It was strange, to be back in Basra—the real Basra, not a dream stuffed into his head by a Guardian, and Sinbad knew it because he'd pressed his fingers into his own neck hard enough to feel his heartbeat. Twice.
The real Basra. With no one to run from, now that Akbari was dead; now that Taryn had Alehna and was safe, and wasn't trying to make Sinbad open any more doors. And no one to run to, either, Sinbad supposed, with Amah and Mother both gone.
But beside him was an Anwar who had had adventures enough to fill any book, and a Gunnar who remembered him; and there was still at least one person left in Basra who cared whether he was alive or dead.
"Well, look at that," said Rina.
Sinbad looked up: they were almost to the university, now, and where there had been cracked tiles, fallen columns, burning books, there was—nothing. The steps were spotless, the floor was level. Everything looked entirely back to normal.
"It couldn't have been very hard to clean up the plaza," Anwar offered, his face briefly grave; he was remembering the books, Sinbad thought, the flames and the ashes and the half-scorched scrolls that had been kicked across the ground. "But I must admit I'm surprised—the last time we were here, it looked like the whole building was about to come down."
"It takes only a little time to ruin things," Gunnar said. "And usually a lot longer to fix them."
"Not if you know what you're doing," someone said—a girl, gently teasing, and Sinbad looked up the steps to the university entrance to find Nala smiling down at them.
Anwar was the first one to make it up the stairs, and he pulled Nala in for a hug that quickly grew; Sinbad threw his arms around both of them, a handful of Nala's braids spilling over his shoulder, and then he felt one of Gunnar's hands settle against his back, the other almost touching his wrist behind Nala.
"Don't crush her," Rina said, scolding.
"You aren't happy to see me?" Nala said, as they let her go.
"Me?" Rina said. "I'm disappointed in you, is what I am," and she held up a hand, a gold hairpin caught between two fingers. "You haven't been practicing, princess. You're not any better at catching me than you were before."
Nala tilted her head back and laughed, and then held out her hand for the pin; and Rina gave it back with only a little show of reluctance.
"I'm sorry," Nala said next—to Tiger, who was standing off to one side and watched Nala bow politely with a look of faint wariness on her face. "I've been very rude. I am Nala."
Tiger lifted her chin. "They said." She paused, looking Nala up and down consideringly, and then added, "Tiger."
Nala smiled at her, and then at the rest of them, and motioned to the university doors. "Well, come on," she said. "I insist. You must have many stories to tell me."
She led them inside, where it was easier to see that damage still lingered; there were three masons in the entrance hall arguing about the measurements for a particular column of marble that lay cracked in half beside them, and one of the interior doorways was roped off entirely. "This building is the worst of it," Nala said, guiding them past. "Most of the university complex is actually still intact, despite the best efforts of Akbari's guardsmen. That's how I knew you were coming—I like to climb the towers in the morning, to look at the city, and you can see the harbor from there. The Providence is probably not the only ship in the world with sails that color," she added, smiling, "but I hoped it might be you."
"We weren't sure how we were going to find you," Anwar said, "although I suppose we could have asked Taryn to do it—but we thought maybe someone at the university would at least have met you while you were helping—"
Nala whirled around to stare at him. "Taryn?" she said. "When exactly would you have asked for help from Taryn?"
"When she was on the Providence with us," Anwar said.
Nala gaped at him.
"We're friends with her now," Rina clarified. "Sort of. She was with us on the ship for a while—it wasn't supposed to be for so long, but there were some complications."
"... You must have many stories to tell me," Nala said.
The university had dining halls—free and open to the public now, Nala explained, so that no one would be forced to starve, since the price of food had grown high in Basra and had not yet recovered. They settled easily at a table, with fruit and bread and some freshly-cooked shish kebab. "Now, tell me how Taryn ended up on our ship," Nala said, and they did.
It took a long time, but somehow not as long as Sinbad felt it should have—it seemed like so much had happened, but they hadn't actually been in the Land of the Dead for very long at all, and it took even less time to explain.
"... and then it turned out a spirit had gotten out along with Alehna," Rina said, "some fellow who liked to call himself the King of the Dead. He thought Sinbad and Alehna belonged to him, that it was his right to take them back with him—and he wouldn't have minded taking the rest of us, either. But then Taryn did something with a lot of blood and a lot of fire and got rid of him."
It sounded so simple like that, Sinbad thought—nothing like the twelve days it had taken, doing their best to keep the King of the Dead from killing them or Alehna, Taryn trying everything she could think of until at last she'd cut her hands open onto the deck and started shouting words that had made all their ears bleed. "She saved our lives," Sinbad said. "We weren't exactly going to throw them off the ship after that." Alehna had been afraid they would—she'd been afraid of them all for days afterward, thinking they hated her or blamed her. And then Cook had sat down next to her on the deck, told her something in a quiet voice, and spent the rest of the afternoon teaching her to play mangala. By the time they'd dropped her and Taryn off in Kunfuda, she'd gotten good enough to beat all of them at least once.
"Well," Nala said, after a long moment. "You certainly haven't gotten any better at avoiding trouble."
"To be fair," Anwar said, "that last part really wasn't our fault."
"And the thing with the whale," Gunnar added, "that was just bad luck."
Sinbad grimaced. "Do you have to keep bringing that up? I didn't know it was a whale when I started that fire—"
"You set a whale on fire?" Nala said.
"We all thought it was an island, it wasn't just me!" Gunnar was grinning, now, and Sinbad suddenly wanted badly to laugh, the mood abruptly light; instead he pulled the last chunk of meat off his shish kebab and then waved the bare skewer at Gunnar, narrowing his eyes threateningly. "Anyway, it was a small fire—"
"—and a big whale—" Gunnar threw in.
"—the whale was fine," Sinbad concluded.
Nala eyed them from across the table. "I should be more surprised by this than I am," she said, sort of thoughtfully.
"But enough about our misadventures," Anwar said, waving his hands like he could shoo the topic away. "You must have done a great deal since we saw you last."
"Oh, a great deal," Nala agreed, and then smiled, a quick flash of teeth. "I didn't set fires on any whales—"
"Not you, too," Sinbad said loudly.
"—but I've been busy enough." The smile lingered for a moment, and then her face turned graver. "It was very hard at first—a great many people fled from Basra and have not returned, and there has been no emir to govern, with Akbari dead. Some of the bandits from the countryside have tried to claim the city, and it was not easy to fight them off. The noble families who are left have been hiring mercenaries for themselves—half to fight the bandits, and half to fight each other over the throne. But the people did not have the same protection." Her gaze went briefly distant—remembering, Sinbad thought—and then she shook herself free of it and smiled at them again. "It's better now, a little. The traders have started coming again, and there is a city council now, and a new city guard. But it was very bad."
"And the university?" Anwar said.
"People who were hurt or had nowhere to go began to come here for shelter," Nala said. "Many of the university administrators were killed by Akbari's guardsmen, when they came to raid the libraries. But some of the professors were still here, and the students; of course they are not all studying to be doctors like you," she added, to Anwar, "but they helped however they could. At first they needed hands, and people to help keep things organized; and then they needed resources, money, a plan." She shrugged one shoulder, modest. "I was lucky enough to be able to help with all of those things."
Rina snorted. "Oh, admit it," she said, "you just wanted the chance to tell people what to do."
By the timing of Rina's yelp and the smug tilt of Nala's chin after, Sinbad was pretty sure Nala had kicked her in the shin. "They are all very gracious," Nala said, "and they hardly ever insult me. It's been a pleasant change of pace."
They kept talking until it grew dark—or most of them talked and Tiger watched, anyway, but she sat on a table near them and ate two shish kebabs and half a pomegranate, so Sinbad thought she must have been feeling pretty comfortable.
Nala offered them rooms at the university, which Anwar and a yawning Rina happily accepted; but Sinbad found himself wanting with peculiar force to sleep in his bunk on the ship. He loved Basra, and was glad to be back, but there was no home for him now except the Providence, and a quiet night belowdecks—safe, and knowing his crew were safe also—sounded like the next best thing to paradise.
He expected Tiger to come back with him, at least, because somehow he didn't think she'd much like to sleep somewhere strange if she could help it. But she tilted her head at Nala and said, "Not tonight. I've got a few people I need to see."
Gunnar had said nothing either way; but when Sinbad stood, so did he, and Sinbad looked at him inquiringly.
"As Nala tells it, there are mercenaries, bandits, and a new city guard," Gunnar murmured, a smile tucked into the corners of his mouth. "If you go alone, then by daybreak there will be three different prices on your head and at least two people will have tried to kill you."
Sinbad made a dismissive noise. "You worry like an old woman," he told Gunnar; but he didn't try to say he minded having Gunnar at his shoulder on the way back to the docks. Even he wasn't that good a liar.
Gunnar couldn't say that he knew Basra well, or ever had. But walking back to the docks from the university, it was clear even to him that the city had changed.
He'd come to Basra and had been stunned by it—the heat, the color, the motion. He had traveled a long way from the northlands and had seen many cities, but he hadn't lived in any that were the sheer size of Basra. Even at night, there had been light and sound all around him. It had been dizzying. In a strange way, Gunnar had even been grateful for it. Certainly people in Basra looked twice at a northman, particularly one with Gunnar's height and pale hair—but then they looked three times at the next thing. He had been far from the only stranger in Basra, and nobody had cared that he was there except maybe so that they could pick his pocket.
But now it was quiet in the street, except for Sinbad's humming, and there was light enough to see by, seeping in from nearby streets, but not very much more. It felt strange, empty—for a moment Gunnar could not help remembering the silent dusty streets of the city of the dead, and he shuddered.
But it was not so bad as that. The center of the city, he told himself, was still alive, and behind them the university stood, nearly whole again despite everything. It was not like the villages the Valsgard had burned to the ground. It would get better again. What was done could not be undone, and perhaps the city would never again be exactly as it had been, but that was all right. No one ever stepped in the same river twice.
Gunnar blinked. He had paused to look out at the city—and had gotten so tangled up in his thoughts that he had never started walking again. Sinbad had kept going, a little way, and then had come partway back, and was now looking at Gunnar with one eyebrow raised.
"Sorry," Gunnar said. "I was just—thinking."
Sinbad looked at him a moment longer, and then down, and then away—following the line Gunnar's own gaze had been tracing, out and over the city. "It's different," he said; and he said it like he was agreeing, like he knew what Gunnar had been thinking even though Gunnar had not put it to words. "But then so are we, I guess."
True enough. The Sinbad Gunnar had seen that very first day, sneaking onto the Providence, tired and angry and in pain—that Sinbad would never have made it to the Land of the Dead, would never have forgiven Akbari or Taryn for any of the things they had done.
Would, perhaps, never have forgiven Gunnar, if he had learned that day what he knew now: that Gunnar had killed a thousand boys' brothers, that Akbari would have had to slaughter half of Basra to catch up. Gunnar shut his eyes against the thought, for a moment, and then made himself look out again at the city.
"Come on," Sinbad said, quiet, and clapped a warm hand to Gunnar's shoulder. "The docks—not far now."
"No," Gunnar agreed.
It was a comfort to be back aboard the Providence, to go through the quiet routine of checking her ropes and ties and sail-arms—and if Gunnar lingered over it a little, then Sinbad must have also, because they finished the port and starboard sides at nearly the same time.
"Do you remember," Sinbad said, testing one final knot, "the day Cook tried to teach us how to tie ropes on a ship?"
"I remember it took more than a day," Gunnar said. "And who is this 'us'? I already knew what I was doing."
Sinbad grinned, a quick flash of teeth, and Gunnar smiled back even as he looked away, feeling hot and unsteady and far too pleased. Like tempting fate, taunting death, and setting fires on whales, making Sinbad smile seemed to get increasingly dangerous the more times Gunnar did it.
"The day he had the girls hauling sail," Sinbad said. "And then Anwar, and then me—remember? We finally had it done, and then I didn't knot it right and he yanked it loose—"
"Ah—yes," Gunnar said. "I remember."
"You must have thought we were idiots," Sinbad said.
"I thought you were children who had never been on a boat before," Gunnar said. "And possibly also idiots."
Sinbad laughed—a whole-hearted laugh, because he was Sinbad, tilting his head back and all, and Gunnar made himself turn to douse the lantern because otherwise he was going to get caught staring at the line of Sinbad's throat.
"In my case," Sinbad said, "I think you were probably right about both."
"Don't be silly," Gunnar said, groping through the dark for the hatch that led belowdecks. "Surely you had been on a boat at least once."
Sinbad made a noise of mock outrage, and Gunnar had a moment's warning in the pad of his bare feet across the deck before he came close enough to shove Gunnar—gently, kindly, the way a boy shoves at his friends when they've made fun of him. For an instant Gunnar thought to grab after him, to give him a shove of his own, to wrestle him down to the wide-open deck—
He snatched his hands back before they could get far, and threw a careful elbow into Sinbad's side instead. But it wasn't careful enough, or else Sinbad hadn't been expecting it: he fell to the deck with a thump, somewhere to Gunnar's left, and let out a surprised sort of grunt.
The deck thumped back at them, from below and fore. "Hey! Some of us are trying to sleep down here, you know!"
"Sorry, Cook," Sinbad shouted, and then began to laugh again.
"You are always getting me in trouble," Gunnar said, making his voice mournful and chiding instead of breathless. He was not a bard or a skald but he could have sung a dozen lays of gratitude that it was dark at that moment—much too dark for Sinbad to see his face clearly.
"Me—and who pushed who over, again?" Sinbad said, but he was still chuckling. A moment later a hand touched Gunnar's knee, and Gunnar reached through the dark until he found Sinbad's wrist and pulled him to his feet again.
It was too much, Gunnar thought grimly. Sinbad's mouth, his smile and his warm hands and his reckless kindness—it was too much, too much by far. Gunnar had borne his tattoos and his loneliness and the blood on his hands for years; he had strong shoulders, he knew how to carry a weight. But this thing with Sinbad—it was not heavy, not like that, and he did not know how to bear it.
But he would not leave Sinbad. Not for justice, not for fear, not for peace—he would not leave Sinbad for anything in the world. Not even to escape this thing.
Sinbad clapped Gunnar on the shoulder, squeezed his hand, and then turned and started to climb down the deck-stair, and Gunnar waited until there was space and then followed him down.
* * *
"I was an idiot, you know," Sinbad said, when they were below—quietly, because he didn't actually want to keep Cook awake if he could help it.
They'd doused the last light belowdecks, and it was black as pitch except for the faint light of stars and moon and Basra that tumbled through the hatch; but he could hear Gunnar behind him, flipping the blankets open on his own bunk, and he could hear it when Gunnar stopped moving.
"What," Gunnar said after a moment, "you think you aren't one anymore?"
Sinbad grinned down at his hammock. He'd left that one wide open, it was only fair to take the shot, but he was never sure whether Gunnar would do it, and every time he did, it felt like—like he was accepting a gift Sinbad had made for him, like he was choosing Sinbad all over again. Even if it was just for the sake of delivering an insult.
But Sinbad hadn't said it just to give Gunnar a chance to make a joke. "I mean it," he said, feeling around for his pillow—ah, there it was, it had rolled into the hammock's middle. "I was—I was foolish, I was angry, I was selfish. I still am, probably, but I'm trying not to be—"
"You are not selfish," Gunnar said. "Even that first day—you almost drowned yourself for Rina. You were not selfish then."
Sinbad went still, one hand on his pillow, and gazed unseeingly into the dark for what felt like a long time. "I killed Raees," he said at last, slowly. "I killed Jamil. I got on this ship and the whole crew drowned." He shook his head, even though Gunnar wouldn't see it. "I wanted to save someone—anyone, just so I knew that I wasn't—wasn't stuck, that I could still—"
"Do good things," Gunnar said, very low.
Sinbad winced, because that was the voice Gunnar used when he was thinking about what he'd done, who he used to be, and that hadn't been where Sinbad had meant to go at all. "And I could," he said quickly, "I could. I wanted to say—I couldn't have done it without you."
There was a moment's pause. "Couldn't have saved Rina? I didn't do anything—"
"Actually, you did—you pulled me out of the water," Sinbad said, "but that's not what I meant. The day the Khaima came for you, the day Taryn sent out that hunter—it would have killed me, if it hadn't been for you. I would have killed me, because I was too angry, too afraid, but you—" How to say it? How to explain it so that Gunnar would understand? "You taught me how to be better than that. You started to, anyway, and you still do, all the time. You make me a better person."
It sounded strange when he said it out loud, raw in a way that made his face hot; but it was true and he meant it, so he didn't try to take it back. He shoved his pillow up where it was supposed to go, punched it twice to even out the lumps in the stuffing—Gunnar still wasn't saying anything. Had it sounded strange to him, too? Was he—
"You were already a good person," Gunnar said. "You just needed a little help."
"A lot of help," Sinbad said, and he sounded a little shaky to his own ears but Gunnar just chuckled.
"And I will help you with a lot of things," Gunnar said, "but I draw the line at singing you to sleep. Stop talking and go to bed, Sinbad."
Sinbad laughed, and hefted himself into the hammock. "One little lullabye wouldn't kill you, you know," he said, with an exaggeratedly disappointed cluck of the tongue, and listened to Gunnar scoff with a smile on his face.
By the time they woke the next morning, Cook was already up—and had been for a while, if the steam rising from his pots and pans was any indication. "Not your breakfast!" he said, slapping Sinbad's hand away from one sizzling pan. "That is your breakfast."
Gunnar followed the line of his arm and happily snatched up three of the round brown rolls, leaving two behind.
"Hey—why do you get three?" Sinbad cried, grabbing after them.
Gunnar dodged sideways and stepped out of reach. "Because I'm bigger than you," he said, matter-of-factly—which was quite true, and if he tore one in half and gave a piece to Sinbad later, it was only to stop Sinbad's complaining.
They left the Providence with a list of things Cook wanted them to buy for him, which Sinbad had had to repeat back three times perfectly before Cook would let them off the ship. "See?" Sinbad said after the third time. "I told you I had it."
Cook narrowed his eyes. "Last time I told you to get me something—in this very city—you came back empty-handed!" and he flicked one of Sinbad's palms for emphasis, scowling. "You're not going to get away with it this time. And bring Nala back to eat with us in the afternoon! University food, peh—I am making us all something special."
Gunnar had no idea where in the multitude of university buildings Nala might have put Anwar and Rina, or how he and Sinbad would find them, but it turned out not to matter: when he and Sinbad reached the university plaza, Nala and Anwar and Rina were already there. Rina was trying to teach Anwar to pick Nala's pocket, scolding him at length when he failed, and Tiger was watching them from the university steps, smirking.
"—no no no! Much too obvious! I can see what you are going to do all the way up here, in your shoulders, before you even move your hand at all. You can't let it show like that—you've got to keep it separate. Only your hand, nothing else! I'm going to tie bells to your elbow, and every time they so much as tinkle I'm going to kick you in the—"
"You try to teach him to steal," Gunnar said loudly, "and he's going to end up with his hand cut off—and then who will sew Sinbad up the next time he gets stabbed?"
"I'm sure I can learn!" Anwar protested. "I've got steady hands, I always have—"
"Steady," Rina agreed, "but not subtle!" and then she tapped the back of one of them and beamed at him. "I guess you're lucky you have me to steal things for you."
Anwar looked at her, flushed, and then started to smile. "I guess so," he said, and then cleared his throat and nodded toward Gunnar and Sinbad. "So, you both—um—slept well, I hope?"
"Fine," Sinbad said, grinning, "even without a lullabye."
Gunnar punched him in the shoulder.
It wasn't hard to convince everyone that it was a good day to go find a market street: it was already a sunny morning, the sky over Basra blue and cloudless, and when Sinbad suggested it he was met with nods all around.
"I haven't had much time for such things," Nala said, "but I have been at the university so much recently—I would like to see how the city is doing."
"And maybe buy yourself something nice," Rina said.
"And maybe buy myself something nice," Nala agreed, smiling.
"I wouldn't mind," Anwar said. "I probably ought to buy us some better bandages, so we don't have to keep tearing up clothes—and maybe some salves—and more thread, speaking of sewing people up—"
Tiger shrugged. "I could use some more knives."
Everybody else in Basra seemed to agree that it was a good day to do a little trading, too, because they didn't have to go far from the university at all to reach a street that was narrow with vendors' stalls. Rina darted around stealing things, Nala following along and making her put them all back—which Gunnar suspected was half the fun, not only to take them but also to return them without being noticed. Anwar found a woman who was selling a great number of healing herbs and balms, and ended up talking to her for so long that they nearly left him behind by accident. He bought at least half of the woman's salves, in the end, and then a gleaming inlaid bracelet that he gave to Rina, who made a face and told him it was ugly—but put it on anyway, Gunnar noticed, as soon as he'd looked away.
Tiger found three knives that met her standards, slid them all into her belt, and then ended up at Nala's side, talking to a man who was selling cloth in a thousand colors. Nala bought herself enough of a gold-patterned green to make a dress with—and Tiger bought an armslength of something soft and cloud-light in vivid blue. "I like it," she said, easy, when Sinbad raised an eyebrow at her, and she tied it round her waist like a sash and tucked the ends in neatly around her new knives.
Gunnar looked around as eagerly as any of them, but it wasn't any of the wares that drew his eye, nothing he wanted to buy. It was good, he thought, to be in a place so alive, so full of people—squeezing past veiled girls and tattooed women, shouting men, with laughing children chasing each other up and down the street at knee-height. Not quite the Basra he remembered, maybe; but not a city of the dead.
"Aren't you going to get anything?" Sinbad said.
Gunnar met his gaze and shrugged. "No," he said, and then, because he was an idiot and couldn't stop himself, "I have everything I need."
He was expecting Sinbad to smile, maybe even to laugh at him, but all Sinbad did was go still and look away. Only for a moment—and then he did smile, mischievous, and said, "Well, then, you can help me carry all these things for Cook!" and promptly filled Gunnar's arms with spice-sacks and rice and two freshly-strangled chickens—
"Sinbad!" Nala cried. "He's going to drop them all if you give him any more than that."
"There's still at least a dozen other things Cook wants," Sinbad said, "and if Gunnar can't carry them all by himself, I certainly wouldn't be able to—"
"Then don't," Nala said, and held out one end of the swathe of cloth she'd bought. "Honestly—boys. You never plan for anything."
With the cloth doubled over, Sinbad holding one end and Nala the other, Gunnar could tip his armload of provisions into it; and it bulged like a camel's belly but didn't tear.
"Worth what I paid for it," Nala said, satisfied, and then briskly handed her end off to Tiger, who looked at Nala bemusedly but took it. "Now, just what else does Cook want, anyway?"
