With a slosh, a head broke the surface of the pool. It went under again.
Deeba began to run.
None of the pools in the garden looked deep enough to swim in. There were pools everywhere, bright and flat ones. They came with pillars around them, or giant creamy trumpet flowers, or nubbins of carved sandy stone. They looked like they belonged in a park, only she was sure no one here would toss a shilling in the water.
The pools were long and round and square. Water ran between them down stone channels no more than a hand wide but longer than she could see, and everywhere she walked she could hear running water. The pools filled courtyards and hid behind massive trees with the mottled bark peeling off.
She had come out from two long rows of trees with sandy soil between them and long trailers of green leaves. Paths crossed a lawn bigger than Green Park. The paths all led to a round pool wider than the rest.
Here, finally, people were walking on the paths — not one or two in the distance but groups of them talking to each other. They wore scarves shining with script and as bright as the rose tangles that grew everywhere, storeys tall, snaring walls and trees and dropping petals thick enough to coat the grass.
Deeba had stopped to pull her hair out of the thorns and knock the petals off a red rose bigger than a shower head and just starting to darken.
And then the head flooshed up out of the water as though someone had kicked off from the bottom of the pool, of a pool she knew even from here couldn't be that deep.
And no one went toward it. Everyone looked at the water. The conversations stopped. Then they restarted louder. She didn't know the words, but the tone was a park keeper's telling picnickers to get off the grass. No, it was fiercer.
She ploughed between them and skidded to her knees at the edge of the pool.
The top of the water lapped level with the stone that held it, and the stone threw the dusty light around like yellow quartz.
The voices were aimed at her now, and the boy in the pool was floating on his face with his arms hanging down. His hands touched the stone floor of the pool, and he wasn't moving.
"Can't you do nothing! He's hurt!" She yelled back at them. They wouldn't understand her words any more than she understood theirs, but they might understand the tone.
She had one arm under his head, holding his mouth and nose clear of the water and against her shoulder, but he was too heavy. With the water taking his weight she could slide his head onto the stone, but that was all.
Some of the crowd hurried away down a path, probably to find a bobby or a gardener who could chase her off.
She would have to slide into the water to reach him. She was so hot she was glad of the chance. She hadn't quite liked to splash in the pools here as she would have at home. The stone beat heat at her, and the sharp voices came nearer.
"Give a hand here," she called, but the man closest to her made come-away gestures and shouted.
When she touched the water he shouted again, and she thought he'd haul her out by the hair. The voices sounded almost frightened, as though she'd just peed on a park bench.
She shouted "Quorum!"
She must be breaking some rule, and what if they did grab her? She only had three days. The women in the Roguesday market had said — three days until she was stuck here, if there was still a here to be stuck in.
She whistled between her teeth.
The creature who came bowling toward her over the lawn looked like a cross between a newfoundland dog and a black bear and stood as tall as a soft-pawed draft horse.
She was standing in the pool now, trainers and all, and the water came up to her mid-thigh. She knelt in the water and shoved a shoulder under the boy, bracing to keep his head clear. More of him was in than out, and he wanted to slide backward.
Quorum cleared a brick wall with pear trees flattened against it. He had wanted to stay in the trees, and she hadn't argued, because if she was going to stir up any trouble she wanted to be sure it was worth it. Should've known, she thought.
Between them, they got the boy out in the end. Quorum wouldn't come into the pool, and the boy wore only a pair of red drawstring pajama pants, nothing Quorum would grab onto. But the crowd kept away from Quorum, and he kept the boy from sliding back while she got hold of the boy's ankles and half turned, half rolled and half shoved him onto the broad, warm ring of stone around the water.
Then — she wasn't really sure about this bit, but the boy was still out cold and she couldn't think what else to do — she leaned on him below the rib cage and tried to wring the water out of him. He was lean and spare; when he was awake, she thought, he was probably never still.
She felt sweat running between her shoulders.
The voices around her were taut and distressed. She didn't think even Quorum would keep them back, except they were not sure what to do with her. Maybe they were waiting for their panjandrum.
The boy dripped on the stone, and she traced the swirl of letters carved into it with her fingers and felt the sun heavy on her back, drying her cut-offs and tank top.
"How we going to get him out of here?" she asked Quorum. "He's a foot taller than me."
He looked about her age too, with a few days' stubble of young beard. He had long hands and feet, and he wore a leather pouch on a leather thong around his neck.
But but but, said a voice, no problem!
