Aboard the Andromeda
Ryker unwrapped Wren’s hands. The starchy fabric curled to the floor in long, coarse coils. Wren’s fingers were folded into fists, knuckles reddened from scraping the material. Gently, one at a time, Ryker peeled each finger from the grip. Small indented slits lifted on her palm where her nails had pressed into the skin. Wren didn’t cry, though her face contorted as each muscle protested Ryker’s prodding.
“Easy, take it slow,” Ryker whispered.
They were hiding in an empty storage room crammed between the ship’s mess hall and scullery. Ryker had camped out in the room for the past two nights while trying to locate Wren on the blasted ship. The vessel was huge, consisting of four decks, each divided into several sections.
After Ryker had beckoned the frigid waves to carry him to the departing galleon ship and dug his fingers between rigid planks to climb its hull—slicing his palms on barnacles stuck to the underbelly—he made his way to the lower decks and stumbled upon the storage closet empty of wares and vacant of occupants. He slid to the cold floor, leaned against the closed door, and stared down at his cracked and bleeding hands. Exhausted.
His heart, which still felt like it might burst from his chest, heaved a gasp. He was closer to Wren, wherever she was. He could feel her nearby. His chest strained, urging him to find her and pull her close.
He slept for the entire day, in and out against the rolling sea. Every time he heard someone walk past, Ryker snapped his attention to the door, waiting with raised fists for someone to discover him. But the crew left the room alone, and Ryker regained his strength.
“You might not be able to write yet,” Ryker said as he eased Wren’s pinkie finger back to its stationary position. “It’ll take time for the muscles to feel better.”
Wren sat in the middle of the floor, clothes rumpled and face downcast. Her ragged hair swept over her forehead, but Ryker noticed her eyes were glassy and her face was vacant. Ryker had been with Wren though a lot—starving against a bleak landscape, waiting in the aftermath of her father’s death, fending off attacks by thieving urchins on the streets—but he had never seen her like this. He had never seen her so wilted.
“Hey,” he said. His words choked in his throat, overcome by an itching cough. He tried to swallow it, but it built up until he was forced to turn away, raising his arm to his mouth. Blood glistened on his sleeve when he lifted his head. He leaned back against the door, temple throbbing.
The second day on the ship, Ryker ventured out of his room to get a bearing on his surroundings. It’d been years since he was on any ship, but it vaguely resembled the ones he’d traveled on before with the various decks, cramped passageways, and an abundance of crew members. He tried his best to blend in—pretending he belonged. He borrowed a few clothing items from several sailors—a shirt from one man, pants from another, a knit hat from a third—who all bunked in different rooms in the barracks. The only thing Ryker kept was his overcoat, which held his books and bag of coins. Its style matched what most of the crew wore, and it provided Ryker warmth in his cool room. As he took each item, he whispered a few words in exchange: “May the wind tangle your hair with the salt of the sea.”
It was a common blessing he’d learned in Taegan, wishing someone good fortune in their hard work. Most residents of Taegan fished for food, and the wind was said to lead one to the most abundant places in the sea. His mother, however, always saw the blessing as a reminder to recognize nature as a stepping stone in life; that by following the way the world moved, one could find peace in life.
While the crew slept, he slipped food from the scullery, leaving the same words of blessing for whomever might benefit. Once he was dry, clothed, and fed, he utilized every fiber of his being to search for Wren.
His heart clobbered between his sternum and rib cage, pleading to find rest from the screaming of his blood and the shredded breath in his lungs. He had to find Wren, or surely his chest would rip open and his heart would plunge into the depths of the Frigid Sea.
He listened to conversations, he memorized the layout of the ship and the any corridors that zigzagged across the decks. He kept mental notes on which crew worked where, what duties were performed and when, and who the other passengers were on the ship. All the while, his heart protested every move he made.
The crew numbered around two hundred, by Ryker’s estimate; ships he’d traveled on previously had a similar crew structure. While there was plenty of room for paid passengers, he counted only a few—three wealthy men who always appeared together, a middle-aged woman that hailed from the Southeastern Isles by her skin tone, and a pair of twins with colorful skin blemishes and pale blond hair.
“Ryker,” Wren said, voice low. He looked up to find her staring at him, eyes wide and bright and crinkled. “Thank you.”