Gunnar rescued Sinbad's end of their makeshift sack before Sinbad could let go in his effort to point out a nearby stall to Nala, and Sinbad flashed him a moment's smile—easy, careless, without hesitation. Perhaps Gunnar had been imagining things after all.
He hefted Nala's cloth a little higher and glanced at Tiger: she looked a little annoyed, but met his eyes and shrugged.
"If it will make Cook happy," she said, and nothing else—but that was enough. Cook happy made feasts from next to nothing, never mind rice and spices and two whole chickens; Cook unhappy? Made rat.
"If it will make Cook happy," Gunnar agreed, and they turned as one, the cloth between them, and followed Sinbad and Nala down the street.
They needed the cloth to get everything back to the ship, and so in the end they didn't have to ask Nala whether she wanted to eat on the Providence—she came with them down to the docks, and by the time everything they'd bought for Cook had been unloaded, all their stomachs were growling.
"All right, all right," Cook said, after Rina's stomach let out a particularly loud rumble. "It's almost done!"
"What's almost done?" Sinbad said, grabbing one of the chickens by its feathers and wiggling a wing. "You haven't even touched what we brought you!"
Cook looked at him like he was a fool. "That's not for now, that's for later. Soup—that's for now."
"Rat soup," Gunnar predicted, under his breath.
"I told you I would make something good," Cook said, sniffing. "And I have, so you're going to eat it."
"Thank you so much, Cook," Nala said pointedly, and Cook beamed at her and gave her the first bowl.
Almost definitely rat, Gunnar thought; but rat was still food, and carrying all those supplies through the market for half the day hadn't made him less hungry than usual. He made sure he got the second bowl.
If it was rat, it was excellent rat—and maybe it wasn't rat after all, because Cook had developed something of a soft spot for Nala after that thing with Death. Probably he wouldn't welcome her back to the Providence with a bowl of rat. Or if he did, he would make sure it was really good rat.
It was easy, having Nala back on the ship—easier than Gunnar might have expected, easy like she had never been gone at all. Whatever she had been doing for the city, it hadn't changed her: she was still imperious—dignified—kind. She still rolled her eyes at Sinbad; still made Rina laugh; still listened attentively to Anwar, even when he rambled. Tiger hadn't replaced her, just as she would never replace Tiger. There were seven places at their table now, that was all, and Nala's had been empty 'til she'd come back today and filled it.
They sat together in the shade cast by the sails, and ate and talked and laughed together, and it was good, comfortable. Gunnar had a second bowl of possibly-not-rat, thick and warm and savory even though it had to have been made from whatever leavings were still on the ship—for all Gunnar's complaining, Cook really could work miracles sometimes—and then he lay down on the deck by Rina's feet, which she promptly lifted up, crossed at the ankles, and set down again across his chest. Gunnar made loud noises of outrage but only pretended once as though he would shove them off; and then he lay down again and nearly dozed off, the chatter and laughter almost soothing to his ears. He was, in so many ways, so lucky—and what had he ever done to deserve it? Nothing, nothing at all, and there was no one in the world more grateful than he that life was not fair, because if it were then he would surely be at the bottom of the ocean instead of full and happy, warm, surrounded by friends.
At last the clink of spoons against bowls came more rarely between the talking, and then not at all—they were done, Gunnar thought, the meal was over, and he was sorry to see it go.
He was roused from his meandering by the clap of hands. Nala's, he discovered, when he pried an eye open, and he raised an eyebrow at her.
She smiled at him—at all of them, and said, "So. I'm glad to see you here because I'm glad to see you at all, but that's not the only reason."
"You want us for a job," Rina said instantly.
"Not for me," Nala said, "for the university—but yes, a job."
"A job where we'll get paid?" Tiger said.
Sinbad, nearest her, looked at her balefully, and she shrugged.
"Not that going to the Land of the Dead wasn't fun," she said, "but it didn't exactly leave us rolling in gold."
"A job where you'll get paid," Nala agreed, looking like she was trying not to laugh.
"For the university?" Anwar said. "I don't understand—what could the university need from us?"
Nala's face turned graver. "You saw some of what happened," she said, "but not all. A great many things were lost when Akbari sent his guardsmen to assault the university. Manuscripts, some of them the only version in existence; unfinished translations of texts from Silla, from Tufan, from Srivijaya—"
"Yes, yes, and they got burned to ashes," Rina said, blatantly ignoring the pained look Anwar gave her for her casual tone. "What are we supposed to do about it?"
"It isn't only about knowledge," Nala said to Rina, throwing Anwar an apologetic glance. "I told you it's been hard, in Basra—so many people have run, there has been so little trade coming in and out. The city needs these things to get back on its feet, but they won't come unless we can prove that the city is safe again—"
"A neat trap," Gunnar said.
"Indeed," Nala said. "And many people, when they think of Basra, think of the university. People died, when Akbari came for the House of Wisdom; students and professors fled, the libraries were torn apart. The university is one way to bring people back to Basra, to make it so there is something here that they can't get anywhere else—but the destruction of so many texts, so much of what made the university famous, makes that difficult."
"Fair enough," Rina said—because, Gunnar thought, showing her where and how value could be perceived would always make more sense to her than an appeal to idealism. "But I still don't understand how we're supposed to change that."
"The university library is not the only library in the world," Nala said.
Rina brightened. "You want us to steal things?"
Nala looked like she wanted to say no—and then like she had remembered she was talking to Rina. "In a way," she admitted. "There is a legend about a library—very large, very old. It was the personal collection of a sorcerer, a man who thought he was the wisest person in the world, and that all knowledge should belong to him. So he built himself an island, and on the island he built a library to hold all the things he did not think anyone else deserved to know. If you could go to that library, and bring even a few of the materials back to Basra, it would do a great deal to restore the university's reputation."
"And where is this island?" Sinbad said.
"An excellent question," Nala said. "I said he built the island himself, and I meant it. It's not a real island, not part of the earth. It floats on the water, moves with the currents like a ship."
At that, Gunnar sat up, the better to look at her with skepticism. "And how are we supposed to find this moving island?" he said.
Nala didn't grimace at the question, didn't look troubled—she smiled. Of course she did, Gunnar thought. It was Nala. She wouldn't have mentioned it to them if she didn't already have a plan. "I learned this story from a scroll in the university library," she said. "Untouched, despite all the fire—magic, I think. And with the scroll, there were instructions. I know how to figure out where the island is."
"Well," Sinbad said. "That sounds like a good start."
"And where does the getting paid come into it?" Tiger said, crossing her arms. "If the university's in so much trouble—"
"—then we had better help," Anwar said indignantly.
"Being helpful doesn't pay for bandages," Rina said. "Or sailcloth, or new rigging ropes, or, you know, food—"
Nala cleared her throat. "I'll make you a deal," she said. "If there is nothing in this sorcerer's library that any of you would like to keep in trade, then I will pay you each a fee—more, if it takes a long time to find the island, and less if it is easy."
"Keep in trade?" Tiger said. "You think we're going to choose to pay ourselves in books?"
Nala smiled. "If the story as I've learned it is true," she said, "there are many things besides books in the library."
"Books, scrolls, loose papers—" Rina said, rolling her eyes.
"And many other treasures," Nala said. "In the old days, sorcerers—like ship's crews—were paid for their work; and many people gave him gifts besides, hoping to gain access to his library or be given the knowledge they desired from it. There should be a great deal that will be of interest even to you. And if the stories are wrong and there is not, then I will pay you myself."
"Altruism and treasure," Anwar said, throwing up his hands. "How can we say no?"
"We can't," Sinbad agreed, grinning.
There was no reason for them to delay: Cook had his spices and his chickens, Anwar his doctor's supplies, and Tiger had taken care of all her business in Basra. They woke early the next morning to refill their water barrels, so that everything would be ready for them to sail out with the tide in the early afternoon.
Sinbad was helping Rina roll one of the last few barrels up the ship's ramp when Nala arrived—she was standing at the bottom of the ramp when he glanced around, arms crossed, wearing something purple and gold that looked really expensive, and she had one bag in her hand and another one on the ground behind her.
"Leaving it to the last moment, aren't you?" she said, raising an eyebrow.
"I don't know what you mean," Sinbad said. "We have plenty of time. There's no storm, no whirlpools—"
"No disgruntled whales," Rina threw in.
"—no disgruntled whales," Sinbad conceded, rolling his eyes, and then he turned and set his hip against the barrel so that he could spread his hands and smile at Nala, deliberately wide. "What's the rush?"
"I suppose missing the tide isn't much of a problem," Nala agreed, "considering some of the other problems you've had."
"This is a really nice chat you're having," Rina said, pointed, "but I'm not going to hold this forever," and she let her grip on the water-barrel loosen just a little, so that it bumped Sinbad in the leg. Sinbad laughed and turned round to put his shoulder back against the barrel where it had been, and together they rolled it the last few paces of the ramp and tipped it onto the deck with a thump.
"Over there," Sinbad said, "with the others—we'll have to make sure there's enough rope left to lash these last couple down," and then he trailed off: Rina wasn't listening.
Instead, she was climbing onto the barrel they'd just set upright, and she folded her legs up under her like she planned to stay there, and then pointed at the bag Nala was holding and said, "Is that the thing that's going to get us to the island?"
Nala glanced at it and then smiled, blithe. "That's a bag," she said.
"I mean what's in the bag, princess," Rina said, "don't play stupid."
Nala grinned at her and set the bag down, reaching inside and pulling out—a necklace?
"How is that supposed to help?" Sinbad said, making a face; but almost the moment he said it, he could see that it wasn't just a necklace.
It was like a necklace, all right, but it didn't hang the right way from Nala's hand—the chain was bending a little in the air, as though someone were pulling on it, and the pendant swayed a little, leaning out toward the sea at an angle even though nothing was touching it and there was no breeze.
Sinbad crossed the ramp again so that he could look at it properly, this clearly magical thing Nala was dangling from her fingers—but aside from the bending, the leaning, it didn't look magical at all. It was just a silver chain, and the pendant was—stone, Sinbad thought, or maybe glass, smooth and flat and pale, cloudy but not so much that light couldn't pass through it.
"It's a piece of the island," Nala said. "Magic calls to magic—the same way Taryn could use your curse to find you, except this and the island are part of the same spell, which makes it even easier to use."
"Anwar's going to faint," Rina murmured—she had come down the ramp along with Sinbad, and was reaching out to poke the chain, watching it sway under the pressure of her hand and then return unerringly to hang in the same position, at the same angle, tugged by invisible fingers. "And then rant about being a scientist, and then faint again."
"And then lock himself in his cabin with it so that he can study it," Sinbad said.
Nala smiled. "It will show you, too," she said, and lifted it, chain in one hand so she could catch the pendant with the other, and then she held the pendant up like a spyglass between them and the sea.
There shouldn't have been any light showing through it at all, or hardly any—the Providence was right there, a dozen other ships behind, and the shadow of the sail was falling across them. But Nala held it up in the direction it seemed to like to point, and Sinbad would have sworn the sun were about to sink into the sea if he hadn't known better. The glass-stone looked like the sun was behind it, cloudy surface gleaming with light that seemed clearly to be coming through it—and then Nala moved it to the left and the light faded. To the right again, and the light came back, like there was really something shining there, but when Nala lowered her hands again, there was only the harbor and the sea.
"Huh," Sinbad said.
"Yeah," Rina said, "that will definitely help us find it."
Sinbad grinned down at her even as he reached for it, and at first he thought that was why his hand closed around nothing—he'd missed because he wasn't looking. But when he did look, all he saw was the hand he'd reached out with and a lot of empty air, and Nala, looking amused.
"I thought you wanted us to find you this island," Sinbad said. "How exactly are we supposed to do that if you won't give us that thing?"
"Oh, you'll have it," Nala said. The first bag was in her hand again, and now she leaned down and sideways to pick up the second. "You'll have it because I'm bringing it with me."
Sinbad blinked. "You're—coming with us?"
Nala smiled. "As if I'd let you go by yourselves," she said. "I want you to actually make it there, not get swallowed by a kraken or sail off the edge of the earth."
"Oh, ha ha," Sinbad said. "We didn't do that badly without you, you know."
"I can see that you managed to survive," Nala agreed, bland. "I'm just not sure how," and with that she tilted her chin imperiously and strode past him up the ramp and onto the Providence.
Sinbad glanced at Rina, who shrugged at him. "Don't look at me," she said. "To be honest, I'm not sure how we did it, either," and then she turned away and headed for the next barrel.
Sinbad made a face at her back, but underneath it he wanted to laugh—for amusement, a little, but also for sheer gladness. It hadn't precisely grieved him, when Nala had left them—that wasn't the right word for it. She hadn't been lost to them, not like Jamil had been gone from him or Alehna gone from Taryn—she'd just been somewhere other than where they were. It hadn't torn a hole in him, he hadn't wept over it. It hadn't been the same without her, and he'd missed her, but she'd stayed in Basra because she'd wanted to, so that she could do good things and help people who needed it, and how could any of them have begrudged her that?
It hadn't torn a hole in him, he hadn't wept; but that didn't mean it wasn't good to have her back, even if it was only for a little while.
There were only two more water barrels left to load, and together he and Rina made short work of them. The last one, as always, felt like it was also the heaviest, and Sinbad was relieved when they finally tipped it over onto the deck. "My arms," he said, piteous, and gingerly rolled out his shoulders while Rina laughed at him.
"Maybe I should have gotten Gunnar to help me," she said, "instead of you, twig-boy."
Sinbad opened his mouth to speak, thinking absently about Gunnar's shoulders, Gunnar's hands—and then suddenly couldn't remember what he'd been planning to say. He cleared his throat to cover it, and then stuck his tongue out at Rina. "Everybody looks like a twig-boy next to Gunnar," he muttered; and it was perfectly true, so there was no reason for his face to feel so flushed.
"Mmhmm," Rina said, because of course she had heard him, damn her.
"Fine—get him to help you move these over by the rest, then," Sinbad said, trying to sound stern and captainly but probably only managing to hit annoying; and then he turned away from her, toward the hatch that led below, and nearly walked right into Nala's back. "What—" he said, and then stopped.
Nala was standing on one side of the hatch, her things at her feet and her arms crossed, and Tiger was standing on the other side, looking at her—coolly, Sinbad might have said, except her shoulders were strung tight like she wanted to run, wary.
"I didn't know you were coming," Tiger said, and it sounded lazy, rude—look at her shoulders, Sinbad wanted to say, she doesn't mean it like that, but of course he couldn't.
But Nala was looking at Tiger with narrowed eyes, a little furrow between her brows; and then she sniffed and said, "They gave my cabin to you, didn't they?"
"It's mine now—" Tiger said, suddenly defensive, and she hadn't touched any of her knives but Sinbad could tell that she wanted to.
"Of course it is," Nala said, brisk. "What did you expect me to think—that they had built a shrine to my memory in there? You live here; it's your cabin." She turned to Sinbad and raised her eyebrows. "Please tell me you're not so short on rope that I can't weave another hammock."
"Sure," Sinbad said, "there's spare in the hold."
"All right, then," Nala said, and handed one of her bags to Tiger. "We'll find somewhere to put my things, and then you can help me with the rope."
There was a moment's silence, which Nala seemed not to notice—she was already on the stairs that led below, and didn't so much as pause.
"I can, can I?" Tiger said, warningly, meaningfully, staring down at the back of Nala's head; Sinbad almost wished he could have told her it wouldn't work, but maybe it was better that she find out for herself.
And, sure enough: "You can," Nala said, bright and unmoved, and then her head vanished below, and Tiger was left looking at Sinbad over the hatch, Nala's bag still in her hand, utterly nonplussed.
"So she's always like that," Tiger said after a moment.
"Pretty much," Sinbad said.
Tiger looked at him, and then at the bag in her hand, and then at the hatch; and then, with a resigned sort of huff, she slung the bag over her shoulder and followed Nala below.
* * *
They sailed out of Basra well in time to catch the tide. When they cast off at last, Gunnar was at the tiller; under his hands, the wood was smooth and sun-warmed, and he sat and held on with the great rams-head looking over his shoulder and felt—he didn't know how to say it, even to himself.
He had had this once before, had had people who had known him and wanted to and been glad of him, whom he had known and wished to know and been glad of in his turn—and then he had lost them, all of them, and had never thought he would find such a thing again in this world. He had come to Basra to erase himself—to make himself into a small man, a merchant and a trader, who was quiet and did good business and went unremarked otherwise—to fade himself away into nothing. And, like Sinbad, he had seen the storm that had struck the Providence as a sign: death would follow him no matter where he went, and he had been foolish to think he could run from it.
And then, somehow, everything had changed. He could not get back what had been lost, could not undo the things that he had done—but he had instead been given something new, which was as precious to him now as the old. Sitting by the tiller and looking out across the deck of the Providence, he felt like his heart was too small to hold everything it meant to him, to see Rina balancing neatly on the ship's rail, Anwar telling her to get down before she fell; Nala seated by the mast with a lapful of rope and making Tiger hold the ends for her while she twisted it into the slowly-growing shape of a new hammock; and Sinbad, always Sinbad, who was laughing and re-lashing the water barrels to the deck under the direction of a scowling Cook.
"So," Rina said, and Gunnar startled—he'd looked away from her, and she had apparently grown tired of making Anwar nervous and was climbing up to the quarterdeck. Not by using the stairs, but up the side and over the rail, with the help of some of the nearby shrouds. She landed on the quarterdeck with both feet and then dusted off her hands, brisk. "Nala gave it to you, then?"
"She showed it to me," Gunnar said, because there was only one thing Rina could possibly mean and he knew what it was. "I told her to keep it, at least for a little while—I know which direction to leave Basra in, and that's all I need for now." He shrugged a little, not letting go of the tiller. "It must not be that close to land, or someone else would have found it already. We'll sail this way today, and then I'll look at it again tomorrow and see if the direction has changed—probably it won't, at least for a few days."
"For someone who's sailing off to find a sorcerer's library on a floating island," Rina said, "you're being very practical."
Gunnar smiled at her, and she grinned back at him and sat down on the quarterdeck, legs crossed.
"So do you really think there's going to be treasure in this library?"
Gunnar shrugged again. "I don't know," he said. "What Nala told us made sense—a sorcerer who could make his own island probably didn't lack for much."
Rina snorted a little, and then looked down at the deck—down at the deck, and then out, at the rest of the ship, and was quiet for a long moment. "I'm glad we're doing this," she said at last, low. "Even if there isn't any treasure at all."
She said it like she expected an argument, maybe, or for him to pretend that he hadn't heard; so instead he made a noise like someone had punched him in the gut and then toppled backward, though he was careful to keep a hand on the tiller.
She got as far as scrambling up from the deck, reaching for his knee to shake him, when he gasped out, "It's—it's just the shock—I never thought I'd hear you say—"
Instead of shaking him, she slapped at his leg, and he curled away defensively even as he started laughing.
"I mean it!" she said, crossing her arms and scowling at him.
The laughter fell away and left him smiling, amusement melting into warmth, and she must have seen the change in his face, because she looked away and huffed instead of smacking him again.
"I know you do," he said. "I know."
She scuffed a foot against the deck and said nothing.
"Being here," Gunnar said, "being together, doing good things—it makes me happy, too."
"Getting paid to do good things," Rina corrected.
Gunnar raised his eyebrows at her.
"Even if there's no treasure at all," Rina said, "Nala's still going to pay us! What, you thought I meant we should do this for free?"
"Never," Gunnar said, as solemnly as he could manage, and then ruined it by smiling.
Rina swatted him again—but gently, so she wasn't too annoyed with him—and then sat down on the deck and leaned against his shin. "You're ridiculous," she said, crisp, and then: "As long as you're sitting here holding that tiller, you could at least tell me a story."
"Did you have one in mind?" Gunnar said.
She let her head roll back against his knee, and peered up at him through half-closed eyes. "Sigurd and Fafnir," she said, "and Brynhildr. I like that one."
"Well," Gunnar said, considering. "I know I've told you Sigurd's part of the story—but have I ever told you how Fafnir became a dragon?"
"He wasn't always?" Rina said.
"Oh, no—no, not at all. He was a dwarf, once—the son of the dwarf king, whose name was Hreidmar. He had two brothers, but he was the strongest of the three, and fearless, too—"
* * *
It was easy sailing, the sky clear ahead and behind them and the wind persistent but not too strong—which could only mean something was going to go wrong soon, Sinbad thought, but that meant he should enjoy the quiet while it lasted. Once the water barrels were lashed down to Cook's satisfaction, Sinbad wasted no time in asking Cook for the use of his mangala board; he played two rounds against Anwar, winning one and losing the other, and listened—with what seemed to him to be great patience—to Anwar spinning out theories about the magic island-finding necklace.
"—or maybe it's magnetic—although of course it would have to be extremely powerful to work at such a great distance," Anwar said, and then paused. "You're not listening to me anymore, are you?"
"What? No—I mean yes, yes—magnetic, sure," Sinbad said, but Anwar seemed unconvinced, which must have meant he was lying more than usually badly.
"I'm boring you out of your mind," Anwar said, and then laughed at whatever he saw in the look that crossed Sinbad's face. "No, look, it's all right—I've mostly been thinking out loud, anyway. But there's a few things I want to try with that necklace, if Nala will let me. Get somebody else to play a couple games with you, and then I'll come back and tell you all about it."
"I can't wait," Sinbad said, and he made his tone exaggeratedly dubious so that Anwar would laugh again, but it was only actually partly a lie. Sinbad couldn't follow half the things Anwar said when he started going on about the things he'd studied, but that didn't mean Sinbad minded listening to it. Sometimes, anyway.
Anwar did laugh again, and then got up and left Sinbad with a mangala board and an empty space across from him; but it wasn't as though Sinbad were running out of chances to play mangala, after all. He lay back against the deck, sighing, and looked at the sky—it wasn't quite sunset, but nearing it, the sky not quite so thoroughly blue as it had been, and to both sides he could hear the gentle slap of waves against the Providence, and—
A click, click-click-click—mangala stones. Sinbad tilted his chin up high enough to see: it was Nala who had sat down, and she was picking the stones from the finished game clear of the board, redistributing them among the holes. "I let him have it," she said.
"How long did you make him argue with you, first?" he said.
She shrugged one shoulder. "I needed somewhere to put my things," she said, "and he's got a cabin. We made a deal."
"Of course you did," Sinbad said, and Nala smiled.
"Ready to play again," she said, "or did you want to take a nap?"
Sinbad levered himself upright again and motioned toward the board. "By all means," he said, and Nala eyed the board and then scooped up a hole's worth of stones and began to sow them.
"It's good to be back on the ship," she said, over the low rattle. "I'm happy with the time I spent in Basra, and I'm glad that I was there to do the things that needed doing, but I missed this—this ship, and the times like this that I used to spend with you all—very much."
