Chapter Seventeen: The Soul Has Illusions As a Bird Has Wings

Aboard the Andromeda

Ryker jerked awake to a deep wail that reverberated from the belly of the ship. The shriek washed over him like cold water, chilling his skin. Locke.

Locke knew Wren was gone. He was coming. He had found them. Ryker envisioned the Druishk man, with his hellish guards, busting through the door to Rip’s quarters, gleaming knife in hand. As they approached, Ryker found he could not move. Could not think. As he had in the dock office, he would lay there while they beat him over and over until he bled all over Rip’s sheets, the knife biting deep and swift. Then they’d take Wren away. Again. They’d take her away like they had taken his brother.

Ryker lurched up in the bed, chest heaving for breath, a cry of refusal on his tongue. Fear would not—could not—take him this time.

And then he saw Wren.

She perched on the bed between him and the wall, her back straight, blurry in the dim room. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unmoving. Her mouth was open, and the wail spilled from her lips. Ryker cupped his hands over his ears and nudged her with his elbow.

“Wren?” His voice was hoarse, parched. The moan faded, drowning with the waves that lapped against the ship’s hull. But she didn’t stir; her eyes did not waver in their unending stare. Only her lips moved.

“Blood. Blood everywhere. Blood in the pockets. Blood in the sockets.  Blood on the mast. Blood on the sails. Blood pudding,” she chanted in a low, unearthly voice. Ryker shivered. He lowered his hands and pressed her shoulder with two of his fingers. She flinched, but her eyes continued to stare off. She wasn’t awake.

“Wren,” he hissed. “Wake up.”

“Locke? Locke, there’s so much blood. And the ringing. The ringing is everywhere. What’s wrong? Blood and bells, it bursts. I can’t see you anymore, Ryker. I can’t find you.” Ryker’s heart convulsed when she said his name. What was she talking about? What was she dreaming?

She closed her lips and a low hum emitted from her throat. Her chin fell to her chest, and her fingers twitched at her sides.

Ryker let out a slow breath before saying, “Wren.” When she did not respond, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his embrace. She jerked against him, her shoulder ramming into his breastbone. He whispered near her ear. “It’s time to wake up. Please wake up.”

The hum stopped. And then… tears. Wren buried her face in Ryker’s shoulder, trembling. Warmth swept through him and he let out a sigh, leaning his head against the bed’s headboard. Wren was here. With him. She was safe. Almost.

They were in Captain Rip’s cabin. Gray light glinted under the curtained porthole window, so Ryker knew it was morning. A candle burned low on the map table. After Rip had left last night, he had joined Wren on the bed, falling easily into sleep. For the first time in a long time, his night was not completely plagued by nightmares. But Wren’s was.

“Ryker,” her voice reached through his shirt to his ears, a croaking cry.

“I’m here.” He set his chin on the top of her head and rubbed his hand across her back. She sniffled.

“I couldn’t find you, Ryker,” she said through hiccuping breaths. “And there was so much blood everywhere.”

“It’s okay, Wren. It was just a dream. I’m here, and there’s no blood.” Out of habit, he wiped at his nose, and for once, it came away clean. No blood, just like he promised.

“But it hasn’t happened yet, Ryker.”

Ryker’s throat felt constricted. It hasn’t happened yet? What does she mean by that? His stomach roiled in tune with the ship bobbing over waves. He closed his eyes, breathed in and out.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, trying to break away from the feelings of dread that pinched his gut. Sometimes he didn’t understand Wren; she was too wild, too exotic. And he’d seen wild and exotic. He’d lived with those who were wild and exotic. But sometimes it felt like Wren came from an entirely different realm, not just a different island.

Wren nodded, her head brushing against his shirt. As Ryker loosened his grip on Wren, the door burst open and Rip barrelled in. She wrenched the door closed behind her and leaned against the wood, arms behind her back. Her eyes met Ryker’s.

“He knows,” she whispered, jaw clenching. “Oku. He know she’s gone.” Wren rocked against him. He flinched. Locke knew Wren was gone. Rip narrowed her eyes. “He’ll come here first.”

She started moving toward the porthole. Ryker nudged Wren off his lap, hands trembling. Locke was coming. “What do we do?”

Rip grabbed a coil of rope that was hanging on the wall next to the window. “Do you know how to tie knots?”

♦♦♦

Fifteen minutes later, Ryker gazed out the porthole window at the gray sea. Dawn had arrived like a cool mist, stretching over everything in an aqueous haze. Wren hung against the ship’s hull just to the left of the window in a makeshift harness net. She gave him a small wave, the sleeve of his overcoat two times too big for her. He’d agreed to Rip’s wild plan only if Wren wore his overcoat to keep warm. Still, Wren smiled as wind and water danced across her face.

