Trimela was a smelly, loud, exciting mess of shanties, stilt houses, and graceful white hotels all tumbled together with tents, nets, drying racks, and tar boiling pits. Like most cities Kara had wandered through, there was a broad mix of well-to-do and poor, clean-scrubbed and filthy. It was a trade city, certainly. All sorts of people milled about, with different types of skin, hair, and eyes. The sailors almost as dark as boat tar were familiar enough, but the ivory-colored men with topknots and moon-shaped eyes, in their bright short robes, were unlike anyone she’d seen in Sarvarthi, or even Merigvon. Market stall goods were stacked in small piles instead of high ones, and merchants watched carefully over them, glaring at anyone who clearly had no money. Up over the crowds, people all in white with eerily pale faces, untouched by sun, peered from high hotel windows. Below, golden-colored people with tattoos exchanged haughty looks with darker wiry-haired people who looked more like Aruke.
Djaren glanced about at the boats with interest. “Those are Cormuradan, and those Levour. That’s Delcian, they’re here for spices, and I don’t know the ships with the fan sails.”
“Those are Dynasty. Nguy Yan. The far-siders dock here sometimes,” Aruke said. “They sell things for jade.”
“I’ve never heard of them,” Djaren said in disbelief.
“And you know everything?” Aruke scoffed. “Far-siders are all secrets. They don’t buy food here, or anything but jade. If any of them dies, they take the body away with them. They sleep on their ships, never on shore, and no one but far-siders ever boards one of their ships alive.”
“That’s fascinating,” Djaren said.
“Not really,” Aruke said. “They don’t buy anything.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “Of course.” She was looking at the hotels and villas rising up the hillside. “They’re all shuttered on the lower floors, with guards. Are they under quarantine? Is there a fever here?”
“Them in there are landowners from the north side, come to hide here with all they stole. If they’re lucky, they get on a ship and leave. If not, the mobs from the north come looking for them, and catch them and their treasure.”
Kara looked up at the hotels, considering. She bet she could climb them easily. That might come in handy later.
“And who are they?” Djaren nodded at the crowded tent and shanty tangles all about the docks, overflowing with ragged people in different shades of brown.
“Refugees.” Aruke shrugged. “Lost flotsam like you. More walk or wash in every day. Some join gangs, some try to work. They don’t have anything to trade with, and mostly they just want food.”
“How awful for them,” Anna said.
Aruke gave her a look. “Yes. Refugees.”
“Does anyone at all help them?” Anna asked.
“The mission school does, some,” Aruke said. “They bring water and take some of the children.”
“They take children?”
“Mostly just the younger and lighter ones. There’s a herd of them now.” Aruke nodded over to where two neat lines of small children in white were trailing down the hillside behind several similarly clothed and starched adults. They all carried big canvas waterskins.
“They got a clean well up there behind their walls, and they bring water down each day.”
The children were all sorts of colors too, but, as Aruke had said, most were paler than him or any of his little gang. The lightest children walked in front, and the darkest in the back. The children in the back sang a song, a Levour hymn with a steady beat for walking.
“They look well fed and taken care of,” Anna noted, as they came nearer.
“So could you be, probably, if you gave up your freedom and joined the ranks. They sit inside all day and learn lessons. But maybe they wouldn’t take you anyway. They sent all the older girls off to the new company school on Falau. No one will see them again.”
“What do you mean?” Djaren asked.
“You put all your birds in one cage, in a room with a window over the bay, and what do you get?”
“That makes no sense,” Djaren said.
“Stolen birds,” Kara said.
“But you can’t steal people,” Djaren said. “Not nowadays.”
Kara and Aruke gave him the same look.
“He really is nobility then?” Aruke asked Kara. “Grow up in a nice ivory tower, did he?”
“Good as,” Kara said.
Aruke shook his head. “That’s too bad. He seems bright otherwise.”
“Look here,” said Djaren.
“I think we should talk to the mission school people,” Anna said.
Aruke shook his head. “The Ropes don’t deal with the school.”
“We’re not in your Ropes, thank you,” Anna said, “and I think we foreign girls who you won’t have anyway may be able to deal with schools better than you.”
“Try your luck.” Aruke shrugged.
Djaren looked torn, glancing from the advancing columns of schoolchildren to the grubby Red Ropes members. “We need a moment,” he told the Ropes, and gestured the others aside.
“I’m not setting foot in a school,” Kara said. “But you should. You’ll do better there. Just keep sharp, don’t trust anything they say, and sleep with an eye open.”
“We’re sticking together, aren’t we?” Djaren looked hurt. “I’ll stay out here, too.”
“No, you won’t. You wouldn’t last, not like you are.”
“I bet I could.”
“I don’t want you to,” Kara snarled. He didn’t understand, and she liked that about him. If he understood half the things street rats like she and Aruke did, he wouldn’t be Djaren.
“You need eyes down here, right? Information in case the others wash in? I can get that, but only if I’m free like this, see?”
Djaren frowned. “I don’t like leaving you.”
“I’m doing the leaving.”
“That’s not any better.”
“Djaren,” Ellea said. “Please, I want a bath, and sheets.” She looked very small, sad, and rumpled.
Djaren looked down at her and up at Anna. “You both want to try the school?”
Anna nodded. “It’s a reasonable place to be found by people who might come looking. People we want to find us.”
“I’ll be able to find you anytime I want,” Kara said.
“Prove it, then,” Djaren said, suddenly intense. “Because if you haven’t sent word by this time tomorrow I’m coming looking for you.”
Kara shrugged, uncomfortable. “Don’t think I’m going to start following any schedule of orders, now.”
“I’m not that naïve,” Djaren said, and looked like he wanted to say more. “Just please be careful. I know you’re clever, and I know that whoever Bulo is, he’ll be sorry to have met you, but—” He fumbled for words.
