The Price of Pearls

Only fearful men burn silver runes into their boats’ bones.

I know that, now, but I did not know that the first time that I saw Ivor’s longboat plowing rough and proud through the bright foam.

He smelled of otter bones and cold iron. I thought him harmless—just another Yupredok fisherman—nothing to fear from him, he wasn’t a wild woman come to smash my heart. He wasn’t Valfa, orca-cruel and beautiful, he did not scare me.

I felt certain then that the worst possible future was a loveless one.

I will never again be so stupid.

Ivor laughed as he sailed past, and waved gaily to the rookery; he probably thought I was simply another seal lured to Rovani Bay by sweet fish and fat puffins.

He probably thought that I, too, was harmless.

I think perhaps Ivor will never again be so stupid, either.

***

Every morning the Yupredok fisherfolk would set sail, cupping clay mugs of cinnamon tea, and they would return when their nets were full. Some of the boats split the salt spray with dragon-carved prows; other boats boasted intricate sculptures of griffins or striped unicorns.

Only Ivor’s boat shimmered with metal wards.

Sunglazed and glutted on eels, I did not immediately notice her, the first time she came down from the village to the glittering beach. But the puffins puttering across the sand did, and they all took to the sky at once in a cloudburst of feathers.

I opened just one eye, I remember, because the day was all pink and gold, and sleep’s song hummed warm through my blood.

But then I saw her, and I bolted awake. Beside me, another seal grumbled and splashed irate into the water.

I did not care.

She was short, muscle laced, with dark curls that frothed unruly over broad shoulders. Her dress was wool, a shade slipped between blue and green, and cinched about her waist. Freckles dappled her nose and cheeks and the skin of her forearms. She was not sleek, like Valfa, not slender nor luminous nor beautiful.

Yet there was something about her, some ineffable iridescence that flashed and then melted away, the way a pearl shimmers just before the oyster snaps shut.

I watched as she walked across the black sand, parallel to the waves, revealing a man behind her. Bundled in slick otter pelts, he stood square to the sea, watching the horizon.

“I told you that there is nothing here to see.”

“Yes, there is! Look at the seals, how fearsome they are when they yawn. And these birds!” She pointed at the puffins, who had settled on a high cliff overlooking the beach.

“Ah, yes, puffins, ridiculous birds. They’re so stupid that they are afraid of you, Kastsha!” The man I now know as Ivor chuckled at his own joke.

“Why shouldn’t they be afraid? They know I am your wife, the mother of your children, and you will protect me from whatever mischief they’re plotting.”

I watched her smile, and her teeth flashed, and for a hot moment I imagined they were sharp and set against my throat.

“Yes, the puffins would do well to remember that. Do you hear? She is mine!” Ivor bellowed playfully, shaking his fist at the sun.

He did not face the sanctuary crags where the puffins perched, though. He faced the seal rookery.

He faced me.

***

Kastsha visited the shore a few times after that; Ivor always accompanied her. And every time she stepped onto the beach, the puffins fled and Ivor laughed. Eventually she came with baskets of dried bread; I could see in the set of her jawbone that she was determined to convince the birds to stay, one way or another.

She was stubborn, and that made her beautiful.

On good days, the wind would shift and I would catch her scent: salt and leather and a thread of cold, powdery redolence that I could not identify.

Kastsha was tempting, yes, but even still, I did not consider her worth the considerable risk. Not after Valfa.

So I was content simply to watch her, the way one might admire the lancing glory of faraway lightning.

But Ivor made a fool’s mistake, coming down to the ocean so often wrapped in his otter furs. Puffins are malicious gossipmongers, and Ivor had called them stupid.

Soon the sea otters arrived.

***

Humans fear sharks and whales and everything larger than themselves, I think. Tyulki fear very little, for we have a bit of our own magic as well as our unnatural strength. Yet I keep a respectful distance from sea otters, if I can. They weave deft and powerful enchantments using kelp and coral; their weakest spells are stronger than anything we tyulki might do, because otters never cast alone, and for that, I envied them.

