The Deepest BlueSarah Beth Durst
Maps by Ashley P. Halsey
For the Kolkos:
Valerie, Matthew, Rafi,
Allen, and Lauren
About the Author
Also by Sarah Beth Durst
About the Publisher
Death is blue.
Black blue, churned by storms,
Green blue, stained by kelp,
Pale blue, bleached by sun,
The turquoise blue of the sea’s shallows,
And the deepest blue of its depths.
On the dawn of her wedding day, Mayara knotted her diving belt around her waist and climbed the skull of a long-dead sea monster. At the top, she straddled the eye socket and looked down. Below, far below, the ancient skull was cracked, and within the fissure was a deep pool of water so still that it looked like glass. She imagined it would shatter when she dived into it.
Breathe, she told herself. Just breathe.
She’d never done this dive before. It was known to be one of the trickiest on all the islands of Belene. But today was special.
Today I marry my best friend. It’s the perfect day to defy death.
Or, as she used to say when her sister ran off to try a new dive, to dramatically meet it.
She eyed the barnacle-encrusted rocks far below, on the edges of the fissure. So easy to die: impaled on the rocks, neck broken, body sliced. So hard to live: one opening, just a little wider than a vertical human body. You had to hit it just right, perfectly straight, arms in front of you, pressed against your ears.
I can do it, she thought. I will do it.
She’d told no one where she was going, especially Kelo, though she knew he’d guess. He knew her better than anyone. At dawn, she’d slipped out her window and run up the winding path. The seagulls were already awake, cawing over the fish in the shallows. A few clamdiggers were on the beach, bent over their shovels, and the grandmothers—the eldest villagers—were already at the end of the rock jetties with their favorite fishing rods. None of them had paid any attention to Mayara. They were used to her sprinting out of the village at odd hours, clutching her diving belt with its assortment of knives and pouches, whenever the urge to dive struck her.
But today’s dive wasn’t a whim. She’d planned this, in honor of her sister. Exactly eight years ago today, when Mayara was eleven and Elorna was sixteen, Elorna had done this very dive. She’d come back exhilarated, with her pouches full of abalone, and woken up Mayara by emptying her pouches onto Mayara’s bed.
My quilt stank like fish for a week. But Elorna had been so excited, and Mayara had been so happy that her beloved sister had come to her first, bypassing their parents, her friends, everyone, to share the moment with Mayara.
“It’s so peaceful down there,” Elorna had said. “Like everything that ever upset you has drifted away, and there’s no past and future. Only the blue, all around you.”
“Death is blue,” Mayara had said automatically. It was an islander saying.
Elorna had laughed. “I’ll tell you a little secret: death can’t catch you if you chase death. While it looks for you here”—she tapped Mayara’s nose—“you’ll really be here.” She grabbed Mayara’s hand and yanked her out of the house.
Yelping, Mayara stumbled along behind her. “Elorna, I’m not dressed! And that doesn’t make sense. If you chase death, you’re just more likely to die.”
But Elorna had only laughed again and kept running, dragging her little sister with her through the still-asleep village, all the way to the shore and straight into the shallows. Without releasing Mayara’s hand, she’d pulled her into the ocean, and they’d plunged into the breaking waves together.
It was one of Mayara’s favorite memories.
If Elorna were here today, on Mayara’s wedding day, she’d have woken Mayara early and dragged her off on some adventure: climbing to the top of a cliff or discovering a new secret alcove. Or they’d have swum out to one of the rocks in the bay to watch the sea spirits at sunrise. Or “borrowed” a boat and dared the dangers of the reef.
But Elorna wasn’t here.
And so I’ll dive.
I have to live enough for both of us now.
Mayara breathed deeply, then exhaled, pushing all the air out of her lungs. She inhaled one more time, then gasped like a fish on land in order to suck in extra puffs to fill both her lungs to capacity. When her lungs were so stuffed she felt as if they would burst, she leaped up and out, bent in half, then kicked her legs behind her.
Straight as an arrow, she sliced through the air. She felt the wind in her face, heard its shriek, and saw the sliver of blue straight below her. Arms straight over her head, she pressed her palms together as if in prayer.
And then she pierced the water.
Silence filled her instantly. Beautiful silence. It wrapped her in its embrace. She kicked her feet together, propelling herself deeper. Her eyes stung from the salty water, but she kept them open, as she’d learned to do as a baby. Murky blueness was all around, and she felt as if it had erased the entire world.
For the first thirty seconds, she felt like an invader, forcing herself through the water.
In the next thirty seconds, she felt her body rebel, her lungs burning, her muscles shaking, as every bit of her body told her she didn’t belong. She needed air!
But she went deeper.
Then the shaking pain receded, replaced by a calmness.
It was a calmness only the deep divers ever experienced, and with it came the feeling of becoming one with the water, as if Mayara belonged here in this airless world.
The best divers on the islands could dive on one breath for eleven minutes.
