Child of the Deep
By Mary Jessica Woods
Illustration by Donan Scholl
Van’shir Nazadri T’sarek always felt strange after performing a bond surgery. It was disconcerting to return to her natural, physical senses after the long plunge into the Deep—attaching metal to nerve and bone using nothing but her fine-honed concentration and the energy flowing through her own implant. The operation was too delicate to be performed by hand. Only a deepcrafter could give a bond to another deepcrafter.
The operation had ended earlier in the evening; it was late now, and the ceiling panels in the surgery room glowed a soothing nighttime blue. But Nazadri could not shake her restlessness, could not quell the phantom energy still shooting through her veins. The sensation often lingered when she had to keep her bond activated for hours at a stretch. No one, not even other Van’shorii healers, had yet discovered an antidote to this particular side effect. Only time and solitude would quiet her body and mind.
She paced through the deserted room, running her fingers along the gleaming countertops of her workspace. Her apprentices had done an impeccable job cleaning, as usual: the incision tools had been washed and stored; no violet bloodstains remained on the wide operating table. The metal surface shone platinum-white, a stark contrast beside the dark, tattooed skin of her hand.
The surgery room was austere compared to most other parts of the Akkano’dath, her home ship in the Fleet. Instead of the usual brightly colored murals, the walls here bore a web of silvery, interlocking sigils inscribed on a black background. Nazadri knew the symbols by heart: they were the same words she had spoken over her patient tonight, when she had imbedded the bond in his flesh.
Sink now into the wellspring.
Breathe in the silver flame.
Drink of the Deep. Let it fill you.
Taste the fire of all things.
The ritual, and the room, possessed a certain bleak beauty. But sometimes Nazadri found the lack of color oppressive. It was a frightening place to submit to the surgery that would change one’s life forever. Especially for a child.
Her gaze flicked to the closed door of the recovery room that stood adjacent to the operating chamber. Her patient, a twelve-year-old boy from an obscure clan called Riivek, lay inside. She wondered how the child was doing. He had awoken safely from his sedation, had passed all the post-surgery checks with the usual stoic demeanor of a deepcraft apprentice. He was resting now—sleeping again, she hoped.
If his vital signs fluctuated, the medical monitor on his wrist would send an immediate alert to Nazadri’s implant. There had been no such alerts, so there was no need to go in and check on him. If Nazadri had really wanted to, she could have mentally accessed the boy’s current vitals to see if he were asleep or not. But she didn’t feel like reaching into the Deep again tonight, not when her nerves were still humming with uneasy energy. Instead—following the same restless impulse that had brought her here—she found herself crossing the surgery chamber, tapping the entry pad, and stepping softly into the other room.
The blue night-lamps shone even dimmer here, and Nazadri widened all four of her eyes to let her vision adjust to the near-darkness. Six narrow infirmary beds stood in a row before her, partitioned by curtains emblazoned with the silver, flame-like symbol of the Van’shorii order. Sometimes all the beds would be filled, if a whole group of apprentices received their bonds at once. But tonight the lone occupant was the boy at the far end of the row, lying motionless under a light blanket with his back to the door.
Motionless, but not quite soundless. As she stood in the entryway, Nazadri caught the sound of a hitched breath, and a noise like a quickly muffled sob.
She paused, listening, but the boy had fallen silent again. He must have heard the door open behind him. A pang of sympathy pulsed under her ribs. The night after receiving the bond could be long and lonely, even for a child trained in rigorous emotional discipline. She remembered. She had cried herself to sleep, too, on that night many years ago—silently, lest the apprentices in the other beds hear.
She moved into the room, tapping the entry pad so that the door hissed shut behind her. Quietly, but without concealing the sound of her footsteps—she did not want to startle the boy—she made her way to his bedside. The apprentice lay with his arms curled close to his chest and his four eyes shut. A glance at the sigils on his wrist monitor told her that his vitals were stable. But she could tell that he wasn’t asleep.
“Yanak.” She addressed him, gently, by his apprentice’s title. “Is there something wrong?”
The boy’s eyes snapped open. For an instant, guilt and fear flashed across his features—and then his training took over, and his young face turned stony and expressionless.
“No, van’shir.” Only the slight roughness in his voice hinted at any distress.
“Is it hurting you?” She gestured to the back of his neck, where bandages covered the newly imbedded bond. The device was not yet activated, and would not be until the boy fully healed. But the surgery itself was painful enough, even without deepcraft energy flowing through his implant. “I can give you more medicine if need be.”
