He draped a tentacle over her tiny shoulders and leaned in close, turning the shark side of his face towards her, as he did whenever he was about to tell her to do something. That dead black eye swiveled. “Time for your medicine,” he said, offering the tumbler full of tarry essence. He stank of fish and seaweed left too long in the sun. “No arguments this time.” He opened his mouth to show her the rows of triangular teeth on that side. Maybe a smile, maybe not.
The submerged hull creaked around them. She heard anchors dropping, chains clanking, and the distant groan of whales. She took the tumbler. The fresh webbing between her tiny fingers stretched as she gripped the glass. He loomed over her.
She studied the poison, the essence. Scales and residue of fish-guts floated in it. He kept a complicated chart scratched into the top of their lone wooden table with a knife, although how he kept track of time underwater she had no idea. Rows of boxes, rows of crosses, a smiling face in every seventh one (a smiling face; the irony), and whenever they hit one of them he would call her over to his briny tub, have her wait while he produced a metal lock box that he would open with one of a pair of keys he kept buried in a fold of gelatinous flesh under his arm, inside what may have been a gill of some kind that opened like an infected eye. He would unlock the box and she would see the stoppered bottles of the stuff lined up inside the padded interior, the bodies of small mashed fish floating in the liquid. He would take out the tumbler, wash it in the briny slop that supported his lower half, fill it to the top from one of the bottles, then hand it to her with an unspoken threat wrapped in a smile.
She swallowed the contents in one gulp. It slid thickly down her windpipe and she gagged. He massaged her back gently, taking care around the budding fins and tender patches of scale. The essence grabbed her from the inside, pulled open her veins and raced to her brain. She could feel the transmutation always now, a dull ache in her bones, as the essence turned her on a wheel away from what she had been toward what he wanted her to become.
“My girl,” he said, sighing as he took the tumbler from her and returned it to its case. He locked the box and slid it back under his tub and returned the key to its secret pocket. “You make your father proud.”
Only he wasn’t her father.
Or at least she had her suspicions. The truth of it lay somewhere in the past beyond reach, and with every moment she spent in this place with him, swallowing his poison and doing what he needed her to do, his claim became more and more true. Soon it would win out entirely, and there’d be nothing else left.
“Can you swim?” he said. The withered shark side of his face was turned away now, leaving her the almost-handsome half that he still had to scrap with a razorblade to keep from becoming overgrown.
“Good. Then out you go. You know what we need.”
“Air, food, and the sparkly stuff.” Sparkly stuff; that’s what he called it.
“The most important of all,” he said. “Don’t come back empty-handed again.”
She wanted to hate him, but he was all she knew, and he probably actually was her father like he said, so how could she hate him? She pecked him on the cheek, the good one, and padded down the steady slope of the floor to where water cut the submerged hull across the diagonal. She unhooked three old glass balloons, each one full of bad breath and dead air, and took her tri-pronged spear from its rack.
“Be safe,” he called out as she plunged into the water.
He said that every time now, ever since the accident; not the first one, the truly catastrophic one that he’d only told her about, but the second one, more an inconvenience once his wounds had healed, and why he needed her more than ever.
The ocean outside was dark and full of sediment.
She kicked clear of the open hatch now home to a colony of eels. A kelp forest swayed in the current. She followed a shaft of sunlight up, up, up to the liquid silver surface, where the air smelled sweet and she heard gulls calling and the groan and clank of ships anchored at the nearby port. The city beyond bristled with smoke and steam and distant noise, a cesspit even without his embellishments at the sheer moral decay to be found there, the place he called Pelagar.
On those rare occasions her errands took her into the city she felt intensely uncomfortable, even with her growing number of visible mutations concealed as best she could. That world was no place for her, not now, and as she navigated those labyrinthine alleys and choked markets she found herself longing for her underwater home.
Gasbray, the bespectacled merchant and craftsman she sometimes called on for new glass balloons or other magical trinkets, had tried to tempt her to stay for warm mint tea and chocolate jellies, maybe even some sweet liquor to ease her rasping cough.
“It’s nothing,” she would say. She knew it was the transformation, her lungs becoming less tolerant of the lower pressure topside, her gills drying out. But she couldn’t say that, not even to Gasbray (who probably knew more about any of this than her so-called father), because he might stop her from going back. At least, she had the sense he might try.
