Kara hit the ground hard and lost her breath but not her wits. She rolled, avoiding the next hit. She was recognizing her opponent’s tells better, now. Bulo hadn’t been this hard to fight. He’d been strong and slow, and Kara had knocked him down in a swift and insulting defeat that the Red Ropes judged unfair. She hadn’t even crippled him. They were being babies about this. Perhaps it had been unwise, though, to go on and challenge the lot of them to combat in turns.
The Pao’ulu fighting style used two small, sturdy sticks of bamboo and a whole lot of vicious. It suited Kara. She was having an educational afternoon. Judging from the impressed grins on several faces, she’d been an honorary member already for the last three matches, and now they were just settling the new rankings.
“The match is over,” Aruke panted. “You can stay with us. You will be fourth boy. You can give your friend his news if you can climb the school walls. I get to use the spear gun and boat.”
“What if we finished this match and I beat you?”
“A foreigner can’t be first boy. You are lucky we let you be fourth. No other foreigner gets that honor.”
Kara snorted, but nodded. “And I keep my spear gun.”
“That is good,” Aruke agreed, “if you fish like you fight.”
The second boy looked disappointed, but that might have been from his many bruises. Of course there were no girls in the Red Ropes. There were sisters, but they were all stuck with the dubious work of washing, cooking, and procuring food and sometimes money by what few means they had. Kara was surprised, walking the filthy alleys of Trimela, that the paradise of Tuwa was such a short distance away. What had happened to this island to make it so different?
“People are garbage sometimes,” Kara observed, after spraining the wrist of a drunken sailor who’d been making trouble for Bulo’s sister.
“We’re all garbage here, except for the Kaunatoans and the mainlanders.” Aruke snorted. “Didn’t you know? Only the gold and the red people have souls.”
“Hadn’t heard,” Kara said, kicking the man into the street.
“Once, the Pao’ulu people settled all the islands in these seas. We had cities, temples, gods. Then the Kaunatoans came, saying they were descendants of gods themselves. They took the best islands, the best of everything, and enslaved the Pao’ulu.” He made a rude gesture. Kara hadn’t seen that one before, but it was easy to guess its meaning. The other Ropes, who all looked as Pao’ulu as their leader, repeated the gesture. “When the red people came in their cloud-sailed boats, the Kaunatoans were proud and made war on them, but we Pao’ulu, what was one foreign invader from the other? We bargained with the reds against the Kaunatoans.” Aruke looked to his audience; they murmured approval. “They say never to kick the dog you plan to eat later, because his bones will stick in your throat. That’s what happened when the Kaunatoans found that we had been given guns to fight against them.”
“Sounds like the mainlanders just set you two dogs on each other,” Kara said.
“We owed them revenge for our ancestors.”
“At least you’re all happy now.” Kara saluted.
“The Kaunatoans hold their heads high, but they are as low in the dust as we are now,” Bulo said, slow to the conversation. He probably had a concussion.
“So you’ve made all sorts of progress here.”
Aruke nodded, missing the sarcasm. “Yes. The noble house of Hewaori has only one heir left, and he’s missing now. And the island’s Breath they say died in the fighting before the great quake. So their gods are dead now, too. We spit on the Kaunatoans in the streets.” Aruke belied this last, by leading his little ragged troop across the street and out of the way of a group of the golden-brown men with facial tattoos and long elaborate clubs at their sides.
“Shandor has four people groups,” Rades had said. Kara wondered who spit on who there. For whatever reason, though, people like the Blackfeathers weren’t embarrassed to be seen with people like Tam. And Anna had tried to make friends with her. Even a wolf-man like Rades was one of the Queen’s warriors. Shandor didn’t have nobles, Djaren insisted, but then, what was he? Other than deluded, brilliant, and annoying.
Kara felt an uncomfortable, nagging worry for little Jon, and dull Tam, and the odd Professor. If they weren’t already dead, would they survive wherever they were now?
“Now that we have enough boys, we should make a raid,” Aruke said, conveniently distracting Kara from her thoughts. Cities weren’t forgiving to people who pondered too much. You just had to be cleverer and faster than your neighbor, and not think too much about it.
Kara raised an eyebrow. “What are we raiding?”
“The military warehouse?” the seventh boy asked. “Say it is that!”
