Vast and Brutal Sea, page 6
“Can’t let you have all the fun, now can I?” Brendan says, patting my back. “Arion?”
I shake my head. We look down at our feet. Kai holds on to my hand and squeezes for a while.
“Have either of you seen Dylan?” I ask. “I found him on the outer ring. How did you guys get here?”
They lead the way through the clearing. They’re so—happy. Unburdened. How can they be, with all that’s going on?
“Dylan is pillaging the food supply,” Brendan says. “Cousin, this place is marvelous. These people are marvelous. Everything is—”
“Marvelous?” I finish for him.
He nods rapidly. His turquoise eyes are glossy and dilated. Perhaps it’s all this fresh air.
“I’ve nearly forgotten,” Brendan says. “It’s time for the falls!”
“Time for what falls?” I pull him back from the direction he’s going and close our triangle so I can whisper.
“We’ve been invited by the daughters of the tribe to attend. Come now.”
“We can’t go to any falls.” I hold his arm so he won’t run off. “We have to figure out what’s going on here.”
Brendan slings his arms around Kai and me. His smile is infectious. “What did Isi tell you?”
“She said they would welcome me to the village tonight and then start my training to kill the beast.”
He smacks my back. “See? Let’s go to the falls.”
“Why don’t you go,” Kai says playfully, “and I’ll take Tristan to our tent. We’ll meet you there.”
Brendan gives us a thumbs-up then sprints down through the trees, his red hair a beacon in the green.
“Did he smoke their magic mushroom?” I ask Kai.
“It’s this place, Tristan,” she says. “Ever since he was a guppy, he’s talked about finding fantastical worlds outside our own, just like this one. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“It’s something all right,” I mumble to myself.
She leads me to a tent just like the one we left. There are furs and cots that look inviting.
“Isi has been very kind to us,” Kai says, sitting on one of the four cots. “The minute we got here, we told her you wouldn’t be far behind. What happened there?”
She points to my sternum harness hanging on my shoulder.
“They were just being very welcoming,” I say, using the same wondrous tone she was.
She rolls her eyes, a habit she picked up from Layla. “Take out the weapons, please.”
I do and hand her the leather straps. She pulls a thick needle and thread from a wooden box in the corner of the room. There are other supplies there—fresh fruits, a wooden comb (not that I need one anymore), and folded throws. It’s a five-star magical-island hotel.
I sit beside her while she sews. “Kai, what do you know about the trident?”
She sticks the needle into the leather and snaps the string with her teeth. “I told you all I know when you put me in that Wonder Wheel contraption that nearly killed us. Why?”
“I’ve been having these dreams. It’s like I’m watching Kurt and Nieve and I’m right there, but they can’t see me. Sometimes it hurts when I wake up, like a side effect.”
Kai pricks her finger and curses. “I’m not very good at this.”
“Just leave it.”
“I can’t. It was made for you.” She shakes her head. Threads the needle again. “I can’t say why you’re having visions of the other champions. Perhaps it’s brought on by the trident pieces.”
“Then they can have visions of me too.”
Kai yelps when she sticks her finger again, but she doesn’t stop. “I doubt it. In the Vale of Tears, the outside world exists but with a thin separation and at a different pace. Life goes on here forever, while only seconds pass in our home. Only one is unaware.”
“Like a two-way mirror. So when we go back home, Kurt and Nieve will be able to see me.”
“It only happens when you dream?”
I nod, rubbing my aching head. “So far, yes. I can’t control it either.”
She smirks. “Then try not to fall unconscious.”
“Perhaps Isi can help.”
“Yeah, they were really helpful to Dylan and me when they sneaked up on us.” I run my hand on the soft animal fur on the bed and think of the Naga. Where do creatures like that come from? How do a lion and a dragon and a serpent get together to make that beast? How do half humans and half fish? Then I count. One, two, three, four beds. They were expecting us.
“Tristan,” she says in that warning way of hers. Like I’m the one being unreasonable.
“Did they greet you with bows and arrows?”
“They did. But they can’t be too careful, Tristan. That terrible creature is out there. We tried to go with them, but they told us we’d slow them down. But they’ve kept us safe. They gave us this tent.”
“Not many tents to go around?”
“Many of the river people don’t have beds.” She bites the thread then restrings it. “They sleep in the river. If they sleep at all.”
“Makes sense.” I don’t want to come right out and say, “Hey, I don’t trust these people.” For all we know, they could be listening to us, and as of now, I don’t know where the Exit sign is.
“Did they know Dylan was out there with that beastie?” I ask.
She doesn’t respond because she knows that they knew. That they left him out there. So much for their hospitality.
“The warriors are making a bow for Brendan,” she says lightly. “They’ve even let me look at their scrolls.”
“When I go to new places, I also love to check out the library,” I say. Not.
She has a curious look in her eye. “It’s the best way to learn about your hosts. Through their history.”
“What have you learned so far?”
She smiles. “Tristan—there’s an oracle here.”
