“We’ve got to go!”
I had to roll my eyes a little when Yew burst into my room and said this. Always a little skittish, Yew was. She can’t have been more than twelve years old, though, with big eyes in a thin little face like those street children always have, so I hoped she might grow out of it one of these days.
Strange thing about Yew, though – it seems I’ve known her all my life, always hanging about Mistress Vessa’s tavern like she was a piece of the furniture, though a squirmy one who never sat still. And all this time she’s looked about twelve years old.
Must have been my imagination, though. I only showed up at Mistress Vessa’s ten years ago, little more than twelve myself, after living with my dad in the middle of the forest like a tree. I was a little disoriented, coming to Portstown for the first time, and cross at him for sending me away, and so I probably only think it was Yew I saw all those years ago, when it was probably some other child hanging on looking for scraps to eat.
It was certainly Yew now, though, staring up with those wide blue-green eyes. “Please, Searra, you’ve got to listen to me this time! We’ve got to go!”
“What do you think I’m getting ready to do? I’ll be ready to go in a minute. Devils below – the creaky old Governor is impatient. He wants music for his dinner, he can bloody well wait for it.” I nearly blew Yew away from me with a puff of wind, but I decided to save that for my harp and the Governor’s dinner.
“It’s not the Governor!” Yew cried, holding onto the back of my chair and swinging back and forth. Then she leaned in and whispered in my ear, the loudest whisper you can imagine: “It’s the witches!”
She said it like it was a secret. How I was meant to hide these blue eyes I’ve got in my head, several shades lighter than Yew’s and not seen in a single sailor or merchantman or anyone who came from the continent, I have no idea. I’m a native of Crescent Island – what the visitors call Witches’ Island – and there’s no mistaking it. And yet it’s somehow meant to be this grand secret. How else am I to make a living without the element my mother gave me? It’s probably the whole reason people like the Governor hire me to play music for them.
“Witches, is it? What have they done now? Gone through the streets washing away sailors? Burying them up to their eyeballs or blowing them across the sea? Sailors on land are all half in the bag – they’ll hardly notice anyway! And the women aren’t likely to do that to me. I’ll blow right back at them!”
Yew started jumping up and down, which made me fumble the kohl I was trying to use to outline my eyes. Now I just looked like I had a big bruise. “No, no, no! It’s not what they’re doing! It’s what the Governor is doing! He’s declared rules for the witches, put a limit on what they can charge for their spells and their charms, and arresting anyone who doesn’t obey!”
I had to laugh. “Arresting witches? How will he manage that? And he’s the one who told me he’d pay me twenty crowns to play at his little dinner party tonight, so he’d better stick to it. Twenty bloody crowns, do you believe it? Mistress V hasn’t got a whole bottle of rum downstairs that costs so much as that. Now cut it out with that jostling. I’ve got to finish my makeup.”
This actually got Yew to pause for a moment, hanging over my shoulder to look at my face in the mirror. “You look more garish than those women in the red petticoats.”
I swiped her face with the kohl pencil and put a line across her nose. “Shut it, you! I look nothing like the working girls. They’re all red lips and red spots on their cheeks. I’m dark and mysterious, a lady of unimaginable power.”
“You’re not doing anything else but playing the harp and I’m going with to make sure of it.”
I threw down the pencil. “You are not! This isn’t one of those normal fancy dinners, and it’s not playing a show in a tavern. This is the Governor’s house! Oh!” I abandoned my face and moved on to my hair, making sure it was pinned up just right, with bits of jewel-toned ribbon tucked in to give it color and fashion. It wasn’t as good as real jewels, but otherwise my hair was boring and brown, so at least it was something. If I were an earth witch I could work clay and make it look like real jewels, at least for a bit. If I were a fire witch I’d have brilliant red hair, but they hardly ever come out to mingle with the visitors. I had wind and my harp, the troublesome thing, and I was going to play a show for twenty crowns and maybe blow a few things around in the Governor’s dining room, just for a laugh. Once I shook Yew. “Besides, I thought we have to go, and I assume you mean we have to leave the island before I get arrested.”
