Jon was learning so much this voyage, and not just the things he’d expected to learn on a ship—sails and ropes, and the winds, and the funny ways that boats moved. Every day a little group gathered to compare notes on the books they had brought along and work on maps of Professor Hallowfield’s previous expeditions, in order to help the rescue party narrow their search. Professor Sheridan led the research, and Djaren and Jon helped, along with Scholar Bellcaster, a member of one of those previous expeditions.
Bellcaster was a bony-nosed, spindly fellow with startled eyes who seemed somewhat confused about which of four fields he meant to pursue his doctorate in. Happily, that meant he was expert in several, and was able to fill in all sorts of fascinating details that hadn’t made it into the books. He could describe the terrain and natural dangers of Professor Hallowfield’s former camping sites, with frequent tangents on fascinating topics from the habits of beetles to the odd displays of birds. “I don’t think even I have that much odd trivia stuck in my head,” Djaren confided, once.
Jon’s part of the research was reading through Professor Hallowfield’s books for references to the geography of the islands, and anything else that might seem relevant. He didn’t feel as helpful at this as Djaren, who remembered everything he read, but Professor Sheridan had reassured him. “You see things where others pass them over,” he had said, “and make note of details that speak to you. Your intuitions have been quite valuable in past.”
With two big books tucked under his arm, Jon trotted along the deck toward his favorite reading spot. Keeping his balance wasn’t so difficult now as it had been, and his early fear of being near the edges of the boat had ebbed. Tam still complained of a stiff back and wasn’t as steady as Jon on his sea legs, but he had climbed nearly as far up the rigging as Djaren. On the forward deck, Jon found Anna fighting with the wind and a wet canvas, her white summer frock looking more paint-covered than the barely-started work before her.
“Maybe you ought to try it in colored pencils,” Jon suggested, trying to help hold down a drop-cloth corner without getting paint on his books.
“I did, but it’s just not the same,” Anna said.
“Paint’s better because it’s all smudgy and wetter?” Tam guessed, bringing back an escaped bundle of brushes from across the deck. Jon smiled at him in greeting.
“Yes, exactly,” Anna said. “I can get richer colors right away, though they’re always changing when you look at them.”
Tam frowned at the canvas, with its brushy beginnings. “It’s more than half magic, how you see all that, all those greens and pinks. I mostly just see blue. But that looks like water right enough, what you painted.”
“But it doesn’t feel like water, not yet,” Anna mourned.
Jon didn’t think she meant the wet gobs stuck in her hair, which were dripping convincingly. He looked out at the water she was trying to capture. Bright sun lit the sea in merry blues, deep greens, and silvers that painted the sides of the ship in bright reflected splashes. He’d found that he loved to linger near the prow or stern, watching the water slide under them and then go rushing away. The sea smell, and the warm tar and rope and cork odors were all becoming familiar, and the dreams Jon had in his little narrow bunk above Tam’s were hazy and nice and often about flying.
He left Tam the task of helping Anna put her paint tubes back in order, and headed toward the hatch that led down into the hold. Near the prow he found Ellea, looking out over the ocean with a little frown on her face and her hair whipping wildly out of its neat ribbons.
“Is something wrong?” Jon asked.
“Something out there is thinking,” she said vaguely. “But I can’t hear it or find it. It won’t stay still or think in a line, or even in a proper language, but I keep feeling it might, and wondering if it can hear me. I think it might be making fun.”
“Is it something good or something bad?” Jon held his hand out over the water, but the faint silver lines in his palm didn’t light; his hand only reflected back the shimmering light of the sea itself.
“It’s just something, or lots of somethings. That’s confusing, too.”
“That’s the way with the sea,” Professor Sheridan said, coming up quietly behind them. “It’s many things at once, all flowing one into the other, twisted like currents. Very old and very new, and deep and shallow, ancient and wise and as foolish and insubstantial as froth, all together in one overwhelming whole.” He touched the sea bond on its cord. “Did you want to hear it better?”
Ellea considered this for several long moments. “No. It sounds disorderly, and I shouldn’t know what I was addressing. If it can’t be civil and decide what it is, I don’t see how we can have a conversation.”
The Professor’s scarred face creased in an amused smile. “I see.”
