The Shipwreck Survivor by Rebecca Lartigue

The Shipwreck Survivor by Rebecca Lartigue

It was like being dizzy, even when I was standing still.

At first I hated the rocking of the deck, the rolling in my stomach, my eyes’ inability to still the world. After a few days I came to love the sea air, salted and seasoned with so much sun.

We were touring Father’s colonies. With us were his courtiers and Mother’s court ladies. Like at the palace, most of my hours were with my nurse, Hannah, but sometimes, after dinner, Father would call me to his cabin and unroll the maps on the great table. He would bend his head over mine until I could feel his beard on my cheek, and with a ringed finger, point out where we were and where we were going, until Hannah took me away again.

There were no other children on the ship. A sailor, pitying my boredom one afternoon, gestured for me to cross the deck to him. He flipped a bucket upside down and lifted me onto it so I could see over the edge of a tall trough.

The day’s catch. I stared at silver shimmers, the scales iridescent as the goblets we used in the Great Hall. The coldness of the water made me squeal.

Mother, taking air above deck with her ladies, heard and came to us. She noted my pink and chafing hands, the water staining my gown. “You’ll go home looking like a scullery maid,” she said and sent me off to some lessons.

I don’t remember the lessons. I do remember muffled tunes of the sailors’ songs in their quarters below deck. And I remember watching the sails swell so much I thought they would tear. And the tug of my nurse brushing my tangled hair by lantern light, and me, drowsy, listening to the planks speak to each other—the wood swollen with water and straining against the wind, groaning and creaking, grousing and gossiping in a language marvelous and strange.

*

I woke in someone’s arms—Hannah, carrying me up the ladder awkwardly, for I was almost too big to be carried.

It was night, but roaring light surrounded us. Men ran through flames. They hauled buckets over the ships’ sides, hurled the water in futile arcs, slapped at fire with soaked sailcloth. Mother’s ladies wailed and held one another.

Across the heat and shouting, through choking smoke, I saw my father and my mother—watched her collapse into him when the ship shifted, and him struggle to hold her up. And I heard Father’s voice calling, “My daughters! Oh, our girls!” and then, “My people, save yourselves!”

Our girls: had he forgotten that my older sister was not with us? That she was back at our palace, safe with our uncle?

I shouted, but they could not hear me. And then I realized my hand was free. The deck finished breaking, and I slid. It was just heartbeats between searing hot air and paralyzing, cold water. My mouth filled when I entered the shadow-black sea. I was screaming, like all the others.

I clasped my arms around slippery wreckage and tried to kick toward those who thrashed beside the burning hull, but there was no choosing. The waves took me where they wanted. After a while I didn’t hear the shrieking anymore, and the orange horror on the horizon grew smaller, until the last blazing plank sank and the night went black.

Water slapped at my ears. I bobbed up and down until I was sick, but I held on and did not wipe my mouth clean.

I was like that a long time. Then I felt something from below. Some sea creature butting me, ready to bite? No, rocks firm against my feet.

I moved my legs, running and getting nowhere, like in a nightmare. Then mud sucked at my toes. I lunged forward, and the seabed shallowed, and I staggered some dozen more weak-ankled steps until the sand was no longer like porridge under me. I fell onto my face, the world steady once more but unsettled forever.

*

What I remember next is this: a salty palm in front of my nose and mouth, feeling for breath. Fingers like sturdy carrots just pulled from the earth, picking me up.

We leave the shore behind us, but the scent of stale seawater and pungent fish remains. I am carried up a bluff, past a sleeping cottage to a little shed (sleeping too), and set down on scratchy hay.

“You’re awake.” The man’s voice is like an unsanded board.

My eyes adjust to the gray. A bony cow regards me with boredom. The shed is warm, full of her breath.

The man lifts a wooden ladle to my lips. It is clean water, without salt, but I choke on it.

“How did you end up here, lass?”

I don’t want him to see me cry.

It is a long silence until he thinks of something. “Watch,” he says, preparing me. Then he produces a shell from my ear: a sleight of hand.

I can see his passes—the white shell, bright as a moth against the dark, gives him away. I think of the entertainers at the palace who produce kittens and puppies from thin air, and of the illusion-master’s displays at Father’s feasts.

The man sits back on his heels. He sees where the cloth of my dress has torn. The linen is flimsy as a spider web, and beneath, my skin is pale. “You’re not from Temura, are you,” he says.

