Vast and Brutal Sea, page 4
A head with a long, golden beak and glossy black eyes is attached to a six-inch neck. Its shimmery feathers remind me of oil slicks after it rains in Brooklyn. Then its body becomes hard, like lizard skin in bright yellow and green splatters that change with the light. The berry goes down its gob and it grabs another, this time giving it to me.
“Thanks,” I say.
He nods. I swear the dragon-bird nods at me. It pecks at the boulder a dozen times and then flies into the air, swooping into an arc and stopping on a branch. The bird makes a deep sound, like the lowest B flat on a piano, and flaps thin, filmy wings. I strap on my weapons and gather my strewn possessions back into my backpack. The dragon-bird returns to the rock, this time swallowing the fuzzy orange worm in one gulp.
“Gross,” I say. “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
See, this is the kind of sidekick I needed from the beginning. Animals are much more trustworthy than mermen or people. You have your singing dragons, your loyal crabs, your helpful mice that can sew. I mean, I’m a sea prince, for fuck’s sake.
I break into a run on the flat, green path between the forest and the river. Tiny shimmering insects rise from the stream and swarm around me, curious but non-threatening, then fall behind. The land goes on for miles. The sky has its blend of sunsets. The moon and sun and stars hang like mobiles waiting for a breeze. I keep my breath steady and my eyes on the lizard-bird. I can hear drums in the distance and I know I’m on to something. The clan is so close—
Then my foot gets caught and I tumble forward into a pool of mud. I remember the obstacle course at the end-of-the-semester gym class. The mud pit always gets me. I kick but the mud pit feels like suction, pulling me down a drain. My lizard-bird chirps happily nearby. I spit out the mud and shout, “You little shit! You led me here!”
He cocks his head and snaps at me before taking off from his perch and heading all the way into the sky. The last sound the bird makes definitely sounds like a laugh.
“Wait! Come back!”
I shut my mouth because I’m sinking more. My skin is starting to itch. Long branches poke my legs. At least, I hope they’re branches, not the bones of other poor souls that met the same fate. Because this is not how I plan to go. Not in a mud pit. I stab my dagger as far as I can out of the pit and try to pull myself up. The ground is so soft that I might as well be slicing pie.
I calm my breathing and grab at the long grass around me. It comes out from the roots, but the sinking feeling loosens up.
I’ve got this. I get into the rhythm of grabbing and pulling and grabbing and pulling. It occurs to me that I’m running out of nearby grass when a growl rumbles through the forest. Birds take flight. Glass frogs jump away from the stones and into the river. The forest’s edge moves. Something snarls in the shadows.
This is it’s trap and I’m in it.
I can smell the dried mud on its fur, the fresh blood on its teeth.
No, the mud isn’t going to take me.
The beast is—
Long talons grab for my outstretched hand, and I jerk back into the mud. The B flat of the lizard-bird rings in timeless day. I grab my dagger and swing out, but it slices through air and I can’t reach much further.
A body—thank Poseidon—a human body lunges at the beast. He tucks and rolls between its hind legs, then jumps on the creature, which throws him right off in a second. The beast leaps over the blond guy. It lays a scaly paw on his chest and lowers its face so I can finally see it—a creature I have no name for. The head of a dragon and a reptilian coarse hide, with long claws that could shred a mountain to a pebble. I blink to make sure I’m seeing straight. From the belly on, the beast has the golden hind legs of a lion and a sea serpent’s long, curling tail. It opens its long snout over my rescuer’s face, saliva dribbling all over him. I try to grab on to solid ground, the suction of the pit pulling on me like the tide. Between Blondie, me, and the lizard-bird, I can’t tell whose screams are whose as we wait for the death bite that never comes.
The beast leaps sideways and dashes back into the forest, disappearing into its shadows.
Blondie gets up at once, readying his staff to chase after it.
“Hey!” I shout. “Come back!”
He turns around. I’m hit with a wave of familiarity. I know his face. And from the shock on his, he knows mine.
“Lord Tristan,” he says, kneeling.
“Save the formalities for later, Dylan,” I say to the until-now-missing Champion of the West. His blond hair falls over his blue eyes, and I wonder if he’s been here all this time.
I grab onto the staff he extends, and he pulls me onto solid ground.
“Best wash this muck off,” he says. “It’ll burn your flesh right off when it hardens.”
Then he points to a spot on his leg where the scales don’t grow around the burn.
“Good to know,” I say, then jump into the river.
“How did you find me?” Dylan asks, ripping the meat off the bone of a rabbit-like creature he caught in one of his many booby traps. About a mile from where the mud pit is, Dylan has made a fort in a small clearing. He’s got a proper roasting spit and a hammock of woven vines. It’s like he’s hiding from the wild right smack in the middle of it.
He looks slimmer than the last time I saw him. What is it about this championship that takes the life out of us? The thin platinum band on his forehead is tarnished, and a long, pearly scar marks an X on the right side of his chest. The firelight makes the powder blue scales on his arms glisten. Even though we’re not in the water, we wear them on our shins and forearms like banner shields.
