“We’re not leaving,” Djaren told Kara, turning to face her. She opened her mouth to argue, but then closed it again. “Not yet. Every panicked thief will be stealing boats and filling them with whatever they can loot. They’ll be prey to any group of plunderers who sees them fleeing. It’s too visible. And where would we go? We don’t want to get stranded in open ocean or shot by poachers before Mother and Father can find us.”
Kara frowned and crossed her arms. “I know something about running.”
“So think over some other options for once. We need more information.”
“I can tell you what I heard in town.”
“Excellent,” said Djaren. “Wheturi-not-your-real-name, this is Karo-not-his-real-name, a brilliant and talented ally. Karo, this is—“
“A Kaunatoan noble. Hiding with another name. Rumor in town says somebody called the heir is missing or dead. Have I got it?” Kara grinned insolently up at the prince, who frowned back.
“We’re all allies here,” Djaren warned her.
“That was fast.”
“Not everyone’s as hard to make friends with as you.”
“This ally of yours.” The prince nodded at Kara, while looking over her head. “What does he do that is worth bearing his manners?”
“Come at me and see.” Kara spread her hands in invitation to violence.
Djaren sighed and sat down. “None of you break anything permanent. We’ve got actual enemies approaching, remember?”
The prince looked Kara up and down, and then looked at Djaren. Djaren shrugged. “Seilu.” The prince called out one of his bodyguards, a boy who had proved despite his wiry thinness to be the best wrestler.
“You’ll need more than that,” Kara said. “Haven’t any of you got weapons?”
“They aren’t allowed,” Djaren began, as two of the bodyguards drew clubs out from under mattresses.
“That’s better,” Kara said, dropping two slim, sturdy sticks from her sleeves into her waiting hands. “Now I won’t feel so bad bruising you up.”
“Let me know when you’re done.” Djaren began drawing up a schematic of the school grounds in chalk. He didn’t pay much attention to it, though, looking up to see Kara and the bodyguard circling one another in new and interesting stances. The prince was watching too, intent. Combat exploded suddenly, with a staccato clattering of wood on wood and then on flesh. The Pao’ulu boys in the class hooted with admiration at Kara’s performance. Four of them ran over to her as the bodyguard reeled back to sit down on a bed.
“You are from these islands?” one asked.
“No, I learn fast,” Kara said. “Next?”
“You can say no,” Djaren offered the prince, from his corner.
“Nahaka,” the prince called.
Three more guards went down before one got a good hit in on Kara and batted her halfway across the room, onto the mattress-covered floor.
“Good!” Kara announced, breathless. “Can I try with those clubs?”
The prince, sharp-eyed, took two of the clubs and handed one to Kara, using it to pull her back to her feet.
“If you are going to be an ally to my people, and bold enough to insist on learning our ancient art, you should know the formal greetings,” he said. “I am Isakoa, son of Kominika.” He took a stance, holding out the club. “This club is Manawune, which in the hands of Kibatiral the Tall Boar, defeated Nambuka the Mighty, Edouwe the High, and crushed the brains from the skull of Tainafi.” He pointed at Kara. “You hold the club Fa’vaifale, made by the master Teatakan, which wielded in this island’s defense slew Ofato, swift Aneri, and Klimbil.”
Kara nodded, seriously, watching the prince’s face and stance. She wasn’t throwing insults anymore.
“This is a more elegant and difficult art than you may be ready for.”
“Try me,” Kara hissed.
This fight was well worth watching, and it did not end quickly. Djaren noted that Kara only used moves that she had observed in the fights before her, and then new ones that the prince tried on her first. To his eye, she seemed to have them all down perfectly. The fight came to a literally crashing conclusion that spun Kara’s club out of her hands in a move no one had yet used.
The prince laid his club down carefully on a mattress and nodded. “Good. Now, quickly, get the room in order. Someone will have heard that, and I am not yet ready to make my move.”
Everyone scrambled to restore mattresses to beds and hop into them. Kara darted out the window. Everyone was silently abed by the time a very annoyed teacher threw open the door. The teacher continued down the hall to the next room and the next, while Kara slid back inside and people began to sit up again.
The prince shook his head. “You have ever more interesting companions.”
“Full of strange dark fire,” the priest boy muttered, walking carefully wide around Kara.
She glared at him. “Shut up. I’m not a freak.”
