Kara discovered that, as expected, she didn’t like ships. This was one of the worst ships that had ever been hammered together. No wonder it had been sent as far from its cursed builders as possible, to live in this pitching exile on waves only fish were supposed to navigate. When she saw the coast again, for just two days, it was rocky and mountainous, a wall of cold and desolation rising from the sea. She wondered if it was Shandor. It was probably somewhere worse. Then the ship gulped down a cargo of cold water and big silver fish and turned away from the coast. Now, weeks from anything Kara recognized, with a new taste for stolen fish roasted over engine-room coals, she clung to her perch just above the half-full tanks of fish. The tanks sloshed dangerously as the vessel pitched and dipped on waves the size of hills.
Kara usually enjoyed things that went fast—she had a strong stomach and was mostly fearless—but when the whole ship turned nearly sideways, and she was drenched and swept away inside the vast hold, with water pouring in from above, she found her limits. Swearing, she climbed up tipping ladders and eased past wet, shouting fishermen. She didn’t care if she was caught anymore. She wanted to be put off the ship, anywhere at all. The men didn’t see her, though, in the torrential rain and the swirl of activity above decks. The world had forgotten that just one way should be up. Kara clung to a rope with reddened fingers as water rushed huge and strong over her, choking her with salt and cold. Crates and fish bubbled up from below, bobbing past, then hurtling away as gravity and water shifted again.
Ships weren’t supposed to do this, Kara realized, as one shouting sailor went tumbling down into froth and foam. The ship was pulled sideways, up onto a big wave. A great shadow loomed in the other direction, and Kara stared openmouthed at the even huger wave coming at her. It was like a cliff, and a whole mountain range beyond that raced along the worried surface of the ocean. Kara chose one last breath over swearing. There were shouts, screams, thunderous noise, and then it was all lost in the awful silence of the water.
Kara couldn’t hold on to anything, even up. The water tossed, pulled, and threw her. She broke the surface by accident, for too short a time. She kicked at the water, fought it until she found air again, and the process repeated as she grew more and more tired of fighting.
In one moment, when she was impossibly deep underwater, with the ocean pushing in from all directions and the last bubbles of air leaving her lips, it felt like the water, or something within the water, was looking at her and asking what she was. She couldn’t talk or breathe or find a coherent thought to tell it. She found herself pushed all about again, and the surface appeared just when she’d given up on breathing again. A big piece of wood bobbed beside her. She grabbed it and clung like a barnacle.
After what seemed a very long time, the ocean stopped tossing so badly, and Kara discovered that if she sprawled just right over her bit of wood she could rest without drowning. She kept doing that, as lights grew and faded overhead. There were no more boats, no sailors, no signs of anything but water. Several other large waves came, but none like the biggest, and she managed to cling to her spar through each of them. She began to miss boats, and stolen bits of hot coal, and other things, too. She wasn’t sure how it was possible to become bored while nearly drowning, but it was. She swore, but that just made her more thirsty.
“I’m sorry I ate your fish,” she croaked at the ocean. “But most of them are free now, aren’t they? Would you wash me up somewhere warmer now, and I’ll go away?”
Of course nothing replied. It only got colder. Of all the times Kara had nearly died this was taking the longest and being the most miserable. There was only everything and nothing to kick at, so Kara stopped.
* * *
Djaren woke in darkness in his room at the castle, with his bed rattling and shaking beneath him, and his books tumbling off the shelves. An earthquake, he realized, jumping up and staggering for the doorway. He remembered the page he’d read about what to do if caught in a large earthquake. Shandor usually only had small ones, so this ought to be over soon. The ground continued to buckle, though, as he reached the door and saw lamplight down the hall. Mother was walking along under a floating copper lantern, her hair very bright in its glow. She waved her left hand in little precise swishes, propping everything valuable or fragile into place with new copper supports.
“Everything’s fine, dear,” she reassured him. Her smile was warm, and missing the strained lines that had haunted it all day. “This is the Amryn’s doing. He’s with your father.”
