L’Acoste and I were dry, as long as we stayed under the trees. Then the wind picked up and the rain came at us sideways.
We sheltered in the vine-covered remains of a castle. Every surface was jagged or dripping or alive with lowly green things. We built the best fire we could to dry our cloaks. I shivered and wiped my wet nose on a wet sleeve. I thought of Jenny.
By afternoon the rain stopped. By sunset the trees had dwindled away. We came to a cliff, and my understanding of the world turned upside-down. There were boats in the sky.
I laughed. They couldn’t be real. Two longboats and a sailboat, no different from those I had seen come through the mudplains since I was a child. They floated thirty yards over the void, roped and staked to the cliff like kites. They had to be a painting, like the ones that used to hang in the Baron’s house. But I could see the boats shift in the high winds off the cliffside, their cloth sails buckling and snapping. Real. I was speechless as men went up and down the ropes like ants. They loaded wine casks from a two-horse wagon that had passed us earlier that day.
L’Acoste spoke to the sailors in a tongue I had never heard before. One of the sailors asked me, in a heavy accent, if I were a supporter of Jeunet or Dufay. I could tell he didn’t really care. He barely paused from his loading long enough to hear my muttered allegiance to Jeunet. When L’Acoste came back to me he pointed and said, “I got us on this boat.”
He tightened his belt and his pack before scaling the rope upside-down, across the void, as the sailors did. They asked if I wanted my leg tied to the rope. I said yes. I followed him across, slower. My ax and bow dangled beneath me. Arrows rattled in my closed quiver. Jenny. Don’t look down. Keep going, hand-over-hand. Then I felt L’Acoste’s grip on my shoulders, helping me onto the deck of the sailboat.
We found a place ondeck to stay out of the way. The boat sailed into the night, and the quilt of farms and forests below gave way to icy black nothing. Lonelier than the black sky, broken only by stars reflected in a lake or stream. The wood of the boat’s railing felt no different than the wood of my hut or my plow. I asked L’Acoste how this was possible. He was going over the map by the light of the sailboat’s torches.
“I talked to the crew and the other sailors we saw on the cliff,” he said, as if that’s what I asked him. “They been waiting days on that cliff for a late shipment. The only fancypants crew they seen come through got on a big purewhite skyboat going east.”
“Do you think that’s our old man?”
“I reckon so. If he’s going east, he’s going to Triaplak or Salazar. Either way he’s gotta stop at a little place called Lupp. This boat right here takes supplies to Lupp.”
They gave us a corner belowdeck to sleep on our cloaks and listen to wine casks rattle. The planks of the floor made a sorry bed. My pack made a sorry pillow.
“This’s nothing like what me and Jenny are gonna have when I get home,” I said.
“Is that so.” L’Acoste wound a worn brass pocketwatch. He had a way of speaking that held no insult but no interest either. Like a flat procession of words that had nothing to do with what his hands or his mind was doing.
“Good-looking watch,” I said.
“My father’s.” He put the watch away and started on his bedding. “So who’s she? Some girl you deflowered back on the farm?”
I shook my head. There had been times, alone together while her father snored cavernously in the next room, asleep in the only real bed in the mudplains, when we had come close to it. When the push-swell had started in our bellies. We had resisted and I never regretted it.
“What do you farmers grow?”
“It’s cheap magic. Every potion that’s less than five rupees has mudsoy in it. Every cheap charm’s smeared with it. Probably some in your glow-bulb. You’ll never go broke growing it, but it’s so easy to grow that you’ll never have a fortune. The laziest drunk in the mudplains has a patch that keeps him in drink. And Jenny’s father, who has five more acres than any of the other farmers, can only afford a few nice things.”
“I don’t understand farming. What do you farmers call nice things?”
“Twice a year a caravan of four or five elephants comes to the edge of the mudplains. We buy things like wine, dried meat, salt, books, pottery, quills, bedding.”
“I know them caravans. They always got someone with his hat upside-down for money. A piper or a strummer. Or someone who can do poetry or preach real good.”
After I lay down with my boots off I wasn’t sure if I was talking or dreaming. Sometime in the night L’Acoste was invited by a sailor to play poker. I stayed with my story, either telling him or telling myself or just going over it in my mind. My back to the cold, hard wood. My mind on Jenny.
I knew a way inside the Baron’s house. It was his winterhouse because it never snows on the mudplains. I asked if she wanted to go inside. The other boys had told me about the sidedoor to the formal pantry that never locked right.