Then his eyes fall on the ring I wear: silver, with a pearl. The water didn’t manage to take it from me. He is staring so hard I become afraid he will, though, so I close my hand into a fist.

But I am wrong; he does not want it. “No, not Temura.” He rubs his eyes, sighs. “You’ll be hungry, I suppose.”

He stands, and so I do, but we don’t go yet. Instead, he gently takes my ringed hand. It is not a fist anymore. He licks the finger and thumb of his other hand and coaxes the metal from my finger.

He considers the small shed. He puts his a finger to his lips, as if we are playing a game, and places my ring atop a high beam—out of sight, but he lets me see where he sets it.

“Good?” he asks.

I nod, not understanding what we are playing but willing to be on his side. His eyes are kind.

“Breakfast, then,” he says and leads me to the cottage.

It’s the size of Pride’s stall in Father’s stables. There’s a table and bed, and a ladder to a loft. A woman mutters in front of where the fire should be.

At first she doesn’t turn around. “Where’ve you been, then?” She stiffens when she notices me. “And what’s this?”

“She was there, on the beach,” he says.

“What, alone? Another foundling?”

He glances in my direction, but I remain silent. I don’t know what a foundling is. “Y-yes.”

She shakes her head, snapping kindling with a vengeance. “Those harbor families, expecting others to take care of their unwanteds! Leaving it to poor working folk. Well, Mary and Paul can’t take in any more mouths, and Libby has more than she can handle.”

His hand holds mine gently as a glove. “I was thinking she could stay with us.”

The cracking and snapping stops. “I don’t need anything else to look after.”

“She could be a help to us.”

The woman clunks pottery and pots, letting the noise speak her discontent.

“Ness.” I am too young yet to understand everything in the way he says her name, but he sounds like the falconer when he is training a new bird.

She stares him down another minute before slopping mush from the pot into a bowl and clattering it on the table. She stomps out of the cottage, and he lets her go. Immediately the room is calmer, like the sea after a storm.

He points to the bench. I sit, but I don’t reach for the bowl. It looks like what spills out of my horse’s mouth after he drinks.

“Eat,” he coaxes. “You’re just a little thing.”

When I still don’t eat, he takes an apple from a bin and a little knife from his belt. His thumb steadies the knife’s edge. The peel comes off in one long, unbroken curl. That means good luck. I smile a little, and when he hands me quarters of apple, I eat them, one by one.

*

I can barely keep my eyes open. The man must have carried me to the loft, for I wake there.

I creep down the ladder and look for the fisherman. The woman snaps that he has gone out with his nets and won’t be back until late. She thrusts a bowl of grain at me and pushes me outside, telling me to feed the chickens. But their sharp feet and mouths frighten me, and I spill all the grain when I run away from the rust-colored one.

I hide in the shed and wait.

It’s almost dark when the fisherman returns, and I watch him go into the house. I hear Ness yelling, but he speaks too low to hear.

He steps outside and runs a hand through his hair, and I come out of the shed. When he sees me, he smiles.

“Supper time, lass.”

He waits until I am next to him, then rests his hand on my shoulder, and we go in together.

*

The fisherman teaches me a charm his Nan knew that keeps the chickens in line. I’m good at learning by heart. Soon I can stare them down, even the rust-colored one.

He shows me the path to the stream, and how to keep the silt from muddying the water in the bucket, and how to pick out the little bones from my fish at supper.

I don’t know why he shows me these things. They’ll come for me, when they realize I am here.

It’s just for now. Like how everything is different when we go to the country palace.

Most nights after supper, he and I walk to the shore. I keep back from the edge. When I tire of building moats and baileys in the sand, I explore what’s washed up on the beach. Slimy plants, pebbles loosed by waves, and something strange—light in my hand and silvery gray but hard. He says it’s called driftwood, but it doesn’t seem like wood anymore.

I carry a piece back to the cottage, and another the next night, and the next, and make a crooked line of them at the edge of the loft.

*

He is smoking a pipe, and Ness is finishing supper. The cat chooses this moment to rub against her leg, and she kicks it away.

“Ness,” he chides.

“There’s too many things underfoot here,” she says. “I can’t get my work done if I have to look after this creature.” She means me.

“Fine, then. I’ll take her out with me tomorrow.”

She doesn’t want this, either, but she cannot protest now. She simmers like the stew over the fire for the rest of the evening.

The next morning I wake early. The sky is still blue-black when we eat the breakfast he cooks. Outside, he hands me the skin of water to carry. He slings the nets over his shoulder, the way Father’s men wear their cloaks, and we pick our way down to the shore.

