Pearl Before Swine ch 31: Evidence
The fire strokes my curves as the sea’s waves once did. It roars and whimpers, flows and ebbs, telling the same short tale again and again. It chases the ice and wages war when they meet, but nothing changes.
Water joins the waltz with a competing rhythm. It jars the circle. A break. A difference. A beginning and an end.
My fire rejects this foreign energy with spitting hisses. Whose is it? Not Halcyon’s or Lance’s. It smells too much of the sea that once trapped me, as malleable as a wave, skittish as a fish, and course as sand.
I chant a mantra that the Sea is not my enemy. This energy, however disgusting, is a hand offering help. Yet, fire does not bow to reason. Fire eats, and this fire is picky. It shoves back ten times what was given, and the ice reigns for a while.
The fire grumbles at the setback, and I tell it this would not have happened if it listened to me. The water could have been our ally.
The water does not return.
In time, voices find their way here alongside tiny morsels of heat. A touch to my arm, my neck, my forehead. Some skitter away. Some linger.
“I don’t care what the dean said,” Sal snaps. “Nothing’s more important than making sure she’s okay.”
Sal. He watches over me. I need to tell him everything.
Time burns faster than my fire, but with the will of the rising sun, I open my eyes. My first sight of Southern Shores University greets me again—a ceiling carved with flowers. The flimsy chairs and cloth walls remain, but instead of Pike’s smiles and chatter, crossed arms and dagger-sharp lips greet me.
The slightest upturn quirks the corner of his mouth, but stillness’ rigid fingers encase him, granting only the freedom of a tapping foot. His hair, pulled high in a short tail, patters like distant rain against the wall. Though it resembles the Golems’ paintbrushes, none of its darkness transfers to the beige fabric.
My nerves walk the edge of the blade in his hand, losing limbs on either side of it. I want him with me always. I want to craft his smiles and collect each one. Yet, his unease is a deluge, and I am a sponge made of salt. Only the cradle of his hand beneath mine keeps me from dissolving completely.
No, it cannot be his hand. His are both visible, their copper tint pale against the stygian flow of his new jacket.
My gaze shifts to the limb in question, follows the fingers to an arm, the arm to a shoulder, and a collar to a face.
Relief loosens his shoulders and cheeks, but tightness remains around his eyes. They cut to Jun for a hummingbird’s wingbeat, then return to me, gray-green streaked with the same gold that powdered Jun’s previous jacket—a jacket I no longer wear as I sit up. Instead, thin fabric matching the walls hangs loose on me. It smells of ash.
With a heavy exhale, Sal lowers his head to our clasped hands. “You’re alive.”
A thousand notions flock to my tongue, none of them willing to morph into the words I need. I have so much to tell Sal and no idea where to begin, especially with Jun present.
One insufficient syllable escapes. “Beau?”
Jun leans forward. “Third-degree burns, but he’ll live.”
My attention catches on his own burn just above his high collar.
“Whatever he drugged you with, I was sure…” Sal drops the sentence and looks up at me, chin on our knuckles and brow wrinkled beneath starlight-colored bangs. “No matter what we tried, you weren’t responding.”
“Did you share energy with me, Sal?” I ask as I extricate one of my hands and reach toward Jun.
My islander flinches but does not pull away as I press my fingers to his throat. Beneath my touch, the darkened wound fades.
He catches my wrist. “Can you walk? We have to leave fast.”
“No, Jun,” Sal warns.
My blue-eyed human ignores him, staring into my face and into my soul. “The dean ordered that one of Aunties’ students have to guard you at all times. It took a lot to convince them I should get a shift, and after that—”
“No, Jun.” Sal reaches for him, and the knife swings. The healer slides between Jun and I, breaking our connection and filling my view with golden jacket.
They fall, kick, and roll. A chain rattles. The knife impales the floor.
“If you want to die, Jun, trust me, you’d rather that happened here. Quickly.”
They still, tangled but with Sal mostly on top. The tip of an injector needle hovers above Jun’s eye. He struggles, but the chain wrapping them both leaves him no leverage.
I scramble to the floor, and my hand encircles Sal’s on the syringe. “I will protect him. Always.”
Sal snorts but does not resist as I relieve him of the needle. “We’ve had this conversation before.”
“Yes, and like you said, when my protection fails, I will heal him. I will learn so that I do not fail again.”
Sal scoffs. “I’m sure he wants to live through Mare dismembering him over and over because you keep putting him back together for her.”
