a moment, plunging the room into darkness. Then the colors returned with an awful intensity. Energy fired through my body with a frightening heat, and increased the pressure in my blood so much I felt sick. My lateral lines flashed pink and blue, and then my head dropped, my shoulders slumped forward, like every bit of strength I had left was being pulled out of me.

My penance mark itched and burned like a stonefish had stung me, and I shuddered in a violent fit of pain. If we were going to live, the girl had to change soon. We didn’t have an hour, we had minutes, maybe seconds—

The room darkened again, and the girl screamed. This time, the colors didn’t return. The runes glowed a deep green, an ominous and horrible shade, and the girl gripped my arms and shook me.

“I’ll swim to the caves with you! Can you hear me? I’ll do it! I’ll go with you!” She grasped my hair with one hand, and lifted my head. “What’s the matter with you? Stop the curse!” She slapped my chest several times, like I’d fallen asleep. “Your mark is purple now! Make it white again—get up!”

Sections of rock began to drop from the ceiling, smashing apart on the floor, and the walls rumbled and pulsed with the roll of an earthquake.

The girl threw her arms around me, shaking with terror as the cave began to collapse.

“Please, please!” she screamed. “Do something! Get us out of here!”

I closed my eyes, tried to speak again, and failed. The All had taken my magic, my voice. Or maybe the curse had cancelled out my abilities.

The girl squeezed me harder. “You promise to help me?” she shouted. A large slab of rock tore loose above the ingress, crashed down through the water, and the light in the room turned deeper green, almost black. The girl lifted my head again, yanking my hair so I could look into her eyes. The way she held my face back, I was able to answer her question with a nod.

She lowered her voice, adopted a tone hard as steel. “Then I’ll change into one of you. I’m ready.”

Which should’ve been enough to finish the spell. The girl had decided she wanted a Sërenmare body—I’d done as Siersha had said, and convinced the girl why she needed to change. What more could I do? Why didn’t the transformative summoning ground the energy?

Another long section of rock cracked and loosened above us, and somehow I found the strength to lift my clumsy arms, grabbed up the girl, and pulled her onto the floor. Stones pelted my back, tearing skin, as I shielded her body, and a boulder smashed through the empty bed. A heavy piece landed on my leg, and I was sure my ankle had been crushed. The revenance current flexed around me like pinching claws, about to rip me apart.

I took the girl’s left hand, rested her palm flat on the floor, and spoke a prayer. I whispered the words, ragged and slurred, and begged the All to fix what I’d done. “Please send her home. Please don’t let her die here with me.” I closed with the formal lines of every Llyrian hymn. “My life is your life. Antahna.” Grace to the All.

The cave split open, like the ceiling and walls had been full of dynamite, and the room exploded like thousands of star-guides going off. My head filled with a roar, like the tide in a hurricane, and the air turned white, brighter than staring into the sun.

Then everything vanished. The cave, the explosion, the girl. And me.

21

In the deep dark of unconscious, visions flashed through my mind. Waves rolled beneath a night sky, and I heard Xalea singing. Somewhere in the ocean, her voice called to me.

Ceto added her trills to the music, and then broke off into laughter, like she and Xalea were playing a game.

Brielle appeared, swimming close, and she pressed her nose against mine, giggling. “Rowan!” she squealed, resting Charlie against my shoulder. “Don’t you hear Xalea’s song?”

But the lyrics weren’t Xalea’s. And that was no longer her voice drifting over the current. This song belonged to my mother. One of her lullabies to help Brielle fall asleep.

Aiden arrived, the way he’d looked as a teen, without the marks on his arms that made him First Warden. He picked up Brielle, who was much younger now, only one or two. Seeing her so little again made my heart ache, remembering how adorable she had been.

Brielle laughed as Aiden swam in a spiral, making her shriek with glee.

By the time they finished spinning, Aiden was the First Warden, and Brielle was older, the age she had been when our mother died.

“She’s dead, Rowan,” Aiden said. “The humans blew her apart.”

The sound of our mother’s singing had vanished. The ocean was silent.

And then Brielle disappeared, and Aiden held a bag of star-guides instead.

“We’ll kill them,” he said, placing the bag in my hands. “You and me.”

I grasped the bag with both hands, and swam toward the surface. Toward my first ship.

• • •

I heard Xalea speak. A memory of her words, the bright sound of her voice.

I felt myself hugging her, Xalea in corporeal form, in the shape of a cuttlefish, her body a vibrant magenta. Her big squiggly eyes full of tenderness, while one of her suckers planted a sticky kiss on my face.

My arms were empty though. Xalea wasn’t here with me. But the sound of her laughter whispered through me, soft as moonlight and bubbles.

Then the visions stopped, my head cleared, and I woke.

• • •

I lay in the ruined song cave, the glyphs destroyed, the floor littered with fallen rock. As I rolled forward and sat up, I moved without pain.

I hadn’t been buried. Though I was sure my back had been cut open and bruised, and at least one of my ankles had been crushed, there wasn’t a trace of that damage. Not only had I survived the explosion—I’d been healed.

The girl sat beside me, awake and alert. Her legs and feet looked as perfect as mine, and as my knee brushed her calf, my magic no longer sensed a human, but a Sërenmare body, healthy and strong. I felt the sea’s energy coursing through her, a mark of her own innate magic. The girl still wore her bloodstained, tattered clothes, with her unruly hair spilling down her shoulders and back.

To see her unharmed, with her body safely transformed, brought me as much relief as discovering my own body had been healed. As I checked over her now, reassuring myself that the girl was no longer in any pain, I realized she was kind of pretty, in a strange sort of way. Even as small as she was, with that mess of spongy hair and in her ripped human clothes, I liked the shape of her face. Her features complemented each other, especially the curve of her cheekbones and the set of her mouth. There was something exciting about her, so much that I looked away, not wanting to stare.

Her dark eyes took me in with a wary expression, while I glanced around, trying to get my bearings. “How long did I sleep?”

The girl shrugged and followed my gaze. The only light in the room came from the ingress, which was almost entirely covered in rock. Narrow puddles of saltwater cast a dim shade of aquamarine through the cave.

“All that magic is gone now,” she said. “And the mountain’s still here.”

“Your body transformed. You have gills in your lungs now. And when you enter the water, you can switch to a tail.”

She furrowed her brows in a scowl. “I know,” and she held up her palms, fingers splayed. “I’m coated in slime now, like you. Fish slime. It’s disgusting.”

Her irritation with her new body almost made me laugh, but I dipped my head and hid my smile. She’d think I was mocking her, and that wasn’t what I found funny. If someone hauled me out of the water and turned me into a human, I’d be pissed, too. Angry enough to consider choking someone to death while they slept, which this girl had probably thought about doing to me. I wouldn’t have blamed her at all.

As to the protective coating of slime that covered Sërenmare bodies, that layer wasn’t nearly so thick as most sea creatures, and certainly not compared to animals found at the depths where we lived. “It’s not that bad. You don’t even know it’s there unless you’re thinking about it.”

I stood, reached out my hands to help her up, but she scrambled away from me and rose on her own. Her tattered shirt slipped off one shoulder as she moved, and she hurried to push the fabric back into place. Her dark eyes blazed with ferocity, expressing all her distrust and fury, and maybe she was also upset that I was staring at her. So I took a step closer to the wall behind me, to put more distance between us, and looked away.

As my feet touched the ruined glyphs on the floor, and I registered the shadow-trace of the energy that had grounded beneath me, I realized my magic was back—

My power.

I felt strong again. And my spine no longer hurt.

I hadn’t just been physically healed. When the curse in the walls had reverted to the original spell, and the girl finished transforming, the All had returned the full extent of my magic.

For the first time since I’d begun boarding ships, I felt like myself again.

I made a low sound of surprise, and stared at my palms, overwhelmed with a moment of grace. My fingers curled into fists, and I lowered my head, too stunned with joy to do anything more.

I had my magic. My body. My power. I was whole.

Tears welled in my eyes, and I hurried to blink them away, take a deep breath, and focus. This was no time to lose it.

“Your chest stopped glowing,” the girl said.

I glanced down at my skin, which was now a deep shade of sapphire, my penance mark hidden once more.

“Do I have one of those?” the girl asked.

“No,” and I shook my head as I turned and stepped over the rocks to the wall, feeling along the broken facets where the runes had been carved. Every glyph lay in pieces over the floor, but I could trace the old magic deep in the rock where they’d been. “A penance mark is received on behalf of a tribe, in a ritual of forgiveness. I received mine when I was eleven.”

“So is that common, then? To get one of those marks?”

“You volunteer for them. And Llyr only needs one volunteer every twenty-five years.”

I cast through the walls of the cave as we spoke, sensing the structure of the seamount around us. The formation was solid, but the entrance to the cave had collapsed. People were already digging us out—I felt the vibrations of their work through the stone—which meant the curse had been grounded safely, and no one else had been harmed.

I laughed and rested my brow on the wall. Amazed. Grateful. Surprised I didn’t even feel tired anymore, since I could only have been asleep a short time.

I was pretty sure I knew what had happened to me, when the curse dissolved in the earth. I knew why the All had restored me.

So much greater than a tithing, the bond I now had with this girl. As strong as my tie to the sea, I was now joined to her. To do as I’d promised, and make sure she lived.

The thought of that powerful blood spell should have scared me, but I didn’t feel frightened. The brush of Xalea’s laughter seemed to echo in my heart.

No one else knew yet. But they might learn soon enough. Aiden and Father wouldn’t need long to find their way in here.

And they’d still want the girl, when they discovered she’d lived. She wasn’t out of danger. In some ways, saving her life had only made everything worse.

She moved beside me and said, “You never told me your name.”

“I’m Rowan.” I faced her, letting my hands drop from the wall.

I had to look down to meet her gaze, since she stood only four-six or four-seven, almost two feet shorter than me. She possessed no tattoos, wore no jewelry. Her ears had been pierced though, since she had a tiny hole in each earlobe, and a faint little scar underneath her left eye.

She tapped a finger to her temple. “Are you reading my mind? When you touch me? Is that how you understand English?”

“It’s easier when I touch you. But usually I cast to read minds.” I lifted a hand, careful not to show her my palm. As she studied my loose fist, she covered my fingers with hers.

She had her own lines of magic now, twined with her blood, and she felt my power rush through her, like warm water rippling over her skin. For an instant, her skin flashed viridian, speckled with amethyst, while her hair rainbowed a dozen shades of green and blue. Then she gasped, jerked her hand from mine, and returned to her human coloring of dark brown with black hair.

“That’s a pull,” I said. “I asked your thoughts for your name.”

She shifted away from me, her mouth slightly open with shock.

“You change colors with emotion,” I said. “But you can learn to control the cells in your skin. Chromatophores, iridophores, leucophores. You have all three types. And some others, color-change cells you don’t have words for in your language. But they’re part of your biology now. Part of being a Sërenmare.”

She nodded, caught her breath, and squared her shoulders, her eyes bright with challenge. “So what’s my name, Rowan?”

Solei. She pronounced the word soh-lay. Solei Cartwright.

In Llyrian, her name meant star kiss. And sun moons. My mother had a favorite song about a powerful mage named Solei. Lyrics I hadn’t sung in a long time.

Solei frowned. “Well? Did you figure it out? Because I’m not going to touch you again.”

I crossed my arms and tilted my head. Not to read her again, but as a silent reminder I didn’t need to touch her to pull from her thoughts.

Solei quirked a brow, considered my expression a moment, then waved a hand toward the ingress. “How do we get out of here, if we can’t fit through the exit?”

“Aiden’s coming. My brother. There’s a team of drakhir with him. And our father. Brevyn and Siersha are with them, and the other Lokren. They’ll have that rock removed soon enough.”

“Then what? We swim away to the caves?”

“We’ll have to return to Llyr. They won’t let us swim off—not from here. You’re too important to them. To their plan.”

“For the fungus,” Solei said. “To kill an animal.”

“Right.”

“So when will we leave for those caves? Or were you lying to me all along? And you’ll just hand me over to them when they get here—”

“I wasn’t lying to you. But I have to find a way to escape, and there’s nothing I can do at the moment. Not with all of them here, and no other way out of this mountain. Later, when we leave for those caves, they’ll track us, so we’ll need a head start. If they catch us and kill you, we’ll both die. Either I make sure you get home in one piece, or I’ll revenance with you. We’re in this together.”

Solei raised her brows and then dropped her face, shaking her head with scorn. “You’re one of them though. You’re on their side.” She lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes, her voice cold with suspicion. “Why would you turn traitor to help me?”

“Because I’m sworn to you now. The All tied my life to yours. That’s why the curse grounded; it’s the price I paid to survive. If you die, I die. And I don’t want to die.”

Solei blew out her breath and gazed over the walls. Pragmatic, resigned. Still worried I was lying to her. “So how will we get to the caves? If your people are hunting us?”

“We’ll travel along a hejira, a migration route. I’ve scouted enough, I’m sure I can find the right glyphs. I’ll have to steal food from the city’s stores, or we’ll never survive such a long trip.”

Solei wrinkled her nose, muttering, “Fish food… gross,” under her breath.

I turned my head to the wall, unsure if I felt more like laughing or scowling right now. “Sërenmare are kinned to the fish, but we are not fish.”

“Right, right. You’re sorcerers who drown people and torture them with your magic.”

Except we hardly ever used the term sorcerers. “We call ourselves mages.”

Solei ignored me, and held up her hands. “So do I have magic now too—in my fingers? Like you?”

Before I could answer, a low rumble filled the room, and the rocks blocking the ingress dissolved into dust.

Solei dropped her hands and went still, and together we watched Father and Brevyn climb from the pool and step into the room.

22

As the Qarin of Llyr, my father was taller, bigger, and more intimidating than me in every way. Broad silver jewelry wrapped over his arms, and his skin had been marked with the sable tattoos of a War Leader.

He wore a thick belt with his breechcloth, one lined with extra pouches of smokeseeds, varkina, and two large knives. An ebony strap on his chest held the spear on his back, a weapon that gleamed like blue opal. His straight dark hair reached his shoulders, and his skin was a lustrous cerulean, decorated with black tiger stripes.

His eyes blazed with relief when he saw me, and I greeted him as I always did, with a bow of my head. If we’d been alone, the Qarin would’ve embraced me. Brevyn was Father’s good friend, but there was still an enemy in the room, someone Father would never be intimate around.

As the chief healer of Llyr, Brevyn was close to Father’s size, enough that the two men looked like brothers, but Brevyn possessed emerald tattoos of a different design, and his jewelry contained the ancient emblems of healers. Brevyn grew his hair long, a long sweep of dark jade down his back, braided with a strand of white moonstone shaped into stars. Everything I knew of healing, I’d learned from Brevyn, and he was as relieved to see me as Father.

I’d have bowed to them both, but in the moment they stepped from the ingress, Solei knelt, grasped a rock, and Father raised his hand for a stunning spell.

“Solei!” I jumped toward her, and knocked her out of the way of the stunner, which shot past like a blast of cold wind. She almost fell as we collided, but I seized her arms and caught her, my feet awkward and stumbling over all the debris. I held onto her, righted her, and yanked the rock from her hand.

At the same time I disarmed her, Brevyn rushed toward us, gripped the back of Solei’s neck before I could stop him, and put her to sleep. A healer’s sending, painless and causing no harm.

I nearly yelled in frustration—but catching Solei’s unconscious body demanded all my attention. My hands slipped in her loose, ragged clothes, like trying to grasp a bolting fish. Her head almost struck one of the larger rock piles.

As I lifted her into my arms, I turned thunderhead grey in aggravation, and faced Brevyn and Father. My heart hammered with irritation, I cracked the bones in my throat with an angry rasp—

Then caught sight of Aiden clearing the lip of the ingress, stepping into the room.

I halted my noise the instant our eyes met. Aiden called, “Rowan!” and cleared the distance between us in one giant pounce, graceful and swift, despite all the uneven debris. “Brother—you did it!”

He threw his arms around me, even though I held Solei between us.

Aiden’s voice sounded so rough with emotion, with his face pressed against mine, his gratitude to see me alive made his skin gleam a bright, sunrise-orange. “I knew you would—”

And then his magic found mine, all the power I had in my body, restored to the strength I’d once had, energy I hadn’t possessed since our mother had died.

Aiden drew back, searching my face with astonishment, and then fear, as his magic ran through me again, testing my power, verifying my strength.

He finished his sentence in a much softer, bewildered voice, “—stop the curse.”

Aiden’s gaze dropped to Solei, who was still dressed as a human, with her long messy hair, her unmarked brown skin, her absence of jewelry making her the only person who looked like me in this room: a mage who’d never passed even the most basic of tests.

My brother’s eyes found mine again, and I knew he understood what I’d done. Like those other brief moments between us, when I felt his horror and anguish, so fleeting I wondered if I only imagined them.

Then Aiden sealed himself off in a screen—released his hands from my shoulders and became the First Warden again, standing with Father and Brevyn—and Solei’s unconscious body felt like a tiny doll in my arms. Too fragile, too small, to ever survive escaping these men, and all the drakhir who followed their orders.

But her life held their future. If they destroyed their enemy now, they would ruin Llyr, and massacre everyone in our home.

I didn’t know how Solei would ever return safely to land, but as I screened myself from the Qarin and his officers, and thought of us all being revenanced in a curse, I tightened my hold on the girl I’d once promised to kill.

23

I changed my skin to the color of serpentine, one of Brielle’s favorite gems: varying shades of dark green mottled with white and black, grey and brown. A complicated pattern, to project the calm solemnity of a soldier.

Would Aiden announce what had happened? Would he tell Father and Brevyn I’d been kinned to Solei?

Aiden would also have to admit how he knew this—that the All had returned my strength as part of the kinning—when we never spoke of my weakness to begin with. Not to each other, and certainly never with the Qarin.

Xalea said we’d stopped telling the truth the moment we started taking down ships—and I had to trust Aiden would ignore the truth now. Bury the facts out of sight.

My situation couldn’t be more precarious, my chances of keeping Solei alive couldn’t be any slimmer.

An eerie tension filled the room as I bowed my head to Father again, a show of respect that included Aiden and Brevyn. I addressed Father, but my gaze lingered on Aiden, facing him as a soldier now, not his brother. “Her lungs are fine. You must have a litter ready, if you’d rather she were asleep for the trip home.” I passed Solei into Aiden’s arms, and I was gentle with her, though I made the gesture seem careless. “Now that you’ve cleared the ingress, I’m ready to rejoin the team.” I bowed quickly to Father and Brevyn once more, preparing to leave.

“Rowan—”

Father’s voice. I paused, my expression hard as the stone I embodied.

A terrible silence swallowed the rest of his words. Father didn’t have to speak a command. I knew he wanted to know how the curse had been grounded.

So I shared what I had to, hiding my fear in a false sense of courage, which allowed me to keep my voice casual. “I told her she’d die if she didn’t transform. Once the girl understood, the summoning finished the change. She doesn’t need to be stunned for the trip back to Llyr. Just keep her tied down. She won’t get away.” I bowed my head. “Permission to leave.”

Father flexed his jaw, hesitant. To force me to stay, he’d have to ask me a question. Demand more information. And I was making it clear I didn’t want to stand here and talk.

The Qarin tipped his head to dismiss me. “Granted.”

I swept past Aiden as if I were still Rowan the jusbel, who didn’t care about human life. I’d grounded the curse and helped us get what we needed—a blood sacrifice. I felt Aiden’s eyes on my back as I dove into the water. My legs switched to a tail in an instant.

No one else waited for me in the tunnel. I swam to the mouth of the cave, and then stopped before I could exit the seamount.

The raid team would all be outside. Father’s group, and Aiden’s team, too. As well as Siersha and some of the other Lokren.

I didn’t feel ready for that. For applause, or music, or anything celebratory.

But I’d need to swim home in formation. No avoiding the hours I’d have to spend in everyone’s company.

As I steeled myself to be seen, a subtle energy billowed through the rock. A presence I felt in my body, through my lateral lines. I turned with a smile, and my heart skipped.

A narrow crevice branched away from the cave entrance, a slit less than two feet wide, dark with shadow. I rested my chin on the lip of the tunnel, and waited.

Rows of sharp teeth appeared, shiny and pointed, lining a large open mouth. Snakelike and gaping, the jaws attached to the delicate head and sinuous body of a moray eel, one that was at least ten feet long. The smooth, scaleless skin gleamed a deep citrine, emerald-tinted and beautiful. The circular gills behind the mouth fluttered open and shut with the movements of swimming and breath.

Xalea, in animal form.

She burst from the crevice and twined around my body, swimming in wriggling gyres, rubbing against me in a ferocious eel hug. I gripped her muscular frame hard in my arms, embracing her in return. Xalea couldn’t speak with this body, but hugging her felt better right now. We were alone, safe from view, or she’d never have let me know she was here.

Then she untangled herself from me, and slipped away, vanished back into the fissure where she’d been hiding. With a flash of golden light, I knew she was no longer an eel. Sea sprites preferred to remain incorporeal, as light energy and voice, and the majority of them were shy and elusive.

“Xalea,” I whispered, casting a water screen to make sure we wouldn’t be overheard.

“Yes, Rowan.”

My voice remained hushed, a tone full of emotion. “The All kinned me to her. To Solei. A blood tithing.” Surely Xalea already knew, but I wanted to say it aloud.

She glowed, silver turquoise, an ethereal smile.

“Do you think Aiden knows?” I asked. He was as strong as our father, even if he was young, only nine years older than me.

“Yes.”

I nodded, glad she’d confirmed what I’d guessed. “I’ll have to steal food from the stores. Once we’re back. You might have to help me—”

“I’ll help you.”

I fell quiet a moment. My next words were so much harder to say. “When I fell off the ship, Xalea… you could’ve just let me die.”

She took corporeal form once again, as an octopus this time, and crawled to the edge of the crevice to touch me. Two arms looped around my head, and two arms gripped my shoulders. Her sharp beak nudged my brow.

Then she darted away, swimming in a jet blast from her siphon, merging with the shadow again.

“Rowan!” Ceto squealed, and as I turned toward the sound, Ceto slammed into my face. She squeezed my skin with her legs, clinging to the bridge of my nose, staring into my eyes with a big toothy grin. Her dragon tail whipped back and forth. “You saved a human!

“No, the All saved her life—”

Ceto streamed bubbles at me, cutting me off. “Silly mage. You think I don’t understand you are kinned? The All wouldn’t bind you like that for no reason!”

I sighed, annoyed by her animosity, but still so grateful to see her again that I grinned. “Didn’t you hear me calling for you? From Llyr?”

Ceto gave me a heavy stare. “I am a powerful sea dragon, Rowan. Dragons do not have time for frivolous conversations with Sërenmare.” Ceto detached herself from my nose and swam away, flicking her tail in annoyance. “Not to mention Siersha’s trapping spell was too weak to hold back the curse in this seamount. What do you think Xalea and I were doing here, Rowan? Hoping to die?

I darted beneath her, and swam up to block her from leaving. Ceto halted to avoid running into my chest. “You added your magic to Siersha’s?” I asked.

Ceto snapped her teeth a few times, like she wanted to bite off my chin.

I placed a finger atop her small head and petted her. “Thank you, mighty sea dragon.”

Ceto made a smug little sound and arched her back for more pets. Then she shot into a tiny gap in the rock wall and hid from me. “You don’t have your belt.”

“I was too weak to carry it here. Aiden is still wearing mine.”

She huffed, so I’d know she would’ve climbed into one of my belt pouches to ride home with me. But since I lacked the carrying space she preferred, Ceto retreated deeper into the rock, and then vanished.

I swam out of the seamount and found my fellow drakhir waiting to greet me, and several Lokren, at least eighty people in all.

They cheered, and I bowed my head to acknowledge their praise. I spotted Pierce in the crowd, heading up Aiden’s team, so I swam over to join him, and take my place under the First Warden’s command.

Pierce threw his arms around me in a rough hug, and then the others followed suit. Luke and Isla hadn’t been chosen for this war party, and I wondered what they’d make of all this, once they learned what had happened. Whether they’d realize how close to death I had been.

“We knew you would do it!” Pierce shouted. “As many ships as you’ve boarded? Taking one human like that, and a curse—I bet it was easy!”

I smiled, so good at living my lies, this show of confident satisfaction took almost no effort.

When Aiden emerged from the seamount, he found me like that—carousing with the raid team like nothing had happened, like all I’d done was sink a ship.

I didn’t watch him carry Solei to Jerra and Mirabelle, two of Father’s best guards. Didn’t watch as Jerra placed Solei’s unconscious body into a litter. The little cot had a covered arc at the front, shaped like a spearhead, to cut the water like a blade when travelling at speed.

Mirabelle fastened the straps of the litter to Solei’s body, a simple harness that went around her chest. Solei still had her legs, since she wasn’t awake to shift to her tail. Her skin was pale green, her long hair a deep violet. A color change her body had made in reaction to being plunged in the water.

The sight of her, bound and helpless like that, spiked my anxiety, and gave me a cold sense of foreboding. But no one could’ve detected that. Not even Aiden, who conversed with Father and Brevyn before calling the lines into formation.

Aiden came to the front of his team, and he returned my spear and belt to me, which I clipped into place. Soon the entire war party started back to the city. No one needed to slow down for me now. My scythe, my magic, were strong as ever.

After we’d been swimming an hour, Aiden cast a water screen so he wouldn’t be overheard, and asked me in a quiet voice, “Can you still do this, Rowan?”

He wanted to know if I could still slit the girl’s throat. Shed her blood for the power Aiden needed, the energy required for the genesis spell.

He spoke his next question in such a faint murmur, I almost didn’t hear what he said. “Or should I find someone else?”

I shook my head with pretended disgust, to indicate he had no need to question the matter. “Brevyn failed. I won’t.” I met Aiden’s gaze for a moment. “And neither will you.”

Aiden nodded, and the gold tiger stripes he wore on his skin deepened to scarlet—to say he was grateful for the way I had answered. That I still possessed so much confidence in him and his conjuring strength.

He would never forgive me this betrayal. Fleeing the city. Ruining all of our hope. Sending back the one human we needed to kill the rest.

But I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t.

24

The team sang to pass the time, and I joined the harmony. Aiden and I were both baritones, and occupied the same place in the lyrics, symmetrical parts in the whole.

When I realized this melody would be one of the last pieces of music I’d ever sing with my brother—

My heart stopped, frozen with shame. A wave of guilt silenced me.

I’d never tried to hurt my brother before.

Now I was lying to him. Matching my voice to his while I plotted against him.

I suddenly couldn’t breathe, and my body trembled, as rattled as if I’d been hit with a shocker spell.

I’d lose Aiden forever once I turned traitor, and only the thought of the alternative could make me stay this course, in spite of my grief: that if I didn’t betray Aiden, he would die.

No matter how many terrible things we had done, I loved my brother. And I’d rather he spent the rest of his life hating me, if that’s what it took to save him.

But I couldn’t keep swimming so close to him now. The level of shame smashing through me was breaking my heart.

So I told Aiden I’d like to speak to Brevyn, who occupied a place in one of Father’s units, along the far flank of our team.

Aiden studied my face a moment, hesitant, but gave me permission to leave his formation. So I broke from my group’s parabola, and moved to swim beside Brevyn.

I had no desire to speak to him. But Brevyn was close to the litter, within view of Solei, a short distance away from the other drakhir. I wanted to check on her.

Solei’s skin had returned to her human color, along with her hair. Since she hadn’t awoken, she still had her legs, and the edges of her ripped clothing brushed against her knees. Would I be able to teach her how to transition? I had to assume the answer was yes, that she would pick up the skill once she learned how to use magic.

Brevyn greeted me as I arrived at his side, and I tipped my head, said his name warmly in return, but started no conversation. Brevyn asked a few questions about my time in the song cave, and I hedged my responses, shrugged several times, downplayed all my fear of the curse as I answered his questions.

While we spoke, I cast a pull around Solei, to learn if she might wake. I’d become so adept at this skill that Brevyn didn’t even register when I did this. My gifts of magical subterfuge were as honed as the rest of my pretense.

My power swirled through Solei’s body, coursed through her unconscious mind, until the commotion caused by my energy net made her stir. When she opened her eyes—her first view of the sea as a Sërenmare—Solei didn’t notice me, or Brevyn, swimming off to one side. She stared out at the water.

I followed her thoughts with my magic, and realized she assumed she’d woken up in a void, a black swath of pure shadow. Alone, but not lonely. Not frightened at all. She believed she lay dreaming in the dark, peering into the night. The quiet music of the singing drakhir seemed like the voices of angels to her, the sound more pure and clear than any melody she’d ever heard.

Sërenmare could see colors humans could not, register sounds humans couldn’t detect, felt our surroundings with sensory abilities humans didn’t possess. A saltwater body was so much more sensitive than one built for land, and Solei took in her new perceptions with curiosity and fascination. She was amazed by the change in her body now that she was home in the water, held by the sea.

She noticed pinpoints of color break through the shadow, tiny flashes like starlight, slivers of rainbow, and then undulating columns of pearled colors, glowing blankets of pigment above. The lights winked on and off, or sometimes appeared slowly and drifted past. The visions were beautiful to her, and she smiled. Despite all the colors she saw, in Solei’s mind the darkness never lost its intensity. The night was like a layer of skin to her, something so vibrant she thought of the water as furred and alive, wrapped soft around her. She felt safe here, bound in shadow, watching blazes of color whirl and careen.

Then her eyes found me, and everything changed. Her contentment came to an abrupt and shattering halt. Reality smashed through her mind, and ruined the sense of peace she had felt. Her incredible joy in the grip of the sea vanished, and she frowned.

“Damn it,” and her gaze flicked to Brevyn beside me, and all the other drakhir in her line of vision. “I thought I was out of this mess.”

I set my jaw. “Not quite.”

The sudden sound of Solei’s voice shocked Brevyn, who reached out on instinct to put her back to sleep, but I touched his arm to stop him. “It’s all right,” I told Brevyn. “I’d like to speak with her. Keep her calm. It’s better if she’s awake for the ritual later—just like her transformation. This will help.”

Brevyn made no further attempt to approach her, but his angry expression broadcast how much he disliked the idea of hearing her speak.

Solei scowled at my Llyrian words, and her voice remained sharp. “Don’t think for one second I don’t know what’s going on. If that jerk wants to hit me with his magic again, just let him. If you think I want to be awake for your ritual, then let me make that clear now—if I’m tied down like this, waiting for you to slit my throat, I’d rather you knock me out.”

I kept my voice level. “So noted.”

Solei gestured toward me with her chin. “Why don’t you fire up that thing in your chest, and tell me what’s going on.”

“You don’t need my penance mark to know if I’m telling the truth. And I don’t have the ability to power the lines on my own. Only a magi can do that, or someone much stronger than me. Like my brother.”

“What about in the cave?” Solei asked.

“That was the curse. The energy in the walls triggered the mark.”

Solei glanced over the swimmers in view. “Who are all these people?”

“The drakhir who serve Llyr. The guardians of our people. Brevyn—” and I tipped my head toward him, “—is our chief healer, and my father’s best friend. And there are Lokren swimming with us. Councilmembers. Our most powerful magi.”

“Awesome.” A word that meant good, though Solei didn’t think this was good at all. “Which one is your father?”

“On the far side of the line. Sometimes he swims alone at the rear. To watch over the rest of his team.”

“Like a wolf.”

I had to pull for a long minute to understand what she meant. Wolves were land predators. They hunted in packs. Similar to the bluefin, to orcas and dolphins, they coordinated their power in numbers. Pack leaders sometimes led from behind, the same way I’d described the Qarin.

“Yes, you could call my father a wolf.”

Solei scrutinized my tail for a moment, and glanced down at her legs. “Did something go wrong when I turned into a mermaid? Why do I still have my feet?” She kicked against the straps that secured her ankles and knees. “So much for your plan for us to swim out of here. But at least you’re armed like your buddies now—when it comes time to shed my blood for your fungus, I’m sure you can join in the fun.”

I clenched my jaw at her scorn, and answered her question. “You don’t have a tail because you have to learn to transition. You’ve never used magic before—so later, I’ll teach you. When you’re not in that harness.”

Solei’s arms were secured at her sides, and she tried to work herself free. “If I could pick up my hands right now, could you show me?”

“I’m not untying you from that litter. But yes, it’s easier to learn magic if you’re not strapped to a bed.”

Solei stopped struggling, and her brow wrinkled in thought. “Why can’t I see your gills? Shouldn’t they be on your body somewhere, when you have a tail?”

“They’re inside our lungs. Sërenmare are part fish, but also part invertebrate, part mammal.”

She was quiet a moment, deep in thought. “Part invertebrate. That’s why you can change like an octopus.”

I nodded. “Like a cephalopod.” Octopuses, cuttlefish, squid. All those animals could manipulate their appearance. “Fish also stripe and change color. Tuna flash electric purple, green, blue—in moments of great energy, or stress.”

“Yeah, I know. My dad taught me that.” Solei paused to chew on her cheek, then added, “My father’s a marine biologist. He knows all kinds of stuff about fish.” She glanced over the drakhir again, the ones she could see from her litter. “Dad would be so excited to be here, with human sea creatures. Like every fairy tale about mermaids and sirens come to life. He’d have all kinds of questions about how you stay alive—and why we’ve never even seen you before.”

Solei sighed and faced me again, shooting daggers. “Except it turns out you’re really a bunch of vicious fanatics, just like all the worst stories. Monsters that sing to fisherman and make their ships crash on the rocks.” She scanned my body again, and quirked a brow. “The fairy tales never starred fish-boys with magic though. Maybe you just use the women as decoys. Trick a bunch of horny men the same way commercials put half-naked women on everything—cars, watches, guns. The tactic might as well work for a shipwreck, it sells everything else.”

Her vocabulary confused me, and I sifted through her thoughts for a minute, trying to understand the new terms. Fairy tales, commercials. Mermaids and sirens. Unrealistic images—human artwork—of women with fish tails, wearing seashells tied to their breasts, filled Solei’s mind. The men with tails were bare-chested like me—but no one, male or female—wore jewelry or tattoos. Strange.

All kinds of legends and myths flitted through Solei’s mind, but the image of the mermaid was the strongest.

I’d never realized humans had some kind of awareness of Sërenmare. Even fantasy tales that were so inaccurate.

How old those stories must be, for Solei to possess such crude pictures of us, since Sërenmare hadn’t interacted with humans for centuries.

But in all that time—as I learned from Solei’s mind—fishermen had blamed us for sinking their ships, claiming we sang to the sailors until they crashed the hulls of their boats against rocks and all aboard drowned. How bizarre. We had nothing to do with those wrecks, and humans still sank their own vessels, either by choice or by accident, and no one blamed those wrecks on mermaids or sirens anymore.

Only now the Sërenmare really were taking vessels—bombing warships—and the humans had no idea who was responsible. They saw us as fairy tale creatures, fanciful women with seashells on our breasts, combing our long hair and wishing we could be human. The belief that I’d ever want to be human was absurd, and my skin darkened with aggravation, though I made sure not to scowl. I wasn’t angry with Solei, however ridiculous her ideas were. She hadn’t invented those stories, and bringing up my own role as the jusbel of Llyr was the last thing I wanted to do.

When I didn’t respond to her comments about being a monster, Solei took note of my color display, and after a moment, she switched topics. “You said I have chromatophores now. So that means I can change color too?”

“Yes. You also have lateral lines, and your chemoreceptors. Everything required to read sign in the water, you possess.”

“Read sign?”

“Pressure and temperature, salinity, acidity. Magnetic and electrical forces, vibrations from sound, oxygen levels, light quality, the presence of metals, chemical content, motion and current—all these and more are the sign in the water. You read sign as you swim, to stay alive in the sea.”

She thought I sounded like her father, if her father grew a tail.

Solei narrowed her eyes and considered me. “Sometimes you light up like a disco ball though. When we were inside the cave, you sparkled more than a girl in a nightclub. You’re not camouflaging—you’re gleaming—so you must have photophores, too.”

Photophores. Light producing organs. Cells that used a chemical reaction with proteins and enzymes—one of the many ways sea creatures could bioluminesce. “Yes, we have those. Some more than others.” Like my sister. Brielle’s colors were more vibrant than mine for that reason.

“That scar I saw in your chest—”

“My penance mark.”

“Did someone cut you to put it there? Or burn you, perhaps? Because it looked like a keloid.”

Another word I’d never heard of before.

“I did a class project on scarring last year,” Solei said. “My history teacher focused the semester on nuclear bombs, and I wanted to study Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what happened to the survivors.”

Once again I culled through her mind, trying to understand the new terms.

My confusion must’ve shown on my face, because Solei added, “A keloid scar is usually wider and thicker than a typical scar. Like the way yours looked, when it was lit up.”

When I pulled for this word, I saw humans of all different ages: nuclear bomb victims covered with terrible burns. Solei had seen other pictures of keloids—any skin injury could form that kind of scar tissue—but her first exposure to them had been through this class project she spoke of, in photographs of people who’d been irradiated. Thousands of children and babies mutilated with those awful burns.

The images saddened me, and I dropped my energy net. I didn’t want to see anymore.

“You stopped using your magic, didn’t you?”

I didn’t respond.

“What’s the matter, Rowan? You look sad.”

“You reminded me of why we were doing this.”

“Why you drowned me?”

“Yes.”

She didn’t ask for more information, and I didn’t attempt to pull from her thoughts again, or communicate in the vocabulary I knew without magic.

I swam on in silence, gazing toward Aiden, and thought of my mother. My sister. My people.

Thought of betraying everyone I loved… to avoid killing a race of land creatures who dropped nuclear bombs on each other. A people who wiped out cities full of adolescents and children, and then cheered.

Solei called me a vicious fanatic. Well, she belonged to a tribe of vicious fanatics, many millions of them. People who did as I did—bombed the innocent—and said those murders were good.

I swam away from the litter, left Brevyn to return Solei to sleep, and rejoined Aiden at the front of the team.

After several long minutes, I found my voice again, and sang with my team. Lyrics of praise to the All, for the beauty of life, for the gift of the sea, for our magic.

Solei judged me a monster. But I judged her, too. She might not plant the bombs, but her tribe bombed in her name, in the name of her people, and the consequence was the same.

Solei knew her tribe was responsible for those actions. And she carried a measure of guilt for what had been done in her name. She didn’t want nuclear bombs to ever be dropped on a city again.

I hated knowing humans had morals. That Solei understood right from wrong.

That the enemy I’d been so eager to kill was really someone like me.

I was going to ruin my life trying to make Solei a human again. To send her back to her people who dropped bombs on children.

In a fit of despair, I stopped singing to pray. “Antahna. Antahna. Antahna.” Grace to the All. I murmured the words over and over, thinking of Xalea, her belief that the All had created the humans for more than destruction and death.

I’d chosen my path. And I had to trust Xalea. My vows to the All. My oath to save Solei.

It felt like swallowing sand.

My rage had been so much easier.

25

When the igneous rock of Llyr’s cordillera came into view, Aiden slowed our pace. As we made our way through the canyons that led into the city, people gathered to line the cliff sides, singing us home. The music swelled with gratitude and joy, full of hope.

As the team passed people by, they fell in behind us, a crowd that grew to an enormous size, and followed us to the kutmin. Once there, the drakhir remained in formation, while everyone in the city filled the canyon, singing our praise. I spotted Luke and Isla with a group of our friends, and smiled when I noticed Brielle with them. I flashed a hello through my skin, a bright and glittering blue.

I only glanced at Solei in her litter a few times, to make sure she was still asleep. No need for her to witness how happy my people were to proceed with her demise… or give their thanks for the opportunity to destroy her whole race.

But I thought of those memories Solei carried, images of her own people cheering after they dropped two nuclear bombs, wiping out children and babies, while I listened to my tribe sing.

I searched the runes for Xalea, wondering if I could spot her darting along the rock as a bristlemouth or a catshark. But if she’d followed the team home, I didn’t see her.

If Ceto were present, she’d be tucked away in a crevice, and only searching with magic would find her.

Aiden gave a short speech, and then Brevyn spoke. Everyone cheered for their words, but Father drew the loudest applause.

As Qarin, my father had many skills, and primary among them was his ability to charm. With the sound of his voice, I felt waves of devotion and awe, and I hung on each word. His power rolled over me, surging into my blood like a wonderful gift.

Even Aiden had difficulty fighting against Father’s magic, keeping his emotions his own. Aiden’s heart pounded with rapture like mine, drawn into the spell.

“In praise to the All, we have gathered! Alone among so many tribes, Llyr has withstood the onslaught of the humans! The great killers of all life in the sea! Blowing us apart with their bombs and explosions, wiping us out with their oil spills and pollution, burying us with their garbage! Llyr has even embraced the survivors who have come to our city! People whose homes have been destroyed! People who can no longer grow food in the warming, acidifying sea!”

Father gestured with his arms toward the people filling the canyon, the refugees intermixed with original Llyrians, even though absorbing so many foreign tribal members hadn’t been easy. The strain these people had placed on the city’s resources had been a source of tension for years.

“Llyr has welcomed you, fought for you!” Father cried. “We have waged war against those filthy humans! Those murderers! Those useless creatures like a plague on the earth! We’ve targeted their evil warships, so the hulls of those monsters will never darken the water again! And now we’ll take the fight to their home! We’ll let them know life in the ocean won’t be annihilated for their whims and their pleasure! They want to kill all life in the ocean—hunt the fish to extinction, and make the water too toxic for the plankton and coral to thrive—turn the sea into a wasteland of sickness and death—but we will fight back! We will fight back!

The crowd cheered with a thunderous roar.

Genocide. Annihilation.

I’d brought this terrible hope to my tribe. Helped convince my people we were right to destroy human life.

If you slice the throat of one Sërenmare for a weapon of death, you will only become what you hate, Xalea had said. You are your own enemy, Rowan. Your people will die by your hand, killed by your magic and the choices you’ve made.

I’d shunned those words once. Told myself Xalea was wrong. That she didn’t understand the future we faced, or how I’d felt when a ship full of humans blew my mother apart.

But Xalea’s message felt like a balm to my broken heart now. I knew, listening to Father’s speech, that I’d become what I hated long before I agreed to slit someone’s throat. The night I boarded my first ship… that was when I’d become my own enemy.

Solei knew what I was. The same words Father used to describe humans—murderers, monsters—Solei had used the same words for me. She’d been right.

The warming water, the acidifying ocean—the Sërenmare had no way to stop these changes, or reverse them. And maybe Father was right, and killing off the entire human race was the only way to save life in the sea, before the coral and plankton collapsed, and the pending extinction event hit with full force.

But I’d seen the results of Brevyn’s failed summoning, and I was certain the Sërenmare needed a different solution. A way to save ourselves that didn’t involve anyone’s death.

As I whispered a prayer, and put that thought into words, Father’s magic lost its pull over me. My heart slowed, ended the rapturous pounding his energy had begun. Even when Father praised me by name, for my work sinking ships, and for helping design the ritual that might save us, his power had no more effect on my body.

I was no longer the hero of my people. They didn’t realize that yet, but I’d betray every person in this crowd soon enough.

To the All, there was only one course to follow. I knew my path, and she lay asleep in a litter, probably dreaming of her father, and her home safe on land.

26

Later, after Father’s speech and the other formalities of the team’s homecoming, Siersha invited me to dine with the Lokren in their banquet hall, a private chamber for the council inside headquarters. Father and Aiden attended as well, and I sat next to my brother. One of the clans had prepared a feast, a variety of soups and stews and vegetable dishes, as elaborate as the meal at a festival.

