I feel kind of sad posting this, to be honest - I've enjoyed writing this immensely. Well, I hope you all enjoy this, and keep your eyes out for an epilogue that I will post some time in the next few weeks.
Thank you all for reading and supporting me, it means a lot! <3
Chapter list | Map
With Vechs and Etho buried, there isn’t anything left in Corax for Blame, Nebris, Zisteau and Erin. Kurt has offered to let Blame stay at his place, and after a lot of hesitation, he agreed to. They all agree wholeheartedly that he should come with them to Peyal too.
Now, Erin wonders how they ever dreamed of leaving him behind.
The next morning, Kurt and Zisteau go down to the river docks to see about purchasing a boat. Meanwhile, Erin, Nebris and Blame are making preparations to leave. They’re packing clothes and food and supplies into bags. Kurt has told them to pack his telescope and charts, which Erin now knows are going to help him navigate. She has to believe in his idea that the stars can guide him. It takes a lot of faith but Kurt seems trustworthy, and sure of his ability.
Nebris seems antsy about something as they stuff clothes into the bags. They haven’t been speaking much, as is normal these days. But Erin can tell that he’s distracted by something.
“Are you okay, Nebris?” she asks, after what feels like hours of tense silence.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Just… it will be a shame to leave. As strange as it sounds, I think I’m going to miss this place.”
“I missed it,” Erin says. “After I ran away as a kid, I mean. I’d only ever seen it from glances from the windows of the palace, and those were rare. Although all I’ve known in Corax is hardships, it’s still going to be hard to leave.”
Nebris nods, and turns silent again.
Kurt directs Zisteau out of the city gate to the docks on the right, a little way from the city itself. Several small rowboats and fishing boats are moored there, with scattered sailboats and barges. Most look unattended and there aren’t many out on the open water.
Zisteau looks along the river, down where it stretches into the desert. It’s a dark blue streak edged with sparse green reeds leading a path into the yellow, hazy horizon. Zisteau plays with the strap of his bag. The river marks a course towards his past, and a future he can hardly dare to dream about. It’s been too long of a road that brought him here, and one that cost him so much.
Zisteau thinks, as he digs in his bag for the gallam it will take to buy a boat, that nothing in the world is more valuable than a life. Not all the gold or emeralds in the world. Not an entire city.
Kurt leads him to the wooden platform at the edge of the river. There are many people there, fishing or standing and talking, some men unloading cargo.
“Look for boats that are for sale,” Kurt says. Zisteau nods, scanning the rows of boats. They’ll need one that can carry the five of them, plus supplies. It won’t be big, but strong enough to stand the open ocean, once they get there.
Kurt points to a small sailboat with a badly-painted ‘for sale’ sign fixed to the back. There’s a man sitting on the deck drinking, and Zisteau pushes Kurt forward.
Kurt is nervous, Zisteau knows, but there’s no point in Zisteau even approaching anyone. Aside from the fact everyone knows what he’s done, there’s no chance any man would want to do business with a Grax.
“Excuse me,” Kurt asks. The man looks up, putting his bottle down to wipe his mouth. “Is this boat for sale?”
The man strokes his beard and looks Kurt up and down. “Are you offering to buy it?”
“How much are you offering?”
Kurt glances at Zisteau, who nods reassuringly. “A hundred gallam?”
The man snorts, and fixes Kurt with a look.
“A hundred and twenty?”
The man’s eyes narrow. Zisteau sees Kurt tense, as if he’s holding his breath.
“Fine.” The man stands up and steps across the deck onto the dock with surprising ease. He holds out a surly hand and Kurt counts out a hundred and twenty gallam, dropping them into the man’s hand.
“Thanks,” Kurt says. He ushers Zisteau towards the boat to inspect it as the man stands back. His eyes narrow sharper at Zisteau as he passes.
Zisteau steps across into the deck and watches as Kurt stands on the dock, unsteady. He looks as if the gap over the water is a canyon rather than a couple of feet. Zisteau holds out a hand.