Mayara had trained hard to withstand eight minutes, a full minute longer than Elorna had ever achieved. She loosened one of the straps on her belt and unhooked one of her knives. Giving another powerful kick, she propelled herself down toward the rocks below.
Few had harvested here, and the abalone were thickly clustered. She chose the largest. Gliding toward them, trying not to alarm them and cause them to cling harder, Mayara deftly slid her blade between the sea snail’s muscly foot and the rock. She tucked the creature into a pouch and went for a second one that looked to be the size of her father’s shoe. She could fit only one in each pouch, they were so big. She saved the last pouch for sea urchins, filling it with the spiky creatures, working quickly but smoothly so as not to disturb the water.
She judged she’d reached six minutes.
Her thoughts already felt sluggish. She couldn’t remember why she was here, why she’d decid
ed to gather these poor creatures, or even what they were called. Silver fish flitted past her, and she saw a brilliant purple fish dart into an orange anemone. The colors were vivid and cloudy simultaneously. . . .
It was time to return to the surface. She performed a graceful half-somersault and kicked upward. Behind her, the fish scattered in her wake. She swam up, bending her body fluidly as if she were a dolphin.
Above, she saw a glow—the sun warming the surface, but in the shape of a crescent moon, the fissure she’d dived into. She aimed for it. Her lungs were hurting now, and black spots began to dot her vision. She wondered if she’d miscalculated. She thought she knew exactly what she could handle.
A trickle of fear slid into her.
Ruthlessly, she quenched it. Fear could kill you faster than anything else down here. She had to stay calm, conserve every last molecule of oxygen in her body. She’d reach the surface soon. She hadn’t dived that far.
The glow intensified until soon it was all she could see. Her lungs were near bursting . . . and then she burst out of the water. Breathe! She sucked in air, and it hurt as she filled—
She sensed the water spirit in her mind, like a too-sharp tickle inside her skull, only a split second before its jaws clamped onto her leg. It yanked her down before she could finish her breath. Mayara swallowed water instead. Flailing, she fought to reach the surface again. She kicked the spirit, and it released.
Aiming for the glow, she erupted out of the water once more, this time coughing and spitting. She inhaled deeply, banishing the black spots. Her limbs quit trembling.
From the surface, she couldn’t see the water spirit. She knew it was still down there—she felt its nearness clawing at her mind. She couldn’t give it a chance to grab her again.
Inhaling once more, she propelled herself back under. She spun in the water, searching for the spirit, and saw it: vaguely humanlike, it was the size of a two-year-old child but as thin as an old woman who cannot eat anymore. Its skin was gray like a shark’s, and it had three rows of sharp teeth. Its all-black eyes were fixed on Mayara.
Knife out, Mayara kicked her feet, aiming for the spirit even as it swam at her.
I’m chasing death now.
She sliced with her knife, but the spirit pivoted faster than she’d expected and let out a keening shriek that pierced through the water, echoing.
Oh no you don’t. No calling for friends. She stabbed fast, aiming not for the spirit’s heart this time but for its throat. She felt the blade nick the soft, wet flesh. A cloud of red puffed around her hand.
The spirit clapped its clawed fingers over its throat and then spurted backward. She hadn’t killed it, but it was hurt enough to retreat.
Mayara hadn’t been fast enough, though.
A larger water spirit—this one shaped like a squid and as milky white as a pearl—was darting through the water toward her. It had heard the childlike spirit’s cry, either through the water or in its mind.
She tried to outswim it, aiming for the fissure, but it wrapped its tentacles around her waist, pulling her under. She jammed her knife into one of the tentacles. Blood stained the water, but the spirit didn’t loosen its grip.
No! I am not dying today!
Yanking the blade out, she stabbed again and again, but still the spirit pulled her deeper. Her lungs ached, her head spun, and blackness filled her vision. She heard her sister’s voice in her head: Mayara, don’t do it. Promise me you won’t.
But, Elorna, no one will know!
You know that’s not true. They’ll know. They can sense it when you use your power. It draws them like sharks to chum. You’ll make it a hundred times worse.
What’s a hundred times worse than dead?
I don’t want to find out, my little minnow.
Are you afraid? Elorna, you aren’t afraid of anything.
I’m not afraid for me; I’m afraid for you.
But she knew as she thought it that it was a lie. Mayara was afraid for herself too. The blackness was almost complete. In seconds, she’d lose consciousness. And Kelo would never see her again. He’d wake alone on their wedding day, he’d complete the dress he was making for her—the one he refused to show to anyone, not until it was ready—and then she’d never come. Her parents would lose a second daughter. Her mother rarely left their house as it was, and her father wouldn’t touch his boat, saying it was cursed with bad luck, ever since Elorna died so far from home. It rotted in the harbor. How much more would they fall apart if she died today? Mayara knew what Elorna had meant when she’d said she was more afraid for her. Because more than being afraid for herself . . .
I’m afraid for them. Forgive me, Elorna.