I ate a portion from every tureen, every platter, my sudden hunger demanding all my attention. The return of my magic, and the long journey home, had left me starved.

I’d made the trip without feeling ravenous, but once the aromas of my favorite foods registered, I no longer cared about anything but heaping my plate again, and refilling my bowl.

My conversation skills suffered. Several Lokren asked me questions, wanting to hear a detailed description of what I’d done in the song cave. My terse answers proved so unsatisfying that they finally gave up, and joined conversations with Aiden and Father instead.

By the time steaming cups of borren were poured, and the group began discussing the details of Aiden’s generative summoning, I wished I could leave. But I needed to hear for myself how the Lokren planned to make sure Llyr wouldn’t be put in danger, in case Aiden’s genesis spell turned into another curse.

Brevyn sat beside Siersha, and the council seemed certain that Brevyn had performed the transformative summoning correctly, that the failure had come from Solei’s mind alone. An unforeseen consequence of attempting a spell that hadn’t been used in thousands of years.

Which might be correct. But no one wanted to point out the real truth, the facts as I knew them: that surely the All had known we intended to kill Solei—not welcome her into our tribe, which was the sole reason that ritual had been created. The intention of murder had been inside Brevyn’s heart, and that was why the summoning had gone wrong.

As much as I would’ve liked to share my opinion, for now, I held my tongue. Aiden had already asked me once if he should find someone else to kill Solei, indicating this ritual would proceed with or without me. Since I couldn’t save Solei if someone else were appointed to perform my role, I wasn’t in a place to argue with anyone at the table.

When the meeting finished, I slipped away to the kitchen, filled a clean bowl with my favorite stew, nestled a cover in place, and carried the dish into the hall. Then I walked to the room I’d learned had been designated Solei’s prison. Aiden had given me permission to visit her, and take her something to eat, but I didn’t want Father to witness me doing this. Not because he would stop me—I just didn’t want him to remember me later like this, after I had betrayed him. With a bowl of food for the enemy in my hands.

The guards at the door let me inside, and before I entered, I left my spear and belt with them. Exposing Solei to weapons would only invite her to try to steal them from me, and I wanted her hands free so she could eat, not attack me.

While some tribes had holding cells where they kept prisoners, Llyr had never possessed such a structure. Those who broke their vows were not locked away, but brought before the Lokren and the entire community, to seek forgiveness and penance. The room in which Solei was held was normally only used for visiting dignitaries, a sleeping area with a comfortable bed. The rounded sandstone ceiling and walls were smooth and seamless, lit by several incandescent globes mounted high overhead. Four large picture windows were the room’s sole decoration, oblong shapes composed of thick silica. Deep blue light radiated outside, illuminating the canyon of Llyr.

Solei lay on the bed, curled on her side. Fast asleep. She still wore her tattered human clothes, frayed on the edges like kelp. Her skin remained the color she’d been as a human, so I copied her dark shade of brown, and turned my hair black, to signal that I came in peace.

Not that I expected Solei to understand that, but adopting her human appearance couldn’t hurt.

As the guards shut the door behind me, I took a seat on the floor with my back to the wall, so she wouldn’t wake up and find me looming over her in a threatening way. I placed the bowl down beside me, and cast an energy net through her body, waking her with my magic the same way I had before.

She didn’t need long before she roused and sat up, unsteady and trembling. Not in fear, but struggling with her new body. She’d been moved from the ocean to an air grotto while she’d been unconscious, and she wasn’t used to the change. Her mind filled with perceptions she’d never handled before, and I felt the roll of sensations confuse her.

After several moments of rubbing her temples, she shifted her feet to the floor, her legs awkward and heavy. Her gaze settled on me, wary as ever.

“Where’d your weapons go?” she asked, glancing over the room. “Are they hidden somewhere? Or did you decide you can just snap my neck with your hands?”

I sighed, tipped my head back against the wall, and gestured toward the bowl. “I thought I’d let you eat first. Then snap your neck.”

“Well, I’m not eating that, whatever it is.” Solei poked at the bloodstains in her clothing, frowning at the rips in the fabric. “I want nothing to do with your poison. Or your repulsive fish food.”

“No one is going to force you to eat.”

Solei tsked. “Of course not. No need to bother making sure I won’t starve. I’ll be dead long before then.” She looked up, and considered my face a long moment. “Why’d you make yourself look like me?”

I tapped my knee. “Because this is the color all Sërenmare turn before we break someone’s neck.”

Solei blinked in astonishment, and then laughed with a wild, bursting sound. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s true.”

I smiled. Sërenmare had no death colors. But Solei had laughed, and I understood as I read her that she knew I’d been joking.

“You should turn lilac or something,” she said. “I bet you’d look nice as a flower.”

I shaded myself the pale purple she wanted, with midnight blue hair striped with turquoise, then added glittering white stars to my skin, following the idea in her mind.

Solei nodded approval. “Now if only I had the magic to shrink you—” and she held up her hands to indicate a height maybe six inches tall. “I could put you inside a fish bowl, and watch you swim around like a seahorse. My own little merman. You couldn’t cut my neck open if I made you that size.”

Solei laughed once more in a fit of emotion—a sound full of sadness, an expression of frustration and grief. So I didn’t respond to her mockery. Not when her hysteria held only pain.

Her giggles softened, faded away into silence, and the smile left her face. Once she calmed, Solei tried to stand, but she wobbled so much, she collapsed back onto the bed. “Did you do something to my legs? With your magic?”

I touched one of my ears, indicating the part of her body that was giving her trouble. “You have statoliths now—” and I paused to pull from her mind, searching for the right words. “Calcium carbonate structures, like tiny seashells, inside your ear canals. Your mind isn’t used to them, now that you’ve been in the sea. Your body is readjusting your balance.”

Statoliths belonged to the vestibular system in cephalopods, a system that sensed gravity, equilibrium, spatial orientation, and motion. In marine animals, the vestibular system allowed creatures to sense up and down in the water, in order to survive in a world where predatory attacks could come from any direction. Sërenmare couldn’t swim on their own without them.

Solei scowled. “If I have gills like a fish, why would I have statoliths? Fish have otoliths. Shouldn’t I have those?”

The question amused me, considering how much Solei understood about fish, and how little she could manage her own body right now. “I told you, Sërenmare are not fish.”

I rose and took a step toward her, preparing to help her adjust and regain her balance, but Solei held up a hand to ward me away. “Don’t you dare put me to sleep!”

“I wasn’t about to—”

“Yeah, right! You let that other guy grab my neck, my skin gets hot, I pass out—I know what you’re trying to do!”

I made no further attempt to approach her. “I told you I’d teach you how to transition your legs. I can make your trembling stop. I’m a healer—”

“No, you’re a speaker. Or we wouldn’t be talking right now.”

“My secondary skill is to heal.”

Solei narrowed her eyes. “If that means you need to come over and touch me, then I’d rather eat the poison you brought.”

I placed my hands on my hips, angry enough that I dimmed my body to indigo, while Solei flashed an orange-gold through her skin, a slight iridescence that rippled like water. Her chromatophores trying to react to her thoughts, to register her own fury at me.

“So where are we now?” she asked, chancing a glimpse out a window. “Is this Llyr?”

“Headquarters. My father lives two floors above this one. Aiden—my brother—has a suite on the first level.”

“And you?”

“I’m not an officer. I live in my family home, on the other side of the canyon, with my sister.” Who I needed to leave soon to see.

“Is she a fighter like you?”

“No. Brielle is a stone-speaker. She talks to minerals, some more than others.”

Solei lifted her brows, a skeptical gleam in her eyes. “Minerals, as in rocks? You’re saying your sister can communicate with inanimate matter?”

Her language offended me—inanimate matter—and I chose not to answer. Not all humans were like Solei though. In the minds of some of those sailors I’d killed, I’d felt a great reverence for the spirits in stones. Some of those humans had worn pendants and emblems of gems they considered sacred and powerful, the same way Brielle adored Charlie.

Confronted with silence, Solei changed the subject. “So there are different kinds of speakers, then. And you can talk to other people, but your sister can only translate the language of stones?”

I nodded.

“If there are other mages like you, why are you the only speaker who can talk to me?”

“Because humans are… different. A land people. Your words are… hard to mimic, and even harder to understand.”

Solei crossed her arms, pursing her lips. “Does that mean you’re more powerful? Is your magic stronger?”

“Translating symbols and words is my primary ability. For other speakers, the talent may be secondary, or equal in strength to another gift. Overall, I’m no more powerful than other mages. The strength of one particular talent is hard to compare to other gifts. You could say that, as a speaker, my talent is stronger. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have stronger magic.”

Solei reflected a moment with a solemn expression, and then changed the subject again. “Is your sister older or younger?”

“Brielle is seven.” I could tell Solei would ask if Brielle wanted to become a soldier like me—the thought spread through her mind like a sudden light—so I added, “She’ll probably apprentice with a craftsmith once she turns twelve, rather than become a drakhir.” Brielle had mentioned that to me before, how she would rather work with rocks every day than dedicate her life to the guardians.

Solei attempted to stand again, slow and determined, but as she took in my words, she froze in shock. “Wait—you became a soldier when you were twelve?

I shrugged, amazed by the tone of horror in her voice.

“All Llyrians come of age then. When the body begins the change to adulthood.” The same physical transformation humans went through, growing up. I’d been relieved to join the drakhir at age twelve. Learning to scout with Luke and Isla, completing reconnaissance missions, swimming in teams—I’d been born for that work.

Solei stood on her wobbly legs, her hands clutching the bed, another scowl on her face. “Well, no wonder you people don’t give a damn about me. You’re all a bunch of brainwashed child soldiers, trained to kill.”

I darkened to grey, then gleamed white with red chevrons, a vibrant ruby display.

“And what does that mean?” she asked. “All your wiggle lines?”

“That I disagree.”

Solei flashed orange-gold again, brimming with her own aggravation. “Then I guess the truth hurts.”

I kept my tone low, my words harsh. “No one brainwashed me. I chose this life. And I’ve chosen everything I have done. You know nothing about my work or my people. Perhaps in the human world, you’re still called a child at age twelve. In Llyr, you’re a denyah, an apprentice who has sworn their life to the All, an adult who is not yet grown to full size. A denyah is responsible for their own actions, and I carry the full weight of mine.”

Solei hobbled across the floor, unsteady but upright, limping along while I spoke. “Whatever,” she muttered as she skirted me, edged the room, and came to a stop at the bowl on the floor. “I’ve decided this smells like real food,” and with a clumsy maneuver, she took a seat. She removed the bowl’s cover, lifted the rim to her lips, and lost no time devouring what I’d brought.

“I came here to teach you how to use magic. But if I can’t even touch you, we’re not going to get very far.”

Solei rolled her eyes as she finished, put the empty bowl down, and stood. “Oh calm your fins down. Go back to being a flower. I liked you better that way.”

I glared at her, and brightened my chevrons again as she closed the distance between us. She wobbled less, planted her feet much more firmly.

“Do you have chill pills in Llyr?” Solei asked. “Cause you should take the whole bottle.”

I didn’t respond. Just plucked up her left wrist, and pressed my right palm against hers. With a deep breath, I calmed my anger and focused. As I directed my magic into a sending, I pushed a sensation of warmth through Solei’s blood, so she could feel the lines of power that ran through her body.

“A cast is sourced through your chest. Close your eyes for a minute, you’ll feel the lines better.”

Solei closed her eyes, and concentrated on the sensations of heat I sent through her. After a while, she nodded.

“Magic is intention and meaning, element channeled through your body to give life to your spell. We cast scythes to swim, from the heart. A sending flows from your palms.” I altered the flow of my energy through her, so she could feel the warmth in her arms, wrists, and hands. “Some magic needs both—a cast and a sending. The summoning ritual that brought you here was like that. A powerful cast and a sending combined.”

I halted my spell and released her, glad to have finished that brief tutorial. Touching her skin riled my magic too much. Energy jumped through my body with a hot, crackling pressure, beyond my control. The sensation wasn’t horrible, or painful at all, like when I touched the dead. I just didn’t understand why she affected my power so much. It didn’t seem like a blood tithe should inspire that kind of reaction. Then I remembered Solei had still been part-human when we’d been kinned. Maybe that explained what I felt.

As I let go, Solei opened her eyes and stared up at my face with a quiet expression.

The sight of her standing there, so fragile and small, in her tattered, bloody clothes, unnerved me enough that I turned away. Then I placed a hand flat on the wall and lit up a rune. “You can practice while I’m gone. A sending will trigger a glyph, illuminate the rock so the code in the lines becomes legible—like reading one of your paper books. Here—” and I took hold of her wrist again, and guided her hand to the wall. I rested her palm against another hidden rune, one she could cast on her own.

“Intention and meaning,” I said. “Tell your magic what you need your body to do. The power will rise and be there. As long as you’re healthy, of sound mind and body, and you follow your—”

I was about to say the word vows, but stopped. Solei had never taken an oath to the All. Her magic was like that of a child’s, weak and unfocused. Unable to perform powerful spells, but also unable to do any harm.

“Follow my what?”

“Your vows. Which you might need to take, at some point.”

Solei scoffed. “Promise to kill people? Like you?”

“No.” I turned my face to the wall again. “Quite the opposite.”

Someone knocked on the door, and then the rock panel opened.

A drakhir named Kona leaned his head in the room. His skin shone a pale green, his long hair a rich emerald. I could tell Solei liked those colors a lot more than my chevrons.

“Rowan,” Kona said. “Your sister’s out here.”

Which meant Brielle must’ve grown tired of waiting in the main hall.

I nodded to Kona, thanked him, and he retreated.

I swept up the empty bowl, the cover, and was almost through the door, when Solei’s voice rose, higher and tinged with fear. “What do I send though? Through my palms?”

I faced her. “Ask for light.” My gaze swept over the walls. “And after you illuminate the rune, ask for shadow, and watch the glyph darken again. It’s harder to call shadow than light. The intention required is stronger.”

Solei took a step toward me, like she wanted to say something more. I remained as I was, waiting for her to speak, but she lowered her head, nodded once, and I left the room.

27

The moment I stepped into the hall, Brielle shrieked, “Rowan!” and launched herself into my arms. Charlie struck the back of my shoulder as Brielle grabbed me, her voice echoing down the hall. “I’ve been waiting so long! Why didn’t you come home after dinner?”

Kona shut the door behind me, while I adjusted my hold on Brielle, still grasping the empty bowl in one hand as I started away. “I needed to take care of some things. I’m sorry. I wanted to see you right after.”

Brielle squeezed me with the strength of an octopus, her hold as ferocious as Xalea’s eel hug had been. “I forgive you. I just missed you so much. You came home after you hurt your back and I fell asleep—and when I woke up, you were gone again. Cora said Aiden took you to Father, but I didn’t want you to go. I thought we could swim in the canyon and play.”

“Well, it’s time to rest now,” I pointed out gently. “But after sendo, I’ll swim in the canyon with you.”

Brielle’s voice was much smaller now. “You promise?”

“I promise, Bee.”

Brielle moved Charlie to her lips, whispering stone words I couldn’t translate. Then she hugged me again and smiled. “You’re my favorite, Rowan. I’m so glad you’re home.” She rested her head on my shoulder as we passed into the kitchen. Once I dropped off the empty bowl, Brielle softened against me with fatigue, and I knew she’d be asleep in my arms pretty soon.

“You’re my favorite too, Bee.”

“No.” Her voice was firm. “Yours is Aiden.”

I laughed, and rubbed my chin on the top of her head.

“You’re both my favorite,” I said. “But you’re a lot nicer to me.” A comment that made Brielle turn bright blue with a smile.

A minute later, she’d already fallen asleep, but she woke again when I carried her into our grotto. She didn’t speak, but she gripped my neck with her hand, to let me know she didn’t want to be put in her room. So I let her curl up in my bed, which was probably where she slept when I was gone, anyway.

I stretched out beside her, and my gaze drifted up to the ceiling, drawn by the energy I felt in the stone. The rock glowed softly above me, but not from the light reflecting through the ingress in my room. Only an ancient sprite incandesced in that color, a deep textured rose cast with glittering starlight and shimmering waves, like a piece of music made visible.

We gazed at each other, Xalea and I, sharing the knowledge of what lay ahead. The silence between us was heavy with meaning, but not uncomfortably so.

“I think she’s strong enough to survive it,” I said of Brielle, and passed a hand through her hair. “She’ll hate me forever though. If I live.”

“If you don’t survive,” Xalea said, gazing down on Brielle. “Then neither will she.”

I let that sink in for a minute. Everything at stake in my plan.

Then I thought of my conversation with Solei, and frowned. “Solei called me a brainwashed child soldier.” I paused. “Do you think that’s true?”

No answer from Xalea. But I knew that wasn’t the truth. Solei didn’t understand anything about me, if she thought I was some brainwashed child.

“Will you be all right if I fail?” I asked Xalea. My life had been kinned to Solei’s, which meant I would die if I couldn’t protect her—but I didn’t know what would happen to a sprite who’d been tithed. If there were stories about sprites behaving that way, I’d never heard them.

“I don’t know,” Xalea said.

Neither of us spoke for a while. Brielle shifted in her sleep, wiggled toward me like a minnow, and nestled her head on my shoulder.

The soft patter of feet caught my attention, a faint squelching sound of tiny paws against stone. The noise approached the bed with a deliberate pace. When Ceto began climbing the blanket, the squishy sounds of her feet disappeared, and soon she arrived on the mattress, strutting toward me with attitude.

I expected her to make some outrageous demand, or perhaps threaten to scratch me, but Ceto only yawned, fully extending her jaws with a groan, and then she sniffed the air for a moment. Satisfied with whatever she sensed, she crawled up my arm with a flick of her tail, curled up on my stomach, and fell asleep.

She’d been somewhere spying, no doubt. At least she wasn’t throwing a tantrum and soaking the bed.

My gaze drifted back up to Xalea, and my thoughts turned to the food I needed to steal. “If I have more than five cylinders on my belt, Aiden will notice.” Silica canisters could hold a variety of supplies, but what I wanted in mine were ten hrikcha: tiny discs of vegetable meal, each one enough to serve as a meal for two people. “Five might be enough. We’ll be hungry. But we won’t starve.”

“You might be able to raid,” Xalea said.

Steal the supplies of another tribe.

“Yeah,” I said heavily. My heart sank at the thought of taking anything from those who already had so little. Better to steal from Llyr, where no one faced the threat of starvation.

Xalea didn’t say anymore, and I changed the subject again. “I’ve figured out a way to escape. But if Aiden makes me take off my belt, we’re in trouble. I don’t mind losing the spear—but we can’t make the journey without enough food.”

“No matter what happens, you’ll make do,” Xalea said. “With or without your belt.”

I sighed, tipped my head to agree, but the thought of swimming a hejira without any provisions filled me with dread.

“Give thanks, Rowan,” Xalea said. “Be grateful for all you have.”

I sent her a smile. “I’d be a lot more thankful not to starve.”

Xalea huffed.

I told her good night, let exhaustion overpower my worries, and soon fell asleep.

• • •

When I opened my eyes, Ceto and Xalea were both gone, intent to stay out of sight, and Brielle sat beside me, braiding pearls in my hair. There wasn’t much length there to braid, but she wore a determined expression, and she pinched my nose when she noticed me watching her.

“Can we play now?” she asked.

I swept her up in my arms and flipped her onto the bed, grinning as Brielle screamed and laughed.

We ate breakfast first, and then we spent the day in the canyon. Exploring fissures, playing tag, hunting for stones. I used Brielle as a distraction while I entered a tribal storeroom, unlocked a series of doors, and stole the hrikcha I needed. Brielle didn’t notice what I’d done. Just part of a game to her.

Later, she might remember our visit, and realize she’d helped me.

Might hate me even more, once she knew.

When we finally returned to our grotto, she asked me to make Charlie ink tea. I held her to me and thought, I would die for you. Please don’t forget that. When I’m gone.

28

Brielle drank two cups of the borren I made for her, and asked for a third, when Aiden walked into the kitchen. He moved with purpose, and didn’t call out a greeting. Just rapped his knuckles against the doorframe before he strode into the room, and let the roll of his magic announce he was there. The bright glow of the lamps reflected against his iridescent skin and sapphire hair.

“Aiden!” Brielle shouted, and she leapt off the counter to run to him. She jumped into his arms and he embraced her, but by the stiff way he held her, I could tell he was upset. Angry about something. “Look at Rowan’s hair!” Brielle said, and as Aiden scanned the braids she had made, his sharp gaze let me know his bad mood was my fault.

“Nice, Bee,” Aiden said. “I like all the pearls.”

“Yup,” Brielle said. “I picked out each one myself.” She nodded to herself with a satisfied smile. “You want some borren? Rowan made the good kind.”

“No thanks.” Aiden kissed the top of her head before setting her down. “I came to take Rowan to headquarters.”

Brielle frowned. “But it’s almost sendo! Rowan promised to sing me to sleep.”

Aiden met my eyes again. “I won’t keep him long.”

Brielle crossed her arms and glared at Aiden, then me. I told her, “I promise I’ll sing later, if you wait up.”

Brielle responded by dashing from the kitchen, yelling, “Just go away!” as she ran down the hall. I didn’t follow, hoping I could smooth things over when I returned.

Then I left the grotto with Aiden, and we crossed the canyon together. I had no doubt we were on our way to see Solei.

Aiden kept his voice low, but the sound was loaded with fury. “You’ve been teaching her magic?” He spat out the last word.

I didn’t respond. Just colored myself a dull silver, unconcerned. The shade of a shrug.

Aiden stopped, and I halted with him. His outrage exploded through the water. “Why? Why would you even consider that?”

“Because I want her awake. The Lokren think she ruined the first spell. I’ll make sure she can’t ruin yours.”

Aiden scowled. “By teaching her how to read glyphs?”

“I showed her how to light them, not read them.”

“She opened the door to her room, ran down the hall, and the guards had to tackle her. So you tell me how she did that, Rowan. If you didn’t teach her.”

Solei had opened a door? How in the world—? None of the code in those glyphs had been printed in English. Those were all Llyrian runes, and Solei couldn’t speak Llyrian. I’d been in her mind enough to know that.

Even worse was the fact Aiden assumed I’d been encouraging her to escape. He’d appoint someone else for the ritual, if he thought I’d changed my mind.

Fear gripped me so tightly, my body felt like the keel of one of those ships I’d destroyed, hard and ice-cold.

But a strange excitement also flooded me. Hearing that Solei had not only located the correct rune to open a door, but had read the code and cast the magic to unfasten the lock, stirred my energy the same way touching her did. My body crackled with a strange heat, as I tried to figure out how she’d translated the spell.

I kept my body dull silver, but only just barely. My skin almost ribboned with shades of white, I felt the color of fear try to rise like a yell. “I haven’t taught her how to read glyphs.” No one learned how to read a new language just by lighting a rune—

Aiden shouted, “Then how did she open a locked door?”

The answer hit my mind like a rogue wave, a mighty force that slammed through me. I succumbed to my fear and flashed a pale yellow, mottled with white. My voice fell quiet, so much softer than Aiden’s, but I spoke with an awful clarity. “When the curse grounded. She took some of my power along with my blood.” My gift of translating symbols. “That must be how she read the glyphs.”

Aiden turned away, ran his hands through his hair, so agitated he couldn’t face me.

“Did you guess that she stole your power?”

Stole. As if what had happened in that song cave had been in our control.

“Of course not. I thought I was showing her something useless, lighting those runes. So I could trick her later. Make her think that the ritual was to send her home.”

Aiden faced me then, his gaze hard and ferocious. “Swear to me, Rowan. Swear to me that’s the truth.”

I took Aiden’s hand, and placed his palm on my chest, over my heart. “I do swear. I had no idea she’d taken one of my gifts. Or I’d never have shown her how to light up a glyph.”

Aiden winced and lowered his face, his features contorted in misery, and I knew he understood what a blood tithing meant for our plan. I hadn’t told anyone else that the All had kinned me to Solei, but Aiden had known what had happened the moment his magic felt mine in the cave, when he realized I’d been restored to full strength. We were too close to each other for him to mistake my recovery for anything else.

I released Aiden’s hand, and kept my voice soft. “I promise I’ll help you. I’m doing everything I can to make sure this goes well.”

Aiden grabbed my arms, about to speak again, but I wrenched myself free and spoke first. “I’m not afraid to die with her.”

Aiden’s tone became anguished. “You won’t die with her, Rowan—you can’t.”

“Of course I’ll revenance with her. You think I don’t already know? I could’ve died in the song cave, but I bonded with her instead.” I didn’t use the words blood tithing, or kinning. Aiden understood what I meant. I crossed my arms and gazed off toward headquarters.

Aiden shook his head, refusing to believe I’d be killed. “She wasn’t born in the sea. The All would take your life for a Sërenmare, but not a human. No matter what she is now, she’ll never be one of us.”

He spoke with sincerity. Or as close to certainty as Aiden could be, since he also believed humans were worthless creatures the All wanted destroyed, despite the fact he’d taken vows that said otherwise.

I tipped my head at his words, and let his argument go. To point out that we didn’t agree on the definition of murder would be profoundly unwise. Better to let Aiden think he was right, and that I wouldn’t be killed. Nothing I said now would make him see the truth, and would only put Solei’s life in more danger.

With a heavy sigh, I changed the subject. “You think Siersha suspects? Or anyone else?”

Aiden’s answer was quick. “No. None of them.”

“Then keep it that way. And if anything happens, you can explain to them later. When it’s done.” When the spores rose from the sea, swarming the air, covering the globe on the wind. Inhaled by every human on earth. According to plan.

A plan Aiden still believed in.

He tried to embrace me, but I avoided his touch and started away.

Aiden moved to catch up. We swam together in silence.

A minute later, we entered headquarters and walked to Solei’s prison room. Now that the guards knew Solei could unlock the door from inside, another seal had been placed on the exit, one that could only be accessed from the hall.

The moment the guards spotted Aiden, they opened the door for us, and I followed my brother into the room.

29

Solei sat on the floor against the far wall, cradling her misshapen left arm. No blood smeared her skin, but her elbow hung at an odd angle, and a dip in her forearm meant both bones had been broken.

Her skin shone a bright golden-green when we entered, a sign of her physical pain, and then she returned to her human coloring. Her dark eyes burned with ferocity, flickering once over Aiden before settling on me. Like she assumed I’d come here to hurt her, finish her off with my brother.

“Her arm snapped when they stopped her,” Aiden said. He met my gaze and asked, “Can she understand me right now? Did your blood make her a speaker?”

I cast a pull over Solei, who gave me a murderous glare. She struggled to block out my magic somehow—I felt her attempts to force me out of her mind—but she had no idea how to screen me.

In an instant, I knew she’d understood two of Aiden’s words. Blood. Speaker.

“Translating sound is harder for her,” I said. “When she read the glyphs, she could take in the information at an easier pace, read the code as slowly as she needed to. Speech is a lot faster. But she’s learning.”

Aiden sighed and placed his hands on his hips. “What now? Can you reverse it?”

Take her magic away? “No, I can’t remove the All’s gift.”

“Can you deafen her then?” Aiden asked. “Disconnect the nerves from her ears, the same way you disconnect tissue for pain control? She won’t understand the words of the ritual if she’s deaf—that would keep her from stopping the spell.”

I was so deeply horrified by his suggestion that I almost flashed a pale gold, struck with pain. I struggled to give every outward appearance that I viewed Solei the same way Aiden did: as nothing more than a corpse who wasn’t yet dead. My brother had lost the ability to recognize her as a living body, as a life that required sensing her environment for survival. Aiden’s words sliced my heart.

Xalea had probably felt this way too, when I’d been the jusbel. Aiden was no more callous now than I’d been as I bombed ships, when I’d mutilated and drowned all those thousands of people. Then volunteered to kill one of our own for a weapon far more destructive than any star-guide.

Yet Xalea had still tithed her power to save me, given away something precious to protect someone heinous—and that was how I felt now. No matter how awful Aiden’s actions and words were to me, I wanted to protect my brother, keep him safe from himself.

I cleared my throat, and somehow I managed to speak with assurance, breaking through the shock that had frozen me. “I don’t think she’ll learn our speech fast enough to be a problem. She still thinks we’re sending her home, and it’s better for the ritual if she’s a willing sacrifice, not a prisoner. I’ll only deafen her as a last resort.”

Aiden tipped his head back, glancing over the room as he drew in a deep breath. The dark blues and purples in his skin softened, and I wished I could hug him. Wished we could just be brothers again, like when I’d been young, not facing each other as soldiers.

In an instant, Aiden straightened, focused on his next task. He gestured to Solei and asked, “Can you fix that?”

The broken arm. “Yes, of course.”

“Good,” he said, and strode toward the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, at the ceremony.” When we took our oaths of commitment before the Qarin, to swear that our actions were done with the blessing of the Lokren, for the safety of the people of Llyr.

“See you then,” I said, and Aiden left.

I faced Solei, and spoke in English. “I’m sorry about your arm.”

She ignored me, and kept her eyes on the door. “Your brother?” She made the statement a question, but her tone made it clear she knew the answer.

“The First Warden of Llyr,” I said. “Aiden.”

Solei reflected on this information a moment. “Your father’s in charge of the soldiers. Your brother is—some kind of officer?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re—”

“A soldier within his command. But Aiden doesn’t want to believe that soon I’ll be nothing.”

“Because you’ll die when I die?”

I nodded. “Although, so will he… if I don’t save you. He doesn’t realize the All will destroy Llyr with a curse if I murder you in a ritual. My people are desperate though. They won’t listen to me if I warn them.”

Solei narrowed her eyes. “Where’s your father right now? The wolf?”

“Finishing his work for tomorrow. It’s late, and I’m sure he’s tired. This is sendo right now, the time of rest.”

With each word I spoke, the patter of feet echoed through the wall beside me, along with the rushing sound of poured water. “Rowan!” Ceto squeaked. “I am here!”

As I turned to the wall, Solei said, “Is that a mouse? Do you have mice in this building?”

Ceto poked her head through a seam by the window. “Rowan! I came to see the girl you saved! So she’ll know who I am!” Ceto waved her front feet at me, indicating I should pick her up and move her from the wall to my belt, so she wouldn’t have to drop to the floor.

Solei said, “Seriously, what is that? Some kind of mer-kitten?”

“This is Ceto,” I said, scooping my friend into my hands and placing her in a pouch on my belt. I tried to shield her from view as best I could, but Ceto was too nervous and excited to keep her shape. As I tucked her away, Ceto puddled all over me, wetting the front of my breechcloth and sending saltwater streaming down my right leg.

In a loud, exuberant voice, Ceto said, “Tell her I am a mighty sea dragon! Tell her, Rowan! I will use my great magic to help send her home!”

Solei asked, “Um, do you need a toilet?” She stared at my body, looking shocked and uncomfortable. “I think you should—” She paused to clear her throat. “Take care of your bladder, or whatever. I thought fish just peed in the water though. Right? This is weird.”

“They do,” I hurried to say. “I didn’t pee on myself. Ceto is—”

“A mighty sea dragon!” Ceto cried. “An ancient sprite who communes with the heart of the ocean!”

I sighed, pointed to the pouch on my belt, and gave her message to Solei. “Ceto would like you to know she will use her powerful sea dragon magic to help send you home.”

Solei lifted her brows in surprise and struggled onto her feet. “Wow—really? A sea dragon? That little creature is a sea dragon? Can she send me home right now?” Solei walked over to me, glancing from my face to the pouch that held Ceto with amazement.

Ceto squawked several times, joyful to have Solei’s attention. “See, Rowan? She knows I’m a dragon! She knows I am mighty!”

I patted Ceto’s head with a fingertip, hoping she would calm down. My breechcloth was soaked, and saltwater pooled around my right foot. “Ceto can’t send you home right now,” I told Solei. “But she promises to do what she can. Whatever that might be, when the time comes.”

Solei furrowed her brows with dismay. “Why can’t I leave now?”

Ceto chirped, a sound that meant she didn’t know how to answer. A real dragon wouldn’t be in this room right now, puddling all over a mage, but I’d hurt Ceto’s feelings if I told Solei the truth.

“Her magic is… special,” I said. “It’s not the right time for the spell.”

Solei clenched her teeth, eyeing me with an expression of outrage. “Not the right time for the spell? And when would that be, Rowan? After I’m dead?”

Ceto chirped again, and I said, “No, it’s not like that. Ceto will use her magic to help you, I promise.”

“You promise,” and Solei shook her head. “Do you even hear yourself, Rowan? What you’re saying to me? If Ceto is a powerful sea dragon, with enough magic to send me home, then what are we still doing here? Why don’t we leave now, while I’m still alive?”

“Because we have to escape first. Swim beyond the wards around Llyr, to a cave that holds the runes we need. Then Ceto can help send you home.”

Solei winced from the pain in her arm, glowered at me like she knew I was lying, and muttered, “Of course her special magic can’t save me. You need me at the big kill-the-prisoner ceremony tomorrow. So you can slit my throat for your weapon.”

Ceto made a sad, solemn trill, while I said, “If there were any way for us to leave now, we’d already be gone.”

Solei gave me a withering look, then returned to her place on the floor. Her broken bones left her gritting her teeth, and as she sat down, I said, “I can heal your arm—”

“Great,” Solei snapped. “Heal my arm then. No one’s stopping you.”

In a lower voice, I said, “You have to allow me to touch you.”

Solei twisted her face, dreading the onset of more pain. “Can’t you just cast a spell over me? You read my mind without touching me.”

“No healer can perform such a spell. Not even Brevyn, and his powers are much stronger than mine. The magic won’t hurt you, I promise.”

Solei scowled. She had a tremendous amount of stamina to keep her human coloring, but the splintered bones in her arm made her flash golden-green again. “Then just do it.”

I crossed the distance between us and knelt beside her. Ceto calmed and fell silent, and saltwater stopped leaking from the pouch on my belt.

“Will you put me to sleep?” Solei asked.

“No. I want you to keep practicing, after I leave.”

I placed a hand on Solei’s shoulder, on her uninjured arm. She gave me a puzzled look. “That’s not broken.”

“I know.”

To cast healing spells took a lot more magic than the energy nets I used to read minds. I had to close my eyes and still my entire body, focus all my concentration on sending my power through Solei.

Like travelling inside of her, being inside her blood, sending light through her nerves. Healing felt like leaving myself, journeying into the body I touched, locating the broken places, the damage. I disconnected her perceptions from her sensory tissue, made sure she’d feel no pain from my magic. Then I used my own strength to speed up her body’s natural systems, knitting bones, sealing cuts. As my energy left my own body to repair hers, I felt a fatigue settle over me, like I’d spent hours swimming. But Solei wasn’t injured too badly, and I’d recover my drained power after a while, with food and rest.

I gripped the wrist of her injured arm and lifted her hand, to straighten the shattered bones as they healed. As soon as I finished my work, I reconnected the nerves and sensory tissue I’d severed, returning her body to its original state.

As I released Solei and shifted away from her, she stared down at her arm and said, “Damn.” She felt over the healed bones, testing them for pain, but she was fine now, and nothing hurt. “That was amazing.” She lifted her arm, flexed her fingers, made a fist, and finally blinked at me with something like wonder. “How’d you learn to do that?”

“Practice.” I tapped a hand on the wall. “If you keep reading the glyphs, you’ll translate speech faster. Enough that you might understand everything we say, as we say it.” I gestured toward the soaked pouch on my belt. “Ceto uses an ancient language of magic even a lot of speakers can’t translate, and you might be able to hear her words, too.”

Solei glanced from the wet pouch to my face. “Just like you.”

I smiled, and Ceto squawked with enthusiasm, rustling around and poking me with her talons. “This is great, Rowan! How exciting!”

I clicked to agree, and Ceto sang a few lines of dragon song. To Solei, I said, “The All gave you my power, along with the tithe of my blood. So you have the gift of a speaker. And maybe you can heal as well.” I studied her face for a moment, still close enough I could see the little scar underneath her left eye. She had long, curling lashes as black as her unruly hair, and she suddenly seemed so pretty to me that I dropped my gaze. “I imagine you have your own power as well, like any child born to the All.”

Which meant she would be a truly powerful mage, if she had so many gifts.

She needed time to discover her talents though. Time she’d never have if we didn’t escape.

30

In response to my comment about Solei’s potential, Ceto whistled and fell quiet, no longer moving around.

“What’s the All, Rowan?” Solei asked. “The Great Spirit of the Ocean or something?”

I had to cast a pull to understand what she meant by Great Spirit: some kind of energy force that lived in the earth, which some humans prayed to for guidance. “The All is… the energy in everything. Life and death held in balance.”

“Like God then.”

The word God meant different things to Solei: a physical deity; a mythical ruler who lived in the sky and punished the wicked; the spirits of ancestors; the light from the stars; an energy source for morality and love; the presence of peace and happiness; the concept of justice. Sorting through those ideas slowed my answer. “Not a physical being. Not a deity. But yes, in other ways, the All is like God.”

Solei leaned her back against the wall, her expression drawn and serious. “So your god will destroy you if you kill me. You and your entire tribe.”

Again I had to concentrate on my words, since Solei’s understanding of God was so varied. “Not as a punishment. The All is not punitive. Energy carries a consequence for all action and inaction, and that is why I’ll be revenanced. And my tribe. Not in order to suffer, punished by the hand of a vengeful creator, but as the price paid to the balance. For the bond I have broken.”

“The result is the same though. You’ll be dead.”

“For making the choice not to honor my vows. Not because a deity wishes to punish me. Maybe you’ll understand better if you take an oath.”

“I’m not taking vows to some Sea God.”

I shook my head. “The All is the universe, both space and unspace, everything known and unknown. The force that created the stars and everything else. That is the source of our magic.”

Solei sighed and crossed her arms. “If you’re really planning to save me, why can’t we leave now? You could use your magic to open one of these windows, and we could escape while it’s sendo—”

The idea made me want to laugh, but I stifled the sound, trying not to offend her. “As easily as the guards caught you in the hall, the drakhir would catch me. There’s only one way for us to leave Llyr, and that’s at the ritual. From inside the Hall of Memory. That’s our ceremony room, for tribal songs and peaceful gatherings. You can’t be killed inside the Hall. So the Lokren plan to summon a portal, to send us to the place where Aiden creates the star-guides. No single person can summon a portal, not even Aiden has the strength to do that. But portals are malleable summonings, and it’s possible to manipulate them.”

“Manipulate how?”

“Change the magic enough to send us somewhere else.”

“With Aiden?”

“Maybe. But I hope not. I don’t know what will happen if I tamper with a portal, but it’s our only way out. If I had any other hope of success, by doing anything else, I’d have done it by now.”

“When does the ritual happen?”

“The day after tomorrow.”

“And if you’re lying to me, then I’m dead. Everything you’re telling me, I have no way to check. You’re asking me to believe this on faith.”

“Yes.” I fell quiet a moment. “But sometimes the truth only lives inside faith.”

Solei frowned. “Which is as easy for a despot to say as a saint.”

“I’m not one of your human saints.” I bowed my head and softened my voice. “I’m just a mage who’s made a lot of mistakes.”

Solei clenched her hands into fists, her dark eyes full of anger. “And I’m one of them. Just one more mistake.”

Ceto squeaked with sadness, a lyrical noise punctuated with clicks, as Solei rose and stalked away from me, to the far side of the room. Her skin flashed scarlet, then a glittering orange. Ceto’s broken lament drifted away, and Solei spoke into the silence. Her voice sounded quiet and strained.

“Thanks for healing my arm, Rowan. If you do end up killing me for your fungus, then I’m sure you can just tell yourself I was no big deal. No one succeeds in life unless they fail sometimes, right? Have to break the eggs to make the omelets. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.” She shook her head, staring down at the floor. “Do the Sërenmare have expressions like that? That none of it matters?” As I tried to figure out a response, Solei met my gaze and then winced, turned her face to the wall, and said coldly, “I’d like to be alone now. Please.”

I rose and walked to the door. Placed my hand on a rune, and signaled to the guards in the hall I was ready to leave.

My voice sounded rough. “I’m sorry I called you a mistake.”

Solei covered her face with her hands. “Just go.”

I left the room with Ceto, who resumed her somber squeaks once we were alone. Rather than leave the building, I walked to the kitchen, fetched a large platter of food for Solei, and returned to her room. I didn’t enter, didn’t want to upset her. Kona was on guard again, and he took the platter and delivered the food. As I made my way toward the exit, Ceto scampered out of the pouch on my belt and rolled down my leg. Sprawling over the floor as she landed, she whispered, “Bye, Rowan!” and ran off.

By the time I arrived at my clan grotto, Brielle was already asleep. I picked her up and held her close, inhaling the scent of her hair, listening to the sound of her breath, feeling the warmth of her body against me, the steady beat of her heart.

There wasn’t any small stuff in life. The small, fragile stuff was what made up a life. And if none of it mattered, then I didn’t matter.

And how could I love anything as much as I loved Brielle, and Aiden, and Father—my family, my friends, my people—if I didn’t matter?

Solei’s words bothered me. Her human expressions, her ideas about God, and the fact she was smart enough to fear me, to worry that I could’ve tricked her with my magic, manipulated her mind the way Father could charm with his voice. I was sure that was why Solei had winced when she’d looked at me. She knew a monster when she saw one.

A few minutes later, I calmed and put Brielle down. Soon after that, Xalea came for a visit. She assessed my mood in an instant, took the shape of an octopus, and sat on my head. The weight of her body against me, and her dangling arms on my shoulders and back, gave me comfort.

“I think Ceto plans to come with me,” I said. “Through the portal.”

Xalea patted my cheek with a tentacled arm, like a parent consoling a child, which amused me enough that I smiled.

“Make sure to stop her,” I said. “If you don’t think it’s safe. I don’t want her to get hurt.” Then I took a deep breath, held it a long moment, and released a heavy sigh. “I’d feel so much better if you could go with me.”

But Aiden would never let Xalea near that portal tomorrow, and not even taking animal form would hide her. He’d have detection wards on each entryway, trip lines sensitive enough to alert him of her presence if she tried to pass through. When Aiden wanted someone barred from a ceremony, he certainly knew how to do it.

Xalea patted my cheek again, then squeezed my nose and tugged on my ears. I coiled one of her arms around mine, and sat there a minute, thinking.

Then I knelt and carved a message in the floor, casting glyphs filled with code. I used a type of craftsmithing spell, one that would keep the runes hidden until they were fired.

A message for Aiden to read. For Brielle. For my friends.

For Father.

Once I was gone.

The runes took me hours to make. The explanation for my actions that I’d leave behind.

One of the glyphs read, If I’m still alive, I know you will hunt me.

And the words in another: I have done terrible things.

I’m not sorry.

31

After sendo, Luke and Isla came over for breakfast. We ate with Brielle, and then we lounged around in the family room, talking. I was waiting for Aiden to arrive, to attend the oath-taking ceremony with him, but he was running late.

Even with the lies I was telling, I was happy to pass the time with my friends. Being around them was a comfort, a reminder that I was more than a soldier, a brother, a son. I’d lose everything once I turned traitor, but for now at least, I still had my friends.

“You’re not worried at all?” Isla asked. “About tomorrow?” She kept her voice calm, but I’d known Isla for too long not to recognize the anxiety in her tone.

