Rhia had three undeniable problems.
First, the soup tasted like days old fish. She dipped her spoon into the pot and watched, horrified, as the utensil came away coated in chunked clam. Or, at least, she hoped it was clam, but who knew what in the thousand darknesses it truly was. The trip was to take a week at most on the current route, but the captain seemed to spend the minimum amount on food when it came to passengers and crew.
“I’ll figure this out,” Rhia grumbled.
Excellent, because the captain gets gruff when he’s hungry.
Her second problem went by the name of Calloway. Cal, for short. For half the evening, she’d been speaking with the raven, if speaking was what you wanted to call it. She was refining her ability to communicate with birds by willing select thoughts to Cal. He’d reply most of the time.
Cal preened his feathers, his deep brown eyes watching her even as he cleaned. Rhia didn’t care for how sharp his talons were, and it didn’t help that he’d mentioned several times how easily they sunk into mouse flesh.
Might you add the salted meat? Meat always improves the flavor. Perhaps by letting the bones—
“Cal,” she warned. No matter how unpleasant his claws made her, she was not going to let a bird boss her around. Though, in truth, she should be careful. Cal had his own agenda, as silly as that sounded. He said her name like a bird might circle a carcass. It didn’t feel comforting. But Cal was the only way she could get in the captain’s good graces.
And there was her third problem. The captain. Besides Cal, Rhia was sure that greed and drink were the captain’s only friends. Every night, he’d abandon the deck and sit counting his coin, downing a bottle of wine or brandy. There was something sad about him, and when she’d mentioned this to Cal, the bird had merely squawked and hopped upon the floorboards like he was too busy hunting mice.
Though Rhia was grateful for the opportunity to board the ship, she still couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the captain’s quick decision to allow her onboard. Could she cook? Barely…
Groaning, she swirled the white goop around and brought it to her lips. Then she thought better of it, since everything else she’d made had been swallowable at best, and rested the spoon carefully against the pot. No, she couldn’t cook with these ingredients.
Though the captain never said her stew was terrible—the crew did most of that for him—Rhia had a sinking feeling that he’d want something else from her. It was in the way his eyes roved over her. They lingered far too long on her, especially on her gloves. It happened so often that at night, right before she went to bed, she had resorted to curling into a ball and holding her hands to her chest, constantly wondering if the captain knew about her powers. That couldn’t be possible. Outsiders were barely aware of the spirits and their gifts. Though, there was a possibility that she could be wrong.
Regardless, she’d be off this accursed boat by tomorrow. Central was hovering on the horizon. She just knew it. Rhia’s fingers brushed against her bare collarbone. The moment she arrived in Central, she’d begin her search for Fawkes and for her necklace.
Cal. Rhia peppered the stew, simultaneously stirring in the carrots. At least, she thought those lumpy orange sticks were carrots. How long have you known the captain?
The Raven tilted its beak up higher, its button eye reflecting the flames from the pot. It matters not to you.
It’s just, I thought maybe you two were close.
Yes, you two have a… a deep kind of relationship.
Cal shrieked, flapped his wings, perhaps in laughter. Rhia couldn’t be sure with him. Okay, okay—
“Hey, island lass.”
Rhia flinched, flinging clam into the first mate’s face. He puckered his lips and squinched his eyes together, confirming Rhia’s suspicions—her soup was the worst yet. Guess the mystery meat, which she’d assumed had been clam, was something else entirely.
“Um, I—I,” Rhia stuttered, scrambling for the scrap of cloth she’d been using to wipe down the kitchen. “So sorry.” She attempted to hand it to him but remembered she wasn’t wearing her gloves and swiftly chucked the fabric at his face before he could brush against her skin. When the cloth fell from his nose and fluttered to the floor, she wondered if she should have risked the skin-to-skin contact. After all, it wasn’t like there was a full moon. Still, it was better to be safe. Hurriedly, she fumbled for the gloves that she’d discarded beside the pot and slipped them on. Better.
First mate Frennic blinked. Once. Twice. His eyes were all fury and firelight as he bent down to retrieve the rag and proceeded to dab at the not-clam plastered on his chin, but he missed a dollop of the stuff. There was still white substance along his jawline.
