Tabidaque

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FIFTEEN

Building up while the rest break down
Feeding the dark, empty inside
Everything screaming, bleeding, and
grey without a light.

I don’t count how many days go by. Not that I even keep track anymore. It’s pointless when there is no sun to watch. Chiqu doesn’t talk to me, except terse orders to bring up more maslakha roots or lower the sails, which I ignore. She and Juase have conversations in her cabin regularly, and sometimes I catch snatches of what they’re saying if I listen closely to the door. She probably figured out I lied about his behavior. Realized it was just another plan to see how far she would bend before breaking.

I replay that night over and over in my head, trying to find the exact moment I snapped. Chiqu’s story stirred something inside of me, something I had felt for a long time. Fear. Shooting ice up my spine. I felt it building as she told everything to me. I didn’t want to hear it. Now I wish I could erase it all.

I overhear Chiqu and Juase having furious conversations behind the door to Chiqu’s cabin. “…somewhere else,” I hear Chiqu hiss. “You know what they’ll do, Juase. What they did to my—”

“Your parents were traitors!” Juase argues in a furious, hushed voice. “Mother knew what was right. The Assembly—”

“Made me an orphan!” Chiqu’s voice grows hysterical. “And she stood by and did nothing. I ignored it, for a while, you know? I tried to grow up with you and do everything right. We’re doing it right now, aren’t we? Following in her footsteps. But I can’t anymore. I know what you think, Juase, and I know you think I’m crazy, but would you let them do this? We can get away, we can—”

“No!” Juase is adamant now. “She knew this would happen. She always said it would happen. You were never responsible, Chiqu. She always said so, when we found you on the street, after you gave those things to…”

He falters, and I can imagine the fury rising in Chiqu’s eyes. “It was their fault,” she growls coldly. “A child shouldn’t have to be a parent to another child. They forced me to. They forced me to and it’s their fault she is gone. My sister.”

“She was my cousin, and you were old enough to know better,” Juase whispers. “It was nobody’s fault but your own.” There’s a chilled silence. Then the door flies open, and I hurry away. They can’t know I was listening.

The storms do not grow any lighter. If anything, they’re more severe out here in the middle of the sea. I find myself gradually becoming accustomed to perpetually damp clothes, and it becomes a habit for all of us to regularly empty our boots of water before going below deck to keep the one sheltered place as dry as possible.

I look out at the grey sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of something, something that will indicate we’re near land, near Sviros, but I only see darkness in the distance, the sky blending seamlessly into the water of the same hue. There is no feeling more desolate than the swelling of the sea beneath my feet and nothing in every direction but more of the same.

A wave lashes against the ship and sprays me with prickling salt. I shiver as the sky above us, steadily leaking, drips fine mist, which accumulates and condenses in my hair and rolls down my back. I’ve noticed the air has grown slightly warmer as we move further away from Jagas, but it still carries a biting chill. The wind runs its brackish hands through my hair. Again, I find myself missing the land. Even Jagas would be better than this miserable weather. Wet and cold is not a very comfortable combination.

I descend the stairs below the deck, hoping to find a damp blanket to dry the hair that sticks to my scalp. A useless endeavor, as I’ll be getting wet again the next time I set foot outside anyway.

Most of the crew is sitting below deck, talking quietly and waiting out the persistent storm. I move into the shadows, avoiding eye contact, trying not to attract any attention. They don’t notice me, or if they do, they don’t care.

Then Juase asks the question I’ve been wondering since that night. I’m pretending like I’m not listening, but my head snaps up when he speaks.

“Mehild,” he says. “Sarofa. What was that…thing? Above the sea, that one night. The white bundle of blankets. If you don’t mind sharing, of course,” he adds quickly.

Sarofa opens her mouth, about to object, when Mehild touches her arm. Sarofa pauses and glances over at Mehild, who takes a deep breath before nodding. “You want to tell him? Are you sure?” Sarofa asks in a hushed tone.

Mehild gestures with her hands, and though I can’t understand what the motions mean, Sarofa does. “Are you sure?” she whispers. Mehild looks hesitant, thoughtful. Then she slowly raises her eyes to meet mine, regards me for a long moment, and nods.

“All right,” Sarofa says, clearing her throat. “You all know Mehild and I were from the same tribe. I didn’t know her very well. My grandmother was the chief, and though she was an elder, she was respected, and Mehild wasn’t related to anyone like that. So, I didn’t see her very much.”

She pauses, frowning as she recollects. “And a few seasons ago, I began hearing her name, spoken in whispers by my family members, like it was forbidden. Something had happened to her. Something illicit. That’s why they cut out her tongue. Gave her the name ‘Lav,’ so everyone would know. Remember.” She gives Juase a hard look, making it clear she won’t be telling us what Mehild did to deserve a punishment like that.

“I see,” Juase murmurs, nodding and giving Mehild a kind look. “That was very cruel of them.”

