“The Bringer’s Duty”
by Heather Pagano
Lea was cold. She crouched outside her father’s house and hugged her knees tight, waiting for the sun to rise. Chill damp seeped through her boots from the mud-crusted snow that still sheltered beneath the eaves that early spring.
Being locked outside her father’s thick log walls for the night was nothing new. But that night screams from inside had frightened Lea and she’d been unable to sleep. Tomas must have suffered greatly.
It seemed like dawn would never come.
The door to Lea’s house unlocked, a sharp metallic twang that echoed down the street. Papa’s door had the only iron lock in Blackwood Village. As Changer, there were times he must not be interrupted.
Papa’s wide, stooped shoulders loomed in the doorway, backlit by the blazing hearth. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, the fire was always lit in their home. The Visages talked to Papa in the flames.
Lea’s father plodded onto the stoop. His shaggy head swung left and right, no doubt searching for Lea. A cord dangled from his finger. The cord cinched a small leather pouch that dripped blood.
Lea clung to the predawn shadows, dreading whatever was in the pouch. Her duty as her father’s daughter was to carry that bloody bag into Blackwood Forest and give it to the Visages.
When Lea didn’t come forward, her father leaned over the rail and squinted. She had to make herself small to hide in the narrowing shadows. Despite her revulsion toward the bloody satchel, a finger of curiosity nudged her heart. What had happened to Tomas, and what was inside the satchel?
Papa’s eyes focused. He had spotted Lea. He made a motion as though to climb down the stairs and come get her.
Lea started to her feet and then hurried to him. Pins and needles prickled her shins, but she didn’t stop to stomp the blood back into her feet.
She mounted the stoop, shielding her face with her hood, because no one, especially her father, could bear to see the ugly scars that disfigured the entire right half of her face.
Papa handed her the satchel. “The Visages are waiting.”
Lea snuck one hand from beneath her cloak and seized the cord from which the bloody satchel hung. She dreaded cupping the blood-wet bag in her palm.
A shriek from behind startled Lea, and she almost dropped the satchel. The screamer was Clara, running barefoot in the snow in the first, grey morning light. Her white nightgown billowed behind her, but grew heavy where the hem dragged through the muddy street.
At the sight of Clara, Lea’s throat caught and she edged nearer to her father. Clara had died in childbirth earlier that day.
It was Papa’s job as village Changer to bargain with the Visages for their help. The Visages might cure a fever in return for a baby’s first tooth, find a lost husband in return for the wife’s lovely hair, save a failing crop for a nicked hunk of tongue. But to bargain with the Visages to bring Clara back from the dead…such magic would not come cheap.
Clara’s husband, Tomas, rushed from the house and pushed past Lea’s father. Blood dripped down his chin, and his face was swollen. What had the Visages demanded Tomas give them in return for Clara’s life?
Tomas caught Clara in his arms and crushed her in a hug that lifted her off her feet.
“You shouldn’t have done this,” Clara said. “Why did you bring me back? Couldn’t you have saved the baby, instead?”
Viola, the village midwife, scurried down the street to join them. She must have been cleaning Clara’s body when the Visages brought her back to life. Thanks to the thick, cold mud in the street and her short legs, Viola had fallen far behind Clara.
Papa’s fist closed around Lea’s arm. “Go, now,” he told her.
Lea struggled to look away from Clara and Tomas’s reunion, but she swallowed and nodded her head. As her father’s only living female relative, Lea had to perform the Bringer’s duty. The Visages had given Tomas back his wife, and they expected payment, whatever was in the satchel.
Viola trudged up the stairs to the stoop and gripped Lea’s forearm hard. Lea winced. In a hidden pocket beneath her sleeve she kept something secret and magic, and Viola, unknowingly, was pressing its hard tips into her wrist bones.
“Good evening, Changer Tiber,” Viola said. With her other hand she tucked a curly, grey-streaked tendril of hair into her wool cap, but her grip on Lea’s arm didn’t soften.
Papa nodded once to Viola. His fingers tightened on the stair rail.
“You might have warned me the dead would sit up and start shouting,” Viola said. She nodded her head in Clara’s direction.
“If I’d told you my intention, you’d have argued,” Papa said.
“That’s because a life belongs to the one who breathes it,” Viola said.
“What’s done is done.” Papa released the rail. “Let my Bringer go. The Visages are waiting, and their patience is thin.”
“What did you do to Tomas?” Viola asked.
Lea dared to meet her father’s eyes. She wanted to know the same.
“Let Lea go,” Papa said, “then we’ll talk.”
Viola dropped Lea’s arm.
Lea backed down the stairs slowly. Her father’s thick eyebrows lowered, his lips pressed tight. He would say nothing about what he’d done to Tomas until Lea was gone.
As she passed between the houses of Blackwood Village, the back of Lea’s neck prickled. Shame for her horrid face often made Lea imagine she was being watched, even when no one was there, even when the eyes were only paint.
Villagers marked their doors and chimneys with painted eyes made from facing crescent moons with a dot between them. The eye symbol warded off the Visages. The only house in the village that didn’t follow the custom was her father’s. As Changer Papa welcomed the Visages inside.
Before long the houses thinned, the painted eyes disappeared, and Lea emerged into pasture land. She reached the fallow field where their horse, Vita, grazed with their neighbors’ livestock. Lea climbed the low barrier of piled stones that contained the animals and searched for Vita in hopes of a moment of comfort. But she didn’t find Vita at first, only a goat who bleated about her full udder. Then Lea spied Vita across the field, near the Ghost Ship of the Thalassans.
The Ghost Ship loomed black against the pink-and-orange-streaked sunrise sky. Flapping strips of sail still clung to the burned and broken mast. Only half its hull remained. When that half had been planted on land, it pitched the ship at an angle, making it seem as if the ship had been tossed by violent waves.
The Ghost Ship of the Thalassans was a tribute to Papa, dragged all the way north to Blackwood Village by horses, mules, and wagons from the southern coastal town where it had washed ashore. The wreck of the burned ship was evidence that the Visages had destroyed the invading Thalassans at sea, just as they had promised Papa. The Folk of the Peninsula honored Lea’s father because he’d saved them twice in a small span of years: first from the Starving Years; second from invasion by the ravaging Thalassans.
Lea hurried across the field to Vita. The mare huffed warm, steamy air as Lea pressed her good cheek against Vita’s neck. Vita snuffled Lea’s arm, hoping for a treat. Lea edged the bloody bag away from the mare’s searching teeth.
“Papa bargained with the Visages and they brought Clara back to life.”
The mare drew her lips back from her teeth and snorted.
