As much as Kara disliked boats, being out in the ocean without one was worse. Clothes wet with salt water were heavy, and itched, and she was very thirsty. Everything in the world except water and sky was gone, and it stayed like that for a long while. It got light, and then it got dark again, and then again, and Kara found herself without the strength to hold on any longer. She cursed weakly as she sank back down into the ocean. She wasn’t quite out of air when she felt a different rush of water around her, diving past, then around. Arms wrapped her, pulling her up and up through water, and into air, and still she was rising. Kara coughed, spitting water back into the ocean, which now lay under her feet. The sky was full of tatters of cloud lit by thousands of stars, and pulling her up into that sky were a powerful pair of black wings.
“I was honestly not expecting you, here,” Corin Blackfeather said.
“Same,” Kara choked. “What,” she tried, then left it at that.
“The sea told me something was here that did not belong, perhaps one of the Land’s lost children.”
“Not lost. Boat lost me,” Kara muttered. “Stupid boat.”
“Something about you told the sea you might be one of ours. I wonder what.”
Kara couldn’t quite shrug. “And now?” she asked, hanging in midair.
“Perhaps you would like to join my family on board our ship.”
“All right,” Kara said. It seemed best to be agreeable.
She fell asleep in strong arms, borne along between stars.
* * *
Djaren Blackfeather awoke on his second day aboard the S.S. Land’s Wings to find that the adjoining bunk contained a surprisingly clean tomb thief, asleep, and wearing one of his shirts.
He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and put on his spectacles. She was still there, and now he could see the fine print of the book beside his head, the one he’d fallen asleep reading. He sat up at once. “Kara?”
Kara made a sleepy annoyed face and tugged at her pillow. “Shut up. I’ll do what I like,” she muttered croakily.
Djaren grinned. That was really her.
“Take off the stupid spectacles,” she said, and Djaren nearly did, before realizing Kara was still asleep. He opened his mouth, considering what to say or think about that. “Kara,” he said finally, touching her shoulder. “How did you get here?”
Kara jumped, really waking this time, and tumbled from the bunk with an exclamation, disappearing in a cloud of dry-throated curses and sheets.
“I’m sorry!” Djaren said. “I didn’t mean, are you all right?”
Kara cursed at him, her tousled head of black hair appearing over the bunk edge. “I should smother that smile off your stupid face,” she finished. “Where’s my knife?”
“I don’t know,” Djaren said. “I just woke up myself, and there you were.”
“Did you lose your boat?” Kara rubbed sleepily at her eyes, untangling blankets.
“No. We’re on it. How did you get here?”
“My boat lost me. I think it sank. Your freak of a father found me.”
“I shall have to thank him!” Djaren said. “I am sorry about your boat, though. Do you want breakfast?”
Kara seemed to consider this, still sitting on the floor on the opposite side of her bunk. “Yes, and water, but after real pants.” She stood up on unsure legs, in a striped pair of Djaren’s pajama trousers. “Who on earth would wear these?”
“They’re for sleeping. Look here, I’ll get things for both of us, if you don’t mind borrowing.” Djaren scrambled up and rooted through his clothes chest.
“You’re awake, I see, and standing.” Mother opened the upper half of the door, and leaned there a moment. “That’s remarkable, given the circumstances. I’ve already laid some things out for you both. Djaren, I’m sorry I didn’t consult you about sharing your things or your room, but you had the only cabin with a spare bunk, and I didn’t like waking you.”
Djaren adjusted his spectacles and found a neat pile of his own clothes folded at the end of his bed. There was another pile of his clothes for Kara, on her bed. She studied them critically, sitting again. “Where are my things?”
“Being washed and mended. I can replace them, though, if you’ll allow it.”
“I want my coat. I like my coat.” Kara hugged the pile of borrowed clothing to her chest.
“I’ll see you get it back, though you won’t need it where we’re headed.”
Kara looked dubious.
“We’re on a mission for the Queen, to the Tembelaka Islands,” Djaren told her.
Kara looked blank. “Where’s that?”
“In the middle of the Western Ocean,” Djaren said.
“And where are we?”
“On a boat, halfway to the middle of the Western Ocean.”
“So you can’t let me off anywhere.”