“He can’t be trusted,” the man who called himself her father had said. “He may look friendly and nice, a generous uncle, but he’s a snake. His family were known informants during the Shadow Nights,” he continued, forgetting none of this meant anything to her. “So keep your business with him brief, understood?”
But Gasbray was only trying to be kind. Once, he even asked, “So how is your father? Doing well?”
She wasn’t sure what he did or did not know about her father’s situation (her father was never generous with details), so she shrugged uncomfortably and said he was fine. Gasbray looked about to say something more, then thought better of it and smiled. “Give him my regards.” She noticed a sudden bitterness to him. “Tell him our friends have agreed to his terms: a reduced price in return for the trade.” Almost a challenge, skirting the edge of something dangerous.
Price? The terms had already been agreed, so far as she knew. And trade? What trade? Her father had explained his whole plan to undo the damage done to him, but this was new to her.
When she’d relayed the conversation to her father he’d flown into a rage, lurching from his tub and lashing the table across the room with one of his tentacles. “What else did he say to you?”
“Nothing,” she said, cowering.
“I don’t want you talking to him anymore, do you understand? Not a word. You write your order down and hand it to him. No more talking.”
The next time, when Gasbray finished engraving a fresh glass balloon and raised his magnifying lens atop his head and said, “Tell your father there could be some complications. Disputes over allotments and such between the guilds,” she had almost walked away. Almost. Instead, she said, “He doesn’t like me talking to you.”
Gasbray had frowned, perplexed. “Why ever not?”
“Maybe he’s worried about what you will tell me.”
“What I will tell you? But hasn’t he explained it all to you already?” There it was again, that slyness.
“Of course he has.”
“Really? And you are onboard with all this?”
“I....” Were they talking about the same thing? He seemed to know more than her, when he should have known less.
He grew angry at her blank expression. “Blasted coward,” he muttered, but not to her. He twisted out his cigarillo on the sole of his boot. “You tell him to come see me, at our usual meeting place.”
This had been before the second accident, when her father could still venture out. When she conveyed Gasbray’s instructions, her father had stormed from their home, dragging his bulk off through the water to the meeting place. She had followed at a discrete distance and popped up a hundred yards away, where the night could hide her. Her father sprawled on the wet sand beyond the reach of the lights from the promenade, arguing furiously with Gasbray, who himself was throwing his arms about in a manner very unlike his usual reserved self. Their words didn’t carry, just their intonation, and when she’d seen enough she had returned home. No sense in getting caught for nothing.
When her father returned he carried a sack of fresh bottles filled with essence. He placed them in his lock box, and when she lingered near him he slapped her with his one hand.
“Gasbray is not your friend. You cannot trust him.”
After that, Gasbray was cool towards her, more distant, more professional. Every visit seemed to be her first, as he slid forward with a “Yes, may I help you?” Whatever her father had said had been taken on board, and whatever Gasbray might have told her before was now lost to her.
She had thought she understood the nature of it all, but now she wasn’t so sure, and she resented Gasbray for making her question without daring to give her the answers.
She swam to the end of the great breakwater and tethered the old glass balloons to a rusty iron bolt sunk in a half-submerged rock. She held each one and ran her finger over the complex pattern Gasbray had scratched into their surfaces, every cross-hatch, dot, and swirl marked with a tiny number beside it to signify the correct order. As she completed each pattern it flashed gold and the balloon began to hiss, first expelling the trapped fumes through invisible pores before drawing in fresh air the same way and compressing it tighter and tighter. Once full, a balloon contained enough air to keep them breathing in their home for days.
She left the balloons floating there to fill while she plunged down with her spear. The fresh gills just below her throat meant she could stay under for minutes at a time, and soon she had a string of squid, pig-jackets, even a crackling eel. She was now near the cliff, so she tucked her catch under a rock, rose to the surface for one last deep breath (the gills helped, but a lungful of air still made a difference), then dropped over the edge, heading down towards pitch blackness just to test herself, as she did every day. She had never seen the bottom; ears popping, joints screaming, she always pushed as far as she could but it was never enough. Not without further mutation, or “enhancement” as he called it.
And that was the whole point of her existence.
“It is a superstition among the outgoing sailors that you make an offering to Selessi before every voyage,” he had explained to her (she recalled in a memory so dusty it might well have been the oldest she had). “Once you cross the channel and pass Widow’s Rock way out beyond the edge of the bay and the seals are all around, Selessi will hear you, and you offer her what you can to provide safe voyage. You take your trinket, your coin, your gem or other valuable, whatever you can spare to save your life and you say a prayer as you toss it overboard. So it has been for hundreds of years. How many sailors per ship? How many ships per year? Too many to count.”
