"I thought it less like a lake, and more like a moat." -Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism
No one knows who created the sea. Did a god create the sea? Did God create the sea? Or did a god or God crawl out of the depths, made wise by the endless dark of it, not a celestial being but a creature more known to us that we're aware?
The ten seas were passable once. No one knows how long ago. They were shallower, then, enough that the Capital of Era lay resting by the coast, not deep within the midlands, sacrificing harbor cities for its own safety.
The ten seas were safer, once. It is written in the books. Bright and wide, the oceans used to be ours to roam, open and clear for hundreds of feet. Then the rain and flood came. And so did the deep sea creatures. They crawled from the dark, encouraged by the rising water levels. They came for the sea shores, clawing at the edges of civilization, looking for something they could pull back in. Charybdis drowned unsuspecting boats and the Devil Whale swallowed ships whole.
No one can pass the ten seas now. Not without experience, anyway. If you want access to Era or any other mainland country, you buy a ticket on a mercenary's boat. Harpoons and clever navigating keeps the mercenaries safe. Sometimes it is not enough. Most people are closed off from the outside world, communicating through letters sent by swallows or other birds equipped for the trip. Seldom does anyone travel on their own anymore.
Jax Darwood lost a finger to a hippocampus, once. A pinky, but nevertheless a traumatizing experience for a ten-year-old. Though sharper than horse teeth, hippocampi teeth were not made to chew through bone, and it had been by sheer stroke of luck that Jax had been pulled out of the sea by his uncle and not dragged into the briny by the thing.
Eight years later, and Jax still didn't like large bodies of water, much less the sea. He knew well enough there were far worse things down there than a mutant horse or three. His missing finger served as a reminder to never head down to the harbor at night, and to never stray too far without help. He kept to the mainland of the small island, Saltstone Harbor a kilometer walk from his house. He tended to his plants, he helped his uncle hunt for game in the deep forests south of the island, and only ever went down to the harbor for imports like fruit and rice.
Once a year he went to the beach for his parents memorial.
They'd been lost at sea, swallowed by god-knows-what. Their bodies were never found. That wasn't uncommon, really. The water devoured many unlucky souls during a year, and it was a rarity to find a body to bury. If they did it was mangled and grotesque, or greenish black and cold from days in the water. Jax counted himself lucky that they never found his parents.
His uncle told him they were easily remembered in his looks, anyway. Jax had gotten his dark skin and soft black curls from his father. He'd gotten his freckles and short stature from his mother. The raised, sharp chin and the green eyes could belong to the both of them. Jax carried himself as though he was truly created in their image, brought forth to carry a legacy. What legacy, he didn't know. He'd get there, someday.
Saltstone Island was originally a part of the mainland. They only knew that because it was written in the old books that were kept intact after the Flood. When it arrived the lands around Saltstone Island sunk into the sea, claimed by fish and crabs and creatures few people liked to mention. Hydra and Scylla and Devil Whales were all names that tasted sour on most tongues. Saltstone Island survived mainly by exporting fish to the mainlands and polluted territories, wood and cobblestone. Never really a bustling place, but never really empty either.
Jax was fond of his home. As far as he knew he'd never lived anywhere else. His parents had been travelers, though. They'd head out to sea and come home with treasure and fruits and things that you could never find on the small isle. His mother would cradle him in her arms, tell him of barrel organs and travelling gemstone merchants and carnivals in the capital. Jax would listen, imagine, feel it as though she'd taken him there herself. She never did. Though his mother did not fear much, his father was cautious about risking anything but himself. Jax's uncle often told him that it was only because his father never could say no to his mother that she ever came along for trips. If it were up to Jax's father she'd stay safe and sound at home. Still, Jax got his fire and fury from his mother. It was very hard to say no.
Jax's feet were planted in the sand as he stood at the edge of the water. He still kept close to the harbor, in case something crawled onto the shore hoping to get a bite of him. It hadn't happened yet, but it didn't hurt to be careful. Sirens had hands, after all. Selkies could even have legs. Giant Squids didn't obey the laws of physics from what Jax had seen. He didn't quite know what was stopping them from grabbing him from the shore and pulling him into the deep. Some sort of moral code, maybe. No, if anything, giant squids did not adhere to moral codes. Unless there were squid codes. Were there squid codes? Jax did not know. The hyacinths he'd brought had been dropped in the sea, and he was taking a precious few minutes to just think. Or not think. He wasn't quite sure he knew the difference anymore. Thinking involved an unbalanced amount of squids, apparently.