The harness knots were thick and secure, Ryker’s own handiwork. It had been quick work to create the net as Rip instructed him on where to tie and his fingers nimbly, gently maneuvered the rope like he used to make nets for fishing on Taegan. He could still see his mother’s slender fingers dancing across the threads as she wound them together into perfect knots.

They were so close to Central, so close to freedom, Ryker could almost smell the magic fuming from the factories of Bransk. Just over the horizon of the Frigid Sea, a shining city glimmered against the waves.

Rip pulled the curtains closed, blocking the growing light. “Now.” She turned toward him. “Take off your clothes.”

He stared at her, dumbfounded. She stared back, serious.

“Excuse me?” It was rare, in Taegan, for people to strip down, even on the hottest of days. Modesty and propriety were highly regarded. Ryker had matured from some of these practices after leaving Taegan, but the thought of stripping down, especially in front of a woman—a beautiful woman—made him flush more than he wanted to admit.

Rip let out a huff and stared him straight in the eye. “Oku—Locke—will be here soon, if he isn’t already at the door listening. The only way to disguise yourself is if you strip down and get in that bed.” Her voice was stern, demanding. Realization dawned on Ryker. An illusion to trick the illusionist. He was to pretend to be merely one of Rip’s chosen bed partners. Not a boy who could do tricks on a stage, not a boy looking for a deal. But a man.

Rip kicked off her boots and started to unbutton her shirt. Ryker turned away, cheeks burning. His fingers fumbled with the belt around his waist, the belt he’d taken from one of Rip’s sailors. Perhaps a sailor she had slept with. He was glad that unlike some magic-wielders Rip could not read his mind. He slipped off his pants, which left him in his undershorts, and shrugged off his long-sleeved shirt. Beneath he wore a sleeveless shirt, the collar of which dipped down in a v-shape that exposed his collarbone, similar to the tunics some men wore on Taegan. The men who could not wield magic. The men who had been unworthy.

He took that off, too, sliding it over his head. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in a looking glass that was propped on the top of the dresser. His torso was pale, scrawny—bones and skin. A red tattoo choked his collarbone, stitched into his skin like thread wrapping over his shoulder and winding around his heart. It ribboned bright against his skin.

When he turned around, Rip sat on the bed, a sheet wrapped around her naked torso, and unbraided her hair. Long, dark ringlets fell over her bare shoulders. Ryker stared, slack-jawed. His mouth felt dry. He took unsteady steps toward the bed, his field of vision clouded.

The only women he’d seen revealing that much skin had been working girls on a passenger ship. After bargaining his way onto a ship destined for Blitzkrieg, he’d hunkered down in an abandoned closet, much like the one he’d used on the Andromeda. But he had encountered the women in the underbelly of the ship. Girls wearing skimpy dresses who were all curves and exposed flesh. Women who could bring a man to his knees with the flick of her finger. He’d avoided them, his young eyes burning when he looked upon their plunging necklines and slitted skirts. He’d never even seen his mother in anything but the traditional frock, not a glimpse of excess skin visible except for her hands, feet, and face. These parts of the body were regarded as instruments for the gods to use and, according to the law, must be shown at all times.

Ryker sat on the bed and let out a slow breath. It was a ruse, all of it. He knew that, yet his heart still rang in his ears and his blood rushed through his veins as fierce as Blitzkrieg’s wind. He slid under the sheets and lay back against the pillows. His hands curled into fists at his sides, and he tried not to move, tried not to breathe. He tried to pretend he didn’t even exist, like he had many nights in Taegan when his father’s level voice rose.

He could feel her warmth caressing the bed, each inhale and exhale fluttering between her lips. He turned his head slightly, hair tangled against the pillow, and found her staring at him. Eyes cold and blue and brilliant.

Her fingers brushed his skin, tracing over the tattoo. Ryker closed his eyes, relishing the softness of her touch. He didn’t think anyone who spent her days at sea out in the sun, hauling rope and anchor and sails, could have such soft and nimble fingers.

“Where did you get your scars?”

His voice caught in his throat. “Wren.” It was a murmur, a groan.

“A magic mark,” Rip said. Her voice was a whisper, her breath a song against his cheek. “Protection or amplification?”

He opened his eyes, heart thundering. “Neither. It connects us. Me and Wren. So no matter where she is, I can find her.”

Rip’s eyes widened and she coiled away from him, pulling her hand to her chest. “A brand, then.”

A protest was on his lips. It wasn’t like that. He wasn’t her slave. But she shook her head, eyes squinted.

“Do you know what you’ve done?”

Before he could answer there was a knock at the door. Rip stiffened, but she drew herself closer to Ryker, draping her arms over his abdomen, tangling her legs with his. His gut clenched, but he ignored the flare sparking across his skin where she touched him.