Which meant that down below, far, far down below, there were fields of treasure waiting to be scooped up. And he wanted as much as he could get. He showed her his second, more prized lock box, this one with an air of reverence that he felt warranted an additional warning. “If I ever catch you even looking at this,” he said as he unlocked it with the second key on the chain he kept semi-swallowed, “I will hurt you.”
Inside were fistfuls of copper coins, silver bracelets, a couple of smell gems that he must have sifted from the sand. This was before he had her trade all of it, a couple of items at a time (not trusting her with any more), for bronze square-coins in the markets of Pelagar. He didn’t even trust Gasbray to fence the goods for him. “Now I cannot reach the bottom, although I have tried,” he said. “Some of these sailors are impatient and toss their offerings too early, and these I collect from the cliff’s edge. But the real treasure is way down below, and that, my beautiful girl, is where you must go.”
Said as he offered her the first tumbler of essence, back when he did everything outside their home; gather balloons, food, meet Gasbray on the beach, because she was still incapable of leaving that sweet pocket of trapped air.
“But why do you need this?” she asked, meaning the treasure.
“Look at me. This was an accident, me ending up like this. I used to look like you. I shall tell you all about it sometime, but the point is it can be undone, so I’ve been told, but it will cost money, vast sums of it for the guild specialists to undo all this, make me a man again. How else am I to get my hands on that kind of wealth lurking here at the bottom of the sea, eh?”
“What about Selessi? Won’t she be angry at us stealing from her?”
“Ha! Sailor nonsense, girl. Charkuna is the one true god, of that you can be sure, not some watery bitch demanding tokens for her protection.” Although after his second accident he was no longer so sure, but by then she was the one taking all the risks, heading out and down to strive for the bottom.
“The plan is this.” He pinched her cheek fondly. “We collect enough for them to restore the pair of us—”
“Why me? I’m fine already.”
“Do not interrupt me!” The pinch turned sharp and she squealed. “Silly girl. I will explain it all to you. You need some enhancements to allow you to reach the bottom, where the true cream lies. I myself could not survive those depths, and I have already evolved too far in a particular direction, as you can see. Any more would most likely kill me. But if you trust me, I can make it so you can swim further and deeper than anyone has ever done. Fear not, the guild can undo such things once we no longer have need of them, and by then we shall have accumulated enough on top of the required fees to live like king and princess for the rest of our days. Not bad, eh?”
It had seemed a brilliant plan back then. It still did.
So why these fresh misgivings? Did she no longer trust him? Why couldn’t she; her own father (most likely)? He would never do wrong by his own flesh and blood; he had no reason to. He loved her (in his own way) and she loved him, and that was all that mattered.
She scooped up a lovely scrimshaw figurine, a pouch of metal bits, a shrunken skull with marbles sewn into the eye sockets, an ivory comb, and an amber bead inside an empty ink bottle.
She re-gathered her catch, although blood from the pig-jackets had drawn a shark. Not a big one, but big enough. She flashed her spear and the thing vanished, but adrenaline from the encounter forced her to the surface to suck in a few heavy breaths. Something similar had caused her father’s second accident, and look how that had left him.
She collected her balloons and dived for the last time.
She noticed something as she navigated the barnacle-encrusted hatch leading back inside: a flash of silver among the green and white shells. A locket. She’d never seen it before and had no idea why she had noticed it now because she could tell it had been here a long, long time by the way it had become so in-grown that she had to tuck it sharply to free it, breaking the fine chain. She clutched the tiny locket in her hand, a simple latched thing that she unclipped and opened.
Inside was an engraving of a woman’s face, etched soapstone rubbed with ink. Plain and smiling. Valuable to someone, and probably more valuable than most of the junk she’d scavenged recently, so her father would be pleased.
He was in fact the complete opposite.
The second accident had been bad, although nowhere near as bad as the first.
A small orca hit from behind while he lingered on the cliff face sifting coins from the sand with his trusty sieve (so he explained to her once he could speak again). It was the large silvertail hooked onto his belt that did it, trailing blood everywhere. The whale thought the blood was his and nearly tore him open. He couldn’t exactly say how he managed to fight it off and return home, but when he bobbed up inside, blood everywhere, and she dragged him out of the water, he was white as bleached bone. There was nothing to be done; either he’d live or die, and it was just a case of waiting it out.
