Four rivers border the parched lands, or one, depending on how you reckon it. Philosophers have written treatises on the subject, some of which I’d even read. What concerned me now, however, was the question of how to pay the ferryman.
I had not entered the parched lands entirely unprepared. I had an excellent pair of boots—good boots are underrated everywhere—and I was almost glad the ferryman would not accept them in exchange for passage. I had the Apiarist’s Gun, made to fit my hand. And as for nourishment, that took care of itself, even here.
I should not have trespassed in the first place, but the Raven-Cloaked General had offered me her eyes. It is a common misconception that my people collect such jewels, although in this case I could not blame her. She might even have paid me literally, if I had demanded it. But I had boasted that I would collect my payment only after completing the mission. I was hoping to ingratiate myself to the General and earn a place as a military advisor, a rest after generations of wandering, even if such service was likely to result in yet more travel. Still, it was worth a try.
An old friend had once told me that I lacked the attention span for grand strategy, although I had some gift for tactics. I could not deny it. The Keep of Silent Bells lay ruined behind me, as the Raven-Cloaked General had desired. Neither she nor I had had any doubt I would succeed. No: the hard part was the escape.
I heard the approaching thunder-march of the Keep’s reinforcements. They brought with them their own pall of rain deferred. Even outside the parched lands the Drought Guard had made a name for themselves. I could not help but feel a certain kinship for them. The thirst of my people is of a different order, yet there are few of us, and it is difficult not to hope for even the glancing illusion of camaraderie.
The Drought Guard had sent twelve-and-twelve of their own after me, which might have held numerological significance if I still cared about such things. Their armor was plate-of-desiccation, chased with incongruously bright silver.
It was possible that they didn’t realize what I was. I wasn’t going to count on it, however. Neither assignment nor thirst drove me at the moment, but better to face the Guards here, hoping to slay them quickly, than to allow them to pin me against the river before I was prepared to deal with the ferryman.
Upon approaching, the Guards raised their spears. The rain-flash of their salute pleased me. “Tell me your names,” I called out, “so that I may mourn you properly.”
My old friend had also explained to me that this was more likely to be taken as an insult as not; but I wanted to know, and I had little patience for obscure courtesies. I prevailed the time it mattered to me. I knew my friend’s name when death came for him, and to this day I carried a funerary tablet of jade the color of lilacs, which I had had carved with his name on one side and mine on the other.
More often my friend won. I kept score even now. In this case, the Guards disdained to answer my question. Their leader, with their eyes the color of buried ice, said, “I know who you are.” Their voice was calmly weary, and I was certain they were looking at my gold-muzzled gun, which had come to my hand the way it did when it was eager. “If we fight here, we’ll draw the ferryman’s attention. Come with us, or face the ferryman; it’s up to you.”
“If I come with you,” I said, curious, “how is that better?”
“As much as the Drowned Queen hates rebuilding fortresses,” the Guard leader said, “she hates it even more that the ferryman and his rivers limit her borders.”
Plausible, but none of my affair. “Sorry,” I said.
The Guard leader lifted a hand. The first rank knelt. The second remained standing. Both ranks prepared to fire.
My gun hummed in my hand. It was unbeautiful sound, much-loved. I pulled the trigger.
There are many misconceptions about my people besides the one about the collection of eyes. (Pickled, one presumes, although I’m no expert on such endeavors.) That we are universally excellent at seduction, an exercise better left to fox spirits; that we only hunt at night, as though the nights that matter are defined by sun-arc rather than heart-dark; that if you catch us at a crossroads, we are bound not to harm you for a year and a day. None of these is true.
What is true is that thirst drove each of us to have our hearts forged into weapons.
The Apiarist’s Gun made no noise of its own, although the Guards’ rifles did. A silent weapon has its applications, yet I longed sometimes—call it sentimentality—for battlefield percussion.
Bees swarmed from the gun’s muzzle. They intercepted and clung to the rifles’ bullets, which fell dead to the ground and kicked up dust, a lot of it. One of the Guards, more sensitive than his fellows, coughed wrackingly.