Her lips parted as if to say more, but then her face crumpled into a silent cry. Ryker reached for her and wrapped his arms around her tight frame, pulling her into his lap and against his chest. At his touch, her body trembled, but it soon relaxed against him.
They stayed that way for several hours, into the turn of the night, listening to crew members shuffle past the door from the mess hall and feeling the ship heave back and forth as it parted wave after wave with its thick hull. They cuddled together, breathing in sync, matching the rhythm of their hearts.
“I’m hungry,” Wren said, her voice small again. Her lips moved against his chest, and he instinctively squeezed his arms tighter around her body.
“We can get food,” he said. “I know where they keep the good stuff.”
He shifted to get up, balancing Wren’s weight in one arm and pushing himself up with the other. His muscles strained, but he stood, still holding her in a tight embrace. Wren wrapped her arm around his neck and clung to his chest. Ryker’s heart had settled against his sternum, the wrenching pain a distant throb. It had ceased its fierce pull on him the moment he had snatched Wren from the dusty floor of the closet and carried her out of the room, leaving the unconscious body of the man behind.
“I can walk,” Wren said. Ryker hesitated. He didn’t want to let go. He never wanted to let her go again. But she patted the top of his head, and he relented. He set her on the floor. She wobbled next to him, knees shaking, but she steadied herself and flashed him a dazzling grin.
Ryker, unable to find a smile, opened the door.
“Hello,” said a female voice. Wren gasped, and Ryker immediately summoned heat from his body, flames spreading from his fingertips. Through he felt the heat of the fire, it did not burn his skin.
The captain of the ship stood in the corridor, hands on her hips, as she stared at him with cold eyes. Her hair was pulled into a long braid that hung over her shoulder. She moved her hand toward her belt, and Ryker raised his palm to strike.
In a quick movement, the captain brandished a sword from her empty waistband and whispered under her breath. Ryker’s muscles tightened, sparks spreading across his skin. Beneath his skin. Boiling his veins. Ashes clouded his mind, choking his manipulation of the fire. The flames fell from his grasp, dissipating in the air, but the inferno blazed in his blood, making every twitch of his body roar.
“Wren,” Ryker coughed out, throat swarmed with smoke. But… how did smoke enter his mouth? His vision swirled with fog and stars. He doubled over, lungs protesting for breath. “I—I can’t…”
“Ry-Ryker?” Wren said, her voice distant and confused. Echoing. “What’s wrong-rong?”
The captain lifted her sword so it slid against Ryker’s neck. She prodded his chin up to look her in the eyes. Blue, the color of the sky where it met the frozen sea. Cold and harsh yet brilliant and intelligent.
Ryker didn’t usually focus on colors, not like Wren did. He preferred the way things felt: the smooth coolness of water across his skin, the ripple of wind through the golden trees of Taegan. But he had seen eyes like that before, once in Central when he’d negotiated his way to that godforsaken city. When he had tried to find his mother.
And those eyes reminded him of the person he had once been—the person he still was. A worthless street urchin. The second son. A thief. An unwanted, an abomination. Unable to use magic because a man with a beard and dark eyes had deemed him unworthy to possess a gift. But he had used magic. His mother had told him to, had shown him how. And then she was taken. As punishment. As sacrifice.
Rage rose in Ryker, trying to combat against the overwhelming fire that bled through his skin and into his bones with every movement. He groaned, and his throat ripped into a scream.
“Don’t fight it. Release your magic, and I can make it stop,” the captain said. Her face did not change; her high cheekbones did not waver in their strong, cold glare.
“Ry-Ryker!” Wren cried against him, her small, thin arms wrapping around his torso. She was scared. He had made her a promise to always save her. His heart churned, yanking at him to help her.
Ryker closed his eyes and let go of the heat rising in his body. He let it slide back into the pores it flooded from. He released the energy from his control, and the pain stopped.
Ragged breath jolted his body. With hands on his knees, Ryker dry heaved, spit dribbling down his lips.
“Good,” the captain said. She slid her sword back in its sheath. Ryker blinked. She wore no sheath, no sword. Just a belt lined with seashells. “Now, come with me, thief.”