We’re silent, looking at the silhouettes that pass in front of the tent like our own black-and-white movie.
“The trident pieces have been found,” I say. “Does it matter?”
“When one of the five oracles is dead, and another is trying to shape our future to her own liking? I’d say it’s worth a small conversation.”
“I’m tired of chasing them.” I sit up. “All I want is to drive this pointy end through Nieve after I get the staff and Layla back.”
“And Kurt? Will you be able to do the same to him?”
I open my mouth to answer the same question I’ve been asking myself since I found out who Kurt was—what it would mean for us.
“I beg your pardon,” Kai says. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
I let it go for now. “Is time moving back home?”
“The way I understand it, if we go back now, seconds will have gone by. How do you say, ‘Take it easy, dude’?”
I laugh. “I can’t take it easy. Not ’til this is over. How can Brendan go to a pool party at a time like this? Let’s snoop around.”
“I have a feeling Chief Yoda is hiding something from me.” There, I said it.
Kai gives me a sideways glance, like she’s expecting watery shapes to materialize and take us away. But she doesn’t disagree. “I can’t. I can only look at their archives when one of the elders is there.”
“Then I have to snoop around myself.”
She snaps the needle from the thread. “My work is not as good as Blue’s is”—she catches herself— “was.”
I strap the leather across my chest and over my shoulder then sheathe my weapons. “Fine. You read. I explore. I’m serious Kai. My merman senses are tingling.”
She gives me a small smile. I want her to see what I see, beyond the hospitality and land of paradise. I want her to be caref
“I’ll see you then.” I grab a fruit from the tray of supplies. It’s as hard as an apple, with deep violet skin.
“Tristan,” Kai says. It’s the smallest of movements, her head cocked to the side, as if she’s playing with her hair. But her eyes are steely, warning as they look to me then to the outline of a guard standing outside our tent. Totally betraying the smile on her lips as she whispers, “Whatever you do, don’t eat that.”
Rule number one: Don’t eat the purple fruit.
Rule number two: Don’t underestimate the book nerd.
Rule number three: Don’t act suspicious.
Sure, I’m making these up as I go along, but if we’re going to survive the Vale of Tears, I have to play along with whatever games they’re setting up.
As I walk, more and more villagers seem to turn into their translucent selves, hiding behind trees or just standing with their moving eyes and guts showing. I swing by the elders’ tent to see if the oracle is in there, but when I peek my head inside, it’s empty. A warrior sees me and starts advancing on me so I smile like I got lost and keep walking.
There’s a main square where people trade everything from food and cloth to weapons. Fuzzy green things that look like coconuts and dozens of leafy greens. Linens and silks and shields made of copper and wood. I don’t spot the purple apples from our tent.
I walk through the aisles and pick up an arrowhead. When I touch the tip, I yelp as it pricks my skin even though I barely touched it. The vendor chuckles as I put it back and walk away.
Rule number four: Don’t. Touch. Anything.
A pretty girl tempts me with a string of honey-colored beads. “For your heart’s desire.”
They remind me of Layla’s eyes.
“I don’t have any money.”
She shakes her head. “Trade.”
I pat down my body, but I have nothing to trade with. Nothing that I’d part with.
The girl takes my arm, her touch soft as feathers on the scales on my forearms.
“They turn to sand.”
She shakes her head again. I’m starting to think that she thinks I’m a moron. “Yes?”
“You can try, I guess.”
Then she plucks two of them. It stings as much as the time I let Layla manscape my eyebrows. The river girl holds one scale on each earlobe and smiles.
“That’s a little gross,” I say, but I take the glass bead necklace and wrap it around my wrist twice until I can give it to Layla.
“Where’s the armory?” I ask her.
“That,” she says, “I will tell you for a kiss.”
My tongue is tied and I back away slowly, realizing that half a dozen girls materialize behind her and burst into giggles.
An old woman one stand over sucks her teeth. She beats a stone over a fresh leather hide to stretch the material. “Armory is down river. Watch your head.”
I follow the river until I get to a clearing in the woods. The sun is blocked by long weeping trees, like a natural barrier for the warriors training within. I try to approach slowly, wishing I were part ninja in addition to the whole merman thing. But with every step, I’m keenly aware of stray branches snapping under my feet, and for a moment, I let myself think of Gwen and her pink smile while telling me how clunky legs were.
She’s not wrong.
An arrow hisses past my ear the minute I step into the clearing. My hand instinctively goes to my right ear to make sure it’s still there. The last time someone shot an arrow at me, it went straight through my palm. This one sinks into the tree behind me.
I slice it in half with Triton’s dagger. Grumble is standing smugly between Yara and Dylan. They don’t think it’s so funny, and so Grumble, outnumbered, bows in a mock apology.
“You missed,” I say, putting my dagger and his bow between us. I wonder how fast he can draw an arrow from his quiver before I raise my dagger.
“No,” Grumble says. “I hit just where I meant to.”
