The sky was still turbulent with clouds as the handful of little boats sped silently over dark water. Jon peered ahead, wishing he could see with Tam or Temanava’s extra sight. The Professor was still out there, somewhere, always ahead of them.
“I don’t understand,” Tam said. “He’s moving too fast. Only fish can swim like that, and there’s something else down there that I can’t quite see.”
“I called on the island’s ancient guardians, on all our spirits great and small for aid,” Temanava said. “Could they be helping us?”
One of the girls toward the front gasped, as something large and dark surfaced yards off the port bow. A beautifully-carved fishing boat had bobbed to the surface.
“Retrieve that!” Temanava called.
Girls lassoed the prow and brought the new boat alongside. An oar bobbed up and was retrieved, and further along, another two oars carved in different styles.
“We need all the boats we can get to bring people back in,” Temanava said. “I think the spirits are helping us!”
“That, or the Professor’s stumbling into all manner of odd things somewhere in the deep,” Tam muttered.
Jon, looking down into the darkness below, saw moving lights. A big, sleek fish shape glided under their boat, its back shimmering with silvery lines and patterns very like the seal in his hand.
“I saw a—I think that the Professor may be waking some of those old bits of ocean up.”
“Quiet now,” Temanava warned, “we are getting close. Sound carries easily over water.”
Temanava was correct. They heard the pirate ship before rounding the point into the harbor where it was hiding. There were shouts and screams, terrifying in the night. Temanava and Tam rowed faster, still carefully dropping and lifting the oars so that there would be no splash.
The ship was alight with lanterns, interior cabins bright. There was movement in the water around it. Silent shapes roiled, dark but with glowing lines. Men were shouting, running from something on deck, and jumping down from the ship into something perhaps worse. As the girls, Tam, and Jon watched openmouthed, the whole ship lurched. Something very big seemed to have jarred it from below.
A pale, nearly naked figure on the deck crackled with strange bursts of white and blue fire. It seemed to be what the men were running from. Jon cried out, unable to help himself, as one man stabbed the figure through with a sword, but it only lurched as the blade went in and as it was withdrawn, then continued forward. The man with the sword ran, then, too.
“Bring us closer,” Temanava instructed the girls, who had stopped rowing. They looked at her, unsure. She repeated the command in a harsh whisper, and signaled the other boats likewise. The little boats advanced, careful, toward the bobbing ship. Shapes slithered out of their way, leaving Jon with only tantalizing images of a shining fin here, a great tail there, elusive lines of silver fire, turned green or blue by the deep water. There did not seem to be any pirates flailing in the water now.
Temanava gave the signal that meant everyone should ready their grappling hooks and pull alongside. Even she seemed frightened now.
“That is the Professor up there, isn’t it?” Jon asked Tam.
“It’s him, but he’s in a bad state,” Tam said.
“But he still knows us, doesn’t he? He wouldn’t hurt any of us.”
“I’m more worried for him than I am of him, but I’m not sure he’d know us from one moment to the next.” Tam shivered. “And I can still feel him hurting, from here.”
“Then we should help,” Jon said. He dipped his silver seal down into the water and willed a silent “thank you” to the helper spirits, or ocean things, or whatever they were.
“Stay in the boat now,” Tam told him. “And be ready to help folk down in.”
Jon nodded. “Bring the Professor back safe.”
Temanava’s girls all threw their grappling hooks as one, swinging their boats up against the hull. The pirate ship rocked a little as they began to climb.
* * *
The storm that hit Trimela made the trees shake and blew down tents. It also, Kara was happy to find, masked who was running about where, and what they were shouting to the people they found. Half the older boys were out with her in the mad streets, pulling family and friends out of scant shelters and up to the school.
“Also, it’s slowing down the oncoming armies,” Ellea informed her. “They’re holing up in the outlying farms. It’s only ordinary criminals looting in town, right now.”
“Is this street safe?” Kara asked, peering around a corner. She thought she heard screams from inside one of the houses.
“None of them will notice you.” Ellea sounded like she’d tasted something bad. “If I don’t answer for a little, it’s because I am busy.”
“Good luck with that,” Kara said, with a shiver. “I’m nearly to the Ropes’ hideout.”
The Red Ropes were huddled under an overturned fishing boat, around a guttering fire. Kara gave the password to get in. Aruke and the others were jumpy, as expected.
“Someone wants to hire us,” Kara announced. Best put it in a light they were familiar with.
“We don’t sign on with mercenaries,” Aruke frowned. “They always make the Pao’ulu die first.”
“Not the mercenaries, the school. You’re wanted to help defend the school. Pay is safety behind the walls, food and shelter for as many days as you’ll stand and fight, maybe more if you negotiate it right.”
“Someone’s lying.” Aruke frowned. “They don’t let people like us through those gates.”
“Tonight’s different. They need you. Most of the teachers are running.”
“Who’s boss then?”
“Some important Kaunatoan boy. He can whip me, and probably any of you, too, but he’s asking for your help. You can negotiate with him. Or I guess you can hide in here until the storm and the armies all pass over. Maybe they won’t notice you.”
Aruke made a face. “We spit on Kaunatoans.”
“Yeah, you mentioned,” Kara said. “Do you die because you won’t work with them?”
“What kind of food do they have?”
Kara grinned. She had them.
* * *
At the school, Isakoa and his men took up positions in a wedge formation in front of the gates, in the driving rain. The press of desperate people shrank away from them and their clubs. Above, Ellea frowned down at them from under her umbrella. Djaren, beside her, had resigned himself to getting wet.
“What’s wrong?” Djaren asked her.
“Some of them sting nearly as badly as the Professor,” she said. “They’ve had really unpleasant lives.”
