Chapter Twenty-Three — Captured By Pirates

Jon kept close to Temanava as long as he could. First they were stuffed in a closed wagon, crowded in with eight other sullen girls. The wagon rolled down the hill from the school and round the harbor, and then they were made to walk down a rough path to where several small boats waited.

Temanava’s eyes shifted from side to side, searching for a chance to break away, but the right moment never came. By the time they reached the water’s edge she was fighting back furious tears. Men with machetes and guns waited there. The girls were directed into one boat. There was a pause when they came to Temanava and Jon, who was trying everything short of holding Temanava’s hand to avoid being separated.

“Boys don’t go in that one,” a man with a dark scar across his cheek said.

“But the boat he should go to is lost,” another argued.

“Vasca will get it back, and skin the mutineers or thieves,” a skinny man pointed out.

“What do we do with new ones in the meantime?”

The first man shrugged.

“A boy chick that size won’t make trouble in the henhouse,” the skinny man said, looking at Jon. “It’s probably the safest place to store him, for now.”

“It would save rowing out to two locations,” the scar man said. That seemed to decide the issue, and Jon was allowed into the boat with the girls.

“This is good,” he whispered to Temanava. “Tam can find me, and all of us.”

Temanava didn’t say anything back. She was biting her lip and curling her fists.

There was no more talking. Four men with guns and knives piled into the boat, two in front and two in back. “If anyone leaves the boat, they will be shot,” one man said. “We already have more of you than we need to make a good profit, so don’t think we’ll hold back.”

The journey was quiet and sad all the way out of the harbor, and nearly out of sight of the island. Temanava watched it disappear with visible distress. “I can’t leave,” she whispered. “I don’t know what will happen if the Breath leaves. It could be terrible.”

Nothing more terrible than their current predicament happened, though, before they saw a ship waiting in the open water ahead. Soon, two more ships came into view, all converging. The man in charge of their boat brought out a spyglass.

“It’s the Scrivener, and that one farther out is the Duke’s Delight. Fleet’s coming together early, looks like. Maybe we’re moving off today.”

Jon and the girls found themselves boarding the Scrivener, bullied up the ladders and onto deck with more threats of shooting if they tried dropping down into the ocean. The Scrivener was bigger than either the Land’s Wings or the pirate ship from the previous night. It had cannons, and was crowded with lashed-down barrels, crates, and tarps. A few well-dressed men stood around the deck, looking incongruous among the pirates, and an argument seemed to be going on between the two groups. Jon recognized the painter in the middle of it.

“My order has not been met and I demand a replacement of better quality,” he was saying.

“And how are we to make our orders with a full load missing?” a well-dressed man interrupted, waving papers in a pirate’s face. “Four lambs for a Doctor Ash, my list said. He’s a discriminating gentleman with very particular standards. There are ten Firaus guineas depending on that transaction alone.”

“Well, look, here’s a solution for both of the gentlemen,” a nearby pirate pointed out. “Here’s a fresh load in, with at least one fine lamb, and some new birds as well. Maybe one will suit for you, sir.”

The chief pirate glared at him. “We’re not guaranteeing no one’s merchandise outside their contracts. And those have to be sorted with Vasca. I’m not giving away new merchandise before it’s appraised.” He glared at the pirates who had come aboard with Jon and the girls. “And where are the rest of the birds we were promised?”

“This is all they could lay hands on this morning,” one of the men from the rowboat replied. “There are more, they say, but they have to retrieve them.”

“They’d best do that quickly, then. We’re leaving for Maribelle at first light. Trimela’s going up in flames today, they reckon, and the fighting will spread over every other rock in the archipelago by the end of tomorrow. The rendezvous is tonight.”

Tam would find them, Jon knew, but would it be soon enough? And what could Tam and the Professor do with one ship against all the pirates? They might be blown up, or captured. And if Trimela was burning, what had become of the others? Temanava seemed to have some of the same worries, but she wasn’t looking like she’d cry any longer. She looked tall, cold, and furious. Meanwhile, the well-dressed men and the painter were perusing them like they were festival prizes to be won. Jon tried glaring, too, but the tears probably spoiled it. He couldn’t feel cold, or angry, just frightened.

