Chapter Eighteen — Corta

The girls who met Jon and the Professor at the rendezvous point looked upset, though not about the eight small children and the unconscious girl their guests had brought home. They ushered everyone down the rope ladder, making a harness for the girl and the smallest two boys just as they did for food baskets, without a word.

Below, the cave was buzzing with activity. Some of the girls rushed about with baskets and blankets while others drew up a little fleet of mismatched fishing boats and outriggers in the lagoon. Temanava directed several girls who were building fires and preparing things that seemed more like medicines than food. She looked up at their arrival, and watched each new stray with widening eyes.

The Professor came down last and carried the sick girl over to Temanava, whose helpers scattered, as usual, away from him. “I am sorry to have brought so many new people to your refuge, but I cannot be very sorry.” He laid the girl down carefully, and Jon set the painting beside her, so that it would be there for her when she woke.

Temanava looked from the girl to the painting and back, and wiped angry tears from her eyes. “We will care for her.”

“What happened, Temanava?” the Professor asked. “Is it still safe here?”

“For now. Here. Yes.” Temanava sniffed. “I saw the net today, too late. Six girls never returned from music class. They are nowhere in the school, and no one will give us true answers. One teacher said they’d been chosen for a Maribelle opera. Someone else said music scholarships. Our best teacher, Mistress Emile, is gone now, dismissed. We heard her screaming at the administrator, and then she was pushed out the doors with just her hat and two bags. Also Eloka’s sweetheart, who brings us supplies, never came back from dock work. He supports three orphaned siblings. He would not have left. Someone is stealing my people, and the Levour are letting it happen, maybe making it happen.”

“Yes,” the Professor said. “I believe some of them are.” He told Temanava what they had seen and heard in town, while the girls fed the eight hungry children.

Tam insisted they feed Jon, too, upon hearing that he’d given all his food away. “How long have things been this exciting here?” Jon asked Tam.

“They got back just before you did. I still can’t understand six words of what they’re talking about, but it looks like they’re putting together an attack party.” Tam moved his chin weakly to indicate a pile of paper-beating mallets and fishing spears near the boats.

“Those aren’t weapons, Tam.”

“You didn’t see how they were holding them,” Tam said. “They’re mad. Really mad.”

Jon watched the girls rolling bandage cloth and fletching arrows. They looked very serious about it. The Professor rejoined the boys, very quiet, and shook his head when Jon asked him questions. After a time, Temanava came over to change Tam’s bandaging.

“Is there anything we can do for the young lady?” the Professor asked.

“She is past help. That is why she has been discarded,” Temanava said, her voice brittle. “She has the sailors’ sickness.”

“I thought so,” the Professor sighed.

“They call the painter ‘the man who makes men’ but he unmakes girls. I have heard of him from some of my classmates. I heard he has buried two other child-wives on another island. Some say he has a family in Levour, too, whom he abandoned.”

“How was he allowed to get away with it?” Tam asked, outraged.

Temanava patted his shoulder, pushing him back down to rest. “Outsiders who come here do many things, and leave many things behind them. Some of them say living here is like being in a dream, but what they do in their dream is real for us. They all sail away eventually, leaving broken branches and bruised fruit behind them.” Temanava glanced across the cave again, sad and angry.

“I don’t think I understand,” Jon said.

The Professor ruffled his hair.

“He has left three good village girls dead too young to understand what he was,” Temanava said. “I am sure their families thought he would be a good husband. He will sell his paintings of their daughters, maybe, to be eaten again and again in the eyes of other red men, along with the bright fruit and birds.”

“I thought artists were mostly supposed to be good people,” Tam mumbled.

“They are people. They come in all kinds,” the Professor said. “Most don’t have the resources to be very wicked, though, to anyone but themselves.”

“I think Anna would dislike this fellow very much.”

“I imagine that’s true.

“Are you sure the girl can’t be helped?” Tam looked worriedly from Temanava to the other end of the cave. “That can’t be right. It can’t be let be.”

Temanava finished the final wrappings around Tam’s chest. “We will try to make her last days peaceful ones.”

“Nothing more? What about that Corta stuff?”

“It cannot cure everything,” Temanava said, and paused. “But it is our gift in time of need. And my people are in need. We may not be many, and we may not be strong, but I have a duty to rescue my people. My teacher taught me well, and it is time I stood up in her place.”

“Who was your teacher?” the Professor asked.

