The first time I stowed away on Nightjar, I was twelve.
She sailed into my beautiful city of Cindria, a swift cutter with pearly sails, dwarfed by the great ships of the trading fleet and the pleasure craft of our courtiers. Smaller, neater in aspect, without ornamentation, she slipped into port by night, like a doctor calling on a rich man who’d caught something embarrassing.
Aboard her were the woman they called The Hag, accompanied as always by Nightjar‘s captain, Garland Parrish. The two of them visited our island’s ruler, our Conto, bringing with them a whiff of faraway lands and espionage, government plots and excitement.
Irresistible, no? I’d had it in mind since childhood—sail away with them, just once, and catch a glimpse of adventure. So I offered to help my cousin Franceso take a delivery of sausage out to the crew, then lost myself in the hold when he was haggling with the cook.
I hadn’t counted on being a bad sailor.
Garland found me belowdecks the first night, heaving into a barrel. He didn’t say anything, just hitched himself onto another a nearby trunk. He waited until the sickness passed, then passed me a flask of water sweetened with mint.
“Well,” I said, determined to make the best of it, though in truth I was crushed he’d seen me in such a state. I wasn’t in love with Garland—I knew well he was too old for me and inclined to women—but he had a face so infernally bewitching that you had to care for his good opinion. “The weather must be very bad, no?”
“No,” he said, with a kind smile.
“Are you going to take me back?”
“You know, Tonio, when I was growing up on Issle Morta, there was a—”
“Teeth!” I protested. “You wouldn’t parable at a man who’s just sacrificed his dignity to the sea?”
“Consider it your fare,” he said.
“Could I not merely work for you?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, untroubled. “You might audit our books—”
“I keep accounts at home.”
“—and teach me to speak Erinthian. Now, one of the monks had a turtle he kept as a pet. It had fallen prey to something, probably a specter, when it was young; its flippers had been badly gnawed. It swam poorly and on land... well. Moss grew faster, we used to say. But Brother Cray kept a pond for it, and built a ramp of stones so it could get in and out to sun itself.
“Every dawn Veracity—the turtle’s name was Veracity—”
“What else would a monk name a turtle?”
“Later in life, he had one named Doom.”
“The question was rhetorical, Garland.”
“Veracity would drag itself out of the pond, up the ramp, across the herb garden, to the lane at the edge of the pond. He’d set himself up in a wagon-wheel rut, even though the sunlight there was no better than at the pond. Brother Cray, who was very old by that time, and had few duties, would watch the lane. Whenever someone drove by, he would run out of the cottage to the lane, and if he could direct the wagon around the turtle, he would, and if the cart was too big he’d lift Veracity and haul him back to the pond, and then he’d apologize—”
“To the cart driver?”
“To the turtle. He’d get perhaps two hours of peace before the turtle made it back out there.”
By this time, I was wondering if there wasn’t something more in my stomach to bring up, just to make him pause. It was the monks’ fault, this habit of sermonizing. The folk of Issle Morta serve the dead, mostly, who can’t interrupt their monologues or beg for mercy.
“I asked Brother Cray if he wasn’t afraid one day he’d miss a cart, and lose Veracity, and he said he was. I offered to fence his garden, so the turtle couldn’t escape.”
“He replied, ‘If Veracity seeks the road, who are we to stop him?'”
I gave it three breaths, to make sure he’d finished, and then pushed myself upright. “This would be your way of saying you aren’t going to ship me straight home.”
He held out a hand. “You can stay in a guest cabin until your stomach settles. Bring the barrel with you.”
Garland in those days was too young by any sensible measure to be a ship’s captain, and were he in the Fleet proper he’d have been a lieutenant at best, but Nightjar belonged to the one we Erinthians call The Hag, an eccentric spy named Gale Feliachild. She was old enough to be a grandmother—so said her iron hair and seawashed skin—and she dressed as plainly as a servant. Everything about her deflected notice. Her manners were quiet, and she tended to listen much and say little. But there was magic at work there, too. It was hard to fix your mind on her, and in the eye-catching company of her Captain, she might have been invisible. They could have made a great go of picking pockets, the two of them: he could have stood in the middle of a crowded square, attracting everyone, while she robbed the city blind.
Even her crew seemed only half-aware of her presence aboard ship, deferring to Garland as though he ruled them absolutely.
She’d been magically inscribed so that she was hard to notice, and then cultivated the gift further. But instead of thieving, she’d taken to espionage.
She found me in the galley that morning, still quaffing Garland’s mint-water and groaning my way through their bookkeeper’s ledgers. “Did you leave a note for your mother?” she said. When I nodded she added, “You deserve to be put off in a lifeboat. You know that, don’t you?”
I hung my head and attempted to look penitent. She slammed the door on her way out.
I applied myself to settling my gut—which took a humiliating number of days—learning a little about sea-craft, and having a prowl through the ship’s books. Garland had been right to suspect a little pocket-lining on the part of their provisioner. As the son of shopkeepers, I was better equipped than he to find the proof.
“What’ll you do?” I asked.
“Fire her,” he said. He was speaking in Erinthian, I the language of the Fleet, giving us both needed practice.
“No parables to reform a thief?”
He shook his head with obvious regret. “If she’ll steal, she’ll sell secrets.”
It made sense. “Speaking of secrets, may I know where we’re bound?”