So when Hefna and Forset came ashore in the night, star-spangled with saltwater, and asked for the shifting leopard seal of Rovani Bay, I answered.

Otters smash clams against jagged rocks so that they can dine on their innards. They treat their enemies no differently.

From the puffins they had learned of Ivor and his thick otter coat; from the dolphins they had learned of his silver-warded boat. I told them that I knew nothing else about the man, except that he had children and a wife.

Hefna tilted her head and fixed me with a black glare.

“We know of his wife. We know more about her than you, Svashosha.”

“I am sure you do.”

I did not ask how they knew my name. That did not matter to me. But, oh, how I wanted to fall upon Hefna and devour her. She knew more about Kastsha than I, and there is no hunger more savage than sudden jealousy.

“Have you ever wondered why there was no other tyulki here when you arrived? The bay is rich with prey, isn’t it?” Forset, serene and calm, stacked smooth stones as he spoke. The pile curved like a spine, unsteady and pale in the moonlight.

“That man did not work silver into his boat to protect himself from us,” Hefna bared her milky fangs. “Humans do not know what otters are, we make certain of that.”

“He is afraid of something else. Can you guess, shifter?” The clack of Forset’s pebbles matched his tone’s implacable rhythm. “Do you see, yet?”

I snarled, then, because I do not like games and I like feeling foolish even less than that.

“Do not play with me, or treat me like some idiot pup. I am not as powerful as you, but I am older,” I snapped my jaws shut over Forset’s head. “And my teeth are longer.”

Hefna laughed, unafraid, and looped the length of her body around her mate.

“Save your anger, Svashosha. Save it for Ivor, who found his wife ashore on this beach after a full moon and convinced her that she was utterly unremarkable. And utterly human.”

“Is she not…?”

And then I understood why I could see Kastsha’s freckles when I closed my eyes; why they seemed so familiar to me, even as they spread across her pale and hairless skin.

“But…how?”

“Silver, we think. You know she cannot change back, not even in salt water, if she is silver bound. She would know too, or should know, but she does not. Whatever storm spat her ashore must have battered her mind, wiped it as clean as the beach after high tide.” Forset swept his tail across the sand, erasing the lingering curves left by lapping waves.

“And what…why did you come here? Why did you tell me?”

“Because Ivor hunts our animal kin. You saw his coat.” Hefna’s bottomless eyes flashed. “Because it is a betrayal of the ancient ways to trap a magical thing in a cage. Even if that cage looks like a home or a family.”

“And because we cannot help her,” Forset added. “We cannot go so far into a human village without drawing unwanted attention. But the full moon is tomorrow, isn’t it?”

“So I will go.” It was not a question. I did not hesitate. “You want me to free her.”

“Yes. And you will bring Ivor to the beach.” Hefna flicked her paw against the topmost stone, and the tower clattered down. “For us.”

***

Every tyulki feels differently about the skin shift. There are those who detest it, those who choose never to walk ashore on human legs— and there are some of us who enjoy, perhaps perversely, the crackle of bone, and the way our muscles pool around our newly moon-sculpted shapes.

In the breath between sunset and moonrise, I met Hefna and Forset in the shallows. Together they held a crown of plaited land flowers adorned with luminous chips of abalone shell.

“For me?” The flowers’ perfume was sweet but also dry, and hot, the way earth smells after a blazing summer day.

They smelled just like Kastsha.

“No.” Hefna lifted one purple petal and sniffed. “Violets, humans call these.”

“We worked through the night and dawn to braid this.” Forset thumped his tail into the wet sand. “It will call Kastsha back to herself.”

“But do not place it on her head if she still wears silver, any silver at all, or it will not work,” Hefna cautioned.

I glanced to the horizon—a white sliver of the early moon shimmered in both sea and sky. I nodded. Immediately they understood, and stepped back so that I might let the magic work its way through my blood.