Yew pouted. “After the Governor’s. Then we go.”
I laughed and leaned toward the mirror to fix my eye.
Yew wasn’t going to be easy to shake, trotting along at my heels as she did when we left the tavern, my hair and paint done and my harp in my arms. I even ducked through a knot of sailors congregating on the pier, pushing off their hoots and attempts to fondle me with puffs of wind that knocked the straw hats off their heads, and still Yew was there to meet me on the other side of the crowd.
“It’s the one who made the whirlpool,” she said to me as I emerged from the bewildered sailors with my chin held high. “Four years ago. That water witch charged so much to do it that all the women raised their prices after that. The ship captains started complaining, and the Governor’s got to do something about it.”
“Took him long enough. The whirlpool’s gone now. Vanished months ago.”
“And some of the women are taking credit for that, and charging even more on the claim of their powers.” Yew scrambled to catch up to me on her short legs, and grabbed me by the elbow. I sighed loudly, paused, and frowned down at her. At least she didn’t jostle the harp when she grabbed me. She was always terribly careful not to jostle the harp. In a whisper that was actually quiet she said, “Did you do it? Did you make the whirlpool go away?”
“I did not. And don’t you know it’s killing me, not knowing who did or how she did it?”
Yew sighed and looked me in the eye. It was like she was trying to judge the truth of me, when she did that, and it always made her look like she was older than she was. Hard to meet her eyes, in fact, and I was tempted to raise a hand and blow her away from me. But we’d been walking a good distance and the harp was starting to feel heavy, so I didn’t want to let go of it with one hand to pull at the wind. I should figure out how to make the wind carry things for me, I thought, and I let that thought shake my eyes away from Yew.
That’s when I saw the fire.
Two piers up from where we were, and between us and the Governor’s house, a bright-hot flare was yellowing up the evening sky. A charred scent was starting to mix with the stench of fishy rot that hung all over Portstown, making it smell like something had gone very wrong in a very large kitchen. Crowds were staring to gather to stare at the blaze, packing in front of us and making it damned hard to get through. “Don’t you scoundrels know I have somewhere to be?” I shouted, but no one paid any attention.
“Can you see what it is?” Yew was standing on tip-toes and craning her neck to see above the pack of people. “Is it the old boarding house?”
Seeing truth or lies, and guessing the future – that’s what Yew could do, or at least that’s how it seemed sometimes. I wondered if some other breed of witches somewhere in the world had those powers instead of control over the elements, and that’s where Yew really came from. It took us ages to push through to the front of the crowd, as close as we dared to the source of the fire, and in fact that fire was gobbling up the Pier Twelve boarding house, Portstown’s oldest, cheapest, and most disreputable.
I got a good look at the blaze, then started scouting out ways to escape the crowd and detour through town. “Quick, Yew, this way, there’s a gap right here. I’m breaking for Merchant Lane.”
Then that gap closed up with a tall, angular shoulder. I had to make a quick turn of my body so those bony joints wouldn’t collide with my harp. The man’s elbow could practically crack the wood, or at least knock the strings out of tune. “Mind yourself, scarecrow!” I shouted. I wasn’t quite sure what a scarecrow was, but I’d heard the sailors use the word to describe tall and skinny fellows, so it seemed to suit.
I was sure he hadn’t heard me better than anyone else in the crowd did, but then those bony shoulders stiffened. He had very long hair, I noted just before he turned toward me, worked into a messy braid down his back, and the color of old leaves. I think there were some leaves actually in his hair, caught up in the plaits of the braid. Then he faced me and I saw his eyes, or rather the complete lack of color in his eyes, just pale holes in his narrow face with the fire behind him putting him in shadows. That would only happen if they were a blue as pale as mine. I was staring down a bloody male witch.