He’s neglected a spot. Would you like me to get that, godling?
“No.” She spat out.
“Excuse me,” Frennic said, his voice as hot and shaky as a pre-erupted volcano. Oh, she’d said that out loud.
“Sorry, um. May I help you?”
“The captain wishes to see you.” Frennic dusted his sleeve, though Rhia was sure there wouldn’t be a speck of dust on it. The first mate was always immaculate. Well, aside from his jaw. “He says that if—”
“Excuse me, sir. Your chin—”
“Magic and might, girl. Will you listen for one moment? If it wasn’t for your”—he eyed the stew bubbling away on the stove—“cooking, then you wouldn’t be on this ship.”
“Of course, but—”
He widened his eyes, like a seaweed troll in one of the island stories. It was a monster that ate small children dallying too close to the riptide. Rhia imagined Frennic with seafoam-tinted skin and a shark-tooth grin. She clapped her hand over her mouth before he could see the tilt of her smile.
How delicate. How smooth you are, Claimed.
She removed her hand and drew in a breath.
“The soup just needs to boil a while longer. If you could keep an eye on it for me, I’d be eternally grateful.” As Rhia inched around Frennic, she heard Cal’s claws clack against the wood, noticed a flap of wings as she opened the door. Then she made her way to the captain’s quarters.
Do you think you’re in terrible trouble?
I think I’d rather not think on it.
Rhia heard the trample of feet on floorboards before she saw them. She tried not to look up, but curiosity got the better of her. It was an elderly woman and an older man. The woman wore an elaborate hat littered with felt flowers. Rhia had never seen something so beautifully made before. All its folds had been lovingly sewn together into several colors of dyed fabric, but right before Rhia was about to comment on the hat, the woman brought her hand up to whisper in the man’s ear.
Whether it was intentional or not, Rhia heard everything the woman said.
“What a frightfully strange island girl. Ever since she boarded the ship, the weather’s been behaving oddly.”
The man pulled the woman closer as Rhia passed, his frown deepening into a scowl. It wasn’t long before they disappeared around a bend, leaving Rhia to rub her tears away before anyone noticed. Too late. Cal had seen, had cocked his head at her.
Humans fear what they cannot understand. They sense something about you, a shift in the mundane.
Rhia stroked the bird’s feathered head with her finger.
It wasn’t long before Rhia found herself in front of the captain’s quarters. She couldn’t help but gape at the sight, just like on her first day. It had amazed her then, too. The door had a mosaic of gems. Rubies studded the frame, while emeralds cuddled close to sapphires swirling chaotically along the inside until they crashed into random bursts of diamonds. Not a plank of wood peeked out from the cluster of precious jewels.
Just another testimony to his greed.
And a bizarre way to keep someone from knocking, Cal added. Oh, she’d projected her thoughts without realizing it. She needed to be careful about that. Though she’d improved upon controlling her magic, she still wasn’t used to speaking with a creature so intelligent.
Before she could so much as consider what to do next, the door swung open without a creak, revealing the captain—features as dark as midnight, angles as sharp as blades. His low brow dipped down but didn’t conceal his eyes—cold and obsidian. How had he known she was out here?
Sensing a halfling is simple, thought Cal.
“Come, child.” The man turned like a wave, all curl and foam. Barely there. One moment he’d been facing her, the next he was beside his desk. It then struck Rhia that even though she’d been on his ship for a few days now, she still didn’t know his name. Not even Cal said it. He usually just called him old man. Though the captain was far from old, at least so it appeared. His hair was still shiny, oil-black, oil-slick. Though he had wrinkles along his sun-browned forehead, he didn’t hold too many.
“Time to talk payment, girl.”
“I thought we already discussed that. I was to cook in exchange for free passage to Central.”
“We’re both aware that isn’t true.” The captain reminded her of a shark just then. Even the way he moved was predatory, slow and coiled with energy. He circled the chair then lowered himself onto it before knitting his fingers together and pressing them against his nose. His eyebrows rose expectantly.
Half girl. Half something else. Cal cawed.
“What do you want with me?”