“No offense, man,” I say, “but I wasn’t exactly looking for you.”
He holds his hands over the flames and stares. The red stone is a bright ember in the center, like an all-seeing eye.
“Right.” He forces a smile. “I thought that since I’ve been here for, what? Months? A year? Can’t keep track of the days when the sun and moon don’t move. I have no knowledge of what’s happening out there—”
I cross my hands into a T. “Hold up. Months? Are you kidding? You think you’ve been here for months and you haven’t gone back?”
Dylan shakes his head. “I can’t find a way out! Every time I swim into the ocean, it spits me back onto the white beach. I’ve walked all over the island, and nothing. There was supposed to be a clan here, but if there is one, they haven’t shown themselves to me because I’ve tried. I have.”
The last bit sounds more like he’s trying to convince himself rather than me. Dylan slumps a bit and I can see how tired he is. He’s a full beard away from being a castaway.
“Then the championship hasn’t ended.” Dylan looks behind me to where the quartz scepter is strapped to my back. “Of course it hasn’t or you wouldn’t be here.”
“You haven’t been here for months,” I tell him.
His head snaps up and confusion makes his face scrunch up.
“Twelve days.” I stoke the fire and eat some more of the rabbit. It’s sweet and tender.
He holds his head in his hands. “He should never have made me come here.”
Fire crackles and pops. I use my staff to turn the logs.
“My father.” The lion merman swallows and starts. “After we left Toliss, my father—the herald of the Western Seas—had everything planned out. He said the oracles were in the most obvious of our sacred places. We would start at the Glass Castle. But when I got there, the oracle was gone. Instead we were attacked by a sea dragon—”
“Been there,” I say, laughing.
“I knew there was something strange about all this. Why wouldn’t the king simply give you the throne? You are his true kin. My father said it was because he would—he would not allow it. None of the heralds would have a human-raised boy on our throne.”
I nod, keeping my eyes on him. He looks broken. Something inside him is changed forever, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. That’s why he’s here. Because he’s got a good heart, a fighting heart. I could use a merman like Dylan on my side.
“So we kept searching for an oracle. My father’s councilman thought about this land. The Vale of Tears. What better place to hide an oracle but a place outside of time? But on our way here, we were attacked by dozens of merrows. I didn’t know what they were at first. I’d only heard about them. They’re not supposed to grow so large. They were on their way landside and I couldn’t—I knew the terror they’d wreak on land so I turned my army from my father’s and followed them. That’s when more of them arrived and took my father’s ship. I barely got away, swimming right into the mist.”
“What did you see in the mist?”
But he doesn’t answer. Instead his eyes flick around the dark then back at me. “What about you? Have you seen the merrows?”
I laugh again. I can’t help but laugh. Champions. We’re supposed to be kings and here we are, eating skinny rabbit creatures and hiding from beasts. So I tell him. All of it. From the moment I shifted in the bathtub and Kurt and Thalia came into my life to take me to Toliss. Looking for the oracle, the merrows attacking my school. How the princesses showed up and made the student body crazy. Gwen and how she helped me find Shelly. Shelly giving me the scepter. The strange marketplace at the Vanishing Cove. The promise I made to the nautilus maid—that part I keep to myself.
The rest comes pouring out of me. I tell him of my courting the mermaid princesses. How Adaro came to Coney. How Nieve killed him. How we found the eldest oracle, Lucine—then Kurt.
By the end of it, I’m spent. I stare at the fire, the red eye, the wood consuming itself, and I wonder if I could have changed any of it.
“Kurtomathetis is King Karanos’s son?” Dylan marvels.
I nod once.
“There were rumors of how strange Kurtomathetis was in that family. Thalia had their mother’s gift of speaking to sea animals. Their father could control fire, a gift so rare it was only passed on to sons. But it died with him, didn’t it?”
I don’t want to talk about Kurt. “So you’ve been here all this time and you haven’t found the river folk?”
“More like they don’t want to be found.” Dylan shakes his head. “The tribe is hidden in the center of the land, but I can’t get deep enough into the woods without arriving back where I started. It’s like I’m going in circles! There’s the beast, which the councilman failed to mention. It nearly got me when I first got here. But there are plenty of fish in the river. Game in the forest. Berries in the bushes. It rains and I believe that marks the beginning of the day.”
“Then it’s a good thing I showed up. You saved me from the lion-dragon-beast thing, and when I get out of here, you’ll be able to go back home.”
“The trident pieces have been found, Lord Tristan,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll be much use as another champion.”
I give him a light punch on the shoulder. “You are seriously not seeing what I’m seeing. You’re a great fighter. Better than Kurt. He’s like a ballerina with a sword. All you had is a carved piece of wood! Consider yourself hired when we get back to our world.”
Dylan smirks at my words. He holds on tightly to his staff, looking up at the mobile sky. At the tiny home he’s built for himself. Then it hits me: it’s not that he can’t get out. It’s that he doesn’t want to.
