Queens of Steel and Starlight
I was born low-caste, but by all the salt wraiths in the sea, I refused to die in the dirt. Forbidden magic or no, I would find a way to break free.
A breath before sunrise, the sea was a half-lidded eye, pale blue and white beyond the town walls and lemon orchards. The sea and me, the only two awake this early.
Or so it seemed when I climbed to the roof of the tavern. The streets were only dark mud and shuttered windows. I should’ve been out scouring, looking for a fallen dumpling or a bit of orange-spiced chicken. But I couldn’t help myself. The glimmering saltwater winked at me and I gave it a lazy smile.
“Soon,” I whispered before heading back down.
I had to finish the rope I’d labored on all night, because though magic was good for a lot of things, unfortunately, twisting coconut fibers wasn’t one of them.
My hands used to bleed when I did this kind of work. Not now. Now my palms were like moving stones, pressing, rolling over the two sections and twining them around one another until they were long enough to tie off a sail.
My younger sister Avi snored lightly on our straw mat in the port tavern’s undercroft. I opened her hand. Someday—if I managed to keep her alive until someday—those angry blisters would disappear and she’d have rocks for hands too. I touched the area around the worst of them gently. Though she was fourteen, I rubbed her arm like Mother used to do when we were little. Soon enough, she’d be beside me on the sea, rushing to finish our day’s work before night fell and the salt wraiths came. But she didn’t love the risk, the delicious challenge, or the waters like I did.
“Kinneret?” Avi’s eyes opened, red and bleary.
“No. I’m Amir Mamluk,” I joked, pretending to be the steel-eyed woman who held the town in her ruthless grip, only a few steps below the kyros in power. “I am in disguise as your sister so I can enjoy the pleasures of low-caste life. What’s first? Prying barnacles off the hull or watching my hard-earned silver disappear into rich men’s pockets?” I clapped my hands like an idiot as Avi laughed.
“You’re a madwoman.” She looked past me to the light. “You should’ve shaken me awake sooner. Did you get your sailing papers stamped?”
I waved her off. “I will. Tomorrow.”
“All right.” A black spot marred the edge of her grin. She’d lost a tooth last week. The empty place looked wrong next to the pretty yellow-brown hair she’d inherited from Father.
Avi leaned over to touch the shells she hid under her side of the mat. She didn’t know I knew about them, so I stood and turned away, giving her a moment. It was her own ritual and whatever gave her peace was fine with me.
Gathering the fibers I hadn’t used last night and the new rope, I forced a worthless tear back inside my eye and tried not to hear her little whispers.
“Mother. Father. The kitten. The cat. My broken bird.”
She’d found a shell for each of the ones she’d lost. A curving one with ridges, as brown as our mother’s skin had been. A spotted one for Father. He would’ve liked that. He’d loved the unusual.
As I tied on my sash, the tiny bells jingling, she drank from the bucket and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Eat that bread there.” I jerked my chin at the stool that served as our table.
“What about you?”
“I ate with Oron late last night,” I lied. I was a great liar, but I didn’t rejoice in it. Lying was the skill of the desperate, something I intended to stop being as soon as possible.
“He actually ate?” Avi asked around the nub of bread. “I thought he was on an all stolen wine diet.”
“He wishes. Said so right before he went down to the boat.” This time of year, depending on the crowd at the dock, my first mate sometimes slept onboard to protect our only real possession. Harvest brought a lot of strangers who wouldn’t worry about consequences.
Smiling, Avi shook her head and handed me the bag of salt I kept tied to my sash. I shook it, felt its soft bottom. There was enough for some Salt Magic if we ended up needing it today.
“What shipments do we have?” Avi asked.
“None. We’re scouting new port locations again.”
“Hope it goes better than last time. Is Calev going to predict our weather for the trip?” Avi grinned.
As a member of the native community of Old Farm—and the chairman’s son to boot—Calev was born high-caste, raised to oversee his people’s lemon orchards and barley fields, and basically treated like a kyros around town. The brat, I thought, but a grin tugged at me.
