Vast and brutal sea, p.8

Vast and Brutal Sea, page 8

 

Vast and Brutal Sea
 


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  “I’m sure you can jump right into the fun.”

  She ignores my jibe and uncrosses her arms. Her long, white dress is dirty where it trails on the ground. I want to ask what she was doing last night at the edge of the woods. I don’t know much about religion, but it looked to me like she was praying. I decided it’s not my place to ask so I leave it alone.

  “I wanted to walk you to your next session,” she says, heading away from the music and laughter behind us.

  I want to say that I’ll find my way, but all I see is tall tree, slightly taller tree, tree that looks like all the other trees.

  “So, do you normally let your emotionally unstable warrior shove your visitors off a cliff?”

  I think she chuckles, but it could also be the squirrels in the trees.

  “Only when they ask,” she says. “You asked to be trained. So you are being trained.”

  “I guess I was picturing a montage with a sweet eighties hair band in the background and my friends cheering at the finish line.”

  She stares at me blankly, all, What planet are you from?

  I’m from Brooklyn, lady.

  “Just out of curiosity,” I start. “How many days are we talking about? I’m in a ‘places to go, sea witches to kill’ kind of situation.”

  “You have just faced your greatest fear,” she says. “But you still haven’t discovered patience.”

  “It’s hard to be patient when lives are in your hands.”

  “Nieve has been patient, and look where it’s gotten her.”

  “Yes, because I should take life lessons from a mass murderer,” I say, but I’ve clearly offended Isi. She clenches her jaw and keeps her eyes trained on the path ahead.

  “Hey, where does the oracle go? Every time I go by her tent, she’s not there. Do I need, like, an appointment?”

  Isi’s eye twitches a little. I can’t get a read on her. I think she likes me better when I don’t ask questions. “The Tree Mother makes her presence known when she feels it is needed.”

  “So no?”

  “No.”

  “Hey, what else can you tell me about the Naga? Is its saliva poisonous like a sea dragon’s? Can it breathe fire? Can—”

  She holds up her hand to cut me off. The topic of the Naga ruffles her. I guess if a monster was picking off my people, I’d be short tempered too. I think of Nieve. See her face when I close my eyes.

  “Tristan, please know we are preparing you to fight her.”

  “Got it.” I say it to appease her, not because I do, in fact, have it. I’ve seen this thing in the flesh, and while I know anything can be killed by chopping off its head (I hope), I want more details. Details they aren’t giving me. “I won’t fail you.”

  She moves aside a curtain of weeping vines, letting me into the armory. She takes my chin and looks into my eyes. “I believe you.”

  •••

  I walk into the armory and training grounds. When I turn around, Isi is gone.

  An obstacle course has been set up overnight. Round stones where car tires ought to be, tall poles lined like monkey bars. A large barrel is full of spears with glass arrowheads, and beyond that, a really big target for them to hit.

  Yara jumps in front of me, hands on her hips, that defiant grin on her face. She’s painted a series of rectangles and circles on her body. Up close I can see the tattoo on her shoulder, a perfect circle with a wavy line through the middle.

  “Am I supposed to be painted too?”

  She smirks but tries to hide it by turning around and walking away.

  “Is it too much to have a conversation? You know, ‘Follow me, guys!’”

  She comes to a stop. “If it would please you to have me treat you like a pup, I could do as you ask.”

  I don’t respond, and she keeps walking until we are alone in a field. I take in the trees, the pristine bright greenery of it. It almost makes me feel at ease, and I’m afraid this is going to be one of those “inner peace” moments.

  “Just so you know, I hate yoga.”

  Then Yara gets into a crouching position, hands at the ready, urging me to strike.

  “I can’t hit you. You’re a girl.”

  Standing in the clearing, Yara screams, springing at me with a kick that leaves me breathless on the ground.

  I roll over and cover my face with my hands as she brings down the side of her hand on me. I block it. Hot damn, she’s strong.

  “I am no girl, Land Prince.”

  “No offense, but you’ve got all the girl bits.”

