By the time Erohi hurries down to the harbor, the city is no longer at war with itself. Smoke lingers beneath each breath; the bodies have been pushed to the sides of the narrow streets. Though they all wear the green-scaled leather of the Imperator’s Own, some are marked with a scarlet armband. The stains on the wooden planks of the road are all the same black-brown, whichever side left them there.
Erohi only sees one of the Imperator’s sorcerers among the dead. She lies face-up, her veil of office pasted to the dry silent scream of her mouth. A dead sorcerer cannot threaten to force him into another shape, but too many of her comrades still live. What true shape lies beneath Erohi’s human form, to be revealed by imperial magic? A fish, he thinks, to die a helpless, thrashing death on the tiles. Or some other lowly creature, a cowering hound or a scurrying rat. He looks away and walks faster.
Someone who didn’t know better might have thought that there were fewer of the red-banded rebels than there ought to have been; might have wondered how many made it through the Garden Gate, might have wondered if the Imperator is dead after all, despite the gossip. Erohi does know better, and there is no point to wasting precious thought on such wonderings.
The gods grant him this one small fortune: that no one pays mind to an old fisherman with his diving-birds. After all, he is not the only one who appears to be hustling to his work this morning. Those who survived the city’s great struggles still have their own small, hungry ones to attend to. Erohi doesn’t see any faces he recognizes, which is a blessing: at best, any friends or acquaintances would have pretended not to know him, not to see him there. Drawings of his wife and daughters have been pinned to the walls in half a dozen city-squares; rewards offered for their capture or word of their whereabouts. In the images, his wife glowers menacingly in her peaked commander’s helmet. His daughters are a mismatched set in size and expression, despite their identical bronze infantry armor: the elder as stoic and stern-faced as her father; the younger sharing her mother’s bright eyes and slender build. but with a smile sharp enough to draw blood.
All three wear the orange sash of the would-be rebellion. What friends Erohi once had in the city will be calling him traitor-kin this morning, over their fish-sauce soup and tea. Many of those friends may nurse their own traitorous thoughts, safely locked away. But the Imperator’s grip is tempered iron, and it will take more than thoughts to break.
Three birds are an uncommon number for a lone fisherman, but Erohi is not a young man. A man of his age would have had time to build his fishing-flock. The two smaller birds, one young and one whose feathers have been dulled by age, huddle on his shoulders, their claws buried deep in the leather pauldrons sewn onto the faded linen. They share a copper-colored streak of feathers down the back of each proud head. The largest one is full-grown, but youth still lends its shine to her feathers. She is bird-light, riding on his forearm, but powerfully built, with copper-colored bands on her folded brown wings. They are an unusual breed for fisher-birds, one not seen before in this harbor, but no one can afford attention to such details today.
His catamaran waits in its moorings, unharmed in the fighting. As the harbor protects the boats from the wrath of the Sea-Mother, so too does the necessity of the fishing-fleet protect it from the Imperator. It is good that his boat remains. He would not have liked to steal a boat from his neighbors, even if they would turn their backs on him now. Too many lives depend on each of these boats, too many hungry bellies. Nor would he like to learn the tricks and tells of an unfamiliar vessel, so much farther out on the open sea than he has ever gone before. He will need a boat that knows and trusts his hand.
He steps out onto the planks of the deck, and the catamaran bobs in greeting. The smallest and youngest eagle, Uttar, squalls her unease at the change in stability. “It’s all right, my heart,” he promises reflexively. A horrible lie, with the stench of death at their back; with the Imperator’s Tower still stabbing proudly skyward from the city’s heart. Very little is right. He amends: “We’re all safer here. Don’t be afraid.” They will be safer still once he puts an ocean between them and the Imperator.
The eagles sidle onto the perch nailed to a post on the catamaran’s deck, and Erohi’s hands are free to unwind the lines and set the sail. The boat slides silently seaward, amid a few of its brethren. But it glides past where the others have come to rest, out of range of their captains’ chore-songs and their diving-birds’ cries. It glides out into the clean sea air untouched by the smoke and stench.
The temptation to feel safe now is strong. Erohi shudders and shakes that temptation off in the strong sea wind.
A fisherman’s life is a lonely one, and Erohi has long accustomed himself to talking without expectation of a response. He talks about the mountains toward which they sail, the ones painted in contrasting black and white on the Cartographer General’s masterwork map. He points out clever shapes in the clouds: a sea serpent, an ox, a spiky lizard-fruit. The clouds seem bigger without land to anchor their size against. The eagles look where he points, their eyes afire with borrowed sunlight.
