The punishment for minor infractions during Athary’s twice-yearly voyage was to spend a night confined to the smallest wooden lifeboat, being towed on a line let far, far out behind the armor-bottomed ship. With the Great Serpents in the depths, visible by day as a mass of shifting shadow and by night as a writhing bioluminescence, most people feared a night in the rowboat.
“Feels like being bait on a hook,” Ponna, one of the girls in Athary’s year, said. Her face was green and her voice faint.
All that after enduring a night in the boat only one time, Athary thought with scorn.
Athary knew what the other girls and the teachers and the sailors didn’t. What she suspected the captain and the headmistress did. The Great Serpents would never take the bait. Because though they squirmed through the depths of the Single Sea and writhed beneath the ships and the Floating Isles and twisted over and under and around one another and never were still, nonetheless they were all asleep. Sound asleep.
Which was a very good thing, because something that everyone knew was that there was nothing beneath the Great Serpents – they were all there was of a world beneath the Single Sea with its Floating Isles.
This was the home trip. Athary’s second-to-last half year at The Order of the Mended Night’s Academy for Girls, colloquially called only the Night’s Academy, was over. Her parents had been sending her away ever since she had first manifested a hint of power, a pitifully weak touch of command water, hardly enough to make a few drops float for a moment. Still, it’d been enough, and their pride in her had made her glow.
Until her aunt had pulled her aside. Athary had been just about to board the ship that would take her away from her home isle, one of the many too small to even have a name. She would step off the ship onto real docks, would stand on an island big enough to have not just a few families but whole cities and its own name. More, the Glass Isle was the biggest and fullest and – according to most people – the most important island on the whole Single Sea. She wanted to board, to get started with this new life, and if it had been anyone else delaying this moment she would have crossed her arms and stomped her feet and been very cross.
But Aunt Rylla was a graduate of the Night’s Academy herself, marked for all the world to see by her eyes like ocean-blue marbles. She’d given Athary only one piece of advice. “Your abilities will come in drips and drops at first. Whichever is most powerful at the time, that’s the one you keep secret from them. Even from me.”
Athary never found out why Aunt Rylla would give her such advice. It was the last thing she had ever said to her niece, and Athary followed it scrupulously. With each new power that manifested, the apprentice sorceress weighed it against the rest. It took some imagination to understand that the one she’d kept secret was truly the most powerful. Command water, once learned properly, could wipe out the ship she stood on, and even some of the smaller Floating Isles. Hold winds could still any sail. She even had the rare swallow sunlight that at its least manifestation allowed Athary to survive on nothing more than light and water like a plant – and at its greatest could give her the power to darken wide swathes of the world. She’d told the Academy about them all.
It was hear dreams that she kept secret. She had manifested that more powerfully than any other gift, perhaps even more powerfully than anyone else who shared the ability. After all, Athary had spent many secret hours surreptitiously studying hear dreams; in all that time, only twice had she come across reference of anyone who could hear the dreams of animals…and never once had she heard or read of anyone else who could work her own will on the dreams she heard.
That was why she knew something that she suspected the headmistress and the captain didn’t know. She wondered if even the High Sorceress of the Order of the Mended Night knew.
The Great Serpents weren’t just sleeping. They were dreaming.
Ponna was still complaining about her night in the boat when one of her friends nudged her and tilted her head toward Athary, watching from the railing nearby. Ponna turned, and when their eyes met her face went from sickly to sneering. “Wipe that smirk off your face, nameless.”
“I’m not nameless,” Athary said.
“You’re from a nameless island, you’re nameless. A bed at the Night’s Academy for a few years won’t change that,” Ponna said with a forced laugh. “Why do you think your aunt went and got herself eaten up?”
The Lesser Serpents of the shallows and beaches were nowhere near the size of the Great Serpents of the deep, but still well and away big enough to swallow one adult sorceress. Especially when she waded out to her waist and slashed her palms with a sharp ocean stone. Aunt Rylla had dipped her bleeding hands under the water just minutes after Athary’s first ship away was out of sight.
Athary bristled. “Aunt Rylla fed the Sea in protest-”
“Here we go,” Ponna sighed dramatically, rolling her eyes.
“-of the mistreatment of the nameless islands peoples at the hands of-”
“At the hands of people who actually matter.” Ponna nearly shouted this interruption. “Have your parents managed to scrape two coins together to send you any letters this term, nameless girl?” Athary hesitated. “I didn’t think so. All the noise the little floating pebbles have been making about not doing your fair share on the waves anymore is done with, you know.”
“Our fair share? The nameless islands want out from under unfair taxes, we want freedom from unjust reprisals when we speak our mind, we want access to resources-”
“Resources, she says, but no taxes,” Ponna sneered, “something for nothing, all they ever want. Too small to survive on their own, suckerfish on the underbelly of the real islands.”
“That’s not what I said,” Athary shouted.
“It’s what you meant and we all know it,” Ponna said, “The nameless all lie, but you’ll have a big shock when you get off this boat and realize that nobody believes the lies anymore.”