"We missed you, too," Sinbad said, beginning his own turn. Once, it would have been hard for him to say—he would have chosen not to, would have made a joke or said something cruel rather than be so truthful. But now it did not feel like a confession, like something that would cost him, and the words came easily.
"I'm glad to hear it," Nala said, as though she meant it: as though she had never doubted it, but it was pleasant to have him say it anyway. And then she paused, looked the board over carefully, and sowed her second turn, making a neat capture that ruined the half-formed plan Sinbad had been putting together.
Sinbad huffed out a breath at this unfortunate event, and then, on impulse, reached out to touch the back of Nala's hand, stilling it before she could draw it away from the board. "I'll be sorry to take you back to Basra," he said, quiet, "when this trip is over."
Nala looked at him for a moment, dark eyes wide and serious, and Sinbad knew that she knew that he meant it; and then she sniffed and flicked a stray braid over her shoulder, and said, "You like being scolded that much?"
"Nobody does it quite like you," Sinbad said, grinning.
Nala rolled her eyes at him, and pulled her hand away at last, settling back against the mast; and then she crossed her arms and gazed at him in a way that made him want to cover his face, to stop her from seeing whatever it was she had to be seeing. "I'm not going to stay forever," she said, "there's too many things left to do. But I'm not—I'm not ever going to leave you. Not really."
"I know that," Sinbad began, because he did: Nala would never forget them, no matter where she was, nor they her, and whatever happened, she would always be ready to offer them a helping hand—or a plan, or a scolding, whatever it was they needed from her, because she was their friend. But Nala didn't let him finish.
"And they won't, either," she said, and Sinbad flashed a smile but suddenly couldn't make himself meet her eyes.
"I know that," he said again, but it didn't sound convincing even to his own ears.
Nala raised her eyebrows at him.
Sinbad sighed. "It was easy," he said, and then stopped. "Well, not—easy, exactly, but—there was the curse, and there was Akbari, and all of us were running from him, so why shouldn't we do it together? It was—simple, to just keep running, to not think about what might come after. And then there was Taryn, and she wasn't quite the same but she was close enough, and then there was the Land of the Dead, and—"
"And what?" Nala said, when he didn't keep going.
He swallowed, staring down at the mangala board without actually looking at it. "Gunnar almost didn't come with us," he made himself say, and saying it brought back everything: Gunnar shaking his head and turning away, walking away, leaving them, and how it had felt to watch him do it. It hadn't exactly been a relief, to have Lara run up and tell them that Father La Stessa had Gunnar chained to the floor in the courthouse; but it hadn't exactly made Sinbad weep, either.
It had all worked out all right in the end, but it had still made Sinbad think. He had wanted to go to the Land of the Dead—had wanted it desperately—but the only other person who had wanted it as badly had been Taryn. Tiger hadn't even been able to make the decision to come along, with Taryn in her head, and as for the rest of them—had Anwar had any reason to go to the Land of the Dead, except wanting to help Sinbad? Had Rina? Cook went where the Providence went, and had been willing to let Sinbad decide where that would be—but why should he? And Gunnar—
Gunnar had been afraid to go, had wanted not to almost as desperately as Sinbad had wanted to ensure it—more, even, because Sinbad had only wanted to find one person there, and Gunnar seemed to be running from many more ghosts than that.
He had come with them anyway, and had saved Sinbad besides—but what reason did he have to keep doing it? What reason did any of them have? Sinbad had lost Jamil, Mother, Amah, one at a time, and they had been his family, his blood—and, all right, the dying hadn't been their idea, but Jamil and Amah both had wanted to get away, get clear of him, even if they had changed their minds later. Nala and Tiger, Rina and Anwar, Cook, Gunnar—what reason did any of them have to stay with him, what tie was there to bind them, that was even half as good as that?
He looked up, suddenly aware that he had been silent for a very long time, to find Nala looking back at him—sitting forward, now, with her arms uncrossed, and her expression had turned gentle, soft, in a way Sinbad could not quite define.
"Which was fair," Sinbad said hurriedly, "he didn't have any reason to go—"
"But he did," Nala said. "He went with you, in the end; so he must have found a reason, even if you don't know what it was."
"But if I don't know what it was," Sinbad said loudly, suddenly frustrated, "then how can I—" keep him? Make sure he stays? Nothing sounded right—he bit his cheek, irritated, and shook his head. "We had to stay away from Akbari, and none of you wanted to watch me strangle to death—but that's not the same thing as choosing this, and I don't know why any of you would. I don't know how to make you want to." It was his turn; he picked a hole almost at random, plucked the stones from it and sowed them with sharp flicks of the wrist, and the last one bounced off the board—and into Nala's hand.
For a moment, they were both still, and then Nala flipped the stone over in her fingers, once, twice, and smoothed her thumb over its surface. "I think you've answered your own question," she said, matter-of-fact. "We will choose it because we want to, whatever our reasons are." She went silent again, and then said, "You're afraid—"
"Nala—" he protested—it was a reflex, a habit he'd never lost, that had once had him climbing buildings and leaping rooftops while Jamil stayed sensibly on the ground.
Jamil—Jamil had never minded admitting it, when he was afraid.
"Shut up, Sinbad," Nala said, calmly. "You're afraid. You're afraid of being left because it means something to you, to have us here. Why don't you think it means as much to us, to have each other? To have you?"
How can it? Sinbad wanted to say, except that wasn't fair. Anwar had been alone, too, and Rina, and Tiger. Nala's father had died in front of her, and Gunnar—Gunnar had been alone. Sinbad thought for a moment of Gunnar's face in the Guardian's dream-Basra, coldly angry as he'd thrown his fist into Sinbad's ribs—and he knew it meant something to Gunnar, that Gunnar wasn't that person anymore. He just wasn't sure how much.
"I just—I feel like I've lucked into this," he said. "All of this. Like I spun a wheel at the House of Games, and the universe put you all in my life and gave us this ship. And now the wheel is spinning again, and—who's ever that lucky twice?" He shook his head. "I'd do anything to keep things just the way they are now," he admitted, more quietly. It felt like he was prying himself open, as embarrassing and revealing as though he'd started crying in front of her—why couldn't he stop talking?
"Nothing lasts forever," Nala said gently, and then smiled. "But I don't think you have to worry so much, Sinbad. Besides," she added, much more lightly, "you were that lucky twice at the House of Games, if I remember right."
She was letting him off the hook, turning them carefully toward more familiar territory instead of prodding him open any further; Sinbad smiled at her gratefully before making a theatrical noise of dismay. "And I never want to have to do anything like that ever again," he said, and then jumped at a touch on his shoulder.
"Sorry," Gunnar said, behind him, "sorry. Cook's making supper—and he knows you got him some murri—"
"—because he trusts me," Sinbad said to Nala.
"—because he checked," Gunnar said, merciless, "but now he can't find it anywhere and he wants to know where you hid it. And if you're really going to think it's funny when he serves us his best maqluba and there's no murri."
"I don't think it's funny," Gunnar said meaningfully, raising an eyebrow.
"Right! Right, okay," Sinbad said, and hastily abandoned his seat, to the sound of Nala's laughter.
Even when Sinbad sheepishly retrieved the murri from the corner where he'd stashed it, there was no maqluba—which wasn't really a surprise. Cook liked to save his special dishes for the middle of a voyage, that perfectly balanced point at which he still had enough supplies to make something really good, but they had been out of port long enough that everyone was genuinely appreciative. They had sfiha, instead, on soft pale bread, and Sinbad accepted all Rina's teasing about what a terrible thief he made with good grace.
The next day, the wind was not quite as kind, but they still made good time. By the evening, Gunnar had tested the necklace twice more at the tiller, twining the narrow chain through his fingers, and had had to adjust their course a little, which he had told them meant they were getting closer. Anwar was keeping track of their route on Cook's charts, and they were headed toward the middle of nowhere as far as the map was concerned, south and east and out into the ocean, no major islands to speak of. But there was only one island they cared about, and hopefully they were sailing toward it faster than it could float away from them.
"Probably," Anwar agreed, when Sinbad said so. "If it's large enough to have a library built on it, then I doubt it can be as shallow as the Providence is in the draft, and that should create a fair amount of drag—"
"It's a magic island!" Rina said over his shoulder. "For all you know, it will float up into the sky if we get too close."
Anwar huffed. "All right," he said, "it's magic, but there are still physical laws involved—"
"Like the physical laws that let that siren-girl eat Sinbad's memories?" Rina said, pointed. "Or maybe the ones that let Taryn climb inside Tiger's head and ride around?"
Anwar threw up his hands. "Fine! If this island has any respect for physics whatsoever," he said to Sinbad, "we'll catch up to it eventually even if it's floating away from us as fast as it can. If, on the other hand, it's decided to model its understanding of the laws of the universe based on Rina's example—"
"It's not that I don't understand them," Rina said. "I just don't think they're going to mean anything—"
"Laws of the u-ni-verse," Anwar enunciated.
Sinbad decided to leave them to it; he didn't walk away with any particular stealth, but he was pretty sure that neither one of them noticed his escape.
He enjoyed their adventures a great deal—at least the parts where none of them were hurt or dying, and he liked it best when no one else was hurt or dying either—but none of them could have made it on the Providence as long as they had without learning to enjoy the quiet in between, too. Sinbad remembered thinking to himself grimly that he had better figure out how to love sailing, back when Amah's curse had still lain cold around his throat—he hadn't expected to ever be able to, then, but Amah's curse was gone, dry land as safe for Sinbad as it had ever been, and here he still was on a ship.
He liked it, was the thing—oh, he liked the wide-open stretch of the sea around him, the possibility of it, the promise of more adventures to come; but he liked the Providence, too. He would have been a terrible sailor if he'd ever been conscripted to the navy, but on the Providence they kept time however they liked, and there was a freedom and a comfort to it that he had never found anywhere else. He could do as he pleased—climb the mast, if he liked, and ride the swells of the sea from the top of it, or go below and hang his hammock in a quiet corner, and rest—and yet he was never alone, always someone within range of a shout. In Basra—in Basra there had been the city guard, always watching, and a thousand people in every street but all of them looking at Sinbad like they'd scraped him off their shoes. He had thought it suited him well because it was the only life he'd ever known; but now he had the Providence, and knew in his bones what it felt like to have a place that was truly his.
It should never have worked as well as it had—for him, or for the rest of them, either. A princess, a doctor, a cook; a thief, a warrior, a bounty hunter—how could people who were all so different find peace in the same place? Sinbad thought sometimes that perhaps they had, somehow, but he could not quite make himself believe it. If he had, he wouldn't have been so afraid that they would all end up deciding their true paths lay elsewhere.
And he was afraid. Nala had been right, of course. Not always, not every single moment of every day—but when it was quiet, sometimes. When he was lying in his hammock, alone, in the dark, or on those rare days when it did not storm but rained, calm and cold; even sometimes when he was his happiest, watching them sit together and laugh—it would rise up in him like a wave, then, until he could think of nothing except that it all had to end somehow, and that he didn't want to be there when it did, didn't want to have to see it happen.
There had been so few certainties in his life, or at least so few good ones: hunger had been certain, and pain, exhaustion, heat. Mother's silence; Father's absence. Sinbad chased after the rare kindnesses of life, clutched at them with both hands, precisely because they never lasted—and this ship, these people, were the greatest kindness life had ever granted him. He knew better than to tell himself he'd get to keep them.
The fourth evening out from Basra, Cook gave in to all their coaxing and used up one of the chickens early, on a massive pot of biryani that made the whole ship smell like cardamom and cinnamon. As it happened, Gunnar had three whole jars of mead that had been fermenting slowly belowdecks—well, six, actually, but he only brought three up, because there needed to be some left for the journey back to Basra.
The mead and the biryani together gave their supper something of the air of a feast, and they certainly ate as though it were—ate and drank, passing the big jars of mead around like they were pitchers.
Everyone complimented Cook on his biryani, because it was excellent; and when they were fat with chicken and rice and drowsy with mead, Gunnar levered himself off the deck and told them all a slightly confused version of the tale of Skadi, riding to the hall of the gods in her armor, choosing her husband from among them by his feet—
"His feet?" Rina said, disbelieving.
"Yes!" Gunnar said. "It's important to have good feet. If she could have chosen them by looking at their faces, she would have chosen Baldr, of course; but she chose by looking at their feet, and Baldr's feet were not so lovely as Njordr's."
"And they were happy together?" Nala said, one eyebrow raising.
"Yes," Gunnar said, even though that was not actually how the story went—this was not a night for telling sad stories. "Yes, they were. Skadi loved the mountains, and Njordr loved the sea, so they could not decide where to live—the howling of mountain wolves hurt Njordr's ears, and the screeching of gulls on the shore kept Skadi awake."
"So what did they do?" Anwar said. He'd been paying much more attention than usual—when he was sober, he liked to scoff at Gunnar's stories, but after five or six long swallows of mead, he was leaning against Rina's shoulder like he never planned to move again, and watching Gunnar's every gesture with wide eyes.
Gunnar shrugged, thinking quickly, and then said, "They decided to live in the sky. From there, Njordr could dive into the sea whenever he chose, and Skadi could climb down into the mountains and hunt all day long."
"And that's all she got out of the gods for the death of her father?" Rina said. "A husband?"
"No, no," Gunnar said. "She made them give her three things, as recompense. She said they must let her marry one of them, as I have told you; she said they must make her father's memory last forever; and she said they must make her laugh."
"And did they do it?" Sinbad said.
He had been quiet all night—he had been quiet for the last three days, truth be told, and when asked had done nothing but smile and say he was fine, which Gunnar was not stupid enough to believe. But he had eaten plenty of biryani and had drunk nearly half a jar of mead, and now he met Gunnar's eyes over the brazier and looked almost happy. It made Gunnar's heart warm to see it—to think perhaps his mead and his stories helped Sinbad let whatever was bothering him go a little—and he smiled back at Sinbad and said, "Yes, they did. But that's a story for another time, I think."
On a whim, he came round the brazier—a dangerous whim, Gunnar thought, but it was dark and warm and he was feeling brave, or at least too contented to be afraid. He sat down by Sinbad, only a handswidth away, and lay back upon the deck. Tiger took out a little flute and put it to her mouth, played something rambling and sweet and quiet; and Sinbad lay down with a sigh beside Gunnar, and together they looked at the stars.
They didn't usually have either the time or the means to get drunk, so when they did have the chance to serve themselves a little alcohol, it tended to go a very long way. By the time Gunnar was helping Sinbad find his way to the hatch, Sinbad needed the help: he swayed gently even when his feet weren't moving, and not with the motion of the ship—perhaps, then, what Sinbad was really doing was holding still, while the ship and Gunnar and the sky moved around him? Gunnar paused to consider this, and then decided he was probably also a little too drunk to be thinking so hard. Even if he could still stand up straight.
The swaying was noticeable partly because it was funny, but also partly because it meant Sinbad kept leaning into Gunnar by accident; he was relaxed, from the mead and from happiness, and very warm, and if Gunnar herded him toward the hatch a little more slowly than was strictly necessary, well. He was just trying to make sure neither one of them tripped.
He helped Sinbad down the deck-stairs with a hand against his back, and that alone felt—Gunnar didn't know. Like a luxury, like the mead—in more ways than one, a luxury but also a little daring, a little too much, when Gunnar had been trying so hard for so long to not touch Sinbad more than he had to. To touch him only as often as someone who didn't want him would touch him, and no more. And now—his hand on Sinbad's back, his whole hand, for the entire length of the deck-stairs! Gunnar felt like a fool and like a king, both at once—and also like at any moment someone would notice, and scold him for his reckless self-indulgence.
"You have nice feet," Sinbad mumbled, as they made it down the last stair, and then he tipped his head back and sighed. "Why did I hang my hammock so far away from the stairs?" he said, plaintive, and the way his voice hummed underneath Gunnar's fingers made Gunnar want to shiver.
"Because you gravely overestimate your enthusiasm for moving any distance at all," Gunnar said, "when you have had enough of my mead." His tone was low, a little rough; he grimaced to himself, but Sinbad didn't seem to notice anything.
"Well, that's stupid of me," Sinbad said, and then took a step and wobbled just enough to settle his waist firmly, for a moment, against Gunnar's hand.
Gunnar waited for Sinbad to steady, cursing himself vigorously, and then pulled his hand away. "Yes," he agreed, vague, and turned away toward his own hammock—except he did not get very far at all before something stopped him.
Sinbad, of course—Sinbad's hand, to be more precise, fingers wound just enough in the hem of Gunnar's shirt to hold him for a moment. "I want to talk to you," Sinbad said, a little bit too loudly, and with the exaggerated care of a drunk man who knows he is drunk and doesn't want to let it stop him.
"And this thing you want to talk about," Gunnar said, "it can't wait until morning?"
"It'll be more like afternoon, by the time we wake up," Sinbad said, and smiled; and then he was quiet for a moment, and the smile—didn't vanish, not quite, but changed: turned smaller, a little bitter. "And by then, I won't be brave enough to bring it up again."
Gunnar looked at him carefully. Sinbad was drunk, yes, but not so drunk as to be confused about where he was or who he was talking to. In the faint light coming down from the hatch, he looked tired and suddenly serious, and very much like he meant what he said.
"All right," Gunnar said. "All right, then—here I am. Talk."
Sinbad looked at the deck beneath their feet for a long moment, and said nothing, and Gunnar was about to ask him whether perhaps he had forgotten what it was talking involved when finally he said—more to his own toes than to Gunnar—"You said you had everything you needed."
"Sinbad," Gunnar said, utterly confused, and then an instant later remembered: the market street, in Basra. A moment when Sinbad should have smiled, but had not, and Gunnar had not understood why.
"Everything you needed," Sinbad repeated, quietly, and something flickered across his face that Gunnar couldn't understand—distaste? Disgust? Sinbad turned and stumbled the half-dozen paces that separated him from his hammock, and sat, cradling his face in his hands. "But you should have—you should have things you want, Gunnar, not just things you need. I want you to have things you want, I want—" Sinbad stopped, shaking his head, and rubbed his eyes, his cheeks, a brisk sharp motion like he was hoping he could sober himself up by it. "I want you to be happy," he said at last, and he sounded more confused than anything, confused and maybe a little bit sad. Gunnar felt a sudden burst of fondness for him: Sinbad, who thieved and tricked and lied and got them all into terrible trouble, got himself in terrible trouble, six days out of every ten—but could not seem to bear the thought that any of them might be unhappy about it—
"We are happy," Gunnar said, and it was probably foolish of him, but it didn't feel right to leave Sinbad saying such things alone in the dark, so he crossed the deck himself and knelt by Sinbad's feet, wrapped his hands around Sinbad's wrists. "Sinbad—Sinbad. We're very happy—"
"I want you to be happy," Sinbad said, as though Gunnar hadn't spoken at all. He'd lifted his head when Gunnar came toward him, lowered his hands, so that they weren't pressed to his face anymore but hung, half-outstretched, suspended by Gunnar's grip on his wrists. "But I don't know how to—I don't know whether I can—"
Gunnar went still—without meaning to, without meaning to at all, because there could be no clearer sign to Sinbad that something was wrong, but he couldn't help it. The vague warmth that had been lent everything by the mead was abruptly gone, and several things became coldly, horribly clear to Gunnar all at once: that when Sinbad had said "you", he had meant Gunnar alone, the whole way through; that Sinbad had, evidently, figured out at least one thing Gunnar wanted and did not have; that Sinbad, recklessly kind Sinbad, wanted to work out a way to give Gunnar what he wanted—even if what he wanted was not something Sinbad ought to give him, not if Sinbad did not want it also—
Except Sinbad did want it also, in a manner of speaking, for hadn't Gunnar heard him say so? He had told Nala he was afraid, that he wanted the crew to stay together but didn't know how to ensure it. I'd do anything to keep things just the way they are now.
For the briefest moment, Gunnar considered it: considered saying yes, telling Sinbad he must do this thing or else—
The instant it had crossed his mind, he wanted to rip the thought from his head—it was terrible, vile, and so was he for thinking it. Tial had called him by his true name; he was a monster, even if he had not been the Fiend of Malta.
Gunnar swallowed, once, twice, and deliberately loosened his grip; he did not want to yank his hands away, did not want to make Sinbad think that he had done anything wrong, but if he wasn't careful Sinbad was going to wake up with bruises. "You do not have to," he said, very gently, once he could speak. "You do not have to, Sinbad, I swear to you. I am happy—happier than I had ever imagined I would be again. Happier than I deserve."
Sinbad's face twisted. "Than you—Gunnar," he began, hotly, but Gunnar didn't let him get any further.
"I will swear it to you," Gunnar said, "on anything you care to name." He let go of Sinbad's wrists so that he could cover the backs of Sinbad's hands instead, and squeezed them carefully. "I am not going anywhere; I'm happy here, and I will stay as long as you allow it."
Sinbad looked at him strangely, then, and drew one hand free only to touch Gunnar's temple—lightly, so lightly Gunnar could barely feel it. "As if I'd ever tell you to go," he said, quiet.
"I hope you never do," Gunnar said, equally quiet—and if he did know the thing Gunnar had been hiding, as he must, and still didn't find himself moved to ask, then perhaps he really never would. "I promise you, I am happy; you do not have to do anything. Except go to sleep, Sinbad."
"Gunnar," Sinbad said, looking at Gunnar intently; and then he put the back of one hand to his eyes and sighed out a breath through his nose. "Gunnar," he said again, softly, more to the dark than to Gunnar, and the hand at Gunnar's temple drifted to Gunnar's cheek, his neck, his shoulder—Gunnar shivered under it, and then made himself move, pushing himself to his feet and guiding Sinbad's arm away.
"Go to sleep," he said again, and his voice was unmistakably rough this time, but Sinbad said nothing and let himself be pushed backward into his hammock.
Gunnar stumbled away from him without looking, glad for the excuse of the mead for his clumsiness. It was good, he thought vaguely, that they had talked like this—good, for Sinbad to know for certain that Gunnar asked nothing of him. And good, in a way, for Sinbad to know—what he knew now. That Gunnar felt—something; that Gunnar wanted him. Better that he had worked it out himself than that Gunnar try to tell him, because it would only have come out wrongly anyway. It was for the best, to have it all settled in this way.
For the best.
Sinbad woke to the slant of sun through the hatch—not quite onto his face, but near enough to make him squint and flinch and try to burrow away, dragging his blanket up over his face.