I asked her because I wanted her to think I was strong, dangerous. She said yes and I was surprised. I started to feel something tangible in the air between us. Instead of being tough I opened doors and helped her through windows. Silver-grey sunlight came through the drapes. Musty. Everything had a whitesheet over it—every sofa, table, and divan, with the shapes of snowglobes and ashtrays coming through. She said that, if she had just one house like this, with a quarter of its nice things, it would be enough. She would never leave it. I nodded.
I kept making the long walk from my hut to hers. Every walk in the mudplains is longer because your feet sink. You carry your shoes or they get left in the mud.
We talked about the faces of her father and my parents, and she wondered how the men and women in the portraits throughout the Baron’s house stayed so smooth. And we knew—even though she was the prettiest girl in the mudplains, with red lips, tiny feet, and giant eyes—we knew one day she would be as hard and gnarled as my mother.
L’Acoste was telling me to wake up and get my bow. His sword and pack were gone. His eyes were unfocused and his breath smelled of something from one of the casks.
“I lost everything,” he said.
“Sword, map, rupees, the bulb! You got to get it back!”
“We can’t find him without the glow-bulb!”
“You’re gonna get it all back.”
In a daze of sleep and cold-achy muscles we went ondeck. It was here that he expected me to put an arrow through a playing card from a distance of bow-to-mast.
“Because it’s a wager, son! I told them all you farmboys can shoot anything off of anything else!”
“Why would you—?”
“To get back everything I lost at cards! That sword’s been in my family for two centuries and you ain’t gonna let me down.”
Every torch was burning. Sailors lined the railings, barefoot and dirty, boys to old men, with rough clothes and sun-wrinkled skin and knotty fingers and toes. One stepped from the rest and held up the ace of spades in front of the mast. No one moved, no one did nothing. Couldn’t see no stars for all the torchlight.
“Aren’t they gonna nail it to the mast?” I asked.
“Guy over there’s just gonna hold it.” L’Acoste was so shaky on his feet he nearly fell against me.
I nocked an arrow. I closed my eyes. Jenny. I loosed after barely taking aim. Find out right away or give up. How I’ve always made decisions.
The sailors cheered. Everyone wanted to shake my hand. Someone shouted something and the rest agreed. L’Acoste said they would leave the ace pinned to the mast for as long as it would stay. He didn’t look drunk at all.
If we lost the glow-bulb there would be no way to track Silas. My whole life had collapsed onto that moment, like a thousand roads leading to a buttonhole. Every time I took an ax to a tree, every time I used a knife to whittle a shaft. Every time I practiced my aim. Every hunt. I wish Jenny had been there.
Floating wood comes from floating trees. A floating tree starts as a seed in the sky but needs no soil. It takes air, sun, and rain and turns them into leaves and branches. It doesn’t need roots either. It only grows more leaves and branches, until a full-grown floating oak is like an uneven ball of leaves. You see them in the sky, sometimes alone, sometimes in forests. I asked L’Acoste, are they the work of nature or some wizard so long ago that he had been forgotten? His response was “who knows these things.” Not a question.
Lupp is a waystation built around such a forest, for planting and growing and harvesting. The station is little more than a circular bridge surrounding the forest, crowded with skyships and skyboats, home to ramshackle huts and houses. A purewhite boat is remarkable to Lupp’s dirty inhabitants. Everyone who had seen it pointed in the same direction: Triaplak.
We knew how tricky our man Silas could be. Maybe he sent his skyboat in one direction while he went in another. In an unsteady three-walled shack we found an overburdened little clerk with a small golden portal. He asked if we supported Jeunet or Dufay, then without looking at us or waiting for an answer announced that tickets were forty rupees. L’Acoste showed the clerk the same tattered “wanted” poster he had been carrying when I met him.
“Not here,” the clerk whispered, suddenly attentive. He took us to the portal. Up close it was even shabbier. Like someone kicked the strings out of a cheap harp and called it a magic portal. He muttered in bad Latin, turned a few dials, and had to crouch to walk through. There was a flash of light and the clerk was gone.
“I haven’t ever done this before,” I said.
L’Acoste pushed me through.
Disoriented. Lupp was gone. The sunlit sky and the floating trees were gone. Above me was only starless blackness. Fifty feet below was a sea of molten rock, simmering. I wanted to throw up.
By the time I felt steady on my feet again they were already discussing what Silas and his fool had been doing. No, declared the clerk, they had not paid to go through the portal, but they had paid him ten rupees to look at the portal.
