Excerpt from The Deepest Blue
Death is blue.
Black blue, churned by storms,
Green blue, stained by kelp,
Pale blue, bleached by sun,
The turquoise blue of the sea's shallows,
And the deepest blue of its depths.
On the dawn of her wedding day, Mayara knotted her diving belt around her waist and climbed the skull of a long-dead sea monster. At the top, she straddled the eye socket and looked down. Below, far below, the ancient skull was cracked, and within the fissure was a deep pool of water so still that it looked like glass. She imagined it would shatter when she dived into it.
Breathe, she told herself. Just breathe.
She'd never done this dive before. It was known to be one of the trickiest on all the islands of Belene. But today was special.
Today I marry my best friend. It's the perfect day to defy death.
Or, as she used to say when her sister ran off to try a new dive, to dramatically meet it.
She eyed the barnacle-encrusted rocks far below, on the edges of the fissure. So easy to die: impaled on the rocks, neck broken, body sliced. So hard to live: one opening, just a little wider than a vertical human body. You had to hit it just right, perfectly straight, arms in front of you, pressed against your ears.
I can do it, she thought. I will do it.
She'd told no one where she was going, especially Kelo, though she knew he'd guess. He knew her better than anyone. At dawn, she'd slipped out her window and run up the winding path. The seagulls were already awake, cawing over the fish in the shallows. A few clamdiggers were on the beach, bent over their shovels, and the grandmothers -- the eldest villagers -- were already at the end of the rock jetties with their favorite fishing rods. None of them had paid any attention to Mayara. They were used to her sprinting out of the village at odd hours, clutching her diving belt with its assortment of knives and pouches, whenever the urge to dive struck her.
But today's dive wasn't a whim. She'd planned this, in honor of her sister. Exactly eight years ago today, when Mayara was eleven and Elorna was sixteen, Elorna had done this very dive. She'd come back exhilarated, with her pouches full of abalone, and woken up Mayara by emptying her pouches onto Mayara's bed.
My quilt stank like fish for a week. But Elorna had been so excited, and Mayara had been so happy that her beloved sister had come to her first, bypassing their parents, her friends, everyone, to share the moment with Mayara.
"It's so peaceful down there," Elorna had said. "Like everything that ever upset you has drifted away, and there's no past and future. Only the blue, all around you."
"Death is blue," Mayara had said automatically. It was an islander saying.
Elorna had laughed. "I'll tell you a little secret: death can't catch you if you chase death. While it looks for you here" -- she tapped Mayara's nose -- "you'll really be here." She grabbed Mayara's hand and yanked her out of the house.
Yelping, Mayara stumbled along behind her. "Elorna, I'm not dressed! And that doesn't make sense. If you chase death, you're just more likely to die."
But Elorna had only laughed again and kept running, dragging her little sister with her through the still-asleep village, all the way to the shore and straight into the shallows. Without releasing Mayara's hand, she'd pulled her into the ocean, and they'd plunged into the breaking waves together.
It was one of Mayara's favorite memories.
If Elorna were here today, on Mayara's wedding day, she'd have woken Mayara early and dragged her off on some adventure: climbing to the top of a cliff or discovering a new secret alcove. Or they'd have swum out to one of the rocks in the bay to watch the sea spirits at sunrise. Or "borrowed" a boat and dared the dangers of the reef.
But Elorna wasn't here.
And so I'll dive.
I have to live enough for both of us now.
Mayara breathed deeply, then exhaled, pushing all the air out of her lungs. She inhaled one more time, then gasped like a fish on land in order to suck in extra puffs to fill both her lungs to capacity. When her lungs were so stuffed she felt as if they would burst, she leaped up and out, bent in half, then kicked her legs behind her.
Straight as an arrow, she sliced through the air. She felt the wind in her face, heard its shriek, and saw the sliver of blue straight below her. Arms straight over her head, she pressed her palms together as if in prayer.
And then she pierced the water.
Silence filled her instantly. Beautiful silence. It wrapped her in its embrace. She kicked her feet together, propelling herself deeper. Her eyes stung from the salty water, but she kept them open, as she'd learned to do as a baby. Murky blueness was all around, and she felt as if it had erased the entire world.
For the first thirty seconds, she felt like an invader, forcing herself through the water.
In the next thirty seconds, she felt her body rebel, her lungs crying, her muscles shaking, as every bit of her body told her she didn't belong. She needed air!
But she went deeper.
Then the shaking pain receded, replaced by a calmness.
It was a calmness only the deep divers ever experienced, and with it came the feeling of becoming one with the water, as if Mayara belonged here in this airless world.
The best divers on the islands could dive on one breath for eleven minutes.
Mayara had trained hard to withstand eight minutes, a full minute longer than Elorna had ever achieved. She loosened one of the straps on her belt and unhooked one of her knives. Giving another powerful kick, she propelled herself down toward the rocks below.
Few had harvested here, and the abalone were thickly clustered. She chose the largest. Gliding toward them, trying not to alarm them and cause them to cling harder, Mayara deftly slid her blade between the sea snail's muscly foot and the rock. She tucked the creature into a pouch and went for a second one that looked to be the size of her father's shoe. She could fit only one in each pouch, they were so big. She saved the last pouch for sea urchins, filling it with the spiky creatures, working quickly but smoothly so as not to disturb the water.
She judged she'd reached six minutes.
Her thoughts already felt sluggish. She couldn't remember why she was here, why she'd decided to gather these poor creatures, or even what they were called. Silver fish flitted past her, and she saw a brilliant purple fish dart into an orange anemone. The colors were vivid and cloudy simultaneously. . . .