His head felt a little too large for his neck, but that was all; Gunnar's mead was kind, in that respect—
Gunnar. Sinbad opened his eyes and stared up into the folds of his blanket. He couldn't remember exactly what he'd said, nor exactly what Gunnar had said, but he remembered the feeling of it—himself, pathetic and desperate, trying clumsily to ask Gunnar what would make him happy, and—
And Gunnar, kindly telling him there was no need. Gunnar, promising that he would not go, that he would never go, because he was happy enough—and Sinbad, selfishly, had accepted his promise, even though he was unpleasantly certain that Gunnar would come to regret it. He might have left the streets of Basra behind, but in so many ways, he was still a thief.
He lay there for a moment, feeling deeply sick of himself—because he knew he wasn't going to go to Gunnar and tell him to get off the ship, to sail back to Malta and find his pretty widow, even though he ought to. And then he flipped the blanket off his face and couldn't stop himself from looking over.
He wasn't sure whether to be grateful or sorry for it, but either way Gunnar's bunk was empty. Sinbad took a deep breath and let it out again, and then hauled himself up. He would get a little water, wash his face and hands; and then he would go up on deck and they would find Nala's library, and the rest he would deal with when it came.
When he climbed up on deck at last, the first person he saw was Tiger, leaning against the mast with a knife in one hand and a piece of wood in the other.
"Whittling?" Sinbad said, and when she looked at him, he raised an eyebrow.
She shrugged one shoulder, and shaved off another curl of wood. "The other flute's not mine," she said, and because she didn't say whose it was—or whose it had been—Sinbad knew better than to ask her. "This one will be."
"Know a lot of flute-songs, do you?" he said. "You've been holding out on us." It had been nice, last night—he couldn't have hummed the tune she'd played for love or money, his memory wasn't quite that clear, but he knew it had been a sweet little song. Lying next to Gunnar on the deck, looking up at the night sky, with that clear, gentle music winding its way through the dark—it had been the nearest thing to perfect that Sinbad could imagine. He'd felt guilty for it after, for lying there so blissfully when for all he knew Gunnar had been wishing to be somewhere else; it had been half the reason he'd spoken up at all. Surely Gunnar ought to get the chance to be equally happy—surely they all ought to.
"Not that many." Tiger shrugged again. "I like to make them up." She paused for a moment, smoothing her fingers over the half-shaped instrument, and then said, slowly, "People used to come into the mountains, sometimes. I had to keep an eye on them, to make sure they didn't get too close to our den, and they—some of them sang. I always liked how it sounded."
"Tigers don't sing much," Sinbad offered, and then winced. Why did everything he said to her about tigers always sound like he was making fun of her?
But Tiger looked at him, mouth quirked, and then set the blade of her knife against the wood again. "They can," she said, bland. "But it's not quite the same."
"Are you doing that just to annoy me?" Anwar cried, before Sinbad could reply.
Sinbad and Tiger both turned to look: Anwar was standing over his usual mess of charts, and he had his drawing-compass in his fist and was shaking it at Gunnar.
Gunnar wasn't doing anything, as far as Sinbad could tell, except sitting at the tiller as he so often did, with one hand upon it and the other tangled through the chain of the island-necklace. The swaying stone was hanging from the bottom of his fist, and even as Sinbad looked, it began to lean a little further east. "We're getting closer," Gunnar said, and moved the tiller.
"I had just finished calculating our last heading!" Anwar said.
Gunnar shrugged. "Then you should start calculating faster," he said, and, as he so often did when he was provoking Anwar for the fun of it, he glanced over and met Sinbad's eyes, the shadow of a smile lurking around his mouth.
His face changed almost immediately—he remembered, Sinbad thought, because of course he did; Sinbad did, and Gunnar had drunk less than he had. But Gunnar's expression didn't become angry, or annoyed, and he didn't look away again. He kept looking at Sinbad, face blank, and then the smile came back.
It was tiny, and deliberate—not because he was amused, but because he was willing to smile at Sinbad and wanted Sinbad to know it, and that was all Sinbad could possibly have asked of him.
"How close are we?" Nala said—she had been sitting with Anwar, watching him try to chart their progress, but now she, too, was looking at Gunnar.
Gunnar made a considering face, holding the necklace up a little higher and making another tiny adjustment to the tiller. "Hard to say for sure," he said, "since the island is moving, too. The light is brighter, in the stone, and I've had to correct our course—three times, Anwar? Four?" He said this last with great friendliness, expression blithe.
"Four," Anwar said grimly. "Five if you count that last little twitch you just made—don't think I didn't notice."
"If you didn't notice, it wouldn't be as much fun," Gunnar said, and beamed at him. "Anyway—we're definitely getting close. I wouldn't be surprised if we caught up to the library today."
As it turned out, Gunnar was entirely right. They sighted the island in the early afternoon—or Sinbad did, at least, from the top of the mast, where he was in no way hiding from Gunnar. He was glad that Gunnar seemed willing to forgive him for last night, for his rambling and for his neediness and for the promise he had extracted; but Gunnar's kindness seemed to throw Sinbad's own selfishness into ever-sharper relief, and alongside the gladness, Sinbad felt increasingly guilty.
Looking for the island gave him an excellent reason to climb the mast, and he did see it first, in the end. It was nothing but a little smear on the horizon, not quite the same color as the sky but also not the sea, and Sinbad guessed what it was right away. "I see it," he shouted down, and it took only a little while longer before it was visible from the deck, too.
After that, though, it seemed to take a very long time to become anything but a smear on the horizon. "It's moving away from us," Anwar guessed. "The current's got it—but the current's got us, too, and it shouldn't go fast enough for us to lose sight of it again."
And it didn't, thankfully. Late in the afternoon, the current shifted but the wind did not, and all of a sudden the island began to grow large—coming toward them, now, instead of away, and if Sinbad had needed any proof besides Nala's word that the island floated on the ocean, he had it now. They'd sailed up to their fair share of coastlines, on the Providence, and none of them had acted anything like this.
By the time the sun began to set, they could see the island clearly. It was larger than Sinbad might have expected, painted red and gold by the sinking sun, and it looked almost ordinary, covered in large part by trees that didn't look especially magical. But the shape of it was very regular, evenly-sized terraces rising toward a central height, and on that central height there was something that gleamed—domes, spires, that caught the light of the setting sun so that they looked like flame against the darkening sky.
"Pretty," Anwar said.
They all looked at him.
"Not that I'm not also looking forward to the centuries of invaluable knowledge that are inside!" he added, defensive. "But it is pretty."
Tiger clapped him on the shoulder, and went back to buckling as many knives as she could fit onto her belt.
It was pretty, although if Sinbad had been moved to bring it up he probably wouldn't have used that word. The base of the island, the largest of its terraces, was clear of trees; and when they drew near enough to start thinking about lowering a boat down, it was easy to see that it was shaped out of the same stuff as the necklace's pendant, smooth pale stone or maybe sea-clouded glass, or something in between.
Sinbad was in the first boat, with Rina and Anwar; Nala and Tiger and Gunnar were in the second, and Cook had agreed to stay with the Providence, and keep watch for other ships on the horizon.
Sinbad had the oars, and as he rowed them nearer, looking over his shoulder to see how close they were to the island, he began to wonder how exactly they were going to get on it—the sides of it looked sheer as anything, and if they were as smooth to the touch as the pendant of the necklace—
The boat lurched suddenly, Anwar crying out in alarm, and settled again just as suddenly. "What did you do?" Rina snapped, and Sinbad shrugged helplessly.
"Nothing," he began, and then paused. He had stopped rowing when the boat had skewed under him, as startled and confused as Anwar even if he had managed to be quieter about it, and he hadn't started again—but the boat was still moving, faster than it should have been, and not in quite the same direction. "And I'm still not doing anything."
"Then why—" Anwar said, and then the words seemed to dry up in his throat.
Sinbad turned to look over his shoulder again, to where Anwar's gaping seemed to be directed. Their boat was still sailing itself; they were perhaps ten boatlengths from the island, eight, six, and they were turning now, toward—
Toward a space that hadn't been there before, a little harbor-berth that looked like it was exactly one boatlength wide. The stone-glass had flattened into a little platform around it, and there were stairs leading up and away from it, where Sinbad would have sworn an unbroken cliff had been just a moment ago.
"Well," Rina said. "That's handy."
The boat docked itself as neatly as it had rowed itself, settling into the space the island had made for it without any help at all from Sinbad. They climbed out warily, but the stone-glass the island was made from seemed solid enough, and though it was smooth, they didn't lose their footing.
"But what about the boat?" Anwar said. "Can we really just—leave it here?"
Sinbad shrugged. "Cook will let us know if anyone else seems to have found this place," he said, "and—"
He set a foot against the boat's side and shoved, hard enough to make it drift sideways out of the berth the island had made for it. It bobbled a little in the water, and then drifted neatly back into place, like an invisible Sinbad on the other side had shoved it the other way.
"It doesn't look like we need to worry about it floating away," Sinbad said.
Anwar made a choked noise, which sounded a little bit to Sinbad like, "But—science—"
Rina patted him on the shoulder soothingly, and then took his arm. "Come on," she said, and pulled him toward the stairs. "Remember, at the other end of this magical staircase, there's going to be a really big library."
This was not entirely true: the staircase up and away from their little docking-space ended at a flat area of stone-glass, wide as the imperial avenue in Basra, which, if Sinbad had to guess, probably went all the way around the island. A few dozen paces away, Gunnar was just giving Nala a hand up from the last step of another staircase—apparently their boat had docked itself, too.
In one direction, obviously, the stone-glass dropped away to the sea; and in the other direction, it rose up into a wall, high enough and smooth enough that Sinbad thought about climbing it and swallowed uncertainly. Maybe if he had a rope, and a rock to tie it to—the trees seemed to start growing on the other side, even higher than the wall, and their branches stretched over the edge—if he could throw a rope over one, he'd have something to hang on to—
"There must be a way in," Nala said, staring at the wall with her hands on her hips.
Gunnar had wandered close to the wall, and reached out to run a hand over it—or tried to, except that it melted away from his fingers before he could reach it.
"How did you do that?" Rina said.
Gunnar shrugged, and then held up his hand—the necklace draped from his fingers, the pendant now hanging straight down with what Sinbad imagined was a satisfied air. "This probably helped."
"It probably didn't hurt," Sinbad agreed, coming over to look at the stairs that now filled the space where the wall in front of Gunnar had been—and it was so fascinating, so wonderful and strange, that for a moment he forgot he wasn't looking at Gunnar today, and he met Gunnar's eyes and smiled before glancing away, up the line of the stairs.
"Well, come on," Nala said, brisk. "Let's go," and she hitched up her dress and started up the stairs.
* * *
There were a lot of steps, but they weren't too hard to climb—tall enough not to trip over, short enough that it wasn't a strain to the legs, and the slope of them was shallow enough that they could climb at a walking pace and not need to stop and rest.
The stairway led up the island in a relatively straight line; stairs within stairs, Gunnar thought, because the terraced shape of the island already made it look like steps, carved for a giant.
It became apparent that the trees were not precisely wild. They grew too neatly upon the terraces, and each level was subtly different. The first had been all trees, great and thick and endlessly green, draped everywhere with moss and vines, and the tangle of their vast roots had covered everywhere except the stairs. By the third level, the canopy provided by the trees was much thinner, enough light falling for flowers to spring up around each tree's foot, and it became clear that there was no dirt involved: trees, bushes, flowers, vines, they were all growing right out of the smooth pale stone, the roots of the trees plunging into it and back out like it was ordinary ground.
"Gardens," Rina said suddenly, when they reached the fifth level and were confronted by an ocean of lilies. "They're gardens."
"I wouldn't have thought this sorcerer the sort," Gunnar said, "to put much stock in living things."
Nala knelt down and touched one lily-bloom—even in the last sparse light of sunset, it was ferociously orange. "Who else could have put them here?" she said. "He must have grown tired of his books sometimes. Maybe a bare stone island was not enough—maybe he wanted it to be beautiful."
"It'll be beautiful tomorrow, too," Tiger said, "but if we don't get to the library before we lose the light, we'll probably regret it."
Nala shot her a sour look, but, Gunnar thought, she was quite right.
The eighth level was different—no flowers, only a wall. Gunnar touched the necklace to it, and a gate appeared, delicate filigree melting out of the stone like frost onto shield-metal. It opened when he put his hands to it, silent on its magical hinges, and the plaza beyond it had to be at least four times the size of the university plaza they had left behind in Basra. Here, at last, the stone was different, too: patterned in a thousand colors, as though the whole plaza was laid with tile instead of having been magicked out of nothing, and the tile-pattern went from tiny neat mosaic at the plaza-edge, each piece no larger than a fingernail, to a great square slab in the middle, sides easily twice as long as Gunnar was tall.
"If there's anything in the library that's half as nice as this," Rina said to Nala, "you can keep your money."
At the other side of the plaza was the library, at last—though "library" seemed almost like the wrong word for a building that even the proudest emir could easily have used as a palace. Gunnar had no eye for architecture, but the place was enormous, a dozen smaller domes rising up as airily as soap bubbles toward the vast dome in the center, punctuated here and there by spires and arches, and all of it looking like it probably could never have been built except by magic. Gunnar had passed through Constantinople on his way to Basra, had seen from a distance the gleaming wonder that was the Hagia Sophia—and the library was perhaps a little smaller, but vastly more impossible in its construction.
"It would take fifty lifetimes to understand everything that must be in there," Anwar said, worshipful, and by the look on his face he would gladly have died fifty times to do it.
"We don't have quite that much time," Sinbad said, "but at least you can take some of it back with you."
He crossed the plaza with long easy strides, as though he weren't walking on solid magic—though, of course, it was Sinbad, who made friends with rocs and destroyed stones of prophecy, for whom the gates to the Land of the Dead opened wide. Gunnar shook his head, wry, and followed.
It took another touch of the necklace to open the great arching doors, and then they were inside.
The inside of the library was just as incredible as the outside, and immediately all six of them agreed that the only reasonable thing to do was to take a look around. The sun had set, but it wasn't full dark yet, and what better way was there to find a good place to set up their things and sleep?
"Perfect," Nala said. "We'll split up, then, and look around. No matter what you find, come back here when true dark has fallen; we can tell each other what we've seen, and decide on a place to spend the night."
She and Anwar agreed to go through the large pair of doors at the other end of the entrance hall, past the fountain—probably that would be the main room, Anwar had argued, or perhaps an anteroom that would lead to it. Rina decided to go down the hallway to the right, and Tiger with her, which meant—Sinbad cleared his throat and carefully didn't look at Gunnar before nodding and turning on his heel, heading along the corridor to the left.
The walls in the hallway were almost enough to keep him busy—he didn't follow the hall all the way to its end, and he still must have passed two dozen tapestries and paintings, rolls of odd thin paper covered in the vast strokes of a pretty sort of writing that looked a little bit like the labels Cook wrote for all his spice jars. Sinbad ducked off into a room at random, and for all that it was not very large, he thought it likely that a single shelf would have brought the university all the prestige anybody could possibly want. There were books bound carefully in leather, titled in gleaming gold; scrolls, slotted away in gorgeously enameled covers; maps on creased papyrus, pressed flat beneath sheets of glass.
And there were other things, too, things for which Sinbad had no words. In the first room, he found a bell jar, made of something that was clear like glass but rang with muted notes when he so much as brushed it with a finger, and in the bell jar was a flame—a blue flame, sky-blue in the middle and cobalt at the edges, that hung beneath the bell jar, and had nothing to burn but did not stop burning. Sinbad could not tell whether it burned with any heat; the bell jar was cool to the touch, and though Sinbad tried with all his strength to lift it, he could not so much as slide a fingernail beneath the edge.
In the next room beyond that one, there was a book laid out on a narrow, spidery silver stand, bound in heavy black material that left sooty streaks on Sinbad's fingers. The cover was blank, and so was the spine, and when Sinbad cracked it open to glance at a page, the book screamed, shrieking at him like a dying man until he let it drop closed so he could cover his ears, and it went silent again.
By the time Sinbad had left that room, his hands still shaking a little, it was getting truly dark—one more room, he thought, and then he would go back. Not that he had anything useful to tell them, because not even Sinbad was tempted to sleep in the room with the screaming book, and probably the flame that wouldn't stop burning wasn't a good choice unless they wanted to stay up all night, but. Maybe one of the others had found something.
One more room. He walked a little further down the hallway, occupied at first by imagining what strangeness this last room would hold—and then something made him turn around.
The hallway was empty.
There hadn't been any footsteps, he knew, nor the sound of any breathing but his own. He couldn't pinpoint what it was that made him keep looking, peering into the darkness, but he felt, somehow, that something was there.
"Gunnar?" he said, after a moment.
There was no reply, and the hallway was perfectly still, nothing moving except Sinbad himself.
"Stop it," he told himself, out loud, and shook out his shoulders, his arms, his hands. It was that stupid screaming book, he thought. Who'd leave a book like that out on a stand, anyway, like it was waiting to be opened? But it was just a book, and the screaming had been creepy but hadn't hurt him or anything.
He let out a long breath, and kept going down the hallway until he'd reached a third door.
The third room wasn't very interesting, at first. It had books in it, again, and just as Sinbad was beginning to squint at them, a light appeared—quite literally, a small round thing like a little yellow moon, that hung in the air just over his shoulder and gently illuminated everything in front of him.
"Thanks," he told it, just in case it was the sort of magical floating light that could hear him, and then kept looking. But the books it was illuminating for him weren't any more unusual on the outside than the ones he'd already looked at, and after the screaming book, he was a little less inclined to try flipping through them. Besides, he could read—a little bit—but most of these books didn't seem to be in languages he knew, and if they had been, what were the odds he'd actually be able to understand what they said?
So he wandered along the shelves, the little light bobbling along at his shoulder, and he got to the end and was about to turn back when he spotted it.
It didn't look like much: a little table, heavy dark wood, with a case on top of it. The case was silver on the outside, silver and mother-of-pearl, and the top was glass, and through the glass, Sinbad could see the inside—some kind of soft red fabric, a backing or a cushion, and on it was a silver bracelet.
Nothing but silver, smooth and round, perhaps a finger's width of flat metal. It had no clasp; it was an open loop, meant to be slid over the hand to the wrist. In all other respects, it was quite plain.
Plain—that really wasn't the right word, Sinbad thought. Elegant, maybe. It wasn't jeweled or anything, but jewels would have been too much, would have broken up the smooth line of it. It was just right exactly as it was—beautiful, really, in its simplicity, more beautiful than any dozen bracelets crusted with diamonds or inlaid with gold could have been. It was incredible, how lovely it was. How much of an eye for beauty could the sorcerer really have had, Sinbad wondered, if he'd wasted his time and energy on all those gardens and left this bracelet sitting in here?
He hadn't taken his eyes off it since the moment he'd noticed it, and he'd started to move toward it when, abruptly, something blocked his view.
He blinked and reached to push the thing out of the way, but it wasn't close enough—he blinked again and refocused, and discovered that standing between him and the case where the bracelet lay was a girl.
A little older than Sinbad, maybe, with thick black hair that was braided—not like Nala's braids, but in one plump plait that hung down all the way to the backs of her knees. Her face wasn't perfectly distinct, in the fuzzy light of the shining thing that was hovering by Sinbad's shoulder, but Sinbad could see her dark eyes, her firm chin, the frown that creased her brow.
"What—where did you come from?" Sinbad said, maybe a little less than wholly polite.
"It does not matter," the girl said, and in her voice was an urgency that made Sinbad's shoulders tense up. "It does not matter—go away."
"Go—no," Sinbad said, blankly. "No, I can't—my friends are here, we're looking for a few things to take back with us, and I—"
"It does not matter," the girl said again, much more loudly, and now she looked angry—"It does not matter! Go away—"
"No!" Sinbad said, starting to get angry himself. Who was this girl, to tell them they had to leave? She was in here, too, poking around just the same as they were—if she wanted the bracelet for herself, that was just too bad, because Sinbad had found it first—
"No, no, no—go away!" the girl shrieked, and Sinbad flinched to cover his ears—she was almost as bad as the book, she was—and then had to use both hands to shield his face against the flare of light that followed, the blast of wind—
Sinbad blinked, and lowered his hands.
Gunnar was in front of him, hands on Sinbad's shoulders, looking at him with concern. "I heard shouting," he said, "screaming. Are you all right?"
"Yes," Sinbad said, "yes, I'm fine. The girl—where did she go?"
Gunnar raised his eyebrows, and then peered at Sinbad a little more intently. "There was no girl, Sinbad," he said, and then, suddenly, let go of Sinbad's shoulders and backed away a little. "There was no girl—just you."
"There was a girl," Sinbad insisted, "there was—she was right there."
Gunnar made a show of looking at the empty space Sinbad was pointing to, and then back at Sinbad. "Well, she's not there now," he said, as though Sinbad couldn't see that.
"I know she's not there now," Sinbad said, "but she was, I'm telling you."
Gunnar looked at him carefully a moment longer, and then shrugged. "Well, it's gotten dark," he said. "I think it's time we went back to meet the others. If there is a girl in the library, we can try to find her tomorrow. All right?"
He was trying to be gracious, to make things light instead of telling Sinbad he'd gone mad; another kindness, when he'd already given Sinbad so many, and the least Sinbad could do was accept it. "You're humoring me," Sinbad said, and poked Gunnar in the shoulder accusingly.
"It is dark," Gunnar protested, and that was when Sinbad noticed that there was a light hovering over Gunnar's shoulder, too.
"Not with these things," Sinbad said, motioning to his own.
"Well, no," Gunnar agreed, "but none of us knew they were going to show up when we made the plan. Besides, for all we know there are only lights in this wing, and the others are stumbling around in the dark and wondering where we are. So come on," and he turned around and headed for the door.
The light that hung at his shoulder brightened, as though somehow it knew Sinbad was there. Sinbad glanced back through the shadows to where he knew the case lay, the case and the beautiful bracelet inside of it; and then he turned away and followed Gunnar through the dark.
Tiger had found a room with some sleeping-couches, not far away from the main hall—apparently, in addition to maintaining his gardens, the sorcerer had also liked to do a little reading for leisure, because there were books in there, too, but they were much more ordinary-looking.
It turned out the little magic lights were a feature of the library as a whole, and also very understanding: as they each lay down, their lights wobbled uncertainly and then, after a few moments, winked out.
Gunnar slept only lightly, and woke with the first feeble rays of the sun, which streamed in through a couple of tall, narrow windows. If there was a girl in the library somewhere, he thought, rubbing his eyes tiredly, she was either extremely quiet in her movements or else hadn't come anywhere near them.
He lay on the couch he'd chosen and waited for someone else to wake, and while he waited, he thought. He wasn't sure he liked this library very much—of course he was glad to help Nala, but he would also be glad when they were finished here. There was something strange about this place, and in his own head, with no one to hear, he could be honest: he didn't like whatever it had done to Sinbad. Whether there was a girl in the library or not, he had heard screaming, and had found Sinbad grimacing with his arms raised defensively—if anything had hurt him, he didn't show it, and didn't seem to remember it, but the cry Gunnar had heard had chilled him to his bones. Something wasn't right. So they would look for Nala's books, he thought, and get everything she thought the university needed; and then they would get out of here, and never come back.
