Child of a Hidden Sea: Chapters 1-3

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Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica

Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues today with an extended excerpt from the portal fantasy novel, Child of a Hidden Sea. This high seas adventure is the first book in A. M. Dellmonica’s Stormwrack series. The third book in this series, The Nature of a Pirate, will become available December 6th.

One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. Glowing moths fall to the waves around her, and the sleek bodies of unseen fish glide against her submerged ankles.

The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies—and a language different from any Sophie has heard. Sophie doesn’t know it yet, but she has just stepped into the middle of a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered…her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.

But Sophie is stubborn, and smart, and refuses to be cast adrift by people who don’t know her and yet wish her gone. With the help of a sister she has never known, and a ship captain who would rather she had never arrived, she must navigate the shoals of the highly charged politics of Stormwrack, and win the right to decide for herself whether she stays in this wondrous world…or is doomed to exile, in Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica.

CHAPTER 1

Sinking.

Sophie Hansa had barely worked out that she was falling before she struck the surface of an unknown body of water.

First, there’d been a blast of wind. A tornado? Rushing air, pounding at her eardrums, had plucked her right off the ground. Howling, it had driven her upward, pinwheeling and helpless, over the rooftops of the houses and shops, carrying her up above the fog, in a cloud of grit and litter, trash can lids, uprooted weeds, discarded heroin needles, and a couple very surprised rats.

She remembered pain as something tangled and wrenched her arm. Then the upward thrust of wind blew itself out, taking with it the sunlight above. One second she was flying and sunblind. The next, she was plummeting, dead weight in the dark.

Terror jolted through her. She drew breath to scream, only to feel the spank of the sea, a wet fist of concrete between her shoulder blades, stinging even as it slowed her fall. She plunged beneath the waves, headfirst.

This, at least, was her element. Despite the fear and disbelief—the ocean? I made it to the water?—she instinctively held her breath as she went under.

Reaching out with the grace of long practice, arms extended, her body twisted to break her downward momentum.

A jerk—the arm—brought the motion short. Weight pulled her downward. The nylon strap of her camera case, looped around her wrist, had snagged something heavy.

She tried to slide it off, but there was no slack. Instead, she yanked up her skirt with her free hand, clearing her legs and scissor-kicking for the surface. One, two. For a frightening moment, she made no headway. Then she, the camera case, and whatever it had hooked all started moving upward. Sophie broke water, blowing to clear her nose and mouth, inhaling deeply.

Taste of salt, definitely not some lake …

“Help,” she shouted. “Hello?”

No reply. She kept treading, reeling in the tether on her wrist, creating slack so she could slip it off her arm.

The night sky was clouded over but something—a million somethings—twinkled above her, forming an oscillating, multipoint strip of light.

… shouldn’t be night; it’s three in the afternoon. Could I have hit my head? How far did the wind carry me? I was inland. Water feels too warm to be the Pacific …

What happened? Where am I?

One thing at a time. She tugged again on the nylon tether and saw a hand just below the surface.

“Nyuhh!” She got a good grip, wrestling the weight of the unconscious stranger. A woman’s upper body rose from the water, head lolling. Water dribbled from her lips.

Don’t be dead. Muscling her onto her back, Sophie supported her neck, letting her head drop behind her and fumbling to open her mouth and check her airway.

She was breathing. Relieved, she tried stabilizing the woman in a supported float—only to get swamped by a wave. Warm brine sheeted over her mouth and nose.

Spitting, she kicked harder. One foot caught solid meat … a fish? The sensation was like kicking a slimy two-by-four. She surfaced again, spitting.

“We’re good.” She coughed out the words. “I’ve got you, it’s okay.”

No answer. In the dim, cloud-filtered moonlight, the woman’s skin was the color of pewter, her lined face as still as an engraving. Then Sophie noticed the dagger, buried haft-deep under her breast.

Daggers. The alley. A couple of men had attacked the woman.

And I piled in, Sophie remembered, swinging the only thing I had, the camera case. The strap snagged her, I guess, in the wind. Or she grabbed it. I saw something go flying … a pocket watch?

The initial rush of fighting, falling, gonna-die terror was wearing off now. In its wake, she felt fatigue building in her muscles. Pain, too—the shoulder and wrist were throbbing. Sprained? She’d been lucky, she supposed; nothing was broken. She could have snapped her neck, hitting the water like that.

Just tread, Sophie, she told herself. Catch your breath, look around.

Fumbling to adjust her grip on the woman, she scanned the surface of the water. The breeze was light and the swells weren’t big—maybe half a meter high. Eddies near the surface and movement below, near her legs, hinted at more fish.

One of the aerial fairy-lights dropped out of formation, spiraling down to splat beside her like a fat purple-gray snowball. It was a bioluminescent moth, quivering feebly, in its death throes.

What the—I don’t recognize that species, Sophie thought. She wasn’t merely seizing on an ill-timed distraction—if she could identify the insect, she might at least know where she was, which ocean.

The moth’s wings had fanned out in the water: it was about five inches long from end to end. The posterior tip of its abdomen was aglow, but the light was fading as it died. Around her, more were falling, a sparse glittering snowfall.

Another fish bumped her treading legs, catching the edge of Sophie’s skirt as it lunged around her knee, spaghetti-slick and weighty, its open mouth crammed with jagged teeth. It gulped down the moth and vanished, leaving a wing drifting on the surface.

“Some kind of prey bonanza,” she said. “The moths are … migrating? This is incredible! I can’t believe I don’t recognize the species.”

A wave washed the wing against her wrist. It clung stickily. The injured woman’s chin dipped into the water.

Am I tiring?

“Wake up, please, wake up.” Kicking against the next surge, she tightened her grip.

Another moth drifted into view, wings beating furiously as it tried to stay aloft. As Sophie watched, it glided a foot, fluttered up a couple inches, then dropped down into another ready mouth.

It was easy to imagine the same thing happening to her. Tiring under the weight of the unconscious woman, wearing out, sinking below. The two of them breaking into anonymous nutrients, feeding the ecosystem.

“Not gonna happen,” she told herself. “Come on, focus on something else … like why isn’t it afternoon?” Talking to herself provided a check on her breathing. If she could speak, at least in short bursts, she wasn’t too exhausted.

Higher up, past the moths, a layer of cloud obscured the stars. It was bright nonetheless. The edges of the clouds were silver; edged in bone-white, lacy wisps backlit by moonlight. The full moon was ten days away. Could she have lost ten days?

Another swell lifted them, and she got her arm properly snugged around the woman, below the slender neck, braced above the knife. The lolling head rested against her shoulder. Now she felt secure enough to use her free hand to adjust her skirt, tucking it higher into her waistband, further clearing her legs.

“You got lucky there,” she told the woman. “I dressed up to impress you. No way could I have kept us both afloat if I’d been wearing jeans. You’d have drowned before I got them stripped.”

