Vast and Brutal Sea, page 2
Her cheeks turn red. “What I mean is, I’ve read the accounts of when you were a warrior. How you were the best dragon slayer in the whole Sea Guard.”
Arion looks away from the admiration on our faces and into some memory. “That was long ago.”
“The Sleeping Giants?” I urge.
“Aye,” Arion says again. “Some legends say our kind was as big as the beasts that roamed the earth and seas long before humans did. When the sea oracles created the trident pieces, they used the blood of three fierce animals as their core. The hippocampus.”
“Really big sea horse,” Kai whispers to me, “with webbed claws.”
“The kraken,” Arion continues, “whose ink and blood also give us the ability to walk.”
All four of us have ink tattoos in the shape of a trident between our shoulder blades. My mom, once a mermaid princess, had one too. Now that she’s been stripped of her tail, only a white scar remains.
“And the giant turtle.”
I laugh, picturing the baby turtles I got for my seventh birthday. “How bad can a giant turtle be?”
“Its teeth could bite through rock, its shell covered in spikes three times taller than you, Master Tristan.”
“All right, so pretty bad.”
“Once they roamed the seas freely. To possess the Giants of the Sea would be like having thousands of guards at your disposal. The creatures became coveted by our enemies, so the king sealed them with a key no one has ever found.”
“And you’re sure the River Clan can help us find the key?”
Brendan mutters indistinctly.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Kai scolds. Because she looks no older than me, I keep forgetting that she’s Brendan’s aunt.
Brendan wipes his lips with the back of his hand and pats his abs. “I’m certain they know about the key. We have to convince them to help us. That’s the challenge.”
“Why wouldn’t they help?” I ask.
“We merkind don’t do anything out of the goodness of our hearts,” Kai says.
“Everyone wants something,” I say. “I’ll find the thing they want.”
Arion is going to speak. Then his dark shoulders flex as he struggles to control the wheel. The ship tilts to the side so far I almost fall over the starboard. I grab on to a rope and brace myself as Kai falls into me. Brendan clings onto the rigging like a monkey, shouting as he hangs over the water, then rocks himself back onto the ship.
“What was that?” I shout.
“I’ve never lost control over the stern like this,” Arion says, wrestling to right the ship.
Kai lets go of me and her face scrunches against the sun. “The binding of the king is almost gone. The last days of the championship are unstable. Can’t you sense it? Soon, you will be free from your father’s punishment.”
Arion looks down at his wrist where the black rope has left a pearly scar where it rubs. A bald patch of scar tissue has formed at the base of his tail where more black rope winds around his black and white scales.
When he sees me staring, a sad smile appears on Arion’s severe face.
“What did he do?” I ask. I never have. Arion has been with me this whole time. This is the ship that ferries the landlocked from the shore to Toliss Island. Looking at his face, the new redness on his tail and around his wrists makes me angry. I should have asked every time.
“My father fought alongside Nieve when she rebelled against King Elanos. When she was a princess, there was no one like her. Men wanted her and feared her at the same time. It was the king who kept away from the people. Then she became a queen, given to the rebel tribes to keep the peace.”
“It didn’t work, I guess,” I say.
Arion shakes his head solemnly. “Now she’s a monster. After her rebellion failed and King Karanos took over, he couldn’t kill his own blood. He banished her beneath the sea. Those who didn’t surrender were killed. Those who surrendered were either indentured to the throne or sent off to the coral cave prisons. Others were stripped of their tails and left to swim ashore.”
“That’s where the landlocked come from,” I say.
This isn’t exactly news to me. I know that the landlocked of the court, the banished, are left landside as a punishment. Every time the court makes a stop on the shore, the landlocked are forced to give tithes in exchange for the court’s protection.
“You’re still a hero,” Brendan says to Arion. “My father says you saved his life. That you killed the leader of the dragons, Akos, the largest dragon in the New World.”
Guilt tastes like bile on my tongue. I don’t understand how my own family could be responsible for all of this. Now it falls to me to make it right.
