The Seventh Year by Alexandra Balasa

I long to be free, I long to live large,

I make my coin raiding boat and barge,

Take what I want, do as I please,

I fear no Keeper of the Seas!

 So say the men who foolishly rove

Into the depths of Casiphea’s Cove

– From ‘Seafarer’s Blight,’ a pirate’s song of unknown origin

***

Streamers of blood trailed after Ibrim’s ankles as he moved farther into the ocean. He stopped calf-deep, watching the red swirls his passing had set into motion. They clouded the otherwise turquoise water, which seemed to glow between the corals with its own inner light.

Ibrim lifted his eyes to the horizon. In the distance, the Freedom’s backlit silhouette rose from the ocean like a parlay flag, its broken hull angled as if it had frozen while sinking. The Bachelor’s Freedom, he’d named it. Seven years of being Casiphea’s slave and the irony of it still bit deep. Cruel bastards, the gods. Behind the shipwrecked galley, shafts of light streaked the pre-dawn sky.

Not for the first time, it struck Ibrim how perfectly preserved the scene was. The blood, the slanted hull impaling the ocean.

The pale body beneath its surface.

How fitting, this static, embalmed moment. The sun could wander the sky all it wanted—for Ibrim, time had stopped the day Casiphea had sunken the Freedom. That was how she’d wanted it. But today, time would start again.

Ibrim waded further into the water, the salty breeze whipping his hair around his shoulders. He stopped knee-deep and looked down at the pale corpse beneath the water’s surface. Over the years corals had grown around the body, cradling it like an aquatic coffin. No tension creased the youth’s brow, no tightness besmirched his full, boyish lips. Yet the same question plagued Ibrim’s mind: Are you suffering down there, Evrah, like I’m suffering up here?

Was he lonely to be the last of the seven bodies that had once slept beneath the waves? Gerick, his first mate; Mattiah, his quartermaster. One by one Casiphea had woken them, sent them home on the backs of the sea creatures she commanded. All except for Evrah.

Ibrim bent down, his knees sinking into wet sand, and reached under the water to smooth wayward hair from the ivory face. “It’s time, brother. Today the witch will set you free. She’ll set us both free. You’ll see.”

As if in answer, a sliver of sun peeked over the horizon. It climbed the sky, crimson as the blood in the water, the final tally to Ibrim’s seven years of imprisonment. By the time the red sphere hovered on the horizon, the sky had lightened enough to reveal the mountainous bulge of the island behind him.

“You don’t believe I’ll keep my promise, do you?”

Casiphea’s voice was like the caress of cold steel along Ibrim’s spine. He stood, turning to face her. “You’ve kept it every year so far.” The words sounded brittle, a poor barrier for the swears and threats he’d learned to push into the back of his throat. “I have no reason to think this year will be any different.”

Casiphea cocked her head. “Everything is different this year, Ibrim. Your brother is the last of the seven. If I free him, there will be nothing holding you here. Don’t you fear I won’t do it?”

He let the whoosh of waves along the shore and the whistle of sea wind fill his silence.

“When did you lose your anger, Ibrim?”

There was something naïve about the question, a childish curiosity that reminded him she still struggled to understand humanity. Sea demon or devil goddess or whatever she was, Ibrim often thought Casiphea examined him as a child would an ant, methodically pulling its legs off to see if it showed pain.

“After Tavin, I think,” he answered truthfully.

“He was…?”

“The one you woke on the fourth year. One of my riggers. Always hated the swine—damned thief, he was—and I told you as much. Told you I was happy to see his ugly face frozen under the water. Told you if you woke him before Evrah I’d kill you.”

Recognition flitted across Casiphea’s face. She smiled like it was a fond memory. “Ah, of course. Some of your best assassination attempts came that year. Then you just…stopped trying.”

“I realized you would save Evrah for last. And my rage wouldn’t change that.”

She stepped towards him. Water parted for her as she moved, the hem of her cerulean wrap-gown clinging to the wet sand. Casiphea took his hand between both of hers. Ibrim’s fingers tensed, but he didn’t pull away. The hound wouldn’t bite the feeding hand before mealtime. “Didn’t you grow to care for me at all?” she asked.

His eye twitched. The ghost of the untamed pirate he’d once been took hold. He almost told her he did care—care to snap her damned neck. But then his eyes flicked to Evrah’s pearly face beneath the water and the domesticated dog returned. “I can’t care about anything. Not without my brother.”

Casiphea’s sea-green eyes grew tearful. Ibrim had learned not to let these vulnerable moments take him off his guard; one misstep and she’d become a raging sea beast, the ocean and skies roiling at her command. “Do you know why I saved you from the shipwreck?” she asked. “While everyone else was swimming for their lives, you were pulling your brother to safety. That amount of devotion shown to a miserable mortal life—it astonished me. Man does not show a sliver of that devotion to the gods. I wanted a love like that.”

“I swear,” Ibrim croaked, “I will be forever devoted to you if you wake my brother. I’m not a pious man, but I will pray at your temples and make you whatever sacrifices you desire. I swear it.” The pleading desperation in his own voice sickened him. How many had he taken captive aboard the Freedom, only to slit their throats in disgust when they offered him but sniveling pleas for their lives?

“I told you I would wake one of your crew members for every year you stayed with me, and every year I did.” She squeezed his hand and released it, gliding over to the spot where Evrah slept. Water drew away from his bed of corals, forming a knee-high enclosure around him that completed the coffin look.

Ibrim held his breath. He clenched his fists and waited for the first signs of life to ease back into Evrah’s face. Please, please…

The water-walls enclosing Evrah collapsed, swallowing him in a gurgle of waves. “I’m sorry,” Casiphea whispered. “I can’t lose the only hold I have over your heart. Your brother will remain under my control until you learn to love me.” She paused, then asked in that childish way of hers, “Are you angry?”

Ibrim didn’t look at her. His fists slowly uncurled as he watched the shifting waters distort his brother’s features. “No.”

He stood looking at Evrah for a long time, until the sun crested the sky and Casiphea had long glided back up the beach. The body beneath the waves was a cannonball chained to his ankle. And Ibrim was the chain keeping Evrah suspended in a state of living death.

Chest tingling with emptiness, Ibrim plucked his carved knife from his boot. It was time to break those chains.