Deep below the palace on the cliffs there were caves, honeycomb passages weaving through the rock with tiny lanterns that threatened to blow out with every shuddering draft that chased its predecessor down the hallways. There were old dungeons down there that they did not use anymore, favoring the newly built jailhouse across the city instead. Safer for the members of the palace, really, in case anyone were to ever break out. It had never happened, but Nalda's people worried of everything. Dust coated the carved steps like a blanket and the darkness seemed to shriek with the creaking of the heavy door that had been long-sealed, shadows licking back behind the lanterns to watch the procession. It was there she was cast, in the lowest cell, where the bedrock met the ocean and it squirmed its way through the stone floor and lapped at her feet. Nowhere to sit and only a long look upwards to the precipice where they had lowered her.
Nalda paced around, chest heaving and tear tracks drying on her cheeks. She could already feel the salt in the air settling on her skin and she turned on her heel until she was tired and resigned to sitting in the wet, letting the ocean lap over her hands to just touch her wrists. It was the coldest water she had ever felt in her life and the shock of it prompted the memories of the past day to beat against the back of her eyes, slick and sickening.
When she had set foot on land, of course, her advisors were already stiff about not being allowed to come with her and demanded to know what had happened. There was no point in putting it off, so she told them. She had signed Nenet's proposal that would allow her to legally occupy and tax Pangaeic waters. Lakes. Rivers. The tiniest pond, Nenet now owned it. Why, they had demanded, screaming at her in the shrillest tones she had ever heard, one of her advisors ripping sections of his hair out. Nalda had privately thought they were overreacting. It really wasn't that much to hand over. So Nenet had wanted to add freshwater to her oceanic rule. Fine, then, if it would cease the things keeping them from each other. Take the lakes, take the rivers, invoke some ancient decree that water was water. It didn't matter if her advisors didn't agree. She was queen. They could advise all they wanted but she had the final word.
It was the first time in her cushioned life that she had ever been that fearful. The people that had raised her, guided her, bestowed praise at her accomplishments turned on her in a fateful minute and talked in a way she did not understand, about what they would do, how they would fix it, there was no going back.
"But I am your queen," she had said, small voice fluttering amongst the wolves, "It's only a bit of water."
The cords in their neck stuck out like water pipes and they cursed her, cursed her firstborn and her legacy and the remaining years she clung onto.
Nalda let her head fall back against the rock. The sound of water dripping echoed throughout the cell until it was deafening. She supposed she had to find out sometime, then, that she was this figurehead puppet queen for them, that all of these years they hadn't just been handling minor citizen issues but doing things. Assembling an army. What for?! They had only ever needed the small Sentinel force at the palace. Drafting good people to this army, and raising taxes for supplies. She had never suspected. A real queen would have received a proper education and known the crucial laws of the Three, however well they got along, that if one surrendered territory to another that was an accepted declaration of war, without the needed vote of the third. Oh, it ached deep in her chest. She had let herself feel numb while they frogmarched her down these steps and threw her into this pit. The only thing that had felt real was the knife drawing beads of blood at her throat while her beloved tutors had demanded she sign over her wartime rights and the water that was boring like ice under her manicured fingernails. She had been numb through all of it, and now that shouts were finished ringing in her ears and she was alone, Nalda wondered if Nenet knew this would happen to her, that the young queen would become a prisoner in her own palace. Nalda wondered why Nenet wanted to declare war on Pangaea. Part of her, a tiny weed holding on in a barren field, hoped that there was no need for war and it was simply more territory they could sign over.
Nalda let herself sag onto her side, letting her cheek nestle into the seawater, and her tears flowed in the direction of the ocean.
There was finally a sun that shone into existence, prompting calmer waters and an opportunity for Ellery to fix the tanks that had been locked with gunk. Arika watched Ellery on the bench that swung over the side of the Masika, the engineer holding a scrubbing tool on the end of a broom handle through the slits in the side. Odom had volunteered for the sobering work of cleaning out the inside of the vats, the stench filling the engine room until none of them could pretend to not notice it anymore. There was other work to be done, too, the sea tossing loose kelp onto the deck and the weathervane dented from hail. Arika was grateful for the list of tasks Mateo had posted in the kitchen, it kept them busy through the day and tired enough at night there was no time to think before falling into a quick sleep. Oalo could be found charging back and forth from Dimas's tower to Mateo's cabin, carrying maps and charts, and Kachiri trailing behind him to pick up anything he would drop.
