Author's note: Welcome. If you are confused, please return to my page and read Like the Tides, of which Saltstone is the sequel. You'll notice that the rating of Like the Tides was T, while this is rated M. I intend to make my content more mature, fitting Annabel and Finn's ages, however anything explicit will be tasteful (and not PWP), or supplied as an outtake for you to read should you wish.
Using the prompt 'Scheherazade' from Caesar's Palace forum.
I take a lot of inspiration, and use many stories from Greek mythology. The stories I use are sometimes real, or my own take, or made up entirely in the familiar style. This website: www . theoi . com (remove the spaces) is a fantastic reference for this topic.
Finally, a very big thank you to everyone who is continuing to read, or has just joined, and to dear Stacey, my patient beta, and April, for her wonderfully beautiful cover images.
On the north side of Bomb Bay, the Victor's Village unfurled like a wave. It was built upon a little promontory and Cayr beach stretched around the rocky cove, filled with nooks and secret places. Once, the caves were named only for the beach. Some were always dry, but others were underwater at anything but low tide. Forty-one years ago, Nelly Larn had gone missing from the Village. A wavering set of footprints, a bloodied nightdress and a pair of tarnished dog-tags glinting in the sand had led the way down to Cayr's. It took days to search all the little oyster-lined caves; the divers had to wait for low tide, and they couldn't search at night. Nelly had battled home through an arena that looked like a fairy-tale forest of pixie-rings and haunted cottages. Well, she learnt that the faeries were real, at least their teeth were, and the houses were never empty. When she won at eighteen, long blonde hair down to her backside, Snow showed her that the life of a victor was just like the stories of faeries – it had teeth. By the time they found her naked body on one of the lowest caves, fish and crabs had eaten away her eyes, her tongue, her nipples. Though she had been in the water so long that her skin had started to pull away from her bones, the coroner was pretty sure she had dug her knife down between her legs before she drowned herself. Children were warned not to go to Nelly's Caves, but the old coroner and the divers who hailed her from the hole in the cliff couldn't stop thinking of the ragged gash between her thighs.
Nelly's hadn't been the only body pulled from the caves. Nearly a decade ago, a pair of young boys had left school in the afternoon and had not returned for dinner. The search began in earnest the next day. The river mouth, emptying into Bomb Bay was dredged. An enterprising peacekeeper approached Captain Fuller to borrow some of his pearl divers. The man agreed to say nothing about Fuller's dubious harvesting. For days, Nerissa was full of self-importance, proudly telling everyone that her father was going to find the missing children when everyone knew that they would be lucky to find the bodies. Drownings were not uncommon, but the bodies were usually found before they were cold – where the children could be was all that was talked about as the weeks stretched by. Eighteen days after they had been missed from their dinner table, the body of the first child was found. It happened to be one of Fuller's pearl divers who saw it, tucked up in a blind corner of one of Nelly's Caves, badly rotting. Fish had had their way and the flesh was ragged. The divers did their best but they lost little parts of the child in the water while hungry snapper and rock cod brushed about their flippers. It was another month before the second boy was found. A couple of teenagers in their father's boat were daring each other to run the dinghy up close to the sea lion colony that rested on the jutting spur of Cayr beach. They drove their little boat up close and the big bulls barked and growled while their sleek mates dove into the water. They got close enough to see a ragged shirt and some bones that were too big, too rounded to belong to fish. Sea lions weren't known to be scavengers, but hunters. Fishermen and peacekeepers went out with guns and heavy clubs to retrieve the cracked bones.
The boy's head broke the surface and he drew in a deep breath. The air smelt of salt, limestone and slowly rotting kelp. He smiled. He had no interest in real stories about real people, bones on rocks and coffins that rattled dryly. Proof took the heart from stories. With blue-green water and creamy white stone, the cave was a beautiful place. There was sun enough for the water to catch the light and paint it over the low, curving roof in a shifting, rippling pattern until it seemed the ocean was all around and he was still underwater. He smiled again and rolled onto his back to look up at the rock. With the soft shushing of the waves magnified by the low tunnel the boy felt as if he were somewhere far more special than old Nelly's Caves. There was a tingle to the air that was more than salt – a scent that spoke of times nearly lost to memory. In his grandmother's stories, Poseidon, earth-shaker, would flow up like the sea and slip into maidens' bedrooms. They said, like the ocean, he could not be sated. Sometimes he would have them there. In the morning, the smell of salt would linger on the air and their skin. But the boy preferred the stories where Poseidon snatched the girls from their beds and carried them down to the shore. White limbs and flowing hair, they did not feel the ocean's crushing cold, nor gasp for breath when they were in Poseidon's arms. The old sea-god would take his conquests to the tidal islands or the most radiant sea caves and there he would have his prize. Sometimes he remembered to return the women to the surface. Poseidon only fucked his wife, Halia, in the open ocean.
