Temanava and the sailors decided on an inlet to hide their new pirate ship in, and anchored there to wait out the few remaining hours of night. They were just done deciding on watches when Tam smacked his head with his palm. “Oh! The Queen! I was supposed to—what time is it now in Shandor?”
“Early morning,” Jon said.
“Doesn’t hardly seem right does it, being so far?”
“Perhaps you can sit down and have a talk,” the Professor said.
Tam nodded, and settled into a seat made of coiled rope. He frowned carefully at nothing in particular across the deck and then began making faces. He belatedly noticed Temanava and the girls looking over at him, and pulled a sack over his head to hide.
Temanava came to sit on a paper mat, not far from Jon and the Professor. Her girls gathered around her. “We want to go back at first light and bring the others from the cave to join us. After what has happened tonight, it will no longer be safe for anyone, at the school.”
“That’s wise.” The Professor nodded.
“I also think some of the children you brought back,” Temanava told Jon, “may have older brothers or fathers already here.”
“Then we should reunite them!” Jon said. “Can I come along? I know the boys, a little.”
“I would be glad of the help.” Temanava looked from Jon to the Professor. “You are to stay here and heal. You have done already more for my people than I understand. I am sorry for what has happened to you, but your fire saved many this night.”
“I am glad something good came of it.” The Professor shivered. Temanava gestured to her attendants who brought her another soft paper mat. She rose and wrapped it about the Professor’s shoulders, like a blanket.
“Thank you,” she told him. “I will not ask you to take Corta again.”
The Professor bowed his head. “And thank you, for trying to give me my fire back.”
Jon didn’t notice falling asleep, but he woke when the girls began their preparations to leave. Tam was sitting beside him. He wore an expression that made his face look older, somehow. Jon wasn’t sure Tam had slept at all.
“Are you worried?” Jon asked. “I want to help Temanava, but if you think I should stay with you and the sailors, I’ll stay.”
“It isn’t that,” Tam said. “I talked to the Queen. She says we’ll talk more in person once we’re all home. And she’d like to see us back soon.”
“Does she know where Doctor Blackfeather’s team is?’
“She said yes. They’re on the move again, out of that odd place they’ve been holed up. I’m not sure quite what that means, but it feels like sense.”
“It’s time,” Temanava whispered.
“Be careful,” Tam told Jon. “The Queen asked if I’d watch over the Professor, so that’s what I’m going to do. And I’ll make sure no sailor thinks of taking this ship nowhere till you’re all back.”
Some of Temanava’s girls seemed to have the same orders, because they stood guard on the ship as well, with rifles taken from the pirates.
“Oh. Here.” Jon pressed the leaf bundle of Corta into Tam’s hand. “You keep this safe.”
“I don’t think we’ll be needing it no more,” Tam said, but pocketed it. “One bless and keep you, right?”
Jon nodded, and followed the girls down the rope ladder to the boats.
The sea cave was much as they had left it, and they were greeted with relieved hugs by the girls who had been left behind. Two new girls were there this time.
“Inna, Marcella, is there more news from the school?” Temanava asked them.
“It’s fine. No one knows you were gone,” Inna said, as at the same time Marcella said, “Things aren’t fine and we need to talk.”
“You have taken many watches, Inna,” Temanava told her. “Thank you for guarding our secrets. But the time for watches is over. We must find the rest of our missing sisters. Are you coming with us, or are you staying with your sweetheart?” She looked at Inna.
Inna straightened her hair. “We’re to be married soon,” she fumbled. “You, you should rethink leaving the school. It’s not safe. We could talk to someone. At the least we should gather more supplies. Just one more day. Come back up for one more day.” She put a hand on the rope ladder, twisting it nervously.
“We can’t,” Marcella said. “More of us would be taken every day. Go be with your sweetheart if you wish, but we will never return to that place. And you should be very careful, Inna, in what you choose.” Marcella brandished a ledger book.
