Kara had gotten past her falling-out with the ocean. It made up for the giant waves and cold, thunderous vastness by being wonderfully warm now, and by letting its bright shallows be ruthlessly plundered for Kara’s gain. She loved diving. She found places no one else was able to access and deftly stole everything worth having in them. She was always in danger, a stranger in this world, unable even to breathe, but surrounded by amazing things. When her eyes began to dim, she could spin at the last minute and kick her way back up. Equally rewarding was finding Djaren near, impressed, envious, and frightened at how long she’d been under.
Just this morning, Djaren had come up with the idea of strapping thin planks to their feet, and these wooden fins had increased their ranges. He really was amazingly clever. He had become one single freckle now, skin darkening like Anna’s to a deep copper brown. He seemed more real, somehow, freed of stupid spectacles and buttoned-up shirt. He was made of sweat, sunburns and minor injuries got while escaping larger ones—rays were particularly dangerous—and not some alien creature of superior mind and incomprehensible habits. It was annoying, though, that each transformation made him even prettier than the last. His hair would be the envy of most girls. Kara didn’t envy it. She liked hers short. It didn’t tangle, or waft about in dark waves when she swam, or slide in wet ropes down her back and about her throat when she was out of the water. No, she decided, watching him from the corner of her eye, hers was better.
“Should we try from the other side of those rocks?” Djaren asked, clawing a handful of hair back over his head. “I saw a school of the big yellow ones dart around back there.”
Kara nodded. “We should take the boat round. I want to get into that crevice and I need a jumping start.”
They hauled themselves up on the outrigger and paddled it round to the spot. In another moment they were back in the world of danger and beauty and coral towers. It wasn’t silent underwater, Kara had learned. You heard all sorts of sounds, made stranger by not knowing which odd creatures were making them. There was a constant living song, and the rush and whirl of motion itself. Just as Kara was aiming for a large red fish she’d been stalking behind some lacy minarets, the world exploded. A terrible, vibrating crash hit her whole body at once, and she lost the air in her lungs and felt her ears must be bleeding. The surface was hard to find. She thrashed up to it at last to find that other creatures were doing the same. Silver fish flailed frantically along the surface, and others floated still and dead, with more rising.
Djaren, a few yards to her left, had hauled himself half out of the water, clinging to their outrigger. “Someone’s just used dynamite,” he said, disbelieving.
Kara checked her ears, but they weren’t bleeding after all. She could hear Djaren, if only hazily.
“We shouldn’t go back in, we’re too close to the blasts,” Djaren said, as Kara did just the opposite and dove swiftly down. It was still hard to sense direction and keep her breath about her, but Kara felt stubborn, and she wanted to see what had happened. Fragments of broken coral palaces swirled in the murk, and wherever it cleared, dozens of dead and dying fish lay, not floating, but sunk to the bottom.
She surfaced to find Djaren somewhat frantic. “I’ve found them, the bomb fishers. They have a boat just off the shore over there.” He was mostly in the water again, hunched down so that he couldn’t be seen behind the rocks. Kara looked where he pointed. It was an old ship with sails furled, bigger than the Land’s Wings, but rather decrepit. From it, small dinghies had rowed out, and those held the bomb throwers, busy now with nets, gathering the surface fish. Some of the floating forms were still thrashing madly about.
“I think something from the explosion’s broken their brains,” Djaren whispered, a bit horrified.
“There’s many more dead down there,” Kara told him. “If we wait for this lot to clear out and keep diving, we could have enough fish for a year.”
“That’s a bloody wrong way of doing things.” Djaren frowned at the boats. “For them, I mean,” he quickly amended.
Kara knew what he meant. It was one thing to hunt your food one at a time, all skill and danger, in an element you had no business in, and another entirely to blow the world to bits so you could pick off what floated.
“I don’t like the look of them,” Djaren said, squinting. “They have two cannons, and no identifying flag. I think those must be our poachers. They’ve come out here to hunt as they like now that the local law is all in disorder.”
“Think we could sink their boat?”
“And strand them here with us?”
“It’s not a perfect plan.”
“If we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone, and eventually go away.”
“They aren’t leaving our island alone.”
“That they aren’t.” Djaren looked across the water. “We should warn the others, once this lot are out of the way.”
“We shouldn’t let all those fish go to waste, though.” Kara jerked her chin down.