“No,” Mother said. “You’re stuck with us. You will have to endure some rest and recovery and three good meals a day and tea and biscuits whether you like it or not.” She smiled. “We’re having breakfast out on the deck this morning. The weather is lovely. If you are well enough to join us, you may. If you would rather stay here, I’ll have breakfast brought to you. You, Djaren, I expect to see at the table and hungry in fifteen minutes.”
Djaren grinned after his mother as she walked away. “Tyrannical, isn’t she?”
“You’re none of you normal,” Kara said, gathering up her pile of new clothing.
“But that’s what makes us allies, doesn’t it?” Djaren said.
Kara made a face, and opened the door to the washroom. “You’re holding me prisoner again and your mother has all my things,” she said.
“Wait,” said Djaren.
Her frown grew baffled and somehow more annoyed when he handed her a cup of water from the jug at his bedside. “You can have all my things, until she gives yours back.”
Kara frowned down at the sleeping trousers. “Your things are stupid.” She shut the door on him.
* * *
Kara wasn’t sure she was awake. This seemed like a dream. She couldn’t be dead, because girls like her didn’t earn pleasant afterlives, or so she’d been told, but it was too convenient to have been saved from the ocean and instantly transported into the fairy-tale world of the Blackfeathers. If she hadn’t still felt battered and sore from the waves and thirsty as anything she’d have been sure this wasn’t real. She dimly remembered being made to drink water in the night, and she wanted more now. She drained the cup Djaren had handed her in one go, now he wasn’t watching.
“You’re stuck with us again for a while,” Djaren said, from outside, trying to sound light about it.
“Looks like,” Kara grumbled, diving into a shirt to discover that it smelled pleasantly of soap and its owner.
“How have you been?” he asked.
I’ve been beaten half to death, stabbed, escaped the outbreak of a war or two, been chased across a continent, and nearly drowned while you slept in your feather bed. Kara took a moment to consider what to say, pulling on sturdy trousers. “Fine.”
The answering pause told her that Djaren was unconvinced, but in the end he let it pass. “I’ve been thinking—”
“You have that habit.” She laced the boots and pulled on a vest. It was a nice vest, with pockets. She stiffened, then, remembering all the things she’d had in her pockets. Her bronze dagger, and the spectacle case—were they gone at the bottom of the sea? Or worse, had Lady Blackfeather found them?”
“You don’t hate us,” Djaren said, surprising her.
“No, should I?”
“When you happen to choose the company of a burning building to, say, mine, the question comes up.”
“Oh,” said Kara. “That.”
“Yes,” Djaren said. “But you don’t hate us, or ah, me.”
“Waste of time, that would be. You’d just keep grinning like a skinny madman.” She opened the door to find Djaren dressed and sitting cross-legged on his bed. He wasn’t grinning. He looked careful, and sad. It made Kara uncomfortable. “Why don’t you hate me?”
“Can’t seem to learn the trick of it.” He shrugged.
“None of you can.”
“Well, we’re terribly dull-minded people,” Djaren said, lifting an eyebrow. “Just please tell me you won’t go jumping overboard or joining the Tembelaka natives to get away from us.”
“I don’t like the ocean very well right now, and I don’t plan on taking up life in a grass hut.”
“That wasn’t quite an answer.”
“I can handle you lot for a while, I suppose.”
“You aren’t afraid of monsters, or demons.” Djaren slipped on shoes, looking sideways at her. He was trying to be insightful again.
“Being afraid doesn’t help much, does it?”
“But you are afraid of something.”
“Shut up,” Kara said, and then, “Aren’t you?”
“You never act like it.”
“Neither do you.” He made a face. “I want to understand you.”
“What fun would that be? Once you did, you might hate me, or worse, get bored. I don’t want to be understood.”
“I don’t think you understand you either then,” Djaren said, regretfully. “Or me.”
Kara didn’t like this conversation, and had the urge to punch Djaren in his annoyingly pretty, pitying face. He seemed to understand that, at least, and changed the subject.
“In the Tembelaka Islands they use war clubs for fighting. They carve them from special roots and branches and name them after flowers. The one called ‘climbing orchid’ is made especially to entangle and break limbs.”
“Does it look like an orchid?”
“Not very. They have throwing clubs too, with the same sort of scheme. They can throw them with such force they break a man’s skull.”