“Like you might pay a stableboy to look at a nobleman’s horse,” the clerk added.
We stood on an elevated stone bridge that ran about fifty yards, connecting nothing to nothing. At each end there were portals similar to the cheap one in the clerk’s shack in Lupp. They were stone instead of brass and built into the bridge itself. The void and the molten rock stretched in every direction without horizon, with no change and nothing else in sight. The clerk kept talking.
“It was strange. I was glad when they left.”
“Did they say anything?”
“Wasn’t no language I ever heard before.”
L’Acoste gave him a handful of coins and a friendly slap on the arm. “This portal don’t go to Triaplak by any chance?”
The clerk shook his head.“They’ve only got them big portals in Triaplak,” he said. “Six, seven people wide.”
Another trip through the portal and I threw up. L’Acoste said the next time we went through I’d be fine.
Back in Lupp the only way to Triaplak was a longboat transporting grain and dried meat. We mechanically proclaimed our preference for Jeunet over Dufay to its mean-looking, eight-fingered skipper. He didn’t take passengers, he explained, but he had a different offer.
His rowers were not his crew. They were men so poor and desperate to get to Triaplak to find work that they would row him and his cargo for no wages. He had new rowers on every voyage. He gave us an evil, toothy grin before showing us to a bench and an oar. We spat on our hands. As the drum began to beat we soon learned the motions and the songs of the rowers.
We kept rowing as he ladled gruel into our mouths, and we kept rowing in the rain. We kept rowing even as boys and old men fainted and were whipped awake. Thunder drowned our song. The sky went blurry. Jenny. My grip on the rain-wet oar started to slip. I fell against L’Acoste and he elbowed me back up.
“Tell me more about that girl of yours, farmboy!” he urged. “Anything to keep yourself awake.”
“I’ll tell you about the last time I was so tired.”
A day like any other in the mudplains. Backaches and dirty fingernails.
I walked her home. I asked if she would ever leave the mudplains with me. That made her sober. She blurted out how everything we needed was here if we just had a little more of it.
I looked in her huge eyes and together we saw the future we wished we could have:
Finery for Sundays and feast days, furs for the winter. We saw ourselves reading book after book to each other. Turning pages with clean fingernails. I get up and check the fire—no, I don’t, because we have someone to do that for us. Then the hired woman goes into the next room and seasons the stew. Next to a shelf of spice jars from far away.
Morning comes, after a night in a real bed. Jenny and I survey our land from the longest woodplank walkways in the mudplains. A walkway from the house to the outbuilding. Or even a walkway to a separate hut for the servants, with its own kitchen. We walk with our shoes on and our feet dry.
When the caravans come other farmers ask to see and smell and try on things they’ll never buy. Things destined to be sold in better places farther on. But when Jenny and I look at the paintings and leaf through the books—and sample meat and far-off produce—and try on jewels and look in mirrors—and sit in chairs and sofas brought down from the elephant’s back—Jenny and I do not hang our heads and shuffle away. We buy what we want. Toss a rupee in the musician’s upside-down hat.
There was nothing out in the world, she insisted, but the potential for suffering. Her mother had died serving the king’s army when she was a baby. It’s all here, as long as the caravans keep coming. You weren’t serious, she urged, were you? You just hadn’t thought it through, that’s all. You hadn’t thought about how good things could be right here.
But no one could have what we wanted by growing mudsoy. It was simple math. No one person or couple or family could plant, tend, grow, harvest, and bring to market enough mudsoy to get all that. It would take the land of a dozen families. It would take half the mudplains.
We said good night.
I was dozing. L’Acoste nudged me awake.
Everyone knew about the wizard in the forest on the edge of the mudplain. The long figure, darker than night, passing from behind one tree to another. The low lights and sounds that came from the woods on pagan holy days. His was the empty hut every child found once but could never find again. He was blamed if a person or animal disappeared. He was the insult and the dare boys made to each other. If we went into his part of the woods at all it was only during the day.
I called out for him by all the names I had heard were his. I went to sleep on the ground under the trees. I awoke in the dark and my body told me there should have been daylight. I walked and I slept and I walked and I slept. Like the forest was getting larger and the night was getting longer. As if everyone lies about how long the night really is. As if darkness really rules the world. As if we keep ourselves from going mad only by pretending that the night is only as long as the day.
“Did you find him?”
“I’ve grown magic soy my whole life,” I told L’Acoste. “I know people use magic everywhere. But this was the first time magic became real.”