“No, van’shir.” He stared past her with a determined desperation. “I am not in pain.”
Nazadri pressed her lips together. He was probably telling the truth: the medication he had received earlier that evening should have been enough to last him through the night. But the tension in his body, the way he refused to meet her gaze…he was still hiding something.
“I thought I heard you crying.”
She said it softly, but the boy flinched as if he had been struck. His nostrils flared in a sharp breath. Dread flooded his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I showed weakness, van’shir. It will not happen again.”
The shame rang so raw in his voice that it hurt to hear. I showed weakness. Being a van’shor meant the mastery of power—not only the formidable power of the Deep, but also the natural strengths of mind and body. Any lapse in those defenses earned disciplinary action from the deepcraft masters. She knew that. She remembered.
You are the living weapons of this Fleet. Words from a long-ago training session returned to her in the darkness. You are fire and steel. Does a flame feel doubt? Does a forged blade show fear? Neither do Van’shorii.
Nazadri did not see a weapon as she gazed at the cowering boy before her. She saw only a child, exhausted from a long and dangerous surgery, who was desperately afraid of punishment. She had seen so many of them in this room. She had bound them to the Deep. She had put the fire and steel into their flesh with her own hands.
An old knot tightened in her belly—grief and guilt and some other hard, hot emotion that she could not name. But true to her training, she did not let the feelings disturb her composure. Instead, she merely released a sigh through her nostrils and regarded the boy with a quiet expression.
“What is your name, yanak?”
His eyelids flickered in confusion. It was not the question he had expected. “Dakhalo.” Then, after a pause: “…Riivek.”
Shame tinged his voice again as he spoke his clan name. It was not hard to guess why. He was not T’sarek; he had not been born into the bloodline that made up the majority of deepcrafters. Instead, he was a foster-son of the Van’shorii, a child who had been selected from another clan because he happened to have the genetic traits necessary to wield the power of a bond. That fact alone would make him a target for his fellow apprentices. The children of Clan T’sarek did not take kindly to outsiders.
Nazadri had never heard of a Clan Riivek before. She guessed they were small and low-ranking, or perhaps from a different ship in the Fleet than the Akkano’dath. Either way, Dakhalo would not have seen his family for several years. He would not receive the official T’sarek adoption-mark until he came of age, but that mattered little. The Van’shorii made sure that if they had to bring in outsiders, those members had few family ties left by the time they became fully initiated deepcrafters. That was one of the reasons the order began training them so young.
All these thoughts crossed her mind in a few moments and deepened her sympathy for the boy huddled on the infirmary bed. He had not had an easy life, and it was not about to become easier. Now that he had his bond, his training would only intensify.
“Dakhalo…” She paused. What comfort could she possibly give him? He had little to look forward to. Even if he mastered his profession, he would never be respected as a true peer by his fellow Van’shorii, thanks to his low-ranking birth. The order would eventually choose a wife for him, but that choice would be based on the genetic potential of their children, with little to no consideration for the happiness of the marriage. Meanwhile, like all deepcrafters, he would be hated and feared by everyone outside the order because of the unnatural power that would flow through his veins.
A lonely existence, Nazadri thought. Lonelier, even, than her own—she had never married, though she was a full-blooded T’sarek and skilled in her craft as a surgeon. Her carefully bred lineage had betrayed her: her body would never carry a child. The order, consequently, had never bothered to arrange a marriage for her, and she had never mustered the courage to seek one on her own. Few T’sarek men would be willing to pledge themselves to a woman who could not continue their bloodline.
She had mourned her fate once, bitterly. But now, after years of work in the deepcrafter infirmary, she wondered if her curse had been a hidden blessing. Performing the bond surgery on other people’s children was hard enough. She was not sure she could have borne submitting her own sons and daughters to the Deep.
“Dakhalo,” she said again. “I’m…sorry.”
Nazadri blinked as the words left her mouth. She had not planned to say them. The boy stared up at her, equally baffled. His lips pulled back from his teeth, betraying his anxiety.
She remained silent for a minute, berating herself for the slip. She was not supposed to have emotional attachments to her patients, any more than Dakhalo could reveal weakness in front of his masters. Showing him affection could have harsh consequences for them both, if anyone discovered it.
Then again, he would not be the first child she had comforted secretly in the darkness. Only twelve years old, and this boy was already so lost, so resigned to his world of pain and fear. He needed…someone.
And so did she.
“Don’t be frightened,” she whispered. Without any other warning, she reached out and laid a hand on his forehead.
