Trust and Vulnerability
Note: This is the second story about Emera. Although it should stand alone, you might want to read Induction first.
“Many things have no price, but everything has a cost.”
Watch Island between Bordan and Korsem
12th day of Kahata, 471 AC
Ran stood in front of Emera holding the staff diagonally in front of him. Emera swung her staff at him, angling it so that it was coming in parallel to his. He tilted his staff so that her strike slid down it rather than towards him. He stepped in and swung upwards, forcing her to jump out of the way. She reversed direction as soon as his attack whistled past her, pushing back towards him with one of the ends of her staff leading the way. She had expected the loss of one of her eyes to make fighting difficult, but she had gotten used to it quickly. He knocked the jab aside.
The sound of a body hitting the ground next to her distracted Emera, and Ran was able to get in a solid blow to her ribs. She could feel the skin and muscle being painfully compressed against her rib, which cracked under the pressure, each sensation separated out and clarified in her mind by the Training Seal inscribed into her Skill Graph. She had been told that the purpose was to give her a better understanding of how her body worked, but she suspected that the actual reason was that the Watch Command was filled with sadists. The blow slid her sideways, but she didn‘t lose her feet. Ran lowered his staff and backed off. Within a few moments, the Training Seal had started to channel Ve into her body, the pain faded, and the fractures in her rib had begun to heal. Even with the Ve, she would have a bruise the next day.
The source of her distraction, Melik, was sprawled on the wooden floor a few steps away. Asta was looking down at him, staff still held ready to strike. He had rolled onto his side and was curled inwards, his whole body clenched shut. Soon, everyone in the room was looking at Melik, waiting for him to get up. No one moved to help him.
After several too-long moments, Emera walked over to him and crouched down. He opened his eyes, but didn’t say anything. She grabbed his upper arm and pulled him up until he was standing again.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“I think so,” he said, but he was squinting. “My head just hurts a bit.”
“Melik,” Instructor Haaken said. “What went wrong?“
“I–I don‘t know,“ Melik said.
“When you were sparring with Ran, you weren‘t all there. You were thinking about something. What was it?“
“I wasn‘t daydreaming,” he said. “I was thinking about the fight.“
“And that is why you ended up on the ground,“ Instructor Haaken said. “When you fight you need turn off the part of your mind that thinks, the part that worries and fears. If you are worried about getting hit, you will get hit. Understood?“
“Yes,“ Melik said, although it was clear from his face that he didn‘t.
“And Emera,“ he said. “Why did you help him?”
“He’s a comrade,” she said, her voice sounding less sure than she had hoped.
Instructor Haaken didn’t respond immediately, but kept looking her in the eye. Finally he said, “And the rest of you, why didn’t you offer a hand to Melik?” No one responded. “No matter how you feel about your comrades, you must always be there for them. Always. Your comrade is not your friend, not your brother, but something more. Comrade is the base unit of the group, and should things ever get rough, I assure you, you want to be part of the group.” He paused as though he was going to continue lecturing, but instead said, “I don’t think that there’s anything more important I can say today, so I’m going to cut this short. Think on it.”
“Thanks. For yesterday.”
Emera jumped. She had been watching the horizon so intently that she hadn’t heard Melik coming up from behind her. There was a large lump on his temple where he had been struck during sparring the day before. She had worried when he didn’t show up for dinner, but Haaken assured her that he would be alright.
“It was nothing,” she said.
“No one else moved to help me,” he said. “You may think nothing of it, but I appreciate it. Can I sit down?”
“Of course.” Emera scooted over so that she wasn’t taking up the whole bench. “Why did you come to the Watch Island?” she asked after he sat down, and immediately regretted how harsh the words sounded.
He sat there for a long time, silent, and Emera began to worry that he wasn‘t going to say anything, that she had spooked him.
“It was either this or exile,“ he said.
She wouldn‘t have believed him if his voice weren‘t shaking. “For what?“ It was hard to imagine him doing something that would warrant so severe a reprisal.
“I tried to build a Ve collector,“ he said.
“A collector. Everything creates a small amount of Ve, I was working on a device to capture some of it,” he said.