He sighed, careful to stay quiet, and then turned his head to look out at the room—and Tiger was looking back at him, wide awake. She had disdained the couches, had picked a well-stuffed chair that she could move by herself so that it was next to a window and faced the door, and seemed to have slept soundly enough. Though it was hard to tell with Tiger.
She blinked at him, acknowledging, and didn't move otherwise; together they watched the sun crawl across the walls, the ceiling, the shelves of books and papers, until at last Rina stretched, yawned, and sat up. "How long have you been awake?" she said to Tiger, rubbing her face blearily, and then said, "Never mind, don't answer that. You're both so creepy sometimes."
They didn't have Cook, and weren't about to walk all the way back down to the shore of the island just to get breakfast—but they didn't have to. Cook had made them plenty of rolls, and had packed up little sachets of dried fruit besides.
They were all hungry, but Sinbad ate the fastest of any of them—the fastest Gunnar had ever seen him eat, in fact, and perhaps that was because he only ate one roll and a handful of fruit. He seemed filled with a strange, quicksilver energy; he could not sit still, and even as he finished the fruit, began wandering around the room and looking at books, inspecting the windows, tracing the lines of the mosaics that covered the walls. Or perhaps he is uncomfortable because you won't stop staring at him, Gunnar told himself, and resolutely looked away.
"Well," Nala said, tearing a roll in half, "I think we should go back to the main room. There's plenty there, more than we could even fit on the ship, and everything here is equally without price—we may as well take from that room as from any other."
"Mm-mm," Anwar managed, and then swallowed the mostly-chewed date that had been in his mouth. "Yes, absolutely. And it's the largest, the most central, so if there happens to be some kind of catalog for this place, that's where it should be."
"But we don't all have to just—stand around and watch you read, right?" Sinbad said. He was shifting his weight from foot to foot, rubbing his thumb against a piece of inlay in the edge of one of the bookshelves. "As long as we're here, the rest of us might as well look around."
"Yes," Rina said firmly. "We can start picking out the things we're going to take with us as payment."
Gunnar looked out the window, deliberately, so that he wouldn't look at Sinbad—he wanted to follow Sinbad, to keep an eye on him, but was that truly wise? Or was it only his heart running away with him again? He could not make Sinbad feel as though his refusal of Sinbad's offer had been insincere—as though Sinbad must offer again, or, worse, must offer more than he already had—
"I'll go with you," he said to Nala. "In case there is anything the two of you need moved, or lifted."
"You don't have to," Nala said, kindly, but Gunnar just smiled at her.
"I'm glad to," he said. "I didn't get to see it yesterday, after all, and this library is a place of many wonders. I don't think I'll get bored."
"So we're agreed, then," Sinbad said, and without another word he was out the door, before Gunnar even had time to look up.
Gunnar sat with Nala and Anwar until they were done eating, and then followed them back to the entrance hall—they were talking the whole way, trying to decide on the kinds of things they should look for, whether there might be more than one copy of something so that they could take from the library but still leave it as intact as possible. Gunnar let the sound of their voices wash over him, and looked around instead: the library had been coolly lovely in the dark, blue with shadows and pale in moonlight, but was at least as beautiful in the daytime. With better light, it was easy to see that nearly all the walls were mosaicked, from floor to ceiling, and the pictures tiled out upon them were stunning and strange—abstract shapes that were at first angled and then spirals, and then gave way very gradually to birds, so gradually that Gunnar could not see quite how it happened; and then the birds were on fire, falling into a stormy sea, reborn there as fish who leapt among the waves—
"Here we are," Nala said, and turned to Gunnar with a smile. "This, we could use your help with—it took both of us together to open it yesterday, and Anwar nearly lost a foot."
Gunnar could see why. The great double door was surely stone, the same stuff as the walls and floor. He leaned in to put his shoulder against it—to test its weight, find the place with the best footing—and then almost fell over when the door was not where it should have been. "What—"
"Oh!" Nala said, steadying him with a hand on his shoulder. "That didn't happen yesterday."
Gunnar looked up: the door was open, both doors were. They had swung wide, easily, without making a sound.
He glanced at Nala to find her looking back at him thoughtfully. "You've still got the necklace, haven't you?" she said.
Gunnar reached beneath the neck of his shirt to pull it out. He'd almost forgotten—he had been carrying it with him yesterday, but hadn't wanted to set it down on a shelf and forget it was there, and had looped it around his neck instead. He'd left it there for the night, first distracted by whatever had happened with Sinbad, and then not wishing to lose it while he slept; and then he'd woken and forgotten about it entirely.
"Cheater," Anwar murmured.
"I still would have opened it faster than you," Gunnar said, mild, and then grinned to show Anwar he didn't mean it unkindly. "But then I would not have known what to do with the things inside."
"Fair enough," Anwar agreed. "You lift heavy things—I'll do the reading."
And he did, promptly, exclaiming over each new text to Nala as he began to work his way along the row. Gunnar lingered long enough to see that it was going well, and that they probably wouldn't need his help unless they got all the way to the stone chest by the wall and wanted to have it opened; and then he simply walked around and looked.
What he had told Nala was quite true: he hadn't gotten to see this main room yesterday. The size of it couldn't really be called surprising, not when he'd seen the library from the outside, but it was nevertheless an immense room. The walls were stone again, mosaicked again, in a dizzying array of colors, and the patterns bled seamlessly into the windows, which were as tall as the room was high, as wide as Gunnar was tall, and done all in tiny shards of colored glass with no visible joins, no metal framing to hold them together. The sun hadn't come around this side of the library yet, and Gunnar almost hoped it wouldn't, because then he would surely go blind from the beauty of it.
* * *
Sinbad was fairly certain the library hadn't rearranged itself since the day before, but it felt like it took him twice as long to get to the room with the bracelet now, when he knew where it was, as it had for him to happen across it in the dark.
It had felt like breakfast was going to last forever, like he was going to have to sit through Nala and Anwar yammering on about their old books for half the morning. He hadn't exactly been worried about the bracelet, that wasn't the right word; it wasn't as though it were going to get up and walk away, after all, and neither Gunnar nor the girl had seemed particularly interested in it last night. Which was strange, considering how lovely it was, but Sinbad hadn't been about to talk them into it. If they didn't want it, then they wouldn't try to stop him from getting it, and that was all he wanted. He'd thought about it half the night, until he'd finally fallen asleep, and the moment he'd woken, it had been the first thing on his mind—he'd wanted to see it again, to hold it, and it had been a struggle to make himself eat, to look like he was paying attention to the others, when every moment that passed had felt like a moment wasted.
But at last he had been able to go, and now—there it was, the door, just where it was supposed to be, and he pushed it open and then stood for a moment in the doorway and simply looked. The little table was still there, just where he'd left it, and the gleaming case; and, most satisfyingly of all, the bracelet.
It was just as beautiful as he remembered, and if there had ever been anything he wanted more, he couldn't think of it right now, with the bracelet right there in front of him. He crossed the room until he was standing in front of the little table, and he put his hand out to open the case—
He whirled around, startled. It was Rina who was standing in the doorway—leaning against it, really, with a hand on her hip, and looking at him inquiringly. How had she known to come here? How could she, unless—she hadn't known, of course she hadn't. She must have followed him, once he'd left the others, and now she was here, and surely once she'd seen the bracelet, she was going to want it, too—
"Nothing," Sinbad said, but much too slowly—Rina was already moving, tilting her head and squinting at the case.
"Pretty," she said. "Is it a bracelet?"
"What does it matter?" Sinbad snapped. "I found it first—it's mine."
Rina raised her eyebrows at him, as though his reasoning didn't make all the sense in the world. "I didn't say it wasn't," she said. "I was just curious. It is a bracelet, isn't it?"
"You can't have it," Sinbad warned, but she wasn't listening, he could tell—she was still looking at the bracelet, at his bracelet—
"Shouldn't think you'd be very fond of jewelry," she said, "with your grandmother's curse and all."
"That's none of your business," Sinbad said sharply. "I'm going to keep it, and there's nothing you can do about it." It was so satisfying, to say that, and it felt so true—but instead of agreeing, instead of giving in, she laughed, and she sounded so disdainful that he felt himself flush in anger.
"Really?" she said. "Nothing I can do about it? I wouldn't be so sure about that if I were you."
"Look," Sinbad said, trying to rein in his irritation, "just let me have it—"
"Why should I?"
"I found it first—it's mine—"
Rina looked thoroughly unimpressed. "If that mattered to me, I would have starved to death years ago."
Sinbad had intended to try to be gracious, to explain calmly; but that made him laugh, incredulous, and when he did Rina's expression changed, turned meaner. "Listen to yourself! As if you deserve to have it—"
"Oh, now I have to deserve it? All you said was that you'd found it first, you didn't say you deserved it."
"It doesn't matter whether I deserve it or not, it's mine," Sinbad said loudly, but that only made Rina laugh again, and Sinbad's anger flared up like kindling on hot coals. He'd meant it quite seriously, she needed to understand that she wasn't going to get to have the bracelet, and instead she was laughing.
He didn't know where the impulse came from, only that it seemed perfectly right and fair the moment it occurred to him. There was a vase sitting on the shelf nearest him, white and long-necked, and if Rina wasn't going to listen to him when he talked to her reasonably, then he was going to have to find another way to make her hear him.
He didn't aim for her, just near her, and there was such sweet satisfaction in the sound of it shattering, in the look of shock on her face, that Sinbad almost wished he had another.
* * *
Gunnar had little head for books, not enough patience to sit still for a story that only lay on a page instead of being thunderously declaimed by a good skald. But even the books were beautiful in this place, bound with fine leather dyed a dozen different colors, and here and there in what Gunnar would have sworn was woven gold, spun silver. And sprinkled among them, resting upon the shelves beside them like it was all of equal value, there were other things: a globe that seemed to hold some kind of strange night sky, stars and moons and tiny suns, a dozen little worlds creeping along their paths even as Gunnar watched them; a set of tiny statues, lacquer and inlay over something that might have been ivory, that Gunnar knew were not alive only because they did not move; a gleaming jug that Gunnar thought at first was colored glass, but turned out instead to be holding something violently purple that seethed and swirled along the jug's insides like it was trying to get out. Gunnar decided against touching the stopper on that one.
He came near the corner of one of the vast, brilliant windows, and reached up to brush his fingers against the glass—it was cool and smooth against his hand, ordinary in every respect except the color that swirled across it. He stood there for a moment, just touching it; and then there was a shout from behind him and he startled and nearly slammed his wrist into the windowframe.
"Marvelous!" Anwar cried, and Gunnar grinned to himself and shook his head. They had found something, then, he thought, and turned around, working his way back along the shelves to ask what they'd discovered—that was when he heard the crash.
It didn't come from inside the main room, it wasn't anything the three of them had done—Anwar and Nala both looked up, too, hearing it, and in the same direction. Toward the wing, Gunnar thought grimly, where he had found Sinbad the day before.
"Do you think that was us?" Anwar said. "I mean—them? I mean—"
"What else could it have been?" Nala said, already turning and striding toward the door. "Even if it was only an accident, a shelf falling or something knocked over, someone could still have gotten hurt."
"But—" Anwar made a helpless motion toward the book that had made him shout with delight.
"You're a terrible doctor sometimes," Nala said, and swept out into the hallway.
"By that," Gunnar said, "she means to say that you're the only one we have, so you'd better come along in case someone's bleeding."
"Yes, yes, all right," Anwar muttered, "I was only joking."
Gunnar looked at him.
They went down the hallway calling Sinbad's name, because odds were that if something bad had happened, it had happened to or at least around Sinbad; and, on a whim, Gunnar led them toward the room where he had found Sinbad before.
"Someone is yelling," Nala said, and she was quite right—two people, Gunnar thought. Sinbad was one of them, and the other—his mystery girl? No, no, that wasn't right—they had all quickened their steps, nearly running now, and Gunnar was the nearest to the door, he could tell that the second voice was one he knew—Rina?
Gunnar shoved the door open one-handed, ready to throw himself between Sinbad and Rina and whatever they were shouting at—and then came to a sharp stop, because what they were shouting at was each other.
"—you're nothing but a pickpocket—nobody wanted you on the ship in the first place, you just got yourself left, and nobody ever even noticed you were gone—"
"—I'm a pickpocket? Nala told me how she met you, you're a thief and a liar and you always have been—"
They were standing toe-to-toe, faces red with the effort of shouting at each other so hard, and behind Rina, on the floor by the wall, there was something—porcelain, eggshell-thin, that had shattered against the wall before the pieces had all tumbled to the floor.
"Rina—Sinbad!" Nala said sharply, reaching out to catch at Rina's arm, and Rina whirled on her like an angry cat, and looked for a moment like she would like nothing better than to cut Nala's hand off.
"What are you doing?" Anwar said, into the sudden silence. "What are you even fighting about?"
Rina and Sinbad were silent.
"Sinbad," Gunnar said slowly. "Sinbad—did you throw that vase at Rina?"
He couldn't believe he was saying it—all right, the pieces of the vase were in the right place for it, but it seemed ludicrous to imagine Sinbad—Sinbad!—heaving it at Rina in anger. But Sinbad looked away, flushing with something that was not anger anymore, and said, "What if I did? Look at her, she's fine—she deserved it, anyway—"
"She deserved it?" Anwar said. "Are you even listening to yourself?"
"If I'd had one to throw at him," Rina said, sniffing, "I wouldn't have missed."
"What?" Gunnar said.
Rina crossed her arms and lifted her chin. "He thinks just because he found it, he should get to keep it—him! As if he's got any use for it—"
"Oh, and you do," Sinbad said, face twisted into an ugly sneer. "As if anyone's ever going to be looking at you, and not it—"
"Sinbad!" Nala cried, as if she couldn't stand to hear any more—Gunnar could hardly stand it, such cruel words coming out of Sinbad's mouth, out of Rina's. "What are you even talking about?"
Sinbad looked briefly rebellious, like he didn't want to say, but then he sighed, and threw a leading glance over his shoulder. "The bracelet," he said, like that was all the explanation anyone ought to need.
Gunnar followed the line of Sinbad's gaze to a little table, almost more of a stand, just large enough to hold a case. Silver and glass, filigreed at the edges, and inside it on some kind of red cushion was a bracelet, also silver.
To be fair to them, Gunnar supposed, it was certainly pretty. The line of it against the red velvet beneath it was strong and clean, and it gleamed charmingly in the light cast into the room by the windows. Little wonder that both of them wanted it, really—and it would be easy enough to get it from them, Gunnar could not help thinking. Rina was tiny, she would be easy to shove aside, and Gunnar could throw Sinbad sideways into that shelf and be at the table before any of them could hope to stop him—
He went still. Before any of them could hope to stop him—what was he thinking? He had once made a living killing for treasure, but he was done with that, done, and he would never go back; and even if he did, even if he lost his mind or his purpose or both, surely he could never hurt Rina or Anwar, Nala or Sinbad—
"That doesn't mean you have to start screaming at each other," Nala said, but she sounded a little less certain about it than Gunnar thought she should. "Are you sure neither of you are hurt?"
"We're fine," Rina said, clipped.
"Then find something else to look at," Nala said, "and we'll talk about this later. Come on, Anwar, we have work to do—and you two," she added, pointing at Sinbad and Rina, "should probably go in opposite directions."
"Works for me," Sinbad snapped; and Rina didn't argue.
They did precisely as they had agreed: when they left the room, Rina went down the hall to the right and into another room, and Sinbad followed a branching corridor a little further on. He looked back once and waved a hand at the rest of them, even smiled; but Gunnar could not shake the memory of the look on his face when Gunnar had first opened the door, the bitterness, the ugliness with which he had been glaring at Rina. It was not like Sinbad at all—he liked Rina, he always had, and they both could have sharp tongues but rarely turned them on each other. It was strange, unsettling, and Gunnar didn't like it one bit.
He realized suddenly that he had let himself fall behind Nala and Anwar, and made his strides a little longer until he caught up again. They were talking about something—the bracelet, Gunnar realized, when he drew nearer.
"—wonder what it's doing here," Anwar was saying. "I can't imagine what use a sorcerer would have gotten out of it—it didn't exactly look like he'd been wearing it much, leaving it shut up in that case."
"Maybe it was like the gardens," Nala said. "Maybe he just liked to look at it. It is a shame, though, to leave it there—it's a beautiful bracelet."
"It sounds almost like you want it yourself," Anwar said—and his tone should have been teasing, a little mocking, but to Gunnar it seemed to come out oddly flat.
And Nala didn't laugh, didn't even smile. "Maybe I do," she said, cool and even. "I don't think I have anything quite like it."
"As if you needed any more jewelry," Anwar said, almost disdainful—Gunnar looked at him sharply, and Anwar glanced back at him almost defensively before seeming to pin on a smile.
"At least I would have a use for it," Nala said, tilting her chin up. "What would you do with it? Measure it?"
Anwar narrowed his eyes at her and then looked away, mouth pinched flat; and they walked the rest of the way in an unpleasant silence.
They let themselves back into the main room, and it was as though nothing had happened at all—and yet everything felt different. There was a tension, now, that held them apart from one another; Anwar and Nala moved together along the shelves, still, but they didn't stand as close as they had, and they conferred about the books and papers as they went along without delight, both of them increasingly cool toward each other. By late afternoon, they were hardly speaking more than two words at a time, sighing irritatedly at each other and slamming rejected books back onto the shelves with far too much force.
And Gunnar watched it happen and said nothing, because he didn't know what to say or how to say it. He couldn't forget what he had thought, in the room with the bracelet—that he could hurt them, all of them, and that it would be so easy. It was like something had reached in and found the very worst part of him, and had dragged it to the surface instead of leaving it where he had buried it; and now he couldn't speak, couldn't move or breathe or think, without fearing that he let that part of himself loose by doing it.
They walked back to the sleeping room in almost total silence, Nala's and Anwar's arms both filled with the texts they had chosen and Gunnar following behind them with his gaze on the floor. Tiger was already there, waiting, and the moment they came in, Gunnar could see her start to frown, just the faintest crease between her brows—she could feel it, could tell that there was something wrong with them. He should talk to her later, he thought. If there was truly something wrong with him, he could ask her to make sure he didn't—do anything; and she would probably do it.
Rina and Sinbad came in only a little later—Rina first, and she looked at each of them, eyes flicking from one to the next with a flat, wary stare, and then grabbed some bread and dried fruit and went to sit in a corner with her back to the wall. When Sinbad came back—from the opposite direction, Gunnar could not help noticing—Rina went still in her corner, and she and Sinbad looked at each other like strangers, like enemies.
Supper was very quiet, Tiger looking at them like she wanted desperately to ask what was wrong with them but wasn't sure how. Gunnar didn't eat; he lay down on the couch that was his, facing its back instead of looking out toward the room, and he put an arm over his face and tried to stop thinking.
It worked, for a little while: he didn't sleep properly, but dozed, waking now and again, and each time he roused it had gotten a little darker. The fourth time, the stars had come out at last—he could see them over the back of the couch, twinkling in through the windows as though—in the sky, at least—everything were just fine.
He looked at them for a long moment and then closed his eyes, and he was about to try to go to sleep again when he realized there was something he wasn't hearing.
An absence of noise didn't usually bother him, except that at night he had gotten used to the way Anwar muttered in his sleep. It had irritated him immensely for a long time, and then gradually it had become gentle, background, like the slap of waves against the Providence or the sound of Cook's snoring. He spoke up when Anwar talked outright, because no man could be expected to bear that. But he didn't mind the muttering.
Except that now, as late as this, there was no muttering. No murmuring; not even the funny whistling way Anwar sometimes breathed when he turned over onto his stomach. Nothing.
Gunnar rolled over, peering into the dark, and, as though it had merely been waiting for its moment, a little floating light popped into existence over his shoulder. It seemed to know that he wanted it to be dim, because it was: there was only just enough light to look around by, just enough to see that Anwar's couch was empty—and so was Tiger's chair.
* * *
"Mmmwha," Sinbad said muzzily, prying one eye open and squinting into the dark. He was still angry, somewhere deep in his belly, with Rina for fighting with him and with Gunnar and Anwar and Nala for stopping them. He'd been glad to go to sleep, hoping that would make it go away; but now he was awake and it was simmering away, gleaming low and red like a banked fire, and what was so damned important that Gunnar would start chattering away now, anyway?
"They're gone," Gunnar said again, urgent, and he strode past Sinbad's couch and then he was gone, too, the light that shone out at his shoulder getting dimmer as he moved out the door and off down the hallway.
For a moment, Sinbad considered rolling back over and going to sleep again—but who was gone, and where? He sat up and rubbed his eyes, and then he realized: Gunnar had gone down the hallway toward the entrance hall. Toward the room with the bracelet.
He stood, and a light came to him, just like the one from the night before—by its light, he could see that Anwar and Tiger were not there, and Nala was shielding her face and saying, "Sinbad? What's happening?"
Anwar and Tiger weren't there—had they gone to see the bracelet for themselves? Anwar had already seen it, and he surely already wanted it for himself. Maybe he'd told Tiger about it, hoping she would help him get it; maybe they were already there, already had it—
He knew the way back to the room with the bracelet as well as though he'd walked it a thousand times—in his mind, he had walked it a thousand times, and every time had opened the case and taken the bracelet, put it on, instead of turning around when Rina came in. If someone else took it from him now, just because he'd been too stupid to take it earlier—
Sinbad blinked. He'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts he hadn't even been looking where he was going. The girl was back, blocking his way, the light at his shoulder gleaming off the long black braid draped over her shoulder, and she was looking at him with a desperation that made him feel vaguely uncomfortable.
"Stop," she said again. "Stop, please—you have a choice—"
"It does not have to be like this," she said pleadingly. "You have a choice. Do not let it happen like this. Do not give in."
"I don't understand—"
He'd barely even gotten the words out, and she looked like she wanted to cry; she covered her face with her hands. "Do not give in," she whispered, between her fingers, and then there was a brief flare of light and she was gone.
"That was weird," Sinbad said aloud, when the hallway was still and empty again. He had no idea who she was, no idea what she was trying to tell him, but she made him feel like there was something he was forgetting—something he should have been doing but wasn't, something he needed but didn't have. It unsettled him, and he wanted to laugh at it but couldn't quite convince himself to.
But somewhere ahead of him, Anwar and Tiger had surely already reached the bracelet, and probably Gunnar, too. Whatever the girl's problem was, it was going to have to wait.