“Get the ship underway,” the chief pirate grumbled. “Rac, Jemmy, take the boat back ashore and tell them the last of the birds are to be brought straight to the rendezvous. And try not to shoot any.”

The painter took this opportunity to resume his complaint. “Look here, since your men lost me one of my flock, I demand a suitable replacement!”

The chief pirate sighed. “If you can’t keep control of your merchandise, and they go over the rails, what do you expect us to do?”

“Would you also destroy my hat in such a way, should it fall overboard?”

“Again, sir, you are responsible for your own possessions.”

“My possessions only become mine once I have possession of them. The merchandise in question was still in transit when the incident occurred.”

“When she saw his diseased face.” One of pirates prodded another, who chuckled.

“I shall make a personal complaint to Vasca about this matter unless it is settled before we meet. And let me remind you, he stands to lose valuable connections without me, and I will see that he knows you are responsible.”

“Fine!” the pirate roared. “Just pick yourself a new hen, or chick, or whatever you like from the new batch, and I will not hear another word about this.”

The painter looked over at the huddled girls with new interest.

“And what about my concerns?” the other well-dressed man said.

“I can’t get you lambs that don’t exist. There’s the one, and you can be grateful for that.”

“But what if he’s not healthy? They must be in good health, and unmarred, and there must be four.”

“Perhaps we’ll catch the missing ship, or hit another on the way. I’m making no promises. Inspect this one, if you like.”

“I say,” said the painter, looking at Jon for the first time, “I’ve a son your age.” He looked startled. “He has eyes just your color.”

“And you ruin girls his age. How very charming you are, to be sure,” Temanava said, pulling Jon back amongst the girls. “No wonder girls prefer going over the rails.”

“What a tongue,” the painter said, staring now at Temanava. “You have a fire in you like none of the others.”

“You really have no idea,” Temanava said. “Stay away from my girls.”

“Give any cheek, and no one will hesitate to slap you,” a pirate warned.

“You are unique,” the painter said. “I wish you would model for me.”

“You should like to capture me, you mean.” Temanava glared.

“Really, though,” the painter said, gaze oddly intent now, “one can’t help but feel that to possess you would be to possess the beauty and soul of these islands.”

“Try to do to me what’s been done to my islands, and you’ll find yourself clubbed in the head,” Temanava said.

“A bit of learning’s a dangerous thing in a girl, innit.” One of the pirates laughed. “Don’t know why the missionaries keep insisting on trying to spoil them with it.”

“I don’t know,” the painter frowned. “I’ve had no intelligent conversation lately.”

“That’s what happens when you pluck your brides from the nursery,” Temanava said.

One of the pirates slapped her then, and the girls surged forward, trying to protect her.

“Enough of this,” the pirate chief said. “Take them all below and secure them in the hold. If you want to pick a hellcat, sir, I’ll ask you leave her caged.”

“I shall consider it,” the painter said, eyes still lingering on Temanava. “I will make a selection by this evening.”

The other well-dressed man grabbed Jon’s arm briefly as they were all being herded below decks. “Do you have all your teeth, lad?”

“Ash is an evil name,” Jon told him, seriously.

The man paused. “That’s the rumor,” he said. “For my records, what nationality or mix are you?”

“I’m Shandorian. And under the protection of the Blackfeathers.”

“Are you now? And what are they?”

“Pray, sir, to whatever you believe in, that you don’t find out,” Jon said stiffly, and pulled away to cluster with the others, down the stairs. He was learning how to be angry now.

*     *     *

Djaren woke suddenly, groggy. He was in the infirmary, with Ellea on the cot to his left, and Kara to his right. Hirnar was sleeping where he’d been settled, and Melya was finally resting, too, beside him. Even Rades had succumbed, sitting up against the wall, shrouded in a cloak made of a sheet. Full daylight streamed in, and there were shouts outside.