“Then if we’re all friends now,” Djaren said. “I think we should gather more information. We need to know what the teachers plan to do.”
The prince nodded. “Let my people handle that. I, too, have those who bring me news.” He gathered his bruised guards and some of the other Kaunatoans and began issuing commands in a low voice.
Kara bounced down to sit cross-legged beside Djaren. “So in Shandor, who spits on who?”
That was an odd turn of conversation. “What?”
“Here, the Pao’ulu and the Kaunatoans hate each other, and they all hate the Levour who hate everyone back, just politely. Shandor has four people groups. Which are you, and who’s on top?”
“It, um, it’s different in Shandor.”
“Everyone thinks they’re different. How is it really?” She picked up the net bag and began playing with it.
Djaren tugged it back. “Do you mind keeping more secrets for us?”
“Have I minded before?”
“I can’t tell.”
Kara found an orange that he’d been saving for later, and bit it. “Just talk.”
“We do have four groups, and we’ve all fought before, in history, but one particular thing makes it hard to sustain any kind of fighting. We have the King. It’s a Queen now, but it can be either.”
“Levour has a king.”
“But ours are different. Really different. Once every generation or so, someone in Shandor is born with bonds to every Shandorian alive. Kings or Queens can feel the presence of everyone in the country and, conceivably, talk to anyone who can hear. They can’t do anything that is bad for the people without feeling the effects themselves.”
“That’s twisted up. Who’d want that?” Kara offered him the remaining orange pieces.
Djaren shook his head. “They don’t seem to mind. And who better to rule? They’re closer to their people than parents to a child. And they’re responsible for seeing all the spirits of the dead safely passed on, and can tell who’s killed who, and if anyone’s gone all wrong inside, so it’s really hopeless for anyone to murder in Shandor. They’ll show up to any King. The King can find survivors in disasters, too, and missing children, and know at once if there’s trouble on the border, and all kinds of useful things like that. The current Queen knows just what babies want when they cry.”
“Sounds like a lot of work. And loud.”
“They get used to it, I guess. They learn from the old King or Queen, and come into their reign only when the old ruler retires. Also, there really aren’t that many Shandorians. More than there used to be, though, since medicine is better, and there hasn’t been a war lately, and there’s all the Northfolk with us now. Anyone from any people group can be born King. Any baby could be chosen, however unlikely. And then there are the Amryns.”
“They’re a little the same, but with Land. They feel the Land, can hear its heartbeat, bless crops, talk to animals, stop tsunamis, and, evidently, cause earthquakes.”
“That’s uh, interesting?”
“I have news,” the prince said, walking over to them. “Farms to the northeast were raided and burned. The fighting is coming closer, and the retreating Cormuradan mining corps troops, my father’s splintered Kaunatoans, and the Sola West Sea fruit company’s mercenaries are all being pushed this way. The Levour troops garrisoned here are gathering up all the prominent Levour citizens.”
“That’s going to get very ugly,” Kara predicted. “Ready to run yet?”
“The argument downstairs is over whether to panic and run, or dig in behind these walls and possibly take in some of the refugees swarming outside begging for protection. The teachers put it in more complex terms, of course, but that’s the gist of it.”
“What does it look like they’ll do?” Djaren asked.
“They seem fairly split over it.” Thunder rumbled in the distance. The dark clouds that had been raining over other islands seemed to be moving toward Tinaro now. “I believe it is time for me to act,” Isakoa said. “There is a point past which caution will not avail. I have reached it. I will wait no longer.”
Djaren’s breath came a little faster. Isakoa seemed calm, outwardly, but there was a spark of revolution in his eyes. I wanted it to come, but I didn’t know it would happen this fast. “What will you do?” Djaren asked. “And how can I help?”
“I wish to hold this place, if it can be held, and defend my people.” Isakoa gestured to the chalk maps Djaren had made during the fights. “You have been considering this as well. Tell me more of your thought.”
Djaren coughed. He was evidently in the inner circle now, with the prince, his bodyguards, and his priest all looking at him. “The walls can be defended,” he said, “though we’ll need more people. We have a dedicated well, and a good supply of food. The buildings are far enough back and apart from each other that they can’t all be set fire. And even if the walls fall, the central building could hold. We’d have to take down your tree, but the main doors are strong.”
