The shrill voice of Kamoana cut through the breeze. Before Velvet could turn around, a weight hit her leg and she gripped the railing.
She grunted. “Hey, don’t startle people like that!”
Kamoana, unfortunately not in the amount of distress her shouting usually indicated, released Velvet’s leg and hopped backward,.
“But I was just trying to cheer you up!”
“Why,” Velvet began, attempting to ease the sharpness in her tone, “would you want to do that?”
It wasn’t as though Velvet were moping, or crying, or storming about. She was enjoying the ocean air like anyone else on the Van Eltia. Grimoirh’s recent lecture on why it was useless to devour therions lingered in her mind, however.
Kamoana offered a wide smile and rocked on her heels, unrelenting.
“Eleanor said I’m good at it! It’s what makes me sweet. Because I’m not scary. She said!”
Velvet scoffed. “Is that so?”
In form, Kamoana appeared more daemon than girl. Her coloring and shape clearly indicated what she was, resembling the treelike form she’d had at Palamides. The thought of Eleanor trying to convince Kamoana that she wasn’t scary seemed—realistic, Velvet admitted, but not the kindest thing to do. She’d be seen as a monster first and wouldn’t be able to hide it. She should learn to use that to her advantage.
Velvet clenched her hand. The first therion they’d found that resembled a human held no clues; Kamoana had to be entirely painted with markings. There would be no subtle answers for why Velvet’s arm under the wrappings remained plain and unmarked. Best to shrug it off like nothing was wrong, as always, and act like she wasn’t the tiniest bit envious of a child.
Then Kamoana continued squawking, reminding Velvet why she wasn’t all envious.
“She showed me her scar!”
“What? Why did—”
Before Velvet could question further, Kamoana grabbed her left hand, fingers kneading at the bandage there.
“Ooo! Velvet! Do you have a scar, too? Because you’re a daemon like me?”
Velvet pulled back. By now, more than a few sets of eyes were on them, given that Kamoana was causing a ruckus louder than even Bienfu. The way the bandages were being pulled, they could unravel and give the crew a healthy view of just what was under them—the truth of what it looked like when she didn’t activate.
Unless she did.
No. That wasn’t an option. A daemon-eating daemon activating her daemon-eating claw near a daemon child would draw unnecessary chatter from at least Eleanor, who watched from the opposite side of the deck.
“Come on! I wanna see!”
Kamoana’s nails caught on the cloth tape; when Velvet attempted to snatch away her hand, the bandage abruptly unwound around her palm and several fingers. The feeling of air stung like hot steel through her tendons.
Suddenly, it was dark again, all dark in the sky except for a glowing, angry moon. All the weight of herself hanging from that one hand. All the weight of Laphi, too. And Artorius with his steel-cold stare standing over them, with his sword poised. He could have stepped on that hand. She was ready for the crushing pressure, for broken bones and a rush of pain. But Celica had gotten them all out of a pit before with worse injuries, many years ago. Velvet could climb back up with Laphi and a broken hand. She could have made it. Instead, there was pain all up and down her arm, and then her arm fell in front of her as they plummeted.
He had no reason to cut it off.
Her pale flesh gleamed in the sun for only a second before the power surged through her. Black and red split the bandages and her arm grew and twisted into the claw. She’d never felt so powerless to stop it.
“Just—stay away from me!” Velvet bellowed, staggering along the rail away from Kamoana.
She could have guessed Kamoana would screech for help, and that the help would rush over.
“Velvet! Have you lost your mind?!” Eleanor called, stepping in front of Kamoana. “You promised you wouldn’t kill her!”
“She’s gonna kill me?? NO!” Kamoana cried. She dug her face into Eleanor’s overskirt.
“I’m NOT going to—oh, for crying out loud,” Velvet muttered. “If you had the time to teach her about your secret scars, you should have taught her not to touch other people without asking!”
Kamoana cried and shouted into Eleanor’s skirt. “I didn’t know! I didn’t know!”
Eleanor’s brows darted into a steeper angle. Maybe the corners of her eyes were watering, the usual sun-catching tears.
“This child has lost everything, even her mother! She doesn’t deserve your intimidation!”
Velvet gripped her claw into a fist. Intimidation, sure. Taking a bite out with her mouth closed.
“Hey—you sure you want that right now?” another voice intervened.