“Come on. You’ll be okay,” he says. Kurt still looks hesitant but stretches out a hand, gripping Zisteau’s steady forearm for support as he steps across the gap.
The boat has a small cabin with a couple of bedrooms and a tiny main room. The bedrooms are fitted with bunks built into the walls. Other than that there isn’t much to see, just spare oars and the outside deck.
Zisteau has a little maritime experience, but the confusing ropes and rigging of the sails still intimidate him. After looking the boat up and and down a few times, he turns decisively towards the man standing on the dock.
“Do you think you could teach me how to sail this thing?”
Nebris is still antsy and it’s become increasingly obvious until Blame turns to him and says,
“Nebris, whatever it is, you need to tell us.”
“It’s fine,” Nebris says, lowering his gaze. He slams a suitcase shut and clasps it, pushing it to the side with the rest of the baggage.
“Come on,” Erin says, fixing him with a look. “We know something’s wrong, and you have to tell us.”
Nebris regards her. She seems worried, and even Blame does. Behind his tired eyes there’s concern. Nebris sighs. “It’s Arkas. I don’t want to leave him behind.”
Blame looks up. “Arkas?”
“Someone I met recently. He… helped me once.”
Erin blinks. “Right, I see. Go say goodbye to him.”
“I already said goodbye.”
“What is it then?” Erin sounds confused.
“I don’t know.” Nebris places his hands flat on the suitcase in front of him. “I know we have to leave but I don’t want to.”
“Oh come on,” Blame says, his voice harsher than Nebris is expecting. He turns to Blame. “He can’t come with us.”
“Is that what you think?” Nebris stands up, fists clenched. He can’t help but want to hit Blame, despite all the help he’s been. He’s been thinking about Arkas more than he should be, and he can’t tell why this makes him angry. He does want Arkas to come with them, but Blame’s tone makes his throat clench. “You think I want to…”
He struggles to find the words to say what he’s thinking.
“Replace Etho?” Erin’s voice cuts through the tension and both men turn to her. She stands up to meet Nebris’ eye. “Nebris, you could never replace Etho. If Arkas comforts you, that’s good. I don’t think you’ll ever forget Etho.”
Nebris calculates her honest, pleading expression. She’s voiced what he’s thinking and his eyes sting.
“Go find him,” she says. “It’s okay.”
Nebris doesn’t meet Blame’s eye as he takes his bag and walks towards the door.
“Did you have to be so awful?” Erin says to Blame as soon as Nebris is out the door. “Let him grieve however he wants to.”
Blame sighs. His eyes are hurting and he wishes he hadn’t said that to Nebris but it’s too late. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know why I did. I just… I can never think of anyone who could take Vechs’ place.”
Erin nods. “He’s really not replacing Etho. Arkas lost someone too, don’t you know? I watched it happen. His friend died to scorpions.”
“Oh,” Blame says.
Nebris heads straight for the Underground. He doesn’t even know if Arkas will be there. He’s so afraid of how people will treat him there.
He’s near the wall and is about to bend down towards the secret entrance when someone taps him on the shoulder. He whips around to see Arkas.
Nebris stands up. “Are you always hanging around here, waiting for me?”
Arkas shrugs. “I have nothing else to do.”
“What about the Underground?”
Arkas frowns. “Why would I go in there? Everyone’s left. It’s deserted. Plus, scorpions have started coming in from the palace. I don’t want to go near those things.” He shivers.
“What? Everyone’s left?”
He nods. “Where have you been? The Underground disbanded. Everyone scattered across the land to find safer places.”
Nebris’ heart jumps. Arkas is serious. “So why didn’t you leave?”
Arkas sighs, running a hand through his hair, contemplating the wall behind Nebris. “I didn’t know where to go without Pakratt. He would’ve had a plan, but he’s… gone. I’ve just been living in the forest.” He chuckles bitterly. “It’s okay, I guess.”
Nebris doesn’t even think before making his decision. “Come with us,” he says. “Me, and Zisteau, Blame and Erin - and Kurt – we’re all going to Peyal. It’s safe there.”