He looked to the harbor, the pier busy with arrivals of mercenary ships and trading ships that had made the safe journey across the sea. Uncle Sullivan was tallying the wares, tapping his boat shoes against the wood and scribbling in a notebook. Occasionally he'd look over at Jax, and when he caught his eyes Jax smiled, raising the last flower in his hand. Sullivan nodded, somber, and went back to his work. Sullivan was unlucky that Jax's parents' memorial fell on arrival days most of the time, but Jax knew full and well that his uncle took time out of his day to talk to his brother and sister-in-law.
Jax dropped the last hyacinth in the water, and the waves carried it out to sea. He crossed his arms, stared at the water, and hoped that nothing would look back at him. Prayed that nothing would look back at him. Sincerely begged whatever god there was above that nothing would look back at him.The dark water looked empty for now, but he still wasn't letting his guard down. He glared at the depths like they'd picked a fight with him. In a lot of ways they had. Young hearts did not take well to being trapped in old towns.
"Jax!" Sullivan's voice always carried well. Jax turned his head, raising his brows and putting a hand on his hip, as though challenging his uncle to tell him to do any chores on this very important day. It was a very important day, after all, he insisted with his eyes. His uncle regarded his stance for a moment, sighing, and waved him over with a calloused hand. At his side was a man, bearded and old and weathered from travelling.
Jax rarely saw captains grow that old anymore. Still Galen had been visiting their port every year for a decade. Jax didn't know a better captain than him. Not that he'd ever been on a boat, but he'd seen the way Galen treated his ship, and sitting on the hill Jax could see all the vessels leave the harbor. Somehow Galen's ship looked calmer than the rest. More sturdy. Maybe good captains made better ships. Maybe better ships made good captains.
Jax climbed up onto the harbor, his bare feet briefly slipping on the wood. Sullivan hauled him up by his elbow, pulling him to his side and resting an arm on his shoulder.
"You're going to get splinters on your soles again, boy," he said, and Jax shrugged, grinning.
"It hasn't happened that often," he retorted. Galen was observing the two, broad arms crossed over his chest. Around them Galen's crew were lifting crates and wares from the ship. Sullivan seemed to be tallying them in his head now that his arm was preoccupied. Perhaps he only wrote things down to seem more professional. Jax didn't put it past him. Galen scratched at his beard with one hand, then looked over at Jax.
"Your uncle tells me you've been lacking things to do." Galen's voice was rough and deep, like an organ. Or a cello. A drum. He looked so old and wise that for a moment Jax felt the need to agree if only because Galen had to be a lot smarter and wiser than him and so he had to be right in whatever he said. Still he took the time to process the statement, and immediately found himself very reluctant to say yes. Especially when he realized the implications. Jax turned towards his uncle, then back to the captain, and then back yet again. He shook his head slowly, as convincingly as possible. He had lots to do. Sleeping till noon. Cross stitching. Climbing trees.
Not touching boats with a ten foot pole.
Sullivan let go of his shoulder to take a firm grasp of his arm instead. Jax tested the grip, tried to tear himself out of it, and found himself much in the same situation as a fox in a trap. He didn't have any qualms about chewing his own arm off. Sullivan was quite aware of that, however, and gave his nephew a firm little look. Jax returned it with furrowed brows and a venomous little frown. Galen watched all of this happen with little reaction. A twitch of the lips, but that might have been a trick of the light. God, Jax hoped it was a trick of the light. Sullivan pulled him closer yet again, though Jax hadn't even noticed that he'd been trying to slither away. Instinct. Like pulling your hand away from a hot stove. Like walking faster when faced with threatening strangers. Like running away when faced with certain death.
"Junior here has an unhealthy fear of the deep blue, I'm afraid. You have a remedy for that, don't you Gal?" Jax stared at his uncle, face paling in disbelief. He held up his right hand, the one not in Sullivan's grasp. He wiggled the stump of his little finger. Unhealthy fear? All of Jax's fear's were quite rational, well thought out, and excusable. All of them. Including his fear of the sea, his fear of hippocampi, his fear of hydras and kraken and other god-awful sea dwelling things. His uncle only rolled his eyes. "You were ten and stupid, get over it."