“We’d be trapped,” Kara said.
“We’d be buying time, and the lives of hundreds of people. We won’t even have to hold for too long. If the armies are retreating, they won’t go digging in for a long siege. They’ll grab or destroy what’s easy, and keep going. I think.” Thunder clapped louder, closer, making them all jump a little.
“If we are to hold a siege, like in Levour histories, I must have command of the whole school,” Isakoa said. “Let us go downstairs and deal with the administration.” He began issuing orders and people followed them. Djaren watched, impressed.
“You’re planning a siege?” Ellea asked, surprising him. “Not borrowing a bit of Grandfather, are you?”
“I wish,” Djaren answered. “Thought you might be listening.”
“You seemed busy, so I didn’t want to interrupt. Things are very interesting tonight.”
“Seilu, take this pendant and show it to Tewela, my man in charge of the stores,” Isakoa said. “Tell him to prepare supplies for a long battle, and to have food brought into the dining hall within the hour. Kahilti, go wake and gather our little brothers, and bring them down to the hall in their uniforms.”
“We need more people to man the walls,” Djaren said to Isakoa. “I think you should let in the Pao’ulu and everyone else we can gather from the town. You’ll have a lot more people loyal to you by the end of the night.” To Ellea, he said, “Are you and the girls still safe? Is my plan too rash?”
“As people’s plans go tonight, yours is not the maddest.”
“You’re mad,” Nahaka hissed at him. “The Pao’ulu will stab us in the back. It’s what they dream of at night.”
“You sound odd,” Djaren told Ellea. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine. It’s others I’m concerned about.”
“That’s um, a good habit for you, I think. What’s happening?”
“I’ll tell you when I understand it myself. I could tell you pieces, but I would sound mad, too. Like Uncle Eabrey.”
“I thought he couldn’t Speak.”
“He can scream, and I see things, and I don’t like it.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?”
“No. We’re centuries late.”
“If I am to rule and restore these islands, I must act with honor to all its people.” Isakoa addressed Nahaka, then the whole room. “Many of you have families in town. We will bring them safely within these walls. I need your help to do this. Join me, and we, the united peoples of these islands, will work together through this night and into a new day.”
“Listen, Ellea, we need to take over the school. Can you help?”
“Does it involve breaking rules?”
“I mean real rules, Mother and Father’s rules.”
Djaren winced, trying to concentrate while the room was noisy in cheers. The boys seemed eager to take over their school. “I wasn’t thinking of doing it that way. I mean, could you? The whole school? Wait, don’t answer. That’s a no. No breaking Mother’s rules. But keep listening, and I’ll let you know when I need your help.”
“Very well,” Ellea sighed. “Go play general.”
Isakoa assembled the class into something resembling a platoon rather than a mob, and he and his bodyguards led them downstairs. More people joined them there, Kaunatoan groundskeepers, cooks, and workmen. In the courtyard, they found Levour soldiers struggling in the rising wind to pile luggage onto wagons. Sister Marda stood scowling at them. When she turned and saw Isakoa, her frown transformed.
“Aha,” she cackled. “The time is come. When the faithless flee, let the children lead, yes. The true scriptures are the right ones.” She waved at the nearby administration hall. “The Civilizing Mission Chairman, pah, and his cronies are leaving. They’ll take all the food stores if you let them. Thieves and looters. But I have the keys.” She shook an old key ring in her gnarled hand. “I hold the stores, and the gates as well. Call forth the faithful and run out the rabble, your highness.”
Isakoa blinked, and looked from side to side at his companions. “How do you—”
“Prince Isakoa, these eyes are old, not blind.” She pointed at the tattoos on his face. “You are a good boy. I hope you are a good king too. We’ll learn soon, won’t we? Call on the saints for guidance, forget the Helianth lies, and righteousness will be yours.” She handed the keys to the groundskeeper beside the prince.
“Thank you for your, uh, help, Sister,” Isakoa said.
“Hmph. I want to watch when you cast out the unworthy.”
The storm brewing outside was nothing to the one indoors. The chairman’s office was packed with panicking teachers when Isakoa and his entourage arrived.
“Our whole mission here is to help people! They’ll die if we don’t let them in,” the music teacher was shouting.
“We’ll be overwhelmed by rabble,” another teacher wailed.