“There’s something in this bag, something terrible Tomas is giving the Visages. Maybe Papa cut out his tongue. Tomas would give anything for Clara.”
Lea wound her fingers in the mare’s mane and pulled the hair tight.
Vita switched her tail and backed away.
Lea let go of the mare’s mane. As self-punishment for hurting Vita, she prodded the scars across her lips and cheek. Rats had chewed her face when she was only a baby. As she’d grown, the shortage of skin to stretch over her jaw made that side of her face tight and tender.
“No one will ever love me that way,” she mumbled to the horse. “No one will ever love me at all unless I use this.” Lea unbuttoned the hidden pocket sewn into her sleeve and pulled out her secret gift, the Thalassan’s magic comb. The young woman huffed a short, bitter snort, sounding a lot like Vita. “But of course I can’t ever use it.”
She hurriedly tucked the comb back into the hidden pocket. It had been dangerous to take it out so near the village. Better to wait for the safety of the forest.
She patted the mare, once again, for comfort. She’d walk to the grove. It wasn’t far.
Lea dodged a brittle tangle of fleshy vines. The leaves had fallen, leaving only withered husks of their fleshy pods clinging to the brambles. Blood-red lump fungus suckled the trees, further dwindling the narrow space between their crooked, spindly trunks.
Despite the claustrophobic closeness of the vines and trees, Lea felt more at home in Blackwood Forest than she did back in the village. Folk feared the Visages, so no villager ever entered the forest, even though Visages never left their grove and avoided water like a cat. Keeping her vow to never lay eyes on a Visage was easy. Except that one time, when she’d just placed payment at the roots of their favorite tree, Lea had glimpsed greedy, shadowy fingers spidering from the underbrush to claim their payment.
As Lea journeyed toward the Visage’s grove, she heard the roiling, rushing Fluve River before she saw it. Snow melt had swollen the river. The Fluve was so high that water even sloshed across the footbridge that led to the Visages’ grove.
Once Lea crossed the river the Visages would be watching her. If she wanted to know what was in the bloody satchel, she had to examine the pouch before she crossed the bridge.
She shook the bag, unsure how delicate its contents might be. It rattled.
Lea knelt in a patch of snow nestled between two thick tree roots. When she set down the leather satchel, dried blood from the bottom of the bag spread pink through the snow.
Her hands were stiff from the cold. She fumbled with the leather cord, which her father had knotted tight. Lea picked apart the knot and spread open the satchel.
Not two teeth, four, six, eight. Lea settled each tooth and its scraggly, bloody root into her cupped palm. Thirty-two.
She slid each precious tooth of the payment for Clara’s life into the satchel. With her tongue she counted her own molars, incisors, the pricking tips of her canines. She had thirty-two teeth.
Tomas had given every last tooth in his head to bring his wife back to the living.
Lea retied the satchel, unable to make the knot as tight as her father’s. Her eyes stung.
No wonder Folk feared the Visages. Their demands for payment were so cruel. But the Visages could accomplish great things, especially the Visages of Blackwood Forest. After all, they had defeated an entire invasion by the enemies of her Folk, the Thalassans.
Lea hurried to the river. She welcomed its reckless energy that washed away all thoughts of what was in the satchel.
Water lapped the planks of the footbridge that spanned the Fluve River. Despite the rushing below, the water which sloshed onto the bridge only swirled in lazy eddies over the planks.
Lea gathered her cloak and lifted her black leather smock to keep it dry as she tiptoed across the bridge. A spray of water drenched her boots all the way to her calves. Her wool stockings squelched in her boots.
She wished she hadn’t opened the satchel. She might have had a few more hours, a few more days, of not knowing that the screams she’d heard were her father pulling out Tomas’s teeth.
A thick tree limb knocked against bridge. Lea stepped back from it in surprise. But before she could go far, ragged, branching twigs snagged the hem of her cloak. As Lea bent to untangle the cloak, a huge wave crested the bridge. It swept the tree limb onto the bridge. The limb surged across the planks, dragging Lea with it. She fumbled to untie the cloak from around her neck, but before she could get free, the river belched a drowned, bloated boar onto the bridge. The wild boar carcass crashed into the tree limb, knocking the limb and Lea into the water.
The empty shock of falling stunned Lea. She couldn’t even scream. The Fluve smacked her hard in the back. Then the tree branch pulled her under. Lea gasped for air but instead swallowed icy water. She kicked and flailed her arms, but she was losing the fight against the strong current.
She struggled with the leather ties that bound her to her cloak. Untying wasn’t made any easier as the tree branch drug her through the water. Her knees scraped rocks at the river bottom.
Desperate for air, Lea forced her cloak over her face. The weight of the tugging tree limb snatched the cloak away, finally freeing her.
Lea’s hands met and parted, met and parted, as she struggled toward the surface.
As Lea’s head broke through the water, there was a tug on her hand. The cord of the leather satchel snapped. The satchel washed downstream, bobbing in the foamy water.
Lea kicked her legs and swam in desperate pursuit of the leather bag. It contained not just teeth, but Clara’s life and Papa’s standing with the Visages.
As she raced after it, she felt the button to the secret pocket under her sleeve strain and snap. The magic comb the Thalassan had given her slid from the pocket. The carved tortoiseshell prongs scraped the back of her hand, washed into the river, and sank beneath the waves.
The Thalassan tucked the magic comb in Lea’s hair. His smile told her the comb had made her beautiful, but he led her to the edge of the water so she could see for herself. The girl shimmering on the surface of the water looked happy. Lea realized that part was true. She felt happy seeing how she would have appeared, whole and well.
Lea dove for the comb before the river carried it away forever. The moment Lea was underwater she became disoriented. Which way had it gone? She let the river push her, hoping it would sweep her in the same direction as the comb. A short, thick tree limb smacked the side of Lea’s head. Blood spiraled into the water in her peripheral vision.
The Thalassan wasn’t so young as Lea had first thought. Pinched lines around his eyes showed he’d known years of hard hunger. Lea couldn’t look away from his round, green eyes, which sparkled like sun on seawater. When he kissed her, it seemed to last both a very long time, and to end before she knew it.
Lea’s teeth clenched with the effort of holding her breath. Her knee struck the bottom of the river, sending an obscuring cloud of silt billowing around her. She reached out blind and searched among the smooth river stones, desperate to encounter the sharp, finely carved decorative scrolls along the ridge of the comb. Her heart pounded. She let out a tiny puff of air to ease the painful pressure in her chest.
Through the settling silt Lea spied one of the tortoise shell prongs of the comb, jutting behind a rock.