Swiftly the change happened, as it always does. Yet for me, this time, it felt as an eternity, and I did not know why. Perhaps my heart could not tolerate any delay because of Kastsha, locked in chains she could not recognize.

I knew my human form well. I had not yet walked among the Yupredok, but I was old, and I had visited many other women in many other villages. Hefna and Forset placed the crown into my waiting palms.

“We hid things for you, just past the beach, in the crook of an elder willow. He was very happy to help,” Hefna grinned, and I shivered in spite of myself, though not from cold.

“A dress, some boots, and a knife.” Forset was already wading further into the waves. “A small knife, tyulki.”

“You do not want me to hurt him.” I nodded and started to wade toward land. Toward her.

“Oh, no, Svashosha, you are welcome to hurt him,” Hefna chirped, before she disappeared beneath the dark water. “But we will kill him.”

***

I found the clothing and knife exactly where Hefna said they would be, safely tucked between the gnarled roots of a beach willow scarred by a thousand storms. Sea glass chimes glimmered among vibrant leaves; Yupredok fishermen must have placed them there, maybe to sound as a musical boundary between shore and village.

Remembering Hefna’s words, I dipped my head respectfully as I yanked the kelp-wrapped packet free of its hiding place.

“I am no sea otter, Tree, but if you might protect me while I dress myself, I would appreciate it.”

For a moment I thought myself absurd, drunk still on the skin shift, but then I heard the creak of wood and the salt breeze whisper of leaves.

Willow branches surrounded me.

I swallowed. It was one thing to hear about sea otter magic and another thing entirely to see it. Quickly I slid into the gown and tucked the knife into my belt; around my left shoulder I coiled the enchanted violet crown.

“Thank you.” I bowed this time, before starting on the cobblestone path to the Yupredok village.

Everything was uniform and gray— gray stone homes and shops, with thick, weather-bleached thatching. Only the doors offered a bit of color: spirals of red paint lacquered atop pale pine.

I thought perhaps that Hefna had blessed my gown with good fortune, because it was laughably easy to track Ivor. He was the only man brazen enough to hunt otters and wear their pelts, and their oily pungence could never be scrubbed away nor hidden. I silently thanked him for his arrogance as I rounded a bend in the cobbled road.

“May I help you, madam?”

Fiercely focused on Ivor’s stench, I did not notice the wizened man walking behind me until he spoke. I turned, slowly, calmly, and licked my suddenly dry lips, for I had not spoken a human tongue in many years.

“Ah, yes, I am here to visit my friend, Kastsha…do you know where she lives?”

He considered me with clear eyes. Around his neck twined a golden torque, orca-engraved and set with blue gemstones.

“I think you know exactly where she lives, as you have made a raven’s straight path to her home.”

Beneath his braided beard, his mouth drifted up into a wry smile. “And she does not have many friends here, our Kastsha. Ivor is very…protective.”

“I have heard.” I relaxed, just a little.

“Have you now?” He glanced up to the night sky, and chuckled. “Well, word does have a way of getting around when puffins are involved.”

Shock darted across my face before I could catch myself.

“Be warned, madam.” With a flourish of his homespun robes, he gestured toward Ivor’s scarlet door. “He will not let you in, not under any pretense, because he has been expecting one of you ever since he stole sweet Kastsha from the shore.”

“Then I will have to hope she comes out of her house…”

“She will if it suits him, and I imagine your otter luck has yet to run out.”

Again, I started and again he laughed.

“Thank you for your help…”

“Mazek. Elder Mazek. There are those of us here in Rovani who respect the ocean and all that She hides. I only ask that you remember that.”

“Elder, why didn’t you help her, if you know what she is?” I did not bother to bite back the question that bubbled sharp and quick from my mouth.

“Well.” He twisted one of his braids about his forefinger. “It was none of my business, I suppose.”

And then Mazek carried on down the cobbled road, humming to himself, as though he had not just met a tyulki under the full moon.

None of his business? I inhaled deeply, once, twice, thrice, to quell my rising fury. Killing Mazek wouldn’t free Kastsha, I reminded myself.