Men witches aren’t easy to come by. Mostly they hang out in the forest at the heart of the island, like my dad. They are the forest, to be precise, or at least some of it. Men don’t work the four elements of water, earth, fire, and wind. They’ve got that not-exactly-fifth-element: wood. They spend most of their time literally turning into trees. They can stand around for days at a time. I think my father once was a tree for a whole year. That would explain the leaves in my scarecrow’s hair, anyway. But it didn’t explain what he was doing out here, on Pier Twelve in the middle of the town that the visitors built, watching an old boarding house burn down.
He was clearly trying to work out why I was doing the same thing. My face was toward the fire and he’d undoubtedly seen the lack of color in my eyes, and probably felt a breath of wind tugging at all his limbs even though nothing was blowing. I could feel a little stiffness in my joints, being so close to him, and heard a distant ringing in my ears. With a good charm against the elements and a lot of practice, one witch could protect herself against feeling fire in her blood or a million tons of weight when she ran into some rival witch, but men didn’t seem to wear the charms often. Old dad certainly didn’t. It’s why they hang out in the forest so much. Makes you wonder how baby witches get born at all.
But speaking of that… Scarecrow took a step toward me, not that there was much space between us to begin with. His colorless eyes flared wider and I swear I could feel his blood heat up, as if fire were the element I worked. His mouth opened, and I imagined what his lips would feel like: a bit rough, I think, chapped and papery like peeling bark. I’d certainly gotten his attention, and why not? I was in my best green dress, laced up tight in the bodice and cut daringly low, and even if my hair’s a boring brown it’s thick and silky and it was all done up pretty. I’ve turned a few heads in my time, although this was the first head that belonged to a witch. And even if he wasn’t much to look at himself – stiff and battered and roughed up like he’d been in a few fights, like a pirate or a particularly badly-behaved sailor – I can’t say the attention was entirely unwanted. I never turned my back to a little masculine attention, and I could certainly fend off any man whose advances went further than I liked. When my spirits were as high as they were, I was sure I could blow down a tree if I had to.
Not that I’d have to. Yew would take care of that for me. “There you are!” she cried as she ran to me, grasping hold of my arm with her little fingers.
I groaned. Scarecrow took a step backward and closed his mouth. So much for that. “Where in all hell did you think I’d be?”
Yew blinked innocently, although I’d happily believe there was nothing innocent about this interruption of hers. “Up Merchant Lane, like you said.”
I groaned again and looked back at my intended destination. “Not anymore. What is all that?”
The man trundling down Merchant Lane couldn’t have cleared a path any better if he actually had the power to blow bystanders out of the way. He was big and wide as a house, dressed up gaudier than a pirate, and had a retinue of littler men surrounding him to push away anyone who didn’t get the point that the Big Man was coming through. He wore a ridiculous wig that was almost as big as my harp and he looked strangely familiar. “My boarding house!” he wailed in a voice that carried over the crowd. “Who would do this to my boarding house? Don’t they know who I am?”
“No!” I shouted. “Who are you?”
He didn’t hear me, probably, and certainly didn’t answer, but people around me offered up suggestions. “King of the ocean?” “King of bakeries, more like.” “A whale who offended a witch and got turned into this.”
“The Governor’s brother,” said my scarecrow.
I craned up my neck to look at him. “Why do you say that?”
“Because that’s who he is. Anyone who asks a few questions and keeps their ears open would know that.”
I had a sinking feeling that this meant the dinner party was off and I wasn’t going to get paid. There was no Governor here to get mad at, though, and I couldn’t get through to the Big Man, so that left my scarecrow to bear the brunt of my dismay. “Who’s asking questions? Some people should keep their big pointy noses to themselves, I think.”
The witch looked at me again, his eyes going a bit wider, as if he were trying to see the thing he’d seen before. Maybe it hadn’t been desire that I’d seen in him, after all. “I was looking for someone,” he murmured, almost losing his voice in the crowd. “Someone who was supposed to be here.”
Yew tightened her hand on my arm. “Searra,” she whispered. “We should go.”
Damn the little rascal, she was probably right. Mr. Governor’s Brother’s retinue had passed the turn into Merchant Lane and we were clear to get through, if we hurried. I’d have to leave my scarecrow and his questions and the mystery of what he was seeing in me for another time.