Athary slapped her, the third time since boarding that she’d been provoked into a fight, earning herself another night being spent towed far behind the rest.
Every term at the Night’s Academy had been worse than the last, but something must have happened out in the world this year that had changed things. Ponna’s barbed comment about letters from home had stung only because it was all too true. Whatever was going on beyond the walls of the Academy, her parents had not sent her word. And as the only nameless islander in her year, no one else had bothered to alleviate her ignorance. Even the teachers had been treating her with a new, cool distance. Athary could tell that the big islanders were not just angry, they were emboldened. She just didn’t know why.
The trips home were always boisterous, girls letting off steam between the strict rules of the Academy and the return to parental homes. This journey was different, worse, just like the months at the Academy had been. Normally when the weeks-long voyage from island to island dropping off girls became too tedious, Athary would break a small rule or two intentionally. Nothing serious. Just enough to get her sent out for a night in the towed boat. Knowing that it was safe turned the event from frightening exile to a relaxing chance for some rare time alone. She liked to lie down in the bottom of the boat, her arms folded behind her head, fix her eyes on the stars far above, and let the sea rock her while she listened to the world-spanning dreams of the slumbering Great Serpents.
This time she’d spent more than half of her nights out there.
Lying in the boat again, the Great Serpents’ dreams were less soothing than usual.
If something made things so much worse within the walls of the Night’s Academy, she realized slowly, it’ll be a hundred times worse out in the real world.
From sunset to sunrise she stared at the stars and tried to imagine what would be awaiting her at home.
Her home island didn’t have a proper dock, the great ship couldn’t sail all the way in and let her disembark down the gangplank. In fact, her home was so small that if the ship drew too near its wake would rock the whole island and send it floating further away. So instead she was rowed to shore by a sullen sailor who refused to ground his boat and made her flounder through the same warm shallows that her aunt had died in five years before. Instead of her parents and her brothers and sisters waiting on the beach to help her with her things and chatter at her about life while she was gone, there was a single figure. She didn’t recognize him, which would have been shocking enough on her tiny island. But she did recognize his uniform. The loose tunic and the sash, the pounded metal helmet and the spear and little round shield were all blue and gold and all bore the insignia of the Golden Swordfish.
The last half-year fell into place all at once, and Athary was seized by the same breathless fear that she’d experienced once when a riptide had pulled her away from the shore when she was very young. There was only one person who could deploy soldiers to the islands, the ruler of all the islands, the Waves Lord. And that had been Dorrin the Bold with a flag of white shark teeth before Athary had left for the Academy.
So, the old Waves Lord must have died. Worse, the Head of Serpentspine Island, who allowed herself to be known only as the Golden Swordfish, must have replaced him as the Waves Lady. She and her followers had been moving in political circles for decades, all the while floating their narratives that the nameless islanders were the very worst seascum villains. If she was in power…
Athary suppressed a shudder and made her way through the water.
The soldier watched Athary struggle to pull her luggage ashore, heavy and unwieldy in spite of being charmed to be waterproof. His gaze seemed a little out of focus, as if he was unwilling to truly see her, and he didn’t offer to help.
On the walk home Athary kept holding her breath without realizing, only gasping in air when she began to see stars, her lungs starting to burn like she was drowning. There were more soldiers. They were everywhere she looked. They outnumbered the people of the island.
Where are they all living?
She feared the answer, and found her fears justified when she pushed open the door of her family’s single-room house and was met with a spearpoint aimed at her belly.
“Who’s this?” the soldier asked, directing the question at Athary’s mother without looking at her.
“My daughter,” her mother said, “returned from The Order of the Mended Night’s Academy for Girls.”
The soldier knew that. Athary and her mother knew he knew it. Athary’s simple dress and netted shawl and flat sandals were in the style of her home island, but in the particular shade of blue that only students at the Night’s Academy were permitted to wear. But making mother say it, pointing his spear at Athary’s guts, was for show. Satisfied that his position was clear, he raised his spear, band leaned the shaft against his shoulder.
“No room for you in this house,” he said, and spat on the packed earth floor. “Find other lodgings.”
“What?” Athary said, “But this is my home!”
There were no other lodgings on the whole island. Every house had at least one of the Golden Swordfish’s soldiers living in it. Many houses had only soldiers within – they’d turned out whole families. The nights were still mild, people were sleeping on the beaches. But the rains and high waves would come in only a few weeks. How long had the soldiers been here? How long would they remain? No one would tell Athary.
That night she joined the dispossessed in the white sands. She took a watch assignment and stood with the others awake for her hour, watching for Lesser Serpents and other night stalking creatures. When her watch was over she did not sleep.
Athary laid on her back and watched the stars. The island was so small that she could feel the gentle rise and fall of the land atop the Single Sea’s swells. She pretended she was on the towed boat and listened. It was harder to hear the somnolent musings of the Great Serpents here, surrounded by the more familiar dreams of sleeping human people. Her attention was drawn up from the depths, and she used hear dreams on the soldiers instead.