With the magic comb gripped tightly in her hand, she surfaced and coughed up half a river of water. She clung to an outcropping of roots at the bank of the river. Wet hair stuck to her face, making it difficult to see, and she could not stop shivering.
From the moment that she could breathe, guilt gripped Lea’s belly. Tomas’s teeth. She’d been duty-bound to retrieve Tomas’s teeth instead of rescuing the Thalassan’s magic comb. Yet she held her precious comb, and the teeth were gone.
If the teeth had truly been carried downstream, Lea had no hope of recovering them. But if the satchel had sunk to bottom of the river, she might find it, just as she’d found the comb. She vowed not to stop diving until the satchel was once again in her possession.
She fastened the comb inside her vest pocket. She pushed off from shore and dove to the bottom of the river. Lea dove for Tomas’s teeth, for Clara’s life, for her father’s bargaining power with the most powerful Visages on the Peninsula. She dove in desperate hope of not being the girl who broke a centuries-old partnership between the Folk and the Visages.
Lea shook from cold in her heavy, wet clothes. But even when the sun began to set, she resisted hurrying home. For the first time since she’d become a Bringer, she’d failed in her duty. The prongs of the Thalassan’s comb, buttoned inside her vest, pricked her skin.
Papa was waiting for her on the stoop of their house. Neighbors were spying on him and on Lea’s return through cracks in their windows and doors.
When Lea mounted the stoop, Papa grabbed her arm and tugged her inside. The hearth was cold, unlit. Lea couldn’t remember the last time he’d let that fire extinguish, even during the hottest part of summer. She missed its warmth now more than ever, and also feared what the extinguished flames meant about Papa’s communications with the Visages.
Papa tossed a blanket to Lea. “What happened?”
“The bridge flooded.” Lea wrapped the blanket around her shoulders. “I fell into the river.”
“And the Fluve took the teeth?”
Lea hung her head and nodded.
Papa scrubbed a hand over his head. The wiry sideburns that usually covered his ears stuck out, revealing hacked-off earlobes from a long ago payment to the Visages. “You didn’t drown, at least,” he said.
Someone pounded at the door. Papa opened it to find Tomas on the stoop, his face swollen from the tooth extraction the night before.
Papa glared at Tomas. “How does the whole village already know that my Bringer failed?”
Tomas pointed toward their extinguished chimney. Lea wasn’t the only one to understand what it meant.
“What happens to Clara now?” Tomas’s speech was slurred because of his toothless gums, but Lea made out enough to understand his fear that Clara’s life would be taken back by the Visages.
“Clara is in no danger,” her father told him. “The Visages don’t take back what they have given.”
Tomas nodded, trembling.
“The unpaid debt is mine as Changer,” Papa said. “Clara will wake warm by your side tomorrow morning, and the next. I’m the one in trouble here, not you. Now leave me be.”
Tomas nodded, muttered something Lea couldn’t understand, and plodded back to the street.
Papa closed the door and leaned against it. He sighed, and his sour breath poured over Lea’s head. “Thanks to your failure, the Visages will no longer bargain with me.”
Lea covered her face with her hands.
“My only choice is to ask another Changer to broker a second bargain,” Papa said. “Perhaps an acceptable alternative payment can be arranged, and the Folk will have the aid of Blackwood Forest to protect us, once again.”
Many Changers owed Papa favors. Papa could accomplish far more than most Changers, because he called on the power of dozens of Visages in the largest grove on the Peninsula, while other Changers relied on just one lonely creature in a scraggly grove. Lea didn’t worry about receiving help from a fellow Changer, she worried how the Visages would settle the unpaid debt.
“Get into dry clothes and go saddle Vita,” Papa said. “We will both leave now for Lido City and Changer Affare. We ride all night.”
The iron lock rattled as Papa slammed the door shut behind Lea. She hurried down the stoop and into the muddy street, headed for the fallow field where Vita stayed. Her hair was still damp, and chill wind stung her ears. She longed for her lost winter cloak, stolen, like Tomas’s teeth, by the Fluve. All she had to wear now was a woolen shawl that had once belonged to her mother.
She passed Viola, still working at that late hour, tending a boiling pot of rags over a fire outside her hut.
“Where are you going?” Viola said.
“Lido City,” Lea said.
Viola mashed the rags with a long, wooden spoon. “What’s happened?”
“We need another Changer. The Visages won’t speak to Papa, anymore.” Lea rubbed tears from her cheek. She fingered the belt pouch where she’d secured the Thalassan’s comb. “It’s all my fault.”
“Come,” Viola said, taking Lea’s trembling hand, “warm yourself by the fire.”
Lea pulled away, wanting to be punished by the cold. “What if the Visages demand a terrible payment. They might take all Papa’s teeth, like they did Tomas’s.”
Viola grabbed Lea’s shawl and hauled her close enough to whisper. “Fear for yourself, not your father.”
Lea squeezed her eyes shut. She could feel the tines of the Thalassan’s comb through the belt pouch.
Viola shook Lea hard. “Think, Lea,” Viola said. “Think carefully because I know your father bribed the Visages to make you forget. Chewed by rats as an infant? Your mother was never so careless, not even when she was half dead from hunger. How did you get those scars on your face?”
Heavy stones stirred deep inside Lea’s belly, riverbed memories, forgotten beneath layers of silt.
The clank of Papa’s door lock reverberated down the quiet street. Even from that distance, Lea saw his hands on his hips, displeasure with her in his stiff stance.
Lea turned from Viola and ran to saddle Vita.
It was dusk when Lea and her father reached Lido City. The last warmth of the day, trapped between the close buildings, was giving way to chill. The smell of salt was in the air.
Their arrival in Lido stung Lea with the memory of a treasured possession she no longer owned. Her father had fashioned her a necklace from a seashell her mother once collected on the shores of Lido. Lea had chosen to give that necklace to the Thalassan, as thanks for the magic comb. But the salty air of the seaside city made her miss her mother’s seashell.
Papa rode Vita directly to Changer Affare’s house. There was no time to stop at a tavern to eat.
While Papa went inside to meet with Affare, Lea tended Vita in the lean-to barn in the alley behind Affare’s house. The mare snorted as she ground Changer Affare’s hay between her teeth. Lea’s stomach growled to eat the almonds and dried fruit in the mare’s saddlebag, but she decided to wait for her father.
Just as Vita finished eating, there was an exodus from Changer Affare’s house: Affare’s wife, a small child in her arms, and two serving women. Affare’s wife was his Bringer, just as Lea’s mother had been Papa’s Bringer before she’d died during the Starving Years.