“They shouldn’t have died in vain, no, but—” Djaren frowned across at the boats. “Let’s gather what we can. But they’ve ruined diving forever.”
Kara nodded grimly. “Lockpicks hate idiots with dynamite, too.”
Djaren looked thoughtful. “Yes, I can quite see that. Glorious as explosions can be, they really take the art out of one’s work.”
He understood, Kara thought. How odd of him. He could love and hate something at the same time, like she did.
She dove into a world now made of coral shrapnel and corpses, and dreamed of stealing a ship with two cannons and terrorizing the south seas, and diving every day. But all the dead things she found spoiled it.
* * *
“I don’t like the look of this.” The Professor watched the ship sail past, from the treetop platform they’d built near their inland camp. “If they circle the island, they’ll see the tents and our boat.”
“Should we move the beach camp then?” Jon asked him.
“Yes, and the boat, too. I don’t think we want to meet them.” The Professor climbed down, and Jon followed him, with one last glance at the ominous sails. The ship did have cannons. He wondered if that was where the poachers had come from.
They all ran down to the point and began packing up the camp. It was scary, hurried work. Jon pulled up tent stakes and coiled ropes while Tam and the Professor wrestled drinking water barrels into the rowboat. Anna loaded in crate after crate of tinned things, and Ellea helped by finding the tins they’d stuffed in the corners of the tents to use for weights in case of a storm.
“Oh dear, I’d forgotten those.” Anna frowned at the boat, so full now that it rode low in the water.
“The labels have all washed away. I wonder what they were,” Ellea pondered.
“Djaren will doubtless remember,” the Professor said. “Don’t worry, we’ll get the rest on the second trip.” He pointed out the lantern-shaped rocks a little way up the coast, behind which they could hide the boat and their supplies. He and Tam would do the rowing. “Anna, can you have the last tents down and folded by the time we return? And keep an eye out. If you see the poachers, hide.”
“I want to come along,” Jon said. “If you’re both rowing, you’ll need a lookout.”
The Professor nodded agreement, and gestured him toward the boat. The three of them found places amid the barrels and crates. Tam pushed off, climbing in with a grumble. “Those two have gone and nipped my gumboots again.”
The Professor passed him the other set of oars. “We’ll have to see about outfitting everyone with gumboots when we’re back somewhere with a general mercantile shop.”
Ellea waved. “Have a lovely voyage, and be back by tea-time.”
Jon kept a careful lookout as they rounded the first point and the next. The heavily laden little boat was difficult to row. Tam and the Professor strained at the oars, and the boat veered further from shore in the current than they’d meant.
“Good thing it’s not lighter, though,” Tam said, “or we’d be swept out to sea. Best tell them in the outrigger to avoid this point if they don’t want a long row back.”
They hadn’t seen Djaren and Kara from their perch on the observation platform. “I hope they’re safe,” Jon said. “They’ll know to hide from evil poachers, won’t they?”
The Professor looked like he was about to say something, but just then Tam lurched, with an exclamation. “There’s trouble!” he said, pointing with his chin back the way they’d come, opposite where Jon had been looking.
Jon turned and saw a longer, faster boat rounding the point and gaining on them. Its crew of six rowers fought with the current, but broke free quickly, coming up between them and the island. The Professor made a dismayed sound, and stopped trying to row faster when he saw it would do no good.
The men in the other boat looked much like the poachers they’d seen in the jungle, all rough beards and strange clothes in different styles. They jeered and laughed as they drew alongside. Jon hoped they hadn’t found Anna and Ellea, at the camp. They had come from that direction.
One man stood up in the boat, and shouted across at them. “You Levour pigs, you think you can make fools of us. We are not fools, and you are not as funny as you think you are. People here know these waters are Vasca’s. Your bosses will know this now, too.”
“I’m sorry, there’s been some mistake,” the Professor said. “We aren’t Levour.”
The man in the other boat laughed. “I don’t care. Vasca does not care. You are in Vasca’s waters, stealing Vasca’s prey. Tell the sharks what your country is.” He nodded at his men, and four of them brought out rifles and took aim.
The Professor dropped his oars and scrambled to stand. “Stop, please, my companions are just children.” He sounded as scared as Jon felt.
“Now your bosses will know not to bring children into Vasca’s waters.” The man made a dropping gesture with his hand, and the rifles fired.
