OF SEA AND STONE
by Kate Avery Ellison
by Kate Avery Ellison
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OF SEA AND STONE
The sea sang to itself in the music of blue water and salt and gulls’ cries as I sat above it, crouched atop the column-like Looking Rock with a spear clenched in my hand and words of frustration crawling on my tongue. The water below lapped at the edges of the rock, foaming over the pebbled shore that ringed the rock, and the foam hid the fish I was trying to catch.
I bent over the water and stabbed the spear into the foaming waves. When I withdrew it from the pool, a fish wriggled on the end, and I smiled with a quick jerk of my lips. I had always been good with a spear, somewhat inexplicably according to Nealla.
I tossed the fish into my sack and moved to the other side of the Looking Rock, where the tide pools were often filled with exotic things washed in from the sea. It was a secret place, and few knew to look here. I came often whenever I had a moment of freedom from my duties, for if I could catch enough things of value, I could sell them in the marketplace and add coin to the stash I kept hidden away, the stash that would one day buy my freedom.
The first tide pools were disappointingly empty except for a few anemone and starfish clinging to the sides of the rocks, and a yellow fish darting away from my face as I peered down.
I moved on. Three more pools, empty. But luck had not abandoned me. At the final pool I stopped, transfixed by the creature I saw beneath the surface.
It was eerie and beautiful, with fluttering fins along its throat and back and tail, speckled blue scales, and a mouth full of teeth. It wasn’t a fish or a dolphin or a snake, but something that looked like bits of all three. I had never seen such a creature. It was some monster from the depths, but a small one.
I bent over the rock, sliding my belly forward by inches, peering into the deep glassy green of the pool beneath where the creature swam in small circles, imprisoned until high tide. I didn’t want to use a spear on such a magnificent creature. For this, I needed a net.
I stabbed my spear into the edge of the pool, marking the fish-creature as mine. Then I scrambled to the edge of the Looking Rock. The wind swirled around me, wetting me with a mist of sea spray as I brought my arms forward and dove into the sea below.
Bubbles exploded around me as I swam through the green-blue water. Below, fish wove between a jewel-colored spread of coral. A dark line at the edge of my vision signaled where the shallow waters ended and the deep water began.
No one ever went out into deep water.
I reached the larger rocks that rose from the water like the spearheads of giants and hauled myself onto a sea-carved shelf of white stone. My master’s house was before me, a collection of caves and hollows in the rock. It was a nice house, with a strip of pebbled beach facing west. Beyond the beach, a shallow place for bathing and washing was surrounded by thin white stones that protruded from the water like fingers and broke the force of the waves.
A hole in the rock wall led to the interior. Strings of shells formed a curtain barrier, and they tinkled and clicked in the wind. I shoved them aside and stepped into the cool stone passage leading to the house.
I needed one of my master’s nets. Just to borrow, to catch that fish.
The master’s father sat on a mat beside the fire, muttering to himself. Beside him were nets, the small ones used for hand fishing. He was mending them, his wrinkled hands moving swiftly as he worked over a hole.
“Hello, Old One,” I said, speaking carefully and respectfully. “I need to borrow a net.”
He lifted his head and scrutinized me. I was dripping from the sea. My hair stuck to my neck and forehead. Droplets fell from my fingers.
He reached for one of the nets and lifted it toward me, but pulled it back before I could take it.
“Don’t go in the deep places,” he said, and his voice creaked. “The Sea People are in the deep places.”
“Yes, Old One,” I said, leaning forward to reach the net.
The master’s father was crazy, but gentle. Sometimes he liked to ramble about fables from his youth, and sometimes I listened, because none of the others did, and I felt sorry for him.
I didn’t have time for it today.
“I saw one of their ships the other night,” he continued, pulling the net farther away and out of reach again. “Came up from the depths, black as a wet stone, bright with lights. They’re watching us.”
“Don’t worry, Old One,” I said. “We’ll keep you safe.”
He harrumphed as if doubtful and handed me the net. “Stay out of the deep places,” he said again.