She was easing into what Bram called “diving mode” now, scanning the waves for threats, or anything she might use to improve their situation. She groped for the bobbing waterproof camera case, still bound to her wrist.

“Every bit of buoyancy, right?” Raising her face to the sky, Sophie aligned herself with the moths. Kick, kick, breathe. “Hope you’re headed for land, guys.”

The moths didn’t answer. They glimmered above, a streamer of pinpoints aswirl on windy gusts. Their bodies kept falling, more and more of them, blanketing the water, so many that Sophie could observe there were lots of big ones and a lesser number of smaller individuals. Females and males?

They were noisy, too. Between the splash and murmur of the waves she could hear … was that cheeping?

“Oop.” Embarrassment flared, though nobody was around to witness her mistake. “That’s not the moths, it’s—”

The woman coughed, spitting blood onto Sophie’s hand.

“Please wake up,” Sophie said. “Where are we?”

Something big broke the water, maybe twenty feet away. Anything might be coming from the depths, surfacing to feast on the fish that were here for the moths. Orca, sharks …

“Stay with me, okay?” she said. “Don’t die.”

A long sigh that might have been a groan.

“You kind of owe me. You’d so be dead if I hadn’t jumped into that fight with the guys who stabbed you. Besides, I think maybe you’re Beatrice Vanko’s sister. And the thing is, Beatrice is my biological mother…”

And apparently she hates me. “If I’m right, that would make you my aunt. I’m family. Maybe I didn’t exactly save your life, but you can’t die on family, right?”

Silly argument, but she pushed on.

“I know I shouldn’t have just turned up at Beatrice’s house. I should have called. I meant to drive by her place, get the lay of the land, you know? But she came down the street and I got excited. Seeing what I might look like when I’m middle-aged—”

So she’d done what felt right, as usual, without thinking it through.

“I’m sorry. You’re in shock, and I’m babbling. Suboptimal behavior, my brother would say.”

Kick, kick, breathe. “I guess after twenty-four years, I figured she’d want to know her daughter was alive. But that’s stupid, isn’t it? She got rid of me. I should have known she’d blow me off.”

Should’ve known she wouldn’t see anything worth getting to know. “Anyway, I saw you—” She skipped the part where she’d slept in her car for three days while watching Beatrice’s house. She wasn’t about to admit—even to an unconscious maybe-aunt—to practically stalking her biological mother. “I thought I’d try again. But those guys attacked you, in the alley—what was that about?”

You snapped, said a calm interior voice. The terrible things your biomom said drove you over the edge. All of what happened afterward—watching the house, weird guys attacking this unnamed maybe-aunt—it’s a nervous breakdown. Or do they call them psychotic breaks?

Kick, kick, breathe.

Maybe when your advisor called and tried to push you into setting a date to defend your thesis, you couldn’t deal. Finding Beatrice, the mugging and now this … maybe it’s all a delusion.

“If I’m insane, I’ll wake up in a clean, safe hospital sooner or later,” she said. “My family will come, I’ll take some antipsychotics and doctors will promise us it’s gonna be okay. Right?”

A furious, inhuman cheeping. A bedraggled moth had landed in the hollow of the woman’s belly. A small shadow splashed after it: one of the bats Sophie had heard earlier. It came up, triumphant, in the puddle of brine and blood, with the insect caught in its jaws.

The bat hitched itself past the knife, across her aunt’s breast, over Sophie’s wrist. It continued up her sore arm, climbing from the unconscious woman’s face into Sophie’s hair, pulling itself to the highest point it could find.

The bat settled on her head, munching on its catch and preening seawater out of its wings.

Sophie groaned. If this was a delusion, her subconscious mind was going all out to make it seem real. Pieces of carapace and drops of wet bug juice pattered on her forehead.

Just don’t crap on me, Dracula, she thought.

And then: I don’t know this species, either.

“See, that’s proof! Seagoing bats, glowing moths—come on! I don’t care how real it feels, it has to be a delusion.”

Munch, munch, munch.

“This is profoundly mediagenic. Somebody would have shot this. I’d have seen those moths migrating a thousand times. On IMAX, no less.”

From the bat, a spitting sound. The glowing tip of the moth’s posterior bounced down her face.

“I’ve never lost anyone—not on a climb, not on a dive,” Sophie said. “I’ve been in trouble before. You’ll make it.”

The body in her arms stiffened, then coughed.

“Those moths are going somewhere, and I’m rationing my energy. The sun’s gonna come up and I’m going to make it to shore. Some shore. With you, maybe-Aunt. That’s a promise.”

The woman’s eyelids fluttered. A second later, her weight shifted, lightening the load. Sophie felt a burst of acceleration; she was kicking.

“I don’t know for sure,” she said, “but I think that might make you bleed faster. Just float, okay?”

The woman sputtered some more; the kicking stopped. Her hand crawled to the knife, probing. She hissed, obviously pained.

“Dinna seyz Fleetspak?” she mumbled.

“What?”

“You speak Anglay…?”

“English.”

“Thought I’d imagined—Anglish only?” Her voice was thready.

“I can do Spanish, I guess, or a little Russian—”

“Who are you?”

“I’m—ow!” The bat on Sophie’s head had taken wing, yanking hair as it launched itself at the flying buffet above. “Hey, is that land?” The trail of lights in the sky was accumulating into a bright mass on the horizon.

“Stele Island. Moths … lay … eggs on the cliffs.”

“I don’t know Stele Island—is this the Caribbean? The Mediterranean? The Gulf?”

“Stele Islanders,” the woman repeated. “Boats’ll be out. The moths bring up deepfish … swim another mile or so, they’ll catch us.”

“Only a mile?” Sophie felt a surge of relief. “No problem.”

“Who are you?” the woman repeated.

Okay, Sofe, for once in your life don’t blurt out everything at once. Keep it simple.

It was what her brother, Bram, would have told her. Sophie blinked back tears as her detachment shredded. “I’m Beatrice’s daughter.”

Don’t go all motormouth on her, she’s injured …

“Daughter, Beatrice?” The woman’s face pinched; her mental processes probably muddled by pain or blood loss. “No. That daughter? How old are you?”

“Twenty-four. I didn’t mean any trouble, I just wanted to meet her. My parents are traveling and I wanted to track down my birth family while they were gone. Without hurting them, see? But Beatrice went mental when she saw me.”

“’Trice can be…” the woman mumbled. “High strung.”

“I kinda noticed. I told her, ‘Fine, I’ll go. Just tell me about my dad and I’ll bug him instead.’ That was when she lost it.”

“Your. Dad.”

“Do you know him? Did he die tragically or—” Sophie quailed from a picture-perfect memory of the horror on her birth mother’s face.

Beatrice recoiling, like I was poison …

She couldn’t quite ask—had her biological father been a rapist? Instead, she changed the subject. “Then those guys jumped you.”

The woman eyed her dully.

Told you, Sophie. You always feel this need to overshare.

Deep breath. Try again. “Sorry, miss—you are my aunt, right? I mean, you look like Beatrice.”