“Verdanii,” he told me.
My heart skipped. “Kir Feliachild’s nation?”
“She’s been summoned home.”
“Might that cheer her up?”
“She seems out of sorts,” I said, and Garland looked more puzzled. “Ah! You’re saying it’s being sent for that’s upset her?”
“You’re a runaway yourself now,” he said. “The first thing you said was ‘don’t make me go home’, wasn’t it?”
“Only because I have no tales to share! The best thing about being on an adventure is the prospect of returning and telling all.”
“That’s the best thing, is it?”
I pretended not to notice his amusement. “Already I’ve written three pages to send amia madre, and all I’ve seen is the bottom of a bucket and your poor form at inventory.”
He broke out one of those dazzling grins. “You’re a lucky man, Tonio.”
“Surely, Kir, you long to return to Issle Morta?” But as soon as I said it, it seemed a ridiculous proposition. What would Garland do with himself in a graveyard?
“No, Tonio,” he replied. “But I can’t wait to see Verdanii.”
Everyone has heard of the great city of Moscasipay. She lies off the Verdanni shore, her thousand towers erected on a range of sea mounts, built on platforms that raise the buildings above the reach of the tides. They’re strung together by bridges, those great towers, and enchanted to withstand winter storms.
The beach beyond Moscasipay is set aside for wild horses—the Verdanii are mad for their mustangs—and ceremonies. Beyond the shore are grain fields that feed that nation and many another. The Verdanii give a quarter of each harvest to the Fleet and another quarter to lesser nations in need.
The great Prahray lighthouse towers above the harbor. It is a ceramic sculpture of a young man clad in bearskins, facing east and raising aloft the carved and glowing sphere that serves as a marker to the ships in Northwater. His feet rest astride a four-faced clock—the Worldclock, they call it—which beats the hour in the chamber below the light.
I had seen a wood-cut of the Moscasipay harbor once, and there is a painting of the lighthouse in one of my cousin’s shops. Neither picture prepared me for the size of that porcelain man, for the shock of meeting his glazed, lake-blue eyes and feeling the Worldclock beneath him, the resonant tick-tock-tick blanketed in the normal sound of sea and wind, a rhythm, not really heard, that nevertheless came up through the timbers of Nightjar and seemed to find fault with the speed of my pulse.
The relations who have summoned Kir Gale have apparently done so with no more object than to treat her rudely: there was no great homecoming, nobody even to meet her. We tied up near the tower where her family resides, like a mailship, and then rode a climbing box up to the twentieth story of the structure. Yes, twenty! I think you’d find the height appalling and unnatural. It is like standing in the sky: I see Northwater stretching so far that at times I almost imagine I will catch sight of their nearest neighbor—which the charts say is Murdocco—or perhaps even a glimpse of the great nation of Sylvanna, far to the south.
Gale’s kin seemed almost surprised to see her, and offered us rooms with an air of having been inconvenienced. It’s the spell, of course, which Garland tells me was written because of a prophecy laid upon Gale as an infant. Their soothsayers predicted she was, one day, to be abruptly slain. Her family held her out of heart’s reach, and now that she’s lived to a perfectly reasonable age, they’re ashamed of themselves. As they should be! But it’s too late now—the walls are built, and the regret only mortars them. She puts a decent face on it, but I have never seen our Hag so uncomfortable.
The young women are, naturally, delighted by the sight of Garland and have set about trying to find out if he has any interest in them, asking his opinion on all manner of sailing issues, natural history, and begging him to help him practice their Fleetspeak. He’s fortunate his skin is so dark: I expect he’s had a fiery burn on his cheeks from the moment we made landfall. There’s no great sense of modesty, among the women or the men either, and one of the girls is a bit free with her remarks and hands. We are sharing a room, he and I, to keep their nighttime invasions at bay. I suppose this means I have been promoted from auditor to guard dog.
I see now why the two of them seem so at home in Cindria, where the Hag can bask in Conto’s affection or disappear into the crowds, as she chooses, and Garland is lost among all of those who come to our spas and beauty scribes to purchase, via magic, what birth bestowed upon him so exuberantly, and for free.
Kir Gale wasn’t one to sit around having starchy tea parties with her kin and waiting for them to reconcile themselves to her arrival. She gave it an afternoon and then, with a “Come on, my boys!” she took us to a great endless market on the tower roofs. There I bought scarves for my sisters and whistles for their children. Garland got a book on natural history.
Next morning, Gale decided we’d take a ferry to the Verdan shore and hike inland. We loaded up a satchel each, borrowed the smarter of the family dogs, and managed to shed one of the two persistent girls on Garland’s tail. Thus provisioned, we made dawn landfall on a gritty salt marsh.
It was the first time I’d been on solid ground for weeks, but my body didn’t seem to know it; some part of me kept up a pendular, side-to-side slosh. I stared at the first wisps of morning sunlight as they merged with the light of Prahray, saw the shallows of the sea steaming against the sand. Northwater is gray, even by day; our own Cauldron is so much bluer. I wondered how water could wear such different clothes when the rising sun above them looked just the same.
The three of us roamed the beach, turning over the stones, enjoying the brisk air.
“Tonio, here.” Gale bent, scooping up a piece of driftwood clad in swirls of seashell. When I took it, the weight surprised me; it had petrified.