Of course, it is not really clouds that he’s watching. When bigger sails caress the rolling, white-capped spine of the Sea-Mother, he lowers his own and lies flat on the deck, praying, until the ships, war-ships, pass by. At this distance it is hard to make out the other sails’ colors: they might be the Imperator’s gold or the faded orange of Bamikan or Olesi ships. Any of these would surely wonder why an old fisherman had sailed so far from home. The Olesi might sink him for the joy of it; the Bamikan might collect him in the hope it could buy them a scrap of the Imperator’s good will.
Traitor-kin indeed. At what range could the Imperator’s sorcerers snatch away his man-shape? He imagines himself shriveling into the lowliest of creatures: an eel, a snake, an eyeless worm, to be delivered to the Imperator’s justice and crushed before her marble throne. Inside him, he is sure, there is no proud and beautiful bird to stretch its wings and join his three precious eagles in the sky.
Time is the greatest sorcerer, and eventually it will force him into a new shape: a sea-bloated corpse, a sun-leathered mummy. Let him only make it across the sea, first. Let him see his birds take wing over newer, kinder lands.
The birds seem to sense his fears. If he falls still, they keep their silence. Otherwise, they chatter and jostle for position, amiably grooming one another or focusing their knifepoint attention on Erohi and his busy-work.
The oldest of the birds, her beak scarred and chipped by the long hard years of struggle, turns often to look back westward, far past the angular lines the boat has cut across the surface of the water. “That passage is closed to us now,” Erohi says gently. His wife wanted to turn the tide of her great homeland. Even if there were now more than a handful of others left to fight that battle, the tide cannot be turned by mortal hands. “There is another land where you will still fly free.”
She does not turn at the sound of his voice; nor does she rebuke with beak or claws his gentle touch on the back of her head. A flight feather in her wing is loose, and he brushes it free; the wind sweeps it brusquely into the boat’s wake and it is lost at once, a golden glimmer quickly fading into the endless seascape.
All in all, the birds make model passengers. They do not bicker, the youngest not giving even a single teasing nip to her sister; they listen patiently to his jokes and stories; they eat what they are offered. It is only when a petrel eclipses the afternoon sun, all three eagles go flight-mad. Flapping frantically, screaming, slashing the air with their beaks, cursing him in the only tongue they speak—but the leather thongs that bind them to the perch hold fast. “You are creatures of the air and land, my hearts,” Erohi cautions them. “You are not water-birds.”
They do not heed, and he does not try to shout over them as they beat each other with their wings. Their slowly quieting cries mark his heart like their talons mark the soft pine of the perch.
The catamaran’s sails are accustomed to the brisk busy breezes of its home harbor. On the open ocean, the winds soon turn aggressive, sinking cold teeth into Erohi’s skin and shaking the sails, as the hunting-dog breaks the pheasant’s neck. Erohi constantly has the woven fabric down off the mast for repair. Every day he takes the good iron hook from its leather thong around his neck, and in his hand it nestles the pandan-leaf bands of the sail back into their weave. He sings the weaving-song as he goes, atta setta atta setta, with a pon-po-pon when he turns the hook at the end of a row.
The littlest eagle watches him, neck arched, captivated. “But why would you ever be interested in such a thing, Uttar?” he chides gently, breaking the rhythm of the chore-song. “You were made for war, my heart, not sea and sails.” He would have liked to pass his craft on to one of his daughters; the elder, with her strong broad shoulders to set against the rudder, or the younger, with clever hands and quick wits to face down any storm. But they both followed their mother. It is enough to keep the old ways alone, even if it is better to share them.
A small, heartbreaking sound scrapes out of the littlest eagle’s throat. Erohi catches the web of skin between his thumb and finger with the hook, and the pandan-leaf eagerly soaks up this meager blood-offering. “Greedy, greedy.” He sets the sail aside; he blessed the catamaran with the gift of blood the first day it ever kissed the water. If he isn’t careful, it will develop a thirst, and there is no handling a boat that loves its master’s blood more than his life. The wound isn’t bad, and he presses the rest of the blood in among the other stains on his old shirt. The dried salt pounded into the cloth bites back against his palm.
“This is what the chore-songs are for,” he tells Uttar, who watches him with an eagle’s singular attention. “To focus the mind, to let our bodies remember the old rhythms when our minds forget.”
She puts her head back and answers him with a resounding squall.
- “Disrespectful,” he says, and clucks, but feels his face fold into the long-forgotten geography of a smile.
The biggest eagle has been working at her tether without Erohi noticing. One morning two weeks out, while he hunches over his fishing net, she breaks free of the perch and soars upward on a triumphant scream.
Erohi almost loses his net to the waters’ eager tug. “Return!” he calls, his voice breaking. He holds his arm outstretched before him, an offering of a safe place to land. “Return!”