I padded silently into the fragrant cypress shrubs flanking Ivor’s home. I realized he must be a hunter of great wealth and standing, to have this much glass set into his windows—to feel as though the ocean owed him all of its most precious prizes.

The knife was in my hand before I realized my fingers had moved.

“The children are asleep, my love.”

“Ah, very good, Kastsha.” Ivor’s voice boomed more clearly through the walls, and he lumbered past the window. I could smell that damn coat. “I want some eggs, fried in butter, and a glass of akavit.”

Not a trace of courtesy softened his tone. He spoke as a man who expected things simply to happen as he wished.

“Of course.” Kastsha’s voice, plush and pliant, made my heart ache. “Why don’t you take off your boots, darling, and I’ll be right back.”

A wooden creak splintered the quiet. Kastsha opened the front door and slipped out, picking her way through the yard toward the low chicken coop. I could have reached out then to grab her wrist, I could have dragged her screaming all the way to the beach and beyond, but I was frozen, transfixed by the liquid way she moved and the way the moonlight seemed to leap from freckle to freckle under her eyes, shimmering but never settling.

She paused in the thick of a sprawling herb garden and tilted her head back to the starry sky. At her throat silver glinted: a thick chain dripping with tiny pearls arrayed to look like rain.

Or tears.

“Kastsha,” I whispered, first, then more loudly: “Kastsha.”

She turned to face me, her curls foamed around her face, her mouth half-open in surprise.

“Who are you?”

“A friend,” I jammed the knife back into my belt and held out empty palms.

“Well, stranger, I have no use for friends,” Kastsha replied. “I have all I could ever need here, with my family, and if you are here to hurt me, know that my husband is the strongest man in the entire village.”

Even still, Kastsha did not scream for him, though we both knew Ivor would hear and come running at once. It seemed she wanted something but she did not know how to name it.

“I would never dream of hurting you.” She could not know how truly I spoke. “That is a pretty chain. Did your husband give it to you?” I sidled closer. Her eyes flicked toward the house, then down to her silver and pearls.

“He did.”

“Was it a gift? Or an exchange?”

“An…exchange?” Kastsha’s brows splashed together.

“Did you give something up for this…trinket?” I purposefully barbed my question with derision.

“No.”

“Are you so certain?” As I pressed, I saw the first sharp flash of anger in the depths of her eyes. My beautiful thunderstorm.

“Yes!”

“Then may I look at it? Your necklace? I know pearls very well, you see. I have always loved them, because they remind me of the sea even when I cannot be there.”

“Are you going to steal it?” Sweet, guileless Kastsha. I would rather die than touch silver, but the momentary pain would be worth it.

“No, not at all. I merely want to check the craftsmanship, to make sure it is as valuable as you deserve. I will give you my crown to hold as surety.”

From around my shoulder I unslung the violet and abalone garland, and I held it out in the thin space between us. She hesitated, just for a moment, and then pulled the chain up and over her head.

“I love the sea, too, but I rarely get a moment to go down to the shore.” Kastsha traced a flower petal with a single, gentle finger while I pretended to examine her necklace. In truth, it took all of my willpower not to hiss and drop the cursed thing in the soil. Ivor must have clasped the chain around her neck while she was still storm-stunned, or else she would have felt its harsh and burning chill.

“Kastsha, these pearls are very valuable, and indeed, beautiful.” I inhaled slowly and let my exhalation carry a wave of pain out into the night air. “As are you.”

“I…” Her fingers flew to the hollow of her throat, now empty. “Thank you.”

“Svashosha. My name is Svashosha.” The pain was impossible to ignore now, but I knew like the tide it would ebb away, so I focused on Kastsha’s heart-shaped face, and the freckled constellations on her cheekbones. “Before I return your necklace, you should try on my crown. It suits you.”

“Do you think?”

“I do, yes, very much.”

She lifted the garland to her head and I held my breath.

