Which was good, because she’d meant every word.
* * *
Safi hunkered low in the gig, water splashing over the sides as Ryber rowed Safi, Iseult, Evrane, and Merik ashore.
When Ryber had taken Safi belowdecks, Safi had apologized for getting the girl in trouble, but Ryber had shrugged it off. “Admiral’s all growl and no bite. Besides, it isn’t me he’s mad at.”
It was all too true. Merik had barely looked at Safi since reaching the cove, and whenever she attempted a question—Are we traveling by foot? Do we have supplies?—he’d simply turned away.
Which of course made Safi all the more determined to illicit some response. She’d rather feel his growl or his bite than have him pretend she didn’t exist.
In mere minutes, the gig was ashore and Ryber was hopping into knee-deep waves to drag in the boat. Merik and Evrane hopped right out. Safi and Iseult, however, were considerably less graceful.
“This is something Habim and Mathew failed to teach us,” Iseult said, using Safi’s and Ryber’s hands to alight. “We should inform them that gig-exiting is a valuable life skill.”
“It’s not that valuable,” Ryber said. “It’s just getting in and out.”
Safi coughed lightly. “That was Iseult’s attempt at a joke.”
“Oh.” Ryber chuckled. “Sorry. I’ve only met one Threadwitch before, and she was ancient. I guess you can see my Threads right now?”
“Hye,” Iseult answered. “They are currently green with curiosity.”
A pleased smile split Ryber’s face. “So … can you see my Heart-Thread too?”
Iseult’s nose wiggled, and she shot a quick, almost nervous glance at Safi before saying, “Hye. I can see it. He’s on the ship.”
Ryber’s grin widened—though there was no missing the haunted, empty look that filled her eyes.
“Ryber,” Merik barked. The girl started—then marched earnestly toward her admiral.
Safi leaned toward Iseult. “Why did you look at me when Ryber asked about her Heart-Thread?”
“Because it has blue in it,” she said flatly. “That means part of her love is grief-stricken.”
“Oh,” Safi breathed. The idea of a shared sadness between Ryber and Kullen made her throat tighten.
While Iseult slunk over the beach to join Evrane—who inspected a dead petrel several paces away—Safi waited for Merik.
“As the second mate,” he told Ryber, whose braids bounced on the wind, “Hermin commands the ship until Kullen is better. And remember: Don’t eat the fish or drink the water. This isn’t like the River Timetz—our Waterwitches haven’t made it here. You’ll die before you’ve even swallowed. Also, make sure Hermin doesn’t push his witchery too hard. If Lovats doesn’t answer, then there’s nothing we can do.”
Ryber saluted, fist to heart, and Merik rested his eyes on the ship. For several long moments, the seawater lapped at Safi’s feet—at Ryber’s boots—but she didn’t skip away. She simply waited for the prince to finish his silent good-bye.
Once he had finished—as marked by his sudden straightening and sudden collar tugging—he twirled around and stomped past Safi.
“Safe harbors!” Ryber shouted after them.
“Safe harbors,” Safi called back, already kicking after Merik.
Iseult moved into step beside her—Evrane walking steadily behind and with far more poise than Safi or Iseult displayed. The beaches around Veñaza City were sand, and Safi’s ankles didn’t appreciate this tiny gravel. She also quickly learned that vaulting over dead birds wasn’t the easiest.
When she turned toward Iseult to complain, though, she found her Threadsister already panting. “Are you all right? Should we slow?”
Iseult insisted she was fine. Then she lifted her voice. “Where are we going, Your Highness? Because it looks like we’re walking toward a wall.”
Indeed, it did look like they were aiming toward two high cliffs that met in a low overhang dripping with stalactites.
“A cave is hidden back there,” Evrane answered once it was clear Merik had no intention of speaking—though Safi was impressed with Iseult for trying. “It is meant to be a secret cave, though, just as this inlet is meant to be secret.”
“No one will see us,” Merik muttered, aiming for the right-most edge of the overhang. He ducked beneath a stalactite.
Safi sank after him. Pinpricks of dawn shone through gaps in the craggy ceiling. The path before Safi—clearly hewn by men’s hands—was so narrow she had to turn sideways.
Several steps later, Merik straightened, so Safi risked rising as well. No sharp rocks stabbed her head—though water dripped.
“Is this water poisoned?” she asked, rubbing her hair.
“Not to the touch,” Evrane answered, voice muffled by Iseult in front of her. “Most of the freshwater in this area is dangerous to drink, but there is some that remains pure no matter what.”
Merik gave a strangled groan. “No one wants to hear about the Origin Wells.”
“I want to hear about the Wells,” Safi countered.
“Me too,” Iseult said, her breaths audibly shallow. “I’ve read so much about them. Is it true that the Water Well can heal you?”
“It used to. All the Wells could heal when they were still alive—Merik,” Evrane snapped, “slow down. Not all of us are familiar with this path and not all of us are in perfect health.”