Jon considered what he might say to the ocean, if he could hear voices in it. He couldn’t think of anything that seemed grand enough.
Ellea and the Professor began to walk away, beginning some discussion Jon only half heard. He waited by the prow another moment and then called down, “Thank you. For carrying us safe, and for helping Kara.”
He retrieved his books and slipped down the stairs into the hold. His reading spot had a comfortable seat of grain sacks, stacked against the curving hull, and handy crates that made tables for his books and kept his pens from rolling about. He curled up and started work. He’d read four and a half chapters when Kara came upon him unawares.
“You read languages, too,” she said, over his shoulder.
“Oh, hello, um, yes, a few.” Jon sat up and closed the book, keeping his place with a finger. “Not as many as Djaren.”
Kara made a face at the mention of Djaren’s name, but took a seat on the sacks beside Jon. “Show me how,” she didn’t ask. “And don’t tell anyone.”
Jon was surprised. “Which language? I mean, which do you know already?”
Kara hissed. “I don’t, that’s the problem. I don’t read. Show me.”
“This one is in trade common.” Jon turned the book so she could see the cover, with its title, Birds of the Western Ocean, Volume 4, With Full-Color Plates. “Lots of things are, in different countries.”
“Do that one then. And no telling.”
Jon shifted round to look at Kara directly. “Are you sure? I mean, Djaren would probably be a better teacher.”
“No, you do it. Teach me. I’m not going to ask again.”
She really hasn’t asked yet, Jon thought, but there was a nervous, flighty desperation in Kara’s hunch, as she glared at the paper. She was asking for help, and for some reason, she found him safest to ask. Or was he just easier to push about? Maybe that was the same thing, to Kara. “Any of us would gladly help you, you know.”
“So do it.” She pulled the book from his hands and laid it, open, atop a barrel.
Jon remembered how the world had unfolded for him once he discovered books. Maybe it would do the same for her. “It might take a while,” he warned. “I mean, Tam didn’t catch on until he was twelve.”
“I’m older than that.”
“Yes, but he started at six.”
Kara looked briefly dismayed, then frowned with determination. “Well, he’s half a dullard, right? I’ll do better.”
Jon frowned back. “Stop that. It isn’t nice at all.”
“I’m not a nice person.”
“But you could be. You could be as smart, and kind, and strong, and brave as anyone. I’ve seen you do it, but then you always try and ruin it before anyone notices.”
Kara blinked, surprised. “Are you going to teach me, or not?”
“Of course I am, but I don’t like it when you’re cruel about Tam and the others. It isn’t right, and I wish you wouldn’t. You’re better than that.”
Kara grumbled, but said nothing more.
“Here’s the index,” Jon said, turning pages. “We’ll start there with the alphabet. All the first words begin with A.”
Jon found that Kara was not a dull pupil. She was not a secret genius either. Everything seemed to annoy her, but she attacked learning like she attacked most things. She was as stubborn as she was smart. Jon was careful not to mimic the lessons he’d learned as a child, since Kara was not interested in rhymes about farm animals and children’s toys. In fact, she bristled whenever she sensed anything that seemed like talking down to her. Once, annoyed, Jon shut the book hard. “Look, I’m trying. If you don’t like how I’m teaching you, go find someone else.”
“No,” Kara said, scratching at her hair. “He’s—everyone’s already better at everything. I don’t want to look stupid. I’m not stupid. Let’s look at the cursed letters again. I’ll keep my temper this time.”
By the time Lady Blackfeather came round to call them to tea, Kara had managed to learn all the letters without insulting anyone or snapping again. She sprang away from the book when she heard Lady Blackfeather on the stair, and hissed again at Jon, “Don’t think of telling.”
He shook his head, bemused, wondering if she would keep this up for the rest of the voyage. The exercise of sitting in one place and being moderately civil seemed to exhaust her.
* * *
Hirnar loomed near Djaren’s shoulder, frowning down at the maps in front of him on the galley table. “So where do you think they are?” he asked. “Are those things mountains?”
Djaren looked up the broad arm attached to the clenched fist resting rather too close to a precarious ink pot. “That’s jungle, or was two years ago, like I said. Please mind the ink.”