Dakhalo’s body stiffened. He lay rigid under her hand, braced for a blow. Nazadri could almost hear the thoughts racing behind his terror-glazed expression. What is she doing? Is this a test? What does she want from me?
She could tell him she meant no harm, but he might not believe her. Deepcraft apprentices learned from an early age not to trust anyone—least of all their own masters. Words could be twisted and promises broken, all for the purpose of putting an initiate off his guard, to find and root out his hidden flaws. A child could not survive that kind of training without becoming universally suspicious.
So Nazadri didn’t say anything. Instead, keeping her hand on the boy’s brow, she knelt by the bedside so that she no longer loomed over him. She held his gaze steadily and began stroking his temple with her thumb.
Dakhalo started trembling, and his upper eyes creased in an agony of confusion. His bewilderment did not surprise her. The tattoo of apprenticeship on his forehead told her he had been given to the Van’shorii six years ago. She guessed this was the first time in six years that anyone had touched him in kindness.
I’m sorry, Dakhalo. I’m so sorry for all we have taken from you.
A cry erupted from his chest, half-choked by his desperate efforts at restraint. He was still fighting, still fearful her gentleness was somehow a trap. But she could see in his eyes, too, the excruciating glitter of hope—hope that someone, anyone, cared about him as something more than a vessel for the Deep.
Her palm slid down to cup his cheek. “Hakk, little one…”
He could not hold out any longer. A sob wracked his slender body, and then another. A wail escaped his throat—bitter and helpless with the ache of those six friendless years.
Nazadri had braced herself for the storm, but it hurt more than she expected. Wordless, she leaned over and wrapped the boy in a one-armed embrace. She cradled his head against her chest, careful not to jostle his neck, but still holding him securely. He cried into her shoulder, clutching convulsive handfuls of her tunic.
They remained that way for several minutes, until Dakhalo’s sobs had faded to voiceless gasps. But she did not let go of him yet. She could feel in the way he pressed himself against her how fiercely he craved her touch.
His voice sounded much younger now, broken and afraid. She pulled back just enough to look into his face.
“Why what?” she asked gently, even though she dreaded the possible responses. Why did your order choose me? Why did you give me a bond? Why have you ruined my life? He deserved answers to all those questions, but Nazadri didn’t know if she could bear to tell him the truth—that she had no more control over his fate than he did.
But that was not what he asked.
“My nakko. My nakki. Why did…” He paused for breath, quaking so violently that she thought he would start crying again. “Why didn’t they want me?”
The desolation in those words wrenched at her heart. Had he been tormented by that question for all these years? But of course he had. What else was a six-year-old child, taken suddenly from his family and not allowed to communicate with them for his whole apprenticeship, supposed to think? For all he knew, he had been utterly forgotten.
That was the keenest hardship of being a non-T’sarek deepcrafter. T’sarek apprentices were at least allowed to spend time with their families during their long years of training. Those families could not always be called loving—Nazadri knew that from her own experience—but it was better than having no blood-kin at all.
“Oh, Dakhalo.” She rested a hand on his forehead again. “It wasn’t like that. I’m sure…” Her throat constricted. “I am sure your family wanted you very much.”
“Then why?” Resentment heated his voice. His upper eyes narrowed to hard, angry slits. “Why did they give me away?”
Nazadri withdrew her hand; she had said the wrong thing. The boy would not accept false comfort. But she was not sure how much of the truth he was ready to hear, either.
She did not know his parents, did not know whether they missed their son. She did know that when the Van’shorii wanted to recruit a child from outside the clan, they made it very difficult for that child’s kin to refuse their request. There was, of course, the constant lure of honor: having a deepcrafter in the family increased the prestige of a bloodline tenfold. But there was money involved, too. The order would pay the child’s parents handsomely for every year that their son or daughter spent in training—and the average apprenticeship lasted twelve to fifteen years. That kind of money could transform a poor laborer family into the wealthiest household in their clan. In that sense, Dakhalo had not been given away so much as sold.
But she did not want to tell him that, and it might not be fair to his parents, either. The Van’shorii only offered the incentives of wealth and honor as a façade of good will. Most families, ultimately, gave up their children out of fear—because you didn’t defy the deepcrafters. Not if you cared for your own skin.
She sighed. Dakhalo still glared at her from the bed. She had to give some answer, but what could she safely say? She had already ventured beyond the boundaries of her role in comforting him tonight. But speaking ill of the order to an apprentice not halfway through his formation—that bordered on disloyalty. And that was one offense the Van’shorii never forgave.