She must not hear the command, not over the screaming song of her own victory and the shrilling of the other two left behind. This one has always been loyal, though she has also always chosen for herself which master she will so serve, taking after her mother in this as in so many things.A soft-hearted old fisherman is one thing; an Imperator who would sacrifice her soldiers on the altar of power is something else altogether. “Return!” Erohi tries once more, though his terror breaks the word into small wet pieces that fly little further than his lips.
But she has sighted something beneath the sea’s surface, in the catamaran’s shadow. She dives, claws reaching, ever reaching. An uncaring whitecap slaps into her as she strikes and she vanishes, the bright copper of her wings erased beneath watery gray verdigris.
Erohi dives off the edge of the catamaran and cuts a clean, deep wound in the water that scars over in a swirl of bubbles. He reaches forward in long, sweeping pulls; his old arms have some strength left in them. But there is no sight of the downed eagle in the wave-churned waters, and when he breaks the surface again, the Sea-Mother, mischievous past the point of cruelty, is carrying the catamaran away.
The old eagle on her perch calls to him, a shrill note of pleading. He has no power to refuse her. The waves fight him this time, but he makes his way back to the boat and crawls aboard the deck. Weariness crushes his soul to the very edges of his body; there is no space left for sorrow. When the old harpy sounds again, he turns his face away. “You taught her to be this way,” he says, voice harsh with salt and sorrow. “She has too much of your blood.”
What can she say to that? Though he is too tired for tears, his sodden clothes weep for him, salty rivulets drip-dripping from the edge of the deck to make their way back home to their Mother.
Is the Sea-Mother so named for the terrible storms she births? The typhoon catches Erohi late one afternoon, its gathering storm-clouds scrubbing the last of the light from the sky hours before the darkness’s appointed hour, and the winds chatter excitedly as they jostle and play.
Erohi has weathered storms before but never so far from shore, never without a hope of running back to the safety of the harbor. He brings down his sail, he checks the catamaran over for loose boards or frayed ropes. He tries to gather up the eagles so that he can put them in the under-storage, but they panic when he tries to hood them, beating him away with their wings, slashing at the air with their beaks. “Harpies!” he shouts at them. “Ungrateful harpies! Must I lose you to the sea, too?” But they settle when he closes the storage hatch with them on their rightful side of it.
The tempest gathers its strength slowly—the crack of lightning across a splintered sky, the flex and roll of the Mother’s muscular back beneath the hull—then erupts in its full fury all at once. Sheets of rain fall like war-hammers on the catamaran; the boat spins and cants nauseously on the bucking water.
“Hold!” he cries, though the storm dashes his words against the water before the birds can hear. “Hold fast!” But they cannot hear and could not heed even if they did. Waves force their way over the deck and knock the birds from their perch, over and over again, until the poor creatures exhaust themselves and dangle as if broken from the ends of their tethers. Erohi, tethered at the opposite end of the deck, is powerless to help. He cannot leave the tiller to which he clings or the boat will turn with the storm’s battering, to be swamped or capsized. If either eagle regrets her choice to stay above-deck, she has no voice to say so.
Like a churlish child, the storm’s fury evaporates to nothing, and the Sea-Mother pretends her innocence. She draws up her cloudy hemline to show a playful, pink-polished line where sky meets water. Erohi barely sees it. The water-swollen cords part at the touch of his knife, but he cannot rise. Exhaustion pins him down to the planks, down into sleep.
Weary men dream cruel dreams. In the maze of the Prince of Dreams, Erohi is in his own home, the night before the uprising. He begs his wife, his daughters, as they proudly tie one another’s orange sashes in place; begs them not to do this thing. Begs them, if not to stay loyal to the Imperator, to set aside their spears. He begs them to stay. And this, of course, they cannot do, not in dreams, not in waking life. They are bound to their dreams of freedom as tightly as their sashes are tied around their arms.
In the dream he cannot remember his eldest daughter’s name. Only when he wakes does it break at last against his salt-crusted lips. “Kettar,” he sobs. “Kettar, Kettar.”
The day after the storm, the old bird favors one leg, which must have twisted in her fall from the perch. She will not let him examine it, barely eats when Erohi offers her fresh fish. The birds always eat before he does. She watches the horizon bleed away behind them, waiting for her lost daughter to return, knowing that she will not. “You must be strong,” he cajoles, but she gives only one more grudging peck.
His little one, beautiful, golden-eyed, holds no such compunction. When he presents the fish to her, her greedy beak slashes his fingers. Drops of his blood pit-pat to the deck, mingling with that of the fish.
He wraps the wound with torn cloth and feeds her the rest of her meal on the tip of his knife. “It’s all right,” he tells her. “I know you didn’t mean it.” She tilts her head at him, eyes unblinking.
The older eagle puts back her head and wails at the malingering clouds.
