Sky sat beside Ember in the cabin on the captain's bed, light streaming through the window to splash onto the floor. The captain stood in front of them, one hand gripping her desk chair. Her head was slightly tilted, her dark green eyes inscrutable as the sea. Her colors were perfectly in equilibrium, swirling lazily across her face.
Ember tried to sit up straight but gasped in pain, and so he had to sit hunched over. The wound on his chest was a broad, yawing slice, and it made Sky hurt just to look at it. She longed to go to him, comfort him, spread salve on his wounds like she had after her father's lightning attack. The lightning scars were pale pink compared to the deep blood-red of the cut.
"I am Captain Defari. I'm sorry about what happened. We wanted to deliver you in pristine condition; it wasn't part of our mission to hurt you. And we normally keep our word." She frowned slightly. "But it was not explicitly stated that I refrain from having you as guests. I must admit, I am curious about some of the most exotic specimens we've acquired."
"Please, Ember's wounds need tending to," said Sky, her voice trembling.
"And they will be. Your name is Ember, then?" she said, looking at him.
"I am Ember March, son of Justice, grandson of Infinity, the Supreme Sovereign of City Magnificent and its colonies."
"Quite the title. It means nothing to me, but it sounds grand. Are you a northern prince? We rarely sail there. It is strange you would be this far south, though."
"We come from another world. Beyond this one."
Her brow furrowed, and tiny flecks of red flashed across her face. "You don't mean that you are gods, do you?"
"No, we're not gods."
"Demons, then." The red flashed into green. "We thought the legends of the demons on the island were false, but…" Her eyes narrowed. "You do not fit the description of demons. I would believe that the giants who raped and killed the Kalataians are demons. You seem like another breed entirely."
"There are other worlds beyond this one," said Ember. "Not just the realms of gods and demons, but other worlds like this. We came through a Portal, like a door in the skin of the world. City Magnificent has only one continent. A continent is like—one large island."
"One island? What a strange idea. Sounds like it would make it hard for a pirate to make a living."
"There are no pirates on our world. We have technology that has made it impossible for criminals to operate."
"Crushing their freedom."
"It's true, we don't have the freedom we should. My father has learned freedom from your world, and wants to transplant it onto ours."
"Then we are greater than you." She tilted her chin.
"You are in a way. We have great power and technology. Buildings that reach to the sky. Flying vehicles. Mechanical people that talk and move and think." He smiled wryly. "You found us in a rather primitive state. But the black, shiny thing on the beach was a skycar. It can fly."
"Perhaps I will go back and see for myself. Take this flying beast for my own."
"You won't be able to drive it. It only responds to my DNA imprint."
"There are your nonsensical words again. But it is too elaborate to make up. Either you're crazy, or you're telling the truth. I have seen many things during my time at sea, and so I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt."
"There are so many things we could give you. We could make you invincible."
"We are already invincible."
"We have guns that can disintegrate an enemy. Bombs that could obliterate this ship, or destroy whole islands. Would you like a ship that could fly? We could make you one."
Captain Defari stood, slid her hand along the wall almost lovingly. "I don't know. I like my ship. I know her like a lover."
"You could get to know a new ship."
She waved a hand. "Enough of this bribery. Besides, do you expect me to believe a weapon could destroy an entire island? Only a god could do such a thing."
"We pretended to be gods when we first came. But you would not bow to us, because our skin could not change color. And so in the north, there was war. Whole islands were destroyed. My father did not want that for the rest of the world. And so he begged a moratorium on war until he could find a better way. He found it on Tisjajai—the freedom that could revolutionize this world, and ours. He was starting to make some headway. People were starting to see him as a person, not an outcaste. But now—all his hard work might be in vain. Some people from Mag City must've come here—though why would they come to the south, so far from the Portal, I don't know…"
He winced, pressing his hand to the wound, but he sat straighter, looked at the captain. "Despite our technology, we still are primitive in other ways. I have not encountered a worse thing in all the worlds than what some of our people do. They do it for fun, because of repressed impulses, they say, but it's really just an excuse. Mostly young people….they…go out into the city, or another world, and just rampage through it, destroying property, blowing things up, killing, torturing, and burning. Burning is—rape, but with lightning, so it…damages the victim, sometimes fatally."
Yellow threaded through her iridescent skin, a long, quivering vein. Her eyes smoldered with anger. "Perhaps you are demons, even if you don't call yourselves that. Perhaps you do deserve punishment in kind."
