Kingdom of Sea and Stone – Mara Rutherford

On the day Zadie and I turned thirteen, Father surprised us with a trip to the floating market—our first glimpse of the world beyond Varenia. I spent the journey perched on the bow of our family’s boat, welcoming the cold ocean spray on my face and the wind in my tightly plaited hair. Zadie sat between Mother and Father, her knuckles white on the edge of the bench, her golden-brown eyes wide with anticipation. As we approached, I eagerly took in the sight of the intricately carved wooden boats, with their colorful wares and raucous merchants. While Father traded our precious Varenian pearls for drinking water and food, Mother made Zadie and me sit next to each other near the front of the boat where everyone could see us. She had shown us off to every villager in Varenia a hundred times, but today an entirely new audience was at her disposal. Men and women smiled at us as we floated past, likely because identical twins were a novelty. “Lovely girls,” one of the merchants said, and I watched as Mother swelled with pride like a pufferfish. She thanked him and urged us to do the same. But just as I started to speak, the man craned his neck to get a look at the right side of my face. “Pity about the scar, though.” I could feel Mother wilt behind me like a seaflower left out in the sun. Zadie, embarrassed, settled into the bottom of the boat where no one could stare at us, but I stayed where I was, watching as Father looked over a basket. I was used to these kinds of comments by now, but it felt as though Mother would never accept that one of her daughters was a damaged good, just like the basket Father handed back to the merchant, gesturing to a hole in the bottom. “Pssst.

” I turned to see a young man—the son of the trader, presumably—motioning for Zadie and me to come closer. Zadie eyed him suspiciously. Mother had warned us that Ilarean boys were beneath our notice. We were the most beautiful women in the world, after all; that was why we were considered worthy of marrying royalty. But with my scar, I wasn’t going to marry royalty, and I was curious to see what the boy wanted. I scooted to the edge of the boat. He looked like any boy in Varenia, though his clothing was finer and his hands were as smooth as Zadie’s. He glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then handed me a small glass bottle. “For you,” he said. I held it aloft for a better look.

The contents were disappointing: sand, salt water, and a tiny yellow shell. All things I could find in Varenia, I thought glumly. But it was the only gift I’d ever received from a boy, and I politely thanked him. When we returned home with our food and fresh water, I placed the bottle on a shelf. “What’s this?” Mother asked, immediately recognizing that there was a foreign object cluttering her kitchen. “It’s a wandering crab,” Father replied, reaching into the bottle. For the first time, I noticed the tiny legs poking out from the shell. “They usually live closer to shore, but I’ve seen a few in my time. They find a discarded shell and make it their home, and when that one grows too small, they choose another, larger shell and move in.” I held out my hand, fascinated.

Father passed the crab to me and it scuttled across my palm, tickling my skin. “It carries its home on its back?” “That’s right.” Father gently took the crab from me before it could plummet to the floor. “It has everything it needs, right here.” I smiled, pleased with the idea of such an untethered, independent existence. “It can go anywhere it wants to.” I glanced around our little house, which already felt too small for my imagination, and sighed wistfully. “Lucky.” “Nonsense.” Mother plucked the crab deftly from Father’s hand.

Without ceremony, she flung it over the balcony, where it immediately sank below the surface of the water. She ignored my startled cry. “You have everything you need right here in Varenia. Do you think they’d actually accept you out there, with your…” She trailed off, gesturing vaguely to my cheek. “Now hurry up and help me. This food isn’t going to put itself away.” For a moment I thought Father might protest, but he simply retreated to the boat. Zadie frowned sympathetically. I watched the spot where the crab had disappeared, knowing it was probably well on its way to somewhere new. It was only a crab, yet already it had seen more of the world than I ever would.

I wondered if that was why the young man had given it to me, more of a cruel joke than a gift. “Lucky,” I whispered again, thinking not just of the crab but also the trader, his son, the ocean, and everything that had more freedom than a girl born in Varenia. Then I did as I was told. 1 “We’re almost home,” Zadie said, her teeth gritted against the strain of the oars. Our family’s wooden boat crested a wave exactly like the hundreds before it, reminding me how vast the ocean was—and how quickly one could forget something they’d known their entire life. “I can take over.” I reached for the oars, but Zadie shook her head. There was a time, not long ago, when the soft skin of her palms would have torn open within just a few minutes of hard rowing, but that was before I left Ilara, before Prince Ceren cut off my family’s drinking water, before our best friend, Sami, was banished. Before, when I would have given anything to see the world beyond my floating village in the sea. Before I understood just how much I had to lose.