He could hear it halfway down the second hallway—he'd been right, of course he had. They'd gone for the bracelet, all of them, even though they'd done nothing to deserve it and he was the one who'd found it in the first place. But if they were stupid enough to waste their time fighting over it, maybe he still had a chance.
So when Sinbad reached the right door, he pushed it open gently, slowly, so that maybe they wouldn't see him until it was too late; and then he stopped, shocked into stillness.
Tiger had just struck Anwar—that was Sinbad's best guess as to what had happened the moment before he'd swung the door open far enough to see. Tiger had struck Anwar, hard enough to make his lip split, and in the instant Sinbad caught sight of them, Gunnar was trying to hold her back, catching her wrists in his hands so she couldn't do it again. She was looking at Gunnar like she wanted to tear him apart to get to Anwar, and he was struggling to keep hold of her; no one but Sinbad could see the absolute unbearable rage that crossed Anwar's bleeding face.
None of them had mocked Anwar more thoroughly than Sinbad had for his utter inability to fight, but it was actually one of the things Sinbad liked the best about him. Sinbad didn't enjoy hurting people, but he'd learned to do it when he had to; he'd been taught that kind of practicality by the streets the same way Rina had, the same way Tiger had been taught it by tigers and Gunnar had been taught it by the cold hard lands of the north. But Anwar had never been taught practicality by anyone, for all the other things he'd learned, and he actively disliked hurting people—hated it, really, even to save himself. And to hurt people at all well, Sinbad had learned, you needed to want to—whatever the reason, for yourself or for someone else or just because you didn't want to go hungry.
In that moment, he could see it, written all over Anwar's face: Anwar wanted to hurt Tiger, wanted it so badly that it was all he could think about, and that was so far from what Sinbad had expected that he couldn't have been more surprised if the sun had turned purple.
Anwar shoved past Gunnar's shoulder—shoved, so that Gunnar actually rocked sideways half a step—and struck outward, and he didn't know what he was doing but at that distance it didn't matter. He hit Tiger sharply in the eye, and along the cheek, and if Gunnar hadn't elbowed him in the gut, he would have kept going.
Tiger took the blows without a sound; it was only after Gunnar had pushed Anwar away that she snarled, deep in her throat, and she'd been sleeping but that didn't mean she didn't have her knives.
For a tall man, Gunnar had always been fast, and he saw the blade even before Sinbad shouted—saw the blade and ducked down in exactly the wrong direction, one arm raised defensively, so that it sliced along his forearm, instead of—
Instead of opening Anwar's gut, Sinbad realized.
Sinbad's cry had caught Anwar's attention, and then Gunnar's bitten-off grunt as the knife went into his arm drew all of their eyes. For a moment, all of them seemed to be frozen as thoroughly as Sinbad; and then Tiger dropped the bloody knife with a clang and wrapped her hands firmly around Gunnar's bleeding arm, and Anwar said, "You—you just—"
"Bandages now," Tiger said, "talk later," and her voice might have wavered a little but her hands were perfectly steady around Gunnar's arm.
"Of course," Anwar said, shaking himself, "of course—quick, come on, they're back with my other things."
"It's not that bad," Gunnar said, but Tiger didn't let him finish.
"Shut up," she said; and he probably could have done it himself, but she kept hanging onto his arm, and didn't let go until they were all the way back to the sleeping room.
* * *
Anwar was being much too careful, really. It was deep enough, Gunnar supposed, but he had had many wounds that were deep, and had the scars to prove it; probably he would have been fine without any stitching at all, as long as the bandages were tight enough to hold the wound closed.
But Anwar threaded one of his horrid little needles anyway, with a little magic light hovering and Tiger to mop where the blood welled up so that he could see what he was doing, and he didn't stop until there was a line of neat black stitches in Gunnar's arm.
They both seemed to have utterly forgotten how it had happened, and why—at least until Anwar muttered, "I just hope it stayed clean enough," and Tiger went tense and looked away.
"I keep my knives clean," she said, low and very even.
"Your knife?" Nala said—she had helped Tiger find the bandages, with directions from Anwar, and then had watched intently with Rina while Anwar had done the stitching; but now it was like Tiger had broken a spell. "You mean you're the one who cut him?"
Anybody else would have said I didn't mean to, but Tiger only said, "Yes."
"Why?" Rina said. "Where were you?"
"The bracelet," Anwar said at last. He'd been silent since Tiger had answered him, staring at the stitches in Gunnar's arm; now he busied himself pulling the leftover thread from his needle, winding it, and, Gunnar noticed, he didn't look up. "I just—I don't know. We only got a glimpse of it this morning, and I wanted to see it again."
"I only wanted to know where he was going," Tiger said, low. "You were all acting so strange when you got back here, and then he got up in the middle of the night without waking anyone else. I wanted to know why. I didn't know about the bracelet—" She shook her head, braids swinging, and to Gunnar's eye she looked nothing so much as faintly confused. "I didn't even understand why you wanted it so much until you started talking about studying it—"
"Studying it?" Sinbad said, eyebrow raised.
"I just think there's obviously something special about it," Anwar said defensively. "It's clearly not meant to just stay shut away on this island forever—"
Rina snorted. "You're just saying that because you want it for yourself—"
"Stop it!" Nala said.
They all went quiet, and looked at her like children expecting a scolding.
"I understand," Nala admitted, "I do. It's—it's a beautiful bracelet. But there must be a better way to handle this than just hitting each other until one of us manages to grab it. There must be."
* * *
They were silent, no one willing to say anything—because, Sinbad thought, they did want to hit each other until they got the bracelet. He couldn't let go of his anger toward Rina, even now, and probably Anwar and Tiger felt the same way. But he'd found it first—that had to mean something to them, didn't it? He deserved to have it—
"If I try to do that," Gunnar said, unexpectedly grave, "to hurt you—you must stop me. You mustn't let me, any of you."
"We won't let you," Sinbad said, but that wasn't what he was thinking: what he was thinking was I bet we'll hurt you first, and it should have frightened him, he knew it should have, but somehow he couldn't hold onto it long enough. His mind was already running away from him again—it was a ploy, he thought, it had to be. Gunnar had seen the bracelet three times now, and unless he'd gone blind he had to want it as badly as any of them. Was he pretending not to? Waiting for them to drop their guard? Willing to let them start fighting over it, keeping each other busy, so that he could take it?
Except that his arm—he'd saved Anwar, Sinbad knew that. Maybe he didn't want it after all.
One less person between Sinbad and the bracelet, then. Sinbad smiled to himself at the thought and lay back down on his sleeping-couch, and drifted easily off to sleep.
There was a sound. Persistent, or it wouldn't have woken Sinbad; but it did, and if it was Anwar sneaking out for the bracelet again, Sinbad was going to knock him unconscious, no matter what Nala said.
Sinbad rolled over reluctantly, ready to shout at whoever it was, and then the words died in his throat.
Gunnar was standing in the middle of the room, and except for the part where he was standing, Sinbad would have sworn he was asleep—and he wasn't alone.
The girl was there.
She was shimmering faintly, and in the same space he was, somehow, shining through him like light through glass, except the glass was Gunnar. She was smiling, they both were, and there was something about the expression that was just a little bit off, knowing and too-sharp.
* * *
Gunnar is smiling at Sinbad, and Sinbad is smiling back. Gunnar is glad about this—or he should be, he thinks, except he isn't. He feels—tense. There's something he's waiting for, something he knows is coming, but he doesn't tell Sinbad; he just keeps smiling.
Something's wrong. It takes a moment for the thought to crystallize, but when it does it shakes Gunnar with its truth, and he wants to shout at Sinbad to get away from him, that there's something wrong with him, but that's not what happens.
He keeps smiling. Sinbad says something, faint and slurred like he's far away or underwater, and Gunnar can't understand it. Get away from me, he thinks, but of course Sinbad doesn't do it. Sinbad draws him nearer, hand warm against his wrist, and Sinbad's free hand—Sinbad's free hand is reaching out, toward a windowframe, piled with things Gunnar can't quite see—
Sinbad doesn't find what he's looking for, and somehow Gunnar is not surprised—somehow he knew it would happen that way. Sinbad's reaching arm goes still and tense, and he looks at Gunnar with wide eyes, smile gone.
Gunnar is smiling, though. He's smiling as he lifts the knife, smiling as he grabs for Sinbad's arm to hold him still; smiling as he shoves the knife up under Sinbad's ribs, twists—
* * *
If Sinbad had only been able to see Gunnar's hands, he wouldn't have understood the motion of Gunnar's fist, but the girl was moving with him—with him exactly, precisely, in every respect—and in her hand there was a dagger, where Gunnar's hand was empty. They stabbed together, twisted the knife, once and then again, and smiled all the while—and then the ghost-knife flashed away into the dark and disappeared. She dropped it, Sinbad thought, and on their faces, the girl's and Gunnar's both, the smile was gone, and they were staring at something Sinbad couldn't see—
The burst of light made Sinbad cover his eyes, and then he heard a gasp, a sobbed-in breath, and looked in time to see Gunnar stumble—backward, like he'd been trying to back away the whole time but something had been holding him, and now it was gone.
"What, again? Who's gone now?"
"Nobody, we're all here—Gunnar?"
It was like the sun rising, as they all sat up, the magic lights popping into being over their shoulders like stars coming out, filling the room with gentle yellow light.
Gunnar heard, he must have, but he didn't say anything; he was still staring out into the middle distance, and the look on his face was so awful and cracked-open that Sinbad wanted to look away, to give him some—privacy or something.
"It was the girl," Sinbad said, because Gunnar didn't look like he was about to start talking, and everybody stopped staring at Gunnar and looked at him. Gunnar did, too, and the distraction wiped that awful expression off his face.
"What girl?" Anwar said. "There's a girl?"
"Sinbad saw a girl," Gunnar said, and his voice sounded tight and hoarse—he had to be able to hear it, too, because he cleared his throat before he spoke again. "Our first day here—he saw a girl."
"And neither of you said anything because ... ?" Nala said.
Gunnar spread his hands helplessly. "There was no girl," he said. "Not as far as I could tell. Sinbad said she had been right in front of him, but when I got there he was standing alone in an empty room. There was no one in the hallway but me."
"I saw her again," Sinbad admitted, "before we came to find you two," and he tipped his chin toward Anwar and then Tiger. "In the hallway. I don't know why—all she does is yell at me—"
"Maybe she's a ghost," Anwar said.
Sinbad blinked. "That's—not really what I was expecting you to say."
Anwar shrugged. "Well, obviously you might have gone mad," he said, conversational, "but Taryn did say that you had a foot in the land of the living and a foot in the land of the dead. That's why you could open the gate to Limbo, after all. Maybe it also means you're better at seeing ghosts than people who are—you know. Who've always been alive."
"Doesn't really matter, does it?" Sinbad said. "If she is a ghost, then she's just—I don't know, haunting. We'll leave and we won't have to worry about it anymore." Nothing she said or did seemed to have anything to do with anything, after all—maybe she wasn't even talking to him. Maybe she was just reliving bits of her life over and over: shouting at somebody in a room, in a hallway, and then stabbing them to death. It didn't matter. They were going to get Nala's books, and Sinbad was going to get the bracelet, and then they'd be done with this place.
"Even if it does matter," Rina said, "we can sort it out in the morning," and she settled back into her corner, light shimmering away.
"Yes—yes, of course," Gunnar said, and he lay down again and didn't say another word. Good—Sinbad would be able to go back to sleep.
* * *
Gunnar lay with his back to the room and made himself still, concentrated on his breathing and on the patch of cloth he was looking at: in, out; warp, weft. The moon was still up, though not in the right spot to shine through the windows, and this close he could see the individual threads in the weave of the couch-cloth. He picked one and followed its line with his eyes, and breathed, and soon the fear no longer choked him.
The dream hadn't been his, he reminded himself. That had been good to hear. Of course the ghost might have been showing him a thing that could or would happen, or might have chosen him because she saw some blackness in his heart that the others didn't have. But the dream hadn't been the invention of his mind alone, and that at least was a kindness.
He still didn't know what to do about it—about the dream, about any of it. There was something wrong with them, something to do with that bracelet—wasn't there? Or was he making things up, seeing in their every action and word what he feared most in himself? But he hadn't imagined the vase, nor the words Rina and Sinbad had been shouting at each other; and he hadn't imagined the stitches that were at this very moment aching their way along his forearm. Tiger liked to have her knives to hand, and wasn't shy about drawing them—to intimidate people, to make them think twice, or to cut through things that were in her way. But a day ago, Gunnar would have sworn she would never have raised them to anyone on the Providence. She had no special fondness for Anwar, but she didn't usually try to stab him—and he didn't usually try to punch anyone in the face, let alone one of the crew.
So there was something wrong with them, Gunnar thought. There was something terribly wrong with all of them—Nala, even, who had been so oddly snide to Anwar in the hallway, who had called the bracelet beautiful more than once. And he knew it, but how could he hope to help them? How could he hope to stop them, when he had trodden this path—anger, hatred, violence—further than any of them?
He closed his eyes and covered them with one hand. He would try, because he couldn't bear not to; but if he came too near that bracelet, if it did to him what it had done to the rest of them and he began to hurt them for it, he would never forgive himself. If that was where his path would end, then he wished the Khaima had cut his head off when they had had the chance.
He lay on his couch and looked at its cloth—warp, weft; warp, weft—and prayed that it would not go that way. He had been through this hell once before; and perhaps he deserved to go through it again, but not at this price. Not at this price.
They began unpacking breakfast in the morning, and then stopped when it became obvious that no one wanted to eat—they were all watching each other warily. Except for Gunnar, who didn't seem to want to risk looking anyone in the eye and was staring fixedly at the floor.
"All right, then," Nala said, "let's get on with it," and she swept imperiously toward the door.
It was hard, so hard, not to shove them all aside and just run down the hallway, grab the bracelet and be done with it; but they had to decide Sinbad could be the one to keep it, nothing else made sense, and if it seemed like they weren't going to then Sinbad could always grab it and run later.
When they got to the room with the bracelet in it, Sinbad almost forgot all his resolve, almost went for it right then, and only Rina's hand on his arm stopped him. "No you don't," she said, looking at him with narrowed eyes, and he wanted to just—slap her, so badly it made his hand tingle. He could hit her hard enough to knock her down, he was sure of it, and then she'd finally be out of his way. Why had he even brought her? Why had he brought any of them? He should have taken the necklace from Nala and left her standing on the dock in Basra, thrown the rest of them into the sea on the way—
"Let's be honest," Nala said evenly. "We all want it. Either we all need to agree on who should have it, or else—"
"We can't just give it to one of us and make that the end of it," Anwar protested. "It wouldn't be fair—we've got to share it, there isn't anything else that makes sense—"
"And it wouldn't make sense to not just hand it over to you to study, either, I suppose," Tiger said, one eyebrow raised.
"And what do you want to do with it?" Anwar said loudly.
As if she meant to contrast with his clenched fists, his reddening ears, Tiger crossed her arms and leaned coolly against the wall at her back. "I'm old-fashioned," she said. "Let's fight for it."
"Oh, and who do you think would win that little contest?" Rina said, rolling her eyes.
Tiger looked at her, and then smiled—not kindly. "No matter how we pick," she said, "we're still going to have to make you promise not to steal it after."
"We can figure that out afterward," Nala said, and Rina whirled to face her.
"As if you're going to have to worry," Rina spat. "We're never going to decide to give it to you—what use could you have for it, when you've got fifteen bracelets already—"
"And you could buy yourself a dozen more any time you wanted," Sinbad said.
Nala had been one of the calmest of them all along—more proof that she couldn't possibly want it as much as Sinbad did, that she didn't really deserve it—but Sinbad knew how much she hated being reminded of her wealth, as though it meant she weren't really one of them. That was why he'd said it; and, sure enough, she lifted her arms and crossed them defensively.
"I'm sure you think you should get it," she said, icy. "You've always thought you were more important than the rest of us—our leader, our captain; the one with the destiny. You've always thought you were the only one whose pain mattered. Did you even hesitate for a moment before you dragged them all off to the Land of the Dead for your precious brother? My father died, but the only one I risked over it was me. You're so selfish—"
The words were hurled at him like she meant them to be blows, but they didn't hit him the way she'd intended them to—he was more important than the rest of them, wasn't he? He was the one with the destiny—with a thousand destinies, to judge by the shards of that stone in the labyrinth. They tagged along with him to bring some meaning into their useless lives, but he didn't need them, he never had; if it hadn't been for them slowing him down, maybe he would even have saved Jamil. Nala was just jealous—all her money thrown at the university, all her careful, public altruism, and she would never matter a tenth as much as he did—
He opened his mouth to say this to her, to show her how and why she was wrong, and she might hate him for it, but what would he care if he had the bracelet? What would it matter?
But before he could get any of the actual words out, there was a sound—a startled noise, from a throat, except Sinbad was facing Nala and Rina and Anwar, and Tiger was behind him. There wasn't anybody who could be to Sinbad's right, except—Gunnar?
Sinbad turned to look at him, realizing at the same moment that Gunnar had said nothing the whole time they'd been there, hadn't argued with any of them—and then he had to flinch and shield his eyes from a familiar burst of pale light.
"What was that?" someone said—Anwar, Sinbad thought, and that meant they'd all seen it, too.
"Gunnar?" Sinbad said.
The light had gone again, and nothing obvious had changed. Gunnar didn't answer, which was a little odd, but then Gunnar had been odd since the middle of the night, since he'd sleepwalked through the ghost-girl's dream. He was still standing up straight, and there wasn't anything visibly wrong with him, but—
But, in this room as in all the rest, the floor was polished stone, mirror-smooth, and the reflection that looked up at Sinbad out of it was not Gunnar's. It was the girl's.
Sinbad crossed the space between them in two quick strides and grabbed Gunnar's head with one hand, pressing his dagger up close beneath Gunnar's chin with the other. "Get out," he said, "get out of him—"
"Wait!" the girl cried, Gunnar's voice but her words, the accent wholly different to Gunnar's clipped northman's speech. "Wait, please—please, let me explain. It does not have to happen like this."
"What are you talking about?" said Rina, sharp.
"The bracelet," the girl said. "You came back to look for it again—I knew you would. I was not fast enough."
"Fast enough?" Sinbad said.
She looked at him, Gunnar's eyes; he let go of Gunnar's hair, and moved the dagger slowly away from Gunnar's throat.
"I was not fast enough to stop you," she said, and then paused, shook Gunnar's head, and took a deep breath. "I forgot—I forgot how much air it takes, to talk when you have a body," she murmured, mostly to herself, and then held out Gunnar's hands. "I have done this all wrong—I apologize. My name is Amita, and you need to hear what happened to me. You need to understand."
Sinbad couldn't help looking over at the case, the bracelet gleaming there—
"It will still be there when I am finished," Amita said, and Sinbad dragged his gaze from the bracelet and back to Gunnar's face to see that she was looking at him knowingly.
"Talk fast," Tiger snapped.
Amita looked at each of them—they had made almost a perfect half-circle, Sinbad realized, the better to shout at each other without obstruction—to shout at each other without obstruction, and also be able to see the bracelet. Amita and Gunnar were standing in the middle of it. "We did not come here with intent," she said. "We did not know this place existed—"
"We?" Sinbad said.
She looked at him, and then at the floor, and was silent for a moment before she spoke again. "My companions—my friends. Our ship was caught by a storm, and we sighted this island amidst the worst of it, and took shelter here. It seemed vast and safe and wondrous, as though the gods had dropped it in the middle of the sea for our protection, and even after the storm had passed, we lingered.
"Mei Lin was the first to find the bracelet. She opened the case and put it on, and she was so pleased by its beauty, so proud, that she came and showed it to us. We all thought it was lovely—the loveliest thing we had ever seen. That is how the bracelet works."
"And I suppose you fought over it," Anwar said. "Because it's not right that only one person should have it—"
"You're only saying that because you want it!" Rina shouted at him, and she would have darted across the half-circle to strike him if Nala hadn't caught her arm.
"We agreed to wait," Nala said coolly. "We'll decide who gets to have it soon enough, but we agreed to let Amita speak first."
"I didn't agree—" Rina began.
"Please!" Amita cried—Sinbad turned and saw that she had clenched Gunnar's fists so hard his knuckles were white, and she was looking at them with—with anguish, terrible, a look Sinbad didn't think he'd ever seen on Gunnar's face before. "Please, just let me—we killed each other for it."
Sinbad went still—all of them did. It caught at him, and he wasn't sure why—not that he wanted to kill anyone for the bracelet, but he would, wouldn't he? Of course he would—who wouldn't, after all? It was beautiful—
"We killed each other," Amita said, and she didn't say it very loudly, but it was clear as a shout in the silence. "We hunted each other through the halls of this place, and regretted nothing, because each one of us dead was one fewer to seek the bracelet for their own."
"And you were the first, I suppose," Rina said, sneering, "the innocent, and now your ghost haunts this library—"
"If only I had been," Amita said, closing Gunnar's eyes for a moment. "You have no idea how I have prayed for that, how I wish that were so—but it is not. I was not the first; I was the last. I was the one who survived.
"Nasrim and I, we helped each other—we were the last two. We had been friends since we were children, and early on we made ourselves a deal: if we managed to kill the others, we would both take the bracelet, and wear it by turns. He would have it for a day, and then I, and then it would be his again."
"There was a knife," Sinbad said slowly. "You killed him with it."
Amita looked at him silently, and the eyes she was using to do it might have been Gunnar's, but they were wet with her sadness.
"You were trying to tell us this before—Gunnar's dream."
"It was hidden in his things," Amita said. "He was going to use it on me, but I had already found it, and I killed him first, and then—"
"And then it was yours," Rina said, almost wistfully.
Amita looked at her with something wrenchingly like pity, pity and despair at once. "It is only a bracelet," she whispered, and covered Gunnar's face with his hands. "When there is only one person on this island, when you are alone—it stops working. All the blood on your hands, everything you have paid to get it, and it is nothing but a bracelet, in the end."
She meant it, Sinbad thought—it was impossible to think otherwise, looking at her, listening to her. Too bad nothing she said was making any sense. "Listen, Amita—"
Amita lowered Gunnar's hands again, rubbing the back of one across his eyes, and looked at the floor, gathering herself—and then at Sinbad, at Rina, at Nala, at each of them in turn. "I know what it is like," she said. "You remember these people, that they meant something to you—that they were important. But you cannot remember why, or how, and what does it even matter? What does it even matter, when if you can only get free of them, you will have what you want?
"I am begging you, please: try to remember why. You know each other, you love each other—look at each other, and try, try to remember."
She was looking at them so pleadingly that Sinbad wanted to look away—it seemed so pointless. What could there be about any of these people that mattered more than the bracelet?
They were silent, all of them, and Amita closed Gunnar's eyes and turned his face away.