He held the open locket to his good eye, and when he recognized it the shark side seemed to spread. Everything human just dropped from his face.
“Where did you find this?” he said as quietly as she’d ever heard him say anything. His hand shook.
“Just outside the hatch.”
“No,” he said, but not to her. Maybe to himself. Then: “How?”
“But isn’t it valuable?”
“Junk.” And he shoved it in his mouth so roughly he cut his fingers on his teeth. One swallow and it was gone, and when he flapped her across the face, the slap so loaded that he could barely control it, the blood from his knuckles dashed up the wall. “Who told you to go snooping around here? The cliff is where you look, and nowhere else, do you understand me, girl?” She danced away from him and in his rage he spilled over the side of the tub. He half-settled against the floor, howling. “You come back here!”
She shook her head and he seemed at a loss.
“Charkuna mark you, disobedient whelp!” He eyed the cold water at the bottom of the room, a plan forming. “Suit yourself. You stay here then while I go outside.”
“Where are you going?”
“If I see you leave here the pain will be worse than anything you could imagine. Do you hear me? You stay here otherwise I feed you to the sharks.”
He let the downward slope of the room drag him to the water, and when it caught him he sighed in pleasure. But there was madness in his eyes, and he raised a warning finger at her. “You stay right there until I return.” And he vanished.
But where could he be going? He almost never left since the second accident. And what about that locket had enraged him? She had to know. It could have been a trap, one of his loyalty tests; he could be waiting just outside to spring on her the moment she disobeyed him, but the risk was worth it. He made threats and turned nasty on occasion, sure enough, but he needed her more than she needed him now, so no chance he would do anything irreparable to punish her.
At least, anything more than he already had.
She lurked inside the shadow of the hatchway, studying the ocean bed outside, knowing it so intimately now that she could have told if he was hiding there. Seeing nothing she eased out, expecting him to strike at any moment, but when he didn’t that presented another problem: where had he actually gone?
Something large had kicked up a cloud of sand to the right of the outcrop she faced. Had to be him. Ever since the second accident he clung to the bottom on those rare occasions he did venture out, lacking the nerve to leave himself exposed in the open water. She climbed up the outcrop to peer down on the far side and saw him creeping along the alleyways of the ocean bed towards Pelagar, so maybe it was more business with Gasbray, for some reason.
But no, now he took a new path. She followed, nimble as a fish, darting from cover to cover while he blundered mindlessly ahead. The struts of the main pier loomed through the sediment and he made for the base of them, for one in particular, and she settled into a bed of seaweed to watch. The sand here was littered with trash tossed from above; bottles, shoes, an overgrown accordion. And something else, a shapeless twist flapping in the current. He made for that. His bulk settled down before it, blocking it from view as he worked. An octopus sidled close and he flashed at it, his fist tight when he did so she knew he held something in it.
Then he was done, but heading somewhere else instead of back home. She followed again, knowing she could always outrun him and so she was in no danger of being caught out unless he actually saw her, and she had to know what was going on here, sensing something important without knowing the true shape of it.
He seemed a tad aimless, as if lost or looking for something. He found a pocket of sand and dug with one of his tentacles, his hand still clutching whatever it was he had come for, which he then buried. He placed a rock on top of the sand and drifted backwards, studying his work. Satisfied, he turned for home, and so did she, swimming so fast it wasn’t until her vision began to blacken as she dashed through the hatchway that she realized she had forgotten to take a single breath.
It had happened like this:
(Was this a memory of him telling her this? No. Maybe?)
He was a grade two supplicant serving the fourth year of his apprenticeship on one of the guild’s harvesting rigs out by the Vent. Nothing exceptional there. Rig labor was equal parts slaves (prisoners, mostly, given the dangerous nature of the work) and guild members of varying degrees of expertise, him being towards the lower end of that scale but still far enough removed from the riskier elements associated with harvesting.
He assessed samples... or no, he managed the diving globes? Yes, that was it. The prisoners, they were lowered in magically reinforced globes to take initial samples of the rainbow-colored effluent billowing from the Vent, and he was charged with directing them during their descent using levers and pulleys greased with magic.
(Why was there a woman’s voice attached to all this? If this woman had been the one to explain it all, then who was she?)
