Where expectations were concerned, Alana was not in the least bit impressed with their latest acquisition. His hair was a waist-length, brackish tangle of wild black snarls, and his shoulders and chest were streaked with white, sickle-shaped scars. In size only was she disappointed: the larger the bull, the larger the skin, the larger the reward, but this specimen was small compared to some of the behemoths she had seen fished out of the ocean. He may have been strong, all muscle and sea-toughened skin, but he was small nonetheless.
His eyes, she noticed, were feral. The unicorn, of course, had equine eyes, wise and brown, and the dragon's had been silver with age like those of a centenarian, and even the mermaid had her flicker of real human anguish. But this one had dark eyes, black and empty, like the bottom of the sea and just as cold. Only once since being hauled aboard had he blinked, and doing so had revealed, to the consternation of the crew, a second, sideways set of translucent eyelids. Though shaped like a man, he was more a beast than any of the others had been.
Someone stifled a sneeze and Alana's gaze skimmed over to the small collection of battered and half-starved humanity encircling their latest prize. As few as eleven men remained on board, each bleeding from palms and fingers where the net had sliced into their skin. A dozen shallow cuts similarly marked the captured man and the fibers of the net's ropes took a pink hue in places as blood skated in diluted rivulets down the man's body. Already man-sized waves bucked the ship, seethed and hissed like a bed of snakes: enough blood had been spilled in the water to call a storm.
The one who had sneezed was, of course, Tristan, with wet hair plastered to his scalp and sea water pooling on the deck beneath his feet. Someone had bundled him in a spare blanket, but he had not gone to his quarters as ordered and continued to stare, wide-eyed and panting at the captured man. He was ten, even twenty, years younger than the rest of the crew, still boyishly sweet in face and temperament, and kept his hair the shortest and most-neatly trimmed of anyone on board.
"Let me see the skin."
Heracles, full-bearded and brawny, once a fisherman, approached her with the requested seal pelt tumbled in his arms. Alana took a corner of the skin and ran it between her fingers. Soft, perhaps, and silken, it may be, but only after the ocean was washed out. At the moment, she had never felt anything so rough and salt-encrusted in her life; the texture of it grated against her fingers like a series of scabs. On the inside were swathes of human skin where the pelt had been pried from the host.
"The next time we get rain, douse this in one of the barrels. Get it clean, cure it if you have to. Do what you can with the scars. He's young, so the fur should be brown when it dries, not black."
"Do we still need him?" Devadas asked, nodding at the selkie in case anyone wondered what he referred to. He was tall, narrow, with brown skin and thin eyes, and unreasonably straight, white, perfect teeth. Shape-shifters and elementals were his specialties, but the seal-man, with his unblinking eyes and death-like stare, clearly made him uneasy.
"No. You may kill him now. Do not-"
A sharp, stifled gasp interrupted her, and Alana glanced – as did the rest of the crew – again at Tristan.
The young man was trembling afresh, this time with more than just the aftereffects of his refusal to return to quarters. While he kept his head bowed, the captain-queen could see his eyes darting from the deck underfoot to the net-tangled selkie and back again. Both of his hands, as they twisted more deeply into the blanket, securing it all the more tightly against his chest, turned grey at the knuckles.
"Have you an objection, boy?"
"Yes, ma'am," he whispered.
"I take it you have forgotten your intervention on the mermaid's behalf."
Tristan dropped his eyes with a blush and self-consciously hid his maimed left hand beneath the shelter of his blanket. On the back and the palm, still red and swollen, a crescent-shaped scar left by sharpened human teeth curved beneath the last two fingers. Amun had tried every remedy he knew of to get those fingers to move, pleaded with Serket to supply him with antidotes, but still dead on the hand were both, dead and stiff.
No one spoke. Pity, she knew, kept the crew from interfering on her behalf; respect kept them from interfering on Tristan's. To speak for the latter incurred the wrath of the former, but to speak against the boy tended to produce an emotional effect similar to the agony of a knife in one's chest. On any other hunting ship, such affection would have compromised the offending sailor's entire poaching career. Here… well, here she was as guilt of indulgence as the rest. He was too valuable to risk alienating: he was the most potent bait yet and already, after one-and-a-half years, he had lasted twice as long as the last.
At his captain's impatience, Tristan flinched, but lifted his chin to meet the woman's gaze with something approaching his customary self-assurance. His eyes were sharp and a gleaming golden-brown – his mother's eyes.
"Sell him as a slave or as a pet." His voice, though quiet, was the only sound on deck and could be heard clearly, she knew, by the other sailors. "If the pelt doesn't bring in much money, maybe he will."
As a slave? Alana spared the selkie a glance, as if considering the possibility, but his kind were as wild and fierce as the sea. Even now, though the rest of those onboard watched Tristan, silently urging him either to silence or further bravery, the seal-man kept his focus on her and would not look away: he knew where his captor was; he knew where to strike. He would never be a slave.
