Fable – Adrienne Young

That bastard was leaving me again. Between the trees, I could see Koy and the others kicking up sand as they pushed off the beach. The skiff slid into the water, and I ran faster, my bare feet finding their way over twisted tree roots and buried rock on the path. I came through the thicket just in time to see the smirk on Koy’s lips as the sail dropped open. “Koy!” I shouted, but if he could hear me over the sound of the waves, he didn’t show it. I tore down the slope until I reached the foam left by a retreating wave and planted one foot in the wet sand before I jumped, my feet kicking as I flew over the swell, toward the stern. I caught the stay with one hand and crashed into the side of the hull, my legs dragging in the water as the skiff took off. No one offered me a hand as I pulled myself up and over the side with a curse under my breath. “Nice jump, Fable.” Koy took hold of the tiller, his gaze on the horizon as he steered us toward the south reef. “Didn’t know you were coming.” I raked my hair into a knot on top of my head, glaring at him. It was the third time in a week that he’d tried to leave me behind when the dredgers went out to dive. If Speck weren’t drunk half the time, I’d pay him for the ride to the reef instead of Koy. But I needed a boat I could count on.

The sail snapped overhead as the wind caught it, jerking the skiff forward, and I found a place to sit between two leather-skinned dredgers. Koy held a hand out to me. “Copper.” I looked over his head to the barrier islands, where the masts of trading ships tipped and swayed in the rough wind. The Marigold wasn’t there yet, but by sunrise, she would be. I pulled the coin from my purse and, with gritted teeth, dropped it into Koy’s palm. By now, he’d made so much copper off me that I’d practically paid for half of his skiff. We picked up speed and the water rushed past, turning from the pale turquoise of the shallows to a deep blue as we pulled farther from the shore. I leaned back as the boat heeled, tilting so I could let my hand skim the surface. The sun sat in the center of the sky, and we had a few hours before the tide started to turn.

It was more than enough time to fill my bag with pyre for trade. I tightened the belt around my waist, checking each of my tools. Mallet, chisels, picks, trowel, eyeglass. Most of the dredgers had moved on from the east reef months ago, but my gut had told me there was more pyre hiding in those waters, and I’d been right. After weeks of diving the stretch alone, I found the cache beneath a picked-over shelf, and the stones had filled my purse with coin. The wind whipped around me as I stood, pulling strands of my dark auburn hair around my face. I took hold of the mast and leaned over the side, my eyes mapping the water as it raced beneath us. Not yet. “When are you going to tell us what you found down there, Fable?” Koy’s hand tightened on the tiller, his eyes meeting mine. They were as dark as the blackest nights on the island, when the storms veiled the moon and stars in the sky.

The others looked up at me silently, waiting for my answer. I’d seen them watching me more carefully on the docks, and I’d heard their whispers on the beach. After weeks of light hauls on the reefs, the dredgers were growing restless, and that was never good. But I hadn’t expected Koy to be the one to finally ask me outright. I shrugged. “Abalone.” He laughed, shaking his head. “Abalone,” he repeated. He was younger than most of the dredgers on Jeval, his toasted skin not yet wrinkled and spotted white from the long days in the sun. But he’d earned his place among them tenfold by stealing enough coin to buy the skiff and start his own ferrying trade.

“That’s right,” I said. The humor left his eyes when they found mine again, and I clenched my teeth, trying not to let the twitch at the corner of my mouth show. It had been four years since the day I was dumped on the blazing hot beach and left to fend for myself. Forced to scrape hulls in exchange for rotten fish when I was starving, and beaten for diving in another dredger’s claimed territory again and again. I’d seen my fair share of violence on Jeval, but I’d managed to keep out of Koy’s way until now. Catching his notice was a very dangerous place to be. I stepped up onto the stern, letting the same wicked smile bleed onto my lips that had been painted on his back at the beach. He was a bastard, but so was I. And letting him see how scared of him I was would only make me easier prey. I’d had to find a way to stay alive on Jeval, and I’d lose a hand before I let anyone take my chance to get off.

Not when I was so close. I let go of the mast and the skiff flew out from under my feet as I fell back into the water. My weight crashed into the sea, the crystalline bubbles rippling up around me as I floated toward the surface and kicked to warm myself against the chill. The edge of the east reef touched the current, making the water colder on this side of the island. It was one of the reasons I knew there was more pyre down there than what had already been dredged. Koy’s boat shot away from me, the full sail curved against the cloudless sky. When it disappeared behind the barrier islands, I cut back in the opposite direction, toward the shore. I swam with my face in the water so I could measure the reef below. The pinks, oranges, and greens of the coral caught the sunlight like pages of the atlas that used to lay unrolled across my father’s desk. A bright yellow sea fan with a broken frond was my mark.