“I’ll wake you when you’re supposed to wake,” a Kaunatoan boy, Hu, whispered. He sat cross-legged on the floor, cutting fresh bandages. “Prince’s orders. Everyone gets a turn at four hours of sleep unless the walls come down. We can’t all stay awake and alert forever.”

“But what’s going on outside now?”

“You don’t need to know for a quarter hour more.”

“Well, if that’s all, that hardly counts,” Djaren said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.

“We weren’t sure you did sleep.”

“I do, just not now,” Djaren said. He looked around. The prince wasn’t here. “Has Isakoa rested yet?”

“He’s harder to make rest than you. He feels responsible for what happens on the walls.”

“Glad I’m not a prince. The least I can do is help, though. This mess wasn’t all his idea.” Djaren shrugged into his belts and vest, relacing and fastening, brushing lingering ash away. His lungs remembered smoke and objected with a coughing fit. “I’m fine,” he told the worried Hu.

“ ‘Cause you sound great,” Kara said, her sarcasm half-buried in the new rasp in her voice. She sat up, making an annoyed, pained face, and glaring down at her legs. “Well, no one’s running away now.” She didn’t look accusatory, but Djaren felt guilty anyway.

“How are your legs?” he asked, softly.

“I’m willing them better.”

“Does that work?”

“I don’t know, but it hurts less when I want it to. That’s weird, right?”

“That’s really useful.”

“I’d bloody like to be.” Kara made a bitter face at her splinted limbs.

Djaren stood and paused beside her. “You saved everybody by blowing up all those guns and powder.”

“I think you’re mad,” she said, “and it’s catching.”

“I’m a little sorry, but so glad, too, that you’ve caught me,” Djaren said, and was immediately unsure if he’d said too much.

“Who’s to say I wasn’t already crazy?”

Hu looked uncomfortably from Djaren to Kara. “Can we stop pretending not to know that Karo is a girl? Because, um . . .”

Djaren was not sure how he’d forgotten that Hu was there. Forgetting wasn’t actually possible for him, but distraction certainly seemed to be.

Kara laughed, hoarse from too much smoke. “How do you know he’s not the girl?”

Hu just shook his head. “Because he doesn’t wield fire like you do. Now time’s up. Go send someone else to sleep.”

Djaren nodded, smiled goodbye at Kara, and dashed off toward the walls, stopping only to pick up a bundle of arrows. He found Isakoa still standing where he’d last seen him. “You look terrible,” Djaren said. “Go get a few hours of sleep.”

Isakoa glared at him, red-eyed. “There are three armies down there now, fighting with one another. Whoever wins the day will demand this place, and if we do not surrender, they will burn us away.”

“Great, then, while they fight it out you have a few hours to rest.”

Isakoa blinked, and sighed.

“I’m right,” Djaren said. “Let me keep watch a little and do some planning. When you get back I’ll let you know if I have any brilliant ideas.”

“You are trying to give me nightmares,” the prince said. “Seilu, you are my second man, here. Djaren will be your advisor. Use your own judgment about what he advises.”

Seilu briefed Djaren on what had happened in the last few hours, as dawn had turned to late morning without him. The fruit company men had the Kaunatoans bottled up in the harbor, where they were preventing any ships from sailing. The mercenaries of the old Cormuradan regime, eager for plunder and then a quick exit, were fighting both the fruit company and the Kaunatoans. The Levour troops mostly seemed interested in retrieving certain Levour citizens with government connections. Some of those citizens, unfortunately, were sheltering right here in the school.

“And what about your Shandorians?” Seilu asked. “Are an army of them on the way, too?”

“What? No! We didn’t come with an army. We were part of a rescue mission.”

Seilu eyed him carefully. “The prince thinks you can be trusted. He listens to you. What will your Shandorians try to do with that? What do you want from us?”

“I don’t think the Shandorians want anything but their missing naturalists. Me, though,” Djaren paused. “I suppose I want us to be friends. Allies.” He looked up at Seilu. “Shandor is small, on its own. Other countries have tried to conquer us before, and it was only because we united all our people that we survived. I don’t think that’s always going to be enough. We have to learn how to make friends outside our own country.”