With lazy overarm strokes, the child propelled himself along the low tunnel until the limestone was inches from his nose. He giggled and stuck his tongue out, trying to lick it because he could. Abruptly, he took a deep breath and dove down, pushing off the rough, rocky wall. He swam, hard. And as he forced himself down, under an arch so low that the stone scraped and scratched at his back, he remembered the tale of Aithra and Poseidon. Last time he tried to make the dive, he had to turn around and fight his way back to the surface. He thought if he took his mind from the tightening band around his chest, he might make it. So, while her husband lay wine-sodden, the sea-god snatched away the queen and carried her to a tiny cave of coral and wave-polished shells. There, she fathered Theseus who would one day rule Athens. But as he lay between Aithra's pale thighs, he heard the sea-goddess, Halia, calling and he left her there. The mortal queen called out for her lover as the water lapped around her ankles and then her thighs. Poseidon heard her pleas, but Halia's hair swirled darkly around him and her hands were soft and gentle; he did not leave. It was a pod of sea nymphs that went to the queen. With their magic, they sensed the new babe inside her, and because they had their own children at their breasts, they took pity. They carried Aithra to shore.
With burning lungs and frantic heartbeat, the boy finished the story. He felt the blood rushing in his ears and he fought the instinct to suck in a deep breath. Hands scrabbling at the pale stone, he pushed through the arch and up to the surface. The air was sharp. It filled his lungs and brought a smile of relief to his face; his limbs trembled as the adrenaline faded from his blood. It was no vestibule he had found, like the first, but a cavern some fifteen metres long. The walls looked to ooze blood and the light was dim and red. They were covered with glistening, ruby anemones, close up until the tide swept back in. It felt good to breathe again. The child pulled himself up onto the stone floor and gazed up at the ceiling. His eyes were near the colour of the little circle of water that marked the tunnel he swam through, and just as wide. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he caught his breath. And as he lay there among the shining rubies and the whisper of the tide, Finn Odair really was beautiful. He might have climbed from his grandmother's tales of nymphs and gods and lovers – but his smile held no guile. Over the last few years, he had grown quickly, though he was still behind the other boys. Now leanly muscled, not skeletal, his shoulder blades and pelvis showed in all the right ways. His smile was still crooked. But Finn had collected scars, too. A pale, puckered line traced up the inside of his forearm and there were more on both hands. The glass had shattered as he fled from Annabel and her harpy-smile, but he did not remember that. The doctors had left him in a haze or morphine to quiet his screams and he had forgotten why he was afraid. When he had woken, he asked for Annabel.
The tide was rising. A large wave along Cayr Beach sent a surge through the tunnel and a wash of cool water crept into the cavern. Finn had warmed up on the stone and he giggled when he felt the water's cold touch along his thighs and his backside. He sat up. Delicately, he dug his fingers into the soft flesh of an anemone and tucked it away in his pocket. It left a sad smear on the limestone, pale pink. Finn didn't know if anemones had blood. The swim back was hard, but this time he knew he could do it. He had a swimmer's lean legs and strong shoulders. In the first little vestibule, there was barely room to snatch a breath. Finn pressed his lips to the limestone and giggled. He felt rough stone with his tongue before he dove again. He slipped like a sleek seal through the tunnel, the light played on the plane of his back and the dip behind his knees. He was gilded as a darting fish. Already he looked forward to showing Annabel the daring way to the cavern when she returned from the Capitol. Green eyes grew brighter than the water and he thought of what they could do there; if they picked the tide correctly, there would be time to tell a story, weaving words as he threaded seaweed into her hair.
White in the searing sun, Annabel's home perched like a lighthouse on the edge of the cove. The beach was part sand and part snapped, rough shards of limestone, but Finn's feet were summer-tough. He followed the narrow spit of stone and sand until it turned to a rough set of steps and tackled the low cliff. They were built for someone taller than he was. A few years ago, someone had hammered a metal rail into the rock but Finn scampered up easily. He looked to the low cliff to his right. Agile and game, he thought he could scramble up there, perhaps if he tied a rope to Annabel's veranda and tossed it down to the beach. But there was no point doing that; Annabel had been frightened of edges and drops since she came back from the arena. The boy faintly remembered her clinging, limpet-like, to a very different cliff side. A shadow had snapped at her heels but she was like the light and it could not touch her. Finn knew that she flew up that cliff as sure as if she wore talaria on her feet. He didn't know why she was frightened of falling when she had shown the nation she could fly. He kept to the steps anyway.