“As many times as it takes,” Jun says, voice strained beneath Sal’s weight on his chest, “for me to kill her.”
This is where I should tell him no, that I am not taking him to Mare even if it means I lose the bet. That this is my best way of protecting him.
Yet, Sal responds first. “You’ll what?”
“This jacket? Go ahead, take the knife. Try to stab through it. It’s made from the hide of a captured Coral.”
Jaw slack, Sal retreats as if the basalt-like fabric is diseased.
Jun sits up, partly of his own will, partly because the chain still binds them together. “Beau’s drug knocked out a Creature of Essence for a whole night and then some. We’ve captured two Swine. We’re ready for this fight. We’re ready to claim this world.”
Sal speaks through his teeth as he unwinds the chain. “Fine. I’m done caring about you.”
“Never expected you to in the first place.” As Jun crawls free, he kicks Sal’s side.
Sal collapses, a hiss crumbling into a groan as I plant myself between them, my back to Jun. The healer cannot catch his breath. His fingers curl against the floor, dotted with scabs and bruises.
“Is that all from Aurora?” My hand hovers inches above his. “Did no one—”
“Don’t touch me.” He pulls in his arms and wipes his face on a sleeve. “Please. I’ll be alright. Just tell me you’re not taking that islander to Mare.”
He asks me to speak nothing but the truth, yet I would not wish for this to be its dressing. A “no” can land with a butterfly’s grace. This one has been forced into the frock of a hammer.
Jun’s touch presses into my back, the shift of his weight requesting I turn to him. As on the roof, he is so very close. Even the air carries a taste of him—sugar and iron. The butterflies I wish my rejection could be flutter in my core, their wings aflame.
A clatter precedes a shout, and Pike’s arms are tight around me, my name repeating a dozen times.
“She gets the point.” Jun drags him back, and the last render of my name squeaks as Pike’s collar pinches his throat. “Didn’t you have class?”
“Ended.” He shrugs away from Jun and gathers the bundles he dropped. “I wanted to run some of my inventions by Sal, but now we can all look. The more brains you put together, the more complete the puzzle, right?”
“As long as everyone’s brains get to stay in their own skulls.” Sal sighs as he attains a crooked sit, his legs crossed in front of him. One end of the chain shackles his ankle, while the other finishes in a half loop lined with spinning gears and anchored to the floor.
I frown at it.
He notices, and his shoulders hunch in a sad parody of a shrug. “I saw some things I wasn’t supposed to.”
“That’s an interesting way of putting it. Now he’s my captive audience.” With a chuckle, Pike unfurls the first bundle. “I give you exhibit A.”
It is a sack of sealskin with tubes, vents, and pulleys.
“It’s for taking air with you when you go underwater.”
With mild interest, Sal leans forward and pokes at it. “You’re really set on this ‘humans going into the ocean thing.’”
“Yep.” With a canyon-like smile and an avalanche of nods, Pike launches into an explanation of what each segment does.
As he chatters, my mind tears in too many directions. I still need to tell Jun—gently—that I will leave him here where he is safe. I need to tell Sal of my realm and ask his help in attaining my freedom. Yet, I see where Pike’s inventions for the Sea fill the holes in Beau’s inventions for the Stars.
I hear the tension crackle between Sal and Jun, and I wonder if perhaps my blue-eyed human is correct. These things will allow humans to breathe beneath the waves, to swim like dolphins, to secure themselves like clams.
Armored with the imagination of scientists, humans might really take the sea from Mare.
As the sun reaches the apex of its leap, the angle of the light through the high windows shifts.
Jag comes to relieve Jun, but my islander refuses to switch out, and Jag slinks away with distrustful backward glances aimed oddly at Sal.
Before I can ask their meaning, Halcyon fills the narrow gap in the curtain door, laden with bags. A knot within me uncoils to see him animate again and wearing an unharmed human disguise. From his burden wafts the scent of warm foods, and a primal string along my spine straightens. I am not hungry—the energy I have already burns and jitters, begging to be set free—but the lure of curious tastes persists, and I incline toward him.
His attention glides over Sal and the chain that tethers him to the floor before he offers one of the bags. “Lunch.”
With a muted, “Thanks,” Sal opens the package. Steam billows from the opening and quickly clears to reveal shredded meat drenched in brown and white sauces, wrapped in thin bread.
I stare, mouth watering, hardly able to sit still on the edge of my medical cot as the Dragon hands off a second bag to Pike.
He takes it with his fingertips, nose wrinkled. “Why does this reek of fish?”