“Like I was dreaming. I accepted, calm and without question, the insane. The forest was gone. The ceilings in his house were low. Everything was purple, reddish. Satin pillows, candles. I never knew such silence. Even alone in church, in the dead of winter, you hear birds outside.”
I turned around. He was behind me. Like a pile of sticks and mud and dead leaves that you might mistake for a man until you look longer.
“We made a bargain. And I went along with it because no one argues in a dream.”
“I know what you need,” he said.
“I have watched the people of the mudplains. I know what you need better than you do. I will give you land to grow mudsoy.”
“I already have land.”
“In my land, the sun moves twice as fast and the seasons change twice as often. Seed yields twice as much. The crop grows twice as high. Ten of my acres is eighty of yours. And I will give you twenty acres.”
“A field, like he said. Twenty acres, ringed by a high stone ledge, covered by vines I had never seen before. We sat there for twelve hours next to a sundial. You do things like that in dreams. And we watched the sun rise, set, and rise again. We made a bargain. Twenty acres for two hundred rupees. When I told him I didn’t have ten rupees he said I had a month to pay him.”
“In the event of nonpayment,” the wizard had said. “I will take something from you. It will not be a life or a soul.”
“I knew he was playing with me. The math didn’t make sense. But it was what I wanted and you don’t argue in a dream. He gave me a key and I woke up. He was gone, the house was gone. The field was mine. I can put his key in the lock to any door, in my hut or the church or the Baron’s winterhouse, and when I open the door, his field will be on the other side.”
This was the only time L’Acoste ever appeared impressed with anything.
“Did the field work?” he asked. “I don’t understand farming.”
“I work my father’s land during the day and the wizard’s land at night. Planting, tending, keeping a journal. In two weeks there was a month of growth. The fertility’s amazing. Like every single seed’s sprouting. Ten years of this and me and Jenny are gonna be the richest couple in the mudplains.”
Mercifully we were allowed to sleep on our benches. No one talked. We shivered in our cloaks. The man with the whip was going to wake us before sun-up. I dreamed of Jenny.
We woke sore and put our backs into the oars and rowed in what I thought was predawn darkness. But there was never a dawn, just endless, starless brown sky, over brown, dead land that caught nameless light from nowhere. We rowed and rowed. We ate from ladles again and took turns at the chamberpot. Still no sun.
Then I knew why morning never came. Triaplak and its countryside are forever under a night of black-brown clouds, belched forth by smokestack after smokestack hundreds of stories high, produced by factories that churn out swords and axels and ploughs and machines the likes of which no one from the mudplains has ever seen. Only an irritating coppery dimness seeps from above.
Towers and smokestacks were close and lopsided. Like tombstones in a forgotten graveyard, where the ground has sunk and risen and roots have broken through. No sooner had we tossed anchor to men waiting on a rooftop than the copper sky let forth a stinging, humid rain.
Soon we were in a maze of uneven cobblestone streets and alleys, either cluttered with carriages and carts and masses of joyless bodies in motion, or shockingly deserted. Every street and every building was haphazardly built upon another of a different stone and era. Windows and doors were at the wrong heights and cut off mid-chest. When we blew our noses what came out was black. No one wanted to know if we were loyal to Jeunet.
Everyone we asked had seen a purewhite skyboat. Some had seen it as recently as two days before. But no one could say where and no one had seen it leave the city. The pinnacle of every tower, smokestack, and foundry was clogged with dirty skyboats and dirigibles. Maybe our old man had painted his boat. Or it was dirty. Maybe every skyboat in Triaplak is white underneath. Maybe every surface in Triaplak is white underneath.
We took turns looking through the glow-bulb, following the footprints left by Silas’s fool. He had left his green-black footprints, handprints, burnt shadows, throughout the city. Anyone with magic in him leaves a trace of some kind in his unique combination of colors.
Past steaming sewer grates. Past overloaded tenements that stank so bad we pulled our cloaks over our faces. Past factories that sounded like the collision of metal giants. The search knew no time because the sky betrayed no time. Torches burned everywhere. If it was day the copper light was the sun. If it was night the clouds reflected the torches.
We slept cloak-wrapped in alleys. We crossed the same squares and the same bridges over slow black water. The same dead-withered trees, waiting for someone to reduce their sticks to firewood or kindling or dust.