Locke? He mouthed, and she nodded before laying her head on his chest. Ryker closed his eyes, trying to remember how to breathe without his entire body trembling like a dog shivering in a rain storm.

“Captain,” came a voice from beyond the door. A voice like thunder.

“Go away,” Rip called and then she let out a hiccuped laugh. Ryker let out a strangled noise as her breath skittered across his chest and tingled his bones. To him, she whispered, “Pretend to be asleep.”

Another knock, harder this time, came at the door, followed by a singsong voice. “Captain.”

“I said, sod off!” Rip shrieked. She reached across Ryker, snatched a knife from under the pillow and tossed it toward the door. It thunked into the wood, the hilt quivering.

The door opened, and Rip cursed under her breath. Shedo. Ryker gawked, surprised to hear a Taegan word from her lips. Three figures strolled through the door. Ryker glanced over, eyes slitted to feign slumber. Rip grumbled, rubbed her lips across his neck, and moved away from him. Cold air pressed where she had been, but Ryker only felt warmth spreading across his skin. His vision blurred and realigned.

Rip stood to face Lord Oku, a sheet draped over her front, keeping her back exposed to Ryker. He could see white scars lacing her shoulder blades and plunging down her back. Black tattoos twisted with the scars, crisscrossing around her sides.

Mountains, waves, trees, birds. He could see many images in the indistinct, black lines. He wondered what they represented, what part of her past they were connected to. She had called his tattoo a brand, as if she knew what it meant, as if she understood.

“What brings you to my quarters so early, Lord Oku?” Rip’s voice cut through Ryker’s thoughts, jolting his attention to the three men who stood at the door.

Druishk men, all garbed in ornamented robe and wearing heavy jewelry. The one in front held an air higher than the other; his eyes flashed gold, and he spread his hands wide in front of him, silver bracelets clanking on his wrists. Lord Oku.

“We have a situation, Captain.” The way he said captain, each syllable short and emphasized, made Ryker’s stomach churn. “My pretty bird has escaped her cage.”

Ryker saw Rip tense, saw the lean muscles in her back coil and bunch, forming a perfect line, straight through the rippling waves of her tattoos—he choked and looked away from the curves of her lower back. Rip, however, did not waver in her stance. She spoke boldly. “Is that so?”

Lord Oku grimaced. “When I went down there this morning, the door was sprung wide open without a sign of the girl. Where is she?”

Rip scoffed. “Why do you presume I know where she is? If the door was open, perhaps she flew away.”

Lord Oku sneered, a wolfish glimmer flickering across his face. “Captain, we both know nothing goes amiss on your ship. If you’ve seen the girl, if you know where she is, please inform me. That is all I ask.”

Rip lifted her chin. “I haven’t seen her on this ship.”

Although he didn’t look pleased, Lord Oku nodded. “Very well. Please give us assistance in searching the ship for her. Once we reach the Glass Harbor, she’ll have every chance to sneak off. We cannot allow that.”

“Why?”

“Because she could be dangerous. She’s an anamri. A powerful one. She can make anybody believe what she wants them to. We must escort her to a safe place once we reach Central.”

Ryker balled the sheets in his hand, anger coursing through him. Lies. It was all lies. Surely Rip wouldn’t believe him.

Rip tilted her head to the side, sizing up Lord Oku and his men. “We had an agreement, Lord Oku. Cargo only, or did you forget I don’t trade with lives? I cannot help you in this search. If you lost your ‘bird,’ you are responsible for finding her. I will not play with someone’s life.”

Lord Oku snarled. “This is your ship, Captain, for now. I thought you would want to protect your crew.”

“I do. So when we get to the Glass Harbor, you and your men and any cargo will leave my ship for good. Our agreement is over, Lord Oku. It was over when you brought that girl on board.”

Lord Oku’s Druishk green eyes flashed gold and then red and then black. A low growl bit through his throat. And then he lunged toward Rip. Ryker’s heart leapt in his chest. Wren. He flung the sheet off and scrambled over the lumpy mattress. As Lord Oku’s dagger slashed the air, Ryker clamped a hand around Rip’s bony wrist and tugged her backwards. Her heartbeat throbbed against his thumb, pulsing rapidly, as she toppled onto him. How could someone who looked so cold be so warm—so alive? The wooden bedframe dug into his calf where he landed.

“Don’t touch her!” Ryker yelled as he untangled himself from Rip’s body. He had to save Wren—no, not Wren. Rip. He stood, half-naked and unashamed, facing Lord Oku’s dagger. Locke’s dagger.

The blade gleamed with ice, reflecting the room in dark waves. The hilt was smooth bone etched with symbols Ryker didn’t know. It held power—magic—much like his lightning sword once had.

