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BENEATH THE THIRTEEN MOONS
Mahri poled her boat around the base of the sea tree, the bone staff she used as much an extension of her body as her own arms. She ducked beneath a branch, a wide one, the limb as straight as the power of a Seer could make it. The gloom of the evening blackened to inky darkness, the slap of the waves echoed eerily inside the cavern-like arch, and here Mahri chose to anchor her stealthy craft.
She flipped her wrist in the pattern peculiar to her bone pole, and it retracted with a sliding hiss; her fingers shook as she slid it into a sheath of octopus skin. She patted the bone grapnel with its length of coiled rope, and then dug into the small fish-scale pouch that hung against her hip. Mahri withdrew a small piece of zabbaroot, unsure if it would be enough for her task—she’d never kidnapped a man before, how could she possibly know?
With a shrug, she popped it in her mouth and squeezed it with her molars, releasing the bitter drug of power that shivered through her veins and allowed her to See. The world turned into bits and dots and she closed her eyes for control. The root burned her tongue and she fought the need to gag, then opened eyes that flickered with sparkled light before fading to their normal green hue. With control returned, she’d now only See when, and how, she wished.
A scurry of sound beneath her collapsed sleeping tent reminded Mahri that she wasn’t alone. The tiny face of her pet peered up at her from beneath the rugged narwhal skin. The dark prevented her from making out the features, but she knew them so well her mind filled in the details. Monkey-like, with scales for fur and webbed hands and feet, Jaja had the agility of the native tree dwellers with the slippery fluidity of a sea creature. And the curiosity of a treecat.
“Stay,” whispered Mahri, her mind reinforcing that command with such mental force that Jaja moaned.
Mahri breathed deeply, quieting her thoughts so that they didn’t project with the equivalent of a piercing scream. I won’t risk you in this, Jaja. I have lost so much already.
She only caught the most basic thoughts from her pet, but he seemed to understand hers with amazing accuracy, especially when she was filled with root power. He scurried back beneath the tent.
Mahri leaped from her boat, hesitated a second to adjust to a firm surface beneath her feet, then crept along the narrow ledge formed by the base of the sea tree, emerging from beneath the branch with caution. Mahri looked up at the balconies that spiraled around the tree, watching for guards, but not really expecting any. Not around the Healer’s Tree. The Palace, yes, and perhaps even the Seer’s Tree...but how could she know for sure, being only an ignorant water-rat?
What did they do, she wondered, with water-rats that skulked around the city at night?
She pulled the grapnel from her belt.
Throw them in prison for later torture?
With an easy swing of arms strengthened by a life of poling, she threw the hook up to the first balcony.
Or maybe force them into slavery as they did the native tree dwellers?
She tugged, and the rope held her weight. Fear fluttered her stomach, and was swiftly followed by the inevitable fury at that cowardly reaction, propelling her up the rope with the speed of a silver-fish.
Mahri crouched, listened to the breeze swishing through the leaves, the soft patter of rain that had just begun to fall, the constant rushing, flowing of the water surrounding the interlaced network of sea trees. She studied the row of carved doors that circled the tree, Seeing beyond each door to the occupant within.
She knew if she went up to the top balconies that she’d find the powerful, Master Healers. Here on the lower level slept the apprentices and newly learned. But all she needed was the knowledge, she would provide more power than all of the Masters combined. Besides, if she stole away with someone of importance they might come after her, and she hoped that a lowly apprentice might disappear and no one take any notice.
So she chose the first person she Saw snug in their bed. To See into the lock of the door, move the latch from here to there, took a flick of her power. To See into the center of the Healer gently snoring, and to make those unwilling limbs move to her boat, was a different matter.
For a moment Mahri considered waking the sleeper. Perhaps the Healer would be willing to come with her? She crept closer to the bed. She could only make out longish, light hair, a smooth yet masculine jawline.
With a flash the memories of a past she’d tried desperately to forget overwhelmed her, of another Healer with long, pale hair. But hers had been arranged in artful layers of braids and pearls upon her head, and she’d stared at Mahri as if she were some swamp creature that had oozed out of the slime.
“You truly expect me,” she said, one eyebrow raised in delicate disbelief, “to get in that piece of scrap you call a boat, travel into the swamps to heal a fever-ridden village of water-rats? And blindfolded, no less?”
Mahri narrowed blazing green eyes. If this woman only knew that those ‘water-rats’ provided the city with more zabbaroot than a year of production from the root farms, she’d be begging to go with her. And that Mahri herself was a smuggler; who defied the Royal’s decree that they possess and distribute all the zabba, on the pretense it presented too much danger for the common citizen. But to Mahri’s thinking, the only danger lay in lack of knowledge, and the Royals hoarded that more surely than the root.