Arika's cheeks ballooned with air as she pushed soapy rags tied to a handle across the deck, leaving streaks of water behind on sparkling wood. "We really have drifted far. No more rain."
"The water's much colder, too." Kachiri piped up from behind the mast, where she was waiting for Oalo to make another pass across the deck. "I-"
"I told you I don't want you to go in the water." Arika snapped, straightening her back and squinting in her sister's direction.
"I didn't, I was only helping Ellery with the pipes..."
"I can vouch for her." Clara materialized out of the gloomy hallway and stretched once she was onto the deck. "Ah, sun. Why are you so against swimming, anyways?"
Arika pushed her hand through her soaked hair. Maintaining the hairstyle she had left the Ascorbia with had proven itself to be too time consuming, so she had finally relented and let Oalo cut it. She looked a bit like Ellery now, with hair just over the length of her first knuckle. The engineer denied this and was letting her own mop of hair get shaggy.
"I can't explain it, all right?"
"I promise to wait two hours after eating if it means I can go swimming. These waters are fine. Is it because Dimas is gone and can't tell us if there are beasts or not?"
"Take a harpoon in, you'll be fine. What I do." Clara said.
"You've been swimming?" Arika asked, averting her eyes.
Clara scuffed her foot against the deck. "Does this rule apply to all of us, then?"
"How was it?"
The Ascorbian warrior cocked her head in confusion, and she strolled across the deck until Kachiri was out of earshot. The two of them huddled over the mop, toes mingling with the suds.
"It was fine, Arika. Cold. What's going on?"
"I had an experience, all right? The night Dimas died. I don't know what it was. I had too much ale. But when I went to use the toilet, the sink, it just-"
"Arika, the water must have been stone cold then. If it just startled you-"
"No. Clara, it was something else. Like it was boring into me. Underneath my fingernails. And when I was over the side, there was just this sensation, this horrible feeling that if I slipped and fell into it-"
Arika paused. Clara's jaw was descending at fair rate.
"Hey! You are the superstitious one!" Arika hissed at her. "Tell me what it means!"
"Never heard of anything like that happening. Calm yourself, the ocean isn't sentient and can't hate people. Spirits can, but those are the old ones that don't bother with our affairs. But I've been swimming like a maniac for something to do in the middle of this ocean and nothing has happened to me, hm?"
"That doesn't rest my fears. I know it sounds ridiculous, Clara. But I don't feel like I would be nervous unless there was really something to be nervous about."
"Well, all right. Why not ask Mateo about it? We could go for a swim later, all of us. Everyone around in case something were to happen."
Arika met Clara's eyes quickly to make sure that the other Ascorbian wasn't mocking her. She was faced with patient resolve. It soothed her like fresh water down a parched throat. In a short time she was rapping the backs of her knuckles on Mateo's door. Oalo had set him up with a pair of whalebone crutches until his strength was completely back, and the cabin's things had been pushed to the sides to allow the captain a wide berth. Arika heard the thumping of his crutches approaching until he opened the door and a grand smile spread across his face. "Ah, Arika! Please come in! I've been meaning to thank you personally."
"Well, finding me. Going after Dimas and Ellery. I know you must have felt alone, frightened-"
"I am just glad no one else is dead. I will do what I have to, fearful or not."
Mateo took a seat on his mattress and regarded her, carefully resting his leg on a stool. "I know it. It's admirable. What can I do for you today?"
Arika hesitated, and then launched forward. "I was curious if in your travels you've ever had any problems with...the ocean. Not the weather. The water itself, coming alive, boring into you. Spirits, maybe. I know it sounds ridiculous-"
"It does sound ridiculous." Mateo said bluntly. The corners of his mouth twitched. "I'm sorry, Arika, just teasing. No, it's not silly. I have felt with the changes in the salt air that things are changing. War is brewing, we know that, things that have been tense for a long time are going to snap. Dark forces and malevolent spirits are drawn to such times of tension, influencing our minds and sometimes taking a more physical approach. I suspect something along the lines of this happened to Dimas. There is no way to tell for sure what he did to invoke such a fate without his presence."
"Are we safe here?" Arika perched on the edge of his carved desk, gripping the edge like it was the only thing standing between her and a watery grave.
"That's the golden question, isn't it? I believe we are, from normal circumstances. But really, what can be done if we did anger a spirit and didn't know how to appease it? I can see in you that you would never give this mission up, Arika, no matter how many times you were told no. We don't have enough funds to buy horses and travel the rest of the way to Coppertown. We are here, so we must push forward and simply hope that we are destined to finish our journey."
