Djaren got up from the table without asking, leaving his model wave to melt down onto his toast while the others ate in subdued curiosity. Djaren had never found his curiosity very subdue-able, and since he hadn’t been expressly forbidden to follow his mother and father into the next room, he did. Ellea shook her head at him. It was all very well for her; she could listen to whatever she wanted in nearby minds. Djaren had only his eyes, ears, and guesses.
“I’ll be right back,” he told the Gardners and Uncle Eabrey.
His parents weren’t talking, but they weren’t kissing or anything boring like that either. They were busy filling trunks and boxes with all sorts of interesting supplies. Djaren waited in the doorway, noting things, making guesses. Netting, ointment, and light cotton clothing in one steamer trunk meant the tropics. A large, waterproofed camp parasol confirmed that, and Djaren turned his attention toward what Father was putting into cases—scrub-clearing knives, line and hooks, equipment for climbing, and most surprising, rifles. A coastal destination? And equipment for more people than just Mother and Father, who when together didn’t need any of that.
Mother looked up from packing medicine vials and rolls of bandages. “If you’re done eating, love, will you fetch me the iodine and linen from crate 36?” Djaren nodded, and trotted next door to the supply room. A rescue mission, somewhere coastal in the tropics, maybe an island. An embattled island? Djaren ran through the specks of land in the Western Ocean, mentally cross-checking the last news items he’d read about them. “Tembelaka,” he said, bursting in on his parents, crate in hand. “The really big earthquake, did it originate in Tembelaka?”
Father paused and looked down at him, mildly impressed and mildly harried. “That’s very possible.”
“No, it’s true,” Djaren said, thinking fast, encouraged by a green gleam deep in Father’s eyes. “News can’t have traveled here so quickly unless there’s a Speaker involved. A Shandorian Speaker, who reported to the Queen or the Elders. You’re packing for a rescue mission, so the Speaker’s in trouble, maybe with some other people. From the university? That would be naturalists or anthropologists, then. Which means . . .” He ran through a list of publications. “Is it Professor Hallowfield’s team? She’s published on the Tembelaka Islands. They’re currently in the middle of a civil war, and being handed off from Cormurada to Levour. You’re going to Tembelaka. Can I come?”
Father sighed, but he was smiling. He opened his mouth to answer, but was interrupted by a loud knock. It was a breathless young K’shay tanna man with a warrior band on his arm, and sweat drenching his dark hair. “Justice,” he burst out, “please, you must let me accompany you to Tembelaka!”
“I asked first,” Djaren informed his father lightly.
“You must be Hirnar,” Mother said. “Do come in. We’re just packing.”
“Melya is in danger, I’m sure of it,” the young man said, shuffling his muddy boots on the antique rugs.
“The Queen has told me that you and Melya share a bond,” Mother said.
“She was sending me messages, to tell me what things were like with her studies,” Hirnar said. He rubbed the back of one large hand across a cheek stubbled with early beard. He didn’t look much older than Tam. “But she’s stopped Speaking. She wouldn’t do that unless she couldn’t. I have to go find her.”
“The Queen says she’s alive.” Mother guided Hirnar to a chair, which he sat in awkwardly.
Djaren stayed quiet and helped Father add waterproof matches and safety lanterns to the cases. Quietly helping might save him from being dismissed, and missing out on interesting information.
“I am sure she is,” Hirnar said. “I think I’d know it, if she . . . if she wasn’t. I don’t have a gift like she does. I’m not a scholar or an Elder or anything, but when Melya talks to me, I can answer. I can tell when she’s in a bad mood or a good one, when she’s close, even with my eyes closed. Not for anyone else, just Melya. I think, I think I could help you find her. Please take me along, Justice.” Hirnar bowed his head and clasped his hands earnestly before him, in the gesture of oath-swearing.
Mother looked over his head to Father, with a smile that said “Shall we?”
“Hirnar clan Stone Wolf, the Queen has recommended you to us,” Father said.
Hirnar’s head whipped up and he stared at Father in surprise, seeing him, Djaren realized, for the first time. Most people didn’t notice Father at first glance. “Shaper, I am sorry, I did not see.” His eyes widened, taking in the rest. “She did?”
Father nodded. “She believes that you can help us locate our missing people. As a sworn servant of the crown, will you take on this mission, and answer to me as your battlechief?”
Djaren smiled at the grand old-fashioned terms of the earlier age Father had been born into and that Hirnar clearly had one leather-clad boot in. The Queen, Mother had said, was an incorrigible match-maker. That boded well for Hirnar, but Djaren didn’t have the advantage of a true love in peril. “You’ll need someone who’s read everything about the islands,” he said, “including the complete works of Erna Hallowfield.”
“You’ve read her complete works?” Mother looked over and raised her eyebrows.
“Give me a few days and I can recite them verbatim. The voyage has to be two weeks at least. More than enough time.” Djaren waved that away.
“A member of one of Professor Hallowfield’s previous teams has already been assigned to this mission.” Mother smiled at him blandly.
“But—” Djaren started.
“I am not willing to take you into a war zone, replete with the aftershocks of a natural cataclysm,” Father said.
“More power to Mother if I’m there though,” Djaren pointed out.
Mother smacked him lovingly in the back of the head. “Quiet down, my dear little liability.”
“But he gets to go?” Djaren waved toward Hirnar, who blinked.
“Hirnar is a grown man and a warrior, sworn to face danger and death for his country.” Father raised a hand to override the next objection before Djaren could give it words. “I know you are brave, and I know you’d be willing to swear too much too rashly, but you are still my child, and I have more to teach you before I let you walk into the dangers this mission will bring.”