Losing a limb was not something one just got over. Besides, Jax wasn't quite sure he was past the stupid part just yet. Just because he was eighteen didn't mean Sullivan could revoke his right-to-be-stupid card. That just wasn't fair. Not until he was twenty or so, at least.
Jax pulled at Sullivan's grip more insistently. The bastard held fast. Jax hadn't inherited much strength. Instead he'd inherited speed and a very small body. If he could get out of Sullivan's grip he could run and hide until Galen's ship had to leave the port. The problem was that his arms were twigs and Sullivan's hand was a vice. Jax looked to Galen for help of some kind, but the captain looked obedient of Sullivan's suggestion.
"I've got to admit, Jax," Galen began, pulling up a sleeve and pulling off his glove. "There are scary things out there."
Jax shut his mouth fairly quickly as the light reflected off the bronze of Galen's prosthetic. It was a pretty thing in all honesty, mechanical and intricate, gears and cogs and chains imitated tendons and muscles. Galen flexed his arm, bent it, twisted it. The prosthetic obeyed neatly. Jax started wide-eyed at it for a moment, then he looked up at Galen.
"How much did that thing cost?" Galen's bellowing laugh was a sweet thing, a loud bass sound. Jax laughed nervously back, a hopeless little noise. He didn't know what he was laughing at. He didn't think he was laughing at anything at all. He was just dead scared of the man, now that he knew he'd be trying to get him onto a ship and away from his home.
"A few years in my trade and people start owing you favors, Jax. Some even stumble over each other to repay them." The captain pulled his sleeve back down, then his glove back on, then put the metal hand on Jax's shoulder. Jax felt very trapped. Incredibly trapped. Terribly trapped. Irredeemably and indisputably trapped. He turned his eyes away from Galen, hammering them into the wood of the pier instead. Hoping it might crumble beneath all three of them and sent them crashing into the water just long enough for Jax to save himself. The old men could drown, pulled under by whatever lurked under the pier.
"I don't see your point," Jax muttered, now stuffing his free hand into the pocket of his shorts, making himself smaller than he already was. Galen's smile was a frightening thing, and Jax would've liked to avoid ever seeing it. This wasn't a fight he could win, but he certainly wasn't going down easy. He was certainly going to quarrel. And perhaps bite Sullivan in the arm. Whatever opportunity presented itself. Sullivan took the wheel again
"Jax, you won't find a man in the world without some scars nowadays. I need you to step up and patch up this little nick in your armor, boy. What happened to the boy that'd dive into the harbor looking for dropped watches and missing rings?" Jax grimaced, turning an accusing stare at his uncle.
"He lost a finger."
"And yet he still has full use of his hand." Jax rolled his eyes. Point taken, but not acknowledged completely. Sullivan didn't dignify it with a response. Instead he looked to Galen, then to his ship. Jax stilled. Froze like a deer. Readied himself like a startled snake.
"What are you up to?"
"How long until you're ready to depart?" Jax saw the look in his uncle's eyes. He pulled at the grip again, insistent. Sullivan tightened it threateningly. Jax started squirming, writhing and kicking. Sullivan grabbed him with both arms now. Galen didn't pay it any mind.
"Fifteen minutes?" Jax's curls were falling out of his ponytail and into his face. He pushed at Sullivan, but the man held steady. He set his teeth into the man's arm, and Sullivan just rearranged his grip, careful to not let any reaction show on his face. Either Sullivan's arm was made of solid metal all of a sudden, or he was really good at hiding pain, even as Jax nigh attempted to draw blood. He didn't pierce the skin, of course. He wasn't that stupid nor that vile.
"Pay you fifty gold pieces to make it five and help me get him onto it," Sullivan said, and Jax could just tell he was smiling. He kicked harder with his feet, though he didn't hit anything of substance. Galen had already taken a few steps back for safety's sake. The latter now looked at Jax with a guilty little gleam in his eye.
"Don't you dare, you god-damn lousy son of a--"
"Language, Jax," Sullivan wrapped a hand around Jax's mouth. He licked it. Sullivan's groan was a very small victory. Galen regarded him for another five seconds. Or five minutes. Jax didn't quite know, he was busy trying to hit Sullivan's ankles. Galen turned toward his crew.
"Departure in five!"