"Perhaps we are responsible because we did not stop it. But you must believe me, I did not know. I would have tried to stop it if I did. I would never participate in something so horrific. My father and I are trying to end such practices. Sky and I were just…minding our own business, on our honeymoon. Could you not take us back to Paradise? Or to my father? We would give you generous compensation, more than you could ever dream."
Her eyes snapped, specks of red sparkling across her skin. But then a shadow fell across her eyes. "I cannot. Even a pirate is not free to doublecross a Shadow."
"What is a Shadow?"
The door swung open, and a young woman stepped in with a bucket and a cloth. She had wisps of light red hair and wore a dark purple suit. Unlike the other pirates, no jewelry hung from her neck.
"About time, Anaja," said Defari. She gestured to Ember. "Get to work on him."
Anaja hesitated, then stepped up to the bed.
Sky ached to touch Ember, hold him, help him. "Please, may I do it? I promise, I won't try anything."
Defari pursed her lips. "All right." She untied the rope from Sky's wrists. Pain shot through them. She brought her arms, shaking, toward the front. Her fingers were numb; she wiggled them, and they tingled with sharp painful pricks. Anaja handed Sky the bucket and cloth; Sky took them, the bucket almost slipping from her half-numb fingers. She hugged the bucket to her chest and dipped the cloth in the lukewarm water.
"I'll get some salve and bandages," said Anaja, and scurried away.
Sky lifted the cloth to Ember's chest, afraid of hurting him, but knowing that he needed his wounds cleaned. So she pressed the cloth to the cut.
He hissed through clenched teeth.
"Sorry!" she said, drawing the cloth away.
"No—please, keep going. I don't want it to get infected."
She nodded, and, hating that she was hurting him, dabbed the cloth along the cut. Blood soon soaked the cloth; she wrung it out, and bright red water spilled into the bucket. The wound looked better, though, not so clotted with blood, but she could now see the depth of the wound, cutting into the muscle, and it made her feel sick. She turned away, setting the bucket down and hanging the cloth on the rim with trembling fingers.
She turned back to him, concentrating on his beautiful face, which was bruised and bloodied. She slid her fingers through his hair, drew them gently down his undamaged cheek. He closed his eyes.
"I love you, my Ember," she said softly.
His eyes blazed into hers. "I love you, my Sky." He pressed his lips to hers, and she melted into a gentle kiss, shutting out all the horrors of reality.
The door creaked and Sky tore away from him, her hand on his shoulder.
Anaja returned with the bandages and salve, and handed them to Sky before dashing out the door again.
Sky dipped her fingers into a little glass jar, and lifted out some pinkish cream. "What is this?"
Defari looked up from the papers on her desk. "It's from manayu—a tentacled creature further south."
Sky almost flicked it from her fingers in disgust. "Is it…safe?"
"Of course it's safe. Some of the best healing properties we've encountered."
Sky nodded, knowing that some so-called synthetic things on her own world came from animals too. She cast off her qualms and spread the salve on Ember's chest, sliding it over the long cut. He gasped in pain.
"It does sting a bit," said Defari.
"That's—okay," said Ember, "as long as it does its job."
Sky forced herself to continue. But when it was finished, the gash was half-covered so it didn't look as bad. She spread some over the cut on his cheek, and then slung the white cloth over his chest, struggling to make it lay over the diagonal cut.
"It'll stick to the salve," said Defari. "Here, let me." She stepped over and grabbed the bandage, then pressed it over the wound, twirling the excess around Ember's neck.
"Won't it hurt when it comes off?" Sky asked.
"Maybe a little. But the top layer will come off, leaving the bottom layer still over the wound." She sat down on her desk, her boots resting on the seat of the chair. "You two seem close."
"We just got married a few days ago," said Ember.
"Ah. Bad timing, this."
"We came here because we wanted peace and quiet, a place to ourselves."
"And you knew that island would have no one on it because of the superstition. Well, that would have worked with anyone else. But we know that if there were demons there, they left long ago. The shipwrecks are not because of demons, but because of a dangerous reef that surrounds the island. The bay that you were in was the only place safe enough for a ship to cross. In fact, we help keep the superstition alive by spreading glowslime over our sails at night. Ship from the underworld. Keeps Kalata'i from discovering the bay is safe. But now it's not exclusively ours." She tilted her head. "How long have you known about the island?"
"My father has known about it for a year."
"We have been away for almost that long…. Where is your father now?"
"Last time I knew, he was on Kalata'i."