I wait. He places the net inside the boat and puts his back into shoving it to the lip of the water. When he is ready, he nods at me to come. I am scared of the water, even the cloud-like foam that touches only my ankles, but he lifts me up as if I were no heavier than a lantern and sets me on the bottom of the boat.

He rows out, sets his nets, waits. He is patient. The sun rises, bright at the edge of the world. It climbs and gathers strength. The fisherman’s brown face and neck are turning red and sweaty, and I can see the skin on my own arms pinking. Mother would be telling me to cover myself.

“I thought she’d be softer to you, lass.”

Then he chuckles, but it is a sad sound. “Lass,” he repeats. “That won’t do anymore. What were you called, where you come from?”

My name is like something wriggling in a net, a fish I don’t want to pull up. It will gasp and die in this place.

“Do you like Alice?” he says after a while.

I hate it. It’s a scullery maid’s name.

“’Twas my mother’s name,” he tells me.

He is kind, but I do not want his mother’s name; I am named after my mother. But I point to my heart, accepting this. For now. “Alice.” And he beams brightly as the sun hitting the water; and I wiggle my toes in the pool that has collected in the bottom of the boat.

*

The next morning when I wake, my wall of driftwood is gone.

I climb down the ladder, and Ness is throwing the last piece on the fire. She looks pleased with herself. “I told you I was out of kindling. I don’t know why I have to do everything around here.”

The woman speaks to me in the same tone she talks to the dog that she doesn’t want to love her. When she thinks she is alone, she mutters about me, calling me “foundling” and “sea-witch.” But I am worse than a witch: I am of the house of Daro. And when my people find me, place the circlet on my head again, I will make the kind fisherman a duke, but I will have her humbled. She will carry water for the maids. She will scrub the tiles of the vast Great Hall on her hands and knees, and untangle every single knot in Pride’s mane and tail. She will eat with the dogs.

I make up incantations for revenge and whisper them to myself, but so far she has only gotten one wart, on her thumb.

*

I wake in a peaceful house. Ness has gone to visit her sister on the other side of the island, the fisherman says. “Why don’t we have a little holiday, too?”

We walk to town. I am happy to be away from Ness’s frowns. I consider skipping to show this but settle for swinging his hand, enjoying the rhythm and weight of it, like one of the great ropes I played with on the ship’s deck.

We begin to see people on the road, and carts start to jumble past. The fisherman moves so that he walks between me and their unsteadiness. They are all pulling toward a roost of buildings, from paths I cannot see.

When I see the sails of the tall trading ships in the harbor, my throat closes and my heart beats like the wings of a tiny bird I saw in one of the colonies. I thought it had found a way to stop in the air, the way birds light on a branch; but Father had explained no, the tiny creature beats its wings faster than the eye can see.

The fisherman understands I want to watch the cranes and pulleys unloading the ship, so we stand on the dock a while. Sea birds dart and caw. Men shout news at each other from the decks.

Hear about that wreck a few months back?

“Are you hungry, lass? I’m starving,” the fisherman says, louder than necessary. He walks us away so quickly I have to hop to catch up. But I hear The rocks by Black Cove? —No, a fire before the tavern door creaks open.

The innkeeper calls me “young miss” and winks his friendliness. The fisherman tells him what we’ll have. He sips his ale from a wooden mug, and I watch stray dogs try to take food from unwatched plates. They make me laugh, and he stops looking so sad.

“Try these,” he says. It’s some kind of nut I haven’t seen before. He cracks the shell and gives it to me to pick.

The innkeeper brings us a roast chicken, and the fisherman says that the food here is almost as good as his mum’s, God rest her. Then he shows me how to pull the wishbone and make a wish. It’s my first. I like the fisherman, but that time and for a long time after, there is only one thing I wish for.

*

The fabric of my shift finishes wearing out. Ness makes me another when the fisherman asks her to. It is ugly, and she smiles when she sees how it hangs from my shoulders, like a tent.

The chickens do not frighten me now. I stare down the hens and reach for their eggs, and they are smooth and warm in my hands.

One day the fisherman mentions he wants to fish the pond for a change, but the lines on his poles are knotted. When he is busy at the wood pile, I find the poles and untangle the lines.

How he smiles when he notices them, neat and straight again! He teases me: “Like magic! Are you a fairy?” But he is pleased: “Those are clever fingers, lass.” He wiggles his own to demonstrate the difference between my fingers and his, which are crooked and knotted.