Aruke nodded. “Our plan can work with eight.”
“Are you keeping in mind that half got beat hard this morning?” Kara asked, looking at Bulo.
“It is a sneaking plan, not a fighting one,” Aruke said. “It is my plan, and my plans are good.”
Kara compared her trust in Aruke’s plans to her trust in Djaren’s, and found a wide gap.
“We will have rum tonight!” Bulo told her happily.
“Wonderful.” Whatever alcohol was supposed to do to people, it didn’t to her. Unpoisonable. Good for drinking contests, though. If this worked, she could be second boy by the end of the night. She doubted this would work.
* * *
“This isn’t where we should be,” the man in the blue and white uniform said to his fat companion. “I went to the Fevre academy. I placed third in Challour’s class. I’m an officer, for Pelneor’s sake. I shouldn’t be on guard duty.”
Kara and her group of Ropes crept silent behind lines of barrels, and watched the second group sneak in the high windows on the south end of the warehouse.
“I don’t mind guard duty,” the fat one said. “It’s quiet.”
“Did you know that pirates are ravaging the coasts, bolder than ever? And the Commander has us all stationed tight in the city. What good are we doing, here?”
Aruke pointed at a barrel labeled “Whiskey.” “This one is rum,” he mouthed. He held out his hand and the seventh boy gave him a hand auger and a little piece of bamboo. Aruke tilted his empty jar to a careful angle and began to silently bore into the barrel.
“I don’t want to fight pirates,” the fat one said. “They shoot at you.”
“No,” the first soldier went on, not listening to his companion, “we get to guard hotels, guard warehouses, escort the governor’s second cousins and the shipping magnate’s family down the streets. Where is the glory?”
The fat one shrugged.
Kara eyed the other barrels, making special note of the ones whose labels she could read. Flour, salt pork, beans, sugar, molasses.
“We’re not even guarding these from pirates,” the glory hound soldier waved at the contents of the warehouse. “We’re guarding these from our own colleagues. Where they got the old guard of troops, I don’t know, but if they weren’t criminals when they left more enlightened shores, they became criminals here.”
Kara looked for the trapdoors in the floor that would let cargo be brought up into the warehouse. Nothing was expected soon, apparently, as the doors, along with most of the crowded warehouse floor, were covered over in barrels of supplies.
“They’re all right once you get to know them.” The fat one sighed.
“And the natives and mercenaries are worse,” the glory hound continued, beginning to pace. Kara signed to the others to keep their heads down as he walked back and forth. The Ropes tucked carefully behind barrels and kept tapping the whiskey. The boys upstairs were lowering sacks out the window into a waiting boat.
“The refugees from the north are telling outrageous stories,” the soldier said, as he paced, “about demons and monsters. A native I spoke to—he tried to bribe me, by the way, and of course I refused—said that forest spirits were attacking the fruit company mercenaries. These people will believe anything.”
“I heard that one,” the fat soldier said, brightening a bit. “There’s a giant bat up there who feeds by night and can’t be seen by human eyes. There’s a werewolf, too.”
Kara grinned broadly. She had some news for Djaren, now. She’d also spotted the mechanism for opening the trapdoors.
Aruke hefted a mostly full jar of whiskey, and plugged the hole in the barrel. “Now we can come take more when we want it,” he whispered.
“Do you have somewhere you can hide a great load of barrels?” she asked.
“Yes,” Aruke said. “But how can we carry a whole barrel without being seen?”
Kara pointed at the handle and pulley system that would empty half the warehouse into the sea. Aruke’s eyes went huge.
“And I can tell you which barrels are worth stealing. They have labels and I know what some of them say.”
“Prove it,” Aruke whispered.
“You’re holding whiskey, not rum.”
Aruke frowned. “I knew that.”
“Maybe we’ll get to guard the blackpowder stores next,” the fat soldier said. “I hear a nice breeze comes through there if you open the west doors. We could bring a game of checkers.”
“I hate everything,” the first soldier groaned.
“We will make a plan for taking all the barrels and hiding them next,” Aruke whispered to Kara.
“Next time these two are on duty,” Kara agreed.
