Ravage the Dark – Tara Sim

It was perhaps fitting that Amaya was the first one to spot the bodies. She stood at the railing of the Marionette, the naval ship they had sailed out of Moray and northeast along the vast coast of the Rain Empire. She had watched the coastline gradually turn from verdant jungle to flat grassland to craggy peaks as they crawled by, the weather becoming cooler with each passing day. Roach had traveled to Moray on the Marionette in order to figure out what was causing ash fever. To try to find her. He had succeeded in both missions and now had to report back to his officers in the Rain Empire that the counterfeit coins were coated in an alchemical substance linked to the fever. They had spent a little over a week at sea on their journey to Baleine, the central port city of Chalier—one of the many territories swallowed by the Rain Empire. It was where Roach had been indoctrinated into the empire’s navy. According to the map, they were scheduled to make port that very evening. But as Amaya gripped the railing of the Marionette and admired how the sunset turned the sea to flames, she noticed a rocky little island along their path. It jutted out of the water like a fang, all crags and uneven shelves. Hanging from the island at the ends of frayed ropes were four bloated bodies, all in various states of decomposition. Amaya pressed her lips together. The sight of them here, an obvious and blatant warning, seemed too much of an ill omen for her to ignore. She had her mother to thank for that dose of superstitious dread.

Pray to the star saints for forgiveness and mercy, she would have told Amaya. The sight of death brings nothing but misfortune. Amaya didn’t bother to pray. Misfortune would find her one way or another. Roach came up beside her and leaned his arms on the gunwale, frowning at the bodies. They were swaying in the sea breeze, and Amaya was grateful the wind wasn’t blowing in their direction. “I take it this isn’t new to you?” Amaya asked of him. Roach shook his head. The late afternoon light gilded his brown hair, kissing his tawny skin in such a way that he almost seemed to glow. “I saw it when I was brought to Baleine the first time,” he said.

“The locals call it the Sinner’s Shelf. The bodies have been different every time I’ve passed it, though.” “I assume they deserved their fate?” Roach gave her a crooked smile. “It’s where they bring the worst of the lot. Pirates, rapists, murderers. Chalier likes to give outsiders a warning before they come to their shores—follow the rules or end up in the belly of a seagull.” Amaya watched as fetid flesh sloughed off one of the body’s arms and landed in the water with a splash. “I don’t think they’re even fit for seagulls.” Roach glanced at her the same way he used to on the Brackish, the debtor ship they had lived on for seven years. It was the look he got when she’d irritated Captain Zharo, or tried to steal extra biscuits from the larder, or signed up for the most difficult diving jobs.

“We won’t end up there, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said as the ship sailed past the Sinner’s Shelf. The water churned against the hull, churning like Amaya’s insides. “You’ll be under my protection.” “That doesn’t change what happened,” she whispered, staring at the jade ring on her finger. It fit perfectly; she had her mother’s hands. “That I’m complicit in what happened in Moray.” It had been a mistake to put her trust in the wrong people. A mistake to bring counterfeit coins to the city, to begin its destruction from the inside out. “You didn’t ruin everything. Being in Moray made you too dramatic.

” “Thanks, Roach,” she said in a deadpan voice. “You always make me feel better.” He laughed and swept his hair off his forehead, but the wind just blew it back. “Sorry, sorry. And I told you, call me Remy. That’s my real name.” “Right.” Once a child had been sold to the Brackish, Captain Zharo made it a tradition to replace their names with the name of a bug. Amaya had been Silverfish, and Remy had been Roach. It was proving difficult to get out of the habit, to reclaim their personhoods from a man who had done all he could to make them feel like insects, easily squashed under his heel.

A man who was now dead, at least. Amaya had seen the light leave his eyes. Even if she hadn’t been the one to do it, there was still satisfaction in having witnessed it, the closing of the worst chapter of her life. Amaya opened her mouth to ask Remy when they would reach land, but the words stuck in her throat as someone climbed out of the companionway. Cayo squinted in the bright light, shielding his eyes with a hand. He spotted Amaya and Remy by the railing, and his gaze locked on Amaya’s. She inhaled, her chest flooded with that now familiar cocktail of guilt and shame. There was only so much space you could give someone on a ship this size, but Amaya had tried to leave him alone, to let him care for his sister and talk with the others, until he felt ready to confront her. But he hadn’t. And she was too much of a coward to be the one to approach him.