I say, “Time out. You’ve been here playing survivor this whole time while the rest of us are trying to see this championship through, and now that I’m offering a way out, you’d rather stay in the Land before Time?”
“You don’t even have a way out! You’re barely in!” When Dylan shouts, the vein in his neck pops out.
“Oh, it’s like that, right?”
“It’s like what?” He gets up and takes a step out of our circle. “I didn’t ask for you to come here. I didn’t ask for my father to choose me instead of my brother. Now they’re both dead because I failed at the one thing I was supposed to do as his heir. I can’t go back to my people.”
He sits on the ground with his back to me. Something stirs out there. Perhaps it’s the beast and its trusty lizard-bird. Or maybe it’s the Vale itself giving me a warning. Either way, I keep my dagger in hand and rack my brain for something good to say to Dylan.
“I’m sorry about your family,” I say. “But you still have the people of your court who are fighting the silver mermaid. Family is a lot more than blood and DNA. Not that you would know about DNA because merpeople don’t have biology class. And I’m not entirely sure what they would teach you in mer high school other than advanced swimming and sword fighting and that nobody likes dragons.”
“I don’t understand the things you say, Lord Tristan,” Dylan says, trying to suppress his laughter. He gets up from his self-imposed time-out then comes back to the fireside. “Do you know the last thing my father and I fought about?”
I shake my head. My dad and I have only had one fight. It was over whether or not I should get a summer job as a lifeguard. I never understood why my parents got so nervous when I kept pushing to see how far out I could swim until now.
“We fought about my place in our court. I told him I didn’t want to be like him, with the next thousand years of my life mapped out for me.” Dylan takes the platinum band off his head and holds it in his hands. “He even had a princess all picked out! And she moved right into my chambers without even asking if I wanted her there.”
The forest has gotten so quiet that not even the wind makes a peep.
“What did she have, bad teeth?” I set down my dagger. “Oh man, was she one of those octo-maids, because multiple hands might not be a bad thing.”
“Just call me Tristan.”
“The problem with the princess—” Dylan seems to be listening to voices in his head. He looks down at his feet and swallows the dryness from his tongue. “The problem was that she was a princess. My father turned down my choice of stethos because he was from a lesser family.”
I raise my hand. “What the hell is a stethos?”
That word sparks a memory of Sarabell. The minute I think of her, I think of Adaro, then Leomaris. The blue flames. Arion.
Then Dylan pushes me on the ground.
“What the f—”
“Tristan,” Dylan says, but he’s not looking at me.
A dozen warriors surround us, their skin as see-through as glass and their bows pulled tightly, arrows aimed right at our heads.
Warriors surround us. Their armor is green leather. Their skin is nearly translucent. I can see the outline of ribs, lungs, and hearts beating. The River Clan.
I raise my hands, but that makes half of them turn their arrows on me.
“Wait a minute, guys,” I say. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“I don’t think they want to talk,” Dylan warns.
“I’m Tristan Hart and this is Dylan of the Western Seas—”
One of the warriors steps forward. I wonder how fast I can reach for my dagger. She raises a blade and, with one swipe at me, cuts the leather bound around my chest. My harness falls off into her hands. My weapons clink against each other.
Not fast enough, I guess.
“We know who you are, Land Prince,” the girl says. Her face is no longer translucent but brown. Her irises are like the black and amber swirls in tiger stone. She knocks the wind from me with a single hit in the solar plexus.
While I choke, someone pulls my arms back and binds my wrists together. Dylan falls beside me. She pokes me with Dylan’s staff.
“If you wanted to tie us up, you just had to ask,” I say.
She hits me again, and this time it hurts too much to speak. Her warriors laugh. One lig
“Thank you,” I say to the blindfolder. “I forgot my sunglasses at home. Damn UV rays, really bad for you.”
That elicits another blow to my back.
“A little lower,” I say. “I have all these kinks from my last explosion.”
I feel hands pushing me forward and hear the quick feet of Dylan beside me. “Do you want them to tear you apart?” he asks.
“Can’t make it too easy for them,” I say.
“You guys should try out my weapons,” I shout to the leader. “They slice through bone really nicely.”
“And have my flesh burned off when I touch one of them?” she asks. “Keep walking.”
“Damn, there goes my maniacal plan,” I say as hands shove me. “What’s your plan? My parents are pretty middle class so we don’t have much in the way of ransom. My college fund won’t get you much in this economy.”
“Can I put an arrow through his jaw?” A dude’s voice comes from somewhere in the back. “His babbling offends the river gods.”
“Sorry, river gods!”
“Lord Sea,” Dylan hisses.
For his benefit, I stop talking. Brendan didn’t mention anything about angry see-through people. What have I gotten myself into?
A hand presses against my chest. We must be at another waterfall because it sounds like water rushing everywhere. When my blindfold is cut off, I know I’m right. Here the trees grow thicker and lower to the ground.
“Where’s your merry band of lost boys and girls?” I ask.
The others have vanished, but Tiger Eyes is beside a wall covered in ivy.
“You talk much for someone who’s lost the things he loves the most.”
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