“Gale, child … name’s Gale.”

“I just wanted to know where I came from. Gale.”

A cough that was very much a laugh. “And here we are.”

“What do you…” But Gale had passed out, once again becoming dead weight.

Just swim, Sophie. It’s a delusion, remember? Kick, rest, kick, all in your mind, Kick, kick, rest. An aunt who’s a street-fighting ninja? Wizard of Oz windstorms that dump you in the ocean? Has to be a delusion.

Please, let me wake up in the hospital. Is that a bedsheet?

No such luck. She’d caught a thread of seaweed with her arm.

She pulled free.

Another tangled her feet.

The weeds were moving.

Up and down the glimmering path of winged bodies on the water’s surface, green-sheathed bubbles were rising, bean-shaped floats dotting a growing thicket of stems. Seaweed: it formed a carpet, highway-wide and blistered with the buoyant, air-filled pods. Bristly stems clung to Sophie, winding around her legs, around Aunt … Gale?

The weeds raised both women, the camera case and all the fish who’d come up to feast on the moth migration. Water streamed out of Sophie’s hair and her dress and she shivered, suddenly chilled. Gale’s weight came off her arm. The pain in her shoulder ramped up a notch.

The fish, lifted out of water, thrashed as they suffocated. A pelican landed on the cushion of weed and plucked one of them up.

Brown pelican, Sophie thought, pelecanus occidentalus, perfectly ordinary. Maybe this is the Gulf of Mexico. But how?

Entangled, afloat, apparently safe, Sophie stared at the tons of gasping fish as insects dropped in a twinkling rain around her and bats chittered above.

A jerk—something was towing them.

She kept her good arm locked around Gale, in case any of this was real. The way things were going so far, whoever was reeling them in would probably decide to throw them back.

CHAPTER 2

The first thing their rescuers said to Sophie was the same thing as Aunt Gale: “Sezza Fleetspak?”

They were out in small wooden sailboats, rickety eighteen- and twenty-footers with patched sails, whose crews were frantically hauling in the rising seaweed and its catch. A bucket brigade of adults sorted the thrashing fish; anything shorter than arm’s length went over the port side. The larger ones they clubbed to death and transferred below.

Preadolescent kids clad in undyed, lumpy sweaters worked at stripping the moths’ wings, trimming off their glow-bulbs and dropping the bodies into vats that stank of hot vinegar. Guttering motes of chitin flickered at their feet, which were mostly bare. A third group sliced the seaweed into arm’s-length strips as they hauled it up, popping off the floats and storing them in crates. Nothing was wasted.

No garbage, Sophie noticed. The dense mattress of vegetation should be full of plastic grocery bags, water bottles, and other refuse; the oceans were full of floating and submerged trash.

“Fleetspak? Sezza Fleetspak?”

The grizzled woman directing these words at Sophie was already examining Gale’s wound, tearing her jacket and shirt aside to reveal the knife, embedded just under a rib.

“English,” Sophie replied. “Español? Français? Russki? Anyone?”

Blank looks all around.

“Guess we can’t communicate.” She crouched by Gale, taking her hand. The knife had a leather-wrapped handle, she noticed, and a familiar brand name.

The woman—the ship’s skipper?—barked orders. One of the crew vanished below, reappearing a minute later with a threadbare blanket and a steaming cup. Sophie let him drape her—the wind was icy—and took a careful sip of what turned out to be hot fish broth, flavored with dill.

By now, the skipper had improvised a pressure bandage for Gale’s wound. She picked through her pockets and found a small purse, made of reptilian-looking leather and worked with unfamiliar letters.

At the discovery, the woman stiffened: whatever the thing was, it was bad news. She looked at Sophie before removing it—as if seeking permission? Sophie nodded, holding out a hand. The woman passed it over.

“Looks like it might be watertight,” Sophie said. The pouch had a clamshell shape and pursed lips with interlocked zipper teeth. Sophie ran her finger over the closure, looking for a tab, and the zip separated, releasing with a sound that was almost a sigh.

She could feel the crew’s eyes on her as she reached inside.

The first thing she pulled out was a badge.

It had the look of a police badge: shield-shaped, with a stylized sun stamped on it. It was made of an unfamiliar substance; it had the weight and hardness of metal, but looked like a polished piece of wood—fir, maybe, or birch. Ordinary Roman letters were pressed or carved into it. A couple of the words looked familiar—arrepublica, athoritz. Republic? Authority?

The sailors’ attitude, already disapproving, seemed to darken.

At this rate, they’ll chuck us overboard. She turned her attention to the next item, a silk scarf so fine she could see through it, like a veil. It was an oceanic chart—currents and islands were printed on the almost weightless fabric. There were no familiar landmarks, no X to mark any particular spot.

There was a USB flash drive.

“Any chance there’s a computer aboard?” she asked, but the skipper looked at the disc key without recognition. Sophie swapped it for the biggest thing in the purse, a cell phone, charged up and flashing “No Service.” She held it up and, again, got blank expressions.

The bottom of the pouch held some golden coins and a platinum Amex card bearing the name Gale A. Feliachild. There was a laminated picture of a younger Gale, standing with Sophie’s birth mother and a teenaged girl. A cousin? Half sibling?

Beatrice’s words came back: Get out, go now—you can’t be here—get away from me, you viper. No, I won’t calm down, I’m not answering questions. Go, go and don’t come back!

“Is my being here something Beatrice did—she sent me away?” Nobody answered her.

Right, and how would she do that?

How much time have I lost?

Where on earth am I?

She fought down the panic by focusing on the pouch again. The last thing in it was a dried chrysanthemum, carefully wrapped in waxed paper. More than half of its petals had been plucked.

She opened the paper, catching a faint whirl of peppery scent and dust. Just a flower, then.

“No answers here.” She replaced everything but the cell phone, taking one last look at the photograph as she closed the flap of the watertight leather satchel …

… which promptly chomped itself back together.

Sophie let out a little squeak as the ivory zipper teeth sealed, the leathery lips of the purse tightening over them. She nudged her finger between them again, feeling for wires, and the movement reversed. It sighed, again, as it flapped open.

She closed the purse, and it zipped itself shut.

“Oh, wow. You guys seeing this?”

Sullen glares from the sailors. They were probably deciding whether to tie the anchor to her ankles or her head when they dropped her in the drink.

At least they’d fed her first. She tightened her grip on the blanket, and drank more of the broth. Her shoulder and wrist were working up a deep ache that matched the rhythm of her heartbeat.

The skipper reached a decision. She clapped her hands and the ship disentangled itself from the fishing effort. A teen used tattered white flags to signal to the next ship. Turning to port, they set sail for the island, whose cliffs were outlined in starry white by the survivors of the moth migration.

They made good speed—the wind, at their backs, was rising.

