For a long while it was hard for Jon to tell waking from dreaming, clinging to cold hands and rough plank, terrified of losing the Professor or Tam. The first time he opened his stinging eyes it was dark, and the second blink brought him a world of colorless gray. The ocean spoke, or it didn’t. He was in his bed at home with a fever, then buried in wet snow in the mountains, then fallen into a well. He reached out to find the sides and was on the plank in the sea again, grabbing frantically for the hands of his companions. He found them. The Professor, still lying lifeless, was looking at him with sad, empty eyes.
Jon woke, and wondered if he was at the bottom of the sea. Every surface around him was dappled with watery reflections. Even though there was something solid against his back, he still felt that he might be floating. He squinted and blinked until the confusing surfaces resolved themselves into cave walls. He sat up suddenly, grasping for hands and the precious sea bond, and found that he’d been covered with a light blanket. Also, he was not alone.
He was in a great sea cavern with an arching roof, half ledges of stone and half ocean water. At one end sunlight filtered in through twining vines, and a rope ladder dangled and swayed in a shaft of light high above. It smelled pleasantly of cool stone, water, leaves, and distant flowers. Tam lay nearby, on a beaten paper mat, and a dark-skinned girl was bending over him, wrapping bandages about his chest.
“Pardon me, miss,” Jon blurted. “Please, is he going to be all right? Where is the Professor? And where are we?”
“I wondered,” the girl said, in an accented voice, “what language would come from you, when you woke.”
“I’m sorry, miss, I should have asked your name. You’re helping my brother. Will he, will he recover?” Jon scrambled to his knees, his trousers stiff with drying sea water.
The girl looked up at him. She was a little younger than Tam, in a red and gold paper dress, dark eyes warm. “He is full of fire,” she said. “He is loved with deep roots, thousands of fires reach and warm him. I have seen nothing like it.”
Jon wasn’t sure if she was speaking trade common or not. Her accent and her words were more like dream than reality. She smiled at his confusion. “But that is not what you meant. If the wound does not become infected he should live. He is strong and well fed, with good lungs and no disease. He has lived purely.”
Jon blinked. “Um, thank you.”
The girl looked at the floor. “As for your other companion, I am sorry. I have never seen such damage. I have no power to heal what’s been done to him.”
Jon stared around. There was another stack of mats, some red stains, some bandaging, but no Professor. “Please, miss, is he—“
“It is as if someone cut him open and poured all his fire out to the last spark. I have never seen a living man with no fire at all. I didn’t think that could be done. We have been afraid to touch him, for fear our fire will be pulled away.”
Jon looked around, panicked. At one end of the cave two more girls were folding cloth. At the other end, just beside the water’s edge, sat the Professor. He wore no shirt, and his whole back was a tangle of scars even worse than the ones on his face. One looked very new, a raw and reddish star lined with blue-green.
“He’s alive!” Jon exclaimed.
The Professor turned and gave him a weary expression that might have been meant for a smile. He looked wrong and frightening without his proper clothes, like the pale body of some sailor washed up ashore after a mutiny. No wonder he frightened the girls, who didn’t know him properly. The front of him was worse than the back; the mark the bullet had made leaving him was bigger and messier than where it had gone in. But it was closed, scabbed over, not bleeding any longer.
“How long have I been sleeping?” Jon asked.
“We found you washed up that way just before dawn,” the girl said. “I saw weakening sparks borne upon the water in my dream, and took it for a sign. There you were, washed right into this holy place, and holding the sea in your hand. I thought we should help you, and see what you were.”
“Thank you,” said Jon. “I prayed to be somewhere safe.”
“These islands are not safe,” the girl said sadly, “but we will hide you here as we can.” She considered him seriously. “Boys aren’t allowed here, you know. But I have declared that you can stay while you heal.”
“Where is here, miss, and what do I call you?”
“I am Temanava. These are my islands. They call this one Falau.”
Jon remembered that one, a large freckle to the east of the main island, Tinaro.
“Thank you, Temanava, for all you have done for us. I’m Jon Gardner, that’s Tam, my brother, there, and that’s the Professor, Professor Sheridan. He’s not as frightening as he looks right now.”
“He is a teacher?” Temanava cast a careful look over at the Professor. “What do you teach, empty one?”
The Professor turned carefully, but didn’t approach. “History, mainly. Languages, archeology, philosophy, some other, older, more obsolete subjects.”
“At the school they have changed our classes lately,” Temanava said. “That concerns us.”
The other girls were watchful now, paying attention.
“Yes?” the Professor asked politely. He still seemed unable to smile properly.
Jon scooted closer to Tam, to be sure of him, and to see his reassuring breaths. Temanava let him. She was looking at the Professor now. “We used to have history and mathematics. Now at the girls’ school we have deportment, and manners, dancing with music that is not our music, and how to write polite letters. Some of us are dissatisfied with this.”
The Professor listened. “I can see how you might be. What are the boys learning?”
