Chapter Fifteen — The Dark Port of Tairoru

It was just growing light, and the cave was already abuzz with girls preparing for another day of school when the Professor rose and cleared his throat. “I believe,” he said, wrapping his blanket about himself and addressing Temanava carefully, “that I may need to borrow some sort of shirt. I should like to go into town, I think.”

Temanava looked at the Professor just as carefully. “The town and nearby villages may not be the safest of places for a stranger with no money. You are no prisoner here, but I cannot promise we can save you again, should you meet enemies.”

“I don’t particularly have enemies here,” the Professor said.

Temanava looked pointedly at where his blanket covered the pale blue wound in his chest. Jon wondered if the town had pirates in it.

“That was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” The Professor looked at the floor. “I will be much more cautious in future. Now that I know where the rest of my charges are, I should see about reuniting with them.”

The different meanings of “charges”—both wards and explosives—reminded Jon of Djaren and Kara, who fit both definitions. The Professor seemed to be thinking the same thing, because he said, “I feel uncomfortable leaving them unsupervised for long.”

“If they are at the school in Trimela, it is a safe place,” Temanava assured. “We were there once. They will not be sold or killed while under the care of the mission school people.”

The Professor blinked, alarmed.

“But I understand.” Temanava sighed. “I, too, wish for news of those left behind. We cannot help you pay for passage, but if you will tell me what you learn of the school, I will see that you do not go into town in rags. You would alarm people as you are.”

“I don’t expect to be able to book any kind of passage today,” the Professor said, looking down at himself and his lack of things like shoes.

“Please sir,” said Jon, “you shouldn’t go alone. You aren’t well, not yet.”

“Jon.” The Professor looked worried.

“You should take him,” Temanava said. “A man with a servant looks less of a refugee. You would have two pairs of eyes with which to watch your backs, and those who assume you father and son may think twice before making a child an orphan or driving a father to desperation, if they are kind-hearted.”

“She sounds like Kara sometimes, and that’s frightening,” Jon told the Professor in a whisper.

“It is important that this place remains hidden.” Temanava continued, her voice grave. “It is safe above, at the school, during the day. I had a dream that it would not be, at night, so I brought my people to this place. There is a lookout who guards the empty rooms so that no one knows our secret. You must keep our secret as well.”

“I swear I will not betray you,” the Professor said. “I am in your debt, as is my country.”

Temanava looked from the sleeping Tam to the Professor. “You will be careful, and come back unseen. I will take you in my boat.”

“And me,” Jon said.

“And you.” Temanava nodded.

The Professor sighed and nodded, too.

Temanava’s little boat, which none of the other girls ever shared, was, in fact, large enough for three. After many turnings through natural canals among high reeds, some of the girls from the cave met them by the shore with paper mats for Temanava to step out onto. They did not seem to approve of the Professor, and shrank from him as usual. Temanava showed them a circuitous route that would bring them to Tairoru, the closest port town.

Jon and the Professor walked in woven grass sandals down the thin, overgrown trail. Jon held the Professor’s hand now and then, to let him know that he wasn’t afraid, and also to make sure he was all right. The Professor was very pale still, under the coarse brown shirt they’d found for him, and even the broad straw hat the girls had given him did not hide his odd looks. People they met walked wide around them, and stared.

“Well, this is inconvenient.” The Professor sighed. “Perhaps we should have traveled by night.”

“The town wouldn’t have shops open at night though,” Jon pointed out. It was nice being in the sunlight again, and smelling the wind through the jungle. It wasn’t like Tuwa, though. There were fewer wild plants and more scrubby stands of coconut and plantations of banana trees. Some fields they passed had been burned, with hacked stumps of trees turned to stubs of charcoal.

“They burn the jungle away to plant crops that can be sold,” the Professor explained.

“That seems wrong altogether,” Jon objected. “Wouldn’t their Amryn object?”

“They haven’t one. Though I wonder . . .” The Professor pondered. “Perhaps it’s just that no one is listening.”

Jon made sure they stopped to rest several times along the way, even though it wasn’t far. The sun was very hot on their shoulders and borrowed hats by the time the little town came into view, tumbling down the hillside below, right up to the ocean’s edge. Other islands rose green in the distance, trailing tiny plumes of smoke. One couldn’t tell from here if it was cook-fires or fighting.

There were ships in the harbor, big ones and small ones. Jon didn’t recognize any of them. The Land’s Wings was certainly not in port. The Professor frowned, squinting down at the ships.

“Are any of them pirates, sir?”

“Four have cannons, and a number of the men walking in town have rifles.”

The Professor, Jon thought, must have eyes as good as Djaren’s to see so much from this far.

“We should go carefully, and not say too much,” the Professor said.