She could see the boy gritting his teeth as he always did when trying to swallow tears. He had not cried since they burned the dryads. What foolishness.
But she could not let him break. If he threw himself away, as so many others had done, he would be difficult to replace.
"In three days, we will be home. You have until then to turn him into something someone would be even the slightest bit interested in purchasing."
She may as well have insisted on killing the half-man then and there, for all the good a compromise would do the boy's bleeding heart. But Tristan's eyes lost their cold edge and his body relaxed as he exhaled at last. He would see for himself, then, how heartless were the creatures that dwelt in the sea.
For all his misgivings, all his outright fears, all the unsettled pitching of his stomach, Tristan nodded.
"And you don't want any of us to stay?"
He fought a blush, gritted his teeth. "That will not be necessary. I have a knife. The captain taught me how to use it."
Though they surely worried nonetheless – his life intact was, after all, their livelihood – his insistence was all it took. They filed out one, two, three, and, carrying only a knife in his pocket and a brimming wooden bowl in his arms, Tristan was left alone with the prisoner.
Even chained, beaten, and bruised, there was an air of wild elegance about the seal-man. His brown-black hair had been hacked off and thrown overboard, where it had drifted beneath the surface like an especially unattractive mat of seaweed. Without the mane, he looked nearly human – a sun-burnt, battle-cratered, rough-cornered human, but a human nonetheless. He did not, however, wear clothes well: the only raiments that fit his frame were Amun's and the robes looked as alien on the selkie as the shorn hair; Tristan could not help feeling that the cotton fabric confined him more than the bars of the cell.
The shock of impact resonated in his ears, slammed the breath from his body. Water pressed against his nose and lips, slithered through in search of aching lungs. Life slipped away in a stream of bubbles and the sea pushed his heartbeat into his ears so he could hear it as it stuttered. The salt burned – he closed his eyes.
The selkie watched until the crewmen were out of the cell and out of sight before, with the barest realignment, he shifted his focus to the boy. Tristan wanted so desperately to speak, to reassure, but every word he attempted stuck in his throat like dry bread and he could only return the stare in numb, melancholy silence.
Worse than blindness was the emptiness – sinking through nothing, clawing at nothing, legs churning at nothing. No surface – no air – no light. The cold seized his body and burrowed deep, deep through skin and muscle all the way to bone.
As if to find a more comfortable seat, the seal-man shifted slightly, and the only sound in the room was the clink of the steel chain against the floor and the rattle of the iron-and-leather collar around the prisoner's neck. While the fey folk had screamed and cried when the collars were tightened around their throats, the selkie (docile already, since capture even) seemed to consider it not at all – as if it mattered so little as to be ignored completely.
Something soft and heavy bumped against his chest – his arms were around it before he could stop – a hook in his stomach – drawn up and up and into air. The sun seared the inside of his eyelids red.
Memory wrenched him back into the world too late and the net crashed into them both. It drew them out of the sea as carelessly as if they were fish. Arms folded around him and held him – too careful to be vengeful, too tight to be an accident.
The regret and the fear were still so strong, painfully so. They would remain with him, he knew, for days or, more accurately, nights – nights that ended in the hours before dawn in a flash of panic and desperate mouthfuls of stale, confined air.
He took one uncertain step closer to the chained man and, as the other party remained fixed in pose and gaze and silence, hazarded a second. In this manner, with the slow and steady steps appropriate to one approaching a wild animal, Tristan edged his way well within arm's reach of the imprisoned.
"This is for you." Remarkably, he managed to speak without stammering, and left the bowl at the still-motionless selkie's feet without shaking. "It's fish – not fresh, but, well…" Even he couldn't arrange for the best to go to one of the captured. "Please don't lose hope. I'll free you. And I'll find where they hid your skin."
His audience, of course, said nothing and made no move to accept the offering. His eyes were so dark and so deep Tristan had to struggle to keep from sinking into them; he turned away to keep from drowning for the second time that day.
Despite the prisoner's obvious attentiveness, the boy had known better than to suppose the selkie would understand. And yet, somehow, saying nothing at all had felt like more of a cruelty than offering reassurances in an unfamiliar language. Perhaps sentiment would carry through where words could not.
As much as he wanted to, he did not apologize. No apology was ample enough to atone for what he had done. Such words, even if they would have been understood, were useless.
"I wish you hadn't- I mean, you didn't have to…" But of course the selkie had to do it. That was the problem. That was why Tristan was not allowed to marry or stay in quarters with the other crewmen or learn how to swim. That was why the fairies fell and the mermaids fell and now the selkie fell. One by one, Captain Alana – and Tristan, for it was his fault, always his fault, that they came – took them all.
Without another word (for what, really, did the betrayer hope for in befriending the betrayed?), Tristan bowed his head, and with the eyes of the imprisoned (his imprisoned) still locked on him and unblinking, he knew, abandoned the holding cell for the light and comfort of the world above.