"I wouldn't give him two chalas for his life, then. Word has spread through the island like wildfire about the dullskin giants who dared to not only touch some midcaste boys and girls, but violate them in the most unspeakable manner. If I dropped you two in Tiaman'i, a mob would rip you to shreds in minutes. Most midcaste don't have the discipline my pirates have. Even with discipline, as you know, it was hard to rein in their emotions. I can't say I blame them, though it's up to me to maintain order, or we'd fall apart at the seams, and the remains of your bodies would be eaten by sharks by now instead of bound for the Shadows. It is better this way, although I must admit a certain satisfaction comes with revenge from one's one two hands." She lifted clenched fists. "Even if you did not do it, your people did. Blood must be paid. But if you were dead, we would not know how to defeat you before it happens again. The Shadows know what they're doing." She gave a rather unpleasant smile. "They will both ensure our survival and carry out our collective revenge, imprinting it on your flesh, and it will be more excruciating, ultimately sweeter, more satisfying, than a quick death from an angry mob."
"The perpetrators need justice. I would pay it myself if there were no other way. But please, leave Sky out of it. If anyone is innocent, she is."
"She does seem a gentle creature. I cannot see her doing such heinous acts. And dullskins are incapable of dissimilation. But a deal is a deal. If you want to reason with someone, you'll have to reason with the Shadows."
"What are the Shadows?" Sky managed to ask, the same kind of dread filling her as when she heard Shade's name.
Red slithered across Defari's skin. "You do not know of the Shadows? You must be from another world. They are the invisible hands that weave the fabric of reality. They are the flicker at the corner of your eye. They are the whispers at night, images at the verge of your dreams."
"Are they gods?"
"No, of course not. But they do the gods' bidding. We cannot even guess at their purposes, but the Shadows know faint glimmers of the gods' thoughts. We never see their true face—a mask behind a mask. Wars and governments are mere facades; they are the truth, the depth behind the world, and we are just…ripples on the surface of the water."
"What do they want with us?"
Defari shifted on the desk, crossed her legs. "It's impossible to know their full intent. But they deal in secrets, and they intend to know yours. By any means possible."
"Do you mean…torture?" She shuddered at the word—for herself, and for Ember, who had already endured too much pain.
"Probably. After a thousand years of existence, they have perfected ways of extracting secrets. And they will want to know how you are different from us, your weaknesses. That will probably also involve some pain, too."
Sky's lips trembled. She could not speak anymore. Wanted to shut out the world. Run, jump overboard… a swift death. But she could not abandon Ember.
"Then at least they will have to focus on me," said Ember, and she marveled at the relief in his voice. "Sky knows nothing. At least, nothing about how we rule. I…know a lot, as grandson of the king." His voice faltered.
"Probably why they picked you. Although, your father seems the better choice…perhaps he was not as easily captured. Or perhaps he left this world."
"I hope so."
Defari slid off the desk, her boots landing with a thunk. She stepped over to Ember, slid her hand down his jaw, gently lifted his chin. "You are a noble creature, to sacrifice to spare another's pain. I almost regret handing you over. But I cannot resist the Shadows. Neither should you. If you know what's good for you, reveal your secrets. Perhaps…we can negotiate for them to return you to us, if you're not too damaged, and we can sell you to a place that doesn't know of the burners. Or we can sell you back to your father."
"I cannot reveal the secrets of Mag City."
"Then they will tear them from you." Flecks of purple danced across her face; her eyes brimmed with unshed tears. She brushed Ember's lower lip with her thumb. "So strong and noble. You will pay for it. And in the end, you will beg for death." She stepped back, crossed her arms. "And I will not get double payment. Oh, well. There's nothing I can do about that." She strode over to the door and leaned out of it. "Take them to the holding cell, will you?" Muffled voices answered, and a moment later a man and a woman walked in. The woman grabbed Sky and led her out the door; the man took Ember, gun pressed to the small of his back. They led them down to the main deck, then down another set of stairs past the crew quarters and vast storage area in the center of the ship. Beyond that were several barred cells.
As the man led Ember into a cell and cuffed his ankle, the woman pulled Sky's arms behind her and bound her wrists with rope.
"Is that necessary?" said Ember.
"It's either this, or be in separate cells," said the woman. "We take no chances."
She shoved Sky inside, slammed the door with a clang, and locked it with the key that hung around her neck. "Have a nice rest," she said, and laughed; the man joined in. Then they strode away and disappeared down the misty darkness of the interior of the ship.
"At least they left us alone," said Ember.
"Yeah." Sky shuffled over to the bench and sat down. Ember walked over to the bench, the chain jingling across the floor, and sat down beside her.
She ventured a look at his wounds. "How are you feeling?"
"It's almost numb right now. That salve is almost as good as ours. Though I doubt it has its healing properties." He caught her eyes. "How are you doing?"
"I'm not the one that got wounded."
