Irretu’s leather boat bumped against the poles that held up my unfinished home. I tucked away my grasscord net—the evening was too dark for net-work anyway—and helped her up the last few ladder rungs. She hated that she needed a helping hand, but a thousand years and a hundred childbirths had given her all manner of aches and pains. The weather was no help either; her joints ached, and when she looked up at the sky, the first raindrops pooled in her empty eye-socket.
We ducked through the sealskin door. “You’ve made quick progress on this place, Serra.” Irretu climbed into my hammock to catch her breath. “I thought you’d still be chopping cane.”
I patted my belly. “Your grandchild needs a roof, and I’m not welcome in the healers’ hall.”
“All true enough,” she said with no particular sympathy. She laid back and closed her good eye. Rainwater leaked from her missing eye like tears. “You could have taken the whalers’ hall; they’ll never have a use for it again. Was it the smell?”
That got a laugh out of me. “Rotten whale fat and dirty beds? It was certainly the smell. I’m almost glad their mothers wouldn’t let me use whalebones for the poles of this place. Cane’s more work but smells so much better.”
“I can have a word with them. I’d be willing to do that.”
“The thing’s done,” I said. She’d taken my hammock, but I’d made the floor springy, on her advice. I threw down a woven-grass mat and laid down, knees up to take stress off the small of my back. “Have they caught Tahure yet?”
“I raised him among the Barde so he could learn from your people, and he’s learned well,” she said with grim pride. “It’s not just the whalers now. Kurdet washed up tonight.”
The name, not her fate, brought a flinch. Kurdet had taught me healing for two years now. When my husband killed hers, Kurdet had come at my belly with a redfin spine. If not for Irretu—
“Now there’s a woman I won’t mourn.”
Irretu wove her leathery hands together in a complicated way, and a spark of warm light hovered in the middle of the hut, pushing back nightfall. “Nor should you. I was tempted to kill her myself. But she had a reasonable chance of learning enough to stop Tahure, so I taught her everything I could. And...”
“And she failed, just like the whalers and the birdtakers. He’s winning the war.” I smiled without humor. “There’s a reason I wove that hammock wide enough for two.”
“You can’t expect him back. My boy is mad, Serra. Broken at a deep level. He’ll never be your husband again.”
After the blood he’d shed, that was hard to deny. It had started simple enough, if the whalers had told the truth, but Tahure had taken the fight far higher than it should have gone, and then shark-bitten bodies started washing up on the beach.
“But he’ll want a place to sleep when he wins,” I said, “and if that’s what keeps me alive, so be it.”
Irretu sighed and deflated like a pufferfish. Her hands went still, but the spark of light stayed there above us. “I can’t fault you. This is so far beyond—”
“You’ve never had a son go mad? Learn murder?”
“Oh, many, but not like this. Our hosts and I could always solve the problem. But Tahure’s the child of my old age, and he hurt me on his way out, and I don’t see as clearly as I did. I’m not what I was.”
“Maybe your children are what they always were.”
“You touched your belly just then, girl. Trust me when I say that I’ve raised tens upon tens of good men, and Tahure’s sire was a good man too. There’s nothing wrong with my grandchild’s blood, if that’s what you fear.”
I got up off the floor. “I need my hammock back.”
Irretu laughed and climbed out. “I was wondering how long it would take you to ask. You’re too accommodating.”
The hammock groaned as I settled into it. I’d put on some warmth lately—plenty of starlet eggs and oilfish to help the baby grow. “Since I assume you’re here to ask me to kill Tahure, calling me too accommodating was probably a mistake.”
I had the satisfaction of seeing her blink. She folded her arms and leaned against the wall, looking out the window. “Well, one thing at a time. Does he visit you, Serra?”
“Not since he broke, but I see his boat far out some nights. The little girl in me hopes—well, you know what I hope.”