“We don’t know. They left them all at the old school. We used to be able to help teach the small ones, but now we are kept separate from even our smaller sisters.”
The Professor’s eyes narrowed. “That does seem concerning.”
“It’s time,” one of the other girls said, a crisp white and blue uniform over one arm. “We must not miss the bell or someone will come look for us.”
“Yes,” Temanava agreed. “I must leave you until nightfall. I ask that you stay here quietly. Outsiders must not find this place.”
“You have our word,” the Professor said. “In truth, we cannot move far at all.”
“You should not be able to sit up yet. That wound, if taken at the same time as his,” Temanava nodded toward Tam, “should not yet have closed.”
“As you have noted, I am not entirely right,” the Professor said softly. “I am true to my word, however.”
Temanava nodded. “I will take that word. If this place bears you, and that token you came with bears you, then whatever you are, it is not a monster.”
“Thank you,” the Professor said. The other girls still walked in as wide a circle as they could around him, joining Temanava, and climbing up the rope ladder.
“I will bring you some food tonight,” Temanava called down, last to leave.
Alone now with the Professor and Tam, Jon suddenly wanted to cry. His arms felt sore and weak and he ached all over, heart and body. He buried his head and tried to think brave, resourceful, hopeful thoughts, but failed rather miserably. Odd dragging sounds and the Professor’s ragged breath pulled him out of his weeping, and he lifted his head, alarmed. The Professor was trying to drag himself over toward Jon and Tam, and it looked painful and much more sad than Jon felt. He jumped up and ran over with his blanket, to drape round the Professor’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m all right, really. How can I help?”
The Professor took Jon’s hand in a grateful squeeze. “You were amazingly brave, Jon, and quick-witted and calm-headed through everything. I owe you a great debt.”
Jon wanted to cry all over again. “I wasn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t, sir. I was so scared. My hand didn’t work at all. I wanted to save us, I did, and nothing happened.”
“Even if your hand didn’t light, you acted bravely. That’s what bravery is, Jon. Being terrified and acting anyway.”
“I don’t feel brave. Why didn’t my hand work? Did I do something wrong? Am I not worthy of it any longer?”
“Most likely that artifact only manifests in the presence of evil,” the Professor said thoughtfully.
“They weren’t good people!” Jon said.
“No, but neither were they demons, or accompanied by them. They were only humanly evil. Sadly, the Ancients made no artifacts for fighting that.” The Professor hugged Jon, and Jon hugged back, careful of the new wound.
When the Professor let him go, he had tears in his eyes, too. “How is Tam?”
“He’s breathing,” Jon said. “The odd girl seems to think he’ll live. I want to believe her. She seems to have a lot of believing in her, and not in a silly way.”
“She does seem to sense things that aren’t immediately apparent.” The Professor studied the dappled walls. There were paintings there, with the reflection of moving waters dancing over them. “I think we’ll be safe here, for a time.”
“Sir, what about the others?”
The Professor looked pained. “I pray they will act with the intelligence Djaren often has, and with Kara’s wariness and suspicion.” He ran a hand through his hair. “What a blessing to wish for them.”
It was a good blessing, Jon thought.
* * *
“Curse all those big boats!” Kara shook her fist at the ship that had nearly run down their outrigger just outside the crowded port of Trimela. It was annoying being tossed around in everyone’s wake.
“Further to starboard. We’ll aim for that inlet, not the port,” Djaren yelled.
“We could follow in the wake of the next ship that comes in,” Anna suggested, gripping the rocking deck tight.
“They’re not coming in,” Ellea said. “They’re all leaving. The people are trying to get away.”
“From what?” Anna asked.
“Dreams gone to ashes, deeds they want forgotten, lost investments, the threat of fighting ever closer, servants become mobs,” Ellea said dreamily.
“Well, if they’re not running from imminent gunfire, sea monsters, or typhoons, that doesn’t affect us,” Djaren said.
“Are there really sea monsters?” Kara asked, out of breath with rowing.
“Probably,” Djaren said. “The ocean’s really odd, you know.”
“You don’t,” Ellea said. “Not the half of it.”
Kara didn’t want to know. It had been a long night, and everyone was exhausted. Tempers had nearly been lost in the hours before dawn, with no land in sight. Tinaro had appeared with the dawn, whose colors were only now streaking away to leave boundless blue above them.
The city ahead was a familiarly rickety tangle of shanties and mansions, not dry like the ones Kara knew, but wet, on slopes that might have once been jungle. Brightly colored buildings and white ones with columns all climbed up a broad hill, with farms and then jungle again on the slopes beyond. The harbor was full of wonderful and awful smells, all mixed, and the ships in port were more wildly varied than the houses: huge ships with multiple masts, small outriggers like their own, dinghies, elegant sweeping ships with fan-like sails, houseboats, and even a steamship with a lot of hull damage. The city woke noisily, and by the time their outrigger had made it safely into an inlet, a clamoring crowd of ragged children had gathered to watch them drag their craft ashore.