“Is this wandstone?”
“Yes. It only wants polishing.”
I said. “You should give this to Garland.”
She held up another chunk, grinning. “Plenty for everyone.”
“The Verdan beaches are littered with good luck,” I said. “Is that what the saying means?”
“Very literal, isn’t it?” She shed her jacket abruptly, turning her face into the chilly wind.
“You’re sweating, Kir,” I said. “Are you unwell?”
“Just hot, Tonio,” she said. “It’ll pass.”
“You’ve taken the fire to your belly; it’s happening to my aunt.” I gave this statement a casual air, as though I understood the mystery of women. In fact, I’d gotten slapped twice before I gave up asking.
“It’s why we’re here: I’m croning, and my family’s caught out because they never thought I’d live this long. They owe me gifts and a tattoo and a new name too. The embarrassment is almost more than they can bear.”
“Failing to die is your revenge for their neglect?”
“Don’t be operatic, child,” she said, wiping her soaked brow and grinning. “It would be petty if I thought it served them right. Our Captain would disapprove, were I so small-minded.”
Garland had been entirely captivated by a mare who’d taken it into her head to show him her new colt, but Gale had raised her voice, and indeed he stiffened, ever so slightly, into that monkish expression of his. “Surely the reason they forgot is the spell that—”
“Oh, don’t you dare make excuses for them,” Gale said. “I’ll take you home and we’ll see how that goes.”
He coughed out a polite laugh, not finding it funny at all. The mare tossed her head.
Runaways, I thought. I suppose I’d thought he hadn’t meant it. But I was very young then, and had seen nothing of the world. Now that I am seventeen and fit the breeches I’d aspired to, five years ago, I understand it better.
Gale turned inland, hitching her pack. “Come on, my boys. Wonders yet to see.”
We caught a train—a train!—inland, up the hill from the beach. A mere two hours aboard brought us to a new kind of sea, long waves crowned in the brightest, most yellow flowers I’ve seen, and they extended...
I have never seen so much land at a stretch, unbroken by tree or mountain. I’d spent my life between the slopes of our great volcano and the shores of the Cauldron. Cindria’s farms are contained and terraced. We grow grapes and olives and figs on little hedge-bound scraps of soil.
But this! I looked on those fields, flags and streams of grain and canola, and thought that nobody from Erinth would ever believe me. I couldn’t describe the vast expanse of Verdanii in any way that made sense. Despite all the songs and poems about exactly this, I couldn’t possibly express it and not be thought a liar.
I smiled so hard, so long, my cheeks ached. I cursed once or twice, joyously, as new wonders caught me off-guard. I added three pages and a very poor sketch to my letter home, and resolved to become at least a decent artist.
We pulled into an unmanned station at the edge of a flower-strewn meadow.
The Feliachild girl-cousin stirred. “Are we going back now?”
“Forward,” Gale said. “Always forward.”
The girl threw a regretful look at Garland, who’d paid her no attention, instead spending much of the ride comparing everything we saw through the window with the bird and plant diagrams in his new book. Now he stood, giving her a Fleet-perfect formal bow. “I’m going back,” she announced, not hiding the disappointment in her voice.
“See you at Stadia, then,” Gale said, springing down to the station platform. Garland and I followed. The dog, after a brief struggle, joined us as the girl rode off.
“It seems as though we’re fleeing something,” Garland said.
“On the contrary. We’re riding out to force the battle,” Gale said.
“It’s a birthday party, not a war.”
“Tonio’s tendency to inflate everything to a tragicomedy has rubbed off on me.”
We ate a cheery meal there at the station: preserved fish spread on firm chewy cakes and then the same cakes spread with the jelly of a tangy red berry, for dessert. Gale had packed wine from aboardship—just for me, I think—and a flask of water with an oddly pleasant flavor, as of grass or tarragon.
Then we set out across the meadow, picking flowers and marveling at the profusion of birds and small rodents.
“I’m afraid there’s no great spy plot here to entertain you, Tonio,” she said.
“You read my thought, Kir. I’d been wondering if you brought us out here seeking trouble.”
“Call me Gale.” She patted the dog. “I’m hoping we might see a grizzle bear, or if we’re very lucky, one of the island’s great cats. That’d be worth the trip, wouldn’t it, assuming you didn’t get eaten?”
The biggest creature native to Erinth being a porpoise-sized deer timid as a wraith, I shivered even though I knew she was teasing.
Late that night, someone came for Garland.
It was no amorous girl this time—these were soldiers, fleet of foot and almost silent, and they might have got in and out of our camp with just him if I hadn’t been outside the tent, watering the grass.
One got a hand over my mouth before I could shout. I kicked and fought and tried to raise an alarm, but we were outnumbered and surprised. The Feliachild dog, that traitor, had failed to warn us.
It was an honorable defeat, I suppose, which wasn’t much consolation when they wrapped me like laundry and bore me off on horseback. Maybe an hour later, they dumped me out of my sack, barelegged, cold, and in my nightshirt.
They’d only taken us men, not Gale.
Garland had given them a better fight than I. His lips, which had inspired insipid poetry from swoony girls and boys on more than a dozen islands, had a puffed, comical look to them and there was a long scrape on his left arm: he’d been ground into the dirt when the soldiers took him down. His hands were bound, as were mine, but as he tumbled out of the sack and gained his feet, one of our captors gave him a scornful look and tugged on the rope. He opened his hands, letting it fall.
