Authors: Adalyn Grace
Though I’ve drained as much blood as I can, that doesn’t prevent my hands from becoming a mess of tissue. Bastian chokes, halting his own vomit.
I freeze at the sound.
“That’s very … interesting,” he starts to say, though his words are strained. Brows creased, I look up just in time to see him take one look at the dissected limb and pass out on the floor.
My body ignites with shame. It comes in a heat that fills my belly, and a rush of nerves that makes my movements sharper. Quicker. I move to cover the hand, but the ship quivers as
hits a fierce patch of water. It wails a ghostly sound, full of splintering and creaking wood, and I’m tossed back to the floor. I latch onto a heavy barrel of wine to steady myself, waiting until
stabilizes, then say a silent thanks to Ferrick, who must have taken the helm while likely puking his brains out.
Before me, Bastian’s fingertips twitch.
“If you have a weak stomach, you shouldn’t have asked to watch!” The words snap out of me, more bitter than I intend as I think of every pair of eyes that watched me in horror and disgust.
This work may be messy, but this is what it takes to use my
magic, and that’s all there is to it. Last night, I made a mistake and let myself get overwhelmed—by Kaven, by Aunt Kalea, and by the terrified faces of hundreds of Visidians. But I am not a servant to my magic. It’s mine to command, and I want others to see that.
As Bastian blinks clarity to his vision, he keeps his attention far from the dissected limb. I cover it with the burlap.
On one hand, I understand his reaction. The first time Father showed me how to dissect something, we started with a foot, which are full of messy, sticky tendons that goop around your fingers and are nearly impossible to work around. I’d been upset about staining the dress I’d worn that day, but having magic not only means learning how to live with it, but also how to accept it as part of you. When I first began practicing soul magic, death felt like a tragic, sickly thing. But as the protector of Visidia, that was a hurdle I was forced to cross long ago. If Bastian wants to use me and my magic, he should understand what he’s using.
“I never took you as the type to faint.” I can’t contain the bitterness that drips into my words.
He rubs his neck. “Sorry.” Though his words are clipped with annoyance, they’re genuine. “It’s just so…”
“Impressive?” I try to ignore how his reaction stings. My magic
strange. But why can’t people see that it’s also amazing? “I took on this magic to serve Visidia and protect my people.
is the word you’re looking for.”
His brows are knitted like he’s contemplating something, and I don’t like the look of it.
“Maybe you should check on Ferrick.” It’s not necessarily a suggestion, but Bastian takes it as one. I eye him warily as he rubs his hands over his face.
“No, no. I’m sorry. It’s not the blood that bothers me. I’ve just never been quite so
with someone’s body before.
Should I start to feel ill again, I’ll leave. I promise. But this is something I want to see. You’re right, it’s … impressive.”
I press my lips together as I slowly pull back the burlap to reveal the hand. Bastian struggles to keep his face frozen and shoulders steady. He’s barely breathing, knuckles pressed into his lap to steady himself, but it’s clear he wants to stay.
And because I want someone to understand my magic, I let him.
We finish washing and drying the bones several hours later, just as Ikae’s terraced mountains begin to loom over us. My mouth is dry as I stare up at their extravagance, gripping the ledge of the ship to steady myself.
The terraces look like dozens of giant steps have been carved into the stark white mountainside, each of them filled with lakes of pink water and surrounded by dazzling houses all in a variety of colors and styles. Some are enchanted so that purple smoke billows out of tall chimneys and into the setting sun, while other homes look as though they’re made of shimmering sea glass. Rows upon rows of vineyards stretch far up into the mountain peaks, where the sunlight shines the brightest. Mornute’s primary source of income has always been from exporting alcohol. Just thinking of all the wine they’re making up there has my mouth watering.
The azure bay is swirled with soft green foam, though
when I peer over
and into the water, I can still see the boastful coral reef that rests below. The thunderous cheers that fill the air have driven the fish into hiding, but the bay itself thrives with life.
I hear the people of Ikae before I see the anchored ship they pile onto, cheering as they wave soft pink flags into the air.
“Two gold pieces on Romer!” someone yells, met with a smattering of cheers and applause.
“Three gold pieces and a pearl on Keanu!”
I lean over the ledge of
to get a better look, and am sucked in by the frivolous figures parading around the ship. It’s only been a day, and yet feathers no longer appear to be the current style. Despite the fierce humidity, women wear heavy gowns of pastel fish scales that catch the light of the sun and sting my eyes.
The men are just as extravagant. The majority wear luminous trousers and simple pastel tops with giant scaled shoulder pads. Others have attached the scales directly to the skin of the neck and beneath their eyes, and have adorned their trousers with bubbles or shifting fabric that mimics an ocean’s wave.
On the plank, two men stand side by side in only their undergarments. Their oil-slicked bodies are lean and cut with muscle.
“What is this?” I ask Bastian. The pirate leans beside me after twisting the helm and steering us to the far right of the bay, out of the other ship’s path.
“Cannon Rushing,” he answers. “Also known as the most ridiculous sport known to man. Ahoy!” He yells the last word, loud enough to draw the attention of those on a neighboring ship. Several people wave in acknowledgment.