Hot, vibrant footprints eventually led us to a crumbling monastery. All the signs went in and none of them came out. Two dozen crafty men could be hiding in there right now. My heart was going fast. I was going to find out if I could kill or not. You never learn a thing like that staring at a fire in the mudplains.
We cleared the monastery in the military style L’Acoste had taught me. I covered him with my bow from the window of an abandoned factory across the street while he swept the grounds, his broadsword out. He cleared fallen sheds and an overgrown vineyard. At any moment, the crew of the purewhite skyship could jump out. L’Acoste could be charged from ten sides by men turned to black shapes by the copper light. It was my duty to put them down.
Clear. He traded his sword for a crossbow and covered me to the chapel. I went in, my ax ready. A sagging altarpiece. No vestry or other doors. A handful of monks in prayer. No one rushed me. No one even turned. A moment later L’Acoste was next to me.
The monks were indifferent, trancelike. Like everyone in this dirty place. One-by-one he showed them the“wanted” poster. One-by-one they shook their heads like sleepwalkers. That left the cells. L’Acoste crossed himself with holy water before we left.
We leapfrogged to the entrance of the cells, drew our close-quarters weapons, and went in. We kicked open every door. Some of them collapsed. L’Acoste looked through the glow-bulb. We were close. One cell left.
My heart sank. Our fool was hanging by the neck from a rafter.
Younger than I thought he’d be. Maybe younger than me. Just a boy in a purple robe. His pointy hat was on the floor beneath him. L’Acoste sheathed his sword. His mood changed with frightening suddenness.
“We’re done.” He spoke with frantic casualness before storming out. “Silas found out we were after him and he killed his own fool just to keep us off his tail. He’s long gone now.”
I caught up with him at the gate of the monastery.
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re finished!” he shouted. “I been doing this near ten years. Our man Silas came to Triaplak for one reason only: to get rid of us. When they know you’re after them and they ditch you in a place like this, you don’t find them again! He didn’t meet nobody, didn’t talk to nobody, didn’t leave us no clues. We might as well start looking for someone new.”
He pushed the“wanted” poster into my hands. “If you want this, it’s yours. I reckon I saw some more posters a few blocks back. Some of them worth a thousand rupees. Reckon I saw me a brothel, too.”
He tried to move but I got in his way.“We can’t give up!”
“Don’t argue with me.” His hands were shaking. He was still keyed up for a fight that hadn’t happened. I should have listened but I was too scared to keep my mouth shut.
“All you noblemen who play at being poor are the same! Quitters and cowards!”
Yelling was my mistake. Pushing his chest and insulting him were bigger mistakes. He had me by the wrists. I was in the dirt at his feet in about three seconds.
“Every time I go through a door I have to say to myself, this life, this chase, this could be the last time I ever do it!” he shouted back. “I don’t need you asking all your questions and getting underfoot and then saying I’m a coward. I am Le Chevalier Baptiste Kamille L’A-fucking-Coste. You’re a goddamn farmboy.”
I lashed out at him from the ground. He stepped back with a hand on the hilt of his sword. I was beaten.
“You don’t understand!” I blurted. “He took her! When I couldn’t pay the wizard he took her away from me!”
“Why couldn’t you pay him?”
“Even before I agreed to his bargain, I knew that his field wouldn’t produce two hundred rupees in a month! Maybe not even in a year!”
He narrowed his gaze.
Everything from the winterhouse was in a bonfire on the lawn. I ranted and shouted and tried to break through the line of soldiers. If only I could pull something, anything, out of the fire. It would solve all my problems. They pushed me back, back, back, and finally hit me in the stomach with a club. Face in the mud while the fire kept burning. Only then did I see the limp shapes in torn finery, hanging from a tree. In the shadow-flickering firelight I had no way of knowing if they were servants, family members, or the Baron himself.
“You were gonna steal something from the Baron,” said L’Acoste. “You were gonna break into his winterhouse again and take something worth two hundred rupees and give it to your local wizard.”
The morning after found half the farmers leaving muddy footprints inside the winterhouse. Every snowglobe, painting, and chair had been burned on the lawn. Even the wallpaper had been torn down. I hadn’t slept. I might have cried. Later that day Jenny’s father came asking for her. I spent days in the woods calling her name. I sought her every morning in the fields.
“I figured a couple ashtrays or a clock or something would cover the cost,” I blubbered. “I could take them and no one would miss—”
“You had no way of knowing that Baron Dufay had fallen out of favor with the crown. You had no idea Viscount Jeunet was tearing across the countryside, knocking down everything with the word ‘Dufay’ on it.”