“Without a blindfold,” growled Mahri, “I would have to kill you.” Then she almost slapped her hand over her mouth. She spoke the truth, for the safety of the village lay within the secrecy of their location, but it needn’t have been said. She never could control her temper.
The Healer’s face flickered with sudden fear, then feigned annoyance. “Use one of your own Seers then.”
“They don’t have the knowledge you possess, as you well know.”
The woman rose, presented her back to Mahri, and flung over her shoulder, “I can’t help you.”
Mahri clasped her hands together, her lifemate’s agonized face in her mind, and the cries of their child, the once-perfect little hands twisted in agonized deformity. She swallowed her anger, and her pride.
“Please,” she whispered. “Is there no one that would be willing to help?”
The woman hesitated, her posture slumped briefly in response to the desperate appeal in that voice, and then too quickly stiffened.
“No one,” she replied, then slammed the door behind her.
The Healer on the bed snorted and rolled over, bringing Mahri back to the present, knowing she was mad to even consider asking for help ever again. Brez and her little boy, Tal’li, had died—even the thought made anger and guilt burn anew—and she’d become a Wilding herself. But the fever had only hidden, to return with a vengeance to strike again that same village and the only family she now had left.
And although this time Mahri had the root tolerance she still needed the healing knowledge. She could See the effects of the illness, could treat the symptoms, but couldn’t be sure of the Pattern to cure the disease itself. Only one trained to know the normal body cells could detect the shape of a virus in time to destroy it before it could mutate again.
Her eyes sparkled and she Saw into the Healer’s mind, traveling the path that controlled muscular movement, manipulation at least possible with the person unconscious. Mahri lowered her face to his, could almost feel his breath on her cheeks, when a soft knock on the door made her concentration slip and her heart stop.
“My lord?” whispered a man’s voice as the door opened a crack.
Light fell across the Healer’s face. His eyes flew open and met Mahri’s for just a moment, a second of time that felt like an eternity, and there was a flash of recognition, as if she’d known him long ago, perhaps before this lifetime.
Mahri cursed, her Vision shattered and just sufficed to keep the Healer immobile while she spun to face the intruder. She pulled her pole from her belt, flipped it once, twice, and spun a long staff at the light globe. It connected with a sharp thwack, the wooden holder cracked in two, and the globe spun along the floor.
The man, no guard—for on his head lay the bone helm of a warrior—reacted with astonishing speed. She heard the hiss of bone being drawn from a scabbard and danced away just in time to avoid his blow. His advantage lay in strength, but Mahri’s in speed, the small confines of the room aiding her even more. And of course, she’d just chewed root, and her opponent looked like it’d been days since he’d last felt a fresh flow of power.
He couldn’t swing wide enough for a forceful blow, and resorted to thrust and parry. Mahri grinned, drew on the power, and Saw muscles tense before her opponent could attack. Her weapon flew; the force of the blow cracked his helm and laid him out on the floor.
So, Mahri thought, the Royals don’t provide Leviathan bone for their warrior’s gear. Her opinion of their rulers sank to a new low.
Then she had no time for thought, for she could hear a cry being raised, and spun to where the Healer lay muscle-frozen on the bed, watching her with a combination of admiration and fury. Mahri tried to Push his muscles, but knew that she’d used too much of the power in that brief struggle, and didn’t have the strength left to fight his own conscious control. And she didn’t have the time to chew more zabba.
She flicked her wrist again, in the subtle yet complicated pattern that retracted her bone pole into a short staff. With her foot, she rolled the Healer onto his stomach, and with a muttered apology slammed the bone into the back of his head. Used the power again to See into her own muscles and adrenal glands, taking that vigor to haul him out of the room, hoist him over the balcony and fling him as far out as she could.
There followed a splash, instead of the thud if he would’ve hit the base of the sea tree, and she sighed with relief before scrambling over the balcony, rope-burning her hands in her attempt to get below before he drowned. Shouts from above and she looked up, two light globes bobbed on the balcony, the light reflecting off of helmed faces. One of those faces smirked, sawed a bone knife along the top of her rope, then waved at her.
Mahri had just enough time to wonder why so many guards patrolled a Healer apprentice’s balcony before the rope went slack and she fell.
And hit the ground rolling. Her left shoulder slammed across an upthrust wrinkle of tree bark and she grunted with the pain of it. She spun over into the water, swallowed a good portion of it, and inhaled enough to make her strain for breath when her head broke the surface. Something bumped her and she turned and flung out her arm to haul the body of the Healer closer.
