Chris Howard



We took the marshrunners east along the Gulf Coast, the salt spray coming over the shields like poison. Saltwater’s in my mouth and in my hair. I almost threw up my lunch.

It had taken us two more careful days down the west bank of the Mississippi River, all the way through Louisiana, then out to the Gulf, where the Leaf Father couldn’t track us. Another day and we’d cut across the Upper Gulf and were most of the way down the west side of what was once Florida.

Late in the evening we pulled up to rest next to an island clustered with trees a hundred meters from the shore.

Lostmans River couldn’t be far.

The marshrunners got all of us—tired, jittery and starving, but intact—to our saltwater-surrounded haven. I slept in my seat, feet kicked out. Brazley, Carlos and Reed climbed around on the loops of tree roots—at least they looked like roots in the dark.

So, the place couldn’t be all that bad.

The sun rose, and I got to see what the island really looked like, what it was made of, and it was like someone had tipped the damn world on edge, shook the box of everything normal and opened it up to see what strange new things were available.

I mean shit like...

There were trees—whole fucking trees—growing in the ocean, roots like delicate arches looping over and under each other, masses of them holding up an entire grove of trees. There was no island, or the trees were the island. There was certainly nothing solid above the waterline. I’d heard of them, of course, read about them, but never believed them to be real until I saw them with my own eyes.

“They’re called mangrove trees.”

I spun in my seat. Carlos, up early as usual, snapped alert, slid the safety off his gun. Reed jolted awake, draped across the mangrove roots on one of the runner’s tear-away seat cushions. It didn’t take long for the danger vibe to spread to Fritz and Brazley who’d been up the latest on watch.

A young woman in pearlescent body-fitting green to the throat, wrists, and ankles stood on the water, glassy smooth and hard as diamond under her bare feet. Arms folded, a quick shake of sea-drops from her bobbed black hair, an intense blue stare, one eyebrow lifted, a slight smile tempting her lips.

The whole package was murderously haughty. What the hell did this kid want? She couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty.

“Many times that. I’m a hundred and thirty-two years old.”

I swallowed hard. “I wasn’t asking.” Not aloud anyway.

“You want to know what I want?” She tapped her chin thoughtfully, slid a lock of hair behind one ear, her smile gone. “I want... let’s see. Interesting. I don’t want many things. Let’s start by understanding why you are here where you do not seem to belong.”

I gestured at the loops of roots holding the mangrove trees above the saltwater. “I came to look at trees.” I turned away, slid a hand along the curve of a prop root, tried to appear to be unconcerned.

“You are Thea?”

It was barely a question.

That stopped the breath in my lungs, a flood of fever heat running up my back. Few people—or gods—knew to call me that right off. Just family, and now the friends I’d made. No one else.

I turned, started breathing again, kept it neutral. “Who wants to know?”

“You are younger than I thought you would be, younger than I pictured you, but you have something of your mother’s looks, more of your father’s. You know who I am, Thea? Kassandra’s daughter?”

I just glared at her. One thing to meet her in my dreams. Another to stand before her, a lone mangrove tree at my back and surrounded by saltwater.

The woman smiled, but it was like some ancient being’s response to a child’s feistiness. “I thought I would try politeness first. I can finger through every thought in your head, Thea, if that is what you’d like me to do?” She held up a hand and wiggled her fingers in a walking through the air gesture, still smiling.

I shook my head, cold damp fear flaring in points all over my body, behind my knees, between my breasts, under my chin—made my jaw ache. “You’re right. I’m Thea.”

“The daughter of Kraneia and the anthropologist, Thomas Viran?”

What else could I do? This woman knew it all.

I nodded, and she crouched over the water, dropped her hand, flattened it across the surface, and there was my father in some dark soggy sea cave.

Felt my anger ratchet down a few clicks, and the trigger bright and shiny in my grasp.

“He is safe, Thea. Under my protection.” She gestured, encouraging. “Look deeper.”

I leaned forward. My father turned right, laughed to someone not in the scene, and held up a glass of some light red liquid.

“A root tea? What’s he drinking?”

There was a hint of surprise in Miss Know-it-all’s shift in expression and focus on the scene. She shook her head. “Something your mother brought with her.”

“And he’s safe?”

As if hearing my next question. “And he is not a prisoner.”

I asked anyway. “He can leave any time he likes?”

“Kraneia came to me for protection.”

That didn’t sound like my mother. Can’t she protect dad herself? Why’d she have to bring this...sea witch, whoever she is into this? My mother loathes saltwater.

“These are her words, Thea, what she told me: the Leaf Father has her treeheart, and she cannot face him without coming under his control. He can make your mother kill your father if he wishes it. And I am not to tell you where your father is. She doesn’t even know where Thomas Viran is.”

What about protecting me?

“She needs you to face the Leaf Father for her. She can’t. She hopes you can.”

I thought of Orphne dismissing hope. There’s no such thing. Hope. I’ve never run across it in all my years.

And my mother hoped I could?

Oh yeah, take off, go into winterform, just when things get deadly. Here, Thea, face the threat alone. That sounds just like my mom.

The woman from the sea watched me, sadness in her eyes, a rush of concern in her features. She even reached out for me, ready, as if I was going to topple out of my seat right there.

Who the hell would she be concerned about?

She pulled back her hand, and I pulled in my feelings, nodded back to her. “What’s your name?”

The water softened under her feet, and she slid into it smooth and natural, her suit as slick and shiny as a dolphin. “Call me Posey. All my friends do.”

Like the flower? Like that ancient song... pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down...She must have read something else inside me, a deeper line of questions. “Yes, Thea, I have many friends. It’s not worth living this long without them.”

I nodded, still taking that in when she turned to go. The sea lapping around her shoulders, she glanced back at me and laughed. “No, not the like the flower.”

She went under.

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