One shot blurred across the prow and another hit the stern. Two more pierced the water barrels, which began leaking into the boat. Tam cried out, shoving Jon down behind him. The Professor raised his arms, weaponless. “We’ll leave your waters. We didn’t know. Let us depart peacefully.”
The men didn’t lower their rifles, Jon saw, peering around a barrel. He looked down at his hand. It wasn’t glowing. The silver lines stayed faint, dormant, though his heart was pounding. It was supposed to glow, and save everyone, wasn’t it?
The head poacher shouted at his men. “You can’t shoot a child today? What about a week ago? Or are you too drunk now to shoot straight?”
Tam stood up and tried to shout, but the Professor stepped in front of him, making his body a shield between Tam and the rifles. “Whatever happens, Tam, you have to live,” the Professor said urgently. “There’s no time to explain,”
And then the shots cracked again, and the Professor fell against Tam, and both of them toppled, falling half over the side. A little red cloud burst from the Professor’s back, and his shirt was changing color, spreading out in a circle. The boat was so low in the water now that waves washed over the edge, and over Tam’s head. He didn’t move. The Professor didn’t move either. Shots broke apart pieces of the boat, more barrels. There was water everywhere, and the little boat was spinning back into the current, toward some big rocks.
Water was already coming over the side, when they hit the first rock. Cracks rippled across the weakened planks. Jon couldn’t bail, because he had to try to get Tam’s head and the Professor’s out of the water. They still weren’t moving. Salt water was bad in wounds, Jon knew. It was one thing to know, and another not to be able to do a thing about it. He pulled at the Professor and saw the bloodstain on his chest, too, and the seeping red hole in Tam’s shirt behind it. Panicked, wincing as more shots whistled overhead, Jon grabbed at them both. One hand found the sea bond, still secure on its cord around the Professor’s throat.
The boat came apart in three pieces as the waves batted it back and forth amongst the rocks, and Jon heard hoarse laughter out over the water. The three of them were sinking now. With some frantic kicking, Jon kept the broken timbers of the port rail underneath Tam and the Professor. It was just enough to keep their faces out of the water.
They were spun out on the tide like driftwood. Jon wriggled the sea bond and its cord free, hauled Tam and the Professor’s arms up and wrapped the cord about their three wrists together. He prayed in quiet sobs that they would live and find a safe shore where someone would know how to save people who’d been shot. He prayed for what seemed like a very long time, until he was too tired and sore to even cry anymore.
* * *
“Ellea’s upset,” Djaren said, dropping a final fish back into the water instead of the basket.
Kara chose not to be cross about the fish, since they already had dozens. “Did Tam bring back more eels or something?”
Djaren opened his mouth to answer, but just then, faint but unmistakable across the water, came the sound of gunshots. Rifles, Kara judged, several of them. Was it from the direction of the camp? She couldn’t tell.
“Come on,” Djaren said. They grabbed the oars and started paddling. The poachers with their dynamite had vanished around the other side of the island, but they stayed low anyway, hunkering down on the outrigger as gunfire came again a second, then a third time. It was the same guns shooting multiple volleys, with no one returning fire. Not a gunfight—Kara had heard plenty of those, from far too close. This sounded more like target practice, or a firing squad.
She said nothing to Djaren. They both paddled harder. They made their way past the little rocky islands, and round two points to where the beach camp should have been, and wasn’t. There was smoke instead, rising from what was left of their firewood tent. Broken crates were scattered about, and the drinking water barrels were gone.
“They burned the camp.” Djaren stated the obvious. “Where is everyone?”
They rushed about, searching. Djaren had the good sense, Kara noted, not to go shouting out names. They found the marks of several rowboats and many large feet, in the sand, but no sign of any people still here, either poachers or the others.
“They’re not here,” Kara said, kicking through the remains of the burning tent. “No one’s here.”
Djaren turned his attention to the jungle. “The other camp. They could be there.”
Kara didn’t point out that the poachers might also have found the other camp. There was something she needed, though, since it was looking like time to run again. She headed a few yards into the jungle. Djaren followed, and she let him. It didn’t take long to find her stash tree, and the bag of useful things Lady Blackfeather had given her. Djaren watched, impressed, as she shinned back down with it.
“That’s clever. Do you always hide your things?”
Kara dusted off her fraying trousers. “Yes.”
“Good thing I did.”