“Kastsha? What is taking so long?” Ivor’s face blocked the wash of light pooling beneath the glass pane window. I could see the way his forehead creased, the way the muscles tightened against his jaw, and then he slammed his hand violently against the window.

Ivor knew what I was. He knew why I was here, in his herb garden, with his magnificent wife. Light blazed again from the casement as he dashed away, toward the front door.

I hoped Kastsha would forgive me. I lunged forward and wrapped my arms around her.

“I am sorry,” I whispered against the shell of her ear, and then I yanked the flowers around her head. As they slipped over her hair to her forehead, the violets seemed to absorb the moonglow, blazing even more brilliant than the dawn sky.

When something dies in the ocean, it dies silently. I had never heard a scream like Kastsha’s before, nor do I ever want to hear anything like it ever again. Keening, she might have fallen to her knees, tears cascading from her suddenly haunted eyes, but I seized both of her wrists and jerked her after me as I bolted toward the seaward path.

Ivor exploded, howling, through the front door.

I did not look back. I knew he was there; he still had on his fur coat, and I could smell that, mixed with the sour sweat of an angry huntsman.

Kastsha knew he was behind us, as well. I wasted no breath speaking, because I did not have to; I merely looked at her, and she answered me with a decisive nod, though her tears had not stopped. We sprinted past Elder Willow and onto the shore, and I laughed in spite of myself, because the tide was high and we were so close to freedom.

But then Kastsha collapsed, sobbing, and the sound of Ivor’s boots shifted from heavy thudding to rasping stride as he hurtled from the stone path to sand.

“No, no, Kastsha, you know we have to get into the water, and we must go now…”

“You will take her nowhere.” Ivor loomed large in the night, and he pointed at me with an unshaking finger. In his other hand he held a jagged spear with the limber ease of someone who knew how to skewer prey through shifting water. “I knew one of you might come, one day, but she is mine!”

“She is not.” I positioned myself between them, and I snarled, though born from a human throat, it emerged as a weak and pitiful growl.

“She is. I found her. She belongs to me.”

“I am not yours.” Kastsha’s breath was ragged, waterlogged, but I could hear the tyulki strength returning to her, so I started to move backwards, slowly, toward the waves.

“Was I so bad to you, Kastsha? Did I ever hurt you, the way some of the men do? I never once slapped you, never once did I throw you against the wall, or threaten you with the fire irons,” Ivor wheedled.

“I wish you had.” Kastsha stood, and she glared at Ivor with a strange, furious tenderness. “I wish you had beaten me until bruises outnumbered my freckles. That would have been better than hiding me from myself.”

I reached out to take Kastsha’s hand, and I clasped her palm with my own chain-wrapped fingers. She could feel the bite of the silver, now, but still she lifted her chin defiantly.

“You would forswear your children?” Ivor stepped forward and spread his arms. “You would abandon them?”

Kastsha flinched, then, and in that moment I hated Ivor more than I had ever hated anything.

“Was it real, Svashosha? What I felt for my babes…my pups…was it real?”

I rested my cheek on her shoulder, hoping she might draw strength from the press of my ribs against hers, and I whispered, “Yes, it was real. It is real, even now. He made you forget yourself, but it was your heart that made you a mother.”

Kastsha gripped my belt as though to steady herself, and I felt her sigh. Ivor moved forward again; I tried to pull Kastsha back toward the water with me, but she was frozen in place.

“I knew you would see reason, my love.” Ivor stabbed the spear into the ground and reached out to take her back into his arms, heedless of the slick kelp knot beneath his boots.

Never cross sea otters: Ivor’s last lesson.

A trill rang out through the night, and then a deeper chirp laced through the lilting melody, and the kelp stretched impossibly, twisting up and twining tightly around Ivor’s burly frame and across his mouth.

He tried to fight, of course, but then he could not be expected to know any better.

Hefna slithered from the shallows first, and Forset followed.

“Svashosha.” She tipped her head to me, and the diamond droplets on her whiskers shivered and fell. Then she turned to Kastsha.

