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Dreams Lie Beneath
Author:Rebecca Ross

I rowed to another street, my eyes constantly searching the water, awaiting the serpents. I imagined I saw something slithering through the depths, but it was difficult to tell for certain. The rain eased, the flood line coming to rest right at the eaves of roofs, and the lily pads were multiplying. I bumped into another nest of them and had to reroute yet again, and my shoulders were beginning to smolder from the effort; my hands were pruned.

I had nearly forgotten about the Vesper brothers until I caught a glimpse of them farther up the street, paddling in their own boat. They rounded a corner, slipping away from sight, and I had a strange urge to follow them.

“Don’t lose focus, Clem,” Papa said, and I had to swallow another quip.

My attention was drawn to the water beneath me, where a small golden light trembled beneath the surface. I leaned closer, the boat rocking, and realized it was a coin drifting through the water, as if someone had cast a wish into a pool.

“Do you see that?” I cried, and rose with haste, handing the paddle to my father.

“Clem, wait—”

But the coin was the key, I thought urgently, and it was about to fade away. I jumped overboard and let the water close over my head as I swam after that tantalizing gleam of gold. It led me through the streets, and I had to surface twice to gulp in fresh air. My father was close behind me, paddling the boat in my wake, and I descended into the water again, chasing the key.

I’m not sure what happened first. The water around me turned bitterly cold and I lost sight of my quarry. Pausing, I treaded in place and felt the corresponding tug in my lungs. I needed air, and I rushed to swim up to the surface. Only I couldn’t find it. I was suddenly entangled with lily pads. I couldn’t break through them; I couldn’t reach the surface. In my panic, I couldn’t recall a single convoluted spell for breathing underwater.

I fought and pushed and kicked. The more I resisted, the more I became entangled. My lungs burned; I was overwhelmed, fading in my own skin. Something slid past my leg. One of the serpents. My heart leapt in fear.

I’m about to drown. . . .

I quit trying to breach the surface and grappled for one of the daggers hooked to my belt. Be calm, I commanded myself as I methodically hacked at the lilies, hacked at the serpents that were gathering and weaving a net around me with their thin, long bodies.

I was nearing the surface, and I saw the shadow of a boat nearby, waiting for me. Papa. I kept my focus on it and broke the surface with a desperate gasp of air. My eyes stung, and I clambered for the boat, hefting myself up into its safety. Sprawled within its hull, I spluttered and coughed. I was trembling, and my head was throbbing, but a sharp sting on my left calf snagged my attention.

I drew up my dress to my knees, exposing a serpent latched to my leg, its fangs buried in my skin. It didn’t feel real, even as my eyes smarted from the intense pain, and I merely gaped at it a moment, struggling to remember where I was, what was unfolding around me, my mind foggy from the lack of air.

A blaze of light shot like an arrow, striking the serpent dead. Its writhing body instantly went limp, but its fangs were still caught in my leg, and a hand I didn’t recognize carefully unhinged the serpent and tossed it overboard.

My gaze rose.

Phelan Vesper.

I had climbed into Phelan Vesper’s boat.

For a moment, all I could do was pant and stare at him in numb shock. I coughed again, my lungs burning vividly. I wiped my face and pushed my dress back down, hiding my legs and the blood that was trickling out of the fang marks.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” I wheezed.

I closed my eyes and leaned back in his boat until I felt steady again. A foolish thing, as I shouldn’t trust him. Particularly since I had no idea where his brother was.

I listened to the sound of his paddle dipping into the water as he rowed us away from the lily pads. I could have lain there, limbs melted like wax, for hours, but I forced myself to sit up and take in my surroundings.

I saw Papa farther down the street, the lilies blocking him from reaching me. But our gazes crossed, and he hurried to angle his boat into a side street. I knew what he wanted me to do.

The roofs around us bloomed like mushrooms from the water, and when Phelan rowed us close to one, I leaned toward him. My graceful motion had him instantly wary, and he stopped paddling, his eyes glinting with a dark warning to maintain my distance.

I ignored it, and I dared to touch his face, a fleeting caress that seemed to enchant him into stone.

“Thank you,” I breathed. My hand slipped from his cheek and promptly shot a hole in the boat with a beam of magic. He startled as the water began to surge around our ankles.

I leapt to the nearest roof, struggling to find purchase in the thatch. I scrambled up to the apex of the roof and glanced back to see Phelan furiously trying to mend his boat, in vain. It was a moment from being completely submerged, and he glared at me.

“Your gratitude is noted, Miss Madigan,” he said, and jumped onto the same roof as me.

I gave him a mock curtsy before I hurried down the other side, where Papa sat waiting for me. I settled into our boat and whispered, “Hurry, Papa.”

My father paddled us away, and I glanced over my shoulder to see Phelan standing on the thatched roof, stranded. But I felt the bite of his gaze until we turned onto a different canal and he was finally lost from my sight.

Shuddering, I sat back and took a fortifying breath.

“I told you to wait, Clementine,” my father growled.

“I know, and I’m sorry,” I said, my attention straying to the challenge. “Have you seen Lennox?”

“He’s in the water.”

I looked over the edge of the boat, where serpents slithered just beneath the surface, and I saw the gleam of the key again. Drifting and taunting me to pursue it. A splash sounded behind me, and I turned to see Lennox cresting the water, slipping back into its domain, effortless as a fish. He swam alarmingly fast; he must have enchanted himself.

I stood in the boat as he passed by us, so swiftly not even the serpents could entangle him.

“Don’t forget there’s a cost to every charm, Clem,” my father said, reading the anguish in my eyes.

“Yes, and we’re about to lose this town, Papa.” I watched as Lennox rose from the water again, to breathe before diving back beneath the surface. I remembered how it felt to nearly drown, how the water tried to sneak into me and weigh me down, and yet I couldn’t bear to face this defeat. To have my home stolen from me by a magician like him.

I inhaled and spoke a long, twisted charm. Wild and spontaneous magic that lurked in my bones. I called upon the last of my reserves and watched the sadness overcome my father’s face as gills blossomed in my neck and I struggled to breathe in the air, gasping.