  She laughs but doesn’t stop advancing. My dad taught me never to hit girls. That’s not what men do, ever.

  “I’m a warrior,” she says, “and if you can’t fight back, you will hurt.”

  She chases me down, along an offshoot of the river. I block, block, block, and she brings her strikes with more precision each time. It’s like she finds the spots that bruise the fastest and then digs into them.

  “I admire you sticking to your human code.”

  “Morals, my dad likes to call it.”

  I grab her wrists in the air and squeeze. She’s surprised by how hard I hold her. She pulls, but I don’t loosen my grip. She turns to their little magic trick, the melting thing. Soon I’m grasping water, and she slips through my hands.

  “That’s cheating,” I say as she resumes solid form.

  “Your code will get you killed. Assume I want to kill you. Assume everyone is out to kill you.”

  “That’s called paranoia.”

  I lean back so far to avoid her punch that my thighs burn as I hold the pose to keep from falling backward. I throw my weight forward. Yara moves back to kick. I grab her leg before it hits my thigh and flip her so hard that she smacks into a tree.

  “Yara?”

  She doesn’t move.

  I race forward and kneel down to her. Her head hangs slack, untucked hair from her braid covering her eyes. I reach a hand out to touch the pulse on her neck.

  She grabs my arm and pulls me forward.

  Few types of pain are as bad as hitting your face smack into a tree. I can feel my septum crack. Blood gushes into my mouth.

  “Only assume your opponent is not getting up if you have a sword through their head.”

  “What about their heart?” I say.

  She shrugs. “Not everything has a heart in the same place.”

  “Can you go all see-through again so I can see where your heart is?”

  Yara goes to the stream, but first she shoots me an evil glare, much like the girls in school. I lean my head against the trunk, moving the blood down my throat. Yara comes back and kneels beside me and drops the handfuls of water on my head.

  “You’re a tough chick,” I say. “And I mean it in the best possible way.”

  “I’m not a chick.” She stands over me. “I am Yara, maiden warrior of the River Clan.” She holds her hand out. The bleeding has stopped. I take her hand and stand in front of her. No weapons. Just the strength of our fists. She leans back. Her stance is strong. I realize she leans too much on her right side. I can use this.

  She motions me with her fingers. “Again.”

  “What happened to your face?” Kai shrieks.

  Not the usual response I get when girls see me. After days of rock climbing with Grumble—I throw myself off now—and hand to hand with Yara, my face has taken a good beating. I’ve gotten so good at disarming her that she smashed my face into a tree again. I have a new cut on my eyebrow.

  “Good thing they don’t have mirrors,” I say, throwing myself on the furs beside Kai. She has taken the river people’s history scrolls and has been reading them nonstop.

  I press my finger on the sensitive bruise on the bridge of my nose and wince.

  “This is strange,” Kai says. She retraces the lines
she just read.

  “What is?” I press my hands on my face. “Is it that bad?”

  “In the records of the clan’s people, there is mention of Amada, daughter of the leader Isi. But we haven’t met her. And she isn’t on the list of the daughters sent to court.”

  “Maybe she died?”

  Kai shakes her head. “They keep records of their dead as well as their living. Their numbers are less than ours.”

  “I thought they were part of ours.”

  But I’ve stopped listening. The ache of my body, the adrenaline buzzing through me, is strong. I know I’m ready to fight the Naga. I know it in my bones. As if sensing my thoughts, Kai says, “You’re in no shape to fight anyone, Tristan. Least of all the Naga.”

  “They’re stalling,” I say. I can lift a whole tree pole with my bare hands and throw it. I can do handstands for hours without toppling over. I can run across a field with stones draped over my shoulders. I’ve wrestled their best warriors and won. “Why are they stalling?”

  I shake my head. “They haven’t even gone hunting since we got here.”

  My stomach twists into knots. They remind me that we’re outside of time, but I still feel like I’m missing it. Like I’m going to return home and it won’t be there.