“You,” Locke hissed. His eyes flared like a million god suns, a phrase Ryker had once heard the Taegan priests use to describe the Goddess Hikari’s light. Ryker’s stomach dropped. His vision swayed. “Where is she?”

Ryker thrust out his hand, calling to the candle that burned on the map table. The flame danced and then lifted from the wick, gliding across the room toward Ryker’s outstretched palm. “You’ll never touch her again.” He thrust his hand toward Locke. Fire burst between them, but Locke deflected it with his dagger. It dissipated into curls of smoke.

Locke grinned, his face morphing into something else. Something dark and bright at the same time, like fire and ice colliding, like thunder and lightning. The Druishk gray skin peeled over to reveal skin as dark as the night sky. White hair, shining like the twin moons during the Aequetus Cycle, rippled from Locke’s scalp. His teeth gleamed both blue and white as he grinned.

Gaping, Ryker staggered away, his shoulder scraping the bedpost. He could hear Rip moving behind him, yelling, but his ears burned with a ringing, a laughing, unending, splitting. This was no magic-wielder, no powerful magician. This was a god in the flesh. And he was coming for Wren.

The other two men approached, their forms changing from Druishk governors to monsters. Horns grew from their heads, spindly knobs stretching out from several points. Their eyes turned into purple flames. Creatures of the night.

They grabbed Ryker, their clawed hands digging into his shoulders. They rammed him against the bedpost, again and again, the wood scraping his back. They tossed him down to the floor, pounding his body with their hooved feet and spiked fists over and over until all he saw was black and blue and red.

“Stop it!” Rip screamed.

The room silenced. Ryker saw golden light stream around him like candle flies in the jungle’s dusk. The light swirled around him, pressing against his skin. The pain, the blood, everything had ceased with Rip’s words. He couldn’t see the monsters. He couldn’t hear Locke’s awful laugh.

“Come now, Captain,” Locke said. His voice echoed around Ryker. “You shouldn’t take pity on a stowaway. Surely ships like yours have rules about such people.”

Rip’s illusion faltered, and Ryker saw the monsters again standing over him like they had in the dock office on Blitzkrieg—all fire and crooked antlers. They had paused in their battering of him, but he could feel the pain coursing over his bloody and bruised body. Then the illusion snapped back—golden light returning, peace soothing his skin. He let out a choking breath, tears pricking his eyes in relief.

“Stowaway?” Rip said. Her voice was distant.

“Yes, that boy snuck onto your ship, sabotaged my cargo, and bedded you for a ruse.”

Ryker’s mind tried to latch onto their words, but the golden light surrounding him beckoned for him to forget the voices and to close his eyes, to sleep.

“I-I had no idea,” Rip said. Her voice wavered. Fake, Ryker’s mind said. She was faking it. Captain Rip of the Andromeda did not fear anyone, man or woman or monster. He knew this to be true. He had looked into her eyes.

“I truly believed he was one of my crew. And to think we…” Her voice trailed off. “Allow me, Lord Oku, to take care of this problem.”

Locke laughed again. No, he cackled. A loud, shattering cackle that jolted the golden specks. They vanished, and Ryker saw Rip leaning over him. Her dark hair fell across her bare shoulders, draping over her covered breasts. When had she put her clothes back on?

“Come here, boy,” she said, voice hoarse. She pulled him up by the shoulders and rammed him against the wall. He choked out a cry.

She stared at him, eyes cold—no, they were soft. Soft like snow falling. Soft like the perfectly carved peaks of the mountaintops. Soft like water, not ice. “I’ll get the girl. I’ll get her to you. Just stay awake, Ryker. You have to stay awake.”

Her voice was low, he almost missed it. Stay awake? But he felt so tired. His bones ached, his skin sagged. He just wanted to lie down and sleep.

Rip shoved him over to the porthole window, using one hand to pin him to the wall and the other to push aside the curtain and open the glass frame.

“Stay awake,” she said a final time.

And then she pushed Ryker out the window and into the Glass Harbor’s waters.

♦♦♦

Ryker felt water glide over his naked body. It seeped into his skin, drowning his bones. Soft and warm, light as air, soaking, sifting. It spread across his skin, dipping into his wounds and healing. His eyelids fluttered, but light surrounded him, blinding him. He closed his eyes. A stray thought nudged at his mind, beyond the water and the light.

Stay awake.

He welcomed sleep.

♦♦♦

Taegan, seven years ago

Sunlight filtered through the trees overhead. Ryker leapt from rock to rock over the shallow waters that cut through the jungle undergrowth. His bare feet slapped each rock, leaving a damp footprint on the cool stone.