Affare’s wife and servants hurried down the street. Changer Affair must be preparing consult the Visages. No one but a Changer could be present in a Changer’s home during negotiations.
Then Papa exited the house and stood like a sentry outside Affare’s door. This must mean the Visages refused to bargain in Papa’s presence.
Lea had always been the one to wait outside in the cold and dark, while inside the Visages bargained with Papa or sent him their visions. That night, when her father was forced to wait outside, she wanted to keep the vigil with him.
But as she crept from the lean-to, wrapping the shawl around her head to conceal her scars, Papa’s glowering face warned her that he wanted no company. Lea hesitated, knowing she should return to Vita. Instead she slunk away down the street.
In Lido City hundreds of little eyes followed Lea everywhere she walked. The eye symbol that warded away the Visages marked every door, chimney, and window in brightly colored paint. Wealthy homes adorned each window with stained glass eyes. Some versions gave a brow to the eye in the shape of a stylized ocean wave.
As Folk strolled the streets they greeted Lea with inclined heads or a muttered, “may ye eat this even.” No one knew who Lea was, or suspected she hid mauled features beneath the shawl.
Lea passed an alley and had to stifle a laugh when she saw that that even a backyard chicken coop bore the mark against the Visages. Blackwood Village had a much nearer, more populous grove, yet no one was nervous about the chickens.
Lea ducked into that alley and leaned her back against the coop. Here in the dark, silent alley where no one knew her, she had a rare chance to tuck the Thalassan’s magic comb into her hair.
She opened her belt pouch and took out the comb.
The tortoise shell slid across her scalp.
She edged around the chicken coop and gazed at her reflection in a house window. No matter how many times she tried it, Lea’s breath stopped when the Thalassan’s comb worked its magic.
When she wore the Thalassan’s comb, the scar tissue on her face vanished: ragged lip, restored; exposed gum, folded from sight by plump, soft skin. Even Lea’s frizzy hair tumbled in smooth waves over her shoulders. She fell in love with the young woman reflected in the house window.
Lea imagined a life where she could wear the Thalassan’s comb without fear in Blackwood Village. Marriage to a husband who had chosen her. No more sleeping on the streets nights, or silent, joyless suppers eaten with her father. But to explain how her face magically healed, Lea would have to reveal the magic comb. And no such magic existed on the Peninsula. It was the magic of the enemy Thalassans.
Voices shrieked at the entrance to the alley. Lea wanted to run, but she’d only be pinned in a dead end. She hid behind the chicken coop and hoped that whatever trouble she heard would pass by her.
Footfalls slapped the packed dirt alley. There was another shriek, followed by a hiss, then a giggle.
A small, soft body crashed into Lea. “Ah!” the girl said, “who’s there? Have I killed ya?”
“Not hurt,” Lea said.
“What you doing there?” a young man asked.
“Come on, Jon, couldn’t she ask the same thing of us?” a second girl asked.
The girl who had fallen onto Lea stood and offered her hand. “Name’s Diandra. This is my friend Soolie, and her big brother, Jon.”
Lea’s hand twitched to draw the shawl over her disfigured face. But she was wearing the comb, and must look to the trio like any normal young woman, albeit one skulking behind a chicken coop.
“Oh, Soolie,” Diandra said, “she’s so pretty!”
Lea flushed and looked down at her boots. It was just the comb, it wasn’t true.
“You’ve embarrassed her,” Soolie said, “she’ll never tell us her name, now.”
“Can we keep her?” Diandra said.
“She’s not a stray cat,” Jon said. He swatted her – his sister? – on the back of the head, then extended a hand to Lea. “These girls are so bored, please ignore them.”
Lea took Jon’s hand, hesitant.
He lifted her knuckles to his lips. When he kissed her hand, the stubble above his lip scratched the back of her knuckles.
“You shouldn’t stay out here alone,” Soolie said. “Stay with us, Jon will keep us safe.”
“And who will keep me safe from you ladies?” Jon said. But he tucked Lea’s hand into his elbow.
“She looks like my age,” Soolie said.
“Don’t be rude,” Diandra said, “you’ll offend her if you guess wrong.”
“How old were you during the Starving Years?” Soolie asked.
“Two or three,” Lea said.
“Same age as Diandra and me!” Soolie said.
“I was four when Changer Tiber saved us from The Thalassans,” Lea said.
“I was seven,” Jon said. His arm tightened around Lea’s elbow. “I was old enough to sneak downstairs and overhear the grownup talk. Ships of starving men from far away, invaders coming to roast us alive inside our homes and eat us out of sheer desperation.”
“Stop it,” Soolie said. “Gossip and tales. Nothing but rumors from up north. The Blackwood Village Changer is supposed to be a favorite of the Visages. If you want to know my opinion, Changer Tiber could make up anything and claim the Visages showed it to him.”
“I’m from Blackwood Village,” Lea said. “The Ghost Ship of the Thalassans is a monument in our town.”
“Well, now you’ve insulted her village,” Jon said. His voice rang with false cheer.
“Changer Tiber told true about what the Visages showed him of the Thalassans coming to the Peninsula’s shores,” Lea said.
Jon gently squeezed Lea’s arm “Please, remember my warning. Ignore everything these silly girls say.”
“Silly girls, my foot!” Diandra said. “It’s black magic done by the Visages. Many older and wiser than me agree we’d be better off without them.”
“Memories of the Starving Years are fading,” Jon said. “Some are too young to remember how the Visages saved us from slow and painful deaths.” Jon waggled his eyebrows at Diandra, “I’d have thought you two were old enough to remember the Ghost Ship of the Thalassans passing through Lido on its way to Blackwood Village. It proved that Changer Tiber and his Visages told true.”
Soolie kicked a loose rock to the side of the road, and Diandra avoided Jon’s eyes.
Lea tried to lighten the mood. “I vouch that Changer Tiber was always honest with the Folk,” she said. “Now, how honest are the Visages with Changer Tiber? Not even he could say.”
“Well said,” Soolie said. She held out a hand to Lea. “No hard feelings?”
Lea detangled her arm from Jon’s and extended it to Soolie.
Before their fingers touched, Jon pitched forward and crashed into the chicken coop.
An arm closed around Lea’s waist. Lea screamed and kicked. Soolie charged their attacker, fingers curled like claws. She soon changed tactics and tried to pull Lea from his unyielding arms.
Lea realized it was her father who held her a mere second before he spoke.
“Touch my daughter again and die,” Papa said.
Lea scrambled to cover her face with the shawl. Papa must never learn she possessed Thalassan magic.
Diandra had been crouched beside Jon, but she jumped to her feet to restrain Soolie. “Sir, we never hurt the young lady. Ask her before you smash heads.”