“Right, right.” Hirnar rattled the pot with a hasty withdrawal of his hand, and paced back and forth behind Djaren. “And the dangers of the jungle are, again?”
“Disease, mostly.” Djaren shrugged. “But they know how to treat that, best as anyone can. And snakes.”
“This land, it’s so strange, and all in little pieces. We don’t even know which piece to begin with.” Hirnar gesticulated at the islands.
“They’re connected, really, under water,” Djaren said, “All one continuous chain of volcanoes. ‘Siblings, all children of the same deep fires,’ Professor Hallowfield wrote. She’s rather poetic-minded for a scholar.”
“Melya said that she loved the islands, that they seemed alive in every fiber, all full of color, and deep whispers of rich secrets.”
“I can see why she was on Hallowfield’s team,” Djaren said, drafting a coastline from memory. Ink lacked the topography of toast, but it would do.
“I don’t understand why she’s quiet now. It doesn’t feel right, it’s just nothing. Like a wall came up between us. What if she’s shouting somewhere and I can’t hear?”
Djaren paused in his drawing, feeling awkward. This was not the first of Hirnar’s worried speeches, and Djaren was never sure what to say. Mother might know, but Mother was keeping Bellcaster busy with questions about the places Hallowfield had meant to research next. “Last you heard she was with good people. Shandorians always look after each other. We’ll find everybody.”
“Your small friend saw the Seer, yes, are you sure nothing was mentioned about Melya, about what had happened or where she might be?”
“I’m sure. Jon’s told all of us a dozen times over. You’ve heard him.”
“This is driving me mad.” Hirnar dropped his hands flat to the table, shaking the ink pot dangerously.
Djaren caught it. “How about if I call you down once I have the maps finished?”
Hirnar backed away with an apology, running his hands through his long hair. “I just wish I could do something, do you know? I feel useless.”
“We’ll switch later, no worries,” Djaren said with a wry smile. “Father will let you leave the boat. He’s not convinced about the rest of us.”
“You seem like very bright and special children,” Hirnar offered. “Of course he values your safety.” He smiled, patted Djaren’s shoulder, and left.
Djaren looked at his map and sighed. He ran a finger down the spines of the books he’d finished. The content presented itself to his mind as he fingered familiar books, then moved to unfamiliar ones. Books he hadn’t read yet sent a thrill through him, a promise of new territory and mysteries waiting to be learned. This was the trade, he supposed. He had all the time and memory he wanted to learn anything, but lacked the ability to act. “I am the descendant of warriors, Amryns, and legends,” Djaren declaimed to the wall. “And I am a very short library.”
There was nothing less helpful on a wild island, in a jungle rescue, or in a life like Kara’s, than a library.
* * *
Fishing from a moving boat in the deepest parts of the ocean was different from fishing in the lake, Tam found. The Shandorian fishermen were amused by his early efforts and came forward to give advice.
“It’s a good thing that nothing bit your little smidge of bait on that light rod,” Rawl said. “Most of what lives this far out would break that with a lip curl.”
“And even with the right tools, the fish out here can pull you in rod and all unless you’ve fastened everything down proper,” Jemmy added.
Hirnar, helping hoist a spinnaker for added speed, stared at them, unsure if they were joking. “How big are the fish here?”
“Long as river boats, some of them,” the older Willim said. His tone was playful, but the words were true, Tam judged.
“Others have fins wide as sails,” Rawl put in. “And faces like swords.”
“I’ve seen those,” Kara said. She’d come up all quiet and unexpected-like, same as she always did. “They’re good for steaks. Never ate one.”
“Should we try and catch one then?” Hirnar asked. “Could we eat a whole one, all of us together?”
“The way you Shandorians eat, I’d call that likely,” Kara said.
With the help of the fisherman, they set up three rods. Though Kara said she wasn’t interested in fishing, she lingered to watch as one pole began dancing about wildly. Tam grabbed onto it, only distractedly sensing Ellea coming over, with Jon, the Professor, and a few other crewmen. The rod came right out of Tam’s hands almost immediately, wriggling away as slippery as a fish itself. Whatever was on the other end must have been huge. “Don’t bother,” Ellea advised. “They’re only playing with you. It’s probably best not to encourage such behavior.”
“Oh,” said Jon. “Does the sea find us terribly rude for trying to eat bits of it?”