"I—stole from you," Rina said, sudden, into the quiet.
"Sorry, was that all of us," Anwar said snidely, "or one of us in particular?"
Rina gave him a flat look, although it was less vicious than Sinbad was expecting; and Sinbad, out of nowhere, almost wanted to smile at them.
"You," Rina said, to Nala—who had never let go of Rina's arm, and was looking at her now with a haughty sort of confusion. "I meant you. I used to steal from you, all the time. I remember I would take your things, and hide them—once you almost caught me, and I ran up to the deck with one of your earrings, but I didn't have anywhere to hide it up there, so I threw it overboard."
"I knew that was you!" Nala said, and she didn't sound half as angry as she should have. "You kept telling me I must have lost it."
"And one day," Rina said, vaguely, like she was feeling her way along the words in the dark, "one day it was a hair-comb. Lacquer, with flowers—and you did catch me. You said that—that if I wanted to do something nice with my hair, all I had to do was ask."
Nala had gone still at Rina's first few words, and then began nodding along, and now she let go of Rina's arm so that she could reach up and touch a hand to Rina's hair. "You didn't ask," she said slowly, "but I did it anyway—I put the comb in for you, and I told you—"
"—to keep it," Rina said. "You were snippy and awful about it all, and you pulled my hair and stabbed me in the scalp, but—" She stopped, and shrugged. "Nobody—nobody had ever given me anything before."
Nala smiled at her—really smiled at her, and neither of them seemed to be thinking about the bracelet at all, even though it was right across the room from them. Maybe they didn't want it anymore, Sinbad thought, hopeful.
Nala turned and looked at Amita, Amita-in-Gunnar, and said, "I think I see," and then she turned around even further, until she was facing Anwar. "I remember you, when we were in the cages of the Water Thieves—"
"You thought I was an idiot," Anwar said, flat. "This doesn't have anything to do with why we're here, and I don't understand why we're wasting time on things that don't matter—"
"They do matter," Nala said quietly, and touched his hand—he looked startled by it. They hadn't ever touched each other very much, had they? Maybe it was just since they'd found the bracelet—except to hit or to shove each other, Sinbad thought, but there was some reason why that wasn't the same. He just couldn't think what it was.
"I don't think—"
"Just let me tell you," Nala said. "Afterward, you and Tiger and Sinbad can decide who gets the bracelet, if you still want to."
"I still want the bracelet," Rina muttered, and then, when Nala gave her a sharp look, "It's still silver!"
Nala cleared her throat, tilting her chin up imperiously, and began again. "In the cages of the Water Thieves—do you remember that? We were afraid and angry, picking away at each other—I remember thinking that we would have hated each other, except we didn't know each other well enough for that. And then there was you—"
"Being an idiot," Anwar said; but his face had softened.
"Believing," Nala said, gentle. "In us, and in Sinbad. That he wouldn't leave without us, and that we would all be friends—good friends, the best, the kind of friends who would die for each other. And when it was all over and we were back on the ship, I thought of that, and I hoped more than anything that you were going to turn out to be right. And you were, Anwar."
"So that makes—once," Anwar said, but not sharply, not with disdain—he laughed, after, and Nala grinned at him. The laugh settled into a thoughtful look, and he narrowed his eyes at Nala and said, "It's the strangest thing—like I had a limb asleep and didn't know it. I feel—" He couldn't seem to come up with a word; he shook his head, in the end, and looked across, to Tiger.
She was standing there with her arms crossed, eyes sharp—she and Anwar both were still bruised where they'd hit each other the day before, and she met his gaze and said, "And what pretty story are you going to tell me, to make me change my mind?"
Anwar only laughed again, sheepish, and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Not pretty, really," he said, "but—look, you remember right after Sinbad convinced you to come with us? We docked at the mouth of that river, in that little town with the fellow whose brother you'd turned in to the provost for two silver pieces—"
"I remember," Tiger said. "I would have done that one for free."
"Yes, that one!" Anwar said, pointing at her. "I'm pretty sure that's exactly what you said to him, too, which may not have been the best—anyway. He had all those dogs, and then after, on the ship ..." Anwar trailed off, and shrugged helplessly. "One of them had bitten you, and you—you came to me, you let me clean it and put honey on it and wrap it up for you. You were hurt and you let me see that you were, you came to me for help. It wasn't that bad a bite, in the end, but I remember that. I remember how much it means to me that you did that."
Tiger looked at him silently, and as far as Sinbad could see, nothing in her face changed. But she gazed at Anwar for a long time, and then flicked a glance toward Amita-in-Gunnar, and then toward the bracelet—gleaming away in its little case, shining silver against red velvet, and surely, surely, she wanted it. Didn't she?
If she didn't—if she didn't, then it was Sinbad's now. If they'd all given up on it, then surely none of them were going to stop him from taking it.
He took two steps toward Amita and Gunnar, gaze fixed on the bracelet beyond Gunnar's shoulder—but then Amita moved in front of him, the same way she had that first day. "Look," Sinbad said, exasperated, "it's fine! They don't want it anymore. I'm not going to have to kill any of them for it. Just get out of the way, all right?"
"Wait," Amita said, "just wait a moment."
Sinbad huffed out a breath, irritated, but obediently stood still.
"This man," Amita said. "You must have feared that he, too, would try to take the bracelet from you?"
"He wanted it less than the rest of us," Sinbad said, scornful. "You could tell—he wasn't trying nearly as hard. He kept trying to make us stop fighting over it. Although maybe he was hoping we'd decide it wasn't worth it, and then he could have it—"
"So you might as well have been rid of him, too?"
Yes. Yes, of course, Sinbad thought, but it took him a long moment before he could convince himself to say it. "Yes—yes." Amita was standing between him and the bracelet, he couldn't see it anymore—if he could only see it, that would make everything clearer—
He'd started to move again without meaning to, but Amita moved again to match him, set Gunnar's strong hands against his shoulders. "But it was only when you saw that I had taken him," she said, "that you put your dagger to his throat; and even then, Sinbad, even then you did not cut."
"No—no, of course I didn't—" Sinbad said, recoiling, because—why? He should have, shouldn't he? It would have gotten Amita and Gunnar both out of his way—although perhaps it was for the best that he hadn't, considering Amita seemed to have gotten everybody else to talk themselves out of wanting the bracelet. He just—he hadn't wanted to. He hadn't even really thought about it, he'd just—lowered the knife.
He looked at Amita—she was looking back at him, Gunnar was looking back at him.
"I did my best to sell you to Taryn," Tiger said behind him, quietly. "And you gave me—everything, you gave me a den of my own. I'll never forget it."
"Without you," Anwar said, from the other side, "I would never have been able to become the person I wanted to be."
Sinbad closed his eyes, shaking his head. "Look, just get out of my way," he said to Amita, but it sounded more desperate than he wanted it to, more like a plea than a demand.
"You taught me that I didn't have to accept the path laid out for me," Nala said. "That I could choose my own."
"You never left me behind," Rina said. "Not even when I deserved it."
Sinbad put his hands to Gunnar's wrists—to yank his arms away, to push Amita back, except he didn't do either of those things.
"You told him once that he made you a better person," Amita said, gently. "He did not say it, he did not know how; but he thought then that you do the same for him. That you always have."
For a moment, Sinbad was caught between: in his mind's eye the bracelet gleamed, the promise that if only he had it he would finally have everything, finally be happy—but he couldn't stop remembering. He had been happy—he had been afraid because he had been happy, because he had had something to lose. Rina, who he had almost lost at the House of Games, and again to the arrow of that enchanted army—who he had almost lost before he'd even known her at all, to the water in the Providence's hold. Anwar—Anwar who had so nearly gone home forever, lived in his parents' house and studied and never saved a life; Nala, who had let herself be rowed away to marry Death and might so easily never have come back. Cook, too, had almost gone with Anicetus, although by a different route—Cook, who had taught them how to sail a ship together in more ways than one, who they might have starved without a dozen times over. Tiger, who had only ever joined them at all on a whim, and could so readily choose to return to the life she'd led before. And Gunnar, Gunnar who would defy the Khaima in Sinbad's defense but not his own, who had a dozen reasons to leave Sinbad but didn't seem to care.
It seemed suddenly like he had so much to lay across the scale from that bracelet—too much, more than ten thousand silver bracelets could ever hope to outweigh, and that thought seemed to crack something open.
He found himself sucking in a startled breath—Anwar was right, it was like he'd lost something and hadn't even known it was gone. He could tell now—it was so obvious!—that the bracelet had done something to him, had been doing something to him since the moment he'd walked into this room the first time and laid eyes on it. And being free of it again was the mirror image of whatever its power was: he could remember how it had felt, to care about nothing else, to want it so thoroughly that he hadn't even noticed the way it had sunk into him, the cold disdainful hatred he had begun to feel toward everything that wasn't the bracelet. It felt like it hadn't even been him, like some other Sinbad had been the one to think so casually about slapping Rina until she fell to the floor, or decide coolly that he would have been better off if he had pushed them all into the ocean and sailed here alone. Thinking it again, now, made him want to shudder—and the worst part was that it hadn't been some other Sinbad. It had been him, just him, all along.
He looked at Amita—at Gunnar, really, but for a moment he swore he could see Amita through Gunnar, her dark eyes and grave face. How close he'd come to ignoring her entirely; and how terrible for her, to watch him do it. To watch them all wander so close to the cliff's edge she hadn't been able to avoid, and with nothing she could do to stop them except beg them to listen to her.
But then she looked back at him and smiled—she had dimples, as it turned out, deeper in one cheek than in the other. "I knew it," she said. "I knew that it could end another way."
"You—" Sinbad began, but that was as far as he could get before that pale light flared, and Amita was gone.
* * *
For a moment after she left him, there was no one in charge of his body at all, and Gunnar could only hope he wouldn't hit his head on the floor too hard. But then suddenly he was all his again, from his toes to the top of his head, and he brought his hands up just in time to catch himself on his left—his right arm was still slow and sore, for all Anwar's fine sewing.
It was Sinbad, of course it was, and if Gunnar hadn't already known that what Amita had done had worked, he would've been able to tell by Sinbad's voice: warm, concerned, nothing like the flat way he had spoken after—after that dream. Doesn't really matter, does it?
Raising his hands had been reflex; it took Gunnar a moment to settle back into the use of his body, to remember how to open his eyes and turn his head. So before he could even look up to tell Sinbad he was all right, Sinbad had skidded to the floor beside him, an arm over Gunnar's back and both hands warm at Gunnar's shoulders—like Gunnar had once done for him, with Taryn's hunter melted away into sand beside them.
"I'm all right," Gunnar managed at last, but Sinbad didn't move away.
"Were you—do you remember what happened?" Sinbad said quietly.
"Yes," Gunnar said. "I remember everything."
He stayed where he was for a long moment, on his hands and knees on the floor; and Sinbad waited beside him and didn't rush him, and supported his shoulders carefully when at last he did sit back on his heels.
"And you're sure you're all right," Anwar said, already moving—he stopped an armslength away and motioned, and Gunnar obediently held out a wrist so that Anwar could check his pulse.
"Fine," Gunnar said. "Fine."
He felt better than he had in about two days, in fact, with the sense of foreboding that had been hanging heavy over him now gone—now that they knew what had happened to them, now that they had been able to stop it. He had had worse moments in his life than that dream of smilingly, calculatingly murdering Sinbad with his own hands, but not very many of them. It had been a relief to have Sinbad tell him the dream wasn't his own, but it was even better to believe it, to know that it had been yet another warning from Amita instead of his own terrible mind—or, far worse, a dream of a thing that was yet to come.
"I'm surprised it was her," Rina was saying to Nala, behind Anwar, "if everything she said was true. All the stories say it's supposed to be, you know, somebody who's been terribly wronged—"
"Or with unfinished business," Nala pointed out, "which this certainly was, for her."
"Well, all right," Rina said, "but in that case she's going to be here forever, because even if they aren't trying to find it on purpose, people can still keep stumbling across this place."
"Then we should destroy the bracelet," Tiger said.
"We can't," Gunnar said.
He hadn't entirely meant to say it, and it took him a moment to realize that he had, and that they had all stopped talking and started staring at him.
"Amita tried that," he began to explain. "She tried that many times over; she wasn't a fool. She tried to break it, to melt it down, to throw it into the sea. The next morning it was always back in the case, whole. That was when she knew she had to find another way."
They were still staring at him.
"She didn't tell us that," Anwar said slowly.
"No," Gunnar agreed, because hadn't he just said he remembered what had happened while she'd been—with him? He knew what she had and hadn't told them. And then, abruptly, he realized what Anwar meant, and froze.
"She was in your head," Sinbad said. He had dropped the arm that had been around Gunnar's back, but he was still touching Gunnar's arm, the bend of his elbow, and Gunnar was pathetically grateful for it. "She remembered things about you that she hadn't seen. Maybe she couldn't do that without letting you remember her, too."
"I don't know," Gunnar admitted. "I just—I'm telling you the truth. She isn't just a ghost, Rina. She learned that she wasn't going to be able to destroy it, but she knew she couldn't just leave it there for someone else to find. She found a spell in the library that would keep her here instead of letting her go on, and she—" cast it and then threw herself into the ocean, except he didn't really want to say that, but Rina made a face like she had heard it anyway.
"And how long ago was that?" Anwar said.
Gunnar shrugged. "A hundred years, maybe a little more. A long time."
"She took this thing really seriously," Rina said.
Gunnar looked down at his hands. "She killed everyone who ever meant anything to her," he said, "over—over nothing, over anger that wasn't even her own. She didn't want to ever let it happen again."
"So that's it?" Nala said. "She's just going to be stuck here forever, waiting for people to find this place and then start trying to kill each other over that stupid bracelet, hoping she can stop them?"
Gunnar didn't reply, because there was no reply to make; he looked away, down, and said nothing, and the silence was answer enough.
"There's got to be something we can do," Nala said, but she was saying it because she wanted it to be true, Gunnar thought, not because it was; and when she had finished speaking, the quiet stretched long.
And then Anwar, who had been gazing thoughtfully at the ground, suddenly looked up. "There is," he said, "there is," and without any further explanation, he turned on his heel and strode out of the room.
* * *
"Anwar—Anwar, wait. What are you going to—?"
Sinbad was doing his best to keep up, but it was harder than he'd been expecting—Anwar was practically running, and had been all the way down the library steps, across the shining plaza, through the gardens, and down the steps to one of the little docking-berths, and now he was—putting his hands in the water?
"Just give me a moment," Anwar said, kneeling down and lowering his head like he was at Friday prayers; and then he closed his eyes.
Anwar didn't say anything else, didn't move, and Sinbad was increasingly at a loss as to how exactly any of this was supposed to help Amita; and he was about to say so when something changed. The water—something was moving, further out in the water—someone—
"Kuji," Sinbad said.
Anwar opened his eyes and lifted his head at the sound of her name, and Kuji grinned at them both and strode out of the water—up through it, really, even though there was nothing there to hold her up. She climbed up onto the surface of the sea and then walked over it toward them, and when she was near enough, tilted her head forward and shook out her wet hair so that it splashed them both thoroughly.
"It's good to see you again," she said to them, laughing, while they sputtered and tried to wipe their faces off.
"I—wasn't sure that was going to work," Anwar admitted, wiping his cheek with one of the few dry spots left on his sleeves.
Kuji smiled at him, dimpling. "I don't get prayed to very much," she said, "and then I realized it was you, and I thought I'd better see what you'd managed to get yourselves into this time." She hesitated, and then said, more quietly, "I can't stay for very long, you know."
"I know," Anwar said, very low.
Kuji looked at him gravely for a moment, and Sinbad thought right then that she really did look like a god—like someone very old, and very powerful, and possibly a little bit tired. And then she beamed at them both again and clapped her hands together. "Well, I assume you didn't pray me here just to say hello?"
"No," Anwar admitted. "Not exactly."
They led Kuji back up to the library—they ran into Tiger on the way, since she'd started following them down, and she said, "What the hell were you doing?" and then, more warily, "Where did she come from?"
"Hello, Tiger," Kuji said, cheerily. "I came out of the sea when Anwar asked for me. I'm a god."
Sinbad wasn't expecting Tiger to take this very well at all; but she blinked twice and then narrowed her eyes, looking Kuji up and down very carefully, and then, all of a sudden, she relaxed. "You are," she agreed.
"I am," Kuji repeated.
Sinbad gaped at them.
"Not the first one I've met," Tiger said, and shrugged a shoulder.
When the four of them reached the library steps, Rina was waiting for them by the gate. "Oh, good, you again," she said to Kuji flatly, and then, to Anwar, "We were going to follow you and yell at you, but then Gunnar got all wobbly again and we had to help him lie down."
"I'd better take another look at him," Anwar said, and waved a hand at Sinbad even as he moved away. "You explain."
Sinbad glanced at Kuji and tried to figure out what to say. "There's—there's someone here," he began, and then stopped, because Kuji was already nodding.
"Yes," she said, "there is." She stood still for a moment in the doorway to the library, bare feet flat against the cool stone, and then she narrowed her eyes at the empty air above her and a little to the right, and held out her hand—and another hand took it. Amita faded into view like the colors of a sunrise, none of that odd light anywhere to be seen, and her features were clear, there somehow to Sinbad's eye, in a way they had never been before.
Kuji helped Amita climb down out of the air like a servant helping a noble lady off a camel, and the closer Amita came to the floor the more solid she seemed, until she set her feet against the floor with an audible pat. "Oh," Amita said quietly, and closed her eyes for a moment; and when she opened them again, she smiled at Kuji.
"How did you come to be here?" Kuji said, gentle, and Amita told her everything.
Sinbad led Kuji to the room where it was, Kuji following along with Amita's hand still held in hers—to look at them, they were two pretty girls, Sinbad thought, friends walking together in a garden; there was nothing to tell you that one of them was a god and the other one had been dead for a good hundred years.
Anwar had moved Gunnar over to one side so that he could sit up against the wall, and Nala had gotten water from somewhere—maybe the fountain in the entrance hall—and was holding her sash to his forehead. And the bracelet—
The bracelet was right where they'd left it—where they'd found it, really, because they'd never actually moved it. All their fighting over it, the way they'd screamed at each other for the sake of it, and not one of them had actually touched it, let alone tried it on. Probably for the best—if one of them had put it on, and then someone else had tried to take it—
Sinbad didn't want to think what might have happened.
Looking at it felt like looking at a dead thing, all the pull of it gone. It was just a bracelet, now, to Sinbad's eye. But he could remember so clearly what it had been like, to want it so badly he would have thrown away everything that mattered to him to get it. Just a bracelet, a simple silver bracelet—but knowing what it was, what it had made Amita do and what it had almost made Sinbad do, he would rather cut his hand off than wear it.
Kuji looked at it like it was a mildly interesting butterfly. She let go of Amita's hand and strode over to the little table, set her hand against the case—Sinbad became aware suddenly that he was watching her like a hawk, body tensed, and a few paces away Amita was strung tight as a bow.
"It's all right," Kuji said, and Sinbad glanced up to find her looking back at him; at him and at Amita, eyes flicking between them. "I see what makes it the way it is," she added, "and it's not something that can touch me." She picked the bracelet up with gentle fingers, turned it over once in the light coming from the windows. "I almost feel sorry for it."
Sinbad blinked. "Sorry for it?"
"A little," Kuji admitted. "It cannot help its nature. And bracelets are made to be worn, in the end—how long it's been, since this one's been able to fulfill its purpose!" She smiled down at it, and then glanced at Sinbad. "You may recall that I know a little bit about being shut up in a box until someone happens along to open it."
She held the bracelet up and slid it over her hand, and—Sinbad didn't know what he'd been expecting, a clap of thunder or something, but the bracelet settled onto Kuji's wrist like she was just a girl and it was just a bracelet. Kuji beamed at it and then looked up again, and clapped her hands, rubbing them together briskly. "Now," she said, to Amita. "What are we going to do about you?"
"... Me?" Amita said.
"Yes, you," Kuji said, and narrowed her eyes, looking Amita up and down for a moment. "Oh, never mind, I've got it—what an excellent idea."
"You're going to make her a god," Anwar repeated. "Of a library."
Kuji frowned at him. "Don't be snide," she said. "There are gods of all kinds of things, you know. And a library is an excellent thing to be god of."
"A god," Anwar said again.
Kuji crossed her arms. "Now you're just repeating yourself," she said.
"I don't understand," Nala said. "Can you really just make someone a god—just like that?"
"Well, not just anyone," Kuji said. "I mean, yes, just anyone, if I really tried; but I wouldn't. I try not to do things without a good reason."
"Tell that to the arrow that ended up in my belly," Rina said, snorting.
"That was for a good reason!" Kuji said. "Honest. And this—I hardly even have to do anything, she's half a god already."
"... I am?" Amita said.
"Oh, yes," Kuji told her, nodding knowingly. "Very much so." She turned and raised her eyebrows at Anwar. "Do you remember what I told you last time?"
Anwar had been staring helplessly at Amita, and then Kuji, and then Amita again; but being asked to remember something—to recite, to explain—seemed to snap him out of it. "That—life exists in lines—"
"Exactly," Kuji said. "And what would you call what she's been doing, if not interrupting lines? Deliberately, with purpose, for the better. Maybe she hasn't been a god 'til now, but she's certainly been doing a god's work." She looked at them all for a moment, and then spread her hands. "This place—it's not exactly what you think it is. The fellow who built it—"
"Don't tell me," Anwar said, "you knew him."
"I knew of him," Kuji said. "He was very famous at the time. A very powerful man, and it's possible that at one point he may have needed his lines interrupted. He built this island for his private collection, that's quite true, but then it became something else. There are things in this world that are very dangerous—that, like this bracelet, are made to do nothing but cause harm, and are very good at it." Kuji shrugged, elegantly casual. "At some point, he started to collect them—to use his powers to find ways to contain them, to keep people safe."
"Just because he could," Nala said, eyebrow raised.
Kuji grinned at her. "They told you about me, I see."
"A little bit," Nala agreed.
Kuji inclined her head to Nala, and then adopted an artfully contemplative expression. "Somehow it must have occurred to him that his talents could be put to good use," she said, thoughtful, and then shrugged again. "Anyway, it's been a long time since this place had someone to take care of it. If, that is, you want to," she added, to Amita.
"Yes," Amita said, without hesitation. "I think I would like that very much."
"Well, then," Kuji said, and clapped her hands. "That's settled."
There was a moment's silence. "Aren't you going to—do it?" Anwar said.
Kuji laughed. "Oh, Anwar," she said, fond. "It's already done. A little less dramatic than last time, I know; but not everything needs to be handled with a big flash of light."