The wind was unbearable. It whipped through me like the strings of my harp, like my body was an instrument, my bones bent to make the curve of the wood, my hair the strings vibrating, exquisite beauty and exquisite pain in the song that emerged from me. Then it changed. The breath of the wind rolled out like a wave and I was sinking into the depths, water all around me and filling my mouth and my chest though I did not drown. Deeper and deeper until I was embedded in the earth below, one with the rock, solid and unmoving. But not unmoving, because there in the deepest part of the world I was touched with the heat at its core, burned up into molten fire, until the other elements could not hold me and I burst through them, flaring into the sky and the tearing wind…
“Well, don’t just stand there, girl. Did you hear me?”
Damn. I hated losing time. It was the flying dream again, which wasn’t really a dream, because I wasn’t asleep. I would be somewhere, anywhere, and suddenly I wouldn’t be there. I’d be somewhere else until someone like Mistress V started shouting at me to pay attention, and I’d have no idea what happened. It didn’t happen often, but when it did it ate whole hours out of my life. I didn’t even remember whether I’d gotten to the Governor’s house last night or whether I’d just come home.
It was weird and upsetting, not having a hold of your mind like that. It made me very angry.
“And what would you have me do? Pare potatoes like a scullery maid? And risk cutting these fingers? These fingers on my harp strings are what keep us in coin!”
There was an actual scullery maid in the kitchen, of course – Missy or Milly or something, a shy little creature who never once looked me in the eye – and she dropped her bowl of potato peels with a clatter. Then the kitchen went very quiet as the woman of the house stalked across it in my direction.
Vessa Porter was no Elemental but she was a force of nature nonetheless, tall as any man and broader than most of them, with arms thick as a brawler and a mass of red-gold hair that started many rumors she was descended from a fire witch. I don’t think that was true but she had gotten enough fire in her gut from somewhere to be the only woman to own a drinking establishment in Portstown. She kept the peace with Norlanders and Surlanders facing each other across the table, some pirates scattered around to keep it interesting, and not once did any wars break out under her watch.
She threw a shadow on me that would have left me quaking a little if I hadn’t been so mad after the flying dream, and she put a large fist into her other hand like she was warming it up to take a blow. That alone was enough to make most unruly patrons in the tavern quiet down. But I’d known Mistress V long enough to know that punching wasn’t her primary weapon. What she really liked to do was what she did now – laugh in the unruly one’s face.
“Ah – look at you, girl! Gettin’ all worked up over nothin’! Ask you when you mean to get out of those pretty clothes so Missy can put them up before you get muck all over them, since sure as five hells I won’t be gettin’ you new ones, and here you are about to mess them up just the same. Oh, look at the face on you!”
Mistress V knows about my lost time, although I’ve never told her about the flying dream. She knows she needs to catch me up on things I’ve missed, though, and she does it without letting the world know I’ve been away. Sweet old giant harpy.
She wrapped a clean towel around her hand to take my arm and steer me out of the kitchen. “And what did you do, sleep in those clothes?” she said in the same chiding voice, for the benefit of the scullery maid, but once our backs were to the girl she raised her brows and gave me a worried look.
I must have. Not that I could remember. No idea where my harp was, either, and I could only hope that Yew had it. “Of course. Governor and all his rich friends are such lunatics, I expected them to call for their music in the middle of the night.”
“Well, I won’t be pressin’ out those wrinkles, either.” She swatted me with the towel. “Music in the middle of the night, keepin’ us in coin. Look at the big head on you! Out with you, now. You haven’t brought me any coin in a week. Go find one of those fancy drinkin’ houses to play at again.” Mistress Vessa gave me a smile as big as her whole body, then put me out her kitchen door with a massive push.
There was Yew, perched on a bench in a drinking hall that was mostly empty at this hour of the morning, my harp wrapped up carefully on her lap. Thank the heavens. She looked up at me with those blue-green eyes of hers and her whole body deflated in a sigh of relief. I’d never once told Yew about the flying dream, or about my lost time, yet she seemed to know just the same.