Irretu smiled, but her good eye was blank. “I’m his mother, my dear, and that can be every bit as naive. Know that I understand what I’m asking. If the opportunity comes, will you do it?”
“You sent the others because you’re slower and weaker than you used to be, but I’m not too quick myself right now. Of the two of us, you’d be the better murderer.”
“I would be and I am,” she said without shame, “but he’d see me coming. I suspect you still matter to him.”
“If it was just me, I’d consider it.”
“You won’t consider it?”
I closed my eyes. “My husband has killed thirteen Barde. I won’t make it fifteen. Put out the light, please.”
The hut went dark. True night had arrived with a cold breeze off the sea. “You can learn my arts,” Irretu said intently, “and probably better than Kurdet or the whalers. You’ll have every advantage.”
“So did they, and they still floated in on the tide. You’re welcome to rest the night here, Irretu, but you’ll leave empty-handed. You have the only answer I can give.”
She laughed in the dark and climbed in beside me, careful of her grandchild in my belly. “As if you’d be any safer if he lived here.”
When Irretu began to snore—and she snored with the confidence of her thousand years—I eased myself out of the hammock and slipped through the sealskin door. Her leather-and-wood boat was safer and better-balanced than my little coracle but light enough to paddle alone. It let me keep low enough to avoid the eyes of the sentries watching for Tahure. I went out with the tide until the Barde village blended with the trees in the dark. The rain was ending. I’d have liked Irretu’s magic for a touch of light, but the farther out I went, the clearer my course.
Tahure’s boat stood tall. It had a sail, one of Irretu’s designs brought from some distant beach, and it sat firm on two hulls carved from treetrunks. I’d helped him hollow those trunks with fire and stone-edged tools; helped weave the sail too. I knew the boat as well as I knew my home.
With his face hidden in the dark, he helped me aboard and tied his mother’s boat to his. He stood apart from me, unsure. I smelled dried blood.
“How’s our little one?” he said hoarsely.
“Sleeping right now,” I said. I eased myself down to put my back against the mast, beside the long basket I’d woven to protect his bow and arrows. “I wasn’t sure I should come.”
“You’ve seen the people I... fought.”
“Some of them. Mostly whalers, birdtakers. I heard Kurdet washed up, and I suppose I owe you some thanks for that.”
“I saw what she tried. I was watching.” By Irretu’s arts, I assumed; I would have recognized him if he’d come to the village, even in disguise. He tapped his temple. “So when she came for me, an arrow in the neck seemed the least I could do.”
“I gave you your thanks; don’t cast your net for more.”
“Well. Thank you for trusting me enough to be here.”
“Your mother asked me to kill you, so here I am.”
Tahure didn’t flinch. “I heard.” He snapped his fingers and light flared up, just a momentary spark like two rocks colliding—a reminder that he knew his mother’s skills. Either she’d forgotten he might have the means to listen in, or for some reason she’d wanted him to hear. I hadn’t forgotten. “I’m at war with some of the Barde, Serra, not all. I’m Barde like my father, and my wife, and my child. Every time I kill, it weakens our people. But those I’ve killed came for me, and they keep coming. It’s a blood feud, back and forth, the same as any other war—it’s just that I’m better at it.”
The words came out like he’d tumbled them over and over, sharp rocks in the sand, until the edges wore down and he found them comfortable. He stood back by the rudder’s long arm, tense and unsure, as far as he could get from me and his weapons. In his way he feared me almost as much as I feared him.
“You think I’ve gone mad?” he asked after a while. Moonlight on the water picked out the details of his face, and I saw as much desperate tension there as I heard in his voice. He cared about the answer more than I’d seen him care about much of anything. We’d been young together, Irretu’s last son and the village healer-girl, before life dragged us under like a riptide.
“Don’t take this as rejection, love, but you’re not the man I knew, and I don’t have a word for the change.”
He rubbed his face. “In my heart of hearts, I think I’d have steered for the horizon if you hadn’t been here with the Barde. Would you come with me?”