Lying on his face beside the chicken coop, Jon groaned.
Papa tugged Lea’s arm and marched her ahead of him out of the alley.
As they emerged onto the street, Lea slid her hand under the shawl and plucked the comb from her hair. Her heart pounded, afraid that her father had glimpsed the beauty the comb had given her.
Papa backed Lea against a stucco wall and grabbed both her wrists.
She squeezed her hand around the comb to keep it hidden. It bit into her palm, and she winced.
“Did they hurt you?” Papa asked her.
Lea shook her head. She couldn’t find her voice.
“You’re lucky.” Papa dropped her wrists. “This isn’t Blackwood Village, where they’ve grown used to your face.”
Changer Affare came to the stable to wake them at the first pink of dawn. Lines had deepened on his face through the long night of bargaining. Affare and Papa retreated inside so Affare could explain the Visages’ demands.
After an hour Papa returned. He saddled Vita, and they returned home. Lea passed slices of dried apple to her father as they rode. She watched the muscles in his jaw as they worked, tirelessly grinding.
Papa steered Vita around Blackwood Village and their house and traveled straight to the Visage’s grove. He still hadn’t told her the price the Visages had demanded.
Vita carried Papa and Lea deep into Blackwood Forest. Her hooves flattened blood-colored fungus along the trail, making the oozing, red pus splatter up her fetlocks.
When they reached the Fluve River it still ran high, but had calmed some. Vita’s hooves echoed on the wooden planks as they crossed the bridge.
This was the first time Lea’s father had come with her to the forest. Well, Lea supposed Papa must have taken her to the Visages’ grove the first time she brought a payment. How else would a small child have found the grove alone? She had been so young, that first visit was a blank in her memory.
Papa leaned low across Vita to keep his neck from getting caught in the noose-like vines that hung from the trees. Branches scratched their faces. Papa pulled back on the reins, and Vita stopped.
He let the reins slack so Vita could stretch her neck and drink from a deep, still puddle that had formed on the side of the trail after the flooding.
Papa tried to speak, cleared his throat, and began again. “You’ll get off here,” he said.
Lea slid off of Vita’s back. She had expected to dismount. The final passage to the Visages’ grove could only be reached on foot. But she clung to the mare’s reins, afraid her father would leave her before telling her the critical thing she needed to know.
“What do I give the Visages?” Lea said.
“Changer Affare said you have the payment,” Papa said, “or that you are the payment. The Visages weren’t clear on that point, and I’m not allowed to ask questions.”
Papa met Lea’s eyes for a moment. His glassy, black eyes were blank.
“I am the payment,” Lea said, touching her scar.
“I see Viola can no longer hold her tongue,” Papa said.
Then it was true. The scars on her face. They had been some part of a payment to the Visages. Not rats, after all.
Papa swallowed. “The things I kept from you, I kept for your sake, not mine.”
“What are the Visages going to take from me?” Lea said. “My teeth?”
“If it’s anything like with your mother,” Papa said, “they will require more than that.”
Lea reached out to touch his arm.
Papa shied from her. His heels thumped Vita’s flanks.
The mare spun, her reigns tore from Lea’s hand, and she bolted.
Lea called out to Papa, but there was no sound, only an ache in her throat.
Vita galloped back over the bridge. Snatches of Vita’s tail and Papa’s leather coat flashed brown between still bare tree branches, and they were gone.
When the sound of Vita’s hooves had also faded, Blackwood Forest was silent except for the foaming rush of the Fluve.
Cold and wet crept up the hem of Lea’s leather smock. She missed her cloak. She’d always taken its warmth for granted.
Lea wrapped her arms around herself and knelt. She felt dizzy. All the heroic things Papa had done to help their neighbors, to help all the Folk of the Peninsula: saved everyone from the Starving Years, saved the Peninsula from invasion by the Thalassans. Papa’s reputation with the Visages was precious and powerful.
More precious to Papa than his own daughter.
Lea grit her teeth. How had it become her duty to sacrifice herself to the Visages? Yes, she’d dived for her magic comb before trying to recover the teeth. But it wouldn’t have mattered, the teeth were already gone. The loss hadn’t been her fault. So why should she walk willingly into a nest of monsters that all the Folk feared? Whatever the Visages intended to do with her, Lea was certain her father never expected to see her alive, ever again.
Lea relaxed. The solution was simple. She would not enter the grove.
She slid the magic comb from her belt pouch and tucked it into her hair. On hands and knees she crouched over the still pool from which Vita had drunk so she could see her reflection. Wearing the comb, Lea was beautiful, just as Diandra had said. This beautiful girl was not someone who would march like a sow to slaughter into the hands of the Visages.
This was the face of a girl worth saving. The face of a girl who, if only for a moment, had once been loved. She knew, because the Thalassan had kissed her.
The day Lea met the Thalassan she’d been in Blackwood Forest carrying a payment for the Visages. Summer heat had penetrated the thick trees, and the linen headscarf that had shielded her face in town now clung, damp, to her neck.
That day payment was Dame Yesi’s beautiful black hair, payment for news of Dame Yesi’s brother, Carl. It hadn’t been happy news.
When she reached the Fluve she paused to drink. Biting flies and gnats swarmed above the water. Lea spat out the bugs that had come with the water and snorted more bugs from her nose. She hurried out of the swarm and took refuge above the river on the foot bridge.
Except the bridge was no refuge. A man stood on the bridge. He had seen her. It was too late to run.
The man on the bridge was a Thalassan.
Papa was renowned for bargaining with the Visages to send every last one of the invading Thalassans’ ships to the bottom of the sea. No Thalassan had survived to harass the Folk. Yet, there a Thalassan stood, in the heart of the Peninsula, looking exactly as her father had described them.
The Thalassan’s jaw was sharp, his tangled curls lighter than his field hand’s tanned skin. His eyes, when he opened them, were the green of the sea. It was the eyes, more than anything, that proved he wasn’t one of the Folk.
The Thalassan had rolled his trousers around knobby knees and cinched his hemp belt tight around a waist narrowed by the Starving Years. The Starving Years were much worse for the Thalassans than they’d been for the Folk.
“‘ello,” the Thalassan said. He waved a hand.
Lea shielded her face with the linen scarf. She clung to the bag of Dame Yesi’s hair, which she must not lose before entrusting it to the Visages.
Watching her from the corner of his eye, the Thalassan sat on the edge of the bridge and dangled long, bared legs over the water. He reached into a leather pouch that hung around his neck and brought out a handful of almonds. He offered them to Lea, his movements slow, as though she were a wild animal he was trying not to spook.