“I grieve for your loss.”

Kastsha smiled, a sick and wounded smile, and nodded.

“Thank you for sending Svashosha.”

“I think she would have come for you without our help,” Forset sniffed. “In time.”

“Yes.” I blushed for the first time, and I squeezed Kastsha’s hand again.

“I am sorry,” she whispered, and all at once I felt the missing heft of the knife, and she was lunging for Ivor.

More quickly than I could see, more magical kelp tangled about her ankles, and Kastsha tumbled with a dull thud.

“We want him to suffer, Kastsha. Do you see his coat? Those otters were our family.” Hefna did not sound angry, which surprised me.

“I want him to suffer, too,” Kastsha murmured, and she pushed herself up to her arms and knees. Yet when she looked up, she was crying again. “But I cannot let my children be alone, without anyone, in that house with its red door.”

And the knife tumbled from her nerveless grip.

Hefna nodded, and Forset began to dig something up from beneath the sand.

“We had kits, very long ago. They are grown now.” Forset straightened. Between his paws he held a small driftwood poppet, roughly carved to look like a human wearing an overlarge coat.

“We know what it means to love your children. We know that you might give up everything— vengeance, freedom, your soul— for them. And we do not want that.” Hefna’s whiskers quivered almost imperceptibly. “So, please pick up the knife, Kastsha, and do as we ask.”

Kastsha’s seaweed binding melted into nothingness. She bent, stiffly, and palmed the little blade Forset had given me.

“Give me your violet crown, and then cut a hank of his hair.” Forset accepted the flower wreath from Kastsha, and as he took the crown, it stopped glowing. I watched him yank a few stems from the garland, and he began to plait them into a tighter weave. Silently, so that Kastsha could not see, I slipped him her pearls and silver chain.

I should not have worried that she might have noticed. Kastsha was focused entirely on Ivor, who continued to thrash against his slick shackles. She crouched next to him, and pressed the tip of the blade into his chin, so that he was forced to behold her.

“You will love my children as I did. As I do. You will bring them to the shore, every full moon, so that I might see them, and touch them. And if they…” Kastsha swallowed a swelling sob. “If they are as I am, I will take them, and you will never see them again.”

Over his seaweed gag, Ivor’s eyes widened in disbelief. For a moment I thought Kastsha might still slit his throat. He would have deserved that, and more, but she merely sliced a handful of his hunter’s braids.

“You will do as she says, Ivor, Sea-Hated.” Forset took the braids into his deft paws and tucked them into the poppet’s new violet and silver bindings. Kastsha stumbled back to me, and I held her as tightly as I could.

Hefna pulled a glittering sea urchin spine from seemingly nowhere; perhaps a dark wind brought it to her. Without warning, she shoved it into the poppet’s right arm.

Ivor’s scream was not so heartbreaking as Kastsha’s had been.

“You will do as she says, will you not?”

Ivor nodded, and nodded, and kept nodding.

Hefna and Forset turned away from him, and they bowed, once to me, and once to Kastsha.

“We will build a new holt, here, in Rovani Bay, tyulki. We will stay, and we promise to make sure he upholds his promises to you.”

“Thank you,” Kastsha freed a shuddering breath.

I pointed to where the moon had dipped almost entirely behind the water’s edge. “I think it is time we go.”

And so, hand in hand, we did.

***

Though many high tides have come and gone, Kastsha still visits her children. They are nearly grown, now, and they are both shape changers like their mother, though they are not tyulki. Blending our blood with that of the earthbound humans resulted in some altogether different magic. The Yupredok honor them, though, so Kastsha does not fear for them, and she taught them about the dangers of silver, and the treachery of losing yourself.

Kastsha has healed as much as she ever will, but I know deep in her heart, where even I cannot reach, a hurricane brews.

Sometimes, she will find a rocky island not far from land, and she will slide back into her human skin, all wild hair and wild eyes and wild song.

Fishermen who try to catch her always drown.