I shook my head, and repeated the same assurances Father and Siersha had given the council. “The transformative summoning was different. Aiden’s spell can’t be altered the way Brevyn’s could. The intention of genesis belongs to Aiden, and Aiden alone, in this spell. The girl’s mind can’t block his magic the way she stopped Brevyn’s.”

Luke gave me a pained look. “But Aiden isn’t making a star-guide this time, and you’re not leaving the ocean to help him. The Lokren always said you were able to—” If we’d been alone, Luke would’ve used the word kill. But with Brielle sitting beside me, hanging on every word, he chose different language—“complete so many missions because you left the water to plant the star-guides. But that’s not true anymore. This human won’t be on a ship, beyond the reach of the sea. The All won’t view her death the same way.”

Isla shared a significant glance with Luke, then turned her solemn expression to me. “That curse you stopped, Rowan—Pierce said even the Lokren abandoned you to that cave. Even Siersha. What if that happens again? And you can’t ground the energy this time? What if you’re all alone, and the curse is even more powerful?”

Their doubts mirrored mine, but I couldn’t tell them what I planned to do. Even if Brielle weren’t here listening, the danger of anyone stopping me was too great. Besides, I’d rather keep Luke and Isla innocent, uninvolved in helping me turn traitor. If they felt as betrayed by my actions as everyone else, they wouldn’t have to pretend to hate what I’d done—and that would make their lives easier, when they were ordered to hunt me.

“I’d never put Llyr in danger,” I said. “One mistake in one ancient spell can’t ruin everything. Brevyn’s failed summoning can’t doom our people. We’ve worked too hard for this to stop now.”

Luke and Isla remained unconvinced, and they kept hedging around the idea that my fall from the carrier had been meant as a warning, a sign that we might want to rethink our strategy. So we continued to parse through the details until Aiden arrived, when we dropped the conversation completely.

Brielle jumped up as Aiden walked into the room, and I rose. Luke and Isla both stood and bowed their heads, an ingrained sign of respect for the First Warden.

Brielle had no such compulsion. She ran to Aiden and hugged his legs. “Why are you late? Rowan said you would be here right after breakfast!”

Aiden picked up Brielle and kissed her cheek. “It’s all Father’s fault. He made me late. Did Rowan make something good?”

“Yes, because he knows how to cook,” Brielle said, pressing Charlie against Aiden’s neck. “Unlike some people I know.”

Aiden grinned and tapped Brielle’s nose with his thumb, which made her laugh and pretend to bite him. I remembered leaping into his arms and playing with him the same way, when I’d been as small as Brielle.

Luke said to me, “We’ll wait here,” to let me know he and Isla would stay with Brielle until I returned.

A few minutes later, as I swam across the canyon with Aiden, the two of us united in purpose one final time, I remembered the first ship I ever boarded. How Aiden and I had gone over and over the plan before I left the sea—which had made me realize how scared Aiden was. The depth of the terror he held that I wouldn’t make it back to the water again.

And I recalled how resolute he had been by the time we swam toward our first target, certain that the risk was worth the gain of sinking a ship.

Aiden felt the same way to me now, swimming along at my side. He was riddled with anxiety, with a potent dread, but with an absolute determination that overpowered his fear.

I’d always loved that most in my brother: his bravery, and his drive. His commitment to lead and take action rather than succumb to despair. Even though his limitless courage also meant he would track me down later with his teams of drakhir, and I might never escape him. No matter how formidable my brother was as First Warden, I still admired Aiden with the same passion I’d had as a child.

We arrived at headquarters, entered through the officer hall, and walked through the Chamber of Learning, an enormous room full of artwork. Huge carvings of fish decorated the ceiling and walls. The intertwined piscine bodies were so intricate and colorful that the sight normally filled me with awe when I entered this space.

But wonder was beyond me right now. My thoughts were on Aiden, and how much I loved him, and how much he would hate me after tomorrow.

After we passed through the Chamber of Learning, we entered an elaborate hall, crossed to the far end, and arrived at the door to the Chamber of the Qarin. As we were ushered inside, I saw the Lokren had already assembled, as well as Father and all his top officers, the aides and advisors of the drakhir. More than a hundred people were seated upon the amphitheater chairs, facing the central table, which held eleven women and men: Father, and the ten most powerful Lokren within Llyr.

Everyone watched as Aiden and I took the two empty chairs at the table, a pair of seats that faced Father.

The meeting progressed as expected, with Father going over the details of tomorrow’s ritual. I listened to the final preparations for the portal the Lokren would summon in the Hall of Memory. How Solei and I would go through the portal with Aiden, to be transported to the place within Llyr where Aiden made the star-guides. How I would use the Qarin’s knife to cut Solei’s throat, sacrificing her life to power Aiden’s genesis spell.

No one assumed I would die. I’d survived eighty-six missions as jusbel, and then the curse in the song cave, and everyone wanted to believe I was invincible, that the vows to the All I had broken no longer mattered.

When Father asked if I understood what was required of me, I tipped my head to agree to the plan, and promised I would follow my orders.

Then I left the table and knelt before a woman named Riya, who oversaw the oaths of the council. She wore strands of rose crystal in her long indigo hair, her delicate tattoos and silver jewelry as beautiful as Siersha’s.

Riya placed a hand on my shoulder, and I felt her magic surge through me, searching my heart, my intentions.

“I swear to follow my orders,” I said, with perfect conviction. “I swear to do everything in my power to protect the people of Llyr.”

Riya gripped my face in her hands, her body so full of heat energy that her skin almost burned me. No matter how strong my magic felt at the moment, if the Lokren made me recite a different oath, Riya would find my deception.

But the Lokren were satisfied with my words, and Riya’s power couldn’t detect any lie.

I had every intention to follow my orders, and protect the people of Llyr.

I just didn’t specify whose orders I planned to follow.

32

I left the Chamber of the Qarin, and Pierce followed me out. He walked beside me as I made my way down the hall.

“Just think, Rowan. After tomorrow—everything is going to change. The ocean will stop heating up, there won’t be any more toxic spills or explosions, the factory ships will all disappear, trash won’t be dumped in the sea anymore. Soon the refugees can go home, the coral won’t die, and all the fish will come back—”

Pierce suddenly threw an arm around me, embracing me in a ferocious hug, one I struggled to return.

“You’re going to save us,” he said, and his voice cracked with emotion. “It’s really happening, Rowan—you’ve made it come true—the ocean won’t die. We’re going to win this. We’ll save the last of the tribes and we’ll survive what the humans have done—because of you.”

Pierce released me, then gripped my neck with both hands and kissed my brow, before he pulled away and retreated the way we had come. He walked back to the Chamber of the Qarin, back to Aiden.

I thought of what would happen to Pierce tomorrow, after I took away the future he’d planned on, smashed through his hope like one of those trawler nets razing the sea floor, leaving a barren landscape where nothing remained.

Then I pictured him hunting me, with Father, with Aiden, all my friends… and felt like I couldn’t breathe.

A pair of drakhir—more of Aiden’s close friends—approached me in the hall. They echoed the same praise Pierce had shared, and one of them commented about celebrating with the other tribes later, after the humans had all been destroyed.

The thought of dancing and feasting made me think of Dahlia, and the hours I’d spent in her company, dancing at the last big celebration in Llyr. How happy I’d been all those months ago, being adored as the jusbel.

Dahlia would surely hate me as much as everyone else, once she learned what I’d done. My dancing days, and my hope of being anyone’s sweetheart, were long gone.

I parted company with Aiden’s friends as soon as I could, left headquarters and returned to my grotto.

Inside, Luke and Isla listened to my solemn announcement that I couldn’t eat lunch with them and needed to lie down. Despite their questions and protests, I walked into my room and collapsed on my bed.

I covered my face with a pillow, trying to smother the memory of Pierce planting that kiss on my brow, embracing me the same way he hugged Aiden. After tomorrow, I’d be hated and loathed by everyone in my family. My entire tribe, Luke and Isla, even Dahlia would find me repulsive, and the only friends I’d have left would be Xalea and Ceto, who I might never see again. Assuming I lived through the escape, and Solei and I didn’t die—and assuming Ceto didn’t die, if she entered the portal with us.

Then Brielle came into my room and jumped on me, thumping Charlie on my shoulder as she howled. “Rowan! Are you just gonna lay around like this forever? You said we could play in the canyon again! Luke and Isla are still here—so would you please get up and come play with us? We’ve been waiting all day for you to be done with that meeting. I have so much more stuff I want to show you!”

Brielle refused to leave me alone, and since I couldn’t wallow in misery with her flopping all over me, I ended up doing as she asked: swimming around the outskirts of Llyr with Brielle, Luke, and Isla, examining rocks and singing Brielle’s favorite songs with my friends.

Later, after supper with everyone, Brielle fell asleep during sendo. Isla headed home, and Luke went to bed in a guest room.

Alone again, my heart pounded with nerves, and I knew there was no way I could sleep. I opened one of the supply rooms that belonged to the clan, a place where various tools and materials were kept.

I rummaged through the shelves for the fabric I needed, and carried a large box to my room. While Brielle slept on my bed, I sat on the floor and assembled clothing for Solei: a top and a breechcloth, as any Sërenmare woman would wear. I chose an ebony material embellished with flecks of mica and crystal, and tried to mimic the style of clothing Isla wore, sized down into something that would—hopefully—fit Solei.

Xalea kept me company as an Atlantic blue crab. Sometimes she held the fabric straight with her claws, so I could focus on the heat-work to cut and meld the material into the appropriate shapes.

When I finished, Xalea merged into the floor as a soft violet light, while I checked over the outfit one last time. Satisfied I hadn’t made anything too hideous, I returned the extra fabric to the supply room, then inspected my belt one last time. I had the five cylinders full of hrikcha, my knife, as well as a pouch of varkina Isla had made me, three packets of smokeseeds, and one kalya: a tiny orb the size of a small pearl.

“That’s all I can take,” I told Xalea. “Anything else will look too suspicious.”

Her color glowed brighter in agreement.

Ceto scampered into my room, rolled twice over Xalea’s light in the floor in greeting, and then she pounced on my foot. “Rowan! I am here!”

I fastened my belt round my hips, checking the weight. “I see that.”

“Did you leave an empty pouch on your belt?”

“Yeah, about that, Ceto,” I said. “I’m not really sure this is safe. You jumping into the portal with me—”

Ceto chirped several times, loud enough I broke off. “I am a mighty sea dragon! Of course I’ll be safe!”

Except Ceto was an obakee, and this portal was Sërenmare magic, a powerful summoning that I’d make unstable, once I manipulated the spell. Xalea’s life force could survive such a journey, but Ceto lost shape and puddled so often, even in normal circumstances, that I worried the magic in the portal could rip her apart.

But Ceto clicked and screeched, halting my warnings. “I must come with you, Rowan! To help save the girl, and send her home!”

“Xalea,” I said, addressing her light in the floor. “Do you really think this is safe?”

Ceto bit my ankle, sinking her tiny teeth in as deep as she could. Which still wasn’t enough to draw blood, but she snapped her tail back and forth in fury. “A sea dragon will bow to no mage! You hear me, Rowan? I make my own choices! I am ancient and strong! And I am going through this portal with you!”

I sighed and unclipped my belt, which I tossed on my bed, before I took a seat on the floor. When I lifted Ceto into my hands, she calmed, but her gaze held fierce determination.

In a much softer voice, I asked, “What if Aiden has spelled the doors to keep you away?”

“He has not,” Ceto said primly. “I have already checked, Rowan.”

“So you’re planning to hide in my belt, then?”

Ceto snapped her teeth. “No. I will ride in your spear strap.” She scurried up my arm, over my shoulder, and across the empty spear and atlatl strap tied on my back. In the small stretch of fabric that gave my atlatl extra support, Ceto wedged her body within the material, and squeaked.

“I’m hidden!” she trilled. “As long as you don’t bring your atlatl, you can bring me!”

I swallowed, waiting for Xalea to point out that Ceto’s life was in danger, and when Xalea said nothing, I gave in. “Since I already know I’m not carrying my atlatl and spear with me onto that stage, looks like you’re going with me.”

Ceto scrambled out of the little pouch on my strap, ran up to my shoulder, and licked my neck several times. Then she tumbled off me and ran out the door, her squishy footsteps taking her to an ingress. I heard a light splash as she flopped into the water, and then nothing.

“You really think she’ll be okay?” I asked Xalea.

Xalea’s light shimmered with subtle laughter. “Yes, dear.” Her glow slid closer to me. “She might not have the power to send Solei home, but she is strong, Rowan. I promise.”

I nodded, and rubbed the back of my neck for a minute. With nothing left to adjust on my belt, I read over the glyphs I’d carved into my room. Xalea helped check for errors in the code, and once that task was finished, I crawled into bed. I lay down next to Brielle without waking her.

Xalea’s light shifted from the floor to the wall.

“Do you think I’ll ever see you again?” I asked.

Xalea’s voice reminded me of my mother’s, sweet and welcome. “I hope so, Rowan. I hope we’ll see each other again.”

I fell quiet a long time. Then I finally asked, “Is this why you saved me? Instead of letting me revenance—so I could protect Llyr from the curse?”

Her light shimmered brighter, with blues and golds swirled in the purple. Her voice remained soft. “I kept you alive because I love you. Whatever choices you make, Rowan. I will love you.”

Her light faded, disappeared as she left my room.

I shut my eyes, feeling exhausted, but also too anxious to sleep.

Time passed in the silence. I felt so heavy. My breath slowed, and so did my thoughts.

Soon I swam alone through the sea. Across an abyssal plain for hundreds of miles, and then into a deep canyon, down the jagged mouth of a gorge.

This way.

I heard the words like a whisper. Calling me closer. Lighting my path through the dark.

Down and down, I swam into the heart of a cave, straight toward the vibrant pulse of the force that gripped me, sharp as needleteeth in my bones.

The scent of rotting blubber billowed through the water like a slick, oily soup, swirling around me and coating my skin.

This way.

Something moved in the darkness, hidden in the tunnel of rock. Claws scraped the wall of the cave, a low and resonant scritch-scratch-crack. The shifting current told me whatever made the noise was something massive, something much larger than me.

I heard the movement of water through gills, a shuddering sound like a groan, uneven and ragged, and then a menacing hiss.

The shadows parted like black waves of oil, and whatever had hissed at me now filled the entire cave. The creature resembled one of the lobsters that scuttled over the seafloor, but deformed and monstrous—remade into a gargantuan size, more than thirty feet long, with claws the size of bull sharks, which were reaching for me, about to cut me apart—

33

I jolted awake. Heart racing, panting like I’d been swimming fast.

Magic flared through my penance mark, which glowed such a bright blue that my bedroom gleamed in the light.

In a panic, I sat up and placed a hand on my chest—but the lines in my skin vanished in an instant.

Brielle remained asleep at my side, and there was no sign of Xalea, or anyone else who could’ve charged the mark in my body.

I abandoned my bed, too distressed by my nightmare to try to sleep anymore. I walked down the hall to the blessing room, and illuminated the detailed map of the ocean that covered the far wall.

For more than an hour, I studied the topography of the seafloor, and traced the paths of the major currents, contemplating the route to the Dev-durvani caves.

By the time Brielle woke for breakfast, I was in the kitchen already, making her something to eat.

Brielle hugged my waist, watching me work. Later, after she finished her meal, Luke joined us, and then Isla arrived.

We all greeted each other, and even though I was careful to behave as I normally would, they still gave me worried expressions, and didn’t seem much convinced by my reassurances that I’d be fine.

Brielle followed me into my room one last time, and watched me clip my belt into place. When I picked up my spear strap, I felt an extra weight in the fabric, like a stone had been nestled into the atlatl pocket.

I turned the material to allow me to see what lay in the bottom, and discovered a small, pale green egg. A dragon egg made of crystal.

Ceto had transformed herself, from water to stone. So she could survive the trip through the portal.

I must’ve gasped in astonishment, because Brielle asked, “Rowan, what is it?” and gave me a worried expression.

“Oh, it’s—I was just thinking, Bee. About other things. It’s nothing.” I hurried to send her a smile as I clipped on my spear strap, then I swept up Brielle in my arms and planted a kiss on her cheek. “You ready?”

“Ready!” she said, and grabbed hold of my hand once I set her down. She led me back to the kitchen, where Luke and Isla were waiting. My friends had no idea what was coming, the betrayal I was about to commit, and I wanted to warn them. But I smiled at them the same way I’d smiled at Brielle, as if nothing were wrong.

When the four of us crossed the canyon together, to the door of the welcome hall, Brielle left with Isla and Luke, to take their seats for the ceremony. Brielle darted away with a casual, “Bye, Rowan!” and I didn’t call her back to me. Didn’t signal to anyone that I knew this was goodbye forever.

I walked away from the entrance to the Hall of Memory, deep into headquarters to the door of Solei’s room, and found her standing with her arms crossed, gazing out one of the windows.

She faced me, and I studied her in silence a moment. A pale bluish-green light flashed through her black hair, and her lateral lines shone a faint gold, visible on her neck and through the holes in her tattered shirt. Apart from those slight discolorations, she held her human coloring remarkably well. She seemed a lot braver than I would be, if I’d been in her place.

I held out the top and breechcloth I’d made. “I brought you some clothes.”

Solei glanced over the outfit, and then sighed, rubbing a hand along her face as she eyed the clothing. “That is the craziest bikini I’ve ever seen.”

I furrowed my brows, but couldn’t argue that what I’d made her was rather… lacking. I’d been Rowan the Destroyer, not Rowan the Fashion Designer. My craftsmithing skills would not be setting any new trends.

Solei still walked over and took the clothing from me, scrutinizing the ties with a pensive expression. “I think I can figure this out.” She waved a hand toward the door. “Give me a minute alone, and I’ll change.”

I left the room, but kept the door open a crack so she could call me when she was done. A few minutes later, she said, “Okay, I need help!” and I had to fix two of the straps on her top.

Solei checked over my work. “This doesn’t look too awful, considering.” She shrugged. “At least if I die, I’ll go out like a rock star.”

I didn’t know what a rock star was, but chose not to search her thoughts for the term. “I’m not going to restrain you—”

Solei glared and cut me off. “Super.”

“—but if you try to run away, I’ll tie you up and Aiden will order me to deafen you, so the guards can take you into the Hall.”

“This just gets better and better.”

“Your hearing loss won’t be permanent—”

“Sweet.”

“But I’d rather you came along willingly, without causing a scene.”

Solei blew out her breath, so aggravated she flashed gold. “Of course you don’t want me causing a scene. Nobody’s supposed to put up a fight on Death Row. Execution looks pretty ugly when your prisoner is throwing a fit. God forbid anyone realize this is murder.” She glanced over the room, then asked, “What about your friend Ceto? Wasn’t she planning to be here?”

“She is,” I said, and removed my spear strap to show Solei the egg. “Ceto transformed herself into stone, so she could—”

“She turned herself into stone?” Solei gave me a horrified look. “Can she still cast her sea dragon spells, if she’s a rock?”

“No, but she’ll change back at some point. I hope.”

Solei ribboned with color, shades of obsidian and neon white, trying to hide her disappointment with anger. “You hope? You don’t know?”

“There are a lot of things about Ceto’s magic I don’t understand. Sprites are pretty shy and elusive, they generally don’t like being seen, and Ceto doesn’t always share her plans with me. She just… does things. Like this. She means well, and she does want to help you. But even a mighty sea dragon has limits.”

Solei’s human coloring returned, but her increased irritation only deepened my worry. As I fastened my spear strap back into place, Solei slapped a fist into her palm, eyeing the door like she wanted to fight. I said, “If you attack anyone, or try running away, either in the hall or on stage, the Qarin will have your hands and feet bound.”

Solei gave me a savage expression. “Thanks so much for the warning.”

“Just stay by my side, and no one will have any cause to restrain you. I told you there’s only one way to escape, and that’s—”

Solei held up her hands. “God, you don’t have to repeat yourself—” and she stalked toward the door, turning her face as she threw back to me, “You remember what I said—if this is all a big lie. And you’re really going to kill me.”

That she didn’t want to watch.

I caught up to her. “I remember.”

As we passed into the hall, Solei glanced over the guards, taking them in with a cool, steady gaze. There were dozens of drakhir watching us, and as we passed by, they fell in behind us, talking softly in groups.

Solei took a deep breath, tucked her chin, and kept her voice level. “This portal you’re going to change. Can it kill us?”

“By itself, no.”

“So the answer is yes?

I debated whether I should lie about this, but settled on truth. “If the magic deposits us in a dead zone, then yes. We’ll die.” I cast a pull to make sure she understood about dead zones: water polluted to such an extent there was no oxygen left. A place where nothing survived.

To my relief, Solei’s mind contained many facts about the number of dead zones in the sea—including the presence of one in the Gulf of Mexico, which was roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts, and grew larger each day. Solei had latched onto this fact because she lived in the state of Massachusetts—this dead zone was almost the same size as her home state. Her father worked as a marine biologist in a harbor town called Woods Hole, where he spent his days in a laboratory dissecting squid.

Solei glowered at me, sensing my magic reading her thoughts, and I dropped my energy net.

She flashed a dark gold, to tell me to quit it, and I flashed a deep violet, to tell her I didn’t need to take orders from her.

Her spoken words didn’t change topics though. “You can’t control where the portal will send us?”

I shook my head no. “But I’ve never known a portal to exit into a dead zone. The possibility is there, but I wouldn’t bother changing the portal if I believed we would die.”

“Well, that’s comforting,” she said, in a tone of voice that made it clear she wasn’t happy to hear this at all. “And then what?”

“We’ll have to swim.”

“And after we get to those caves, and you send me home—will you come back here? To your city?”

“No, I’ll be outcast from Llyr. Banished forever.”

“A criminal?”

“A fenhaline. A man without tribe.”

“For the rest of your life?”

I sighed. Displayed my red chevrons of irritation, then darkened to a dull silver.

Solei changed the subject. “Why don’t you carry a spear like the others?”

“Inappropriate for the ceremony.”

She gave me a hard look, then glanced over the soldiers behind us. “Won’t they chase us though? To bring us back?”

“The Qarin will certainly hunt us. Or we might be attacked by another tribe, taken as slaves or imprisoned—”

Solei halted. “We could end up as slaves?

I stopped a few steps ahead of her. “The ocean is a dangerous place right now. Full of refugees, fenhaline, desperate tribes, marauders. Llyr is one of the few havens left.”

“Jesus, Rowan. Marauders? Desperate tribes? Just what in the hell are we doing here, swimming off to these caves? You never said jack about fenhaline and slavers— ”

Now it was my turn to glower. “And if we traveled through human land, through your countries, crossing continents—you really think each human tribe would just usher us through? Welcome foreigners into their territory—people who might be dangerous thieves? Your nations, Solei—do you not understand how your own nations work?”

Solei crossed her arms and started walking again, looking away from me. “I thought you had magic. I thought you’d keep us safe with your magic.”

I strode along once more at her side. “Everyone has magic here. It’s a tool of survival. Nothing is guaranteed in the ocean. Certainly not anyone’s life.”

As I spoke, guardians continued to fall in behind us as we passed by their stations. After a series of twists and turns through the bare winding halls, we entered a huge open space, full of elaborate architecture carved with artwork and runes. Beautiful columns of stone rose more than two hundred feet overhead, supporting an enormous dome of clear silica, revealing the deep blue ocean above.

Solei followed my gaze up toward the sea, and I said, “Summoning power keeps the water at bay.”

“Did you help build this room?”

I smiled with genuine humor as I shook my head. “The welcome hall is older than Llyr, even older than Crystal Cave, at the far end of the canyon.”

“So who built it, then?”

“Our ancestors. All the tribes who came before.”

On the opposite side of the room, between two large columns, was an artistic panel over fifty feet tall. Distinct from the art in the pillars, this panel had been decorated with fractals of color, geometric patterns that gleamed like diamonds in firelight. This was the main entrance to the ceremony room, and the panel shimmered like a curtain of magic, screening the Hall of Memory from view.

“That’s the door?” Solei asked.

I nodded.

Solei turned a pale shade of green-blue, like bright polar ice, a color expressing her fear—and she reached for my hand. But as soon as she touched me, she snatched her fingers back, scowling, and her skin and hair returned to dark brown and black.

“You promise me, Rowan. Swear on your Sea God you’re not planning to kill me.”

“If I let you die, everyone I love will die with you. I’ll die myself before I let anyone hurt you. I can’t promise you anything more than that.”

Solei balled her hands into fists, lifted her chin, and walked with me across the room, through the curtain of magic, and into the Hall of Memory.

34

We entered an enormous amphitheater with walls carved from stone, decorated with colorful glyphs and lit with bright light. In the center of the room was a flat, empty stage, surrounded by stacked rows of seats, which were already filled with thousands of people. The amphitheater possessed a closed ceiling, rather than opening to a view of the sea. Glyphs and runes lined the columns arcing hundreds of feet overhead, intricate as a painting.

The instant we walked into the Hall of Memory, the air filled with music, a song with a rich and resonant sound. The melody caressed my skin like the ocean, lush and ethereal, coursing with life.

Everyone in the amphitheater sang the words. Young and old, refugee and Llyrian native. Their music made a beautiful harmony, as powerful as any summoning spell.

Solei asked, “Why are they singing?”

My voice hitched, and I struggled to calm my emotions. “To save Llyr. In hope that they might have a future. This song is a prayer, asking that the tribes will not go extinct.”

Solei said, “What do you mean, go extinct?”—at the same moment Aiden approached us. I bowed to my brother, focused on keeping up appearances for this ritual.

Aiden tipped his head toward me, but frowned at the sight of my belt. “Rowan, you can’t take that—” and he signaled to Pierce, who had walked up behind him. Aiden gestured for Pierce to remove my belt. “Just the Qarin’s knife. That’s all you can carry.”

I held my hands up to Pierce, trying to stop him, and addressed Aiden. “How can it matter, whether I take my belt with me or not?”

“The Lokren plan to bring you right back,” Aiden said. “It’ll look… odd. If you have your supplies. Like you’re planning to leave for a mission.”

“Which is how I usually look.”

Aiden’s expression became stern, and he waved again to Pierce. “Rowan, please don’t argue right now. The Lokren want only the knife in your hand. Nothing else.”

Pierce unclasped my belt, slung the strap over his shoulder, and said, “It’ll be here when you get back, don’t worry.”

The shock of losing everything I most needed—coupled with the thought of what I had to do to escape—almost made me collapse. How could I survive crossing the sea without any weapons or food? Immediate capture and starvation dominated my fear. Why bother betraying my people, if death was so certain? I almost lunged for my belt, and only my wish to save Llyr held me back. No matter what Aiden took from me, I couldn’t let Llyr be destroyed.

Pierce asked Aiden, “What about that?” and he waved a hand toward my spear strap.

“It’s fine,” Aiden said, since they could both see I carried no atlatl or spear on my back. But the loss of my supplies must’ve shown on my face, because Aiden put a hand on my shoulder, turned me from Pierce, and spoke low in my ear. “It’s a ritual, not a mission. You don’t need that belt.”

My feet felt numb, and I almost stumbled, as I moved to follow Aiden, motioning for Solei to stay at my side. We walked down to the stage. As we followed Aiden onto the dais, Father climbed another set of steps to join us. The Qarin wore his belt, but the only item attached to the strap was the ritual knife.

I battled my panic, forcing myself not to turn and stare at Pierce, to see if he still held my belt. Wishing for my supplies would not bring them back.

So I clenched my jaw, and kept my face impassive, still as the stone arches above. Ceto must’ve guessed Aiden might confiscate my equipment, the precious food stores that made the difference between life and death. And yet she’d still chosen to go through this with me.

That had to count for something, right? That my situation hadn’t just become hopeless?

But the shock lingered on, and I struggled to regain my courage.

A few minutes later, Father raised his hands, signaled for the music to stop, and as the last note echoed into silence, the Qarin began giving his speech.

His deep voice cannoned through the air, reverberated off the domed ceiling, and filled my skull with his words. Mesmerizing, hypnotic. A force of power ran through me, and I felt like I’d waited my whole life to hear this address. Joy surged through my body, waves of devotion and awe, and I hung on each word, enraptured. His power rolled over me, so much power, and he was sharing it with me, such a wonderful gift.

I fought the charm though. The pleasure, the joy, the rapture. With all the strength of my magic, I broke Father’s spell.

Then I cast a scythe over Solei, similar to the one I used when I swam, a shield to cover her from the sound.

Solei blinked at me, frightened as she came out of the haze. By the way she glanced over the lines of my scythe, I knew she could see what I’d done, the warding barrier I’d put up against the current of power in Father’s words.

No one noticed when Solei met my gaze, or saw her sly, subtle expression toward me. Not even Aiden, who stood beside her, unaware of my ward.

My heart pounded, my breath felt too rapid and light, and sweat slicked my skin. But Aiden remained focused on the Qarin’s voice, ensnared in the charm.

Father finished his speech, and Siersha led the Lokren onto the stage. Heavy lines marked their faces, the wrinkles of age, their bodies decorated with tattoos and jewelry. Sixty people in all.

The Lokren formed a circle and held hands, and when they lifted their chins and sang, power flared out around them, embracing each person in the room in their summoning spell. I inhaled and exhaled with everyone else in the amphitheater, breathing together in unison with the tempo of the song.

A small, swirling light appeared on the stage, in the middle of the circle formed by the council. Like a spiraling star, the portal light grew, expanded to fill the available space, almost touching the toes of the Lokren.

Spinning faster and faster, the light burst from the floor and swelled like a dome, creating a cage that sparkled and glittered, bright bands of white-gold that rippled like water, cascading with ribbons of color. The top of this dome reached more than fifteen feet high, shining white light over everyone in the room.

Two Lokren unlocked hands, and invited the Qarin to join their circle, clasp their hands and sing with them, and he did. Then the Lokren parted again, and invited Aiden to join their circle in song. Aiden took a place between Father and Siersha.

Then it was my turn—my turn to bring Solei—so I reached out and gripped her hand, and we stepped into the circle together. Aiden took hold of Solei’s left hand, and I should have reached for Father’s hand—but I didn’t. I didn’t complete the summoning ring.

Even so, the brilliant, glittering portal dome shone even brighter, swirled even faster, and I felt Solei suddenly rooted in place, locked into position along with everyone else. With a shout, she tried to take a step back, and couldn’t budge. Like manacles had been clapped on her legs, her feet were immobile.

I wasn’t trapped though. I snatched the long knife from Father’s belt, turned the hilt to hold the blade upright, and the music stopped—silenced mid-note, with a shriek—and Father yelled, “Rowan!” right before I pressed the edge of the blade against Solei’s throat.

She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t. The shock was too sudden, and I was too fast.

The instant the knife touched her skin, bolts of bright blue, crackling light surged from my penance mark, the lines ablaze with magic, as the light leapt from my chest to the blade and wrapped around Solei’s neck.

Power, so much power coursed through my blood. A force like hot wind, like the breath of a leviathan from deep in the earth. Energy ready to explode into a curse, fed by the blood of the kinning.

Father and Aiden tried to stop me, but the summoning spell held them rooted in place. Everyone was trapped in the hold of the magic. Everyone except me.

I lifted the knife from Solei’s throat, placed the tip of the serrated edge against the skin over my heart, and the crackling blue light sparked and fizzed like a fireball, explosive with waves and heat lightning, a wild and terrifying magic, almost beyond my control.

The blade flashed with bright golden light as I slashed open my chest. Straight through the lines of my penance mark, a burning pain like the agony of leaving the water. My skin changed different colors, marbling like a lightning storm through my body.

My blood ran down the blade, spilled over the length of the knife in a rush, before I hurled the weapon into the portal dome, and Father’s knife disappeared.

The amphitheater trembled like an earthquake had hit, and the sparkling glyphs overhead turned black. A frightening green light filled the air, and the portal became an ominous red, spurted and fumed like lava and blood, a volcanic eruption on stage.

People screamed—creating a noise that amplified the sudden rush of power through the portal—and the air filled with a horrible rumbling, like the ceiling was about to cave in and crush everyone. But the amphitheater remained unchanged, held steady around us, while the portal dome collapsed to the floor. The scarlet swirls looked like viscera now, a spiraling river of thick, oozing light twisting close to my feet, almost touching my toes.

Currents of magic lashed through the room, invisible and coursing with pressure, holding the audience in their seats. The waves unleashed from the summoning weren’t painful, but that power kept the other drakhir from rushing the stage, and made it impossible for anyone to stop me.

I felt the rage and condescension of all the Lokren, of Aiden and Father, as I opened my mouth and spoke.

35

“I give my blood for the people I’ve killed. For the humans I’ve destroyed on their ships.”

I directed my words toward the All, the representation of power called forth on the stage, aware that my voice also carried to everyone in the amphitheater. The energy before me surged with my blood, casting a fearsome and hideous glow, bathing each member of the circle in that terrible light.

“I paid penance for Llyr as a child. But never as a drakhir. Never under oath as a guardian.”

My words caused the power in the floor to rise up in a column, straight to the ceiling, a writhing fount of pure fire. The glyphs and runes overhead burned with red flame, and the air shimmered pale green with a revenance light.

“I paid a blood tithe after Brevyn’s summoning failed and almost cursed Llyr. Because the All understood our intentions, and refused to grant us the power to kill.”

The energy in the air deepened to jade, crawling with shadow, darkening with every sentence I spoke.

“We will never have permission to break our vows to the All, to use our magic to wipe out an entire race. No matter how desperate we are.”

The column of fire started to waver, to twist like a lightning bolt, and I raised my voice as I finished. Recited the words of the prayer I had spoken when I took my oath to the All. “Death is revenance. Death is life. I am breathing, I am dead, I am honor in passing, one of many.”

The sacred words dropped the power into the floor, which spun like a vortex of lava, overlapped helices dark red with my blood. As the energy collapsed, writhed with heat, and slipped back into the earth, I wrapped an arm around Solei, and threw us into the center.

Part II

GUARDIAN OF THE SEA

36

The fire swallowed our bodies, a mouth of flame that sealed us into the portal as we fell through the floor. Down and down, like we’d jumped off the side of a carrier, and were falling through air. My arm around Solei felt like iron, immobile and solid, and her emotions sliced through me from the contact. Her terror as we hurtled through space felt as strong as my own.

The wind scorched my skin, as if we burned as we dropped, plummeting for thousands of feet. Nothing to see but electric green and blue light, flashing purple waves, streaming white heat. The intensity of the light hurt too much to watch, and after I stole a few glimpses, I shut my eyes, focused on trying to breathe. Like trying to pull a wall of fire into my lungs.

The spear strap that held Ceto remained cinched to my body, tight and secure. I felt the small shape of her egg on my back.

We plunged faster and faster, picking up speed, and I kept waiting to smash apart, kept waiting for the fall to end in oblivion.

One moment, I felt like we’d been thrown from the top of the sky.

Then we were in water, deep water, somewhere in the bottom of the mesopelagic. The shock of the change, from the heat of the portal to the dark cold of the ocean, made me open my eyes, filling my lungs with stunned gasps. I didn’t have time to think as I moved, just rolled with the forward momentum. The portal’s energy pushed against me, forced me a certain direction, and I swam. Ceto’s egg stayed pressed to my back, and my arm remained locked around Solei. I cast a scythe large enough for the both of us, to make sure I could swim at speed with her next to me.

I didn’t know when I’d transitioned, hadn’t even felt the change in my body when I switched from legs to a tail. My skin had turned a pale sapphire, my tail ebony with a silver-blue sheen in the scales. The portal had changed my legs for me—and Solei’s, too. Her skin and hair coloring remained the same, but rather than legs, she now had a glittery, golden-orange tail covered in scales, with a silky double fin at the tip.

She didn’t attempt to move for several minutes, she was too confused and in shock, watching as we streaked through the water, moving fast. Cold current, salty, heavy to swim through. Vivid, living darkness. I rode a thick wave of magic, a pulse that shimmered through the water with thousands of tiny gyres, and then the power rose toward the surface, and I continued to follow the energy. We broke through the thermocline, passing from one column of water into another—

And everything changed in an instant—the temperature, the level of light, the nutrient content in the current, which bloomed with sudden warmth, cobalt blue. Within seconds, there were turtles and sharks, fish of all kinds, and they parted around us, darted and swooped with powerful grace, watching us pass.

“Swim, Solei,” I said. “Try to swim.”

I didn’t look at her as I spoke, but I kept my voice soft. She registered my words, but she was still too numb to try using her tail. I leveled out and pushed on as fast as I could, whether she could help me or not.

I was certain no one else could’ve followed us through that portal. My blood had sealed the passage behind us, and not even the Lokren could reopen the tithing. But I had no idea where we were, or how long Father and Aiden would need to track us.

The sky darkened as the sun began to set, and the water deepened in hue. We passed a school of blackfin tuna, and a lone argonaut octopus drifting along near the surface, and then a pod of bottlenose dolphins took an interest in us. They were more than two miles away, but they closed the distance with swift, determined speed, turning us into a game, giving chase. I listened to their chatter without trying to sing or call out or click back. They found my behavior even more curious, and ribboned around us in playful spirals to stare. I welcomed their noise and their presence—they made a good cover.

“Rowan?” Solei’s voice sounded so scratchy and faint, I might not have heard her, had I not been gripping her waist in my arm.

“Yes?”

“I thought you were going to kill me.”

I knew she meant more than our trip through the portal. She thought I’d meant to sink the Qarin’s knife in her throat, the moment the blade touched her neck.

“Why didn’t you warn me?” Solei flashed a brilliant viridian, a bluish-green shade of resentment. “Do you even understand how awful that felt? To think you were about to put that knife in my throat? Do you know how much I hated you right then?”

Emerald hues stormed through my skin, clouding my body in a dark monsoon pattern, registering my discomfort, and the hard refusal I felt to say I was sorry. “I needed your fear. The revenance light wouldn’t have cracked through the portal unless the threat had felt real.”

“But you used your own blood in that magic, not mine. What could it possibly matter whether I thought you would kill me?”

I didn’t respond. Didn’t want to talk about what I had done, or anything else involving that ritual. No part of that ceremony had been easy for me, and right now, I wanted to forget the whole thing. We’d survived, we weren’t in Llyr anymore, and I had bigger things to worry about than Solei being angry with me. She already knew I was a monster. I couldn’t drop any lower than that.

Solei glowered at me, and made a weak attempt at flapping her tail. When I still didn’t answer, she changed the subject. “Are they already hunting us? Your people?”

“I’m sure they are.”

“Can you feel them? Are they close?”

I felt many things in the water right now. But none of the sign I read belonged to a Llyrian. “There’s a tanker spilling oil, about ten miles away. Beyond the ship are some trackers. I’m not sure what tribe, but I know they’re not Llyrian. The dolphins are hiding us.”

“On purpose?”

“No, they’re just curious. Sërenmare don’t swim with partners like this, holding onto each other. They assume you must be hurt, and they’re wondering where I’m taking you.”

Solei stared at the dolphins a while, trying to make sense of what I had said. More than anything, she kept fighting through her hatred of me, and the overwhelming sense of panic that had silenced her when I pressed the knife to her throat. In a quiet voice, she said, “That portal was worse than the ceiling falling apart in the song cave. I was so scared we would die. It felt like we jumped off an airplane.”

I debated what to say for a moment. Whether to admit I also thought we’d be killed. I chose to agree with her. “That magic scared me, too.”

“What about your friend Ceto?” Solei asked. “Is she okay?”

“I hope so. She’s still in the shape of an egg. I won’t know how she is until she transforms again. And only Ceto has the power to change.”

Solei turned her head, so she could look up at my face. “Can you speak to those dolphins?”

“I can copy their speech. But I can’t translate the sounds.”

“But you think they’re talking, right?”

I glanced down at Solei, and found her studying me intently. I quirked a brow at her question, baffled she would even ask such a thing. “Of course. They’re a family. They have a lot to say to each other.”

My answer calmed something inside her, helped Solei break through the grip of her fear, and she began to wave her tail in earnest, and flick her fin, the same way I did. The muscles in her legs were all different now, bundled into unfamiliar shapes she didn’t know how to use, and she had to experiment for several minutes before she figured out her silky fin could be stiffened and straightened, to knock the water like a sledge, and push her forward at speed.

A half hour later, she finally began to propel herself through the water with the mighty strength of her tail, fast enough to keep up with me. I released my arm from her waist, but kept hold of her hand, to make sure she wouldn’t move out of the slipstream I cast with my scythe.

Solei tried to jerk her hand free, with a loud noise of frustration, but I refused to let go.

“I don’t need you to treat me like a baby! I can swim on my own.”

I flashed magenta and gold, glowing with irritation. “Yell louder next time. I don’t think the trackers can hear you.”

Solei glared at me. “You just want to touch me so you can keep reading my mind. You’re a creep, Rowan. An invasive, mind-reading creep. And you know what else I think? If you could’ve killed me without dying yourself, you would’ve sliced open my neck in a heartbeat.”

I darkened to midnight blue, too aggravated to argue, and still clutching her hand. I knew she felt my scythe in the water. She just didn’t understand why we needed the casting, and I didn’t trust her enough not to swim off. Her anger at me was too strong.

When I returned to a calmer shade of turquoise, the dolphins veered south, away from us. The sun finished setting and the stars appeared overhead, while we swam through the night water, across the living shadow of the open sea.

37

I didn’t dare pass the time singing or talking to soothe my anxiety, not until I figured out where we were. I focused all my concentration on swimming. Solei did the same.

Two hours later, we passed over a mountain range, approached an island, and I recognized the terrain.

The portal had left us outside the waters of Tolmak, a large territory full of war parties and vindictive scouts. We’d already crossed into their border.

The Tolmaks were thieves, a barbaric people who kept slaves and ruled with violence. If a Tolmak war party caught us, we’d probably never escape.

This particular island marked the western edge of their tribal claims. Now that I knew whose water we swam through, I put an arm around Solei and rolled in a spiral, shifting position to avoid any trip-lines or pulses—wards cast in the sea—that might bring Tolmak trackers to us. The turns allowed my lateral lines to sense more than the ripples and waves of animal life. The movement let me detect the presence of subtle magic from the Tolmak drakhir.

Solei hated those spins, but she sensed my fear, my awareness of danger, and didn’t protest when I wrapped an arm around her waist and changed our trajectory through the water. I could’ve cast to search for Tolmak magic, but the spirals allowed me to keep a strong double-scythe without slowing down. Each time we spun, we avoided the spells in the water, invisible trap lines that would bring a war party right to us. Each time we straightened, I kept hold of Solei’s hand.

She spotted the island—not as a visual presence, but she sensed the tremendous amount of motion in the water, all the plants and animals knocking around in the sea surrounding the shore. She spoke in a hush. “Do you know where we are?”

“In the borders of Tolmak. The southern realm of their territory.”

“Can you tell me the word I’d know for that island? Or name which ocean we’re in?”

Even without her hand clasped in mine, Solei could feel me search through her thoughts, but of course she understood I couldn’t pull for the answer without being an invasive, mind-reading creep.

In an instant, I learned she didn’t know the name of this particular island. But I knew from boarding ships—reading the minds of hundreds of sailors—the English term for this place.

“Corvo Island. In the Azores archipelago.”

Solei started and blazed a bright yellow-green. “The Azores! I’ve heard of those. They’re owned by Spain—or Portugal, maybe.”

“Portugal.”

“See? I knew it.” Solei glanced toward the island again. “How far away is Portugal from here? About five hundred miles?”

More like fifteen hundred. “Triple that.”