He had appeared above me in my own straw bed, his feet on either side of me, staring down from his twigs and branches.
“I’ll bring you the rupees.”
“That’s not enough,” he had boomed. “You have wasted my time. Now you must bring me the head of Silas Rathke before you can get her back.”
“Who’s Silas Rathke?”
“He is a traitor.”
“Even I knew about Dufay and Jeunet,” declared L’Acoste. “But not you. You’re just a skinny peasant.”
“He took her.”
L’Acoste looked me over. “That’s your problem.”
He gave a nasty look to a gawking passerby before pushing open the rusted steel door to the abandoned factory.
I sat in the dirt and felt sorry for myself.
Then I felt sorry for the boy we left hanging in the monastery. He had his own saga of betrayal and heartbreak that we had pieced together along the way, his guild stripping him of his magic when he ran afoul of a mean-tempered nobleman. His story was silly when we learned it. It was sad now. If he had never been disgraced he would have never ended up with someone like Silas Rathke. At least the monks would bury him.
I raced after L’Acoste. Up the spider-webbed staircase and into the dusty open space of the second floor where we’d left our things before the attack.
“Silas didn’t just kill his fool to keep us from following him!” I said. L’Acoste was packing his gear and hardly listening. “He killed the fool to keep him from telling us something.”
“Wasn’t the fool a teleporter, specializing in portals?”
“That power was stripped from him years ago when he got kicked out of his guild. Old news.” He finished packing and stopped to wind his pocketwatch.
“Everyone we talk to in Triaplak has seen a purewhite skyboat, but no one has seen it leave!”
He stopped in mid-wind. He looked up at me.
It took three days of searching and asking questions before we were standing in a vast, shadowy warehouse. At one end was a magic portal suitable for transporting six or seven people at once. A fat, bearded conjurer produced each of us a stein of beer from empty hands before explaining his apparatus. By this time we both had constant headaches from straining our eyes in the permanent dim.
“As you probably know,” the conjurer said, still as pompous as when we’d first met him two hours earlier in a pub. “You can only travel between portals of equal size. Small portals are inexpensive and easy to transport. The smaller the portal, the shorter the jump. Some portals are so small they can only jump to the next closest portal, which as a man like yourself is aware—” He looked over L’Acoste’s sword and grubby armor. “—has proven invaluable in siege warfare. Over here we have a mega-optomagnascope, normally used to show an enlarged view of distant—”
L’Acoste cleared his throat loudly, brought up something, then swallowed it back down. Undaunted, the conjurer strolled us past what appeared to be a misshapen telescope pointed directly at the portal. He moved on to the next topic of what felt like a speech he had rehearsed many times alone.
“Large portals, on the other hand, are rare, and can move objects over great distances. They are of enormous expense. That is, until the mystery man in your ‘wanted’ poster explained something to me.”
Dominating the warehouse was an enormous mirror, stretching floor to ceiling, well over a hundred feet high. In it, the portal from the opposite side of the warehouse was magnified to monstrous proportions by the conjurer’s bizarre telescope. Big enough to push a purewhite skyboat through.
“Ingenious, although I’m sure I would have thought of it eventually,” said the fat conjurer. “We opened the giant doors and his men pulled in his skyship by the guy-wires. A smelly crew, who answered only to their captain in a tongue that has never been uttered in Triaplak.”
He faced us.“Two hundred rupees to follow them,” he announced.
L’Acoste nodded and handed over his beer stein. He pretended to reach inside his pack before punching the conjurer in the face. A plush armchair ran from a dark corner of the warehouse and caught him before he could hit the floor.
The giant mirror shattered and reformed as we leapt through it. We were running, weapons out, across another stone bridge, beneath another black void, across another limitless sea of lava. Waiting for us at the far end was a tremendous stone arch. Real, not a reflection. We raced through it, jumping unknown hundreds or thousands of miles.
Thunder. Cold. Damp. Not thunder. A waterfall. Echoing in a cave.
Behind a waterfall so vast that sunlight barely got through it. I followed L’Acoste through a break in the torrent of water and into piercing sunlight.
The pit must have been half-a-mile across and miles deep. Water fell on all sides, waterfalls leading to waterfalls leading to waterfalls, from unknown miles above, leading unknown miles below. From our ledge, mist obscured both the basin and the source of the water. All sides were overgrown to bursting with the kind of jungle vegetation I had only seen sketched in books.