Mella was in the kitchen when Finn wandered through the open glass doors. She looked up from her wide, Sunday newspaper and smiled the way Annabel used to, before she was Reaped. Now, there was something a little too calculated about Annabel's smile. He saw it when she was on television. Sometimes when she came home, she still used the wrong combination of lips and teeth and forgot the sparkle in her eye. When she did that, Finn froze up and waited for her to remember. Usually, she did.
"Love, you're dripping on the floor. Wait there." Finn stepped lightly onto the mat and Mella returned to drape a towel around his shoulders. He rubbed it fondly against her cheek. Mella shook her head but her smile persisted. "You dry off. Does someone know where you are?"
"I told Jarrett."
"Good, good. Well, once you're dry, you can have something to eat. Bet you forgot about lunch, huh, love?"
"When's Annabel coming back?" As he spoke, he ran his words together; he asked the question a lot. Sometimes, he forgot he had and he jogged across Bombay to ask it again. Finn drew the towel over his head and rubbed his hair. Heavy, damp strands fell into his eyes and he shook them from his face. He still screamed when he saw scissors flash in front of his face.
"She called this morning. I was going to tell you. She'll be home soon, really soon," Mella was pleased to answer. Her daughter had already been in the Capitol for two months, and before that she was only home for three weeks. Her phone calls were few. Last time, she complained that the Capitol was worse than usual when Leda was so busy and Dirk was going to leave for District 2 early. Mella had nodded and pretended she knew the people who filled her daughter's Capitol-life. Finn let the towel drop. He turned quickly and the mat slipped on the polished boards. Mella stifled a chuckle as he grabbed the doorframe to steady himself. Quickly, she said, "Not that soon! You can have something to eat. I mean that she'll be back before the Reaping next week."
Havar's beach glittered in the summer sun. From a distance, it looked as if the beach was strewn with diamonds. It was the first thing the eager Capitol tourists saw when they stepped from their luxury trains, but they never got close enough to the sand to see that the diamonds were just bits of broken bottle left by students at the nearby university. They quickly fled to the air-conditioned hotels on the north side of Bombay and they never cut their feet upon the diamond-glass.
Finn jogged along the low tide at Havar's beach, an easy lope. He was used to going between the Shoreline and the Victor's Village, and his feet well remembered the way. Often, he started out for school and found his way to Annabel's house, instead. He stopped to pick up a piece of brown-green glass but the edges were still sharp. He dropped it. Finn preferred when the ocean had worn away the edges and turned the glass opaque. He had given Annabel a piece, once, but she sent it back with a letter that his mother read to him. He added the tear-smudged page to the little box of treasures he kept under his bed.
The platform at the station was empty. When a train of tourists from the Capitol or the rich northern districts was due, it was bustling with attendants and a line of sleek cars waited by the side of the road. A plastic bag tumbled past and the boy followed it with his eye. The most dangerous creature in the ocean, read the posters at the back of his classroom, showing a gently floating plastic bag. Last year, Mr Farrass who taught maths and science had gathered the children together and took a bone-saw to a dead turtle. The smell was ripe. He pulled away the shell and cut open the creature's belly to show the children where their rubbish usually ended up. Poor bugger had so much plastic in him he couldn't dive. Starved to death on the surface. Remember that. Finn scrambled onto the platform and pounced on the plastic bag. He stuffed it into the bin.
The sand was soft and dry at the high tide line, and Finn settled down to wait. Behind him he heard the low murmur of the waves, and ahead was the click and rumble of the older trains that ran in the district or hauled away great cold cars of lobster and scallop and fish that had been swimming that morning. The platform for the elite was starkly bare. So the boy locked his arms around his knees and rested his chin upon them. His eyes stayed alert. Waves dragged at the sand and the sun prickled uncomfortably on the back of his neck. Mella had given him an old shirt from her husband's cupboard, saying he shouldn't run around in just his shorts when the sun had climbed to midday. He turned the collar up. Often, Finn forgot to wear the clothes he should. Sometimes, he decided he did not like the feel of rough cloth on his skin. Once, he found his mother's silk dressing gown, a gift, and liked the feel of the soft fabric so much that he wore it.
Slowly, the sun dipped to the west. Finn grew stiff where he sat and the platform was empty but for a hopeful gull that perched on the edge of the bin. Soon, it grew tired of waiting and took to the sky again. It skimmed down to the water in a wide arc and turned into the sunset. Finn watched it. In a sky of orange and pink and dusky red, it was a silver stroke by a hasty artist. He watched the gull until it was lost in the clouds. He waited.