Inna looked very flustered. “I should go,” she said. She climbed the rope ladder quickly, with no backward glances.
Temanava frowned up at her as she went. “Grab what you can and get in the boats,” she ordered the rest of her people. “Marcella, tell me everything.”
“I snuck into the administrator’s office,” Marcella said. “And look what I found.” She opened the book to a marked page. “There’s a recurring line item that doesn’t fit,” she said. “Birds.”
“Birds?” asked Jon. “The pirates were poaching birds.”
“Yesterday, delivery of 9 songbirds. 270 chips.”
“Isn’t that what they use in Maribelle? That’s rather a lot for birds.”
“It’s cheap for people though,” Temanava said. “These are the girls missing from music lessons.”
She ran through the ledger quickly, Jon peering over her shoulder. When loose pages fell out, Jon caught them. “Look, maps!”
Temanava examined the first one. “This is a cove on the east side of Falau.”
“This one looks like a city,” Jon said. “With a building marked, and how to get there from the port.”
“There are no cities that size anywhere in these islands,” Temanava said. “That could be in Maribelle.”
Jon flipped to the third map, and they both said it at once. “Tuwa.”
The rope ladder above them began to sway with the weight of someone heavy. “In the boats, now!” Temanava shouted. She grabbed the ledger book and maps, and ran with Jon to the water’s edge, where she pushed off one of the boats of girls.
Jon settled the last of the little boys in their boat. “You’re going somewhere safe,” he assured them.
He looked back, and saw that men in neat uniforms were coming down the ladder. They had rifles. “School guard!” one of the girls shouted. Temanava hurried to push another boat off, and Jon gave his boat a shove out into the swift current that would carry the little boys away from the cave.
When he turned back around there were men training rifles on Temanava and the last few girls. If he jumped in the water now, he could still swim out and get on the boys’ boat. If he stayed, he’d be captured, too. Tam can find me. Tam can find me anywhere. He can’t find Temanava.
Jon paused, and lost the chance to flee.
Next down the ladder came a red-faced administrator; several tall, grim, people in staff clothes; and the girl Inna, who stood very stiff and would not look at Temanava.
“I didn’t want to believe that you were a thief, Temanava,” the administrator said, gesturing to the ledger book she still held.
“I never wanted it to be true of you either,” Temanava said, standing tall. “Expel me.”
“It’s too late for that, I’m afraid.”
“Have I been discovered as a stage actress, then? Accepted to a foreign school I never applied to? Chosen to go be a governess for some nice family abroad? Is it a sadder lie, like factory work?”
“Temanava,” the administrator sighed. “Sharp wits and a sharp tongue will not serve you where you’re going.”
“Tell me the truth, then. Who are you selling us to, and where have they taken the others?” She threw the ledger down at his feet, and the men with rifles shifted dangerously.
‘I’m not listening to this nonsense,” the administrator said. “You are clearly a troublemaker. Fronseau, take her to the wagons.”
They seized Temanava and pulled her toward the ladder.
“What about the others, and the little boy?” another man asked.
Jon stared up, shoeless and ragged.
“I see an unclaimed delinquent thief’s accomplice, present without leave on restricted grounds,” the administrator said. “Let’s not have him cause a fuss. Bring him, too.”
Jon squeezed his eyes shut as they grabbed him, hoping he was doing the right thing. He thought, as loudly and clearly as he could, “Tam, Temanava and I are caught! Bring the ship and rescue the girls and boys in their boats. I think they’ll take the rest of us to Tuwa. I’m staying with Temanava so you can find us. I’m so sorry.”
* * *
Djaren crept south through Trimela, keeping to the darkest shadows and stepping carefully heel to toe with his soft leather boots, as he’d been taught. Inside, he wanted to run, but that would be stupid, and he knew it. Kara and everyone else already seemed to think he’d combust if left unattended in a rough place. “It’s your face, dear,” Mother had told him once. “One day you’ll find a way to make their underestimation an advantage.” That was something she was already good at.