But Sarofa shakes her head. “That was the tradition in our tribe,” she says, and I can hear the anger swelling in her voice. “We didn’t perform Ofres very much, because they killed, and we didn’t have enough hunters to spare. The ones who disobeyed were tortured and forced to live with their mutilations. Their pain.”

I can see her hands, clenched in fists, are trembling with fury now. But Mehild takes one of them and holds it, squeezing gently. Sarofa takes a few deep breaths before nodding and continuing quietly.

“Mehild had a child. That was the reason we met in the first place. It wasn’t her choice to have it. In the tribe, you couldn’t choose who to love. Love wasn’t even considered. The point of it was to produce children, to help with the hunt until they were old, then produce more children. So you were given a partner. A mate.” She spits the word with disgust.

“She didn’t want that baby to live the way she had. In fear. She thought it would be a mercy to save it from that life. When I found her, neck-deep in a freezing pool, she was ready to go under herself. Filled a bag with rocks and tied it to herself. I got there just in time to pull her out before she drowned, or froze to death. But it was too late for the baby.”

Mehild has hidden her face behind her hands, but I can see her shoulders shaking. Sarofa’s face is frozen in pain. The memory must be vivid. “I don’t know if what I did was right,” she says in a hoarse voice. “But I knew I couldn’t just—stand there. Let her die. Even if she wanted to.”

She gulps, lets out a shuddering breath, and looks up at Chiqu. “We ran,” she says. “After that. You found us. You showed us that there was another way to escape. That death wasn’t the only option.”

Chiqu dips her head, and silence falls, broken only by the waves beyond the walls. I consider Sarofa’s words. Mehild drowned her baby. That’s what she saw fall into the sea. It might have been a hallucination, but the rest of us saw it, too.

Juase must be thinking the same thing. “What was it, then?” he asks in a hushed whisper. “Why did we see it?”

“I don’t know,” admits Sarofa. “Something about the sea…is different. I’m not sure how. But it feels odd to me.” She smirks as she says, “My tribe was a big believer in spirits. That’s how they would explain anything strange, like this.”

Juase scoffs, too. “Spirits don’t exist,” he decides. “It’s all—”

“Yes, they do,” Chiqu says suddenly, quietly. Juase turns to her, looking shocked, perhaps waiting for her to elaborate, but she doesn’t say anything else, just keeps her eyes fixed on a small crack in the floorboards.

“Chiqu, this is the sort of thing that Mother thought too much about, and you remember what it did to her,” Juase says, irritated. “Always talking about spirits and things out of her control—it’s all made up. Just something she created so she could have something to blame. And now—”

He doesn’t have time to finish. Without warning, Chiqu is on her feet, eyes flashing thunderously as she lunges toward him and presses his shoulders to the ground. “Don’t,” she growls. “Don’t talk about her like that. Like she was insane. She wasn’t.”

I want to interject that Chiqu’s wrong. There is no sanity in the dark. Only chaos.

But I say nothing, nothing, because that’s all I ever do. The secrets are tiring. This is why I stayed away from them, from people. Everything inside grows heavier the longer I stay.

But she grows quieter.

Quieter, perhaps. Angrier. Still there. Her anger seeping into my veins. Sharpening the broken edges. Grey. Grey all around me, grey of my flaking skin, soft and pliable, grey of my hair that falls in clumps. Red is more beautiful. Red is crimson and power and life.

Red always washes into the shadows of grey.

I want to shatter everything around me. Break all of it down, because I can. I know I can. I know I can with every whisper of knife, prying under flesh, just to see what hides there. When I can’t find it somewhere else, in someone else, I look for it in me.

It’s addicting, discovering the power nesting inside of me. Powerful enough to bring my own entire disregarded existence to the ground. The power she won’t let me take out. The power she controls.

Is this how they see me? Is that what they see? Fighting anything and everything inside of me? I don’t want them to rip into the fragile, soft parts. I don’t want them to wash away the stains until I am gone.

I don’t want to invite them inside. But maybe I already have.

Something flashing in the corner catches my eye. From the stairs. Above deck, something is flashing, glowing. I slowly walk over to the stairs, look up. Then I shrink back, blinded by a fiery light.

Behind me, I hear someone gasp. They have seen it, too.

But I’ll get there first.

Floating up the stairs on hands and knees because it’s hard to see anything. But then the light fades, and I am standing on the deck.

It’s faint, fainter than I thought at first, but any light looks blinding in the darkness. A phantom of a sun, blinking in the distance. Silhouetted in black against it, shapes. Mountains. Tall, spiraling high. Land.

“Sviros!” Sarofa cries beside me. “We’re here!”

“Not yet,” says Juase, smiling grimly. “We are close, but we are not there yet. We have to get past the cliff tides first.”

Sarofa glances at him uneasily. “What do you mean? What tides?”