Later he shows me how he inspects the nets, and I mend the tears for him at night.

*

When the trees flower pink and white, I realize we have passed my birthday and no one told me. I remember spring in a quiet, private garden, and hands tossing me toward petaled trees: catching and spinning me until I was dizzy and breathless from laughing.

After supper, when I am supposed to be washing the pot and bowls at the stream, I walk to where the fisherman found me.

Nothing but sky rests on the horizon. All the evenings I’d walked the shore with him, I’ve never seen a ship. Just another little fishing boat like his, once.

The last time my cousins and I played hide and seek at the palace, they forgot me. Under the bed, I didn’t realize they had given up the game and had moved on to playing chase in the garden. When my sister finally looked for and found me, I cried and held her neck like I was still a baby.

I feel like that, again. But this is not like that, not really. Because no one is looking. Mother is dead, I think. Father, too.

After a while I hear the fisherman. He is whistling so I won’t be startled; that is something he does. We stand there quietly until the waves start to reach where we are.

He tilts his head. “Come,” he says, taking a step toward the wetter sand.

I shake my head, but he is firm. “It’s time for this. It’ll be all right. You’ll see.” And he walks toward that shifting edge between land and sea, where something ends and something else begins.

The wet takes my ankles, then my knees. The fabric of my dress clings to my legs, as if it knows to be afraid. The waves reach the bodice of my dress, and a larger wave throws spray to my face. I gasp and hesitate, wanting to turn back.

Instead he holds my hand and stands with me until my terror dissolves. Then, as the next wave rolls in, he puts his hands under my arms and lifts me, and the waves lift me, too, but they don’t carry me away. The rolling water passes, and I feel the sand swirling again around my ankles and the smooth pebbles under my feet; and I feel his hands, steadying me.

“Again?”

And I nod and reach up, and he lifts me again and again, just when I need him. Just when it is time.

*

When Ness finds herself pregnant, she starts to eye me differently. Like something finally useful to her—a tool lying around that she has figured out how to use. She tells the fisherman her news, and he is so happy he dances her about the cramped cottage till even she laughs.

When she starts to show, a small dune under her dress, she informs the fisherman she needs me around the house more now. I know it’ll go worse for me if he argues, so I understand when he does not.

He goes out in his boat with his nets, and I milk the cow, pull weeds in the garden, slide peas from their shells. I bake bread and make tea for her when she throws up. Later, when she grows so large and even more sour-mooded, when she is too winded and must sit all the time, I lift the porridge pot over the fire. Sweep the cottage floor. Wipe down the pots.

It is miserable, but I show cheer when the fisherman returns each night, a pretty shell or piece of driftwood in his hand for me. We all sit before the fire, and he tells stories about giant sea turtles, and fish shaped like stars, and shells containing pearls.

Ness, sewing for the babies, snorts. “Wouldn’t that be nice. A pearl would change our lives.” Her eyes go dim as she imagines.

“Have you ever found one?” I ask the fisherman, awe-eyed.

He leans forward. “Once,” he whispers, petting my hair, but he does not show it to me.

*

Ness is safely delivered of twins, a boy and a girl. The fisherman is proud. Happy. Ness is happy, too, for a time.

I feed and wash the babies. They’re strange, sweet things, except when hungry or when their stomachs hurt with gas. I play with them. When Ness sees them smiling back at me, she finds other chores for me to do.

On days when she can think of no more chores, I’m allowed to play with the village children. From them I learn that a foundling is a child left by the villagers of the next island, as well as a despicable creature (a boy my age named Toby is one, too). And I learn the meanings of the other words Ness calls me. But I am not those things, either.

I learn about pulled hair, and about being held down and tickled until I cry, and about having my lunch snatched out of my hands by the bigger children. I retreat to the fisherman’s barn, where I hide my driftwood collection now, and keep to myself for the rest of the day. I can stare at the wood for hours, imagining the way the water has carved and curved the grain. After such a journey, I think the pieces must not remember they were ever part of a tree, or remember what a leaf was, or wind.

*

I’m usually so tired at the end of the day that no visions fill my head. But sometimes I dream of a faraway tune, or the corner of a quilt where a court lady embroidered a dog on his hind legs, or the page in the Red Book where a scribe wrote in curving strokes the name that no one calls me anymore.

Then I wake, tasting sand in my mouth, brine on my lips, and throat-cracking thirst. At first I’m sure I can feel grit grating against my teeth, but there is never anything there.