“Heat,” the Thalassan said.
It took Lea several moments to realize he meant to say eat.
The Thalassan popped an almond into his mouth and chewed.
Lea took a step or two closer. She crouched, still keeping a careful distance, to better see the Thalassan’s face.
He wasn’t so young as Lea first thought. Slender shoulders and a smooth-shaved face made him seem boyish, but around his eyes were the pinched lines of someone who’d known years of hard hunger. Lea couldn’t look away from his round, green eyes, which sparkled like sunlight on water.
“My name is Kochil,” he said.
She didn’t try to repeat the name. It was difficult to pronounce. “Where are you from?”
“Thalassa,” he said. “Far haway. Hacross the sea.” He looked at her expectantly.
“I’m Lea,” she said.
“Lea, I need your ‘elp to return to Thalassa.” He seemed so earnest, so sincere.
“I can’t help you,” she said.
“Ghost faces in the forest take care of heverything,” the Thalassan said. “But I must ‘ave ha kiss from ha beautiful girl. Freely given.”
Freely given. That sounded like the Visages.
“I’m sorry,” Lea said, “I’m not beautiful.”
“You are,” the Thalassan said. “I saw.”
Lea savored the idea that a man, even a Thalassan, believed her pretty. But only for a moment.
She slid the scarf from her head, revealing the half of her face chewed by rats when she was just a baby.
The Thalassan’s face softened. His sea green eyes did not blink.
He placed the remaining almonds back in his pouch. He stood and approached her.
Lea backed away from him. When the Thalassan quickened his pace, she turned and fled. She was a child again, desperate to shelter behind her father.
The Thalassan’s bare feet slapped the bridge. He overtook her with chilling ease. His fist closed on Lea’s arm, pressing the brass buttons of her sleeve painfully into her forearm.
The Thalassan spun Lea to face him. He tore the scarf from her face and reached a hand toward her cheek. He held a knife in his hand, poised to slice into the half of Lea’s face she could still show the world.
Any other girl might have lifted a hand to defend herself, but Lea was the Bringer of Blackwood Village. She left her face unprotected and clung to the satchel containing Dame Yesi’s hair.
The Thalassan slid the knife through Lea’s thick, tangled, hair.
But there was no sensation of sharp, no swish of chopped hair falling from Lea’s head into the water. Instead the tines of a comb brushed Lea’s scalp.
The lines on the Thalassan’s face relaxed, and he smiled.
Lea reached a hand to her head, and her fingers brushed the tortoise shell comb for the first time.
Still grasping her arm, the Thalassan pulled Lea to the edge of the bridge.
“Look,” he said.
Lea gripped her toes, afraid of being pushed into the water. But she kept her eyes open and peered into the Fluve. There, reflected in the still water, was the face of a beautiful girl.
Lea stared for a moment at her reflection. She turned to the smiling Thalassan, then gazed again into the water. The girl shimmering on the surface looked happy. Lea realized that part was true. She felt happy seeing how she would have appeared, whole and well.
The Thalassan, Kochil, let go of Lea’s arm.
Lea slipped the comb from her hair, and her true face once again shimmered on the water. The gaping lip, the scar that tugged her eye low.
Lea handed the comb back to him.
“I needed the comb to survive here,” Kochil said. He slipped the comb into his hair. His appearance shifted so he looked like one of the Folk. Darker hair, lighter skin, eyes narrowed and dung brown, jaw squared, chest and shoulders thicker and wider.
Then he plucked the comb from his head and became himself again. He looked down at his feet, rubbed the smooth ridge of the comb between his fingers, and held it out to Lea. “Yours to keep,” he told her.
“For me?” Lea said.
He nodded. “I won’t need it after you ‘elp me,” he said. “I won’t need to look like one of you Folk when I return ‘ome.”
“It’s yours to give?” Lea asked, her Bringer’s experience making her cautious.
“Given to me by my mother,” the Thalassan said. “At the end, when she could swim no more.”
Lea pictured the Thalassan as a boy taking the magic comb from his dying mother’s fingers just before her head slipped beneath the waves.
“Your mother’s comb, given freely to you, given freely to me,” Lea said. “Which will allow me to look pretty, so I can give you a kiss, and you can go home.”
Lea’s heart pounded. Fear tinged with excitement.
Kochil stepped closer. Almonds on his breath. He folded her hair back from her face.
“Wait,” Lea said. The magic comb was far too great a gift not to offer anything in return, but she had little to give. She untied the leather cord of the seashell necklace her father had made her. “My mother collected this cockle on the shores of Lido, the first time I ever saw the sea.” She placed the necklace in the palm of his hand.
“Won’t you miss hit?” he said.
“You will also miss your mother’s comb.”
The delicate orange and white ridges of the seashell disappeared inside Kochil’s fist. When he opened his hand again, the seashell necklace was gone, and the magic comb was in its place.
The Thalassan tucked the comb into Lea’s hair. Then he stood back, beaming, as though appreciating what his handiwork had wrought.
Lea turned to glimpse herself again in the water. But before she could look, Kochil caught her hand, directing her eyes back to him. His smile was reflection enough to know herself beautiful.
He lowered his head. He grew so close that Lea shut her eyes.
Beard stubble rasped Lea’s cheek. Kochil slid a hand around her waist, another cradled her head. Their noses bumped. Lips met, drier than Lea had expected. The kiss was an experience she had never prepared for, that seemed to last both a very long time, and to end before she knew it.
The pressure of his hand against her waist faded, the sea salt taste receded, along with his warmth and the scent of almonds.
Lea felt for the comb. It was no longer in her hair. How foolish to have closed her eyes, inviting the Thalassan to cheat her.
But to Lea’s surprise, the Thalassan hadn’t yet disappeared.
“You stole back the comb!” Lea said.
The Thalassan chuckled and produced the comb from the cuff of his sleeve. He placed it in Lea’s palm, curled her fingers around it.
“Just joking,” he said, “yours to keep.”
“When did you remove it?” Lea asked.
“Before I kissed you.”
“And you’re still here,” Lea said. “The kiss didn’t work because you removed the comb and kissed me ugly!”
The Thalassan brushed Lea’s lips with his, a second, shorter kiss. Then he shimmered, like a reflection on a startled pond. He lifted a hand to say goodbye and disappeared.
Lea fingered the comb in her hair. Her reflection in the puddle mimed the motion. She remembered that second kiss, the Thalassan’s lips on her forehead.
At first Lea believed that just holding the comb made her beautiful, and so Kochil kissed her and returned home. But many tests proved that suspicion groundless. The comb needed to be in Lea’s hair to make her beautiful.