“I’ve always served the crown.” Arion lets the black ropes hoist him up and away from us so we can’t see his eyes, only hear his voice. “My father was a lost soul. I know exactly who I am. There is honor in that.”
“Things will change in the future. I’ll make them change.” I bang the end of my scepter on the deck. It feels strange to hold, lighter than usual. Or maybe I’m overthinking what Kai said about everything being unstable.
Two blue and violet blurs appear in front of us, brandishing more trays of food.
“Don’t make easy promises, Cousin,” Brendan says as he bites into a seaweed wrap.
“It isn’t easy.” I push my food away. I can’t eat, not after Arion’s story.
Still, Blue stands beside his brother. They are carbon copies of each other, apart from the brilliant inky colors of their skins. Heads with long, spiked points and big, black eyes. Layla used to say they’re so ugly they’re cute and kept threatening to take one home as a pet.
No matter what is happening on the ship, the urchin brothers fix loose ropes and tears in the sails and keep us fed. I’m not hungry, but Brendan’s stomach is a black hole. Even on my best days after swim practice, I couldn’t eat as much as him. Blue tempts Brendan with a tray of oysters, a grilled fish with a face like a bulldog, and pickled sea veggies.
I try not to grimace. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Lord Sea must eat!” Blue begs. “Kings must be strong.” He smiles with his black teeth.
I take another chip and let it melt onto my tongue. It goes down like a mouth full of seawater. True. Kings must be strong. No weaknesses. And I have to get rid of mine.
It’s Brendan who says, “Kings must also be terribly attractive. If that were the case, it’d be me on the throne and not you, Cousin.”
Kai throws her head back and laughs. Arion grins down at us. Even Vi smiles bashfully. It’s the first time anyone has laughed in a while, and if it’s at my expense, I’ll let them have it.
Then there’s a wet splash and the sharp whistle of an arrow. Vi’s face is spotted with black freckles that begin to drip. The smile is still on his face as he turns to his brother.
My insides feel cold. My ears ring.
I reach out to him—the ship heaves as something crashes into us. Blue falls to his knees, black blood streaming from the arrow piercing his forehead.
Vi’s shriek is piercing.
Kai rams into me. Another arrow slices past my ear. The ship tilts sideways. Dozens of arms reach over the sides of the ship and pull themselves on board. Armored mermen in half shifts surround us. A whirlpool spins off in the distance. They must’ve come from there because there isn’t another ship in sight.
And then there’s Vi, shrieking and grabbing at Blue’s limp, dissolving body. He holds the golden arrow in his purple fist.
I roll over and try to reach him, but arms pull me back. It’s Brendan pulling me up. My vision is dizzy and warm; sticky blood trickles down my spine. I grip my scepter, aiming it outward at the mermen intruders. I try to concentrate on the scepter’s familiar humming current, but it isn’t there, like the batteries ha
“Who the hell are you?” I ask.
They don’t answer. On their breastplates is the symbol of a kraken. Scarlet scales cover their brown forearms and shins. Their hair is long and tied down to their backs. They all wield swords except for one, who readies another arrow.
But he’s not the leader. Standing on the ledge is a familiar face. The same amber eyes, like melting fire. The same stubborn frown between the brow—Adaro’s father, herald of the Southern Seas. His face is crushed, furious. I had that face when Kurt let Layla get away. The deep grooves around his eyes mark his ancient age.
“Leomaris,” Kai says breathlessly.
“Lord Leomaris.” One of the warriors takes the end of his spear and points it at Kai’s face.
“You killed my son,” Leomaris says to me.
The gold band around his head glints. He points his sword at me. He’s too far to stab me with it, but the intent is clear. There are ten of them and three of us. Blue is dead, and Vi wordlessly holds his brother’s body.
Two men have taken hold of Arion’s ropes, stretching him as taut as possible, immobilizing him.