I gasped as Varenia finally came into sight. “It really is beautiful,” I said to Zadie, taking in the stilt-legged houses painted in every shade of sunset, from palest yellow to deep red. “But then, you always knew that, didn’t you?” Zadie finally passed the oars to me and smiled despite her exhaustion. We’d been rowing all night, with nothing but the stars to guide us. I longed for the comfort of my old bed, but I also knew I wasn’t returning to the same village I’d left behind. “You loved it here, in your own way, Nor,” Zadie said once she’d caught her breath. Maybe she was right, but I had always wanted to leave. And I couldn’t know if the people who had once wanted to see me banished would be willing to take me back, even if they learned just how far I had gone to protect them. Zadie wiped the sweat from her brow with her sleeve. Now she was the one with suntanned skin, and I was pale from my time in New Castle.

“Mother and Father will be so happy to see you.” I let out a wry laugh, grateful for the change in subject. “I’m not sure happy is the word I’d use, at least about Mother.” She, along with most of Varenia, believed I had planned for Zadie to be injured by a maiden’s hair jellyfish so that I could go to Ilara in her place. I touched the scar on my right cheek absently. It seemed so insignificant, compared to the scars that twisted over Zadie’s leg. The stain I had once used to cover the star-shaped blemish was forgotten back in the fortress I had lived in for the past few months. Compared to Mount Ayris, the cluster of houses before me seemed impossibly small and vulnerable, each one a tiny island huddled against the vastness of the ocean, as exposed as a cave creature in the sunlight. “Mother will be happy,” Zadie insisted. “She regrets not saying goodbye to you.

I know it.” The village was as quiet as it always was this early in the morning, with only a few children scurrying along the docks that connected some of the houses. It didn’t seem possible that things could be as drastically different as Zadie said; surely Mother would still be in bed next to Father at this hour, the house would be neat and tidy, and, however improbable, Sami would come by soon to ask Zadie and me if we wanted to go diving for oysters. I secured the boat to one of the pillars beneath our house, waiting for my sister to enter first through the trapdoor. I wasn’t sure I was ready to see the look on Mother’s face when I appeared out of nowhere, like a spirit come back to haunt her. I waited a moment, then several more, but there was no sign of life from inside the house, and I climbed quickly up the ladder, afraid something terrible had happened. “They’re out.” Zadie’s muffled voice came from the kitchen, where she was rummaging for something to eat. “Out?” I looked around in confusion. “The sun just came up.

Where could they be at this hour?” “Fishing, I suppose.” Zadie seemed unconcerned as she pulled a small basket off a shelf. “They’re gone overnight sometimes, searching deeper waters. Sami and I were able to buy a larger boat.” Her expression clouded over at the mention of her missing beloved, and I felt the loss as if it were my own. Nothing would be right until they had been reunited. “We’re going to find him, Zadie,” I insisted. “And we’re going to need to be well rested when we do.” I went to our room and collapsed onto the bed, wincing as my back hit the stiff straw mattress. “Don’t you want to eat something?” Zadie asked, coming to join me.

“I know dried fish isn’t exactly an Ilarean delicacy, but you must be starving.” “I’m all right.” More than anything, I wanted to wash away the shame and fear that clung to me ever since I’d been locked in the New Castle dungeon. “I’m guessing we don’t have enough fresh water to spare for a bath?” “No baths these days, I’m afraid.” “Mother must be beside herself,” I said, rolling my eyes. She smiled, but it seemed forced. “What’s wrong?” “I just hope you’ll give Mother a chance. She’s making an effort. It hasn’t been easy for her. It hasn’t been easy for any of us.

” I frowned, feeling chastened for a comment that would have rolled right off Zadie’s back three months ago. “I’m sorry.” “I know.” She let out a weary breath and closed her eyes. “I’m just tired.” “You rowed to land and back again the same day. That would exhaust even the strongest man.” She glanced at me and shook her head. “It’s not the physical exhaustion, Nor. Losing you, then Sami, and having no idea if he’s even alive… I can’t fathom a future without him.

