Listen closely, child, and I will tell you the story of the girl who learned all the world's secrets.
There was once a girl - about your size, child, though very much your elder - who was born special. Her mind was quick as the wind and her body quicker, and she loved everything under the sun. Her parents and brother adored her, and would do anything to make her happy. As everything made her happy this was easily done, and for a time they lived in peace.
But then came The Men. Don't shake so, child, The Men are gone now, they can't find you. But they did find the girl, and saw how special she was, and they wanted her for themselves.
Come, they said to the girl, come with us and we will teach you more than you've ever dreamed of.
And this sounded good to the girl, for she was always learning and wanting to be taught. So she said to her parents, and she said to her brother, please, I want to learn. Let me go with them.
And her parents and her brother saw that she wanted this, that it would make her happy, and so they allowed it. And away she went.
Oh, but I can see you've heard of The Men before. Haven't you, child? I can tell by the way you shake and cry, listening to me. You know they did not teach her things she wanted to know. And you are right about that, child. While they spoke true, and taught her more than she'd dreamed of, this was because they taught her things out of nightmares.
They turned her into a weapon, made the dancing she'd loved into kicks and punches, carved open her brain until it was open and raw, and all the world's secrets poured in.
But how does knowing secrets make you a weapon, you ask? Well, child, knowing something other people want no one to know may not be a weapon to strike them with, but it is something you can hurt them with. And so The Men planned to hurt the girl.
But the girl was clever.
She realized, during the training and the teaching, before they ripped open her brain, that something was Not Right here. But she was small and thin, and she knew she could not escape on her own, so she called for help. In the letters she sent home, she left a secret message. It said, come get me.
It said, they're hurting us.
And while her parents could not understand the message, the girl's brother had a mind near as quick as hers, and knew to come for her.
And so, before The Men could use the girl to hurt others, her brother came into their School and rescued his sister, and together they ran.
They ran out of the School, but The Men could still find them in the town. So they ran out of the town, but The Men could still find them in the forest. So they ran out of the forest, but The Men could still find them by the river. So they ran over the river, but The Men could still find them at the beach.
But they could not run any more, for all that was behind them was the river and the forest, and all that was beside them was the beach, and all that was before them was the ocean, and they could not cross it.
Wait, the girl said, reaching into her poor, hurting brain and pulling out a secret. I know how we can cross the ocean.
How, asked her brother.
We must go to the port, and find the firefly waiting there.
A firefly? Her brother laughed. Sister, he said, a firefly is very small. It cannot cross the ocean by itself! It certainly cannot carry us.
Nevertheless, we must go to the port. And quickly, or they will be able to find us again.
Very well, sister, her brother said, and they went to the port. As he had said, there were no fireflies there, only boats. And a great many boats their were, of all sizes and shapes. The girl's brother looked at them and hardly knew which one to pick.
The girl knew. Her torn open mind could hear the boats' secrets, and as they passed each one she told her brother their truths.
Not this one, she said of a tall, handsome craft. The captain is greedy and will give us back to The Men.
Not this one, she said of a small, discreet ship. The boat needs repairs, and will sink if the captain does not give us back to The Men.
Not this one, she said of a respectful military vessel. They do not know it, but they serve The Men, and will be ordered to give us back.
This one, she said of a worn, outdated boat. This is the firefly I saw.
This is a boat, sister, her brother said. Not a firefly.
Actually, said the beautiful young woman sitting in front of the craft, this is a firefly. The ship-maker names each of his crafts after a thing of nature. This one was named after the firefly.
The girl's brother took one look at the woman and was struck dumb by love. Rendered speechless, he could only nod and stare.
Forgive my brother, the girl said. He is at times a fool.
Are not all men, the woman said, laughing. The girl's brother fell even deeper in love at the sound, and the girl knew his feelings, hearing those things he kept secret as clearly as any spoken word.
But I can see this part of the story does not interest you. Fear not, child, we can return to this part of the story at a later date, when thoughts of love may at last garner your interest.
For now, let it be enough to say that the girl and her brother purchased passage on the ship - the firefly - with the last of their money. They then met with the rest of the crew.
Two were husband and wife, the ship's navigator and the first mate, former soldiers both. Another who boarded at the same port was a priest, or so he said. A large man with little to say was introduced as a Jack of all trades - to the girl's ears, a mercenary. A beautiful woman with silk gowns and ropes of pearls was introduced as a lady of vague royal connections - again, heard by the girl to be a night-lady. And last, the captain, was a war-tired man who hated the military and the government, and thus, unknowingly, The Men, and was why the girl had chosen this ship out of all those in port.
They left port, and in those early days on the water the girl went quite mad with so many secrets so near to her all at once. Her brother, who had trained as a healer, did his best to ease her aching head, but nothing he did could ever truly help. There was only one way to relieve the pain of holding the world's secrets, and the girl had not found it yet.
Oh, don't fret child - she will, and soon. Don't you worry.
