Gwain tiptoed out of the house into the gray-pink of early dawn, clutching the small, sharp mother-of-pearl handled knife she had purchased the night before.
A pleasant tight feeling of nervous anticipation filled her body as she set out at the slow trot she could keep up for miles, her long braid smacking against her tan back.
She hadn't gone looking for a job, not really.
She, like many other poor kids, had discovered that people threw coins into the ocean by the dock for children to dive and retrieve.
It wasn't her fault if she was really good at it.
There were few afternoons she couldn't be found wearing nothing but an old faded pair of shorts sitting on the dock waiting for someone to toss a coin. She knew that if her mother found out she would be in big trouble, but the docks were a long ways away from her mother's house, and she wouldn't have any spending money at all if she didn't dive.
And besides, begging was better than stealing.
It had been an afternoon like any other, she already had a few coins in her pocket and was about to decide that the next would be the last when the divers, the Real Divers, showed up on the dock. It was a boat she had seen a few times before, the Iron Sparrow. They had been diving for lobster, it looked like. She liked Real Divers, they were all beautifully tanned, and had smooth beautiful muscles. They would sail into the docks laying around in their shiny boats wearing little or nothing, laughing, salt crusted in their braids.
And they were nice.
One of them, laughing, brought out a gold coin and showed it to the crowd of children.
They quieted, tensed, waited.
He flipped it into the air over the ocean, as it rose, as a body the kids breathed in, and as it began to fall, they dove.
It was always brutal under the water, but with a magnified reward, the diving had turned into an all-out fight.
Gwain dove sideways, circling the worst of the fighting, and under.
She reached into her pocket and threw out all the iron she had collected all afternoon, this distracted and confused some of the children, who were blind to anything but the glint of a coin, and they went for her iron.
She looked up, and, there in front of her, was the gold coin, sinking gracefully down.
She snatched it to her belly and curled around it, breathing out a small amount of her air so she sunk as hands began tearing at her to try and get the coin.
It seemed an eternity before her feet touched the bottom, and she kicked off with all her might, and kicked and kicked toward the surface, ignoring the clawing hands trying to push her down, trying to steal the coin from her.
Gwain reached the docks earlier than she had expected to, and nobody was there yet. She still had a few coppers in her pocket, change from buying the knife the night before, so she walked into a building who's tantalizing smell had always teased her, but she had never entered.
“Breakfast?” she said to the big, tall man cooking at the stove.
“We 'ave eggs'n bread or yesterday's stew'n bread.” he grunted without looking at her.
“An egg and bread would be wonderful.”
“Show me yer money.” he said grumpily.
Gwain obediently fished a copper out of her pocket to prove she did have money with her, and the man quickly fried an egg, slapped it on a slice of bread, and handed it to her. She handed him her copper, got two iron back, and walked out to eat on the dock.
In the short time she had been gone, the Real Divers had arrived.
She smiled and walked toward them.
There were too many clawing hands, too many other children wanting the gold coin, she knew somewhere in her back and jaw that it was impossible that she would be the one to get the coin, but she had given up everything she had earned that day for it.
Her air was almost out, but she kept on clutching the coin and kicking upwards. Since she hadn't hit bottom again, she knew that she must be getting closer to the surface, it was just a little disorienting to be the center of attack.
Gwain did not panic as she breathed out the last of her air. She knew that, even if she dropped the coin some children wouldn't see it and would keep attacking her, so there was no reason to let go of it yet.
She did not panic as her lungs burned and begged her to breathe anything, water even, because she sensed a slight change in the water and knew she was near the surface. She kicked with all her might, feeling her feet make contact with bodies beneath her, and her face broke the surface.
She took an enormous breath.
She did not panic as she was dragged back under by the clawing hands to repeat the process.
She did not panic the second time it happened.
Or the third.
The fourth time it happened, she knew that the crowd in the water had thinned to only a few children, the rest would be waiting on the dock, so she took a gamble and, making two fists with one clutching the gold coin, she swam quickly down and away, they had not expected her to do that, so she had a few moments head start. She swam under the Real Diver's boat, the Iron Sparrow, surfaced on the other side of it, grabbed on, and pulled herself quickly into it. She ran down it's length, ignoring the surprised and amused stares of the Divers, intending to jump off the other side onto the dock, and then away, probably leading on a pack of children who still wanted the coin.
Suddenly two pair of strong, smooth-muscled arms wrapped around her, pulling her down into the bottom of the boat.
She instinctively coiled her body around the fist that had the gold coin in it.
“Whoa there, little sea otter.” a gentle voice laughed. “We don't want your coin.”
Gwain opened her eyes and stared up at the Real Divers who were gathering around her.
“Look at him.” said one of the ones holding her. “After all that, he's still breathing long and slow.”
“This one's diver material.” Someone commented.
“Yep.” someone answered.
“Wha..?” Gwain said articulately, putting the coin in her pocket and trying to stand up. The divers holding her let her stand, but kept a firm grip on her shoulders.
“You want a job, Sea Otter?” one of the divers asked. He was a small man with sparkling blue eyes and a huge mass of evenly sized dreadlocks hanging around his smiling face.
“A job?” Gwain said, her mind still trying to make the adjustment from fighting for her life to having a conversation with Real Divers.
She, Gwain, was talking with Real Divers.
And then it clicked into place. They wanted her to be a Real Diver too.
“Yes ” she gasped, “Yes I want a job What do I do? When do I start?”
“Meet us here at dawn in three days. Bring a sharp knife, and be dressed to dive.”
“Look Sea Otter came ” one of the Real Divers crowed, and they all turned to look at Gwain.
“Told you the he'd come.” one said, he seemed younger than the rest and had dark red hair. A few coins changed hands. They must have had wagers on whether she would show up or not.
She almost hadn't. Her mother had been horrified when she showed up at home with bruises and claw marks all over her body, and she had been forbidden from leaving the house.
Being forbidden to leave the house had never stopped her before though, and she tried to convince herself that if her mother knew that she had a job as a Real Diver she would have let her go, but she knew that it wasn't true.
She was lucky her mother hadn't locked her in the house.
Gwain walked among the Real Divers, who slapped her on the back and called her Sea Otter. She felt a little more nervous now than she had earlier, and she was feeling small. She barely reached the shoulder of the shortest Real Diver, and not even that on most of them. They were loading a few barrels onto the Iron Sparrow, and then they all piled in, the small Diver with the dreadlocks grabbing her arm to make sure she came along.
Someone did something to the sail, and they were off with a fresh breeze behind them.
Gwain scampered up the length of the boat and leaned over the bow, laughing excitedly. The red-haired Diver leaned on the bow beside her, laughing at her laughter.
“Don't get too excited yet Sea Otter, we're still in the bay.”