“So teach me,” Djaren said, looking up at Father. “We have two weeks at least, remember?”
“When you are older,” Father said, with gentle finality. “Now go, I have things to speak about with Hirnar.”
Djaren knew that tone. The discussion was closed. He carried crate 36 back to its place with a leaden heart. Mother came along, and put away other boxes on higher shelves that he couldn’t reach. Djaren looked up at them in misery, and then back down.
“How long do I have to be a child?” he asked quietly, after a long pause.
Mother reached a hand to rustle his hair, then stopped herself and touched his shoulder instead. “I know it’s hard. Believe me, I remember what it’s like. It can feel like waiting forever to be seen as an adult.” She glanced wistfully toward the room where they’d left Father. “It took a lot longer than I wanted, too.” She looked back at Djaren, and smiled. “But don’t be in a hurry to grow up too fast, love. All things come in the right time. For some of us that’s later rather than sooner. I won’t tell you that you’re lucky, or that you’ll be glad not to have gray hair for such a long time. You’re old enough to understand the drawbacks.”
Mother had gray hairs. She’d stopped plucking them, Djaren had noticed. Father didn’t have any. He didn’t have any little lines by his eyes yet, either. All Uncle Eabrey’s old friends were very old, and one or another of them seemed to die every year. Djaren understood, he did, but it was getting infuriating to be passed up every year by the Vardens and Hirnars of the world.
Djaren let Mother guide him back to the breakfast table, where she made admonishing noises upon finding his plate still full of toast disaster. Djaren sat obediently and began to dismantle it. Jon smiled across at him, eyes bright. “Are you all going on the mission, then?” he asked.
Jon was going to get taller than him in the next few years, Djaren realized. How long until that look of respect and sometimes awe became more like Anna’s bemused and airy dismissal when he spoke?
“No, just Mother and Father,” Djaren said. He’d been taller than Anna, once. He remembered it perfectly. He’d helped her with sums and languages when their heads were at the same level. People stopped respecting their friends, though, when those friends looked a skinny fourteen for years at a time.
“Well, they know best,” Tam said. “It’s probably dangerous.” Tam was close to adult-sized now, and cheerfully accepted Djaren’s plate as he slid it across. Maybe, Djaren contemplated, watching him eat a coastline, when they were all twenty and marrying and graduating university he himself would finally look a skinny sixteen. Maybe.
Jon reached across the table and patted his hand in a brotherly way. “If you wanted, maybe you could come stay over at the farm if it seems lonely here.”
Djaren smiled bleakly. Even if one was a very fortunate child, being one almost eternally was infuriating.
* * *
The name of the missing naturalist, Hallowfield, sounded familiar to Jon, but it wasn’t until he and Professor Sheridan were pulling her books from the shelves that he realized why. “I know this one!” Jon said, opening a book to find bright illustrations of strange and beautiful birds. “She writes about birds and plants. I used to love these when I was little. I thought I knew the name. There are more like these in the university library.” They were big books, on a bottom shelf, perfect for pulling out and leafing through right there on the floor.
“Wonderful,” Professor Sheridan said. “Jon, can you run down to the library and bring back any of her books on the Tembelaka Islands? Djaren and I can go through what’s here.”
Jon was happy to fetch books. He declined Tam’s offer of help—he was big enough now to carry a stack of heavy tomes—and hurried down to one of the best places in the castle, the library wing. He got a few uncertain looks from tall university students, but easily found the biology section. He stopped, suddenly, by the ornithology shelf. A strange tall woman he’d never seen before stood there, sorting Professor Hallowfield’s volumes into piles. Her feet were bare, and her long silver hair hung down nearly to them. She wore a simple long dress with an embroidered gown over it, like someone in an old painting. She wasn’t young, but she didn’t look old either, even if she felt it. She was old like a parchment, not like a person. Jon wasn’t sure how to think words for it. She smelled like a cedar forest in rain, and wet needles clung to her feet. There were no cedar forests near the castle.
“You go along,” she said to him, as if they had been already speaking. “It’s dangerous, of course. The life of a champion always is.” She smiled sadly, brushing fingertips over book spines. “But you go, and you should. Those who love you and are loved of Land go, too. All your friends, and your brother especially. And you should hurry to collect the missing child in time.” She handed him a heavy stack of books, and Jon blinked up at her, unsure of what to say.
“Your paths all flow in little rivers,” she said, “and you draw together like beads of mercury. You will need the strength you find together, now and in your future. Tides will touch our Land again, the sort that cannot be turned back by Amryns, or armies.”
“But, um, ma’am,” Jon said, “Doctor Blackfeather said we aren’t going.”
The woman knelt before him, settling her chin on her arms. “I see you going. If you tell him, he will understand.”
“Who shall I say told me, please?”
“I’m the Seer. We meet again, when you are older and I was younger.” She stood and walked toward the large open window.
“Um, are you going? There’s no way down that way.”
“Isn’t there?” she asked. “Maybe not for your feet.” She climbed over the sill, and down over the side, with a merry backward glance.
Jon set down the books and ran to the window, only to see sheer wall, no ledge, and nothing but gardens below. He was still standing there, confused, when Djaren trotted in. “I’m supposed to look up prevailing winds and currents,” Djaren said, then looked at him oddly. “Did something happen?”
“The Seer was here. She said we go along,” Jon said, numbly.
“Hurrah!” Djaren exclaimed. “Yes! I’ll go pack at once!”