Nerissa would often ask Steamy if there was anything beyond the distant islets and the reef.

“Everything you want to know is in your books, my lady,” her teacher and servant would always reply, in his reedy voice that issued from pressure-fed bellows. “I cannot speak to the existence or nonexistence of that which is not in my program.”

The books, and Steamy’s daily lessons, did seem to indicate a wider world beyond the atoll. Nerissa has never seen many of the objects and creatures that stood for each letter in her worn alphabet book, and the books and novels in the tower library were ablaze with distant and exotic lands. But Steamy would not–could not–confirm which tales were true and which were false.

“My program allows me to administer the lesson and organize the library, my lady. I cannot speak to the truth or untruth of that which is not in my program.”

Certainly there was no reason to doubt the old automaton was sincere; he performed his daily tasks with aplomb. There were kelp greens to be harvested, traps and baits for fish and crustaceans to be emptied and reset, and of course meals to be prepared. The strong metal piles sunk deep into the rock at the center of the atoll to support the tower also needed regular maintenance; they were a bulwark against the storms and waves that sometimes lashed against the atoll.

Still, on those occasions when the barometers were low and Steamy allowed Nerissa to accompany him to the outlying islets on the outrigger, she would look out to the horizon, through the palms and across the barrier reefs, and wonder at what lay beyond. Perhaps her parents, who had vanished in the other outrigger many seasons ago, leaving Steamy and the books as her only companions.

And then something happened which confirmed her beliefs.

Steamy had gone beyond the reefs in the outrigger, through a passage only he knew, on his annual trip to the islet of Motanu (visible from the farthest islet) for rocks and birds to capture for egg-laying. He returned bearing an unusual crimson object that be wordlessly presented to Nerissa.

She’d never seen one before, but her alphabet book had it on page 6: F for Flower.

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