“Our order…is very powerful.” She chose her words carefully, maintaining a neutral tone. “You know this. Sometimes…those with power can convince others to do things that…that they may not truly want.”
She grimaced in silent apology, hoping he would grasp for himself what she could not say outright. His dark eyes widened in realization, and then in dismay. For a moment, he looked so forlorn that she wished she had not said anything. Was knowing that the Van’shorii had virtually taken him from his parents by force any better than believing that his family had never cared for him at all?
Yes. It was better, she decided, if it was closer to the truth.
“Van’shir.” The boy’s voice quavered. He stared up at the ceiling. An awful hollowness stamped his face, as if he were gazing into a black abyss that only he could see. “I didn’t want to be a deepcrafter.”
“I know.” Pain closed her throat. “Neither did I.”
She leaned over and held him close. He wept into her tunic again, but more softly this time, without the raw agony of his first cries. When he had worn himself out, he lay quiet with his head tucked against her shoulder. His brow felt warm against her neck, and his pulse thrummed steady beside her own heart.
Guilt stabbed her again. Not hours ago she had held this boy’s life in her hands. One slip of her surgeon’s blade, one lapse of concentration, could have left him paralyzed or dead on the operating table. She may not have taken him from his clan—but she had still tied him irrevocably to this life that he did not want, with the bond that was now buried in his flesh. How could he forgive that so easily?
He should not trust her. It would only hurt him, in the end. He was almost too innocent for a sixth-year apprentice; he had given his confidence too completely, after he had lowered his first defenses. He had more of a child’s spirit left than many of his peers. If his masters ever found it, they would burn that spirit out of him with fire and steel. And she would be unable to prevent it.
Gingerly, she loosened her embrace and pulled away. “I should go.” She stroked his cheek again. “And you need to rest.”
The boy’s jaw trembled; he reached up and caught her fingers. His eyes begged her not to leave.
“Listen, Dakhalo.” Her brow furrowed in worry. “You cannot tell anyone that we spoke tonight.”
Hurt crept into his face, but he swallowed and blinked in understanding. “Yes, van’shir.”
It felt a cold farewell, though, after all the comfort she’d offered. She pressed his hand more tightly. “But…I will not forget you. I will always be here if…” Her voice dried up. Did she dare make such a promise? “If you truly need a friend.”
Friend. A foreign word to most Van’shorii, and a fragile buffer indeed against the all-consuming Deep. But maybe it would be enough to keep his spirit alive—to know that one person, at least, thought of him with kindness.
His head dipped in a tiny nod. But he wouldn’t let go of her hand.
Nazadri sighed. “Will you let me give you something to help you fall asleep?”
For a moment the boy only stared at her—probably astonished, not at the question itself, but at the fact that she’d asked his permission. “Yes, van’shir. But…” His eyes glimmered again with a desperate light. “Will you stay with me until I do?”
Her frown softened. She wondered what had given him the courage to make the request—some distant memory, perhaps, of his own mother tending him when he was ill? His trainers had certainly never shown him such affection.
“All right.” Nazadri smiled, slipped her hand out of his grasp, and rose. Stepping across the room to a storage cabinet, she retrieved a small bottle of qora-root capsules and shook out two into her hand. Then she returned to the boy and placed the medicine in his palm. “Let these dissolve in your mouth.”
While Dakhalo reluctantly took the capsules, she brought over a low chair and sat down at his bedside. Then she reached out and began stroking his brow again. The boy relaxed. He kept his gaze fixed on her face, as if determined to look at her for as long as possible—even as his eyelids began to flicker and drift closed.
In less than ten minutes, the boy lay unconscious under her hand, his breathing deep and steady. But Nazadri did not leave him right away. Instead, she remained seated, gazing at the unfamiliar clan-mark on his neck, the sign of Clan Riivek. Her hand moved to rest over the tattoo.
Only blood-kin should touch each other’s clan-marks; even deepcrafters respected that custom. But Dakhalo had no kin here, and would not see his family again for many years. She hoped his ancestors would not take offense at her boldness—or her prayer.
Riivekan, honorable ones, watch over your child. Give him the strength to endure. Do not let his spirit be crushed. I can’t save him. Maybe you can.
She remained in the hushed room for a long time, watching him breathe. Tomorrow he would belong once more to his masters, to the order, to the unforgiving Deep. But tonight, in this stolen hour, this child was hers. And not all the power of the Van’shorii could take that gift from her now.