The ship went from port to port, exchanging goods for money and money for goods, but still at every port there was the presence of The Men. They were not safe yet.
We must cross the ocean, she insisted.
Cross the ocean? the navigator asked. It's not possible. Monsters are found in the deepest part of the ocean - we would not survive the trip!
But we must, she said, near tears. It's the only way to escape them.
Escape what, he wondered, the monsters?
Yes, she cried, but not the monsters you speak of. These are worse monsters, for they take a human form.
At first the passengers and crew thought her madder than usual, but so upset was she that her brother was compelled to tell them the truth about The Men and the cause of the girl's pain. The others on the firefly were moved and concerned - if The Men were so powerful, so numerous, could they really be safe anywhere?
Would it not be easier, some wondered, if the girl and her brother were released from the ship? For two could travel more discretely than nine, if less protected.
Would it not be safer, some wondered, if the girl left the ship and the attention of The Men left with her? For The Men were cruel, and would kill the crew of the firefly if they came between The Men and the girl.
It might be easier, and it might be safer, the captain thought, but it would not be just, and for that reason he would not allow it. If the girl needed to go across the ocean to be safe, then so be it.
And so they prepared for the voyage. The crew reaffirmed their vows of loyalty. The passengers insisted so firmly on remaining aboard that they became crew in all but name. Supplies were stocked and stored, and a route was planned.
The navigator was unfamiliar with these far-off waters, so the girl pulled another secret out of her head and pointed him towards the best, safest harbors along the way to those distant waters. She could not know if the route she charted was safe - even to her, the ocean's vagarities and casual cruelties were mysterious - but she hoped it would be.
And know this, child: hope can matter just as much as knowledge, to the right person.
The voyage was neither easy nor safe: harsh winds and rains battered the tiny firefly, pirates attacked more than once, and on one terrifying morning the girl awoke to see a ship flying the colors of The Men approaching from the north. She escaped into the ship using some of the first secrets she had sought out for herself, and despite a thorough search of the ship The Men did not find her that day.
This was a turning point for the girl: she had secrets of her own now, ones The Men had not given her, and ones she had used against them. She was learning how to use secrets for herself - to know them without being hurt by them.
This soothed her pain, but it did not relieve it in full. That, she was certain, waited for them on the other side of the ocean.
But long before they could reach that distant place, a terrible storm struck while they were miles from land and any refuge they could seek. The firefly was battered, beaten, and half-drowned before the storm cleared, and when it did they faced two horrors and one small piece of hope: a fleet of military ships from the north, a fleet of pirate ships from the south, and a tiny little island in the east.
They raced with all urgency towards the island, though the winds and waters were against them and enemies grew ever closer on both sides. The island might be small, the crew thought, but with the numbers they faced it seemed they would have better odds escaping on the island than on their storm-wounded ship. The captain worried, for he loved the firefly so, but when the girl offered up no way he could save both, the crew put their plan into place.
The girl did not notice. She had not noticed anything, not the military or the pirates or The Men manipulating them both - not since she first saw the island. She knew of the island, and yet had not known of it when she planned their course. The island's existence was a secret, one that still hurt the girl if she tried to think of it.
But there it was before her. It could not be denied, sitting there under her feet as it did.
It was then, with her toes buried in this sand that should not be, that the girl realized what would truly relieve her pain. And so she fell to her knees and whispered to the sand. She whispered to the shells and she whispered to the trees, to the grasses and nuts and birds and bugs. She whispered in the ear of that entire island, and what she whispered were her secrets.
For that is how you relieve the pain of a secret, child: you share it.
And so she shared all her secrets with the island, which took them all in and held them close and tight until the island shook and trembled, and the secrets burst forth in a song everyone and no one could hear and understand. The pirates and military stopped in their attack. The crew slowed their step. The girl's brother paused in his search for her, listening to the island reveal the world's secrets and almost understanding what it sang.
The island's song echoed across the ocean, to that far, distant place the girl had thought she must go, and to the shore they had escaped, and everywhere it was heard, the secrets were collected, and held close, and then sung again, to be spread ever further. And as the secrets were spread further, even the most painful ones lost their hold on the girl, and she could stand taller, stronger, brighter.
For the girl who knew all the world's secrets, in a world that had no more secrets, was - hm?
What's that, child? Oh, now you are interested in stories of love? Well, here at the end of our tale we've skipped over the most of it, not that much changed from beginning to end! But I suppose it will please you to learn that once the world had no more secrets, the girl's brother could not keep his love from the woman, who had never kept her love secret from him. Theirs was not an easy love, but it was a true one, and the girl was pleased to see her brother happy.
For his part, he was happy to be happy, but also to see his sister happy as she had not been in years. The School, and The Men who ran it, could no longer touch her or anyone else, and she was at peace.
For the girl who knew all the world's secrets, in a world that had no more secrets, was a girl who knew nothing and everything, and none of it could hurt her.