“What are you talking about?” Tam trundled into view just out the doorway, looking puzzled, and carrying a long plank for no evident reason. “Who’s breaking skulls?”
“Me, if you don’t come eat breakfast while it’s hot!” Anna called from somewhere past Tam. “We’ve rounded up everyone else, so hurry along. And no talk about bloody awful things at the table.”
Big Tam was, improbably, even bigger than last year, with new angles in his kind, doughy face. Out there was annoying, pretty Anna who probably even knew how to cook, and right here was Djaren, with his always-so-alive face and smile, and a hand outstretched to her. She was firmly in the fairy tale again.
“You feeling well enough to join us?” Tam asked. “Cause I can bring a tray in for you if you need to be abed.”
Kara replied in a language she was gratified to learn even Djaren did not know, and gestured Tam and his board out of her way.
Breakfast with the Blackfeathers was ridiculous. The table was ridiculous, long planks laid out over barrels, bending under platters of food. Tam finished it off with the addition of one final plank, and Anna laid down some sailcloth for a cover.
“Half the time I see you people, you’re eating.” Kara stared at the table. “When you said breakfast, I didn’t think you meant enough for all day. Do you always eat like this?”
“Yes,” Jon said, half in apology, pulling out a chair for her.
“More sometimes, when there’s planting or harvest,” Tam offered.
“No wonder you’re big as a cow,” Kara said, then thought better of it, too late.
“And little wonder you’re not much bigger than Ellea,” Tam said. “Have some eggs.”
“You’re still shorter than me,” Djaren said, cheerfully.
“Just by an inch or two.” Tam looked her up and down. “You’re mostly the same size. Are those your clothes, Djaren?”
“Not anymore,” Djaren said.
A big young man dressed like some sort of stage-play barbarian sat near one end of the table, blinking stupidly at her. “I don’t understand, the little foreign boy was found in the ocean, and you know him?” His accent was so thick it needed thinking about.
“She,” Anna corrected, setting a completely unnecessary new plate of flat-cakes on the already-full table.
“Is this a new one of yours?” Kara asked her, nodding at the barbarian.
“No.” Anna glared at her. “Sit down before you fall over, and eat.”
Kara sat, because standing was difficult. Djaren was immediately sitting on one side of her and Jon on the other, both with wide-eyed pleased-to-see-you faces. Across an expanse of odd food was the scarred Professor. He smiled at her. Everyone else was taking places now, including Lady Blackfeather and the ridiculously tall Doctor. He looked different than other times she’d seen him. He didn’t flicker in and out of sight, he wasn’t wearing yards of flowing black robes, and the sword of burning nothingness was nowhere to be seen. He seemed more solid and relaxed, despite the fiery green eyes that glowed even in full sun. He wore clothes a little like the barbarian, but more up-to-date and elegant, and his long hair was braided. Lady Blackfeather wore something warmly cream-colored with cinnamon and caramel touches, midway between fairy tale and paper advertisement. How many frocks can one person own?
Kara gawked at them through the awkward quiet of some Shandorian prayer, and then found the plate in front of her piled with things Jon and Djaren insisted she try.
“Easy now,” Lady Blackfeather said. “Start slow. Most who survived what you did wouldn’t be up and walking the next morning.”
“I heal fast,” Kara said, attacking a biscuit.
Doctor Blackfeather watched her with interest. “You do. That’s quite a gift.” His emphasis on gift made Kara uncomfortable.
“Not always,” she grumbled.
“That’s true. Those who heal fastest are hurt most often, at least in tales.”
He understood, and that terrified Kara. He knew things. Did he know she was a monster? He destroyed monsters. But he saved me. Maybe he thought she was like his own strange, brilliant children. But they’re made of light, not darkness.
Kara drank another full glass of water and ate some eggs, defiantly. They’d toss her back, maybe, if they worked it out, but she’d eat their food first. Doctor Blackfeather didn’t say more to her, his attention caught by a discussion about currents and travel times with the Professor and his wife. It wasn’t safe here. People kept looking at her, and there was no exit but back into the sea, and that scared her worse than Doctor Blackfeather right now. He looked odd, smiling.
“Are you feeling ill?” Jon asked, worried.