They passed farms now, with dirty yards busy with dogs and children. Some boys ran past with strings hung with bound, fluttering, dying little birds. Jon stared, horrified. At the next farm, carcasses were hanging, being cleaned. They looked like they had been puppies.

It was not at all like Tuwa. Jon spent the next bit of the walk trying not to look too closely and to forget most of what he’d seen. The beggars just outside town were one of the saddest in the string of frighteningly sad things he’d seen that morning.

“Why doesn’t someone help them?” Jon whispered to the Professor, blinking away the images of open sores, and the awful smells of people left unable to care for themselves somewhere hot.

“Because nearly everyone here is poor, and while the poor in small tribes or families look after their own, here there are people from many places, whom no one knows.” The Professor squeezed Jon’s hand. “Not everyone is as kind as Temanava.”

“But they ought to be,” Jon said.

The first sign of trouble came halfway down the crowded street that led to the harbor. Jon was busy trying not to be stepped on in the press of people, but he felt the Professor tense.

“What is it, sir?”

The Professor turned him around and guided him into the next empty alley, a cramped space between two rickety houses, before answering. “I saw one of the men with guns, from Tuwa. I don’t think he saw me.”

“What do we do next, sir? Would they shoot us here?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t know.” The Professor frowned out at the people passing in the street. “I should take you out of town and double back.”

“I don’t want you alone, sir,” Jon said. He had a sudden idea about disguises. “No one will look at us if they think we’re beggars.” He untied the shoulder-bag Temanava had given him and wrapped it about himself, like the beggars had wrapped their rags, cocoons to protect them from the sun. He did the same with the Professor’s bag, making sure to cover his hair, and using some dirt from the street to hide his oddly pale skin. When he was done, Jon was satisfied that no one would recognize them. They had no bags now, though, to hold the food Temanava had sent with them, tied up in broad leaf wrappers. Jon held it in his hands. “We could give this to the beggars,” he suggested.

“A worthy thought, but let us first see what becomes of us today.”

They set out at a quiet shuffle down to the docks. Crowds were gathered there, many shoving sorts of people looking for ships leaving the island, and people who’d given up on all the shoving just sitting on blankets or barrels or the ground, weary and waiting. The Professor made inquiries, but they learned only that everyone was trying to get away from the island of Tinaro, not go toward it. The exception were some ships full of Levour soldiers, headed to the fighting, and having nothing to do with anyone else, except for shoving. Since they shoved with rifles, everyone spilled out of their way.

Jon and the Professor barely managed not to be separated, and found themselves near a crowd of refugees who were listening to a man talking loudly. “You can start a new life in the Maribelle provinces,” the man said. “There’s lots of land that wants working, plenty of jobs and opportunities. We’re sailing soon. It’s five sovereigns a head to board. That’s five sovereigns on a bright future for you and yours. You got your money in hand, you step on up and give it to Jesar here, and you come aboard.”

“That’s a lot of money,” Jon whispered.

“That’s the life savings of anyone here,” the Professor said, grimly. “And I would not trust it to their Jesar.”

Jon looked where the Professor was looking. Jesar stood on the gangway of a big ship with cannons. He was the pirate who had ordered his men to shoot at them.

A man towing a ragged family walked up the plank to Jesar. “Please, I have enough for all but our little ones in arms. Let us come aboard.”

“I told you before, it’s five a head. That’s firm. Choose which children you’re taking aboard.” Jesar spat on the ground. The man recoiled, and retreated with his family for a hurried tearful discussion.

“That’s not right at all,” Jon said.

The Professor pulled him aside, amid coiled ropes and stacked cargo, just in time as more pirates passed them. The Professor sat slumped, beggar-like, against some crates, and Jon sat down too, keeping his head covered.

“Get off me,” a man with a Levour accent yelled, very near. “I’m already going to my grave, I don’t need the extra luggage!”

A girl’s voice wailed, and the girl herself tumbled down beside Jon, her hands covered in sores, gripping a cloth close around her. “Paoul! Do not leave me.”

Jon peered up to see a man with his face half-wrapped in bandages. He wore a broad-brimmed blue hat and clothes stained with paint and smelling of turpentine. He held a bundle of paintings, and four men behind him carried his trunks.

“You’re diseased and unfaithful,” the man said to the girl. “What use do I have for you? Go back to your people.”

“There was only ever you,” the girl cried weakly. “I have nothing else.”

The man cursed, and flung one of the paintings at her. “Sell this, then. It is a lie, anyway. You’ve been the death of me.”

In the dirt at the girl’s sore-covered feet lay a painting of a pretty native girl younger than Anna, and not wearing much, standing among bright plants and fruit, with a shy smile.