Something had happened. A globe had burst, or a chain snapped, or a sudden upsurge from the Vent rocked the boat. He had tumbled overboard, or a rope snagged his leg and yanked him off. The water was thick with effluent, the essence that formed the very base of all the guilds’ powers, and when he plunged into it, it had filled his mouth, his nose, his ears, his eyes; and the millions of fish and turtles and seabirds and even sharks that followed every plume of essence, feeding off it, when they swarmed him in sudden interest the essence took every living thing and scrambled them together, so that when the crew hooked him and pulled him back aboard and pounded the water from his lungs, the cancer was already eating away inside him.
She imagines a hospital bed, him in bandages, still a man, pulling his waistband down to find a crab’s leg sprouting from his hip. But that was just her imagination. She hadn’t been there to see that, of course (because how could she have?), but the dangerous glee she took from his imagined howl of terror was real enough.
And that was the first accident.
She had to wait another day before she could investigate.
“Be safe,” he called as she headed out with her spear.
She headed to the hiding place first, because whatever was at the base of the pier it had been the thing he buried that mattered.
She pushed aside the rock and dug. Found it straightaway.
A silver locket and chain. The same as the one he had swallowed. But different. This one contained a bubble of glass with a baby’s tooth inside. She recognized it. No idea how, but she did. Then a flash of memory sharp as broken shell: her holding this thing inside a pudgy hand much smaller than the one she had now. Her stomach shriveled. This explained more than she had wanted it to. She hadn’t been expecting anything like this.
She returned to the base of the pier, where bodies dropped and thrashed against the surface far above as children leapt from the railings on a hot summer day.
The thing was a skeleton furry with growth and wrapped in seaweed and shreds of what had once been clothes. A leather satchel over one shoulder held it pinned forward against the sand, an anchor of sorts. Inside were eight or ten large rocks. Enough weight to suit a particular purpose. A single leather strap easily thrown off if this had been some kind of accident or administered violence.
Her lungs cried out and she kicked up. Her head broke the surface and she looked up to the wrought iron balcony high above, and seeing it like this, in these circumstances, something finally came loose, an invisible splinter of glass finally worked from a foot after days, weeks, years of agony:
she remembered waking in bed (her real bed, in a real house, not the dank thing she lived in now) as something enveloped her and lifted her clear, carried her towards and out a window, stinking of brine, and there had been a woman screaming. Lanterns flashing by, a cry of alarm or disgust from someone, then the hollow thud of misshapen limbs on boards, the rusty old paint smell of the railing as she went up and over, the fall, the splash, cold, cold water all around, then darkness. Nothing else beyond that. Buried so far back it came before the beginning.
And this woman pinned here, her mother, a casualty of all that. The lone anchor point between two worlds. He had known that and had tossed aside one locket to cut the link, because one in isolation was meaningless. Together they told a story, and he had made two mistakes: being a bit too careless in disposing of her locket, and leading her directly to her mother’s. Each compounded the other. One mistake on its own and she never would have known, but he’d shown her they mattered, and that had been enough for her to remember.
Gasbray’s eyebrows rose. “How much?” he said, repeating her question.
“Yes. How much does it cost to undo his transformation?”
He whistled. “A lot. How much does he have?”
“I don’t know.” Clearly not enough, not yet.
Gasbray rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. “He and I have an arrangement, you know. This is not the kind of matter he would appreciate me discussing with you.”
“How much to undo me?” she said.
He winced at that. “Well....”
Dark suspicion now hardened into something tangible. Was she the trade he had mentioned in a moment of sloppiness? Gasbray cleared his throat, looked away, a good man at heart wanting to tell her something she wasn’t allowed to know; probably promised money to play by her kidnapper’s rules. He shrugged and mumbled a figure that sounded made up.
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
He flinched at her tone. “These are not questions you should be asking me. You should be asking your father.”
“He’s not my father,” she said; no, she snarled. “He’s some pathetic thing who stole me from my mother and she drowned herself. I hate him, and I hate you too for helping him.”
That stung him. “I had nothing to do with any of that.”
“He never planned for me to be made good again, did he? The money was for him and him alone.”
She turned to leave, and he danced around his counter to grab her wrist, but there was nothing malicious in him, just a man who considered himself decent enough being squeezed into a nasty corner. “Do not do anything foolish,” he begged. “You know how he is. If you say any of this to him he will kill you.”