“You intrigue me. For instance, your hands.” The captain gestured to them now, and Rhia, without thinking, tucked them behind her back. “They’re gloved. How did an island girl get her hands on something as foreign as that unless it was absolutely needed?”
“And what about Cal? The ol’ boy likes you. He doesn’t like anyone, barely even likes me.” He grunted. Cal squawked in response. “Besides all that, the water is—it’s different since you’ve been onboard. It pulls us forward; it’s been swift and sure. The current that leads to Central is never easy, so why is it accommodating this time?”
“Luck?” she offered.
He raised his eyebrows at that. “You’re looking for something.” Did he know? “Someone, perhaps? Truthfully, I don’t care, lass. Don’t care one bit. What does concern me is what you can do for me.” As quick as moonbeams, the captain flashed his teeth. They were blackened and rotted.
“And what would that be?” Rhia’s skin crawled like she’d fallen in wet sand and couldn’t wash the grit off.
“We’re going to Central, aye? So, I ask that you run an errand for me.”
“What kind of errand?”
“Seek out a shop. There’s a boy there. Atlas. I need you to give him something.”
That’s it? “Like what?”
Rummaging for a moment in his desk drawer, the captain withdrew a package which he shoved into her waiting arms, almost like it burned him. Her fingers curled over the coarse paper that wrapped it. “Tomorrow we’ll reach Central, and with that, you’ll be free to do what you wish. That is, if you bring this pretty package to the boy. He’s been refusing my offer for some time, so I challenge you to convince him to take it this time.”
“Why do you think I can convince him?”
“If you’re as special as I think you are, it should be easy.”
“But I don’t even know where to find him.” Now Rhia had to find Fawkes and this boy named Atlas?
“Cal will show you.” The captain’s eyes darted to Cal. Currently, the bird was tucking his head under his wing with disinterest. “Isn’t that right, Calloway?”
“He’s the best map one could ask for. Trust me.”
I wouldn’t trust him, godling. Not if I were you, Cal added.
Danger was a dear friend of Rhia’s because it found her wherever she went. Perhaps that’s why she used her magic, let it dance between her fingers until the headaches set in. Though, she would only use magic when she was by herself, never around others. All because of that that one night five years ago. The night everyone had gone from avoiding her to fearing her. That night she’d been walking the beaches under the protection of the Kengeki moon, she’d settled on a patch of sand right at the lip of where ocean met beach. While the Worldly Moon shone white, the Spirit Moon bled a more bluish color, if one had the eye to see it.
She had fallen into the careless, mindless movements of tracing crescent moons and thumb-printed stars in the sand. Maybe that’s why she never heard him sneak up on her. He was as silent as ships cutting across calm waters.
She scrambled back, her heels kicking up sand as she neared the waves. Oh gods, the Full Moon. Even back then, she’d been aware how dangerous she could be. Though, she wasn’t sure how she knew.
“Makaio?” Her voice escaped in a hushed, delicate whisper.
“Fourteen years have treated you well.” Makaio’s eyes roved over her chest, lower still. “You’ve grown into a woman, it seems.” Crouching down on his haunches, Makaio edged to sit beside her. His dark hair swept over his eyes and nose, leaving only his smile—a curved dagger. His hand crawled to hers, but she snatched it away before he could brush against her.
“What do you want?” As much as she hated it, her voice shook.
“Why, Rhia,” he crooned, inching closer. She clenched her fingers so tight they burned with pain. “Isn’t it obvious?”
He snatched her wrist and snapped it down against the sand, then brought his other hand up to push her shoulder back.
“Please,” she pleaded. Thrashed. It wasn’t enough. He shifted so that he had her pinned beneath him. His fingers uncoiled from her wrist and slid up to press hot and wrong against her palm. His other hand, which had rested on her bare shoulder, snaked down, down, down. She shut her eyes, heard nothing but the pounding of waves upon beach and the slow, heavy breaths of Makaio. Until…
Heavy breaths grew into gasps. Pained sputters. Something was wrong, but somehow she felt better. Stronger. She imagined the ocean’s heart beat along with hers. Imagined the air carried a piece of her, free as the gulls. Imagined the stars’ light leaking from the sky. That the whole night broke apart and poured its magic into her. It even felt like the sky was dripping down onto her cheeks. Wait, was that rain? Strange. Only moments ago, it was clear enough that the sky had appeared like a shimmering ocean. When Rhia opened her eyes, she realized the rain she thought she felt had been something else entirely.