Solei gave me a determined expression, and her skin shimmered with hope. “So we’re in the Atlantic. The same ocean Llyr is in, right?”

I frowned, irritated by the way humans divided the water. The sea was a whole; there was only one ocean. But according to the clumsy geography Solei knew, there were five oceans, and Llyr was in the one she had named.

“Llyr is northeast of Bermuda. That island almost touches the westernmost point of our territory.”

Solei gleamed with excitement. “If your territory almost touches Bermuda—that means Llyr is in the Sargasso Sea! Wow—I know right where we were!”

I gestured for her to lower her voice. “Yes, that’s right.”

“I should’ve guessed you lived somewhere near the U.S.” Solei paused as another thought struck her. “The North Atlantic Garbage Patch is in the Sargasso. Have you seen that before? Do you ever swim underneath it?”

I clenched my jaw for a moment, picturing the miles upon miles of plastic trash that partly covered my home, and I was suddenly furious. My hatred of humans simmered hot through my blood, a loathing that radiated through my skin. “All Sërenmare know where the giant trash islands are.” The one in the Atlantic wasn’t even the largest, just the closest one that threatened the future of Llyr.

Solei fell silent, worried and anxious about the tone in my voice.

“Is someone chasing us?”

“No.” I spoke harshly, then calmed my temper and softened my tone. “Not yet.”

Solei retreated into her own thoughts again, let me concentrate on checking for wards. We completed another spin, but she had too many questions to stay quiet for long.

“What did you say to them, Rowan? After you cut your chest open. I caught the word humans.” Solei paused, searched my face. “I also heard penance, blood, and death. What did you tell them before we jumped in the portal?”

She still wanted to know why I’d pressed the knife to her throat. Why I’d needed her to think I would kill her.

“I told them the truth.”

Then I pressed a finger to my lips, since I couldn’t screen and cast a double-scythe at the same time, couldn’t keep us hidden enough from the trackers to allow us to talk. We swam on in silence.

Solei kept up, didn’t slow our pace down at all. Even after she tired, she continued to push herself, aware that our lives now depended upon speed and endurance.

Four hours later, I felt the distinct waves of swimmers approaching, and knew that a Tolmak war party had found us. Scouts running border patrol, beyond the reach of the wards. I counted ten, maybe twelve of them, less than twenty miles away.

Solei was too exhausted to swim any faster, and the scouts understood that as they spread out to circle us, closing in. I sensed them more clearly now, and realized there were fourteen of them. Far too many to fight.

This time, when I wrapped an arm around Solei’s waist, I didn’t spiral through the water, but dove. I aimed for the seafloor, searching for somewhere to hide.

“I feel something,” Solei said. “Behind us.”

“Tolmak trackers. They’re fast.”

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t have any weapons, and they’re closing in. If we stay in open water, we won’t have a chance.”

Even if I found somewhere to hide, the trackers still might catch us. But I didn’t share that part aloud.

38

Solei felt her body change as we dove, all the internal adjustments to the sudden increase in pressure, so her skeleton and soft tissue didn’t implode. The sensations frightened her, put her close to a panic. Her ribcage narrowed, her spleen shifted her nitrogen levels, her liver balanced the decrease in available oxygen—and the speed of the alterations sent a terrifying adrenaline coursing through her, as her body morphed into something that could survive below the mesopelagic. We dropped more than three thousand feet from the surface, and continued our descent into the bathypelagic.

Everything in the water changed the deeper we plunged. Salt content, temperature, the speed and direction of currents. Light disappeared.

Solei had never been at this depth before, and she struggled to breathe, so overwhelmed by the hardships of the bathypelagic that she stopped swimming. She focused all her effort on pulling enough oxygen through her gills, on staying alive.

In her mind, I saw pictures of mountains on land, high peaks covered in snow, as her thoughts were comparing the two. The hazards of high altitude and the dangers of the deep sea. Both could kill. Both needed conditioning and stamina to survive.

But Solei didn’t have time to adapt to the changes. Like an inexperienced mountain climber afflicted with altitude sickness, she would just have to suffer through our time at this depth, or we’d never escape.

I swam as fast as I could, though my pace slowed several knots, the same as any Sërenmare would when they dropped more than ten thousand feet from the surface.

As we plummeted even deeper, into the abyssopelagic, the ocean floor came into view. But instead of locating a place to hide, I discovered only a flat plain beneath us. Barren except for the hulk of what had once been an airplane, and some rusted barrels of human debris. Completely inadequate for avoiding the trackers.

I leveled out and skimmed the empty seabed, aiming for a canyon I hoped was less than ten miles away.

Solei’s voice came as a whisper. “Can’t we burrow into the dirt? Pretend to be cone snails, and huddle down in the muck?”

I had no breath to answer. I was panting too hard, straining to breathe through the heavy weight of deep water, swimming at speed with Solei’s extra weight in my arm. Flurried waves brushed my skin, and a few minutes later, the subtle ripples grew stronger. The trackers were flanking us, a position that meant they were certain they’d catch us.

We passed giant anglers, floating jellies and worms, a sleeper shark that twisted by without disturbing the sand on the seafloor—each animal made perfectly clear to my senses by the sign in the water, even when they didn’t bioluminesce. I felt their bodies around me, the same way I felt the trackers, drawing closer.

Where was the valley? I could’ve sworn there was an abandoned city nearby, somewhere at the edge of this plain. But twenty miles passed, then ten more, and still I saw nothing.

Just as I started to panic, the seafloor disappeared, revealing a steep, massive canyon, and I dove into the gorge.

With my skin touching hers, I felt Solei’s body ache with a terrible pain. Blood needled from her ears in small plumes, and she made high, strangled gasps, struggling to draw in enough breath. If I weren’t so focused on speed, I could use my magic to help her, but all of my power had to be channeled into my double-scythe, which surrounded us now like a pressure chamber, relieving the worst effects to our bodies at this depth.

I swam with Solei into a black, icy chasm, past rocks jagged as shark teeth, a skinny cleft less than four feet across. I carried her into fissures, a maze of cracks that grew smaller and smaller, passageways so narrow I thought we’d be cut. Then I swerved beneath a cragged boulder and began swimming up through the darkness.

We entered a cramped, scabrous tunnel, and I almost felt the summoning barrier too late to break it. I threw out my hand, reduced my scythe and hit the shield with a sending, hard enough that fire exploded from the walls and lit up the ingress, twisting with white flame in a sudden inferno. A cataclysm of old magic meeting new, a buckling that the ward would need several minutes to reabsorb.

So much for trying to hide. The trackers would find this light show in no time.

As the entrance spell broke to admit us in a hot blast of fire, we burst from the water into an ancient song cave. I transitioned to legs but Solei didn’t, so we skidded across the stone floor together, and tumbled in a heap through a room full of pressurized air. Much easier to breathe in here, and safe from the crushing force of the hadal zone of the sea.

I struck a wall and stopped rolling, managed to cushion Solei from slamming against the rock, and as I scrambled to grab onto her again, I used my magic to force her body to change—to transition her tail into legs—a healing spell that took only an instant. Then I grasped her hands, pulled her onto her feet, and we ran. At the far end of the song cave, a tight corridor sliced into the rock, like the path of the canyon outside, twisting in every direction.

A circular flame shot ahead of us, a spinning loop of scaled flame, throwing off contrail lines like spiraling squid arms. My magic had triggered an old guidance spell, used to help travelers navigate through the city.

The whirling fire lit the floor, showed us which turns to take, and every time Solei tripped and collapsed, I caught her up, kept her from falling. Then I spotted a hidden door we could use.

I threw an arm around Solei and jumped toward the wall. Solei cried out, scared we’d hit solid rock. But we passed through the barrier like stepping through a curtain of water, and arrived in a tiny room without light. In the darkness, I gripped Solei’s hand and we ran toward a set of stone stairs. Then we started to climb. On and on stretched the stairs, through a passageway so small, I could’ve pressed my palm flat to the ceiling.

“What is this place?” Solei gasped, heaving so hard with fatigue, I needed an energy net to understand her.

“The ancient city of Kenth. No one has lived here for… at least fifty years.”

“Do you know where you’re going?”

“I’ll know when we get there.”

Her voice became fainter with panic. “How?

“Following the runes. I need a place I can fight.”

“Where are the trackers?”

“Right behind us.”

39

Kenthian glyphs were harder to translate than Llyrian, often leaving key details buried in scratches that were easy to miss. Once Solei and I reached the top of the stairs, I triggered a light in the hall, scanned the glyphs, but still almost went the wrong way. I had to double-back ten feet once I caught the error, then located a main hall, and urged Solei to run.

She stumbled though, barely managed a jog, and kept hold of my hand as we moved, her fear like a rope tied to mine, keeping us lashed together.

“Here!” I said, and led her into a council room, an open chamber with a round depression carved in the center. The basin lay three feet deep, five feet in diameter, large enough for two people. I didn’t have the ability to power a journey stone, and this one hadn’t been used in so long, the summoning power in the glyphs might have gone dormant. But this room had a sanctuary, a vanishing place where I could hide Solei.

I let go of her hand, palmed the glyphs, and used a sending to open the sanctuary door, to reveal a small chamber behind one of the walls.

But the effort took considerable magical strength, and I almost collapsed to my knees. I had to lean over to catch my breath. My energy had dropped to such a low level, my entire body registered a sharp, throbbing pain. Muscle fatigue and empty magic reserves were a dangerous combination, and if I pushed myself beyond the point of exhaustion, I’d pass out.

As I gasped for breath, Solei edged past me and peered into the room. I motioned for her to enter, and she did, but when I didn’t follow, she jumped out again and yelled, “I’m not going in there—I’m staying with you!”

“You’re not safe here! We’re too slow to outrun them!”

“Then I’ll fight them with you! I’m not going to sit in there and hide!”

“It’s not hiding—it’s keeping you safe!

“I can take care of myself!” Her voice was all fire, but she was so tired, so worn down from the hours of swimming and the long run up the stairs, she knelt beside me to pant. “If they catch you—”

“They won’t.”

“You don’t know that!”

We stood without speaking a minute, breathing hard, and I gestured again for Solei to enter the sanctuary. “You’re not a drakhir. You’re a—” I was too tired to pull for the word, but I could see the image from her memories, her everyday life on land. Running with other girls on a wide field of grass, kicking a white and black sphere. “That game with the ball. That’s not fighting. You’ve never been in a battle.” Those Tolmak scouts weren’t here to play.

“I might not be a soldier, but I can still help you—”

In a burst of frustration, I seized both her arms, and considered hurling her into the sanctuary, closing the door before she could escape—but when she yelled, “No, Rowan—I’m staying with you!” I released her. As much as I hated the idea of watching Solei be injured, I’d already healed her once, after the Llyrian guards broke her arm. If she wanted to fight some Tolmak scouts, so be it.

“There’s fourteen of them, and they’re all in the city by now. They’ll come for us in teams, three or four in each group. One team followed us in, the others took different tunnels, so they can herd us and catch us. So we fight off this team, and run again. Got it?”

Solei drew back her shoulders, set her jaw with a nod, and glanced toward the door we’d come in.

I crossed the room and stood to the side of the entrance, with my back to the wall.

“Won’t they expect you to be there?” Solei asked.

“They know we’re unarmed. You weren’t even swimming, they think I’m carrying you. They’re not expecting us to put up a fight.”

“Wolves chasing rabbits.” Solei moved to stand on the other side of the door. She appraised me a moment, and then a hard, determined expression closed over her face. “They should’ve left us alone.”

A minute passed, then two. I shifted into a half-crouch, ready to spring.

Two scouts burst into the room, and I leapt for them both, slamming into their legs, knocking the pair to the floor. One dropped his knife, and the other I grappled with, grasping the man’s arms to keep him from slashing me with the blade in his hand. I kicked the knife on the floor toward Solei.

Two more trackers ran in as Solei jumped for the loose knife and snatched up the weapon, while I took the man I held to the ground, striking his skull against the stone floor. I used enough force to stun him, then gripped his neck and put him to sleep. Healing spells came in handy in fights.

His partner jumped on my back and we went sprawling, an ugly roll that bashed me into the wall. Two trackers rushed toward us, but Solei tripped one of them, and kneed the other man in the groin, hard enough that he crumpled. The man she tripped righted himself as she took down his partner, and he moved quickly enough to grab her shoulders and throw her. Solei’s head struck the rock panel and she dropped to her knees. The scout reached for the first man I’d put to sleep and started to wake him, while I struggled with the one who had tackled me, grappled him into a headlock, and put him to sleep with a sending.

The tracker Solei had kneed rose and had his arms around her before I could jump him. I broke his hold on her, and then we scrambled and fought, until I was as scraped and bruised as I’d ever been from a fight. I still managed to wrap my hand around his neck and put him to sleep. He fell to the floor as the first man I’d taken down woke up, lurched to his knees and sprang toward me. I bolted aside as the partner who’d woken him filled the air with electrical current.

A vivid skein of gold light shot from the man’s outstretched hands, so much electricity that I might’ve been burned beyond healing had the charge hit me. But I toppled into the basin, and the shocker spell passed overhead.

Solei kicked the man, hard, a solid blow to his stomach. I clambered from the basin, tackled him before he could rise, and put him to sleep. The last man standing hit me with a calefact, a type of heat current that didn’t need as much magic to fire as a full electric charge. The calefact struck my chest. If I hadn’t been so tired, I’d have stayed on my feet—but this time, I collapsed, then scrabbled to get back up to my knees. Solei rolled in a somersault into the man’s feet, and as the scout tipped sideways and caught himself with his hands, I flung myself toward him, snatched hold of his neck as he tried to straighten, and put him to sleep.

“They’re still breathing?” Solei asked, more to herself than to me, eyeing the four men on the floor. Their chests rose and fell in their sleep.

“Take their belts,” I said, so winded from the fight and the calefact, I had to force myself to move.

Solei knelt beside the man closest to her, and studied his belt for a minute, while I removed another man’s atlatl and spear, as well as his strap, and cinched them onto myself. The strap that held Ceto’s egg crossed the opposite shoulder, and remained firmly in place.

I had to show Solei how to unfasten a belt, which I positioned around her waist, over the breechcloth I’d made her, and clipped the latch into place. She put the knife she’d picked up into one of the loops, while I took a second belt for myself, and all the food canisters I could find. There weren’t many.

“I want a spear,” Solei said, and though we should’ve been moving again, I helped her remove a man’s strap, his atlatl and spear, but we didn’t have time for her to put them on. She clutched them tight in her hand.

“Let’s go!” and I shoved her toward the door. I seized her free hand and broke into a run, pulling her out of the room, forcing her to pick up her feet as we sprinted down a side hall. We had more stairs to climb, had to return to the sea, or the rest of the Tolmak raid team would trap us.

“How long will they sleep?” Solei asked.

“An hour. Maybe less.”

“Will we have to fight another team?”

“No. Now we swim.”

40

Solei dreaded a return to the sea, and her skin faded to a sickly shade of violet as she braced herself for the onset of more pain. We passed through four different rooms, chambers as magnificent as any in Llyr, until we reached a small entryway with an ingress. Solei stared down at the black water and sank to her knees.

I didn’t have the time or the strength to be kind. The same way I’d tackled the guards, I toppled Solei into the water with me. With a sending, I forced her legs to transition into a tail, and then I opened the summoning barrier. My spell didn’t explode through the magic this time—no fireballs shot through the darkness. The sending created only the tiniest slit through the mouth of the tunnel, which sealed behind us again the instant we crossed through.

Once again, I wrapped an arm around Solei, cast a double-scythe, and swam as fast as I could through the tunnel. She still clutched the atlatl and spear she’d picked up, with the strap lashed tight around her fingers.

After a minute, the corridor widened into a dense maze of rock, a complicated network of twists and turns. I navigated the passage with haste, swimming up and up and up.

I shot from the gorge with Solei, pushing myself harder than I ever had in my life. Putting as much distance as I could between us and the trackers. For thirty miles, I travelled through a large mountain range, weaving around obstacles that would make it impossible for anyone to follow our trail. The rock absorbed the waves I created, the ripples of motion that broadcast our presence. If the trackers had located the exit I’d used to return to the water, Solei and I had now vanished.

Near the base of one of the mountains, I located an abandoned redoubt, one of the old Kenthian forts. As I prepared to enter the ingress, Solei went limp in my arms. Blood ran in a heavy stream from her ears and mouth, which meant her ears had both ruptured, and some of her gill arches had been crushed. The atlatl and spear she’d taken dropped from her hand, but I darted and caught them without letting her go.

I carried her into an ingress and out of the water, through a greeting room, and down a wide hall. In one of the barracks, I entered a tiny room and lay Solei on a small bed, atop a tattered moss blanket. The stone ceiling and walls in the cave were grooved with a triangular pattern, like a repeating starburst, but there weren’t any lamp orbs in this bedroom to light. In the darkness, I knelt beside Solei, placed my hands on her shoulders, and with the last of my strength, I healed her damaged ears, her crushed gills, and she started to breathe easy again.

In a moment, she woke and sat up at the same time I dropped in a heap to the floor. I heard my face strike the rock, but didn’t feel the impact.

Solei’s voice rose with panic. “Rowan, where are we? Where are the trackers?”

Still hunting us, I wanted to say, but my exhaustion was too severe. Without the energy to respond, my eyes remained closed, and I fell asleep.

41

I slept a long time, perhaps a full sendo, before I woke up. Soft light gleamed in the cave, a faint, sunrise yellow, which meant Solei had located a lamp or triggered a kalya.

As I shifted onto my back, and turned my face to glance over the room, she knelt on the floor beside me, studying the contents of our belts. Our eyes met for a moment before I rolled forward and sat up. She’d emptied each of the norlas—the chambered belt pouches—and had everything spread around her in neat little piles. Even Ceto’s egg rested between packets of smokeseeds and a stack of varkina. Maybe Solei had been hoping she could wake Ceto up somehow, convince her to transform into a sea dragon again.

The light in the room came from a kalya, a tiny orb like a pearl, which Solei had placed on the bed.

“Rowan, what are these?” She held out a handful of smokeseeds. “Can I eat them?”

Too drowsy to answer, I rubbed my eyes, let them close again, and rested my head on one knee, still trying to adjust to being awake.

“I like these spiral things,” Solei said. “The black ones? They’re soft and rubbery, but taste like charcoal.” She held up her fingertips, so I’d know she’d been using her chemoreceptors, not her tongue.

“Varkina,” I said. My voice sounded worn, and Solei placed a hand on my shoulder.

“How far did you swim after I fell asleep?”

My words slurred a bit, but I managed to say, “Just brought you in here.”

“Are the trackers waiting outside?”

I shook my head without lifting my brow from my knee. “No. They’ve turned back.” I knuckled my eyes again. “We’re not in Tolmak anymore. The scouts lost our trail, or they’d have caught us by now.” I dropped my hand, then added, “War parties don’t stay in foreign territory long. Not unless there’s a bigger prize to be gained than two slaves.” We were safe for a while, until we started swimming again.

Solei put down the varkina and scooped up the smokeseeds again. The little ovals were almost the same shade as her dark brown skin. “Please tell me I can eat these.”

Rather than explain the purpose of smokeseeds, I glanced over the piles, plucked up a packet of black-leaf, a travel canister of spices, and a small disc of hrichka. I also palmed Ceto’s egg for a moment, studying the small stone for any change in shape, before I returned the dragon egg to its place in my spear strap.

Then I stood, stiff and slow, but held out a hand to pull Solei onto her feet. “Come on,” and I led her out of the room. “We’ll make borren.”

Octopus pee, I could hear Brielle say. But to think of my sister was to think of Aiden and Father, who would’ve contacted the tribes through a courier stone, including the Tolmak Qarin, a woman named Senshel.

Senshel hated Llyr, and there was no telling whether she would question the trackers who’d chased us, or whether anyone would figure out who those Tolmak scouts had almost caught. With the number of incidents that took place in the sea every day, Senshel would need to take an interest in Father’s message before she questioned her Wardens and scout leaders for information.

I felt certain Father would offer a tribute price to have Solei and I returned to Llyr, and I knew a payment of food stores from Llyr would be a powerful motivator to any tribe. Even Senshel and her ruthless drakhir might choose to hunt us for Father.

But we couldn’t keep swimming if we didn’t eat something first, and since this fort held a barracks with officer rooms, I knew I’d find a kitchen somewhere.

42

Solei watched as I lit one of the orbs in the hall, illuminating us both in a bright amber glow. Then her gaze dropped to my chest, and I had a sudden fear that my penance mark might be visible, that Father had already found us while I’d been asleep—

My heart leapt as I looked down, but nothing gleamed in my skin. Even the cut I’d made with the Qarin’s knife was invisible now. The magic in the portal had buried the damage under my skin.

“You sliced your skin pretty deep for that ritual,” Solei said. “But you don’t have a scar.”

I tapped a fingertip on my sternum. “The mark is still there. You just can’t see it right now.” I turned and moved down the passageway, glancing through open doors, reading glyphs on the ones that were shut.

Solei remained at my side. “Where are we?”

“North of Tolmak. In the southern region of Crenn.”

“I mean whose house is this? Doesn’t anyone live here?”

“It’s an old Verin redoubt. Along the original trade route to Kenth.”

“Redoubt—like a fort?”

“Yeah.” I led her down a short hall, into a narrow room with counters and shelves sculpted from the natural rock. Bowls and spoons lined the hollows, tiny cups with fitted lids, everything crafted with care.

I tossed the packets of food on the counter, lit two of the lamps, and removed a pot from a shelf. From a seep spring in the wall, I filled the container with water, and then flattened my palm atop a hearth stone on the counter, which triggered the rock to fire with heat. I set down the water to boil.

Solei studied my work. “I can see your magic sometimes. When you make the air shimmer. But that never happens when you light glyphs.”

“The stronger the talent, the less visible the power. My healing spells can often be seen. But usually my energy nets and my work with runes leave no trace.”

Solei glanced over my hands. “That was how you put those trackers to sleep. The same way Brevyn did when he touched me.” She inspected her fingers a moment, then eyed my neck with an expression of mischief. “I wonder if I could knock you out, since I have some of your power—” and she held up her palm like she’d spell me.

I ignored her threat, and knelt to root around in another shelf for a pan. “How did you light the kalya?”

Solei leaned over to watch me hunt. “That tiny marble? The flashlight? I was just sitting there holding it, wishing you would wake up, and then I thought about lighting the glyphs in the walls—but that little glass ball started glowing instead.”

“It’s a similar spell.” I found the flat pan I needed, added water from the seep spring, and fired another hearth stone.

Solei nudged the small disc of hrichka. “I can’t believe this is food. That thing tastes like sand. And it’s hard as a rock.”

I gave her a derisive smile. “Then I’m sure you won’t mind if I eat the whole thing.”

Solei pursed her lips in disdain, leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. “That man you fought. The one who shot the gold light—”

“A voltaic mage. Like my father, and Aiden.”

“What did he throw at you?”

“A blast of electricity.”

She lifted her brows, and her eyes lit with understanding. “Like an eel. Stunning its prey.”

I nodded. “The Tolmak Qarin favors that power, and their trackers often double as shockers.”

“So when you fight with each other, you go up against… people with all kinds of powers. And that one man hit you with something, didn’t he? When you dropped?”

“A calefact. A pulse of heat, but not one that burns, the way the electric bolts do.” I added various pinches of spices and dried jelly into the pot for the borren. “Tolmak has excellent raid teams. They’re hard to best.”

Solei narrowed her eyes, and a sharp smile lit her face. “Yeah, they’d have taken you all right, if I hadn’t been there to save you. You’d be a slave by now if it wasn’t for me.”

Certain I didn’t want to ponder that outcome, I turned my attention to cooking the hrichka, and steeping the black-leaf in the pot for the borren. Solei slid closer to me, inspecting my work with the spices.

“Rowan.”

“What.”

“You’ve fought those trackers before?”

“Llyr shares a border with Tolmak. An abyssal plain ringed by mountains. Their war parties raid Llyr at least once a month.”

Solei moved even closer, watching the hrichka sizzle and pop as the disc absorbed the boiled water, and slowly expanded to twenty times its original size, filling the pan. The color changed from a hue of black jade to a light, fluffy green.

“It’s like a giant rotten pancake,” she said. “One that smells like Brussels sprouts.”

“Hrikcha is vegetable meal. Made by cultivators and craftsmiths. They load a vat with small portions of ten different crops grown for harvest, ground and dry the material over and over, until it’s condensed into pure fat and protein. Like eating three meals in one.”

Solei gazed at the hrichka with a thoughtful expression. “Reminds me of pemmican. My dad learned how to make that when he was in grad school, in an anthropology class. It’s this Native American food made with dried meat, berries, and anything else that might be on hand. Nuts and seeds, bone marrow, edible roots. I tried some once. It wasn’t too bad.”

I removed the pan from the hearth stone and looked for two plates. “Hrikcha doesn’t have any meat. No Llyrian would put flesh in their food.”

Solei located the plates before I did, and handed them to me. “Are all Sërenmare vegetarian?”

“The settled tribes, yes. But even the nomads are forbidden to kill for their food.”

“So they scavenge?”

“They collect dead meat on the seafloor, and ferment the flesh in heat vents, rather than cultivating their food. Nomadic tribes never have to visit the surface. They’re very lucky that way.”

Solei’s mouth fell open in shock. “Nomads live in the blackest part of the sea, eat fermented whale blubber, never see the sun—and you think they’re lucky?

I cut the hrichka in half with the edge of a spoon, careful to make two equal portions. “Of course. Though you might have to meet a few Rishki, and see for yourself.”

“As long as they’re not like the Tolmaks—”

“No, the Rishki don’t raid or take slaves. They’re dangerous, but only because they demand tribute, payment to travel their lands.”

“What kind of tribute?”

I shrugged, trying to keep the uneasiness out of my voice. “Shells, pearls, jewels. Crafting gifts. Food.”

“Which we have none of. Unless—what about the spears we took, and the knives? Would those be acceptable?”

“Rishki make their own weapons.”

Solei pressed her lips together, dismayed, but she took the plate of hrichka I handed her. Then she went to sit on a stone bench carved into the wall. “So what happens if we try crossing their land without tribute?”

“They’ll demand other payment. A task of some sort.”

“Like what?”

“Depends on which tribe catches us.” I chose to eat my rotten pancake at the counter, where I stood. Solei watched me tear off small pieces of hrichka with my fingers, and copied me.

“How many Rishki tribes are there?”

“Eight,” I said. “They all speak their own language, follow their own customs.”

“And what about the other people you mentioned—fenhaline, and marauders—what happens if we run into them?”

“Marauders demand steeper tributes than Rishki. But you’re a fast swimmer, and you’ll get used to the pressure this deep, the more you’re exposed to it. Maybe we’ll be all right.”

Solei devoured her plate. “Wow, Rowan—this actually tastes like real food. Like almonds and macadamia nuts and asparagus—but it’s as juicy as a tomato.”

I finished my own plate, then poured two mugs of borren. I carried one to her.

Solei took a careful sip. “It’s not what I would call sweet, but it still reminds me of cider. If cider were made with spiced pear.”

I cast a pull for the word pear, then said, “Have to take your word for it.”

“You don’t have sea pears?”

I shook my head, drank my tea, and washed the dishes. Once I had everything put away, I picked up the packet of spices and what was left of the black-leaf, and switched off the lamps.

“Will Ceto wake up soon?” Solei asked. “Should we say a chant for her or something, to tell her it’s safe to change shape?”

I smiled. “I’m sure Ceto would like nothing better than for us to spend a few hours chanting her name. Followed by the words mighty sea dragon, please save us.”

We left the kitchen and returned to the room we had slept in, with the kalya still lit on the bed.

Solei glanced at the pocket on my strap that held Ceto’s egg. “Do you think she can hear us? I asked her to come out of her shell earlier, several times.”

I considered her question a moment, but I honestly didn’t know if an obakee in stone form still used her senses. “Have to ask Ceto, once she wakes up.”

For the next few minutes, I showed Solei how to fasten her atlatl and spear to her back, and then I went through our supplies. We had ten discs of hrichka—only a fraction of the food we needed—along with five packets of black-leaf, two pouches of spices, one kalya, two knives, three pouches of varkina, and four pouches of smokeseeds.

“So what are varkina for?” Solei asked.

“Depends. You can use them to bind people, or seal off a room, lock a door to hold people back. They’re malleable tools, they expand and contract based on what shape you need them to take.”

“And what about these?” She held up a packet of smokeseeds.

“Decoy material. They can make a sound and a pressure that mimics waves, like someone swimming. You can turn them into a type of liquid that disrupts sign like a screen. They can explode and break holes through volcanic and igneous rock. Those are the most common ways they’re used.”

Solei handed the packet back to me. “Cool.”

Once I had all our supplies returned to the belts—along with the kalya, which I had Solei switch off—we left the bedroom, walked to the far end of the fort, and located an ingress. I lit the lamps in the room, since I planned for us to be here a while.

Glancing at Solei, I said, “I need you to learn to transition. So I don’t have to spell you to change.”

I took a seat on the edge of the ingress, plunged my feet and calves in the water, but Solei remained at the door, shaking her head at the sight of the pool.

“The sea pressure here is like being close to the surface,” I said. “It won’t hurt you. Not until you cross through the summoning barrier in the tunnel. Then you’ll feel the abyssopelagic.”

Solei threw up her hands, her skin sparking with a dark purple color of shock. “What the hell, Rowan—the abyssopelagic? Are you kidding me? We’re in the damn abyssopelagic?

I shifted my feet in the water without looking at her.

Solei put her hands on her hips with a frown. “How deep are we right now?”

I shrugged.

“Thirteen thousand feet? Fifteen thousand?”

“Sixteen and a half,” I said quietly.

“Oh my God.” Solei covered her eyes for a moment, then placed her hands atop her head in despair, before she circled the room several times. As I sat watching her, and reflected on our fight with the trackers, I thought she’d done a good job taking them on, given how small and slight her body was. I was also impressed with how fast she could swim, since her tail in the water was as miniature as the rest of her. She would’ve made a good drakhir, if she’d been raised with my tribe.

“I’ll show you how to cast a scythe, too,” I said. “That’ll help with the pressure.”

Solei dropped her hands and glared at me. “Are we going to keep swimming this deep? Because the pressure down here is horrible. It’s horrible. I’d rather just be dead than be in that water.”

“You only say that because your ears blew out, and some of your gills collapsed—”

“My ears blew out? And some of my gills collapsed? Seriously? You’re telling me I almost drowned—like, no big deal—just come get your tail on again and we’ll be on our way!”

“Solei—”

“Rowan.” She copied my tone. “If you expect me to keep swimming this deep, the answer is no. I’m not doing it.”

“Great. That sounds great.” I lay back on the floor, too frustrated to look at her anymore. I stared at the ceiling. “We’ll just stay here and starve to death. That sounds wonderful. How did you guess that’s exactly how I’ve always wanted to die?”

Solei walked over and put her foot on my chest. She didn’t stomp on me, or press down with any force, but her scowl seemed plenty violent. “How much farther do we have to swim? Where are the caves that we need? Are they in the Atlantic, or what?”

“Or what,” and I sighed. Solei removed her foot from my chest before I sat up and walked to the door. “Come on. There’s a map in the briefing room. I’ll show you.”

43

Solei followed me into a dark, narrow room, twice as long as the kitchen, the air scented with sandstone and iron.

I lit all five globes overhead, illuminating the enormous maps that covered two of the walls. These were three-dimensional renderings of the ocean floor, sculpted with meticulous detail, and keyed with magic to hide the runes that labeled the terrain.

On both maps, land was a blank, open nothing: black space without any features. Solei furrowed her brows as she gazed over the wall, trying to get her bearings and find something familiar.

I gave her a few moments, and then I pointed to the region of Crenn. “We’re here.”

Solei nodded, and placed her finger on our location as I dropped my hand. She located the boundaries of the continental shelves, and extrapolated the names of her geography system from there.

“Okay, there’s the Arctic,” she said, gesturing with her chin to the center of the map. Then she pointed to the area of the sea above the Arctic. “That’s the Pacific. And we’re down here, still in the northern Atlantic.” She glanced up at my face with a puzzled expression. “Where’s the Southern Ocean though? It’s not pictured.”

I aimed my thumb at the wall behind us. What Solei called the Southern Ocean occupied most of the second map, with the Atlantic positioned above, and the Pacific below. Solei faced the first map again, and took a deep, calming breath.

“North America,” she said, tapping one of the land shadows. “And somewhere in here—” she swirled a finger around the place she lived, Massachusetts—“is Woods Hole.”

I smiled and covered her hand with my own. Magic jumped in my skin when I touched her, a sign that my reserves were replenishing, now that I’d eaten. I still didn’t like that my power reacted to Solei, but I’d grown used to the sensation, which was like being tickled with energy.

I moved Solei’s fingertip over the map, away from the land, to the place we had started. “This is Llyr.” I pushed her hand east again, across the Sargasso Sea, across the Atlantic, all the way to the Azores. “Tolmak,” I said, and then inched her fingertip north, back to Crenn. “Where we are now.”

Solei nodded, letting me know she understood the map’s layout. So I showed her the route we had to take, tracing her hand over the seascape, still heading north.

“There’s Iceland,” Solei said, as we passed by an island. “And there’s Norway. So we’re traveling all the way through the Arctic… skirting the northern boundary of Russia… straight into the Bering Sea. Look, there’s Alaska, and there’s Siberia.” She paused, then added, “My dad says it’s better to call Siberia the Russian Far East now, I guess that’s the correct term. Which is too bad, I really like the name Siberia. It just sounds so much better than saying the Russian Far East. That’s so cumbersome—”

Then Solei started, went rigid, yanked her hand free from mine, and stared up at me in shock. “Oh my God, Rowan—aren’t we going to freeze to death? How are we supposed to survive crossing the Arctic if we don’t even have blubber?

Which was such a human thing to say, and so absurd to even ask, that I caught my breath for a moment, and then laughed. Genuine laughter, the kind I hadn’t felt in a long time. “Solei… we’re already in the deepest part of the sea.” In the coldest of all ocean depths. “We’ll be fine.”

Solei turned white with embarrassment, then brilliant lilac, and even her hair switched from black to dark blue. I remembered what she’d said to me when I’d displayed those colors inside her prison room, glowing pale purple for her, so I gestured toward her body and asked, “Now who looks like a pretty flower?”

Her skin flashed electric green in a fury as she crossed her arms and turned away from me.

I stopped laughing, but couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. Solei returned to the map, gave me a hard look, and touched a fingertip to the Arctic again, near the place she’d called the Russian Far East.

I stepped beside her, but didn’t reach for her hand this time, didn’t seek contact at all. I simply traced the rest of the route we would take to the Dev-durvani caves, which were nestled near the middle of what Solei knew as the central Pacific.

She blinked at the map in alarm, then gave me a horrified look. “That’s where the caves are? Are you kidding me?”

I shifted away from her, alarmed that her tone was so angry.

Solei pointed at the Pacific once more, and her voice rose with outrage. “That’s on the other side of the world, Rowan. On the other side of the earth.”

I shrugged. “Which is why I had ten cylinders full of hrichka—enough food to last us almost the whole trip. But you saw how Pierce took my belt before the ceremony, and now we’re—”

Solei cut me off, flashing bright silver. “Rowan! You never said we had to swim halfway around the earth. Through an ocean full of slavers and thieves, and people who shoot electricity like eels! For God’s sake—don’t you have any sense?” She pounded the side of her fist on the map. “I almost died swimming here—and that took us hours—and we didn’t even trip one of those Tolmak wards! But their trackers still almost caught us—and all those hours we swam, that was only like, a millimeter on this map!”

“More like three,” I said.

Solei paced around in an erratic direction, hands on her hips. “Three millimeters. Oh, that’s such a relief—thank you so much for clarifying the dimensions. Never mind we’ve got millions of miles left to swim!”

“Not millions, only about twelve thousand,” I said. The meridional circumference of the earth—from pole to pole, was only 24,860 miles. Which was slightly shorter than the circumference of the earth at the equator, which was 24,874 miles. And there weren’t any continents in our way, blocking our route. Swimming over one of the poles was a lot easier than Solei knew, she was so used to thinking about the hardships of travel on land. This was actually a fairly easy trip, all things considered.

Not only did the fact that the earth was an oblate spheroid work in our favor, but we had several nice currents to follow, and uninhabited mountain ranges that would give us good cover. I also had some time to teach Solei how to cast her own scythe before we left this redoubt. And we had some food now, enough to survive for a few days, until I figured something else out.

But Solei sat on the floor and buried her head in her arms, like she’d rather give up.

I took a seat across from her, on the far side of the room. Sifted through my own thoughts for a while.

Until something dawned on me about what she had said.

The Tolmak wards. Solei had mentioned how we’d been evading them.

But I hadn’t explained those trip-lines to Solei. I hadn’t said one word to her about casting wards through the sea.

So how had she known that term?

As the question burst through my mind, Solei lifted her head and gave me a cryptic smile. Her dark eyes glittered with a ferocious amusement, before she referred to something else that had only been in my thoughts. “How do you know the earth isn’t perfectly spherical, Rowan? That the globe flattens out at the poles? Did the All tell you that?”

I jumped to my feet, so upset I was speechless, and Solei leapt onto her feet as well.

She widened her smile as I sealed off my mind, blocking her pull with a screen so strong and sudden that she felt a vibration of magic, like hearing a low hum in the air.

Solei balled her hands into fists, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin. “Yeah, that’s right—throw me out of your mind! You can sit there and read my thoughts all day long. But it’s not so nice when someone’s mucking around in your brain—is it, Rowan? It’s clear you don’t like that at all.”

I opened my mouth, but no words arrived. I clamped my jaw shut without speaking.

“You’re so eager to teach me to cast a scythe and swim out of here—but what about that, Rowan?” Solei waved a hand toward my head, indicating my block. “Why don’t you teach me to screen, if you want to help me so much?” She crossed her arms and glared at me. “Oh, I know why. Because you’re a mind-reading creep.”

My voice returned with a roar. “I’m trying to save you!”

Solei scoffed. “Your family was happy to kill me—all those people in Llyr singing to your Ocean God—they’re who you’re trying to save. Not me, Rowan. Don’t even try to pretend you give a fish crap about me.”

“I do care about you!” I shouted, but Solei darted out of the room and sprinted away. I chased her to the far end of the redoubt. We ran up a set of stairs that led to a small blessing room, one with silica panels that revealed the black water outside. Solei stood in a crouch, like she thought I might attack her and she’d need to fight back.

I was so angry my voice shook. “I don’t have a tribe anymore. I’ll never be welcome in Llyr again. Don’t you understand? That we’re bound together by the All? My life belongs to you now—forever. For as long as I live.”

“Then why send me home?” Her words were low, cold and furious. “If you die when I’m killed, why not trap me somewhere in the water with you? Isn’t that safer, Rowan? To keep yourself alive, far away from your people? We get to these caves on the other side of the world, and you put me in an undersea prison?”

“Oh, for the love of the bluefin, that’s not it at all! I don’t want to live in the Dev-durvani caves—they were irradiated decades ago—by your people! By the U.S. military conducting atomic bomb tests at sea. Your country decimated that tribe, just like when they dropped those bombs on Japan. Dozens of ships went down along with those nuclear blasts, and you don’t even know that it happened.”

“I know about those bomb tests!” she shouted, but I kept yelling over her.

“And you’re still detonating weapons and dumping your nuclear waste in the sea. The Qarin drowned you because you were worthless to him, just a means to an end—and you’re only alive now because the All disagreed. Because Sërenmare are forbidden to kill. My Ocean God kept you alive. Before Brevyn transformed you, I told myself I could murder you, Solei. I wanted to kill you—even though I knew it was wrong.”

Solei straightened and returned to her human coloring, no longer preparing for an attack. She rested her back against the far wall, while the rest of my words rolled through the room in a torrent.

“I’ve hated humans my whole life. They’re a foul, disgusting race, and they’re killing all life on the earth. Everything is going extinct because they consume and destroy and fill the world with their trash. My vows forbid me to kill you—and that’s why we’re kinned now—that’s the blood price I paid for what I’ve done with my magic. I don’t even have a family anymore because I kept you alive. You do though. You have your father, and a home that’s not covered in garbage. So I’ll do everything I can to make sure you get your human body back, and return safely to land. And you can enjoy watching the world die with the rest of your people, when you finish wiping out the coral and plankton and every other life in the sea. Destroying the earth truly is what you’re best at.”

The sudden tirade drained me, so as soon as I spat out my last word, I turned and walked back to the briefing room. My heart pounded hard as I switched off the lamps and tried to calm down. Near the end of the hall, I located the room with the ingress I’d sat beside earlier. The water rippled as I took a seat on the edge and plunked my feet in the pool.

Solei made me so mad, my heart kept racing and I kicked at the water.

Like I’d go through all this trouble to keep her alive just to stick her into some prison. How could she ever believe I wanted to spend my life bringing her food and making sure she couldn’t escape? Just thinking about surviving the next hour with her stressed me out, let alone the rest of my life. That girl was unbearable. She was the most aggravating person on the planet, and she certainly didn’t belong in the sea.

I wished Ceto would stop being an egg, and wake up. Being harassed by a puddling sea dragon was far more pleasant than Solei’s company. And I wished Xalea were here. I’d feel a lot better right now if I could talk to my friends. They knew I wasn’t some evil monster who’d put Solei in prison. That I wasn’t just a mind-reading creep.

I realized there was a slim possibility this fort possessed a courier stone, and I might be able to speak to Xalea, if I found what I needed… If I returned to the blessing room Solei had run into, I could cast with my magic and look.

But I had no desire to see Solei right now. And when I heard her footsteps in the hall, and listened to her cross the room toward me, I wouldn’t face her.

She lowered herself into the ingress beside me, without even making a splash. I was so surprised she got in, that I watched her paddle around for a moment. She looked weird in the water without a tail.

When she finally spoke, her words were quiet and clipped. “Show me a scythe, and we’re leaving. Twelve thousand miles? I can swim that. Hurry up and let’s do this, Rowan. I’m done wasting time.”

I clenched my jaw for a moment, since I still felt pretty angry. But we did need to keep moving, and stop wasting time. So I dropped into the ingress beside her, and she moved close to me. I placed my palm on her shoulder and sent my magic through her, so she could feel the lines of energy she needed to use.

“Casting a scythe feels like singing,” I said. “With your skin, not your voice. You make a projection in front of you to cut through the water. You can form different sizes and shapes, make them as strong as you need. The deeper you swim, the more power you’ll channel from your body to cast. Since the water in this pool is inside the summoning barrier, you can experiment a while without feeling drained.”

Solei nodded, met my eyes only once, and then I released her, to teach her how to transition.

“To change your legs to a tail takes place here—” and I touched my thumbs to her temples. “You direct the thought through your system, from your mind to your nerves, down your spine. Like pushing the idea through your body. Picture your tail, send the image to your toes, and your body will make the transition.”

I released her and climbed out of the ingress, to leave her alone in the water to practice.

A half hour later, she could change form pretty well, switching from legs to a tail and back within seconds. The scythe was more complicated, and she needed over an hour before she could master that spell. I left for a while, to search for a courier stone to call Xalea, but the blessing room didn’t have one. So I switched off the lights again and returned to the ingress.

When Solei felt comfortable enough to try swimming, I joined her in the water and parted the summoning barrier. I checked over the strap for her atlatl and spear, and her belt one last time, making sure all the right clips were in place. Then we left the safety of the fort for the cold, crushing night of the deep.