Rokurou stepped forward from where he’d been settled on the stairs with his cask of sake. He gestured at Velvet’s arm with a nod of his head. Though his hands were nowhere near his knives, Velvet knew he’d step in to stop her if it seemed like she intended to use her claw.
She couldn’t put it away. Not with the bandages unraveled. But she couldn’t explain why, either. She kept clenching.
“You should stay out—” Velvet started.
Eleanor was quick to speak over her. “I’ll take care of this. You’re okay, sweetie.” She turned and took Kamoana’s shoulders, then veered them toward the cabin with a wide berth.
Rokurou opened his mouth, but Velvet brushed past.
Once she reached the top of the ladder to the isolated lookout, she hoisted herself up and let the claw dissipate, her arm returning to its normal state with the bandages undone at the hand.
It wasn’t like the time Rokurou unleashed his strength, when Laphicet tried to intervene and Rokurou would have run the child through. It was more like one of her nightmares where the faces returned and she could feel as though she were back in the memory. When Kamoana had unwrapped this part, here, it felt like she was losing her arm all over again.
When she ran her fingertip over her hand now, it didn’t sting at all.
The faster to wrap it again. When it was done, she leaned against one of the sturdier planks in the cramped space.
Below, the sailors barked orders at each other. Still too far from Loegres, from what she could tell. She supposed inside the cabin, Laphicet and Grimoirh were being disturbed from their task by the sobbing. If only Eleanor had gone below deck to disturb Magilou from her nap instead; at least that wouldn’t stop the progress. Without more text translated, this transportation time was being wasted.
Suddenly, she heard the clunk of footsteps on the ladder. It was easy to pretend it might be Benwick, but the approach lacked the distinct titter of chirpees. It also lacked the oncoming stench of—well, any of the other crewman. She should be so lucky.
It was Rokurou, right-hand man, probably about to prod with questions. He’d seen everything from his vantage on the stairs. Asking if having her daemon arm out was what she wanted … he really was clueless.
“Go away,” Velvet said quietly, looking away when Rokurou’s hands reached the top rung. “If you came up here to scold me…”
“Nope!” he replied. “Still want me to go away?”
Yes , she thought, but passed on saying it.
Maybe she’d wait him out. Maybe he’d get seasick like some of the humans and crawl back down.
“Uh, I like the fresh air as much as anyone, but do you mind if I come in?” he asked. He peeked over the edge of the nest, clearly gripping the ladder in the breeze.
“Fine, then,” she sighed.
Rokurou wasted no time climbing over the edge across from her, almost catching Stormhowl on it as he settled in. He struggled to sit comfortably with the sword on his back.
“... You really had to bring that up here?”
“Velvet. Sword? Life,” he enunciated, pointing to it. He broke into a grin.
She leaned her head back against the wood and closed her eyes.
“So… are you okay?”
That was number three. Velvet sighed deeply. She opened her eyes to glance at him, then at the cloud-swept sky.
A handful of seconds passed before Rokurou pressed. “You—?”
“I’m fine ,” she spat, glaring at him.
He didn’t flinch or roll his eyes, didn’t stand up and climb down the ladder. Even when she looked away and looked back again with the same glare, he remained calm.
“You don’t have to tell me the reason, but I know that’s a lie.”
“How is it,” Velvet began, “that you can say you won’t scold me, but say something like that and I feel like a child?”
Rokurou’s face darkened. “What kind of swordsman would I be if I couldn’t tell that you were hiding something?”
Four. Or, technically five questions if you counted the interruption. For as determined as Rokurou seemed to interrogate, he wasn’t efficient with his line of questioning. Really, that the daemons in his cell hadn’t killed him by the time Velvet set them loose was a miracle.
“I have nothing to hide. I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Velvet clarified. “But she shouldn’t have been poking around like that.”
“I see. She invaded your space and anyone would be upset by that. But that’s not all that was going on.”
A rough burst of wind crossed through the nest. She watched Rokurou’s hair fluttering across his cheek and the daemon markings there.
“So you suddenly know all about what upsets me?” she dug.
“Nah, but I know I remember what you said after we escaped Titania, and that you stopped saying it after we left Hellawes.”
She narrowed her eyes, reaching for the memory. Being unable to taste food had come up at some point thereafter; was it the princessias? Remembering anything beyond the nightmares seemed superfluous. The only things she meant to hide were the echoes of life in Aball.
