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Authors: Elizabeth Haydon

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BOOK: The Tree of Water
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Madame Sharra paused and drew breath again, as if it was becoming hard to do so in the heavy, still air.

“The fact that you returned the first scale to a dragon is
very
important. I have long believed, as did many of the Seers before me, that these scales should never have been marked with runes and pictures as they have been. They should never have been used to tell fortunes. They were sacred gifts, given for a sacred purpose, by creatures who were born at the beginning of Time. There are very few dragons left living in these days, Ven Polypheme—but you thought to return the scale you carried to one of them. And now another scale wants to travel with you.”

Ven's curiosity was itching so fiercely that his head felt as if ants were crawling through his hair.

“Do—do you think this one wants me to find another dragon and return it as well?”

“I cannot say.” The golden woman smiled. “That certainly seems an impossible task.”

Ven was staring at the sandy ground, counting in his head.

“Impossible tasks, something too good to be true, bringing new power to an old or dead situation, breathing underwater, and the sea.” When he looked up, his eyes were shining with excitement. “That sounds like a good forecast for our underwater adventure.”

Madame Sharra's face lost its smile.

“Remember two things, Ven Polypheme: everything in the sea is food to something else. And the sea is always hungry.”

Ven looked up in alarm. As he did, the rainbow light flashed again, searing his eyes and making him blink.

When he opened them again, Madame Sharra was gone.

Time was beginning to move once more.

And, in the distance, so was the storm cloud of ravens.

 

4

Eyes in the Sky

Like an arrow shot from a bow, Ven dashed back to the end of the pier.

“Wait!” he shouted.
“Wait!”

The fisherman's hand descended toward Char's neck.

With speed born of panic, Ven grabbed Asa's wrist in midslice.

And, in the process, accidentally booted Char off the dock and into the shallow water beneath it.

The thin silver knife followed him off the edge. The loud
splash
was followed by a tiny
plink
.

The old fisherman gasped, then grunted.

“Well, what—what—well—”

“I'm sorry,” Ven stammered. He looked off the end of the pier, where the water was bubbling, but saw no sign of Char.

“By the Great Blowhole, what was
that
?” Asa demanded. “You could have cut my bloody
hand
off! Not to mention your friend's throat. And how did you—weren't you—”

“I'm sorry,” Ven said again as Char's head broke the surface, shaking like a dog's.

He looked north toward the Gated City. The black mass in the sky was quickly spreading south like oozing tar. Then he looked back at the furious expression on the fisherman's face.

“We—we have to hide from them,” he said, pointing at the approaching ravens. “I apologize. I hope your hand's all right.”

“Ven—what the
heck
?” Char's voice was full of salt water.

The fisherman followed Ven's finger. “No need to worry about them, lad. They fly this beach every morning, then fan out to the rest of the island. They're messy and loud, but they won't bother you.” He turned back and stared at Ven. His pale blue eyes narrowed. “Unless they're looking for you.”

Ven said nothing.

Asa let out a low whistle. “Man alive—they're—they are! They're looking for
you
?”

Ven nodded. His words had dried up.

The fisherman took in a deep breath. “You've angered the Thief Queen? Well, then, you'd best get off my dock.”

“Yes sir.” Ven started back toward the sand.

“Not that way.” Asa's arm shot out, and before he knew it, Ven was falling backward, joining Char in the shallow waves.

He came up coughing.

Asa's face appeared above them over the edge of the wooden planks.

“Get under the dock, lads. Hurry.”

Ven took hold of Char's arm and pushed him into the striped shadows under the dock, ignoring his sputtering.

The black cloud of ravens had reached the northern edge of the fishing village. Their harsh screams filled Ven's ears, freezing his muscles. He tried to move his feet, but they slipped on the seaweed-covered rocks and shells in the sand below them. The retreating waves tugged him back deeper into the harbor.

“Out of sight, boys,” said Asa. “Their eyes are sharp—if they look your way, they can see you from where they are.”

At his words, the stripes of sunlight on Char's wet face and shoulders disappeared.

The sky turned dark above them. The harsh cawing of the birds grew louder as they came closer.

“Come on!” Char yelled. He grabbed for Ven's hand, but slid in the seaweed below the dock himself and missed.

“Too late,” the fisherman shouted. “Better to stand still—if you move, they'll surely see you now.”

I did as he said, but not because he said it.

I didn't really have any other choice.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't move.

Almost from the time I have been on the Island of Serendair, those birds have been chasing me.

Felonia, the Queen of Thieves, is the mistress of the Raven's Guild in the Gated City. She has thousands of ravens in her command, acting as her spies.

If they see us, Felonia will have found us.

That possibility is the worst thing I can imagine at the moment.

And I have a pretty good imagination.

The fisherman sighed. He picked up the bucket of fish guts and tossed the contents onto the planks of the dock. Then he grabbed a tarp and ducked beneath it.

Suddenly, a tornado of gray and white feathers swirled above Ven's head. The cawing of the ravens was drowned in a much louder, much higher-pitched screeching.

From everywhere along the water, over the wharf and all along the beach, seagulls appeared. There were thousands of them, diving and swooping at the dock. Fighting for every scrap of fish skin and bone, they engulfed the old dock and the air above it, flapping and fluttering, then returning to the skies for another dive.

The dark cloud of approaching ravens veered away from the gray and white tornado of hungry gulls and headed east, out of the bird storm.

“Get under the dock!” the fisherman shouted from beneath his tarp.

Char grabbed Ven's arm and yanked him beneath the planks.

The two boys clung to the wooden support beams, trembling from cold and fear. The shallow waves sloshed over them, pulling at their feet.

Almost as quickly as it had begun, the storm of gulls was over. As soon as the contents of the fisherman's bucket had been devoured, the birds took off, scattering into the skies, looking for more food.

