Of Sea and Island
Gray left the fortress of Fao that night around one o’clock.
For a lander, the journey from Lukas’s stronghold to the southern coast and then on to the South Islands took at least a week. Often longer. The journey would have been relatively decent, but according to the gods’ design, the winds blew hard from the south, wrestling with every ship that endeavored to reach the islands.
Gray, of course, didn’t have to worry about headwinds.
So the journey took him two days.
About four miles from the coastline he desired, he stepped out onto the surface of the sea and stood there, his arms folded, a frown he could feel between his brows. If Tell were here, the boy would surely laugh at him, but Gray couldn’t help himself; he needed just a moment to put together his thoughts.
He focused on the main island.
This was the home of the chief, Nari’s father. It was the largest island among many sisters, which lay stretched across several miles. Mountains covered with snow stood on the eastern end of the island, casting a long, deep shadow across the waves as the sun began its evening departure. An army of palm trees covered the lower slopes, the hills, and much of the flatlands, but they left plenty of room for the blindingly white sand clinging to the shoreline.
Gray knew this coastline and the rise and fall of the peaks quite well, even though the king’s business had never brought him this far south. His knowledge of these shores existed because every artist with any talent had tried to capture this scene that lay before him. He had seen pencil sketches, oils, rush paints, carvings—all of them quite good. But it was a common saying in Theraine that no artist could copy what the gods had created, and today Gray understood what that meant at a deeper level.
The chief’s island was called Haletist, which meant “fire” in the tongue of the sea. Though many years had passed since the sea had spewed the islands into being, the Islanders remembered the heritage of their land and wished to honor the Creator and the way he had fashioned their home. Dal’los, the island’s highest peak, still puffed smoke into the sky from time to time. Shel’s book had warned that the island itself often shook with enough force to topple trees and cause rock slides. A dangerous land.
Gray could not say that any of those things interested him, but this was the island were Nari was born. This was her history, her home, what she loved. Her father was here. This meant that for the rest of Gray’s life, this island would have meaning for him. Indeed, it would seem like the birthplace of the world. Because that was what it was for Nari.
As the wind blew against his wet clothing and tugged at the salt water that dripped from his hair, Gray considered Shel’s words.
You will need to prove your passion.
Gray grunted. He had been thinking about this moment for days, and he had an idea.
He smiled as he dropped back into the sea.
THOSE WHO MADE the South Islands their home did not care for gold. Gold was like a pebble to them, something without any significant value. That was one of several reasons the mainland found it difficult to trade with them—because the Islanders would not accept their money. Island-dwellers might be open to barter, but very little from the mainland actually interested them.
Shel said the Islanders were stubborn.
Gray grinned as he remembered those words and the expression on Shel’s face as he’d said them. What? Stubborn? I had no idea. Gray could predict his future. He had delightful expectations for many, many years spent with a woman who had scars on her arms, pieces of shells in her hair, and more fire in her eyes than he had ever seen in the face of a flamemaker.
Gray’s boots came to rest on the sea’s sandy floor, and he stared out across something that, for landers, existed only in dreams or fanciful paintings. More colors than could be found anywhere on the continent danced in the movements of the sea. He took a deep breath and slowly released it, feeling the sea’s warm welcome pressing in all around him.
He had missed this.
It didn’t matter that he had more soil than sea in his blood; this landscape still felt like home to him—with its beauty and dangers both combined; the way the water embraced him as if he had no association with soil whatsoever; the way it smelled of earth, of deep places, and of the richness of salt.
An ancient reader of the sea wrote that salt was the flavor of the gods. Gray believed him.
As always in moments like these, thoughts of his ancestors returned to his mind. When those of soil and sea had chosen to live on land and leave the sea behind, they had made a significant sacrifice. Gray didn’t know if he would have been able to come to the same decision. Not with a scene like this staring at him. Not with the sea pulling on him and telling him that he would never feel at home like this when his lungs knew only air.
The water seemed to watch him, more than he would have liked. The steady sensation of eyes told him he had a flesh-and-blood watcher somewhere down here—an e’nethaine who was curious of his actions, since he dressed like a lander. A man of Dasken, specifically. Though he preferred to take his next steps in private, there was nothing he could do to protect himself from the eyes of the sea. No one was ever truly alone in the presence of water—that was an old saying spoken by soil-born sailors who likely didn’t understand the full extent of its truth. When there was water nearby, it was a difficult task indeed to keep the e’nethaine out.
