Sea Witch – Sarah Henning

Two small pairs of boots echoed on the afternoon cobblestones—one pair in a sprint, the other in a stumble and slide. A blond girl, no older than five, dragged a raven-haired girl an inch taller and a year older down the sea lane toward a small cottage. The dark-haired girl’s lungs were sputtering, each inhale a failure. She was drowning on dry land. As the house came into view, the blond girl opened her mouth to scream for help but before any sound could come out, the other girl’s mother burst through the door. Like she knew what had happened—she always seemed to know what they’d done. “Evie!” the mother cried, cradling her daughter in a heap at her chest and running toward the cottage. “Anna,” she said to the little blonde, who was panting from carrying her friend so far, “fetch the royal physician—” “But—” “Go!” The girl didn’t protest again, fine boots clacking against the cobblestones as she regained speed. When her mother shut the cottage door tightly behind them, the raven-headed girl knew the physician’s medicine wouldn’t heal her. Only one thing would. “Gianni!” The mother called, and the girl’s father poked his head out of the bedroom, his face slack with the sleep he wasn’t allowed on his latest whaling trip. “Evie . what—” “A broken rib.

Maybe a punctured lung.” She laid the girl in her bed and ripped the girl’s bodice to her navel. Blood under the skin showed black across the expanse of the little girl’s ribs, fissures like spiderwebs crossed from spine to sternum. The mother tried to read her daughter’s dark eyes. “What happened?” The girl licked her lips before inhaling just enough air to speak. “I saved Nik.” That was true. And the little girl was proud. Daring to smile despite the pain. They’d spent the morning together—the blonde, the raven-haired girl, and their boy—running through the waves, climbing rocks, dancing in the sand. But then the afternoon came and it was time for them to part. The boy sent back to his castle, the little girls home—the younger one to her mansion, ten times the size of the other girl’s tiny cottage.

Mischievous and sunburnt, they ran in protest, the boy leading the way, holding the girls’ hands as they raced across the stepping-stone rocks that led into the cove. They giggled and shrieked as they hopped from rock to rock, the boy’s minder chiding them from the shore. But one rock was slick with moss. The boy slipped—falling backward, the base of his skull aimed directly at a crook of solid stone. In a blink, the little girl made her choice. She threw her body between the boy and the jagged edge of the rock. Her back took the hit with a huge crack. Her head snapped back, her skull missing impact by a hair. Just as she hit, the boy’s head bounced onto the pilled cotton of her bodice rather than smashing into the rock. It was a thing of magic that she’d made it in time.

They were caught then. The boy’s minder yanked them back onto the beach and told them in stern tones to never do that again. Then the old woman hauled the boy away without a good-bye, leaving the girls on the sand. As they turned for home, the little raven-haired girl stumbled, the shock wearing of and the pain beginning. It radiated up her back, around her rib cage, to the front of her dress. She couldn’t catch her breath, each inhale stopping short. The little blonde said she’d walk her friend home but by the time they made it to the sea lane, the raven-headed girl couldn’t stand, all her weight on the blonde’s shoulders. “Oh, Evie . ,” the girl’s mother said. As if she’d seen it all.

Immediately, she sent her husband for her bottles. Her inks. Not that one. This one. She laid the girl in her bed and lit a fire with a snap of her fingers. And tried every healing spell she knew. It only took seconds to know none of them would work. The girl’s breath withered until it was almost nothing at all. The mother wept, wishing for her sister—the strongest witch. Healer of Kings, reviving those in power who turn a blind eye to magic when their lives depend on it, but banish it when it doesn’t.

She was the reason the physician might come at all—though he would be too late. As would Hansa, a day away, healing yet another noble. The girl’s father pressed his hand into his wife’s shoulder and wiped away her tears. Then he squeezed his daughter’s hand, already growing cold, her circulation failing. “I’ll go fetch the minister—” “Not yet,” the mother said, determination ringing in her voice. The girl’s mother stood at the edge of the bed, her shoulders now pin straight, her voice calm and direct. “There is one more spell I can try.” With gentle fingers, she painted octopus ink across the little girl’s cheeks, down her neck, and across her chest. Then her mother laid her hands gently over the girl’s chest. “Don’t you worry, Evie.

” The words she said next were old and dark, and the little girl didn’t understand them. They made her blood crackle like the fire across the room. Stole the air from the cottage. Made her mother shake, violently, as she held her hands to her daughter’s skin. The little girl couldn’t do anything but watch her mother, her veins singing. Soon, her mother’s palms on her skin became more than damp. They began to burn. And then the pain stopped. Air rushed into the little girl’s lungs, and her chest rose. She exhaled, long and deep.