The rain of arrows that had peppered the water suddenly stopped. They drifted with the current under the branch road and bumped up against the boat. Mahri looped an arm over the side while her other hung onto the Healer and fought the pull of the current, exhaustion making her tremble. Somehow she managed to climb into the boat, but the most she could do was to get the Healer halfway in. With a sob she collapsed, her shoulder throbbed with pain and she knew she fought against unconsciousness.
Through her haze she felt the gentle caress of Jaja’s webbed fingers against her cheek, the cool slide of his scales. Something pressed past her lips and she tongued the root between her teeth, bit hard and welcomed the flow of strength from the power. And tried not to think of the price she knew she’d have to pay for it.
Mahri hauled the man into her boat, Saw into his lungs and convulsed the tissue until water spewed from his mouth, reduced the movement to gentle contractions until he breathed on his own. She covered him with the narwhal skin and positioned herself towards the bow, feet splayed, confidence spreading through her with the comfortable feel of the current beneath her boat. She sensed Jaja weigh anchor, slid free her staff, the bone almost warm in her hands, and twisted her wrist to expand it.
Mahri poled, offering a brief silent thanks to the Leviathan of the deep for the gift of his bone, and the power that made the forging of it possible, for the structure of it wouldn’t yield to any other means. It took great skill to wield a bone staff, and many long years of training to learn the intricate movements that released the hidden locks to expand and contract the pole. But it’d been worth it, for the price given had already been repaid with the saving of her life many times over.
Mahri used the current, as only a skilled water-rat could, by sensing its flow and nudging it with the power. With long practice she kept her contact shallow, knowing that the sea lay just below, flowing around the roots of the sea trees, unobstructed by the enormous growth that hampered its movements above the surface.
The sounds of alarm grew faint behind her, and she allowed herself to relax. In the maze of water channels lay a measure of safety; the real danger of pursuit would be when she reached the cove, a large stretch of open water that led to the open sea. From there thousands of channels led into the “swamps”—what the city-dwellers called the younger part of their forest—but any direct routes to them were heavily patrolled by the guards.
They occasionally passed other boats. The light globes that hung on their bows, and her Sight, made them easy to avoid, as long as the passage stayed wide. No lights lit her small craft; they crept along the inky water, the rain now a light misting that clung to her eyelashes like dew drops.
Mahri bottom-poled through the city channels, for the roots of this old forest lay thickly woven together, and the sea flowed over them at a shallow depth. She imagined the city as a safe haven perched atop its tangle of roots, protected from the monsters that swam beneath it. In the swamps lurked places of deep water where she’d have to tap her pole against the edges of the trees for steerage, and be twice as vigilant against the dangers that lurked in those bottomless channels.
Mahri sighed. She still preferred the swamps. For although the sea spewed forth some nasty beasts, it also produced beautiful, astonishing creations that never ceased to amaze her. Every journey through those snaking passages resulted in a discovery, made her marvel anew at this wondrous world. She watched the peacefully sleeping city they traveled through and knew that it would bore her to death.
Jaja hopped on her shoulder, his favorite perch when they traveled, and patted it reassuringly. Mahri winced, for her injury still pained her, and used her thoughts to distract her from it.
Somewhere below she knew the sea must stop, and wondered what lay beneath it. Only the trees were solid in her world, they sustained life; animals, insects and plants all parasites on their bodies. She couldn’t imagine what something could sustain the all-powerful trees. Perhaps her ancestors had known but that knowledge had either been lost or lay buried within the Royals’ hoard of records.
They cruised through a warren of city homes; caverns hollowed from thick bark, or branches twisted into curved structures by the power of a Seer. Front doors opened onto the water, balconies a few paces wide created small landings which tethered boats in all shapes and sizes. The white gleam of seashells used for decoration reflected the glow of the myriad moons overhead.
The Healer moaned and her attention centered on her unwilling passenger. Now would not be a good time for him to wake. Mahri centered the boat, went aft, and trussed him like a pig-fish. She frowned, remembering that feeling she’d had when their eyes had met, and with a feather touch she brushed the long, pale hair away from his face. Curled from the damp, the silky strands of it wrapped around her fingers, tumbled across his smooth brow. High cheekbones, a strong chin. A straight nose that tipped up at the end saved him from being classically handsome, to just boyishly so.
Mahri sighed, ran a callused finger along the fullness of his bottom lip, and Jaja hopped from her shoulder in apparent disgust. She snatched back her hand as if it’d been burned, tried to think of the nastiest curse she knew, gave up and just spit. She’d never reacted like this toward another man, not even her lifemate. Why couldn’t she have stumbled across an ugly, old Healer?