“I selected the sushi for you. It has seaweed.”
Pike thrusts it back at him. “I’ve told you I don’t eat things that used to move around of their own free will.”
“You only want to eat prisoner fish?” Halcyon’s gaze jumps to Sal again, lip curling in a feral smile. “Do they taste better?”
Sal bites into his wrapped meat and returns the Dragon’s look with a subtle shake of his head.
“You like seaweed.” Halcyon pushes the bag back, and it thuds against Pike’s chest with a hollow thud. “Only eat that part if that is all you want.”
With a dramatic eye roll, Pike plops on a chair. “This one time, Halcyon. Because I’m considerate. Next time, could you be considerate?”
“I am considerate. I brought food you like.”
“Wrapped around evidence of murder I don’t morally approve of.”
Halcyon’s chin lifts. “You care more about it than the fish do. This is difficult to understand.” Folding his legs, he sits in front of Sal. “Can you explain?”
“Can and want to are two different things,” Sal mutters and stuffs his mouth with food again.
I inch forward, balancing over the bed’s edge. My gaze is a rope lassoing each of the Dragon’s five remaining bags. Which one does he intend for me? What does it contain? My patience is a lizard upon hot sand, in danger of frying if I succumb to stillness.
“Halcyon…” The name escapes despite my best efforts, the ending stretched and crimped, and he turns to me, eyes like glimpses of the sky through bronze leaves. Embarrassed of my impatience, I shy from the topic of the food, lip squelching between my teeth as I search for another subject. “Can you heal Sal?”
The Dragon’s head swivels back to my wise healer. “Can and want are two different things.”
Pike laughs. It is a sound of dew, sand, and waves sparkling beneath morning’s caress. “Halcyon, are you going to hand out the rest of the lunches, or is that all for you?”
“These are for me.” He clutches the five bags tighter, and I droop like a flower bereft of spring.
Pike slides his eyes from the task of unrolling his food, meat laid out reverently on one corner of the napkin across his lap and a long strand of seaweed dangling from his hand. He lifts an eyebrow.
Halcyon glances at me, then Jun. “I did not know the Pearl would awaken nor who her guard would be and what he would like.”
Sitting alongside the curtain, Jun clears his throat. “You’ve brought plenty anyway. You could share.”
“I only brought things I want to try,” Halcyon says, neck hiding between his shoulders. “I will not get to try them if you eat them.”
Chuckling, Pike cups a hand to the side of his mouth as if to direct his false whisper, though Halcyon sits between us. “That’s a dangerous venture. Yesterday, he decided to try my shoes. As in, eat them.” He points at the scuffed boots on his feet. “I had to borrow these, and trust me, no one should have to wear anything of Vidal’s.” He shudders.
Both Vidals rise to the surface of my memory: the one who introduced me to chocolate and the other who offered to let me try cockroach. They were nice enough, but I would much rather wear Jun’s jacket than theirs.
Wise Sal swallows the last of his meal, eyes on his sticky fingers. “Why not share like a good little lizard, and whatever you don’t get, you can try tomorrow.”
“Can and want—”
The sword of Sal’s glare cuts the quote, and Halcyon swallows his tongue with a flinch. From where does the authority in Sal’s look stem? Why should a Dragon fear a human, especially one injured and chained?
Unless the golden blood on Beau’s floor was Sal’s, and he is not human at all. He has met the Essences of Sea and Sky and fears them both. He rescues pirates, travels the world, and…
I peek at Jun alongside me, standing between two Creatures of Essence and trying to convince a Dragon to give up his food. Sal has met other Koa. He claims it is only book knowledge, yet it is more than that. I feel this just as I felt the truths in Issoria’s description of the stars. Either he has gone to their islands or he is old enough to have met the last ones who traveled. Perhaps both.
I sink into my knees, a puddle given to parched earth. Jun said they captured two Swine. Saburra escaped, but Sal sits here chained, with more knowledge about the sea than Pike who grew up on it. If he is the second Swine, is he the one sent to sabotage me? Even if he isn’t, can I trust him?
Here I am, wanting to tell him everything, even if he is a Creature of the Sea. Did I not want to make Pike my ally when I thought he was the Swine? When I fell in Terra’s cave, one of Mare’s minions did not laugh. He looked at me with envy because I had a freedom he did not and a chance to keep it.
The Sea is not my enemy, and I should not label a Creature of the Sea villainous by default. Yet…
I fear Sal is a Sea Swine, and how very much I wish to be wrong.