The rest of the bees headed straight for the Guards’ eyes. The ranks’ discipline in not dropping their weapons was commendable. Their hands would have been small barrier anyway. Each bee had only one sting; but there were very many bees.
When the bees had finished their work, I holstered the gun with an effort. The surfeit of death so soon after the slaughter at the keep made me sluggish. The only consolation was that the ferryman was unlikely to care about twelve-and-twelve more deaths added to the tally.
That brought my original problem back to me. While it is true that the ferryman does not leave his boat, I should have expected that the river was an extension of his will, just as the gun was an extension of mine. It was surging toward me now.
I was no connoisseur of rivers, my main concern being whether I could pass them or not. But the waters sheened dark-bright like a million rippling coins, melodies of light playing across the ripples. I was moved in spite of myself.
The ferryman and his boat arrived shortly after that. I didn’t run. We both knew I had nowhere to run to, after hunting in his territory. Not all of my people are territorial; I’m just as happy to play mercenary in one nation as another. But the weapon that is my heart also happens to be portable. The ferryman’s weapon—the river—is less convenient.
Just as the river’s waters could not harm me, so that I had been able to cross into the parched lands without paying the ferryman’s toll, my gun had no virtue against him. The gun lay quiescent, in recognition of this.
I knelt in a rustle. The gun being my best defense, I rarely bothered with armor unless I was passing for an ordinary mercenary. (I’m passable, although not exceptional, with a sword.)
The ferryman held his oar in a way that made me think getting hit by it would hurt, even if it could do me no lasting damage. He was tall, with dusky skin and deliciously broad shoulders. Some of my people are more handsome than others, by my idiosyncrasies of taste anyway; and it had been a long time. But he had no reason to think well of me.
“Do you mean to cross?” he asked.
“I’m in no hurry to leave,” I said, which was true. I’d done as the Raven-Cloaked General had asked, and her payment was of little moment.
“You must be one of the younger ones,” he said musingly.
“I suppose that’s possible. I don’t keep track.”
The ferryman winced, and I was almost sorry I had lied to him. “There aren’t many of us anymore,” he said. “Someone has to keep the histories. Still: I hadn’t heard of bees. Why bees?”
“You’d have to ask the thirstsmith,” I said. “I told them that I wanted a gun. Everything else was up to them.”
The Apiarist’s Gum hummed in satisfaction. Quiet, I thought at it.
“When was the last time you shared the cup?” the ferryman asked me.
I was disappointed, hearing this. A fight might not be forthcoming after all. My friend had always remarked that I had simple tastes. There are worse afflictions. Still, resting here a little space might be congenial.
“The last time was when I was in the service of the Peacock General,” I said. We don’t share our names casually, and I had never known hers. Her weapon had been the military gift in its purest form. Not unsurprisingly, she had been more cerebral than most of us. But after conquering several empires, she had tired of the game and fallen into the dust sleep that claims us when we deny the thirst too long. I’d heard of her fate two mortal generations later, from a traveling scholar.
The ferryman was nodding, his mouth crimped. “Yes,” he said. “I remember her. Come into the boat, then, and let me offer you that small hospitality.”
I could not see through the waters, and I wondered how deep they ran as I stepped into the boat. Carefully, we both sat.
The ferryman had produced a cup of stained stone. With a small knife he slashed his palm over it. I did likewise. We each touched our lips to the rim of the cup: a recognition of the thirst we shared.
“My turn,” I said, wondering how much he wanted to talk. “Why a river?”
“There’s a saying where I come from,” he said. “‘Where the heart’s rivers run.'”
I waited, but that was all.
He eased the oar back in the water. “It’s words, nothing more.”
I heard the tension in his voice and did not press further.
In the old life I was a scholar-aspirant at the Winged Library. When I was very, very young, I thought the most hideous thing that could happen to me was the loss of the knowledge I guarded. It was, needless to say, a very great library, unrivaled among the named lands.
As it turned out, the conquerors who came during my youth were not barbarians. They did their utmost to save the books. The same could not be said of my old people.
I survived the conquest. After that I went to the Forge Beneath the World and gave myself into the hands of the thirstsmith who dwells there.
Forging your heart into a weapon changes you only if you desire to be something more than a weapon in the first place. By then any such desire had departed me.
