PETRA WAS LYING on the deck of the Pacolet, her face tilted up toward the sky. She was at the very end of the bow, where the ship’s front narrowed into a triangle. The warm wind was strong and the waves were high. Pillowy clouds drifted overhead.
She watched them change shape. One cloud resembled the face of her older cousin, Dita, the closest thing to a mother Petra had ever had. Then the face stretched into an elm tree, like the one next to Petra’s house in a far-off Bohemian village.
But her house had burned to the ground, and for all Petra knew, the tree had, too.
A sudden shadow loomed over her.
“Don’t know if you realized, but this ship’s got sailors,” said Neel, standing at her side. His black hair was a snarled mess from many months at sea, and his bare feet were dry and frosted with salt. “You lie there long enough, you’re gonna get stepped on.”
The sun was setting, and some of the clouds had dark gray bellies. One crawled. It reached out a bony, clawed hand.
Neel squinted at the sky, and didn’t notice Petra’s shudder. “Seeing things in the clouds, are you?” he said cheerfully. “Like to do that myself, sometimes. What do you see, Pet?”
“I see—” Petra swallowed. “I see someone who won’t leave me alone.”
Neel didn’t move. He just stared harder at the sky. If Petra had been his sister, he would have nudged her ribs with his toe and called her a few inventive names.
But Petra wasn’t his sister. She wasn’t even one of his people. She was Bohemian, he was Roma. Her skin was a mix of gold and rose, his the color of strong tea. Petra and Neel were bound by friendship and shared dangers, but maybe, in the end, they were too different, and their bond might be the sort easily cracked by sharp words.
So Neel held his tongue, which was rare. But his shoulders hunched slightly and his stance, which had been relaxed and easy, went tight.
Still not looking at her, he walked away.
* * *
TOMIK CLIMBED DOWN the Jacob’s ladder, having ended his shift working the sails. Neel was waiting for him at the bottom of the mast.
Tomik listened as Neel described his encounter with Petra. “It ain’t like her,” the Roma finished.
“Have you known Petra long enough to really be able to tell what she’s like?”
“Then explain, know-it-all.”
The wind rustled Tomik’s fair hair, which he pushed out of his tanned face. Slowly he said, “She’s been through a lot.”
Neel spun his hand in the air, indicating that this was old news and Tomik should say something worthwhile. But Tomik watched the East African coast slip past. Finally, he observed, “We’ve been on this ship for a while.”
“Yeah. It’s been about six months now since we set sail from England. So?”
“So that makes this … what? November?”
“Oh,” Tomik said wisely. “I see.”
Neel threw up his hands and began to walk away.
Tomik grabbed his arm. “But which day is it, exactly?” He asked as if the answer was the most important thing in the world. “Which day?”
* * *
THAT NIGHT, in the sleeping quarters below deck, Petra tossed and turned in her hammock, thinking about the monstrous cloud. In London, she’d had screaming nightmares about the Gray Men. Eventually, they had stopped, but then she discovered that her father had been transformed into one of those deadly, scaled beasts. Now the nightmares were back.
There was a small, scratching sound as Astrophil poked his tin legs out of a knot in the wooden wall by Petra’s head. The mechanical spider jumped to her shoulder.
I can’t sleep, she thought to him, grateful that her magic allowed this kind of silent communication, unnoticed by the dozens of sailors sleeping in their swinging hammocks.
Hmm. Astrophil tapped one leg against the side of his face. Whenever I had insomnia, I would study. Shall we study? Perhaps we could practice the Romany language.
Your accent is atrocious. And the errors you make are out of pure carelessness. Ah! I know what to do. Astrophil’s green eyes glowed in the darkness. We can conjugate verbs!
Astrophil sagged in disappointment. Then he brightened. I could tell you a story.
Petra nodded. One with a happy ending.
Astrophil thought and thought, searching for the perfect tale for Petra. Then he glanced at her, and realized that in the minutes of silence she had fallen asleep.
As the ship gently rocked, Astrophil watched her breathe, noticing how her face had changed in little ways over the past several months. Petra was growing older. He almost wished she wouldn’t.
The spider curled into a tiny ball. He supposed he should be considering what they would do when they reached the Vatra, the Romany homeland, where they hoped to find a cure for Petra’s father. But all Astrophil could think about now was an event much closer on the horizon. He knew perfectly well what day tomorrow was. He wondered if he would have to remind Tomik.
* * *
TOMIK FOUND TREB in the captain’s quarters the next morning. The Roma was smoking a pipe and bracing his salt-rimed boots against a fine chair scavenged from a shipwreck.