A light globe that hung outside a treehome flared behind them, the phosphorescent creature trapped within giving one last surge before dying. Mahri glanced up, Saw the spray from the bow of a craft that pursued them with deadly stealth, and this time swore aloud.
She retracted her pole, used only the power, Seeing the tiny particles that composed the water, shaking and stirring them until foam erupted around the sides of her boat. Unfamiliar with the city, Mahri still sensed the pathways of the sea, and her smaller vessel surged between channels that formed the back alleys of the homes. The odor of raw sewage made her gasp from the stench; the waves she’d created butted against garbage that she deliberately refused to See.
When she felt the cove just ahead she gratefully eased the agitation from the foam. Her shoulder pounded in agony when she started to pole again, the root’s power that had drained with their flight had let the full pain of that hurt through. She wished she’d Seen to it when she’d had a chance. Hopefully when they reached the cove they’d be lost in the blackness and she wouldn’t have to paddle but just drift with the current.
Her passenger grunted.
Mahri armed sweat from her face. First guards, then determined pursuit. Surely, a bit too much attention for a novice.
“Who in the-thirteen-moons are you anyway?” she snapped over her shoulder.
No answer. What had that guard said when he’d come into the room? Had he called the Healer “lord”? Only Royals were addressed by that title—her luck couldn’t be that rotten! Besides, what would a Royal be doing learning the art of a Healer? Usually a selfless task, certainly knowledge not required for the ruling of the Forest. Perhaps he was the youngest son of a low-ranked Royal?
Mahri breathed a sigh of relief. That’s it! A few loyal guards, easily shaken. A token show of interest for a barely worthy relation.
Thunder growled and the rain that fell every night thickened to a deluge when they reached the cove. She traded pole for oar—with regret for the alien feel of wood instead of bone in her hands—and paddled into the middle of the black water.
She had to squint against the downfall which obscured the lights of the wharf and the myriad moons. Between rolls of thunder she could hear in which direction the wharf lay, for even at night the taverns and trading houses spewed forth laughter, chanties, and the occasional scream. The temptation to hide out at Vissa’s for a breather came and went. Although it might help shake any pursuers, the complications it could cause…
The image of daring black eyes and clever hands made her grin.
She hadn’t the time for anything but a direct route to the village, and if she tempted death by abusing the root in order to get there, so be it. If she arrived too late, she might as well not return at all.
The seashells entwined in her long, braided hair tinkled gently when Jaja climbed up to hop on her shoulder. He chattered in her ear, his tail half-spread into a fin from his excitement, and she reached back to smooth it down.
“What is it?” she whispered.
Her hand froze, muscles paralyzed in a grip she struggled to break. She could feel the Touch through the rest of her body, the tingle spreading through her legs, snapping her spine rigid. Again Jaja pressed root between her lips, and with a surge of power she broke that other’s grip.
Master, she thought. Not as powerful as she, thank-the-moons, but strong enough that it couldn’t have been a casual encounter. Her pursuers had found them, and now enlisted the aid of a Master Seer!
Lightning flashed and she saw a large, black shape bearing down on them. Only a warrior ship would be that big—had she the entire fleet after her? Mahri went aft, stood over her unwilling passenger, and nudged him with her foot.
“You’re not a low-ranked anything, are you?”
As she suspected, he’d been awake. Large, round eyes looked up at her, caught the reflection of the lightning when it flared again. And exposed their position to their pursuers, for a slew of arrows, tipped with the poisonous spikes of an anemone, suddenly fell around them.
Mahri crouched, winced when an arrow thudded home next to the Healer’s ear. “Whoever you are,” she said, “It seems like your rescuers don’t care if they get you back alive.”
His words floated through the black night. “You’re actions have made me vulnerable to my enemies.”
Mahri felt a shiver run through her at the sound of his voice. Something about it, the deep timbre, the cultured words, sparked something inside of her that she hadn’t known existed. A longing that...ach! What was the matter with her? She’d never responded so idiotically to anyone before.
Still, she wasn’t sure if she questioned him just to hear his voice again. “Who are you?”
Lightning flashed, another volley of arrows, and this time the black shape loomed closer. Her captive’s eyes widened. “Korl—” he managed, then began to spasm on the deck.
Mahri rocked back on her heels. Couldn’t be, she thought. After all, a lot of people went by the name of Korl; her luck just couldn’t be...
“Not Prince Korl!” she screamed.
Instead of answering her, he tried to heave himself overboard.
The Seer has control of his muscles, thought Mahri, struggling to hold him down. But the Healer didn’t have enough power to fight the invasion and kept trying to lock his muscles against that other’s control. She tied the ends of his bindings to the tent anchors inside the boat, hoping they’d hold him down. She knew that if she gave him root he could fight back; but she couldn’t risk it because she needed him as helpless as possible.