It was time to return to the surface. She performed a graceful half-somersault and kicked upward. Behind her, the fish scattered in her wake. She swam up, bending her body fluidly as if she were a dolphin.
Above, she saw a glow -- the sun warming the surface, but in the shape of a crescent moon, the fissure she'd dived into. She aimed for it. Her lungs were hurting now, and black spots began to dot her vision. She wondered if she'd miscalculated. She thought she knew exactly what she could handle.
A trickle of fear slid into her.
Ruthlessly, she quenched it. Fear could kill you faster than anything else down here. She had to stay calm, conserve every last molecule of oxygen in her body. She'd reach the surface soon. She hadn't dived that far.
The glow intensified until soon it was all she could see. Her lungs were near bursting . . . and then she burst out of the water. Breathe! She sucked in air, and it hurt as she filled--
She sensed the water spirit in her mind, like a too-sharp tickle inside her skull, only a split second before its jaws clamped onto her leg. It yanked her down before she could finish her breath. Mayara swallowed water instead. Flailing, she fought to reach the surface again. She kicked the spirit, and it released.
Clawing up, back toward the glow, she erupted out of the water once more, this time coughing and spitting. She inhaled deeply, and the black spots dissipated and her limbs quit trembling.
From the surface, she couldn't see the water spirit. She knew it was still down there -- she felt its nearness clawing at her mind. She couldn't give it a chance to grab her again.
Inhaling once more, she propelled herself back under. She spun in the water, searching for the spirit, and saw it: vaguely humanlike, it was the size of a two-year-old child but as thin as an old woman who cannot eat anymore. Its skin was gray like a shark's, and it had three rows of sharp teeth. Its all-black eyes were fixed on Mayara.
Knife out, Mayara kicked her feet, aiming for the spirit even as it swam at her.
I'm chasing death now.
She sliced with her knife, but the spirit pivoted faster than she'd expected and let out a keening shriek that pierced through the water, echoing.
Oh no you don't. No calling for friends. She stabbed fast, aiming not for the spirit's heart this time but for its throat. She felt the blade nick the soft, wet flesh. A cloud of red puffed around her hand.
The spirit clapped its clawed fingers over its throat and then spurted backward. She hadn't killed it, but it was hurt enough to retreat.
Mayara hadn't been fast enough, though.
A larger water spirit -- this one shaped like a squid and as milky white as a pearl -- was darting through the water toward her. It had heard the childlike spirit's cry, either through the water or in its mind.
She tried to outswim it, aiming for the fissure, but it wrapped its tentacles around her waist, pulling her under. She jammed her knife into one of the tentacles. Blood stained the water, but the spirit didn't loosen its grip.
No! I am not dying today!
Yanking the blade out, she stabbed again and again, but still the spirit pulled her deeper. Her lungs ached, her head spun, and blackness filled her vision. She heard her sister's voice in her head: Mayara, don't do it. Promise me you won't.
But, Elorna, no one will know!
You know that's not true. They'll know. They can sense it when you use your power. It draws them like sharks to chum. You'll make it a hundred times worse.
What's a hundred times worse than dead?
I don't want to find out, my little minnow.
Are you afraid? Elorna, you aren't afraid of anything.
I'm not afraid for me; I'm afraid for you.
But she knew as she thought it that it was a lie. Mayara was afraid for herself too. The blackness was almost complete. In seconds, she'd lose consciousness. And Kelo would never see her again. He'd wake alone on their wedding day, he'd complete the dress he was making for her -- the one he refused to show to anyone, not until it was ready -- and then she'd never come. Her parents would lose a second daughter. Her mother rarely left their house as it was, and her father wouldn't touch his boat, saying it was cursed with bad luck, ever since Elorna died so far from home. It rotted in the harbor. How much more would they fall apart if she died today? Mayara knew what Elorna had meant when she'd said she was more afraid for her. Because more than being afraid for herself . . .
I'm afraid for them. Forgive me, Elorna.
Mayara then reached with her mind -- clumsily, due to her lack of experience -- toward the squidlike water spirit. Release me, she ordered. She pushed the thought directly into the spirit, as if she were plunging a knife into the spirit's mind. She'd never done it before, not intentionally, but Elorna had described how it felt, like a shout but silent. It sounded impossible . . . but it worked.
The tentacles unwound, and the spirit retreated.
Looking up, Mayara saw the glow of the sun in the fissure. But it was too far. She was too deep now. I'm not going to make it.
She heard a high-pitched giggle -- the child-shaped spirit. Its throat may have been torn by her knife, but she still heard the giggle in her mind. The sound felt like claws scraping inside her skull.
Mayara aimed her thoughts at the spirit and shouted silently, Give me your air!
Compelled, it swam toward her.
Air -- now!
The spirit clamped onto her, its tiny arms wrapping around her torso. It pressed its face against hers and exhaled. Manipulating the water as if it were fabric, the spirit created a bubble around Mayara's head. It filled the bubble with air pulled from the water.
Holding on to the spirit as if hugging it, Mayara kicked her legs and swam upward. The air pocket came with them.
She broke through the surface. Releasing the spirit, she ordered, Go!
With another horrible high-pitched giggle, it sank back under the surface. Mayara swam for the rocks and hauled herself out of the water. She collapsed on her back, her head resting against a mound of seaweed, and stared at the sky as she breathed in the sweet, plentiful air.
Her leg, where the spirit had bitten her, began to throb. She held up one arm and examined it. She had the barest blush of a bruise where the tentacles had squeezed her. That will be magnificent in a few hours. Worse, at some point in the fight, she'd lost her favorite knife. She'd probably left it embedded in the squidlike spirit.
"Ow," she said out loud. Her voice cracked.