“The Breath.” Temanava said, eyes tearing up again. “The island’s Breath. When they killed her, in the Holy Silence, the world shook.”

The Professor paid very sharp attention.

“That sounds like something that happened in Shandor once, in a story,” Jon said.

“It wasn’t a story, here,” Temanava said. “I saw it happen. We were hiding because she told us to. We stayed still, clinging to the ground while trees tossed and snapped, while stones rent and chasms of fire opened. So many people had already died, but we never saw destruction like what happened after. We ran in every direction and hid. I don’t know which of my people still live.” Temanava rubbed the tears from her eyes. “I gathered those I could, and I take care of them as I can.”

“Temanava,” the Professor said, “I am sorry so much ill has happened, but if you would, can you explain to me about the Silence? I think it might be very important.”

“The Silence,” Temanava sniffed, “is the Silence. It is the place closest to the island’s heart. People once went there to pray, to meditate, to take council or vows, or prepare themselves for their next journey, whether to adulthood or war, or any great undertaking. There on the holy slopes, the sounds of the island are all. No power is greater there, no voice or mind can overcome the stillness.”

“People can mind speak here?” Jon asked.

Temanava looked at him, surprised. “Only the holy, and usually only with draughts made by the Breath. Some hear and speak to the sea.”

“This Silence stills all voices?” the Professor asked. “Does it still all powers as well? All fire?”

“The red have no fire, nor can they feel it flow near them.” Temanava glanced sidelong at Tam. “But you are not like other outsiders, so I will tell you. To stand in the stillness is to be wrapped in the steam of the island’s own fires. If you are loved by the island, it warms, but if you are one of the island’s people who has done wrongly it burns. Now red men cut down the sacred trees. I do not know why the Silence has not scorched away every outsider who has burned the slopes to grow coconuts and Corta.”

“What effect might it have on . . . unusual outsiders? Could mind speakers be heard from within the Silence?”

“I do not know. No mind speakers I have ever heard of can speak anything from the Silence but the island’s words.”

“We may know where our allies are then, and where Hallowfield’s team disappeared,” the Professor said, to Jon, who’d had the same thought.

“Please, miss,” Jon asked, “where is the Silence?”

“On the north slopes of Tinaro.”

“Where the worst of the fighting was rumored to be.” The Professor sighed.

“Where blood should never be spilled.”

“Where it could set off another earthquake?”

“The Breath is dead. Her student . . .”

“Must be kept a secret and far from that dangerous place.” The Professor nodded, meeting Temanava’s eyes. “I quite understand. If you are going on a rescue mission tonight, then I am going with you.”

Temanava nodded. “I will allow it. I am making what you call Corta. Will you take it with us?”

The Professor looked down, then up at the thin, dirty faces of children, the determined girls, and Tam and Jon. He sighed. “I trust you, Temanava. If I can be more for you than I am now, I will try.”

In the few hours they had before nightfall, the Professor, Temanava, and the girls made plans for the attack. One of the small boys they had rescued had overheard his captors talking, and knew where the pirate ship lay at anchor.

“We will go by night, in darkness and silence,” Temanava said. “I am told that they drink at night. With luck most will be asleep. Tam, Jon, will you stay here and watch the little ones?”

Jon nodded, uncertain. “Are you going to fight pirates with paper mallets?”

“I will deal with the pirates,” the Professor said. “The rest of you should get the prisoners to our boats, and then flee.”

“Do you know how to fight, sir?” Tam asked.

“It’s been a very, very long time,” the Professor said. “But ma’am saw that we all learned.”

Jon couldn’t imagine the Professor hurting anyone. He had a bad feeling about this. He wished Doctor Blackfeather would leave the Silence, or wherever he was, and come rescue everyone.

Temanava made the Corta with very little ceremony, just mixing ingredients with a few spoken phrases of her language that seemed like prayers. It was greenish-gray paste, and smelled like medicine.

“Can I try some too?” Tam asked.

The Professor opened his mouth, frowned, and paused. “I should say no, I think. But knowing what you have . . . I can’t make that decision for you, Tam.”

Tam thought this over, as the girls came up single file and each took a small, flattened ball of Corta from Temanava’s hand. They placed them under their tongues and then sat still on mats, praying. No one went mad, or seemed particularly changed at all, to Jon’s eye. The Professor stepped forward last, after all the girls, so he wouldn’t bother them. He took the Corta, then sat near Jon and Tam. Jon could hear him whispering prayers in Ancient.