“What do you care? He’ll still pay you. After all, I’m surplus once I’ve done my bit.”
“Stuff the money!”
The words stopped her.
Gasbray wiped sweat from his face. “He was my friend, from before. That is why I have helped him. The money is neither here nor there. Then he threatened to spread lies about me to the guild, anonymous letters pertaining to certain past indiscretions that would see my license and membership stripped, if I told you. You see?”
Pathetic, duplicitous, but she needed allies. Right now she had none. Still, one thing nagged her. “Why wouldn’t he pay to have me fixed, too?”
“It would take too long to gather the necessary wealth, and he figures he has already waited too long. Besides.” He stroked his upper lip sadly. “The guild has need for oddities, anomalies to be probed and studied to advance the art. The Code forbids direct transmutation, as he has done to you, but you would be considered a useful... gift... by some. A way to reduce a quite breathtaking price. After all, you are no more to him than a dog taught a useful trick. Might as well get something for you when you have outlived your purpose.”
Her lack of surprise told her some deep part of her had always known the truth. But still, it was unforgivable, all of it, and while she had tolerated all the nastiness because she believed he loved her in his own way, the lack of anything of the sort, even the intrinsic bond of blood (which would have counted for something, no matter how miniscule) meant she now had a very clear idea of what she had to do.
“I don’t know how much we already have, but if it comes up short for what I need to be fixed then you have to help me with the rest,” she said. “It’s the least you could do for me.”
Gasbray flushed with shame and nodded. He took his glasses off and wiped his eyes.
Now she just had to figure out how to get her hands on the key.
“Gasbray needs to speak to you,” she said.
He glanced up from his book. “What about?”
“You don’t want me talking to him, so I didn’t ask.”
He grinned at that. “Good girl.” Then to himself: “What could he have to talk about, eh? More bad news?” He hefted himself from the tub, hitting the deck with a wet slap. The old scars from the second accident rippled gray and pink up his side, where the ribs had flashed bluish-white and the meat of him red. Distracted like this, she could have stuck him with her spear, but he was too big and strong and would tear her to pieces, and there seemed a kind of betrayal in that, a kind of back-stab he deserved but that she couldn’t bring herself to land. The anticipation of bad news and fear at his impending trip out and back had turned him nasty, though, and when she got in his way he shoved her.
“Make yourself useful and bring me some sparkly stuff,” he said. “Earn your keep.”
She eyed the pair of locked boxes under his tub. “I will.”
“And re-tar the walls. I found another leak.”
He caught something in her tone and leered at her. “That’s my girl,” he said, and with any luck it would be the last thing he ever said to her. He slid into the water and vanished.
Her heart beat so fast as she followed. The crump of it filled her ears and drew the tender flaps of her gills so tight she struggled to breathe. The cold water gripped her. There he was, just outside the hatch, but she knew where he was headed so she had no need to follow, not just yet.
First things first.
She cut for the cliff, where the big monsters were found, because that’s what she needed now: a monster bigger than the one she’d lived with as long as she could remember. She caught a water fox with her spear and used a sharp rock to rip it open, turning the water milky red around her as she swam for the drop-off where the world turned to bottomless ocean and the shapes of big horrifying things lurked, waiting for a reason to venture in, a reason like blood in the water. She took a piece of string and tied one end through the fox’s gills and mouth, the other round her wrist so she could toss the lure away if needed.
She swam beyond the protection of the cliff, and with nothing below or above her (the surface lost in haze above) the vertigo mixed with her terror and turned her movements jerky. The fox trailed behind, still billowing, and those huge shapes almost lost in the green shadows ahead seemed to shift and turn towards her. Good enough.
She spun back towards the cliff and swam as fast as she ever had, as fast as she could while still holding her spear (which she couldn’t bring herself to toss away), turning every arm stroke, every cupped hand in as close to technical perfection as she could. If they hit the lure behind her there was every chance the force could snatch her arm clean off before she had a chance to think, but looking back would cost too much, cause too much drag, so she plunged on, imaging teeth and fins and cruel black eyes closing in on her feet as they kicked, kicked, kicked.
Then she was above the sand of the cliff. The water turned warmer around her. She risked a glance back and found a barrel-bodied monster almost on top of her, mouth open to swallow the lure. She spun and cut and the shark followed, more nimble than something that size had a right to be. She had to yank on the string to keep the fox from it as it lunged again. The shark flicked its tail and washed right by her, so close the sandpaper skin down its flank burned her.