Sophie tucked the clamshell pouch into her camera bag, and held Gale’s limp hand. Her pulse was faint but steady. She fought back a sense of wrongness as she did so, a weird feeling of falseness, as if she was pretending to be attached to this woman and all these people knew better. Head down, she rested, breathing slowly, monitoring her surroundings and not quite dozing. The ship sailed around the moth-starred edge of the escarpment and into a shallow bay.

Sophie’s relief at being in port—despite all evidence to the contrary, she had been imagining a hospital for Gale, phone service and Internet access—was short-lived. The people coming out to meet them looked as emphatically poverty-stricken as the sailors. Their village—a collection of shacks made of scavenged ship beams and driftwood, mortared with seaweed-colored muck—ringed the rise of land sheltered by the bay. There wasn’t a single electric light or cell tower; what illumination there was came from crude torches. Gaps and breaks in their teeth suggested they had little access to modern medicine.

The skipper had Gale transferred to a lifeboat, and gestured to indicate that Sophie should follow. The others were unloading, packing seaweed, fish, and barrels of brined moths into other boats. They were careful but hurried, moving with an air of urgency.

Sophie didn’t need to speak the language to know they were spooked by the storm—it was blowing up out there—and concerned about the other fishers. The kids were ordered ashore. A couple protested, and were overruled.

Hostility brimmed in the glances everyone was giving her.

The skipper grasped Sophie’s hand briefly before she clambered aboard the rowboat. “Feyza Stele kinstay,” she said. Gibberish, but her tone was reassuring.

“Thank you,” Sophie replied. She put her hand on her heart and the message seemed to get through. Straightening, the captain replied with a formal-looking bow. Then she was on the choppy waters of the bay, in a rowboat with her injured aunt and four burly sailors.

“Do you want me to…?” Tapping the nearest sailor, Sophie mimed a willingness to row. He pointedly set his foot on the spare oar.

Face it, Sofe, nobody wants anything from you.

“Be that way. My arm’s hurt anyway.” Behind them, the preteen kids were rowing themselves ashore. People were waiting, on the beach, to meet them.

They pulled up onto the sand, the sailors leaping out to tow the rowboat up beyond the reach of the waves. The biggest of the men lifted Gale like a baby.

“Watch her injury—” But one of the others had clamped onto Sophie’s elbow, manhandling her in the opposite direction.

“Ow! I want to stay with her! Where are you taking me?”

No answer. He hurried her along, up to a boardwalk, then a crude staircase cut into the rock. His grip on her elbow was like a granite cuff; struggling just ground her bones against each other.

What now?

Not drowning had been such a relief she hadn’t even thought about who her rescuers might be, what they might want. She fumbled for Gale’s pouch—if I flash that badge, or offer him the coins …

She stumbled as her escort jolted to a stop in front of the biggest of the shacks.

“Bastien,” he boomed.

Sounds from within. A willowy man with limp flaxen hair and gapped, soft-looking teeth opened the door, spilling candlelight out into the rising breeze.

The man looked from the sailor to Sophie, then past them to the sky, the signs of the rising storm. He uttered a single phrase, in a soft voice, and the sailor let Sophie go.

She didn’t wait for an invitation, plunging past them both on shaky legs, collapsing onto a bench on the far wall. The men conversed in the doorway; then the sailor left, and she was alone with the blond.

Him I can fend off. Even by the starved standards of these islanders, he was twig-thin, unhealthy-looking, pale where they were weathered.

He looked at Sophie, assessing her. After a moment he opened a trunk, pulling out a slate and a piece of chalk.

“Bastien,” he said, pointing at himself.

She felt a trickle of relief. “Sophie.”

“Bastien,” he said again, and now he wrote it: “Bastien Tannen Ro.”

He offered her the chalk.

Sophie wrote her first name.

“Sophie…?” He tapped the two names after his first.

“My whole name?”

He tapped again. “Zhillscra.”

Feeling stupid, fighting tears, she wrote: Sophie Opal Hansa. Age twenty-four, lost at sea, she added mentally.

“Tanke, Sophie,” he said. “Din sezza—”

“No, I don’t know your damned Flitspak,” she snapped. “I’ve got three languages, bits of anyway. You can’t speak any of ’em? I mean, you look like you’re the educated guy, right? Teacher? Scientist? You should be speaking English and applying for foreign aid and … I’m ranting now, aren’t I?”

Why not rant? She wasn’t in danger of drowning anymore. She was lost, miserable, and, apparently, a prisoner. Gale might be dying.

Outside, the wind howled, louder now.

“Seriously. You need Yankee dollars,” she told him. “Those leaky, scavenged-wood tubs … nobody should be out chasing fish in this weather.”

He gave her bad shoulder a sympathetic pat, then threw a brick of what looked like pressed kelp on his smoky, makeshift hearth. He made a thin tea, putting it before her in a shallow black bowl.

She took a sip. Whatever it was, it was bitter enough to make her sputter and spit it back. Bastien promptly took it away, setting the bowl on a marble table next to his trunk.

“Look, I—”

He held up a hand—wait. Then, opening a tiny larder, he came up with a carved wooden cup of water and an earthenware jar of pickled moths.

Sophie shook her head. “Not hungry.”

He pointed at a rough bed in the corner. “Fezza dorm?”

She retreated there, curling up near the stove. Bastien fussed with her confiscated tea, dropping in dust from a vial of saffron-colored powder, then grinding golden, beeswax-scented granules into the mix.

Could be worse. He doesn’t seem to want to “fezza dorm” together. She checked the cell phone she’d found in Gale’s purse. Still no service. She punched in Bram’s number, an oddly comforting ritual, and composed a text message:

Losing my mind. Send doctors with straitjackets and Haldol. LOTS of Haldol. Sofe.

The phone generated an immediate reply:

Message will be sent when you return to service area.

She’d last seen her brother five days ago, after the two of them put their parents on a plane to Italy.

Sophie had decided their vacation was a chance to take another good look through Mom’s stuff, to see if she could find any clues that might lead back to her birth family. She had assumed Bram would want her to drop him off so he could go dive into the latest pile of research.

Instead, he’d just finished a paper and was restless.

Bram in a mood to play was too much of a temptation to pass up. They’d gone for burgers, and then he’d wanted her opinion on a mountain bike he was thinking of buying, and by the time they’d chewed over the pros and cons of that he’d run into a couple friends who were doing a stand-up comedy show as a benefit for a neighborhood family who’d lost their house in a fire.

The two of them had agreed to be the comedy test audience for the show’s final rehearsal. That turned into Sophie getting pressed into providing musical backup—she’d taken guitar for a while, in school. They were at the comedy club all night, with her strumming and Bram alternately waiting on tables and “playing” the tambourine.

Wind slammed the flimsy wall of the shack with the strength of an angry bear, jolting Sophie back to the here and now. The storm was building.

She traced a finger over her case. There was no point in taking the camera out: the light was bad. She could click through her shots from the past three days, two hundred stalker pics of Beatrice, her husband, and Gale. But that would waste battery power. Tomorrow—if she didn’t get put to sea in a raft or forcibly married to the King of the Starvelings—she might get a shot of one of those moths in its pre-pickled state.

