Scars can split, souls can tear
Tormented by the thing that grows inside
Shattered by the weight of it all
And now, nowhere to run.
Chiqu stands, wobbling on her feet, and leans against the wall of her cabin. Her breathing is quick, chest heaving as she tries to calm whatever is thrashing inside of her, stabbing its claws in and shooting fear into her veins. She stumbles to the cabin door, is about to open it when she turns back to me.
“Stay,” she whispers, trembling. “Here. I can tell you. I have to tell you. Then maybe she’ll leave.”
The rain begins beating down on us. I follow her to her cabin, closing the door and tying it shut behind us. She slowly sits on the bed, eyes staring at nothing. She has lost something today. The shock has faded. It has left her without life. Dull. Haunted.
She says nothing for a long time. I’m not sure what to say, either. The sea has changed her, melted away the protective barrier, exposing the broken inside I only caught glimpses of before. I hope the same won’t happen to me.
But perhaps it already has.
“What is that?” she asks softly. I’m not sure what she means until she traces the back of my neck with her finger, lightly tracing the circle that was carved there. My breath catches and I shiver. Her touch sends tingles shooting into my skull from the wound I thought had healed a long time ago.
“A scar,” I reply. “Accident.”
She narrows her eyes. We both know it’s a lie. But we also know we are both liars.
“I have scars, too,” she murmurs, shaking back her sleeves. I catch a glimpse of tiny, angry cuts dancing along her forearm. Now that she’s shown me, I begin to notice the small things about her I hadn’t seen before. A notch beneath her chin, probably from the point of a blade. The way her hands tremble when she touches rope. How she’s been acting differently ever since we set foot on this ship.
“You have the same ones, don’t you?” She points to my wrists. “I noticed when we first met you. I notice a lot of things about people. It’s the small things that reveal the most. You hide yourself well, Luzile, but not well enough to disappear.”
“Some things,” I say, pulling my sleeves up, “don’t disappear, no matter how hard I try to make them. And there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Chiqu rubs her neck with her hand almost subconsciously. Then she whispers something, so quietly I move closer to hear.
“She was my aunt.”
Her aunt. I vaguely recall Chiqu telling us it was her aunt who taught her to sail a ship. Taught her to swim. Taught her to cross the sea. Then another word catches my attention. Was.
“What happened to her?”
“Dead.” She says the word without emotion. Blank tone. No grief, no regret. Just stating a fact.
“Take a guess.”
Her voice is bitter. I remember the figure I saw hanging from the mast. The scar on the woman’s throat. Her broken neck.
“She did that to herself,” Chiqu murmurs. “After my uncle….” She trails off. Closes her eyes for a moment before straightening herself and continuing. “We crossed the sea together, the first time. Before any of this happened.” She gestures randomly with her hands, not really focusing. She’s somewhere else now.
“Just to see what was beyond Sviros. We went with a trade ship. It was amazing, the sea, the salt, the vastness, how you can look and there’s nothing but water in every direction. I loved it. And after we returned, we never crossed the sea again. I grew up and didn’t think about it again.
“Then my uncle left to cross it again. Without us, even though my aunt knew how to sail. I don’t know why he left. Maybe it was my aunt. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was the Assembly and the inequity of it all. Maybe it was all of it, I don’t know. But he left without telling us. It happened so quickly, I can’t—can’t even remember. What I was doing. One day he was here, and the next…gone.”
She lets out a long, shuddering sigh. “And he…my aunt, I mean, we assumed he would come back. They weren’t very close, always arguing about the Assembly or me. This was just another thing he didn’t tell her, I suppose. But they…they still loved each other.
“He did come back, in the end.” Her voice grows thick, quivering with rage and regret. “The crew brought him back. He was completely different. Changed. I can’t even describe how, but I remember it, even though I was still a child. He was changed. They got to him.”
“Who?” I say it with more fervor than I anticipate. Urgent. Desperate.
“The spirits. Whatever they are. Whatever lives out here.” Chiqu is breathing quickly, sweat beading on her forehead. “And they held on to him. Oh, they held on, and they wouldn’t let go. Every night, every night I would remember waking up to his screams, like he was being tortured. Drove him insane. My aunt refused to let him stay with us, in the end. Wanted to protect me and Juase. She was always cold. Cold enough to do what no one else was brave enough to.”
She slumps, body collapsing in on itself as a droplet of water rolls down her cheek. It might be a tear or rain from her damp hair.
“We found him a few days later. Blood drained out of him, staining into the rock. By the sea, on the cliffs. That’s the song, Luzile. That’s where it comes from. My aunt and I wrote it for him. For his…funeral.”
“You wrote it?” She wrote the song that has haunted me since I murdered Susaka Alfa. Mara seems to like it.
She nods heavily. “He killed himself,” she says. “That’s what it looked like, to us, anyway. “Some days, I felt everything at once. Other days, nothing at all. I didn’t know which was worse: drowning beneath the waves, or dying from thirst.