Mayara then reached with her mind—clumsily, due to her lack of experience—toward the squidlike water spirit. Release me, she ordered. She pushed the thought directly into the spirit, as if she were plunging a knife into the spirit’s mind. She’d never done it before, not intentionally, but Elorna had described how it felt, like a shout but silent. It sounded impossible . . . but it worked.
The tentacles unwound, and the spirit retreated.
Looking up, Mayara saw the glow of the sun in the fissure. But it was too far. She was too deep now. I’m not going to make it.
She heard a high-pitched giggle—the child-shaped spirit. Its throat may have been torn by her knife, but she still heard the giggle in her mind. The sound felt like claws scraping inside her skull.
Mayara aimed her thoughts at the spirit and shouted silently, Give me your air!
Compelled, it swam toward her.
The spirit clamped onto her, its tiny arms wrapping around her torso. It pressed its face against hers and exhaled. Manipulating the water as if it were fabric, the spirit created a bubble around Mayara’s head. It filled the bubble with air pulled from the water.
Holding on to the spirit as if hugging it, Mayara kicked her legs and swam upward. The air pocket came with them.
She broke through the surface. Releasing the spirit, she ordered, Go!
With another horrible high-pitched giggle, it sank back under the surface. Mayara swam for the rocks and hauled herself out of the water. She collapsed on her back, her head resting against a mound of seaweed, and stared at the sky as she breathed in the sweet, plentiful air.
Her leg, where the spirit had bitten her, began to throb. She held up one arm and examined it. She had the barest blush of a bruise where the tentacles had squeezed her. That will be magnificent in a few hours. Worse, at some point in the fight, she’d lost her favorite knife. She’d probably left it embedded in the squidlike spirit.
“Ow,” she said out loud. Her voice cracked.
She closed her eyes and let herself unceremoniously pass out.
WHEN SHE REGAINED CONSCIOUSNESS, HER FIANCÉ, KELO, WAS there, quietly dabbing her wounds with a salve. He was intent on his work and hadn’t noticed she’d awoken. She studied him in silence for a moment.
He was undoubtedly handsome. Mayara’s cousin Ilia had once declared that he was the most delicious-looking man in Belene, and Mayara was positive it wasn’t an exaggeration, though she admitted to being biased. His hair was so black that it was nearly blue, his arms and chest were muscled from lugging rock back and forth across his studio, and his dark bronze skin was smooth and perfect. But as nice as all that was, it wasn’t what drew Mayara to him.
It’s this. The fact that he isn’t yelling at me for being stupid, when I richly deserve it.
“Do I want to ask what happened?” Even Kelo’s voice was beautiful.
She tried to decide what to tell him. Ultimately, she chose the truth. “I did Elorna’s dive,” Mayara said. “And then it got complicated.”
“It always seems to. But you’re alive.” He kissed her forehead. “That’s what matters.”
But it wasn’t all that mattered. She’d broken a promise to her sister an
d used her power. She hadn’t broken her greater promise, though: no one in the village knew she’d used it, and they wouldn’t know.
And maybe that was enough.
Because that was what had happened to Elorna. She’d used her power in front of the village, word had spread, and the queen had heard.
And that had led to Elorna’s death.
Only Kelo and Mayara’s parents knew that Mayara, like Elorna before her, could sense and control the spirits that plagued Renthia. And even telling him had been tough; it had pretty much been the moment she realized she loved him and trusted him with her heart . . . and life. Still, she felt it necessary to say, carefully, “If anyone asks what happened . . . I’m going to have to lie.” She knew he’d read between the lines to see the truth.
“No one will ask,” Kelo said confidently. “You’ll look too radiant. Can you stand?” He helped her to her feet. She expected pain when she put weight on her leg, but none came—Kelo must have brought a strong salve. She wondered how he knew she’d need that.
Because he knows me, she thought wryly.
He looked up at the top of the skull. She did as well and noticed a rope dangling—that was how Kelo must have gotten down.
“Can you climb?” he asked.
Eyeing the top of the skull, she thought it seemed much farther up than when she’d dived. “Sure.” Gripping the rope, she began to climb. He followed.
She tried not to think about what had just happened: how she’d used her power, how she’d hallucinated Elorna’s voice, how she’d nearly died. And for what? A few abalone?
No, she realized firmly, that’s not why I did it.
Ever since Elorna died on Akena Island three years ago, Mayara had been determined—in addition to living her own life—to live the life her sister had striven for, to try to experience the things that Elorna would have wanted to experience. It was the best way she could think of to honor her.
Besides, Kelo was going to love the shells! She could tell by the weight of the pouches that she’d harvested massive ones.
Next time she did this dive, she’d remember to keep her senses open for spirits. Perhaps bring a fishing spear. She’d done successful dives with spears before, even though it made things a bit more difficult. But it would be worth the extra challenge in order to have that kind of defense. She’d had her knives, but they hadn’t been much use against the squid spirit. . . .