The impatient horn had no place by the beach and the dusky clouds. It shattered the still air like the glass bottles. Finn shook his head and scrambled to his feet; he felt a little cold. The horn sounded again – a hand pressed flat to the wheel. Finn scampered up the soft sand and slipped under the barrier by the road. Jarrett's ute was idling at the curb.
"In you get," Jarrett said. Finn climbed in and scattered sand across the seat. Jarrett shrugged. He was clean shaven for summer, and not working today; he wore a faded pair of khakis and an open shift. Finn never liked his uniform. For a long time, he didn't like Jarrett, either. He did not like the man's faint accent, or the thick beard he grew in winter. Finn hated to see Jarrett's white jacket hanging by the door before he went to bed, and he hated it more when it was still there in the morning. Once, Finn had taken the jacket and stuffed it down the toilet, shivering and giggling by turn. Jarrett had cuffed him about the ear and said no more about it. Finn had raced down to the beach with tears in his eyes and a spreading bruise across his face and Rhyne had been sent to fetch him. Finn cried angrily and Rhyne muttered, Can't believe Mum would fuck a peacekeeper.
"You were waiting for Cresta, huh?"
"She didn't come." Finn pouted and Jarrett chuckled. It's the damndest thing, he thought, that kid can be throwing a tantrum and he still looks like a bloody faerie. Good thing, I guess.
"There's no trains scheduled until Friday morning." Jarrett pulled out onto the street and drove along next to the beach. He'd taught Rhyne to drive a few years ago, and sat Finn on his lap to steer when he was just small enough. He'd always kept his hands over Finn's. "Sorry. Reckon she'll be on that one."
"But she said she was coming soon!" Finn's voice rose in pitch and his eyes grew over-bright. He twisted his seatbelt and Jarrett reached over to brush his hand away. Rhyne had decided that he didn't mind his mother fucking a peacekeeper, after all, when he had an apprenticeship to go to, and enough money for a second-hand car to drive down to the docks.
"Must have meant Friday. Want to tell me what you did today? It was nice out," Jarrett said quickly. Finn's lip quivered for a moment before he remembered his excitement at the ruby-cavern and the narrow tunnel at low tide. Words tumbled over each other and Jarrett's face relaxed back into a smile. Once, Finn wouldn't have considered telling him that, but Sedna made her son see that Jarrett was more than just the reason that three nights a week he could not creep into her bed and hide from the dark. When Finn understood that Jarrett's jacket and boots in the hall meant a roof that did not leak and a quiet word with Mr Farrass about the time he missed class to wait for Annabel at the station, he didn't mind so much.
So Finn settled back in his seat and Jarrett swung the car up along the Shoreline. He thought about how quickly the cars rusted in District 4's salt-air, and how he'd have to get a receipt from the garage to pass onto the barracks. At least, he thought, you don't need chains to drive six months of the year. Rather be stuck behind a boat and trailer than a snow plough. Finn felt his chest burn as he recounted the narrow tunnel but he missed Jarrett's worried-sharp glance, his mind full of Aithra and Poseidon and the nymphs. He told Jarrett the story, but this time he added a sea cave filled with blood and precious gems.
"Bloody hell, quite the story-teller! Don't know where you get them all from." Jarrett laughed, but it did not last. "Can I tell you a story?"
"Okay." Finn sat up a little straighter. They'd reached his house and Jarrett slid the handbrake into place, but he didn't reach for the door. He took off his seatbelt and rested his hands on the wheel. Finn wondered why he was gripping it so tight when they were not moving.
"This is a really true one. Happened to me, alright? When I was growing up." Jarrett looked through the windscreen at the sunset. His gaze was unfocused. "Couple of kids were exploring around the Salt Caves – they call them that because the rocks are all white, like salt crystals – and it was the middle of winter. Snow everywhere, and deep, too. The little buggers slipped down a hole that'd been all covered up. The rock was all covered in snow, too hard to climb out. They died down there and we didn't find them 'til spring – Fuck, you're not listening anyway, are you?"
Finn turned in his seat and looked at Jarrett. He had been captured by the thought of caves filled with salt crystals, and his imagination had taken him far away from the bench seat and the ute parked outside his house. Jarrett sighed.
"Just don't play around Nelly's Caves. Alright? You know kids have died there before. Just keep away from them."