She closed her eyes and let herself unceremoniously pass out.
* * *
When she regained consciousness, her fiancé, Kelo, was there, quietly dabbing her wounds with a salve. He was intent on his work and hadn't noticed she'd awoken. She studied him in silence for a moment.
He was undoubtedly handsome. Mayara's cousin Ilia had once declared that he was the most delicious-looking man in Belene, and Mayara was positive it wasn't an exaggeration, though she admitted to being biased. His hair was so black that it was nearly blue, his arms and chest were muscled from lugging rock back and forth across his studio, and his dark bronze skin was smooth and perfect. But as nice as all that was, it wasn't what drew Mayara to him.
It's this. The fact that he isn't yelling at me for being stupid, when I richly deserve it.
"Do I want to ask what happened?" Even Kelo's voice was beautiful.
She tried to decide what to tell him. Ultimately, she chose the truth. "I did Elorna's dive," Mayara said. "And then it got complicated."
"It always seems to. But you're alive." He kissed her forehead. "That's what matters."
But it wasn't all that mattered. She'd broken a promise to her sister and used her power. She hadn't broken her greater promise, though: no one in the village knew she'd used it, and they wouldn't know.
And maybe that was enough.
Because that was what had happened to Elorna. She'd used her power in front of the village, word had spread, and the queen had heard.
And that had led to Elorna's death.
Only Kelo and Mayara's parents knew that Mayara, like Elorna before her, could sense and control the spirits that plagued Renthia. And even telling him had been tough; it had pretty much been the moment she realized she loved him and trusted him with her heart . . . and life. Still, she felt it necessary to say, carefully, "If anyone asks what happened . . . I'm going to have to lie." She knew he'd read between the lines to see the truth.
"No one will ask," Kelo said confidently. "You'll look too radiant. Can you stand?" He helped her to her feet. She expected pain when she put weight on her leg, but none came -- Kelo must have brought a strong salve. She wondered how he knew she'd need that.
Because he knows me, she thought wryly.
He looked up at the top of the skull. She did as well and noticed a rope dangling -- that was how Kelo must have gotten down.
"Can you climb?" he asked.
Eyeing the top of the skull, she thought it seemed much farther up than when she dived. "Sure." Gripping the rope, she began to climb. He followed.
She tried not to think about what had just happened: how she'd used her power, how she'd hallucinated Elorna's voice, how she'd nearly died. And for what? A few abalone?
No, she realized firmly, that's not why I did it.
Ever since Elorna died on Akena Island three years ago, Mayara had been determined -- in addition to living her own life -- to live the life her sister had striven for, to try to experience the things that Elorna would have wanted to experience. It was the best way she could think of to honor her.
Besides, Kelo was going to love the shells! She could tell by the weight of the pouches that she'd harvested massive ones.
Next time she did this dive, she'd remember to keep her senses open for spirits. Perhaps bring a fishing spear. She'd done successful dives with spears before, even though it made things a bit more difficult. But it would be worth the extra challenge in order to have that kind of defense. She'd had her knives, but they hadn't been much use against the squid spirit. . . .
Wait . . .
Reaching the top of the skull, she flopped over the edge and rolled onto her back. She then started laughing. She wasn't even sure why
Kelo hoisted himself up on top of the skull beside her. He lay down next to her and waited for her to calm down. "Any interest in telling me what happened during your near-death experience?" he asked blandly.
"You want so badly to yell at me, don't you?" She knew he wouldn't, though.
"You are who you are," Kelo said. "I'm not marrying you in hopes of changing you. I'm marrying you because I love you, all of you, even the parts of you that make bad decisions."
Mayara sobered, suddenly not feeling like laughing at all anymore. "I used my power," she said softly, though there was no one nearby to hear. Even the gulls were too far above them. She knew he'd guessed already from her hint, but she didn't want any secrets between them.
"That wasn't the bad decision." Always calm, Kelo seemed unruffled by her confession. She loved that about him. "That kept you alive. No, the bad decision was your equipment. Next time, you should bring your spear."
She sat up. "Exactly what I was thinking!"
He sat up too and grinned at her. Leaning over, he cupped her face in his hands and kissed her. She kissed him back with every bit of breath she had.
When they came up for air, Mayara rested her forehead against his.
"Do you think you can avoid any death-defying activities for the rest of the day?" Kelo asked, a plaintive note in his voice. "It is kind of a special day."
"You know I'd do anything for you," Mayara said, then kissed him again before grinning and adding, "But no promises."
Mayara let Kelo blindfold her. She felt him knot the cloth, pressing her wet hair closer to her scalp, and then she felt a feather-light kiss on her neck.
"All dark?" he asked, his breath warm on her ear.
She grinned. "All dark."
He kissed her -- and the surprise of it thrilled Mayara -- then led her by the hand, and she followed, shuffling her feet forward to feel the rocks. She knew the path to his studio by heart -- up along a rib bone of an ancient leviathan, high above their village, across and up from the ceremonial plaza and the storm-shelter caves. She felt through her sandals when the rocks shifted to broken shells. "Stop here," he said.
She waited, listening while he opened the door; then he guided her over the threshold. She breathed in the familiar smell: the salty tang of seaweed, the sweet scent of hibiscus, and the mellowness of a whale-fat candle. Chimes tinkled as a breeze blew in through the open doorway behind her. She felt herself smiling, even though she hadn't seen anything yet.
"Ready?" he asked.
He sounded adorably anxious, as if he was unsure whether she'd love it or not. She already knew she'd love it, whatever it looked like. She always did, with everything he made.
She felt his fingers in her wet hair again, and the knot loosened.