Blood leaked from Makaio’s eyes and down onto Rhia’s skin. Even his mouth opened and dribbled with blood. But he wouldn’t move off her. Couldn’t. His face was smeared with pain and pleasure. He wanted to run away but for some reason couldn’t.
Screaming, she pushed him off, watched helplessly as he crumbled in on himself and bled out out on the sand, his eyes voidless, distant. He’d lived, but Rhia could never wash clean the memory of how he looked afterwards. He appeared at least a year older, while Rhia felt new and alive. Blood was drenched on Makaio’s shirt, an ever-expanding blotch. His life leaked out, dark and scarlet, onto the sand before it was carried away by ocean waves. A layer of blue film over a deep, thick mauve. Its color unforgettable.
A color that now lit the sky in Central. It was a dawn the hue of blood diluted by sea. But it was light enough for her to catch glimpses of smoky, shadowed buildings jutting up like sharp and broken seashells. They sliced the sunrise, a knife pressed heavily against star speckled skin, bleeding roses and life-choked oranges.
While the sky came alive with color, the city was still lifeless gray. Everything was brick smothered in a thick layer of smog and dust, a monotone masterpiece. Rhia had always appreciated color, loved the various shades of sea-bright corals and teals. But this place—this place was moon death and shadows. It was darkness. This was a place past the veil, into the pits of the underland.
No, it wasn’t that cruel. After all, the underland was made for demons, for those who were damned. Rhia had heard stories of cruel spirits who had crossed the veil to steal people, to suck the souls out, as if they were slimy, salty oysters. It was said that if one abused magical gifts, the spirits would grasp that person by her soul tails and drag her over the veil and deep down into the underland, where fire burned with ice-hot wonder and blood flowed in rivers. Once humans crossed into the underland, they were burned down to nothing but bones and soul, empty conch shells left to rot and wither.
She shivered in the morning light, nothing but a thin coat the captain had lent her kept her from freezing. Tugging on it, she descended down the ship’s ramp, not bothering to look back, and pressed forward into the crowd. As her feet hit Central’s stone walkway, she couldn’t help but smile. She was finally here! Soon she’d find Fawkes and retrieve her necklace, and if she happened upon a cure for her moon gift, so be it.
Beware of thieves, Moon Claimed. This island is ripe with misdeeds.
She stroked Cal’s neck in thanks. Thieves were the least of her worries. She hadn’t anything left to steal.
The bird perched on her shoulder shivered and puffed up its feathers.
Are you going to tell me where to go or are you just going to caw warnings?
She’d itched to venture out the moment she arrived. Though the place was choked with lifeless hues, it was beyond anything she’d ever experienced. Even the smells were foreign. Instead of ripe fruit and permanent florals, this place smelled like rotted fish and choked, steaming bonfires.
Rhia watched the skies, where the Kengeki moon wasn’t full but still hovered along the horizon. She should be safe to brush skin-to-skin, but she didn’t want to chance it.
Cal, if I’m going to find Atlas, I need a good place for gathering information.
Cal puffed himself up again and snapped at someone who passed by a little too closely.
“Watch your pet, love.” A handsome young man jumped back. His features were all dark aside from his eyes. They were gorgeous and shifted colors like the ocean, from murky gray to lagoon green to deep ocean blue. He felt different. He felt like the waves, the moon, the birds. He felt like—magic? And right before he disappeared into the crowd, Rhia noticed something else. A smooth, white skull jutted from his pockets. It was a—dragon head? All bony and detailed.
Wait, what had the boy called her? Love—Fawkes! Maybe she could find them both at the same time.
Cal nudged his head against her neck. Danger may await you.
Rhia chuckled to herself.
Danger is a dear friend. She’ll find me wherever I go. She crooked a finger over Cal’s head. Lead on.