He couldn’t argue with that, and they set off, keeping a lookout for any sign of either friends or poachers. When they reached the inland camp, it had changed too. It barely looked like a camp at all. A mound of underbrush and moss sat where the fire pit had been. Everything but the woven huts had disappeared, and the huts themselves seemed half-overgrown by jungle.
Anna leaped out with one of the large brush knives. “You’re all right!” she exclaimed, and lowered her weapon.
“Where is everyone?” Djaren asked. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure on all of it.” Anna gave a quick explanation of how they had seen the poachers and decided to move the camp. “And as soon as the Professor and the boys left, the poachers came. They looked angry, so we hid in the jungle, and then retreated up here.”
“We’ve been camouflaging the huts,” Ellea said, emerging mud-daubed and leaf-covered from what looked like an ordinary clump of bracken. Anna was similarly mud-darkened and wild-looking.
“You look like root demons,” Kara said.
“Good work,” Djaren said. “But the gunshots?”
“We heard them while we were hiding in the trees. Djaren, they sent a boat out after the Professor and the boys.” Anna looked quietly panicked, around the eyes.
“I can’t hear them,” Ellea said, with emphasis. “And none of them can hear me. One of them should.”
Djaren blinked at her. “I didn’t know Uncle Eabrey could hear at all, like that.”
Ellea sighed. “He can’t. You’re very dull sometimes.”
“What do we do now?” Anna asked. “Should we wait here, and hope the Professor comes back and finds us?”
“You mean before the poachers,” Kara said.
“They can’t hear me,” Ellea repeated, annoyed and distressed under her layer of mud.
Djaren was paying close attention to her. “Then there’s something wrong, isn’t there? Can you tell more?”
“No,” Ellea quavered back at him.
Kara had never before seen Ellea on the verge of tears. Faking for effect, yes, but never for real. This frightened Kara more than the gunshots and the burnt camp had. “Look,” she said. “If these poachers can track, they’ll find this camp, and soon.”
Djaren nodded. He looked very grave. “The island is small, and they have a ship’s worth of men. There’s no law here to stop them doing . . . anything, if they find us. We can’t let them find us. We can’t stay here. I don’t think we can stay anywhere on Tuwa.”
Anna opened her mouth to object. “But Tam and Jon—”
“Are with the Professor,” Djaren said. “If anyone can survive disaster, it’s him. He’s nearly Father’s age, maybe more. It would take more than poachers to stop him.” He turned to Ellea. “If you hear or feel more, let me know. Maybe we can get a message to them somehow.”
“Mother isn’t answering either,” Ellea said very quietly.
She and Djaren exchanged a long worried look.
“We’re going to the main island,” Djaren said.
No one argued.
They packed their few remaining things into the outrigger, along with the fish Kara and Djaren had gleaned. With most of their supplies gone, those fish might be their next several meals. They hid and waited until dark. No more boats were visible now, and poachers probably couldn’t see in the dark like Kara and Djaren could, but they pushed off silently nonetheless, and dipped the paddles softly, without splashing.
“You have an idea of how to steer us, don’t you?” Anna whispered to Djaren.
He looked up. “I’ve memorized the stars. And I know which currents we want and which we don’t. I can do this.”
“And where do we plan to go? You promised, didn’t you, not to go to the main island?”
“I promised Father not to go to the north side of Tinaro. The city of Trimela is on the southern end. It’s the biggest city on the islands. They’ll have news, and a hotel, and a shipping office we can send messages from. Maybe we can find Mother and Father.”
“We don’t have money for a hotel,” Kara reminded him.
“We’ll manage. We’ve been living in tents and huts, remember?”
“Cities aren’t kind like jungles are,” Kara said. She could survive anywhere. But the others, no. Bad things happened to lost children in cities, until they knew how to bite and scratch and steal their way to better.
“You’re good with cities,” Djaren told her. “You can teach us.”
“I can’t,” Kara objected, taken aback. “You have to have some sense to start. Not be curious, not go about smiling at people. Not be pretty, not be kind. You’d fail before you started.” And even if they could succeed, she realized, she didn’t want to see how that would change them.
“I think I can handle myself in most social situations,” Anna said dryly. “Maybe even a little better than you do.”
“What about with people who’re more like me than you?”
Anna sighed. “Kara, I’m beginning to be sure you are the only person like you at all.”
Kara found that oddly flattering.
“Let’s go,” Djaren whispered, and he steered them, silent along the top of the water, into night. In the dark, Kara could see Djaren perfectly. He looked worried, too.
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