"I wish that I could let go that easily."
"Lots of practice of having the privilege of controlling the circumstances of my life being taken from me." Mateo forced a smile. "We must go with the ocean and its will, hm? But I think our crew has become closer from this tragedy, realized that we must look out for each other more than ever before, and share any minor detail. Which I am happy you are doing. You have the ability to feel the charged energy of the ocean, which is more potent when the moon is in the sky...but I don't believe it will harm you specifically without you doing something to justify it. Please, try not to worry. I have seen and learned much about the way these things work. As much as we loved Dimas, there was much about him we did not know, and much secrecy before his untimely death."
"Thank you. It is the least I can do to be honest."
They shared a small smile.
"Arika, I know of a way to get more information. Not just about the war, which I'm sure which we can get in any port, but about what you and I are sensing. At the hall where I learned much of what I practice today we read many tomes of similar things happening when there is an imbalance in the world. There must always be equality, you see, and I suspect this war has much to do with it. I will send my letters when we next dock to learn all I can about what we should be expecting. To see if anyone knows anything about what may have happened to our friend."
"Thank you, Mateo."
The captain reached for her hand. "While we are of different beliefs in this world, Arika, I hope it gives a little bit of light that there are similarities in our values. You have a connection to these waters like I."
"It does. I appreciate it."
Arika reached out to touch the bent end of a copper sword held by a small statue on Mateo's desk. Mateo's eyes followed her fingers.
"Is there something else on your mind?"
"How are you doing? With Dimas being gone?"
Mateo sighed, a carefully structured smile sliding off his face like mud. "To be honest, it is hard to go back to normal. Everyone has their place and their role on this ship and it is not a void so easily filled. Dimas was our friend, our companion, and to not know what led him to his own demise is a terrible feeling. It feels unjust. I miss him dearly, and trying to fill his shoes is not an easy task."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Getting the Masika back into perfect shape so we can safely move on is the best comfort. Listening to my rambling helps." The captain ran a hand through his hair and furrowed his plucked brows. "There's the question of naming a new first mate. I've never followed maritime law except when crucial, a notable exception to have a crew roster on board, but it's important to know the chain of command if something were to happen. It is a delicate matter, you see, knowing how long to wait after a death."
"Is it the next most senior member?"
"No, not necessarily. Dimas was someone I chose...it's very complicated. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and you must perceive who would lead the way you would, in your absence. Everyone wants different things and has different qualities to influence their decision-making. I felt like Dimas understood my values, my plans for the future. We shared the same vision of a better life. But then it's not necessarily who is the most similar to the captain, it's who adapts to the current and future situation best...oh, I'm sorry. I must be muddling your head with all this."
"It's all right. I wouldn't worry. I am sure whoever you feel is the right choice to fill Dimas's shoes will do a fine job. But I understand why you are having a hard time choosing. You have a wonderful crew. Odom has a big heart and strives for fairness, Ellery, I feel, always vouches for the forgotten; Oalo is good at separating need and want."
"To be honest, I was considering an outside candidate."
The silence was so profound that Arika could hear the faint sounds of sputtering from the Masika's tanks as Ellery started them up again and again. Discomfort roiled in her stomach and made her stand.
There was rapping on the door and Arika hurried to open it. Odom stood there sucking in air, filling the doorway, eyes going back and forth between the two of them.
"Sorry to interrupt. Ellery...wanted me to tell you. We have...the tanks working. Everything's clean. Should be...good to go."
"Thank you, Odom. Your brother and I are fairly certain on the best course, as he might have told you. Alert the crew that we will spend the rest of the day here and leave at dawn."
"Will do." Odom turned to go and Arika nearly tripped over Mateo's crutches following him out. She kept pace with the cook across the deck but he slowed when they were about to duck inside.
"Is everything all right, Arika?"
"I think that you would make a great first mate." She burst out suddenly, meeting his baffled gaze with her fierce one. "You should tell Mateo that you want the position."
"What?" His eyebrows sunk until they were perfectly horizontal. "It's a formality, and Mateo is still grieving. It's not right-"
"I think he's waiting for someone to speak up. Just-"
"Arika, did you talk to Mateo?" came Clara's call from somewhere inside the ship.
"I have to go. Just think about it, all right?"
"Hey, wait!" Odom shouted, but the Ascorbian had already disappeared into the depths of the Masika, leaving the sun and the descending shadows to devour him alone.