Lightning crackled a jagged pattern across the cove and she looked up at the looming bow of the warrior ship, felt her own small craft begin to tilt from the wave that had swelled from its thrust. When they plummeted down it, they’d be sucked beneath that huge ship, shredded against the bottom of it into pieces of so much flotsam.
Mahri shook her head to clear the terror, dug into her fish-scale pouch and snatched out the biggest piece of root she touched. She’d never taken this much for such an extended period of time, yet she had little choice. She bit it again and again, shivered and gagged, felt her body expand with released power. Then Saw the wave, let it grow, the foam cradling her craft atop it like a mother with a newborn babe.
They towered above the warrior ship for a second which allowed her to see the lantern-lit deck. A tall figure shrouded in a luminescent cloak of birdshark feathers stood like a statue midship, fists clenched at his sides. Mahri felt his Sight crawl through her, the same dirty Touch that had tried to attack her before. Then she smiled when she sensed his recognition and immediate withdrawal, watched those fists lift and shake up at her.
The Healer moaned and her concentration slipped, her craft spinning as if caught in a whirlpool. Jaja shrieked in her ear and catapulted onto Korl’s chest, the spin slamming his small body so that it took several attempts for his webbed hands to push a small piece of root into the man’s mouth.
Mahri Saw into the Healer, recoiled at what the Seer attempted to do, and didn’t rebuke her pet for his actions. She couldn’t afford to protect the man and flee at the same time, and she needed the Healer alive...with his insides in one piece. Hopefully, he’d use most of the root’s power to protect himself, instead of trying to escape her.
She didn’t envy him his enemies.
She Saw back into the foam, steadied her craft, barely heard a scream of rage over the roar of the swell as they surged forward. They rolled atop the crest of the wave, the tower of water now their valiant steed, brief flashes of lightning allowing her to see that they’d left the warrior ship far behind. She desperately tried to steer the flow of water, but she’d built it too high, the particles so agitated that they’d have to gentle naturally. Luck would determine which channel they’d flow into—she could only hope it would be familiar to her. The swamps were full of dangers, and even a water-rat couldn’t know all of the passages.
Wind buffeted her face, loosed tendrils of red hair from her braid and smacked them against her cheeks with a sting. For just a moment she grinned, for this had to be what it felt like to fly, skimming across the water on the wing of a wave. Let it take her where it would, she hadn’t expected to make it this far anyway.
“You’ve no control over it,” shouted the Healer behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, saw him sitting up, his eyes narrowed against the wind of their flight. “More root—I can help you.”
And I’m a water-rat and therefore lack a brain, thought Mahri. Royals had such a high opinion of themselves that they underestimated everyone else. She made a rude gesture at him and imagined she heard a gasp of indignation, and tried hard not to giggle like a little girl.
The lightning saved them. Just a brief flicker, but enough to reveal the tree that lay in their path. Mahri renewed her struggle to direct the wave; her mouth opened and she panted, the spray of saltwater stinging her tongue. She directed power again to her Sight, half aware that she sank to her knees, her trembling legs no longer able to support her. She grasped the sides of her boat and leaned forward over the bow to see better, for the rain had stopped and the clouds had dispersed to let the light of the moons guide her through this channel. Finally, a little luck.
But then the aft hull struck the side of a tree, her teeth jarred with the impact, and her passenger grunted behind her. Jaja had grabbed her braid and she felt him swing sideways, chattering in angry fear. The wave rode them too high, she could see a channel of water about a ship’s length below being drowned by their own passage. They weren’t even close to being high enough to ride over the tops of the trees, and too many branches spread out at this height. Mahri ducked and swore, tried to steer around the obstacles with her power, using the ineffectual paddle to slap leaves away from her face.
With sudden, bruising force a limb slammed into her chest and threw her backwards on top of the Healer’s trussed body. She heard the breath whoosh from his lungs and hoped Jaja didn’t get squashed between them while she tried to get her own breath back. Pain ripped like knives through her chest and her shoulder throbbed anew. Korl’s body burned beneath her, the warmth of it begging her to curl up on it and go to sleep. To give up the fight and let the water do with them what it would.
“Get off me,” gasped Korl through clenched teeth, his voice tinged with what sounded like fear.
Because he sensed that she might give up, or could it be something else? Could he be as drawn to her heat as she was to his? And where did these foolish thoughts come from anyway? The moment she’d met him she’d felt an irresistible chemistry.
“Root,” he continued. “I can control the wave.”
Mahri steeled herself against the agony and sat up. Her craft slammed into the trunk of a smaller tree and knocked her sideways, her head bounced off the side of the boat and she couldn’t tell if they actually spun or if it existed only in her now-jangled skull.