It was almost as though the comb’s magic hadn’t been needed, after all, to send him home. But that made no sense. Lea wasn’t just plain when not wearing the comb, she looked hideous. Anything but beautiful.
Lea froze. She’d been so lost in her memory of the Thalassan’s kiss that she hadn’t noticed she was in danger.
In the reflection of the puddle from which Vita had drunk, Lea saw the spindly, shadowy limbs of a Visage emerge through the trees. It neared like a lengthening shadow whose tail never severed from its grove. Lea smelled it, stale, like standing water, sharp, like spoiled meat.
Looking at a Visage was forbidden. The reflection of the creature in the puddle offered Lea’s first chance to see how truly monstrous it was. Shriveled daubs of flesh stuck like blobs of clay to its spongy black head. Pieces of broken tooth arched above its chin in a semicircle, like a child’s drawing of a smile. One bold, brown eye jiggled atop its sunken flesh, a vein-streaked, white ball that looked like it might tumble loose since it had no socket. The hodgepodge face was framed by a length of long, black hair.
“You brought the payment!” The Visage spoke as a chorus of whispers that echoed in Lea’s head. “Give it to me!”
“I won’t come with you,” Lea said.
“I don’t want you to come,” the Visage said.
Lea sat back on her heels. Papa had made her believe that her life was forfeit to the Visages.
“Give me the payment.”
“I don’t know what it is.”
“You know,” the Visage said.
But Lea did not.
“The payment,” the Visage said, “is something dear to you. Something freely given to you, which you will now freely give to me.”
Then Lea did know. The Visage didn’t want Lea’s skin, her teeth, her hair, her earlobe, her life. The Visage wanted the Thalassan’s gift, the magic comb.
Lea slid the comb from her hair. She rubbed her thumb along the carved ridge of the tortoise shell spine and regretted its loss. Not just because she’d no longer see herself beautiful, but because it had been a connection to Kochil.
Lea held the comb over her shoulder, offering it to the creature behind her. The Thalassan’s gift was now saving her life. The precious gift would always be a part of her.
Ice on Lea’s fingers. The Visage nabbed the comb.
In the reflection from the puddle Lea watched the Visage tuck the comb into its lock of hair. It’s rotting face morphed into regular human features. But more, the Visage took on Lea’s own face, a dark, cruelly lovely version of Lea when she wore the comb.
“You want to know why I look like you,” the Visage whispered from inside Lea’s tingling ears. “That is easy, my dear. I wear part of your face.”
Lea shook. The churning water of her memory stilled, and she saw deep.
Lea remembered her father the night he’d cut her face. He’d held his blade in the fireplace for so long that the handle heated. When he burned his hand, he swore and dropped the whole knife into the fire. So angry.
What happened after was harder to remember. Lea felt more than saw it. She sensed her father’s huge hand pinning her arms behind her back. His knees pinched her hip bones, forcing her to stand still. Despite his strength, she twisted in his grasp. Blood, terror. Her memory went dark, then lit again as she recalled running to their front door. The thick wood scraped her shoulder as she threw herself against it and screamed. Her father grabbed her by the collar of her dress and slammed the iron lock shut. Now no one could get inside to save her.
Lea’s father had cut away pieces of Lea’s face while she was awake. She had screamed, like Tomas had, until her throat was raw.
Lea heaved. She thought she would vomit.
“Your father paid well to keep The Folk safe from the Thalassan invaders,” the Visage told her. “I was the one to burn the Thalassan’s ships, so I am the one who wears your face.”
Lea spun and faced the Visage. She snatched the comb from its head. A fistful of its long, black hair came out with the comb.
The Visage shrieked. “Give it back!” it wailed. “You have no right to face me! You stole my comb. Thief!”
Lea tucked the comb inside her belt pouch and readied herself to fight the creature.
But the Visage didn’t touch her.
“If the Changer fails to make this payment,” the Visage said, “then his debt will not be forgiven.”
“The Changer has already taken enough from me,” Lea said angrily. “I owe him nothing more.”
“Wrong,” the Visage said, “you owe him your life.”
The Visage’s cold hand forced Lea onto hands and knees and held her head so she stared into the puddle. In the water the Visage showed Lea a vision Papa, fifteen years past.
Papa stared into the flickering fire of their hearth, watching his own vision from the Visages. In the flames, great ships ran aground the shores of a seaside village. Wiry men, gaunt as skeletons, swung down mooring lines, curve-bladed kopis clenched between their teeth. They gutted every villager who ran against them. They smoked families from their homes and slaughtered them in the streets. Others barricaded inside were burned alive.
Their screams churned Lea’s belly.
That horrid vision faded. Next, Lea saw Papa in counsel with Changer Affare and five other men.
“For the Thalassans the Starving Years still haven’t ended,” Papa said. His voice was hoarse and worn. “They survive on what little the sea still yields, and that’s precious little. Their children fall dead of exhaustion, their wives dwindle to spirits before their eyes.” Papa looked around the room, but the other Changers avoided his gaze. “I don’t fear the Thalassans because of their unknown ways,” Papa said, “I fear them because I understand them all too well. Hunger has gnawed their reason. They don’t have the Visages to bargain with for survival. They are desperate. If the Thalassans’ ships touch our shores, we are all dead. Every last one of the Folk.
The vision of the counsel of Changers disappeared, and the Visage showed Lea Viola’s house. In the vision Viola was much younger, but Lea recognized her expression of disgust as she recoiled from the person at her door. Papa held a tiny Lea in his arms. He’d wrapped her face in a bloody towel. Dried blood matted her hair.
“I need you to bandage Lea’s face with sterile rags.” Papa said. He handed Lea to Viola.
When Viola unwrapped the towel, she turned her head and gagged.
Papa pulled out his blade. It was still sticky from carving Lea’s face.
Viola took a step back and turned her body to protect Lea.
Papa raised the blade to his head and sliced off his earlobe.
“I need you to hurry and dress her wounds,” Papa said. “She must come with me to the forest, or the Visages won’t accept payment. I’m powerless without her. The Visages don’t work for free, and they will only take payment from my female relative.”
“I care nothing for your payment or the nightmares those monsters show you,” Viola said.
Papa grit his teeth.
“The visions are fantasies sent by selfish, angry spirits,” Viola said, “this girl was real. She was all you had left of your wife, of my friend.”
“If I don’t get this earlobe to the Visages,” Papa said, “I can’t keep Lea from remembering how she suffered when I hurt her. The payment must be made for her sake, don’t you agree?”
The Visage dissolved the vision of Papa and Viola. The puddle became just a puddle again.
