“They say some of the fastest tea clippers make fourteen knots,” Djaren observed, sitting on the deck with Kara, watching Tam and the off-duty crew trying to drop nets. Djaren didn’t see Kara much these days, since he was busy with research. He tried, when they were together, to make up for being dull the rest of the time.
“Why didn’t you bring a clipper, then?” Kara asked, shading her eyes against the bright sun.
“Shandor hasn’t any. Hadn’t even before the wave. This is the fastest surviving ship in the country.”
“And you got handed it?”
“We bought it, and we’re on a mission for the Queen.”
“How do you get rich enough to buy ships out of nowhere? And then talk about archeology not being theft.”
“Mmm,” Djaren considered. “Archeology isn’t where the money comes from.”
“Where does it come from, for your family, then? All new frocks, tea, hotels, and trains across the world.”
“State secret.” It was probably best not to spread word of the mine Father had discovered and the Queen had dedicated to funding the joint international missions of her Justice and Shaper. “Sorry. What happened to yours, anyway? I seem to remember you leaving rather well off.”
Kara made a face and kicked at the deck. “Luck doesn’t hold, and I don’t have any to start.”
“You can share mine if you want.” Djaren smiled. “I think it’s a mix of delightful and disaster.”
“You have. Then you ran away,” he realized, rueful.
“Didn’t want mine messing up yours,” she said, and abruptly stopped talking.
“Oh.” Things were awkwardly silent for a moment. “But, ah, you’ve met me. I don’t mind disaster much. I probably should, but I don’t.”
“You like things that aren’t safe, or good for you,” Kara said. “You’re a reckless rich boy who’s never seen a real disaster.” She didn’t say it cruelly. It stung anyway.
“There were comets, you saw them,” he pointed out.
“Not that hit you, or your friends. They’re all fine now. Not a scratch. Have you even once missed a meal?”
“Lots of times. I get sort of lost, reading . . . that’s not what you meant. Does it matter, though?”
“Not to you, it doesn’t.”
“Should it? Do you want me to feel some way? Better or worse than you or something? I don’t understand what you want.”
“You’re so stupid,” Kara snarled, and walked away. But she looked, Djaren thought, as confused as he felt.
Later, stuck together again in the evening, their shared cabin bisected by a curtain, they managed by ignoring their earlier conversation. Djaren found it impossible to keep a casual silence for long, though. He’d been thinking a lot about Kara. She was the same height beside him as she’d been each time they met, and apparently the same age. She could see Father, nearly all the time. She wasn’t ordinary, not even a little. He strung together a number of clear recollections of Kara interacting with objects and found some intriguing conclusions. “Do you think your gift is something to do with the weak points in things?” he asked suddenly. “You aren’t amazingly strong, but you know just where to kick something to break it. It isn’t random. You can sense something, can’t you? And it’s more than things like pillars and doors, it’s people too.”
“What? I’m trying to sleep, don’t make me kick you.”
“In the tomb with those mad cultists, you were a good fighter. I bet if you had training you could be really amazing. You should ask Hirnar to teach you some things.”
Kara yanked back the curtain without sitting up, and glared across at him in the dark they could both see through. “What? What does the stupid big meat sack have to do with anything?”
“He’s a banded warrior. They go through years of training, and it never really stops. He’s good, good enough for Father and Mother to take him along. He’ll know at least nine weapons and several of the unarmed styles. Most banded do. If you can sense things about the weaknesses in fighters, changes in weight and openings and things, I bet you could learn a lot sparring with him.”
“I’m the same size as you, what makes you think I could survive in a fight like that?”
“Because you aren’t me. You’re stronger, and faster, and you can hit so that it matters.”
“I don’t have the strength yet. Maybe in a decade.” He sighed. “I tried training for a while. I had to use smaller weapons, and couldn’t draw a full-sized bow. It was embarrassing.”
Kara said nothing, just frowned at the ceiling.
“Do you ever wish you could grow up faster?” Djaren asked, after a bit.