I snatched the net and hurried outside once more. The wind fanned my face. I stopped at the edge of the water and shaded my eyes against the glaring sun.
Someone else was on the Looking Rock. I saw a figure moving around the pool. Confound that Old One and his stories! I splashed into the water, my heart pounding as I swam hard, kicking my legs. I reached the rock and hauled myself up, hair dripping, leaving wet footprints as I ran to the tide pools. A young man stood at the edge of the pool, his feet hanging in the water, his arms braced behind him and his face tipped toward the sun. He was lounging, waiting for me, stretched out as if to show off his physical perfections and the gold bracelets on his arms and ankles. That handsome, arrogant face, smirking mouth, and long, dark lashes that contrasted with his pale, wavy hair—I’d know him anywhere.
I looked past him into the water and stopped in horror.
The creature was gone.
My bag of sad little fish lay at the edge of the rock, looking deflated in the sunlight. My spear lay beside it.
Fury built up at the back of my neck and swept through my throat to take hold of my tongue. Anger licked at my bones.
“You stole my catch.”
Nol opened one eye and looked at me. “What are you talking about? Your bag of fish is right there. I didn’t touch it.”
“No. The creature in the pool—it was my catch. I found it first, as was clearly demonstrated by my spear marking the pool. You took it! Where did you put it?” I was furious, devastated.
Nol straightened and blinked at me. His smile was slow and smooth, like butter being spread across bread.
“It wasn’t your fish,” he said. “It wasn’t in your net, so you had no claim.”
“I marked it with my spear—”
“You aren’t a fisherman, thrall-girl. The rules of the village don’t apply to the likes of you. You have no identifying marker that deserves to be honored, and that thing you call a spear is simply a piece of garbage with a point at one end. It could have washed into the pool on its own, for all I know.”
I wanted to strangle him. My anger was hot and fierce, and it made my legs tremble. But he was the mayor’s second son, and he could do as he liked. Instead, I bit my tongue and turned away.
I’d lost this round, but I would not lose to Nol again.
OF SEA AND STONE EXCERPT II:
The broad stone ground of the Training Rock was warm and smooth beneath my bare feet. A salt-scented wind teased the tendrils of hair escaping from beneath my hood. I straightened my spine and lifted my chin as if I belonged as I approached the group of boys and young men, who stood in a haphazard line before the target of wood.
I took my place at the end of the line.
The smell of salt filled the air. Gulls screamed overhead as the first boy drew back his arm and threw his spear. It glanced off the target and clattered on the rock. His face creased with disgust, and he turned away. The second boy threw, and the tip of his spear embedded itself in the corner of the target.
I was better at throwing than any of these boys. I’d always been good at it, better than anyone else my age when I was small enough to swim in the shallows with the free children and sleep in my mother’s arms at night. My mother had beamed with pride to see me throw, and so I continued to hone my skill even after she was gone. Sometimes I went out to the edge of the rocks that formed a ring around the sea like a circle of stone arms, and I caught fish to put on the fire so Nealla and I could eat more than the meager food we were provided for our meals. I was better than all of them, but being a girl banned me from participating in the competition.
At the front of the line stood Nol, the oldest in the competition and the favorite of the crowd. He cast a glance my way, but didn’t look long. I exhaled as he turned his head away.
One by one, the boys threw their spears. They were still learning, and few were good yet. The aim of a fisherman was impeccable, once he’d mastered the art, but these were just boys.
I swallowed as the boy beside me took his turn, and then it was mine. I stepped forward and hefted my spear. The weight was familiar in my hand. I inhaled, squinted at the target, and threw.
The spear buried itself at the edge of the middle circle. A few of the boys cried out in appreciation. Sweat broke out across my back.
I hadn’t meant to throw quite so well.
Nol turned his head again to look at me. He wasn’t stupid, even if he was infuriating. He’d seen Kit throw before.
I held my breath, and he looked away.
Those who had struck the target gathered their spears and tried again. There were only a few of us, and the number rapidly dwindled. I threw poorly, but my spear seemed to swerve to meet the target against my will, and the rest of the boys threw with the skill of drunken monkeys. Finally, only Nol and I were left.