I didn’t grip Solei’s hand, but I watched her move through the water beside me, out of the entry tunnel and into the mountains. We swam at a slow pace, so Solei could maintain her own scythe. The valley pointed north, and we followed the canyon. Safe from enemy scouts for the moment, but not from each other. The silence between us felt like a battle, a tension as bladed and sharp as a weapon.

44

An hour passed, then another. We stayed in the ravines, where we were safe from roving bands of trackers and their wards at the surface. I stopped to read glyphs on occasion, to make sure we weren’t trespassing through a home or a base that wouldn’t be marked on a map. With the disintegration of tribes, and the fracturing of territories into wild border regions and abandoned cities, there was no telling who we might come across in this canyon.

As a Llyrian scout, I’d made forays like this through forbidding territory, placing my own wards in the water and checking for danger. But I’d always had Luke with me, or a small group of teammates, and once I’d become the jusbel, I’d only ever gone out like this with Aiden. Now whenever I thought of my brother, a spasm of fear twitched my shoulders.

The longer we spent in the deep, the closer Solei swam to me. I thought she wanted relief from the pressure by edging into my slipstream, so I cast my scythe large enough to take some of the crush from her own. An hour later, she grabbed my hand, stopping us both. “Rowan, what is that? What’s that noise?”

There was a lot of noise at this depth, all sorts of animals scratching the rock, burrowing into the muck, feeding and fleeing and mating. I thought Solei had grown used to the sounds, and even though we were touching right now, I didn’t want to read her mind anymore. She’d been clear about how much she hated my energy nets, and I had no desire to provoke another fight. So I straightened and listened intently to figure out what had frightened her.

Nothing. No threat in the water, no danger.

I pulled my hand from hers. “Which noise?”

“That moaning,” she said. “It’s making the water shudder. Like there’s something big coming. Something awful.”

“Oh,” and I glanced up, even though there was nothing to see in the dark. “There’s a cruise ship passing by. Over two miles above us, about three miles to the west. There’s also a right whale with her calf over there—” I pointed away from the mountains, to the east. “She’s teaching him how to sound. I think you’re feeling some of their pulses. They’re quite a ways off though. I think what’s bothering you is the ship.”

A ghost shark slipped through the rocks, circled us, and disappeared in a crevice, while Solei inched even closer to me.

She stared at one of the lobsters crawling behind me, and her voice was close to a whisper. “I needed stitches once, from a snapping turtle that ripped open my foot in a pond.” Solei searched my face in the dark, sensing my presence as clearly as I could feel hers. “I don’t want to swim so close to the rock, if anything is going to bite me.”

“Most animals never attack, not even to bite. Sërenmare are not food. Not to the animals of the sea and not to each other. The magic in your body gives off its own current, like the electrical forces that fire your muscles and nerves, and the chemical scent in your skin. Animals sense the presence of magic, and the power acts like a ward. They’re able to recognize you’re not prey.”

Solei lifted her face, shifting her gaze toward the cruise ship. “What about humans though? Humans don’t even know you exist.” She glanced away and dropped her voice. “We, I mean. Humans don’t know we exist.”

I smiled. “Sure they do. We sing to the fishermen so they’ll drown.”

Solei glowered. “Be serious.”

“Well, we seriously avoid humans as much as we can. But since there are more ships crossing the ocean now than ever before, and more toxic waste and chemical filth dumped from the shores every day, more mines being drilled, more petroleum spills, more dead zones, and the garbage patches keep growing—avoiding humans is becoming impossible. They’re the most dangerous thing in the sea, and they kill without warning, all the time.”

Solei shivered, gazing down at our fins. She seemed like she wanted to say something, but when no words arrived, I started swimming again, slow enough she could catch up to me and stay in my scythe if she wanted.

She did choose to stay close, and we remained in the deep for another two hours. But at that point, Solei turned a pale silver, and she glowed faintly, a sign of fatigue.

So I directed us up from the depths, toward the surface, where Solei could recover her strength.

The higher we rose, the more of her normal color returned, and by the time we were only a few feet from the surface, she looked like herself again. The night sky held partial cloud cover, with the early signs of a squall overhead, and I could tell by Solei’s frequent smiles that she enjoyed the bright blues and greens of the plankton, the blankets of color drifting along on the current.

“It’s amazing how well I can see,” she said. “Those stars are as clear to me now underwater as they are in the air.” She was quiet a minute, then added, “My dad told me a lot of birds and fish navigate with the stars, the same way people do.”

I grinned. “Not just birds and fish.”

Solei flushed a bright pink. “Right. Mammals, turtles, sharks—”

I spiraled to check for wards, and Solei copied me. Anything I did at the surface, she copied. Her behavior reminded me of swimming with Brielle, which made me smile.

Solei watched the building clouds. “There’s a storm coming in.”

“We’ll dive, if the water gets too choppy. But I think we’ll just see some rain, no big waves.”

A pod of belugas swam by, energetic and happy, and fifty narwhals shot past underneath us. Schools of blackfin tuna and mackerel filled the water with sign, and loaded the current with ripples.

Solei laughed, gazing around at the fish in wonder. “It’s like fizzy bubbles, brushing all over me. But alive—it’s like the water itself is alive.” She smiled into the distance and added, “I think I feel a boat.”

I nodded. “Three of them. There’s a trawler to the west, and a cargo ship just a few miles north, and way off to the east is some kind of destroyer.”

“You can really tell all of that, just from vibrations?”

“And by the sound of the engines, and the chemicals each one leaks. All human ships leave a trail. The bad ones pour out petroleum nonstop, like a river of sludge. The fishing ships are easy to tell apart because you hear the fish scream as they die, when they’re pulled into the nets or they thrash on the hooks.”

Solei whispered, “Do you hear that sound now?”

“No, not right now.”

We swam through a dense haze of pink plankton, and watched the stars disappear in the clouds. A half hour passed before Solei asked, “Are we still in Crenn?”

“Those seamounts—” and I pointed east, toward the rocks rising two hundred feet beneath us, less than one mile away. Solei nodded to let me know she felt the presence of mountaintops. “They mark the border of Genda. Gendians don’t raid, or take slaves. But they’ll definitely demand tribute if they catch us.”

“Have you been here before?”

“With Aiden once, two years ago. When we were searching for a place to make star-guides.”

“What are star-guides?”

I studied Solei’s face for a moment, unsure how to answer. I liked that we weren’t fighting right now. But if I answered her question, I was sure we’d argue again.

So I deliberated, mulling over the best way to respond—

And then a distant cry hit the water. I halted.

Solei stopped as well, glancing around. “What is it?”

Another cry—someone shouting and sobbing. I strained to listen.

“One of us?” Solei asked. “Can you tell what they’re saying?”

I shook my head, facing southeast, toward the direction of the noise. “Too far away.”

“Do you think it’s a trap?”

“It sounds genuine… but anything’s possible.” I listened again to the frantic pleading. “I think someone is hurt. A woman is calling for help.”

“Hurt from what? A war party?”

“I don’t feel the sign of a war party. I don’t really feel anything, apart from the sound. Whoever is making that noise, she’s not moving.”

Solei swam toward the cries a few feet, and halted again. “Is she calling to us? Does she know we’re here?”

“Yes. She’s aiming her shouts straight for us.”

We listened another minute, but I still couldn’t make out the words.

Solei shuddered, turned a circle, and swam toward the noise again. “If someone needs help, we should help.”

It could be a trap though. That noise could be Aiden, or Father, baiting us into a snare. Or any number of hazards alive and well in the sea.

But if that really was someone who needed our help… I couldn’t just swim off and leave them.

So I flicked my fin and joined Solei, and my heart pounded hard. “I’m going to put up a screen, a shield that hides all our sign from the water, and you have to stay in it.”

Solei nodded, looking tense. She watched me remove a handful of smokeseeds from my belt and scatter them through the water. With a fire spell, I triggered the weapon to form the shape of two Sërenmare—a three-dimensional constellation of points in the water—and then I sent them away from us, swimming the direction we’d been headed, at the same time I put up a full screen.

Water shields took a tremendous amount of magic, so much more strength than a scythe. They were for hiding, not for swimming at speed—an excellent defense that came at great cost. We could approach whoever was calling in secret, but we would have to move slowly, or I’d lose my grasp on the screen and we’d be vulnerable to attack.

With so much of my concentration needed to maintain the shield, I couldn’t block Solei from reading my thoughts. But she didn’t take advantage of that. She stayed at my side, examining the screen I had cast, which gleamed with a hue of clear silica all around us. “It’s like we’re in a tiny submarine shaped like a big-bellied fish.”

My voice sounded weak, since my heart kept pounding so hard. “Aiden’s looks like a great white, when he casts a shield. So does the Qarin’s.”

“Then you must be the black sheep of the family, Rowan. Because this is more like a goldfish we’re in. Like a big happy ranchu blobbing around in a tank.”

“Blobbing around,” and I grunted. “You’re lucky I can make one big enough for us both. If you don’t like my ranchu, feel free to get out.”

“Aw, but you’d miss me.”

“Yeah right.”

Solei ignored me, and faced forward again with a smile. “How far do we have to swim in this thing?”

“Ten miles.”

“Ugh.” She wrinkled her nose. “A sea snail can swim faster than this. An actual ranchu can swim faster than this.”

I displayed my red chevrons, bright as a fireball, to let her know I wished she would shut up.

But Solei just smirked. “Oh, stop that,” and she waved a hand toward the surface. “You’ll scare all the plankton.”

I laughed in spite of myself. My chevrons vanished, I returned to the shade of indigo I’d been before, and Solei copied my coloring.

The cry for help came again, then stopped abruptly, and we both strained to listen. Nothing but silence now. Long minutes passed.

Solei lifted her brows. “If this turns out to be some kind of trap, can we drop the shield and get out of here?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

“I’d rather hear something more reassuring.”

“Then stop asking questions like that.”

Solei frowned. “If there’s a giant kraken down here, I hope you get eaten.”

“I’ll feed you to it first.”

“Jerk.”

“Child.”

Solei deepened her scowl. “Kraken food.”

“Kraken appetizer.”

She quirked a brow and met my eyes. “Is there even such a thing as a kraken?”

“Yeah. It’s swimming in this ranchu with me,” and I pointed at her.

“I’d smack you right now but I hate touching your slime.”

“Thank the All for my slime.”

Solei turned her skin a rich orange and gold, and rainbowed her hair with soft shades of crimson. “On a scale of one to ten, how scared are you right now? Because I’m kinda feeling an eight. Maybe a nine.”

“Six,” I said. “Ten if I see my father. Or Aiden.”

Solei flashed electric blue in alarm, bright enough I squinted, before she returned to her human colors.

We swam on in silence, a thousand feet below the surface, down into trouble.

45

Less than three miles from the source of the cries we had heard, Solei said, “I smell blood.” Her skin glimmered with violet freckles, then darkened again. “A lot of blood.”

“Me too.” I also sensed the presence of Sërenmare magic, a light frisson of power tingeing the water. Whoever’s blood coursed the sea had also spilled most of their energy into the waves. Someone lay dying, and the knowledge made me push myself to move faster.

We swam another mile, and I heard someone weeping, a faint sound that made me shiver.

A moment later, we dipped between two seamounts, came around a steep wall of rock, and I spotted two people—a woman and man—both around Aiden’s age. The man’s body was prone, draped over a fairly flat section of rock, while the woman sat beside him, unharmed. Her skin and tail gleamed turquoise, with indigo tiger strips, and she wore the tattoos and jewelry of a Gendian tribe. Her long hair matched her stripes, and she carried two spears on her back.

The man’s eyes were closed, and his skin and tail shone a pale golden-green, almost white. His arms and chest bore the same tattoos and jewelry as the woman, and it was clear all the blood in the water had come from him. Something had torn his right arm off, which dangled from his shoulder by a thin strip of skin. The woman had her hands pressed to his stomach. The man’s gut had been ripped open, shredded to the point his intestines had been spilling out, and the woman was trying to hold him together.

“He’s dying,” I told Solei. Probably a mine detonation or a drilling explosion. The woman must’ve carried him here, realized he wouldn’t make it to a healer in time, so she tried to save him herself. But she was no healer. “That’s why she was calling for help.”

Solei took a deep breath. “God, this is bad.”

“I’m going to drop the shield now,” I said, and Solei nodded.

As soon as the screen vanished, the Gendian woman felt us in the water, and she turned and cried, “Help us! Please help us!”

I mimicked the woman’s coloring, even though she wasn’t treating me as an enemy, and streaked toward her, fast as I could now that I was free of my shield. Solei rushed to catch up.

When I reached the man, I positioned myself across from the woman. I placed one hand on the man’s uninjured shoulder, my other hand alongside his temple, and closed my eyes. With a deep breath, I stilled my body, and focused all my concentration on sending my power into his skin, through his veins, and into what was left of his blood.

My magic travelled his system, and found each broken place, each damaged cell. I disconnected his nerves and sensory tissue, to relieve him of every bit of his pain, until I felt his breaths deepen, felt his muscles relax. Then I started the spells to quicken his healing abilities, beginning with his most dangerous injuries: the tears in his gut. Repairing his damaged organs took more than twenty minutes. Solei rested her hands over mine, maybe trying to help me, or maybe to follow my work. But I couldn’t pause what I was doing to see, couldn’t remove my focus from my task or my spells would fail, and I wasn’t sure I had enough power left to start over again.

By the time the last wound in the man’s abdomen knitted together, sealed without scarring, I’d depleted so much of my magic that I felt lightheaded and dizzy, and had to stop for a minute.

Brevyn could’ve healed this man’s entire body in less than ten minutes. But my magic had already dwindled in strength, both from casting a water shield for ten miles as well as the force of the healing spells—and the man’s severed arm hadn’t been touched.

The woman said something to me, and I couldn’t even translate her words.

Solei responded to her, said something in Gendian, while I bowed my head low, kept my eyes shut, and waited until the worst of my dizziness passed. Then I focused my magic on reattaching the man’s arm.

My chest started to burn, a fiery pain that grew worse as I sent healing spells into the man’s body, and began to repair his severed limb.

Sweat poured from my skin as my anxiety spiked, though I didn’t dare stop my work, or I’d never heal the man’s arm. But fear slowed me down, even more than the searing pain in my chest—because I knew someone had lit up my penance scar—and by the distinct heat in the flare, the power belonged to Aiden. He was targeting me with a sweeping spell, searching for me. He was still some distance away, but close enough he wanted me to know he was there, and feel his rage. As I finished closing over the skin on the man’s shoulder, the pain in my chest made me bite back a scream.

By the time I reconnected the nerves and sensory tissue in the man’s body, and felt him sit up on his own, I was in so much agony that when I picked up my hands from his skin, I fell to the side like he’d hit me with a volt of electricity. My head struck the rock of the seamount.

I slumped over in terrible pain, heard Solei yelling words I couldn’t understand, and then nothing.

• • •

Sometime later, I came to because I felt Solei shaking me, sending her magic through my skin, hot pulses of energy to force me awake.

I opened my eyes and we were still on the side of the seamount, in the same place where the man and woman had been, but they were both gone. Solei and I were alone.

“Rowan, Rowan, Rowan,” Solei kept saying, glancing from me to the black sea all around us. When she saw my eyes open, she yanked hard on my shoulders and forced me to sit up. “They said a war party is coming. They said we have to get out of here. You’ve got to swim, Rowan. You’re too heavy to carry. Get up now. Get up and swim.”

Solei draped my left arm around her shoulders, and she battled my clumsy weight, urging me off the seamount. I was so groggy that I couldn’t help for a minute. Then my brain remembered how to move my muscles, and I flicked my tail, started swimming.

I didn’t know where we were headed. My eyes kept closing, like I couldn’t swim, or even keep my head up.

My voice sounded ragged, my words slurred. “It’s Aiden. The war party. He’s here.” Aiden had flared my penance mark, I was sure. To let me know he’d found me, that I couldn’t escape, couldn’t humiliate him again the way I had at the ritual.

Solei’s voice was measured and quick. “No, it’s not your brother. Those people said the Tolmaks were hunting them, had been tracking them for a while.”

But I knew I’d felt Aiden’s magic, Tolmaks or not. “He’s here, Solei. Somewhere close.”

I tried to swim faster. But my body felt leaden, too bulky to move. “Where are we going?”

Solei gleamed with pink chevrons. “Like I have any idea! I’m not dying on this seamount, Rowan, so move your ass.”

I tried again to pick up my pace, but the healing had required too much of my power, and there was no way I could out-swim my brother right now. “I won’t make it. I should’ve stopped sooner.” Without repairing the man’s severed arm. I’d still have some strength left if I’d only healed his gut wounds. He would’ve survived without the arm. But Solei and I weren’t going to survive Aiden. “I can distract the war party with smokeseeds, and you can hide. There are redoubts here, you can swim into one. Aiden won’t be able to find you if I stay here and provide cover, you’ll be safe from his magic in one of the caves.”

Solei flashed red and gold with aggravation, facing ahead without looking at me. “Just shut up and swim.”

I did as she said.

She led us down through the rocks, into a steep ravine like the one we’d travelled through after leaving the fort.

My head kept dropping, and Solei yelled, “Damn it, Rowan! Stay awake!”

We dove deeper, into the tangled maze of a labyrinth. We skimmed over a valley, and plunged into another arroyo. One moment we were swimming through a gully, the next instant Solei was shoving me into a narrow gap in the rocks. My tail caught on a boulder, stopping our progress.

“Jesus, Rowan—you think you can help?” Solei thwacked at my tail with her own, knocking me loose, and shoved me forward again. “Keep acting like we’ve got all damn day, I’m really loving this.”

The tunnel was almost too small for my body to fit through, but the passageway led to an ingress. Unbelievable. I’d never seen a redoubt entrance this compressed. Even the oldest song caves in Llyr weren’t this cramped.

Solei didn’t know how to open a summoning barrier, and I was too exhausted to power a sending. She wedged me into a crevice and wriggled into the space left beside me, both of us tucked as deep into the tunnel as possible.

My penance mark burned again, and then glowed silvery white. Solei leaned against me and covered the lines with her back. Her voice came low as a growl. “Awesome. Just awesome. You can’t make that stop?”

“I’m sorry.” My words slurred so much, I was sure I didn’t make any sense. My face tipped against the rock, and I blacked out.

46

I woke in a cave barely big enough for two people, an ancient rock room about seven feet square.

Solei lay curled up beside me, fast asleep. She had her human coloring again, and she still wore her spear on her back. She must’ve lit the kalya before she’d closed her eyes, because the tiny orb rested on the stone floor between us. The soft glow illuminated the smooth ceiling and walls, which were absent of runes.

Solei had legs, but I still had a tail, a sign I’d been too depleted of magic to change. Having rested and regained some of my strength, I transitioned and sat up.

Before I reached out to the walls, I checked the strap on my back, to make sure Ceto’s egg remained nestled in the atlatl pocket. Then I ran my hands along the interior of the cave, stood and brushed my palms over the ceiling, but there weren’t any glyphs carved in the rock. No way to tell who’d made this room, or how we’d gotten inside, but I remembered Solei shoving me toward an ingress. She must’ve figured out how to open the summoning barrier, and pushed me through.

I thought about jostling her shoulder, to wake her and tell her nice job. But she looked so peaceful and content that I left her alone.

A seep spring and hearth stone occupied one corner of the floor. Famished, I set about cooking a disc of hrichka.

With a simple crafting spell, I shaped one of the varkina from my belt into the form of a pan, added water from the spring, and fired the hearth stone.

Ten minutes later, the smell of cooked hrichka woke Solei, and she slid over to study my work without speaking.

“How’d you get me in here?” I asked.

She gave me a cryptic expression, the kind that meant she didn’t appreciate being asked.

“You opened the barrier, and pushed me in?”

Solei quirked a brow. Gave me a look like, Of course, and dropped her gaze to the food again, obviously as hungry as I was.

We ate the hrichka straight from the pan without speaking. I thought about making borren, but then I removed another disc of hrichka from my belt, and cooked us a second meal, which we devoured as quickly as the first.

I knew that if we were going to survive and finish our journey, I should ration what little food stores we had a lot better. Next time, I told myself, swallowing the last of my portion. Next time, we’ll eat less.

Then I changed the shape of the pan into a deeper pot to boil water for tea, and soon we had borren as well.

Solei leaned her back to one wall, holding the little cup I had made for her from a second varkina. The steam of the tea curled toward the ceiling.

“Why did you keep passing out?” she asked, and she blinked at me, curious. “Did your brother hurt you with his magic?”

I shook my head. “I’ve never been the strongest of healers. It’s not my primary skill, and it drains me. I was tired to begin with, from the water shield. The healing spells just made it worse.”

Solei nodded, and glanced down at her cup. “Those people left us. They didn’t even try to help you, Rowan. After you healed that guy. They just fled.”

“They warned you though. That a war party was coming.”

Solei scoffed. “Like I didn’t know something was wrong the second your skin started glowing.” She sent me a sardonic smile. “Your tattoo only lights up when something really awful is going down—either we’re about to die in a curse-bomb, or fall to our deaths through a portal—nothing good ever comes from seeing that thing.”

I smiled with real mirth. Not because I thought those situations had been funny. Maybe I just liked the sound of her voice. “Yeah. I had a nightmare my last sendo in Llyr. The mark lit up for that, too. I still don’t know why.”

Solei took a sip of her tea, turned over this information a minute, and then scowled. “I can’t believe those jerks just swam off and left us. Were they working for your brother or something? Did we fall into a trap?”

“No, those were Gendian scouts. A brother and sister, I think. And those injuries were all real, from some kind of human explosion. My mom died like that, ripped apart in a blast. That scout was lucky the worst damage was in his gut, and not his head. If his wounds had been any worse, I wouldn’t have been able to save him.”

Solei studied my face for a minute, and then dropped her gaze. She opened her mouth once, about to say something, but then she hesitated, and gave up.

Finally she just sighed, and found her voice again. “Well, I still don’t think much of those people. You said that woman wasn’t a healer, and I know she wasn’t a speaker, because she called me ick-murr or something, some word that didn’t make any sense. And she kept calling you jusbel, even when I told her your name.”

Solei tsked with a grin, like we should share a moment of exasperation together, but I wore an empty smile and went still. An icy dread slipped over my skin.

Solei pressed on with her tale, her easy demeanor making it clear she’d been reassured by my smile. “And after you finished healing that man’s arm, he did the same thing, called you jusbel again and warned me the Tolmaks were coming. Then he grabbed your neck and lifted your face up, and I thought he was going to do something horrible, I tried to make him let go—but he only pressed his forehead to yours, and then he and the woman swam off.”

I finished my borren, aware that Solei was watching me carefully. Unsure what to say, I did my best to appear casual, like I had no idea why those scouts would call me such a thing.

Solei rubbed her brow with a disgruntled expression. “I guess I can’t really blame them, running away from the slavers. Do you think your brother teamed up with them? With the Tolmaks?”

I was quiet a long minute. Comprehending why the Gendian scouts had left us alone—an act that hadn’t been made out of fear, but to help us—stole my voice. They’d been drawing the danger away.

My words sounded much heavier as I said, “Aiden wouldn’t team up with any Tolmak drakhir. But I know my father placed a bounty on us for recapture, so the other tribes would help hunt us—” I broke off. Leaned over and covered my face with my hand. “There are two of us. And two Gendian scouts.”

Solei moved to sit beside me. She kept her voice soft. “You think the Tolmaks mistook them for us? Because they’re hunting us for the reward?”

“Yes.” I didn’t raise my head. Were those people okay? Or had they been captured, and taken to Tolmak as slaves? I hoped not, but I had no way to help them, if they had.

“You said Aiden lit up your mark though—”

“He did.” I finally lowered my hand and lifted my face. “Aiden was close. That was a sweeping spell, meant to target a specific magical sign—in this case, my penance mark, which Aiden knows well. Maybe the Llyrian war party and the Tolmaks were both following the blood trail of the Gendian man, and the scouts just hadn’t realized Aiden’s team had been tracking them. Either way, we would’ve been captured if we’d stayed where we were.” I massaged my temple a moment. “The scouts knew the Tolmaks would follow them, if they drew them off. So they did the only thing they were certain would help us—they bought us some time to escape.”

Solei nodded, listening with a frank look on her face. “So are we trapped in here now? Waiting for one of the jerk squads to find us?”

“No. We can leave in a shield, the same way we swam to the scouts. Not even a sweeping spell can break through a water screen.”

Though I doubted either Aiden or the Tolmaks were simply hanging around in the area, waiting for us to show up again. Positioning teams of drakhir in empty stretches of ocean was not a good strategy. There was no stealth in that tactic. More like the opposite.

Solei finished her tea, and started experimenting with the crafting spell I had used, trying to turn her empty varkina-mug back into a small black spiral. “How long do you want to stay here?”

I glanced down at her cup with a smile. “Figure that spell out. Then we’ll go.”

A few minutes later, Solei handed me the reshaped varkina, which I tucked into my norla. We left the cave, left the tunnel inside a water shield, and once I knew we were safe from detection, I dropped the screen. Then we cast scythes and travelled north in the deep.

We swam several hours, and when Solei tired, we found refuge in an ancient song cave. I didn’t think I needed to sleep, but I ended up lying on the floor beside her and passing out.

I woke to find Solei lighting the old glyphs in the walls, trying to read them. When she heard me stir, she glanced down and said, “These runes don’t make any sense.”

I rolled onto my stomach and propped my chin on my arms, gazing over the wall with her.

Solei ran her hands across five different glyphs. “They say the world has died more than once. The world in the sea, and on land. And each time the world dies, it’s reborn.”

“I told you the Sërenmare are a lot older than humans. But even your people know about those stories. Everything in those runes. Humans have learned to read the tales of the earth.”

Solei responded by walking over to nudge my ribcage with her foot. Not really a kick, but I groaned like she hurt me.

“The world dies over and over? Is that some kind of Mayan prophecy, like the end times of the Bible or something? Revelations and the apocalypse?”

I wanted to cast a pull for those words—revelations, apocalypse, Mayan, Bible—but I didn’t. She was referring to human tribes who claimed the world died and lived anew, I could determine that much.

So I answered without pulling for details. “Not a prophecy. They’re describing the journey of Earth. Life and death held in balance. The rise and fall of species over time on the planet. The universe conjures with magic, and we are its creation. The fish of the sea, the birds and the whales. The plankton and microbes, the flowers and ferns. All conjured by energy. Created with a purpose in mind.”

Solei sat cross-legged beside me, and her knee brushed my shoulder a moment, stirring my magic. “Whose purpose, Rowan? Are those the words of your Sea God? The All?”

I smiled without looking at her. Didn’t answer.

Solei jostled my shoulder. “Are you just going to lay there and sleep all day? Or are we going to swim?”

I moved to sit up, shrugging away from her hand. We stared at each other a moment. By the hard expression she wore, I knew Solei had something unpleasant to say.

I waited.

“So why did they call you jusbel?” Her gaze dropped to my chest. “Because of your mark?”

I stared down at my hands, and remembered the way Aiden had hugged me after we sank our first ship. The joy and the triumph I’d felt. I remembered the food and gifts people had brought to headquarters afterward, showering the drakhir in abundance, cheering my name.

I didn’t feel any happiness now though, and my voice sounded tired and severe. “I was the jusbel of Llyr. And I’m sure those two scouts did recognize me because of the mark. Aiden used to flare the lines during ceremonies, to prove I was—”

But I couldn’t go on. I drew away from Solei and stood, walked toward the ingress, and left the song cave.

A few moments later, Solei joined me. She sealed the summoning barrier behind us again, and we swam into a wide black canyon.

“To prove you were what?” she asked softly.

Sanctioned to kill. But I never said that aloud. I dropped my block though, so she could pull for the answer.

Solei didn’t cast a net, or ask me again, and I couldn’t find the courage to tell her. She’d already told me what she thought of my behavior, after Brevyn’s failed summoning—that I was a monster. I’d told myself I didn’t care what she called me. That she could name me any foul thing she wanted.

Except that wasn’t true anymore. I didn’t want her to call me a monster. Pretending to be friends with Solei felt a lot nicer.

We left the waters of Genda without speaking, and passed into the currents that marked the territory of the Rishki.

I was sure the nomads would find us. Certain we couldn’t pass through their sea undetected.

But either we swam through their waters hoping they didn’t catch us, or Solei would never get home.

47

We slipped between the wards cast by the Rishki. Darted around trip-lines of magic that netted the abyss. Entered their territory without paying tribute.

Solei’s voice sounded scratchy with nerves. “The nomads don’t raid, or take slaves—right?”

“Right.”

“How would we pay tribute to them—if we could?”

“We’d enter their territory along one of the trade routes, and visit their scout posts. To trespass like this is a tribal offense. Their drakhir will take us to the Rishki Qarin if we’re caught.”

“Who’s their Qarin?”

“A woman named Takara Onan.” I’d met the Rishki Qarin twice before, after I became the jusbel, but never in her own territory. Takara had travelled with her entire tribal confederate to Llyr to participate in Father’s celebrations. Once after Aiden and I sank our first ship, and a second time after we took down our first carrier.

No one was more fervent to destroy human life than the Rishki. When they’d cheered at the end of Father’s speeches, their joy felt like a magnified version of a charming spell, a tsunami of euphoria.

And now I’d turned traitor to save the life of an enemy. Takara would view my behavior as the deepest betrayal, the same way Aiden and Father did. Not only had I turned my back on my people, and all the tribes of the sea, but then I had the audacity to cross her territory like a marauder, in my new status as a worthless fenhaline.

“What’s Takara like?” Solei asked.

“Powerful. Severe. She has two sets of twin daughters. One pair of twins is our age. Corrin and Dahlia.”

“What are they like?”

“Every bit as fierce as their mother.”

Solei studied my face for a moment, and quirked a brow. “Why’d you turn white and pink?”

Because saying Dahlia’s name aloud made me nervous. And sad, and ashamed. So much that I hadn’t realized my body had changed until Solei asked why. In an instant, I switched my display to her human coloring, hoping she’d forget my slip and drop her question.

No such luck.

“If they’re the daughters of the Rishki Qarin, and you’re the son of the Llyrian Qarin, does that mean you’re like, royalty or something? Princes and princesses? Did your father expect you and Aiden to marry those girls?”

I flashed a bright yellow, appalled. “My father would never tell me who to marry. Or Aiden. No Llyrian parent would force any child to marry someone.”

Solei smiled at my reaction. “Dang, Rowan. You don’t need to freak out.” She shook her head, then asked, “Is Aiden married? Do you get a special tattoo when you marry? Because he sure has a lot.”

I darkened to black, uncomfortable with this conversation, and wishing we could discuss something else. “No one receives a tattoo when they marry. But if a person falls in love, and chooses to complete the rite of cuverre, they receive an emblem of magic, like my penance mark.”

“Huh.” Solei looked me over, like I might have one on my body she hadn’t noticed before. “So what’s that all about? The rite of cuverre?”

I thought of Aiden, who’d completed this ritual at the age of twenty. “You swear yourself to your beloved, forever.”

Solei raised her brows. “Isn’t that what marriage is?”

“Sometimes, yes.”

Solei tilted her face in puzzlement. “I don’t see the difference.”

I bowed my head for a moment, and discomfort speckled over my body, small yellow stars on my ebony skin. “A marriage is a promise to try—to try to honor and cherish your beloved forever. But a marriage can end. The rite of cuverre is a love seal, a bond of magic. A tie that cannot be broken.”

Solei made a soft, high sound of surprise. “That sounds kind of intense.” When I didn’t respond, she asked, “What happens if people fall out of love with each other, if they’re bonded like that? Are they forced to keep living together, even if they’re both miserable?”

I shook my head. “Their magic is bound, not their physical bodies. They continue to love each other, even if they stop living together, even if one of them dies. When a marriage ends, neither person remains tied to the other, not in body or magic. But in the rite of cuverre, the oath of that magic is to cherish the beloved, forever. Marriage feels… inconsequential, compared to that promise.”

Solei blinked several times, astonished. “So even if one of them dies, they can never fall in love again? Or bond their magic with anyone else? That sounds like disaster.”

“No, they can love someone else after the loss of a partner. The rite of cuverre doesn’t stop future love, or make future bonds impossible. But the survivor will always carry a part of their partner’s magic within them, held in the seal of their vows. Which is why most people never take the rite of cuverre again, or remarry. It’s hard to recover from that kind of grief, to feel the magic and the loss of a partner, every day. The rite of cuverre is a level of commitment that brings great joy, but there is always the risk of great pain.”

Solei’s voice softened. “Do you know anyone who’s taken that rite?”

If Solei were anyone else but the person I’d been kinned to, I’d have said no. I’d have said I’d never met anyone who’d completed such a ritual. Because I protected my brother, and guarded his secrets.

But Aiden was hunting me now, and my life had been tithed to Solei’s. Compared to a kinning, the rite of cuverre looked like child’s play, simple magic that didn’t put anyone’s life in danger. No one revenanced when the pair in a love bond separated, either by rejection or death.

So I chose to tell Solei the truth. “When Aiden was eighteen, he met a woman named Marin. She came to Llyr from the far side of the ocean.” I fell quiet a minute, since I’d never spoken of this before, and the words caused me pain. “Marin had been married before, but her husband had died. She came to Llyr on hejira, following the migration route of her people. Her tribe used to pass through Llyr every winter. That year, Marin made the journey alone. For the next two years, she returned. But she never stayed.”

“Aiden fell in love with her?” Solei guessed. “And completed the rite of cuverre with her?”

I tipped my head once to say yes.

Solei knitted her brows. “What happened then? Did she leave him?”

With a great deal of willpower, and despite how small and faint my voice had become, I said, “Yes.”

I’d only seen Aiden weep once in my life, right after Marin had left him, and the sight of my brother’s grief haunted me like a specter of death. A shadow I’d felt on the night I spent dancing with Dahlia.

Dahlia was fearsome and beautiful, and even though I hadn’t seen her in three months, I could recall her face perfectly, and remember how happy I’d felt with her, in spite of the secrets I kept: my weakening body, and the loss of my magic. The silent terror I’d known I’d brought on myself, when I’d forsaken my vows to the All.

After the hours we spent dancing at the celebration together, Dahlia asked me to leave the party with her, to go somewhere we could talk. So I took her to Crystal Cave, my favorite song cave in Llyr. Away from the celebration and the noise of the crowds, we’d spent the rest of sendo alone, talking. We also sang songs in Rishki, lyrics Dahlia taught me in her tribal dialect.

When I finally suggested we leave Crystal Cave, return to the celebration to find something to eat, Dahlia had put her arms around me and kissed me.

I’d wanted to kiss her. All night, I’d wanted to press my mouth against Dahlia’s.

But that kiss also scared me. A lot.

Even though we’d spent hours talking, Dahlia hadn’t given me any signals she liked me that way. At least, she’d done nothing I could interpret as wanting to kiss me, no colored patterns or phrases I understood as a Llyrian. So her affection had taken me by surprise.

And once I did kiss her, the memory of Aiden’s grief had washed over me. I didn’t want to suffer the way Aiden had. No matter how much I enjoyed kissing Dahlia, something even stronger inside me retreated away from her. After one kiss, I drew back.

Before we left Crystal Cave, I promised Dahlia I would see her again, that I’d travel to Rishki water to visit one day. Not as a vow of love, or an oath of intention. We’d both understood that I just wanted to spend more time with her, hoping that at some point in the future, I might not be so scared.

And now my entire life had unraveled. I was kinned to the enemy I’d been sworn to kill, and I no longer had a tribe to call home. The person I’d been was long gone, and so were all those promises I had made. If I saw Dahlia now, she’d help her people to hunt me, and hand me over to the Rishki Qarin.

That was who Solei’s thoughts returned to now: the Rishki War Leader. The moment Solei changed the subject from Aiden and Marin and the rite of cuverre, I felt instant relief, like leaving the hadal zone for the comfort of an air grotto. “What will Takara do if she catches us?”

“Demand we pay tribute to all of her tribes. Then turn us over to Aiden.”

“For the bounty.”

I nodded.

Solei swam a bit closer to me. “And what if her drakhir never find us?”

“We might starve to death.” Unless we could locate more food. “Herbs and vegetables aren’t as plentiful here. And I can’t digest vasa, the fermented blubber they eat. Your stomach might be able to handle it, but I’ve never been able to hold it down.”

Solei lifted her brows, pursing her lips for a moment. “It’s amazing these tribes have survived, since they have to scavenge for whale meat to live. Humans almost hunted whales to extinction, back when whaling was a big business. Japan and Norway still kill them for meat, even though the blubber is loaded with toxins. Like all the mercury and heavy metals in tuna now, only worse.”

I wanted to say, Good. Let those humans killing whales all sicken and die. Suffer the cancers and birth defects that now plagued the Sërenmare, the result of the garbage and toxic waste being dumped in the sea. Those people harpooning the last of the whales couldn’t kill themselves off fast enough.

But I glanced over at Solei, swimming in her scythe close beside me, and held my tongue.

She lowered her voice, and her skin darkened, a color as shadowed as her troubled expression. “The problems the Rishki face now are even worse though, because the ice caps are melting. Dad says the Arctic has less and less ice every year. That soon there won’t be any ice to cover the North Pole at all. That’s a lot more terrifying than an ocean without any whales. Without the ice cap on the North Pole, the planet will heat up a lot faster, and global warming will make even more species extinct.”

My voice sounded hopeless, quiet and hollow. “Your father is right.”

Solei deepened her coloring to a silvery black, and I felt her stress in the water, like a rippling shiver. “I remember what you said before the ritual. Right before your brother came over and took your belt. The prayer your people were singing. You said they were asking the All not to let the tribes go extinct.”

I didn’t respond to those words. My block wasn’t in place, and Solei could cast a pull if she wanted. But she chose to stay out of my mind.

Solei turned her face toward me, but I wouldn’t meet her gaze.

“They’re dying because of what humans are doing, aren’t they?” she said. “That’s why they were singing. The sea is heating up, and the temperature isn’t just killing off coral and plankton and fish. It’s also killing the tribes.”

Then Solei fell quiet a minute, carefully weighing her next words. “And the water is becoming acidic. Unfit for the calcifiers to survive—the starfish, the sea urchins, the coral, the oysters—anything that builds a shell, or makes some kind of skeleton with calcium carbonate. They’re all facing extinction as the sea turns acidic, as the saltwater keeps absorbing the carbon dioxide being released in the air. Cars, trucks, airplanes, coal plants, methane release from burning natural gas… Dad says that about one-third of the carbon emissions polluting the atmosphere have been absorbed by the sea. People are killing the ocean with air pollution, and it just keeps getting worse.”

Solei waited for me to respond, and when I still didn’t say anything, her voice dropped even softer. “Over a hundred-fifty billion metric tons… so far. That’s how much carbon dioxide humans have put in the sea. And we’re not stopping, either. We just keep adding more every year.”

Solei slowed her pace, and eventually came to a stop. I swam ahead a few feet before I halted as well.

Her voice remained low, but forceful, determined. “The animal you were hoping to kill. With the fungus. The reason you needed to slit my throat in your ritual.”

My heart started thumping much harder, a pounding I felt in my skull, though I still didn’t look at her, just stared off into nothing, into the dark ocean behind us.

Solei was like Aiden though. Relentless once she had her mind set on something. Her tone was controlled and ferocious. “You meant human beings, didn’t you? You and your family. You were trying to kill all the humans on earth.”

I flashed black and jade chevrons. To say yes.

“That’s why the All would’ve destroyed your whole tribe. Because you were using your magic not just to kill me, but to wipe out all the humans on earth.”

I could tell by her words that she knew she was right. She didn’t need me to confirm her conclusion.

“You must really hate me,” she said.

I changed to a pale orange, with a starburst pattern like hundreds of snowflakes fluttering over my skin. My heart was still thumping too hard, but I was pretty sure I didn’t hate Solei.

Plus her company really wasn’t that bad. In truth, we could’ve been scouting partners, if she’d been born to my tribe and joined the drakhir. Luke and Isla would’ve gotten along with her, too. Solei was a fast learner, and she cared about other people, like helping those scouts. She had the character of a good soldier, even if she’d grown up on land. We were enemies, and I still thought humans were disgusting, but I didn’t hold Solei in contempt.

She closed the distance between us and peered up at my face. Waiting for me to admit how I felt.

“I don’t,” I said finally. “I don’t hate you.” Then my old anger started to well up inside me, replacing my despair with rage. I switched to my ruby chevrons before she could reply, and heat crept into my voice. “I’m not trying to kill anyone anymore. I know murder is wrong. But I still hate human beings, and I hate what they do. I should never have wanted to kill them though, and I know I’ve done wrong by you, Solei. My people drowned you, we kidnapped you, we hurt you.”

I put some distance between us again, uncomfortable being so close to her, though my words didn’t stop. “We forced you to become one of us, and I convinced myself I could murder you. I am sorry for that. For all of that. If I could go back and change what’s happened to you, I would. But sending you home again won’t save the ocean.”

48

I turned my face away, gritting my teeth for a moment, but met her gaze again before I continued. “I have no way to stop humans from massacring my people. The Sërenmare can’t stop human beings from polluting the planet, only the human tribes can do that. But the one consolation I have is that when humans finish killing life in the ocean—all the plankton and coral, all the fish and the sharks, all the turtles and whales—then the humans die, too. The tribes aren’t the only ones going extinct. Humans can’t survive without life in the sea. They’re driving their own species into extinction, and they don’t even care. They deserve to be hated, and to die in the world they have ruined.”

My skin darkened to bloodstone, and I started to swim again, ready to end this conversation. But Solei reached a hand out, caught hold of my belt, and stopped me.

The moment I halted, she let go, edged away from me, and let her hand drop. I could’ve bolted away from her then. But I chose to stay. My heart raced, and I waited for her to call me a monster, waited for another argument to begin.

Her face remained solemn, like her voice. “I wish you’d told me that sooner. How you feel.”

I sighed. “I was going to kill you, Solei. I think my feelings were obvious.”

Solei shrugged. “Yes and no. You wanted a weapon. You never said you wanted to wipe out the whole human race.”

I lowered my head and knuckled my brow, anxious and tense. I felt an overwhelming compulsion to tell Solei the truth, no matter how much the words might disgust her. She deserved more than evasion and lies. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve prayed to the All to send a virus to kill every human on earth. Ever since I was little, and I saw my first driftnet. I’ve spent my whole life watching death and destruction from human pollution.”

I paused, and then lifted my gaze to Solei’s, determined to meet her eyes when I told her what I’d wanted to do.

“Right after my mother died, I helped Aiden design the plan for his genesis spell. Instead of a virus, we’d create a fungus that would survive a long journey on the wind, to reach every human on earth, even the ones who live far from the sea.”

Solei nodded, crossing her arms as she studied my face. “Pretty solid plan, Rowan. Except for the fact that the All forbids you to kill with your magic, and you were going to destroy your own tribe instead of your enemy.”

I gave her a bitter smile, and looked away. “Monstrous things come to monsters.”

Solei’s tone remained soft. “You didn’t kill me though. You’re not evil, even if you wanted to do something evil. And you’re certainly not the first person who’s ever thought being angry and lashing out feels a hell of a lot better than actually trying to help.”

I faced her again with a scowl. “It’s the humans who don’t help. Or care. Humans are the ones destroying the world.”