He untied himself on the way, I deduced, then wound the rope around his wrists, hoping they wouldn’t notice he was free.
Me, I’d wasted the journey wondering if the dark things said about the Verdanii were true, whether they might really revert to their ancient origins and sacrifice young virgins. I was certain Garland had never mastered his shyness and lain with a woman... come to that, I hadn’t known anyone’s touch either.
I made a resolution—three, really. Lose my innocence, get Garland to teach me that escape trick and, finally, try it out if I ever ended up in this situation again.
First, we must survive this, I reminded myself.
Lights from high above speared down, lighthouse-bright, bathing us in a high-summer glow. Where were we?
Some kind of ruin, I decided, a gigantic oval-shaped amphitheater, rising to the sky and yet open to it. The floor was planted with crops, wheat in varying stages of growth, the beds forming stripes: some seedlings, some half-grown, some gold and ready for harvest. Hard bench seats made of a gray, grainy marble encircled the field, rising up, up. Some of these were home to a forest of plants, pine saplings with their root balls caught in sacks, potted clover and strawberries mounded around small apiaries, onions, turnips, and sugar beets in big grass-woven baskets.
These weren’t crops; they were temple plants.
Teeth! We are going to be sacrificed!
Had Gale been there, I’m sure she would have replied, “Don’t be operatic.”
But the imagined reproof didn’t change the fact that we were indeed, in the presence of the Allmother herself.
Few would argue but that Verdanii is the most powerful of the great nations, and everybody knows, much as they pretend to be a nation of citizen democrats, that the Allmother is the heart and soul of that mighty and often arrogant isle.
To have seen her in the flesh, me, a twelve-year-old from across the sea—it’s so fantastical that I rarely brag of it. Only my mother believes me.
Her head was round and bald and capped in dandelion fluff, a thick slurr of white seed-bearing parasols that whirled off her in every twist of breeze. She was tall, broad-shouldered, generous of hip and bosom, and she moved like a strongman or wrestler. She smelled, ever so slightly, of milk. She bore a harvest-scythe and a small sack of grain in her big hands, and her face carried so much age that the years thrummed around her like the low boom of an elephant drum. My breath caught, to see life in the eyes of one so frighteningly old. It made my chest hurt.
She weighed and dismissed me with a glance, closing on Garland with brisk steps. She tipped up his chin with the scythe—testing his nerve, I thought—and gave him the sort of looking-over you might expect of a buyer in a slave market.
When she’d done, and before she could speak, he bowed, in the manner of an officer of the Fleet. “It would seem superfluous, at this point, to introduce ourselves.”
“Wasted breath,” she agreed. Her voice shivered the wheat field.
“I’ll say, then, that if you’d invited me in some other manner, I would have willingly come.”
She laughed. “Yes, I’m rude and you think ill of me.”
“Kidnapping was an unnecessary show of strength—”
“You’re a Flailer, aren’t you, cub? Your people were ever judgmental.”
“I have,” Garland said pointedly, “No people.”
“None but my great-daughter and the company of her ship, is that so?”
A faint, almost delicate shrug. He always did get prissy when he was offended.
“You’re not in Gale’s bed, only her pilot-house.”
This was half a question, and it got her nothing. The silence ran so deep it might have carved ditches into the earth between us.
Garland couldn’t wait her out. Who could? She had centuries. “May we know why we’re here?”
The Allmother took a seat on one of the hard benches. “I would know your future, Kir Parrish.”
“My future is your future.”
Death, he meant.
“Spoken like a true Flailer. I would examine how your path merges with Gale Feliachild’s. I’ll understand this tie you’ve formed so fast, the two of you—”
“—and decide if it should be untangled?”
She wrinkled her old brow and didn’t deny it.
“I’m sorry,” said Garland. “I cannot oblige you.”
I’ve made it sound like the three of us were having a cozy and intimate audience, but there were dozens of Verdanii about as this conversation took place. Nobody sees the Allmother without there being guards present, and there were gardeners and scribes and presumably magicians, too. Even as I jolted with shock—Garland, you fool, you’ve just said no to the Allmother!—all those others overheard him too. They didn’t share my faint sense of admiration at his brashness. The mood within the amphitheater took on a distinctly stormy air. One of the guards moved, as if fighting an urge to cuff him.
“Perhaps,” the Allmother said, “You’d care to reconsider before refusing me.”
“You misunderstand—I cannot do as you ask. I cannot be enchanted, for my middle name is lost.” Garland had regained his footing; worse, he’d fallen into parable mode. “My mother, as you may have heard, is a prisoner on Issle Morta, kept there under the Hostage Concession granted that to that nation when the Fleet Compact was signed in—”
“Would you read me the history of a Compact I helped to write?”
“Quite right; I apologize.”
Teeth, I thought, he’s amused now. The old lady was running her thumb along the blade of her scythe.
Garland would not be stopped. “My father came to join the monastery of the dead from the nation of Gerd. Among his people, the tradition is for a father and mother to each secretly choose one name for an unborn child, to reveal those names to each other only if need arises, or when the child is grown. But about a month before my birth, my father was obliged to leave Issle Morta, for—”
The Allmother let out a cough that was nearly a growl. A few dandelion seeds shivered free of her scalp and swirled skyward.