“You’re confident we’re all going to survive this, then?”

“Yes,” Djaren said, simply. “I have plans for centuries yet, and Father would be so disappointed in me if we all died here.”

“You are a very odd little boy,” Seilu said.

Djaren made a face at him. “Let’s talk about setting up an irrigation system to keep the front gate wet.”

In the next few hours Djaren conjured up and then discarded fourteen different plans for reinforcing their position, noted with alarm five dangerous structural flaws in the wall that luckily no enemy had exploited yet, and realized that the food they had inside the school would support the current population for less than a week. He presented Seilu with a plan for regrouping inside the main school building once the walls gave, and showed him where it would happen. Seilu immediately began issuing orders for blocking up ground floor windows. They shared the withdrawal plan with each of the new squad leaders Isakoa had appointed in the night, and they in turn began drilling their teams in it.

“Should we wake the prince?” Seilu asked Djaren.

“It might not happen for days yet, if we’re lucky,” Djaren said.

Screams rose to the east, near the place where an old tree had cracked the wall around its roots. Something crashed loudly into the weak spot, sending the defenders tumbling. Displaced mortar trickled down, and the sounds outside said that the attackers were gearing up to ram the wall again.

“Wake him,” Djaren said. “I was wrong. This is happening now.”

*    *     *

Tam stood near the wheel of the captured pirate ship, helping navigate. The father of the little family was a good hand at steering, and one of his sons had spread a chart on the deck nearby. Tam knew the direction well enough—when he concentrated, he could feel Jon’s shaky bravery out over the water—but that didn’t help with avoiding shoals, or working out how to catch the wind. Two of Temanava’s girls, who were familiar with these waters, read the chart and plotted a safe course. They frowned sometimes at Tam’s vague pointing, but they seemed to trust him.

Beside him, the Professor’s emotions roiled so much that Tam felt them without trying: fear, helpless fury, and sorrow so strong it was unsettling coming from an adult. “I should talk you out of putting yourself in danger,” he whispered. “But I can’t.”

“Good. Because we’re going to rescue them all,” Tam said. “I’d do it if I had to swim oceans.”

“I feel the same.” The Professor looked up and met his eyes. “The Queen has told you what we couldn’t?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You can find the other Shandorians, then?”

“I think I can. I can.”

Tam could hear them moving. He heard Djaren’s bright notes, even faster paced than normal, near Anna’s soft determined song. Ellea sounded odd, a woodwind so breathy it was lost in the currents of the other three Shandorians near them, one quiet, one sharp, one drumming a fiery percussion.

The other group wasn’t masked any longer in that odd shroud. They were led by Lady Blackfeather’s bright coppery weave, like a lively fiddle dance. Only Doctor Blackfeather remained missing, elusive as always. It was overwhelming and exhausting, trying to stretch out so far, and Tam had the usual scare that he wouldn’t find his way back to ground. The high, sweet pipe of Jon’s anchoring point wasn’t beside him any longer. Tam found his way back via the Professor’s breathy, broken-sounding flute instead.

He must have been making faces again, because the girls and the other refugees on deck were staring at him. “We have allies,” he told them. “Closer than you might think. We won’t be rescuing our family and friends alone.” To the Professor, quietly, he added, “Even if they all come, we’re still going to be outnumbered and out-gunned.”

“We Shandorians usually are. Ma’am used to say that’s the only thing that makes fights interesting. But she was an army unto herself.” His memories, broken open so recently that they showed when he thought them, conjured a bright creature of fire with a world-shaking heartbeat.

“You aren’t treating me any different,” Tam said. “Thank you, sir.” The Queen’s words had changed nearly everything, but not that.

The Professor smiled softly. “I’ll try not to, but really, I think I might be more comfortable if you were to call me Eabrey. My friends mainly do.”

“Right then,” Tam said. “We’ve a rescue to get underway.”