Power down. Years of hiking, sailing, caving, and climbing had taught her to catch up on her rest when there was nothing else useful she could do. She closed her eyes, made a halfhearted attempt to meditate, and drifted into dreamless sleep.

Clinking woke her. She opened her eyes to see Bastien had finished measuring and mixing the contents of his tea bowl. He flipped an hourglass-shaped timer and stared at the chalkboard with Sophie’s name on it. Humming, he sketched letters from the unfamiliar alphabet below the letters of her name. Translating it? His lips moved as he worked. “Zooophie. Nuh. SSSSohhhfeee.”

When he was satisfied, he dug in the trunk, this time coming up with a conch shell about the size of a softball and a tool—was it made of ivory?—that reminded her of a dentist’s pick. He lit two lanterns, brightening the room around the table. Then, taking a deep, meditative breath, he began to carve.

Great. Now it’s hobby hour?

“Bastien—”

“Shhh!”

She took out Gale’s purse again, touching the zipper and watching it open itself. She dumped its contents, examining the seams, looking for wires or magnets, feeling the weight of it, listening to the purr of its teeth locking together. She’d have to cut the thing up to figure out how it worked.

She examined the gold coins. They were a set, of sorts—each had a ship on one side and an unfamiliar flag on the other. Words, too, in the Latin alphabet: Sylvanna, Tiladene, Redcap, Ualtar, Wrayland …

Land, she thought. Names of states? Towns?

Places she hadn’t heard of. Coins she’d never seen before. They had the weight and softness of real gold, but who minted with gold these days? How remote would these places have to be—Viemere, Tiladene—for her to have never heard of any of them?

There was so much here she didn’t recognize—wildlife, cash, these place names, if that’s what they were. She knew what Sanskrit looked like, and Arabic; she could recognize Cyrillic text and Chinese characters even if she couldn’t read them. But Bastien’s alphabet—the one stamped onto the satchel, the alphabet he was using, even now, to score beautifully calligraphed words onto the conch shell—she’d never seen those characters.

She saw he’d inscribed the translated version of her name onto the shell.

That can’t be good. Maybe it was a bridal gift. She eyed the flimsy wooden fork he’d stuck into the jar of moths. That nice sharp pick might make a better weapon if she had to defend her virtue.

It was a silly thought. Frail as he was, one good swing of the camera case would snap him in half.

These people are poor, but the stuff in his trunk, the hobby tools, they’re finely worked—expensive. She looked at the purse. The weird alphabet goes hand-in-hand with premium stuff.

Which was maybe a decent observation, if it proved out, but what did it get her?

The outer surface of the conch shell was brown, a complex mix of sand and driftwood hues. Bastien had scored through to a deeper layer, revealing creamy calcium beneath.

Sophie closed the satchel, watching it zip itself yet again. What could do that? Nanotech? Robots? That was the stuff of science fiction. She opened it, stuck her fork half in and half out of it, and tried to close again. Its lips curled, closing on the stem, delicately pushing it out onto the table. Then it clamped shut.

Bastien scraped at the shell, scritch, scritch. It seemed to be getting louder.

Everything was getting louder. The creak and the groan of the wood walls of the shack as it shuddered in the wind were multiplied. She realized she could hear the shack next door rattling, too—and the one beyond that. Sand grains gristled, rubbing each other as they passed through the neck of Bastien’s egg timer. His breath gurgled.

Outside, stones clattered, thrown up the beach by the surf outside. She heard the whispers of mothers, comforting their children, the whimper of a storm-scared dog, air popping in lantern wicks. Out in the insufficiently sheltered bay, a ship’s sail was tearing.

And now a light, squeaky rub—Bastien was polishing the shell with fluid from the black bowl. The liquid he’d mixed was a waxy yellow substance, and the carved letters glowed copper as he filled them. The surface of the shell buffed up to a deep walnut glow.

So much sound.

Sophie touched Gale’s pouch again and the reptile-leather lips over the zip pulled back, like muscles flexing, no wires, and the thought she’d been holding back broke through: It’s magic, has to be magic, you’re not in Kansas anymore, Sofe.

She pushed the pouch away, clutching her camera case and Gale’s cell phone, hugging them to her chest, as if they could help.

Bastien finished rubbing in the last drop of lambent beeswaxy ink. The text on the conch shell glowed. The cacophony cranked up another notch. Sophie heard shouts and the bustle of sailors, far out at sea, the fishing fleet trying to get their ships in, fighting to save the crew of one rattletrap boat that had already gone under. “Grab this, grab this!”

It hurt. She closed her eyes, breath hitching in a sob.

Then the cries—all the noise but for the storm outside and the crackle of the fire in Bastien’s clay stove—faded.

“Kir Sophie? Do you understand me now?”

Her eyes flew open. “You bastard! You do speak English!”

Magic. She clapped her hand over her mouth. What had come out of it, in an enraged yelp, was this: “Zin dayza Anglay!”

“No, no, it’s you,” Bastien said unnecessarily. “I’ve taught you Fleetspeak.”

CHAPTER 3

She understood him. It wasn’t English, or Spanish: Bastien was speaking the same language he’d been using all night, and now Sophie understood every word.

She leapt to her feet, quivering, torn between outrage—this snaggle-toothed stranger has rewired my brain!—and excitement—that is so cool—when he spoke again. “Zophie, Sophie, yes? I apologize for inscribing you, but we must talk.”

“Yes, of course. Right. You’re right. Wait—inscribing?”

Before Bastien could say more, there was a quick tap at the door. A bent, rain-drenched woman let herself in.

“This is Dega,” he said. “Our herbalist.”

“Hi,” Sophie said. At first glance, Dega seemed ancient, but as she shed her cloak, Sophie decided she might be no older than forty. Maybe she’d been prematurely aged by hardship. Sanded down.

“You guys have magic powerful enough to teach me a language,” she said, “But it must have serious limits, or you wouldn’t be living on pickled moths.”

“Stele Island is no wealthy nation,” the woman agreed.

“We keep our place in the Fleet,” Bastien added with an asthmatic wheeze. He sank down by the stove, shivering, and Dega handed him the hunting knife that had been in Gale’s chest. He examined it with an expression of deep concern.

“You’re the doctor, Dega?” Sophie said. “Can you tell me how my aunt is doing?”

“The Verdanii is your kinswoman?”

What’s a Verdanii? “She’s my mother’s sister.” Sophie waved the magic satchel. “The name on her Amex is Gale Feliachild.”

Dega scowled. “That is a government courier pouch.”

“It’s Gale’s. Can’t you tell me if she’s okay?” Maybe I just think I understand them. Maybe I’m standing here jabbering.

Dega said: “You hold the Feliachild pouch?”

“You can see I am,” Sophie said.

“It opens for her,” Bastien put in.

“Will she live?” Sophie demanded.