My heart drummed in my chest. I didn’t dare look at Nol or the crowd.
“You’ve improved, Kit,” Nol said as he passed me to retrieve his spear.
It was clear by the way he strode toward the target that he thought victory was assured for him. He barely spared me a glance as he drew back his arm to throw.
The crowd waited, breathless.
Nol threw first. His spear struck the inner circle of the target, and he straightened, pleased. I could tell by his posture that he thought he’d won. The necklace of shell he always wore tinkled faintly as he turned to me. He yanked off his mask, and his expression was triumphant.
I drew my arm back and took aim. I heard the rush of the sea behind me, the cry of gulls above me, and the hiss of my breath over my teeth as I threw. Sea and gulls and breath combined to make music. I shut my eyes and threw.
My spear hit the mark and quivered.
It had struck closer to the center.
The boys roared in approval and swarmed around me. Nol’s jaw tightened, and he shot a glance toward the crowd. I saw his father, the mayor, frowning.
I stepped forward to receive my prize. As I passed Nol, suspicion crossed his face. He snatched off my mask, dislodging my hood in the process.
My long hair tumbled down around my shoulders. Wind fanned my face.
I was exposed.
The crowd gasped. Nol let go of me as if he’d been burned.
“It’s Tagatha’s thrall!” someone shouted.
“You deceptive little brat,” the spear master snarled. “Where’s Kitran?”
The spear master grabbed for me. His fingers slipped through my hair, giving one painful tug, then the strands ripped from my scalp and I ran faster. I reached the edge of the cliff, dropped Kit’s spear, and jumped.
The rock was hard beneath my feet as I leaped, and then salty air rushed around me, the gulls’ screams filled my ears, and I was falling, falling, falling through air and wind and sunlight. I brought my arms forward right before I entered the water in a perfect dive.
Bubbles exploded across my vision as I hit the water. Blue closed around me, cold and shocking, shutting out the shouts above. My chest skimmed the sandy bottom of the lagoon. Fish shot away, and seaweed snagged my ankles. The rocks of the bay were dark against the orange light of the dying sun.
I swam a ways from the cliff, holding my breath, kicking my legs to propel myself forward.
When my head broke the surface, I heard the spear master shouting after me. I swam away, my arms making sure, even strokes as his threats echoed across the water after me. I had no fear that he would jump in after me. I was one of the strongest swimmers in the village. He couldn’t catch me, and he wouldn’t try.
But I couldn’t swim forever.
OF SEA AND STONE EXCERPT III:
We walked across a bridge enclosed with glass that stretched between the ship and the city of Celestrus. Glass and twisted metal were the only things standing between the sea and us. I looked up and saw a long, sinuous shape curl through the waters above us—some giant, unknown sea creature—and a shiver passed over my skin as I remembered the dark shape that had passed beneath our ship on the journey over.
What other things lurked in the ocean’s depths?
The first guard planted his hand between my shoulder blades and pushed me forward, drawing my thoughts back to the present, back to the rush of warm air from the round opening ahead, the clank of our feet against the metal floor, and Nol telling the guard exactly what he’d like to do to him if he had a sword in hand.
I kept my mouth shut, because I wasn’t stupid.
We stepped through the round doorway, entering a round room with walls and floors of polished metal. The ceiling arched above us, made of rose-colored glass and shot through with metal that I supposed held it aloft. I could see shapes moving above it, churning shadows that stamped and brushed the ceiling and bewildered me until I realized I was seeing people’s feet and garments. The ceiling above must serve as a walkway for an even higher level, I realized. I stared at the strange shadow dance until someone nudged me. The guard.
A bench ran along one wall, and a man sat on it, waiting for us. He stood when we entered.
He must have been old, but his face was astonishingly smooth, almost ageless. His skin was the color of copper. His long hair black hair, streaked with gray at the temples, hung down his back in a mass of braids, and he wore light purple robes that draped off his thin body and engulfed his wrists. He did not look unkind, which was a good sign.
