Jon Gardner tried not to fidget with excitement. All the windows in the lecture hall were open, and warm spring air blew in, carrying the sounds of the river rapids below, and the smells of orchards and farmland to the east. He had his own seat in the special section of “Artifacts and Applications” at the Shandorian University, and on this perfect day he didn’t want to be anywhere but right here in class. The special section courses were restricted to only a select few students, and one either had to be recommended by a professor or an Elder.
Jon had been overjoyed when Professor Sheridan recommended him. The artifact from the Alarnan tomb, now unbreakably attached to Jon’s hand, qualified him for the course and in fact made him a case study. At eleven, Jon was the youngest person in the room, but he didn’t mind. Everyone here seemed wonderful and interesting. The oldest person in the room, on his left, looked like a friendly great-grandmother. She smiled at him in a reassuring way through thick lenses.
Professor Sheridan, teaching the class, was more at ease than Jon had ever seen him. He had even rolled up his shirtsleeves, showing more of his scars than usual. Jon understood what it was like to feel at home here. Even though the Gardner farm was only two miles away, he had been spending most of his time in the university library, helping the Blackfeather family compile more volumes of documentation from the Alarna dig. He’d never been up the stairs to the lecture rooms before today, though. He sat up straight and paid careful attention to the Professor.
“You are all here because you know something about unique artifacts,” the Professor said. “Perhaps you’ve had a special relationship or an experience with something from an earlier time. Let us start with something very, very old.” He pulled at the thin leather cord he wore about his neck, and held it up to reveal a thick, uneven ring of what looked like mottled layers of glass.
“What is that?” one young man with very dark skin and eyes asked.
“It’s called the sea bond,” the Professor said. “It signs the peaceful alliance of our Land and the sea.”
“What does it do?” asked a young woman with a braid nearly as long as she was tall.
“It gives insights into the sea and its secrets. Also, it marks one as belonging to the Land. The sea will not drown its bearer. But that isn’t all. Sometimes, when one wears it near the sea, one can hear voices within the waters.” The sea bond rotated on its cord, catching the light in its mottled depths. “It may have more properties as well. It is said to be the final gift of the first Keeper, before she left the Land and became part of the ocean.”
“That is one of the four great treasures of Shandor,” an older man with northern tattoo patterns across his face said, a little reverently.
“Yes, indeed.” The Professor smiled. “I count it a great honor to be its guardian.” He jumped suddenly, staring at the little bit of glass as it lifted on its own into the air and began to hum, sparkling brighter, like light on waves. “Oh!” he said. “This is . . . Who here Speaks? There’s a message, I think.”
Two students rushed at once to the front of the room. Jon found himself on his feet, in the commotion, trying to stay out of the way. He wasn’t sure what he ought to do.
“The Amryn must be alerted,” the Professor said, “and the Queen and the Elders. Tirlain, I’m not sure that you had better—”
Tirlain, a woman with red gold curls and pale, freckled skin, touched the bond and immediately rose into the air herself, floating as if underwater, her hair rising in a bright aureole. She spoke, strange musical words in a language Jon did not know.
The grandmotherly woman adjusted her thick lenses. “That’s pre-drassic first tongue. Does anyone else here know it?”
“I don’t think I do,” the Professor said, staring helplessly at the floating girl.
“Um,” said the old woman. “She says something arrives from the sea, or the sea is arriving, and that all that is within the sea cannot stop it. Take the vessels from the waters, and stand upon the mountains. Tell the Land’s soul, for together Land and sea might act as one to stop the tall tide. I think.”
“Jaemrie, spread the word,” the Professor ordered the young man who’d come forward with the girl.
“Yes, at once.” The young man closed his eyes and stood still, concentrating.
Jon stared as the floating girl slumped back down, into the Professor’s arms.
“Sir,” an older man with a beaky nose asked, “how often has that sent you a message?”
“Never,” the Professor said, looking stunned. “Never in my lifetime or any other of which I have heard.”