I stare through the blackness at the eaves, and eventually sleep returns.

I know there was a time before I came here, but it has all slipped back: like the waves somehow know just how far up the shore to reach, how long to linger, and when to return home.

*

Toby helps me toss the spent straw out of the cowshed and weed the garden. Sometimes he brings me cherries. He hides these in his pockets until we are by ourselves at the pond so the twins will not demand a share.

Some of the older village children take lessons from the pastor in Temura; others apprentice in town. The fisherman talks a little about sending me to school, but Ness will have none of it. They are as poor as they ever were, and they have their own to think of now, she says.

The look he gives her is a cool one, and she doesn’t notice anymore.

*

I grow up pretty, in a different way than the local girls.

Toby is patient. Persistent.

On hot afternoons we swim in the pond. I float on my back and stare at the sky, comparing its blue to that of the sea. With Toby, I feel enough at ease that sometimes I laugh. I ask if he remembers anything of the time before he came here.

He shrugs. “You?”

If he’d said yes, I might have told him. But I shake my head.

His smile is shy, and he touches my hair.

*

In front of the parson, who has walked half a day to be here, the fisherman places my hand in Toby’s.

Toby has built us a little cottage on the bluff, not far from the fisherman’s. I am not sure I love him, but he loves me. Ness is happy I’m going, but the fisherman has tears in his eyes. Before Toby and I go off, I kiss his rough cheek and promise I’ll still mend his nets, for the twins have never learned how.

*

Ness lives to see my stepbrother finish his apprenticeship and my stepsister married to a carpenter in town. Then a sweating sickness takes her, and the fisherman is alone in his little cottage.

I keep our house and garden, and his. Bring over supper. He smiles when I make stew: “Just like my mum’s, lass.” I patch his clothes, and we ask if he wouldn’t rather stay with us. No, he likes the view from his window, he says. But really it’s that the fisherman understands how much we struggle. All months are lean, but especially winter.

Toby says the children will come, in time. He thinks this is why I am quiet. He says perhaps we’ll just have to wait a while, like the fisherman did.

*

The fisherman’s back is hurting him, as it does more and more, but he has a fresh string of fish for his daughter and her family. I tell him I’ll walk it to the village for him. He promises he’ll help Toby patch the roof before the rains come.

He is getting too old for roofs, but I will not say so.

I walk to the village, and it is abuzz—there are new ships at harbor. Fancy ones, with fine sails and banners.

When the twins were small and Ness out of temper, I used to run the miles here to look at all the boats. Tearing crumbs from the crust of bread I’d pocketed, tossing them to the birds, I would choose which ship would take me away: I imagined where it would go, and what I would do there. But, my runaway’s supper gone and the wind having dried my tears, I always turned back.

I leave the fish at my stepsister’s, then pause at a stall in the center to buy some wool; it’s dyed the color of the sea. A foreign official is in the square, writing with careful strokes on parchment. Taking a census for the capital, someone explains.

I remember the royal blue of his tunic, and the crest on his chest.

His eyes brush past where I stand in the crowd and stop. His expression changes.

I don’t like the way he looks at me. I back into the crowd and start home with a walk so purposeful that no one will stop me.

*

The fisherman is dozing inside his cottage, and I’m relieved: I don’t want to try to explain what I do not even understand.

The cow is long gone. In the shed there’s just the skeleton of a boat the fisherman means to rebuild, some buckets, and a broken barrel.

I haven’t grown tall, so I have to climb to reach the beam. My fingers fumble, but then I feel it: a little silver ring with one pearl. I rest it in my palm, unsure. It feels light as a butterfly, the only bright thing in this dark space.

I put it back and slip away.

*

The rainy season passes. It’s dry and clear again, and everyone is talking about the ship from the capital. Toby tries to persuade me to walk to town with him to see it. But I am drying fish for the winter, and packing vegetables for the cellar, and airing out the winter blankets. I tell him to go without me.

There is much to do, but I am just staring out the window when the fisherman walks over. He sets a string of fish on the table. He has cleaned them already. No, he can’t stay for supper, he says.

“Some new ship arrived,” he tells me. “You used to love to watch the cargo loading and unloading.”

I set a mug of tea in front of him, and his fingers close around the cup. They’re crooked and knobby as crab legs. I know they ache in the damp, but he doesn’t complain.

I sit and hand him the pair of socks I have finished knitting for him, and he touches the soft wool: “These are lovely. Such nimble fingers.” He holds my hand a long while, and we are quiet together, like when I went out in his boat with him.