She swung around, but no one was close enough to talk to her, and running steps and raised voices scuffled down a path from the wood with the straight rows of trees.
In the bag! said the voice. Sorted, settled, caput! Transportation any station! Where do you want to go?
"You sound like Obaday," she muttered to no one, "and I don't think I can go anywhere. There's troops on the way."
Some of the crowd that had run earlier, or she guessed it was them, were hurrying up the path with their robes whipping around their calves and pointing as they came. With them came a tall, quiet man they must have gone to get. He wore a deep orange sleeveless robe, but he wore it like a pair of coveralls, and he was carrying a long pole over his shoulder. A long pole with a topknot of thick strands. She realized with something between relief and anger that he was carrying a mop.
She reared up on her knees with her hands at her hips. "Have to wash us out, innit?" she said, deliberately loud. "What, we touch the water and they got to scrub us away?"
They are saying you went into the place where morning lies, said the voice from nowhere.
"You know what they're saying? You speak Encordoban?"
But but but certainly, the voice sang in her head. All translations that matter, and all matter that translates! I always travel in cognato! They are speaking medieval Arabic and Spanish with a gilding of Sephardic Hebrew. No problem!
"So what's the big deal?
I think, said the voice, the big deal is the water.
"Well, yeah, whoever built this place was thirsty," she said.
The pool glowed in this light, and she and Quorum had splashed water across half the rim, but she could see wear in the carving on the far side and even hairline cracks in some of the script under her fingers.
The man with the mop spoke for the first time, and his quiet order stopped the conversation and the group walking around him. They milled on the path just beyond the round walk that ringed the pool. Quorum breathed down her neck, and the man came up beside them.
"No one touches him," she said, still loudly, keeping between the boy and everyone else.
The man smiled at her, an admiring smile the people behind him could not see, and he said three words.
Do not fear, said the voice in her head.
The man said something else in the same who-are-you tone she had used, and she wondered if he could hear the translator-voice too. Then he lowered his mop into the water. As the head touched the surface and the water drew out the strands, she saw that instead of string it was made of cloth, and each cloth strand glittered with the same script on most of the robes. All but his; his was all one deep orange, and she saw only now that the words were not painted on, like Obaday's book jumpers, but they were there. They were woven into the cloth.
He is a gardener, said the voice. His name is Abd al-Rahman. Her name is Deeba Resham. She is a friend. My name is Butt the Hoopoe. His name is Haroun Khalifa.
"Why did you —" Deeba looked around. Behind her, the boy had his eyes open. He had woken up and kept completely still, which under the circumstances seemed like a good idea, but one that needed quicker reactions than most people. Who woke up with Quorum pawing them and a magic mop next to their ear and thought right, better not move until I know what the hell's going on? She wondered how many odd places he'd woken in before.
The gardener walked slowly around the lip of the pool, swirling his glittering mop in the water.
The boy, Haroun, said in an undertone, "He's writing with it."
His voice made the men at the edge of the crowd jerk; one made to move forward and another caught his arm. Deeba thought of a pub crowd when a bloke had had too much and one of his mates walked him out.
Abd al-Rahman kept on with his precise movements. She half turned to watch, and they stayed still together, her knees against Haroun's shoulder, while Abd al-Rahman finished his circuit and the gold thread on the mop strands fizzed through the golden water. She could feel Haroun forcing himself to lie still.
The people around them had gone quiet, and Deeba saw one woman not much older than she was scrubbing her hands together, pressing them together as if she was praying, with a corner of her shawl twisted tight in them. A man rocked backward and forward with his eyes closed. Whatever they were scared of, they were all scared of it.
Maybe that have something to be that scared of, she thought. After all, their abcity is dying.
No one spoke until Abd al-Rahman completed his ring. He returned the mop to his shoulder in a deft twist that furled the mop head around the handle, and he beckoned to them. Haroun gave Deeba a hand up, and Quorum dropped to his knees to let them climb on.
The people in the crowd turned to each other, muttering in brittle groups, and Quorum paced though them on the path. He carried Haroun and Deeba over the long lawn, away from the wood, with no cover higher than another wall of scraped-flat miniature fruit trees, and they sat up straight with all those eyes behind them.
When he had turned several corners, with the gardener striding ahead, Haroun leaned his head down to hers and said "Thank you. I've been thinking thank you at you all this time, but I didn't want to get us into more trouble. I think you must have taken some risk for me, more than just hauling me out of the water which is more than enough, and I'm afraid I don't even know where I am."