"No, but you shouldn't even be here. You've been through too much trauma in your life already. It's not right. I've got to find a way to get you out of here. I'll negotiate with these Shadows, tell them you don't know anything. That I'm the one they want."
"Ember, you have to escape! I don't want to escape unless you do too."
"No—you are innocent."
"So are you!"
"What I mean is, you are so gentle and fragile. Physically, I mean. You have such strength to endure what you've endured. I couldn't bear it if you got hurt for my sake. Even though I had nothing to do with the burning, it's because of me that you're here. It's my family that's responsible. We came to this world; our power has damaged it. Someone has to bear the burden for the mistakes of the Marches."
"Why does it have to be you? You would make the worlds a better place!"
"If I have to, I'll do what no one else will and pay for the sins of my people. I don't want torture—I want to escape. But there may not be any other way. I'll help you escape if it costs me my life. And I will hold out as long as I can, keep the secrets of Mag City."
"You shouldn't have to sacrifice! We should be on our honeymoon. I should be giving you—all that I can give." She kissed his cheek. "You don't deserve any pain—you deserve all the pleasure possible."
He kissed her gently on the lips. "I want that too." His voice was low and husky with desire. "If there was no chance of anyone walking in on us, I'd like to try, even with our arms bound."
She smiled, a sliver of happiness slipping through the dark fog of dread. "That…could get interesting." She pressed her lips to his, and the kiss built into a swift passionate fire. She wished she could touch him with her hands, but this was wonderful. Just his lips on hers….lose herself…forget where they were….pretend they were back on the island….
He pulled away, his eyes shadowed with regret. "I'm sorry. I almost forgot myself. Can't let out lightning with this on my ankle." He glanced at the metal cuff ruefully.
"Then we can't—"
He shook his head. "Can't go all the way. It would hurt us both."
"And it would hurt your wound."
"I forgot about that."
She nuzzled his cheek, his ear, kissed it delicately. "Mag City needs you. You're its future. We can't leave it to people like Shade. You have to escape, for their sake, if not for mine."
"You mean more to me than all the worlds. I will escape for you. To protect you. To be with you. I could not stand living, or dying, without you. But if it comes down to me or you—"
"No, Ember. Please don't sacrifice for me. I'm not worth it."
He kissed her cheek. "You are worth it. You're just—so—amazing, you can't help it." He nibbled down her neck, and she gasped with the pleasure shooting through her. She wanted him, ached for him. All the more after the ordeal. It was agony not to touch him.
He pulled away, leaving her trembling with longing.
She snuggled close to him, and they embraced as well as they could with their arms bound, Sky careful to keep away from his wound. She pressed as much skin as she could to his without hurting him, and she drifted off into some semblance of sleep, dreams hovering between daylight and shadow.
Her eyes shot open. Ember stirred beside her. In the dimness, golden light seeping through the floorboards, a man swung the door open. A woman behind him. The same pair from before. The man held a tray; the woman held a gun.
"Time for supper," said the man, and he tossed the tray onto the floor. There were two small cuts of meat, a heap of gray slime, and a purple pear-shaped fruit.
He shut the door and locked it. "Enjoy." He turned away, and the woman shoved her gun back into its holster.
"Wait!" said Ember. "We can't eat like this."
"You're dullskins. Of course you can." He strode away, the woman behind him.
Ember grimaced. "This prejudice is getting ridiculous. Actual outcastes are gentle, harmless people, but they're treated like dirt. They can't do anything but accept the role they're forced into…. I suppose it's good for me to get firsthand experience of what they go through every day."
He knelt beside the tray. "We have to keep our strength up." He looked up at her apologetically.
She knelt beside him, wary of the gray glop. She leaned down, but almost toppled onto her face, and so she managed to lie on her side and lean over and snatch the meat with her teeth. Ember did the same. She held it against her shoulder and chewed the tough steak—of what animal, she didn't know, but she didn't care. She was starving. And it was delicious.
"You take the fruit," said Ember, when he was finished.
"No—" she protested, but he was already devouring the gray slime. He slurped it up, and smiled. "Not half bad. Think it's seaweed of some kind. Wanna try?"
She nodded and gathered some in her mouth. Gulped it down, trying not to gag. It didn't have much taste beyond the saltiness, but it was the texture she couldn't stand. She sunk her teeth into the fruit; sweet juice flowed over her tongue. She ate half of it, then lifted it up in her teeth, and offered it to Ember. They both ate it till there was nothing but core and then met in a kiss, sweet and delightful like the fruit.
Ember pulled away. "Look!"
She turned to look behind her.
The key was dangling in the lock of the door.