The girl gathered it up, weeping, and the painter moved on, up the plank where he talked to Jesar. Jon noted that the Professor was listening, so he listened too. As the girl’s sobs grew quieter he could just make out what was being said.

“Have you decided what merchandise you will be taking with you, Master Gauleinet?” Jesar asked, oddly polite and oily.

“I should like a little flock of birds,” the painter said. “Three, perhaps four. I want them between eight and fourteen. One at least must be literate. I am ailing, and need some help with my correspondence.”

Jesar smiled widely. “We’ve made arrangements to procure some more polished birds for you, and for other cultured gentlemen. They aren’t fully trained yet, mind you.”

The painter sniffed. “Too many undervalue the virtue of innocence. It is what gives them real beauty, that pure child’s wonder, along with the proud wildness of their race.”

Jesar shrugged. “In the end, every girl is the same. She becomes a bitter woman who makes your life hell.” He laughed. “I am no artist, so forgive my lack of poetry. Ah, pardon me, I see a gentleman who is waiting on me. Administrator!”

The painter waved his men on up with his luggage, and a Levour man in a neat suit who had been hovering in the crowd, covering his nose with a handkerchief and looking annoyed, walked up the plank.

“This is a more public place than I wished to meet,” he said.

“So speak in less public terms.” Jesar said. “You have a delivery for me. Are the songbirds ready?”

The Levour man cleared his throat. “I’ll have the first delivery this afternoon. Certain handpicked, er, birds of the music class. You do have a secure place to store them? Offshore?”

“Of course. I’ll have a vessel waiting in the arranged place.”

“Discretion is vital, you understand. My reputation is—”

“Entirely safe with us, sir. We look forward to future shipments.” Jesar handed the man a purse, and the Levour gentleman retreated back into the crowd.

Beside him, what Jon could see of the Professor looked very angry. He’d never seen the Professor’s eyes like that. “We will find no kind of honest passage here,” the Professor said. “We should go.”

Jesar was busy taking the life’s savings of desperate people now. The father and two boys waved tearfully as the rest of their family boarded without them.

Jon paused, and offered his bundle of food to the poor sick girl, who still clutched her painting. Her cloth fell back, and he saw the wrecked face of the girl in the picture. She looked with wet eyes from Jon to the Professor. “Sir, would you take another servant? Please, I will work for food. I once kept a house of my own. I can cook.”

“I am deeply sorry,” the Professor said to her, his eyes a little wet as well. “You have been treated poorly, and I can offer you little better. I own nothing at the moment, not even what I wear.”

The girl bent her head and wept. “I will die here,” she whispered.

“Can’t we take her to Temanava?” Jon asked. “She might be able to help.”

“Temanava is a holy name,” the girl said. “Please take me with you. I do not want to die on the shore, like a clam cracked open in the sand. The gulls here are very cruel.”

The Professor paused, looking at her, at the crowd, at the weeping families and the pirates. Wordlessly, he helped the girl to her feet. She leaned against him, and they walked slowly away from the crowds, and up the hills out of town. They left the rest of the food with the beggars. Jon carried the girl’s painting when it became clear that she couldn’t any longer. By the time they reached the trail, the sky had become deeply overcast, with the promise of a storm.

“We should move faster,” the Professor said. They paused beside a small graveyard, and he shed his extra layers, using them to shield the girl against the coming rain. Shirtless, pale, impossibly scarred and ghostly-looking, he lifted the weakening girl in his arms. Lightning lit the sky behind them.

Down the hill, a man’s voice shrieked. Two of the pirates were leading a sad little line of mismatched children. One man pointed up at the Professor and yelled something in Germhacht about vengeful ghosts. The lightning crackled out again, lighting the Professor and the tall bleached Cormuradan gravemarkers behind him with a stark white flash. The Professor tilted his head to stare down at them as a wild wind whipped up, and the men shrieked and ran. The children, holding hands, stood trembling and confused in the spattering rain.

“Jon, tell them to come with us,” the Professor said. His voice was very quiet. “I don’t think they will listen to me.”

Jon nodded and scrambled down the slope. The children didn’t seem afraid of him. They stared up at the Professor, who was turning away now, carrying the girl back along the path.

“He doesn’t hurt children, ever,” Jon told them. “And we know where there’s food and a shelter. We can follow him safely, see? Pirates won’t come near him.”

Jon held out his hand, and the children began, carefully, to climb up to follow him and the Professor. The rain pounded down around them, as they walked, hiding the paths they took back into sheltering jungle, to the meeting place.

“It’s right to rescue people,” Jon whispered up to the Professor.

“It is,” he agreed. “But no one is entirely rescued. Not yet.”

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