It isn't easy to look someone in the face when he's sitting behind you on a creature that smells like a wet bear, but she tried it. He had his arms around her to stay on, and the ends of her half-undone ponytale were dripping down his chest. He had a mobile, humorous face; his drying hair was thick and unruly, and his expression was serious, but she thought he was ready to laugh at any minute. Not because he's making fun, she thought. Because it's all so marvelous. He looks like he sees what he's looking at.
And somewhere quieter within her said He said thank you. None of them said thank you, not none of them back there, and it's because of me there's a there there. Maybe they meant it, but none of 'em said it. At least there's someone else saying 'us' this time.
"I don't know what they're on about," she said. "All I know, this is Encordoba. You know Cordóba? Spain? You're in its abcity. Only it may not be here much longer, 'cause the city that made it isn't there anymore, not really."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know what you mean."
And she knew that look, the compass-is-spinning-out-of-control look she'd worn when she landed feet-first in an abcity street the first time. Her shoulders slumped.
"I thought — when you didn't panic right off, I thought you knew the abcities."
She tried to explain how they formed, how things slipped through the cracks in the press of a city and then slipped back again, people and buses and telegraph keys. In Toledon't, on the way here, she had seen the towering wooden scaffolding of an irrigation system that brought water from the river up 300 feet of cliff to the town, with water wheels and cisterns.
"See, here, there was a city — 1100 years ago they had baths and street lights and tooth paste. It was Islamic Spain then, and people went to Baghdad and they had libraries and factories and a port and markets. But it fell apart. Got sacked and burned. And the abcity's been getting smaller for 900 years, but it's still been here.
"And then there were all these new people in UnLondon, and some of them were hurt bad, and Obaday's trying to sew them up — and they said it's going. They're running away 'cause the whole place is going to be gone. And I said couldn't they do anything, and I'm here, but I don't know what's going on."
"Well, it looks like we're about to meet a chorus of giant frogs," he said, and it was true: Around the green-shaded pool opening out of a green tangle in front of them sat a blinking ring of frogs. They were as large as the stone lions that stare boredly in front of national buildings, but they were as green as parakeets, a green she'd never thought any real frog could be, and their temples were marked with gaudy disks of red and yellow.
She felt him shiver with laughter.
"I do like this place," he said. "They look so solemn, and it's all so impossible," and then he tightened his arm and bent his head over hers. "And what you say sounds awfully familiar."
She could still feel the laughter in him, and she began to shake too.
"Can you imagine what they eat? The beetles here must be big as iguanas."
The gardener stopped beside the pool next to a wheelbarrow made out of spliced rubber — it looked like strips of retired tires — and a coffee canister that he had made holes in for a makeshift watering can. He must have been here when he was called away to mop up the invaders. He helped them down, and Quorum lowered his head between frogs for a drink of water.
Somehow without words they were all sitting on the muddy bank with their feet in the water. This water must just be water, Deeba thought.
It is water for putting your feet in, said the voice from nowhere.
"Butt the Hoopoe?" she jolted and looked around her again. "Must be the damn tiniest Hoopoe ever."
Haroun took off the leather pouch he had around his neck and wrestled it open; the water had swelled the leather tying it closed. He took out of it a bird the color of tangerines that fluttered damply in his fingers.
"You're sure the water hasn't damaged you?" he said, holding it up to eye level.
"Won't it dry off?" Deeba said, peering at it through his fingers.
"It's a machine," he said, "and that's part of why we came here. The 2C2Es are running out of power. Gup City is starting to recall all the birds because they don't have enough oomph to keep them all going. I was afraid he would one day just stop, phut, run out of gas, and I wouldn't be able to get back."
He sighed and said to it, "okay, I need your help." Then he turned to Abd al-Rahman and spoke quietly, looking him in the face.
"Sir, I seem to have caused you some trouble. I felt when I woke up the distress of all those people, and I am still feeling it. It is as though I defiled something. It is not like breaking a law — they wanted me out of existence. I have only felt anything like it when the Guppees saw the poison in the sea of stories. The water went dark, and it was wrong, do you understand? My skin crawled, and I wanted the creeping dark oil obliterated, never-to-have-been, nada. It is worse now, to feel as though I have been that for someone else. Will you tell me what I have done and how I may put it right?"
The gardener put a hand on his shoulder. He answered, and with Butt translating they got on all right.