One of the taller boys called out something in a language not even Djaren seemed to know, then tried another before changing over to trade common. “There is a port fee,” he said. “You pay me.”
Djaren, tying off the outrigger to a tree, looked up suspiciously.
Kara climbed out to face the boy, a head taller than her. “You the port master? Huh? Does your keeper know you’re out playing?”
“You a girl? You all look like you are,” the boy sneered. He had badly trimmed coils of wiry black hair, and skin as dark as Kara’s, but with warmer undertones.
“I’m Karo. Djaren and me are more men than any of you lot,” Kara snarled in her lowest voice. It was good that all Djaren’s shirts had been lost in the burned tents, or that would be hard for him to prove, she thought. “You want to back out of my way, or I’ll send you home beat even uglier.”
The boy grinned. He still had most of his teeth. Kara could fix that for him.
“You’re not from here,” he said.
“Work that out by yourself?” Kara asked.
“This is you being diplomatic, Karo?” Anna asked dryly.
“Hello, lady.” The tall boy smiled even wider at Anna. “You are new to Trimela, yes? I can have my boys mind your boat, for a very small fee. I will show you the city. Find you a hotel? They are very full, but I know who to talk to, and who to pay.”
“Back off,” Kara snapped. “You want an easy mark, go back home to your mother.”
“Look,” Djaren interrupted. “We don’t have any money, not really. What we have are the fish and the boat. Do you know where we can sell them?”
Kara glared at him. He was useless at this.
“Those fish aren’t dried yet. Not fresh and not dry is good as rotten, stranger. A sailor’s boy like you should know that much.”
Djaren didn’t seem to notice the insult. “The sun theoretically continues to shine for most of the dry season. These will, with minimal skill and patience, continue curing.”
The boy laughed. “The mouth on you! You should be at the school in whites. Where are you refugees from? A Mula-gold girl in a dress for a fine lady’s maid,” he nodded at Anna, “a very small lady,” a look at Ellea, incongruous in limp ruffles and ribbons, “a pretty-mouthed dock angel and an ugly-mouthed cabin boy,” he looked at Djaren and Kara. “If you don’t have money, what good are you to me?”
“None at all, and you none to us,” Djaren said, picking up his spear gun idly in one hand. “We’d best part company before we waste any more of each other’s time.”
Kara was surprised and impressed. Maybe Djaren wasn’t so useless at this.
The boy was eyeing the spear gun now. “Where’d you get that?”
“Does it work?”
“Did you not notice the fish?” Kara asked, before Djaren could answer and ruin the opening.
The boy looked at them, considering. “You need my help. You may think you don’t, but by nightfall you’ll know. No one scrapes by here without allies.”
“We’ll take our chances,” Kara said, at the same time Djaren said, “We’re listening.”
They frowned at each other.
“That’s a good gun, and the boat is sound, if made strangely. We can deal.”
“I want news,” Djaren said. “Daily, about what ships are coming and going and what is known of the fighting. I want to know when people arrive, and where they’re from. For each day you and your allies can provide this, I am prepared to let you use the boat and the spear gun, but I will only finalize these terms with your first in command.”
The boy blinked, and looked for the first time back and forth between Djaren and Ellea. “I called you wrong,” he admitted. “Little lord.”
“Just Djaren, thank you. And you are?”
“I’m Aruke. I’m a boss. Trimela is run by bosses like me. The would-be lords are all leaving.”
“Little wonder it looks a latrine hole,” Kara said.
“What is to stop me and my boys from tossing you back in the harbor without your boat?” Aruke said.
“Because if what you said is true, and allies are so important here, than we’d be equally good allies for you,” Djaren said.
“You have a fortune to promise me, when your ship comes in? I have heard that story.”
“I can make spear guns, for one,” Djaren said, “and, uh, Karo here really could beat most of you senseless.”
“Waste of time, they’re already there,” Kara muttered.
“You, I like best,” Aruke said, grinning at Kara. “Leave your boat and bring your fish. We’ll deal, and you’ll fight Bulo. Beat him and you can join the Red Ropes.”
“Just what I wanted all my life. Is that your sad excuse for a gang?”
“It would be an honor for you. Usually only Pao’ulu or Mula Pao’ulu can join.”
“We are not joining a street gang,” Anna said.
“You can’t,” Aruke said. “You’re a foreign girl.”
Anna sighed and rolled her eyes. “Why don’t we just go into town and find someone reasonable to talk to?”
“We can try, but I think Aruke and his friends will be more helpful to know,” Djaren said.
“I can take you to the city,” Aruke said. “You can judge who to trust there. You will see I can give you the best advice.”
“I’m somehow not convinced,” Anna muttered under her breath.
“Nothing for it, but to scout it ourselves,” Djaren told her. “Come on, everyone, let’s see Trimela.”