Despite his powerful family and his position, he had the hardest time predicting weather, a child’s first lesson on a farm or at sea. He just couldn’t seem to gather the clues hidden in the thrush’s song, the clouds’ sudden curl, or the moisture in a breeze. Seriously, he was rubbish at it. His eyebrow twitched when it frustrated him and it was—
“You’re the prettiest when you smile like that, Kin.”
I shoved her gently. “Shut up, you. Come on. We need to go.”
My relationship with Calev was complicated. And dangerous now that we neared the age of adulthood. Avi really did need to shut up about it. At least until I found some way to snake my way into a higher caste.
I unlocked the door and held it open for her, pretending there wasn’t a pile of both human and animal waste we had to step over. Soon, the middle-caste merchants would open their booths in these dirty streets to trade goods and gossip under the white-hot sun.
Ugh. There was the sailmaker’s son. He was still burned over the deal his father gave me when Calev came along to buy our new sail.
“Kinneret Raza the Magnificent, friend to high-castes.” He pretended to whisper, but his words were plenty loud. “But only if you have eyes and a backside like that Old Farm boy Calev. For him, she pretends that bag of salt at her sash is for seasoning food. It’s a miracle he doesn’t see you for what you are. Witch.”
A ringing filled my ears. If the wrong people heard him, we’d wish our only problem was finding something to eat today. “The real miracle is that pest birds haven’t nested in your continuously open mouth between your rotting teeth.”
His gaze lashed out at Avi. “Soon I won’t be the only one with an Outcast’s mouth, witches.”
I raged toward him. He lifted his leg to kick me off, but Avi jumped in the way. The tip of his sandal struck her leg, and she winced.
“You better stop it,” Avi shouted. “Or you’ll be sorry.” He laughed and went on as I bent to check Avi’s leg. “It’s a scratch,” she said. “It’s nothing.”
“That horse’s back end is going to be nothing if he ever touches you again. You should keep quiet when he is around.”
“Oh, like you do?” She raised both eyebrows.
I snorted. “Well, I’m Kinneret the Magnificent, remember?” The ridiculousness of the title burned like a brand.
She put a hand on my arm and pulled me to standing. “You are magnificent to me.”
I hugged her and felt her shoulder bones like driftwood under my arms. She was little more than a skeleton. A chill slithered down my back. How long could we live like this?
A woman who’d been Outcasted sat at the bend in the road, begging. Bells hung from her knotted hair, the edges of her dung-crusted tunic and sash, from every fingernail. The metal seemed to weigh her down, making her back slump like someone years older, bones rising beneath her rags.
As a high-caste man walked by, his five bells lightly ringing, the Outcasted woman tucked her feet under her to hide the scraps that used to be sandals. The high-caste whipped around and pointed at the Outcast.
In addition to never being allowed to enter their families’ homes—or anyone’s for that matter—they weren’t permitted to hold a job, wear more than rags, or cover their feet with shoes.
At the man’s gesture, the woman closed her eyes and removed her sad excuse for sandals, shoving them into the gutter. The high-caste nodded and continued on, obviously pleased with himself.
I’d heard the town’s last amir caught that woman doing Salt Magic to win a boat race where the prize was a hefty bag of silver, but I wasn’t going to let that scare me off what my mother had taught me.
An image of Mother’s hands covering mine, salt glistening on our skin, blinked through my mind. I could be sly with the magic she’d given me. I could be clever with the way I used it. No one needed to know.
As we started toward the dock, a couple of high-caste women paraded by, their skirts clean and black and beautiful.
One sneered at Avi’s skirt. “Filthy scrappers. Look at the blood on her clothing.”
The other one frowned. “They were probably fighting like dogs.”
I never bought anything that wasn’t red so no blood would show on me. But the high-castes were wrong. It wasn’t fighting that normally brought the blood I hid. It was making rope, hauling sail, lifting, scrubbing, scraping. And I’d never let them see my blood.
As we continued on, Avi raised her chin like a proud woman twice her age. She should’ve had her woman’s bleed already. It was lack of food that scared it off. I knew what came next. Her hair would go. The rest of her teeth, her skin.
Calev would gladly give us a loaf of bread or some lemons. But the questions I asked myself were always the same. What about tomorrow? And the day after that? I couldn’t beg off him.