He said, "they thought you had jumped in, you see. I know you came through, for they told me what they saw, even when they did not know what they saw. For one of them to leap into the morning pool and knock himself out on the stone, that would be panic, it would be a shirking of all duty, it would be —" he looked for a word and returned Haroun's, "defilement. Yes."
Butt, listening to his thoughts, chanted, It would be like smashing a statue after the eyes are painted — but you would have to believe in the gods behind the eyes, as surely as you believe you will be thirsty in this hot sun.
Abd al-Rahman said, "For the morning pool is all we know that connects us with our adcity. The other doors have closed one by one. And you see, the pool is drying up."
He looked somberly at his mop, propped gently against a swag of vines.
"This morning at sunrise, when I spoke the morning words to it, the water barely covered the mop. That is how I know, you see, that you came through. Because you brought the water with you."
But but but, the Hoopoe broke in, we came from the source.
"We came from Kahani," Haroun said. "Something is changing the story sea. Oh, you should see it — so many colors I can't name them all, and the mist on the water like a lake at sunrise." He was talking to Deeba now. "Did you know songbirds can see in five primary colors, when we see only in three? I have often thought that what I see in the sea of stories, a song bird must see in clear water, and I think that must be why Kahani has so many birds. But now."
His voice had run on before him, and he stopped to catch it. He's really sad, Deeba thought. And she thought of the wind in her hair, and the darkened UnLondon I, and the broken factory floor where she had stood alone when everything was over and the ring of sun set over the city, and the fires still burned, but the air felt suddenly clean and cold. She moved closer to him on the soft lip of the bank. Around them the frogs sat in the shallows, blinking their great eyes and making low sounds like the twanging of huge rubber bands.
"But now," Haroun said, "the colors are changing. Fewer. Dimmer. The Chupwalas thought the poison would all wash away, and maybe they were wrong, and maybe no. But the currents in the sea of stories turn the wheels that power P2C2E house, and they are slowing down, and I thought something had to be done. Like you. So we went to the source of the story sea. I'd found it once before. And we swam through it."
"Ok," Deeba said, "so what do we do? Your source led you here. And we got three days til here isn't anywhere any more." She caught at Abd al-Rahman's hand. "How can an abcity just not be?"
"I don't know." He ran his hand into the warm earth of the bank and let it run through his fingers. "Not much has come through now for years, decades. That's why so much of the garden and the so many of the buildings are worn and dusty and cracked. We get seeds and blown paper and that. But Córdoba's a small town now, too small to lose things in. You need a critical mass to compress enough to cross from the city to here. We've gone on little by little, and we must have lost ground a grain at a time, never noticing we were losing it. The thinning began months ago, but maybe it began years ago and we never saw, until now when it is almost done, and the tremors are getting worse. I don't know whether the tide can be turned now."
"It's your abcity!" She pounded the earth. "You should want to know! What's more important that doing something about it? You'll lose everything!"
The ache in his face, as he sat with his feet in the water and one hand in Quorum's ruff, with his tools by him and the afternoon sun heating crushed leaves into fragrance around them, squeezed in her chest. She thought of her mother and father and Hass. She thought of Abd al-Rahman kneeling in a seed bed with his robe kilted up or tying back the colossal roses, stopping to rub sweat out of his eyes, taking a drink from the nearest pool. She thought of all her favorite places, like the kebab stand where she and Zann jousted with skewers, and what it would mean if they were all gone.
Fighting for someone else's place wasn't the same thing.
"We got to get you reconnected," she said. "Maybe we can find you a new city. What about yours?" She drew up her muddy feet, stretching tall to look the Hoopoe in his ironical eye. "If we could get you back — if we find you a door —"
"If we turn the tide —" Haroun sat up straighter, and his eyes danced.
"You said it's the source of stories. That's what goes through the other way. You need a story to get you back."
He pulled her to her feet and said "Where do we start?" halfway to Quorum already.
"Well, din't the travelers say they got libraries here?" She stuck her feet into her wet trainers. Let's go look!"
Abd al-Rahman led them. Quorum walked them up narrow streets cobbled with thick shards from crockery pots. Some of them still showed traces of blue glaze. The buildings here were one or two-story apartments made of crumbling bricks that smelt of orange peel, and she saw what thinning meant. The walls in some places looked rubbed like old paper, and some had crumpled. At every corner they found lamp posts welded from the heads of tools. Some of them had bent and twisted and gone out. The glass shielding the lanterns was a fused mosaic of melted bottles, and the whole ones glowed like kaleidoscopes.