“I was in a shipwreck and lost at sea for a few days I don’t remember so well,” Kara growled. “What do you think?”
He silently offered her a bowl of porridge with syrup. Djaren, on her other side, was doing more watching her than eating. “I really am sorry you lost your ship,” he said quietly. “What was it called?”
“What?” Kara looked at him. “I don’t know. I stowed away in a hurry. Wait, you thought I had my own?”
“You’d be an amazing smuggler, you have to admit. Or the best sort of pirate, from the stories.”
Kara laughed. It came out a surprised bark. “You wouldn’t know a pirate if you tripped on one.” She was immensely flattered.
“What would you name your ship, if you had one? We re-christened this one, just yesterday.”
“I still think,” Anna said, buttering her flat-cakes, “we ought to have named it the Western Star Rising.”
“I liked the Revenant Relicsword,” said Djaren.
“Which is why we voted,” Anna said. “Land’s Wings it is.”
“What was the boat before?” Kara asked, between more eggs and porridge.
“The Blooming Hyacinth,” Djaren said, his face eloquent.
“Mother bought it. It was one of the only ones unsmashed,” Ellea added.
“I think it would have been fun to buy the lobster trawler,” Djaren said. “We could have fished the whole way with those big nets. There was a winch, and trapdoors, and a tank for holding a pool of water on board.”
“No,” Kara said, shivering. “No fishing boats.”
“See, even Kara agrees with me,” said Anna. “And it had no cabins or bunks.”
Djaren shrugged. “Hammocks are fine.”
“I don’t like hammocks,” said Ellea. “They make one feel as though one were a caterpillar in a cocoon. One might wake up to be anything.”
“But not really,” said Kara, frowning. “Right?”
“Not really. Ellea is feeling peevish this voyage,” Djaren assured.
“Boats are small and half outdoors,” Ellea said. “Kara doesn’t like them either.”
“This one is all right, though,” Kara said, surprising herself. She didn’t volunteer praise. “For now.” There was no way she could like a boat. She put far too much marmalade on a roll and thought about good names for pirate ships.
* * *
Kara liked the boat. She was unused to being happy, so she was never quite sure when she was. It took a few days to recognize the odd sensation. She felt safe and didn’t know why. The oddly clean red-and-white-painted ship was full of merry little state rooms she didn’t need to steal from, with white unlocked cupboards that opened out into wardrobes, benches, and tables, unfolding their secrets readily. There were breezy little curtains, and unfamiliar sounds like laughter and, in the evenings, music. Kara felt she ought to be uncomfortable and annoyed, trapped in the middle of the ocean with a lot of people she had meant to avoid for the rest of her short life. There was nowhere to run, but try as she might, she couldn’t feel bothered by that. Instead, she was oddly relieved.
Food came three times a day, as threatened. It had both strange and familiar spices, and she was encouraged to eat as much as she liked. She nearly gave up pocketing and hoarding it. The fluffy chickens that lived in a little house on deck kept producing eggs for breakfast despite looking as startled to be at sea as Kara was. Under the watchful eye of the ship’s cook, Anna and Tam had divided the kitchen between them, and took it in turns to muck about in there, making bread, and scones, and spicy fried cakes that neither Kara nor Djaren could get enough of.
Djaren had offered her his cabin all to herself if she liked, saying he could hang a hammock below with the crew, or in Tam and Jon’s tiny room.
“Do you think I snore?” she’d asked. “Why should I care where you are?” She hadn’t meant it to sound that cruel, but he didn’t take it badly.
“You don’t mind if I stay? It won’t bother you?”
“If you annoy me, I can smother you,” she pointed out.
He nodded amiably. “That’s true.”
And so they remained roommates.
Kara sat now at a table inside the main cabin, after another ridiculous meal, soaking in the sensations of being really full, and unafraid, and just . . . just comfortable.
“Want to hear about the adventure, yet?” Djaren asked.
“You know firsthand about the wave, I take it?”
Kara gave him a look.
“Well, you’re really lucky,” Djaren said, his hands a flurry of awkward illustration. “The disaster hit two continents and a whole string of islands, and left a huge mess. Most of the ports where ships could re-supply, like Jaspertown and New Drakesport in the Maribelle Colonies, are half-drowned. There’s a shortage of ships left with which to rescue anyone stranded or hurt. Finding you at all was a miracle.”