It wasn’t until the third morning that Ryker heard the first mention of Wren on board. He had been passing through the corridors, trying to follow the tugging of his heart, when he saw the captain standing in one of the foyers with one of the crew. They spoke in a language native to an outlier island near Central instead of the common tongue, but Ryker managed to pick up a few familiar phrases. He’d been to those islands once, begging for transport to Blitzkrieg. He knew what those islands considered the beauty of the world: aves. Birds.
It didn’t take Ryker long to know they were whispering about a bird hidden in the ship’s belly. But where she was hidden was what Ryker wanted to know. He lingered near the corridor, but the captain looked up at him sharply and refused to continue the conversation until he stumbled away.
At midday, he positioned himself near the guests on board. The three men, who kept a wide berth around them, had nudged at Ryker’s mind since he first laid eyes upon them. They looked nothing like the squat Blitzkrieg man and his stone-faced goons who had kidnapped Wren. If those men were on board, they were hiding; perhaps hiding as someone else. No, these three appeared to hail from Druishk due to their charcoal grey skin and jeweled face adornments. Plantation owners, or someone high in authority, based on their silky fabrics and golden rings. Still, Ryker had his suspicions.
And, sure enough, once they settled to eat—their food was finer than that of the crew—Ryker overheard one of them murmur about the Oubliette and her. The little bird who could fly so high.
Burning with anger, Ryker smashed at the food on his plate until the men got up to leave. Then he had followed them, a shadow in the dim halls of the galleon. Sure enough, they entered a closet in an empty cargo corridor.
Ryker’s aching chest told him Wren was in there, but he knew it would be futile to reach her with the men blocking the way. If they were the men from East Port, they would have no trouble beating him down again and making sure this time he didn’t follow them across the Frigid Sea. Instead, Ryker had memorized the way back to his room, found a suitable weapon from the scullery, and took a nap. He would need all his strength and every bit of magic energy left in his blood if he was going to rescue Wren.
After the captain escorted Ryker and Wren to her personal cabin, she fed them. Wren ate ravenously, then curled up on the bed in the corner, falling asleep before her head hit the cushions. Ryker sat at the table, picking at his plate. The captain sat across from Ryker, staring at him with clear eyes.
“How did you do it?” she asked after a moment.
Ryker rubbed at his face. Despite sleep, he never felt truly rested. Between using his magic and trying to fend for Wren’s life, his body ached from the cold sea, and his palms stung. If he wasn’t careful, the slightest movement would rip open his wounds, and they could bleed, like they had when he hit the man with the frying pan.
The captain narrowed her eyes. “Get on my ship.” Ryker shrugged, and she frowned. “No. How? I know every person on this ship—every face, every breath exhaled. Yet you, you, managed to get on my ship and sneak around for three whole days without my knowledge. And then, it’s only because a drunk sailor was found unconscious in the cargo hold that I even realized something was amiss on my ship.” She pressed her knuckles against the wooden table and stared at him. “So how did you get on my ship?”
Ryker leaned back in his chair, sighing. “It doesn’t matter how. The only thing that matters is she’s safe.” He gestured toward Wren.
The captain’s eyes hardened further. “She was taken against her will?” Ryker nodded. “I didn’t know, when we left East Port, that they had brought her on board.” She picked at a loose sliver of wood on the table edge. “I wouldn’t have allowed it. I have a strict policy when it comes to my transportation services. Cargo only.” Her eyes moved to the map spread across the tabletop. Lines ran along the parchment, connecting Bakkaj’s islands in loopy patterns Ryker didn’t understand.
“No animals. No people, not even slaves or…” Her eyes flicked up to him. “Or magic-wielders.”
Ryker said nothing. He knew, of course, that some magic-users were kidnapped and sold into some kind of slave ring. He didn’t know what became of them; he just made sure he or Wren wasn’t one of them. But they had been close. They were still close.
The captain focused her gaze on him, eyes unblinking, though Ryker couldn’t read her expression. “I’ll suspend my agreement with Lord Oku when we reach Central. He knows my rules, and he crossed the line.”
“Lord Oku?” Ryker muttered. “You mean Locke?”
The captain leaned back in her chair, fingering the ring on her right hand. “Locke. Is that what he called himself?” She shook her head. Wisps of dark hair clung to her forehead, fallen from her braid. “I thought there was something odd about him. He doesn’t have the proper Druishk air to him. And when we dock, he likes to disappear.” She tapped the arm of her chair. “Still, I didn’t peg him as one to play games.”