They passed open doors one after another and signs of hasty flight. In one house green and yellow parrots flocked around a table, and they smelled rotting fruit. But not every door stood open. Those people in the park are the ones who stayed, Deeba thought. They're the ones who won't give up fighting.
"To know about stories, you want a scribe," Abd al-Rahman said, and he led them out into a courtyard filled with market stalls. On the east side, long lines of orange trees led to a vast building constructed all of arches. The columns of the trees mirrored its columns of alabaster, and the afternoon sun streamed in to meet flickering flame in hanging lamps that looked beaten and shaped out of copper pans.
Deeba thought most of the people who had stayed must be collected here. Most of the booths were selling food or plants or things remade from other things. It was a much larger market than the Rogues Day square, and on a good day she thought people would have been sitting in the sun, eating sweet things and arguing in a friendly way. People were hurrying now, clamoring, probably trying to buy or sell last things before they fled — to lay in supplies or empty their stalls. And everywhere their red and blue and gold and parrot-green scarves and robes blazed in the afternoon heat, as many colors as must be in Haroun's story sea.
Abd al-Rahman called out "Dinah!" and brought them to a booth near the orange trees, where a tall woman sat over a bolt of crimson cloth. She wore her hair long, in braids intricately looped and bound with colored thread, and she was writing on the cloth. Deeba saw that she was creating the script that looped and flowed on everyone's shoulders. It was the first thing that had caught Deeba's attention among the people who had fled from here, when she was hanging with Obaday and they came up to his tent to ask for repairs. The colors of the cloth were beautiful, but the letters seemed to move as the people moved, and she was sure they meant something important.
Dinah was writing, she saw, with the tip of one of her own braids. When she wanted a new color she chose a new braid, and the color simply came.
"It will be finished today, love," she said. The way she looked at Abd al-Rahman, Deeba knew they were a team.
"I need a new story," he said. "Or an old story. Or an old story made new."
He talked and she listened, while she wrote the last lines of script around the top of the cloth and Deeba and Haroun sat on Quorum's back and failed to look inconspicuous.
She stood and looked thoughtfully up at them.
"That library sure got currents in it," she said. "Enough to float a sea, I tell you, all the books that seeped here when the city burned. But it's not just one book you want, no. You want the whole body of books." She seemed to think something over, and she and Abd al-Rahman looked at each other in a way that said they were sharing a decision.
"You got anything to carry it in?" she said.
Haroun reached into his leather pouch and took out of it a crystal vial with a golden cap.
"It won't hold a bookcase," he said.
"It won't hold 400,000 volumes, which is what we got," she said, "but it'll hold a seed."
Then she dripped into it one drop of each color from each of her braids. The colors swirled and sparkled in the crystal. When she stoppered the bottle and returned it, the colors about covered the bottom.
"Now," she said, "all you need's a substrate for it to act on."
The sun began to sink in the west, and Deeba and Haroun eyed the food stalls. Neither of them had eaten since the early morning, and the crocks of olives and scents of spices and hot chickpeas and honey made them aware of it. Abd al-Rahman helped them to buy dates and soft cheese at a market stall, and they ate together and talked about everyday tremorless things.
When the call to prayer sounded, they went together barefoot into the building made of arches. The pillars glowed like amber and tourmaline. People around them unrolled rugs with the same script on them, catching the light of the lamps. Prayers, Deeba thought. The columns of lamps stretched on and on into the shadows.
She knelt with Dinah, and the sunset through the arches and the lamplight touched foreheads around her, and as people spoke their quiet thoughts in silhouette, holding their fears to them with the glowing sky behind them, she felt a possessive ache. She could not see to the end of the people around her, but she could see how carefully they had prepared to come here — she could see it in the damp hair on their necks from washing and in their concentration.
All of them here together thinking about all that's going wrong, or right, she thought. If someone tried to break this, I would be angry all right.
And somehow it's good to sit here and know that for an hour, this is what I have to do, just be here as hard as I can.
The paint had dried on Dinah's cloth when they returned to her shawl. Abd al-Rahman touched a letter softly to check.
"It is her story and mine," he told them. "It is for our betrothal. We all wear our lives here. It may be someone you love, or someone you miss, or just something you happen to have seen on the morning you bought the coat."