She didn’t say anything about it, either. Never did, but this time she couldn’t have said anything even if she wanted to. Because the drinking hall in Mistress Vessa’s tavern was mostly empty but not quite, and the people there burst out in a roar of noise. It was a mighty strange noise, though, not the usual drunken laughter or off-key singing we hear in this establishment, but a shout of, “Precisely, my dear constable! Preter-cisely!”
I’d been squinting in the early light to see who was in the tavern – Mistress V kept her windows scrupulously clean, and they faced east, to give any customer who’d had the bad graces to drink all night and fall asleep a rather rude awakening – but with that outburst, I knew instantly. Hiram Broadwater, professional drinker, amateur detective, and aspiring linguist. He spent hours in the tavern writing what he called his Manifest on Uses of Language, which seemed to be all about adding extra letters into words to give them a bolder effect. He also tended to shout these new words, which seemed to do the job on its own, extra letters or no. I still had no idea where he got his drinking money from, but since the lawman was there with him, I assumed it was his detective work that was at issue this morning.
“And it’s not pirates,” the lawman answered. “Already asked them and it’s not pirates.” There weren’t really any constables in Portstown, since neither Norland nor Surland law applied to the visitors on the island. The Governor, however, did hire a number of strong-arms to keep the peace if things got hairy, which was inevitable in a town where people who normally shot guns at each other mingled. Most of these fellows were reformed pirates, given the alternative between working for the law here and hanging as soon as they stepped on a boat and were captured by someone else, and Hiram’s constable certainly fit the bill: unkempt hair, scar on his face, missing a finger or two. The pirates he was protecting from investigation might not have set the fire but they’d certainly done things our constable didn’t want discovered.
The fire – they must have been talking about the fire at the boarding house. I inched over to their table to listen more closely. What had they discovered, and what did my scarecrow have to do with it?
Unfortunately, this meant Hiram would see me. “Miss Searra!” he cried, leaping to his feet and throwing himself off balance when the back of his knees hit the bench, as he always did. “How dib-delightful to see you!” Hiram Broadwater was somewhere between fifty and a million, though the roundness of his constantly flushed face made it hard to count wrinkles, and he was the size and shape of a tall man who’d been squished down a bit so he’d fit under the average woman’s nose. He didn’t have a hair on his head but that didn’t stop him from wearing the most elaborate hats he could get his hands on, which just made his hairlessness more obvious. Today the hat was peaked fore-and-aft like a navy captain’s, but instead of black with gold piping it was maroon with feathers stuck in either end, presumably so no one would confuse him with an actual captain. As if that were possible. None of this stopped him from thinking himself quite the romantic, and he kept trying to direct that romance at me.
“Good day to you, too, Mr. Broadwater.” I did my best at curtseying and settled for a little bob. I kept trying to make things formal with Hiram, which didn’t come so naturally. I blame growing up with the trees and then learning to swear from sailors.
“Oh, you needn’t stand on ceremony with me, Miss Searra! And, of course, our friend the constable doesn’t require formality,” Hiram added, leaning in to whisper loudly, “With his unter-unusual background.”
He winked and waited for me to wink back. I didn’t.
Our pirate-constable cleared his throat noisily. “You said you had a proposal for the young… ah… the young lady, sir.” I could tell he wasn’t sure what to call me. All of Portstown knows I’m a witch, no matter how it’s meant to be a secret, and some folks don’t quite believe I have much in the way of powers. Only the true seamen, though – the pirates and the fellows who sail before the mast, as they call it – really recognize me as something to be wary of. Seamen are awfully suspicious about witches getting on their boats.
Hiram threw his hands in the air, turning a few shades pinker. “Of course! How could I forget?” He motioned to the end of the bench with a great flourish, like one of those dandies with the lace cuffs. I threw a look at Yew but she only blinked back at me, so I rolled my eyes and sat down next to our amateur detective.