“You called yourself a therion,” Rokurou clarified.
Of course he remembered.
“And you’d better keep that to yourself.”
“I don’t have any intentions of sharing it. Even if I weren’t in your debt, it’s your secret to keep. I just wonder if Kamoana might have sensed that even if you didn’t say anything. And if she started to talk about it, I could see why you’d have that reaction.”
So, he hadn’t seen. Or if he had, he was a good liar—which, heart on his sleeve, he wasn’t. He shifted against the giant sword still strapped to his back.
That debt was bullshit.
“It’s…” she sighed and turned her head toward the clouds. “It’s more…”
“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. You know that, right?”
“It was only a matter of time,” she muttered.
Even as Rokurou pleaded for her to consider whether it was worth it, she knew she’d tell him. After all, if Eleanor could go around showing her scar to children, Velvet might as well have an ally in this. That he didn’t ask to know meant he wouldn’t want anyone else to know. Plus, he’d stayed silent about her being a therion even when Grimoirh scoured the facts.
He nodded his head. “If that’s your reasoning and you’re okay with it, then consider me like corn.”
Velvet’s eyebrow twitched.
“What on earth does that mean?” she groaned.
Rokurou folded his arms with a flourish.
Velvet closed her eyes to conceal the oncoming eyeroll.
“You won’t need ears to see it.”
“Hm, maybe I’m more like a rotten sweet potato.” He trailed off with a smirk, hanging on her response.
All eyes , had to be.
“Don’t finish that joke,” she urged. She held her forearm and glanced up. “I know you have no reason to tell anyone, but remember, I’d devour you.”
He laughed gently. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Velvet picked at the edges of the bandages on her fingers, shaking loose the longer pieces. She gathered the loose strand in her right hand as she unwound, unwound, unwound. Quickly, because there was no point in wasting more time.
When she stretched out her arm, the sun damned her pale, unmarked skin.
Of course he saw. His eyes were gifted with more excruciating detail than hers. It looked like nothing at all.
He took a brief survey of what she revealed, but his gaze returned to her face and stayed there. She couldn’t even read what he was thinking.
“Don’t act so surprised,” she snapped.
“I’m not—er, I’m not not -surprised. More like, I knew something had to be bothering you about it because of the way you reacted.”
She turned up her palm. Pink as the day she was born; as though she were born with it.
“Doesn’t it seem odd to you?”
“Nah,” he said simply.
“But… yours are there all the time. Hers, too.”
Rokurou reached out a tentative hand toward her unbandaged one. But rather than examining her hand, he placed it in his and used his other hand to envelop hers entirely. He looked up at her with unsettling reverence.
“Just because you look different doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.”
Velvet’s cheeks burned. His hands around her not-quite-daemon hand weren’t holding tightly, but they didn’t release even as she was sure she was staring blank as the day she’d met him.
“You don’t have to say things like that,” she dismissed, withdrawing her hand. She busied herself with rewrapping.
Rokurou sat back on his heels. “I’m not saying it because I have to.”
He could have let her stew, or encouraged her to resolve her disagreement with Eleanor. He could have ignored the scuffle and let her handle it. But he was here, sensing something was off and waiting for her to tell him what. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to be with her on this journey at all.
She stared at him, the guardian of her secrets, until his smile faded. The noise below overrode the feeling that the ship could allow for private moments; an unsteady basket on a stick couldn’t eclipse the security of the snowy caves north of Beardsley.
“Sooo, uh,” Rokurou hedged, “I’m gonna go back to drinking before the crew takes my stash.”
She wouldn’t stop him; he had a point. He stood with a wobble and steadied himself against the side.
“Wait.” It wasn’t an easy climb, after all. “Thank you.”
“For what?” he asked with that same curious attention, even as he had one leg back on the ladder.
He wasn’t goading her to praise him. His voice carried genuine consideration, as if his culture had taught him that this was the thing to do, even when his lord had armed herself against a child. But nothing about her referring him to a prison room where his sword probably had been made him owe this to her. He truly was an odd daemon.
“... You know what.”
“Oh, right, for double-checking that we’re still going in the right direction from up here,” Rokurou said, grinning.
She brought her gaze back to the sky, where a few seagulls glided overhead.