Arkas’ brow furrows. “Why are you inviting me?”
Nebris stares at him. He’s serious, a confused expression on his face. “Because you’re all alone?”
“You don’t have to do this,” Arkas says.
“Yeah, I do.”
Arkas pauses, stepping forward. He regards Nebris with an odd look but says, “Okay, I’ll come. Thank you.”
Erin and Blame have finished packing and sit in silence in the warmth of Kurt’s house.
The door opens, and Kurt and Zisteau step through the door.
“Alright,” Zisteau says briskly, sitting down. “We have a boat. It’s small but it seems pretty seaworthy, and I know how to sail it.”
Erin raises her eyebrows. “Are you sure its safe?”
Kurt shrugs. “I think we’ll do fine with it. Zisteau seems to have picked up the whole ‘sailing’ thing pretty quickly.” He smiles at the half-Grax.
Soon Nebris returns, and Erin isn’t surprised to see he’s brought someone with him. She assumes the taller, young-looking man by his side is Arkas, anyway.
Zisteau stands up as they come in, frowning. “Who’s this?”
“Arkas,” Nebris explains. “Yes, I know I should stop bringing random people here but we’re,” he glances at the man, “friends. And Arkas has no place to go after the Underground disbanded.”
He sits down on a couch and Arkas follows him. Squeezed together, the smallness of Kurt’s house is more apparent than ever.
“Is he coming with us?” Erin asks.
Arkas shrugs. “If you want me to. Nebris said I could.” He looks at Zisteau.
Zisteau only hesitates for a second before saying, “I don’t see why not.”
“Thanks!” he says. “Nice to meet you, by the way. I’m Arkas. Love your work.”
Zisteau laughs flatly. “Thanks. I guess you know who I am. This is Kurt, A- Erin, Blame.”
Arkas nods, his eyes sweeping over the assembled company. “Thank you so much for this. I didn’t have anywhere to go without Pak or the underground.”
Erin watches the young man. He has the mark on his face of one who has lost, just like they all do. He was less prepared for it, she guesses. Too young and too unaware of the risks of being a criminal. She wondered what his crime was anyway, whether theft like most of the underground or something worse.
“The boat may be a bit small for six people,” Zisteau says, “But hey, we’re all used to close quarters – well, most of us are.”
Kurt shrugs. “I’ll be okay.”
After having dinner the six talk for a while, deciding to wake up as early as possible to load the boat with their supplies. They’ll stop at villages along the river, and once they arrive at the delta, wait for nightfall so Kurt can navigate with the stars. Zisteau has given him the approximate location of the islands as far as he knows.
Beyond that, all they can do is hope that what they know is enough to get them there safely. Zisteau, more than anything, is praying to meet a living family who will forgive him and welcome him back.
He’s never put so much faith in something so unlikely before.
That night, he and Kurt stay up talking again. It’s become familiar, a rare routine that Zisteau enjoys and looks forward to.
“How did you figure out you can use the stars to navigate, anyway?” Zisteau asks from the couch where he sits wrapped in a blanket. Kurt is beside him, feet drawn up.
“I used to look at them a lot, without really knowing why. I started to notice patterns. Because I used to be a traveller I realised the sky was like a map. The stars move throughout the year but they’re still the same ones.”
“And you mapped them all?” Zisteau doesn’t hide his admiration.
“Well not all, I haven’t travelled the entire world, but I think I have enough to know how to get us to Peyal.”
Zisteau nods, watching Kurt’s face, his eyelids drooping from tiredness in the fading light.
The next morning, Kurt is the first up, rousing Zisteau from the couch he’d slept on. He knocks on the door of the spare room, where the four others are sleeping – Erin and Nebris had offered for Arkas and Blame to take the mattresses while they slept on blankets on the floor.
To Kurt, all thieves seem to have this unspoken link. He guesses it comes from shared experience, their status at the lower end of society bringing them nothing but scorn.
