Chapter 1 – A Contest of Hopes
Chapter 2 – Praise Her
For hours, the island sat on the horizon. It didn’t seem to be getting any closer, just bigger, and Ellie wondered if they’d ever reach it at all. She pulled a telescope from her coat pocket, rubbing the lens with her thumb. She squinted into the eyepiece.
‘The island’s got something growing out of it.’
‘A mountain?’ said Seth.
Ellie frowned. ‘No. The shape’s too regular. Like it was made by people.’ She passed him the telescope. ‘It sort of looks like –’
‘A ship,’ said Seth.
‘Yeah,’ said Ellie. ‘A huge ship.’
‘What’s a ship doing on top of an island?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe it got stuck there? But how...’ Ellie’s palms prickled. ‘Wait! Seth, maybe it’s an Ark. One of the four giant ships people used to escape the Drowning!’
The sun rose as the raft approached, painting the eastern sky pale orange, washing the darkness from the massive structure that rested atop the island. It was almost crescent-shaped, as if the moon had crashed down from the skies above. Ellie and Seth looked at each other – there was no doubt it was an Ark.
The island itself was shrouded in mist, except at one side, where a volcano jutted out at an angle. Even this was dwarfed by the Ark, which rose and rose until it was a swollen shadow above them. The raft drifted through the humid mist, leaving hot beads of condensation on their faces.
Then, houses appeared.
At first, Ellie thought that they were floating impossibly above the water. But, as the mists cleared, she realized they were raised on stilts – a village of wooden homes with straw roofs, connected by rickety bridges and narrow walkways. The mist parted, and sunlight struck the village, revealing a world of bright paintwork: cherry reds and cornflower blues and egg-yolk yellows, and lurid carvings of whales and fish and sharks that poked from the rooftop corners, grinning down at the sea.
A woman opened her door with a musical clatter of wind chimes, stepping out on to a walkway.
‘Morning, Alistair,’ she called, to an old man in a rocking chair on his front porch. ‘Looks like a lovely day.’
‘Aye, no doubt. Praise Her.’
‘Praise Her,’ beamed the woman. Her eyes glanced down at Ellie and Seth as their raft passed beneath. ‘Look at the state of you two,’ she said with a smile.
‘Did you come all the way from Ingarth Island on that?’ said the man.
‘Oh,’ said Ellie. ‘I mean, um...’
‘Yes,’ Seth said stiffly. ‘We came from... Ingurf Island.’
‘Hope you’ve got a place to stay,’ said the woman. ‘You look like you could both use a good bath.’
‘We do, don’t we?’ said Ellie, faking a laugh. ‘It must be all that mud we have on Ingarth Island.’
‘And a meal for you, skinny one,’ the woman said to Ellie. ‘Though it seems you’ve brought breakfast with you!’
Ellie followed where she was pointing, and saw a carpet of glittering fish trailing their raft, like a thousand shards of blue crystal.
‘Been a long time since I seen a shoal that big this close to the island. Perhaps our fortunes are changing, praise God,’ the man declared. ‘Praise Her.’
‘Praise Her,’ echoed the woman.
‘Praise Her,’ said Ellie, since it seemed like the right thing to do.
The raft floated lazily on between algae-covered stilts, beneath walkways and rope bridges. Seth was crouched on all fours, eyes darting from one house to the next.
‘We should have kept that spear,’ he said.
‘It’s fine,’ said Ellie. ‘We just have to act like we belong here.’
An old woman drew a trap up from beneath her house as the shoal passed by, laughing at all the fish wriggling inside. She spotted Ellie and Seth and narrowed her eyes. Seth threw his arm out protectively in front of Ellie, and Ellie batted it away.
‘Smile,’ she whispered, forcing one herself. ‘Look friendly.’
Seth gripped the edge of the raft so tightly that the wood splintered beneath his fingers. ‘Ow.’
‘Seth, relax.’ Ellie pulled some tweezers from her coat. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘Why not? The last time I arrived in a new place, all the people there tried to kill me.’
‘Except one,’ said Ellie, plucking a splinter from Seth’s palm. She smiled at him, but he just rubbed at a scar on his arm – a legacy of his interrogation by a particularly brutal Inquisitor called Hargrath.
‘It’ll be okay, Seth,’ Ellie told him. ‘We’re together, we can do this.’
The raft drifted further through the village. Cats stalked overhead, licking their lips as they watched the shoal of fish. One man paddled behind the raft in a canoe, fishing net at the ready, ignoring the looks Seth was giving him.