This time she crawled to the bow, anger the only thing that fueled her. Just because he had the knowledge of a Healer, she thought, he figured he could control water better than a rat? He who knew nothing of swamps and currents and the younger forest? And what perverse fate let her be drawn to a Royal anyway?
Mahri peeked over the bow. Their progress slowed, but they still rode high. She couldn’t control the wave but maybe she could throw more obstacles in its path. With a concentration that sucked up the remaining power in her body, she focused her Sight on the channel of water that flowed beneath their onslaught, churning up humps of water that created a counter-force against the wave. But she knew it wouldn’t be enough.
How long before they hit a big limb or tree trunk dead-on? Before the sides of her sturdy boat caved from the impacts that continued to beat at them? Mahri fumbled in her pouch for another bit of root. The pain of her injuries could no longer be held at bay from the dregs of power she retained, and if she lost consciousness they would die. But still she knew that the bit of zabbaroot in her hand might result in a coma she couldn’t be sure of waking up from.
“I can’t do it,” shouted Korl. Mahri turned in surprise. “I’ve tried, but I don’t know the strings in the water—how they’re put together.”
Well, of course not, she wanted to answer him. Just because you’re a Royal you think you know everything? But she held her tongue because his face showed genuine shock, as if this was the first time he’d ever failed at anything, his self-confidence shaken. But Jaja had only given him a small bit of root, not enough for him to See unfamiliar patterns. And she surely wouldn’t give him anymore.
Mahri crunched the piece in her mouth and let the power flow again. But so sluggishly this time, following pathways through her body that had already been traumatized by too much power. With a groan she fished in her pouch again, brought more of the green tuber to her lips. She felt the slight weight as Jaja pounced on her shoulder, the smooth feel of his webbing as he tried to cover her mouth with his little hand. She could almost hear the actual words in her head: no-no-no.
“I’ve no choice,” she said aloud, and for just a moment several moons cleared of clouds and she met the eyes of the Healer. Still too dark to see their color, she wondered if they’d be the olive green shade of hers or some lighter hue, for those of power always had green eyes, if not from birth then from use of the zabbaroot. Mahri frowned. She might never know.
That feeling she’d felt before, as if she’d known him forever, again shivered between them and she knew he felt it, too. The moons cast angled shadows across his features, played their soft light along the pale strands of his hair. Mahri swallowed a sigh.
“Don’t do it,” he said in that deep, soul-wringing voice. “That’s too much root for a Master, much less the likes of you.”
She could’ve slapped him, if she’d had the strength. Instead she closed her eyes so he couldn’t trap her any longer with that charismatic stare and defiantly popped the tubers into her mouth. Jaja whined and hid his head under her braid, waves of fear emanating from his mind to hers.
“I’ll get you out of this,” she promised the pet, even though she knew his fright wasn’t for his own safety.
Mahri’s head felt stuffed with cotton, then it cleared and she stood with the rush of power, her eyes sparkled with light and she dropped the paddle, drew her staff and flicked her wrist. If she died she’d do it with bone in her hand. With a natural agility she batted away lesser twigs, Saw the wave and made it guide her craft around the larger branches and trunks.
She no longer attempted to slow down, instead she navigated her boat through the channels. Mahri didn’t know the path they traveled, yet she sensed the direction in which the village lay, knew she’d waste precious time in unfamiliar waters, and with this surge of power she’d cover as much ground as she now could. For the longer it took to reach what was left of her family, the greater chance they had of dying from the swamp fever.
She refused to consider that she’d be too late. And if—no when—she lapsed into a death coma from the root….
“Jaja,” she whispered. His tail slunk around and caressed the back of her neck. “When I sleep, take this man to our village. He won’t know the way so guide him there to heal the people. Don’t let me die for nothing. Promise.”
He patted her cheek in reassurance and she felt his agreement, breathed a sigh of relief. Then rode the wave as if it were some great sea beast, made it follow her commands, reveled in the feel of power, even while she cringed at the thought of the certain consequences.
But it ended too soon. The wave shrank and they descended to the normal level of the water in the channel. An unnatural silence surrounded them, compared to the maelstrom they’d just come through, and the wind softened to a gentle touch. Mahri continued to See into the current, pushed them to a speed she couldn’t equal with her pole. She drained herself until she fell to her hands and knees, head hung between her shoulders, convulsions starting to rip through her body.
Exhaustion so intense she almost cried from it, an alien response that she hadn’t resorted to since her lifemate and child had died. Pain so severe her quivering muscles cramped against the feel of it. Yet she still tried to See until her arms and legs collapsed and curled her into a fetal position on the bottom of her boat.