He removed the blindfold. "Look."
Kelo's studio was her favorite place on the island. All the tables and shelves were stuffed with piles of driftwood, baskets of abalone and conch shells, and jars of pebbles that gleamed like tiny moons -- nearly all of it collected by Mayara. Kelo's finished art hung on the walls and from the ceiling rafters. Her favorites were the wind chimes and the pendants that dangled in the windows, catching the twinkling sunlight.
As wonderful as it looked, his art was also designed to repel spirits -- his work was a mix of beauty and necessity. Rather like Kelo himself, she thought, and smiled. Because of the nature of his art, his work fetched a pretty price at markets in the nearby villages -- he was one of the best charmworkers around. No spirit would enter a house that was decorated with Kelo's charms.
His life's work, he often said, was to make people feel both protected and loved.
Mayara knew that from experience.
She saw he had a pile of new charms on a nearby worktable: driftwood carved into the shape of tiny animals and then inlaid with mother-of-pearl. He made those to dangle over cribs, to ward spirits away from newborns. "Is that for my cousin?" she asked. Her cousin Helia was expecting her third child, and she'd been pestering Kelo for a new mobile. She claimed she shouldn't have to pay, since they were "all nearly family" -- conveniently forgetting that if Kelo didn't charge any of Mayara's very large, very extended family, he'd be working for free for half the village. I'll talk to her again, Mayara thought. She didn't want anyone taking advantage of her almost-husband.
With a fond sigh at her lack of focus, Kelo cupped Mayara's cheeks and turned her head toward the eastern window. Glowing in the morning sun was her surprise.
Her wedding dress.
It was ready.
And it was perfect.
He'd taken her grandmother's simple wrap dress and, without destroying its simplicity, sewn a mosaic of mother-of-pearl into the fabric so that the entire garment shimmered as if it had been dipped in the light of a moon rainbow. Mayara felt tears prick her eyes.
She'd never cried over a dress before. Or even cared about what she wore, so long as she could swim and climb in it. But this . . . He must have spent hours and hours on it, sewing on each tiny shard.
"Do you like it?" he asked.
She gave him a look.
He laughed. "You love it."
"And you." Throwing her arms around his neck, she kissed him. He kissed her back, and she began to slide out of her diving gear. As she loosened the straps of her top, she heard a whistle then a shout from the path.
"Mayara! Kelo!" It was her aunt Beila, her mother's sister. Mayara's mother had four sisters and two brothers, and Beila was both the eldest and the loudest. She wouldn't object to Mayara and Kelo "playing" while they were supposed to be preparing for the wedding, but she would make plenty of embarrassing recommendations. Really rather avoid that, Mayara thought.
Quickly, Mayara retied her straps. "Later," she promised Kelo.
He hurried to the door. "It's your aunts."
"I know. I heard . . . Wait, did you say ‘aunts,' as in . . . ?"
He nodded soberly. "All of them."
"Can I hide?" She eyed the worktables. If she tucked herself into a far corner . . .
Kelo's lips twitched. He was laughing at her. "You wouldn't leave me alone with them, would you? That would be cruel."
"Maybe I'm a cruel and terrible person, and you just never noticed." She backed up to one of the tables, then had a better idea. I could leap out a window. Back into the sea. Take my chances with the spirits. . . .
Unfortunately, Kelo had the idea first. He catapulted himself out the window, calling, "You're a beautiful and brave person!" over his shoulder. And then she heard: "Freedom!"
Cutting herself off, she plastered a smile on her face as her four aunts barreled through the door into Kelo's studio. Shrieking like gulls, they swarmed her, wishing her a happy wedding day, fussing over her bruises and injuries, gushing over all the preparations for the celebration, chiding her for not being dressed yet, exclaiming over the beauty of said dress . . . until Mayara's head began to ache.
"Don't look so pained, my dear," Eyara, one of her aunts, said, patting her shoulder. She was Mother's youngest sister, and she was clearly enjoying Mayara's discomfort. Last year she'd had to suffer through the village's excitement over her own much-anticipated wedding. "You know you love us."
"Of course I do," Mayara said. Just maybe not all at once.
But Mayara didn't have much choice. Before she could object, her aunts stripped off her swim clothes, bathed her with the traditional perfumed sponge, and dressed her in the mother-of-pearl dress. Two of them were brushing her hair at once, often bumping into each other and accidentally -- or not -- yanking her hair, while the others cleared space on one of Kelo's worktables and laid out a tea set.
The traditional wedding-day tea was supposed to be between mother and child, but Mother hadn't come with her sisters. Mayara felt her heart lurch. Mother had barely left their house since Elorna's death, only coming out when Papa coaxed her with the promise of a perfect sunset. Mother can't resist a perfect sunset.
But she could resist her own daughter.
For the second time that day, tears almost came as Mayara realized she'd be sharing the tea with her aunts instead of with her mother. She'd hoped that today would be different. . . .
It is different. It's special. And Mother will join me . . . when she can.
Until then, Mayara wasn't going to let anything mar the new, wonderful memories she was making today. She was going to treasure every second of specialness.
She walked across the studio in the mother-of-pearl dress. It clinked as she moved so that she sounded as if she herself were one of Kelo's wind chimes. Sitting, she poured the tea for herself and her aunts and then sweetened it with spoonfuls of rare sugar.
Aunt Beila said kindly, "You know your mother wanted. . ."
"It's all right," Mayara said, willing herself to believe it. "As Aunt Eyara said, I love you all, and I am honored to share this moment with you."
Her aunts all sighed happily at that.
Each of them raised a teacup. Aunt Beila began: "May the warmth of this tea keep you safe from the bitter wind."