“Ryker, slow down,” a voice called. Ryker paused on a rock, toes perfectly poised on the point, and glanced over his shoulder. Gansey waded through the shallow stream, hands full of his baggy pant legs. Always the spotlessly clean child.

“Come along, Gansey. Mum’s waiting,” he called back. Gansey frowned, his chubby cheeks squishing into his thin eyes.

“I can’t. It’s too fast,” Gansey mumbled. Ryker’s shoulders sagged, and he stepped off the rock. Water trickled over his barefeet, washing off the dried mud. He slung the nets he carried onto the ground and backtracked to where his younger brother stood looking miserable, his dark hair a mess around his face.

“Don’t think too hard about it, Gansey. It’s just water. Just like what we drink from the falls. It won’t sweep you away.” He placed his hands on his brother’s shoulders. Gansey frowned, his mouth completely downturned.

“It might out there,” Gansey said. He pointed a thin finger toward the opening in the jungle a fair distance away where the stream met the soft beaches and poured into the sea. “What if the waves sweep me away?”

Ryker half smiled at Gansey. “Then I’ll rescue you!”

“Promise?” Gansey’s dark eyes were serious.

“As sure as the wind tangles your hair, Gansey boy, I will always find you,” Ryker said. Gansey smiled, cheeks blossoming. Ryker squeezed his shoulders.

“Now, come on, Mum’s waiting.” He turned and took off down the stream, stopping only to gather the nets before pouncing from rock to rock so only the briefest droplets of water splashed his skin. Gansey chased after him, letting the hem of his tunic drag in the water’s current, a laugh exploding from his chest.

♦♦♦

Effre, Central Isle, present day

“Hey, laddie! What you doing?”

Ryker gasped, choking on salt water and crisp air. Sunlight bloomed overhead. Stone swelled beneath him. He rubbed at his face, water soaking every pore of his body. He shivered as the cool air kissed the water on his skin.

A face—grizzled and weathered, no doubt from working years outside—peered down at him with one crooked eye. “What you swimming in the harbor for, my boy?”

Ryker glanced around. He lay on solid ground, one leg brushing a wooden dock that stretched into the sea, the other extended onto smooth stone the color of snow. All around him glass reflected the light and sound and color of the busy harbor. Central. He was in Central. Effre, specifically.

People of all races and islands wandered the edge of the waters, beckoning for a look at the incoming ships and a glimpse at the Frigid Sea, rumored to be so cold in spots that people actually lived on the ice. Ryker knew that to be a lie, unless Blitzkrieg counted as one massive iceberg. But still, he could see the look of awe on the faces as they gazed out on the monotonous waters.

Ryker stood, ignoring the man who had undoubtedly pulled him from the harbor, and twirled in circle to take in his surroundings. His chest did not ache like it had when Wren was taken, which meant…

“Ryker?” Her pipsqueak voice reached him through the throng of chatter. He paused and saw her, his bulky coat in hand, standing near one of the smooth glass buildings that reflected the harbor—and now the back of her head—in gentle, rippling waves. Ryker let out a relieved sigh and dodged his way over to her, leaving wet footprints on the stone path.

“Where’s Rip?” he asked hurriedly, still trying to catch his breath. He took the coat from her and tugged it on, buttoning it up to cover his indecency. He had never felt so relieved in his life—to be clothed, to have Wren safe by his side, to be away from hot hands and dark gazes.

Wren shrugged. “She can’t come with us.”

Ryker frowned, but he quickly released the disappointment welling inside. Rip was a captain; she had a life and a career. She had merely helped them, that was all. He shouldn’t have expected her to continue with them.

“We have to find Aryn,” he said. He looked around at the harbor. In front of him were squat glass buildings strewn about, reflecting the harbor back in ripples and shards. There were vendor carts mixed in, and the people milling about them wore every color, spoke every language and then some. This was only one part of Central, a tiny sliver. In one direction rose twirling glass towers, in another the choking smokestacks of Bransk, and in yet another the sprawling mansions of Northmere. And he knew there was even more beyond that. How would he ever find a single person in a place like this?

He rubbed his face, feeling exhausted and hungry. He slipped his hand into his coat’s pocket and pulled out their small bag of coins. It wouldn’t last long, but it might buy them breakfast.

Bells, loud and clanging, sprung from all directions. Wren gasped and clutched her hands to her chest. Her mouth formed an O as her eyes widened, tears welling up to match her blue irises.

Buy them lunch then, Ryker mused as he counted the number of rings. It was almost midday by Central’s clocks.

“Isn’t it wonderful, Ryker? So pretty,” Wren breathed next to him. Ryker shrugged. It sounded like regular old bells to him, the same as on any island, except for Taegan. They didn’t have bells; the Elders beat gongs to summon islanders to the temples.