” She closed her eyes again. “I know that’s probably hard to understand, too.” “Not so hard,” I murmured. My longing for Talin, Prince Ceren’s half brother, surged in my mind, but it felt selfish to mention my feelings for him when Zadie was hurting so much from Sami’s loss. Talin and I weren’t best friends like Zadie and Sami. We hadn’t grown up together; we didn’t even come from the same world. Still, Talin had given up the crown to save me, and I knew that if given the chance, the feelings that had blossomed in New Castle could grow into something special in their own right. Zadie mumbled a few more words before her breathing deepened, and I realized she had fallen asleep. I curled onto my side, watching her chest rise and fall. The furrow in her brow that I feared had become a permanent feature softened, her mouth relaxed, and she was once again the sweet, beautiful sister I had always known.

Yes, things had changed, but surely there was nothing that couldn’t be remedied if we were together. I took her hand and allowed myself to drift off to sleep, secure in one thing, at least. I was home. I was startled awake by Mother’s shriek, as shrill as a gull’s cry. For a moment I was sure I was back in New Castle, but then I saw my sister next to me. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes as I took a deep, shuddering breath. “Is everything all right?” Zadie asked Mother around a yawn. “Is everything all right?” Mother stared down at us like we’d appeared out of thin air. “You told me you were going to deliver a message to Nor, not bring her home with you! How did this happen?” “Good morning, Mother,” I said, before Zadie could answer. Mother’s mouth opened and closed like a fish as she glanced from me to Zadie to Father.

“Father!” I leaped from the bed and ran to him before he was fully through the trapdoor. I pulled him the rest of the way up and wrapped my arms around him as tight as I could. “I’m so happy to see you.” “Nor?” Father’s voice cracked. “Am I dreaming?” I smiled against his chest. “It’s me, Father. I came back.” “How—?” “Did something happen in Ilara?” Mother asked. “Why did Prince Ceren allow you to return?” I had no idea how to answer their questions. I certainly couldn’t start by telling them I’d left my blood coral blade behind in Ilara, still embedded in Ceren’s chest.

Even though I had killed him in self-defense, his final scream echoed in my ears, making what little sleep I got fitful at best. I could only hope that putting an ocean between myself and those awful memories would be enough. I released Father reluctantly. “I’ll explain everything. I promise. But I need to speak to Governor Kristos immediately.” “Oh, child, I wish you could,” Father said. “But he won’t see our family. Not after Sami’s abduction.” The pain Father felt at the loss of both Sami and his parents’ friendship was etched in the lines of his face.

Zadie had explained to me that while Governor Kristos was furious at Alys’s mother, Phaedra, and her cronies for abducting and abandoning Sami, he feared punishing the culprits would result in retaliation, given the fragile state of the village. Kristos had ordered the Varenians to pool their resources in an attempt to make sure everyone had adequate food and water, but some people rebelled and stopped diving altogether. Punishing Phaedra could backfire, given the large contingent of villagers on her side. Mother and Father exchanged a look I couldn’t interpret. “You can try,” Mother said, surprising me. “He has always been fond of you. But we’ll wait until after sundown, so you aren’t seen. If Phaedra catches sight of you… Well, who knows what she’s capable of?” My eyebrows rose. “Does she really wield that much power?” “When the emissary came to pay your bride price, Phaedra told him you had switched places with Zadie. Our water supply was cut off not long after.

In the wake of that event, she convinced the villagers that your betrayal of the king caused all our hardships,” Father said gently. “I don’t think we can be too cautious.” I thought I saw the sheen of tears in Mother’s eyes, but she blinked before I could be sure. “Zadie, come help me. I caught a sunfish, and I intend to make a feast of it.” Now it was my turn to gape. “You caught a fish?” “Don’t look so surprised,” Mother snapped as she lifted the trapdoor. “Catching a fish is nothing compared to raising twin daughters.” As the hours passed, my worry about how Governor Kristos would perceive my presence in Varenia only grew, especially knowing that Sami had been banished for “conspiring” with me. “What if Kristos refuses to see me?” I asked Zadie, who handed me another fishing net to mend.