Jaemrie opened his eyes. “I’m to send warning to every Speaking mind on the coast,” he said, breathless, and closed his eyes again.
The Professor nodded. “Jon, can you go find the Blackfeathers? Try the library. Find any of them. Tell them the message. It must get to Corin.”
Jon nodded, and dashed out the corridor and down the stairs. What was arriving that the sea could not stop? He hadn’t known until a few minutes ago that the sea could speak, or that it sounded so beautiful. A summer of quiet research and study seemed to be changing into something quite unexpected.
* * *
Kara was being pursued. That part was an ordinary occurrence. She was terrified. That was less ordinary.
She skidded round a pile of crates waiting to be loaded onto the big steam ships, smelling tar, and dead fish, and a sick burn within her own lungs. The black-robed men followed in silence.
Everything since Germhacht had been a disaster.
Kara jumped over dark water to land on a barge, and raced across its deck to the next barge, next deck, next pier. She was used to shouting, angry people chasing her over stolen property. She always knew what those people wanted—their property back, of course, and bodily harm to the thief running off with it. She didn’t know what these silent men wanted from her, only that they gave her cold chills and woke memories of a rotting man surrounded by similar robed figures, of mysterious words spoken in a tomb two summers ago.
Kara didn’t have much property at the moment, stolen or otherwise. Her coat was growing threadbare, her boots had barely any soles left, and the knees of her trousers had been patched until there was nothing to sew a patch to. She had, of course, not outgrown any of it. Her prized possessions were still with her, an antique bronze dagger shoved into the back of her belt, and tucked into an inner pocket, a silver-plated spectacle case with a bit of copper filigree inside.
She ran along the deck of a cargo vessel, scurried monkey-like down the side, and climbed up onto the next ship. She’d had nothing but bad luck recently. The Merigvon caper had gone all wrong, and then the Jackal and his associates had turned violent, looking for someone to blame. She’d had to run, without most of her stash, and after the coup and the fires there was probably nothing to go back for. All her contacts in Sheblas had been killed in an uprising, and the Stork, who knew how good she was and gave her the best jobs, had died under suspicious circumstances. A brief alliance with the Brass Fists had gone ugly, and she’d had to hide in the Delcian sewers until the knife wounds healed. Just as well they’d parted ways though, as all the Fists had turned up very dead the day after the misunderstanding. That was what happened in Delcia when you couldn’t let go of an insult, evidently.
All in all, Kara had lost most of what she’d gained and had to steal back her dagger and spectacle case after another bit of unpleasantness in a slum in Mirran. Her cozy hideaway in Larkarta was burned out, the pit in Charesh built over, and the old building with the loose stone in Corestemar’s capitol was swarming with displaced families from wars whose pictures appeared sometimes in the papers under which she slept. It had become harder than ever to be a small, orphaned master thief.
Kara glanced over her shoulder. The men in robes were still behind her. She didn’t know when, in all her misfortunes, they’d begun following her. She hadn’t been able to shake them, running from slum to slum, leaving one city for another, even hopping a train to the coastline. They’d kept shadowing her, watching.
The long moan of a steamship sounded further along, and then, closer, a shrill whistle. A cargo ship was pulling out, bound for some trade port far away. Kara needed to be far away. She ran along the deck of the ship she was on, down the gangplank, surprising the watchman there, who shouted, and then she was running past outstretched arms, flying down a dock and out over the cold emptiness of black ocean, scrabbling with fingertips at smooth hull before skidding down to grab a metal rung, just inches off the water. The ship pulled out, with the men in robes gathering silent at the pier’s edge, watching its departure. Cold waves wetted Kara’s boots as she clung to the ship and began to climb. The dock and the men grew smaller and smaller as she ascended. By the time she was ready to sneak over the side, the port was nothing but tiny lights. Where am I going, besides away?