“—for reasons that don’t bear going into at this time,” Garland said, a little hastily. “He never returned.”
The Allmother, to my relief, released the scythe. “Then you have no middle name.”
“I do,” he said. “I was named according to the formal customs of the island of my birth and the nations of both parents. Nobody knows my Gerdian paternate name, is all, and I cannot give it to you. You, therefore, can lay no intention on me.”
She pulled her lips back in a parody of a smile. “Then someone else will have to bear it.”
Garland saw her meaning before I did, but the guards were ready. They caught him as he lunged for the door.
Too late, of course. They pried my mouth open while Garland wrestled, tried to reason with them and, finally, pleaded. The old lady spooned a morsel of something—barley, I think—into my mouth. When I spat it back at them, they caught the pieces on a piece of bamboo cut into a jigsaw puzzle piece. This they gave to a spellscribe, who wrote my full name at the top in grass-green ink.
As the sky clamored with thunder and warm rain began to pour over the temple plants, they set to writing out a spell.
“I’m sorry, Tonio,” Garland said. They’d driven us back to our camp in a covered carriage, with orders from the Allmother to present ourselves for Gale’s banquet that evening.
“It wasn’t your fault.” In truth, I was troubled. The jigsaw piece bearing my name was one of many, it turned out—there was one inscribed for the ship, Nightjar, and one with Gale’s name too. Another bore the true name of our Conto of Erinth. I feared it might be treason for me even to know that one.
Other pieces of the puzzle named strangers, though I assume they too were connected to Gale and Garland. Fitted together, they made no picture, just a scribbled patchwork with jigsaw gaps. When they finished they sent us away; as we left, the Allmother had been peering through the holes.
“They’re using the puzzle to assemble an image of your future, I suppose,” I said. “Looking at the places where our days overlap?”
“What they learn will be a guess, at best.” He was angry—at the Verdanii for scribing me, at himself for having failed to fight off her entire guard, maybe at the sky for having the temerity to drop water on us. “She must have sent people to Erinth to investigate those close to Gale... it’s how she knew your name.”
“Don’t trouble yourself on my account, Garland,” I said. “The Allmother owes me a debt now. I’ll turn it to my profit in time.”
A thin smile: I wasn’t fooling him.
“Meantime, perhaps you can explain croning to me.”
“In Erinthian or Fleet?” But he reached for his new book, opening it to a detailed picture of a female bear’s innards. Patiently he began to spell out what he knew of the mysteries of women.
We returned before dawn, to find Gale in a fine stew over our abduction. “I never thought they’d take a poke at you,” she said to Garland.
He filled her in and she let out a long growl. “Mumma never could leave the future alone—it’s her only flaw. ‘Tonio, I’ll make it up to you someday.”
“Better and better,” I said. “I’ll own the nation of Verdanii and your ship before this is all over. Now. Wasn’t I promised a sight of a grizzle bear?”
What was I to do, leave them to suffocate me with their guilt?
“Better than that, perhaps.” I saw her decide to regain her good spirits, leading us out to a trailhead that led over the undulating fields of shadow. As dawn neared, the rain lessened and then stopped entirely, and the sun slivered up over the fields, splashing red and tangerine across the thinning clouds to the east.
“Teeth! I can’t smell the sea,” I said suddenly, unsure if I was panicking or simply amazed.
She drew in a big breath. “Fields after rain,” she said. “Wet dirt and drying plants. Less romantic if I put it that way, I suppose. Ah!”
The trail undulated close to the thread of the stream we’d been following, and within the loop were three trees, bent over the water like women washing their hair. As we came closer, I saw that they had been pruned so, gently shaped to evoke faces, bodies, and trailing sweeps of greenery that just touched the pond. Then my breath caught—
The banks of the stream are covered in diamonds, I thought, but even the Verdanii nation isn’t as bounteous as that.
“A chrysalis?” Garland said, bending to catch one as it caught a breath of wind and drifted to our feet. He was right—it was a little abandoned case, like white glass, and it caught the light marvelously. There were thousands of them, tens of thousands, covering the shores and the water too, all bright and so fragile that the next shiver of air tore the one in Garland’s palm.
“Watch,” Gale said, sweeping a hand out to the canola growing around us. The fat peach of the sun cleared the horizon an instant later, mellowing, bathing everything in hot early-summer light, and I heard an odd whispering sound which turned out to be the tapping of a million footsteps on plant stems.
The creatures that had been inside the cases were long of body and faintly moist-looking as they first climbed into the dawn. They climbed atop the numberless spears of wheat; they emerged on the eastern side of the willow women; they scaled our legs without fear. Each one seemed to be dragging the remains of their chrysalis, some little scrap of skin atop their backs.
As the pond steamed and the air warmed, they curled and uncurled their long bodies. The fleshy scraps unfurled into wings, four of them, transparent but for four red spots at the tips.
“If the winter’s mild, they hatch the week of my birthday,” Gale said.
One crawled onto my hand, and I raised it slowly before my face, keeping the creature in the sun, breathing shallowly so I wouldn’t disturb it, watching its rebirth from this most-intimate distance. The bloody, faceted orbs of its eyes seemed to look into mine as it shook the new wings with a chatter that was echoed a thousand times, once for every spear of all the crops growing around me. Chatter-chatter-chatter.