Absently, he pulled at the collar of his tunic. He was unused to water this warm. He glanced around, knowing full well the sea would not give up its shadowy host.
To his left, brilliant-blue coral grew like the outer wall of the fortress of Fao, large and wide enough to block half his view of the sea. Blue coral was a beautiful but vindictive weed down here; it grew wherever it wished and sank multiple ships every year. Far away from the South Islands, close to the shores of Audofek, a single wall of blue coral stood two miles high, coming within fifteen feet of the surface. Landers called it the Tooth of Death.
Gray set his hand on the coral. His fingers argued with his eyes and insisted they touched solid stone. The coral was as beautiful as it was destructive.
To his right lay patches of sea grass and flowering tedoshen plants, the leaves of which could be used as a fine, silky fabric if you never left the water. Dozens of water trees stood proudly from the sand, holding up their long white arms toward the surface. Then there were the yellows, greens, and pinks of the felki and amek plants that fascinated alchemists all over the world because of their ability to increase the potency of whatever chemicals they bonded with.
If the Islanders ever allowed merchants to harvest what grew only a short distance from their shores, they would soon possess the wealth of the continent. To the continent’s consternation, they had no desire for that wealth, nor for the intrusion it would surely bring.
But there was one thing they did want.
THOUGH THE ISLANDERS HAD no use for gold, they did have a great interest in a certain kind of pearl that was much harder to obtain than gold or any other item of value on land.
The rendeik pearl could be found about a quarter mile west of every island in the southern chain—always to the west of that particular island, never to the east, even in situations where the islands stood very close together. Gray felt rather impressed with an oyster that was so set in its watery ways that it rejected every location but one.
Many other kinds of pearls were formed in a circular shape, but it was like the rendeik thought itself too intelligent for such a thing. Instead, it grew in the shape of a cylinder. Small ones were about the size of a man’s thumbnail, while the larger ones could be as long as the little finger. They were red like the sea at sunset, glistened like other pearls, and could kill you if you weren’t careful.
Based on what Gray was learning about the islands, that only made sense.
Growing quietly in the midst of this warm, rich landscape, the rendeik oyster watched a kingdom with its single eye. Gray frowned at the black, stone-like tube protruding out of the coral near him. The eye affixed to the tube’s middle section blinked once, opening and closing like the eye of a king squid.
Though the pearls produced by this oyster were relatively small, the tube itself was large enough to swallow a man’s arm—which was what it tried to do anytime it was disturbed. According to Shel’s book, several Islanders died every year trying to retrieve pearls from these vindictive little beasts. Some of the Islanders became trapped and drowned, and some bled so badly that they attracted shardons or leviathans, and they died trying to defend themselves. The tubes could not be dislodged from the coral, so you had to retrieve what you could while fully submerged.
Nari’s arms were covered with thin, twisting scars. Gray had noticed them right away and wondered, because she could have easily healed those wounds. Why keep the scars? But he had since learned the scars’ significance—they were marks of honor in her homeland, the signs of a successful quest to retrieve a rendeik pearl. Not just once, but twice—she had done this two times. As a healer, Nari had a natural advantage in this deadly game.
So did Gray.
The water tugged at his heart. The currents made him think about staying, as they always did—what it would be like if this were his home. The song of a dead Theranian poet trickled through his memory:
The sea mourns the loss of her children;
Long has she suffered the ache of empty arms
And groaned, waiting for the Creator to return to her
The ones who have chosen pain and exile,
Offering themselves to the desert.
Here Gray stood, a man of the desert, as the song proclaimed, now returned to the sea. What a laughable thing this was—with all the history, the hope, the pain of loss, and yet Gray had come this way to conquer an oyster.
Don’t give Nari flowers.
He smiled. He had chosen something a little more difficult than flowers. Something angry.
He shifted, taking form in the heated currents. The oyster’s one eye blinked at his sudden appearing. If this thing were a man, it would have just drawn its blade against him.
Ah, well. If he was going to do this, he needed to do it well, in a way Nari’s father would respect. They didn’t rely on words, here on the islands. They wanted visible signs.
Gray was going to give the chief a visible sign.
– H –
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Copyright notice: © 2019 by Lauren Stinton. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.