“I thought that only people created Ve,” she said.
“Ve is the byproduct of any network, be it a written agreement or the relationship between the animals in the food chain,” he said, as though that explained everything. “People create the most Ve, though, something about the types of networks we create,” he continued after seeing her confused look.
“So why was the collector a problem, then, if there isn’t that much Ve out there?” she asked.
“Other things don’t create much Ve individually, but in aggregate, they produce a lot,” he said. “If you were able to tap directly into the Ve of the Island, and find a way to channel it, you could blast a hole through the moon if you wanted.”
His words sent chills through her, and she had to remind herself that he couldn’t possibly know. “I’m surprised that they let you go,” she said.
“Me too. But when I got caught, a year ago, I didn’t know what I know now. If I had . . . You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“Of course not. Unless you have a grudge against the moon,” she said.
He laughed. “No, I’d rather know everything than own everything. Who knows what sort of price the Island would impose if you tried to create an unmediated link to it.”
Emera felt her stomach drop, but if Melik noticed anything, he showed no sign.
“So that’s my secret. How about you, why are you here?” he asked. He looked directly at her eye patch.
“I–I’m sorry, but . . .”
He looked hurt, but covered it quickly. “Don’t worry about it, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“I want to, but I can’t talk about it. Not yet. I’m sorry,” she said.
“I understand.” He reached over and squeezed her shoulder. His eyes went to her eye patch, then back out to the horizon an instant later.
For her first few weeks on the Watch Island, Emera had barely thought about the Amekt scorpion. It had gotten out of its cage when she first arrived, presumably to find some secluded place to hide. After several weeks had passed without any sign of it, she began to hope that it was done with her. But then she had started to feel it, like an invisible string attached to the center of her being that was always pulling her a little, enough that she always felt off-balance, but not enough that she actually stumbled. She needed to go to it.
She turned to see Pika jogging towards her. The top of the Watch Island was completely flat, and had been converted into a garden that provided much of the food for the island’s seven inhabitants, and Pika had to dodge and jump around the plants on his tangential course towards her. She had checked to make sure that she was alone on the roof before she had started towards the stairs, Pika must have been on the other side of the stand of trees that surrounded the entrance into the lower levels.
“What’s going on?” he asked when he finally reached her. At least he didn’t stare at her eye patch anymore.
“Nothing, I was just thinking of going down to the dock and collecting some mussels for dinner,” she said. She had originally decided to come to the Watch Island thinking that it was a place where she could hide, safe from the close confines and scrutiny of the Vaarplikt barracks. The opposite was true. Everyone on the island was there because they were hiding from something or because they had been sent against their will. Everyone assumed that she had something to hide the minute she set foot on the island, and she hadn’t been ready. The two of them stood there in awkward silence for a few moments until Pika backed down.
“Good luck, then,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. He looked at her for a few more moments, probably trying to decide if she was going to desert, but eventually gave up and turned back around.
Emera started down the steps. The stairs wrapped around the island twice, and she had gone nearly a revolution and a half before she felt the pull from the Amekt change. She was close. Looking up, she couldn’t see anyone leaning out over the edge. The steps were too smooth to get a handhold on, so she would have to work her way sideways, first. Reaching out, she felt a rock outcropping and tested her weight against it.
She hadn’t climbed since the day she had fallen, the day she had lost her eye and the scorpion had latched on to her. The rough stone pulled at the skin of her hands where the calluses should have been and her muscles protested. She worked her way out until she was hanging by the outcropping and had found footholds. She began to make her way down, following the tug of the scorpion. At first the going was slow, as she checked to make sure that every hold was solid before trusting her weight to it, but her trust in her body didn’t take long to return, and soon she was nearly down to the water.
Finally, she made it to a ledge that was more than large enough for her to sit on. The blue scorpion came out of a small hole in the rock, and climbed up the fabric of her pants until it was sitting on top of her thigh. It was like drinking out of a cool spring at the end of a long run, she felt refreshed. After a few minutes with the scorpion, the dull ache went out of the raw skin on her hands, and the clenched feeling of her back muscles faded. As her aches faded, so did the subtle anxiety that came through her link to the scorpion. How often was she going to have to come down to visit it?