He calls through the door for everyone to get ready to go, and returns to his kitchen. He’s already closed down the shop. He considered selling it for some extra money on their journey, but he knows there’s hardly anybody who would buy it.
He’ll just leave it here to turn to dust, the way the entire city seems to be doing.
He has taken some travel supplies, however. He’s packed up all his navigational equipment and besides that, water bottles, ropes, a map of the river and its tributaries, and other such things.
He knows Zisteau is putting a lot of faith in him. He hasn’t tested his theories about the stars enough, he thinks. He could be completely wrong. Out in the ocean, he could steer them way off course and they’d be left floating forever in the blue—
“Are you okay?” Kurt turns. Zisteau has come up behind him, a worried look on his face.
“Yeah,” Kurt says, frowning. “I’m fine.”
Zisteau doesn’t look like he believes him. “We’ll get there,” he says, turning to pick up a couple of bags. “You coming to help pack the boat?”
“Sure.” Kurt grabs his own bags and follows Zisteau out the door.
“You happy?” Nebris asks as the four slowly rise in the small spare room.
Erin shrugs. “Could be better. But things are looking up.” She feels bad for saying this, when her three roommates might not be able to find hope.
She folds up her blankets to take with her and carries them downstairs before washing and grabbing some bread from the kitchen for breakfast. The sun is just rising, and she can see the city washed pink from the window.
I’m going to miss it here.
This place of blood and tears, or corruption and anger, and she’s still going to miss it. She turns away from the window and back into the sunlit room.
Even this small, drab home that was never hers: she’ll miss it.
But, she’s used to moving. She’ll have to get used to the boat as her new home, at least for the next few weeks. As she grabs her bag and some leftover luggage to take down to the river, she gives the room a long look, committing it to her memory.
She walks down to the docks, the city quieter than ever in the early morning. Her steps seem to echo on the street as she leaves the gate, turning towards the river where the boats are all moored. She sees Zisteau waving to her from one end of the docks, and she veers towards the small sailboat he stands by.
Erin hauls the bags across the small gap and Zisteau catches them, stowing them in the cabin before stepping across to the dock again. He helps Kurt across the gap, and the three head back up to Kurt’s house to grab the last few bags and Arkas, Blame, and Nebris.
Arkas bites into an apple and leans against the kitchen counter, watching as Nebris and Blame pack up the last of their things into bags. They’re waiting for the other three to return so they can all leave the house at the same time.
It hasn’t taken long for Arkas to fit in with the thieves. He watches Nebris with admiration, secretly grateful for his hospitality.
Erin, Zisteau and Kurt return, piling into the house. They look happy, and Arkas wonders why. Zisteau is nearly grinning and Kurt has a small smile, and even Erin is smiling.
“Alright,” Erin says. “Are we all ready to go?”
“I’m just going to say goodbye to the house,” Kurt says, stepping towards the hallway. Nebris and Blame glance at each other.
“We’re all ready,” Nebris says.
Arkas nods. “I’m good.”
When Kurt returns, all six leave the house with the last of their baggage and head down towards the docks. Arkas hasn’t seen much of the city before, so even walking through the main street is strange. He’s aware that citypeople, awakening to the rising sun, are beginning to look out from windows and step from their doors, watching the procession of six as they make their way down the main street to the gate.
He can’t tell if they’re happy or sad to see Zisteau, Erin and Nebris go. If they are grateful for anything Naziv has done, the people don’t show it on their faces.
It’s not long before they all arrive at the gate, passing through. Arkas looks back towards the forest even as they turn away from it towards the docks. His former home, the underground warren is invisible but in his knowing that it’s still there, Arkas feels loss.
Ah, well. It is old and crumbling and the tunnel up to the palace is collapsed and home to a number of scorpions that fled there from the chaos in the palace earlier. The small carved cave into the earth where Arkas used to offer the services of his light fingers now stands deserted, along with the rest of the Underground.