“Did I ever tell you how pearls are made, lass?”

Many times, but I smile and let him tell me again. “How, Papa?”

“A bit of sand becomes a seed inside a shell, and the shell feeds it until it’s ripe. Until it’s ready to be found.”

He sets down his mug and stands, stoop-backed. “I’ve got to finish mending the chicken coop before dark. I’ll get me own supper.” He cups my cheek with his hand. Its salt smell, so comforting. “You’ve always been such a good girl, Alice,” he says, and it is like a good-bye.

I watch him walk the path to his cottage. He’s thinner than a few months ago. I wipe at my eyes.

Toby will be home soon; I should start supper. I pick up the fish and see the pearl and silver ring the fisherman has brought, beneath them.

So small it no longer slides past my first knuckle.

*

The next afternoon I hear the men arrive but do not move, not even when one knocks on the open door. Toby greets him, and the man asks to see the lady of the house, and I want to laugh, for what fisherman’s wife has ever been called this? But I manage not to. I tell them I am her, and he asks whether their lady can dine with us. He tells some story about being from Temura, but their clothes are not right.

Toby doesn’t know what to do. Sweet Toby. He doesn’t understand, but it doesn’t matter. I brush my hands against my apron, which is stained with many things. I lay my hand on his arm, like I do when I need him not to forget what I’m saying. “Husband, would you go to town? We need some ale for our guests.”

He has never stopped wanting to please me. He’ll be gone for at least an hour, and this will be settled by the time he returns.

*

The woman steps into the room. One of her men pulls closed the door, as if he is a steward, and she and I are alone.

She is tall, and when she lowers her hood, it is like I am seeing Mother—the golden hair, the pale skin, the profile.

“Do you know me?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Who am I?”

“You’re from Deezia.”

The word feels strange in my mouth. It is almost never said here.

“C-can we sit?”

I gesture to the bench, and we sit. Her dress rustles. The rough cloak she wore for her disguise covers silk, and I’m tempted to touch it, to feel again how fine and taut and strong thread can be.

She studies me as if I am a difficult script. I make my eyes a glass she cannot see through.

She notices my left hand, the ring Toby gave me, carved bone. “You’re married? I have a husband, too. And a little son and daughter.”

Her wedding band is ringed with pearls, and her hands pale and thin. They are trembling in her lap.

“I heard about you from the census taker,” she says. “I had to see—”

She reaches up to touch my hair, the color of hers, and I smell the perfume Mother used to wear.

“Y-you aren’t like the others,” she whispers, and tears begin to slip down her face. “Phora?”

I start like a wasp has set on me. But she is patient; she is not offended. She straightens her back and dabs her eyes.

“You haven’t always lived here, they say. Do you remember your home before?”

She wants to believe, but she is looking for a sign. Under the folds of my skirt I finger the ring where I have tied it to my belt. It’s smoother than a pebble worn down by the waves, this loop and pearl.

“You do remember,” she entreats me, “you must. Do you remember the tour of the colonies? The ship?”

I remember a girl who used to untie the ribbons in my hair and knot my braids together. I remember playing dolls with her, and hide and seek. And I remember orange light, and heat, and screams.

She says, “The fire on the ship was our uncle’s doing. We thought no one survived. I thought I was all alone, for all these years. There were so many disappointments, I almost didn’t— His men came for me, too, at the palace. But I was spared, and there was the war. But that’s all over now.”

I stare at my lap. My hands have been browned evenly by the sun, like plump bread in the village oven, and my knuckles are turning to knots like the fisherman’s hands.

“I want to take care of you. Do you understand? It’s safe now. Uncle is dead; it’s only us. You can come home.”

My sister is promising me comfort and safety and ease, some forgotten life. And I think I would like to sleep again on a fine bed, and know the feel of silk, and never again have to scrub a pot.

All I have to do is speak, and the spell will be broken.

I used to be Phora, of the house of Daro, daughter of the king of Deezia, but the water carved me, made me something else.

I tell her, “I’m not the girl you are looking for. I’m sorry.”

She wants to protest, but there is a knell in my tone against which she does not argue, or an imperiousness in our blood that she knows. I let her fill my lap with tears, and I do not show her the ring.

Once her ships are gone, it will be two days’ walk to the city, where no one knows me and I can get a fair price for my pearl. Then I will make the fisherman comfortable for the rest of his few days, and try to love Toby the way he deserves to be loved.



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