“Out of my way.” The Civilizing Mission Chairman was elbowing his way through the crowd, assisted by two Levour soldiers with rifles and bayonets. “I must get to my ship.”
“Isn’t there room for any more?” someone in the back called out.
The chairman didn’t answer, just pushed his way to the door, telling the soldier nearest him, “The supplies are in the north barn. You can collect them as we leave.”
“No,” Isakoa said loudly, surprising the chairman with the sudden appearance of the large Kaunatoan delegation. “You are not taking the food. You will leave with your belongings and no one else’s.”
The Levour soldiers startled, and one tried to raise his gun in the crowd. Isakoa’s men just looked at him, and the other soldier shook his head. “Our orders are to bring you to safety,” he told the chairman, “not to fight here. If additional reinforcements are needed, we’ll have to petition the Commandant.”
“Go back to your garrison,” Isakoa told the soldiers. “Go back to your ships. I will not surrender these supplies or this refuge to any army.”
The older Kaunatoan men surrounded the soldiers and the chairman, and escorted them firmly out. The rest of the teachers started up again with their panicked questions. Some of them looked to Isakoa. Others, Djaren saw, were eyeing the door.
“I have family out there!” Master Lesancoer shouted.
“What will we do if the armies come to our gates?”
“I don’t have money for passage.”
“Who will protect the little ones?” Sister Agata fretted.
Isakoa stamped a foot down hard, and his bodyguards with him, all with a united shout. It brought the room quickly to attention. “I will defend these walls,” he said. “I and those who follow me. I have learned much from all of you, but now I can no longer be your student.”
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Meister Feinhardt asked Isakoa. “Your intent may be noble, but even grown men cannot see clearly in this.”
Several teachers murmured agreement. They looked nervous, and ready to bolt.
“I have a plan,” Isakoa said, arms folded across his chest. “And allies.” He looked at Djaren, the motion of his chin an acknowledgement.
“Bear in mind that it won’t be just us defending the walls,” Djaren said. “Once we’ve got friends and families safe inside, not to mention an army of refugees with families of their own to defend, we’ll be a real force to be reckoned with.”
“How are we to separate the real refugees from street gangs and criminals?” Feinhardt asked. “This place may be defensible, but that merely means that everyone will swarm here to take these walls for their own cause.”
“Hundreds of starving ruffians and savages,” another teacher, a balding man, said. “They’ll riot, and steal food.”
“Let them in as lambs, or they will tear in as jackals,” Sister Marda said, with relish.
“I happen to know a excellent judge of character, who can tell us who it’s safe to let in,” Djaren said. “And no one will have reason to steal if we’re the ones giving them food. We can use what we have here to unite those who need our help.”
“These people are very bad at uniting. You may have noticed from your history lessons,” Feinhardt said.
“In older days,” Isakoa said, chin high, “Kaunatoan kings united whole strings of islands, and brought order to many peoples.”
“Well, we don’t have one of those here, do we?”
“We do, actually,” Djaren said.
“I am going to save my people.” Isakoa turned on his heel. The Kaunatoans followed him out and Djaren jogged to stay at his side. “Who was it you meant?” Isakoa asked him. “Your sister?”
“She sees men’s souls.” The priest boy shivered.
“Call for her. Karo, you know where the Pao’ulu leaders are?”
“I know where a pint-sized boss is.”
“Will you go tell him to bring his people here?”
“They hate you,” Kara warned the prince.
“I have been working on winning over Pao’ulu for months.” Isakoa indicated the Pao’ulu boys in classes six through eight. “I would have them as our allies.”
“I’ll bring them, but you better do the talking,” Kara shrugged.
They had come up to the gates now. Strong Kaunatoans were pressing them shut against a desperate crowd, in the wake of the fleeing chairman. Pleas, wails and shouts echoed the slam of the doors closing.
“It’s chaos out there,” Djaren said, horrified.
“I can manage,” Kara said. “It’s no worse than the Blackdock riots.”
“It’s a pity we can’t Speak,” Djaren said. “I could stand on the walls, and tell you which streets were clear.”
“I can Speak to you both, you know,” Ellea interrupted them. “The girls are getting more beds ready now. Anna says to prioritize the sick and wounded, and parents with small children. Also, I’m on my way, even though you didn’t consult me. I am bringing an umbrella. It’s going to rain in a moment.”