* * *
Tam felt comfortable, awkward, and just plain awful. It was an odd mixture, he decided. He knew what to do about any one of those, but taken together they confounded him. Best never to get shot again and stranded in a foreign cave. He concentrated on the reassuring presences of Jon and the Professor. Them being well made him feel better. Further off, he supposed, concentrating on it, the others were safe, too. He tried to think of the little island they had left, but that didn’t seem right. For some reason he thought of a long room with little beds along each side and starched sheets and the smell of whiting. Ellea’s voice spoke conversationally into his mind.
“There you are. I thought you were all dead or deaf or something and I was going to be quite cross with you.”
Tam jumped. That hurt, and he winced, and then hurt himself again trying to lie back down from the sitting-up position he really shouldn’t have tried yet.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ellea asked in his head, while Jon asked, “What’s happened? Are you hurt? Can I do anything?”
“Um, shot,” Tam said, muzzily. “But it’s all right, just did something stupid.”
“How are Jon and Uncle Eabrey? I can’t ask them. Uncle Eabrey’s deaf, you know.”
Jon looked confused and worried. “Shall I get Temanava or the Professor?”
“The Professor’s—” Tam began, then floundered over which conversation to continue, as that seemed to have gone for both. His chest hurt and his head was buzzing and the alarming new developments in his life did not slow down for him to catch up with them.
Jon nodded, and dashed off to retrieve the Professor from Navigational Maths, which sounded like another thing Tam couldn’t handle right now. Now that there was just one conversation, he squinted his eyes shut and tried just thinking at Ellea. “Jon is fine. The Professor’s shot, too, but he’s better about it. He’s teaching maths. Where are you and the others? Are any of you lot hurt? There’s bad men on the island.”
“We’d come to that conclusion,” Ellea answered dryly. “Think normally, won’t you? You sound all stiff and muffly. We’re fine. We’re in Trimela at a Levour school with the most dull curriculum you could conceive of, except Kara, who isn’t here as she’s beating local effluvia.”
“In this case, a boy named Bulo.”
“She’s beating him?”
“I imagine she’s finished by now and has moved on to theft or arson or something, but that isn’t the point. The point is, where are you, and can you tell Jon and Uncle Eabrey goodnight for me?”
“Mmm,” said Tam.
“Are you hurt?” the Professor asked. He seemed scared, and winced when Tam winced.
“Can I answer in a minute?” Tam muttered. “Ellea’s talking in my head and wants to say goodnight, and they’re in Trimela, and Kara’s beating up a Bulo.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“That’s a relief, because I don’t either,” Tam said. “Ellea we are on an island with a girls’ school and in a secret cave and pirates shot the Professor and me but Jon is well and we are all over here.”
“You’re really bad at this,” Ellea informed him.
“It’s not my best day,” Tam grumbled.
“I’d say. You must try to improve if we’re to converse in the future.”
Tam snorted and winced. Jon looked and felt very alarmed, so Tam squeezed his hand. “They’re safe at a school,” he told Jon.
“Safe for now, anyway,” Ellea sighed. “Djaren’s too smart and too stupid for school. And it’s mostly rubbish, but its nice to be indoors again. I have everything sorted for the time being.”
“They’re all safe, and on another of the islands?” Jon asked. He believed entirely, and sounded relieved. The Professor seemed relieved too.
Tam kept up better now, speaking Ellea’s answers almost directly as he got them. “She says it was foolish of us to get shot and on the wrong island, but she’s happy we’re alive, and she’ll tell the others.”
“Has she heard from her parents?” the Professor asked.
“No, sir, still just silence.”
The worried crease between the Professor’s brows reappeared. “I wish I could Speak,” he muttered.
“I wouldn’t be so quick for it, sir. Can’t we trade?” Tam rubbed at his temples.
“No, Tam.” The Professor’s face softened. “I wouldn’t trade. Thank you.”
“Tell her goodnight, too, and goodnight to Djaren and Anna and Kara,” Jon said.
“Jon says goodnight to everyone there,” Tam told Ellea.
“Well, the bitter old Cormuradan lady isn’t likely to have one. She probably sleeps on nails. It would explain her temperament.”
“I’m going to have a bit of a nap now, Ellea,” Tam informed her.
“Very well. I’ll address you tomorrow evening unless something important occurs.” Then, a moment later. “I’m sorry you were shot. That was very careless of you and I hope it does not occur again.”
Tam agreed wholeheartedly and without words.