Pigeons and sea swallows nested at the top of the house, under its eaves and sloping gables. Below, at the meeting of masonry and cliff, lived the gulls and the salt shrifts. Sometimes Abby would climb down to the cypress trees sprung from stone and watch the shrifts as they wheeled and dove into the surf. Then up they soared again to the green-eyed, stump-winged babies bawling from stone nests, with never a glance for the green-eyed daughter of the house, perched above.
Down below even the clumps of cypress, Abby guessed there were limpets and hanging clams like in the ricepaper paintings, though of course she could not climb down so far even if she were allowed. And below that there were two massive trunks of stone on which stood the whole house, gables and cypress and Abby and all.
And below that was the sea.
The sea, Abby thought, must be like if she could strain all the air smelling of salt and seaweed through a cheesecloth and then squeeze the drippings into a bucket with a brim wide as the horizon. Yes, that was the sea. It was only natural that a girl born squalling into the world just a few hundreds of feet above its surface and living her entire brief life in its breezes would want to kiss it, taste it, wash her hair in it until her pinewood-blonde curls were brown as the floating kelp. Only natural.
And so, when the stryke flew wheeling in from the north coast to deliver abstract news of battles and bandits and the sale of thirty-seven bolts of hand-spun Mowerian silk, it was only natural that Abby would sneak from her nursery-turned-playroom-turned-solarium down into the eyrie where the stryke was bedded. She brought crumbles of cheese and three black sardines folded in a napkin. The stryke’s eyes flashed even wider and yellower when it saw her, but it didn’t screech, and when she opened the napkin and held out the first sardine it took it with one hook-nailed hand, tossed it, and snapped it from the air with its hooked beak.
“Will you take me down to the water?” Abby said.
The hand, reaching toward the napkin, pulled back.
“No, it’s all right. You can have the fish anyway.” She held out a second sardine, waiting, until the stryke took it.
“Please, will you take me down the water? I’ve never been there before.”
The stryke cocked its head, no different than a gull when she tempted it with a bread crumb. It gave a questioning squawk.
“Not far, you know. Just down to where the pillars stand in the water. I’ve never seen them, but the painting in the dining hall shows. They’re like legs that could walk away and take us anywhere—though they never do. They can’t, I suppose. Have you seen them?” She reached suddenly and caught the stryke’s hand.
The stryke considered, nodded.
“Please, won’t you take me? You can have the cheese and the fish for your journey and I’ve the key to loose your cuffs”—she pointed to the single, clanking chain that stretched from the wall to the stryke’s wrist. “And you can fly out tonight if you like, instead of tomorrow.” She hadn’t meant to promise this; doubtless there were messages to be returned in the stryke’s carrying sack to those mysterious names and places up the coast. But— “Please. Let me touch the water.”
The stryke paused longer this time. It raised its beak and shook it side to side, and Abby caught the odor of the oilfish three days past that the sailor boy had fed it for its troubles.
The stryke clucked softly and held out the bound wrist. Abby dug the key from her apron pocket and sprang the lock. Swiftly the stryke folded the crumbles and the last sardine into a bundle, knotted it, and slipped it into the carrying sack. Then it stood—oh, it was taller than she’d thought, when she’d spied it from the corner of dining hall. It was taller even than her father, she thought now, maybe half as high again. Its wings still folded, it strode the few feet to the eyrie door and swung it open to the night sea air. Then it took Abby in its arms as easily as Nurse had done when there still was a nursery and it stepped from the eyrie’s edge.
Abby’s mouth was open to scream, but no sound came as they plunged towards the surf. Then with a soft snap the wings opened and they hung suddenly in the air, stryke and girl, only halfway down the house. They began to circle, spiraling as the shrifts did but in wider, slower sweeps. The last lights of sunset glinted over the water. So calm it had looked from above, the waters temperate and orderly, but as they slowly dropped Abby could hear the waves heaving and breaking.
A lift of a wing and their circle encompassed the whole of the house. They swung around it and Abby could see them now, the twin pillars of stone upon which she’d stood all her life. Suddenly she was dropping nearer, nearer, and then they dove and landed flat in the carved hollow in one pillar just a foot above the tide. The stryke set her down, upright, and she ignored the trembling in her legs as she crouched at the edge and dipped her fingers in the water.
Salt! It tasted of salt as much as the sardines did, but with some wilder flavor, too—the seaweed, perhaps.
She cupped seawater and splashed it on her face, and laughed. And then gave a sudden cry as the stryke leapt from the ledge and flapped upward.
It could not leave her here! It couldn’t. How would she get up? She’d never known a tide before, but she knew of them, and the brimming pools etched in the walls at her back told her the water would rise above where she stood.
But she hadn’t told the stryke to take her back. She had bargained badly, and now would it only honor the word of the bargain, and not the spirit? Cunning creatures, they were, that was what the cook had said. And hadn’t the sailor boy told of a pair of nesting strykes that killed their eyrie master and fled?
And then the beat of wings returned and the stryke scrabbled again at the ledge and stepped tuck-winged into the hollow. She turned to scold it, but her eye caught on light in the water and she turned back again....
A girl rose from the brine and clutched at the hollow’s edge with one hand, the other lifting a lantern flat like a seed pod and glowing a wet green light. Water streamed from her sea-black hair. She barked to the stryke and then she tossed her head, twice, keeping her eyes on Abby.
This girl wasn’t like the stryke, trained to docility by a mage’s charms and whispers. She was wild—even Abby, who’d never met such a being, could see that. Her eyes glistened madly with flecks of peridot and gold, and they repelled and invited and saw Abby as she was sure she’d never been seen before. They mocked her.
Abby crept forwards, newly trembling, and then suddenly the girl let go the ledge and seized Abby’s arm. Pulling her close, she reached up and kissed her once on one cheek, once on the other with lips cool and wet. Then the girl laughed a barking sort of laugh and flung herself backwards into the sea, and instantly she was gone, her light blinking out a moment after.
Abby’s cheeks were damp where the girl’s lips had been. She rubbed at one and licked her fingers, and they tasted briny and salt-wet.
Abby rose. “Up, now?” she said. She had seen the pillars of her house and met a wild sea girl, and that was enough strangeness. Nor was the fear entirely eased that the stryke might leave her stranded at sea’s edge. But it didn’t; at her words it cradled her again, hopped from the ledge, and climbed wingbeat by wingbeat to the heights. She pointed to her bedroom balcony and it landed there just long enough to set her down. Then it was gone.
Early, early next morning she returned the key to the rack where it hung, and then all the day she kept to the playroom while her father stormed of the lost stryke. She drew pictures of the sea and the girl and her lantern, though she tore them all to bits and threw them from the balcony when she was done. She knew they mustn’t be found.
It was only later she understood that the stryke had flown without its guiding charm, the bit of magic that kept it flying down the north coast and up, down and up. It wouldn’t be caught by humankind again. She hadn’t understood that before, but she wasn’t sorry.
It was later still that she understood what the sea girl had done when she’d kissed her, what binding charms were loosed and what new charms bound. For Abby was a girl no longer of the house, but of the sea, and when she was tall and grown it would be the sea she served.