The woman’s expression softened. “It’s not certain yet, I’m sorry. As her kinswoman, you may have to say whether Bastien should scribe her. If she worsens.”

Kinswoman. That sense of being dishonest, an impostor, washed through her again. “Bastien can heal her?” Why were they even asking? “Would that be a problem?”

“If she can recover normally, it is better.”

“Why?” A dozen questions occurred to her, among them, OMG, seriously, magic? But she made an effort to stay on point. “Does magic have … side effects?”

Dega nodded, as if this was obvious.

“One can only bear so much intention,” Bastien said.

“There’s a limit on how much you can take?”

“Yes.”

Magic with a … would you call that a load limit? Wow. “This is why you apologized for … scribing me, was that what you called it?”

He set the knife aside gingerly. “This is an emergency.”

She thought that over. “It was a first for me.”

“You’ve never been scribed?”

“I’m not from around here,” she said, adding the worrisome question of magical limits and side effects and how soon could she get an MRI to a growing list of things to follow up. “But you think Gale has been? Scribed? And if you heal her—”

“We can’t know unless she wakes and tells us. And there are other urgent matters,” Dega said.

“Matters?”

“I must assist the others.” Bastien had brewed himself a hot drink. He broke a white egg with dark brown speckles into it and gulped the whole thing down. Taking his tools and a small, leather-bound book, he wrapped himself in Dega’s sailcloth poncho and disappeared outside.

As he closed the door, Sophie settled at his ramshackle table. “What’s the issue, Dega?”

“Who stabbed Kir Feliachild?”

“You don’t think I stuck that—” she indicated the hunting knife “—in her chest?”

The woman shook her head. “If you wanted her dead, you’d have let her drown. What happened?”

“Two guys attacked her about a block from my mom’s place—”

“On Verdanii?”

“Uh. San Francisco.”

Blank expression.

“Not the point, okay? There were two of them, both Caucasian. I noticed their clothes first: they were cut like medical scrubs, almost institutional, but the fabric was heavy and their pants were pressed. Good quality, you know?”

“I don’t know scrubs, or Caucasian. They were wealthy, these men? That blade … it is outlander material, I think.”

“It’s just steel.”

Dega shuddered a little, as if Sophie had said “radioactive.” “Did the ruffians say anything?”

“Not in English.” Sophie shook her head. “I caught a few words. “Tempranza … Yacoura? And Gale laughed. That’s when everything got all brawly.”

“Yacoura is lost.” The woman looked outside. The storm had abated as suddenly as it began. “You should rest. I’ll come for you if she wakens.”

Sophie eyed Bastien’s filthy-looking cot and then checked her watch. It was barely evening in San Francisco. “Isn’t there anything I can do to help out?”

“Our fishers were caught in the storm. We’re sending boats out to assist them.”

“I can sail. I can row. I’m a great swimmer.”

“No, Kir. Your aunt may want you.”

Fat chance of that, Sophie thought. “I can gut fish, cook, tie nets, gather specimens, pound nails … um, hang-glide. Come on, you’re in a jam. You must need able bodies.”

At length, Dega nodded. “Come with me.”

She led Sophie down to the mudflats by the beach. The teens they’d put ashore earlier were prepping a flimsy-looking fishing boat for launch, loading up tools, rope, and buckets of steaming violet-colored goo—to patch leaks, Sophie guessed. As she and Dega appeared, their already sober conversations stopped. Silent anger raked at her.

“Ralo!” Dega summoned a stringy teenaged boy with a leg splint and crutches. “This is Kir Sophie Feliachild of the Verdanii.”

“Actually, I’m not sure—”

“She’s to help you today. San can go out with the boat.”

“Zophie,” the boy said. Sophie noted, with a thread of amazement, that he sounded to her ears as though he had an accent. Did she speak better Fleetspeak than he did?

“Go with Ralo, Sophie. He’s in charge, nuh?”

“I understand.”

“I’ll fetch you when your aunt wakes.” With that, Dega toiled away.

This is me, pitching in. Sophie gave the boy a bright smile. “So—Ralo. What are we doing? Coordinating the rescue boats? Signaling for assistance? Breaking out the emergency supplies?”

“Over here,” Ralo said. He led her down the beach, over the wrecked remains of driftwood houses and the storm-thrown flotsam on the sand. Gulls—mining for edible bounty—swirled and scolded as they passed.

They reached an open hut that was as ragged as all the rest. The seaweed weave of its roof had been shredded by the wind. In the shade of the one relatively intact corner, a young woman rocked a bundled infant. A quartet of heartbreakingly thin little kids, maybe three or four years old, ran up and down the beach under her supervision. The children were scavenging, competing with the seagulls for whatever protein had washed up on shore.

“San,” Ralo called. He gabbled incomprehensible words.

Was the Fleetspeak spell wearing off? Did that happen? No, she decided; this must be a local dialect. The language Bastien had taught her must be a trading language … something sailors and merchants might use?

She hoped that was a good conclusion, and not merely wishful thinking.

The woman handed Sophie the baby, then stalked back to the wharf. The child immediately began to scream.

“We’re babysitting?” she said. Its mother didn’t turn back.

“You, me, we watch littles,” Ralo agreed. He started gathering the broken pieces of the shelter roof.

This is what I get for saying I’d do anything, she thought glumly. “I don’t think this kid likes me.”

“Walk with him,” he said. “Bounce.”

She did as he suggested, snuggling the tiny body against the shoulder that didn’t hurt. “You don’t scare me,” she whispered. “I’ve done dives in sharky water.”

Baby notched up the wails. Sophie put more boing in her step, pacing the beach, making what observations she could, if only to stop her inner monologue from running where am I, where am I where the hell am I? in an endless, anxiety-cranking loop.

The kids first: They were tanned, and their hair ran the gamut from nearly blond to strawberry roan. No blue eyes; she’d characterize their skin as olive.

She’d seen children elsewhere in the developing world, in places as poor as this one seemed to be. They’d been clad in T-shirts provided by aid workers, their little bodies serving as billboards for donor NGOs or Coca-Cola or, lately, trendy cartoon characters. But these kids wore hempy-looking tunics, clothes hand-woven from unbleached, undyed fabric, same as the sandpapery blanket the baby was wrapped in.

The baby who was, finally, quieting.

If someone out in the wider world was giving aid to these islanders, there was no obvious sign of it, Sophie thought.

She bounced her way to a tidal pool. It held two familiar-looking hermit crabs and a proliferating anemone. She could identify one broken piece of coral—large polyp stony coral, she thought.

There was a second anemone species she didn’t recognize, but that might not mean anything. She’d dived a lot of reefs, but that didn’t make her a search engine.

Across the water in the direction the boats were taking, the sun was just clearing the horizon. Sophie turned her back on it, studying what she could see of the darker sky to the west. The sun was just high enough to have blotted out the stars.

But it had been light last night; Sophie remembered wondering about the moon as she hauled Gale through the waves.