“I don’t think so,” the Professor said. “The sea has the same sorts of rules as the Land, with one beast that eats another. As long as we refrain from hunting anything sacred, I don’t think the sea will begrudge us a few fish.”
“It seems to, though, doesn’t it?” Kara remarked.
“Good thing we got them chickens, then,” Tam said, rubbing his chafed palms.
“We ain’t got the proper equipment for the big fish, you see,” Willim explained. “This ship had a coastal route, before. We didn’t bring bait grand enough to lure the great ocean beasties. We could fish for it though. Mackerel might do.”
“Though at the clip we’re going, we’re not going to catch much of anything,” Jemmy said. “If we keep closer to ten knots than seven, we’ll be there in under two weeks, and the fish all breathless behind saying, ‘Well, that was a lightning fast fish, that.’ ”
Hirnar grinned, cheered at the thought of an early arrival. Tam smiled, too. When Hirnar got himself stuck chasing his tail round and round, worrying about his Melya, it was tiring just standing next to him. It would be a much easier voyage for everyone if the wind held good.
After a while with no more bites, the audience of onlookers drifted away, and the crew had work to do. Tam liked it up on deck, and patience came easy to him, so he stayed with the poles. He felt more than saw when Doctor Blackfeather settled just off to his right, all shadowy feathers and companionable contemplation of the greater world.
“Sir.” Tam nodded to him.
“Hello, Tam,” said the Doctor. He didn’t say more, so Tam waited. After a bit the air seemed stiff, so Tam thought it best to give it a stir. The Doctor wasn’t much for words, and Tam understood that.
“It’s a nice day. Crew’s in fine spirits, and we’re making good time.”
“Yes,” the Doctor agreed, becoming a bit clearer and more visible.
“Is there something you wanted to talk about, sir?” Tam asked him.
“You’re supposed to be on this mission, along with your brother, and I want to understand why,” the Doctor said softly. “And I realize that you don’t have that answer any more than I do.”
“So what do you want to ask?” Tam tried helping him along.
“Tam, what would you wish to do, given the world to explore and work within?”
That was a grand sort of stumper. “Well, no one’s giving me the world, sir, and I’m not one to be taking any bit of it that’s not mine, but I see your meaning.” Tam considered this while one of the poles began thrashing, and the Doctor reached out a hand to steady it. “I think I’ll harvest the field that’s sown for me. There’s the farm, and Da not young forever. And that’s not just duty, sir. I don’t mind seeing the world with all of you, but every time I miss a summer, when I’m somewhere I can’t measure the wheat against my boots as it gets taller, it feels like I’ve lost something important. It feels funny planting what I can’t see grow to harvest. Not that I’d trade any of where we’ve been or what we’ve done. I know when I’m looking after Jon, and the rest of them, too, that I’m in the right place. Shandor just pulls, see, wherever I am.”
Doctor Blackfeather nodded, serious, the pole in his hand tugging like anything, but not moving his arm one bit. “Sometimes we find our right paths by doing what we can’t not do, and being with those that make us the best forms of ourselves.”
That seemed right enough, if very Blackfeathery.
“Is it all right not to have any grand plans? I know Jon is fair bright, and he’ll go far. Djaren’s a genius, and Anna’s got a talent. Is it fine that I’m not like that? Because until I started thinking of it, it felt normal. I don’t think I’m missing any pieces.”
“You have a strong and steady sense of yourself, and the deep comfort of surety and belonging. That is a gift beyond most, and you are wise enough to claim it for yourself. I know you will always find yourself and, so rooted, guide others to their own best selves. Perhaps one day you will find us all where we wander and bring us home.”
“You think so, sir?” Tam looked out over the sea, with its endless motion, so unlike the Land. “That sounds rather grand.”
“It’s what this mission is. Bringing our people home out of danger. I do not know why the Seer called you to this, but there may be something only you can do. You may not feel very gifted, Tam, but had you considered that you yourself might be a gift?”
Tam had not, and watched with wonder as the Doctor reeled in a fish near the length of Tam’s body, lifted and laid it on the deck. It stopped thrashing when he touched it. “I believe you have something,” he said. He nodded to Tam, and walked off along the deck, watching the horizon.