The purewhite skyboat sat still in the air, out in the pit, fifty feet above us. It was built from the fronts, backs, masts, and middles of a half-dozen skyboats, connected by an untrustworthy web of gangplanks, cables, and ropes. There was no front or back, and each salvaged piece shifted in the wind, as if it wanted to go lazily in a different direction than the others.
“Higher ground,” ordered L’Acoste. He hastily replaced the standard quarrel from his crossbow with a grappling hook attached to the length of rope from his pack. “Signal to me once you command a view of the ship. Hold your arrows until I’m aboard.”
The ledge led to a path. From the path I could see a rotting network of wooden walkways, ladders, and stairs, overgrown and tangled but still usable.
I was going to kill people. I would be putting arrows not into game or wolves but into Silas’s mysterious crew. If I didn’t, they would overwhelm L’Acoste before he could get to our old man. Jenny.
The thought of arrows coming at me didn’t upset me. Putting down one of my own species is what troubled me.
In position. I knelt amidst the greens and looked over the ship and its crew. No expressions from this distance. That would make it easier. No one moved. I would be able to drop three, maybe four before they went for cover.
I signaled. L’Acoste snagged the dangling anchor with his grappling hook. Hand-over-hand. First the rope, then the anchor. His broadsword on his back and a knife in his teeth. The crew still wasn’t moving. I blinked and strained my eyes.
L’Acoste vanished for a moment as he climbed onboard. Then he was in broad daylight, ondeck in the open, with his sword in front of him. I was too stunned by his carelessness to even nock an arrow. He walked right up to one of Silas’s crew and nudged him with the end of his broadsword. The sailor collapsed. The crew was dead.
I barely saw the arrow before it went into L’Acoste’s leg. He threw himself onto the deck and crawled behind the helmsman’s wheel. Another arrow followed and stuck in the purewhite wood. The crew was dead but there was someone in the pit, in the jungle. A trap. I nocked. My eyes and head flew from side-to-side. He was where I was, not where L’Acoste was.
Stillness. I didn’t know where to loose my arrows. The shafts had come too fast for me to hone in on the shooter. And the archer wouldn’t loose again while L’Acoste was behind cover.
Heartbeat, heartbeat. Don’t hold your breath, I told myself.
L’Acoste knew what he had to do. He sprang up and promptly went down again, another arrow in him.
This time I saw. The archer was on my side. He had an almost identical vantage point a little above me.
I rose with an arrow nocked and Silas saw me. Closer than wolves I had put down. He drew another arrow, faster than anyone I’d ever seen. We loosed on each other. This time his aim was not true.
He staggered into the open, nearer the pit, half an arrow sticking out of his chest. He still had his bow in one hand. Already a fresh arrow in the other. I nocked and loosed again. Aim for the torso. He went down. Out of sight. Towards the pit.
The head. The local wizard wanted his head.
I dropped my bow and tripped on it while going for my ax. I pushed and hacked a way through the undergrowth.
Into the clearing he’d been using as a vantage. Blood on the ground. Bow, scattered arrows. A huge branch jutted from the cliff beneath it. I ran to the edge and looked over. Silas was hanging from the branch by one hand. Nothing below him for two hundred feet. I got on my belly and reached out.
He looked at me. He didn’t move. Just as old, mean, and leathery as he looked in his “wanted” poster. I had to shout over the waterfalls.
“Give me your other hand!”
I looked in his watery old eyes and knew there was no killing now. No way I could take his head off. I would bring him back to the local wizard in chains and let them settle their differences or kill each other or parade the other’s head on a pike through the mudplains if they wanted to. I wasn’t going to take off his head.
He reached out. We clasped wrists. Slick with blood. He seemed to lose interest. I found I was saying “No!” over and over until I realized I needed that strength. I dug my knees into the ground and pulled. By the time his belly was on the ledge, he was dead.
L’Acoste’s breastplate had stopped the second arrow but there was still the arrow in his leg. We figured out what had happened to Silas and his crew while dressing the wound. The crew was dead and had always been dead, reanimated by the fool and obedient only to whatever far-off language the fat conjurer with the mirror had heard but not understood. After the fool’s death, it was only a matter of time before the crew followed him to the grave. Silas must have thought they would keep going indefinitely.
Then the head. L’Acoste looked at Silas, still where I had left him by my broken bow. He looked at my ax.
“Four hundred rupees for each of us right there,” he said.
“I told you before. I just need the head.”
“You want I should do it?”