Aunt Leera: "May the sweetness of this tea keep you full of joy."
Aunt Gelna: "May the bitterness comfort you in times of pain and sorrow."
Aunt Eyara: "May the . . . Oh drat, I've forgotten." She improvised. "May your tea taste good, your life be long, and your marriage even longer." She then chugged a great gulp of the sugared tea.
Laughing, Mayara drank too, as did the rest of her aunts.
And then they all bustled her out the door to her wedding.
* * *
One side effect of having a lot of aunts and uncles: Mayara also had a lot of cousins. Eighteen of them, and that wasn't counting her cousins' children. And absolutely all of them seemed to be determined to make Mayara and Kelo's wedding into the most celebrated event on the island, or even all of Belene.
Maybe all of Renthia.
It's just one day, she thought, as she watched everyone scurry around the wedding site. They looked like hermit crabs on a beach, scuttling back and forth across the sand. Three cousins were wrestling a table piled high with cooked shrimp and clams. Another cousin was plucking petals from a barrel of flowers so that guests could toss them into the wind -- a good-luck tradition. Yet more cousins were tying firemoss lanterns to posts so that dancing could continue long after the sun went down. Everyone seemed obsessed with making sure every detail was perfect. Which made her stare at them in wonder.
Because I don't care whether today is perfect. I care about all the days that come after.
And I care about getting some of those shrimp. . . .
She caught one of her cousins by the arm. "Ilia--"
"Oh, you look gorgeous!" Ilia squealed. "Kelo is brilliant!"
"Yes, I know -- can you snag me some of those shrimp before Uncle Imer spots them?" Mayara nodded at the shrimp table. Uncle Imer was well known for his ability to consume shellfish at an impressive rate.
"Can't, Mayara, sorry! Grandmama told me to wake the drummers. She wants them to start early so we can dance before the ceremony begins."
"But they're supposed to play all night. If you wake them now--"
"Do you want to argue with her?"
Mayara winced. She would cheerfully dive into the narrow crevice from that morning all day, but even she knew better than to argue with Grandmama. Standing on tiptoes, she spotted the formidable matriarch, the self-appointed leader of the village grandmothers, in the center of the ceremony site. She was seated so regally on a kelp-green chair that she may as well have been sitting on a throne. Though too far away to hear, Mayara could still tell her grandmother was barking out orders to all her progeny -- and anyone else who accidentally wandered within range.
"Is it too late to go back to Kelo's studio?" Mayara asked Aunt Eyara, who was still beside her. The other aunts had fanned out, immersing themselves in the fray, when all Mayara wanted to do was turn tail and flee. And Kelo thinks I'm brave. Clearly I'm not. Being the center of so much attention was more unnerving than facing down a spirit underwater. She didn't think of herself as superstitious, but she felt like she was tempting luck. "Or I could just take a nice nap in one of the storm-shelter caves. . . ."
Aunt Eyara chuckled. "You know what they say: Marriage is for the bride and groom; weddings are for the family. All the family, even those of us you don't like. Come on, Mayara, you know you'd do anything to be with Kelo -- I've seen the way you are with him. Being the star of the best party ever thrown is not such a terrible price to pay for a lifetime of joy and happiness." She laughed even louder at that, then firmly ushered Mayara forward into the chaos.
Mayara spotted Kelo through the crowd. Ha! He hadn't escaped after all -- he was with his parents and had been roped into stringing charms along the cliff wall. Their wedding site was a stone plaza built on a cliff that had once been part of a leviathan's sternum, not far from Kelo's studio. Over the centuries, the ancient rib cage had filled in with dirt and rock. On top of it, the islanders had built the plaza as a place to hold celebrations and ceremonies, and they'd surrounded it with a hip-high stone wall to keep anyone from falling off the edge. It jutted out above the village and boasted views to the south and the west.
The plaza had always been a part of life. She had played here. Had seen other family married here. Had snuck out at night to meet Kelo here for a different kind of play. As much as she wanted to run away, she knew she was exactly where she wanted to be too.
Mayara weaved her way through friends, neighbors, and cousins until she reached Kelo and his parents. Kelo was the only child of two only children, so he wasn't related to nearly as many of the guests as she was. Lucky, she thought. But even in her thoughts, she didn't mean it. She loved her huge, crazy family.
Kelo's mother embraced her, while his father nodded approval at her dress.
"Kelo, it's a masterpiece," his father proclaimed.
"She's a masterpiece," Kelo replied.
Mayara rolled her eyes. "You two rehearsed that, didn't you?"
"Only once or twice," Kelo admitted. "Did you like it?"
She was about to answer when an odd jerking movement in the clouds on the horizon caught her eye. Stepping up to the wall, she stared out across the ocean toward a cluster of gray and blue clouds. Making a comforting sound, Kelo's mother said, "Not to worry. The storm is a long way out. You'll be good and married before it reaches the islands."
But Mayara continued to stare at the distant clouds. She thought she'd seen . . . But the clouds were behaving normally now, with no twitches or sudden un-cloud-like movements. I must have imagined it.
She forced herself to turn back to Kelo and the preparations. Across the plaza, the drummers began to play, and a few of her younger cousins and neighbors started to dance, romping in a circle. She smiled at them, and they waved at her.
Don't worry about the storm, she told herself. You aren't sugar in tea. You won't melt in a little rain. She just hoped rain was all it was.
* * *
It was a perfect sunset.
All the clouds on the horizon had shifted, as if Mayara's relatives had bargained with the storm to dissipate so that Mayara's mother would come see her daughter's wedding.