I came up, checking my belt again as I dragged the air in slowly, filling my chest, and then letting it out at the same pace the way my mother taught me. My lungs stretched and then squeezed as they emptied in a familiar push between my ribs, and I quickened my draw, sucking it in and pushing it out in spurts until I took one last full breath in and dove. My ears popped as I carved through the water with my arms, headed for the brilliant colors glowing on the seafloor. The pressure hugged in around my body, and I let myself sink deeper when I could feel the surface trying to pull me back. A school of red-striped tangs pushed past, folding around me in a swarm as I came down. The infinite blue reached out in every direction as my feet landed lightly on a ridge of green coral reaching up like twisted fingers. I gripped the rock ledge above it, scaling down to the breach. I’d first found the pyre when I was scouring the reef for crab to pay the old man at the docks to repair my eyeglass. The soft hum of the gemstone had found my bones in the silence, and after three straight days of trying to uncover it, I caught a lucky break. I’d kicked off an outcropping to surface when a shelf broke off, revealing a crooked line of basalt pocked with the telltale white clusters I knew so well.

They could only mean one thing—pyre. I’d made more coin off the traders on the Marigold in the last three months with this stash than I had in the last two years altogether. Another few weeks and I’d never have to dive these reefs again. My feet settled on the ledge, and I pressed a hand to the rock, feeling down the curve of the ridges. The soft vibration of the gemstone hissed beneath my fingertips, like the stretched resonance of metal striking metal. My mother had taught me that too—how to listen to the gems. Deep in the hull of the Lark, she’d set them into my hands one at a time, whispering as the crew slept in the hammocks strung from the bulkhead. Do you hear that? Do you feel it? I pulled the tools from my belt and fit the chisel into the deepest groove before I hit it with the mallet, crumbling the surface slowly. Judging from the shape of the corner, there was a sizable piece of pyre beneath it. Maybe four coppers’ worth.

The shine of sunlight on silver scales glittered above me as more fish came down to feed, and I looked up, squinting against the glare. Floating in the murky distance down the reef, a body drifted beneath the surface. The remains of a dredger who’d crossed someone or didn’t repay a debt. His feet had been chained to an enormous, barnacle-covered rock, left for the sea’s creatures to pick the flesh from his bones. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen the sentence carried out, and if I wasn’t careful, I’d meet the same end. The last of my air burned in my chest, my arms and legs growing colder, and I hit the chisel one more time. The rough white crust cracked, and I smiled, letting a few bubbles escape my lips as a jagged piece of the rock broke free. I reached up to touch the glassy, red pyre, peeking out at me like a bloodshot eye. When the edges of black began to push in around my vision, I kicked off the rock, swimming for the surface as my lungs screamed for air. The fish scattered like a rainbow breaking into pieces around me, and I came up out of the water, gasping.

The clouds were pulling into thin strands overhead, but the darkening blue on the horizon caught my eye. I’d noticed the tinge of a storm on the wind that morning. If it kept the Marigold from reaching the barrier islands by sunup, I’d have to hold on to the pyre longer than was safe. I only had so many hiding places, and with every day that passed, more eyes were watching me. I floated on my back, letting the sun touch as much of my skin as possible to warm me. It was already sinking toward the slanted ridge that reached over Jeval, and it would take at least six or seven more dives to get the pyre free. I needed to be at the other end of the reef by the time Koy came back for me. If he came back. Three or four more weeks and I’d have enough coin to barter for passage across the Narrows to find Saint and make him keep his promise. I’d only been fourteen years old when he dumped me on the infamous island of thieves, and I’d spent every day since scraping together the coin I needed to go and find him.

After four years, I wondered if he’d even recognize me when I finally showed up knocking on his door. If he’d remember what he said to me as he carved into my arm with the tip of his whalebone knife. But my father wasn’t the forgetting kind. Neither was I. TWO There were five rules. Only five. And I’d been reciting them to my father from the time I was big enough to first climb the masts with my mother. In the dim candlelight of his quarters on the Lark, he’d watch me, one hand on his quill and the other on the green rye glass that sat on his desk. 1. Keep your knife where you can reach it.

2. Never, ever owe anyone anything. 3. Nothing is free. 4. Always construct a lie from a truth. 5. Never, under any circumstances, reveal what or who matters to you. I’d lived by Saint’s rules every day since he abandoned me on Jeval, and they’d kept me alive. At least he’d left me with that much when he sailed away, not once looking back.

Thunder grumbled overhead as we neared the beach, the sky darkening and the air waking with the whisper of a storm. I studied the horizon, watching the shape of the waves. The Marigold would be on its way, but if the storm was bad, she wouldn’t be at the barrier islands in the morning. And if she wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be able to trade. Koy’s black eyes dropped to the net of abalone in my lap, where the purse of pyre I’d loosed from the reef was hidden inside one of the shells. I wasn’t the stupid girl I’d once been. I’d learned quickly that tying the purse to my tools like the other dredgers did would only invite them to cut it from my belt. And there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. I was no physical match for them, so I’d been hiding gems and coins inside gutted fish and abalone since the last time my haul was stolen from me. I traced the scar at my wrist with the tip of my finger, following the vein of it like tree roots up my inner forearm to my elbow.