“Good spot?” Bastian yells.
We’re met with a mix of raised flute glasses and rueful
hoots before the people on the opposite ship return to whatever they’re up to.
A lady with beautiful obsidian skin and lilac hair waltzes her way around the deck, holding a shimmering fish-scale pouch. She extends it to anyone who shouts out a price, and they drop their money into it without hesitation.
“I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Bastian snorts. “And you won’t anywhere else.”
The men on the plank lower themselves to a crouch. They grip on to the plank as a sun-flushed woman behind them raises a pink flag into the air. She holds it there, taunting, then swoops it down with a high-pitched laugh.
The ocean trembles and I jump back from the ledge of the shaking
. The neighboring ship spits out a cannonball, which hurtles past the cleared-out bay. My ringing ears burn, but I can’t look away. I throw myself back against the ledge and watch as the two men from the plank dive into the clear water.
They’ve already swum a yard by the time they resurface, throwing their arms in front of them and rushing toward the sinking cannonball.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
One of them dives for the cannonball and comes up short. The other is still behind, flailing his arms as he tries to catch up. Meanwhile, the ship’s passengers cheer and wave their flags as they sip from flasks and fancy flute glasses.
“They’re wasting blasting powder,” Ferrick says.
,” I correct him, pressing my fingertips against
’s wood. One of the men surfaces with the cannonball and the onlookers go wild. They yell for him to hurry back so they can move on to the next group.
“Of course they are,” Bastian muses. “What else do you do
with a limitless supply of gold, besides spend it all on games simpletons could never afford?”
I know he’s being sarcastic, but I’m sharply reminded of what I’ve heard of Kerost’s suffering. I can think of a few ways to put their spare change and extra time to use.
I pull my focus from the cheering crowd as Bastian docks the ship.
The difference between Arida and Mornute does not stop at the games we play. The buildings here are lavish and enchanted—glossy white exteriors and pristine glass windows for one shop, and lilac spires that sweep impossibly far into the sky on the next. Everything is made to capture the eye, including the peachy pink sand across the shore.
The bay is stuffed full with merchant bilander ships and an occasional traveling caravel. With every ship blending into the next, hopefully
’s white wood and small frame won’t stand out too fiercely. Though she’s certainly a difficult ship to miss.
It’s strange to have a steady surface beneath my feet. Within minutes of disembarking, I already miss the back-and-forth lull of the waves, though Ferrick couldn’t be happier. After he spends the first few minutes emptying his stomach on a pile of rocks, he pats his hand on the ground and groans happily.
“I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to have a body that stays in one place,” he sighs.
“Don’t get too comfortable. Once we get our intel, we’re out of here.” Bastian shifts around us to take the lead.
The docks connect directly to the heart of the city, and wood gives way to sleek streets that appear to be made from stained glass. The sunlight makes them wink with dazzling pastel shades. They’re almost too beautiful to step on, but I realize they’re nothing more than another enchantment when they easily hold my weight.
The town around us roars with life, fragrant with the perfume of baked sweets and buzzing with gossip.
I nearly stumble as a man passes by, yelling at the top of his lungs.
“Two pearls for shrimp, four for snapper! SHRIMP HERE!”
“Four pearls for snapper?” I echo. “There’s no way anyone would pay him that.”
As soon as the words leave my mouth, two women approach the merchant with their twin boys trailing behind. The boys are rowdy, slugging each other in the arms and dodging the other’s counter with a mix of laughter and jeering. They draw our attention at once, and the light in Bastian’s eyes turns shadowy. He observes the boys with a set jaw and an indiscernible expression. When his eyes flicker across the faces of the parents, he stuffs his hands deep into the pockets of his coat and turns the opposite way. The parents are all smiles as they fish a gold piece and several pearls from a small emerald pouch and place them into the merchant’s hand. The Suntosan couple doesn’t even think to barter as they make off with two snappers and some shrimp.
“I hope that’s the greatest shrimp to ever grace their tongue,” I say.
Bastian just grunts and ushers us through the street. There’s no way to keep track of everything happening around us. I’m overwhelmed by the persistent yells and beckoning of merchants selling everything from chiffon gowns to lychee juice. They crowd the streets with their sharp perfumes and baked goods, as dolled-up tourists and Ikaeans with heavy pockets enjoy their wares.
Unlike Arida, this place does not have natural beauty. It’s eccentric and bustling, and I love every inch of it. Though there’s no denying how frivolous the town is with its wealth.
“It’s so different,” Ferrick says, eyeing the shimmery yellow tile of a hat shop.
“You’ve never traveled, either?” Bastian asks.
Ferrick shakes his head. “Only to Suntosu. My father is an affluential healer, trusted by the Montaras. He was favored by the queen—he even delivered Amora. It got to the point where we were visiting so frequently, my father decided to move us to Arida when I was seven. He returned to Suntosu when he retired last year, and I visit on occasional holiday. But sailing isn’t exactly my favorite hobby.”