Tonight Djaren had smeared his offending face with charcoal, making himself as much as possible like the shadows through which he crept. He held his bow with an arrow at the ready, carefully tipped with Sister Marda’s paperflower extract. All around him, the city was spiraling so wildly into chaos that most of the people he crept past would not have noted him if he’d run by shrieking. There were people setting buildings afire, people trying to put burning buildings out, and people trying to loot the buildings, all at once.
There was a near thing with a fruit company man who came round a corner suddenly, dragging a resisting girl with him. He stumbled right into Djaren, who stabbed him promptly in the leg with his arrow. The man startled and shouted, and the girl kicked her attacker in the back and ran. Djaren leapt out of the way as the man fell, barely dodging clear of his grasping hands. The man’s curses grew slurred after a moment. Djaren rose shakily and prepared another arrow with a more generous smear of the drug. “That was accidentally heroic of you,” he told himself. “Well done. Keep walking now.”
He hoped his feeling of growing unease was just his own fear. Whatever the case, by the time he could see the water through smoke and the blaze of more fires, he felt uncharacteristically frantic and ready to bolt at every sound. He was very careful around corners, and so he saw the group of fruit company men gathering ammunition down the street to the west, and went east instead. The problem with east was that an even larger group of Kaunatoans were finishing off some fruit company men in that direction. South was a blazing row of buildings, and north was a dark doorway locked from the inside.
The rising firelight was rapidly devouring the shadows he hid in. Shots whizzed overhead from the west, eliciting shouts from the east. After pounding at the dark north door without effect, Djaren dived down and rolled away south, toward the fires. No one followed him as he dashed under falling timbers and out through a shower of sparks into an area under attack only by fire.
He ran, letting his fear guide his instincts, and focusing on the feelings that seemed least like his own. His boots sizzled, uncomfortably hot over char, as he ducked and wove. He skidded to a stop inside half a building. It looked like a customs house, with a high balcony above a dock where ships would unload their cargo for inspection. Half the building was burned away, and the ship within was on fire. He looked down to see the floor cracked open under the weight of fallen timbers from the roof. There, half in sea water and half buried in burning rubble, was Kara.
“Kara, hang on, I’m here now,” he called down. He laced a rope over the sturdiest remaining rail of the balcony and rappelled down. He picked his way over smoking, broken floor. “I’m here.”
“Get out of my head, you idiot,” Kara choked hoarsely, not looking at him. She was gripping a beam white-knuckled to keep her head out of water. “I’m not dying thinking of you.”
“I’m not in your head, though I think you might be just a little in mine. And this is a rescue, so you dying isn’t an option today. You’d spoil the whole thing, and I was doing rather well.” Djaren looked with concern at the tangle of timbers, limbs, and nearing flames. “Unless, of course, you still prefer the company of burning buildings to mine. I’d rather hoped we’d moved past that.”
“Oh, you’re really here.” Kara lifted here head and blinked at him. “How stupid are you?”
“Those results aren’t in yet,” Djaren said. “Right now I need either the strength of Bearir, or some leverage.” Something caught his eye amid the mess. “Or an oar! Just the thing. Hold still, I’m going to try something.”
“Try leaving,” Kara said. “Bits of the ceiling keep coming down.”
“How did you even get in this mess?” Djaren asked, straining to lever up the top beam that was crushing Kara. It was beginning to blaze alarmingly.
“Not sure. Ellea stopped talking, so I just lit the fuse and ran. Then everything went up, and I was flying. Followed by crashing.” She winced. “Ow. My legs are wrong.”
“Yes, well, let’s worry about that once you’re not buried,” Djaren grunted, standing on the oar to get more leverage.
“And drowning,” Kara pointed out. “It was awkward of you to come.”
“And awkward of you to be drowning and buried. You aren’t making this rescue easy.” Djaren got the beam to shift a few inches, and Kara made a hissing noise. “Sorry!”