"I'm from a source too," Dinah said. "I was born in Abyssinia." She touched the copper and gold lettering on the hem. "My father is here, Amram, and our river, and the night when I was taken. There were slaves in the city then. And there were many doors to the abcity. I will never forget the night I came through."
Deeba smiled at them holding hands, but she felt sad and dusty and sore as the dusk came on. The sky was darkening faster than dusk should, and she felt a rumbling like a dog's inaudible growling. It wasn't thunder. It came from the ground, as though giants were moving furniture on the floor below.
She felt a hand on her hair. Haroun said beside her, "sir, can you tell us about the morning pool? Your place where morning lies. It seems we must get through before it drains away."
"I can tell you one thing," Abd al-Rahman said. "At only one time in the day can you not see the floor of the pool, and that is at dawn, when the light lies on the water. In our stories, that is when people most often have gone through."
"I came another way," Dinah said, shivering in the warm air. "It was on roof, and I have never seen stars shine like they shone then, when I knew I was in a new place."
Deeba frowned at them both standing together over the crimson folds.
"You both," she said, suddenly fierce, "take Quorum."
As they started to protest, she rode over them. "You got to get out of here. We'll try what we've got, but we don't know it'll do anything." She waved at the people streaming from the mosque to cross the square. "Look, they'll listen to you. They all got to get out of here, just — just in case. Get to my abcity. There's a shuttle from Madriddance or Granada. Find Jones and Rosa, they've got a bus, only go, please. Before you get hurt. Something's going wrong already."
They looked at each other, and Quorum, who had been browsing among the fallen oranges under the trees, emerged to stand behind Dinah.
"See?" Deeba pointed, and the ground trembled. "He agrees with me, and he got the vote."
Abd al-Rahman and Dinah gripped each other's hands harder, and then Dinah lifted the crimson cloth and whirled it around Deeba's shoulders.
"Don't you say you can't," she said. "I can rewrite it. Story I know best." She drew Deeba into her arms, and Abd al-Rahman thumped Haroun on the back and then embraced him too, and the ground lurched, and they were pushed away gently. Deeba felt Dinah's kiss on her forehead as Haroun grabbed her wrist and the ground tried to tip them into a hand cart that rolled crazily down the square. Stalls were flapping and shuddering, and jars crashed down leaving sticky trails.
Deeba and Haroun dashed together down a side street and down another. Pottery cobbles crunched in the quivering ground like snail shells, and they ran, looking for the garden wall. The ground heaved like a wave, and their knees bled when they fell. A wall crumpled like sand and they skidded away into a crossroads, dodging chips of brick, blind with grit, shielding their heads with their arms. Haroun was pulling at the bag with a bleeding arm and shouting —
"Butt, can you carry us? Got enough gas?"
The Hoopoe cried out, va va voom! Haroun flipped him into the air, and there he was, suddenly almost too large to fit between the houses.
"I kept him small to save his battery," Haroun yelled to her over the smashing of bricks. "Quick!"
And they were in the air, flinging up and past the quaking buildings, before she could do more than gasp in terror and delight.
They found the frog pool by the voices of the disconsolate frogs. The water had sloshed and decanted out of their pool as the ground shook until they had little left but mud, and they hopped in and out of the basin, croaking.
The ground still shook, and the vines and fan-like leaves rattled as though they were in a high wind, but nothing heavy was left to fall on them. The sapling tree Abd al-Rahman had leaned his mop against had already toppled. Deeba rescued the mop from the muddy channels the roots had carved.
Haroun anxiously begged Butt to reserve his strength and tucked the once-again-tiny hoopoe into the leather bag again.
The night was warm and close, and they were both shaking. Deeba stroked an agitated frog. It felt warm and smooth, like what she'd always thought a dolphin must feel like, and its skin felt surprisingly fragile. It opened its wide mouth and twanged sweetly.
"Wish I knew what to feed you," she said.
She hugged the shawl about her shoulders.
Haroun said, "I suppose we sleep now. Or at least find somewhere dry."
He sounded shy, and in the dusk she couldn't see his face.
They found a rise of grass screened by tangled greenery. Somehow sitting in a corner made Deeba feel less exposed in all these wide lawns. They could hear the frog chorus tuning up and gaining strength, and the scent of broken and crushed leaves floated in the air. It was humid and still hotter than summer nights in London.
They sat together, and neither of them tried to curl up to sleep. She could feel them both shivering. She shook out the shawl.
