Song of the Dead – Sarah Glenn Marsh

Today, for the first time in my life, I didn’t wake up in Karthia. As a pearly dawn gives way to bright morning sun, Meredy and I, realizing that the Paradise has almost slowed to a stop, bound out of our narrow cabin and up to the deck to watch the remainder of our first journey into a new land. “We’re almost there!” I whisper gleefully. But apparently entering the harbor and anchoring the ship is a longer process than I anticipated. Blinking away the last traces of sleepiness, we wait at the railing and watch the dock workers milling about below. I wish I were with them. My feet itch to touch solid ground again, and judging by the way Meredy keeps stretching and pacing, so do hers. “Welcome to Lyris,” Kasmira calls across the deck of the Paradise, grinning at our eager expressions as her crew scrambles to drop anchor. Lyris, the island where Kasmira has been buying cacao and coffee under cover of darkness for years while King Wylding forbade all travel to and from Karthia, doesn’t look much different from the harbor in Grenwyr City. And yet, so much is different. For one thing, this is the first time Kasmira has been able to anchor the Paradise in broad daylight. Her crew lets out a cheer, the anchor apparently secured. Some sailors slap one another’s backs, and a few even dance a little. I’m tempted to join them. We’re finally here.

It seems like we’ve been at sea much longer than a mere day, and as I exchange a glance with a slightly pale Meredy, I’m sure she feels the same. Yesterday, we left Karthia trailing a swath of mist and had to skirt around a storm, everyone looking tinged with green. And while this morning brought sunny skies and calm waters, I’m worried I’m not cut out for a life at sea. Hopefully that’ll change, though. After all, Lyris is only the first of many lands we plan to explore. There’s a loud thud as someone lowers the gangway. Meredy gazes past the docks, far into the distance, and points at a collection of colorful tents that seem to stretch to the horizon. Her eyes shine, and she smiles faintly. Adventure is beckoning her, just as it used to call to Evander. “Race you to that market,” she says, nudging my shoulder.

“How do you know what it is?” I ask, but she’s already barreling toward the gangway, forcing me to break into my fastest run to catch up. We sprint past low wooden houses and inns, bound for the sprawling rainbow of tents ahead, not even stopping to take in the people and animals that fill the narrow streets. There’s a slight bite to the wind blowing off the sea, so I draw my cloak tighter as we reach the first of the tents and pause for breath at last. Wonderful smells wash over me like an embrace: perfume and pie, lavender and leather, soap and sugar. But just as I start to enjoy the market’s atmosphere, a girl with long ash-blond hair hurries by, and I’m suddenly reminded of Valoria. She loves trying new things more than anyone. “See?” Meredy pants, looking proud of herself as she takes rapid breaths of heady, sweet air. “Definitely a market.” Noticing my expression, she frowns. “What’s wrong? Mad that I beat you here?” I don’t have the heart to tease her and tell her that I actually beat her by two seconds.

Instead, I say, “Valoria.” From the light dimming in Meredy’s eyes, I don’t need to explain further. It’s thanks to our new queen that we Karthians can now roam outside of our kingdom, wherever we please. Valoria, who I still think of more as my friend than as my ruler, would want to explore every inch of this place, in all its colorful, aromatic glory, in all its secrets waiting to be discovered. “We’ll take notes for her. On everything,” Meredy assures me, stepping to one side of the nearest tent to let a man and his mule-drawn cart pass. I nod, my throat tight. It feels like years ago, not months, that Valoria was a curious princess on her first and only trip into the Deadlands, constantly straying from my side and questioning everything around her. I’d been stuck with her while my partner in all things, Evander, walked ahead of us, forcing me to feign interest in the princess’s plans to study the correlation between people’s eye colors and different forms of magic, like how everyone born with blue eyes sees gateways to the spirit world and can learn to raise the dead. Learning, she’d insisted, is fun.

While I don’t always agree with Valoria on the learning front, she has a point. I’m on this journey because I hope to learn something, though I’m not exactly sure what that is yet. In a daze, I follow Meredy through the tented marketplace, trying to memorize every detail to regale Valoria with . someday. The people here are as varied in height, coloring, and styles of hair and clothing as Karthians, making them feel almost like acquaintances despite the unfamiliar, musical language that swirls around us everywhere we go. A pair of blown-glass trinkets catches my eye, and immediately, my savings come out to pay for them—a brown bear for Meredy and a marigold for me. As a gentle woman carefully wraps each one, Meredy catches my eye from three stalls away, beaming as she holds up two enormous bags of coffee beans, maybe ten pounds each. “It’s not a lifetime supply,” she calls, “but it’s a start. After all, you won our bet a while ago. We’ve made it more than a whole day without arguing, so .