Jaja squeaked and pattered aft when her eyes closed, and though unable to keep them open she could still hear enough to know that he untied that Royal.
But was he? her foggy mind wondered. He’d never answered her, and it became necessary for her to know before she slipped into the blackness of a coma. The thought that she could die without ever knowing who she’d kidnapped seemed...unfair somehow.
A warm palm caressed her cheek and by slow degrees she opened heavy eyes. His face lay so close to hers. A strong chin, the barest hint of a cleft. A mouth that she could see curled up slightly at the corners, yet somehow didn’t give the impression of a perpetual smile. A full bottom lip. Then the nose that tilted up at the end. Mahri didn’t have the strength to let her eyes wander up his face any farther, where she knew she’d be captured by his gaze.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“Shh,” he replied, his breath the lightest touch against her face. Mahri breathed in the scent of him; clean, masculine, compelling.
"Prince...or...not?” she demanded, fading to that empty blackness.
She felt his grunt of exasperation. “Prince,” he answered, “Prince Korl Com’nder, at your service. And who might you be, my ferocious little water-rat?”
I’m not your anything, she wanted to reply. Royals and their assumed superiority. Why did he have to smell so good? “Mahri Zin,” she sighed, and succumbed to oblivion.
Yet not a total emptiness, for Mahri dreamed. Jaja hopped from one of her shoulders to another, his excitement making her nervous as she walked along the branch road. A road she’d never seen the likes of before, a sea tree many times larger than even the Palace Tree, the branch seeming to stretch straight toward the horizon. And the bark looked odd, almost as if it breathed in slow undulations, a living animal instead of the plant she knew it to be.
“Where are we, Jaja?” she asked with hushed wonder.
Mother Tree, he replied within her mind, for the first time not just with abstract feelings but in actual words. Source of all zabbaroot.
For just a moment Mahri could see the trunk of the mammoth tree, a dark mass of twisted bark that would take many moons for her to even walk around, if that was even possible. The limbs that splayed out from it stretched into infinity and she shuddered at the sheer majesty of it.
Tendrils of fog wreathed her face and blocked her view, as if mere mortals were allowed only a glimpse of the tree. The mist thickened as their route dipped down to meet the surface of the sea, and through another break in the whiteness she could see beneath a parallel branch, and stopped in stunned amazement.
“Zabbaroot,” she breathed, and felt Jaja nod his tiny head in excited agreement. Not just one but hundreds of roots grew from underneath the branch, long tendrils that dipped their tips into the water and curled back up and around each other. The pale green tubers sparkled with suppressed power, the natives that tended them reflected that light in their black eyes.
Mahri frowned. Although many natives hovered around the fringes of her own village, frequented the wharves and were said to tend the Royal’s root farms, she’d never paid them any notice. Similar to Jaja, they stood larger, perhaps half her own height, possessed the webbed hands and feet, the scales that looked like fur until closer examination. But their heads were much larger in proportion than her monk-fish, and their eyes glittered a uniform black instead of the soft brown orbs of Jaja.
How could she have never noticed them? Like the sound of the sea they existed on the fringes of the conscious, but never drew attention to themselves, never spoke, just appeared from the forest to take over a task that needed doing. Why had she never questioned their existence before?
She felt rather than heard the laughter in her mind, met Jaja’s eyes but he shrugged in negation.
“Who?” she mouthed, and a tiny webbed finger pointed toward the trunk of the Mother Tree.
Mahri lifted leaden feet, hesitant to walk away from so much root without harvesting just a bit. Yet she had a feeling it wouldn’t be allowed, she’d be upsetting some kind of balance. Still, it went against her nature to continue on.
Then she almost smacked nose to bark, if Jaja hadn’t tugged on her braid, pulling her up short as mist unfolded to reveal a door set into the trunk before them. A door unlike any she’d ever seen, one solid piece of bone carved with scenes of the natives, arms opened to the sky, and something falling from the heavens, an impossible bird with a tail that spewed fire. Mahri knew she should understand this, something tickled at her mind, like an old memory…
Jaja shook her braid, the seashells entwined in it tinkled in muted tones, and her hands rose of their own accord and pushed open that door. When her fingers touched the bone she knew it to be Leviathan; impossible really, for something that large. But she felt her retracted pole in its sheath of octopus skin and knew they were of the same substance.
They’re wealthy, yet they serve humankind as willing slaves, fetching and working with such unobtrusiveness that most of the time they go unnoticed. Why would the natives of the sea forest pretend to be unintelligent animals—and to what purpose?
To learn, to guide, answered that same voice that had laughed in her head earlier.