“Well, all the islands are vastly different,” Bastian notes. “Mornute has the highest tourism rate. It’s easy to get to from most islands, and pretty enough to want to visit. It’s a town made for the wealthy.”
The sparkle of a faint aquamarine gemstone catches my eye, tempting me from behind the glass of a jewelry shop.
I want to explore every one of the shops, yet the lights behind the glass windows dim as the marketplace slowly begins to close down. Men and women bundle themselves in embroidered coats and shimmering fish-scale capes as the nighttime breeze rolls in from the coast.
Farther down the street, at the edge of the cobblestone, voices grow louder as taverns begin to fill.
Bastian follows my gaze.
“Fancy a drink?” he asks, and at first I can’t tell whether he’s serious. But then goose bumps trail up my arm and neck as he presses a gentle hand to the small of my back and ushers us toward one. Through the window, I see it’s fully occupied by beautiful men in perfectly fitted suits and vibrant makeup, and by striking women in shimmering scale gowns and eccentric headpieces of pastel fish heads. One woman even has what appears to be a real starfish stuck to the left side of her face.
I should tell Bastian no. That we need to hurry and keep
going, as he said earlier. But instead, my words betray me and I find my feet are already moving me forward. “You’re sure we have time?”
“Trust me, this is exactly where we need to be.” His fingers wind around the door’s handle as his wicked grin widens. “We need to lie low until the nightlife has died down, and besides, there’s someone here I need to see.”
I bite back my grin as the door swings open. Inside, the air is wild with gossip and music.
A hearth with green flames sits in the back corner of the tavern, radiating the heat of burning hawthorn. It lures me forward, into the happy chatter and uninhibited laughter. I relax despite the thick crowd, coaxed by the gentle lullaby of an accordion dancing in the air. I do a double take when I notice it rests alone on a stool, playing entirely of its own accord. There’s no musician in sight, yet patrons liberally toss gold coins and colored pearls into a tin cup set before the stool.
Bastian hunts down a table near the back and motions for us to sit. While Ferrick moves slowly, trying to keep his regrowing hand tucked beneath the ruby cape he’s borrowed, I make my way swiftly through the crowd and take my seat. With Curmanans able to spread news so quickly, people will no doubt be looking for me. But they can share only words, not images, and not everyone knows my face.
In the thick of the crowd, the noise augments in the wine-dense air. Though the patrons in this tavern are extravagantly dressed, no one bothers to sneer their distaste at Ferrick and me. Too many people must pass through here for Ikaeans to concern themselves with our off-trend fashion choices.
Patrons slosh their drinks as they fall back into their chairs, feasting on pastel petit cakes and laughing over silly jokes and conversation. All they want is to have a good time. No one’s remotely suspicious of us.
Bastian smiles at a woman with a tray in her hands, dressed more simply than the others in a plain gown of soft lilac. She nods and says she’ll be with us shortly.
When Ferrick takes his seat, he immediately points to the two exits. “This isn’t a good idea. Amora is
She shouldn’t be subjected to something as filthy as a tavern. What if someone recognizes her?”
“Why don’t you try saying the R-word a little louder, if you’re worried about someone recognizing her?” Bastian growls.
“This ‘filthy’ tavern has some of the most extravagant people I’ve ever seen.” I shoot Ferrick a look, and he doesn’t disagree. Still, his face contorts into a mask of annoyance, brows sinking low into his forehead to create deep lines. He’ll wrinkle himself prematurely if he keeps this up.
“And we won’t be here long,” Bastian adds. “For now, try to blend in.”
The barmaid arrives at our table. Her face and chest sheen with a thin veil of sweat, and her pale cheeks are flushed from her bustling. Still, she’s polite when she approaches.
“What can I get you?” She looks each of us over, likely taking in our strange clothing. Her eyes rest on me a moment longer than the others, and something in my gut sinks.
She can’t recognize me. Not yet. Not when I’ve only just left Arida.
The woman doesn’t flinch. The hand she’s placed on her jutted hip tells me I’m being paranoid and should stop wasting her time. She’s probably thinking about the other hundred things she has to do after taking our order.
“We’ll take some of those cakes, two glasses of ale…” Bastian’s voice draws off as he eyes me.
“Mead,” I answer.
“And a glass of mead,” he echoes with a hint of surprise. “We’ll also take the freshest catch of barracuda if you have it.”
My stomach curls at the idea of fish with mead and cakes, but there’s something in Bastian’s eyes that tells me he’s not asking for a meal.
“We don’t serve that here,” the woman says dismissively, though her eyes darken as they assess Bastian. He tips his head back to flash her one of his toothy grins, as if that will charm her. But the woman only stares on, unimpressed.
“Well, where might I find some?” He stretches a hand onto the table. From between his two middle fingers there’s a flash of a small gold coin.
The woman sets her hand on the table, and Bastian slips her the coin so quickly that, had I blinked, I would have missed it.
“I hear you can find it near Maribel’s, sometimes. It’s the shop with the pink bubbles. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.” She drops the coin down her top. “Barracudas are easier to catch late into the evening, but they disappear quickly. You’ll want to get one before sunrise.”