Jax managed to tear Sullivan's hand off his mouth long enough to shout a colorful string of profanities. Galen paid it no mind. Instead he waved two of his crewmen over. He spoke in a low voice, and they responded in kind. Jax lifted a very accusing foot.
"I know exactly what you're talking about you--" Sullivan put his hand back over his mouth again. Jax finally slumped a bit, tears welling up in his eyes instead. Sullivan felt the wetness on his hand and turned the boy around in his grip.
"No, no, no, Jaxie. Don't pull that on me, please." He wiped away the tears with a free hands, and Jax retorted by forcing hiccuping instead, wet and desperate. Sullivan looked almost helpless, and briefly seemed to fight with himself. Jax Wiped at his own tears this time. Half of them were crocodile tears anyway.
"Don't do this to me." On the memorial day, too. He didn't need to say that out loud to convey it. Jax had always been good at weaseling his way out of things. His uncle had a soft spot for tears and falsified tenderness. Part of it was genuine, though.
"Jax. It's practically exposure therapy. You'll take a trip to Era and be back on the island before you even know it. Yeah, I caught you unawares, I'm sorry. But if I'd told you in advance you'd be deep in the forest now. I'd never find you."
"You're goddamn right."
"Jax." Sullivan's voice was stern. Jax looked at him for a bit, then tried to writhe his way out of his grasp again. It didn't work. He groaned in defeat, slumping against his uncle and moaning dramatically.
Suddenly he felt foreign arms on his shoulders, and he immediately pulled away.
"I can walk!" He turned on his heel, stomping toward the ship with purpose. Awful old men and their awful therapy and their dumb and awful ideas. Immediately Sullivan's voice called out again.
"You forgot something!" Jax stopped, clenched his jaw. Then he turned, and Sullivan was walking over to a knapsack by the boathouse. The jerk had already packed his things. He picked it up, sauntered back over, and threw it at his nephew. Jax caught it with a glare. Still Sullivan kept walking towards him. He pulled something from his pocket.
The amulet was made of shell, wrapped in bronze and hanging around a leather strap. Jax hadn't seen it before. Sullivan handed it over with hesitation, stopping momentarily to look at Jax.
"It wards off the dangers of the sea. Your mother used to wear it everywhere. I didn't really think you'd have a use for it until now, considering the fact you don't even set foot in a puddle. It might make the journey a bit safer."
Jax took it immediately, raising the shell against the sun. It gleamed in the light, bright and colorful. He didn't know seashells had that many colors.
"This is very cliched, Sully." Jax's feelings were all over the place, and he had a hard time schooling his voice into something presentable. Sullivan put a hand on his shoulder.
"It is. What I'm about to say is even worse, I'm afraid. Your mother wouldn't want you scared of the sea. You probably don't remember much about her, really. She used to bring you to the shore and sit with you during the morning. Your father was going mad with worry for the both of you. Still, nothing ever happened to you. I don't know what sort of affinity your mother had with the sea, but she was always fond of it."
He was right. That was terribly cliche. Still, Jax felt a pull at his heartstrings. He pressed the amulet to his chest, looking to the water.
"I can't see why." Sullivan's laugh was very welcome.
"Yeah, me neither. Your mother had a few bolts and screws loose, honestly. If your father had heard me say that he'd have ripped me a new one, though."
"Not sure if I should be offended."
"Get on that boat and you'll prove to me that you've got your own head screwed on, boy."
Jax pulled the necklace over his head, tightening it slightly around his neck so it wasn't too loose. He readjusted the knapsack on his back, and looked at Sullivan. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes.
And tried to run for it.
Sullivan grabbed him by the waist, lifted him over his shoulder, and walked toward the ship. Jax kicked and screamed again, valiant and stubborn in his efforts. The necklace hung safely around his neck, a good precaution. He kept writhing until he actually slipped from Sullivan's grasp. And onto the hardwood surface of the pier. He recovered quickly, but not quickly enough. Sullivan just kept pulling him by his legs instead. Jax's nails weren't anywhere near long enough for him to hold onto the cracks of the harbor, and instead he scratched fruitlessly at the planks. He wasn't going down without a very long-winded, very insistent, very stupid and reckless fight.
"Let go of me you old bastard! You're such a jerk! I hate you! You balding fu-"
Sullivan dropped him back onto the floor only to grab him by the waist again instead, so Jax couldn't struggle as much.