“That’s not true,” I say. “Adaro was my friend.” Then instantly I wonder, was he? His cousin Sarabell did try to convince him to kill me. He refused. We were going to join forces against Nieve. But she got to him first. Nieve killed him and took the staff of the trident.
“Lies!” His warriors shout. “They saw you on Adaro’s ship. They told us.”
“Since when do you take the word of our enemies?” Kai asks.
“It is Karanos who betrays the throne,” Leomaris says. “He didn’t listen to my counsel. Adaro should be on that throne. Now because of you, he’s dead.”
“I didn’t kill him!”
No matter what I say, it isn’t going to matter. He blames me for their deaths. And really, could I have saved Adaro? I stopped myself from giving Nieve my scepter. I wouldn’t do it for Adaro, but I would have for Layla.
“We’re doing you a favor, land mutt,” one of the guards shouts.
“Yeah, how’s that?”
“There’s a bounty on your head from the sea witch herself. The whole of the oceans will be looking for you.”
“Then it’s in your best interest to take us alive,” Brendan says.
Leomaris holds his sword steadily. “Treasure won’t bring my son back. What will I take from you, Tristan Hart?”
“That’s really brave,” I say, glancing at the urchin, now clutching a decomposing mound of flesh. “Going after someone less than half your size. He was innocent.”
“None of them are innocent.” His eyes flicker to Arion. “Besides, I’ve found bigger targets.”
I shouldn’t turn my back to Leomaris, but I do. Arion pulls and pulls on his ropes. The ones on his left hand are loosening. Their archer raises his bow to our captain.
I run up the deck and aim my scepter at the bowman. A weak burst shoots from the quartz, but it’s enough to knock him overboard.
“Tristan!” Kai shouts.
Leomaris’s shadow looms over me. Kai blocks his blow. He raises his knee into her gut and she falls back.
“Didn’t your mother teach you not to hit girls?” I flip my scepter like a bat and slap it across his face.
“Do not speak to me about mothers,” he says, “when yours is a disgrace to our kind.”
I lash out blindly, but he throws me off balance with the flick of his wrist. I roll onto my knees swinging my scepter upward, but I hit air. Leomaris is gone.
Brendan dances around the biggest guards. The smile on my cousin’s face hides the sheer panic in his turquoise eyes. Brendan is fast, and he rolls between the merman’s legs. With two small blades, he slashes at the opponent’s ankles, and the giant crumbles.
A sharp blow knocks the wind out of me. Leomaris appears once again. I block his sword with my scepter.
“You’ve got the wrong guy!” I try to reason with him. “It’s Nieve you want. It’s not too late. We can defeat her.”
There’s something electric in his eyes. Sarabell had it too—the dark spark of the magic in their family. Leomaris smiles cruelly. He raises a hand and a wave rises up in the air, following his movements. It crashes over the deck, washing Blue’s body away. Vi picks up a discarded weapon on the deck, a spike carved of stone. He stabs a guard in the thigh. But the guard turns around with a fierce growl.
Leomaris is on me, pressing his hands on my chest. My body seizes, and for a beat, my heart stops. I blink. See black. The guard raises his sword and brings it down, cleaving Vi in two.
“No!” Kai shouts.
Leomaris electrocutes me. I’m shaking, crying, convulsing. My muscles lock, fingers gripped tightly around my scepter. I search for the power inside my scepter but all I can do is scream in frustration because when I need the power the most, it’s failing me. Leomaris lifts his hands off me to watch me choke. He reaches back down for my throat, but the ship heaves under a wave. I roll out from under him and onto my knees. I stab the scepter into his thigh. Leomaris screams at the same time his fist hits my face. My head spins as I land on my back, my entire body shaking.
Beside me, Kai is screaming, pinned under a merman with muscles like boulders. Tears spill from her face as if her strength is leaving her, and her eyes focus on the bloody mess of the urchin’s body beside her.
Brendan loses his grin and uses all his strength to drive a sword through the warrior pinning Kai down. The body decomposes into a messy splash over her face and she chokes.