Neither of us needed sleep, which was just as well. The way the boat rode high and low in the water bothered me. The ferryman smiled when he saw it, not unkindly.
For a long time I sat in his boat, a silent presence, as he rowed from shore to shore in response to calls that I could not decipher. Gradually it occurred to me that the river’s dull roar had words in it, even if their language was not for me to understand.
We might have spent a year and a day together, or longer than that. After the time of silence, I began speaking little by little. But mostly I listened.
Only the very desperate crossed into the parched lands, people for whom the world without was so cruel that the rule of the Drowned Queen seemed preferable. I witnessed my share of suicides at the river’s shore. The ritual method involved a knife not dissimilar to the one the ferryman and I had used. I observed merely that bleeding to death is never as fast as everyone seems to think it ought to be, and if I had been more fastidious the mess would have bothered me. As it was, ravens waited for their feast. I thought to myself that the scavengers of the world were often underestimated.
From time to time the ferryman shared with me his observations. He told me of the Drowned Queen, who had survived an assassination attempt in body but not, entirely, in mind. So great was her aversion to water that she locked it away in her lens-lit palace and let it out only in stingy trickles while her people struggled to bring life to the parched lands. By then I could guess that the ferryman’s own bargain with the thirstsmith had something to do with containing the Queen’s desire for expansion.
As I grew to know him better, I sensed that the ferryman brooded from time to time on his self-inflicted duty. But it was not until the first time I witnessed the fate of a passenger who had not brought the toll that I learned how deep his discontent was.
It is perhaps relevant that most of the Drowned Queen’s subjects, by now, were born in the parched lands. The woman who came to us asking for passage, however, had only one eye, and she came from within the Drowned Queen’s realm. A disc of thin gold was stamped with the oar-sign over the socket of the other, affixed by polished rivets: toll paid.
The woman waited with slow dignity as the boat pulled up. The ferryman’s oar slowed. “You must have been misinformed,” he said, with the politeness I had grown to treasure. “One to enter, two to leave.”
The saying was known even as far away as the Burning City. The ferryman’s toll of eyes.
By now I had discovered that the ferryman neither pickled eyes nor (my second guess) threw them to the fishes that might lurk in the river. But he had tools beyond the knife and the oar, and those tools were what he used to collect his toll.
Most people were considerate enough to bring their own coins to cover the gaping sockets. Even pennies worn thin would do. For the very poorest who insisted on crossing, the ferryman would cut a circle of their own skin. In my old life I would have considered writing a treatise blaming him for all the superstitions about our people.
“I have a daughter,” the woman said, already boring me with her desperation. There was always a daughter, a lover, a cousin. “She is dying in the Underbridge, and there is no one else to care for her. I must cross. One eye, two, what does it matter to you?”
“The rule is the rule,” the ferryman said.
I tried to figure out what bothered me about his face, and it came to me: if I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn that he felt sorry for her. But why—?
Eventually she tried to leap into the boat. The waters had swollen forward to catch her, and she gurgled as they dragged her under.
“I don’t understand you,” I said after nothing remained but the ripples in the water.
“Would you have saved her?”
“Of course not. Her life doesn’t mean anything to me one way or another. I could have shot her, if that would have been more to your liking. I didn’t because—” I was not accustomed to hesitating like this. But it was important to find the right words. “I didn’t think you wanted me to.”
I had not realized how vast the river was, how far away the shore was. In fact, I wasn’t sure I could see the shore at all.
“I didn’t,” the ferryman said. “I sometimes wonder how much difference it makes, whether they leap or we push. At times it seems like all the difference in the world.”
“Why does the rule matter to you, if you like it so little?”
“Because when I stop enforcing it,” the ferryman said, “it no longer binds the Drowned Queen.”
“She kills people with her stinginess, but so do we with our thirst. She can’t be so much more terrible than we are.” Mostly I was reflecting that the smith had given me a much less complicated weapon.
The ferryman lifted the oar out of the water and sighed. “Tell me about the world outside,” he said. “Tell me if any of this has made a difference, or if outside, too, there is nothing but tyranny.”
“How long have you been here?”