Mayara, in her nacre dress, stood with Kelo on a raised platform by the stone wall. His parents were behind him, on the ground, each holding symbols of health and happiness: a knot of seaweed for health and a ripe coconut for happiness. Her parents, with Mother leaning heavily on Papa's arm, were behind Mayara, with symbols of long life and protection from pain and sorrow: a piece of driftwood and a sliver of fossilized bone from an ancient water spirit.
Rose and orange from the setting sun soaked into the stones of the plaza and were reflected in the water in the sea beyond. Mayara gazed into Kelo's eyes and wished she could preserve this moment forever.
"You live in my heart," Kelo said.
"You live in mine," Mayara replied.
"Our souls are one."
"Our souls are two, made one." She'd heard these words at every village wedding, and she'd known that someday she and Kelo would be standing here, on the cliff above the village, with the sea and the sunset and everyone they loved as their witnesses. In fact, she'd known since she was six years old. Kelo claimed he'd known since he was three. Everyone always oohed and aahed when he said that, until she pointed out that at three, he'd also thought he was going to marry his father's boat, his favorite chicken, and a bowl of clam soup. "Always, I will--"
She saw it again, out of the corner of her eye, a twitch in the clouds on the horizon. She turned her head to see that the ocean looked darker. Clouds had blown in front of the setting sun, blocking some of its light. That was quick.
Unsettled, Mayara continued. "Always, I will share my days and my nights, my hopes and my dreams . . ." Her attention drifted again as she felt whispers inside her head. Wordless, the whispers scratched at her. She strained to hear them.
A worried frown crossing his face -- he'd clearly noticed her distraction -- Kelo picked up the traditional words. "Always, I will share my fears and my sorrows, never to walk alone."
The words passed through her mind, but something else dominated her thoughts now.
It felt like a spirit. But she'd never sensed one like this. . . . It sounded like . . . It sounds like many spirits, all jumbled up. She again looked at the clouds. They were moving fast now, across the ocean, and the waves were breaking in front of them.
It's nothing, she told herself. I'm imagining it. Just bad weather.
It had to be, because she'd never been able to hear any of the wild ocean spirits while she was on shore, and the heirs kept the so-called tame spirits away from the villages.
It's an ordinary storm. And it's too far away to worry about. Kelo's mother had said it wouldn't arrive until later, and she was never wrong in her predictions. The fishermen often charted their routes based on her readings of the sky.
Mayara dragged her mind back into the moment, and she again gazed into Kelo's eyes. This was all she had to worry about. Not messing up the final words of the ceremony in front of everyone she knew. "Together, forever, we will sail the seas of life."
"Together, forever, I pledge myself to you," Kelo said.
"And I to you."
As their families and everyone in their village cheered, Mayara and Kelo kissed. Then they turned, hand in hand, their backs to the sea and the storm. Grinning broadly, Kelo waved at the crowd. "Hey, we did it! It's time to eat and dance!"
The cheering was even louder.
Kelo jumped off the platform and held out his arms. Smiling back at him, Mayara jumped, and he caught her and twirled her in a circle before setting her down. The drummers began to play again. Soon Mayara and Kelo spun apart -- each of them greeting their guests and accepting their congratulations.
Papa kissed Mayara's forehead. "You know I wish you--"
Mother laid her hand on Papa's elbow, stopping him. Her face was pale, and she had dark circles under her eyes. Mayara was certain she was going to say she had to leave the celebration early -- that all of this made her think too much about Elorna, how Elorna had never had a chance to fall in love and marry,, how this only reminded her of what they'd all lost -- but Mother didn't say that. Instead she managed a small smile. It looked foreign on her face, as if her lips had forgotten they could curve, but it was undoubtedly a smile. "We both wish you every happiness, Mayara."
Mayara felt a lump in her throat and blinked back tears that suddenly sprang into her eyes. She loved them both so very much. I am the luckiest woman in the world. "Thank you, Mother." She hugged her. "And you, Papa." She hugged him too.
When she released them, she felt it again -- this time louder, the voices of wild spirits pounding in her head. She couldn't ignore it or pretend she'd imagined it. Keeping a smile on her face, Mayara pushed past her parents, only half paying attention to other well-wishers, as she maneuvered through the crowd to the cliff wall.
She looked out at the horizon.
The horizon was gone, swallowed completely by the storm clouds.
It's not an ordinary storm.
And it wasn't coming slowly. It was flying over the sea, unnaturally fast. The voices in her head . . . They were from within the storm. "It's coming for us," Mayara breathed. She stumbled backward, away from the cliff wall, and turned to face her family, her friends, and her neighbors -- everyone she knew and loved.
"Spirit storm!" she screamed.
Long ago, Renthia was only four countries: the forests of Aratay, the mountains of Semo, the farmlands of Chell, and the glaciers of Elhim. Their queens tamed the spirits of the land -- the spirits of earth, tree, air, water, fire, and ice -- by bonding with them, and humankind flourished within their borders.
But there are no borders in the ever-moving sea. And so the wild, unclaimed spirits that lived in the Iorian Sea attacked the land, killing with their teeth and their waves, until the queens united and drove them back, slaying many and forcing the worst and largest of the monsters into an uneasy slumber many fathoms below, in a region of sea known in stories and songs as "the Deepest Blue."
The islands of Belene were formed from the bones of the giant spirits the queens killed, as a barrier to protect the mainland from the krakens and sea dragons and other leviathans.
For generations, each queen of Belene has been ever-vigilant, using all her power to keep the largest of the leviathans asleep and relying on the heirs to protect the islanders from the rest. Whenever wild spirits seek to attack the islands, the queen senses their approach and dispatches her heirs to repel them.
Except when she doesn't.