Meister Feinhardt’s voice sounded behind them. “Are you really going to open the gates?” Wrapped in an oiled coat, he’d come up the steps to the gate. Some of the other teachers, including Sisters Marda and Agata, were with him.
“Yes,” Djaren said. He wished there was something more he could do, at this point, but he wasn’t a Kaunatoan with a club, and he couldn’t do what Ellea could. Or even Kara. He hoped she was safe, out there.
Isakoa looked up at the walls, through the rain. He nodded, seeing Ellea, and his glance took in the teachers, as well. “I am taking command of and responsibility for my people,” he called, raised his voice so that everyone could hear. “My name is Prince Isakoa. I will not let my people go defenseless while I have shelter.”
Feinhardt frowned at this revelation, Sister Marda cackled, and Agata looked distressed. The Kaunatoans outside the gate, however, looked up with new light in their eyes.
“Not all those people out there are yours,” Feinhardt pointed out. Although there was no sign of Aruke’s Ropes yet, Djaren saw plenty of Pao’ulu, and some Levour and others as well.
“All who will stand with me and swear to defend this place, they are my people,” Isakoa said. He looked up, directly at Feinhardt now. “Will you teachers help me or hinder me in my cause?”
Feinhardt sighed. “What did I teach you about ultimatums in rhetoric? Oh, very well. Let’s try your plan. You sent the chairman packing well enough.”
“They say that people recognize a true king. Except they don’t always,” Ellea observed.
“People seem to be responding well to Isakoa,” Djaren told her.
“Wasn’t referring to him.”
A disturbance a little ways off cut the cryptic conversation short. Shouts and howls went up from the back of the crowd,.
“Trouble,” Ellea said. “Move, now.”
Isakoa nodded at his men, who opened the gates. “In, in, hurry will you, that’s one’s fine, and them,” Ellea told the prince as he waved people through, past the Kaunatoans with their clubs and her watchful eyes. It wasn’t fast enough, Djaren saw, not if someone was attacking the back of the crowd. He ran down the steps. He couldn’t hold the line with the Kaunatoans, but he could help along a crippled man and his daughter, and then a slow-moving family. He handed them off to Anna as she crossed the lawn with an umbrella and lantern.
“This way,” she said. “We have food and blankets ready.”
Djaren smiled gratefully and waved more of the refugees toward the lights of the hall.
The flood of people through the gates stopped abruptly as the line of Kaunatoans reformed behind crossed clubs. Djaren wormed through to see what had happened. Isakoa held the arm of one man who was attempting to press through. The man was still now, staring up at Ellea.
“You’ve done bad things,” Ellea told the man. “You were sorry about the first ones, but later, no. He stays outside.”
“My family is already inside!” the man cried.
“You have one child inside, in class four. His bruises have finally healed. Out.”
Two of Isakoa’s guards forcibly removed the man, and the wedge reopened.
“Let us in!” someone near the back cried. “There are evil men here, with knives!”
Ellea’s eyes widened. “There are.”
“We can’t get them all through this gate at once,” Isakoa said.
“What do we do?” Djaren asked.
“Help is here,” Ellea said, as panicked screams gave way to shouts and war cries.
They hurried people through as fast as they could, as combat became visible through the press of the growing crowd. It wasn’t clear who was fighting whom, but none of them looked like organized troops.
Isakoa and his men threw several people back into the brawl at Ellea’s prompting. “Mercenary scout,” she said about one, “Killed six people while they slept,” about another, and once, “You don’t want to know.”
This last mysteriously bad man produced a knife from under his ragged shirt and lurched toward the prince. A small, dark figure leaped on him from behind and smacked him abruptly unconscious with two sticks. “I’m here with the Red Ropes,” Kara announced, nodding back over her shoulder to where the fighting was calming. “We just saved you from being overrun. I think that’s worth shelter and something to eat.”
Aruke and the others came up behind her, trailing frightened relatives.
“You are welcome among us, if you come as an ally,” the prince told Aruke. “What is in my power to do for your people, I will.”
“We want the same food you Kaunatoans eat,” Aruke said, unsettled.
“You will have it, if you stand beside us.”
Aruke opened his mouth to bargain further, but then Anna appeared with a basket of rolls. “These are fresh from the oven. I though you could all use a bit of something.”
“This time, we will help you,” Aruke said, as his gang swept past him.
Ellea raised her eyebrows, watching the Ropes and their families.
“Will they be trouble?” Isakoa asked her.
“They aren’t all good people,” Ellea said. “But feed and flatter them, and they won’t stab you in the back.”
“That’s about what I expected.” Isakoa sighed.
“You’re being a realist then,” Meister Feinhardt observed. He was leaning against the wall close by. “That’s encouraging. What is your plan from here?”
“Set rotations of watches,” Djaren said, “reinforce the gate, work out rations, and get the rest of the refugees behind our walls before the armies—” He peered down the hill and across the slopes to where the darker lines of jungle began. Little lights flared into bigger ones at the edges. “I think they’re here,” he said. He ran up to the wall to look.
Ellea was staring in the same direction, but her eyes were unfocused. “There are so many of them, and they’re ready to do anything.”
“Which troops?” Feinhardt asked, alarmed, before catching himself and frowning at the little girl. “Look here, there’s no need for fear-mongering. We can’t know until we’ve seen more evidence—”
The fires flared and grew up, and there were distant high screams.
“Shut the gates,” Kara said, running back out through them. “I’ll get some of the last in through the back. Keep with me, Ellea, so I can find the people who need saving.”
“Can’t I help?” Djaren called after her.
“You can catch me,” Ellea said, unfocused again. “I can’t follow her and walk about here both.” She slumped over into Djaren’s waiting arms.
Djaren sighed. “Let’s start reinforcing the gate, then. It’s going to be an interesting night.”