Gabe watched through half-lidded eyes as Hano steered the raft out towards the open sea, too numb to even care if Hano brought back any desperately needed supplies. He could feel the sun beating down on the back of his neck, burning the unprotected skin there, but he didn’t want to shift over closer to Shaia, even if that meant he’d pay for it later. He looked at Shaia and tried to hate him, but even that emotion was locked away, pushed down so far he didn’t know if he would ever feel anything again.
He turned his attention back to the ocean, where Hano was little more than a man-shaped speck on the glittering horizon, and tried to ignore his father’s voice echoing inside his mind, urging him to forgive. He told it that he’d already forgiven everything, but that didn’t quiet the voice or make him feel any more human. Wrapping his fingers around the sharp-edged rock Hano had dropped in his lap, he got to his feet and paced a few strides down the beach, letting his toes sink into the sand. In the jungle a bird called and he wondered if there were animals deep in the greenery, and whether they saw him and his companions as food. He knew that the smell of blood would attract anything that ate meat, and in a distant way he considered the fact that Shaia still lay helpless on the sand.
This is not the way I raised you, Gabriel, his father said inside his head, disapproval clear.
“Shut up,” Gabe told it. “You’re d—” He hesitated, unconsciously tightening his grip on the rock until it cut into his skin, and amended, “You’re not here. You should be, but you’re not.”
He gradually realized his hand hurt and forced himself to loosen his grip, letting a few drops of blood fall to the sand. He switched the rock to his other hand and inspected the small cuts, wiping his hand on his pants once he’d decided they were only shallow. His head hurt and he licked dry lips, wondering how long it would take him to walk to the pool, wet his parched throat, and walk back. He glanced over his shoulder at Shaia, telling himself that fresh water would be good for both of them, and took two steps towards the jungle before his feet turned him back, without him realizing they were going to do it.
Swiping sweat off his forehead, he went back to his position beside Shaia, sinking down into the sand with a careful foot or two between them. Shaia stirred, muttering something under his breath, but his eyes didn’t open. Trying not to be so aware of how harsh Shaia’s breathing was, rapidly pulled in and out, Gabe shaded his eyes and squinted at the open sea again. Relief swept over him when he saw Hano was on his way back, the raft obviously stacked tall with wood and sitting low in the water.
Gabe got up to help pull the raft in, itching to do something with his hands even though the one he’d cut ached, and shrugged in response to Hano’s question on Shaia. Hano stared at him for a moment, the skin between his dark eyebrows creasing in a frown, but Gabe filled his arms with wood and turned away. He spread the wood out on the sand beside the fire so it would dry out, using a stick to poke at the coals in the pit Hano had dug, and refused to think about where the wood had come from.
“You okay?” Hano asked, dropping into a crouch beside him. “Look, I’m not even good for much, but I know how to listen and the offer’s still open. You can talk to me if you want.”
“I don’t really have anything to say.” Gabe pushed himself to his feet again. “I’m going to get water.”
“That reminds me. I saw a cove over there.” Hano waved towards the chunk of the island that jutted out into the ocean. “We should check it out when Shaia’s better. Might be a better place to set up camp than here.”
“You think we’ll be here that long?” Gabe asked, more to be polite than because he cared. The thought of rescue seemed so distant as to be unreal.
“Dunno, but I’d rather assume we won’t be and get surprised by a ship swinging by to pick us up, than assume we will and sit around on my ass until I die.” Hano glanced towards Shaia. “Don’t be too long, okay? I don’t want to leave Shaia alone to come look for you.”
“I won’t be long.” Gabe headed for the jungle, glad to step out of the heat and into the green shade.
He went to the pool first and knelt down to scoop the cold water up in his hands, drinking until his belly felt uncomfortably full. A few of the winged lizards flew over his head as he knelt there, chirping to each other. He pushed himself up and made his way towards the waterfall, pushing large green leaves out of his way and trying not to trip on any of the upraised roots and chunks of wood that lay scattered under the trees. The waterfall was so loud that it drowned out any other thought in his head, and he felt his shoulders relax as some of the tension left him. Water spray cooled his skin down and with some of the heat gone he felt the pain in his head ease.
Picking a spot that looked like it provided good handholds, he started to climb the small cliff the waterfall tumbled over. There was a narrow path winding up towards the top, little more than a game trail, but it was enough to give him something to follow. The burn that soon settled into his calves felt good and he forced himself to keep going despite the small twigs and stones that scratched and bruised his bare feet. He wiped sweat from his upper lip and grabbed a nearby tree to help pull him up the last few steps, leaning over to put his hands on his thighs while he caught his breath.
The first thing that met his eyes when he straightened up was a jumble of huge boulders bigger than some of the houses he’d seen in Barrow Bay, scattered along a wide river that led away into the jungle. The boulder nearest the waterfall had deep gouges in it and it took him a moment to realize they looked like they had been done by giant claws. Moss and vegetation had grown in the gouges but the edges were still almost smooth, deep at the top of the boulder where they started and gradually petering out to white lines etched into the rock’s surface.
