One hundred days before the destruction of Nutharion City
The black rocks rose.
The black rocks fell.
The black rocks rose.
The black rocks fell.
“It’s not working,” Cole muttered into his sleeves.
He leaned on the railing of an old Aleani fishing vessel. The sea frothed and heaved. A wide, taut sail snapped and creaked in the wind. In front of him, a series of flat rocks bobbed in the waves.
His stomach tumbled and rolled and dropped and fell until he could barely pick out which direction was up anymore.
“Just hang in there,” Dil said. Her hand rubbed slow, gentle circles on his back.
His stomach tried to throw up, but there was nothing in it. He dug his fingernails into the railing and grimaced.
The fit passed, and he let his head slump again.
“I thought they said we’d see land by now.”
“They did,” Dil said. Her fingers continued their circling. “It’s out beyond the rocks, hidden in the fog.”
Cole raised his head. There was a heavy bank of clouds beyond the flat-topped rocks, but he couldn’t see anything inside it other than spots of lighter and darker gray.
“Ugh,” he said.
He turned around and slid down the rail until his butt reached the deck. Aleani sailors bustled around him. He shut his eyes and pressed his fingers against his temples.
“Do you want some water?” Dil asked.
He nodded, and her feet danced away.
The Aleani had sent a ship, but it hadn’t exactly been what he was hoping for.
The Skellup was a wooden vessel maybe forty feet long and ten wide. It was crewed by seven Aleani, none of them soldiers, none of them nobility, none of them important. They were just tanned, bearded fishermen from some town in the Aleani borderlands that Cole had never heard of. The ship itself seemed seaworthy, but it was slow, and there almost always seemed to be somebody working its bilge pump.
Only the captain spoke any Eldanian. When Quay asked him why the Skellup had been sent to find them, the red-capped Aleani had spit over the side of the ship and muttered about crimes and judgment.
Cole wondered what sort of welcome they’d get when they reached Du Fenlan.
The wind raced over his neck, and he shivered.
He didn’t feel much like himself anymore. It was as if in his time on the beach, all the months of pent-up change that had started with Litnig’s dream had crashed down all at once. He no longer had a mother, no longer had a home, no longer had the thieves who’d been his adopted family for so long.
All he had left was Litnig and Dil, and Litnig was changing too. There were times that Cole looked in his eyes and couldn’t find the brother he’d grown up with.
Those times scared him.
Thunder grumbled in the northern sky. Cole could feel a storm coming, even over the pulsing nausea in his gut. The air was getting heavier. The wind ripped like a wild beast out of the endless ocean.
Dil’s footsteps returned.
“Here,” she said.
Cole took a cup of water from her and sipped it. He hadn’t been able to keep more than the thinnest broth down at sea, and his body was starting to feel weak and jittery.
The wind picked up again, and a curtain of frigid spray blew into his face.
“You sure you don’t want to head below?” Dil asked.
Cole stifled the urge to shake his head. Doing that would set it spinning for minutes.
“No,” he said. “It’s better out here.”
He looked up. Dil was squatting in front of him. Her eyes glowed golden against the gray river of clouds behind her. Her dark hair, matted and caked with sea salt and dirt, swirled in the wind.
“You know,” he said with a smile, “your head looks like a charging octopus.”
Dil grinned and rubbed his arm. “Yeah? Well your face looks like a dead one.”
Cole laughed. Behind Dil, three Aleani sailors and the captain broke into a shouting match. A gust of wind shook the sail and spattered him with droplets of water.
“How’re the others?” Cole asked.
Dil shrugged and settled down next to him. “Same as they’ve been. Litnig’s grumpy. Leramis and Ryse are whispering. Quay seems like his mind’s a million miles away. Tsu’min isn’t talking to anybody.”
Cole finished off the water in his cup and sighed. “How far are we from Du Nordt?”
“Still a few days, if the wind holds. Quay says we’re passing between Patch’s Fingers and the Bay of Reeds.”
Great, Cole thought. He’d heard stories as a kid about the Aleani expedition to colonize the Bay of Reeds. All lost but a few. Famine. Cannibalism. Disease. He shivered and stood up to look back over the rail. This time he spotted hazy strips of land swimming in the clouds—a stripe of light colors that might signify a beach, a darker line that was probably forest beyond, and mountains disappearing into the gray cotton of the sky to the southwest.
We’re too close, he thought.