“Don’t worry, my heart.” He points east, where the rising sun has shredded the morning’s mist. The horizon is flat and smooth, though his eyes scrape it for the promise of mountains. “We’re close,” he promises. To them, to himself, to whichever god is listening. Only two remain, but he will see them both safely to the end of this journey. It is all he needs to do; it is all that he can.
As if to make up for the fury of the storm, the seas of the west becalm themselves. The catamaran perches on crystal-still waters, like the ornament on an ice-sculpture at the Garden Gate. The sun, resentful of its nightly banishment, makes itself heavy in the sky. Erohi covers his sunburned neck with seaweed and sips grudgingly from his carry-gourds. The Sea-Mother is generous, offering up her children to Erohi’s nets, but she cannot give him freshwater.
Now and again, the wind shyly pushes the sail. The forward motion lifts Erohi’s heart, but when the sky grows still again, he sinks deeper into sorrow than he was before. Each day Erohi repairs his net, tying new knots where old strands have frayed. Each night, it grows a little smaller. His voice has always proudly carried the melody of the chore-song; now it is no more than wind in the dry reeds. The Sea-Mother is too embarrassed for him to carry his own song back to him; the tune drowns alone in the humid night’s air.
When the last carry-gourd is dry, there is still no land in sight.
Hunger and dehydration and heat combine into a potent draught that lies to Erohi beautifully. His wife is there beside him, feet dragging in the water, his rough hand clasped between her hard ones. Or his daughters are children again, laughing and shouting and swatting each other with willow-branch spears just out of view. Or the Imperator’s sorcerers are striding across the motionless waters toward him, their mage-fire rolling out before them, breaking down the shape of that which is and forcing it into what should not be. Before he can cry out to his daughters to hush and hide, a storm of bird-wings steals the sunlight from his face, and the girls’ merry shrieks crescendo into an eagle’s frantic alarm.
No, that is no hallucination. Erohi’s gummy eyelids furl, but his eyes refuse to focus. The old eagle paces back and forth on her perch—built for three, but only two remain—and screams over and over again.
Has the Imperator’s Navy caught up to them so far from home? Erohi peels his cheek from the dry boards of the deck to squint into the dark.
As he sits, doubting, a teasing breeze pulls at the stiff, dirty plait of his hair. Though at first he cannot trust his sleep-blurred eyes, the teeth that cut through the moonlit horizon are unmistakable. The mountains of a different world; a world where his precious birds will be safe. Borrowing against his own future strength, he trims the sails and sets the catamaran on a true course. Both eagles watch, silent, staring.
There is no harbor. The people of this land must entrust their boats to other shores—not this rocky, barren expanse. The catamaran judders roughly onto the shore. Past this level basalt shelf, the foothills cut sharply upward toward the stark white peaks.
Erohi’s hands tremble as he draws his gutting-knife and turns it to the birds’ tethers. A perfect stillness seizes them both while he works, as if they are mesmerized by the flash of the knife or frightened by the weight of ice-capped stone looming before them.
“Fly,” Erohi urges, as the last leather cord gives way. “Fly free. Go!” The little one flaps her wings uncertainly but clings still to the perch; the older sidles away from him sideways. “Please!” he begs, at the end of his journey, at the end of his strength. His work is done, but theirs is only just begun. Lightly, he rests his hand on the old eagle’s head. “Don’t worry for me. You are all that matters to me.”
She presses her head into his palm and nips him lightly, not enough to draw blood. Enough to say that she will not be willingly parted from him.
A throat-shredding squall turns his head and hers. Behind them, another eagle has landed on a scrubby pine. An impossible sight, here on the wrong side of the world. She screams, viciously, victoriously, and batters the wind with her unmistakable copper-banded wings. The little eagle screams in answer and shoots into the air, away from her mother, away from her father.
“Kettar,” Erohi says, his eyes on those bold copper bands. He dares himself to believe. To recognize her. “Kettar. Kettar.”
The large eagle on the pine branch beats her wings and takes to the sky, soaring toward the mountains’ impossible peaks. Erohi’s other eagles follow her, the little one close behind, the old one lifting belatedly from her perch. They turn wide circles on the sky over Erohi’s head. Waiting. They have no voices left to ask his forgiveness, his understanding; they write the question on the sky instead.
The foothills tower over Erohi. They are so high, and he has come so far already. He takes a tottering step, then another.
For his eagles, he could go a little farther yet.
He reaches up a steep, rocky face, and finds a handhold. Then another. The birds scream their excitement. He does not have a chore-song for climbing, but he makes his own, anchoring himself to moment and mountain with the steady rhythm of hand over hand, atti atti ott ott, one foot finding leverage, the other purchase, toka sita toka sit.
His birds lead him skyward, and he follows.