Dylan tries to form some sort of polite conversation. I need to get him alone and tell him not to eat the purple apples, but he’s giddy from something else. “Tristan, Karel and Yara were showing me some of their weaponry. It’s truly fantastic work.” He holds out a fighting staff with an intricately etched design. He spins it between his hands. He bats at the air in front of him, his movements precise and calculated. When he switches sides, he finds he has an opponent. One of the warriors is challenging him.
At first Dylan hesitates. But when he sees his opponent’s playful smile, he relaxes, and they break into a blur of hits that are too fast for me to follow. As they fight, I feel Yara and Grumble’s eyes on me, the way my chemistry teacher watches me when I start mixing things that I’m not supposed to be mixing. Except maybe I’m the experiment here.
“Impressive toys,” I say.
“We were sent here without weapons,” Grumble says. “But we made our own to protect ourselves from the beast.”
He hands me a spear. The wood is light but solid with thin vines carved all over. The spearhead is glass. Sharp. I picture it going through Archer’s gut.
“When do we start my training?” I say, my knees almost shaking. “Dylan gets to train.”
Yara nods in Dylan’s direction. “Dylan isn’t training. He’s flirting.”
“Before, when we lived on the human plane, we supplied weapons to the court,” Grumble continues. “But they prefer their steel and combat fire now.”
The blue flame surfaces in my mind, and then I shove it away before it can consume me the way it did the ship.
“Are you so eager to feel pain, Land Prince?” Grumble says, walking slightly behind me. I turn because I don’t like anyone at my back.
“I can handle it.”
He sniffs the air around me. He presses a finger on my chest, and even though he barely touches me, I can feel a force push me back and the weeping vines whip the air around us. I step back, back, back until we are outside the circle of trees. Dylan and Yara and the others are a distant echo, and there is only Karel pushing me. Why does he hate me so much? I’m a pretty nice guy. But it’s like a lion realizing there’s an intruder in his pride.
He shakes his head, dispelling all of my confidence. “You do not know, Land Prince. You hide behind a mask of strength, but I can see what you keep underneath. You are cloaked in fear, and that fear will break your human heart until there is nothing and you are alone in the dark.”
I stumble back. He gives me one last push, then he’s gone, but his laughter lingers in the wind. I break into a run.
Rule number five: Don’t piss off Grumble. I mean Karel.
As I run back to the village, I notice the soft change in the moons. They do move. Not very far, but a purple light falls over the village, which is as dark as it ever gets down here without being pitch black.
Leaves crunch hard in front of me and I draw out my dagger. She chuckles in her translucent form.
“I know you’re there, Yara.”
I turn, but I don’t know if I’m turning the right way because I can’t see her. Then when I look closely, I see the soft ripple in the air. She blinks her tiger eyes and then shows the rest of herself.
“Put that away, Land Prince.” She walks ahead of me with her quiver full of arrows and bow around her arm.
“Do you always walk around here fully loaded?” I jog to keep pace with her.
She looks at my harness with my dagger in the front and the scepter in the back. “I hope Karel hasn’t made you change your mind.”
“He’s not that scary.” I shake my head, but I’d be a fool to say Karel doesn’t rattle me. So I’m going to be the fool and not say it, just think it. “I have to go through with this, Yara. My people, the ones here, the ones on the other side, they depend on it.”
“Why aren’t you as angry as Grumble?” I ask. “I mean Karel.”
She stops and watches the sky as the purple darkness deepens around us. “I was much younger when we came to the Vale of Tears. I’ve grown up here. It is my home, more than the river I was born in. For Karel, for many of the older generation, it will always be a place of banishment.”
I think of Coney Island, the beach, Layla sitting on our lifeguard tower with the sun in her wavy hair. No matter where I end up, that will always be my home. The thought of it weighs down on my chest. I breathe fast, like it’s going out of style.
Something falls from above, right at my feet. I pick up the purple apple and brush the dirt off the skin. Unlike the weeping trees, this one holds its branches up, reaching toward the sky. Its leaves are as dark as the skin of the fruit it gives.
“The goddess tree,” Yara says. “The only one we’ve found in the Vale.”
I hold it out to Yara.
She shakes her head, but I see her body stiffen. “Too sweet for my taste. The kids gobble it up.”
I hold it closer to me to see if she’ll stop me from eating it.
“It’s time to eat,” she says, pressing her hand on mine until I lower the fruit from my lips. “You’ll spoil your appetite.”
I throw the fruit behind me.
We pass the tent where I’m staying on the outside of the village square, and I’m feeling a little bit better because at least I can trust Yara. There’s a massive fire pit that looks like it gets regular use, and people are surfacing from the river, from tents, hopping out of trees to gather around for dinner. Off to the side there’s a wooden dais that looks like it’s hardly ever been used.
“This is the town square. We have dinner collectively every night.”
“Is that like a family tradition?”
She shakes her head. “To make sure we’re all accounted for.”
I follow her as she walks past the tent they shoved me into when I first got here. “The tent of the elders. Isi is our leader. Karel and I are in charge of training our children. The Tree Mother is—”
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