I figure it’s time I begin fulfilling my end of the bargain.” “You remembered?” I fight back a reluctant smile, torn between regret over Valoria’s absence and how happy Meredy makes me, seemingly without realizing it. Meredy tosses her head back and laughs, momentarily warming me all over. When she meets my eyes, it’s with a knowing look that tells me she caught my smile after all. “Ooh, look at those!” she says suddenly, making a beeline toward a display of starshaped flowers, blooms purple-red like her hair and bigger than her hands. We buy some of those, and some yellow roses, too, to spruce up our dull room on the Paradise. Next, we purchase thick slabs of pie laced with spices that make my mouth water in a single sniff. We buy whole dried fish for Lysander, Meredy’s pet grizzly bear, and new leather gloves for Kasmira to protect her hands from the roughness of her ship’s wheel. We’re even tempted by a display of new fur-lined cloaks in every possible shade of a mage’s eyes: from stormy gray to deep charcoal for weather workers, spring green to emerald for beast masters, hazel for healers, even hues of earthen browns for inventors. My hand stills on the last brown cloak.

There are only four types of mages represented here, not all five as I’d assumed when I saw the vibrant display. “Huh. There’s no blue.” Meredy frowns, having noticed the problem, too. No sky blue to match Simeon’s eyes, no dark blue like Evander’s—nothing for necromancers. “Shame. They probably ran out.” She shrugs, then points to a cart selling frothy pink cream in a cup. “Come on. We have to try that!” I follow her, not wanting her to know anything is amiss.

Even I can’t explain why my stomach sinks as I glance over my shoulder for one last look at the cloaks. The cream tastes like fruit—not any fruit I can name, but it’s delicious all the same. Still, nothing I see or taste helps me to do what I want to more than anything else in this world—forget. Forget who I once was: a newly appointed master necromancer in love with her job and sure of her place in the world; forget the pain of losing my heart, a boy named Evander, and my mentor, Master Cymbre, within mere weeks of each other; forget the monsters I faced down with fire, monsters who had once been gentle Dead, some of whom I’d raised with my own magic; forget the living monster my former friend Prince Hadrien became when he murdered King Wylding and countless others; forget the sick, wet sound of my blade sinking into him when I ended it all so his sister, Valoria, could take the throne and lead us into a better future. Of course, forgetting isn’t easy, but I figure the more distance I put between me and Karthia, the better chance I have at finally stopping the nightmares that have plagued me since Evander’s death, and gotten even worse after Hadrien’s. “Stars, it’s nearly time to meet Kasmira for supper!” Meredy pulls me back to reality by shoving some of her shopping into my arms, having just returned from inspecting some patterned cloth under a big red tent. “Too bad we ruined our appetites,” she adds with a guilty grin. “Say—you still thinking about Valoria? Or . ?” I shake my head, not because I don’t want to tell her, but because I’m not quite sure how to answer. All afternoon, this vague, nagging unease has stuck with me, as if I’m missing something, like when I was a child and I’d worry my tongue against the mushy gap where a tooth used to be without fully realizing it.

It isn’t until we start walking toward the small tavern on the water where we agreed to meet Kasmira at sundown that it dawns on me: I haven’t seen any Dead since we got here. Granted, I wasn’t searching hard, but I should have seen at least one shrouded figure at the market. The Dead are always hungrier than the living, and the market simmered with fresh-cooked goods waiting to be devoured. Just behind an inn to our left, I glimpse a familiar gleam of blue—a gateway to the Deadlands—and my heart leaps. There are plenty of people on the street right now. It wouldn’t be difficult to sneak away from Meredy and jump into that soft blue glow for a quick look around. Just to see if there are any spirits nearby who could tell me what happened to Lyris’s Dead. Mouth going dry, heart beating faster, I wait until Meredy is several paces ahead of me and duck behind the inn. I’m a few steps from the gate when Meredy calls, “Master Necromancer?” I freeze, not sure if I’m disappointed or glad that she immediately noticed my absence. She hurries toward me, glancing between me and the gate—to her green eyes, only a bare patch of earth, though she knows me well enough that her face is taut with worry.

“Come on. I know we aren’t hungry, but we don’t want to disappoint Kasmira, and you know how she feels about waiting.” I hesitate, still torn. But when Meredy shifts all her shopping to one hand so she can grab hold of mine with the other, I let her lead me toward our destination. Partly because I’m not sure what I’ll find in the Deadlands so soon after the Battle of Grenwyr City. I might see Hadrien’s spirit, and I know I’m not ready to meet his arrogant, smirking face just yet. And partly because I don’t want to let go of Meredy’s hand. Shortly after I take a seat across from Kasmira in the narrow tavern, sweat begins to run down my back from the press of bodies and the warmth of the fire in the hearth. I whisk off my cloak and silently scarf down the rooster pie I ordered until a funny prickling on the back of my neck forces my gaze up from my plate. I haven’t felt the sensation of being watched so strongly since a giant Shade, the largest of those rotten-looking, corpse-devouring monsters I’ve ever seen, stalked Evander and me through the Deadlands.