Kara didn’t answer at once. “If ever I can’t pretend to be a boy any longer, then my career is done,” she said finally.
“Oh.” Then, “Really? Can’t there be lady thieves?”
“Not that work for themselves, and can hop about on trains, and pose as invisible urchins, and keep all the cut they earned.”
“Why not? Sure, you might have to change a few things as you get taller, but it’s not like you’d lose any skills. You could ask Father how he goes invisible. Maybe you can learn it. He learned it from grand-ma’am anyway, and she wasn’t a Shaper.”
“Less than half of that made sense. Things don’t work like you think.”
“Like some fairy tale.”
“But what if they do? Most tales are true, where I’m from.”
“What if,” Kara said quietly, “I come from somewhere else?”
“Doesn’t mean we aren’t allies, and can’t learn from each other.”
“Mm,” said Kara, dropping the curtain back in place.
Djaren didn’t know what to make of that syllable, but she didn’t give him anything more helpful to extrapolate from, and so eventually he fell asleep.
* * *
Kara couldn’t sleep. The bed was too soft and her mind too full of new shapes for words, tumbling with thoughts about things once safely impossible. She was still wide awake when she heard strange noises outside the cabin. Someone, several someones, were running across the deck.
There was a night crew, of course. Half the cabins below decks were shut and quiet during the day, and everyone knew to keep hushed down there. The night crew wouldn’t be that energetic, though. Kara sat up, listening. The running came again, this time interrupted by a thud, a grunt, and a dull clang. She got up and slid carefully out the door. There was nothing in the narrow hall, so she climbed over the railing and dropped lightly onto the deck behind the chicken coop. It was dark tonight, except for a clouded hint of stars. The moon was nearly gone.
Missing her bronze dagger, Kara edged round the coop and then stopped, seeing movement. In the dark, in near-perfect silence, people were fighting. Kara counted eight of them, wielding old-fashioned swords, halberds, bows, or axes—not a gun among them. They moved like trained acrobats or really good stage fighters. Roiling clouds of black swept in over the bow, obscuring the stars before splitting into a flock of dark metal birds that could only be Doctor Blackfeather being ridiculously amazing. The people on deck dodged or deflected the swirling shapes. The dark birds melted together behind one fighter, wrapping arms round to grab him, but he dropped suddenly, squeezing free and tumbling away. A ninth figure leapt down on the Doctor from above, with a soft animal snarl, deep enough to be felt rather than heard. The Doctor caught and flung the new figure across the deck. It skidded nearly to Kara’s hiding place. She crouched further back, holding her breath.
It couldn’t be a real attack, Kara told her pounding heart. The Doctor wasn’t using his sword. He wasn’t calling for help, or waking the ship. Everyone he was fighting could see him. But how? Stealing a glance round again, Kara saw the night crew calmly working in the rigging and at the rudder, as if no fight were happening. She realized, suddenly, that she no longer saw the man who’d been flung her way. She heard a sniffing sound, right behind her, and something picked her up and muffled her surprised shout. She kicked it.
A large hand in a heavy clawed glove caught Kara’s kick and held her in place. She found herself suspended in the air, facing a tall but hunched man with his face wrapped in scarves like the lady Taanik Modests back home. Quite unlike a Taanik Modest, his eyes above the wrappings were not person eyes, but animal, gold irises filling the space out to black lids that weren’t lined with kohl, but with fine reddish hair.
Kara opened her mouth to shout properly, but the animal person let her down gently, and bowed to her. “Forgive me,” he whispered, words pronounced a little oddly, in a low husky voice. “I did not know you.” He raised a palm up, giving a sign to someone behind Kara. She spun to find Doctor Blackfeather there, solid now, madly tall, his pale green eyes burning calmly.
“Did we wake you?” he asked. “I am sorry.”
“No, I couldn’t sleep. What’s wrong with him?” she pointed at the gold-eyed man, who backed away, forehead wrinkling in dismay.