Solei dropped her hands to her sides, and lifted her brows, as if she couldn’t believe I had said that. “You don’t think there aren’t plenty of humans who know what’s happening on this planet? That species are going extinct every day? That the world is heating up? That the ocean is becoming too toxic for anything but some algae and acid-loving sea cucumbers to live in? Are you kidding me, Rowan? Over half of all the oxygen humans need to survive is made by sea plankton—and you think humans don’t understand they need oxygen to breathe? That if they kill all the plankton, they’ll be committing mass suicide—you really don’t think people know that?”

My voice shook with suppressed rage, a trembling that ran through my whole body. “Then why aren’t they stopping it? Why are they letting this happen?”

“For the same reason you were going to forsake all your vows to slit my throat. Because sometimes, you just get caught up in a system. Sometimes you don’t see a way out. Or you don’t want to see a way out. Because it’s easier to stay blind and angry and decide you don’t need to change.”

I covered my face with my hands for a moment, trying to stop them from shaking. “If the humans won’t change, then they’ll die. And they’ll take out the ocean along with them—”

“They know that, Rowan! Believe me, there are plenty of humans who know that. And they’ve known it for decades. Ever since those two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, and the mass production of warheads put the fear of nuclear winter into everyone on the planet. A lot of people know climate change is as destructive as nuclear winter. But slowing down global warming isn’t like keeping a thumb off a launch button. Humans already have their hands on the buttons—on the whole damn control panel, hitting every single switch—and the only way to stop firing climate bombs is to build a new panel, a better control room, full of different buttons to push.”

“And who’s building that panel, Solei? Who’s saving the world?”

Solei lowered her voice, eyeing me with a sharp light in her features. “A lot of people. There are millions of humans who haven’t given up on this fight—and they’re not killing people to save the world, even though thousands of them are thrown in prison each year, and many of them are murdered every day for their troubles. They go to marches, they write letters, they sign petitions. They volunteer on beach cleanup days. They donate money to fund marine reserves. They have rallies protesting climate change and demanding solutions. I’ve grown up watching my father do all of those things—and he started taking me with him when I was a baby. So many people all over the world are terrified by what’s going on with the planet, and they make sacrifices every day to fix the problems we’ve made. And they’re not just fighting for their own human children—they’re fighting for the things you love, too. For the fish in the sea and the birds in the air, for the plankton and the coral and the tiniest krill, for the orcas and dolphins and whales. People don’t have to live in the sea to love the sea, or to know that life on earth can’t survive without it.”

Tears welled in my eyes, and I turned my face from her to hide them. “They aren’t moving fast enough though. The planet is dying, Solei. Life on this planet is dying. That new control panel won’t be ready in time.”

Solei leaned against me, and wrapped her arms around my waist in a hug. Maybe I should’ve pushed her away, but I left her alone. Her touch soothed some of the terrible pressure inside me, all the grief that brought the tears to my eyes. The fact that she hugged me calmed some of my pain, like sending a healing spell through a wound.

“That might be true, Rowan. Humans might destroy life as we know it on earth. For no other reason than we can’t stop burning fossil fuels, or polluting the world with the rest of our garbage. Maybe we’ll all go extinct because of our waste. I don’t know.” Solei rested her brow on my chest, right over my penance mark, right over my heart. “But there are a lot of good people trying to stop that from happening. And I have to believe humans might have a chance. I have to have hope for this world. To believe that the dreamers and the fighters might win. I’m on their side, and always will be. It would be nice if you could be on that side too.”

I’d never imagined Solei realized what I faced. What the world faced. Or that this problem was real to her, and close. Not something distant and irrelevant and meaningless to her life. She feared extinction too.

Knowing she understood that brought me so much relief that I took a deep breath, then another. I put an arm around her shoulders, and hugged her back.

I had no anger left in my voice. My tone was just hollow with grief. “I do want to have hope for this world. I do want to believe in the dreamers. I just don’t know if I can.”

Solei nodded against me. “Sometimes I think I only pretend I believe we’ll survive. Some days I don’t have any hope. Then other times, like right now, I know that I do. I believe in the future. I know that the window of survival still hasn’t closed, and I hold onto that hope with both hands.”

Solei squeezed me with her arms, and then she released me. With some distance between us again, she gave my tail a light knock with her fin, and gestured with her chin down the canyon. “Maybe we should start moving again.”

“Yeah,” I said heavily. Then joked, “Only a million more miles left to swim.” Which earned me a smile.

So we headed north through the cliffs, across the abyss. As soon as the sun set, we left the seafloor to swim at the surface.

We passed schools of herring and black scabbardfish, orange ruffie and cod. Swam by swordfish and marlin and turtles, thick blankets of colorful diatoms and glowing smacks of comb jellyfish. Solei smiled when she felt the ripples of Greenland sharks, bluntnose sixgills, spiny dogfish. Healthy pods of belugas and narwhals loaded the water with even more sound, clicking, screeching, and blasting their notes, on top of the commotions of lanternfish and the barks of distant seals. Bowhead whales sang their ponderous songs through the din, as loud as the constant chatter of fish.

The vibrant sensations of life in the sea made me grateful, and when I felt the presence of bluefin—a small parabola of juveniles traveling less than two miles away—I sang an old Llyrian hymn. Like a deep compulsion within me, the lyrics poured from my body the same way my tears had. I felt the juveniles veer closer, to inspect Solei and me. A few moments later, they were gone.

Solei sent me a curious glance. “Why did you sing to them? Aren’t you worried the Rishki will hear you?”

I shrugged, though the powerful emotions the presence of bluefin aroused in my body was no trivial matter. “My magic responds to them, like a summons. All Sërenmare sing to the bluefin. They are kin.”

“What about the danger though? Won’t we be caught?”

“I had to sing, Solei. I’m sorry.”

She gave me another puzzled expression. “Well maybe sing a bit quieter next time, okay? I like music as much as the next girl, but I also like staying alive.”

I smiled, and then laughed, amazed by the comfort I felt in her company. “I’ll try to control myself. Next time we swim near some tuna.”

“That’s a relief… you silly fish-boy.”

I could’ve responded. Maybe called her a minnow. But I just smiled again.

We crossed mile after mile beneath a clear sky, watching the starwheel turn overhead. To help the time pass, I taught Solei the song for the bluefin. We kept our voices quiet, too soft to carry far.

When the stars disappeared, smudged away by the hazy violet of dawn, we dove to the seafloor again, and began to search for a place to rest. The water shuddered with the sign of trackers, swimming about thirty miles away, and I tried not to worry as we darted between gullies, cliff sides, and tangled ravines. But there were more wards in the canyon than I knew there should be, and there wasn’t a tunnel in sight.

49

Six hours later, we located an old song cave, but the summoning barrier had collapsed, and the refuge had backfilled with water.

“Can’t we just sleep in there anyway?” Solei asked.

I shook my head with a sigh. Even inside an old grotto sheltered deep within rock, without a summoning barrier, we wouldn’t be able to rest. “Either we find a grotto that’s pressurized, or we swim through this sendo.” Which would put us in danger, continuing on so far past the point of fatigue. Our pace had already slowed, and blundering into a ward by mistake grew more likely the longer we pressed on like this. We needed to sleep, and we needed a meal.

Solei waved a hand toward the tunnel. “Why did this one collapse?”

“I’d have to cast to be able to tell. Human activity can shatter a grotto—bombs, mines, sounding blasts. But natural forces can disrupt the magic as well. Earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. Heat vents, toxic gas releases, the same events that kill sea life.”

Solei tipped her head, studying the rock lines with new understanding. “Like the geysers in Yellowstone. Sometimes poisonous gas or scalding water will just billow up from the land, and kill herds of bison, packs of wolves, rabbits and birds—anything that might be in the way.”

“Yellowstone is near where you live?”

Solei laughed. “No, it’s pretty far from my house. It’s a dormant supervolcano. In Wyoming. My dad took me there once.”

“You saw herds of dead bison?”

Solei shook her head. “Just read about it in the park guide. The closest I’ve ever been to death was when we found that Gendian scout.” Solei paused, and gave me a considered look. “Compared to what you live with, you’ve seen a lot worse.”

The words spilled from my mouth before I could stop them. “I’ve done a lot worse. When I was jusbel.”

I darkened to ink, astonished I’d confessed that to her.

Of course she asked, “What’s a jusbel, Rowan?” and I shook my head, gold lightning bolts flashing through my ebony skin.

I had to unclench my jaw to speak. “Let’s keep searching.”

Solei followed me with a silent reluctance, glowing a darker shade of brown as she moved.

An hour later, we still hadn’t found a safe place to rest, but we stopped swimming the second an explosive crack-crack-crack filled the sea. The noise hit like a blow, a violent shuddering that made my lateral lines burn.

Solei edged close to my side, her voice soft with panic. “What’s happened?”

To the east, I heard an adult bowhead crying in pain, a low note full of agony. A moment later came the high wail of a Sërenmare child, then another and another. The noxious scent of crude oil tinged the water, followed by the fainter scent of whale blood.

The explosive crack-crack-crack came again, even louder this time, and more animals added their screams and distress cries in the aftermath of the blast.

“A rig must’ve gone up. There are so many here, on the other side of this canyon. The wells blow out sometimes, erupt into fireballs, kill whatever sea life might be passing by—”

Solei gazed toward the noise in horror, and cut me off. “I think I hear people!”

“Three of them. Children, I think.”

Solei grew more frantic. “Are they crying in pain? Were they burned?”

“They might just be scared. Or upset for the bowhead. The Rishki have a strong bond with the whales. They are the animal most revered by their tribe.”

By the sound of the rupturing cough the bowhead made now, I was pretty sure the whale wouldn’t live. And with the scent of so much oil in the water, once the animal sank to the seafloor, the meat would be wasted as well, too covered in poison to eat.

Solei faced me. “Should we check on them? Make sure they’re okay? What if they were ripped apart like that Gendian scout?”

I felt my anxiety double. Listened to the children cry louder.

“Please, Rowan,” Solei whispered. “Please let’s make sure they’re okay.”

She reached for my hand, squeezed my fingers, and glanced toward the distance again.

I had a terrible sense of foreboding. Like the pain in my chest when Aiden had lit up my penance mark.

But I cast a water shield for us, and we swam toward the screams.

50

As we approached the site of a burning oil rig, blood clouded the water in storms, like crimson thunderheads billowing through the water. An injured bowhead and her small newborn calf came into view.

The little calf was already dead, his delicate skull split in two, and his fins sheared away. His body turned slowly between waves, a drifting corpse in the water.

His mother circled him, calling for him to swim, urging him toward the surface with her agonized wails. The mother’s head hadn’t been wounded, but the left side of her body had been completely ripped open, and most of the dark blood swarming the water came from her wounds.

There were other dead to make note of—lanternfish and jellies, dozens of herring, a beautiful Greenland shark whose body had been torn in half—but the three Rishki children had fared a lot better, and only one of them possessed a wound that was fatal.

A boy of nine or ten had suffered the worst damage. His tail had been ripped off in the blast, and his two companions were trying to save him. Both looked about the same age as the dying boy. A girl with an arm around his waist had lost her right hand, and the other boy, who was holding onto the finless boy’s shoulders, had a long gash in his chest.

The extent of the injuries, the sight of so much raw muscle and splintered bone, the pointless carnage, froze me in horror a moment.

Then my instincts as a soldier took over, and I broke through my panic. I dropped my water shield, dove beneath the three children, and searched for the boy’s severed tail. Despite all the dead, and the debris in the water, I found his fin, caught in a wave from a hot cloud of oil. I gripped the bloody scales gently, to avoid causing more tissue damage, and swam back to the children.

To heal a child took far less energy than repairing adult injuries, a fact that helped strengthen me now, facing what was ahead.

As I rejoined the children, I didn’t need to ask Solei to hold the boy’s tail in place. She knew how to help me, remembering how I’d healed the Gendian scout, and with her hands close to mine, she studied my magic again as I sent healing spells through the boy, and knit him back together.

The effort left me dizzy, so tired I could shut my eyes and nod off, but the boy threw his arms around me in a hug, and that kept me awake.

“Go help Solei now,” I said to the boy. “Find your friend’s missing hand.”

The healed boy didn’t move for a moment, just watched Solei swim off to search by herself. But soon he darted away and joined her.

While they were gone, I sealed the wound on the second boy’s chest, which made my fatigue worse.

After Solei and the first boy returned, carrying bits of shredded fingers and a large section of the girl’s palm, I used the majority of the power I had left to repair and reattach the girl’s hand.

Solei tried to assist me as much as she could, but healing spells were enormously difficult, and—once again—I lacked the stamina to teach as well as heal. Solei had to learn on her own. But she managed the spells to fix the girl’s thumb, sealing some of the muscle and skin to reattach that appendage. I tried to give Solei a smile, to express how much help she had given me, but I was so tired that my smile probably looked like a grimace.

Oil coursed through the water as we finished repairing the girl’s hand. The undulating waves of crude blackened the sunlit surface above, and tinged the space around us even darker with shadow.

The children now clung to Solei and me like baby otters, muted and terrified, healed but still in shock. The sound of the bowhead mother’s cries continued to sound through the water.

I pried off the first boy I’d healed and spoke to him in a dialect of Rishki. “It’s not safe here, breathing that oil in your gills. You need to take your friends and swim back to your tribe.”

I pulled the other boy’s arms off my shoulders. “Go now,” I told him. “You can’t let the poison coat your gills.”

But the children had already almost died, and this warning had little impact. They moved to grab onto Solei instead, but Solei turned her attention to the whale.

She took my hand and led me toward the bowhead. I wanted to disconnect the whale’s nervous system, to allow her to die without pain, and clear the kids from the area. But Solei was determined to heal her, and she directed the children to help us. As they repositioned the tattered strips of the whale’s giant body, gripping the dark blubber to hold in place alongside the wound, Solei knit the whale’s skin back together.

“Solei!” I cried, amazed by how quickly she’d managed that difficult magic. To repair such a large surface area of damage took a great deal of focus and strength. I ran my hand over the healed skin, astonished to find all the muscle beneath had been mended as well. “That’s incredible!”

Solei gazed over the whale’s body, taking in the amount of work left to do. Her expression held only worry and strain. “I can’t manage the rest though. She’s still bleeding internally—I can’t repair that at all.”

So with the strength I had left, I resolved myself to the task, and focused my magic on the whale’s internal organs, repairing the most difficult places. The bowhead might still die later, no matter how much we healed her, but I didn’t argue or demand we give up and swim off. Besides, I felt better trying to heal the whale than simply leaving her to die. Solei had chosen the right thing to do.

As Solei continued to heal the whale’s skin, I exhausted my magic and stopped casting spells. I remained awake though, having just enough strength to stay conscious. So I removed the spear from my back, then took the one Solei carried. I pushed the sharp points of both spears into the body of the calf, positioning each one where his fins should’ve been. Then I gestured for the children to take hold of the staffs.

“She won’t leave her child,” I said, tipping my chin toward the mother. “Now that we’ve healed her, she’ll want to take him to the surface to breathe.” I pointed the children in the direction I thought they should swim, away from the plumes of oil, and up toward the surface. “Carry him out of here, as far from the rig as you can. Ten miles at least, but twenty is better. Swim at the surface, to calm her.”

The children nodded with their little hands on the spears, while Solei finished her work and faced us. I told the children, “Go now. The farther away you can swim, the greater the chance that she’ll live.”

With solemn, determined faces, the children did as I’d said. I watched the bowhead mother follow her calf, bleating her appreciation as she saw the children take his body up toward the surface. Worse than her own pain had been her terrible anxiety of letting her calf drown, and not even the fact he was dead could override her instincts to keep him alive. She would need a lot longer to accept he was gone, and she couldn’t come to grips with her loss in the midst of this poison.

As the group swam away, Solei put her arm around my waist, and we headed back toward the canyon.

“I know how tired you are,” Solei said. “You turn this silvery color, white and grey like a zombie. You look like the star of a horror film, Rowan. Night of the Living Fish-Boy. And you still have all your slime, that’s disgusting enough—”

I frowned, as irritated as ever. “It’s not that much.”

Solei scoffed. “Are you kidding me? You excrete more mucus when you get like this. Or haven’t you noticed?”

I continued to scowl. “It’s a sign of stress.”

“Well there you go. The zombie fish-boy is stressed. Trailing more slime than a land snail in a rain forest.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

My head wobbled and dropped, until I lifted my face again, and Solei said, “Oh sure, fall asleep again. That was so much fun last time, I can’t wait to do it again.”

“I’m not falling asleep.” Except my words slurred together, and my eyes kept trying to close.

After three miles of swimming, fighting a brutal exhaustion, I heard the distinct pops and rasps Sërenmare made to warn sea life away—

The blasting calls of the bentii.

“What is that?” Solei asked, beating her tail harder, urging me to swim faster. Despite her best efforts to hurry me, an overwhelming tide of fatigue made me lower my head.

My voice sounded feeble and weak. “Rishki scouts. Coming to the aid of those children, the same way we did.”

“Would that boy have lived till they got here?”

No, I would’ve said, if I only had the stamina to respond. I tried to cast a water shield, but I didn’t have enough power left. Nowhere near.

Solei tried casting one too, but she didn’t have the strength either. We weren’t going to escape unless we found somewhere to hide. As we continued toward the canyon, the rasp of the bentii grew louder.

“Have they picked up our sign?” Solei asked. “Do they know we’re here?”

I didn’t know, and couldn’t waste any effort on words. Pollution disrupted sign a great deal, and there was a lot of crude shooting up through the water. Those bentii could be closing in on us, or simply approaching the site of the oil rig.

I kept slowing down, almost halting, and Solei urged me forward each time. We reached the side of a seamount, but there weren’t any crevices large enough to duck into. After ten minutes of hunting, we gave up on the mountain and swam to another.

“I think I see a tunnel,” Solei said.

As we made our way to the opening she’d spotted, the water rippled and shuddered with the sign of a war party. Not just a few bentii, but at least twenty drakhir. Which meant the trackers had found us, and a team of Rishki was closing in.

We needed a screen. Solei kept trying to cast one, but she needed food and rest as much as I did. Our magic was just too depleted to manage a shield.

Solei fixed her gaze on the tunnel she’d found, as if counting down the seconds until we reached safety. Her voice was level and soft, full of fear. “What will they do? If they catch us?”

I’d already told her, of course. They would tie us up and take us to their Qarin, and we’d be at the mercy of Takara and whatever she demanded in tribute. Then she’d turn us over to Aiden, and Father—

And at the thought of facing my family, I threw everything I had left into a burst of speed toward the grotto. I grabbed Solei’s hands, to force her to release me, and pushed her in front of me. She disappeared into the rock, into safety, and I started to follow—

But a brilliant flare of gold light hit the water, a powerful electric charge that could travel much faster than any Sërenmare could, even if I’d been rested and fed and in possession of all my magic.

A shocker’s spell struck my back, searing my skin raw like I’d been thrown into lava, and I smashed against the rock.

My front teeth shattered, along with my nose, and the jagged stone tore my lips and the skin on my face.

Ceto’s magic arced through the water around me, iridescent spirals as disorienting as suddenly hearing her voice. “Rowan!” she screamed. “Rowan, get up!”

I must’ve smashed myself into unconsciousness, dreaming now that Ceto had changed shape, transformed into a sea dragon again. “Rowan, please!” Ceto shrieked. “Get up!”

As I placed my hands on the seamount to straighten, my whole body trembled in the aftereffects of the spell. The pain and fatigue were too much, and my mind went numb, shut down my nerves, so I no longer felt the burned skin on my back, or the broken bones in my face.

I tried again to swim into the tunnel, as if I hadn’t just been hit with a volt of electricity. As if I had any chance left to escape. I knew Solei was waiting for me, knew I needed to reach her—

Ceto’s magic swirled around me, blazing bright with heat energy, and she screamed my name again as I struggled to move—

Someone behind me grabbed my arms. A hand gripped the back of my neck.

I went to sleep.

51

I swam through a black cave, toward the soft scritch-scratch-crack of the monster. The creature with the giant claws, the sharp pointed legs, and the chitinous shell of a crustacean. The carapace gleamed like starlit obsidian in the shadows.

Rowan, someone whispered.

But there was no one else here.

This way.

Like the words came from the creature nestled in the dark, hidden in a cave full of bones.

The enormous claws reached for me, opened to expose the flesh-cutting blades, ready to tear me apart.

I tried to swim back, shift away from the threat—

As I moved, burning pain woke me up, raw and hot. The agony peaked worst on my back, my face felt like my skull had been melted, and a terrible pressure in my mouth made me want to scream.

I coughed and spit out a mouthful of blood, then opened my eyes. I lay on my side, on the floor of an empty room, in an air grotto marked with Rishki glyphs. No doors, no windows in sight. They’d taken me prisoner.

I struggled to sit up, and tears streamed down my face from the blistering pain in my back. My hands had been bound together with varkina, covered so I couldn’t send, couldn’t cast, couldn’t heal myself. Bindings like this were charged with an encasement spell, to prohibit the wearer from channeling magic. But my ankles weren’t shackled, and I wasn’t chained to the floor.

My upper front teeth were gone, broken off close to my gum line. I had so much heat in my jaw, I thought my chin had been fractured. Maybe my right cheek as well, since I had trouble trying to keep my right eye open. I could open and shut my jaw, and my vision remained clear, but the swelling and pain level signified I had more bone damage than just shattered teeth.

No sign of Solei in here.

Was she all right? Had they taken her prisoner as well? Or had she escaped them somehow, hidden away in the mountain? If I could escape the guards here, could I find her again?

My belt was gone, as well as the atlatl and strap I’d been wearing. Had the shocker spell that had burned me also burned Ceto’s egg? Had the magic forced her to change shape—had I really heard her screaming my name?—or had I been hallucinating her voice and her magic in a fugue of exhaustion?

If Ceto was a sea dragon again, had she escaped? Was she somewhere with Solei?

I tried to inhale deeper breaths, hoping to calm myself and some of my pain, but only coughed up more blood.

The Rishki wanted me to lay here and suffer, to take their revenge for what I had done, turning traitor. Crossing their water without paying tribute. Siding with the great enemy, the destroyer of so much life in the sea. The Qarin wanted me to know her people hated me now, and as I sat dripping blood on myself, I knew the only thing worse than this was not knowing where Solei was, and what had happened to Ceto. Whether anyone had hurt them or not, and if they were also trapped in prison rooms, in pain and alone.

An hour later, a door appeared in the rock, an outline of black light. Then the panel swung open, and a young soldier stepped into the room.

Her skin shone a perfect night-blue, her long hair and the tattoos on her arms were silvery-white, and she wore the emblem of a Rishki ambassador on her elaborate top. Tiny diamonds shaped into stars decorated her ears, and she’d braided a strand of black sapphire through her bright hair.

I recognized her the instant the door opened.

“Dahlia,” I said as I scrambled onto my feet, the movement made clumsy with my hands bound together. My tongue felt swollen and hard, my lips hurt to move, but I managed to pronounce her name clearly.

I hadn’t expected to see her in my prison cell. Dahlia was an ambassador, but she was not a First Warden. She held the lower rank of a Captain, like Pierce did under Aiden. But Dahlia walked into my room with all the grace of authority, as if I should’ve been waiting for her to stride through the door.

Her expression remained cool and severe as she looked me over. She didn’t radiate disgust or contempt, even though I had to look horrible in the state I was in, and I was a traitor now, no longer the son of my father.

But if Dahlia loathed me, I couldn’t tell. Her demeanor seemed more of a careful appraisal, screening her emotion from me.

She was almost my height, so we met eye to eye when I stood. Her dark eyes turned a pale violet as she studied me.

My heart pounded, and not just from the pain coursing through me, though the effort of standing made me break out in a sweat. I remembered those hours of dancing with Dahlia, and the songs she had taught me. I remembered how her mouth had felt against mine.

“It’s good to see you,” I said. The words came with a deep well of emotion, with truth and conviction, even if they were slurred. Even if she hated me now, Dahlia had once been my friend, and knowing that helped me a little, in spite of everything else.

Dahlia’s tone was quiet and measured, an intimate sound. “Would that I could say the same for you, Rowan.”

I tried to take a deep breath, calm my racing heart, though my eyes watered again from the searing pain in my back. “Are Solei and Ceto all right? Did you catch them, or did they get away?”

Dahlia gave me a quizzical look. I assumed that meant Ceto hadn’t transformed, was still in the shape of a dragon egg somewhere, and Dahlia didn’t understand why I’d brought up her name. But then Dahlia’s expression grew cold, and as soon as she spoke, it was clear her puzzlement hadn’t been caused by my mention of Ceto. “The obakee fled right after they caught you, and no one bothered to chase her. Our tribe has no need to imprison a sylph. The human you made into one of us was put to sleep with a spell, not long after your capture. No one hurt her. Tirone made it clear she was to be taken unharmed.”

I tried to straighten my shoulders, not let my breath hitch with pain. The relief I felt hearing my friends were unharmed lasted only an instant, as my mind focused all my attention on Dahlia’s last statement. “Is Aiden here yet? Or Tirone?” I couldn’t call him my father anymore. And I couldn’t call Aiden my brother.

Though in my heart, they still were. I’d betrayed my family because I loved them, no matter how repulsive my actions seemed to everyone else.

As to my question, Dahlia gave a slight shake of her head. “Takara demands you pay tribute first. You were the jusbel for Llyr. Now you’ll perform the same service for us.”

I coughed in surprise, turned away from her to spit the blood from my mouth, before I faced her again. “Your Lokren have made star-guides?” So many magi had tried to duplicate Aiden’s creation. None had accomplished the task.

Dahlia smiled, her bright eyes flashing lighter. “We’ve made something else.”

I turned a deep gold in surprise, and blinked through my shock, wondering what the Rishki had made that would take down a ship.

“Aiden Zroba isn’t the only one who can bring death to the humans. My Qarin knows why you betrayed your own people, why you stole the ikurro. Pay the tribute you owe us, and we’ll let you pass through our lands. Refuse, and we’ll kill her ourselves.”

Ikurro. The curse-child. The same word the Gendian scouts must’ve used, talking to Solei. The word everyone in the ocean must’ve heard by now.

Takara didn’t plan to hand Solei back over to Llyr—not until she had what she wanted. Maybe the Rishki Qarin really did know the truth, or maybe she knew there was no other way to force me to help sink another ship.

Whatever I did, I was trapped. Pay tribute to the Rishki, and Takara would make sure Aiden and Father were waiting for me when I returned to the water. She’d collect her payment from Llyr for my capture, no matter what I did now.

The situation knocked the strength out of me, and I shifted position so I could lean on the wall.

“You could help me, Dahlia,” I said quietly. “Unbind this varkina, take me to Solei, send us off through a journey stone—”

Dahlia’s voice sharpened, a tone close to anger. “No, Rowan. You’re a liar, a traitor, and you’re not leaving this room until our weapon is ready. Don’t ask me to help you again.”

I lifted my face to meet her gaze again, and we regarded each other in silence. She moved closer toward me, until she stood right in front of me, her left shoulder almost touching the wall.

Her voice became gentle again. “Do you remember, Rowan… what you said to me?”

Inside Crystal Cave, when she’d kissed me. Of course I remembered.

I told her I’d see her again, after all the humans were dead. After Aiden and I had completed our final mission. When the world was safe from human destruction forever.

I told her we’d dance together inside the great Hall of the Rishki, the ceremony room of the nomadic tribes.

How happy I’d felt, speaking those words. The euphoria of being jusbel had filled me with confidence, with the kind of childish boasting that embarrassed me now.

Even in the glow of that moment in the song cave with Dahlia, deep within my denial, I knew I had lied to her, and lied to myself.

Xalea and Ceto had known how weak I’d become. They’d known I was dying, that the All was depleting my magic, stripping my power away for the people I’d killed, that it was only a matter of time before I was revenanced.

By the time I accepted the truth of what I had done, and faced the consequences of breaking my vows to the All, I’d turned my back on everything I’d once believed in, and forsaken everyone who had trusted me.

Dahlia lifted her hand to my face, and her fingertips hovered over my broken cheek. “You took my future away. Our future, Rowan. You ruined everything.”

But I’d had no future, even when I had kissed her.

Dahlia lowered her hand, and her skin paled, became almost white, while the shade of her eyes darkened to a deep midnight blue.

Sadness and grief. I felt her emotions roll over me like a tide.

I lifted my hands over her head, and placed my arms around her, so the varkina that bound my wrists together rested against the small of her back. Then I drew her against me. Held her the same way I had in the song cave, though I hid my face from her this time, with my uninjured cheek lightly touching her hair, so she wouldn’t have to look at the damage.

Dahlia nestled her face against the side of my neck. “I loved you,” she murmured. “I really did love you.”

I swallowed, unprepared for that confession. How could Dahlia have fallen in love after one night of dancing? Just because we’d sung a few songs? No way.

My voice sounded rough. “You loved me because I was the jusbel. Everyone loved me for taking down ships. But I was a fool. That last carrier I boarded, I fell to my death. Xalea kept me alive. And when Brevyn tried to transform the human we kidnapped, and the summoning failed, the All kinned me to Solei. My life is hers now. When she dies, I die. That’s the only future I have.”

Dahlia shuddered and placed her hands on my sides, careful not to touch my burned back. I thought she was trying to push me away, but she didn’t shove me, or tell me to let go, so I didn’t.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I never wanted to hurt you. But I know I have. I’m a fenhaline now, and there’s no going back. I’ll die if I kill any more people, and I’ll die if you kill Solei. My life is over, unless you help me escape—”

“No. I won’t do that.”

“Then this is my end.”

Dahlia pressed the heels of her hands into my hips, to push herself off me, so I lifted my arms. She stepped away from me, flashing silver, and I lowered my wrists.

She gazed at my face, and her eyes returned to bright lilac, her skin shaded once again to night-blue. Her voice resumed the tone of a soldier’s. “Where were you taking her?”

But of course I couldn’t tell Dahlia that. She would report the answer to her commanding officer, or directly to the Qarin, and I still wasn’t sure why Dahlia had been the first one to enter my room. Takara might be using her daughter to manipulate me, which meant Dahlia’s confession of love could all be an act.

I didn’t want to believe that. But truth was so often bitterness, I had to allow for Dahlia’s betrayal. I’d done no less to her, with my lies, and I didn’t blame her if she wanted revenge.

“Somewhere to hide,” I said. “I didn’t have a specific location in mind. Only to stay out of Llyr.”

Dahlia narrowed her eyes, and changed the subject. “Our weapon will be ready soon. In three days, maybe less.”

I tipped my head to acknowledge that news.

“What shall I tell the Qarin?”

I kept my voice solemn, lying to Dahlia the same way I’d lied under oath inside Llyr. “That I’ll be the jusbel for the Rishki. And when I’ve finished paying my tribute, if I’m still alive, then Solei and I will continue on through your water.”

Dahlia quirked a brow with a subtle expression, her features sharp with suspicion, but then she gave a curt nod, turned and left.

After the door shut behind her, I sank to my knees, then lay down on my stomach, and closed my eyes. So desperate to relieve the pain I was in, that I forced myself asleep. To dream of the monster that kept calling my name. The nightmare waiting to rip me apart.

52

I woke to find Solei beside me, scowling at me with her hands on my back.

“Solei!” I yelled, half in a dream. My hands were still covered, bound with varkina, but Solei’s were free. No—that wasn’t right—she had one free hand, and the other was wrapped in varkina. She didn’t have her belt, or her atlatl and spear strap, but she was unharmed. Once I shouted her name, her mouth fell open in shock.

Nothing felt real. I thought she was only a vision, but I wanted her to be real. A desperate, pounding crash of my heart wanted her to be real. I lurched up with such an awkward motion, I accidentally knocked my arm against hers, hard enough I probably bruised her.

“Jesus, Rowan!” Solei gave me an aggravated expression, but she held onto my shoulder, to keep me from toppling over as I came to my knees.

“Solei! Solei!” That was the only thing I could think to say.

“Shhhhh!” and she covered my mouth with her free hand. “Could you please stop yelling? The guards will come in, damn it.”

“You’re okay!” I said, in a much softer voice. A whispering-shout.

Solei narrowed her eyes, making it clear I wasn’t being quiet enough for her liking. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

I concentrated on making my voice sound more normal, and quiet. “I was so worried about you.”

Solei let go of my shoulder. “I don’t know why you’d be worried about me. Ceto made sure I was safe—she created these strange waves in the water around me, and stopped three different shocker spells from hitting me before she escaped. The Rishki cast wards to keep her away, and I haven’t seen any sign of her since. You’re the only one who got hurt.”

The moment she reminded me of my injury, I realized I was no longer in pain. My back didn’t hurt, and neither did my face. I even had my front teeth back.

The astonishment and relief made me sure I was dreaming again, and I scrambled onto my feet in surprise. I had the feeling I should run somewhere, and almost shouted through my confusion—I’m healed! Solei, you healed me!—but Solei leapt up after me, and she covered my mouth again before I could yell.

Rowan!” she hissed. “If you don’t calm the hell down, I’ll put you to sleep again—do you understand me? I will knock you right out if you don’t get it together.”

I shut my mouth and stopped trying to run around the room. Solei kept glaring at me, but she removed her hand from my mouth.

“Solei,” I whispered with amazement. “Did you heal me?”

She sighed and held up the hand she’d clamped over my mouth, wiggling her fingers with a sardonic twist of her lips. “They’re not very good with handcuffs here, are they?”

I almost burst into laughter, but Solei looked ready to murder me, so I just asked, in as quiet a voice as I could manage, “How’d you get in here?”

Solei shrugged. “The guards took me to see the Qarin, and then when they forced me back to my room, I kicked a guy in the balls. So they threw me in here.” She gave me a savage grin. “Wait till those jerks see you now, huh?” Solei slipped her free hand inside her varkina, and held up her bound wrists, displaying the look of an immobilized prisoner. “Tell them you just healed yourself—I bet they’ll love that.”

I barely registered what she said though—I started laughing with gratitude. “You did it, Solei! You did it!”

Solei’s voice sounded gruff. “Well I didn’t do a very good job. You have giant scars all over the skin on your back, you look like a polar bear attacked you. You even have scars on your face. It’s a good thing there isn’t a mirror in here, you’d stop laughing in a second.”

But my joy was undaunted. This wasn’t a dream—I really had woken, and Solei really was here, and she’d fixed me! “My teeth feel great, Solei, good as new. Bone spells are the hardest for any healer, they take so much power to finish. I’m sure the rest of me is just fine.”

Solei flared red and gold in a temper though, her voice harsh with anger. “Your skin doesn’t look anything like what you did with those children, or that Gendian scout—”

I shook my head. “But those wounds were fresh, and I spent hours with mine—an entire sendo, and maybe much longer—”

Solei interrupted to say, “We’ve been here for two days, Rowan. You’ve been asleep the whole time. The guards threw me in here with you a few hours ago.”

See?” I whisper-yelled, still excited. “Anyone would have scars after that! You healed my bones, Solei—you regrew my teeth!

“God, Rowan—would you please calm down? You’re getting all slimy again.” Solei glanced over my shoulders and chest as she wrinkled her nose.

I leaned toward her, pretending like I was going to rub up against her.

Solei darted away. “Don’t you dare! I do not want your fish mucus all over me! That’s disgusting!”

I took a seat and laughed, gazing up at the ceiling, then gave a happy sigh. “It’s not that much slime.”

Solei leveled her voice, done with my nonsense. “While you’ve been lying around, doing your best Sleeping Beauty impression, I had a little visit with the Rishki Qarin. Just a nice friendly chat with the War Leader of all the nomadic tribes. And she wants you to blow up a ship, Rowan. She expects you to plant a bomb on a boat and kill everyone onboard. Or her sweet daughter Dahlia is going to slit my throat, using a knife that looks a lot like the one you almost sank in my neck.”

My smile disappeared. Solei took a seat beside me, watching my face with a wary expression.

“Takara told you to give me that message?”

Solei scoffed. “No, I just thought I’d make all that up. The Qarin really offered to give me my human body back and carry me home on a ship, but I said it was more fun hanging out in this hellhole with you.”

I smiled, couldn’t help it.

“That’s right, laugh it up,” Solei muttered.

“I’m not laughing—”

She glared at me. “Are we going to die here? Will those people kill me?”

I turned serious, wishing my heart didn’t quicken so much with anxiety. “No, I’ll figure something out, now that I’m healed. I won’t let the Rishki hurt you, I’ll think of a way to keep you safe—”

“By sinking a ship? Rowan, you can’t murder people for them. I don’t care what they say, that isn’t an option.”

“I’m not planning to kill anyone. Aiden and I planted star-guides, but the Rishki haven’t made star-guides. They’re using something else.” And although I had no idea what that something else might be, I was sure I could manipulate the magic somehow, change the intention, the same way I’d altered the portal in Llyr.

As my thoughts raced ahead, outpacing my words, Solei drew up her legs and rested her face on her knees, circling her calves with her arms so I couldn’t see her expression. Her tone became heavy and quiet. “I know what a jusbel is now.” She took a deep breath. “In case you were wondering. I know that’s what you are.”

My heart sank, and I lowered my voice to match hers. “What I was. I can’t sink ships anymore, Solei. I’ll revenance.”

She exhaled with a long, ragged sigh. “You should’ve just told me.” Solei lifted her head to face me, her eyes dark with anguish. “When I asked why they called you that. You should’ve told me the truth.”

I shuddered, full of a sharp, icy fear, and said nothing.

Solei furrowed her brows. “Why did you blow up all those ships? How was that saving the ocean—killing those people? What was the point?”

I dropped my gaze to the floor, and turned my face from her. The answer took a long time, and Solei waited in silence until I forced the words out. “To show the humans they weren’t the only ones who could kill.”

“For revenge,” Solei scoffed. “You murdered all of those people for nothing more than revenge.” She rested her face on her knees again. “You almost started a war between the U.S. and Russia. A huge war. And China still thinks they should start bombing the U.S. fleet, even if that means they’ll ruin the whole global economy. They keep saying the United States is trying to take over the world—and I bet that made you glad, didn’t it? All the chaos you caused.”

When I didn’t respond, Solei lifted her head. She kept her voice level. “Are you sorry, Rowan? For any of it?”

I should be. I should regret murdering people. Every ship I had sunk.

But I thought of all the death in the ocean I’d seen, my mother torn to shreds, and all the other bodies ripped apart by human destruction, all the oil spills and garbage and tons of bycatch thrown overboard from rusty boats. I remembered the little boy Xalea had sent in to see me, his small body irradiated and dying, no longer even able to speak. I thought of the whale Solei and I tried to save, and her calf with its head split in two. I pictured again all the blood in the water, all the dead fish and those mutilated children, the screams and the pain.

Tears welled in my eyes, and I continued to stare at the far wall, clenching my teeth.

I remembered the glyphs I’d carved on the floor of my room, before I turned traitor and fled. The message I’d left everyone to read once I’d gone. I’ve done terrible things. I’m not sorry.

My rage burned strong as ever. I thought of the trash islands that kept growing, the dead zones that kept spreading, the sea life that kept dying in horrible ways, all the species that had already been overfished to extinction—and I hated the humans, hated them so much that I still felt glad I had killed them, even if bombing those ships had almost killed me as well.

If I felt sorry at all, it was only to pity myself. That I’d lost my family and my tribe because I’d broken my vows for revenge.

“Xalea,” I said, and her name came out scratchy, as I turned over what I needed to say. “My friend. She wanted to believe I was wise. She told me I had a kind heart. But if I had my life to live over, I’d still kill those people. You called me a monster, Solei. You were right.”

Then the outline of a door appeared in the wall, the panel swung open, and two Rishki soldiers entered the room. Dahlia walked in right behind them.

53

As I hurried to stand, I recognized the two men. The one with goldenrod skin, carmine hair, and the most elaborate tattoos on his arms was the First Warden, a man named Calder. The soldier with turquoise tattoos, a necklace of white agate, and ebony tiger stripes was an advisor named Zale.

The moment Solei came to her feet, Calder held up his hand and shot a calefact, an iridescent bolt of heat, straight toward her. Solei jumped sideways into the path of another one, a second calefact launched from Zale. But I turned my back to the magic, and caught the blast in my shoulder, a shock strong enough to blister my skin. The injury put the smell of blood in the air.

Stop!” I yelled at the drakhir, but Dahlia paid no mind, and Calder and Zale both fanned into position, taking up better points to attack. “Her hands are already bound! You don’t need to hit her!” But if Solei had been kicking guards, and getting into scuffles while I’d been asleep, these men had obviously decided they’d rather hurt her before she could touch them.

Zale ignored me as I yelled, and said to Calder, “I thought he was burned.”

Calder shot Dahlia a look, and kept his voice low and calm. “He was. I dragged him in here myself.”

In the instant all eyes turned to Dahlia, her expression was cool and collected, not the slightest flicker of surprise on her face. She lifted her chin toward Solei, a movement so slight I barely saw her head tilt. At her signal, Calder took a step toward me and slammed into my side, while Zale hit Solei with a stunning spell, a force that blew from his palm like a rush of hot air. Solei collapsed to the floor as Calder body-checked me again, knocking me against the wall.

Dahlia removed a varkina from her belt, knelt beside Solei, and bound her wrists again. I was sure Dahlia did a much more thorough job than whoever had bound Solei the first time.

Zale shoved me when I took a step toward Solei, and Calder wouldn’t let me move toward her, either. They were both bigger than me, closer to Aiden’s size, but what mattered much more was having my hands bound, when theirs weren’t. Zale noticed how distraught I was, watching Dahlia rebind Solei’s wrists, and he gave me a withering look. His scorn felt as hot as the calefact I’d been struck with.

Dahlia didn’t look at me as she stood and left the room. Calder and Zale ushered me out behind her.

I felt lightheaded with hunger and nerves as I made my way down the hall. I needed a meal, needed to eat something as badly as I’d needed rest earlier, but I knew I wasn’t being taken to a mess hall. We were on our way to see the Qarin, and maybe to examine the weapon I was to place on a ship.

I’d never been inside this fortress before, but the stonework in the walls was an ancient Korfa design, an ancestral tribe of the Rishki. People paused in doorways and halls to witness me pass. Some soldiers gnashed their throats with contempt, others clicked with a rhythm of loathing, signaling my status as a fenhaline. I didn’t hesitate to make eye contact, to let these people know I wasn’t ashamed of myself, even though my skin shone a pale silver, bright with stress and fatigue.

Dahlia led us through several corridors, up three sets of stairs, into a beautiful meeting room.

Takara stood by an altar, a sculpted pillar of basalt inlaid with white pearl. A blanket sewn with pink and blue diamonds had been draped over whatever rested atop the low column of rock.

A dozen drakhir flanked the Qarin, and at least thirty Lokren. Dahlia’s twin sister, Corrin, stood near Takara, as well as the Qarin’s two older daughters, Hali and Kendall. Both wore the same coloring I’d seen on them at the last festival in Llyr: shades of granite and quartz, chaotic patterns that changed position when they moved. Hali and Kendall were both speakers and craftsmiths, every bit as austere and formidable as their mother.

Corrin, however, had chosen dark orange and red for her coloring, a shade the Rishki associated with neutrality. She didn’t look at me either, but kept her gaze fixed on Dahlia, her mouth set in a scowl.

Warm amber lights illuminated the unfired glyphs in the walls, the code in the runes nothing more than shadow in stone. Emblems as dark as the faces of the people who studied me now, their eyes glinting with hate and revulsion as they faced the traitor who’d trespassed through their water.