He glanced at her. A beaming smile, ditzy and lazy, crawled across her face. His chest squeezed. She was here. Tears stung his eyes, and he quickly rubbed them away. She was back with him.

“Come on, we should get moving.” Ryker’s skin prickled as he looked around at all the faces passing by. A woman in bright colors with long, bronze-colored hair. Two children, dressed indecently, holding hands, running and laughing. An old woman covered head to toe in mismatching patterns and thick, silver jewelry. A dark, wrinkled man in a finely cut suit arguing with merchant. Any one of them could be someone like Locke. Could be Locke, for all he knew. He didn’t want to stand in one place too long. And he really wanted to find clothes.

They took off down a street that was bustling with crowds. Hand in hand, they weaved through the people, passing vendors and shops that occupied the glass buildings on either side of the street. Central had anything and everything for sale, but Effre thrived off the galleries that spun light into art, the cafes with drinks for any islander or mood, and the halls that resonated with notes that could only be described as music from the gods. These places crowded the streets, beckoning tourists and daydreamers to embrace their hallowed walls. It was hard not to get swept away in all the glamor and colors.

Just beyond the Glass Harbor, on the island of Effre, glass buildings swirled to the sky, sculpting the bulk of Effre’s landscape. Somewhere in that mess of glass and blacksteel and color was a renowned school of magic. Ryker had taken a peek at it through its looping gates but had been shooed away by sentries stationed outside its immaculate walls. He was just a kid then, scrawny, without a bite to eat in days, wearing a filthy tunic. Even if he had abnormal magic abilities, no one would have accepted him into the school. Only Gansey could charm his way into any place, any heart, with a flick of his hair and a wobbly smile.

Wren sauntered next to Ryker in a trance-like state, staring at everything with an open mouth. Ryker grinned. Wren had dreamed of visiting Central her whole life, never ceasing her endless gabber about the place, and, now that she was here, she had hardly said a word. He held her fingers close in his, unwilling to let her go.

They traversed through the Glass Harbor until they reached a bridge that connected Effre and Mjimeri, two of the three islands that made up Central. Spirals of reflective glass crisscrossed over the top of the bridge, creating intricate shadows on the pristine brick path. Wren gasped as Ryker led her across the walkway. Effre was magnificent, sure, but they wouldn’t find anything cheap and worth their time there. Across the bridge, the island of Mjimeri held plenty of shops and craft they could afford without harming their provisions.

Northmere rose from the edge of the glass bridge into tiled streets and carved pillars. It certainly wasn’t as spectacular or dazzling as Effre, but it gleamed with a sheen that spoke of money and overbearing merchants. Northmere was where the rich languished in stone manors and on soft beaches. It was the place Ryker had once dreamed of living when he set out to find his mother and brother, a place they could be safe and enjoy their lives. No more back-bending work in the hot sun, no more judgmental glances or disapproving murmurs, no more rules and regulations from the gods. In Northmere, Ryker could be free.

But that had changed. It had changed the moment he’d reached Central’s shores and realized everything he knew of the world was false. No one was free. Everything, especially magic, came with a price.

♦♦♦

Taegan, seven years ago

Ryker reached the jungle’s edge and ripped through the soft, white beaches of Taegan’s shores. Their mother, along with several other ladies, was bent over in the shallow tide with baskets, gathering mussels and sea urchins from the tide pools. Their wide-brimmed hats shaded their skin from the sun’s rays.

Gansey, a laugh on his lips, darted out of the jungle and rammed into Ryker, pushing them both to the sand. Ryker kicked out, trying to free himself from Gansey’s grip. He was strong, despite being two years younger than Ryker. They wrestled for a second, choking on sand and sunlight and merriment. Then Ryker shoved Gansey’s head into the sand and leapt up. He ran to the water’s edge and flung himself into the clear waves.

The water cocooned him in a warm embrace, spreading across his skin. It flooded through him, awakening every drop of blood in his veins, every breath in his lungs, every flame in his skin. He always felt alive near the sea. It was bright and warm and so clear he could see the bottom even on overcast days. Underwater, he could think, he could live. He could, in a way, breathe. The sea was a piece of silence and solitude breaking over him. Rest and relief washing his bones clean.

When he surfaced, Gansey stood on the beach, toes tickling the tide. Ryker’s skin glistened with salt and sea. He debated whether he should grab his brother around the middle and toss him into the waves, but Gansey’s face burst that thought. His brother was so serious for one so young. And he hated the sea. He dreamed it would swallow him whole.

“There are my two boys,” their mother called. She straightened and held up a hand to wipe her forehead. Ryker caught her smile, beautiful as the sun rising in the sky, under her hat. Ryker nodded to Gansey, and together they went to her.

“What about Arden?” Gansey asked, solemnly. “He’s your boy, too.”