“You’re a helpful little girl, aren’t you?” she asked the scorpion, and if it understood, it gave no sign. “Of course you can’t speak. But maybe that’s for the best, I’m tired of all the questions.”
Eventually, the scorpion crawled down and back into the rock. Emera checked her things and then started climbing down again. Near the bottom, the rocks became slippery with water and moss, but the wall was also more pockmarked, and the climbing didn’t get any more difficult.
The tops of boulders sat just above the waterline around the island, and she was able move from stone to stone harvesting mussels, working her way towards the stairs. When she looked back, she noticed that it looked like she had only taken about a quarter of the mussels. She reached out towards one that she had missed, but as soon as she touched its shell there was a tingling in her hand followed by a burning sensation, like holding a too-fresh cup of tea for too long. She let go and moved on, hopping to the next boulder. Again, she was able to take about a quarter of them, but after that her hand started to react to the rest of the mussels.
Eventually she was able to fill her bag, but when she looked back on the stretch that she had been harvesting from, she could barely tell the difference. It was a sharp contrast to the areas around where she had grown up, where all of the easily accessible places had been scoured clean.
She began to make her way back towards the stairs, using the boulders and traversing the rock walls. When she approached the dock area, the wall became smoother, until it was impossible to find a handhold, and the boulders disappeared. The easiest route would be to simply climb up to meet the stairs.
Emera was most of the way up to the stairs, but froze when she heard the footsteps coming down the stairs above her. Someone was looking for her. She hugged her body against the rock and waited. When she didn’t hear anything, she began to move again.
“Emera!” The shout came from the steps above her. Between the wind and the lapping of the waves, she couldn’t make out who it was.
For a moment, Emera felt as though she was falling and her stomach had lost all sense of gravity, but when she looked up and saw the smiling face peeking over the edge the anxiety passed. It was Melik. When she approached the stairs he reached down to her, offering a hand but retracting it when she shook her head no. He backed off and she got first her elbows then her left leg over the stairs.
She didn’t say anything as she caught her breath, but just looked at him. Was he waiting for her? Did he know?
“Sorry if I was in the way, I just . . .” he said.
“It’s alright, on the stairs I didn’t want to accidentally pull us both over the edge,” she said. He looked relieved. She would have taken Taine’s hand, had he been the one to offer, but she pushed the thought out of her head.
“Do you mind if I carry the bag?” he asked. They hadn’t said more than a few words to each other, even though they had arrived at the island within a week of each other.
“Sure.” He was so eager to help. She untied the knot on the cross-strap and pulled the bag over her head. He almost dropped it when she handed it to him.
“You climbed all the way up from the water with this?” he asked.
“Don’t you worry that you’ll fall?” he asked.
She looked over at him, turning her head far enough that she could see him with her good eye. He was pointedly not looking out towards the sea, and walking so close to the wall that occasionally brushed up against it. She took a closer look at him, at the hollows in his cheeks and the way his clothes hung off of him. He wasn’t wiry, he was skinny, like he had never done a day’s work in his life.
They walked in silence for a while, then Melik cleared his throat. Emera looked over at him, having to turn her head all the way to the left to see him since he was on her left side, practically hugging the wall as they walked.
“When did you lose your eye?” he asked.
“Just a few weeks before I came here,” she said. She felt the scorpion start to move towards her as she worried about the question that was going to come next.
“Is it difficult? To do things with just one eye?” he asked.
She relaxed and felt the scorpion do the same. “Not particularly. At first I had difficulty because my depth perception was less accurate, almost cut my fingers off a couple of times when I was cooking.”
“Remind me to pay more attention when it’s your turn to cook,” he said with a laugh. She hit him in the shoulder playfully.
“Really what bothers me is that when people look at me they don’t see me any more, just the patch,” she said.
“It isn’t so bad,” he said. “It makes you look like a pirate out of the stories.” He blushed, and she looked away.