No. I wouldn’t let him bring us food every day like we were cripples. The thought turned my empty stomach and I kicked at the dirt. Mother and Father had made this life work. I could too. When the fevers had them, I’d promised I’d take care of Avi. Maybe I’d get another headland farmer to use us to ship surplus barley across the strait.
But that didn’t put figs in Avi’s mouth today.
“What are you doing?” Avi whispered as I walked up behind a woodcutter’s cart.
Manure and fresh timber masked the scent of what was almost certainly a bag of barley cakes near the left wheel—the woodcutter’s noon meal. I threw a tiny rock toward his horse’s back leg. The horse jerked and the cart lurched to the side, the woodcutter shouting at his animal as I snatched the bag faster than a falcon can grab a chicken.
I ate one before Avi could argue, hurrying around the cart and hiding the bag in the folds of my skirt. Though she frowned at me during the entire walk to the dock, Avi ate her fill for once.
Fish liver oil was both the worst and the best smell in the morning. Best because it meant I was near my boat. Worst because, well, it was fish liver oil.
The fisherman selling the stuff crossed his arms. “I won’t give it for free.”
“But you dump most of it anyway,” I argued. “It’s rancid.”
“You need it. So I want something for it.”
Of course he did. This was Jakobden, after all. A port town full to bursting with people who cared for silver and fame, and nothing as low as a generous spirit.
“Do we really need it?” Avi asked.
I whispered in her ear. “The stern stitching is begging for a coat.”
I felt the coins in my sash. Four coppers. It was all I’d saved toward a better boat, a better sail, a better anything. Then my gaze dropped onto the bag in Avi’s hand. There was one barley cake left. It would leave me without a noon meal, but the lack of oil could sink us under the wild waters of the Pass, the cursed strait we sailed every day.
Avi saw my eyes and handed me the bag. I held a cake out to the man.
“Fresh this morning,” I said. “It’s more than you deserve.”
He frowned, then snatched the cake and pushed it into his sash for later. After he ladled some oil into our small, wooden bucket, we headed down the near deserted dock toward the red and purple boat our parents had left behind.
Sitting side by side on the dock’s uneven planks, we took turns dipping our brushes into the foul-smelling oil and painting it over the coconut fiber stitching that held the stern in place.
Seawater slapped the space between the boat and the dock as I called out, “Oron!”
“Why do we love him again?” Avi grinned.
“If he didn’t handle sails like the Fire, I wouldn’t…no…I’d still love him. The beast.”
I didn’t affectionately call him ‘the beast’ because he was both a pale-skinned northerner and an unusually small person—I wasn’t a horse’s back end like the sailmaker’s son—but because of his taste for drink, his sharp tongue, and his tendency to nap like an oversized cat.
Footsteps pounded down the boards, and I turned to see an official striding toward us, his tunic and sash billowing in the wind.
Worry tied a neat knot around my heart. This might be about the rent and what I owed. It might be about any number of crimes. And the Fire knew, my word against a middle-caste’s would be mouse dung to silver pieces.
Avi dropped her brush into the water and her lips pinched together. “I told you we should’ve gone for the stamp and seal.”
I groaned as I helped her fish the brush from the water. These dock officials were the worst.
“Just Kinneret them,” Avi whispered. “Like you did to the woodcutter.”
“Sailing papers,” the official spat, looking down at me.
Standing, I gritted my teeth and pulled my out-of-date papers from my sash. “Everything is good here.” I held them to his face, then quickly folded them again.
He ripped them from me. “These are expired. You cannot sail again until you have an updated stamp. Report immediately to the town hall.” Spinning, he hurried back up the dock.
“Guess I’ll finish this up while you go,” Avi said.
I didn’t like how she looked. The skin around her mouth was pale. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“You have to. You know you do.”
“I’ll kick Oron awake first,” I joked. Sort of.
He may’ve been the one who came to us in our worst hour, and close as an older brother or an uncle, but he still needed a good shove every once in a while.
She stood and wiped her hands on her skirt. “I’m fine. I’ll do it. Go.”
I had to smile. She sounded like Mother.
I rushed away, hoping she really was as strong as I thought she was, and praying my own stubborn will might be enough to keep us from the life of a dead-eyed beggar.