She dropped into a shallow crevice for protection, lungs on fire, and watched the beast trace a leisurely curve through the water before closing in again. Every instinct told her to raise her spear, as if such a thing was any protection against that much muscle and teeth, but she needed the shark to follow, not vanish at the first sign of prey fighting back.
So she played out her string to let the fox float up like a buoy, high enough overhead to keep that cavernous mouth well away from her. The shark lined up, surged, and she yanked the lure away again, almost misjudging this time so that the fox glanced off the shark’s lower jaw and swirled clear in its wash. Then she was gone, no more air left in her, even with the help of gills, heading for the surface where she would be the most vulnerable.
Up, up, up, the shark following, smiling now, the power of it transmitting up through the water, and she panicked, released the lure, rolled away, twirled as the shark shoved past and swallowed the bait. They both broke the surface together. She gasped for air. The mackerel-blue back of the shark rolled too close and she had no choice but to stick it with her spear. It flinched and she dove.
No chance to think. Pure need: she needed the shark to follow, so time to offer her own meat and bones. She poked her bicep with the prongs of her spear and squeezed blood from the wound. Now she was the bait, and she swam. She swam for the beach, the meeting point, knowing that if she passed that nest of clams there, followed that alleyway between rocks there, past the sunken wreck of that old galley beyond them both, then she would find the man who stole her, and the shark would too.
The thing came after her, curious and hungry still, the water fox barely more than a quickly swallowed bite. She might have been a wounded seal caught too far from Widow’s Rock, delicious and full of rich fat, and she swooped and swerved like one, drawing the shark in closer and closer.
There he was. A shadow through the water, now more than that: a target. Something to aim for. Ambling along like a sea cucumber, no clue what was coming. This was for everything he’d done to her, to her mother, to anyone else hurt by him. If she looked back through her flashing feet all she saw was teeth and white gullet.
She swooped over him, past him, slapping him with her hands, and then he was screaming, the sound muffled and somehow even worse under all this water as that impossibly toothy mouth clamped over his shoulder. Blood everywhere. A shake of the head and the shark let him go, hoping for seal or turtle and finding something else distasteful, but that one bite had opened him up from clavicle to waist with a string of perforations the size of fists, so that it looked as if his entire side could simply be torn off with a sharp tug. He twitched in agony as the shark slunk away.
She hid behind a rock to watch him die, feeling no guilt or satisfaction but more a sense of relief at having done a thing that needed to be done. He seemed to lose all shape, and the current washed him against a bank of overgrown rock. Even now the smaller sharks and larger fish were coming, drawn by the blood, so she had to move fast.
She kicked into the red mist, groping for the mass at the center of it and finding soft flesh, still warm and slightly rubbery, blood still pumping through her fingers. An arm brushed her, his one arm, still there even having been deep inside the shark’s mouth, and she followed it to the shoulder, searching for that hidden pocket in the armpit where he kept his keys.
She found two hard sharp shapes buried in the softness and shot away just before the smaller sharks swarmed him.
Gasbray opened the box and began counting the rows of stacked coins. “Are these stolen, or are they yours now?” he said, his mouth a tight line. He meant: Did you kill him?
She said nothing.
He eyed the bandage round her arm. “He was a good man once. Not that it means anything now.” He studied her face. “The poison, it gets inside your brain and makes you less than you were.”
There were insinuations there, if she cared to find them. But she was tired. Bone tired. She now understood the phrase, feeling it deep inside her, a fatigue halfway to death.
“Is that enough?” she said.
“Close to. You are smaller than he, so the cost scales too. Smaller doses required, you see. Any shortfall will come from my pocket, as agreed.” She sensed the shortfall was more than she had. Gasbray closed the box and locked it again. He returned the key to her. “You may think this presumptuous, but you are always welcome back here, whether or not the guild specialists are able to do what you wish them to do, or undo, as it were.”
“I don’t think so.” She would leave all this behind and never come back.
“But you have no family left, nowhere else to go.”
“I haven’t had any family for a long time now, ever since he stole me from my mother.”
“But... but you do understand?” Gasbray said. “He was your father. Why else would he have taken you?”
She flinched. A final twist of pain. But no. Lies. She was her mother but he was just a man, no matter what Gasbray said; a cruel, damaged, deranged man.
Bones on the reef; let Selessi have him.