The guards herded me forward.
“What is your name?” he asked me.
“Aemi,” I said.
“Ah, Aemi. Exquisite name. Means sea-born in the old tongue.”
I lifted my gaze, startled. “Yes, it does.”
He smiled, a quick quirk of his lips that transformed his face into something kindly. “And you?” he asked Nol.
Nol turned his head and would not speak. The man looked back at me.
“He’s called Nol,” I said, and I saw a muscle jump in Nol’s jaw when I spoke his name. He gave me a look of pure loathing, and I knew I had betrayed him by giving up his identity to the man when he had clearly wished to make a statement by withholding it.
“Nol, eh? Short for Nolen?”
“Just Nol,” he growled.
“I am called Merelus,” he said, seemingly unruffled by the waves of anger radiating from Nol. “I hope we can learn to respect each other, as unfavorable as this situation may be for you.”
Respect each other? His words confused me, but I bit my lips and said nothing.
“Come,” Merelus said to us, and nodded to the guards. “I’ll take you both.”
“Their wristlocks, sir,” the guard said.
“Ah, yes.” Merelus paused and waited as the guard approached us and snapped a thick band of silver over our right wrists.
“This will set off an alarm if you enter any area forbidden to Indentureds,” he informed us gruffly. “And you will be punished.”
I looked around for Myo, but he was gone. I supposed I would never see him again. He’d never bid me goodbye. Why would he? I was just a slave.
The click of the wristlock around my arm made me flinch. Merelus watched my face, and his eyebrows drew together as if he were seeing more than I intended him to. I turned my head away and met Nol’s eyes. They smoldered with fury as he submitted to having the wristlock placed on him.
“Well,” Merelus said when it was done. “That’s over. Let’s go, shall we?” He indicated the door.
My mouth fell open as we stepped through it.
Arching ceilings soared overhead, joining in a web of patterned glass held in place by golden metal beams that swirled and formed fantastic shapes. The floors were gleaming stone set in curling patterns beneath our feet. Doorways and corridors branched off from the main thoroughfare, opening onto other plazas and rooms filled with fountains and statues.
Far ahead of us, six corridors converged on a round plaza with a sculpture of a dolphin in the center. Blinding light poured over the dolphin from a ceiling that glowed with light like a captured sun.
I glanced at Nol. He stared ahead, his mouth pressed in a rigid line. His hands were white and clenched at his sides. He refused to seem impressed.
But I saw no reason to hide my amazement. I gaped at everything.
“You have never been to Celestrus before,” Merelus observed, watching my reaction.
“No.” I remembered Myo’s warnings and said nothing else of my past.
“The Jeweled City,” he said, smiling. “Seat of learning and the arts. The most beautiful place in all of Itlantis. Exquisite, if I may say so.”
I believed it.
Men and women filled the corridors and corresponding plazas that connected them. Most wore flowing tunics or robes over the one-piece jumpsuits, or simply the jumpsuits. A few were dressed in other garments—trousers, dresses. The blend of fashions bewildered me. The people had varying appearances too—some with skin as brown as polished driftwood, others as pale as sand. Most had long, straight black or brown hair, and large eyes that came in vivid blues, greens, and browns. Nol’s pale hair stood out and drew him a few looks of interest and curiosity.
We crossed a bridge of shining metal and glass and into a round-roofed chamber large enough to fit the Village of the Rocks inside in its entirety. A vast floor stretched before us, and the ceiling was ribbed with metal supports and set with colored glass. Through the glass, I caught glimpses of the ocean, vast and dark and rippling with fish.
“The commons,” Merelus said, gesturing to the space before us.
This place was anything but common.
We passed through this glorious space and reached another. They were like a string of bubbles, one after the other. This chamber had dozens of doors set into the walls, and staircases going down into the floor and up toward the roof. I craned my neck to see around us. Balconies spiraled around the domed roof as far as I could see.
Merelus stopped before a door of bronzed metal and touched the handle.
“Welcome home,” he said.
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