Normally I would have found any excuse to avoid such a boring task, but keeping busy was the best way to pass the time. “We won’t let him,” Zadie said, though judging by the way she was pulverizing the fish for our supper, she was as anxious as I was. “If only we had some way of knowing if Sami made it to land.” I dropped the net and began pacing over the floorboards. Kristos would welcome me with open arms in that case. “Surely he would have gone to see the kite seller if he had.” The kite seller. Of course. He was Sami’s best contact on land, as far as we knew, and Sami trusted him to keep his secrets. “What exactly did the kite seller say to you when you saw him at the port market?” “What do you mean?” she asked.

“And for the love of Thalos, stop pacing! You’re making me nervous.” I took a seat on one of our driftwood stools. “You said he gave you the rose, but did he say anything to you? Did he give you any hint that he might have seen Sami?” She shook her head. “Not really. When I arrived at the tent, he was already packing away his kites for the day. He smiled when he saw me—he must have thought I was you—and handed me the rose.” I put my hand on my knee to stop it from bouncing. “You’re right. He would have thought you were me,” I mumbled. “Which means he thought he was giving me the rose.

You’re sure he didn’t say anything?” “I suppose he must have, but I was so worried about finding you.” She chewed absently on a fingernail, an old habit I hadn’t seen since Mother put bitter squid ink on Zadie’s fingertips. “I do remember several Ilarean guards walking past us, which seemed to make him anxious. He was humming a tune over and over. It was familiar, but I couldn’t place it.” I leaped up from the stool, too excited to sit still. “Try to remember it, Zadie. It’s important. He wouldn’t have been humming for no reason. It was a message, I’m sure of it.

” Zadie still looked doubtful. “Why wouldn’t he have just told me?” “You said the market was crawling with guards. He had to be careful.” I turned to look at my parents, who had just emerged from their room. “Sami was at the port market. He left a coded message for me.” Father scratched at his head, and Mother looked more skeptical than hopeful. “What message?” “The rose, and a song, if Zadie can remember it.” “I could remember it much more easily if everyone would be quiet!” Zadie had taken up my pacing and was still worrying at a jagged nail with her teeth. “It reminded me of our childhood,” she added in a softer voice.

“A lullaby?” Mother suggested. Zadie shook her head. “No, something more obscure than that. Maybe one of those songs Sami used to sing, the ones he picked up at market?” I hopped in place, more certain than ever that I was on the right track. “The one about the goat and the donkey?” It hadn’t been my favorite, since I had no idea what a goat or a donkey looked like, but Sami assured me it was funny. “No, no. Something pretty, but with a melancholy tune.” I grabbed her arm and pulled her toward me. “‘My horse has a mane of handspun gold, and hooves of finest silver?’ That one?” It was a song that Sami had taught me when we were twelve or thirteen. I had never seen a horse then either, but Thalos knew I had imagined them a thousand times.

“Maybe. Can you sing it?” I hummed the tune, then gasped as the final line came back to me. “‘And roses red around her neck, for no other horse is finer.’ Red roses, Zadie!” I spun my bewildered sister in my arms. “I don’t understand,” she replied. “Sami is alive!” Zadie planted her feet to stop my spinning, and I waited for the room to come back into focus. “What if I’m wrong about the song?” Zadie asked. “What if it’s just a coincidence?” “It is not a coincidence,” I insisted. “We have to tell the governor.” “I’m sorry, Nor, but you can’t tell Kristos about the song,” Mother said.

Father placed his hand on my shoulder. “I understand that you want to help. But it might give him false hope.” I hesitated. Maybe they were right. If I was wrong about this, Kristos would have even less reason to trust me. But hope was hope, and Varenia had been in short supply of it for too long. I couldn’t go to the governor’s house and prove to him that Ceren was dead and Varenia was free, but I could give him this. “It’s not false hope,” I said, lifting the trapdoor. “Sami is alive.

I know it.” I wouldn’t give up on finding Sami, no matter what everyone else thought. Not only was he imperative to Zadie’s happiness, but he had risked his life twice to see me at the port market, and it was his loyalty to Zadie and me that had made him an easy target for Phaedra. If the tables were turned, there was no question Sami would search for me. The only real question was whether, once I found him, I could return to a place that had turned its back on me and the people I loved. And more importantly, would I even want to?

.

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