“When you get close to Sviros, the tides suddenly start moving in circular motions,” Juase explains. “Some are small, so small we’d hardly notice them except for a bump here and there. But some…some have destroyed ships.”

“Try to avoid those,” Sarofa mutters.

“I’ve had a lot of experience navigating around them,” Chiqu assures her, coming up behind us. “That was one of the first lessons I learned: how to navigate the cliff tides. Because if I didn’t know how to get beyond my own land…” She shrugs. “There’s no way I was getting to Jagas.” She turns to Juase. “Ready?”

He nods. “Ready. Let’s go.”

Chiqu goes to the wheel, shouting orders to Juase and the crewmates. “Adhazi, watch for the tides! Make sure we’re not getting too close. Sarofa, go below deck! In fact, all of you who don’t know how to navigate a ship, go below deck!” she shouts in between instructions to her crew. “You’ll be in the way.”

I noticed she avoided saying my name. Probably because she knows it isn’t my real one. I know I won’t be able to help, but I’m not taking orders from her. Not when we’re so close.

“Juase!” Chiqu calls. “The sail!”

I look up and see the wind has tangled one of the larger sails with the rigging and wrapping it around the pole it hangs from. If it’s too tangled to catch the wind the way it’s supposed to, there’s no way we’ll be able to navigate around the tides.

“You’ll have to go up and fix it!” says Chiqu, and Juase nods, looking determined. I watch from the side as he goes over to the rigging and begins climbing with ease, up the wooden slats that serve as the rungs of the ladder. He climbs quickly, with confidence, and I can tell he’s done this before.

But the persistent rain has made the rungs slippery, and several times he steps up and is knocked off his balance when his foot slides. He reaches the top without slipping off and successfully unfurls the twisted sail. It floats out and billows in the wind.

Job complete, Juase begins to descend. Too quickly. As he lowers himself down, he isn’t looking at where he puts his hands, and his right hand closes over air. He frantically seizes for the ropes, and his left foot slips through the space between slats. He yelps as he falls backward, saved only by his right foot, hooked in the ropes.

I don’t know if I should try to help him or wait and see if he can pull himself up. Several times Juase reaches for the sky, swinging backward and hitting his head against one of the rungs. His flailing does nothing to help his situation, but his foot is firmly wedged in the ropes, so at least he won’t be falling.

He flails a few more times before falling limp. The blood is rushing to his head. If he loses consciousness, the sail won’t be fixed, and we’ll all die. I run over to the ladder and begin climbing the way he did, but slowly. The ladder shakes under my weight, and I press myself against the ropes, hoping it won’t shake me off.

He cranes his neck back to see who is coming after him. “Luzile!” he calls out. “Be careful! It isn’t meant to support two people!”

“Oh, so you can do this yourself?” I say, pausing, and he shakes his head as best he can, upside-down.

“No,” he admits weakly, and I can tell I’ve injured his dignity. “Just…be quick.”

I keep my amusement to myself and focus on not slipping or losing my balance. When I reach him, I wrap my ankles around the ladder and yank at his foot, hoping to dislodge it. “Stop!” he shouts. “I’ll—”

His foot twists out of the ropes easily, and he grabs for the ropes as he begins to fall through the space between the rungs. He catches one of the rungs with his right hand, but I know he won’t be able to hold on for long.

“Let go!” I say, quickly descending the ladder. “I’ll catch you!” It’s not a promise I can likely keep, but it’s also not a long fall, especially now that he won’t be smashing his face in on the deck.

Juase swings from the rung a few times, sucking in a pained breath. His arm is probably aching from the weight of his body. “Are you—” he begins to say, but then the ship jolts to the side, and the ladder sways. His hand can’t hold him up anymore, and he plummets downward, crashing into the wood of the deck.

He lays there, motionless, for a moment, and I begin to wonder if he’s knocked out, or worse, when he groans heavily and stirs. Slowly he picks himself up, rubbing his head. “Don’t worry about me,” he grumbles. “The ground caught my fall.”

I’m about to reply when the ship suddenly jerks to the side. “Hang on!” Chiqu shouts, pulling the wheel to the side as she tries to keep control of the spinning ship. We’re caught in a forceful tide. Sviros is approaching quickly, the sun growing with such intensity I squint to prevent my eyes from being blinded. The world blurs around me as we hurtle towards the cliffs and I brace myself for impact.

Then I hear a rumbling beneath us, and the ship slows. At first, I think the tide has weakened. Then I realize the deck is tilting at an angle, tipping so the edge touches the surface of the sea. The boards creak dangerously as the waves thrust forward in great amounts of power, teasing the ship and throwing it about.

“It’s a wave!” Juase cries out. “We’re going to capsize if—”

He doesn’t have time to finish, because the water beneath us gives a final push. I take a deep breath, salt burning the inside of my lungs as I take one last glimpse of the cliffs ahead before falling into the sea.

At least I made it. I made it.

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