They walked back to the entrance hall together—Sinbad hadn't expected Gunnar to want to, although with Anwar and Nala's help he seemed to be feeling better, but then Amita had knelt down and touched Gunnar's hand, smiling, and after that Gunnar had been able to stand without needing any help at all.
When they got there, Kuji leaned over and whispered something to Amita, and then kissed her cheek and grinned, and said, "I'll come back now and then, to see how you're getting on—but I think you're going to be an excellent god."
"I hope you are right," Amita said, and she sounded like she intended to make sure. Which, Sinbad thought, she probably would, since the last time she had decided to do something, she had bound her soul to a sorcerer's island for a hundred years just so she could save some strangers' lives.
Kuji grinned at her and patted the back of her hand, and then turned to the rest of them and said, "Well—"
"Wait," Anwar said, and Kuji shook her head at him gently.
"I can't stay any longer, Anwar—"
"No, no, I know that, I just—I wanted to ask you something," Anwar said. "Last time, the thing you said about—um, the journey. I just wanted to know if I did all right. If I did what I was supposed to do."
"The journey?" Kuji said, brow furrowing in confusion, and then her expression cleared. "Oh, you mean that trip you all took to the city of the dead." She smiled at him fondly. "That was only the beginning. The journey you're on isn't over yet—it isn't over yet at all. But you don't have to ask me about it. Don't you think you're doing well?"
"I hope so," Anwar said helplessly. "I mean—I'm trying."
"That's all you need to do," Kuji said, kind. "That's all I ever asked of you."
She beamed at them all one more time, and then turned and walked over to the library entrance, and pushed one vast door open, singlehandedly. "You're all doing very well," she said, and strode into the light that was pouring down into the doorway—thick and bright, golden, and Sinbad's eyes were too used to the blue coolness inside the library for him to see past it. He waited, blinking, and at last he began to pick out the lines of the plaza, the walls and the library gate—but Kuji was nowhere to be seen, as though she could walk into light just as easily as she could walk on water.
There was a moment's silence, and then Rina spoke. "Interrupting lines?"
"Oh," Anwar said, and shifted his weight sheepishly from foot to foot. "Well, the first time we met her, you remember—"
"Yes," Rina said, very very mildly.
"Well. We—talked, a little bit. She explained a few things to me, while you were all—um, dead." Anwar winced as he said the word, and then shrugged a little defensively. "I told you most of it—the bit about the journey and all."
"Except apparently the Land of the Dead wasn't it!" Rina said, throwing up her hands. "How far do we have to go to impress her, anyway?"
Sinbad grinned at her, and then at Anwar. He'd clung to the things Anwar had told him about the beach, about Kuji, when they'd been on their way to the Land of the Dead, because it had seemed like a sign—like it meant they had to succeed. Their journey was important, a god had said so, and surely that would mean he'd get Jamil back; except he hadn't, and they'd left, and he'd never been quite sure what that meant. But now—now he couldn't imagine anything he wanted to hear more. Their journey wasn't over; their journey had only just begun.
"Well," Nala said. "Not that this hasn't all been very exciting, but we did come here for a reason. We have enough texts collected for the university to work with, I think, but we weren't—talking to each other very much, over the last dozen."
"No," Anwar agreed, and then pointed to Gunnar. "And you're going to come with us so I can keep an eye on you. I don't want you telling me you're fine and then falling over and concussing yourself on a shelf or something."
"I don't want that either," Gunnar said, mild.
"I think we should all go," Rina said. "Call me crazy, but somehow I think it would be best if we didn't go wandering off by ourselves to look at things anymore. Even if what you're doing is really, really boring."
"And we would appreciate it if you would come with us," Nala said to Amita, bowing a little bit in the new god's direction. "If it's your library now, then these texts and manuscripts are yours also, and I wouldn't be comfortable taking them without your permission, even for the sake of the university."
"Of course," Amita said, "of course—I would be very happy to."
Sinbad waited until Nala and Anwar had turned away, already discussing their final choices, Gunnar a step behind, Rina and Tiger making faces at each other but following reluctantly after—and then he caught Amita's wrist before she could follow. It was narrower in his hand than he'd really been expecting—not Gunnar's wrist anymore, he thought, but Amita's own. "Before we go in there with the rest of them," he said quietly, "could I ask you something?"
"Anything," Amita said, inclining her head graciously.
Sinbad tried to think of a good way to say it, but he ended up just staring at her awkwardly for a moment and then blurting out, "Why Gunnar?" He shook his head quickly and held out his hands. "I don't mean that you shouldn't have, or—I just want to understand. I was the one who could see you, I was the one you kept talking to. Why did you use him when you needed to talk to us?"
Amita hesitated a moment. "To be honest with you," she said at last, "I was not sure it would work at all. For that to happen, I needed—I needed someone that I could reach, I needed someone I could fit into. The bracelet had touched him least, and that helped a great deal, but it touched him the least for a reason; not because it was not trying, but because—" She paused again, shaking her head—searching for the right words, Sinbad thought. "It could not hold him because he felt it and turned away from it, because it wanted him to seek violence and he refused it. I felt that, when I was in his mind, and he was able to do that for the same reason that made him easy for me to connect to: because he, too, feels he has caused far too many deaths, and he, too, feels himself guilty—guilty, and desperately penitent.
"I do not know how to say it so that you will understand it. I suppose his mind—his mind was shaped the same way as mine, in these ways. If you try to step into the shoe of a man twice your size, it will fall off again the moment you lift your foot; but your brother's shoes will stay with you up and down the street, even if they pinch at the toes or are too wide in the heel. You see?"
"I do see," Sinbad said. "I see perfectly—thank you."
He had been trying not to look at Gunnar, not to think about Gunnar, and it had been easy with Anwar running off like he had, with Amita and Kuji and everything. But he could see, now, the things the bracelet had closed his eyes to before: the look on Gunnar's face when he had been dreaming Amita's memory, and after, when he had asked them not to let him hurt them. And it made Sinbad flush with shame, to remember that he had looked at Gunnar at the time and then rolled over and gone to sleep—it made him never want to look Gunnar in the eye again, but—
But he couldn't stand to think that Gunnar still saw himself that way, and he couldn't let it lie.
* * *
It didn't take Nala and Anwar long to make their final set of selections for the university, and when they presented their choices to Amita, she agreed to all except one—a book that looked like a book of poetry when Anwar flipped it open to show her, but Amita touched the pages and then said it could not leave the island.
Anwar checked on Gunnar intermittently, even though Gunnar had been fine ever since they had left the bracelet room; and Gunnar let him, because Gunnar was a considerate and patient man.
But finally they were finished, and there was nothing left to do but return to the sleeping room to gather up their things.
Gunnar had not spread his out like Anwar, or used other people's spare bags and clothes to make a nest like Rina; it was habit from his days in the Valsgard to keep his things neat, ready to move quickly, because there was no better way to launch an assault without warning. So he was ready very fast, and ended up sitting beside his pack, elbows on his knees, watching the others work.
It was so good, better than he could ever have expected when they first arrived, just to see them bickering as they usually did. There was no shouting, no glaring—or there was, but it was for show, Nala trying to make Rina feel guilty for using one of Nala's silken sashes to keep her feet warm at night. But for Anwar's still-healing lip and the fading bruises on Tiger's face, it was easy to think nothing had happened at all; except that wasn't fair either. Nala glared, certainly—and then softened, rolled her eyes and elbowed Rina and then smiled where Rina could see her, which Gunnar didn't think she would have done so plainly before. They were being kinder to one another, in their gratitude that they had not done one another any lasting harm, and probably it would not last, but it still made Gunnar's heart warm.
So he was watching, fond, when Sinbad came and leaned over one of his shoulders, and said, low, "I want to talk to you."
Probably it wasn't intentional, Gunnar thought, that he'd used the same words as that night belowdecks—the tone was different, not the awkward loudness of a partly-drunk man. But it made Gunnar go still upon the couch, and Sinbad, too, went still over his shoulder, which meant he was no doubt remembering it also. And perhaps was nervous—as though Gunnar would refuse him anything.
"All right," Gunnar said, equally quietly, and when he rose and went to the door, Sinbad followed.
Gunnar went all the way to the entrance hall, and through the doors to the plaza in front of the library, with Sinbad barely a pace behind—probably, Gunnar thought, it was better to do this outside, in case anyone started shouting. Gunnar hoped not, but he knew better than to plan based on hope.
"Well," Gunnar said, "talk," and Sinbad didn't hesitate.
"You still don't believe it, do you?" Sinbad said. "That you're not the same person you used to be. That you're a good man."
He stopped suddenly, opened his mouth and then closed it again without saying anything else, and that was so strange that Gunnar found himself hesitating, too. "Sinbad," he said at last, "do you really think there's any purpose in arguing about—"
"Yes," Sinbad said. "Of course there is, Gunnar, I can't just—look, Amita said you thought that I helped you, and I hope that's true, but—"
"Of course it's true," Gunnar snapped.
"—but I also hope you know that it's you," Sinbad barrelled on. "Rina told me about the Water Thieves, about how even then you wouldn't fight, to save your pride or your life. You were already—"
"And you told us about your dream in the Land of the Dead," Gunnar said sharply. "Where was I then, hmm? Beating men in the street for money—beating you half-unconscious, when you came to ask me for help—"
"I was a stranger who came up to you out of nowhere talking about things that hadn't happened! I would have hit me," Sinbad said, but he didn't understand—he didn't understand anything, Gunnar thought furiously, and whirled away, stalking along the library wall away from the doors.
It was unkind to turn away from Sinbad when he had asked to talk, when Gunnar had agreed, but in the end it didn't matter: Sinbad followed him anyway, relentless.
"You helped me," Sinbad said. "The real you—you helped me when you didn't even know who I was. You saw me stowing away on the Providence, I know you did, and you didn't say anything. For all you knew I was a murderer—" Sinbad broke off and laughed, bitter. "I was a murderer," he repeated, more quietly, and that was so foolish that Gunnar couldn't let it stand.
"You?" he cried, deliberately vicious, and whirled on Sinbad—turned with force, with speed, with anger, so that in the narrow space between Gunnar and the library wall Sinbad had no choice but to flinch back. "You, a murderer—because you hit some rich man's son too hard, because he fell and cracked his own fool head and did not get up again after?" Gunnar tilted his head back and laughed, and filled his laughter with ugliness. "You don't know what murder is. What Akbari did to your brother—with deliberation, with awareness, with death as his purpose—that was murder. He didn't do it by mistake, or to save his own life, or to save another. He did it because it would hurt you, because he wanted your brother dead on the floor and he had the power to make it so."
"He did it because he was in pain," Sinbad said fiercely. "And that doesn't make it right, but I understand it. I understand it, and I forgave him—"
Gunnar closed his eyes, turned his face away. "I was not in pain, Sinbad," he said, quiet. "I don't even know how many people I have killed. I strangled women and dashed their children against stones, I beat men until their skulls gave in beneath my fingers. There is not enough water in all the seven seas to wash the blood from my hands."
Sinbad was silent for a moment—a miracle, Gunnar thought vaguely—and then he touched Gunnar's wrists: the left, and then the right. He drew them forward, and Gunnar opened his eyes again at last to see that Sinbad was holding them up a little into the light of the sun, looking down at them. "They look clean enough to me," Sinbad murmured.
Gunnar sighed, sharp. Sinbad was not really listening—Sinbad never really listened, and Gunnar supposed he should be grateful for it, because as long as Sinbad refused to understand, he probably wouldn't hate Gunnar half as much as Gunnar deserved. "That's because you don't know what clean hands look like, street urchin that you are," he said aloud.
It came out much too bitter; Sinbad didn't laugh. He hadn't let go of Gunnar's wrists, either. His hands were wrapped around them, warm, and he was looking up at Gunnar with startling seriousness. "I know what dirty hands look like," he said.
"No matter how many people you save," Sinbad said quietly, "you'll always have killed the people you killed."
Gunnar sighed resignedly instead of flinching, because flinching would make Sinbad think he had said something cruel instead of something true. "That's what I've been trying to tell you—"
Sinbad didn't let him finish. "But no matter how many people you killed," Sinbad said, "you'll always have saved the people you've saved. You never seem to remember it that way."
"They don't—undo each other," Gunnar said, after a moment.
"No," Sinbad agreed. "But that doesn't mean they aren't both true." He gazed up at Gunnar intently, and then bit his lip and looked away. "I shouldn't even—I'm not the right person to tell you these things, when I—"
"When you what?" Gunnar said, when Sinbad didn't seem as though he were going to continue.
Sinbad was still for a moment, and then suddenly laughed. "When I—when even after all the things you hate yourself for doing, I—" and then words seemed to abandon him; he straightened instead. At least half the fault after that was surely Gunnar's, because he didn't move away even though the library wall was right at Sinbad's back, but whoever the fault belonged to, suddenly they were standing very close. Sinbad wrapped his hand around the side of Gunnar's throat, thumb against Gunnar's jaw, and, as smoothly as though he had always planned to do it, leaned in close and kissed him.
* * *
Sinbad hadn't expected to be allowed to stay where he was for more than a moment, but Gunnar didn't push him away, didn't shove him backwards into the wall or step away himself, and so Sinbad lingered longer than he'd meant to—not just over Gunnar's mouth, although that was certainly something, but over simply being so very near to him, Gunnar's face in Sinbad's hand, Sinbad's wrist almost touching Gunnar's collarbone, all of Gunnar's warm strength so close and surrounding.
But finally Sinbad remembered himself and broke away, guilty; and Gunnar gazed down at him and still, still, didn't back away.
He was looking at Sinbad soberly, no hint of a smile; but his mouth was red, flushed, and Sinbad had to bite his own lip hard and tell himself very firmly to look Gunnar in the eye instead.
"I told you that you didn't have to do that," Gunnar said, very grave.
Sinbad had already had his mouth half-open, ready instantly to apologize, but at this, he closed it again and stared at Gunnar in surprise. "You did? I don't—I feel like I would remember if you'd ever—and why would I have to, anyway?"
Gunnar still didn't shove him away, didn't say he was going to go find himself a dozen beautiful widows whose houses he could fix; Gunnar—blinked. "Because you—already know," he said, slowly. "You already know how much I—"
"What?" Sinbad said blankly.
Gunnar was looking at him with something in between incredulity and mild pain. "I promised you that I would never leave you," he said, and his face was flushing a little but his voice sounded like he was about to start laughing. "What—what else does that mean?"
"After I practically cried on you about how I didn't know how to make you happy enough so that you wouldn't go—"
Gunnar did laugh, then, covering his face with his hands and chuckling through his fingers.
"What?" Sinbad said again.
"I've decided that we are both idiots," Gunnar said, rubbing his hands across his face and then letting them drop with a sigh. He was still smiling a little bit, though, and the smile made Sinbad bold.
"Idiots who get to do that again?" Sinbad said.
Gunnar grinned at him, putting a hand against the wall just over Sinbad's shoulder; and then the grin dropped away, and his gaze went intent on Sinbad's face in a way that made Sinbad want to look down—but it seemed suddenly important not to, and so Sinbad looked back instead of giving in. "I won't make you say it more than once," Gunnar said, rough and quiet, "but I—I need to know, Sinbad. Do you mean this?"
It was tempting to pretend ignorance, to ask him what he was talking about, but it would have been cruel—cruel, and a lie, because Sinbad knew what he meant. "Yes," he said; it came out tight, faint, and so he cleared his throat and said it again. "Yes. I mean it."
That made Gunnar smile at him again, slow and sweet like pouring honey, and Sinbad's heart began to pound. Gunnar was the one to lean in, this time, and Sinbad made an embarrassing noise against his mouth and didn't even care, because for a moment it felt like the only thing in the world: the wall at his back, Gunnar's weight and warmth pressing him into it, Gunnar's arms, Gunnar's thighs, Gunnar's tongue—
"What are you even—oh, I see, that does look like more fun than packing up."
Sinbad jerked in startlement and nearly cracked his head against the wall—Gunnar's hand got there first, which was the only thing that saved him. It was Rina who had come out of the library to find them, and she'd crossed her arms and was looking at them both amusedly, but Gunnar didn't move away at all.
"It is," Gunnar said, and smiled.
"Mmhmm," Rina said. "Doesn't mean you get out of helping the rest of us. I'll give you the length of the entrance hall, and if you haven't started following me before I get to the stairs, I'm coming back to drag you both in by the hair."
"Got it," Sinbad croaked, and then did his best to hide his burning face behind Gunnar's arm while Rina chuckled and swung the door shut again.
When he looked up again, Gunnar was still smiling; and Gunnar backed away a step at last but kept a hand on the wall, and moved the other one to Sinbad's face. "You're right," he said quietly, "I don't believe it. I don't believe I am a good man yet. But maybe I'll learn to be—because no evil man could deserve such a thing, and I would like to." He looked at Sinbad a moment longer, gaze flicking warmly over Sinbad's face, and then he laughed and took Sinbad by the shoulder. "Come on—before Rina comes back."
"If you insist," Sinbad said, his tone deeply reluctant, and listened to Gunnar laugh again, feeling as though he were surely far too small to contain so much happiness.
It didn't take very much longer for them to finish their work—Rina had made it sound like they needed the help, but honestly the others were nearly done by the time Gunnar and Sinbad had sheepishly followed her back up to the sleeping room.
Rina and Tiger hadn't been idle while Nala and Anwar were binding up the texts they had chosen for the library: there was a pile of glimmering things in the room, treasures that Amita had identified as safe and nonmagical and nothing but treasure. A great number of old coins ended up stowed away in the corners of Gunnar's pack, and then he helped Sinbad tie a set of six silver pitchers to his pack by the handles—they clanked ridiculously when Sinbad moved too quickly, but at least the knots wouldn't give way.
They each had a carefully-tied packet of manuscripts to carry, too, because there was too much for Nala and Anwar to manage by themselves; and then they were ready.
They said goodbye to Amita at the gate to the library plaza. Gunnar hesitated a moment and then lifted the necklace from around his neck, and gave it to her. "You should have it," he said. "If we need to find this place again, you can probably help us; and if there's someone else you think should have this necklace—well." He shrugged. "You are a god now, you can give it to them."
"Thank you," Amita said, taking it—and then she folded both her hands around his, the necklace cool and smooth against the back of his hand. "Thank you for everything." She smiled. "I will give you a kind wind to sail away on."
They walked back down through the layers of gardens: through the lilies so ablaze with color, birds of paradise and jasmine and flowers Gunnar had no words for, all the way down to the cool green shade of the trees. Gunnar had forgotten there was a wall, and that it was the necklace that had let them through—but Amita must have been paying attention, because the stairs were there and so were their boats, floating in place as though they had left them there for only a moment.
Even sweeter than the sight of the boats was the familliar bulk of the Providence in the sea beyond—Cook always seemed to know just when to come for them and where to be, which Gunnar was going to have to ask him about someday.
The row across the water between was easy, and Gunnar would have been glad to do it anyway—never had there been a day where he had felt so much joy in such ordinary tasks, except perhaps the day the Khaima had let him live. He could see the same delight in Nala's face; it was harder to spot in Tiger, but that didn't mean it wasn't there.
When they drew close, they could see that Cook was waiting for them, standing on the main deck with his arms resting on the rail. "Well, it looks like you are all still alive!" he shouted. "It must have gone well."
"We'll tell you all about it," Tiger shouted back, "if you feed us," and above them Cook laughed and clapped his hands together.
"I think that is a bargain I would be happy to honor!" he said, and then leaned over the side and lowered the ship's ladder.
* * *
The wind was kind to them, blowing strongly north and west as the sun began to drop low; and maybe it was just the weather, but Sinbad liked to think that it was Amita, wishing them well just as she'd promised to do.
Cook was generous: he had made them maqluba at last, which must have taken him hours to prepare but was very much worth it. Sinbad sat by Gunnar without hesitation, their thighs pressed together from hip to knee all evening, and shamelessly stole murri from Gunnar's bowl when all of Sinbad's was gone.
In between extremely generous bites, they told Cook the story of the island by turns—and it was possible they spent more time on the wonders of the library and on Kuji than on the way they had screamed at each other over a magic bracelet, but those were the best parts of the tale anyway. It was easier to think about, Sinbad found, now that it was over—now that it was over and they had perhaps managed to become stronger for it, to appreciate each other better than they had before.
When they ran out of story, the sun had been long since swallowed by the sea, and the stars had come out; they were quiet for a time, finishing off the last of their maqluba—and too full, Sinbad thought, to keep talking.
He scraped his bowl clean and then set it on the deck beside him with a sigh, and lay back. Gunnar had finished his first, and now he copied Sinbad without shame; they pressed their arms together, too, and Sinbad looked up at the sky instead of at Gunnar because it would probably be a bad idea to start kissing him with murri still briny on Sinbad's tongue.
How easy it would have been—how terrifyingly easy!—for Sinbad never to have this again: this ship, this peace, with his belly full and his crew, his friends all around him, and Gunnar stretched out contentedly beside him. And yet he didn't feel that fear creeping up on him now, as he so often had. If anything had been meant to tear them apart, this had been it, with the things they had said and done to each other, the things they would have done to each other if not for Amita—but here they were, together still, and if some kind of magical cursed demon bracelet couldn't break them apart, then what could? They were here and together and had chosen to be—they had chosen each other, in their own ways, one at a time, without Sinbad even realizing it was happening. And Nala was right, of course, that nothing lasted forever—but that didn't mean they couldn't make it last a good long time.
It was possible Sinbad drifted off to sleep—if he did, the drifting was so gentle that he could not tell the difference between the stars and the backs of his eyelids, and it was only when Nala spoke that he realized his eyes had shut at all.
"When we get back to Basra," she said, "I hope you'll stay for a little while."
"Well, of course," Rina said, yawning after, and then: "We'll have to find someone to sell our sorcerous library trinkets to, after all."
"Mmhmm," Nala said. "I meant that there are other things the city could use a good ship for—"
"The city," Sinbad said, "or the university?"
"Both," Nala said, and Sinbad hadn't moved his head from where it lay and couldn't see her, but he knew from her tone that she was smiling. "Although, as it happens, there could very well be another job ready for you, when you've sold off all your—sorcerous library trinkets. The university has hired new professors; many of them are traveling from some distance away, and could use quicker transport than a camel—"
A groan rose from six throats almost simultaneously—Gunnar's extremely heartfelt, though he could not quite match Anwar. "No," Rina said. "No more professors!"
"... What?" Nala said. "Why not?"
Sinbad couldn't help it: he started to laugh, deep, from the belly.
"We'll tell you tomorrow," Gunnar said over it, patting Sinbad kindly on the shoulder; and if this was the journey Sinbad would be taking—the sea, the Providence, the stars, and these people around him for all the time he was allowed to have with them—then he hoped it would be a very, very long one.