* * *
Mayara felt the storm in her bones. It hurt, the same way it hurt when she dived deep without a proper breath, as if her body wanted to tear itself apart from the inside, as if her skin didn't fit, as if her blood were boiling.
First, it was wind.
Screaming as it came, it flew across the sea and onto the shore. It bent the trees until they bowed, their tips touching the sand. It tore at the houses, ripping the shutters from their windows and the clay tiles from their roofs.
Second, it was waves.
Rising up in massive swells, the waves slammed into the island, flooding the homes that were closest to shore, destroying gardens and drowning livestock.
Third, it was monsters.
The wild spirits rode in on the wind and the waves. Most were water spirits, though a few were air. Some looked like winged eels, others were humanlike but with claws and shark teeth, and one was a dragonlike sea serpent.
All were deadly.
"Get back! Into the caves!" Papa was yelling. He, along with others possessed of booming voices, were herding the villagers back from the cliff wall. A few of the more foolhardy tried to run toward the path down to the village to protect their homes, but they were intercepted by their neighbors.
They cursed their neighbors now but would -- hopefully -- thank them later.
Little kids were scooped up by anyone who could carry them. The elderly were carried too -- one woman on Uncle Imer's back, another by a fisherwoman who regularly hauled nets into boats, another by two of Mayara's cousins.
Grabbing Kelo's hand, Mayara ran for the storm-shelter caves. Rain was already pelting the plaza. Hard rain that hit as if it were pebbles. She shielded her eyes with her hand so she could see where she was running.
At the mouth of the cave, Papa stopped her. "Did you see your mother?" He had to shout to be heard over the wind.
Mayara shook her head. "I thought she was with you!"
But no. She wasn't.
By the spirits . . .
She let go of Kelo's hand.
"Mayara, it's not safe!" Kelo cried. "You have to get in the cave!"
But Mayara was already plunging back through the rain, which was falling in diagonal sheets so thick it felt like buckets of water being dumped on her head.
She could barely see more than a few feet in front of her. The wind and waves were so loud that she couldn't tell who was screaming: the weather, the spirits, or her people. "Mother! Where are you?"
She heard a giggle in her head, razor sharp.
She veered left, away from where she sensed the spirit to be, and pressed forward a step at a time. She knew where Mother had been, near the ceremony platform, and she knew loosely which direction it was in, even if she couldn't see it.
Something swept past her, grazing her arm, and she bit back a cry. If I can't see them, they can't see me. She didn't know if that was true, though. The wild spirits had created this storm. Surely they could navigate through it.
Keeping silent, Mayara pushed on, until at last she saw a shape, a human figure.
She forded through the rain toward it. The wind was so strong now that she had to walk at a slant to keep from being knocked backward. "Mother!"
Her mother was standing, facing the storm, screaming.
Grabbing her arm, Mayara tried to pull her away. "Mother, we have to go!"
But Mother wasn't just screaming, Mayara realized -- she was screaming words. Specific words: "You took my daughter! Now take me!"
"Mother! They didn't take both of us! I'm still here!"
Mother didn't seem to hear her or feel her, however. And as much as that hurt her heart, getting Mother to safety was what mattered. Mayara yanked harder, but Mother resisted, continuing her painful prayer. "Take me, damn you! Take my pain! I don't want to be alone anymore!"
Mayara planted herself in front of Mother and put her hands on her shoulders. "Stop it! Please stop! You're not alone! You still have me! And Papa! And everyone! We all love you! Now please come, before we both die!"
At last, Mother seemed to see her. "Mayara . . ."
Her mother wilted, allowing Mayara to guide her away from the cliff's edge. Mayara wondered if she might have taken too long, though. The wind was stronger now and filled with spirits. She had to try anyway. Head down, her arm flung around her mother, she took step after step across the plaza.
She sensed the wild spirits swirling around them, though she couldn't see more than a foot in front of her. She felt their unbridled hatred and rage pour into her until she thought she'd choke on it. She tried to keep her own thoughts small and quiet, so they wouldn't notice her. Just take another step. One more step . . .
Rain had soaked her, and her wedding dress clung to her like a second skin, the mother-of-pearl shards feeling like fish scales. Water streamed down her face, and she had no way of knowing if she was crying -- and she didn't care.
Her foot hit something soft.
She looked down and saw one of her cousins, Osian, lying on the flagstones. For an instant, she didn't understand why he was lying there. He had to get up! Run! But his eyes were open, and red pooled at his throat.
Biting back a cry, Mayara guided her mother around her cousin's body.
Only to find more dead.
Cousins. Aunts. Neighbors. Her uncle Dolano, who used to swing her into the air in a circle until she was laughing so hard she cried. Porel, the village baker, who made wonderful pastries filled with tart berries. And Helia with her unborn baby.
Please, please, don't let me find Papa. Or Kelo. Or . . . anyone else. No more!
With each body, she felt as if a tear split her insides. Her mother became harder to pull. She was bent nearly in half, shaking with sobs. But the spirits were too close -- they'll find us. Any second, it would be Mayara or Mother on the ground, her throat torn, her body ripped apart, her eyes sightless.
And then Mayara saw a black blur ahead: the cave!
She pushed Mother ahead of her into the cave, and she heard a familiar voice cry her name: "Mayara!" Kelo rushed out and grabbed her arm.
As sudden as a scream, she felt a spirit attack -- its shriek echoed inside her, scraping her throat as if it were her own cry. It swiped at Kelo with its razor claws. Beside her, he crumpled. "Kelo!" Dragging him into the cave, she turned back toward the plaza.
She saw only wind, rain, and spirits.
"Mayara, get back!" Papa yelled at her.