Icy fingers brushed Lea’s neck. She gripped the comb tight to defend it from the Visage.
The Visage sighed in Lea’s ear. Its rotten breath made her gag. “You met the Thalassan,” it said. “The invasion was real. Everything we showed your father was real. Thalassans would have invaded the Peninsula. You only live because your father bargained with me. Not only that, his bargain saved all the Folk. If you don’t give me that comb, you have killed the man who saved you all.”
Lea shook. The Ghost Ship and the Thalassan Lea had met proved that the danger she’d been sacrificed to avoid was real.
The Visage purred, a raspy clicking sound. “When I weighed your father’s price, to drown the Thalassans and save the Folk, I took the most costly remuneration possible,” it said. “He acted grateful that we hadn’t asked for your life, as we asked for your mother’s life to end the Starving Years. But there was no kindness on our part. You see, killing you would have rendered Tiber useless. There must be a Bringer, and you were the last surviving female relative. This is also why I have no desire to kill you now. Just give me the comb, and you and your father are safe.”
“You wear my mother’s face, too?” Lea said. The realization that Papa had sacrificed Lea’s mother was heavy and dull.
“Oh, I don’t wear her skin,” the Visage said. “But one of us in the grove does, yes. She ended the Starving Years.”
“You could have helped without killing her,” Lea said.
The Visage chuckled. “Give me back that comb, or one of us will wear your father’s skin, as well.”
Lea glowered at the shimmering reflection of the Visage and its rotten face. “My father’s debt is paid,” Lea said through clenched teeth, “The payment was the comb, freely given. After I paid you, you lost your treasure. That is another matter.”
“You stole the comb from me no sooner than it was given!” the Visage said.
“You were careless with it,” Lea said firmly.
“I will not lose that comb a second time!” the Visage screamed.
A second time . . . a second time?
The Thalassan must have given this Visage his comb, and somehow he had gotten it back and kept it.
“When you agree that my father’s debt is paid, we can strike a new deal,” Lea said. “If you would like to have and keep the comb, then grant me a favor.”
“Impossible,” the Visage said. “You are not a Changer.”
“Nor was the Thalassan,” Lea told the Visage. “Yet you made a bargain with him.”
The Visage hissed.
“Do you want the comb or not?” Lea asked. “Its magic is the only way for you to have a face that isn’t broken teeth and rotten meat.”
The Visage growled. The growl rose to a squeal, and it panted with frustration. “What do you want?” it asked.
Lea didn’t know what to ask.
And yet there was a knowing, like pebbles becoming visible at the bottom of a stream as silty water settled.
There was magic in Thalassa, as the comb proved. That magic was stronger than the Visages.
“First, concede that my father’s debt is paid,” Lea said. “Then I want to go to the Thalassan, Kochil, the man who gave me this comb. I want to go wherever he is.”
A chipped tooth tumbled from the Visage’s head. One of its spidery limbs plucked the tooth from the ground and pressed it back into its doughy face.
“If you leave here you don’t return,” the Visage said.
Lea swallowed. “I want to go.”
“Your father will be without a Bringer,” the Visage said.
“My father can remarry,” Lea said. But she heard the lie as she said it.
“Do you think anyone in Blackwood Village but you is unaware what Tiber did to your mother, then to you, in the name of a Bringer’s duty? Do you think anyone will marry him, or give him children? He’ll be powerless without you. The Folk will no longer be able to bargain with us.”
Perhaps Lea had given enough to her father, given enough to the Folk. She thought of Soolie and Diandra.
“I’ve heard it said the Folk might be better off without so much help from the Visages,” Lea said.
Tendrils swirled around the Visage’s horrible face, then stilled.
Lea buttoned fear tight inside herself where she hoped the Visage couldn’t see it. If the Visages took offense to her declaration, Lea may have just ended the collaboration between Changers of the Folk and the magical Visages. Not just her father’s connection would be severed, but all the Visages might abandon the Folk when they were in need.
“Very well,” the Visage said. “You wish to end your father’s relationship with us, that is in your power. I will send you to the Thalassan as you ask. But you must give me the comb.”
“Of course.” Lea said.
“And don’t think you’ll snatch it away a second time.”
Lea didn’t know how her father conducted deals with the Visages, didn’t know the ritual, the formulas, the right words. She didn’t know how to keep the angry creature from tricking her.
Lea turned to face the Visage, trembling. “First, agree that my father’s debt is paid.”
“Changer Tiber owes us nothing,” the Visage said. “Though we will never deal with him again.”
Lea nodded. That would have to be good enough.
The Visage hovered over her, a writhing, black shadow.
Lea held the comb out to the Visage in the palm of her hand. “Now, send me to the Thalassan,” she said.
“So be it,” the Visage said. It whisked away the comb, but did not wear it.
Shadow smothered Lea.
Lea struggled against the black tendrils. It grew harder to breathe, and she feared the Visage would kill her, after all.
Her vision darkened. She lost sight of Blackwood Forest and the Fluve River and the trees. The pine-carpeted forest floor vanished beneath her feet. The smell of damp and moldy leaves faded.
Then Lea smelled salt, brine, fish. Tides surged against her ankles, and she swayed, unsteady on her feet, as the Visage’s tendrils snaked away and left her standing on her own. Lea opened her eyes, saw she was wading in the shallow edge of a vast, aquamarine ocean.
The Thalassan, eyes the same color as the sea, stood in front of her. He lunged forward to steady her from falling as a strong wave tugged against their legs.
Lea raised a hand to her shawl, ready to shield her face. Then she changed her mind, and dropped her arm to her side, leaving all the scars her father had given her exposed.
“Hello, Kochil,” Lea said.
He didn’t answer. He wore the orange and white seashell she’d given him on its leather cord around his neck.
“Every day I come to the sea,” he said. “And I ask ‘er to bring you to me.”
Lea took Kochil’s hand. His fingers were warm, twined in hers.
“I promised ‘er my most loved possession if she granted my wish.” He untied the leather cord and dangled the seashell necklace over the foamy waves. Then he paused. “You hare not just a dream?”
Lea kissed him.
When their lips parted, Kochil gently floated the necklace on the water. They watched it together, hands clasped, until the sea swept it far away.
After growing up in small town Iowa, Heather Pagano studied classical trombone in Upstate New York, then went on to live in Italy and New York City. She now lives in Silicon Valley, California. Language, philosophy, and music are strong influences on her writing, as are the many places she’s lived. Her work has appeared in Alcyone Speculative Fiction, Spank the Carp, and The Haunted Life Anthology from Alban Lake Publishing. You can find Heather online at heatherpagano.com.