Gabe stared at them for a moment then dragged his eyes away and limped towards the river, kneeling down to splash water on his face. Silver fish as long as his forearm darted away from him, blending into the dappled shadows in the shallows. He sat and waited for a few moments, blowing droplets of water off his nose, and after a few moments the fish came back, drifting along through the water with small flicks of their tails. Somewhere in the jungle behind him he heard birds again and a stray breeze tickled the back of his neck, cooling the sweat there.
He straightened up, sending the fish fleeing again, and turned to look towards the jungle. The mountains rose above it, greens and browns blending together with the purple-blue of shadowed rock, all topped by the white of snow. Gabe wondered how long it would take to walk there through miles of untouched jungle. He shaded his eyes to try and judge the distance, and noticed a long line of brown cutting through the green of the trees and undergrowth, down below and some distance from the cliff he was standing on.
He thought briefly of Hano and Shaia, back on the beach, but a strange curiosity about the stretch of brown tugged at him. Instead of starting back, he walked towards the edge of the cliff and found a path that wound down into the jungle again. It was steep and he almost lost his balance more than once going down it—saving himself by a lucky grab for the nearest vegetation each time—but he reached the jungle floor without much more than scrapes and bruises. He sat on a nearby downed trunk for a few minutes to rest his feet, glad that he’d at least been prone to walking around barefoot in Barrow Bay, then pushed himself up and headed towards what he hoped was the stretch of brown. It was harder to see it down in the jungle, where the trees grew so tall they seemed to lean towards each other when he looked up.
Something grunted as he passed by a thick patch of vines and small trees, and he paused to look at it, cautiously bending down to pick up a stick as thick around as his forearm. The snout of a pig poked out from the undergrowth, followed a moment later by the animal’s chocolate-brown body, thick-set and low to the ground. Big yellow tusks jutted from either side of the pig’s mouth and it stared at Gabe with small yellow eyes, grunting and snuffling but showing no fear. Three babies—stripes and spotted in white along their brown coats—followed it out of the undergrowth, trotting along behind it as it passed Gabe with little more than a sidelong look. Once they crossed the path, the family of pigs disappeared again into the brush, and Gabe let out a breath he hadn’t even known he was holding.
By the time he reached the first burnt tree, he was limping badly, favouring his right foot where he’d bruised his heel against a stone. He put a hand against one of the trees that was still green and looked down the valley that had been carved through the jungle, leaving broken and burnt trees in a long line where nothing grew. The ground looked dusty and dry, baked to cracks in places, and the glitter of the sun on patches of it told him that sand had been turned to glass. The trees to either side looked stunted and twisted, as though the great heat had warped even the parts of the jungle that it hadn’t outright incinerated. In the middle of the valley the ground had been gouged so deep that Gabe could see different layers of rock in the walls around the gouge, and he thought he could feel heat still radiating from it.
Something about the valley made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and he turned away, feeling no urge to get any closer. The thought of climbing the cliff again and making his way back to the beach exhausted him, and as soon as the burnt valley was hidden by the green of the jungle again, he sank down on a fallen tree and stretched his legs out in front of him. A bright green lizard ran along the trunk, stopped when it spotted him, and scurried underneath the trunk, blending in so seamlessly with the undergrowth that Gabe blinked and lost sight of it. Closing his eyes, Gabe let himself relax, forcing all thought out of his head as his chin dropped down to rest on his chest.
The quality of light had changed when he opened his eyes again, feeling groggy and dry-mouthed. His neck ached from the awkward position he’d fallen asleep in and he reached up to rub it, straightening up with a wince. A breeze tousled his hair, cooling the back of his neck, where his hairline was damp with sweat. The fading golden colour of the light told him that it was getting late into the evening.
He brushed ants off his leg and pushed himself to his feet, glad that at least some of the pain had eased in his legs. Dizziness swept over him and he put a hand on the trunk to steady himself until it passed, licking at his dry lips and looking up at the cliff he had to climb before he could get a drink. Gritting his teeth, he started walking, helped by the numbness that had settled into him, emptying his chest of anything but a hole where he’d once felt. Briefly he thought of animals in the jungle—there had to be some sort of carnivore to eat the wild pigs he’d seen—but it was more curiosity than fear.
His feet slid under him as he reached the top of the cliff and he fell heavily on his knees, skinning them both bloody. For a few moments he just knelt there, the fingers of one hand wrapped around the small sapling he’d grabbed to catch himself, his head hanging so his sweaty hair—too long already when they boarded the Blessing, and unlikely to be trimmed any time soon—fell into his eyes. He wanted to lie down and sleep again, but instead he struggled to his feet and forced himself to take the last few steps up to the top of the cliff.
As he stood there swaying, he heard a voice shouting his name. Something twisted inside him at the thought that it was his father and he gasped, pressing a hand to his chest as though that would stop the pain. His eyes blurred and he started towards the sound of the voice, taking two steps before he realized it wasn’t his father at all. Hano stood by the base of the waterfall, hands cupped around his mouth to help magnify the sound of his voice, looking around after every shout. Gabe watched him call again, then lifted a hand and called back, hearing his voice crack and briefly reach a register he thought he’d left behind three years earlier.