As if they’d caught her thought, the thinning clouds separated, revealing a pale, familiar disk.

Tears pricked her eyes. “There’s the Sea of Tranquillity.”

However far off the beaten path she’d come, whatever magic had been used to move her here, she was still the same distance from the moon. The thought was comforting.

“I wish Bram was here,” she whispered.

The baby had drifted off. She returned it to its pallet. Ralo was plaiting dried seaweed into rope.

“I could help with the roof,” she said.

He shook his head: Why would he believe she was capable when nobody else did?

“Just watch them.” He indicated the little ones, who were running up and down the beach turning over branches and scooping up the occasional mollusk.

Sophie opened her camera case. It was shockproof and waterproof: A fine scratch marked the path of one of the daggers across its surface, but smashing one of Gale’s attackers across the face with it hadn’t done any real harm.

She’d never been in anything resembling a fight before.

That wasn’t a fight, it was attempted homicide.

It was the fight that had caught her attention. She’d seen Gale go into Beatrice’s house and hadn’t noticed the two older women’s resemblance; hadn’t thought much of her at all. Even when she’d spotted the two men loitering across the road, watching the house and muttering, it was Beatrice and her husband she’d worried about.

She was debating whether to call the police, was imagining explaining to a 911 operator: Hi, I’ve been parked outside my birth mother’s house for a couple days. Now someone else seems to be stalking her, too … and I hate competition.

When Gale had come out, heading down the street, the two guys had perked up and begun following her. It had been an Aha! moment: Hey, that woman looks like Beatrice! And hey, those guys are after her!

Knife-wielding, grim-faced men … She shuddered.

“Don’t obsess,” she muttered. “Stick with the here and now.”

The DSLR camera inside the case was undamaged, as was the housing that let her shoot underwater. Easing it into the housing, Sophie tipped the lens into the tidal pool, taking a few shots of the unfamiliar anemone. The snapped-off bit of coral went into the case itself, next to Gale’s magical courier pouch. She shot an image of the moon and then the mud village.

Look at the beach, Sofe! Not one candy wrapper, no plastic bottles or grocery bags, not even a scrap of a condom.

How remote would this island have to be for there to be no litter, no SAT-phones? Her battery warning came on and Sophie powered off the camera immediately. The spare was in her car, recharging. She’d shot over two hundred frames of her birth mother, and suddenly she regretted them all.

She’d have to restrict herself to species she didn’t recognize; if she was careful, she might coax thirty more shots out of the battery. She took one frame of a bat sea star, because it had a fine spiderweb pattern in black on its back, something she hadn’t seen before in Asterina miniata.

“If I wanted one of those moths, would I be able to get one?”

“You’re hungry?”

“Hungry? Oh, the pickles. No, I want a live one.”

“They’re sour when they’re fresh.”

She wasted a few seconds of battery power to show him the photos she’d taken so far. The little kids crowded around, asking questions.

“They ask if your lightbox is magical.” Ralo indicated the camera.

“It’s a machine.”

“Mummery?” Ralo said.

At the word, two of the eldest kids stepped back, putting some space between the camera and themselves, and tugging on the younger children. The expression of distrust on their faces was much like Dega’s had been, when she was eyeing up the steel hunting knife.

“It’s a completely safe and pretty cool machine, as it happens,” Sophie said. Was it silly to be insulted?

“Then you’re not a spellscribe?”

“What? Like Bastien? No.”

“Or Sylvanner?”

“I don’t know what that means.”

A little kid tugged on her skirt, offering her an ordinary clamshell and pointing at her camera.

“Only if I don’t recognize it,” Sophie said firmly. “That’s a ribbed limpet.”

“Children don’t Fleetspeak.” Ralo said a few words and the children sprinted back to the beach, chirruping and scanning the sand.

Suddenly I’ve got an itsy bitsy research team, Sophie thought. “Ralo, can you explain about … Sylvanner?”

“They like to write new spells,” he said, swinging a repaired mat of thatch onto the shelter roof. “Earn coin.”

“They’re a … people? A corporation?”

“Sylvanna is one of the great nations.”

“Oh! Dega asked if I was Verdanii. Is that another nation?”

He nodded, clearly amazed at her ignorance.

Nations she’d never heard of. She pondered that. If Stele Island and Sylvanna and the others were part of an archipelago of small islands, tucked into … which ocean was most likely? She wouldn’t have believed they could escape notice, but for the magic.

They must use it to conceal themselves. That’s why I don’t know where I am.

It was a strangely reassuring thought, one that made her feel as though she might not be that far from home after all.

A cry of triumph from the kids. One skinny four-year-old dashed up, holding one of the float pods for the ubiquitous seaweed. Inside the pod was a crimson eel, barely wider than a strand of spaghetti, and it was brooding over a clutch of red granules. Eggs?

“Good!” Sophie set it up so the sun was shining through it, exploiting the natural light, and took a macro shot. She let the kids look at the resulting image for three seconds before shutting the camera down again.

“So Sylvanna does … they research new magical spells?” Sophie asked Ralo.

“Yes.”

“This is bad because—”

“They are crooks,” Ralo said. He pointed at the sea pod, struggling with either the concept or the translation. “This eel are ours. If they uses them in a new scrip, the scribing, they should pay.”

If this was a delusion, it was getting complex. International politics and conflicts about resource use? And magic that seemed to operate under something like patent law. “Could any of this be tied to the attack on my aunt?”

Ralo gave a peculiar little shrug, indicating, she figured, indifference.

The morning passed. The kids found her a shell with an interior that was crimson-colored mother-of-pearl. She set it on a board next to the body of a seagoing bat, collecting specimens she could photograph in a group. They led her to a stand of delicate orange flowers that looked like miniaturized helliconia. Using signs, she asked them about the moths. They pointed at the cliff tops. Too far away.

At midday, Ralo broke out bowls of seaweed and fish broth, carefully dividing the mushy lump of one cooked dumpling among the children. He and Sophie got the soup without dumplings. If anything, the broth made her hungrier.

The woman, San, returned to nurse her baby. She looked half dead with exhaustion. She spoke to Ralo in the islanders’ dialect, pointedly excluding Sophie.

Sophie gave them some space, sitting in the sun with one of the kids. If she could get home, she’d pick up some proper equipment—her diving rig, the video camera. She could give her little collection of shells to one of her bioscience buddies—maybe the USC team, or the guys at the Scripps Institute.

She wondered if the rest of these magic users were as backward as the people on Stele Island.

That wasn’t likely, was it? The scarf in Gale’s pouch was a fine silky fabric, and there were the gold coins. Wherever this subculture was hidden, it had its rich and poor, same as anywhere else. Sylvanna, Ralo had said. A great nation. Scientists. Crooks.

She turned the shell over in her hands. The possibilities for exploration were mind-boggling even before you got to the existence of magic.

Magic. Every scientist on the planet was going to freak out. Bram was going to lose his mind.

Ralo broke into her thoughts: “Dega’s calling you.”