Sure enough, there are several sailors casting furtive glances my way. Exchanging whispers. “Keep your elbows off the table, Master Necromancer, before you offend everyone from here to the edge of the world,” Meredy says in my ear, followed by a giggle younger than her almost seventeen years. The mead we were served has already gone to her head, turning her cheeks a glowing pink. Kasmira sweeps her gaze around the room, unusually quiet. “Odessa, Meredy, I hope you both got enough to eat.” She keeps her voice low as she sets down her fork and casually reaches under the table. I can’t hear the soft hiss of her dagger being drawn, but I know the swift and practiced motion well. “Something’s not right here. When I stand, follow me outside and head to the Paradise.

Don’t look at anyone. Don’t talk to anyone. Just get on the ship, sharpish.” She slinks toward the door, Meredy and I trailing in her wake, but we only get halfway across the room before our path forward disappears, blocked by bodies. “You there, Karthian!” the man behind the bar roars from across the tavern, pointing an accusing finger at—me. I say nothing, startled by the recognition, and he prompts, “You speak Kanon, don’t you? I caught a few words when you came in.” His command of our language is stiff and slow, but clear. As I give a hesitant nod, he adds darkly, “We may not all speak your common tongue, but everyone here knows what that pin on your chest means, necromancer. Your kind hasn’t been welcome here for over a century.” My hand flies up to cover the sapphire pin on my tunic that marks me as a master of my magic, hoping that for a room full of people this drunk, out of sight will mean out of mind.

Now I understand the lack of Dead here; there aren’t necromancers around to raise anyone. A few of the people nearby look at us with disgust as they repeat the word like a warning. “Necromancer.” “Necromancers aren’t welcome here?” Meredy demands, seeming upset not just for me, but for anyone on this island with blue-eyed Sight. “What is this madness? Do Lyrians not practice their magic anymore?” “The Republic of Lyris outlawed your kind long ago, when we saw how Karthians suffered for cheating Death,” the man behind the bar spits. “All our dead are buried, as it should be. And they’ll stay that way, because you’re leaving now.” He jerks his head toward the door, making beads of sweat fly off his brow. He’s rattled by the mere sight of me, and somehow his fear cuts worse than his words or his patrons’ stares. Had Hadrien not forced me to slay him, we could have exiled him here, to an island that loathes necromancers and the Dead the way he wanted Karthians to.

I try to push toward the door, but the crowd around me doesn’t budge. “Get out of my sight before I decide to call a lawman!” the barman snarls. “Your companions, too,” he adds, glaring at Kasmira and Meredy beside me. “Out. Now.” “Wait!” an old woman calls from the back of the tavern, where she’s polishing glasses by the hearth. The quelling look she shoots the barman is one only a mother could give. “Do you bring news from Karthia? I didn’t think King Wylding allowed his people to travel, yet I see several new faces among your crew, not just the necromancer . ” “He didn’t let us do anything,” one of Kasmira’s younger sailors blurts, the words slurred from the drinks clutched in each of his hands. Like the old woman, he sits near the hearth, his face ruddy as the coals within.

“But that old bag of bones won’t be handing down any more decrees, thank the stars. Gone for good now, is’n’ee?” The whispers in the room grow steadily louder and more frantic, like the angry buzzing of hornets. I wish we’d brought Lysander to the tavern instead of giving him guard duty back on the Paradise. All night, we’ve been surrounded by people—an entire island full of people—who had no idea, despite being Karthia’s closest neighbor, of the horror that just took place so near their homes. The death of a once-great king. The rise of a new one, a man still more like a boy who believed he could change everything for the better despite not knowing what better looked like, who believed himself to be so much more than what he really was—mad. For all they knew until that sailor with shit for brains opened his mouth, nothing in Karthia had changed, and we had simply come here on a routine smuggling trip. Business as usual for Kasmira and her crew—apart from docking in the daylight, that is. Kasmira levels a glare at the sailor, drawing a finger across her throat. “What?” he asks sheepishly.

“Not like it was a secret . ” I shake my head. It wasn’t his place to share the news of King Wylding’s death. He should have left that up to Valoria, when she deemed the time was right. When she and the rest of my friends were done cursing my name for leaving without saying goodbye. “Who’s in charge of Karthia now?” a woman demands. “When will we meet them?” “Why should we believe you? Show us proof!” a man bursts out. “Who killed the king?” someone else asks. “Tell us what happened!” They fire off questions like a volley of arrows, one on top of the other. With a deep breath, I push down my anger.

Kasmira will disembowel her loudmouthed sailor later, I’m sure—though in his defense, none of us ever discussed how we’d handle sharing everything that happened in Karthia recently. All we can do now is give these people a good first impression of our new queen, Valoria. “Look,” I say slowly and clearly to the crowd that’s still trapping me against the wall. “Karthia is under new leadership, it’s true. But it’s strong leadership, and our queen is already making preparations to help Karthia rejoin the world. You have nothing to fear from her. She’s smart, and kind, and interested in learning just about everything. I’m sure she’ll want to get to know Lyris very soon.” “Did you kill the king?” someone shouts in response. “Is that why you left Karthia?” “Death to necromancers!” an ale-soaked voice adds.

So much for trying to have a conversation.

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