At that the girl’s mother smiled—just before her own body began to seize, her eyes rolling back in her head. It was too much. The mother’s chest compressed, a long breath pushing out—but no inhale following. “Greta! Greta!” The girl’s father placed his hands on his wife’s face, his palms burning and flying away, suddenly red. The prickle in the little girl’s blood spiked with fear. She struggled to pull herself to sit, her mother’s hands sliding away as her form slumped over and her pale cheek smashed into the bedsheet. The little girl didn’t hesitate, reaching for her mother’s potions. She turned her mother’s head to face upward before smearing ink across those pale cheeks, her little fingers blistering with the touch. Her own skin was pink and warm and full of life as her mother’s skin turned as white as snow, as hot as ash. The girl was smart, though.

She’d watched her mother enough. She knew how these spells worked. Magic was barter—the right words, actions, potions for the right result. She put her hands on her mother’s face and began repeating those strange words. Words of life. “Evelyn, no!” Her father didn’t move, just screamed, fear freezing him to his spot at the foot of the bed. But the little girl had fumbled her way through the words enough that her own skin began to grow hot. The pain returned. Her breath became shallow. Then her mother’s eyes flew open, showing beautiful hazel instead of the whites.

It was working. Her father looked from his wife to his daughter. Those words were dark. Old. Powerful. He knew this as much as he knew his native tongue. Her mother’s lips began moving. She took a deep breath. “Gefa!” With this single command, she stole the words right from the little girl’s mouth. Dark words and dark magic and all sound gone from the girl’s powerful tongue.

Still, the child kept going, chest heaving—she was yelling but could not be heard. Tears as dark as night flowed down her little cheeks. Black coating her vision, the girl began to wail without sound, her whole body shaking. And, with her last wisp of energy, the girl’s mother looked to her father. “Bring Hansa home. Tell her. Promise.” As he nodded, her mother whispered one last spell, and the little girl’s screams filled the air, black tears dripping onto her ruined dress. “No, Mama, no!” The little girl grabbed her mother’s hand, still burning to the touch, and saw the light flee from her hazel eyes. 1 THE SEA IS A FICKLE WITCH.

She is just as likely to bestow a kiss as to steal the breath from your lips. Beautiful and cruel, and every glimmering wrinkle in between. Filling our bellies and our coffers when she is generous. Coolly watching as we don black and add tears to her waters when she is wicked. Only the tide follows her moods—giving and taking at the same salty rate. Still, she is more than our witch—she’s our queen. In all her spells and tantrums, she is one of us. The crown jewel of Havnestad, nuzzled against our shores—for better or worse. Tonight, dressed in her best party finery, she appears calm, anger buried well below her brilliant surface. Still, there’s a charge in the air as the stars wink with the coming summer solstice and the close of Nik’s sixteenth birthday.

Formally: Crown Prince Asger Niklas Bryniulf Øldenburg III, first in line to the throne of the sovereign kingdom of Havnestad. Informally: just Nik. But “just Nik” isn’t quite right either. He’s not just anything to me. He’s my best friend. My only friend, really. And now he’s dancing with Malvina across the deck of his father’s grand steamship. That is, if you can call her violent tossing and whirling “dancing.” My stomach lurches as Nik comes within inches of tipping over the rail after she forces an overenthusiastic spin. I wish she’d just give it up.

Malvina, formally Komtesse Malvina Christensen, is a perpetual royal suitor. She and her father have been vying for King Asger’s attention for years, hoping he will make the match. Yet despite Nik’s good-natured patience for her dancing, I have my doubts there will be a royal wedding in their future. I want to look away from the pink silk blur of Malvina, but Nik’s eyes are begging me to rescue him. Pleading. Silently calling my name across the distance—Evvvvvvieee. I am the only one who can save him. Every youth in town is here, but no one else can cut in on a girl like Malvina. For the others, there would be consequences—lost invitations to galas, the oldest horse on the weekend hunt, a seat at the table next to one’s senile great-tante instead of the Komtesse. For me, there are none of those things.

You can’t fall far in society if you’re not part of it to begin with. After another aggressive turn, I finally stride onto the makeshift dance floor, ignoring a chorus of smirks as I go—they’ve seen this play before. Malvina will be the victim, I’ll be the villain, and Nik will let it happen. It can be a messy business, being the crown prince’s confidante; enduring small humiliations is only a fraction of the cost. But I won’t apologize for helping him. We all make compromises in friendships, and having Nik’s loyalty when no one else will even look me in the eye is worth every criticism I face. I tap the girl on one sturdy shoulder, screw my face into exaggerated panic, and point to the eightlayered, blue-sugar-spackled monstrosity she insisted on crafting. “Oh, angels, Evie! What is it?” Malvina barks. “The cake’s icing—” “Fondant,” she corrects, as if I’ve spit on her oma’s grave. “The fondant—it’s bulging.