Nightmares, she thought, nightmares for the lot of them.
And she worked her will upon all the dreaming soldiers.
The next day there was not a one of them that looked well-rested. They went about the island marching pointless patrols and pushing around the island boys and practicing their spear fighting with dark circles beneath their eyes and stifled yawns hidden behind their hands when their superior officers weren’t looking.
“Why are you here?” she asked the soldier in her mother’s home – her home – when she joined her family for dinner before being turned out again. “What does the Golden Swordfish-”
“Waves Lady, now,” the soldier said smugly, sitting in father’s seat, kept empty all these years for him and filled now with this interloper. He took a bite of the dinner her mother had cooked, chewing noisily. “Filth and slop,” he’d called her cooking, but he’d taken a larger portion than anyone else got.
“What does she think this is going to accomplish?”
“Well there hasn’t been a rebellious peep since she instituted the Serene Islands Peacekeeping Force,” the soldier said. Athary could hear the capital letters when he said it. He cherished the official title. Even though it was rank nonsense. After a brief pause he added, “Finish your dinner and get out of here.”
They’ve always called it rebellion, us wanting to be given the same respect as anyone else, Athary thought as she left her mother’s house only a few minutes later. If he says there hasn’t been a rebellious peep…have we stopped trying even for that?
Heat flared like fire in her belly.
That night she used hear dreams on her own folk. That night she went into their slumber and she stirred them. Athary gave them her own fire, and she stoked it. The dreams were built of courage and victory, carried like ships on waves of righteous rage. Athary swore to give her people the same dreams every night until the soldiers were wishing for merely a “rebellious peep.”
The back of Athary’s head was a throbbing knot of pain. Her mouth was dry and tasted the way a rotting shellfish smells. Her body was stiff all over.
None of that mattered.
Fire had scoured the island bare.
She tasted ashes with every breath she took.
Standing in the middle of her home island, she could see the sea around her no matter which way she turned. There was nothing left to obscure her view. No tree or structure on the island stood higher than her knees.
A week. It had taken only a week of giving dreams of bravery and fury to her family and the few other nameless islanders.
And then instead of rising together and demanding respect, instead of kicking the Golden Swordfish’s soldiers into the Single Sea, her mother’s neighbor’s eldest son had used a stone to smash the head of the soldier who had stolen his bed.
The rebellion was short-lived. The soldiers were quick to find Athary first. Of all the islanders, only she had the power to ensure her people’s victory. They weren’t allowed to kill a member of the Order of the Mended Night, not even a student, but the butt of a spear to the back of her skull and a cloth soaked in Sleep’s Breath potion had been enough to keep her out of the fight until it was done.
When the slaughter was finished the soldiers had simply left. Athary stood where she had awakened, set in the exact center of the wasteland that had been her home. They couldn’t kill her because of her place in the Order, but they could leave her to die. They didn’t know that she had swallow sunlight.
Athary spent the day searching through the char and ash. None of the blackened bones were recognizable. The soldiers had scorched everything. Athary didn’t know which smashed skulls and broken skeletons had been her family and which had not.
“All the nameless islanders are my family now,” she whispered to herself, but it didn’t feel right. Instead she tried, “No one is my family now.”
It felt more true.
That night it rained. Athary stood on the beach and looked out at the sea. The burned island was behind her, out of sight. She couldn’t trick herself into thinking it was alright if she didn’t look.
Nothing was alright. Nothing ever would be.
The Golden Swordfish and Ponna and the teachers and everyone like them made sure of it, and told themselves lies. They told themselves that things were alright, and even that they were the ones keeping everything alright.
Athary thought about wading into the rain-pocked shallows and cutting her palms. Feeding the Sea the way her aunt had back when she was only twelve years old. Protesting with her life.
But why should the big islanders have her life? They’d had her aunt’s life and hadn’t changed. They’d just taken her whole island’s life and wouldn’t change.
The rain never stopped falling. Athary couldn’t look up to watch the stars. But she could still reach down and hear the dreams of the Great Serpents.
She didn’t give them nightmares.
She didn’t give them courage and fire.
She didn’t give them bitter ashes.
Athary exerted herself.
Wake up, she commanded. Wake up! Wake your brothers, your sisters! WAKE UP!
In the next moment hear dreams stopped working. Because there were no more world-spanning dreams for her to hear. Far below, the bioluminescent shifting slowed… stilled.
Then the uncoiling began.
When the first tsunami swept Athary’s island under she watched it come, eyes and arms open.
CJ Dotson has been reading for as long as she can remember, and writing for nearly as long. She particularly loves science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Before the pandemic, CJ worked in a bookstore and co-hosted a monthly sci-fi and fantasy book club, and hopes to get to do both again some day. She lives in an almost certainly haunted house with her husband, teenage stepson, preschooler son, toddler daughter, and her grandmother-in-law. In her spare time, she enjoys painting, baking, and cake decorating. For more content, including short stories, blog, and other publications, visit cjdotsonauthor.squarespace.com or find her on twitter as @cj_dots