Now the reservations were gone. Silas was dead. I had killed him. No morals or rules had changed. Finality, is all. What was left was meat. No different than pigs I had butchered. Or wolves I had skinned.
I said,“I’ll do it.”
The soot-caked palace of the viceroy was surrounded by shacks, leaning towers, libraries, and offices, all devoted to the bureaucracy that ran Triaplak on behalf of the crown. Griffins patrolled the grounds, stretching, licking themselves, leaving pawprints in the soot.
In one of those shadowy rooms, L’Acoste collected the bounty from a wind-up clockwork automaton that was like a man made of springs and pendulums. It signed forms and gave him precisely eight hundred rupees. When I explained that I needed to keep the head, I was diverted to a human official in a different dank, sooty room. Unimpressed, much in the style of Triaplakians, she branded the head so that I couldn’t collect the bounty again anywhere else and gave me a new jar to transport it.
I spent the first of the bounty getting a doctor. He said L’Acoste had fever but with rest he stood an even chance of recovery. I left him on a cot in a den full of coughing paupers, in the care of overworked nuns. He was violently cheerful, despite being colorless and sweaty. I urged him to pay for a room with clean sheets.
“I had enough clean sheets and shiny chamberpots growing up,” he said. “Besides, I got it all planned out. Take a look.”
With shaking hands he showed me a“wanted” poster even older and more tattered than Silas’s. On the back was a scribbled budget. He wanted new armor, rope, food and supplies, a short-legged warhorse, a pack mule, a new eyepatch, more quarrels for his crossbow, and about a half-dozen other words that I didn’t know. He was set to spend about three hundred and fifty rupees. He was still prepared to give me half the bounty.
“Why not quit while you’re still alive?” I said. “Get some land and servants. Live off that. Free of hardship.”
He squinted at me with feverish clarity.“That’s where you’re wrong, farmboy,” he said. “A man may have all the liberties in the world, but if he lives for nothing more than ease he’s not free. He’s a slave to his stomach, undeserving of being called a rational being. It’s only when he gives himself to something larger that he can be free.”
An odd thing for L’Acoste to say. Aside from polite curiosity about mudsoy and brothels, I had never heard him breathe a word about anything other than the next step in the manhunt. He ate what was good for the chase and slept when the chase needed it. Even his loss at cards seemed now like a rite of passage for me and my bow. I couldn’t imagine his proposed brothel trip being any more passionate than kicking over a bucket that had been left by mistake in the rain.
Was the fever a mirror through time and space? Reaching back to a childhood of clean sheets, reflecting into the present the words of a wig-wearing philosopher or blackclad Jesuit? Who knows these things.
“I’ll be fine. Get going,” he told me, and I looked back at him one last time from the door. With feverish, impish delight, he alternated between winding his pocketwatch and examining a handkerchief filled with black stuff he blew out of his nose. But there was something about the way he was blinking too fast that made me think I’d never see him again.
It took weeks to get from Triaplak to the mudplains. At sundown I entered the forest, not stopping at my hut or even to look for my parents. I collapsed under the trees. I was awake long enough to make sure the jar didn’t tip over. Wild dreams of the sky opening and shutting.
When I awoke at midnight, the jar was gone and Jenny was there. I took her small body in my arms. We wept.
We said goodnight on her father’s doorstep. The torches at my parents’ hut were still burning. She kissed me long on the cheek while I stared at the orange flames.
“What is it?” she said.
“I thought it was farther from your hut to mine.”
“It’s always been that far.”
That night there was no place more comfortable than my bed of straw.
Time wore on. The local wizard’s field was still as fecund as before but I was lazy in tending it. That season’s crop wasn’t going to be any better or worse than any other field in the mudplain. My fault. I couldn’t blame the wizard. Maybe next season I would work harder, I said to myself. I made myself think of books, smooth skin, and fresh meat every night, but only when I remembered to.
One morning there were three horses and two riders outside my hut. They wore chainmail and kept their hair in ropy braids down their backs. The woman had nine fingers and the man’s arm was in a sling. The hard skin of their faces made me think of a field too rocky to farm.
“We heard tell of a farmer who knows how to use a bow,” said the man. “And we got a bounty that can split three ways.”
“Is that horse for me?”
“I know what you need,” the local wizard had said, “better than you do.”
I got Silas’s bow from where I’d been keeping it over the door.
Good-bye Jenny. Everything that was once mine is now yours.
Now I knew why the wizard took from me what he did. He knew what I needed.