Finally, a strip of beach appeared through the gaps in the stilts, the colour of burnt sugar. Golden sandstone buildings hugged the island above it, climbing in rows towards the massive bulk of the Ark. Some huddled close like dear friends, others stood alone, surrounded by colourful potted plants. And trees – actual trees – erupted from the ground, not wizened and emaciated like those few sad specimens that grew in the City, but lush palm trees so tall they sagged over at the top, weighed down by clutches of fat, hairy coconuts. They sprouted between the buildings, and in some places through the buildings, bursting from the thatched rooftops.
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Ellie.
‘That doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.’
The raft washed against the beach. Before them was a large lime-green wooden house. A little girl sat on the doorstep, chewing a blade of grass.
‘See – nobody here wants to kill us,’ said Ellie.
Seth grumbled, glaring at the girl like she might be concealing a harpoon gun. Ellie used the mast to hoist herself to her feet. ‘What should we do with the raft?’
‘I suppose we could just leave it.’
‘What if someone steals it?’
They looked at the raft, barely more than a bundle of sticks tied together with dead vines, then laughed. It was hard to believe they’d spent three months on such a dismal thing. They’d abandoned Ellie’s underwater boat after only two weeks at sea, its mechanisms corroded by salt water. She sighed at the memory – it had been arguably her greatest invention, even if it had only worked in the first place because the Enemy had fixed it. They’d left it on a rocky islet, along with the small collection of tools and prized books she’d brought from the City. Now all she owned were the clothes she was wearing, the contents of her coat pockets, and the coat itself: a drab grey thing stitched together from scraps of cloth and sealskin. She pulled it on, despite the clammy heat, comforted by its familiar weight.
‘You’re going to be too hot,’ said Seth.
Ellie gave him a warning look, and Seth nodded in understanding. Wearing her coat made Ellie feel more like an inventor – more like her mother – and, most importantly, it put another layer between the world and the terrible secret she carried everywhere.
‘Here you go,’ said Seth, picking up a long, polished rod of wood, which they’d salvaged from the rudder of the underwater boat. Ellie glared at it resentfully.
‘Thanks,’ she grumbled, using the cane to lower herself from the raft. She had hurt her right leg while fleeing the City three months before. It wasn’t healing, and Ellie worried this was something to do with the Enemy. Soon after her injury, the god had almost taken a physical form inside her – a process that would have killed her had she not found a way to stop it, with the help of Seth and her best friend, Anna.
Ellie crossed the beach to join Seth, the sand fluffy beneath her bare feet. Seth was inspecting a tall wooden statue of a woman that sat outside the house. She had purple hair down to her waist, large yellow eyes and a kind smile. Bunches of lilacs grew by her feet, and she wore a chain of wilted daisies on her head.
‘Who do you think this is?’ said Seth.
‘Maybe it’s the woman everyone keeps praising,’ said Ellie, leaning in close to admire the carving.
‘That’s not how you do it!’
The little girl shoved between Ellie and Seth, kneeling before the statue.
‘Thank you, Divine Queen, for bringing the fish and the flowers and keeping our island safe. Please could you bring me a new puppy and fix Grandma’s hip.’
The girl looked at them scathingly, a blade of grass still sticking out of her mouth.
‘Who is –’ Ellie started to say, but Seth clapped a hand over her face and pulled her aside.
‘We shouldn’t ask obvious questions,’ he whispered. ‘If people realize we’re not from here, they might think we’re dangerous.’
Ellie scrunched up her nose. ‘She’s only little. Anyway, that man asked us if we were from Ingarth Island. And he hardly seemed worried by the idea, did he?’
‘It’s rude to whisper, you know,’ said the girl. ‘Especially in front of the Queen.’
‘Sorry,’ said Ellie. ‘Um, praise Her,’ she added.
The girl’s face lit up. ‘Praise Her,’ she said, then bent to pull a wad of grass from the sand.
Ellie and Seth walked away along the beach, glancing back at the girl, who was kneeling before the statue once more.
‘She’s a queen?’ said Seth.
Ellie nodded. ‘But that girl’s praying to her. In the City, people prayed to the saints, but... did you hear what that old man said?’
‘“Praise Her”,’ said Seth, shrugging.
‘Before that. He said, “Praise God”.’
Ellie checked around to make sure there was no one listening. ‘What if the Queen is a god, like you?’ she asked, excitement tickling the back of her neck.
‘How do we know that’s a good thing?’ Seth said, eyeing the statue with a dark expression. The little girl was now gathering daisies, making a new chain that she placed on the statue’s head to replace the old one.
Ellie had known two gods. One had saved her life, and she trusted him completely. The other had spent three years trying to destroy her.
‘What kind are you?’ she whispered.