“Rades is one of the Queen’s hand-picked warriors. He is entirely right,” the Doctor said. Rades blinked at him gratefully, wrapping one of his scarves more closely around his concealed face. “If you want to watch the training,” the Doctor said to Kara, “it is seen most safely from above.” He pointed up at the rigging.
“But why are you training at night?” Kara asked.
“Because night will be when we can move most freely. Once on land, we wish to evade notice. I’m sure you are acquainted with the principle.”
Shandor had a secret nighttime assassin attack team, and Doctor Blackfeather was their commander. Kara snorted grudging approval, and climbed the rigging. She had snuck into a circus tent more than once, to watch wide-eyed while people tumbled, jumped, and flew. This was like that, but in breathless silence and darkness that only she and they could see through, and all without ropes or nets. When no one was watching, these people could do miracles unseen. Kara didn’t usually set store in miracles, but tonight was different. Could she really learn that? Any of it? She watched carefully. One woman tumbled in close and used fierce, precise hits to areas where her targets seemed weakest. Curse it if Djaren wasn’t right—that looked like something she could do.
Kara tracked the woman’s movements, and found that she knew when the woman’s guesses would pay off, and when they were wrong. The woman was not having much luck fighting Rades. Kara thought she could find Rades’s weak points better. His joints seemed odd, but even under bulky clothing, Kara could guess where they were. He wasn’t right, whatever Doctor Blackfeather said. He flowed and bounded gracefully enough while fighting, but not at all humanly. The rest of them were more normal, even though they used century-old weapons and wore odd mixes of armor, like folk who’d robbed a museum. They could take on any museum they wanted, whatever the security. Kara guessed they would go in through the roof. That was what she would do.
She watched the freaks of Shandorians until they broke for a rest and gathered by the water barrels, and then she hopped down to get water, too. She sat beside Rades and sipped from her cup, watching to see if he would take off the scarves. He glanced over at her apprehensively. “I don’t look right,” he warned.
“That’s why I want to see you better,” Kara said. “You aren’t rotting or anything, are you?”
“No,” he said, surprised.
“Do you have fangs?”
“Understand, I am a secret. It is by the Queen’s will that I have a place,” he told her earnestly. “I am not meant to exist,”
“Neither am I.” Kara shrugged. “I won’t tell anybody about you.”
Rades carefully laid the scarf aside and drank his water, a little messily on account of the long sharp teeth in his wide, black-gummed mouth. He watched her back with a little apologetic grin, wiping water from the fuzzy hair on his chin, a varying mix of black and dark red, like the colors around his gold dog-eyes. He didn’t look like the Blackfeathers or the Gardners, or the other Shandorian fighters. His eyebrows were thick like her own, and he had the same dark hook of a nose, but it looked better on a grown man’s face than it did on her. Despite the stranger parts of his features he seemed more familiar to her than his paler countrymen. “You look Corestemarian,” she said.
“Southfolk,” he explained, like that meant something. “One of my, uh, ingredients.”
“Shandor has four people groups,” Rades began, uncertainly.
Kara shook her head. “I want to know about the ingredients thing.”
“I was made, not properly born,” Rades said, in a pained whisper, leaning close so the others wouldn’t hear. He smelled of spices, sweat, and dog. “In a laboratory. The crime is still under investigation.”
Kara blinked. “People can do that?”
“People can’t. Doctor Ash can. And shouldn’t.” Rades shivered a little. “If you ever meet him, run. Don’t let him touch you. He can do things with a hair alone.”
“What does he look like?” Kara asked, astonished and interested.
“A little like Professor Eabrey Sheridan, but wrong.”
“Are they related?”
“They are now. Don’t let him get a hair.”
“You should be getting to bed, dear,” Lady Blackfeather said, suddenly there with sandwiches. Rades smiled at her and took three. She didn’t flinch at the teeth, but smiled back.
“Can I come back, though?” Kara asked. “I want to watch. Djaren said before that maybe I could learn things from Hirnar or someone.”
Lady Blackfeather looked considering. “I would need your word that you would not use your new skills to hurt any of my people, or those weaker than you who are deserving of your help.”