Sophie scrambled to her feet and ran to Dega, saving the older woman the effort of crossing the distance between them.

“Your aunt is awake, Kir Sophie.”

“Just Sophie’s okay,” she said.

“If you wish.” They crossed the wharf, where a crowd of villagers had gathered around four bodies, fishers who’d been recovered from the sea. They glared as Sophie passed.

“Am I bad luck or something?”

“The storm was unexpected.”

“It’s weather.”

“Kir Feliachild was nearly murdered,” Dega said. “You’re Fleet Couriers; the storm pursuing you was unnatural—”

“The storm might have been magical? Seriously?”

“The moths migrate on windless nights, always windless.” Dega ushered her into a shack that seemed to serve as their infirmary. “Kir Feliachild, your niece is here.”

Gale looked about ready to expire—she was pale, her chest was bandaged, and her breathing was raspy. She opened her eyes, took in Sophie, and closed them with a pained expression.

Nobody was glad to see her. Exploring the beach with the adorable moppets had cheered Sophie, but now rejection by her birth family struck again with the force of a slap.

She perched by Gale’s bedside. It was little more than a pallet covered in shreds of grubby blanket. “They said they can … spellscribe you if you aren’t healing.”

“No scrips!” Gale looked past her to Dega. “There must be ships coming to assist you.”

“Our light is signaling for help. Someone might arrive tomorrow, if winds are fair.”

“You want to be rid of us; we want to go,” Gale said. “The girl’s to catch the first respectable ride to the Fleet.”

“Yes, Kir. And you?”

“Give my ship, Nightjar, until tomorrow evening. If she hasn’t arrived, send me to Erinth, whether I’m conscious, half dead, or a corpse.”

“Understood, Kir Feliachild.”

“Well, I don’t understand,” Sophie said. “How can you send me off on my own?”

“I’ll leave you.” Dega bowed and let herself out.

Gale struggled for breath. “I must get you back to your home world—”

“World?” Sophie interrupted.

She’d broken her aunt’s train of thought: She got a blank stare.

“It’s not another world,” she said. “The moon’s the same.”

“You must go home,” her aunt repeated.

“Eventually, yeah. But you’re hurt—” Her mind was spinning. World? Another world?

The older woman shook her head. “You can’t stay.”

“Someone tried to kill you,” Sophie said. “These islanders think they’ll try again. You can’t sail off by yourself.”

“You’re my bodyguard now? What do you do back on Erstwhile—are you a cop?”

“Well, no. I’m…” She felt a rush of embarrassment. She’d spent the past four years bouncing between teaching diving classes, guiding mountain-climbing gigs, and going on short-term video shoots aboard scientific research vessels.

Adventuring, her brother called it. Frittering, her father said.

“I guess mostly I’m a marine videographer.”

“I feel so much safer,” Gale wheezed.

“You need help,” Sophie insisted.

“If they come after me, what can you do, besides get hurt?”

“I don’t know. Make some burly sailor guard your cabin door? Scream my head off?”

A weak smile. “They’d have killed you, girl.”

Don’t thank me or anything. Sophie bit her tongue. “Okay. Yes, those guys scared the crap out of me. I don’t want to be in another brawl. If something’s gotta try to kill me, I prefer it to be an avalanche or … I dunno, hantavirus.”

“Something impersonal.”

“You’re helpless. I’m responsible for you.”

“Responsible…” Gale closed her eyes, long enough that Sophie wondered if she might have passed out. Then she spoke, voice cold. “You saw the bodies, the drowned fishers?”

Sophie nodded.

“We brought that on them, you and I. They lost villagers, and half of a critical harvest. Even with aid, they’re going to have a terrible year.”

“The storm might have been magical? Seriously?”

“The moths migrate on windless nights, always windless.” Dega ushered her into a shack that seemed to serve as their infirmary. “Kir Feliachild, your niece is here.”

Gale looked about ready to expire—she was pale, her chest was bandaged, and her breathing was raspy. She opened her eyes, took in Sophie, and closed them with a pained expression.

Nobody was glad to see her. Exploring the beach with the adorable moppets had cheered Sophie, but now rejection by her birth family struck again with the force of a slap.

She perched by Gale’s bedside. It was little more than a pallet covered in shreds of grubby blanket. “They said they can … spellscribe you if you aren’t healing.”

“No scrips!” Gale looked past her to Dega. “There must be ships coming to assist you.”

“Our light is signaling for help. Someone might arrive tomorrow, if winds are fair.”

“You want to be rid of us; we want to go,” Gale said. “The girl’s to catch the first respectable ride to the Fleet.”

“Yes, Kir. And you?”

“Give my ship, Nightjar, until tomorrow evening. If she hasn’t arrived, send me to Erinth, whether I’m conscious, half dead, or a corpse.”

“Understood, Kir Feliachild.”

“Well, I don’t understand,” Sophie said. “How can you send me off on my own?”

“I’ll leave you.” Dega bowed and let herself out.

Gale struggled for breath. “I must get you back to your home world—”

“World?” Sophie interrupted.

She’d broken her aunt’s train of thought: She got a blank stare.

“It’s not another world,” she said. “The moon’s the same.”

“You must go home,” her aunt repeated.

“Eventually, yeah. But you’re hurt—” Her mind was spinning. World? Another world?

The older woman shook her head. “You can’t stay.”

“Someone tried to kill you,” Sophie said. “These islanders think they’ll try again. You can’t sail off by yourself.”

“You’re my bodyguard now? What do you do back on Erstwhile—are you a cop?”

“Well, no. I’m…” She felt a rush of embarrassment. She’d spent the past four years bouncing between teaching diving classes, guiding mountain-climbing gigs, and going on short-term video shoots aboard scientific research vessels.

Adventuring, her brother called it. Frittering, her father said.

“I guess mostly I’m a marine videographer.”

“I feel so much safer,” Gale wheezed.

“You need help,” Sophie insisted.

“If they come after me, what can you do, besides get hurt?”

“I don’t know. Make some burly sailor guard your cabin door? Scream my head off?”

A weak smile. “They’d have killed you, girl.”

Don’t thank me or anything. Sophie bit her tongue. “Okay. Yes, those guys scared the crap out of me. I don’t want to be in another brawl. If something’s gotta try to kill me, I prefer it to be an avalanche or … I dunno, hantavirus.”

“Something impersonal.”

“You’re helpless. I’m responsible for you.”

“Responsible…” Gale closed her eyes, long enough that Sophie wondered if she might have passed out. Then she spoke, voice cold. “You saw the bodies, the drowned fishers?”

Sophie nodded.

“We brought that on them, you and I. They lost villagers, and half of a critical harvest. Even with aid, they’re going to have a terrible year.”

Copyright © 2014 by A. M. Dellamonica

Buy Child of a Hidden Sea here:

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Learn more about the world of Stormwrack in “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti” and “Among the Silvering Herd,” both available to read for free on Tor.com.

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