Friday arrived and the last skeins of a bloody sunset made a silhouette of the boy and the empty platform. Mostly clear, the sky had made a fine canvas for Apollo's plunge behind the seas. At the end of July, the air was summer-warm; only now as the sun set was the temperature bearable. It wrapped around the boy like a cloak. He wore a shirt that had belonged to someone with much broader shoulder than he, and it hung loose. The dusk wind made a sail of it, but he did not notice. In summer, twilight stretched on for hours, fading slowly from dusky pink to purple. Soon, the stars would be out and they would give the boy something to look at, but for now he stared at the point where the train tracks curved and were lost from sight.
They stayed resolutely empty and there was something achingly lonely about the quiet station, the beach that no longer glittered with diamonds, and the quiet boy. He had missed school that day, for Annabel's train was due. Jarrett had told him it was to come in the evening, but Finn wanted to make sure he did not miss it. All day he had waited. After the sunrise faded away, he stretched back and waited for the sun's rays to warm him. At midday, he lay in the shade of the sheltered platform. He picked his way down to the beach and swam, walking backwards out into the water so he could keep his eye out for a train. Rhyne had driven past on his way home and left his car idling on the curb around dinnertime, but Finn said he wanted to wait. Rhyne had driven away. For half an hour, he had a gull for company.
Now, he heard the footsteps. They were heavy and measured and without looking around, Finn knew their owner was tall. Barra was not just tall and strong, but knew it very well. While he realised that did not give him the right to do as he did, he also knew that there was a very good chance he would get away with it. Barra had grown more than Finn had over the last few years, and he had been big to start with – big and cruel. His hair was the same shade of bronze as Finn's, and his grey eyes could be full of smiles and laughter, but usually at the expense of another. He might have been good looking, but his lip was often curled in an arrogant sneer and his brows were lowered.
"What the fuck you doing?" He stopped, close enough that Finn had to crane his neck to see his face. When Finn scrambled to his feet, he still had to look up at the older boy. The sky was darkening, now. It did not cloak the child in dusky pink. Barra laughed a little and feinted forwards. He laughed more when Finn stumbled. The single gold tag of a volunteer in his final year clicked on its chain. Down on the beach, a gull cried a warning and its mate took to the air. A rangy, patched mongrel closed its jaws too late. Its muzzle had the pinched look of a stray, but its ribs did not show through its rough coat; it had a gold tag on its collar. After a moment's regret, it nosed among the debris left at the high tide line for a rotting fish to roll in.
Finn ran. He slipped under the low barrier by the beach and Barra hurtled over it. Sand flew from their heels. Barra had always been good in a sprint; he was too heavy for endurance running. At the Docks, they trained him to sprint from the tribute plate towards the golden horn, and he never false started. The dog raised its nose from the rotting seaweed and watched the two boys race down the sand. It waved its tail slowly. There was nobody else on the beach at this hour. Finn's panting breath drowned out the sound of the waves in his ears and he ran. He ran without much hope of getting away, but he did not stop. Tears came to the younger boy's eyes. They went down in a tangle of limbs, gritty sand and broken glass flying. For a moment, they struggled, but it was an easy contest. Barra was panting with exhilaration, and Finn was sobbing.
Even in summer, the water was never warm. The cold shock of it on Finn's face and neck gave a new wave of strength to his limbs. Barra contained it and laughed. It seemed each time Finn struggled, the older boy got a little stronger. He was excited. His erection jutted up in his loose shorts. Underwater, it was black and grey with swirling sand and stinging salt. Finn thrashed, as frantic as any fish on a hook, and his lungs burnt as they had when he swam into the cavern and its red, ruddy light. Now, different colours swam before his vision. Barra's hand wrapped almost all the way around his neck.
Finn gasped at the warm air and it seared his lungs and his throat. His eyes were streaming. Barra laughed, but Finn could not hear it over his thundering heart. Then, the water closed over him again. After another thirty seconds, Barra hauled him up and let him snatch a few breaths. Finn did not struggle, this time. He hung, his weight supported by the water, and by Barra's hold around his neck. Barra reached down and ran his hand through Finn's hair.
"I always like this game," he murmured. Without warning, he forced the boy underwater again. And this time, it stretched on. Barra counted off in his head and had to use two hands to hold the child's head down. Each scratch on his forearms, each frantic kick made him hold on harder and his smile was all gritted teeth and snarling lips. His groin throbbed. Finn fought like a demon. Six years ago, Barra had been sent up to the career academy after a peacekeeper caught him holding another child's head in a rock pool. His parents thought that the controlled violence of the Docks would be good for him, and it was, in Barra's opinion – it taught him to do what he liked better. And he liked this. So he counted off, deliberately slowing his seconds. One cornucopia, two cornucopia…three cornucopia…four… He did not let go when Finn's body went limp.