“They’re stopping the wave with a great bloody earthquake?” Djaren asked. “That’s fantastic.”
“Language,” his mother reminded, as the last tremors died away. “I need to go see how things are faring outside and help control the damage. You stay here with your sister.”
Djaren turned to see Ellea at her door in her nightgown, looking cross. “Need they be so noisy about it all?” she complained, rubbing at her eyes.
“I’ve heard stories about Amryns making earthquakes, but I thought that was just the really old famous powerful ones,” Djaren said.
“Your grand-ma’am once said that any Amryn could start an earthquake, but the hard thing was ending one. And there, he has.” She bent and kissed Ellea’s forehead. “I’m sure they’ll all quiet down in a few hours. You may sleep in as late as you like this morning.”
“The new little Amryn is really rather smug,” Ellea said, “though I like that he doesn’t talk much.”
“It’s impolite to listen in on strangers,” Mother said.
“But how else is one to get any news? And how can I not when they’re always shouting?”
“Make yourself some warm herb tea by the fireplace, and then go back to bed. I’ll try to answer your many questions in the morning,” Mother said. “Right now I must be off.”
She swept on her traveling cloak and was out the door with the lantern, leaving Djaren and Ellea to adjust to the dark, which of course they did in moments. Like father, neither of them needed much light to see by.
“You know about the new Amryn?” Djaren asked his sister. “The Elders haven’t announced he exists yet.”
“He isn’t exactly invisible,” Ellea replied. “He’s gloating like anything right now. I’m afraid he really enjoyed that. I think it’s giving him ideas.”
“Imagine one day you learned you could literally move mountains.” Djaren sighed, envious.
“With great power comes a huge amount of rules people want you to keep all the time,” Ellea pointed out, walking into the next room, and finding the tea kettle beside the fireplace.
Djaren looked out the window. It was noisy outside, with people running back and forth with news. Lanterns were being lit all through the courtyard, and a man kept shouting loud reminders for no one to touch any of the new gas lights until the engineers had made sure the pipe structure was still sound. Djaren closed his eyes and tried to listen to the calls that weren’t being spoken aloud. Sometimes he thought he could almost hear snatches, but since none of those voices were directed toward him, nothing came through clearly. “Ellea,” he asked, turning.
“All right,” she sighed, “but I’m not going to translate everything. A lot of it is ‘have you seen my great-aunt Franny, is she safe,’ and other real nonsense. And you have to brew the tea.”
* * *
Jon found the castle already crowded early in the morning. He needed Tam’s help to make it up to the suite of rooms the Blackfeather family used, on the edge of the great hall. While the courtyard was busy, the hall was quiet, full of light, stillness, and the feel of something deep and sacred. Only the soft sound of hushed voices on another balcony and the shuffle of their own footsteps whispered to the vaulted heights. Nothing had broken here; there was somehow not a crack in the ancient stone, or in any of the high glass windows. Jon breathed in the smells of stone, polished wood, and the remnants of incense from the New Year’s festival.
Tam guided him down a hallway to the more lived-in bits of the castle, and they were nearly bowled over by a group of small, laughing, running children who might have been some of the Queen’s grandchildren, or perhaps other visitors like themselves. Finding the Blackfeathers’ door, Tam knocked, and Professor Sheridan answered almost immediately. “Come in,” he said, opening the door wide. “We are having a somewhat late breakfast, but you are welcome to join us.”
“More like lunch for me, I’m already hungry,” Tam said amiably. His day, after all, had started the night before, helping do the village rounds to make sure all the folk, young and old, were uninjured after the earthquake.
Djaren sat at the table with a small wall of books stacked off to one side, and a plate of breakfast that he seemed to be shaping into a toast coastline and an oatmeal sea. Ellea sat opposite, sipping tea primly. Lady Blackfeather cleared more space for them and set a large plate of steaming muffins on the table between Tam and Jon as they took their places.
“Are these from the castle kitchens?” Jon asked.
