The Girl in the Sea
Gray rolled up his sleeve. His boots sent up small puffs of sand as he walked across the sea floor. Funny how a one-eyed tube could emit this much malice.
“I,” Gray said, “am not going to hurt you. Be at peace.”
The oyster didn’t seem to heed these words. Greatly disliking the way his prey stared at him, Gray stepped up to the tube and grimaced as he slid his arm into the tube’s opening nearly all the way up to his shoulder.
That part—the entrance—was deceptively simple.
The exit would be a different matter. The inside of the tube was lined with long thorns protruding toward the sand. Even now, though he’d made no move to extract himself, Gray could feel those thorns pressing against his fully exposed, fully present, skin. Pretending to be a lander certainly had its disadvantages.
With two fingers he poked around the soft, slimy flesh at the bottom of the tube, pushing aside different layers until the tips of his fingers brushed something hard. A stone-like substance in the midst of flesh. He pressed on it and it shifted slightly, suggesting it could be detached from its host—but it would probably take some effort. Of course.
“You’re just mean, aren’t you?” he asked, turning his head so he could meet the single-lidded eye staring up at him. “Wait. Are you smiling?” He grunted. “I am going to work out how to do this. You’re just an oyster—you can’t intimidate me.”
After nearly two minutes of prying, wincing, and breathing a word or two he knew better than to speak around sages, Gray managed to pop the pearl free from its moorings and work it up his hand until he could enclose it in his fist.
This was where the trouble began.
Moving very, very slowly, he eased back from the tube, applying slight pressure to the teeth of the living creature encasing his arm. He barely moved at all, yet the thorns thrust themselves into his skin—more deeply than the motion should have allowed. He stopped, hissing.
There was obviously a way to do this, to free the pearl and the arm before running out of air. Given the conditions, harvesting a rendeik pearl would have to be done quickly—much more quickly than Gray had managed so far. Trying to make his hand and arm as small as possible, he adjusted his grip on the pearl so it hung between his first two fingers and pulled again.
The inside of the oyster just seemed to grow smaller. Pain ripped up his arm. The water drifting from the oyster’s mouth turned scarlet.
“Fine,” Gray muttered. So removing the arm vertically wasn’t the answer. A different method of exit was required. Something.
He felt movement inside the tube. “No—wait—”
The pearl slipped free of his two-fingered grasp. As he tried to grab it again, he rammed the back of his hand into the oyster’s teeth, and the sea reverberated with the words he shouted. Hamal and Shel would have been appalled.
Centuries had passed since he’d found something he was not good at. He was a jeweler. He was supposed to be good at nearly everything he attempted—including this. It was just a pearl and an oyster, and he could breathe underwater. How hard could it be?
Very hard, apparently.
Perhaps he needed a different plan. A different way to impress Nari’s father. But what did he have that no one else had? Shel said the man wanted a display of passion. Something that was visible.
A shadow appeared at the edge of his vision. He looked up and immediately stopped cursing.
A little girl stood a few feet away from him. Her toes curled in the sand, and she wore her hair tied up the way Nari often did—in a messy jumble on the top of her head. She was maybe twelve years old, and she looked at him with disapproval in her black eyes. Yes, it was certainly disapproval.
What was she doing here?
As surprise reached in and grabbed him, Gray looked around for her parent. The colorful sea gave nothing away, but he knew the parent could not be far. Not when a lander was involved. And that, surely, was how Gray was categorized when compared to an e’nethaine with blood as pure as this little girl’s.
The girl held out her blue-black hand. Her skin seemed to glisten like a stone drawn up from the depths of the sea.
Resting in her palm was a rendeik pearl.
“You may take mine,” she said in the flowing, current-filled language of the sea. The language that pulled on Gray’s heart every time he heard it. Something he deeply desired but could not have.
She took a step closer. “I have no use for it, and you clearly do.”
Gray stared at her. This was…quite unusual. What did she think she was doing? The e’nethaine considered their children to be sacred gifts from the gods and therefore guarded them with a ferocity typically not seen upon the land. This one, however, was allowed to walk right up to him to give him the very thing he was striving—rather painfully—to obtain.
He released a sigh and instantly regretted it. His arm bumped forward, and he grimaced as thorns dug into his flesh.
The girl’s brows lowered in a frown. “This is not what you wanted to do.”
No, it was not. “Do you know how the Islanders manage to do this? Have you seen it done?”
She sniffed. “They bleed like you are bleeding. And then the shardon come and sometimes the leviathan, too, and there is much destruction.”
So that’s what it is. She was a little healer, wasn’t she? Only a healer would be concerned about the blood. She was trying to present a solution to his problem—the problem that was causing blood in her sea. This didn’t explain the situation fully, but perhaps her parent was abnormally indulgent.
“You do not dwell on the islands,” she stated in a tone that suggested he should already know this. “You don’t need to scratch your arms the way they do. It is foolish to try to trick the sea. You should stay on the land, if this is what you intend to do in the water.”
Unfortunately, she might be right in this case.
Gray breathed another sigh and managed to ram a thorn under his wrist. Trying not to say the word that flung itself to his lips, he said instead, “I don’t know why this is so difficult. Islanders do this all the time. It’s considered a sport. What am I doing wrong?”
He frowned at her. “What?”
“The time for hunting pearls is at the beginning of the year, when the oysters are spawning and the tubes are twice as wide. The people die—they die all the time if they hunt pearls during this month. You do not know very much for someone your age.”
Just now, that felt very true.
He looked at the pearl in her hand. A healer. This didn’t make any sense. How many people had died in these waters, and the e’nethaine had not done anything to help them? Something was odd with this girl. That she spoke to him. That she tried to help him, even though she clearly thought he was foolish.
Eventually he said, “Forgive the question, but why are you trying to help me?”
“You are bleeding severely.”
“It isn’t that severe.”
She nodded toward the red tube encasing his arm. “You could be close to puncturing an artery.”
“Ah. Well—that would be unfortunate.”
She nodded solemnly. “Yes. It would be, considering the prophecies about you.”
He blinked and said the most intelligent word that came to mind: “What?”
It was like she thought he hadn’t understood her. Leaning forward, she repeated, “The prophecies. Surely you know the prophecies about you. I understand that they were given to you quite recently.”
A long moment passed in which Gray hurried to sew together pieces that had seemed incredibly separate until now. He thought of the scroll the prophet had given him at the same time as the par’salthaine. Their adventure at the Castle of Gran Tharak seemed like such a long time ago, when it actually had been just a period of weeks.
The little girl was frowning at him again. “You…have read the prophecies, have you not?”
Gray gave her a look. “Of course.”
“All of them?”
She peered up at him steadily, like she was trying to make up her mind about something, and then nodded once. “Allow me to heal you before you die. It would be good if you didn’t die. We all know the prophecies, and we all think you should live to fulfill them.”
At the tail of those words, he nearly shivered, and that would have been horrible.
Thrusting his arm deeper into the oyster, he grabbed the offending pearl without any trouble and began to extract himself from the oyster’s clutches. The thorns found no purchase in his skin as he pulled himself free, and the oyster’s eye blinked rapidly like the evil little creature could not believe what he had just done.
Blood floated in the water. Multiple deep scrapes and quill-tip holes marred his skin. As he adjusted his footing on the sea floor, the sudden lightness in his head told him the healer girl might have been accurate about his blood loss.
“Now you have two pearls,” she said and dropped hers into his open palm. “And I will heal you before you die.”
She sighed like a much older woman who had seen a gross amount of stupidity in her lifetime. “If you desire, I will leave the scars. You can pretend to be an Islander even though you are not one.”
He held out his hand to her.
– 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.