He kept his arm outstretched like he wanted to put it around me, and I swore if he did I’d blow him off the bench. “Now, my dear. You know I pursue the deductive arts as an aspiration? And a fascin-nella-nating pursuit it is. But I have collected some information about the boarding house that burned last night, at Pier Twelve. And do you know…” He leaned in close enough to breathe his breakfast at me. Kippers. I hate kippers. “Do you know the Pier Twelve boarding house was owned by the Governor’s brother?”
I stuck my chin up. “I do know that.”
Hiram’s face fell a bit, and I have to admit that I gloated at stealing his thunder. But he recovered pretty quickly and leaned in closer, and I leaned back to keep my very low neckline away from his face. “But do you know something else? Do you know the Pier Twelve boarding house is the way-station of choice for witches attempting to smuggle themselves on board ships bound for the continent?”
I did not know that. I wanted to put on a show of knowing it anyway but I was just too stunned – a male witch, making his own investigations at a place where witches stayed when they were about to leave the island. What was my scarecrow looking for?
And then there was this: my father, in those rare moments when he wasn’t a tree, looking up the river into the heart of the island where I had never been, saying, “We should have left, Searra. We should have taken you and left this place and gone over the seas.”
I never knew why he said that. How did I never know why he said that?
The pirate-constable swallowed hard, making the visible lump in his throat move under the stubble on his neck. He wasn’t liking this conversation, and he wouldn’t like where it was probably going.
Hiram smiled broadly, obviously doing some gloating of his own at having surprised me. “Now, I have done a few preliminary investigations of the scene of the fire, and I will return there to continue, but I’m afraid I lack the contacts that you have in your – shall we say, witchy world.”
I frowned. “Not witchy-ditchy world?”
“Oh! Witchy-ditchy! How clever! But you know, the amplifying letters should really be embedded in the middle of the word, or at least after the initial letter, to make it clear which word they are amplifying. But no matter. You do see what we are requesting, don’t you? We know that witches have been going to the boarding house, pausing on their journey to Surland or Norland…” There went the bobbing in the constable’s throat again, like he’d swallowed a buoy. “But we don’t know why. Knowing why, you see, would be invaluable to identifying a suspect and solving the case!” He beamed at me, or at least at my cleavage, and I forgot to lean back so he couldn’t.
Because I didn’t actually know any other witches to ask. My father, but I hadn’t set foot in the forest in the ten years since he sent me away, and so I hadn’t spoken to him. Not that he would know much about what was happening in Portstown. I can’t imagine he’d ever set foot in the visitors’ city. While I’d lived with him, he kept me apart from other women, even other wind witches, and I didn’t start interacting with them when I came to live in Portstown. Women rarely make contact across elements, anyway, and it’s mostly earth and water witches who work in town, making charms to sell to sailors. I’ve heard of other female musicians, singers or harpers or the like, who make what the visitors describe as the most enchanting music. Never found one of them, though. I doubted I could even find one of the charms my father made to buffer me against the effects of fire, earth, or water. They were probably in a drawer somewhere.
But I wasn’t going to lose any more face in front of Hiram Broadwater. I sat up straight, which pushed my bosom out and made his eyes bulge a little, and gave him my most confident look. “Of course. You have a mystery that only one of my kind can solve. Then I should solve it, shouldn’t I?”
I stood and slid out from the bench as smoothly as I could in such a fancy dress. I certainly wasn’t going to climb over it and give either one of the men a view of my knees.
Hiram clapped his hands together. “Dib-delightful!” The pirate-constable just swallowed again.
Yew frowned at me as I went to her and held my hands out for my harp. “When are we going to solve mysteries? You have the Governor’s house to play at. And then we’re supposed to leave.”
“Well, I doubt we can get an easy passage away from the island right now, knowing what sort of boarders the Pier Twelve house had. And what about the Governor’s house?”
“He sent word this morning. He rescheduled the party for tonight.”
“And what do you mean, we’re going to solve mysteries?”
She just gave me a look, one of those looks that made her seem much older than she was. I really wasn’t going to be able to shake her, the little urchin.