Kara frowned. “What about the weak-minded, do they count? I can’t go being a charity like you are.”
“Ask Corin about it tomorrow.” Lady Blackfeather sighed, with a beleaguered smile of the sort she gave Djaren sometimes. That seemed a positive sign. As Lady Blackfeather guided Kara along toward the cabins. Kara waved at Rades, who waved back.
“Is your whole country made of freaks?” Kara asked.
Lady Blackfeather looked at her sharply, but her expression softened when she saw Kara wasn’t trying to be rude. She made a considering face. “Half, perhaps.”
“Because there are people like Tam, too?”
“Tam is not the perfect example for Shandorian normalcy, though he’s perhaps the best of us,” Lady Blackfeather said.
“Does Djaren know about the night training?”
“I want you two to get some sleep on this voyage . . .”
“Can you tell me more about Doctor Ash?”
Lady Blackfeather’s lips thinned, and she frowned out over the ocean with an expression that made Kara look around for flying copper pieces. “He’s a very evil man, and I am going to kill him. That is all.” She dusted her hands of the topic. “So you needn’t worry over it. Go to bed, dear.”
Kara crept into her shared cabin, and into bed. She rolled restlessly several times, and at last fell asleep thinking about how one could land fierce, precise hits to walking corpses and strange versions of the Professor without touching them.
* * *
Jon was pleased with the results of his teaching. By the time they sighted the first seabirds and knew land was near, Kara had learned a number of short words and could write her own name. True to her wishes, no one else had discovered the lessons, though with Ellea, really, there was no way to be sure. Kara seemed more and more exhausted each day, but she worked hard and was more polite than Jon had ever known her to be. Maybe she was too tired for insults. Whatever the cause, Jon was proud of her.
Djaren had made a complete set of maps of the islands, with colored dots marking the habitats of each kind of bird, beast, and tree Professor Hallowfield had studied. Past campsites were marked, too, as were native villages and colonial settlements. The only island still mostly blank was Tuwa, the first one they would reach. It stood some distance off from the rest of the archipelago, and was bare of detail because there wasn’t much there. With only one source of fresh water, little Tuwa could not sustain any permanent settlements, and was remarkable in Professor Hallowfield’s accounts chiefly for its elusive species of birds that had been hunted to extinction elsewhere in the island chain.
On his first scouting flight, Doctor Blackfeather confirmed that Tuwa was still uninhabited. His second flight took him to the main island of Tinaro, and he returned very late. He landed on the deck gracefully, but Jon thought he looked more tired than usual. Jon had been watching his flight for a while, squinting into the late afternoon sun, while the others added final details to the maps. Anna’s little noise of startlement and Djaren’s scuff of paperweights told him the exact moment when the Doctor appeared to other eyes than his. Lady Blackfeather hurried out to meet her husband. She’d been waiting up since the Doctor left last evening, Jon thought. He slid out of her way as she swept past.
“What is it? What did you find?” she asked her husband, offering a shoulder.
He pulled her into a hug before speaking.
Djaren and Ellea exchanged glances. Ellea shook her head, with a little half-shrug that said she had no better guess than the rest of them. “Father is impossible to read when he wants to be,” she’d told Jon, earlier. “Mother’s even better at it.”
The Doctor looked round at the children, the Professor, and those of the crew who had gathered about. “We are landing at Tuwa, and none of you will be going further until I have done more scouting,” he said, a grim look in his eyes.
“Why not?” Djaren asked. “Is it very dangerous? Have there been more disasters?”
“Only human ones, but terrible,” the Doctor said carefully. “I saw no sign of our missing, but it seems as though the worst has been happening here for some time, especially on the northern side of the main island.”
“Sit, love.” Lady Blackfeather guided her husband to a chair as his wings melted to vapor and his clothing settled into something simple and appropriate, in his usual blacks. He sat, beside the new maps, and tapped a finger on Tinaro in place after place. “There are mass graves, burned villages, and all the kinds of horrors that happen when people are desperate and hungry and afraid.” He looked up at Djaren and his wife. “I am not taking you into that. There is no good you can do there. If I am to learn more, I must do it alone.”