” True panic colors her features as her feet refuse to move. Torn between dancing with Nik and rescuing her masterpiece from a bulbous fate, her eyes skip to my face for a moment, incredulous. She fears I’ve purposely stolen her turn. It’s just the sort of thing the girls of Havnestad think I would do —the ones whispering in the shadows about us now. Except in this case, they’re right. “Do your duty, Malvina. It was lovely dancing with you.” Nik bends into a slight bow, royal manners on display, not a hint of displeasure in his features. When his eyes cut away, Malvina sneaks a glare my way, her disdain for me as clear as her worry that I’m actually telling the truth. She doesn’t need to say what she’s thinking, and she won’t—not if she ever wants to dance with Nik again.

So, when Nik completes his bow, she simply plasters on a trained smile and leaves him with the most perfect curtsy before running off in a rush of golden hair and intent. Now Nik bows deeply to me as if I’m his newest suitor, his mop of black hair briefly obscuring his coal-dark eyes. “May I have the remainder of this dance, my lady?” My lips curl into a smile as my legs automatically dip into a polite curtsy. My lady. Despite how good those words feel, they’re enough to earn me the ire of everyone on this boat. To them I am just the royal fisherman’s daughter abusing the prince’s kindness, using him for his station. They won’t believe we’re just friends, as we’ve always been, since we were in diapers. Before I knew what I was and he knew who he was meant to be. “But of course, Crown Prince Niklas,” I reply. He meets my eyes, and we both burst out laughing.

Formality has never worn well between us— regardless of Nik’s training. We settle in and begin to waltz across the deck. He has a good foot on me, but he’s practiced at leaning in—whispers are often our most convenient language. “Took you long enough,” he says, twirling me through the last bars of the song. “I wanted to see how long you’d stay dry.” He gasps with false horror in my ear, a smile tingeing it. “You’d send your own best friend swimming with the mermaids on his birthday?” “I hear they’re beautiful—not a bad present for a teenage boy.” “They also prefer their presents not breathing.” My eyes shoot to his. I can feel the slightest tremble in my jaw.

Today would’ve been our friend Anna’s birthday too. It still is, though she is no longer here to celebrate it. She was exactly a year younger than Nik. We’d each had our share of close calls in those days, the great and powerful goddess Urda seeming to want us all for herself. But we lost Anna. I glance down, feeling tears hot against my lash line, even after four years’ time. Nik sighs and tugs a curl off my face. He waits until I finally glance up. There’s a soft smile riding his lips, and I know he regrets pulling us from a place of joy to one so fraught. “Well, thank you for saving me, Evie.

As always.” It’s as good a subject change as any, but it’s not enough—and we both know it. I take a deep breath and look over Nik’s shoulder, not trusting myself to say more. I swallow and try to concentrate on the party. Everything here has been borrowed for Nik’s celebration—the ship, the free-flowing hvidtøl, the band, two servants, and a coal man—and it’s beautiful. I focus on the miniature lanterns ringing the deck, the golden thread of my single fancy dress catching their glow. Suddenly, Malvina hoists herself onto the dessert table, still frantically trying to control the cake’s growing bulge. I expect Nik to laugh, or at least knock out a very royal snort, but instead he’s looking over my shoulder, portside, at the sea. I follow his eyes, and my heart sputters to a stop when I make out a swift schooner, the familiar line of a boy—a man—adjusting the sail. “Iker .

” His name falls from my lips in a sigh before I can catch it. I meet Nik’s eyes, a blush crawling up my cheeks. “I didn’t know he was coming.” “Neither did I.” He shrugs and raises a brow. “But Iker’s not exactly one to confirm an invitation. Missed that day at prince school. The lecture about being on time, too.” “I believe it’s called ‘fashionably late,’” I say. “Yes, well, I suppose I wouldn’t know,” Nik says with a laugh.

The little schooner closes in, and I see that it’s only Iker—he hasn’t brought a crew with him from Rigeby Bay, not that I’d expect him to. He’s a weather-worn fisherman trapped in a life designed for silk and caviar. He redirects the mainsail perfectly, his muscles tensing tightly as he aims straight for his cousin’s form. Nik leans to my ear. “There goes my dancing partner.” I punch him on the arm. “You don’t know that.” “True, but I do know how you’ve looked at him since my cake had about ten fewer candles on it.” I roll my eyes, but I can’t help a smile creeping up my lips. He’s somewhat right, though now isn’t the best time to argue that the way I looked at Iker changed from brotherly to something else entirely about four years ago, not ten.

I clear my throat. “I’m sure Malvina won’t mind—she’s almost finished with your cake,” I say, nodding in the direction of the blue monstrosity but never taking my eyes off Iker as he readies to throw up a line to the steamer. Nik hugs me close and dips down to my ear. “You’re such a ravishingly loyal friend.” “Always have been. Always will be.” “’Tis true.” Nik grins before waving a long arm above his head. “Well, if it isn’t the crown prince of Rigeby Bay!” “And here I hoped to surprise you,” Iker says, laughing. “Can’t surprise a lighthouse of a man on his own boat, I suppose.

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