Their mother’s smile grew, her cheeks squishing her closed eyes just like Gansey’s smile. “Arden is my big boy. You are my little boys.”

A disapproving cluck came from the other ladies, who had paused in their work to watch. Their gazes seemed to say more, though. They didn’t just disapprove of the family with three sons; they condemned them. Every action, every word was spurned by the other islanders. Hikari and the other gods did not bless those who tried to forge their own paths. Yet their mother never appeared miffed. She continued on, smiling and dividing her words graciously.

Ryker squashed up his nose and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not little, Mum. I’m almost taller than the other boys and they’re all older.”

She patted his arm. “You’ll always be my little boy, Ryker.”

He held out the nets to her. “I brought these.”

“Good boy. We’ll need them for the fish. Can you help carry these baskets?” She motioned to the two woven baskets settled near her feet on the beach. They were filled with oysters, urchins, and crustaceans. Ryker’s stomach gurgled at the sight; they would have a feast tonight for sure.

Ryker eagerly grabbed the baskets by their handles and hauled them further up the beach, near the jungle’s threshold. Gansey stood in the sand, looking out across the waters. His body was rigid, his back arching.

“Gansey?” Ryker called. He dropped the baskets, the contents spilling out across the sand like fresh entrails. He peeled down the beach just as Gansey began to cry. Hot tears spilled down his plump cheeks. Ryker grabbed him around the waist and tugged him to the sand.

“Gansey. I’m here,” he whispered in his ear. The women had stopped to stare. Ryker could feel their accusing eyes dagger into Gansey’s skin, his mother’s skin, his own skin.

His mother took a step forward and hesitated. Water swirled around her bare ankles like vines entwined the jungle trees. Like chains.

“I’m here, Gansey. Ryker’s here. I won’t let it sweep you away.” His brother sobbed against him. Brisk breaths heaved in Gansey’s chest. Ryker cradled him in his arms. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to push back tears. He would not cry in front of his brother. To cry would show weakness. Men of Taegan did not cry. “I’m here.”

“I can’t see, Ryker!” he squealed. “It’s all too bright.”

Ryker rolled Gansey so he could see his face. A curse choked in his throat. Shedo. Gansey’s eyes were glowing with gold light. It trailed around his irises and dipped into his pupils. Ryker felt his stomach twist. This couldn’t be happening. Not this, not his brother. Not his Gansey boy.

“Ryker?”

He looked up, eyes blurry with water… no, tears. His mother approached, worry lining the creases of her face. He reached up and scratched his shirt sleeve across his eyes. He would not cry in front of his mother.

“No,” he whispered. Gansey choked on his tears as they continued to flood his cheeks. Golden flecks mingled in the rivulets. “No!” Ryker held up a hand. “Stay back!”

No one could know, no one could see his eyes. They would take him away. They always took them away. If anyone on the island exhibited abnormalities, they were taken. Forever.

Ryker pressed Gansey’s face against his tunic and chest, blocking his eyes from the women’s gazes. They wouldn’t get his Gansey boy.

But then, without warning, without any way to stop it, Gansey’s body erupted into streams of golden light. It unraveled from his veins, seeping from his skin and bones, and wrapped Ryker and Gansey in a golden haze as bright as the sun. As bright as Hikari’s light.

And then Ryker sobbed.

♦♦♦

Northmere, present day

“Excuse me, sir,” a voice called from one of the nearby shops. Ryker paused, his bare feet slapping the perfectly tiled streets. “Are you in need of assistance?”

He tilted his head slightly toward the shaded doorway, revealing both interest and hesitation. Northmere was still a bit pricey, no matter which shop they chose. It would be better to head further south, find a food peddler or the like in Eastmere. There he could afford food to last them days, maybe even a pair of shoes or pants.

“We have plenty of wares to choose from,” the voice continued. Ryker could just distinguish a body from the rest of the shop’s shadows. “Perhaps a pair of shoes, or maybe something pretty for the little lady.”

Ryker winced and glanced at Wren. She stood a step away, head tilted to the side as she looked up and down the street. She was still enchanted by all of Central, no matter that the shops here didn’t glisten with glass and plant life didn’t spring from the stone with magic. Northmere was still cut from a high cloth, all wholesome stone and wood and glass, built with careful hands.

He started to wave away the shopkeeper, continuing past, when the voice called again. “We’re having sales. Items marked half-price, even lower.”

Ryker stopped. It sounded too good to be true. But his stomach rumbled, and his head had been aching since he’d been dragged from the harbor like a drowned rat. If the shopkeepers words were true and the items were half-priced, it was possible he could bargain for something better than what he could afford in Eastmere.