“If...” He floundered. “Why does it need a condition?”
I tapped my belly like a drum, and the baby twisted sleepily. “Setting off to nowhere is for young people, not parents.”
He crossed the twin-hulled boat’s rocking deck in a heartbeat and crouched, face to face. A summer’s violence, all up and down the Barde coast, hadn’t done much for his breath or the state of his clothes. “Tell me any other way we could be together. I’d have taken the both of you by now if I didn’t know that all raids go sideways. And Mother would sooner kill you than let you go, Serra.”
“I’m not sure that’s true.”
“No? She lost me; she won’t lose the baby. Weaving her blood into this world’s people is her life’s work, and our child, our children, will be the last drop she ever gives. She won’t end her work with a failure.”
I let myself reach up and put my palm against his jaw. “You can’t trust her, she can’t trust you, and I’d like to be able to trust you both. You’re family.”
“That’s less possible than...” He laughed without mirth. “...going off to sea together. It’s her or me.”
“I want you both to know this child, and neither of you dead. Is that so mad?”
“She’s a god, Serra,” he hissed, eyes wide, “or close enough. Even I don’t know where she came from. She doesn’t compromise, she doesn’t share, and she doesn’t follow. You want to talk madness? She raised me to be like her but also to obey her, and those two can never fly together.”
I shrugged, more casual than I felt. “So it seems to me my choice is simple: obey her, or be like her. Be the things we both admire about her.”
His mouth twisted. He stood up, a dark outline against the stars that he used to chart his course. “And what would that mean for you?”
“It means finding a different path. One that neither of you will like. Can you live with that, Tahure?”
“To have you and the child as part of my life? Yes. But you’ll find I’m not the obstacle.”
“I can smell the blood on your hands, love,” I said. “You’ll be a nightmare story all along this coast for generations.”
“You’re right. I’ve wrought that. But Mother—”
“Tahure. I’ve rowed out here pregnant, and I’m tired of talking about your mother.”
That might have been as sharply as anyone had talked to him all summer, except those who’d hunted him and lost. His outline froze. I reached up and took his hand, and when he made himself relax I pulled him down to sit cross-legged in front of me. He held my hand gently, as though afraid I’d break, and after the bodies he’d broken, that was a reasonable worry. I understood all that without asking.
“How are you?” he said. “The house looks like it’s coming along well.”
“It’s nearly done. Poles, floor, walls, roof—it has what it needs. It’s not as comfortable as it could be, but I’ll make it so.”
I thought I saw a smile flicker past in the dark, quick as one of his sharktooth arrows. “I’d like to see it. In person, I mean. I’ve been there with you in spirit.”
“I knew you were.” I recalled knots that tied themselves tighter than I could manage, a cool breeze playing with my hair and skirt on the hottest days, a fat fish wandering in front of my spear— “I knew.”
A long hush followed. A swell turned our boats and bumped them against each other. He gripped my hand tighter now.
“What you told her yesterday about me... breaking...”
“I say what I need to say, love. I didn’t have another word for it. If there’s anything I should know, any other side to the story—”
“There’s not. I am what they probably say. It was—” He shook his head. “It was nothing. A drink after we took a whale, a shove, a laugh. Delin, Kurdet’s husband, he came at me with a skinning sharp, so I put an arrow through him, and the thing unfolded from there. It wasn’t even a thought, just instinct and...” He scratched at his bloody hair. “...power and a straight course to ending the threat. It felt like he was a whale about to smash my boat, and I handled it just the same.”
“What about the second shot?” The arrows jutting from Delin’s body had snapped off as his brothers carried him to the village. The shafts had been stubs, bloodstained and crushed until they barely looked like wood at all. One in the belly, one in the face. I didn’t want to know which had come first.
Tahure sighed and let go of my hand. “There was no one moment when I broke, or—what I mean is—I think I was broken before that night. The second arrow didn’t feel any different than the first.”