Temanava took one herself, and then brought the last three Corta cakes, wrapped in a leaf, to Tam. “You are an honest heart, and the keeper of many flames. I trust you to take care of these.”

“I’d come with you, if I could,” Tam said.

“I know.” Temanava stood, and the girls looked to her. “Take courage,” she said. “Tonight we rescue our sisters, and all the rest of our people that evil men have stolen.”

The girls all rose and took up their spears, mallets, or arrows and bows. They darkened their faces and arms with charcoal mud and began filing to the boats.

The Professor still knelt not far from Jon and Tam, bent over, whispering in Ancient. Not whispering, Jon realized. Weeping. He was repeating the same words over and over. It wasn’t the pronunciation Jon had learned and it took him several moments to understand, even though they were small, simple words upon whose meaning most scholars agreed. “Stop. No. Please.”

“Professor, what’s wrong?” Jon asked.

He was answered with a blurred string of Ancient. “Please, no. Please stop. I’ll do anything. Stop. I want to go home.”

“Tam, the Professor—” Jon began.

Tam rolled over, wincing as he moved, and put a hand on the Professor’s shoulder. “Sir?”

The Professor cried out like he’d been burned, and Tam made a noise too, eyes going wide. For a moment they were locked together like that, and then the Professor staggered to his feet and threw Tam away from him. Tam reeled against the cave wall, choking and retching.

“Tam!” Jon ran forward, and the Professor fled from him, bent over in what looked like agony, clutching the sea bond to his scarred chest.

“Oh, One’s mercy,” Tam said. He was crying, too. “He was so small. No one should have to heal from things like that, not that small, not ever.”

Jon grabbed Tam’s arm. “Temanava!” he called. She was just stepping into the boat. He pointed at the Professor, who was stumbling over pots and bedding, and over the body of the dying girl, toward the water’s edge.

“Stop him,” Tam shouted, pushing himself away from the wall. “He’s not safe like this.”

Temanava looked from the Professor to Tam. “What is happening? You shouldn’t be up.”

“That’s truth.” Tam pulled open his shirt and tore away the fresh bandaging. The horrible bullet wound was closed, leaving only a faintly visible pink star. “I’m not hurt anymore.”

“Was it the Corta?” Jon asked.

“I didn’t take any yet.” Tam started to run after the Professor. He moved normally, easily, as he had before he’d been shot. “We need to stop him before he gets in the water. We can’t let him drown himself.”

“He would never do that,” Jon said, trotting alongside. “And he has the sea bond.”

“And only to throw it away to stop those memories for good.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I wish I didn’t.” Tam’s face looked older than Jon had ever seen it. “He’s remembering everything he didn’t before. Everything he can’t live knowing, it’s tumbling through his head and it won’t stop hurting him all over again.”

Jon stared at his brother. “How do you know what he’s remembering?”

“Huh. No clue.” They reached the water’s edge. The Professor was already disappearing beneath the surface. Tam shouted and jumped in after him.

Jon wasn’t sure what to do. He nearly tripped over the girl on the floor as she sat up unexpectedly. She pushed her wrappings away from her face, unblemished now by sores. She looked like her painting again. “What’s happening?” she asked.

Tam resurfaced, coughing. “I had him for a second, but he got away. Ah, I could have gone my whole life not knowing that last. And I’m only catching glimpses when I touch him.”

“Corta doesn’t do this!” Temanava said, wide-eyed, staring at both Tam and the girl.

Another girl picked a bright, beautifully woven bowl up off the floor with wonder. “This was made by my grandmother. It was broken years ago. I’d repaired it.”

“I think he does this,” Tam said, looking to where the Professor had still not surfaced. “And something ripped him to pieces inside and out to stop him doing it ever again. And we woke all that up.”

“No one has power like that.” Temanava stared out where Tam was staring. “He’s flashing like lightning under the water. Fire and then emptiness, and then such fire again that it blinds.”

“Is he drowning?” Jon cried.

“No,” said Tam. “He’s not letting the sea bond go. That’s good. Let’s get after him. Miss, would you watch the children?” he asked the girl, who was now sitting up and staring at her unmarred hands and feet. She nodded, stunned, and Tam grabbed a paper-beating mallet and climbed into a boat, helping Temanava and Jon in after.

“We’ve got one more to rescue, but you’ve one more to help, too.” Tam said. “Let’s go salvage what we can of that plan of yours.”

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