She was saved from further awkwardness by Asta, who was waiting by the top of the stairs. “Pika said that you were going down to try and get some mussels and–” Melik handed her the bag. “Wow. I didn’t think there were this many down there, where did you find them?”
“Once you get away from the dock, there’s plenty,” Emera said.
“You mean you took the boat?” Asta asked.
“No, she climbed down from the stairs,” Melik said.
“Is that even possible?”
“I saw it,” Melik said.
Asta hefted the bag again. “However you did it, we’re eating well tonight.”
Emera ignored the insult and started towards the stand of trees that surrounded the entrance to the island’s interior.
The Watch Island’s living space had been carved out from a shaft that penetrated the middle of the island, with various corridors and rooms branching off from it, like a human-scale anthill. The topmost level contained the barracks, below it were the common rooms, and below that were the storage rooms.
Following the stairs that descended along the outside of the shaft, Emera made her way to her quarters and closed the curtain at the entrance. The room was small, containing barely enough space for her bed, a writing desk, and the trunk that contained the sum of her belongings. At first, she had felt trapped in the tiny spaces, but after a week of living in them, quickly changed her mind to find them safe. She touched the Ao in the shape of a glass orb embedded in the rock wall near the door, and it filled with a cream-colored light.
Other than the furniture, the surfaces of her small room were bare rock, and although the floor was smooth, it was cold. It had taken her a week, but she had found some rope that had worn enough that it was unsafe to hold any sort of weight. As it was fairly thick, it wasn’t any good for much else, and she had convinced Haaken to let her have it. She had been gradually weaving it into a mat ever since.
Her mind wandered as her hands pulled the rope through the pattern, gradually filling in the gaps in the knot. She tried to think about safe subjects, like how her parents were, or what Taine might be doing, but her mind kept on returning to earlier in the day when she was harvesting mussels.
She had known, when she had woken up on the beach to find that she had somehow survived the fall, that there would be a cost. She had assumed that it would be some sort of energy exchange like the Seals tattooed on her forearms, that the Island was giving her Ve and would eventually take some back. It hadn’t explained the taboo against unmediated connections, but she didn’t have a better explanation, either. Now, it seemed one had presented itself. It wasn’t just her body that had been bound up with the island, but her will.
After the first realization, questions rose like froth from the sea. How much power did the Island have over her? How many of her decisions had been influenced by it already? Had the Island prevented her from seeking help? Was she still herself in any meaningful sense?
She had no answers for most of the questions. The only encouraging thing was that she had told Taine the truth, which the Island would have prevented if it were able, so at least some fraction of her will was her own. How much would remain to be seen.
It was both too much and too little. Even as the knowledge threatened to overwhelm her, it was tentative, too fragile to support any real conclusions. The only thing she had to go on was her experience with the mussels. How long would it take for her to convince herself that she had just imagined the whole thing? A day? A week? There was no one she could tell, she had already lost her closest friend to the truth, she doubted that her new comrades would react any better. Still, she had to do something to add some substance to her thoughts and questions.
She stood up, her rope mat forgotten, and wrote it down, starting with her earlier experience and ending with her speculation on what her link with the Island was doing to her.
She jumped at Melik’s voice coming from outside her room. “Yes?”
He poked his head in, and she struggled to not cover the piece of paper on her desk. It wouldn’t do any good to hide it from him if doing so drew his suspicion.
“Dinner is almost ready,” he said.
“Thanks, I’ll be up in a moment.”
He withdrew his head and she heard him continue on to the next room. She looked at the paper again. The safest thing would be to burn it and throw the ashes into the sea, but it was too important for that. As bad as it would be for someone else to see what she had written down, it would be worse still for her to allow herself to ignore what was happening to her.
Before she left, she folded the paper and slid it under her trunk.
Dinner was the one time of day when everyone joined together in one place. The room was the largest enclosed space on the island, big enough to accommodate the kitchen and a large table. the outside wall was open, overlooking the sea, to ensure the continuity of the watch. Emera was the last one to arrive, and her bowl was already filled with mussels in a chunky tomato sauce. She took several pieces of thin, tangy bread and filled her mug with cider from the pitcher in the center of the table.