“One,” Gale whispered. “Two.”
“Three.” She mouthed it but did not speak, and suddenly they were in the air, a million living needles of ruby-dotted glass, winking and glinting in the morning sunlight, spreading up and out and then, as they gained distance from each other, seeming to vanish into the sky. They left the air yellowed with a light dusting of pollen grains, picked up on the plants but dropped as they flew.
“Tell your mothers that, boys,” Gale said, and I fought off a wish to clasp her around the waist, like a child embracing someone who’d brought him a puppy.
We continued on foot for the rest of the day and saw many things: a small pack of reddish hunting dogs, much like the foxes of Erinth, a scattering of the fat brown rodents they hunted, hawks aplenty—but no vultures, which seemed a peculiar deficit—and a big brown deer with horns like a fan. No grizzle bears. I wasn’t truly disappointed, though I suspected Garland, whose mood remained sulky, might have liked to come nose to nose with some monster he could wrestle.
The trail took us back ’round to the Allmother’s great, strange temple. From outside, it was even more imposing, like a big bowl sitting on the flat earth. Its entrances were big square maws, too evenly formed to be natural caves.
“The Verdanii people conquered this land generations ago,” Gale said. “The invaders intermarried with the... well, my people call them primitives.”
“Primitives,” Garland said, “Yet they built this?”
“They did build marvels,” she said. “But even their stories claim this has always been here. Stadia, they call it and we haven’t worked out how old it is. It’s tricky, because it’s been repaired so often, and usually using magic. But there are physics who believe it is the oldest building in all the civilized world.”
“And we’ve returned here because...”
“I can’t avoid my birthday party forever, can I?” she said. “Besides, don’t you want to know what Mumma found out about the future?”
Neither of them looked especially curious, these two who could take such naked delight in watching dragonflies.
My father says you mustn’t damn an entire people unless you’ve lived among them for at least a month, but it took a day for me to verify that Verdanii wine is as poor as everyone claims. It kicks but does not seduce, burns but does not spark. Much has been made of their ale, but I think that’s simply an attempt to be kind. I took one whiff of the red they’d set out to fête Kir Gale and decided that either they secretly hated her or it was a ritual trial to be endured. Setting it aside, I decided to restrict myself to their grass-flavored waters.
So, alas, I cannot blame drunkenness for my decision to steal back the green-scribed magical puzzle piece with my name on it.
It was a gathering of thousands, with perhaps three women to every man present. They were turned out in their most colorful clothes and decorated with long ropes of shell and turquoise, tigers eye, even necklaces of wandstone.
Garland I were marked as outsiders by our plainer dress and left on the fringes because neither of us spoke Verdanii. We kept to the edges as everyone did their best to make much of Gale.
“The fair-skinned, larger people bear the stamp of the invading sailors Gale mentioned,” Garland said quietly. “Those with darker coloring would be closer in heritage to the tribesmen they vanquished.”
“So many people!” Almost as many—I imagined—as the field of dragonflies. I suppose our Conto had such gatherings, but as a son of shopkeepers, I had never been to one.
Because of the spell that made Gale inconspicuous, and because she herself preferred not to be the center of attention, I could see people all but forgetting why they were there, forgetting, then shaking themselves as they forced their attention back to the guest of honor.
I kept my eyes open for the scribe who had written the spell upon me. When she appeared, slipping through a door on a higher level of Stadia, I excused myself from the hubbub and had a go at creeping into what I hoped were her offices. It might not have worked, but the woman on guard in that quarter was staring at Garland.
Bravado got me through the door and luck followed me inside—there could have been a dozen people on the other side of it, after all, a possibility that only occurred to me after I’d slipped through. But the Allmother was calling for the attention of the massive crowd, her voice rising above all those others.
The arrogance of the Verdanii! They were so secure in their power, they hadn’t locked up the puzzle. It was mounted in a wooden frame, an interlocked picture, scribbled with all those texts, little bits of our futures, meant to shine light on the ‘problem’ of Garland and Gale. Stolen names—I saw again the Conto’s piece, inscribed with silver, and was offended on behalf of my nation. I saw a scrap of Nightjar‘s sail, scribed with the full name of the ship, her public registration and secret name too. I recognized the name of that vessel’s previous captain, Royl Sloot, and about six different Feliachilds.
My own small piece of the puzzle was near one of the gaps. Beyond it, instead of a view of the wall, was the velvet black of a moonless sky.
I’d conceived this plan in haste and assured myself it wouldn’t work—that I’d be caught at the door. Then I’d promised myself that I’d simply snatch my own piece and move on without looking further. I was committing an act of sabotage, but my name had been stolen—I’d been wronged. The law would certainly favor me.
Now here I was, and I’d told myself I wouldn’t peer through the missing puzzle pieces into Garland’s future. But what would you do?
I fitted my eye to the gap.
I saw a man, first, with familiar lambs-wool hair and a long, plain face. He was writing on an egg-shaped piece of granite, setting the stone at the feet of a hollow-eyed statue, a carving even more terrible than the lava-burned bodies of the Erinthian catacombs. I saw where the statue stood and the turtle clambering at its base and I knew the place. I had never been there, but I knew exactly where that egg-shaped stone lay, and I suspected I knew what had been painted on it, too.