“What the hell are you doing up there?” Hano yelled at him. The tense lines of his body told Gabe he was angry, but Gabe couldn’t think of why.
“I went for a walk,” he called down. “Then I fell asleep.”
“You fell asleep?” Hano made an aggravated gesture. “Get your ass down here. I left Shaia alone on the beach. He’s awake, but I don’t want him passing out and getting eaten because I had to come looking for you.”
Gabe sighed and made his way down the game trail, trying to keep his weight off his bruised heel as much as possible. Hano’s angry expression morphed into a frown as Gabe reached the bottom, and he came forward to sling an arm around Gabe’s waist. Gabe tensed a little but didn’t try to pull away, grateful to have something to lean on and take some of the weight off his feet.
“Shi Ano, Gabriel,” Hano muttered. “Are you a complete idiot? Look at your feet.”
Gabe glanced down and was a little surprised to see blood flecked across his skin, reaching halfway up his ankles. “I didn’t notice.”
“You need to come back to the world of the living, preacher boy. Your daddy is dead. No sense you following him to the stars.” He glanced back towards the beach, chewing on his bottom lip. “I’ll take you back so you can sit with Shaia, then I guess I’ll haul as much water to the beach as I can. We’ll have to sleep under the stars tonight and rotate watch. You think you can manage that?”
“All right.” Gabe let Hano pull him back towards the beach, managing to get through the haze of exhaustion inside his head long enough to add, “Thanks.”
“Someone has to take care of you two. Just don’t expect anything too fancy. I wasn’t even allowed a pet as a child.”
“Me neither.” Gabe pulled away as they neared the spot where Shaia was sitting under the lean-to and awkwardly knelt in the sand, studying Shaia’s face. “How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been shot,” Shaia said hoarsely. “Like I have mashed-up plants tied around my shoulder with what remains of my shirt. Other than that, just fine, thanks for asking.”
Gabe ignored the sarcasm, pressing the inside of his wrist to Shaia’s forehead. Fever still burned under Shaia’s skin, making his pale amber eyes glitter and cracking his lips with its heat, but the area around the poultice wasn’t badly inflamed when Gabe checked. “How’s the pain?”
Shaia shrugged with his good shoulder. “Hasn’t killed me yet. Where’d you wander off to? You’re almost as much a mess as I am.”
“I went for a walk.” Gabe tied the makeshift bandage back into place, glad for something to keep his hands busy. “I think that’s the most you’ve ever said to me.”
“I had nothing to say to you on the ship.”
“I still have nothing to say to you.” Shaia hesitated. “Except, I suppose, thank you. For helping me.”
“You’re welcome,” Gabe said automatically. “Rest. I’ll keep watch until Hano gets back.”
Shaia opened his mouth as though to say something else, then just shrugged and lay back down under the lean-to. Within moments he’d fallen asleep again, his eyes moving rapidly under closed lids. Gabe let his own eyes close, dozing until Hano came back carrying shells full of water, balanced on each other like mugs, and settled down on the sand in front of Gabe.
“Foot,” he ordered, digging the shells into the sand and holding out a hand.
Gabe just stared at him. “That’s not—”
“Appropriate in proper society, I know.” Hano gestured around them. “Do you see any proper society out here? Come on, it’s getting dark.”
Gabe hesitated a moment longer then shifted his weight so he could let Hano have his foot, trying not to squirm, partly from a lifetime in a society that treated feet washing as an intimacy, and partly because the cuts on his feet stung as Hano washed them out.
“We need to find you something to put on your feet,” Hano said. “Maybe boots will wash up or I can make you something.”
“I thought you were a thief.”
“I was. I also helped build ships, did some work for a tanner, and repaired fences at the Barrow racetrack. I’m a man of many skills. What about you?”
Gabe forced his gaze away from the sky, where the sun was beginning to set in an orange ball of fire, turning the sky pink and gold. “What about me?”
“Did you preach? I know some preachers use their kids to reach other kids. What do you want to do with your life?”
“I... don’t know.” Gabe shifted uncomfortably, forcing down the thoughts that tried to come up; thoughts about his father and how he’d expected to follow in his father’s footsteps eventually, even if his faith was uncertain. “What does it matter?”
“Just making conversation. I can change the subject if you want.” Hano flashed him a smile. “What’s your full name, anyway? I’m Hanoaki Aduba. He’s Shaia Min Lau.”
“Your mother must’ve been Shintamo. Right? Where’s she?”
“Yeah.” Gabe rubbed his nose, thinking of his mother with the same vague fondness he always did. “She died when I was really young, so I don’t remember much about her. I’ve seen pictures though. My father met her during his first trip to the Empire.”
“Thought you were a halfbreed. No offense.” Hano let go of Gabe’s feet and straightened up. “There, all cleaned up. Try not to be so dumb next time.”
“Good. Get some sleep. I’ll wake you up to watch later.”
Gabe turned obediently to the lean-to, lying down in the corner furthest from Shaia. He closed his eyes, expecting to lie awake all night, but instead he could feel himself drifting almost immediately. His last thought before sleep claimed him was of his mother, and just before he slipped down into darkness, he smelled her lavender perfume and felt her gentle hand on his forehead.