The seven of them ate in silence for a while. The meal was unusually good for Asta’s cooking, and several of them took seconds. Haaken wiped his hands clean and produced a piece of paper, setting it on the table in front of him.
“I just received word from Kinav today,” he said. Of the seven of them, Haaken and Serren had been there the longest, and shared command of the small island. Since Serren rarely spoke, that left Haaken in charge most of the time. “The Beacon has been finished. What this means for us– yes?”
All eyes turned to Emera, and she felt her cheeks flushing. “Sorry, but what is the Beacon?”
“Councilman Traasky has taken it upon himself to break our isolation, so he had the Beacon built,” Haaken said. “It puts out a Ve signal that anyone with the right tools can pick up. In theory it will allow ships that we send out to find their way back even if the Island drifts out of sight. Of course, who knows who else might be able to find us now.”
“There haven’t been any visitors in over two hundred years. Why should we assume that there is even anyone left out there?” Asta asked.
“Even if there aren’t, we have to be ready,” Ran said, and there was a moment of silence.
“Ran is right,” Haaken said. “We survived, flourished even, we have to assume that others did as well.”
“So what do we do? We’re already watching the horizon through all hours,” Pika said, gesturing towards the panoramic view of the sea that was visible through the opening in the wall.
Haaken exchanged glances with Serren. “There’s not much that we can do. We will spend some time practicing with the sea chains, as well as more time on training.”
“Do you think that people will find us now?” Melik asked.
“I don’t know,” Haaken said. “The message is here, if anyone wants to read it.” He picked up the piece of paper as he spoke, then set it back down. He got up to leave.
The note was passed around the table, everyone reading it in turn. Emera was expecting there to be more information on it, but it was short, there was nothing beyond what Haaken had said.
She had a Watch shift after dinner, and since the weather was nice, she decided to take it topside. Near the edge of the island, there was a grape arbor that had a bench built into it, and she sat, reclined, as the sun set and she watched the horizon.
Once the questions about how the scorpion was affecting her entered her thoughts, she couldn‘t quite get them out. Some of them were too terrible to think about, so she focused on the more palatable ones, like what sort of limitations she would have to deal with, ignoring for the moment the larger questions of identity. She wasn‘t up to climbing back down to the shore, as her muscles and calluses had both deteriorated from not climbing for the past month. She went through the events again and again in her mind.
Whatever was happening seemed to be based on some sort of balance. The Island accepted her as part of the ecosystem, or else it wouldn’t have allowed her to take any of the mussels, but it limited the amount that she was able to take to ensure that she didn’t wipe them out by overharvesting them. How did it determine that balance?
Topside, it was early morning, and Ran was sitting on the bench that Emera had occupied the night before, logbook resting beside him. He didn’t notice her coming up, and she moved quietly. What she needed to do would be best done without interruptions. On the opposite side of the Watch Island, she found what she was looking for, a small breadfruit tree that had been planted only a couple of years prior and had only a couple of fruits on it.
She climbed up it and started to pull the spiky little balls that would soon develop into breadfruit. She was surprised that there was no resistance when she pulled off the first one, and so she continued, each time expecting to repeat her experience with the mussels. A few minutes later, all of the unripe breadfruits were scattered across the ground below her, and still no reaction. She started to climb down.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Haaken was standing at the top of the staircase, staring at her. He started to walk towards her. She saw Ran stand up to look in her direction as well, but after receiving a look from Haaken and he sat back down and returned his attention to the horizon.
Emera just stood there, frozen, as Haaken made his way towards her. He didn’t hurry, but he didn’t need to. Even if she had wanted to flee, the look on his face made it clear that it would be both a bad and short-lived idea. Besides, there was nowhere to go. There was an emptiness in her stomach as the reality of the situation sank in, but through it she could still feel the pull of the scorpion. She could feel it starting to move, to make its way towards her. Her panic built, she didn’t want to contemplate what would happen if Haaken discovered her link to the Island. As her sense of panic grew, she could feel the scorpion growing more urgent.