I crossed the room and my gaze met the Rishki Qarin’s. Takara darkened her skin to a threatening midnight-black with the thinnest white stripes, her long hair patterned the same way. Her tattoos glowed a bright crimson, and the light in the room glimmered along her obsidian necklace.

Calder and Zale ushered me to stand a few feet in front of her, while Dahlia took her place at her mother’s right side.

The Qarin wasn’t a charmer. She didn’t possess the same talents my father did. But her voice still had a punishing sound, a cold note of hostility when she was angry. “Dahlia tells me you fell to your death when you sank your last ship. Is that true?”

My mouth felt too dry to speak, so I tipped my head once.

Takara’s voice dropped another hundred degrees. “You will address me with respect, or be dragged from this chamber.”

I swallowed, and corrected my error. “Yes, your grace. I did fall to my death.”

The Qarin pursed her lips with indifference. “My people gave tribute to Llyr. We celebrated your work. And we anticipated with great pleasure the final promise you and your people made: to exterminate the evil plaguing this earth. To stop the annihilation of all life in the sea.”

“The only people Aiden Zroba and I were about to annihilate,” I said, loud enough there’d be no mistaking my words, “were the people of Llyr.”

The room erupted with yelling. The Rishki Lokren and the Qarin’s officers called me a liar, an outcast, a criminal. Takara didn’t contribute to the din, but there was no doubt that the uproar expressed her own sense of wrath.

I shouted over the noise, with a yell that would’ve made Xalea and Ceto proud, “I swore to the All I wouldn’t use my magic to kill. But I broke my vows. I used my magic to kill—so the All took my life. You call me a fenhaline now, and I am. I have no family, and no tribe, and I have trespassed through your waters. But I’m still a soldier of the ocean, still a guardian of the sea. No matter what you think I have done.”

Takara raised her left hand, and hit me with stunning spell, one that struck my gut like a punch. The force of the blow stole my breath, almost sent me down to my knees, and I stopped speaking to concentrate on not falling.

The Qarin rolled her hand sideways, flaring her fingers, and pressure built in my ears—a sharp, stabbing pain that grew into an excruciating headache, so horrendous that I gagged and spit up bile on the floor. I was caught in one of the Qarin’s crusher spells, magic so awful I wanted to scream. The torture in my skull made Takara’s words slice through my mind like steel blades. “You speak when I ask you a question, boy. Llyr might tolerate your disrespect. I will not.”

My penance mark shone neon white in my skin, lit with the magic the Qarin sent through my body. My chest burned so bright that the lines ruptured my skin, and I bled. More blood rushed down my chest than when I’d gashed myself for the portal. I could see the scar I’d left behind, the mark I’d given myself as hot with magic as the emblem carved into my body.

The Qarin’s words delivered more pain than her spells. “Tirone Zroba wanted us to believe you were blessed by the All. Gifted with a powerful magic that allowed you to kill. But I see the truth now. This is no mighty sorcerer standing before me, but a piece of Llyrian garbage trespassing my waters. You owe a debt to my people greater than you can ever repay. Tirone Zroba hunts you now because you are a disgrace, a stain upon the memory of the mother who brought you into this world, and the ocean that gave you your magic. You have betrayed every tribe of the sea to save your own miserable life, and protect the enemy unleashing death on this earth. May the evil you have sworn your allegiance to ruin you. You have chosen your path. I’ve chosen mine.”

After another few seconds, my penance mark disappeared, and Takara lifted her crusher spell. The change in pressure made my ears pop with an audible snap. I stumbled in shock, then dropped to my knees, panting hard and seeing stars. Sweat poured from my skin as I rose to my feet. My vision cleared quickly, and by the way the pain faded so fast, I knew my eardrums hadn’t been blown. Takara hadn’t done any permanent damage, but she’d made me rethink my strategy of yelling at her.

By the looks of satisfaction the people in the room gave the Qarin, they were glad I’d been chastened. Even Dahlia gave a relieved sigh, eyeing me like I should’ve known better than to shout at her mother.

I flashed cerulean lightning bolts through my skin, a marbling Dahlia would understand as defiance. She shaded black in return, to tell me to stop it.

But I refused to adopt softer shading. This entire proceeding was pissing me off, and if all I could do was stand here and seethe, then I would.

The Qarin paid no attention to my display. With a flick of her wrist, Takara grasped the blanket that covered the altar, gave the material a sharp tug, and the fabric slipped aside. The jewels caught on tiny hooks in the column, which kept the blanket from falling to the floor.

A large scarlet feather star sat atop the stone pillar. The frilled, slender arms resembled the array of a flower, like the exquisite sea lilies that grew upon stalks.

But this was neither a living echinoderm harvested from the seafloor, or one of the surface flowers grown for their petals and nectar in Llyr.

This feather star was a weapon, a tool called a blood chrysalis, similar to the bone keys Pierce made. Except the Rishki Lokren hadn’t harvested the bones of the dead for this magic. Several magi had given a lot of blood for this weapon, like the star-guides Aiden made. A blood chrysalis was a weapon of alchemy, capable of turning steel into lava. Transforming a ship into fire.

Takara’s voice remained haughty and cool. “Not even Aiden Zroba has ever made a weapon this beautiful.”

Of course Aiden had never made a blood chrysalis. No single person could make such a weapon. The tithe was too great, and Aiden had avoided placing the burden of weapon creation on anyone but himself. Aiden was ruthless, the equal of any Qarin, but he was also deeply compassionate, given the risks and consequences he placed on himself. The Rishki Lokren responsible for making this feather star had paid a steep price for this magic, had tithed more of their power than Aiden ever had for a star-guide.

A blood chrysalis was far more dangerous than one of Aiden’s creations. So if that was what Takara meant by beautiful, then she was correct. This feather star was much more lethal than a star-guide.

Takara took a step toward me, holding my gaze. “You will board the enemy’s ship with my daughter. She will learn from you how to read the minds of the humans, how to navigate the interior of their vessels, to their engine rooms, to their hulls. The Rishki will have our own jusbel, and save all life in the ocean. My people will not fail the sea. We will never betray the tribes of the water. Especially not for the life of one worthless ikurro.”

I looked at Dahlia, met her eyes with a blaze of chevrons through my skin, angry and terrified that she had chosen to do this—

But it was Hali who stepped forward. Not Dahlia. Hali now stood beside the Qarin. Facing the room as the soldier appointed to be the new jusbel.

I yelled without thinking, too overcome by my own horror to flinch from being hit with a second crusher spell. “Hali, no—you can’t do this! Your tribe will be cursed, you’ll be revenanced—”

Takara cut off my words. “Get him out of my sight,” she told Calder, who stunned me unconscious.

I probably hit the floor like a sack of stones, and Calder and Zale probably dragged me from the room.

When I opened my eyes again, I lay in a small, frigid chamber lined with ancient sea ice. No orbs lit the ceiling. The dim light came from the ice, which glowed like the moon. My skin had turned a pale, vibrant blue-green, and my hands were no longer bound.

I sat up and turned, scanning the walls. Dahlia sat alone at a wide cragged table, a piece of furniture as old as the room. Covered platters of food rested untouched before her.

“Come and eat, won’t you?” she said, without looking at me. She waved a hand toward the empty bench across from her. “I saved you a seat.”

54

I rose, slow and wary, watching for danger. Dahlia made no threatening motions, and no one else entered the room.

My shoulders were stiff. Bruises mottled my swollen knees, blood ran from a cut on my foot, and the burn in my skin from the calefact ached. I wiped at the dried blood on my stomach and chest, rubbing off the sticky crust with my hands.

“Where are we?” My voice sounded heavy and rough, overloud in this little space.

Dahlia placed her elbows on the table, still without looking at me. “In an old processing cave.”

“It doesn’t smell like a fermenting room.”

“No, it’s been a century, at least, since there were vats in here.”

I walked to the table. Tried to soften my voice, but I still sounded too loud and gruff compared to the calm tone Dahlia used. “Why are we in here?”

Dahlia finally met my gaze. Her violet eyes studied me with a careful intensity. She didn’t answer.

My heart quickened with nerves, with the fear that whatever we were doing here, I wouldn’t like it. “Dahlia, what’s going on? Why did you take off my binding? And where’s Solei? Is she safe?”

Dahlia narrowed her eyes in a delicate scowl. “Always with the ikurro.”

I gave Dahlia a hard stare.

She kept her tone cool, as casual as if we were discussing what kind of food lay on the table. “She’s in the same room where we left her. No one has harmed her. I swear.” When I still didn’t move, she added, “Calder made sure someone fed her—”

Fed her. Like a pet. The words made me darken. “What kind of meal did he take her?”

Dahlia seethed, a freckling of ebony stars in her night-blue skin. “Llyrian food. You’re irritating me, Rowan. Sit down.”

“Sit down,” I scoffed. “Did the Qarin send this meal? How much poison did she cram into these bowls? You really think I’d be such a fool as to eat this?”

Dahlia lifted her chin and her eyes flashed with rage. “I brought this food. You think my mother cares what you eat? She’d give you dried vasa and gruel. Or just let you starve.”

“Same difference.” Dahlia knew I couldn’t stomach vasa, the fermented whale blubber boiled in Rishki gruel.

“If you were hungry enough, you’d hold it down.”

I gave Dahlia a mirthless smile. “So how much poison did you put in this food, Dahlia? Loyal daughter of the Qarin.”

Dahlia rose and held up her hands, magic flaring in a hot yellow arc around her fingertips. “Keep mocking me, Rowan. I’d be delighted to make you unconscious again.”

I gave her a real smile as adrenaline spiked through my blood. “Go ahead and hit me then. If you think I’m so dense.” My hands were free now, I could evade a stunning spell and grab her, if she really wanted to fight. I’d welcome a match, even if she did knock me out.

Dahlia lowered her chin, and her voice became as edged as her mother’s. “We have unfinished business, you and I. It’s not a question of who’s stronger right now. But if you want to be a blockhead and try to attack, go ahead. Prove me right. You won’t make anything better. You’re mad Calder and Zale roughed you up—”

I blew out my breath, outraged. “Calder and Zale! Your mother hit me with a crusher spell. And now she wants Hali boarding a ship with me—do you want your sister to die?”

Dahlia turned as bright yellow as the magic that glowed from her hands. “No, I do not want my sister to die. But instead of sharing a meal with me, and giving me time to explain, you’re trying to start a fight you already know that you’ll lose. You’ve weakened so much you’ve lost weight. It’s as obvious as your silver skin.”

I glanced down and saw she was right. I’d turned silver again.

I met her gaze again with a frown. “I’m not that weak. Besides, what do you care what I look like? Why waste your food on a traitor?”

Dahlia tsked. “How did you ever make it this far, when the truth is right there, staring you in the face?”

I sighed, and considered arguing with her some more, but I didn’t see any point. She was right: I was in desperate need of a meal, and too famished to bicker.

So I took a seat on the bench, and Dahlia calmed and sat down as well. When she lifted the cover from one of the platters, I pried a lid off one of the bowls. Soon we were heaping spoonfuls of food onto our plates. Hearty stews and roast vegetables, sauces flavored with care.

I didn’t comment on how much trouble Dahlia must’ve gone to, procuring this meal, since none of the dishes contained vasa. Her efforts were obvious though, and everything she’d brought was delicious.

After I devoured my first plateful, I took seconds, and then thirds. By the time I finished, every platter and bowl on the table lay empty. Dahlia still had a few bites on her plate. She saw me glance over her unwanted portion, and handed me her leftovers without a word.

“Thank you,” I said.

Dahlia rolled her eyes. “You’re worse than an orca.”

Ruby lightning bolts rippled through my skin, and Dahlia copied me, unfazed.

I finished her plate, and once I was done, Dahlia left the table.

“Come on,” she said. “I don’t want to talk in here.”

“Why not?”

She cut me a savage look. “Don’t tell me we’re here again.”

I rose and followed her with a scowl. Wherever Dahlia was taking me, the chances I’d end up in serious trouble over this made leaving the room with her feel foolish. What kind of awful punishment was I in for if the Qarin caught me traipsing around, unbound, with her daughter? Another crusher spell, I was sure. And several stunner spells to knock me around for good measure. An image of the Qarin stomping her foot on my head came to mind.

But I was grateful to Dahlia for the meal, so I went along with her.

She crossed the room, illuminated a glyph in the ice, and unsealed the door to an ingress. The pool was only three feet wide, but the water gleamed electric blue against the white ice.

Dahlia dove first, and I jumped in after.

55

Inside the tunnel, the water shone silver, green, and blue, alternating shades depending upon the color of the ice we swam through.

The tunnel exits had been sealed, bound shut with a powerful barrier spell, but Dahlia led us to one that was open. We climbed through an ingress into a tiny ice cave, the smallest pressurized grotto I’d ever entered before. There wasn’t even enough room to stand. Dahlia sat with her legs crossed, so I did the same. She studied my face for a while, and I waited for her to speak first.

“Is it true, what you said? Will my sister die?”

I copied Dahlia’s coloring, her night-blue skin and silvery-white hair, as my way of telling her yes.

Dahlia lowered her face, shook her head, and dropped her voice to a whisper. “I don’t want to believe you.”

I lowered my voice to the gentlest tone I could manage. “Then what are we doing here?”

Dahlia clasped and unclasped her hands several times, then she lifted her head and changed positions, sliding over to sit by my side. She leaned against me and nestled her cheek on my shoulder, the way Brielle sometimes did when she was tired.

I still wasn’t entirely sure what we were doing in this ice cave together, but I put my arm around Dahlia and held her.

We stayed that way a long time, neither one of us speaking. Sometimes Dahlia sighed, or drew in a deep breath like she wanted to say something, but then she’d press against me again, and go still.

When I reached a hand out to the wall, and rested my fingertips on an invisible glyph in the ice, I felt Dahlia move her head to watch.

“There’s a vanishing place,” I said. “On the other side of this ice.”

“Fire it, if you can,” Dahlia murmured.

But I couldn’t trigger the glyph. The magic had been sealed with a code, a lock I needed a key to open. Not a physical instrument to insert in the ice, but the incantation that would open the spell.

I dropped my hand from the wall. “Is that why you brought me here? To show me whatever’s inside that room?”

“Yes. But… it’s more than that, Rowan. I brought you here because I wanted to tell you—” Dahlia paused, and then swallowed. She sat up and took a deep breath, then another, gazing down at her hands. “You were wrong about why… why I loved you.”

I lifted my brows, certain that I hadn’t been wrong at all. I’d have said so, but Dahlia paled to a sickly cream color, and if fear had a flavor, Dahlia’s was the korinna-seed I added to borren: subtle and bitter, but no less obvious than her coloring. I clenched my teeth, wishing we’d discuss something else—but I held my tongue.

Dahlia sent me a hopeful look, and then she darkened again, resumed her normal appearance. “You were more to me than your title. Even during those ceremonies, when you stood by your brother. Even then I could tell, Rowan. Why I liked you so much.”

I hunched my shoulders and bowed my head, so uncomfortable that I scowled. “As if I can’t guess what you’ll say.”

Dahlia placed a hand on my shoulder, pushing some of her magic into my skin. “You don’t know what I feel. Or what I see when I look at you, when I saw you in Llyr.”

“Sure I do. I know what everyone sees when I’m beside Aiden.”

“And what is that?”

I didn’t respond, because the answer was obvious. Also, just thinking about my brother made my face feel hot, and tears threatened to well in my eyes.

I’d never be like Aiden now. Never wear the tattoos of a powerful mage, or the jewelry. Never live in an officer’s suite. Our father would never look at me the way he looked at Aiden.

Everything I’d grown up wanting was gone from me now, forever, and I didn’t even regret it. Takara said I’d only saved Solei to spare my own miserable life. As if protecting the lives of the people I loved didn’t matter. No one cared why the All had tithed me to Solei. Whatever made hating me easiest—that was what they wanted to see.

Dahlia put her hand on my face, and by the way she touched me, I could feel the new scars on my skin, ridges and marks that Dahlia was making note of. “You have your own kind of power,” she said.

I moved my face away, out of her reach, and my voice hardened. “Don’t I know it.” I smiled at Dahlia, now that she’d dropped her hand. “But I sure showed them, didn’t I? How strong I really am. Even without the tattoos. And look at me now.” I brightened my skin to sunshine-orange. “I killed so many people, I was tithed to the enemy. My family is all so very proud, in case you can’t tell.”

Dahlia crossed her arms and glowered at me.

I returned my display to her coloring. “No one wants to believe me. That I should never have become the jusbel, or that your sister will die. But I swear on my magic, Dahlia. What Aiden and I were doing was wrong. And if Hali plants that feather star with me, she won’t make it off the ship alive. The All will strip our magic from us before we make it back to the water.”

Dahlia hissed, “The humans are evil—”

“Yeah, we keep saying that. But we never define what evil is. So let me fix that right now. We took vows, Dahlia. An oath to the All. And when we break that oath, we’re the ones being evil. Not the humans.”

Dahlia lightened to sickly cream once again, so shocked that her voice fell to a whisper. “I’m not evil.”

But I was. I’d planted enough star-guides to know what horrible things I had done.

I put my arms around Dahlia and embraced her, pressing her tight to my chest so she’d feel my hammering heart. “Tell Hali not to board the ship with me. Dahlia, please. Please tell your sister this is wrong.”

Dahlia wrapped her arms around me, and hugged me as fiercely as I held her. “But that’s why I brought you here, Rowan. Inside the vanishing place—that room holds a journey stone. Corrin recharged the magic for me. So I can send you away from here. The two of us, together. We can leave Rishki water. Before you board the ship. We can keep Hali safe.”

I froze, and my heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe for a moment.

Send me away from here. Leave Rishki water together. I’d told Dahlia she could help me escape with a journey stone. She’d listened.

In a much softer voice, I asked, “And then what?”

Dahlia tipped her head up to look at me. “We’ll find a place we can hide. Like you planned to do with the ikurro. Except it’ll be you and me, Rowan. Just like the night in Crystal Cave. When we sang the old songs together. Those hours we spent talking, and you listened to all my stories—that was when I fell in love with you. Not because you were the jusbel. Even if you’re a fenhaline now, I still love you. I don’t want you to die boarding a ship. But I can save you—we can escape this fortress together. All we need is each other. We can make our own tribe.”

Dahlia pressed her face to my neck, her skin hot with magic and terror and her wild, reckless love, and I wished it could all be so easy. That I could stop all the trouble I’d caused by running off with the soldier I held tight in my arms.

I didn’t bring up Solei’s name. Didn’t remind Dahlia that I couldn’t leave her behind. That running away wouldn’t stop the Rishki from using that feather star, or prevent Hali from boarding a ship.

I hummed one of the songs Dahlia had taught me, then sang the lyrics in an older dialect of Rishki. By the time I reached the last lines, about the shortness of life and the love of the sea, Dahlia had started to cry. I brushed away her tears with my thumb as I finished the song.

“I can’t run away with you,” I said quietly. “The Qarin will still want Hali to use that blood chrysalis. And I can’t leave Solei. My life is hers now, forever.”

The instant I said Solei’s name, Dahlia stiffened, and the soft emotion that had brought on her tears was replaced by swift fury. “That girl belongs to the Rishki. To be returned to the War Leader of Llyr for the bounty.”

“Then my brother will kill her—”

“Good.” Dahlia spoke the word without pity.

“And I’ll revenance with her.”

“No, Rowan.” Dahlia sat up, shaking her head, her features sharp with certainty. “The All has forgiven you. You’ve paid your penance and wear the mark in your skin. She is the evil one, the one who must be destroyed. Aiden will use her blood for his weapon, and Llyr will free the world of the curse of the humans.”

I took Dahlia’s hand, held her fingers a moment, and then placed a kiss on her knuckles. “I don’t think the All ever forgave me, Dahlia. I was kept alive for a purpose.”

“What purpose?”

“Come through the journey stone with me, and with Solei. Help me save her. And I’ll tell you.”

Dahlia wrenched her hand free, flashing magenta and purple in rage. “I’ll die before I ever save the life of a human. Or any Sërenmare who was once human.”

I changed my skin to the dark orange and red Corrin had displayed in the meeting room, the color of Rishki neutrality. “Then we have nothing more to say to each other.”

I shifted away from her, dropped into the ingress, and swam through the tunnel. With a light trace of magic, I checked the barriers for a place to escape, but they were all locked, sealed as carefully as the vanishing place.

The only way to break free of this tunnel would be to attack Dahlia, take her hostage, and force her to open one of the exits for me. But I didn’t want to hurt her in any way. I wanted to be back with Solei, to assure myself she was okay.

In less than a minute, I returned to the room we had left, and Dahlia followed me through the ingress.

56

The platters of food had all been cleared away, and the table lay empty. A door had appeared in the far wall, and Corrin stood in the entryway, framed in the bright amber light. Dahlia’s twin sister, best friend, and accomplice. Willing to have faced the anger of the Qarin in order to help us escape.

Corrin wore a solemn expression, glancing from Dahlia to me, all too aware of what her sister’s hope had been for the two of us, and what I had chosen instead. Corrin was a powerful mage to have recharged a journey stone. The extent of how much she loved her sister seemed to be etched in her face. Xalea, I thought, would know that look well.

Corrin reached into her belt, and held up the varkina to bind me again.

I crossed the room, stopped in front of her, and offered my hands.

“We are all fools,” Corrin said, locking my wrists. “You should have gone with her.”

I smiled. “Fools don’t take good advice.”

Dahlia left the room without looking at me. I followed her down the hall, glancing back once to see Corrin walking in the opposite direction.

Soon we were at the door to the room where Dahlia had collected me earlier, to attend the meeting with the Qarin. Dahlia opened the panel, and I saw Solei sitting inside. She rose with a look of relief as I walked through the door.

I smiled the moment I spotted her, and my body felt lighter, glad she was safe. And maybe I was just glad to be with her again.

In an old dialect of Rishki, Dahlia told Solei, “You’re a foul creature of land. I’ll be glad when you’re dead.” Then Dahlia shut the door, which sealed with a loud bang.

Solei cocked a brow, turning her face from the door back to me. “That your girlfriend, Rowan?”

I darkened to thunderhead grey, too irritated to respond.

“Don’t you get all touchy with me,” Solei said. “I know what’s going on. She came in here twice to check on you while you were asleep. I’m pretty sure she knew I was healing you, too—I’m sure she realized I’d been regrowing your teeth—and she didn’t bother to stop me. I overheard her tell her twin sister she doesn’t want you to get hurt. And you were just off with her alone somewhere for like, hours.”

Solei lifted her brows with a grin, like I should be impressed with her collection of facts. I just sighed and took a seat on the floor, leaning my back to the wall.

Solei sat down beside me. Her smile faded, and she lowered her voice. “You’re going to board that ship for them, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I said softly.

“Won’t you die though, if you leave the water? Fish suffocate in the air. Their gill arches collapse.”

I nodded. “If I run out of magic, that’ll happen.”

Solei scowled. “You should just tell them no.”

“They’re sending Hali with me. Dahlia’s older sister. If I don’t go, they’ll probably send her alone.”

Solei’s expression turned grim. “She could die either way though. Whether she’s with you or not.”

I didn’t respond. Just sat with my own thoughts for a while.

“What about Ceto?” Solei asked. “Don’t you think she might save us?”

My voice became heavy, as solemn as the slow beat of my heart. “I love Ceto. And I’m sure if she could be here with us right now, she’d have found a way in. But she doesn’t have the ability to break us out of this fortress. Ceto has powerful magic, but the battle spells for a raid are not in her skill set.”

Solei blew out her breath with frustration. “Why couldn’t saving those children have been our tribute? Isn’t the Qarin grateful at all that we helped her people?”

My mouth twitched with amusement, so much that I smiled. “Human societies operate the same way. Human leaders demand payments from those who live on their land or visit their area. Only humans call them—”

The instant before I spoke the word, I realized the term I remembered belonged to another language, one Solei didn’t speak. And might not even be the correct word at all. To avoid saying something foolish, I shut my mouth.

Solei knew what I meant though. “Taxes and fees,” she said roughly. “And you’re right. Helping a few kids on land wouldn’t get us out of paying our taxes.”

We sat in silence a long minute, and then another. Solei drew up her knees, bowed her head and whispered, “Do you think I’ll ever see my father again?” She didn’t have tears in her eyes, but I heard them in her voice.

“Do you think he’d enjoy life as a Sërenmare? Because I know a really great transformation spell we could try—”

Solei pretended to kick at my foot, knocking into my leg without hurting me, and then she looked away at the far wall with a smile.

As I studied her profile, thinking of how strong Solei was, both in magic and spirit, I wished Dahlia could’ve spent more time with Solei, the way I had. Then Dahlia would’ve understood who Solei was, that she wasn’t some foul creature who deserved to die, but someone worth saving. If only Dahlia had seen Solei help those Rishki children, and how Solei had insisted we heal the bowhead whale too, then she’d know what I did: that the All wanted Solei to live. Not as a Sërenmare, but as a human. Solei was a child of the All, and the All never made worthless children.

“So do you know where we are?” Solei asked. “Do you recognize this place?”

“I have to cast a pull to answer.”

Solei gave a soft laugh, and when her dark eyes met mine, my heart gave a strange little lurch. She pressed her elbow against my forearm. “There, Rowan. Use your magic.”

Her touch riled my power, and I drew my arm away as soon as I had the right words. “In the Barents Sea. Off the coast of Norway.”

Solei brightened with relief, welcoming this news. “That explains all the oil and gas rigs, if we’re in the Barents. One of the biggest gas fields in the world is under this sea. It’s part of the Arctic.”

I smiled up at the ceiling, shaking my head. “The Arctic,” I sighed, marveling again at dividing the ocean like that.

Solei crossed her legs and rested her hands on her ankles. “Dad says the world’s largest remaining cod stocks live in the Barents, along with some big stocks of haddock and capelin. But he thinks they’ll be overfished soon, and all of the stocks here will crash or disappear forever, like what happened in Canada.”

“Canada,” I said, rolling the word in my mind. One of the nations of humans, but not the one Solei was from.

“My dad grew up there, in Newfoundland,” she said. “Right on the shore, in a little ramshackle house. He took me there once, so I could see where he lived. It’s really beautiful there, but hard, too. A hard life. He fished a lot as a kid.”

Solei met my gaze again, her tone wary now. “But then he saw what happened, how the factory ships came in and just wiped out all the fish, and the cod were all gone by the time he was thirteen. That was when my dad got really depressed, and really scared, and he didn’t know what to do, just that he wanted to make sure the fish came back. But that was decades ago, and the fish still haven’t come back.”

I felt cold and angry, listening to this story, and I stopped looking at Solei, but she continued anyway.

“My dad gets panic attacks now, when he goes into restaurants that serve endangered species, or fish that ought to be listed, but aren’t. He breaks into a sweat, and he says he feels like he’s having a heart attack, and the only thing that helps is to leave. Sometimes even being in a grocery store will affect him like that.”

Solei gritted her teeth for a moment, then gave a long sigh.

“If you were a human, Rowan—if you were ever on land—you’d see how hard it is. When you know things are bad, like these factory ships that are driving entire species extinct, and no one can stop them because the people who own those companies are making so much money, and then they buy off the politicians who are supposed to protect the earth for everyone, but instead of passing laws and enforcing them, they’re just lining their pockets.”

Solei straightened her shoulders, and a nebula pattern swirled through her skin. She glanced at my face, to make sure I was still listening, before she went on.

“Dad says the earth can provide enough for us all, to meet every human need, but not human greed. He says when he was little, he didn’t have much, but he could fish for his own dinner at night, and he was happy. Then the corporate ships came in, a few people far away got rich, and all the fish my dad loved disappeared.”

Solei bowed her head with a stony expression, and her words became sharper, more choked with emotion. “I’m sorry your people are dying. And I’m sorry there are people on earth who don’t give a shit about fish, people who don’t give a shit about anything but how much money they have. But those sailors you killed on those ships, Rowan—they were good people. And if we’re both going to die here, because you have to plant another bomb on a ship, then I want you to know that. The people you hate aren’t evil. And neither were the sailors you drowned.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I stood and paced the room, careful not to look at Solei again. Part of me wanted to dismiss everything she had said, and stop thinking about what I’d done. Part of me wished I could forget I’d ever been the jusbel of Llyr, and return to the state of denial I’d maintained for so long. Part of me wished I’d run away with Dahlia, so I could be free of all this, my guilt and my rage and my shame.

But another part of me just wanted to sit beside Solei again, and tell her I knew she was right. Confess that I’d pulled from the minds of the sailors I’d killed, and I’d known all along that those people weren’t evil. Their memories and emotions had shown me the truth, but I had still killed them, fueled by the vengeance I shared with my tribe. Sworn to take down the ship that had murdered my mother, even if the price I paid was my own life.

My feet never stopped moving. Back and forth, I walked the same path, too scared to face Solei, or myself.

So I thought about the ship I’d be boarding instead, and what I needed to do. Whether I could keep Hali safe. Whether I could destroy the blood chrysalis. Whether I’d make it back to the water again, or if the death I’d been waiting for would finally claim me this time.

An hour later, a door appeared in the wall and swung open. Four drakhir walked into the room, but no one attacked us. Solei rose, came to stand at my side, and then the guards ushered us into the corridor, where an entire contingent of drakhir stood waiting. I spotted Calder and two other officers at the end of the hall.

“Will I go with you then?” Solei asked as we walked toward the First Warden. “To the ship?”

“I don’t know. In Llyr, we went out in small teams. But Takara might want something different.”

Solei glanced at my chest, and I looked down to see my penance mark glowing soft blue. I barely felt the magic at all, but I knew who had fired the lines.

“Your brother?” Solei asked.

I nodded, as frightened of Aiden as I’d ever been in my life. But equally gripped by the terrible, powerful way that I loved him, and admired him, no matter what that love had done to my life. My voice held a strange mix of horror and joy, anticipation and dread, like the chaotic star pattern that displayed in my skin. “Aiden is here.”

57

The guards didn’t speak to us as we moved down the hall. I worried someone would step over and drag Solei away, but no one touched her. People rasped and clicked as we passed, expressing contempt.

“I’m really feeling the love,” Solei said. One of the guards snapped his throat, mottling his body with rage. Solei quirked a brow and said to me, in English, “If you need to threaten to stab me again, so we can jump through a portal of death, I’m game.”

“No portals,” I said. “After what happened in Llyr, the Rishki won’t take that risk.”

Solei sighed like I hadn’t understood she’d been joking. “Rowan.”

“Solei.”

“Make sure you don’t kill anyone, okay? Or end up dead on that ship? I really don’t want your girlfriend ramming a knife in my throat.”

“So noted.”

We started up a long set of stairs, Solei ahead of me. Her little feet slapped the stone steps with a light scuffing sound, and her ankles were all laced with cuts, probably from when Zale’s stunner had dropped her to the floor. If her hands hadn’t been bound with varkina, she’d have healed herself by now.

We reached the top of the stairs before Solei asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how certain do you feel that we’ll probably die? Because I’d call it a twelve right now.”

“I think it’s at least a thirteen.”

Solei gave me a tiny smile, and then she faced forward again. Her long messy hair slipped against her shoulders and back.

“Do you even have a plan, Rowan? Or is the entire tribe of the Rishki about to be wiped out by a curse?”

“I have… something like a plan.”

“Does it require spilling your own blood?”

“Mm—” I hesitated, unsure what to say. “If I don’t burn alive, I’ll let you know.”

We took a turn in the hall, and Solei eyed me intently without slowing down. “Burn alive?”

“I’m not a very strong mage. I’ve never passed the tests to earn my symbols of power. Those work as a conjuring focus, to help me attempt more difficult spells.”

“What symbols of power? Those tattoos people wear?”

I nodded. “And their jewelry.”

“So you’re going to get on that ship and try some really difficult magic, even though you don’t have the right tools?”

“Yes.”

“And the magic could backfire, and burn you alive?”

“Right.”

Solei gave me a disgruntled look. “You might be the most unhinged person I’ve ever met in my life. And I’ve seen your brother and your father, so that’s really saying something.”

“I’m not completely unhinged. We didn’t roast in that portal—”

Solei shook her head. “You said you needed my fear for that spell. Not tattoos.”

“Yeah, that too. Magic is an emotional force. The stronger the feelings behind the intention, the greater the power.”

We entered a ceremonial meeting room, about the same size as the Chamber of the Qarin at Llyr’s headquarters. The high walls in this room were decorated with artistic panels of mica and onyx, outlined with opal, swirling and twining in graceful waves. The center of the floor held a wide ingress, shaped like two joined ovals, the water shining silver and blue.

Takara stood near the pool, along with all the other drakhir I’d seen her with earlier—including her four daughters.

The only face in this group that mattered to me was Dahlia’s, and her gaze was the only one I searched for. As Dahlia’s eyes met mine, she wore a fierce, defiant expression, and I wondered if she regretted her offer to help me escape. By the hard set of her mouth, and the coldness stamped in her features, she seemed like she’d rather sink a spear through my chest than run away with me.

Should I have told Dahlia I loved her too? Would she have changed her mind about helping Solei if I’d promised I felt the same way?

But I was too confused to know how I felt about Dahlia. We weren’t sitting inside Crystal Cave, singing songs, and we never would be again. The Rowan who could’ve fallen in love with Dahlia and married her felt as far away from me now as Rowan the jusbel.

And yet here I was, about to board another ship, or someone was going to cut Solei’s throat. Maybe Dahlia, maybe one of these other drakhir. The level of desperation and rage in the air rippled with its own kind of heat, as menacing as the star-guides I’d once held in my hands.

I turned away from Dahlia, too hurt by the way she looked at me now to keep facing her. An assortment of Rishki Lokren occupied part of the room, about two dozen magi clustered around a white marble pedestal. The blood chrysalis they’d made rested atop the burnished stone, radiant with the promise of violence.

Some distance away from the Lokren and their feather star, apart from all the Rishki drakhir and Takara, contained in a perfect, impenetrable solitude of his own design—

Stood my brother.

Aiden didn’t turn his head toward me, but I knew he felt my presence, the same way the magic in my skin rushed like a warm, surging current, reacting to being so close to him.

I could hear his name in the frantic beats of my heart, which thumped harder and faster the longer I stared at him. My skin felt like glass, fragile and splintered with cracks, like my entire body was bleeding and raw. Love, I thought. That was how it felt to love Aiden.

When he finally met my gaze, his eyes were vivid and dark, and facing him jolted me like a shock. As a fenhaline and a traitor to Llyr, officer protocol meant Aiden couldn’t address me. A First Warden would never greet an outcast in public, especially not one who was another tribe’s prisoner.

But Aiden gave me a slow, crooked smile, taking in my appearance with careful scrutiny. When he spoke, his voice was all I could hear, a sound that powered through me like an earthquake in my blood. “Hello, Rowan.”

My breath felt shallow and weak, my heart raced, but my voice sounded firm and clear. “Hello, Aiden.”

Takara strode toward me, incensed by what Aiden had done, and her voice lashed out like one of her spells. “The First Warden of Llyr has forgotten his place in my hall. He has no right to address one of my prisoners. Or to speak to me in this hall with disrespect and contempt.”

Disrespect and contempt? I didn’t know what Aiden had said to Takara to make her so angry, but her fingertips flashed with a shimmering heat. As she came to a halt at my side, I anticipated finding myself on the receiving end of her rage.

Aiden gave a low bow to the Rishki Qarin. “I warn you to protect you, Takara. And your daughter. It was never Rowan’s physical strength that allowed him to board ships.”

So they’d been discussing this mission, and Aiden had just made it clear he felt the same way I did: that Hali shouldn’t be sent to board the ship with me.

Takara’s wrath—for the moment—remained focused on Aiden. “If a worthless boy can board a vessel and sink it, anyone can replace him. Any speaker capable of human speech.”

Aiden waved a hand toward Solei, who’d been stopped by the guards near the door, though my brother never took his gaze from Takara. “Hali Onan might speak to the ikurro, here in this fortress. But the ikurro possesses the body of a Sërenmare now—and only human minds will be found on a ship. The Rishki Lokren are making a mistake, sending your daughter to plant the blood chrysalis. She lacks the magic she needs to survive as jusbel, however strong she may be.”

Takara gestured toward me, and the faint spark of a shocker spell danced over her knuckles. Her tone dropped low as a hiss, her words all aimed at my brother. “My daughter lacks the magic of this traitor? He is garbage, he is nothing. And you had us cheer for him, Aiden Zroba. You brought us to Llyr to cheer for this fool.”

Aiden kept his voice mild, and his hands remained loose at his sides. “No one forced the Rishki to celebrate our work sinking ships.”

Our work. He was still including me in this conversation, even though protocol demanded he shouldn’t.

A fact that was not lost on Takara. She stalked toward Aiden, the sound of her words as charged with threat as her hands. “You think I cannot see for myself what Tirone Zroba has planned? You think I don’t understand why your War Leader has sent his First Warden to see me, rather than come here himself? Llyr grows in power while every other tribe weakens. Llyr sends out more drakhir with each season, taking more borderlands from its dying neighbors. All the while claiming that only Llyr can rid the earth of the humans. Only Llyr has the power and might to save the ocean. Are the tribes of the sea all meant to grovel before your Qarin? Subject to the tyranny of those who use magic to kill? I assure you, Aiden Zroba. Tirone’s arrogance toward my people has not gone unnoticed.”

Aiden remained as calm and severe as if he were addressing our father in public. “Llyr has no enemy but the human race. Look again, Takara, if you believe otherwise.”

The Qarin turned to me then, and narrowed her eyes. “The Rishki will have their own jusbel. Tirone Zroba’s traitor is my prisoner now, and the Rishki will prove to the tribes that we are as blessed by the All to take human life as the people of Llyr.”

She snapped her fingers, and the oath-taker for the Rishki stepped toward me, an aged man with all the marks of the Lokren. The moment he placed his hands on my face, the councilman’s magic coursed through me like sharp, icy claws, scraping against the bones in my chest, searching for false intention and lies.

I didn’t know whether I’d pass this test. My mind was still whirling with what Takara had said about Llyr threatening other tribes with tyranny. Did the Rishki really believe such a thing? That Aiden and I had used our magic to kill in order to attack other tribes? Or had the Rishki simply become so desperate to slaughter humans themselves that they would believe any lie that helped them to kill?

“Repeat after me,” the magi said gruffly. “I swear to board the ship of my enemy, and plant the blood chrysalis in the hull.”

I recited the words, my tone even and calm. He hadn’t said the word humans. As long as he didn’t name a specific enemy, I might get through this.

“I swear on my life to protect Hali Onan, who will board the vessel with me.”

Yes, I could promise that too.

“I swear to take the lives of my enemy, to burn their bodies in the flames of their warship, and destroy those who threaten all life in the sea.”

The lives of my enemy—but not the lives of humans specifically.

The true enemy of the ocean didn’t wear a human body. The body I wanted to burn took a different form now.

As I finished reciting the words, the oath-taker’s magic never found a lie in my heart. My true intention slipped from the grasp of his power, as supple as water.

As the magi released me, Calder stepped beside him, reached for my wrists, and removed the varkina binding my hands. He didn’t give me a spear or a belt, weapons I’d always carried with me as the jusbel of Llyr. One of the Rishki Lokren placed the feather star in a black bag, handed the sack to me, and I placed the strap around my shoulder, grateful I didn’t have to touch the blood chrysalis yet.

Takara kissed both Hali’s cheeks, which was the Qarin’s sign of blessing, not a farewell. Hali moved to the edge of the pool and dove into the ingress with a near-silent splash.

Calder pushed my arm, shoving me toward the water, but I didn’t need anyone to tell me to follow.

I cast a final look at Aiden, and then Solei, who I was leaving behind, surrounded by people who wanted her dead. My mind reached for something to say to her, and I settled on the words of a prayer. The same formal lines I’d spoken before we’d been kinned. “My life is your life. Antahna.” Grace to the All.

Then I jumped in the water, switching my legs to a tail, and caught up with Hali. We swam away from the fortress, up through the black ocean, all the way to the starlit surface.

We were flanked by a war party, the other Rishki drakhir chosen to accompany us on this mission. Those soldiers all kept their distance though, so that Hali and I swam alone.

My penance mark had stopped glowing, and I felt no sign in the water from Aiden. Maybe he’d been required to stay at the fort with Takara, but I wished he’d come with us anyway.

Or maybe he was there, swimming nearby, and he just didn’t want me to know. Anything was possible with Aiden.

I wondered if Ceto knew I’d left for a mission, and if she’d tried to follow me at all. I couldn’t feel her presence, not even the faintest trace of her magic, but as I thought of the squeaky sound of her voice, proclaiming herself a mighty sea dragon, I smiled.

The last time I’d swum toward a ship, Ceto and Xalea had both ridden along in a pouch in my belt. And I’d been so annoyed with them, had refused to do as they’d asked, had wished they would leave me alone.

Now I missed them, and wished they were here, with Ceto singing La la la, Rowan, and Xalea waiting to catch me. This time, I had no one to help me. No one who could piece me together again if I failed.

Hali ignored me, and I made no attempt to speak to her. Less than an hour passed before I knew which ship we’d be boarding. A type of military vessel Aiden and I had once mislabeled an aircraft carrier, given its enormous size and the fact that the huge deck of this ship carried so many helicopters.

An amphibious assault ship. That was the name humans used. This one traveled in a fleet tonight, with destroyers and cruisers.

As Hali and I closed in on the ship, cutting through the turbulence of the wake to arrive at port side, I expected my vision to split, overcome with my panic. But I remained inside myself, bound with a cold and heavy resolve.

“We climb those!” I shouted, pointing to the steel structures Hali and I would use as ladders. There were two of them lining one of the ship’s massive doors, part of the exterior structure for loading and unloading equipment. Hali and I would each have to jump at least fifteen feet from the water to grab hold of the last rungs. “You take the right!”

She clacked with a tempo that meant she understood, and we finished our approach.

I leapt first, then Hali, and even through the shock of leaving the sea, and the torturous pain that seized hold of me, I heard Hali scream. She didn’t rasp with the call of the bentii. Hali’s shriek was much louder than that.

I thought she would fall, lose her grip on the metal and drop back into the water.

But Hali held on. She stopped screaming, but her body flashed the way mine did, bioluminescent coloring that exposed her to human sight.

So I scrambled up the side of the ship, aiming for the thick piping that I could cross over to reach her. I moved faster than I ever had outside of the sea, terrified by the level of sound she had made.

Someone on deck must’ve heard her, because sailors began to call out to each other, alerting everyone else that there was some kind of trouble.

I put up an air screen as I rushed closer to Hali, hoping to throw a screen over her once I’d grasped her hand.

But a sailor spotted her first, and yelled, “I see a bomber! Shoot him down! Open fire!”

I clutched Hali’s wrist the moment the air filled with gunfire. Bullets sliced past our bodies, and one ripped through Hali’s arm. She lost her grip on the steel, and she would’ve crashed into the water, but I held her, and we disappeared in my air screen together.

58

With my palm pressed to her skin, I sent healing spells into Hali and blocked her pain. Cancelled the agony from her lateral lines, her trembling gills, the hot needles she felt in her skull.

In the same instant I rendered her nerves unable to register pain, my magic pulled from her memories, and I realized she’d practiced boarding a ship in the safety of an air grotto—in the sea—and the effect of leaving the ocean had caused her to scream.