Ven waited until he could no longer hear their shrill cries. Then he poked his head cautiously out from under the dock.

“Are you all right, Asa?”

“Eh-yup. They're gone—the ravens, that is.”

Ven and Char pulled themselves out from under the dock, making their way around the small dinghy, and waded to shore. Their clothes, soaked with seawater, weighed them down as they climbed back onto the dock and walked down to the end.

All along the decking were gray and white stripes and blots that matched the ones on Asa's tarp. The fisherman was gingerly removing it from his head, a look of disgust on his face.

“Oh, man,” Char whispered. “Have you ever seen so much seagull poop?”

Ven shook his head.

“We are so sorry,” he said to Asa as the old man tossed the tarp into the dinghy. “We owe you our lives.”

The fisherman turned back to them, his hand shading his blue eyes from the sun.

“You also owe me most of a day's catch and a filleting knife.”

From the water below the dock, a girl's arm emerged. There was a slight webbing between the fingers of the hand, which was gripping a small silver knife.

Ven bent down over the edge and took it, then gave it to Asa. The merrow's hand disappeared into the waves.

The fisherman stared at the knife in amazement.

“How'd you do that?”

Ven shrugged.

“I always try to pay my debts,” he said. “I will come back and work for you, if you'll have me, so that I can replace the day's catch as well.”

“Me too,” added Char.

Asa wiped the knife on his trousers, glanced over the side of the dock, then turned back to Ven.

“Never mind the catch. I suppose in place of the lives you owe me, I would take a story,” he said. “I don't know what you boys are up to, but anyone who's angered the Queen of Thieves that much must have a whale of a tale to tell.”

“It's getting to be pretty interesting,” Ven admitted. “But I'm not sure it's going to turn out very well.”

“I'd like to hear it nonetheless,” said the fisherman. “But not today. I'm way behind in my work now, and you are going to miss the outgoing tide if you wait much longer. If you want to get to a wreck, or wherever else you're off to in the sea, you'd best be on your way. The ocean is dark and frightening enough in daylight. You don't want to be caught out there after the sun goes down—it will make every nightmare you ever had seem like the pleasantest of dreams, believe me.”

“When we return I will come and tell you the tale,” Ven promised.

Asa laughed.

“A man of adventure should learn the difference between
when
and
if
, lad,” he said merrily. “But I do admire your spunk. Do you still want those gills?”

“No, thanks all the same,” Ven said hurriedly. “I think we can make do without them today.”

Asa laughed again.

“A wise choice. Well, come and tell me your tale sometime, Ven. But make sure you come early—a fisherman does a whole day's work before the sun even comes up. Morning's my busy time—I can't afford to be buried in seagull filth every day.”

“Sorry about that.”

“And stay clear of Felonia—I'm looking forward to hearing what you did to gain her anger, and whether you survive it or not.”

“So am I,” said Ven. “Thank you again, and sorry for the mess.”

The fisherman waved a dismissive hand at him and went back to trimming what was left of his catch.

“Good luck, boys,” he said. “May the waves be kind to you.”

“And you as well,” Ven said. It had been a long time since he had heard the expression, but it was one that had been said to him many times before, by the sailors on the
Serelinda
, and back in the harbor town of Vaarn, where he was born. It made him feel homesick. “Goodbye.”

They hurried down the dock and back onto the beach, scanning the shallow water for a sign of the merrow.

They could not have felt the gaze of the spyglass that was watching them now from atop the wall of the Gated City far to the north of the dock.

 

5

Thrum, Drift, and Sunshadow

By the time we made it back to the abandoned dock at the northern edge of town, our clothes had stopped dripping, though it would have been wrong to say they were dry.

The look in the green eyes that were floating above the surface of the water off the end of the dock, however, was hot enough to make it seem as if all the water had been blasted out of them.

 

“Now, Amariel, don't be angry,” Ven began. The words dried up immediately in his mouth. He could see he was too late to prevent that. He swallowed and tried again. “I—”

“Why didn't you let Asa cut your gills?” the merrow demanded.

“Well, because I have these—this—”

“Does it have something to do with that golden woman?”

Ven's mouth fell open.

“You could see her?”

“Who?” Char asked, confused.

“Of course I could see her,” Amariel said. “Do you think I'm
blind?

“What are you
talking
about?” Char asked again.

Ven held up his hand, and Char fell silent.

I'm not sure why Amariel can see things that none of my other friends or the people I know on the Island of Serendair can see. First it was the image of the Time Scissors in my palm, and now she has seen Madame Sharra, around whom Time seems to stop. Amariel is able to see magic things.

Maybe it's because she's magical herself.

“Just what did you see, Amariel?”

The merrow shrugged, her long hair falling over the colorful scales that came up to her armpits.

“At Asa's pier, there was a sunshadow of a tall, golden woman swimming in a pool of sparkly air.”

“Sunshadow?”

Amariel spat out a stream of water in annoyance.

“Don't pretend to be stupid, Ven. You talked to her. You took something from her!”

Char threw his hands up in confusion.

“All right, everybody calm down,” Ven said. He cast a glance over his shoulder, scanning the skies for dark birds. “Let's meet under the pier—we'll be out of sight there.”

The merrow gave him a grudging look, then dived.

“Come on,” Ven said to Char. He sat down on the rotten planks of the pier and pushed himself off into the shallow waves.

“We just got dry,” Char grumbled, following him.

A moment later they were up to their waists in seawater, their toes gripping the slippery stones under the dock.

The merrow's head broke the surface of the water in front of them. She still looked angry.

Ven waded over and grabbed on to one of the salt-encrusted posts holding up the dock. He reached into the buttoned pocket of his vest and carefully took out the stones of elemental air.

BOOK: The Tree of Water
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