Though it stunk of alcohol and sweat and was loud enough to break her concentration, Rhia couldn’t help but grin. Cal had managed to find her a bar fit for miscreants. Nets hung lazily down from the rafters, a ship made out of melted steel was framed in the corner, and there were even barrels for seats. The lanterns hanging from pillar to pillar framed everything in a dim glow.
It was named Olven Yen. What those two words meant Rhia wasn’t entirely sure and she couldn’t care less. It was new. Exciting. She was in Central! Besides all that, if she was going to find Fawkes, she needed to play the game. She needed to think like him.
“Excuse me…” Rhia stretched out a hand to tap the burly man on the shoulder.
“Wha?” A cloud made of half exhale, half liqueur blew into her face. The man craned around to look at her. And look at her, he did. His eyes were hungry, flitting up then down before settling into a crinkled slit that didn’t match his smile. “What can I do for ye, miss?” He hissed the last part before he threw a hairy arm over her shoulder, startling Cal from his perch. The raven flew up and nestled high along one of the beams.
“I was just wondering—have you heard of a boy named Oliver Fawkes?” Though, she should have asked after Atlas first.
The sailor rubbed a palm over his mouth, chewed on the inside of his lips. Frowned. “Can’t say I have. He your sweetheart?”
“What? No. Absolutely not.”
Should have said yes, girl. Though, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered.
Before Rhia could reply to Cal’s thoughts, the man brought her close, his breath sour, his eyes glassy with drink.
“Ya don’t say.”
“Think I’ve made a mistake. Thank you for all your help.” Rhia tried squirming from under the man’s grip, but he only held her tighter.
Danger. A dear friend, you said?
“You said something about Oliver Fawkes?” Rhia heard someone ask with a smooth, sure voice. Spindly, dark fingers tapped the drunkard’s shoulder, freeing Rhia from her captor’s grasp. She backed up and took the new man in. His skin was all charcoal and wet sand, his clothing a stark contrast of reds, yellows, and blues. Like a parrot, Rhia thought.
“Doesn’t like to be called Oliver though.” The man itched the tip of his chin.
“Hey, mate. I saws her first,” blubbered the drunkard.
“Saws her? Oh, how atrocious. Do you speak to your mother with that grammar?” The man asked, then turned to Rhia and flashed a seafoam white grin. “You know I deal in names?”
Rhia suddenly had the odd sensation to run. This man, like the captain, was looking at her like she was a tasty moon sweet. Biting the corner of his lip, he never took his eyes off her while he stepped closer to the drunken man. Without so much as a warning, the parrot man thrust his fist into a nearby torch’s flame and didn’t even flinch as he wiggled his hand in the fire.
“Wha you doin’, you bast—”
“You ever seen magic before?” The dark skinned man brought his hands together and rolled the flames around until the fire had formed into a bright, tight ball no bigger than a pebble.
The drunkard could only gape, mouth open. Rhia probably held the same expression.
“I take that as a definite no, then.” The man was cradling the ball of light in his hands. “Though, fire isn’t my element of choice. I much prefer air.”
The parrot man’s eyes widened in crazed excitement before he once again cupped his hands together, immediately extinguishing the fireball. He brought his palms up to show that indeed the flame was gone before he closed his hands into fists and lifted his forefingers, his movements as elegant and practiced as a showman.
The man then turned his hands over and crooked his fingers, almost like he was beckoning the man forward. Within that same instant the drunk’s eyes bulged and he let loose a string of choking sounds. He fell to the floor and was left clutching dramatically at his throat. His skin turned a frightful shade of blue then purple.
“Stop!” Rhia shouted. “He can’t breathe. You’re killing him.”
Parrot man snorted but dropped his hands to his side. The drunkard sprawled on the ground and gasped for air.
“As you wish.” The dark skinned man shrugged before turning to take her in. “My, you’re a pretty one. Though, most of our kind tend to be startling.” He pointed to himself. “Take me for example.”
“Who—who are you?”
“Seems you’re getting ahead of yourself.” The man flashed a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Eyes that were cold and black. “After all, you owe me. In exchange for saving you, I require something.”
Oh, spirits. Another favor?
“Your name, sweet one. What’s your name?”