“Not alone,” Lady Blackfeather said firmly. “Let’s have a council about this.”
“I’ll consult with the Queen, of course.”
“It’s possible they have fallen into silence because of what they’ve seen,” the Doctor said softly.
“Let those who have bonds in this assist,” Lady Blackfeather said, hands on hips. “We’ll go together, you and I, with the Queen’s picked ten. Besides, Hirnar would swim after you if you went alone.”
“It’s not safe.”
“I’m not safe, for those who burn villages and bully the weak. If there are people who need saving, ours and theirs too, I’ll do my part of it, thank you.”
“We haven’t been told to intervene, just to find our own,” the Doctor cautioned.
“Then we won’t involve Shandor, and we’ll work subtly, as we originally planned. You aren’t the only one who can be subtle.”
“You shine like glory everywhere you go,” the Doctor told his wife fondly. “You glow. That is not subtle.”
“But maybe it’s needed.”
“One light to reignite hope,” Professor Sheridan said, as though quoting something. Lady Blackfeather smiled at him.
The Doctor shook his head, brow creased. “I don’t want to see your heart broken. There’s much there that’s too gone to save.”
“You aren’t in the habit of talking nonsense, love.” Lady Blackfeather touched his cheek. “There’s no such thing as too gone to save. Let me help. I’ll know when I can.”
They just looked at each other for some time, and Jon felt that there was more to the conversation that he was missing. Djaren seemed to think so, too, and fidgeted a bit before coming to the end of his patience.
“Can’t we come, too, though?” he asked. “We’re not afraid, and we’re handy in a fight. At least can’t us older ones go?”
“No.” The Doctor turned, his eyes blazed, and his voice was very hard. “Absolutely not. I forbid you to come to north Tinaro, and I ask your word that you will not follow us there for any reason.”
Djaren looked startled and abashed, and said instantly, “Yes, sir, my word on it, sir.”
“Thank you.” Doctor Blackfeather gentled his voice. “I will not see the reflection of horrors in your eyes. I can protect you, at least. Tuwa seems to have escaped disaster. Eabrey, may I leave you and the children there, with the small boat and supplies? Hellin and I will need the larger vessel, and the rest of our cargo.”
The Professor, listening quietly, nodded. “I will see that no harm comes to any of them.”
“Except for mosquito bites, and if we spear sharks, or things like that,” Djaren pointed out. “Because really, he can’t be answerable for the things we’ll think up. If you leave us.”
Doctor Blackfeather fixed his son with a steady eye. “I am trusting you to protect the others, to act rationally and honorably, and to labor without fail to keep everyone safe and well until I return.”
Djaren made a disappointed face. “But can’t we do anything useful?”
“Staying alive and safe is useful. Study the flora and fauna if you like. Fill this map with the wonders you find. Add to science. You may have something to give to Professor Hallowfield when we find her. Notes and sketches of newly discovered creatures. That would be work worth doing.”
“And be very careful about what you touch,” Lady Blackfeather said. “If you don’t recognize it, don’t go eating it.”
“Mum, I haven’t done anything like that in years.”
“We get to camp on our own unexplored jungle island?” Jon asked, feeling giddy and nervous.
“Yes, dear, do be careful,” Lady Blackfeather said.
“I’ll look after them, ma’am,” Tam assured her. “And I’m sure you’ll find them that’s missing that way.” He nodded at the map and over the ocean to the west. “You got a good crew for it. You should take them.”
“We will land at Tuwa in the morning, then,” Doctor Blackfeather said, with a weary smile. He wrapped one hand around his wife’s as she moved to go. “Thank you.”
She smiled and touched his shoulder. “We’ll drag light out of this. It’s what we do.”
Jon looked out over the water where islands waited, blank, dangerous, full of wonders and horrors. He hoped the Seer was right to have sent them, and that, whatever it was she had meant them to do, they would find it on Tuwa.