As if he’d called it, a gust of wind hit the ship like a fist and knocked it to port, toward the flat rocks he’d spent most of the afternoon wishing would keep still. His stomach leaped into his throat. More shouting erupted from the Aleani.
Cole’s cup clattered to the deck, and he braced himself against the railing with both hands.
After a moment, the ship stopped pitching any more than usual. His stomach settled a little and he turned back around. Next to him, Dil peered into the wind, her nose high in the air like she was sniffing for something.
“There’s a storm coming,” she said.
“I know,” Cole replied. The crack of lightning split the air.
“It’s not far off.”
Cole thought he might be able to see it. A line of cloud darker than the rest masked the northern horizon. Rain, probably. Lots of it, falling hard. It was moving toward them.
“Yenor’s balls,” he muttered.
The wind got worse, and the ship rolled sickeningly to port. Cole’s stomach tried to slide right out of his body and into the ocean. He clutched the railing and stared at the horizon, willing his guts to calm down.
Voices speaking Eldanian broke the air behind him.
“—don’t really care right now, Lit. I want to find out what the heck—”
“How long did you keep it from me, Ryse? Who else did you tell?”
The second voice was his brother’s, and it sounded angry.
Cole turned around and found Litnig, Ryse, Quay, and Leramis exiting the staircase that led belowdecks. Quay strode up to the aft castle of the ship, where the Aleani captain was standing next to his pilot at the wheel, looking nervously at the rocks to portside and the storm to starboard.
Ryse made to follow him, but Litnig held her back. “Who else knew, Ryse? Who else did you tell?” The wind picked up, but his voice cut through it. His face was getting flushed. His eyes flashed.
Nine-tailed, stepdancing hells, Cole thought. He stumbled his way across the deck toward his brother.
“Did you tell him?” Litnig thundered. He jerked a thumb toward Leramis.
Ryse didn’t say anything, but she lowered her eyes.
That seemed to be enough for Litnig.
“Yenor’s eyes, Ryse!” He ran a hand through his hair and grabbed a tuft of it. He looked like he was about ready to tear it out. “Why didn’t you trust me? Why didn’t you—”
The ship rolled to port again, and Litnig stumbled into Cole.
Litnig outweighed him by a solid eighty pounds, but Cole had always been good at leveraging his weight. Even the sea couldn’t take that from him. He caught Litnig and wrapped his arms around him.
“Easy, Lit,” he said. The ship righted and his head tried to turn a somersault, but he controlled it. Litnig needed him. “Calm down, all right? Just calm…”
Litnig turned his head. His dark hair had grown long and shaggy, and his gray eyes were red-rimmed and underlined with deep purple shadows. “Cole,” he growled, “stay out of this.”
Cole squeezed. It was the same thing he’d seen Litnig do to their father at least a dozen times.
He hoped Lit would get the message.
Cole squeezed tighter.
“I’m warning you, Cole. Don’t—”
A few fat drops of rain struck Cole across the face. The storm clouds were growing closer. The rain began to drum against the deck. The wind shoved them toward the rocks.
None of that mattered. He couldn’t control it. He couldn’t even affect it. All he could do was hold on to his brother, and if he was very lucky, make him listen. “Lit,” Cole said as quietly as he could, “do you remember when ’Ta used to get mad?”
Litnig’s muscles bunched underneath Cole’s fingertips. “Don’t talk to me about ’Ta,” he growled. “You don’t understand, Cole. You don’t…”
“So tell me,” Cole said. His arms were starting to get tired.
Litnig mumbled something inaudible.
“I said, ‘I can’t!’” Litnig roared. He lowered his hips and flexed his arms and broke free of Cole’s grip. His elbow slammed into Cole’s gut and sent him stumbling backward.
As he did, the ship rolled to port again, deeper than it had before.
Cole’s feet scrambled for purchase on the deck. His arms wheeled. The ship rolled deeper, and he found himself staring upward and northward into the darkening sky. Litnig reached for him, but he was too far away, and Cole was falling toward the portside rail, falling toward the gray, frothing water—
He crashed into something warm against the rail. Something just about his size. Something that grabbed at his arm and yelped as it was knocked into the sea in his place.
The Skellup righted itself and began to climb another swell. The wind screamed. Cole turned in a slow circle.
Dil was gone.
It took a second for his brain to register the fact.
Dil was gone.