They conversed mostly in glances and short sentences, emotionless and to the point. It made her shoulders ache with the force of everything she wanted to say, to again tell him she was sorry for her deception, for her role in spreading the counterfeit money, and that he wasn’t without blame himself. Cayo’s dark eyes narrowed slightly. Then he turned to the railing, dismissing her altogether. “Ouch,” Remy murmured behind his hand. “I think the point goes to him that round.” Amaya fought against the urge to kick him where it hurt most. Cayo gripped the railing and searched the water. The sunlight highlighted his cheekbones and nose, the breeze playing with his silky black hair. When he caught sight of the Sinner’s Shelf, his eyes widened.

“What in the hells?” He looked to Remy, still ignoring Amaya. “Is this normal?” “Asks the boy from Moray, where they used to dangle thieves and Landless from the sea wall,” Remy pointed out. “That was a long time ago.” Cayo leaned his hip against the railing and crossed his arms. “I’m not bringing Soria up until we’ve passed that thing.” “How is she?” Amaya asked. Cayo’s younger sister, stricken with a grave case of ash fever, had been holed up in a cabin the entire voyage. She had only come out onto the deck a few times, insisting on fresh air even as Cayo hovered nearby like an overprotective nurse. Cayo’s jaw tightened, and his throat bobbed. “Fine,” he eventually murmured, still not looking in her direction.

“Another point,” Remy whispered to Amaya. This time she did kick him. Someone else joined them at the railing: Liesl. The girl was a few years older than Amaya, originally from the Rain Empire, her skin a soft shade of brown and her hair a rich chestnut. Although she normally liked to swathe her generously curvy body in dresses, she had reluctantly agreed to settle for more practical trousers and a blouse while on board the Marionette. “Trousers are so confining,” she had huffed on their second day at sea. “Honestly, they should all be banned.” “Then what would the menfolk wear?” Remy had asked. “I’ve heard of a settlement far to the north where men wear thick skirts,” she’d said. “Let’s start bringing that into fashion.

” The sunlight glinted on Liesl’s glasses as she held on to the railing, frowning in the direction of the Sinner’s Shelf. The sea wind tousled her curly hair, which she had pulled back from her round, pretty face. “They don’t just hang murderers and the like there,” she said. “It’s also where they take the dissenters. The revolutionaries.” Amaya was not surprised by the bitter edge in her voice. Liesl was Landless, a sentence decreed to someone who warranted exile. While most Landless were barred from the entire mainland, Liesl was only exiled from the Rain Empire, her former home. When Liesl had brought it up, Remy had waved the concern away, stating she didn’t need to worry. “I very much do,” Liesl had argued.

“We don’t have papers. I’m a wanted criminal.” “See this?” Remy had held up an envelope, its wax seal broken and chipped. “An official clearance letter from the navy. They gave it to me before I left for Moray, since they knew I’d likely be returning with counterfeit samples. It means I won’t be stopped by the dock inspectors.” “That’s good news for the coins,” Liesl had drawled, “but what about the humans you’re bringing back?” “The officers told me I could bring back any and all persons related to the incident. And that includes all of you.” Liesl had seemed skeptical, and even now her eyes were pinched as she stared at the approaching port. Still, there was a quiet determination in her posture, in the way she held on to the gunwale.

As if she had been waiting for this moment a long, long time. Amaya still didn’t know Liesl’s full story, only that the girl had joined Boon and the others to try to reverse her Landless sentence. At the mere thought of Boon, a storm brewed in Amaya’s chest. “Did you kill him?” she had demanded, facing off against him between the glaring moonlight and the dark water. “Did you kill my father?” And Boon had looked at her, and she had known. The brutal tear within her had ripped open further, bleeding fresh. “In a sense,” he’d said, “I suppose I did.” Amaya gritted her teeth. The ache in her jaw fed her helpless fury. Boon had escaped, and they were off chasing a supposed miracle.

If Baleine really could offer a cure for Soria, or a lead as to whom Mercado had been sending the counterfeit money to, she supposed this would all be worth it. It still didn’t feel like enough. “This is your home country, isn’t it?” Remy asked Liesl, breaking through Amaya’s thoughts. “Yes. I grew up here. Lived through the riots and the propaganda and the scandals. Chalier was one of the last nations to fall to the Rain Empire. We resisted for as long as we could, but…” She glanced back at the Sinner’s Shelf, her expression dark. “Sometimes it’s wiser to bend a knee than lose your head,” she finished. Amaya’s frown deepened.

I’d rather lose the head. “Should we expect some sort of… conflict?” Cayo asked. Liesl shook her head. “Most of the dissenters were dealt with. They either went into hiding, got turned Landless, or…” She gestured toward the shelf. “The Rain Empire’s navy rolled in. They control most of the coastline, and the local authorities patrol the rest.” “I’m sorry.” Remy self-consciously plucked at his naval jacket. It was blue with white trimming and possibly the nicest piece of clothing he had ever owned.