  Brendan sticks his head through the tent door. “Come, you two. The feast is about to start. The daughters of the tribe are putting on a dance in our honor.”

  Kai arches her eyebrow. “Our?”

  “Fine.” Brendan sighs, tucking his hair behind his ear. “Tristan’s honor. Dylan’s already there.”

  “We’re having a debate,” I say. “Come in here.”

  Brendan looks over his shoulder to make sure the coast is clear then joins us. “Do tell.”

  “I think the clan is stalling my fight with the beast. Kai thinks I’m not prepared.”

  “I didn’t say that!” She shuffles her papers so hard that she nearly rips one in half.

  Brendan smiles easily. He reminds me of me three weeks ago. “Do you feel ready?”

  “A hundred percent. A hundred and ten percent.”

  “I’ll take that as a yes,” Brendan smirks. “Then do it.”

  “But Isi said—” Kai argues.

  Brendan holds up a finger. “Isi left us a basket of goddess fruit, which makes the children here happy and carefree and forgetful.”

  We sit in silence. I realize Brendan might act the fool sometimes, but he never stops observing people.

  “If you feel ready, then go. You are a prince of the Sea Court. Besides, with me around, no one will be looking for you. That’s a promise.” He winks.

  Kai shakes her head. “Tristan, be careful. We still don’t have a way out of here.”

  “One thing at a time,” I say. “Let’s go pay me some honor.”

  Kai and I follow Brendan to where the whole village is gathered around a tall fire. Old men blow on wooden pipes that remind me of the pan flutes Layla’s dad brought back from Ecuador. After weeks of trying to learn—poor Mrs. Santos—he finally hung it on his kitchen wall along with his Panama hat. The river people’s music sounds like mountains whistling down their valleys, along with the rustle of rainstick and tambourines. Instead of metal, the cymbals are made of hard shells and rocks that tinkle like wind chimes.

  Isi stands over the fire. Her long, violet hair is braided down to her hips on either side. She looks like a phoenix in her long, feathery robes. Beside her, Yara wears an intricate leather dress. Her brown skin shimmers like light on water. Beside her is the veiled woman I have only seen once in the tent of council elders. The oracle. Standing up, she is hunched like a question mark, with long hair the color of moss peeking through the bottom of her black veil.

  “Land Prince, Tristan Hart,” Isi speaks to me. “You honor us here. By taking strength from us, you have accepted the challenge of the Naga who roams the outer circle of our plane. Her talons have ripped our children to shreds. Her teeth have devoured generations of our warriors.”

  I swallow my drink down the wrong hole and cough-choke. Brendan punches it out of me.

  “That’s comforting,” Dylan mutters beside me, adjusting the platinum band around his head.

  “Tonight, we gift you and yours with the symbol of the river goddess, who refused the salt gifts of Poseidon and chose the shade of trees.”

  I look at Kai. “Gift?”

  Kai shrugs then turns her back to me, showing where her trident tattoo is located between her shoulder blades. Yara lifts a copper branding iron, and the oracle holds a jar filled with some red stuff. I think of the time I first met Kurt. He showed up in my bathtub. He held a slender vial of ink between his fingers and said some magic words. Then blam! The tattoo was burned into my skin to help me control my shifting.

  The iron is held over the fire. It lights red like the end of a cigarette. Kai takes my hand eagerly. Brendan hesitates but tries hard to maintain his smile. Dylan fidgets but won’t back out. The four of us approach in a line.

  I should go first. I bite down hard, preparing myself for it—the music gets louder, thickened by the voices of the clan.

  “Tristan Hart,” Yara says. “Your honor, strength, and valor are admired by our people. Come what may, you always have a place here.”

  She looks at me the entire time she says that, and I believe her. Her words are so nice that I stop clenching my teeth. The iron digs into my skin. I whimper but stare straight into the brown and gold swirls of her eyes. Burning skin smells like bacon, and then I remember that’s me.

  There’s nothing quite as gratifying as someone listing your good qualities and having the end of it be a poker to the chest. She pulls it back, cool wind kissing the sting off my skin. And then comes the pain.