The healing spells took some of my energy, though I didn’t repair her wound because I couldn’t spare the magic. A bullet to the arm wasn’t fatal, and Hali could climb with one hand.

With a loud gasp from the effort, I lifted Hali’s body toward me, high enough she could grab hold of the metal rungs on her own.

Then I turned and moved up the hull again, watching to make sure Hali stayed close behind, hidden in an air screen of her own.

I felt scared and close to panic, but at least my body didn’t hurt as much during this boarding. The physical torture I’d always suffered in air felt so diminished right now. Maybe because I’d been restored by the All, and since I’d boarded ships in a much weaker state, I’d grown used to feeling much worse. Or maybe my bond with Solei gave me this new stamina, perhaps some element of her human body had linked with my power.

Whatever the reason, I could function well enough not to bother blocking my pain. Magic kept my gill arches from collapsing, and my body certainly felt miserable, but I could still think and move freely, despite the pain.

As I reached the open door of the ship, sailors stood at the ledge, aiming guns into the waves below. Hali and I had to wait for them to move, so we could scramble past without being seen or heard.

The wasted time required more magic, depleting our reserves while we leapt over cold metal piping and bars, anxious to find a safe route inside.

Before I located an unoccupied area to enter the vessel, the sailors closed the door, and Hali and I were left with no other choice than to climb all the way to the deck.

She followed me without speaking, and by the time we reached the top of the ship, facing dozens of helicopters and sailors dashing around, searching for bombers planting explosives, my hands shook with fatigue.

“Can you cast?” I asked Hali. “Find the route to the hull?”

Because that was what I was supposed to be doing here: teaching Hali how to destroy a ship on her own.

I adjusted the bag with the feather star, sliding the strap into a better position on my shoulder, as Hali pulled from the sailors around us, searching for the right door to enter. We needed to plant the blood chrysalis on the lowest part of the ship, as close to the keel as possible.

Hali tipped her head, indicating she knew where to go, and I said, “Lead the way.”

Maybe I should’ve trusted her to navigate the ship on her own, but I didn’t. Hali pulled from the sailors while I found my own directions, drawn with a cast of my own. I knew when we took the wrong turns, and I didn’t correct the mistakes.

Instead, I let us waste time going the wrong way. Only when we arrived in a cramped room full of machines, and Hali gestured for me to hand her the blood chrysalis, did I say, “This isn’t the right place. We’re not low enough. The hull won’t burn if we leave it here.”

Hali leaned over, panting and clutching her knees. “Of course this is the right place. We can’t go any lower than this room.”

Which meant her magic wasn’t up to the task of pulling for directions in air, interpreting human words outside the sea. Hali was strong, but she didn’t have my advantage: my talent as a speaker was my primary skill. Hali was like Aiden, strongest with craftsmithing spells.

I didn’t argue with her, just pointed toward a door we hadn’t yet taken, and started away, leaving Hali to follow.

Minutes passed, and I felt myself weaken with Hali, grateful I hadn’t needed to expend any magic blocking my own pain as well as hers.

We descended another level, into an enormous room full of boats, and then into another small metal room below that.

Once we reached the correct place to leave the blood chrysalis, I faced Hali and asked, “Did you see how we got here? Could you do it again on your own?”

She knelt, gasping and too winded to answer, with a hand pressed over her eyes, fighting against the torture she still suffered in spite of the blocks I’d put up.

But the agony of being away from the sea was only part of the problem. Much worse for Hali were the thoughts and emotions she’d swept into her pull. She’d cast an energy net over her enemies—the first time she’d ever used her magic with the intention to kill. And now she knew what I did, the same truth I’d learned myself, the moment I placed my first star-guide inside an engine room. Hali could feel the sailors, not as evil, worthless creatures, but imbued with life by the All, like any other living body on earth. Being jusbel couldn’t make her immune to that. There was no immunity against the power of magic, or the truth.

Tears spilled down her face, and I remembered I’d felt that way too, my first boarding. I’d knelt on the floor and I’d wept, and then I’d reached for my fury. My rage stopped my tears, and I’d opened the bag with the star-guides and done what I’d known I shouldn’t.

I knelt beside Hali, wondering if she would find the rage she needed for this. If she would push through her despair, and use her magic to kill.

But I knew she could discover something else waiting for her, on the other side of despair. The same things Xalea had known were inside of me: kindness, and wisdom. Instead of wrath, Hali could reach for compassion, and remember her oath to the All.

The Lokren who’d made the blood chrysalis didn’t have to be on this ship. The same way Aiden didn’t have to accompany me on a boarding. Hali planted the bomb. Hali would pay the price to the All for breaking her vows. The same way I had.

She dropped her hand from her eyes, but didn’t lift her face to me, didn’t reach for the bag with the blood chrysalis. With her shoulders hunched, her body trembling, her expression twisted into a grimace, I’d never seen anyone as broken and crushed as Hali looked now. Trying to follow her orders, forsake her oath not to kill, and plant the weapon that would ruin this ship.

Maybe my healing spells were failing now too, the blocks I’d placed on her nerves, and the full impact of Hali’s pain had returned. I placed a hand on her shoulder to check.

My blocks were still there. But her misery felt more acute than when I’d kept her from falling, and as I waited for her to make a decision, I closed my eyes, placed my fingers over the bloody rip in her arm, and healed the bullet wound. The hunk of misshapen lead had lodged into bone, along with the splintered copper casing, and I drew the metals toward me, into my hand. I opened my eyes again as her skin knit together, erasing all sign of the injury.

The effort didn’t tire me too much, made me feel lightheaded a moment, but the sensation passed. Hali leaned her brow on my shoulder, and I put my arms around her. Tears no longer slipped down her cheeks, and I found myself smiling. I felt like I held Solei right now, instead of Hali, as clearly as my energy net felt the bodies of the sailors around us, the men and women overseeing the equipment and operation of this ship.

Everything felt the same to me, all this life, drawn up in my magic, and I knew what Hali would say before she spoke.

“I don’t want to die.”

Like Solei in the song cave, when I’d picked her up off the floor, trapped in a body that was half-human, half-Sërenmare, deformed and in pain, but still desperate to live.

I tightened my embrace, hugged her as fiercely as I’d ever held Aiden, before I released her. When Hali met my gaze, I said, “Then you can help me destroy it,” and I knew she understood I meant the feather star, not the ship.

As I reached into the bag, and removed the blood chrysalis to place on the floor, the delicate arms waved like they were caught in a breeze. The weapon pulsed in my skin like a heart, coursing with summoning power. Energy as great as the portal the Lokren had opened in Llyr, as mighty as the curse in the walls when Solei transformed.

“We’re not strong enough,” Hali whispered.

I gazed down on the frilled scarlet arms of the chrysalis, undulating with a life of their own. “Yes we are.”

I’d never closed my eyes to cast an energy net, but I bowed my head and shut my eyes now, the same way I concentrated to heal. I wasn’t sending though. I pulled—pulled from the sailors around me, drew in their thoughts and emotions—then widened my net, and cast my energy through the ship. Into open doorways and rooms, power that took so much effort, I felt heat in the air, gyres that flared from my body, and then returned in a rush.

Images, memories, music and chaos. Worries and griefs, anticipations and joys. Flashes of smiling children, cherished family, friends and lovers, landscapes and secrets, every darkness and hope in those sailors caught in my net, pulled to me like a single point in the universe drawing in space and light.

Hali covered my hands with her own, and added her magic to mine. She cast along with me, and our power expanded, everything drawn into my body in a tumultuous surge, conjured in a force through my palms.

I held the blood chrysalis like a wound I needed to heal, and as I channeled my magic into the weapon—all the thoughts and emotions flooding into my net—my hands started to burn.

“That’s not how it works!” Hali cried, and she grabbed my forearms, trying to tear my hands off the feather star.

But I knew this would work. I just didn’t know what would happen to me, if the force of transforming the intent of the weapon would kill me—and I’d have said that to Hali, but the spell was too much. I could no longer speak, could no longer move. Like when the Lokren summoned the portal, and everyone in the circle had been locked in place. I felt like I’d been shackled to the floor, bound in magic.

The emotion pulled from the sailors was its own kind of power, and as I sent the energy into the feather star, I felt the arms crack and split open, releasing the blood the weapon contained. Except what burst from those delicate arms was no longer blood at all now, but a violently hot, toxic plasma.

I opened my eyes as the blood chrysalis ripped inside out, and the power hit me like acid, burning straight into my skin.

Light erupted from the star with a red, blinding brilliance, shattering through my energy net like a blast. People screamed—all the sailors caught in my magic—and Hali yelled my name, shouting for me to let go.

But I didn’t drop the blood chrysalis, even though I smelled my hands roasting, muscle and skin sizzling away in the force of the magic I’d called. I stood with the weapon still gripped in my hands.

I tried to give voice to my spell, but the words never came. I felt like my throat had been shredded.

“Rowan!” Hali screamed. “Let go! Let go or you’ll die!”

I had to find the words though, I had to speak them aloud.

When I shut my eyes, I saw Llyr. My home in the canyon. Father and Brielle, my mother, and Aiden.

Aiden. My hero, my brother, the person I’d always wanted to be.

How I reached for him, longed for him, wished I could stand at his side as his equal—

I took a deep breath, and my mind went silent and still. No more noise, no more pain. I felt calm.

When I opened my eyes, and gazed down at the power I held in my hands, the scarlet light in the air changed to the deep green of revenance energy, as the weapon transformed into the tool that met my intention. My desire, made real—changing the magic to follow my wishes, my purpose, my needs—

Kill my enemy.

Burn them all.

My hands shifted apart, and the shattered blood chrysalis fell to the floor, disappeared into the hull like a stone dropped in water.

This time when I opened my mouth, I spoke the ancient words to the spell, the same chant I’d used to change the portal.

Death is revenance. Death is life. I am breathing, I am dead, I am honor in passing, one of many.”

White fire tore through the ship. Magic exploded through the world like a star.

I collapsed, and Hali caught me, screaming, “What did you do?

Power ripped through the air like thunder, hot as lightning, but unable to destroy living tissue. I’d sent the magic after my true enemy: the pollution killing life in the ocean, acidifying the saltwater. The flames I’d unleashed burned that poison—the carbon dioxide everywhere on this ship.

Hali dragged me across the floor. “I’m not a healer—I can’t heal you. Rowan, get up. Get up now, or you’ll die here, I can’t save you—”

The white fire burned out, and my hands were black husks. No matter how much I wanted to rise now, I couldn’t. I had nothing left.

Maybe I slept. Maybe I dreamed of Xalea, or my mother, or Solei. I was sure I heard Solei tell me to start swimming. I heard her shouting at me, Move your ass, Rowan.

I laughed, and woke again, and this time I saw Aiden. He lifted me in his arms and carried me to a door. An enormous open exit for launching boats in the sea.

Hali stood in the wind, and Aiden told her to jump. She stepped away, and disappeared in the night.

Aiden leapt after her, and I felt us falling. Then nothing. I landed in dreams. Monsters hid in the shadows. White fire burned through my mind. The earth split like an egg, and the stars came rushing in.

59

I stood in a room without glyphs in the walls, in a grotto that could have been anywhere. A ghost net lay on the floor, full of dead bluefin, the last in the sea. The final bodies of the mightiest tuna to swim the great ocean, rotting in the mesh at my feet.

A small boy entered the room, and came to stand beside me. Rather than gaze down at the fish, he leaned against me, looking up at my face. He had one indigo eye, and his arms ended at his wrists. Red lacerations and sores covered his back. When he touched me, I felt the cancer inside him, galaxies of tumors growing thick in his body, toxic waste like purple shadows in his blood.

The boy bowed his head to cry, and I knelt to lift him into my arms, but my hands had turned black. My fingers felt as hard as the rusted hull of a ship, burned beyond my ability to use. So I hugged him instead, and he wept for a time while I held him.

I believed in you, he said, words my magic found in his mind. But you didn’t save us.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I did want to save you.”

The air filled with bone magic, sharp and electric, and then the warm brush of Aiden’s power rippled over my skin.

The ghost net held star-guides now. Every star-guide I’d ever placed on a warship. The bodies of the bluefin were gone.

Where are the fish? the boy asked.

I felt them on the other side of the wall, in the sea. Shooting past the grotto in their parabolas, hunting together, alive in their teams.

“Swimming,” I said. “They’re still swimming.”

• • •

The dream ended when Solei nudged me awake, ribbing my side with her elbow. “I know you can hear me, Sleeping Beauty.”

At the sound of her voice, I cracked open an eye, saw her grinning at me, and sent her a smile. My voice sounded slurred, and my body felt as heavy and ragged as my words. “Hey, Solei.”

She patted my cheek. “Hey, fish-boy.”

I blinked several times, taking in the fact that her hands weren’t bound in varkina. Not only were we both still alive, but Solei was unharmed and smiling at me. My breath hitched with relief, and a strong sense of gratitude that she was okay. “It’s good to see you.”

“Good to see you too, Rowan.”

She helped me sit up in bed, and as I shifted my feet to the floor, I saw we were in a small room. Beautiful paintings of whales decorated the walls, traveling through silvery currents. The colors glimmered in the soft amber light. A slender stone door featured several Rishki glyphs.

“Are we back at the fortress?” I asked.

Solei’s skin lightened, her eyes bright with amusement. “You’re back at the fortress. I never left.”

I nodded, and my gaze fell to my lap. My hands looked the same way they had in my dream: completely burned black. Only now the discoloration included my forearms, reaching up to my elbows.

My skin wasn’t hard though, my muscles were fine, and I could move my hands without pain. As I made two fists, and then opened my fingers again, I asked, “Did you heal me?”

Solei tipped her head, studying the scar tissue with me. “Takara sent her chief healer out with the team, when you left with Hali. A man named Dover. He was there when Aiden jumped off the ship with you. Hali said Dover kept you alive. By the time I saw you again, you looked like this.”

My heart thumped a bit harder, hearing my brother’s name. “Where’s Aiden?”

“He’s waiting for you to wake up. Everyone’s in a meeting right now, that’s why they brought me in here. Getting ready for whatever comes next. You’ve been back for a day, and Takara is still furious that ship didn’t sink. She told Aiden she wanted double the tribute payment, since you didn’t follow your promise to kill. So they’re having a big fight over that.”

I sighed and flexed my fingers again, dismayed by the news of the argument, and still quietly amazed that I hadn’t lost both my hands. My skin glowed pale jade, and when I changed my display to match Solei’s coloring, my scarred hands and forearms remained black.

“My chromatophores burned away,” I said softly. Curious about the extent of the damage, I ran my fingertips over the blanket, trying to taste and scent the material. When my senses didn’t react, I knew my chemoreceptors were gone, too.

“Do you have nerve damage?” Solei asked. She touched my blackened skin for a moment, tracing her fingertips from my wrist over the length of my hand. “Can you feel that?” I turned my palm up and squeezed her fingers a moment, then let go.

“Not as well, but I can still feel.” I placed my hands flat on the blanket, grateful I could still make out the plush texture, even if some of my sensitivity was gone. Losing the chemoreceptors in my fingertips was a much greater hardship. I had other chemical-detection cells in my body, embedded in the skin along my lateral lines, but the ones in my hands had been far more vital. I’d no longer be able to sense emotion in my hands, which was important when I healed, so I’d have to use more magic to compensate. Instead of sensing tiny changes in my environment, I’d only be aware of big chemical shifts. A loss of awareness that sometimes made the difference between life and death.

“What about your magic?” Solei asked. “Can you still conjure spells?”

I nodded, surprised by the question. “Even if I’d lost both my hands, I’d have my magic. My palms help as a focusing tool, but they’re not essential.” Reading glyphs, healing, sensing spell work—none of that could be taken away from me by these burns.

Solei placed her hand near my elbow, and slid her fingers over the area where my scarred skin met the undamaged tissue. Her touch felt so intimate that I shivered, but Solei didn’t pull back. She trailed her hand to my wrist, assessing the rough and bumpy surface of my black skin, before she looked up. “All the Rishki Lokren were in an uproar when Dover carried you back. They said messing with that feather star should’ve killed you.”

“What did Aiden say?”

“That you kept your promise to Takara, boarded the ship and planted their blood chrysalis with Hali. He’s refusing to pay double the original price.”

I glanced over the whale paintings, the closed door. “Then why are we still here?”

Solei took a deep breath, pressing her lips together with a thoughtful expression. “Because Hali is giving her official testimony today, and she disagrees with her mother. She told the Lokren you followed your oath, showed her how to be the jusbel, and that the Rishki shouldn’t bomb anymore ships. Hali wants you released, and Dahlia says the same thing. They want their mother to let us go.”

“Dahlia told the Qarin to let us go?” Had Dahlia decided to believe me? Had Hali convinced her I’d been telling the truth?

Solei grinned. “I think your girlfriend might be in love with you, Rowan. Maybe you should marry her and tell your new mother-in-law not to sell us to Aiden.”

I laughed, and Solei winked at me before she burst into giggles. The sound riled my magic as if we were touching. Or maybe her wink had done that. I had the strangest feelings right now. Worried and excited and glad to be with her… and wishing she would touch me again, even though her skin made me shiver like I was afraid of her.

I fell quiet and asked, “Why did you call me Sleeping Beauty? Is that a human name?”

Solei’s smile vanished, and her cheeks flashed pink in a blush. “It’s from a fairy tale. Just a story people tell little kids.”

“Oh.” Solei’s blush deepened, and when she glanced away, a sudden, uncomfortable silence descended between us. I could guess she’d been making fun of me, and since I didn’t want her to feel bad, I tried to make things easy again. “The man in the story sleeps all the time, and that makes him beautiful?” Solei rewarded me with more laughter, and I grinned, relieved I’d said the right thing. “So you’re mocking me because I’m always falling asleep, but I never turn beautiful?”

Solei shook her head with a strange noise, high and alarmed like a dolphin squeak, and she rubbed a hand on her face. “Rowan, you just—” Solei sighed, smoothed back her hair, knuckled her brow for a minute, and then looked at me askance. “If Aiden takes us back to Llyr, what will happen? Can he force you to kill me?”

I straightened my posture, and squared my shoulders. “Only if he promises to feed me. I’m so hungry right now I’d trade you for a bowlful of vasa.”

Solei muttered, “Trade me for vasa. You know what, Rowan? Go swim with the kraken.”

I tilted my head to smile at her again. “Is that what happens to Sleeping Beauty? A kraken eats him?”

Solei turned sunshine orange, with blue and red hair. “Nice, Rowan. Just ruin the ending.”

I clicked my throat with amusement. “Well, that guy wasn’t much of a mage, if he couldn’t out-swim a kraken.” Our knees were so close together, almost touching, and the sight made my heartbeat speed up, glancing down at her legs. The last time I’d seen Solei, her ankles had been covered with little scratches, but those marks were gone. “Your ankles look really good.” I’d meant to compliment Solei on her healing work erasing those cuts, but the words came out all wrong.

Solei covered her eyes with her hand, trying to stifle her giggles. “You are so weird.”

Which was better than being called a mind-reading creep, right? That felt like progress.

Solei calmed and dropped her hand. “On a scale of one to ten, how likely is it that we’ll end up going with Aiden?”

“About a thirty,” I said.

Solei bowed her head with a sigh. “Awesome.”

We sat without speaking a while. I thought about Aiden, and what I would say to him when I saw him again. Then I thought about Solei’s story, and what kind of man she would really label a beauty, and I wondered if she had a sweetheart. Some human boy who might’ve sat beside her like this, with their knees almost touching.

“Rowan?”

“Yeah?”

“What did you do to their weapon? Why did it burn you so bad?”

“I just did what you said I should’ve done all along. Instead of lashing out in a rage, I tried to find a way to help.”

“Did it work?”

I raised my brows with a shrug. “I don’t know. I didn’t kill anyone, I know that. Maybe I helped a little.” I held up two fingers, with the tips almost pinched together, indicating a tiny amount. “That much, perhaps.” I rested my hand on my knee again.

“Would you do it again?” Solei asked.

“Of course.”

“What about being kinned to me—would you do that again?”

I sent her a smile. “What are my choices here? Death by kraken, or sealed in magic and blood to you forever?” I gazed up at the ceiling, still grinning. “Being eaten alive never sounded so good.”

Solei changed to a soft turquoise, sparkling with violet stars, her long hair gleaming with shades of amethyst. “I like you, Rowan.”

I froze, anxious she meant the words as a joke, that what she’d meant to say was that she’d rather be anywhere else than trapped here with me.

But when I cautioned a look at her face, she still wore a smile. My nerves jittered, magic rushed through my skin, and my throat felt tight and choked as I said, “I like you too.”

My temperature spiked as if I had a mild fever, sick with stress. Maybe I started sweating, or even produced more slime on my skin, I was too nervous to tell.

Surely Solei would make fun of me, if she noticed I’d become slimier. But she didn’t say anything about my body, so maybe I was okay.

She kept her voice gentle. “Do you love that girl—Dahlia? Would she help us escape?”

I took a deep breath, tipped my chin, and considered. “Aiden is pretty hard to escape. Especially now that he doesn’t trust me anymore.”

“Is it possible though? Do we still have a chance I’ll get home?”

Part of me wanted to be optimistic and brave. Someone courageous would say, We’ll think of something, don’t worry. I’ll get you home, Solei. I promise.

But a much bigger part of me felt hopeless right now, and scoffed at the idea that I’d ever send Solei home.

Aiden wouldn’t take any risks with me, not the way Takara had. As soon as I was his prisoner, my hands would be bound in varkina, I’d be under heavy guard, and Aiden would never underestimate me as some weak, pathetic mage. I’d proven I was desperate enough to try anything to keep Solei alive—betray my own family, tamper with power strong enough to kill me, even lie under oath.

He’d boarded the ship to save me just so he could prove he was right: that the All wanted the humans to die, and that I wouldn’t be revenanced when Solei was killed.

Aiden hadn’t paid attention to the runes I’d left behind in my room, explaining that murdering Solei would unleash a curse upon Llyr. He’d hunted me anyway, to drag me back home, and nothing I had to say now would make any difference.

So rather than answer Solei’s question, I asked one of my own. “Do you know why Aiden told Hali not to board the ship with me?”

Solei furrowed her brows. “Because she wouldn’t survive being a jusbel. Her magic wouldn’t keep her alive.”

I gazed down at my hands, and didn’t respond.

Solei’s voice sharpened. “Hali said you saved her life, Rowan. She told the Lokren Aiden had been telling the truth. That she only made it onto the ship with your help, and she’d have never been able to plant the feather star without you.”

I nodded. “Aiden did tell the truth. Hali isn’t a healer, and her primary gift isn’t speaking. She couldn’t pull for the directions she needed, even after I blocked most of her pain. Hali would’ve died on that mission, but Aiden wasn’t worried she’d die.”

“Why not?”

When I didn’t pick up my head, Solei gripped my chin and lifted my face. Her thumb grazed one of the scars on my jaw as she studied me, and my magic swirled beneath my skin with her touch.

When the answer dawned on her, her eyes flickered and she let me go. Then she glanced across the room for a moment, lost in thought.

“Because he knew you were there,” she said softly. “Which means…” Solei rubbed her temples, then drew up her legs and propped her chin on one knee, staring at one of the paintings. “Aiden just didn’t want her to board the ship. Period. It wasn’t her death he was worried about. It was the fact that she’d live. That you’d make sure she survived.”

I gave Solei a subtle smile to let her know she was right.

“Why though?” she asked, turning to look at me. “What happens to you when you board?”

“I have to pull for directions, and I have to move fast. If I’m not back in the water before my reserves have been emptied, I’ll die.”

Solei frowned, pondering this. “Pulling is mind-reading, when you draw someone’s memories and their thoughts.”

I nodded. “And their emotions.”

Solei’s voice fell to a murmur. “But that means… you know who these people are… before you destroy them. You know what’s important to them, what they’re thinking about, how they’re feeling… and then you kill them.”

In a surge of horror, as the truth of what I had done hit her, Solei dropped her feet to the floor, left the bed, and moved away from me. To the far side of the room.

I didn’t blame her at all.

60

“Rowan, why—” Solei bit off her words with a shudder, and wouldn’t look at me now. She crossed her arms and faced the wall. “Why didn’t your magic have rules? Why didn’t your Sea God destroy you, if you were using your magic to kill?”

I kept my voice quiet. “I did have rules when I killed. No magic is free. Every spell comes with a price.”

Solei scowled at the floor. “Then why did you say the All would kill Hali if she planted the feather star, when that never happened to you?”

“The All did destroy me, by draining my power away. Hali would’ve lost her life too, much faster than me, because magic is intention and meaning—”

Solei glanced up, so distraught she cut me off. “But the intention was the same: you both wanted to kill.”

I shook my head. “No, I wanted to protect my people and life in the sea. Not to kill. Vengeance was a tool I used, but love… Aiden’s love, and my father’s… I wanted to love and be loved. Those were my goals.”

Solei gripped her arms in distress, trying to take in that news. “So the All kept forgiving you because you wanted to be a good soldier? You didn’t die right away because bombing ships was just a means to an end? To make your family proud?”

“I was never forgiven, Solei. Hali wouldn’t have been forgiven either. To conjure magic is to maintain the balance. There is no redemption. Sërenmare are kinned to the sea, and our vows, in exchange for our power. When I broke my oath not to kill, Xalea paid part of the balance for what I have done. The rest has fallen to me, where the cost should’ve stayed all along.”

At the mention of the cost of my magic, I thought of my nightmare again. The creature in the cave that kept calling my name, waiting to rip me apart. I didn’t know if that monster was real, or simply a product of my mind’s own awareness of the evil things I had done. But my dream reminded me that the universe possessed a design of its own, forces and connections that belonged to the wisdom of galaxies, starfire, and time, woven into the blood that coursed through my body, the energy that made me alive.

In a low voice, I added, “The penance mark on my chest is from a blood tithe I gave for my tribe. Two hundred years ago, a Llyrian woman killed her husband, a tragedy that still haunts our tribe. Llyr continues to pay for that murder every twenty-five years. We tithe our blood to the balance, to remember that our tribe failed to protect that man’s life, that a member of our tribe used her magic to kill, and put the magic of our people at risk.”

Solei covered her face with her hands, pressing the heels of her palms to her eyes. “So when you started bombing those ships, you knew you were murdering people, putting your whole tribe at risk, and leaving them with a price they would pay forever—long after you were gone.”

My heart thumped with bitterness. “Yes.”

“And Aiden was right there with you, the whole time. He was the one making the bombs, overseeing each mission—” Solei dropped her hands and straightened her shoulders. “So why didn’t he die? Why didn’t the All take his life?”

“Because Aiden never planted the bombs.”

Solei grimaced, and started pacing again. “How is that fair? You lose your life, and Aiden suffers nothing? No one would’ve died if he hadn’t created the weapons.” Then she halted, so overcome that her knees wobbled, and she leaned a shoulder to the wall. “That’s all I am to Aiden, just one of his weapons… and he’ll find a way to use me, won’t he? Slit my throat for his spell. To make his spores to send over the wind.”

Solei pushed off the wall and wandered back over to me. She took a seat on the bed, right beside me, and then pressed her face to my shoulder. My magic told me she was thinking of her father, and everyone else on land, all the people those spores were intended to kill. She was so scared she was trembling, so I put an arm around her and held her. As we sat in silence together, and I felt Solei’s tears drip onto my skin, I started to regret what I’d done. Not in a fit of self-pity, for losing my home and my family. I regretted that I’d ever volunteered to be the jusbel. That I’d ever been so eager for revenge.

Caught in the sweep of my magic, I felt Solei’s pain, her despair and her grief. Pain I’d created, had inflicted upon her myself. Torment that no amount of my power could heal.

“I’m sorry, Solei. I’m sorry I’ve done this to you.”

She didn’t respond, but she didn’t move away from me either.

After a while, I spoke into the silence. “Aiden didn’t want Hali boarding the ship because he’s convinced that he’s right, and he’s smart enough to know that the facts don’t agree. So he has to work very hard to keep the facts hidden, so no one else understands what’s going on. No matter what I do now, the only thing that can stop Aiden is Aiden. Since there’s no reasoning with him, and I don’t see any way to escape him, I’d rather not lie to myself, or to you, about what our chances are.”

Solei dried her eyes, still leaning against me. “So he’ll take us to his ritual site, and he’ll kill me, and you’ll die, and he’ll die, and Llyr will be destroyed in a curse.” She sat up, and swiped her cheeks one more time with the back of her hand. “You really don’t think Dahlia will help us? Or anyone else? What about Xalea? And Ceto? What about the people who realize what’s happening?”

An image of Dahlia glaring at me filled my mind, and I sighed. “I don’t know what Dahlia thinks now, and I have a hard time trusting her, given the things she has said. Xalea might be in prison in Llyr, captured for aiding a traitor. Ceto doesn’t have the power to fight Aiden to free us. As to my friends, or anyone else who’s figured out that I’m telling the truth—there’s a big difference between knowing something is wrong and doing something to stop it. Even if Hali is telling all of her people right now that I betrayed my family to save them, that doesn’t mean the Rishki will listen, or accept it, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’ll do anything to stop Aiden. He has all the power of the Qarin behind him, and Llyr is a powerful tribe.”

“Might makes right,” Solei muttered.

“Might makes fear,” I said, “and fear lets people murder their enemies in the name of honor and love.”

“Honor and love,” Solei scoffed, scowling with exasperation, and then she started. Her voice rose with urgency. “What about the woman who left him? Aiden’s love—his true love. Would she help us? She’s bonded to him with magic, like you and me. Could she reason with Aiden, and make him see the truth?”

“Maybe, except… I don’t know where Marin is now. She left Llyr years ago, and she was from a migrating tribe, one with a winter home south of the Dev-durvani caves, in a place I’ve never traveled before.”

Solei shimmered with a stirring of hope. “If Aiden still loves her—”

“He does. He will always love Marin.”

“Then we should find her, Rowan. We should ask her to speak to Aiden, maybe she can convince him to save himself, and let us go.”

I smiled, almost laughed, so despondent my voice sounded ragged. “Sure, I’ll fill up some canisters with hrichka, we’ll grab a couple spears and varkina, and be on our way.”

Solei cupped my face in her hands, her expression suddenly dark with concern. Her touch felt cool against my hot skin. “You’re scaring me, fish-boy. And I’m already scared.”

I bowed my head, and when Solei didn’t let go, I met her eyes again. “I’ve spent my whole life afraid, Solei. Being with you is the bravest I’ve ever been. I didn’t even panic before I boarded that ship, not even when the magic started to burn me. Once I collapsed, I thought I heard you talking to me. Hearing your voice made me feel so much better, I laughed.”

I pulled away from her grasp, embarrassed I was admitting this to her, and moved to sit on the far edge of the bed.

My voice softened with shyness, and I couldn’t look at her now. “I feel like I want to promise you everything: swear to you that we’ll escape Aiden, return you safely to your human body, and you’ll make it home to your father okay. But I know my brother, and Aiden knows me, and whatever escape plan I might come up with, I know he’ll outthink me.”

To share anything else felt too painful, so I rose and walked to the door. Placing my hands on the rock, I read the code in the glyphs, then traced the invisible power of the trapping spell sealing us in the room. I imagined Solei had already done this while I’d been asleep, but I spent the next hour searching over the walls and the floor with meticulous care, as if I might find a secret way out.

“You think they’re still in that meeting?” Solei asked.

“Yeah. The Rishki Lokren are as longwinded as the magi in Llyr. We might be here for days.”

Solei sent me a smile, her expression wistful and drawn. “Do you love your brother, Rowan? Even now?”

From where I knelt, I looked up and held her gaze. I loved Aiden so much, I couldn’t even get the words out, so I dropped my head and went back to searching for hidden spells in the floor.

“The runes,” Solei said, and she gestured with her chin toward the door.

The Rishki glyphs in the stone glowed silver-white, and then the panel swung open. Four guards entered the room, followed by Calder and Zale. Everyone wore severe expressions, and moved with the swift speed of soldiers.

I rose as two other officers walked into the room. Calder came toward me, and I thought he might hit me with a stunning spell, but he fastened my wrists with varkina instead. Zale bound Solei’s hands, and she didn’t put up a fight. I felt her eyes on me, waiting for me to say something, but Calder spoke first. “I’m amazed you kept those hands, boy. I told Dover he should let them fall off.”

I smiled, knowing that Calder had said no such thing. Dover hadn’t boarded that ship to save me. Aiden had, and Calder would never pick a fight with Aiden. They might both hold the rank of First Warden, but Calder didn’t want Aiden as an enemy. I was sure they hadn’t exchanged any words as Dover had healed me.

But I told Calder, “I’m sure my brother appreciated your concern.”

He returned my remark with a cold, sharp smile of his own. “Have a pleasant trip back to Llyr.”

Calder snapped the bones in his throat, and the Rishki drakhir departed the room to stand in the hall, everyone tense as they waited for Aiden. Solei moved to my side.

“We have to escape,” she whispered.

“I know,” I whispered back. If we were going to live, we had to get away from my brother.

“I still think your girlfriend might save us,” Solei whispered.

I thought of Dahlia’s anger again, the stark ferocity in her eyes the last time she’d looked at me, and shook my head. “She’d rather feed me to a kraken.”

Solei sent me a smile, then glanced down at her feet and stifled a laugh. “Makes two of us then.”

I pretended to frown with disgust, and switched my coloring to black with red chevrons.

Solei leaned against me, and pressed her cheek to my chest. “You know I’m just kidding.” She put the night sky in her skin, glittering freckles of stars and blooms of dark nebulas.

I copied her display, and as she tipped her face up to smile at me, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of tenderness. What would I do if Aiden took Solei away from me, put her somewhere I couldn’t find her, and I never saw her again? The idea made my heart beat so fast, I had trouble pulling in a full breath, and power charged through my body, sparking with terror and heat.

Drifting on the air through the door, I felt Aiden’s magic brush my skin, and I knew he was close.

My voice sounded dry and rough as I said, “If he separates us, I promise I’ll find you. I’ll do everything I can to find you, Solei.”

She searched my face for a moment, then glanced toward the door. “I feel his magic.”

I nodded. “He’s almost here.”

Even as scared as I was, as Aiden drew closer, hope thrashed in my chest, hope and love and that old, familiar aching. My magic reached for my brother, his power, his heartbeat, yearning for him with the same devotion I’d felt as a child.

I steadied my breath, calmed my magic, squared my shoulders. Prepared to face the monster I’d helped create when I’d become one myself.

I was ready.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Over the course of three years, the manuscript that became Kinned to the Sea: Book I evolved several times. I’m profoundly grateful to have friends and family who were willing to make this journey with me, either in whole or in part, from the rough beginnings of Rowan and Solei, into the final version I published.

For this book, especially, my gratitude to every one of my beta-readers is fierce and immense.

My Reading Angel and Book Goddess, April Duclos, supported this book with all of the love and enthusiasm she gives everything I create. No matter what incarnation of Rowan she read, she loved him. She cheered him. She provided feedback on every stage of this project, and every phase of revision, and helped Rowan become who he needed to be. April never gave up on this story, or on me. No matter how many times I messed up and fell on my face, April was right there to pull me up and dust me off. She said to keep going, so I did. I finished this book because April loves me. I couldn’t be an author without her.

My Crazy Babe, Adriana Arbogast, gave me enormous help with this book. In all ways, my writing has once again benefited from her questions, suggestions, and wit. From plot holes, to characterization flaws, to rooting out stilted dialogue, Adriana is my champion reader, the one who says, Do better, Melissa. Write better. We have been teammates for years, and I love being pushed. I love having a friend who can push me so hard. We are two cherry trees, growing stories in the forest together, and I hope my branches and bark always stay wrapped up with hers.

My Little Orange Monster, Amanda Morrison, rescued this novel in its darkest hour. After two years of work, I was still failing my story, and failing Rowan. The novel felt doomed, a story fated to fail. I had damning feedback to grapple with, but the comments left me no way forward. I was lost, I was stuck, and no matter how much I studied my feedback, the comments felt circular, focusing on textual statements I could prove were untrue. I kept pointing to specific sentences and saying, “But I tell the reader right there. That information is right there.”

And yet, it wasn’t. The sentences said one thing, but my readers said, No. No, it’s not there. I hate this book. I hate Rowan.

This was when a deep sense of panic and helplessness began to consume me. When I realized I didn’t have enough tools in my toolbox to be the kind of writer I wanted to be. When I faced the hard truth that I had a character I was going to fail.

But in the darkest valley of despair, lo and behold, a Little Orange Monster appeared. She carried a fountain pen in her hand, the old-fashioned kind that needs blotting paper. Also, she was able to navigate even the rockiest valley with a powered wheelchair and a hot cup of coffee, because she is a Little Orange Monster and there is no stopping her.

Amanda volunteered to look at my opening pages, and her insight cast a brilliant light through the dark. She found a new truth in my text, and provided the missing commentary I needed. Instead of stating what the prose lacked, she described the specific emotions she felt with each sentence, with a subtlety and nuance that can only be unleashed with a fountain pen. And finally—finally—I saw what I’d done wrong. In a purely rational way, I had provided answers to each reader’s questions. But in an emotional context, the reader received nothing. The words were all empty and meaningless. This is what Amanda was able to show me, with a careful precision derived from her years spent paying close attention to words.

Amanda’s feedback illuminated the problem, which immediately gave me a path out of the mess. I followed that path, and Amanda cheered every step. She tracked every revision, and every phase that came next. Whenever the word “orange” appears in this book, I see my little monster. I added a few more oranges in this novel to thank her. She saved Rowan, and she saved me.

My critique group partners were essential in helping this book grow and get better. Adriana Arbogast, Michael Carson, Ronni Souers, Daniel Todd, Blair Runion, Elizabeth Silverstein, Janice Archuleta, J.D. Hanning, Evanthia Bromiley, Jane Maxey, Catherine Ortega, Debra Malcolm, Christine Gwynn, and Mary Kate Jackson. Thank you for all of your questions, opinions, edits, and advice. Your efforts to help this story succeed are enormously appreciated.

My friend Jennifer Gotham read two full drafts of this book, one right after the other. Her feedback always amazes me, and when she finished the first round, and said this book still wasn’t working, I revised one more time—and added Ceto. A character I had originally envisioned in this book, but never included, because I thought it was more important to keep down my word count. After discussing the book’s remaining problems with Jen, I changed my mind. So if you enjoyed reading Ceto the wee sea dragon, you have Jen to thank. She is a beta-reading powerhouse of prescience and truth. Her commentary and drive to explain her opinions is such a gift to my work. This novel took its final shape thanks to her.

Ronni Souers also beta-read drafts of this novel, including my pre-Ceto and post-Ceto revisions. Ronni loved Rowan, loved his troubled relationship with his brother, and when Ceto arrived on the scene, Ronni loved Ceto, too. The entire book benefited from her careful feedback, and the final draft most of all. Ronni kept pointing out places to make the story stronger, smoother, and more enjoyable. I’m so grateful we’re writing partners, talking shop all the time and keeping it real. Ronni always brings the rad when we’re hanging out, and her enthusiasm for Kinned to the Sea was a well of support that never ran dry.

My friends Leslie McCabe-Holm, Elizabeth Silverstein, and Bonnie Jacobs read drafts of this book, and offered their feedback and thoughts. My brother, Dale Gillon, and my sister, Laura Gillon, were also willing to read this novel and comment on the story. Milla Tyler read the first chapters of my final draft, and gave the beginning her stamp of approval. My travel companion, friend, and family member, Rachel Stacy, spent time listening to some material in an early stage of this project, and shared her feedback and thoughts. My friend Sandy Irwin read the final pre-Ceto manuscript, loved the story, and suggested I break the book into two parts, which I did.

My friend Bethany Bachmann read the final draft of Kinned to the Sea, and then met with me to analyze the manuscript one last time. She had some final edits to share, so I could revise a few more glitches, and we discussed her reactions to these characters and the story. This final-draft closure meeting with Bethany was so inspiring. Our conversation gave me the stamina and joy to move ahead with publication, and launch a new book.

My graphic designer, Beth McMacken, did an astounding job with this cover. I love the colors and visuals Beth combined for this cover, and I’m absolutely thrilled to have such beautiful art for my book. Many thanks to Beth for her work on Kinned to the Sea.

And none of my books would exist without the tireless support of my husband, Greg Stacy. Whenever a TV show featured the science or history of merpeople, or a piece of mer-art came up for review on Antiques Roadshow, or he found anything having to do with mer-stories or mer-art, Greg was eager to tell me, and we had many happy conversations discussing this subject. I love my husband, so much, for his willingness to help me bring this book into the world. Never has a story burned my heart with such pain, or demanded so much from me in order to express my intentions, and Greg always understood how important this novel was to me.

In the summer of 2015, while we were camping in Utah, Greg lay in the shade of a juniper with me while I read aloud pages of Elizabeth Kolbert’s phenomenal 2014 book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Greg had to wait out the times when the text made me break down into tears (which was often), and he would return to listening again when I pulled myself back together. I also read aloud from Naomi Klein’s brilliant and breathtaking 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. More tears, and more quiet waiting, on Greg’s part.

The people who are out there every day, fighting for the health of our global ecosystem, and the future of every species at risk of extinction—whether they are artists, scientists, engineers, politicians, schoolteachers, journalists, researchers, activists, students, or any other form of protector and caretaker for this planet—they light my heart on fire, and Kinned to the Sea is my contribution to the passion that burns all around me.

My husband gave me the time and care that I needed in order to turn my pain, and my love, into a novel. He provided a safe home, and cooked meals, and brewed coffee for me while I wrote this book. Greg asked me to marry him before I started writing, and once I began chasing my dreams, he committed to helping me make all of my books a reality. He is my little honey, and my grizzly bear, who also loves merpeople as much as I do. I’m so grateful to Greg for everything he brings to my life, and for all of the ways he helped me write and publish this book.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Kinned to the Sea: Book I is the first part of a trilogy. If any reader is curious to learn more about the research involved in writing this novel, or would like to be notified when the sequels are published, please visit my author website and sign up for my Thought Candy blog at www.melissastacy.com.

ABOUT
THE
AUTHOR

Melissa Stacy lives in Durango, Colorado. She is the author of The Etiquette of Wolves, a mystery novel, Love and Students Loans and Other Big Problems, a love story about college debt and baseball, Mark of the Pterren, a science fiction novel, Bloodshade of the Goddess, an urban fantasy, and Kinned to the Sea, a Young Adult fantasy.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at www.melissastacy.com


Kinned to the Sea

Sixteen-year-old Rowan Zroba, a mage who has taken an oath not to kill, has become the jusbel—the ship boarder—for his raid team, planting bombs called star-guides to sink aircraft carriers. Rowan’s tribe of merpeople call him a war hero, and he’s finally earned the love and respect of his family. But Rowan also knows he is suffering the consequences of breaking his oath not to kill: he is losing his magic, and will soon lose his life. When his tribe kidnaps a human teen named Solei, planning to sacrifice her for a magical weapon far more destructive than a star-guide, the ritual goes horribly wrong. Rowan realizes the power his people wield cannot be controlled, and they will all be destroyed if they kill Solei. Rowan must confront the violence and destruction he has brought upon his own tribe, and decide if he can forsake the people he loves to protect the life of his enemy.

  • ISBN: 9781370070213
  • Author: Melissa Stacy
  • Published: 2017-03-06 18:35:29
  • Words: 104198
Kinned to the Sea Kinned to the Sea