“I’ve been on my own for a long time, you know. I’ve seen places like this. Maybe worse.”
Djaren frowned. “I don’t like it. But I do trust you.”
“I didn’t ask for that,” Kara said, drawing back. “Why are you giving me that?”
“Because we’re a team now. We can’t do without you.” He was looking at her again with those eyes.
Kara shoved her bag of belongings at him. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Stop looking at me.”
“Just go away before they get more ideas about you.” She jerked her chin toward the Ropes. “Go to school or something. And don’t lose my stash.” She walked toward the Red Ropes, not looking back. “Ellea, keep them all safe up there. You’ll know if anyone’s to be avoided,” Kara thought, as loudly and directly as she could.
Ellea’s voice spoke in her head, surprised. “Of course. I always look after him.”
Kara nodded, facing Aruke. “I’m bored with this lot. Show me where to find Bulo.”
* * *
Djaren watched Kara disappear, along with all their fish and his spear gun. He told himself that she’d be back, that the cold pit of worry was just left over from the last time she’d gone away. It still stung in his perfect memory: rising flames, burning at the haunted Derdrien house, Kara’s face oddly thoughtful. It should have been a clue. He’d paused at the ladder. “You’re coming next, right?”
She shrugged. “No, I was going to stay in the burning house.”
He grinned, and climbed down, but she didn’t follow. He nearly went back up the ladder until Father stopped him, promising to look for Kara himself. But Kara hadn’t been trapped in the burning building, she’d been robbing the house before leaving without a goodbye.
Djaren frowned, shifting out of the curtain of memory to stand barefoot in Trimela, where his next steps were still undocumented. He knew Kara kept washing back to them, even when she meant not to. He hoped there was fate in that, or something to trust. He was holding her satchel of possessions, too. From her, that was a promise.
“Going to school, hmm?” He turned to look at the others, the two he could protect. “I suppose it might be interesting. I’d always meant to take a class at university.”
“I don’t think it will be quite like that, but we might avoid dysentery there at least,” Anna said.
“They have clean things,” Ellea said, watching the lines come closer.
Djaren privately thought that wearing white on a jungle island was ridiculous. One couldn’t do anything. But they did need somewhere safe. As the lines approached, Djaren stepped forward to address one of the men. “Excuse me, sir—”
“Out of the way, you can wait your turn for water like the rest,” the man cut him off, curtly. “And that’s all you’ll be getting.”
Djaren blinked, taken aback. Adults were usually much more reasonable.
Other people, refugees, were pushing about, holding out hands and containers for water or coins. This was clearly an unfortunate place to be asking for help. Anna was having no better luck trying to address the woman.
Ellea walked through the crowd, somehow unjostled, with Anna and Djaren tumbling along trying not to lose her. She went straight to the lady with the most starched ruffles and the broadest hat, looked up with her largest eyes, and sniffed. “I’ve lost Mummy and Papa,” she said, in a small voice that still carried. “And I’m so hungry.”
The woman stopped, looked down with concern, then knelt as Ellea began to cry silently. The entire group had stopped now.
“Dear child,” the woman said. “Where do you belong, dearest?”
“In Shandor,” Ellea said. “Mummy and Papa were on a boat. They were to come back for us.”
“Darling, we have a home for you,” the woman said, taking her hand and beginning to lead her. “Follow along, and we’ll see you taken care of.”
“Ellea,” Djaren called. The men noticed him and pushed him back.
“Can’t my brother and Miss Anna come, too? Don’t separate us, please, ma’am.” Ellea’s eyes began to well again on cue.
The woman looked across at Djaren and Anna. Djaren was not about to pretend at tears, but he did let his worry reach his face.
“Very well, come along. We’ll find some place for you. I am Sister Agata. You must call me that.” She looked at Anna consideringly. “We could use more help with the little ones.”
“I look after Ellea all the time,” Anna volunteered.
Djaren felt he ought to volunteer something, but he couldn’t think what. Making spear guns, he guessed, would not be an approved activity. He and Anna were ushered into the lines, at the back. Ellea walked at the front, holding Sister Agata’s skirts. The other schoolchildren watched the new adoptees with curious sidelong glances. They were all younger than Djaren and Anna, and the eldest were boys.
“What do you think of the school?” Djaren asked the boy standing in front of him.
The boy, caramel-skinned and dark-eyed, shrugged. “When my father comes back, we’ll go on his boat, and there won’t be any more lessons. I want to be a sailor, too.” This last was spoken in a whisper.
Djaren nodded in sympathy, missing his outrigger already.
“The school is safe,” a girl on his left said quietly. “Bad men with knives and clubs can’t get in.”
Djaren raised his eyebrows. “Are they in the habit of trying?”
“She’s from the north.” The other boy shrugged. “Everybody gets cut up and dead in the fighting. But we’re in the south, in a city, and the school has walls.”
Djaren wondered once again where Mother and Father were, what they were fighting, or trying to keep from fighting, and where the Professor and the others had gone. It was all very well having an adventure oneself, but worrying about other people’s adventures was different. Was this how Mother usually felt about him?
“Work in silent gratitude, dears,” Sister Agata admonished, and the children stopped whispering. When it was time to process back up to the school, she got them started in on “Humble are the Hearts of Those Who Sing the Stars’ Praises.” Djaren hadn’t heard it sung before, but he’d read some hymnals once while waiting for Father at the Venezarro Basilica in Vespiri. He followed the sheet music in his head and had the tune down easily. Translating the lyrics from Vespiri to Levour took a second longer. Everyone around him, though, was just humming or mumbling, so it seemed best to go along with that communal decision. He ought to be watching and waiting, and not bringing attention to himself. Ordinary people did that every day, didn’t they?