Somehow, she found it within herself to force a sense of calm, and when she calmed, she could feel the scorpion slow down and then stop. She took deep breaths, bringing air down into her belly and then expelling it fully, like her father had taught her, and the sense of calm grew.
When Haaken reached her, she was still halfway down the tree. Calming down had taken all of her concentration, and it was too late to move.
“Emera, what are you doing up there?“ he asked, kicking one of the immature fruits, causing it to ricochet off of several others of its kind, like a game of botchi.
“It‘s something my father always did when he planted a new tree. He said that for the first couple of years, the fruits aren‘t very good anyway, and they distract the tree from growing bigger.“ As she spoke she worked her way down, trying her best to make it look like she had spent her childhood climbing trees, not rocks. The only trees her father knew anything about were his precious tea trees, and even if they had grown big enough to be interesting, he never would have let her climb them.
“That makes sense,“ Haaken said. “But that doesn‘t mean that you can just take it upon yourself to pull all of the fruits off of a tree.“
“I understand. I don‘t know what I was thinking,“ she said, hoping that he took her astonishment at his belief as shame.
“I think that we need to talk,“ he said after a thoughtful moment. His face was unreadable. She felt the scorpion moving in response to her apprehension. She suppressed it.
The two of them walked together to where a series of sitting stones had been placed near the inland edge of the Watch Island. They had long ago been weathered smooth and were one of Emera‘s favorite places on the island. She wondered if that was why he was taking her there. After they sat down he was quiet for a long while, so she just tried to lose herself in the view.
If the Island was a wheel, then Jarna, Bordan, Korsem, and Avlane were the rim and Kinav was the hub. The Watch Islands rose out of the middle of the channels that separated the hub islands, too small to be shown on a map as anything other than labels. Kinav was framed by the sheer walls of the hub islands, a jagged mound of grey buildings resting on a blue pillow.
“I‘m sorry that neither Serren or myself weren‘t able to talk to you sooner, but these past few weeks have been busy, with the Beacon and all,“ Haaken said. “I don‘t know why you chose to come to the Watch Island, and I don‘t really care so long as it doesn‘t interfere with your duties.“ He looked over at her and she nodded. “What is important is that you understand how things work around here. Pretty much everyone but Melik has been here longer than you and can tell you what to do. But the fact is that none of us wants to spend every spare moment telling you what to do. That being said, if you want to do something like pull all of the fruit off of one of the trees, pleas check with someone else first, alright?”
“I understand,” she said, confused. She had already figured most of what he had said out for herself, and had expected him to tell her something more important. Instead, he leaned back and looked over the water at Kinav. After a minute, he stood up.
“If you need anything, you can always . . .”
“Thanks,” she said.
She sat alone for a while longer, before going back to her quarters and adding what she had learned with the breadfruit to her journal.
The Watch Island wasn’t very big, and after half an hour of searching for Melik, Emera was getting frustrated. Finally she was down to the Library and the cellars. She decided to check the library first.
When she poked her head in and saw Melik sitting in one corner, she swore under her breath.
“What? Oh, hello,” he said, looking up from his book.
She stepped inside and closed the door behind herself. The room wasn’t large, but the walls appeared to be made out of books, more books than she had ever seen. It took her a moment to find her voice as she wrapped her mind around the volume of knowledge that surrounded her.
“I just wanted to say that I was sorry about the other day.” She crossed the room and took the other seat.
“It’s alright, I understand,” he said. Emera didn’t believe him.
It was time, she was going to tell him the truth. He would understand, had to understand. He wasn’t the same as Taine. She opened her mouth, but found it dry. He was looking at her.
“I . . . killed someone, back on Korsem,” she lied. She wished that the words coming out of her mouth were unfamiliar to her, that she could attribute them to the scorpion rather than cowardice. But she couldn’t. “It was an accident. I couldn’t stay, couldn’t look his family in the eye, so I came here.
He stood, and she stood, too. He hugged her, as a friend, and she cried into his shoulder. Not for the lie or the imaginary corpse, but for herself.
This short story is just one part of a larger story, use the links above or the navigation at the top and sidebar of this page to see the rest.
Author’s Notes: [spoiler]Notes coming soon.[/spoiler]