Arkas sighs, directing his sight back to the river as they approach. It’s like a road straight out to the horizon. He can’t imagine what’s beyond it, whether they will even make it that far let alone to the ocean, to a tiny group of islands lost somewhere in the vastness.
Still, he’s never been to the sea before and can’t help but feel excited. Here he is starting a new life with people he barely knows. Despite the predetermined destination it feels so much like an adventure.
Nebris watches as Arkas turns his gaze away from the forest he’d been craning back to keep his eyes on. He himself doesn’t even glance in the direction of the old hideout, although the green streak of the forest in the corner of his eye brings a pain to his chest. He allows himself a quick thought of Etho, and of Vechs, lying there buried under the green.
He pushes the thoughts away again, turning his gaze to the ground in front of him. Soon they’re at the dock and standing in front of the little boat. He nearly trips carrying his bag across the small gap and Arkas laughs at him.
Nebris is caught off guard by the sound. He can’t remember the last time he heard anybody laugh as genuinely as that, and without even noticing, he smiles.
If there’s anything to be happy about, it’s the weather. It’s a sunny day and a slow breeze ruffles the surface of the water, all the boats on it rocking in unison. It cuts through the heat and Nebris is grateful for it as the five others pile onto the boat.
After throwing his bag into the cabin Nebris finds a place to sit on the bow, his legs dangling over the edge. He watches Blame and Erin hop on top of the cabin and Zisteau and Kurt take the sail. He’s once again surprised by Arkas when he comes and sits beside him.
“Excited?” Arkas says.
Nebris shrugs. “It’s nice to not have to hide any more.”
Arkas nods. He turns to look back and Nebris does so too. The tall hill of Corax with its tightly packed houses and gold-topped palace still looks as beautiful as ever, and it’s hard to tell anything at all has changed about it. The forest behind is just a blurred line of green beyond the dunes.
Erin unmoors the boat and as Zisteau and Kurt work the sail together to steer them out into the centre of the river the boat rocks slowly over the current.
Once they’re properly aligned and there’s no need for steering, the current taking them with it, Kurt and Zisteau sit down together.
Nebris watches the blue blurring in front of his vision and the pointed prow of the boat moving over it. Moving away from the city, away from the forest, away from what already feels like a past life. He slides his vision back up to the hazy horizon, and prays that this new life will bring him peace.
It’s dark, but ‘dark’ on the open ocean is broken by millions of stars freckling the sky above and the moon, huge and round, reflected in the water. It’s easy to get lost like this. Nebris is lying on the bow, as he’s been doing for many nights since he found it is warm enough to lie out here at night. He hasn’t known the stability of land for weeks.
Kurt sits cross-legged above him, a small telescope pointed to the magnificent array above him. He’s been like this for hours, even though he’s sure he has their course right. He’s just watching for fun now, occasionally gasping at a sight and passing the telescope to Zisteau who sits beside him, wrapped in a blanket.
Arkas is asleep, spread like a starfish beside Nebris. He’s often wondered how the young man can sleep so easily but doesn’t ask, just watches his chest rise and fall in the moonlight.
Blame sits at the very front of the boat, knees drawn to his chest. Nebris wouldn’t be surprised if he’s thinking of Vechs – he often does, not as often as he thinks of Etho, but enough.
Nebris doesn’t want to disturb his thoughts so he stands up quietly, walking, as he’s learned to, across the uneven deck and sitting on top of the cabin by Erin, whose dress seems to glow in the moonlight.
“You happy?” Erin asks. It’s a question she’s gotten in the habit of asking every day, picked up from Nebris himself.
He looks around at the wide ocean, at the black waves and black sky stretching into infinity away from the tiny little boat. He doesn’t know how far from land they are. He can’t even remember how many weeks it’s been since they finally reached the delta, after days and days of hopping from village to village along the river.
Now, even Kurt can’t tell them how long it will be until they reach the islands.
Nebris looks down at Blame on the bow and Arkas sprawled out and Kurt and Zisteau beside him, faces to the sky.
Erin pushes a salt-soaked strand of hair from her face. “Yes.”