Damn you and your stories, Garland!
Next there were women, a long series of faces, one of them my elder sister Faria who was so very taken with Garland, and from this I deduced that these were all the girls who’d never broken through his reserve.
The women became drops of oil, the oil became blood, and the blood rained over a hammer. I tried to pull away, suddenly glad to have seen something something I hadn’t the wisdom to interpret.
A crack, of eggshell, felt more than heard. The image I saw next was of two strangers—outlanders, we sometimes called them—in peculiar garb, skintight black raiment, masked, with the breathing reeds used by divers who hadn’t been turned to mermaids. The masks obscured their faces and yet there was something about the man’s eyes that made my heart bounce, a little.
I saw Stadia, this strange building, at the heart of a city so vast and glassy and impossible it made even the great Verdanii capital seem a filthy hump of cottages.
“Thank you for joining me.”
A voice, the voice. I tore my face from the hole in the puzzle. But the Allmother’s words were muffled.
I like to think I’m not a complete fool—I had taken the precaution of identifying a hiding place within the room. Two enormous rolled rugs leaned against one wall, and now I scrabbled behind them.
From the lack of answer as she came through the door, I guessed that she was addressing Garland.
“You know how all this began, stripling?”
“You learned, at her birth, that Gale was to be murdered. You’ve been trying to prevent it ever since.”
“We’ve been successful so far.”
“She’s lived longer than you expected,” he said, tone neutral.
“You continue to judge me.”
“No,” Garland said. “I’m as guilty as you of trying to hold Gale’s death at bay.”
“What if you could hold it off indefinitely?”
Long, long pause. “Go on.”
“Would you hear our gleanings?”
“You’ll steal Tonio’s name—all these identities—” I peeked around the edge of the rug in time to see the elegant curl of his hand, indicating the puzzle. “And then ask my permission to reveal all?”
“More of those people than you guess gave up their names willingly.”
“Let’s not pretend you wouldn’t have taken them, if you’d had to. Or that you won’t insist on my hearing this.”
To my surprise, she laughed. “You, to my surprise, have it in you to push that far-off murder further away. You might hold it off altogether.”
“Is that so?”
“You’ve never been in love, Garland Parrish.”
Of course, I thought, with a strange sense of satisfaction. Love had to come into it somewhere, didn’t it?
Operatic. That’s what Gale would have said, were she there.
“No,” Garland said, easily, and I thought of what I’d seen in the puzzle, my sister Faria and all those lovesick and luststruck girls.
“Don’t believe in it, perhaps? A gentleman as self-controlled as you, you must resist being swept away—”
“What does the future hold?” he interrupted. Interrupted the Allmother!
“Gale Feliachild remains safe as long as your heart is untouched,” the Allmother said.
“Untouched,” Garland repeated. It was the only time I’d ever seen him look bitter.
“The obvious thing to do, it seems to be, would be to harden you.”
“I’m not sure that’s a matter of will.”
“I speak of enchantment,” the Allmother said.
“I have no middle name,” Garland reminded her.
“I know where your name can be found.” She handed him a folded scrap of paper.
He did not look at the page, instead holding her gaze.
“Think, Parrish,” the Allmother said. “If you were wounded tomorrow, you could not be healed.”
He shrugged, as if this were of no consequence.
“You might amend your ridiculous good looks. Am I wrong in thinking they’ve been an inconvenience to you?”
“I could do that myself, with a knife or a hot poker.”
“How dramatic you foreign men are,” she said, sounding so much like Gale that I almost laughed.
“Time and the weather will have their way with my face,” Garland said. “And you have it in your power now to inscribe me, whether I wish it or not.”
“I’m not that much of a tyrant,” she said.
“You mean that Gale would never forgive you.”
“Is it so strange to you that my children are dear to me?”
“No.” Garland circled the room. He let his free hand brush the puzzle, then struck it, scattering its pieces to the floor. Bending, he pinched up the scrap of Nightjar‘s sail. The green piece, with my name, he flicked under the rolled rugs, so it fetched against my hand. “But I can’t help thinking you must have other reasons. Do you examine the future of every newborn girl, as you did Gale’s?”
The puzzle piece was warm in my palm, the temperature of flesh or blood.
“I do not.”
“What do you want of her? Merely that she should live as long as possible?”
She waved off his question. “We’re speaking of you, boy. Consider: love is a net. It binds, yes, but it cuts too. Gale could be saved, and you would be armored against so many things: betrayal, loss, the ache of wanting someone who may not return your passion. Maybe you can’t understand that, but—”
“I know what it is to be discarded,” he said softly.
“Ah, yes, you were drummed out of the Fleet. How could I forget?”
“I doubt you forget much.”
“You were raised to believe in self-sacrifice, weren’t you? Gale is important to the Fleet, to the long Peace.”
He was like a dog with a bone. “You couldn’t have known that when she was an infant.”
“My intentions for her are none of your affair.”
“You’ve made them my business,” he said.
The Allmother threw back her head and bellowed laughter. “You’re bold. If nothing else, I see why she likes you. Well, then—I would have Gale live as long as I have.”
“You seek a replacement?”
“There’s something you should be able to appreciate, Flailer! I am trying to discover my own eventual end.”
“Rather than letting it find you.”
“This plan serves the greater good. All you need do is consent.”