“Call them back to us?” the Professor—Eabrey—said.

“The One knows I’ll try.”

“They’ll hear you,” Eabrey assured.

*     *     *

“Ellea, can you hear me?” Djaren leaned over his sister’s cot. Her eyes were open and she was mouthing soundless words.

“Stay with her. I’ll nail up the windows.” Anna grabbed up the hammer and planks. “If we’re lucky, we’ll have this floor secured before the outer wall goes.”

“What’s she saying?” Kara asked, fidgeting.

“I can’t tell. I’m going to look. Pull me out if I’m needed?”

“How? I’m over here.”

“Yell at my mind.”

“I can’t do that.”

“You’ve already done it.”

“So this is a daughter,” Ellea said, clearly, distinctly. “This is how I feel about my Breath. It is why I named her so. Do you understand what it is to lose one?”

Djaren shivered, feeling more than hearing Father’s cry from somewhere far away. “Stop!”

“You only begin to. I have lost too many.”

“Ellea’s the island right now,” Djaren said, frantic.

“What?” Kara said.

Isakoa stopped slamming nails into planks across the doors, and turned to them. “She’s prophesying. The Breath does that.” He hurried over and knelt on the opposite side of the cot from Djaren. “We must not touch her.”

“Your island is threatening my sister,” Djaren hissed.

Isakoa shook his head, looking torn. “No. It wouldn’t. Please.”

“I feel them die, all those to whom I have given my power,” Ellea’s body said. “It’s the price I have paid for sharing my life with the children people. You understand something of that. You’ve become almost one of them. That was forbidden, once. You made children, too.”

“I don’t understand,” Isakoa said.

“It’s talking to Father, and we’re in Shandorian secrets now,” Djaren said.

“I didn’t mean to love them, the new people.” Ellea’s voice, the island’s words. “When the world cracked, I found a place still spilling, in need of shaping. And here I settled, to sleep. The children people came. They made their homes upon my bones, and laughed and lived and died nestled close to me. They loved me, and I found that I loved them. You are so young. How can you understand?”

Djaren couldn’t sense Father’s reply this time.

“They were so weak. I gave my power to two each lifetime, one man and one woman. A chief, and my Breath. He was to have my power, and she my voice, to defend these islands. It was a mistake and a great wrong, and I soon saw the price of it. The chief enslaved all his former enemies. His power grew, and other islands bled. I took back my power from the chiefs and denied them my blessing ever after. I let the Breath keep my gifts. Each generation I chose a Breath, and she never betrayed me. But now she is about to be lost. I will boil the seas. I will burn the valleys clean of all who have plundered my gifts and twisted the roots of my blood into a drug. All are twisted now. With or without my power, my people are now too scattered and hurt to heal.”

“We’re not,” Isakoa yelled, ignoring his own edict and grabbing Ellea’s hand.

Djaren caught Father’s projection of Mother, her words from the boat about nothing beyond saving, his own heart trying to believe it. Djaren grabbed Ellea’s other hand and willed a more sure second to this.

“Temanava wouldn’t give up on you, and I won’t,” Isakoa said. “I’m not my fathers or great-fathers. I am what they have learned, what they loved and fought for, and I love my people too, and you.”

“The children remember how to hope,” Father said. “What if there were another way? Let me help you, and we can save them all, our daughters, our sons. We can shape a new world without destroying the old.”

Djaren was shaken free of the world in which he could hear the voices when something hit the doors of the main school building.

Kara yelling in his head wasn’t helping.

“I’m here,” he said, tumbling away and upright, dizzy. “I never went in, they’re spilling out. What’s going on?”

“Some of the fruit company men decided that instead of taking their time looting the outbuildings, they’d go straight for us,” Seilu reported, standing on stacked chairs and looking out through a crack between boards.

“I want a weapon,” Kara said, shoving aside her sheets.

“Stay calm,” Rades said, back against the rattling door. “Take a breath, and plan your actions.”

“A plan,” Djaren said. “Kara, can you make the door stronger?”

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