Ryker glanced toward Wren, feeling uneasy. So Locke was the Druishk man, yet he looked nothing like he had in East Port. There was a lot he didn’t know about these men who wanted Wren. How could he protect her if he didn’t know who they were dealing with? If he didn’t even know Locke’s real face?
“Is he a magic-wielder?” he asked.
“An anamri?” She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Anamri don’t usually kidnap other anamri, even for the Oubliette.”
Anamri. Ryker had never hear the term before. On Taegan, magic-wielders were considered “blessed,” or rarely, “claimed.” On Blitzkrieg, they could be cursed or simply special. But there had never been a term to describe all that magic. Ryker liked it. Anamri gave him hope that they had a chance.
“I don’t know what he is,” the captain continued. “But I would stay away from him. If he wants Wren for the Oubliette, that’s trouble.”
Ryker remember Wren’s words. That the man had been scary. He hadn’t know what she meant, but she had been right. He never should have gone to make that deal. If he hadn’t, they’d still be in Blitzkrieg, holed up somewhere. Cold, maybe. Hungry, most likely. But at least they would be safe. He couldn’t believe he let them take her away—to the slave ring no less. It was just like when he let them take his mother.
“The sailor, also, will be relieved of his contract,” the captain said. She pieced together her words carefully. “He shouldn’t have been down there, and he should not have been drinking. If I had known about the alcohol, I would have put a stop to it. That never should have happened.”
Her voice wavered at the end. Ryker caught a glimpse of someone else beneath the captain’s hard exterior. She winced, her steely eyes flickering away from Ryker’s gaze.
After a moment, she lifted her chin and rolled back her shoulders. “I apologize for my crew’s disorderly conduct. He will be punished as deserved.”
Ryker tapped the table with his thumb. “It wasn’t in your control. It’s just how this life is.”
Her gaze snapped to him. “But it shouldn’t have to be.”
Surprised, Ryker stared back at her. “Did someone—”
“When we reach Central,” she interrupted, “you can stay on board until we unload the cargo at the Salt Docks. You’ll need someone to help you. I have an old friend, Aryn. She can protect you from Lord Oku.” For another brief moment, the captain’s face softened, losing the sharp glare, and Ryker saw someone else beneath. Someone more.
“How will she know to trust me?” Ryker asked, thinking fast. Central was made of three islands, the size of Taegan. When he’d been there before it took him weeks to understand the layout of the city. Back then, he never would have guessed there were people willing to help; everybody seemed to be looking out for themselves and their magic.
“Tell her your story, mention the Andromeda, and she’ll believe you. She’s the one who gave me the ship.”
The captain suddenly stood, her chair scraping against the wooden floorboards. She cleared her throat. “You can stay here for the night. Rest. Eat. That’s all I can give you. We’ll reach the Salt Docks by sunrise. If Oku—if Locke—learns I’m helping you, he won’t be pleased. So stay in here, and you should be safe. I will not be held accountable if you step outside of this room.”
She grabbed her hat from its perch on the dresser and started toward the door. Ryker jumped to his feet and stopped her with a light touch to her elbow. She jerked away from him, face clenching, and whirled around to face him. Her eyes were cold, glaring at him unblinking. Her hands curled into fists at her side.
“What’s your name?” Ryker asked, ignoring the harshness of her gaze.
She squinted at him, her body stiff and tense. “Names have power. When you’ve earned my trust, you can have my name.”
Ryker crossed his arms over his chest. She stood less than an arm’s length away; he could smell her. She smelled like the sea along with the rest of the ship. But she also smelled like the fountain tulips that lined the forest floor of Taegan.
“I’m Ryker,” he said, lifting his chin. “That’s Wren. We could use a friend. What do the crew call you?”
She sized him up; they were almost at eye level, Ryker only a few hairs taller. Her cold expression melted into a grin. “Rip. You can call me Captain Rip.”
Ryker bowed his head and grinned back. He raised one hand over his chest.“Thank you, Captain Rip, for all that you have done. May the wind tangle your hair with the salt of the sea. If there is anything I can do to repay you, please let me.”
She shook her head, her smile digging into her cheekbones. She placed the hat atop her head, its wide brim shadowing her face. “When we get to Central, get off my damn ship.”