The captain listened to Tomik’s suggestion, sending puffs of foul smoke into the air. Then he stood and slung an affectionate but commanding arm over the boy’s shoulders. “Tom, my ship is full of fine, fit sailors: the Maraki, best of the four Roma tribes. We’re battle-tested, storm-ready, and on our way to present our queen with the most legendary prize in Roma history, the Mercator Globes. This is no party boat.”
“It’s thanks to Petra that you have those globes, and without them this voyage would have taken twice as long. The crew is grateful to her.”
“Yeah. So what?”
“We’ll celebrate her birthday whether you like it or not.”
“That sounds like mutiny to me.” The captain scowled and bit the stem of his pipe. “Fine,” he said through his teeth. “Have your fun.”
* * *
ASTROPHIL FOUND PETRA in the armory. Night had almost fallen. The light from the porthole was dim, and the room was illuminated by an oil lamp. Petra was playing with a dagger, flipping it in the air and catching it on its way down. A normal person (if, indeed, normal people play such games) would have been trying to catch the dagger by its hilt. Petra, however, pinched the flat of the blade between her fingers. Astrophil was not worried for the safety of her hands—he knew Petra’s talents—but he did not like to see her so withdrawn, so sad. It might surprise you that someone who had had her life turned upside down in almost every imaginable way could be upset by the thought that everyone had forgotten her fourteenth birthday, but Astrophil knew better.
“Shall we go on deck?” he suggested.
She didn’t look at him. She tossed the knife again. “The wind’s too strong.” Petra had forbidden Astrophil to go topside when the wind was high, afraid that he’d be blown into the water. He had replied that she had no right to order him around, and would not like it if he tried to do the same with her. She had then thrown a tantrum the likes of which he had not seen since she was eight years old.
“You have no idea what the wind is like.” Astrophil sniffed. “You have been down here all day. It is already twilight, and I have it on good authority that the wind is kinder than you are to your poor spider.”
Petra caught the knife and turned to him, an apology on her lips.
Astrophil hid a smile with one shiny leg.
When Petra climbed through the hatch that opened onto the deck, she nearly fell off the ladder. There was so much shouting. She blinked. Only her head and shoulders were poking out of the hatch, but that was enough to give her a good view. It took her a moment to realize that the entire crew was thronged on deck and cheering (really, truly) for her. She saw that someone had made colored lanterns and strung them between the two masts.
Her heart swelled, both glad and sore. She tried to forget the people who weren’t here, and drank in the sight of those who were.
Treb stepped forward, grabbed her hands, and pulled her out of the hatch and onto the deck. For all his previous grumbling about the party, the captain had a theatrical flair and enjoyed being the master of ceremonies. In a booming voice, he announced, “I present Petra Kronos on the day of her Coming of Age: fourteen years old, and an adult in our eyes.”
The gifts were simple, but Petra treasured them: a bar of soap, a dried apple saved from dinner, a pair of slightly used sandals. Most of the Maraki gave her promises. Nicolas, the best swordsman on the ship and Petra’s trainer since they had left London, offered to introduce her to fencing masters in the Vatra.
“I’ll steal you something nice once we get there,” Neel added.
Tomik’s voice was hesitant. “I made the lanterns.”
She looked up again at the lanterns and saw that they were made of glass. “They’re beautiful.” She smiled. “And you gave me this party, didn’t you? You and Astrophil.”
Both Tomik and the spider were thinking how lovely Petra’s smile was, and how much they had missed it, when someone thrust a violin at Neel. It was Nadia, one of the young Maraki. “Play,” she commanded.
He shook his head. “I’m no good.”
“You’re good enough.”
“That fiddle’s waterlogged.”
“You will be, too, if I toss you in the sea.”
Neel gave her a disdainful look.
“Come on, Indraneel of the Lovari.” She said his full name like a challenge. “Are you a true member of your tribe, or aren’t you?”
Neel snatched the violin. He was the captain’s cousin but, unlike the rest of the Roma on board, he had been raised by the Lovari, the tribe known for acrobatics, acting, and music. Neel tuned up and began to play. It was a sprightly but rough music, that of a player who could have been a master, but wasn’t and never would be, because he couldn’t care less about it.
The deck thumped with the feet of dancing sailors.
“Would you like to dance?” Tomik asked Petra.
Her smile slipped. She thought of Kit, the last boy she had danced with, someone who had betrayed her.
Tomik saw her reluctance. “Would you like to sit with me instead, and watch?”
“Yes.” Petra looked at the rainbow lanterns and thought that happiness was something that must be protected, like the glass shielded the flames. “I would.”
They settled onto a pile of coiled rope. Petra tucked her arm into the crook of his, and felt warm even when the sky darkened and the wind picked up.
The breeze strengthened like a muscle, and pushed them farther into the Arabian Sea—closer to India, and the Romany kingdom.
Copyright © 2011 by Marie Rutkoski