Two remaining guards flank a bleeding Leomaris, balancing like statues on the side of the ship. They’ve let go of Arion’s restraints and the captain rises up beside me.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
“The mist,” Arion hisses. “You must swim to it.”
The air thickens around us. I step forward, keeping my friends behind me. My head is a jumble of words. What do you say to a man dead set on killing you?
Leomaris pulls out a slender flask with a liquid that radiates neon blue. Blood trickles down his leg, but it doesn’t stop him from smiling.
“Combat fire,” Kai says breathlessly. She takes a step back.
The last time I came across combat fire, I saw it consume a Brooklyn street.
“Don’t do this,” Kai pleads. Her fingers are white, pulling at Arion’s ropes. Brendan slashes with his sword but it won’t cut. I can’t concentrate enough to channel the scepter, and as a last resort, I stab at the rope with the crystal end.
“I didn’t,” Leomaris says, pointing a finger at me. “He did.”
“We have to get off the ship,” Brendan hisses. “Now.”
“Arion,” I say.
“Go, all of you. Go now!”
I can’t. It’s caught in my throat when Arion takes Brendan and Kai and flings them overboard. It makes Leomaris chuckle. He wags the vial in his fingers.
“Even after all the court has done to you, you spare them?”
Arion won’t answer. He grabs me with the full intent of throwing me off the ship. It’s for my own good. I have to get to the mist. But I won’t let him, and neither will Leomaris’s guards because they launch themselves on me, pulling me back and out of Arion’s grip. I lash out but I slice at air. The merman hits me so hard that I wonder if my head’s been split in two. I fall forward on my face and brace for the next hit that never comes. The mermen retreat beside Leomaris.
“I will destroy everyone you love,” Leomaris tells me. “And it gives me great satisfaction knowing you won’t be there to save them.”
Then the herald of the Southern Seas dives backward into the whirlpool he summoned. His men follow and then the sea is still. The vial spins in the air, suspended, until it shatters onto the deck, bleeding blue
The explosion burns black and blue. The flames are living things, slithering along the deck, up the masts and chomping away at the sails. I try frantically to make my scepter work, but with every heaving breath, my insides ache and fill with smoke, and I know the power is gone. I don’t understand what I did—
A ringing fills my head, the aftereffect of the first blast. I grit my teeth to stop myself from screaming. Arion isn’t screaming. In fact, when I open my eyes, Arion isn’t beside me.
He hangs from one hand that looks broken. Blasts fill the morning sky as the combat fire eats our powder keg. It’s like the Fourth of July. The contents of the ship are like shrapnel. Something hot stabs my thigh.
Get up, Tristan, I tell myself. Get up or die.
“Leave me,” Arion yells, hoarse desperation in his voice.
But I can’t leave him behind. I can’t leave him like this.
I push myself up on the side of the ship for support. Blue flames crackle and devour the deck, licking at my heels as I make my way to where Arion hangs at the masthead. The sound of wood breaking is like the tick of a time bomb. The ship snaps in half, and I slam into the knobs of the steering wheel.
Arion is screaming.
My blade slices through the ropes tying down his right hand. It gives! His hand hangs broken and he slumps against me.
“I got you,” I say. “Just two more.”
But when I look into his onyx eyes, I know he heard it too—the sizzle of fire as it consumes our weapons hold below, followed by a blinding white-blue light, a deafening silence, and then our screams as the rest of the ship blows up, and a gust knocks me into the waves.
The first time I was lost at sea, I was unconscious.
Now, I snap awake with the knowledge that I have no idea where I am. I taste blood in the water and know it’s mine. A few feet ahead is the shipwreck. It’s the same ship that took me to Toliss Island to present me to my grandfather and the Sea Court. That took me to the Vanishing Cove. That brought me back to Coney Island.
Tumultuous waves pull me in different directions, but I keep my eyes trained on the burning ship and swim around it. All of its contents are spilling from the seams. Silverware, cannon balls, daggers, and the glass jars the urchin brothers collected. The rest is burned beyond recognition.
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