“If I let you rescue me, you’d never get over the swelled head. You’d be impossible to live with,” Kara said, voice strained.
Djaren threw all his strength into shifting the beam, and though it wrenched his shoulder painfully, he at last got it to slide away. “You’d be harder to live without,” he said slumping down near her for a moment to cradle his aching shoulder.
Kara’s eyes were very close, wide and dark, afraid, angry, and confused. “Don’t you dare say something stupid like that, and then give up.”
Djaren pulled himself up and found the oar with his good arm. “I’m not giving up. I don’t do that, remember?”
Pieces of the ceiling crashed down a few yards away, putting larger cracks in the floor, and showering them with sparks. Djaren began prying at the second beam. It wasn’t burning, which, sadly, seemed to make it heavier. The heat and smoke were oppressive now. Every breath stung.
“Just kick it properly where it’s weakest,” Kara suggested.
“Well, you could do that, if our positions were reversed. I don’t have your unique skills.” Djaren’s oar began to bend and crack.
“Agreed. Next time you be the one pinned under timbers in the burning building. I’ll be doing the rescuing from now on.” Kara’s face was barely above water now.
“I’ll arrange it at the next opportunity,” Djaren said, throwing himself at his task before he lost his oar entirely. It gave way as the ceiling did. Djaren curled instinctively down near Kara, looking out under one arm as burning wood began to rain.
A big shape suddenly obscured Djaren’s view. Wide shoulders and arms with strong, clawed hands grabbed the falling fire and redirected it, tossing it like tinder. The strange, fanged man above them shook sparks from his dark red fur like they were dust, and lifted away the rest of the beams while shielding them both from falling debris.
“Rades!” Kara exclaimed, as he pulled her up out of the water and into the crook of a large furry arm.
“Rades the Wolf? You’re one of the queen’s own warriors!” Djaren exclaimed, choking on the smoke. “What are you doing here?”
“Showing you how a rescue is done, of course,” Kara said, interrupting the man as he tried to speak, and eliciting a toothy smile.
“Is Father near?” Djaren asked.
“Or the rest of the night crew?” Kara asked.
“Not here,” Rades said, picking Djaren up, too, and loping with them toward the last unburned doorway. “He is having words with the island. I was sent to find refuge for one of our wounded, and to look for you.”
“Thank you,” Djaren whispered, as they came to a halt once again, in clear night air. “Who is hurt?”
“I left them under the boats, this way.” Rades tilted his head toward the water. He let Djaren down to walk beside him, keeping Kara tucked in his arm. They walked right past a group of fruit company mercenaries who looked at Rades and ran. Kara grinned.
“They must think I eat small girls for dinner,” Rades said.
“I’ll be convincingly unconscious in a moment,” Kara said. Her voice was still strained, and she had been telling the truth about her legs being wrong. One was dark with blood, and the other bent oddly at the ankle.
“Melya will know how to help,” Rades said.
As they neared an overturned boat on the beach, a woman climbed out from beneath it, a knife gleaming in one hand. “You’re back. What did you find?”
“Are you Hirnar’s Melya?” Djaren asked. “You wouldn’t happen to be a healer, would you?”
Melya was a capable-looking young woman with dark skin and a long braid, wearing stained field clothes. She looked at Rades, Kara, and Djaren. “Yes, but I think I’m going to be overworked here. And I need clean water.”
“Up that hill,” Djaren gestured, “behind the school walls. They’ll let us in the back way. I told them I’d return with someone wounded.”
Melya lifted the corner of the boat, revealing Hirnar’s large, motionless form, sporting a bloodied bandage.
“I can carry him again, but only him,” Rades said.
Melya frowned at Djaren. “You, young man, have a dislocated shoulder.”
Melya grabbed him and fixed it, suddenly, painfully, and well. “Ah,” said Djaren.
“May I borrow your weapons?” Melya asked him.