“Seasons went by. Refugees started coming from Jagas. My aunt decided to help. She became a smuggler and brought me with her, the first trip, not very long ago. I could see them getting to her, too. Changing her. I knew it wasn’t long. We brought the refugees back to Sviros. She had taught me everything I needed to know. So she killed herself. Hung from the mast of the same ship that drove her husband insane. This ship.”
Chiqu turns to me, and I can see the resignation clear in her face, her slumped posture, her shaking hand massaging her neck. Realization dawns as I consider her story. And she says out loud what we’re both thinking.
“First my uncle. Then my aunt. No one crosses this sea more than once and comes back the same, Luzile. This is my third trip, but I’ve just been lucky. I am never going to make it back to Sviros. Not this time.”
She chuckles bitterly. “And do you know something, Luzile? That’s a good thing. Because I lost Epiran, and the Assembly wouldn’t let me live very long anyway. I swore to myself, when he died, I would never return to Sviros. At least, this way, I won’t die at their hands. It’s only a matter of time. So I wanted to warn you, the way my aunt tried to warn me. That’s why she came back. I ignored her warning the first time. I don’t know how she did it. You saw her, didn’t you?”
I nod, and she looks more confident at my reassurance.
“Before she died,” Chiqu continues, “She told me what I’m about to tell you.”
She looks me in the eyes, clutching my shoulder with her hand. “When you get to Sviros,” she says, voice hard, determined. “Don’t turn back. Do not cross the sea again. I don’t care if there is anyone in Jagas you love and want to save. Do not turn back.”
“I won’t,” I promise. There is no one I love in Jagas. No reason for me to ever want to return to that barren, frozen wasteland. When I run, I don’t go back to where I came from.
Usually. There is one exception, but it’s probably long gone by now. Collapsed into the sea with the rest of the crumbling cliffs.
“That’s all there is,” Chiqu says quietly. “That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
“So that’s it, then?” I stand and lean against the wall across from her. A chill falls over us, gathering around our throats and warping our words. What she told me might have brought us closer. Made me care. But it didn’t. Mara has taken that part away.
“What do you mean?” Chiqu asks slowly, giving me a sidelong glance.
I snort. “This is too easy,” I mutter, almost to myself. “You really think you’re going to go insane before we reach Sviros? You think you’re going to kill yourself? And if, say, you do make it across the sea, you’re convinced the Assembly will want to murder you, so you’ll just hand yourself over to them? Pathetic. Giving up before it even happens.”
“I know what you’re implying,” Chiqu says, tone growing colder. “I am many things, but I am not weak. I have no false hopes of survival. It would only weaken me more if I did.”
“Pathetic,” I repeat simply. “But at least you’ve given me something to work with.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You mean you haven’t figured out what I’m doing yet?” I smile, knowing it will only increase her anger. “I like controlling what people feel. And I’m good at it. I can make them feel whatever I want, if I know them well enough. I know how to make Mehild scared. How to make Sarofa angry. How to make you feel like I’m the only person who will ever understand your pain. That’s why you told me all this. All I need to know is what a person fears the most, and what no one has ever been able to give them.”
Chiqu’s expression is stone. “That…is…twisted,” she grates slowly, enunciating each word and quivering with fury at my casual tone. “But do you know what? If that’s truly what you think, you’re ignorant. People aren’t that easy.”
She curls her lip in disgust and begins to untie the door, but I grab her wrist. She turns and gives me a cold stare. “Let go of me, Luzile.”
I give a short laugh. “That’s not my name.”
“I know,” Chiqu replies icily. “I’ve known it was a lie since you told me. I notice things, remember? No one hesitates that much before saying their name, even if they are slow to trust other people.”
This surprises me, but I don’t let it show on my face. I regard her for a long time, unsure of what to say. Then I speak, quietly. “That’s what we are. Liars.”
“Maybe so,” says Chiqu. “But at least I lie because I’m brave enough to want to protect the people I care about. You’re too scared to even do that. You lie so you can run and hide. So you can avoid caring about anyone.”
I want to tell her to stop talking. Maybe she can see more than I thought, and it’s making me wonder how much everyone else has seen, too. But there’s nothing I can do now that she’s seen. If I try to defend myself, or strike back, or run away, I’ll only be proving her right. Because she is right. Everything she says is true and I don’t know how to stop that. So I let go of her wrist and untie the door. Slam it behind me. Stumble over to the edge of the ship, grasping for something to steady myself on. Close my eyes and my ears to the storm that rocks the world around me.
A horrible groaning noise comes from somewhere deep inside of me, like a trapped animal facing its killer. And her laughter fills my ears, gleeful in the agony, feeding on the pain, and taking, always taking, and giving nothing but life, filling my lungs with breath reluctantly accepted. I can’t even push it away anymore. Her gift. Her curse. And everything it brings.