"I hope I drown! I'll haunt you." Jax went limp in his arms as he spoke, and Sullivan had to put more strength into dragging him onto the ship. He took the challenge in stride, and Jax cursed him for having such patience. Jax himself would have given up by now if his life wasn't on the line.
"You're such a baby," Sullivan complained, and Jax responded by slamming his fists against the grip around his waist. Sullivan was strong in a way that was just brutally unfair. Especially when Jax was as weak in comparison as he was. Sullivan groaned, but neither flinched nor let go. He kicked some more, decided the fight was useless at last, and fixed Galen with a killing stare.
"I'm going to make your life hell." Galen chortled in response, walking up the platform after them. Sullivan held his nephew tight while the rest of the crew boarded.
"Let me tell you, kid, you won't find that easy to do," Galen retorted, looking over the edge of the ship to count his men.
The Augustina wasn't a large ship in any way, but she was very well cared for. With room for ten men and seven passengers, the ship traveled back and forth from Era to the southern islands, including Saltstone Island, Jax's home. It delivered wares and took travelers and exports. It was old, but it was trustworthy. There hadn't been a year where Jax didn't recall the Augustina dropping by every two weeks or so. He knew the trip back to Era was four days in good weather, but there were a lot of things to consider on the ten seas. Like hippocampi. Jax scrunched up his nose where he was lying limp in his uncle's arms.
"You're eighteen, Jax. Come on."
"Great observation. I'm also not suicidal."
"Debatable." Jax craned his neck to look up at Sullivan with a piercing little glare.
"I hope that my mother smites you when I die because of your neglect." Sullivan cocked a brow at Jax's statement, then looked up towards the heavens.
"Amie must be climbing the celestial hierarchy rather quickly if she already has the power to smite me. Tell you what, boy, if your mother is sitting on the throne up there, I gladly welcome being... Having her smite me."
"What is the past tense of smiting, anyway?" a passing sailor murmured, and Jax was silenced for about half a minute, thinking. Sullivan looked down at him as the boy kept quiet for a bit, then slapped a hand against his thigh.
"Smote. It has to be smote," Jax concluded, proud of his realization. Sullivan sighed, dropping him onto the floor. Jax actually sat still, sighing to himself and placing his elbows on his knees. There wasn't really much to do. They pulled the pathway onto the boat and closed it off. Galen put a hand on Jax's shoulder again as Sullivan walked to the edge. He leant against the railing, looking over at his nephew.
"Come home safe, boy." Jax spit defiantly. Sullivan said nothing to it, just kept standing there, waiting Jax out.
In the end he won.
"Yeah, yeah," Jax muttered, and Sullivan must've been pleased enough by that, because he ruffled Jax's hair before he leapt over the boat's edge and onto the pier again.
In reality Jax wasn't as scared of the sea as he perhaps wanted to be. He'd been burnt by it before, har har, but he wasn't one to close off so easily. It was more the lack of caution that scared him. His parents hadn't been scared of the sea. Galen wasn't scared of the sea. Still, it could swallow them whole in a moment. Why wasn't Jax scared of that? So he faked it. Hoped that he'd one day be cautious enough to not feel any sort of pull to the dark deep of it. He still did. He felt the water on his skin, felt it pulling him in like a siren. While Jax had never met a siren, he assumed their alluring call must feel a lot like it felt for him to see the ocean. Calling, whispering. So why wasn't he scared?
Now, sitting on the deck of the Augustina, he wasn't really scared. He was anxious. Rationally worried. He wasn't scared. He didn't like that he wasn't scared.
He got to his feet as they pulled up the anchor and untied the ropes. He went to the bow of the ship, leaning his arms against the railings, patient. Briefly he looked back at his uncle, and Sullivan was staring back at him, anxiety furrowing his brows.
He was probably more scared than Jax, in all honesty. Jax had known his father for nine years when he lost him. Sullivan had known the same man, his brother, for thirty. Despite the blood-relation, there was something different to losing someone during your childhood and during your adulthood. Jax had been shaped by it. Sullivan had been broken by it. Jax saw it in the way his face fell when they lost a shipment. In the way his jaw clenched when a ship didn't report. Jax was careful of the deep blue. Sullivan was vengeful and angry and didn't want to let it win. While Jax felt suffocated and often lonely on the small island, Sullivan was only thankful that there was, in the worst case scenario, a way to leave.
He just wanted to teach Jax that.