“My home in the Sun Empire was overtaken, too. But our coward of a prime minister surrendered before we could even try to fight back.” “I don’t blame you for taking refuge in their ranks,” Liesl said. “This world is a game of survival. You take it wherever you can find it.” Amaya brushed a thumb over the small tattoo of a knife on her wrist. Survive. “Remy’s letter might get you through the port,” Cayo said, “but you’re Landless. You were exiled from your country. From the entire empire.

Won’t it be difficult to stay in the city?” “Perhaps, but I’ve changed since then,” Liesl said. “Even if they have broadsheets still up—which I doubt—they’ll be hungrier for the bigger catches. And it’s not easy to catch me.” “They did once,” Amaya pointed out. “Only because I let myself get caught.” Liesl swallowed. “But not this time. This time, I make up for my past mistakes.” Amaya frowned as Remy straightened beside her. “We should get ready to dock,” he said.

“Cayo, help me with these sails.” Cayo blinked at him, either confused by what he was supposed to be doing or offended at being given an order. Remy offered him a mocking bow. “Sorry, I meant please help me with these sails, Lord Mercado.” Cayo pushed away from the railing with a scowl, opening his mouth to retort. Amaya beat him to it. “I’ll do it,” she told Remy. “Cayo, you… you go help Soria get ready.” Their eyes met briefly. Just a flash of contact, a light shining off a mirror or a gem.

One moment of brightness, of hope, before it went dark and cold again. Cayo nodded stiffly and descended the companionway. Amaya released a breath, turning to help Remy prepare. They were here to chase a miracle, but the true miracle would be finding a way to undo all her mistakes. A hungry heart is incapable of af ection if the hearts around it are starving. —REHANESE PROVERB Cayo’s arms were sore, his nose was bleeding, and his sister was dying. The first was easy to explain: He had been helping Avi, a Landless man, do chores around the ship. When he was little, Cayo had wanted nothing more than to steal one of his father’s ships and sail around the world. He hadn’t expected there to be so much physical labor involved, and now his muscles were crying out in regret. Still, he couldn’t help but remember how stubbornly he had clung to that dream when he was young.

To discover forgotten grottos and hidden depths and legendary treasure. And then Cayo had grown up, and the world had shown him that it wasn’t full of wonders. It was full of horrors. He wasn’t made for being a merchant, but maybe he wasn’t made for sailing, either. Perhaps he wasn’t made for anything, which was why he had filled all that empty potential inside him with alcohol and poor decisions. “Cayo, you’re bleeding.” He shook himself at Soria’s words and saw a few drops had fallen onto the sheet of her bed. Cayo cursed and reached for his handkerchief before realizing he had given it to Soria. She handed it back to him silently, watching him tip his head back to make the flow stop. Cayo closed his eyes and pressed the handkerchief to his nose, annoyance humming through him like a struck chord.

The others were already moving about and yelling commands on deck. “I think it’s the air,” Soria said, her voice weak and cracking. “It’s much drier here than it is in Moray.” He’d noticed it, too, when he had stood at the railing. Whereas Moray was always wet and humid, the climate here was cooler, drier. Even the sea was darker. Cayo swallowed, tasting copper. By the time he removed the stained handkerchief, the bleeding had already stopped. “Sorry,” he murmured, stuffing the handkerchief in his pocket. “I’ll find you another one.

” Soria smiled and shook her head to say it didn’t matter. She tried to speak but ended up coughing instead. Although the sound was familiar by now, it still filled the small cabin like a storm siren, wrenching itself from Soria’s chest with ragged inhalations and shuddering gasps. Cayo held her hand through it. It was the only thing he could do. Dolefully he gazed at the gray splotch behind her ear, creeping its way down her neck and over her throat like a possessive hand. It would strangle the life out of his sister eventually. He aggressively shoved the thought down, down, into a locked box between the ones he reserved for Amaya and his father. When Soria’s fit was over, he held a cup of water to her lips. Her lips were dry and chapped, her throat struggling to swallow as she took tiny sips.

Her silken black hair—hair she had been proudly growing for years, dutifully maintained with coconut oil and sedr—was disheveled and damp with sweat. He would have to cover her head to make sure she didn’t get chilled. “I’m sorry,” Soria whispered as he helped her sit on the side of the bed. Her body shook as she tried to support her own weight. “There’s nothing to be sorry for.” His voice came out rougher than he wanted it to. “I don’t mind, Soria. You’re not a burden to me.” She had admitted this particular fear during their week at sea, crying in frustration that she could no longer do simple tasks on her own, that she had to rely on him for almost everything. That because she had done something as silly as running her fingers through the golden coins of her dowry—all counterfeit, all made by their father—she had ended up like this.

