The Shadow Soul – Chapter 7
When she neared the cage, Rhen grasped her arms, lifting her free of the rope and pulling her safely into the wooden basket. She panted for a moment, regained her depleted strength, and took in the view.
For miles and miles in every direction, a stark and sparkling blue.
She tried to stand, but the rocking of the ship was magnified with their height, and it seemed to tip almost sideways with every other breath. Her legs wobbled, and then she dropped back to the floor.
“Stay seated,” Rhen said, pushing down just slightly on her shoulder when she tried to lift herself up for the second time. He sat too, sighing as he dangled his feet over the edge and leaned back into the railing. His large frame took up over half of the small space.
Their arms touched from shoulder to elbow, causing a heat to rise under her skin. Jinji grabbed her legs, pulling them into her chest and shifting her weight, careful not to touch his body anymore. It was too intimate, she realized, after spending so many hours locked in the same room as him. There had to be a distance between them, otherwise she might slip up, might forget that she was supposed to be a boy, that she was supposed to be lying. He might notice that though her face was that of a male, her body was not. The baggy clothes hid it well, but in these close quarters, she had to be careful.
No matter how many times he taunted her, Rhen had come to be a friend, and she would not mess that up, not yet.
“This is one of my favorite spots on the ship,” he said, eyes still closed in relaxation, “though many wouldn’t say the same. It’s considered a punishment to be put up here, because of all the movement, but I’ve always found it very peaceful, very liberating.”
Feeling her stomach unsettle slowly, Jinji might have agreed with the others, but there was something oddly comforting in her mood and oddly settled too.
“This was where I came to escape the castle and my father and mostly my responsibilities. Even if I was only on the dock, still stuck in Rayfort, I seemed miles away on top of this ship.”
He opened his eyes slowly. The wind rustled his red hair, forcing it to spill over his forehead. Jinji wondered if her own short hair was doing the same, without her braid to keep it still and steady. Just the other night she had borrowed Rhen’s knife to cut it short again, not ready to stop her mourning period—not even close.
“Do you have a place like that?”
Jinji closed her eyes tight, fighting back the water gathering there.
It used to be her spot, but all she saw now was Leoa, tying her braid, pulling over her joining dress. Both of them giggling, completely ignorant to the cries of their people, to the children and the women, to the warriors, to her parents. Even to Maniuk, singled out by the shadow for his strength and his skill—used and discarded.
All she heard now was the blood-curdling scream that cracked her spirit in half, the pounding of her footsteps, the soft thud of a body as it fell to the ground.
“No,” was all she said. No, she didn’t have a safe place like that, not anymore.
“It will get better,” Rhen said. Jinji wouldn’t look at him, but instead focused on the far away horizon. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but it will.”
He took a deep breath, cracked his knuckles. Jinji almost heard the words waiting on his lips, could feel them press against his tongue wanting to come out. The air was static, electric from his pounding heart, his pulsing nerves.
And then it all stopped.
“I had a younger brother once,” Rhen confessed, his words heavy with an emotion that was mirrored by Jinji’s wounded soul. “He was barely a year old when he was murdered by the man my father trusted most in the world. And I could have stopped it, if I had only understood what—” His voice shook, wavered on an edge. “I found papers that held evidence the murder was going to take place, but I was too young to understand what they meant, too naïve to know what I had found. And for that, my brother paid the price.” He turned, met her stare with eyes a deep dark green, like the forest at twilight. “I know what it means to lose someone, but I also know that though the pain will never fully fade, eventually you will be able to endure it.”
Jinji didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing at all. Silence was the better option. Silence let the words sink in, let their truth ring, let her realize that Rhen had allowed her a peek at a place within himself that he didn’t show to everyone—that he did not even show to most people.
Jinji opened her mouth, aching to tell her own story, but her throat closed up, stealing the sound from her voice.
She trusted him, after all he had done for her, Jinji trusted Rhen. But trusting someone was one thing, and opening herself up to him, making herself vulnerable to be hurt again, that was something else entirely. Rhen might have been willing, but it was only because he didn’t know that in the end, he would just be wounded—by her lie if he ever found out the truth or by her leaving without a word of goodbye.
And Jinji couldn’t handle any more pain.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, instantly regretting it. Rhen blinked once, but once was all it took for his gaze to unglaze and his features to retreat, to harden. One blink was all it took for him to shut himself off again.