“The best cooks in the world live here,” Tam said, awed. “Excepting Ma.”
Lady Blackfeather smiled. “Yes, and there’s jam too. Djaren, don’t you put that on your toast unless you mean to eat it.”
“I think I figured out how the earthquake worked,” Djaren said. “This line of marmalade is the wave, coming from here, and here is the earthquake in strawberry, pushing back out to meet it. This would work better with a tub of water. I had it, in the bath this morning.”
“I think I mostly understand,” Jon assured him.
Tam nodded too. “The Amryn set things right, Land and sea worked together to save our folk, without much damage or flooding.”
“And what’s more impressive, all without breaking open the fault line under our feet,” Djaren pointed out. “Shandor is one of the most seismically and volcanically active places in the world. One major cataclysm here could change the face of half the world, but it’s never happened since the breaking.”
Jon stared, in sudden frozen horror. He’d heard about the breaking of course, the changing of the world before even the K’shay tanna lived here. He knew that some of the really big mountains to the northeast were sleeping volcanoes and that hot springs, of which Shandor had plenty, indicated volcanic activity. He’d never considered, though, that fountains of lava could erupt from a family field near Markerry, or that a great earthquake could swallow the beautiful white castle down into the river gorge that circled it. Shandor was the safest place in the world to live, wasn’t it? “Really? All that’s just waiting right under us?”
“Yes,” Ellea said mildly. “So it’s very convenient that our Land is alive and fond of us, and that there’s always an Amryn to let us know what the Land thinks and intervene with it on our behalf.”
“And to let the pressure out just a little at a time, here and there before it all comes up in a new mountain range somewhere inconvenient,” Djaren said.
Jon thought of the big, brown, bearded man who blessed crops at planting, and animals at harvest, and tried to picture him shushing an earthquake.
“We live over a great deal of power,” Lady Blackfeather said. “It has bled into everything around, Land and people both, and is one reason why many Shandorians are peculiarly gifted. That and the unique indigenous ancestors most of us share.”
Jon had met all sorts of interesting people in Professor Sheridan’s class. His talent for hunches about places and things was something none of them blinked at. His classmates could speak to others hundreds of miles away, or help plants grow with uncommon speed or in the wrong season, or find water underground. A few had really rare gifts, more difficult to explain. None were quite so odd as Doctor Blackfeather, who could go unseen and grow wings and armor.
“He’s a unique indigenous ancestor,” Ellea told Jon, over her tea cup.
“Father?” Djaren asked. “Well, yes, he’s got the most exciting gifts. Everyone else just gets to be good farmers, or chatty with the animals, or if they’re lucky, fast healers. No one gets to fly.”
“That does seem the best one, doesn’t it?” Professor Sheridan smiled a little wistfully.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Djaren said, and looked down at his toast-scape.
Professor Sheridan had no special talent beyond his curiously slow aging, even though, Jon realized, he really should have. Professor Sheridan was, in his own way, as strange as Doctor Blackfeather. It was easy to look past the strange scars, the odd ears, and the old-fashioned ways, though, because the Professor was so kind and calm and reassuringly ordinary. Jon admired him very much. He’d been growing out his hair, against his mother’s protests, in order to wear it tied back in a tail like the Professor and Djaren.
Jon wanted to write books, learn languages and stories, teach at the university, and travel to where he could do good for people. It seemed right to live that kind of life, whether one had special talents for it or not. “There’s no substitute for going about with your two eyes open,” his mother always said. His sisters had teased him good-naturedly that he must have taken that one to heart, as he had the widest eyes of anyone.
“The One gives us what we need, when we most need it,” the Professor said. “Not what we desire whenever we want it.”
“The thing is,” Djaren said, now engrossed in sculpting his plate again, “there must have been another earthquake, and a much bigger one, to make that wave in the first place. Something like that is going to have echoes, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Doctor Blackfeather said, quite suddenly in the doorway behind them. His face was very grave, and something about his look worried Jon. He turned to his wife. “We have orders, you and I, from the Queen.”