“I want to take care of you,” he said, gripping her shoulder—as much for reassurance as to keep her sitting upright. “I want to make sure you get the help you need. If you start up that nonsense again, I won’t hesitate to cut your hair.” She gasped slightly, reaching for her long locks. “You wouldn’t.” “I would. Now let’s get you dressed.” He helped her into a plain woolen dress and a pair of worn leather slippers, then covered her with a cloak, pulling the hood up to shield her from the wind. When they were ready, he cast around the room to make sure there was nothing they were forgetting. But he had left Moray with no possessions.

He had nothing. Nothing except Soria, who was already shuddering with cold as he lifted her into his arms and climbed up onto the deck. Their small crew was busy with preparations. There was Avi, the Kharian man whose sole purpose in life seemed to be making Cayo do chores; Liesl, the young woman who knew far more than she ever let on; and Deadshot, the half-Ledese, half–Sun Empire sharpshooter who only showed a hint of softness when speaking with Liesl, her lover. There was Remy the naval soldier, a former inhabitant of the debtor ship Cayo’s father had once owned and Amaya’s oldest friend. And then there was Amaya herself. Not Countess Yamaa, as Cayo had known her in Moray, but a stranger who had wrapped them together in lies and deceit. Cayo stood useless and flustered in the middle of the commotion, not quite sure what to do as the ship neared the docks. Remy waved a small blue flag from the prow, which was answered with a similar flag from the docks. As Amaya helped Deadshot roll out the anchor, Cayo couldn’t resist watching her, her movements strong and sure, arms flexing and hair swaying.

When she felt his gaze she tilted her face up to meet it, eyes dark and searching. It was a punch to the gut, a shot of confusing, nausea-ridden desire. Cayo turned his head away. Soria noticed and sighed. “I know,” his sister said, her voice hoarse from coughing. “It was difficult for me to forgive her, too.” Cayo scoffed. “She’s the reason we’re in this mess.” “Father is the reason we’re in this mess.” Soria shifted in his arms, expression bitter at the memory of Cayo telling her what exactly Kamon Mercado had done to the city of Moray.

To them. How he had been willing to let his only daughter die to cover up the secret that he was behind the counterfeit currency. “She lied to us. She spread the fake money. But you know as well as I do that she wasn’t the mastermind behind this. She’s hurting as much as we are. She did what she had to do for her family. You’d do the same.” Cayo tried not to think about how he had gone crawling to the Slum King to help pay for Soria’s medicine. “It’s not the same.

And besides, how do you know?” “I spoke to her,” Soria said, her tone light. “You—what? When?” “Does it matter? I like her. I can see why you do, too.” “I don’t like her.” Cayo forced himself not to look in Amaya’s direction again, even as he felt her glance like the too-close brush of a flame. “Maybe I did once, but she isn’t the person I thought she was. I don’t know who she is now.” “Then maybe you should make the effort to find out.” Cayo frowned, but before he could reply there was a call to haul out the gangplank. They had officially made it to Chalier.

The Rain Empire. Moray’s enemy. Remy greeted the dock inspector who boarded the vessel and took stock of the ship. Cayo noticed Liesl twitch, as if resisting the urge to cross her arms defensively. A bead of sweat rolled down the young woman’s temple as Deadshot stepped closer to her, protective. Remy took out the envelope from his officers and presented it to the dock inspector, who merely skimmed its contents. The inspector’s eyes narrowed on Soria, still held in Cayo’s arms. “Li gres?” the inspector asked of Remy, who nodded and replied in Soléne, the common language of the Rain Empire. Cayo had learned some Soléne as he was growing up and was able to catch a few words: sick, orders, hospital. The inspector shook his head.

Remy launched into an argument Cayo couldn’t follow. Liesl tensed, and Deadshot grasped her elbow as if to prevent her from leaping over the railing. Finally, the inspector approached Cayo and Soria. Cayo forced himself to stay still as the man pinned a square of yellow cloth to Soria’s cloak. “It’s to let others know she’s infected,” Remy explained. “They’re starting to buckle down on quarantining sick travelers, but they’re letting us through since I’m with the navy.” Soria sighed. “Yellow’s not my color.” The inspector gave Remy a slip of parchment, no doubt a docking permit. Then they were allowed to descend to the port below, Liesl exhaling in relief.

“At least this is good for something,” Remy said to Amaya, tapping the chest of his naval jacket. “Don’t let it go to your head,” she said. “It’s big enough as it is.”

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