"Have some," she said. "If you want."
He took it and wrapped it around both of them.
"It's not from cold," he said, "but if it's all right with you."
He put an arm around her, and she rested her head against him. The ground quivered off and on, and so did they.
"I'm still marveling," he said after awhile into her hair, "that you came all this way to help a place you'd never seen. For that matter, I'm still marveling that you helped me."
"Didn't you too?" she said, warmed.
He told her abut Kahani and the genii who had first brought him to the story sea.
"It was to help my father," he said, "and I was a boy and it was an adventure. But really I went because I needed him to be all right. I went for myself. And so is this, because if I didn't have Butt to zoom me through the night sky I would lose something I don't want to spare. The Chupwallas are teaching me their dance language, and I saw a friend married there at night, and she juggled torches. And it's more than the sonneteering fish and the light and the dazzling clockwork and the dear old chatterbox Guppees. It's a place to get away. I see how things work when I'm there, and I come back knowing who I am."
He could probably feel her tears on his bare chest, because his arm tightened around her.
"It's just," she said, "it's so good to hear someone who knows what it's like."
The frogs and the vines sounded as sweet as heavy rain.
"I got friends in London and friends in UnLondon, but no one knows both places. It's like you said, it's so good to have someplace to go, and in the abcity I'm not Madgirl with too much algebra homework. I've done things I'd never have known I could do. And I need both places — but sometimes its so hard being in one and never being able to talk about the other, like there's always half my life I have to forget."
He turned to put his other arm around her, and she ended up in his lap with her shoes kicked off and her bare feet against his.
"You know," she said, gently moving his leather pouch around to his back, "If it doesn't work tomorrow we better go back to my abcity. I'll get you through from there, back to your family. They forget about us when we're out here. If I don't get back, they forget I ever existed. So would yours. We got to get you back too."
She turned into his shoulder.
"It's awful. Like they've never heard of you. I never want to see that again."
He felt completely still in her arms.
"But they will still be there," he said. "As long as you come back, they will be there."
"Yeah. My mom and my dad and Hass."
She wanted suddenly to tell him about them, silly daily stories that would make them close and real, but his stillness and sadness called more urgently.
"What's wrong?" she said, shaking back her tangled hair to look closely at him.
"I didn't tell you why I went away, the real, real reason," he said. "My mother left us. She came back again, and I wish I could forget she went away, but it isn't gone quite. She left, and I had to wake up one morning and find it out. She told me later that she went looking for her music. No one sings like my mother."
"Of course you remember," she said, holding on tight. She kissed him, very gently at first, because he seemed all at once as old as their parents and as young as the boy in the nightshirt who had run away to the moon because he couldn't sleep.
They slept a little, in the end, rolled up together in the story shawl. In the pale light before dawn, they unrolled themselves and picked up the muddy but unbroken mop and set off to find the dawn pool. Deeba washed the mop carefully in the first clear water they came to.
The stone channels had cracked, and the pools had changed shape, but many of them still shone among drifts of rose petals and broken green leaves.
"I know a gardener who would love this place," Haroun said, taking her hand. "he would jump from pool to pool and straighten all the fruit trees."
"He got feet like water lilies?"
"Something like that."
They stood on the lip of the place where morning lies, and the water still held shadows, because the sun had not yet cleared the horizon. Deeba fumbled a damp paper out of one pocket, blinked dazedly at it and knew she had no pen to write with, then said "hang on" and broke away to score her thumb on a rose thorn. It wasn't very good in, but it was the best she had. She gave him the scrawl.
"Call me, ok? Here's my mobile number."
"Give me your address when we get back. Kahani and London can't be that far away."
"Not after this. Nothing's going to feel far after this. Except for how bad I'll miss you."
He kissed her for answer, and they held each other, his hands buried in his hair, trying to forget the advancing sun.
He cupped his hand around the back of her head, and he said, huskily but with a tremor of his marveling laughter, "Why not come with me?"
She started to smile.
"You have to get back to your family," he said. "Butt's a very fast Hoopoe."
Light touched the water, and the pool blazed like the sun, too bright to look at directly.
Haroun cried aloud, "Wishwater!"
He dipped the vial into the pool. But instead of filling with water, it seemed to well up with colors, and they eddied outward. The water eddied with too many colors to name, and Deeba thought they must all have names, and she wanted to know every one.
He took her hand.
They took a running jump and cannonballed into the pool, and the water streamed up like a fountain.