“The number wouldn’t mean anything to you.”
I conceded that this was likely true. “All right,” I said.
I didn’t tell him of the people I had killed. Killing was nothing new to him. Nor did I speak of politics, which rarely interested me. Instead, I told him of small memories from my travels. Blocks of bean curd hung to dry from tiled roofs. A tiny shrine I had stayed at during a storm, where I had unexpectedly discovered a clay tablet from my old homeland housed with devotional verses scratched into bamboo strips and painted onto porcelain. The sweetness of thyme honey.
And at the end I took out the funerary tablet I always carried, and I ran my fingers over the smooth jade. “We traveled together for six years,” I said. “I would have massacred armies for him, and instead pneumonia got him. I have no cures for pneumonia.”
“You’re not angry?”
The ferryman laughed at my expression. He held out his hand for the tablet, and I reluctantly surrendered it to him. “Beautiful work. Yours?”
“I paid someone to do it for me. I’m no stonecarver.”
He handed the tablet back to me, and I returned it to its accustomed place in its pouch.
We spoke of other things then: the flowers that bloomed along the bank in the spring, and the snails that sometimes kept the ferryman company, and the clear sweet smell of wind over water. But I sensed that his dissatisfaction would only grow.
I did not drowse, exactly, but the ferryman was occupied witnessing the latest suicides when the ravens came for me. I knew them immediately for what they were. They perched on either side of the boat and said, raucously, “439th Raven Detachment, reporting.”
“Tell your general she owes me nothing,” I said to the ravens. There were two of them, one with a red band around its leg, one with a blue band. To aid those of us who couldn’t tell the birds apart, presumably.
“Our general believes in payments delivered,” the red raven said. “Or do you intend to linger here forever? She was starting to wonder, and even her patience is not infinite.”
I had, in fact, been considering it. But there was no telling when the ferryman would tire of my company, even if I had yet to tire of his. In a low voice, I said, “I would if it were an option. I am not one to stay where I am not wanted, though.”
“One to enter, two to leave,” the blue raven said. “No one ever asks about returning after that.”
“People usually run out of eyes about then.” Even so, I had a thought—”Tell me, how highly does your general regard your vision?”
Never let it be said that ravens are not without conceit. “What other bird would serve her as well?” the red raven said.
Good to know. “Then I don’t want her eyes,” I said. “I want you. If you are amenable to being loaned out.”
The ravens were laughing at me. “Don’t you think she foresaw this?” they said.
“Visitors?” the ferryman said, arching his eyebrows at the ravens.
“After a fashion,” I said, although he must have overheard everything. I hadn’t told the ferryman about the Raven-Cloaked General, but I couldn’t imagine that he didn’t know, considering what I’d done to the keep. “I want to leave you now.”
It wasn’t precisely what I meant, but I could not come up with a better way to say it.
“So soon,” the ferryman said, and I knew then that I had hurt him.
We both knew this couldn’t last. The nature of our hunting need not be profligate, depending on our weapons, but sooner or later we would quarrel over (as one of our philosophers said, ironically) oasis rights. The ferryman might have indulged my hunting in his territory despite the terrible insult I had offered in doing so, but I didn’t know how much longer he would do so.
I unclipped the holster, gun and all, and held it out to the ferryman in both hands. He stared at me, eyes widening.
“Take it,” I said, voice shaking. “Take it, take the ravens, and go. It seems this is the only lasting happiness I can offer you. If I know you might return some day, I think I can bear it.”
Among my people, the exchanging of hearts is very literal, and true reciprocity is rare. The old stories are full of fools who disarm themselves only to find their regard unreturned.
The ferryman knew how to handle a gun. I had wondered about that. Nevertheless, he returned the gun to me.
I stared at him, cold inside. But I accepted the gun.
“An exchange,” he said. “The river for the gun. Guard the river for me and I’ll come back to you, if you will but wait. I’ll tell you my name then.”
“Yes,” I breathed. “Yes.”
“Shoot me,” the ferryman said. “Two to leave. I want the bees to be the last thing I see, to remind me of you.”
“I’ll be waiting,” I said, and fired.
for Sonya Taaffe
Return to Issue #174