Winterkeep (Graceling Realm #4) by Kristin Cashore


PART ONE





The Keeper


            The man with the white streak in his black hair was diving too close to her again. He was a powerful swimmer, for a human. He kept pulling down through the water with strong arms and hands, propelling himself with big kicks.

            The sea creature tried to quiet her trembling limbs, so that if the human got deep enough to see her, he would think she was just a mountain of moss on the ocean floor and would turn away and stop scaring her.

            Then the human shot back up to the surface. The creature relaxed, relieved that humans needed air. Especially this human, who was different from the others. Most humans jumped out of a boat, thrashed around in the water looking like birds trying not to fall out of the sky, then dragged themselves back into their boats, satisfied. The sea creature never saw them again.

            But this human returned frequently, and dove with a purpose that frightened the creature, for she kept treasures here on the ocean floor, gathered them, guarded them, and this human knew about one of them. He didn’t know about her. No one knew about her. But he wanted the object that was her favorite treasure. She could feel him thinking about it. She wound her long tentacles around it, trying to hide it from sight. It was a ship.

            This ship, two-masted with swirling sails, had dropped nose-first from the waters above not too long ago, and landed beside her. All the creature’s treasures—nets, harpoons, anchors—sank like this, from the bright water above. But ships were rare treasures, and this ship was extra-special, for when she pressed one of her eyes to a porthole, she could see a secret world inside. A pink room with tiny sofas and armchairs attached to the floor, paintings on the walls, lamps; a skylight crossed with bars and a door with a sparkling knob and hinges; and two pink-skinned human bodies, which were beginning to look soft and puffy. She called it her Storyworld.

            The most special and unusual thing about her Storyworld was that there was a padlock on the outside of the door, trapping these bodies inside. Usually, when a ship sank, the people jumped into the water or the lifeboats, trying to live. They didn’t close themselves into a room with a padlock.

            The human with the white streak in his black hair, who had brown skin, dove deep again, looking for the ship. He thought about a woman sometimes as he dove, a human woman with dark braids and gray eyes who wore glimmering rings on pale brown fingers. The sea creature understood that he wanted the ship so he could give it to the woman. The sea creature didn’t like this woman, not at all.

            The diver’s own boat was a small oval above. She thought about grabbing its anchor and pulling. It was not the sort of thing she ever did. If she pulled his boat under, he would probably see her, and she never attracted anyone’s attention. But then, eventually, he would drown, and that would make him stop looking for her favorite treasure. In fact, he himself would make a fine treasure. In addition to the nice way his hair floated around his face, and in addition to his tiny, perfect muscles, his tiny, perfect hands and feet, a red jewel sparkled on a ring on his thumb. The creature would like to slide that ring from his thumb and wear it at the tip of one of her thirteen tentacles. She loved the sparkly things humans wore. And then the man would bloat, and rupture, and rot, and eventually become a smooth, shiny skeleton in tattered clothing, and she loved that about humans too. She could add him to her collection of bones. Encircle him with her tentacles, keep him safe.

            Then a pod of silbercows approached, so she decided to leave the human’s small oval boat alone. Silbercows never let humans drown, if they could help it. Silbercows were about the size of one of the sea creature’s eyes. They made platforms with their backs and lifted drowning humans to the surface, thinking encouraging thoughts at the humans. Also, now the chance of being seen was too great. Silbercows had better underwater vision than humans.

            Again, the human broke his dive and ascended to the surface. Next, the human seemed to be playing with the silbercows, swimming and rolling with them, laughing, shouting in happiness. This happened pretty often with this human. The silbercows liked to visit him, and he always laughed a lot.