Garland turned away from her, moving so he was placed between us, and met my eye.
Consent? To never loving anyone? I shook my head, thinking that Flailers probably didn’t believe in love. It was something he’d give up without a thought.
No, I mouthed at him. No!
“I think...” and now Garland finally spoke with what seemed like caution or respect, or perhaps just that excess of thoughtfulness that tended to catch people off-guard in someone so young. “I think what you propose might make me into something quite terrible.”
“You’d be young, talented, attractive... and untouchable. Such a man might go far.”
“But not, I think, in the direction you intend.” He spoke gently, and there was a hint of regret in his tone.
“Judging me again, stripling?”
“It’s my nature.”
She was one of those who spoke more quietly when angry, her voice pulling thin as a cord. “I seek to protect Gale.”
“From what?” He was determined to infuriate her, it seemed. “All her life, you’ve kept your distance. All of you, holding back, made her yearn to leave. You made her beneath notice, so she became a spy. Thus she became a target. Have you considered how this latest gambit of yours might go wrong?”
I wondered, briefly, if she’d bring someone in to have him slapped or if she’d do it herself.
All she said was: “You’re more monkish than you admit.”
“I suppose you’re right about that.”
“Will you consent? Name your price, and if it falls within my reach—”
Part of him wanted to, I saw it. Part of him feared the pain of entanglement that she spoke of. Of another rejection. And maybe another part was fascinated by the idea of being so free. It must be a heavy load, I thought, being so morally upright all the time. But...
“No,” Garland said, finally. “A person who is so hardened cannot be a fit companion for anyone.”
“Let Gale find companionship among her peers, stripling. Your purpose is to transport and protect her.”
“Mule and guard dog,” he said, his voice mild.
“If you like,” the Allmother replied.
“I won’t do it.”
She spent a breath weighing him, feeling the finality of his answer, contemplating her own. “Your answer comes double weighted. Consider: someone might assassinate her simply by laying a love spell on you.”
He stretched out a hand, setting the scrap of paper and Nightjar‘s puzzle piece, together, into the nearest torch and holding them as they burned. “If so, it will be you who gave them the way to find my name.”
All around the room, the puzzle sparked and smouldered. I dropped my piece and barely smothered a cry of surprise as my fingertips scorched.
Paper, board, and linen, the pieces smoked and turned to cinders, filling the spellscribe’s chamber with a smell of snuffed candles and burned paper.
“Get out,” the old, old woman said at length. “Both of you.”
We rowed back to Nightjar the next day, in a wide-bottomed dugout filled with well-wishers’ presents: bolts of silk, casks of the beaded ropes, pots, jars of pickles, and barrels of bad wine.
I had thought Kir Gale’s new tattoo would be some little thing—a rock or tree, a flower. Perhaps a depiction of wind, as befitted her name, or one of the mustangs. Instead, it covered her entire left shoulder with an elegant line-drawing of the same hammer I’d seen in the magical puzzle. I’d seen it in carpentry shops; its purpose was to smooth out rough bits of wood.
“My crone name is Adze,” Gale told me. Blood had run down her arm and she had not wiped it; letting it flake away must be part of the whole ritual. “I couldn’t convince Mumma to name me the Hag, as your people have.”
“Do you mind?” I wasn’t sure, as I asked it, if I meant her new name or the one we Erinthians had hung on her.
She shook her head. “It’s apt, Tonio. I’ve always considered myself a tool of the state. The idea of chiseling away churls in the long Peace—I suppose I’m honored.”
“And if chiseling gets you killed one day?”
“Should I live forever, child?” She reached out with her unbloodied arm, pulling me against her side as one might a nephew. Her hip was bony, but her flesh was warm.
Garland was fifty feet behind us in another rowboat full of gifts, this one so heavily laden he’d ended up perching atop one of the piles, just to balance the load for the rowers.
“Did he tell you want the Allmother wanted?” I murmured.
“What would you have done, if he’d consented?”
“Tried to fix it.”
“If you failed?”
Her mouth bunched, as if she’d eaten something sour. “Put him aside.”
“He’s monstrous enough as it is.” I must have looked baffled, because she explained: “Parrish was spoiled by nature. He’s good at whatever he turns his hand to. You can’t make someone like that invulnerable, too. “
A wave rocked our craft, and Garland was obliged to leap to his feet atop the pile of gifts, waving both arms, like a baby bird who’d wobbled out onto a branch too weak to bear its weight, to keep from pitching over into Moscasipay Harbor.
“He is graceful,” I said, in the tone of one making a great concession.
She giggled. “He’s a gazelle.”
Garland recovered his balance, and commenced fishing over the side for some trinket he’d kicked loose while he was flapping.
“Let it sink,” Gale called, but he affected to not hear, scrabbling in the salt water and finally coming up with a sodden cotton scarf. Orange dye ran all over his hands, bleeding into the sea. “Just drop it, Garland.”
He shook his head, smiling, as he wrung it out.
“Are you ready to go home, Tonio?” Gale asked me. “Had enough adventures to tell your family and friends?”
“For now,” I said.
We had reached the ship. The mate threw down netting and we clambered aboard Nightjar together, Gale and I. As I stepped onto her boards, the deck shifted underfoot. My stomach turned once and settled. From that day, I knew, I would never be seasick again.