“I suppose I can’t judge you.” I pulled a redfin spine out of my skirt, held the venom-tip to the sky, and flicked it off the side of the boat. His eyebrows rose, his laugh boomed like thunder out over the water, and I kissed him.
When Irretu One-Eye woke in my hammock, I was cleaning fish at the top of the ladder with one of Tahure’s stone knives. Irretu came to sit beside me, legs dangling over the water.
The Barde were up and going about their day. Sentries—old birdtakers who hadn’t taken up the fight—stood watch on the highest outcroppings, in case Tahure come raiding. He’d killed within a bowshot of this village, after all, though never inside it. Even this far off I saw fear in their bodies; not just from Kurdet’s death but from hearing Tahure’s laugh. Irretu, it seemed, had slept through his laughter. I hoped it had brought to her dreams a memory of better days.
I passed her a slice of fish clear enough to see through. She murmured her thanks. We ate in silence, watching the sun rise.
“You don’t look like you’ve slept much,” she said. “Sore?”
She rubbed my back with the heel of her palm, better than Tahure ever could, working out the knots in a way that said she knew what childbearing felt like. “Soon as the redfins come for the late-summer spawn, your little one will be here. That’s not far off. Have you changed your mind about knowing?”
Some things didn’t seem so important now. I smiled and tossed a scrap of fish-skin into the water. Little silvertips whirled around the treat. “Go on.”
Her hands twisted oddly, together and apart. Long ago, I think she cut into the skin between her fingers to let them contort that far. Tahure never had. Something buzzed in the back of my head, like a hovering fly.
“A girl,” she said. “A daughter.” Her good eye searched my face. “Is that what you wanted?”
I caught myself looking over the sea, and her gaze followed mine, but there were no sails out there this morning. “There’s only one thing I want,” I said.
“Safety for the—for her. A good life.”
“You know, my dear, I’ve traveled very, very far. You couldn’t ask for a better place than the Barde coast to raise your children.”
“There’ll only be the one.”
“You may feel differently once the girl is grown. I do believe I saw Jahak giving you the eye, and he’s a fine young fisherman, and if he doesn’t suit there’s ten more Barde villages full of friendly men.”
“In time, maybe.” The fish was down to bones now. I wiped the stone knife on my skirt and set it aside. “Irretu, I’ve thought about your offer. I’d like to learn, at least a little. I won’t have much time or attention to spare—”
“No, you’ll succeed. I’m sure of that.”
“Irretu.” Whatever she saw in my eyes quieted her, and I thought I saw uncertainty. “I’d like to learn the trick that you and Tahure know—seeing and hearing from far away. He started to teach me last night, when I took your boat out to meet him.”
She went completely still, face as blank as a whalebone carving. “You did what?”
“You can teach me, or I’ll get the knack for it myself. Either way...”
“I’ve sent him away—the war’s over, even if nobody but he and I know it yet.” I waved to the nearest sentries, and one of them waved back. “Tahure can already see me and our child. I’ll be able to see him the same way. That’ll be our marriage until it’s time for me to join him.”
“Oh, and when will that be?”
“Years from now. Long years that you can spend with your granddaughter, raising her with me. And maybe she’ll come with me, and maybe she’ll be old enough to stay.”
“And in this plan of yours, Serra, what makes the difference between five years, ten years, fifteen? How will you and you alone, apparently, decide when it’s time for the two of you to run off with my son the murderer?”
“What she needs. What I believe she needs. It’s as simple as that.”
Her face softened. I watched anger bleed out of her—anger, and at least some of the fear underneath.
“You’re family, Irretu,” I said, “and I’ll take your advice to heart—but this is my child, my home, and my plan. Are you with me? Is this a peace you can live with?”
She didn’t answer, but she wiped her one good eye when she thought I’d turned away. “Go get your sleep, dear,” she said, and patted my knee. She took a shuddering breath, and when she smiled at me, I felt that she wanted to mean it.