Mahri stepped into the room, then reassessed that definition. A room had sides and a ceiling that she could see, yet this place stretched beyond sight. What did you call this surround of blackness? she wondered. An abyss? And she shuddered with more than fear.
“Where are you?” she asked, searching for the source of that mind contact. She’d never heard of a coma inducing such vivid dreams. Then again, she’d never met anyone who’d survived an overdose of the root.
Enter, sit, replied the voice inside her head.
A cushioned pallet of the skin of an unfamiliar sea creature appeared at her feet, and Mahri sank with a sigh. A pool of light surrounded her but couldn’t penetrate the recesses of the inner trunk of this tree, and when a native stepped into the seeming brilliance her mouth dropped open in stupid wonder.
Natives didn’t often wear clothes, but this one sported layers of spider-silk scarves, a crown of birdshark feathers, jewelry of carved bone and iridescent shells. Even slippers of shark skin covered the webbed feet.
“Who are you?” breathed Mahri.
The native female, judging by her size and the thick head of fur-scales, tried to imitate a smile by the baring of sharply pointed teeth. At Mahri’s alarmed expression, she shrugged and squatted down next to her, black lips quickly covering those deadly incisors. Jaja hopped on the native female’s shoulder.
I’m the Speaker, she thought-answered while she rubbed scaled cheeks with Jaja.
Mahri fought down a sense of betrayal at her pet’s abandonment and frowned at his contented little expression. “Speaker for who?”
The female waved a webbed hand negligently in the air. For all.
It felt peculiar to hear words without a mouth moving. Jaja hopped back onto her own shoulder and Mahri grinned with satisfaction. As if this had been some kind of signal the female almost-frowned and met her eyes with her own black, intense native ones. Eyes that weren’t truly black, Mahri noticed with a start, but such a deep green that they darkened to black.
Hard to speak to your kind, began the native. Still learning...odd thought directions.
Mahri rubbed the top of her bone staff. “Am I dead, or just dreaming?” she wondered aloud. The native leaned forward, she could almost feel the slight wind from the flutter of those impossibly thick alien lashes.
No matter. No time. Root allows speak...but danger to you if long. Heed me. Black lips thinned with determination, the feathered headdress fluttered in agitation.
Mahri had a sinking feeling. This dream took on an aspect of importance that she suddenly didn’t care for. “I’m just a water-rat, a rootrunner that only cares for her village. I don’t know what you want from me, but your people had better choose someone else to speak with, someone who cares what you have to say.”
The native widened her eyes and slowly blinked. You only one. The HALF. Protect...nurture, the Prince of Changes. Make whole.
The prince of what? wondered Mahri. She didn’t know any princes...then she groaned. “You don’t mean Prince Korl, do you?”
The native nodded her head, clapped webbed hands that made a soft popping noise. We guide your people, you help. Prince of Changes must rule. The beginning of...peace, brotherhood, for all of Sea Forest. And she stood, as if she’d made Mahri understand her wishes, and didn’t doubt they’d now be followed.
“Must rule?” shouted Mahri, springing to her feet. “Listen, I’m a smuggler, I stand against everything the Royals want—control of root and knowledge. I wouldn’t help anyone rule, even if I knew how!”
The native fluttered her hands and began to pace around their circle of light. When your people come from above...different. Want, demand. Either fight or help. Choose to guide, see long future. Understand?
Mahri shook her head, a bit dizzy from following the native circling around her. “You’re telling me that old tale of our people traveling through the stars, coming from another world, is true?”
The native stopped in front of her, looked up into Mahri’s face, nodded slowly. Need Prince of Changes, she shouted into Mahri’s mind, making her head ache. Path to peace. But he needs you.
“Even if that were true,” she replied, stroking Jaja’s tail for comfort. “I don’t see how I can help him to rule. A water-rat could never be Queen of Sea Forest.”
If the native had been human Mahri would swear the look she wore reeked with a sly, subtle humor. You. Bond. With Prince of Changes.
That seeming demand made Mahri freeze with shock. A Bond! She wouldn’t enter into that state with her chosen lifemate, and by-the-thirteen-moons she’d never even consider it with a Royal! To link power through the zabbaroot with another took far more trust than most people were willing to give, much less someone like her.
Mahri’s only comfort lay in the thought that this was a root induced dream, albeit of the highest caliber. “You want the impossible,” she replied.
The circle of light they stood in began to shrink. The native eyed it with alarm and grabbed the taller woman’s forearms. Not impossible. You...the half.
The light now encompassed only Mahri, the native’s grip had loosed and disappeared into the blackness. “The half of what?” she demanded into the growing abyss.
The answer in her mind tickled faint as a whisper. The other half...of his soul.