“They’re just practice arrows. I’ve been smearing them with something that makes people sleep.” Djaren handed them over.
“That works,” Melya said. She quickly made a sling to help him carry Kara, while keeping most of the weight off his bad shoulder. “Rades, you’ll carry Hirnar again, and I’ll keep trouble off our backs.” She tested the bow. “Light, but it will do.”
Partway up the hill, Kara gave up complaining, probably because she was too hurt to argue, and Djaren had little to say because he was out of breath and it was hard carrying that much weight piggyback, wrapped tight around his chest and shoulder. Melya only had to shoot three people. Most were smart enough to get out of the way of the tall, hairy wolf-man as he emerged from smoke, flames, and darkness carrying the bloody body of a large warrior in his claws.
“Are you really fireproof?” Djaren whispered up at him.
“Only fire resistant,” Rades said.
“You’re like this amazing fairy tale Mother told me about. It’s an honor to meet you, sir,” Djaren said.
Rades smiled, showing sharp canines. “That is not most people’s first reaction. May I borrow something of yours to wrap myself in before we intrude on your allies?”
They ended up giving Rades Hirnar’s shirt, with Djaren’s smaller shirt to wrap around his head, over his nose and mouth to hide the fangs. Djaren told Melya how to shoot the last flare arrow, which exploded nicely in an enemy-drawing diversion and served as a signal to the school that Djaren was back.
Rope harnesses dropped down the wall, and Kara was pulled up first, then the unconscious Hirnar. Rades and Melya held off the fruit company soldiers who were beginning to swarm over from their siege of the front gate. One harness came down again after what seemed like forever. “You both go, now!” Rades barked.
“You can’t hold them off alone,” Melya objected.
“And I can’t climb while holding them off for you,” he said.
Melya nodded, grabbed Djaren, and wrapped the harness round them both. As they were pulled out of reach of the soldiers below, Rades leapt up out of the mob, a bit bloodied now, clinging to the wall with his thick claws. He climbed alongside them. Boys jumped out of his way, shouting.
“This is a friend!” Djaren called. “These are all friends. We need to get Kar—Karo and Hirnar to medical help.”
“It is good you are back,” Nahaka said, breathless. “The prince wants to know where you are. Those men have made a burning cart before the front gates, and we cannot push it away, or keep the gates wet enough. They’re going to get in.”
Djaren looked at Rades, eyes gold above his face wrappings. “I resist fire, and do not lack for strength.”
“I’ll make sure that we cover you with arrow fire,” Djaren said.
Melya handed Djaren back his bow, and picked up Kara. Others were already carrying Hirnar to the main building.
“I don’t want to miss it all,” Kara moaned.
“You will anyway once you lose consciousness,” Melya said. “Off we go. Now save the day, and no dying.”
“She sounds like Mother,” Djaren said to Rades, as they ran along.
“She is quoting your mother,” Rades said. “Those are the words she said to us every day.”
“Did you have all sorts of adventures? Are she and Father all right?”
“Yes,” said Rades. “But no more questions, just saving the day.”
The dawn came suddenly, Djaren thought. The sun’s light quickly eclipsed the dying fires below, as the burning cart crashed back toward the soldiers. Rades climbed the walls again, his fur gleaming red in the new sun. Kaunatoans and Pao’ulu alike jumped out of his way, even with the face wrappings still in place.
Isakoa walked forward through the crowd, a bow over one shoulder. “You are another strange friend of Djaren?” he asked.
“He’s a great legend of my people,” Djaren explained, “and an ally.”
“You are very fortunate then,” the prince said. “All our legends died.”
“My respects to you and your living island.” Rades bowed. “I think much is still good here, and can be again.”
“There are more armies gathering out there.” Isakoa gestured over the gray and smoking city, and the dark jungles beyond. Grasses waved out in the fields, signaling movement, and boats full of new soldiers were coming toward the beach. “Will you stand with us?”
Rades considered this. “I would like a shirt first, but yes.”