The spirits were coming for the cave. She could sense their . . . They weren't thoughts, precisely. It was a whirlwind of need and want. They wanted blood, death, and pain.
They wanted in.
The opening of the cave was large enough only for one person.
I could block it.
I could stop them. Stop this.
She didn't know if that was true. She'd never used her power against so many or faced spirits who were so lost to their bloodlust. It might make it worse if she used her power, by drawing even more spirits toward the villagers.
And in that moment, she had the sudden, terrible thought that she had caused this by using her power during her dive.
But no, the spirits she'd encountered were island spirits, bonded to the queen of Belene. These were wild spirits from the untamed waters far beyond the islands. Spirit storms like this one were freak accidents unconnected to anything anyone did. Yet, if no one did something . . .
She called back to Papa. "Is he alive? Kelo, does he live?"
Papa yelled, "Yes! But you need to get inside! Come where it's safe!"
But it wasn't safe. The spirits knew where the cave was now -- they'd seen Mother and Mayara run into it. They were calling to one another.
No, that wasn't right. They're calling to one other.
A sea dragon.
She could feel the shape of the water spirit in her mind -- larger than any of the houses in her village, large enough to crush a fishing boat, with a serpent's body and a bat's wings. And then it wasn't just in her mind -- it burst through the rain, appearing midair in front of the cave.
Its scales were black as the night sky but flashed like the sea in sunlight. Its eyes were fire red and seemed to flicker. Its wings drove the wind toward Mayara, and she threw her arm in front of her face as water, carried by the wind, slammed into her, within the cave.
She felt the spirit's rage.
It will kill us all.
She felt hands pulling on her arms. Papa and Kelo and others were shouting, "Mayara! Get back!" But she shook the hands off and stepped forward, out of the cave. Squinting in the driving rain, Mayara stared up at the dragon.
She thought of the dive within the ancient leviathan's skull. And of her sister, Elorna, who had braved even more frightening dives. And of Kelo, who waited for Mayara, always trusting she'd return to him.
Trust me one more time, my love. I can do this. I will do this.
Mayara had heard the stories: the heirs kept the islands safe. They sent the wild spirits back into the sea. But Mayara didn't have the training or the strength of the heirs. She had only herself, and she didn't think she could command more than one spirit at a time.
So she chose the dragon, and she crafted a single order:
The sea dragon resisted. She felt it screech within her head, and it was almost enough to shatter her mind. Gritting her teeth against the onslaught, she held the command steady, focusing all her intent and will: Protect us! Now!
The dragon, struggling against itself now, spun in the air. And as the other spirits tried to attack the cave, her dragon fought them.
Sinewy, it slid through the rain-choked air, and it snatched the flying eel-like spirits midflight and flung them back over the cliff. It smashed its tail into a humanlike air spirit who was running across the plaza, teeth bared and claws extended.
Above you! Mayara called to it, and she showed it in her mind what she saw: a trio of spirits shaped like massive white birds, with blood spattered on their white feathers, diving at the dragon from above.
The dragon twisted in the air as if it were swimming in water, knocking into them, and bit the neck of the first one, shaking it like a dog shakes its prey, then tossing it aside.
Soon the rain began to slacken. She felt the wind lessen.
Her dragon continued to defend the cave, and Mayara kept her focus on it, but now she could see across half the plaza, where several bodies lay. She forced herself not to look. Keeping her eyes on the dragon spirit, she guided it as it fought its brethren.
She felt the spirits begin to recede, some moving across the island and others returning to the sea, until at last it was only her and the dragon.
The rain faded to a drizzle. The wind fell until it was no more than a breeze. Mayara began to shiver, hard, her dress soaked and heavy, her hair wet and sticking to her skin.
Pivoting in the air, the dragon fixed its fire-red eyes on her.
She felt as if she'd dived too far beneath the water. Black dots danced in her vision. But she held on. And as if she had been given a second breath, she was able to push back.
Go! she ordered. Return to the sea!
It screamed once more, both out loud and in her head, and Mayara fell to her knees, hard on the stone, and clapped her hands over her ears. But the cry went on and on, receding only as the dragon flew away over the waves.
She looked up and saw the clouds had dissipated, and that during the storm, the sun had finished setting. Stars began to appear overhead, and the moon glowed, heavy and full, through the remaining black wisps of the unnatural typhoon.
Mayara got to her feet, her knees aching. Her mind felt dull and empty. She silently counted the dead: nine, twelve, fifteen. She knew them all. Loved them all. Slowly, she turned to face the cave.
Kelo limped out, supported by Papa. They crossed to her, and Kelo fell into her arms. She held him, and then sank down onto the ground.
"They'll know what you did," Kelo said, his voice a broken whisper.
She knew who he meant: the Silent Ones, the ones who had come for Elorna, the ones who'd taken her beloved sister's future, her hopes, and all her dreams when she revealed her power.
Whenever a woman proved to possess an affinity for spirits, the queen sent the Silent Ones to retrieve her and offer her a choice of two futures: Become a Silent One, one of the queen's enforcers, forsaking your family, your identity, and your voice, and swearing obedience to the queen. Or submit to the Island of Testing, Akena, in hopes of becoming an heir. Only a rare few survived that test, joining the queen's other heirs. Most who tried, like Elorna, died there and were never seen again.
It was a terrible choice.
It was no choice at all.
"They'll come for you," Kelo said, anguish in his voice. "They'll take you."
She couldn't think of what to say. Looking up, she saw her parents were crying, their arms around each other. Others had formed a semicircle, all of them staring at Mayara and Kelo.
There were no words for anyone to say.
She'd saved them. But in doing so, she'd doomed herself.
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