For a long time, it was the only thing that kept me alive on the island. Jevalis were nothing if not superstitious, and no one wanted anything to do with the girl who had a mark like this one. Only a few days after Saint left me, an old man named Fret started a rumor on the docks that I’d been cursed by sea demons. The skiff slowed, and I stood, hopping over the side with the net slung over my shoulder. I could feel Koy’s eyes on me, the deep husk of his whisper at my back as I trudged up out of the shallows. It was every man for himself on Jeval, unless there was something to be gained by scheming. And that’s exactly what Koy was doing—scheming. I walked along the water’s edge toward the ridge, watching the cliff face for the shadow of anyone following me. The sea turned violet with dusk, and the last gasping glitter of light danced on the surface of the water as the sun disappeared. My callused fingers found the familiar crevices of the black rock boulder and I climbed, pulling myself up until the spray of seawater crashing on the other side hit my face.

The rope I had anchored on the ledge disappeared into the water below. I took the cracked abalone shell from my net and dropped it into my shirt before I stood, filling my lungs with air. As soon as the water rose with the crash of a wave, I jumped from the ridge into the sea. It was growing darker with every minute, but I took hold of the rope and followed it down into the shadows of the kelp forest, where the towering, ribbonlike strands reached up from the seafloor in thick, wavering threads. From below, their leaves looked like a golden rooftop, casting the water green. The fish wound through the vines as I swam down and the reef sharks followed them, hunting for their suppers. The cove was one of the only places I’d been allowed to fish because the rough water made it difficult to keep the reed traps the other dredgers used in one piece. But the woven basket trap my father’s navigator had taught me to make could withstand the crush of the waves. I wrapped the thick rope around my fist and yanked, but it didn’t give, wedged by the push of the current between the rocks below. My feet came down on top of the basket, and I braced myself against the stone, trying to kick it loose from where it was half-buried in the thick silt.

When it didn’t budge, I sank down, hooking my fingers into the woven top and jerked it back until it snapped, sending me into the slab of rough rock behind me. A perch wriggled through the opening before I could get it closed, and I cursed, the sound of my voice lost in the water as I watched it swim away. Before the other one could escape, I pressed the broken lid to my chest, wrapping one arm tightly around the trap. The rope led me back up from the seafloor, and I followed it until I reached the jagged overhang that hid in the shadows. I used my chisel to pry loose the stone I’d sealed with kelp, and it fell into my hand, revealing a dug-out hole. Inside, the pyre I’d collected for the last two weeks sparkled like broken glass. It was one of my only hiding places on the island that hadn’t been found. I’d been sinking my fish traps in the little cove for years, and anyone who saw me dive here, saw me come up with my catch. If anyone thought I might be keeping my gems here too, they hadn’t been able to find them. When the pouch at my belt was filled with pyre, I replaced the stone.

The muscles in my legs were already burning, tired from hours of diving, and I used the last bit of my strength to push toward the surface. A wave barreled in as I gulped in the night air, and I kicked myself toward the outcropping before it could suck me back under. I dragged my weight up with one arm and lay back in the sand, catching my breath. The stars were already winking overhead, but the storm was moving toward Jeval fast, and I could tell by the smell of the wind that it was going to be a long night. The winds would threaten my hovel on the cliffs, but I couldn’t sleep anyway when I had to keep my pyre or coin on me. My camp had been tossed while I slept before, and I couldn’t risk it. I slipped the wriggling fish into my shirt and swung the broken trap over my shoulder so that it hung against my back. Darkness fell over the trees and I found my way by moonlight, following the trail until it curved toward the crag and I leaned into the incline as the path grew steep. When the ground abruptly ended at a smooth face of rock, I fit my hands and feet into the holds I’d chiseled and climbed. Once I had my leg over the top, I pulled myself up and looked behind me to the path.

It was empty, the trees swaying gently in the breeze and the light shifting over the cool sand. I ran the rest of the way, until the flat ground dropped off sharply over the beach far below. The bluff overlooked the barrier islands, invisible in the dark, but I could make out the glow of a few lanterns swinging from the masts of ships docked for the night. It was the spot I’d sat every morning, waiting for my father’s ship to return, even though he’d told me he wasn’t coming back. It took me two years to believe him. I dropped the trap beside the fire pit, unbuckling my heavy belt. The wind picked up as I wrapped my hands around the thick tree trunk that hung over the cliff and shimmied myself up slowly. The ground dropped out from under me, and I looked down to the shore that lay at least a hundred feet below. The night waves were foaming white on the sand. Most dredgers were too heavy to climb out onto the spindly tree without the branches cracking and sending them to their death.

I’d almost fallen myself once or twice. When I was close enough, I reached up into the hollow at the joint of two swollen branches. My fingers found the purse and I swung my arm back, tossing it to the ground behind me before I climbed back down. I started my fire and skewered the fish on the spit, settling into a comfortable groove in the rocks that overlooked the path. If anyone came snooping, I’d see them before they saw me. I just needed to make it to morning. The coins clinked together as I shook the purse, spilling them onto the soft sand. Their faces shined in the moonlight as I counted, setting them in neat stacks before me.

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