She slid over the edge in darkness, and crept along until she saw a hatch to get below. Under the deck, Kara surveyed the vast hold with growing annoyance. The good news was that there was a lot of space down here. The bad news was that this was not a cargo ship. It was very clearly a long-haul fishing trawler, bound, most likely, for the empty freezing north, the middle of nowhere. There would be no stops at convenient ports, just weeks of cold, and hiding, followed by a mountain of sloshing fish in her future. A certain burning haunted manor house seemed a nice change, about now. Kara found a perch up in the metal girders and tried not to think about regrets. Everything washed up where it belonged, didn’t it? Or sank further to the bottom.
* * *
After leaving his news in the capable hands of Lady Blackfeather, Jon set off running home. The castle was abustle already as he left the main gates and trotted across the stone bridge, draped with its little clambering white flowers. Carts were waiting to go in and out, and the roads were busy with couriers, and shepherds and sheep surprised at the sudden, unusual traffic. The road cleared only when he turned up the small path that wound over pastures to his family’s farm.
He was careful to thread round the angry goose in the yard and step over the new kittens sleeping in the sun in front of the kitchen door. He found Tam inside, just arrived, and nearly as breathless as Jon himself. He had thought Tam would be working today, finishing the late planting.
“You were, I was, worried,” Tam said. “Did you hear? Elders are saying something’s going to hit the coast. Folk are taking wagons west to help evacuate, and the Amryn is on his way.”
“Are we sending our wagon?” Jon asked. He opened the trapdoor to the cool cellar, digging into sawdust and melting ice, and brought out a bottle of milk to share.
“Nah, we’re too far east, they say we’d only get there after it all happened.” Tam got down the bread board and a loaf from a high cupboard, and began making them a hurried lunch.
It would take at least four or five days by wagon, Jon thought, to reach the coast from here, crossing most of southern Shandor on the way. “Doctor Blackfeather left about quarter past,” he told Tam.
“Well, he’ll get there in time.” Tam took a knife to the shrinking wheel of cheese and some radishes, adding a handful of new lettuce, and nodding Jon toward a chair at the worn wooden table their great-grandfather had built.
“The Professor and Lady Blackfeather are seeing about setting up someplace safe for the displaced folk when they come. The Queen’s opening the castle to them.” Jon helped by setting plates and pouring the milk.
“That seems right.” Tam nodded. “That’s the best refuge, and a kind honor, too.” He joined Jon at the table, and they both looked out the window over the rolling hills at the white walls and tower, rising just before the first green mountains.
Jon thought he could see the sunlight catch on the stained glass windows of the great hall. “I wish we could go live at the castle, too. It would be like a festival, all tents and people from everywhere.”
Tam and Jon never got to stay at the castle. It was impractical, with the farm so close. Sometimes they’d been allowed to stay late at festival time, to watch the fireworks, hear the music, and see the dancing, before being bundled into the cart for a sleepy drive home under the stars.
“We’ll do what we can for those folk. It’ll be a sore thing, though, losing homes and animals and having their fields all salt-drenched.” Tam looked unhappy. He didn’t seem very interested in his radish sandwich, which wasn’t at all Tam-like.
“Oh,” Jon said, as the words sunk in. “But won’t they bring all their animals?”
“Only what there’s time to save. Ever try to catch chickens before a thunderstorm?”
“The poor chickens!” Jon was distressed.
Tam quickly amended his words. “They’ll do their best to crate them, and the ducks, too. Horses will be fine, pulling the carts and folk safe away, and the dogs can guide the sheep out.”
“What about pigs?” Jon couldn’t eat now, not with disaster looming.
“Pigs are smart. People don’t always think it, but they are.”
“Will the Elders let the folk on the coast know to let all their pigs out?”
“I’m sure,” Tam said. “And to be double sure, I’ll look in at the green and ask the gathering myself. The Amryn will do his best, too, to see all the Land’s children get away safely. He won’t forget none of the animals.”
That seemed true enough. The Amryn of Shandor was the Land’s guardian, rumored to hear the heartbeat in stone, and to be able to talk to all the beasts, not just the clan wolves of the north. “Thank you,” Jon said, gratefully. He didn’t like to think of anything getting drowned.