  Oh.

  I shake so hard that I take a knee. The old woman is unveiled, a face like tree bark staring right at me with pitch-black eyes reflecting the fire pit behind me. Her hand is on my chest, patting red powder into the outline of the iron burn. The stuff cools the burn, and then I stand back up.

  Next in line is Kai. She concentrates on a spot on Yara’s forehead and tenses for the iron. Her face is serene, probably way more than mine must have been. Then she moves on to the old woman, who presses the red powder into her shoulder. When it comes away, I can see the design. It’s the same as Yara’s—a circle with an undulating line going through it. At first I think it’s a snake, but on second thought, I realize it’s a river.

  Then it’s Brendan’s turn. He doesn’t even flinch! His red hair is tied back at his nape. He winks a turquoise eye at me. Show-off.

  Finally Dylan, who cries out once, then falls on his knee at the oracle’s feet. His golden hair sweeps across his face. The mark burns just above the pearly scar left by the Naga’s claw.

  The four of us stand shoulder to shoulder. Isi talks about how brave we are, how much she’s seen all four of us grow and become part of their people. I’ll never graduate at the top of my class, and I might not know much about the world I’ve become part of, but I’d like to think I know how to read people. And as much as Isi means some of what she says, I can’t shake the thought that she’s doing it to keep me at ease.

  The training, the tattoo, everything they’ve done to accommodate us—it’s not working on me. My eyes keep wandering to the black outline of the forest. The guards aren’t in their usual formation. They’re scattered around the feast, their weapons leaning against the wooden dais, but their attention is on the clan’s daughters who form a circle around the fire. Their faces shimmer in the reflection of the flames, their hair as green as the forest, white as the river, purple as the apples on the goddess tree, black as the shadow of the woods. They dance the song of the river, a movement that mimics the stream, and their bodies flow, translucent, then fluid, then solid.

  Brendan holds the purple apple between his hands and smells it
. He looks at me and tucks it under his seat.

  “This is kind of them,” Brendan says, “to take the time to honor us.”

  “Honor me,” I correct him.

  His turquoise eyes dance with the kind of happiness that comes from timeless days of swimming and eating and kissing girls. But still, his shoulders are tense because no matter what face this paradise shows us, he has to be ready in case it changes. Even though my time with Brendan has been short, we really get each other, like we’ve been swimming side by side our whole lives.

  “You can have the honor,” Brendan says. “We both know I’m more irresistible. All eyes will be on me. You can count on that.”

  A sound I haven’t heard before in the Vale joins the music. Laughter.

  Yara was right—the kids do eat the goddess fruit. They gobble it up, the sticky, sweet liquid dripping from the corners of their mouths.

  Sure, I’ve seen the river kids laugh. But not like this—it’s full of happiness, like there is no darkness in the woods, no monster on the outside. They dance around the fire. They grab Kai and Brendan and Dylan into their circle. They try to pull me up. “Join, Tristan. Come on.” But I’ve never been much of a dancer. Kai shoots me a glare that says, “Get up.” So I do, but I’m going through the motions.

  My eyes keep going to the edge of the forest where a shadow is bothering me. Everyone is so wrapped up in the dancing and welcoming us into the tribe. But I’m not here to dance.

  Brendan catches my eye and holds it. He’s smiling, but it’s a show, and he’s the star of it—dancing and singing along to words he doesn’t know the meaning of. Then he nods at me once and turns his back. He goes into a freestyle break dance, challenging the guys to join him. As promised, all eyes are on him.

  I keep along the shadows and return to my tent. I wash my face in the basin of cool water. I strap on my weapons and look at my elongated reflection. There I am. I can wait until Isi decides to let me go, or I can take matters into my own hands. As crazy as it sounds, I don’t think she wants me to go out there.

  And so I slink through the trees, stopping at the edge of the forest where I’ve seen Isi stand once everyone’s gone to sleep. I look over my shoulder at the feast. They’re still reveling in the night, the music, the sizzle of branded skin.

 
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