Kara shrugged, not wanting to explain Doctor Blackfeather’s cryptic rambling about what the sea said. “So we’re going to some half-drowned islands.”
“No, we’re going to the ones that had the giant earthquake that caused the wave.”
“Even better.” Kara tried the tea.
Jon produced a map and spread it on the deck. “We’re headed here, hundreds of miles out from Shandor, and a bit south.” He pointed at what looked like ink dots amid nothingness.
“That little speck there in the ocean is land?” Tam asked, craning his neck.
“It’s four specks, and a dozen or so freckles,” Djaren amended.
“It’s probably been awful for them,” said Anna.
“That depends on the direction of the shockwaves,” Djaren said. “They may have just had the earthquake with no waves. Or maybe it’s worse, and their volcano went off.”
Most of the faces at the table looked deeply concerned at this last, particularly Jon and the barbarian. Djaren looked apologetic. “Or maybe not. Maybe this will end the fighting.”
“I’m still not clear on who’s fighting there,” Jon said. “You mentioned other countries, but why are they fighting on four specks? I’d never heard of these islands before, except from Professor Hallowfield’s bird books.”
Kara knew the name Tembelaka. It went with spices. Tembelaka nutmeg, Tembelaka curryfruit, Tembelaka spinepears.
“Well, they’re not fighting about birds,” Djaren said. “It’s a trade war with a lot of sides. Companies from four different nations have holdings there, and there’s also a civil war going on. The Cormurada who first claimed the islands are pulling out, the Levour are moving in, and all the other trading countries are trying to hold on to what they have and grab more, employing, or perhaps more accurately, exploiting, the formerly indentured Pao’ulu population. And the native islanders, the Kaunatoans, are in full revolt.”
“Cormurada made that whole mess and they’re just leaving it?” Anna asked.
“Better if they’d let alone much sooner,” Tam said. “No one wants a lot of foreigners butting in and trying to ruin one’s country.”
“The Cormuradans aren’t the first high continent country to take them over. Tembelaka’s had trouble since the first fleets. It’s the curse of having rare resources,” Djaren said. “And of being on a trade route and having convenient ports.”
Kara knew a term for a country in that position. It was not appropriate to repeat at a meal. “Sounds like a mess. Why are you going there? Do they have sea monsters too, or fire demons in their volcano?”
“That would be a surprise,” Djaren said. “But no, this is a rescue. Professor Erna Hallowfield, the Shandorian naturalist, and her research team were on Tembelaka at the time of the earthquake. We got the news because one of her assistants is a Speaker, and she’s been sending Professor Erna’s messages to Dean Merrifelter at the Shandorian University, as well as, uh, other messages to Hirnar over there.”
“What’s a Speaker?”
“Someone who can communicate to other special minds across great distances,” Ellea said.
“And that lunk has a special mind?” Kara looked over at the barbarian.
“Not really,” said Ellea, “he’s just bonded to the Speaker girl.”
“How does that happen?”
“The usual way,” Ellea said. “Really, if you aren’t old enough to understand, I’m not explaining it to you.”
Jon leaned forward. “If two people have a close enough connection, they can sense things about one another. Siblings can have it, or old friends. If one person in the bond can Speak, the other can usually hear them even if they can’t hear anyone else.”
“And really gifted people can talk to nearly anyone at all,” Ellea’s voice announced primly in Kara’s mind.
“Out,” Kara thought firmly.
Ellea blinked, looking surprised and a little offended. “Ouch.”
“Stay out if you don’t want a punch in the head,” she told Ellea.
“I’m not in. And honestly, you don’t even know how to mind pinch. I shan’t talk to you again if you’re going to be rude.”
“I was born rude,” Kara thought at her. “Deal with it.”
“This is going to be tiresome,” Ellea said, and flounced off.
Djaren looked after Ellea, confused, and then at Kara. “But you really don’t mind all this? Being stuck with us again?”
Kara pulled a roll she’d saved out of her sleeve, and began picking it to bits. “I like the ship. But you should have named it Black Sword, or Blade Wing. Something to properly warn off boarders.”
“Instead we give boarders our clothes and overfeed them.” Djaren shrugged. “We’re terrible at this.”