He turned on his heel, his bare skin digging into a crack in the tiled street, and dragged Wren to the door. The shopkeeper—a man with gray eyes and dark hair the color of ripe plums, beckoned them through the door. The shop was warm, cozy. Dark wood paneled both walls and floor. Shelves were filled to the brim with cloths of every color, every fabric. Jewelry displays glittered in the low burning lamps. And Ryker could smell fresh coffee, baked bread, and… he let out a breath. Roasted meat.

It’d been ages since he had freshly cooked meat. Blitzkrieg’s meat was usually stringy and tough, all the juice sapped out of it by winter’s grip. Jax-oxen meat and other similar beasts could only be cooked so many ways and be appetizing.

Ryker headed toward the back of the shop, following his nose and the rumbling of his stomach. Wren let go of his hand to admire the sparkling necklaces that hung from racks in the center of the shop. Ryker’s hands glided over the cloth that ribboned from the ceiling. It was soft, silky, reminding him of sunlight filtering through trees and the festive robes the women wore during Taegan’s Festival of the Gods.

The back of the shop made way for a small cafe with glistening wood-carved chairs and tables. A man cooked over an open oven that sizzled with meat and bloomed with bread. Ryker’s mouth watered. He touched the bag of coins in his pocket and wondered at the cost. Surely it would be too much, no matter the sale price.

But before he could ask, a cry came from the front of the shop. Wren.

He dashed down the narrow aisle of the shop, tripping over the material and banging his arm on glass displays. When had the shop gotten so crowded? In the dim light, he saw two men—their heads covered with red material—struggling to grab Wren by the arms. She squirmed against them, screeching. Ryker let out a yell as he slammed into them, knocking them back against the shelves. The men grunted and scrambled to find purchase. Ryker snatched Wren from the floor.

“Hang on,” he whispered. He kicked out at the men, who had almost risen. They fell back again and toppled into the jewelry displays.

Fear lunging inside of him, Ryker turned and fled toward the entrance. The shopkeeper stood at the door, a malicious grin spreading his lips. Ryker swore he saw fire flicker in man’s eyes, but before he could determine if what he saw was true, he bashed into the shopkeeper and out the door.

Startled, the man lost his grin and clamored to steady himself against the doorframe. By then, Ryker was halfway down the street, holding Wren tight in his arms. A shout erupted behind him, but he didn’t look back. And he didn’t stop running until the mountainous homes made way to old brick buildings and the smooth pathways became broken cobblestone streets.

Finally, when the only sound he heard was his own labored breathing and Wren’s soft hiccups, he slowed to a walk. His bare feet scraped against the cobblestone, but he hardly felt it. His skin was flushed, his body jumpy. Every noise turned his head.

“Ryker, I can walk,” Wren said in his ear. He flinched, heart racing. Then he stopped and set her down, keeping a tight hand wrapped around her wrist.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, breathing heavy. There would be plenty of shops to stop at here, and hopefully, none of them would involve shifty people. How could he have let someone almost take Wren again? He knew that shop looked crooked, but his hunger had driven him to the doors. Greed, selfishness, gluttony. What was getting into him?

It was this place, he thought. This place with its promises of a future, of money and fame. This place where he’d last seen Gansey, disappearing into a crowd, tears streaming down his cheeks, eyes glistening with golden light. This place where he had lost everything he held dear to him. Where he lost his Gansey boy.

He would not lose Wren to this island.

“Only a little. What about you? Do you need clothes?” Wren said, eying his bare legs. Ryker shrugged. Clothes were low on his list of priorities.

“We should figure something out. Before it gets dark,” he muttered to himself. The sun was high above them, not even close to setting. Yet he couldn’t help but remember how quickly the island grew dark with shadows once the sun set behind the buildings. He shivered, just thinking about some of the nights he’d spent on the streets in Eastmere and worse, Southmere.

“What about that shop?” Wren said.

Ryker looked up. She pointed a thin, dark finger toward a rundown brick building squashed between several others that looked exactly like it. A blacked-out window advertising gifts and herbs and eccentricities beckoned them inside, while faded paint over the old wooden door echoed a better time.

“I don’t know. It seems pretty run down. It might not even be open. Plus, I don’t think it sells food or clothes,” Ryker mused. Still, something about the building sparked in his mind. It felt… restful, undisturbed. It wasn’t trying to catch his attention or beckon him with fancy words.

“I think it’s beautiful,” Wren said, smiling again. “It has so many colors. So much music.”

Ryker squinted at her and let out a chuckle. That was the Wren he knew. The Wren he had vowed to protect.

“Alright then. Let’s go there,” he said. He held out a hand to her, palm open. Wren lifted her shoulders in excitement, opening her smile to show her teeth. She laced her dark fingers with his pale ones, and together they walked toward the old wooden door with the scratched copper handle, so much dingier than the others in the row.

 

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