There was a warm place on his shoulder where he’d crashed into her. He craned his head over the side of the ship, but the swells were so high he couldn’t spot her.
Gone, he thought again. The word didn’t seem real.
He faced his brother. Litnig’s eyes shone wide and panicked. His face had gone from red to ghastly pale.
The Aleani shouted and heaved and pulled at things. The storm grew fiercer. Another wave struck the ship.
Cole shivered in the wind and the rain and the unknown, and then he began to move.
He spotted a coil of unused rope hanging by the stairs to the aft castle. Not too heavy, not too light. Enough to hold his weight but not to drag him down. He picked up one end. It felt old and coarse against his fingers.
Everyone was talking, but he didn’t care.
Dil was gone.
He fumbled numbly to tie the rope around his waist.
He used good knots. Climbing knots that had borne his weight as he scrambled up stone walls in Thieves’ Rise what seemed like a lifetime ago. He handed Litnig the other end of the rope without a word.
“Cole,” said Litnig.
Cole ignored him and stepped toward the portside railing. His body still felt shaky and weak, but that hardly mattered anymore.
Litnig’s hand landed on his shoulder, pulling him back, keeping him on the ship, keeping him from Dil.
Something inside Cole snapped.
“Don’t you fucking touch me!” he shouted. He whirled around, elbow first, harder than he meant to, harder than he’d hit Lit since they were kids. There was a heavy crack. A dark red welt formed under Litnig’s left eye.
Litnig let go and reached for his injured cheek. Cole spun around. The ship rolled and heaved. His stomach tried to jump out of his throat.
Cole ran forward, planted one foot on top of the railing, and leaped into the sea.
It was an ugly dive, and his face hit the water with a cold, wet slap. His chest contracted, but he’d spent enough time in thrice-damned freezing water not to lose his breath or his head anymore. The cold froze his stomach in place. He didn’t sink too deep, and soon he was back on top of the salty swells, treading water and sucking in breath against the chill.
“Dil!” he screamed into the wind. The Skellup’s low, rolling gait had already taken it past him. Cole took a few strokes away from the ship, keeping the rocks to his right, swimming toward the spot he thought Dil had disappeared into. The swells pulled at him more strongly than he’d expected them to. He bobbed six or eight feet up and down with every one. The cold sapped what strength was left in his arms and legs.
“Dil!” he screamed again.
The water churned around him in dark, angry mountains capped by foam and froth. The rope around his waist played out foot by foot. He kicked and pulled and spat and shouted.
A voice called out in return, far to his right. Toward the rocks. The water swelled, and for a moment he was on top of everything.
He spotted a dot in the water near one of the rocks.
Cole’s legs scissored underneath him almost before he asked them to, and he swam as fast and as hard as his numbing body would take him. The line stretched out. The rock drew closer, even as his face lost feeling and the outsides of his arms and legs grew rubbery. When he was on the crests of the waves, he saw that the dot was coming out to meet him. It grew closer, closer, larger, larger. No longer a dot but a person. No longer a person but Dil.
He’d almost reached her when the line caught around his hips and dragged him backward.
He cursed and shoved down on the rope belt as it took him underwater. It didn’t budge. His knots were strong.
Cole rolled over. His head broke the surface again, but he was on his back, not swimming but trolling through the water like a worm on the end of a fishing line. The cold, briny sea filled his mouth. He spat it out and spotted Dil in front of him. She was just out of reach, struggling through the chop. She looked worried, though, and she was getting farther away. She wouldn’t catch him, couldn’t catch him—
His fingers closed around the handle of his knife.
Cold, confused calculations ran drunkenly through his brain. He pulled the knife.
He cut the rope.
It didn’t take much. He slid the blade back and forth twice, and then he was free—no longer being dragged anywhere but with the current. The frayed end of the rope skimmed across the tops of the waves and flew beyond his reach.
Arms grasped his shoulders. Legs kicked next to his in the waves. He turned to face them.
Dil wrapped her arms around him. Her eyes shone a bright, lustrous gold. “Cole—why?” she whispered.
Cole kicked his legs to stay above the churning surf. The wind whipped sheets of spray into his eyes. A sheet of lightning forked across the bottoms of the clouds.
“I love you,” he mumbled into her shoulder.
As if it solved everything. As if it solved anything.
They floated together, a mile or more offshore, a mile or more from safety, surrounded by wind and water and black, jagged rocks.
And filled by desperate, flickering love.
Thanks for reading!