The river runs, cutting sideways across the rocky ground, aiming for the cliffs and the caves there, the chance at freedom. Rory sights down the barrel of the gun, the latest from Lutea, a rifle that can shoot a flea off a dog at two hundred yards. He doesn’t even have to look to aim, the water within him drawing his hands like the needle of a compass. Below, Dev and Nora are in pursuit, horses abandoned, pistols drawn but next to useless at this range. Rory inhales, closes his eyes, and pictures a stone older than hate, smooth with promise and the pressed lips of an endless stream of supplicants. He exhales, squeezes the trigger.
He imagines the scene in three parts, a triptych of carved wood. The first panel—the river running, waving lines to represent motion, speed, desperation. The second—the stillness of Rory’s perch, the sharp angles of his body. The last—an empty landscape, rocks and shrubs and a small pool of something liquid not yet swallowed by the dry earth.
A lie about rivers: When the first human stepped upon the fresh earth and saw only a dry desert, they opened a vein in their arm, and from their blood the first river flowed, infusing their life into the land, giving it its shape and luster. And the river, forever grateful, pledged its eternal fealty to them, promising its service forever and ever.
Dev and Nora find him after they’ve done a search of the caves.
“Nothing,” Nora spits. Dust and sand streak her skin, halo her head in a way that almost glows in the setting sun. Later, they will talk. Later, she will mouth a prayer for the water she let slip into the ground and he’ll ask her if he’s done the right thing and her only answer will be silence, like the echo of smoke after a gun fires.
“You must have hit nem,” Dev says. “There’s signs of water loss. Ne’s not going far.”
Rory nods. The bullets are Lutean-made, salt and iron and whatever special magic they use to make them potent against rivers. Even clipped, the bullet will prevent the river from transforming, will lock nem in nir humanoid body until ne can find enough untainted water to filter out the taint of it.
“We’d better go find out how it happened,” Nora says. Her eyes lingers on Rory’s longer than they should, but Dev is already past them, walking back toward Tinholm.
It takes a while to hood the horses, sand-blinded as they are—a nasty trick for the river to pull, but then, this fight stopped being fair a long time ago. It takes longer still to lead them back into town where Konrad and Nels are waiting.
Konrad’s face is a storm cloud, a flushed white-gray, dry and hot, full of lightning without rain. Nels’ head is still wet from the attack, and their shoulder is bandaged.
“Quite the weapon,” Rory says, handing the rifle back to Nels, who gives a crooked smile.
“Ne made the cliffs,” Nora says. Konrad smolders.
“That a problem?” Nels asks. They’re fresh from Lutea; a Speaker, same rank as Konrad, though the two don’t get along at all. Nels is city born and bred while Konrad is local, schooled in the capital and returned to act as Voice of the Empire. The difference, for all that the empire supposedly sees all its citizens as equals, is obvious in the way Nels speaks, in the way they carry themself through Tinholm like it’s an unsavory bit of mud they don’t want to get stuck to their boot.
“There used to be a series of underground rivers that webbed the area,” Konrad says without looking at Nels. “It makes dowsing there difficult.”
“Ne won’t stay there long, though,” Dev says, puffing out his chest and addressing Nels directly. Standing out might mean a ticket out of Tinholm and to someplace with a bit more action—something Dev is always going on about. “There’s no fresh water in the cliffs, and Rory hit nem. Without an infusion, ne won’t last a week, and will be weakening. I’m sure if we organize a search tomorrow, we’ll have no problem finding nem.”
Nels nods slowly, jaw working as if chewing on the information, though more likely it’s just sore from the attack. “Sounds like a plan,” they say. “Though I suppose it means our young hopefuls here will have to wait another day.”
They sweep a hand at the gathered children, all of them between six and ten years old. Rory’s gaze falls on Liam, milling among them, and his chest tightens.
“Another day won’t kill them,” Konrad says, and the silence that follows is as loud as thunder.
A lie about rivers: When the first human gave their life blood to create the rivers, to create the living world, they entrusted a part of their magic to the water, to bring to the plants and the animals, so that all could live happily under their dominion. But the rivers, greedy for a power of their own, began to steal the magic, hoarding it, causing droughts and famine and hardship for the children of the first human.
Dev sits on the bench in the room they all share as Dowsers, eyes on the ceiling, head leaned back like he’s got words oozing up his throat that he’s trying to keep down. Rory and Nora stand at their lockers, finished with changing, exchanging glances like whispering during a sermon.
“Have you heard about the uprising in Raildeep?” Dev asks, finally. When no one answers immediately he goes on. “They say that the mill overseeing the new shipyard was destroyed. That twenty dowsers and nearly a hundred soldiers were killed. They say...”
“Raildeep’s a long way from here,” Nora says, slamming her locker a bit harder than necessary.
“They say that it was humans that did it,” Dev says, not even flinching at the noise.
Rory thinks of his fathers. How, before the Empire’s policy on rivers became so extreme, they would take him down to Margo’s banks and let him play in her shallows. How he could feel her all around him and never feared the deeper waters, knew that she wouldn’t let him drown. And he remembers the feeling of water filling his lungs—a different river, a different world it seems—the dark spots growing in his vision as he refuses to close his eyes, refuses to look away from what’s coming.
“What, you thought that rivers were the only ones willing to fight?” Nora asks.
Rory’s breath catches in his throat and he almost puts a hand on her shoulder, like he could pull her back from the cliff she’s dancing along. Instead he forces himself to inhale deeply. She knows what she’s doing.
“It’s just, I never thought we could get called to put down human threats,” Dev says. The possibility of a posting to the city must be stirring in his chest, dredging his depths, clouding his thoughts.
“We get called to enforce the law,” Nora says. “Like always.”
Dev nods but doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t have to. The law. Rory sees the children in his mind again, Liam and the others waiting under the weight of the law. Nora leaves, drawing Rory in her wake, leaving Dev still staring at the ceiling, alone.
A lie about rivers: Rivers have always demanded worship. Concessions. They have blocked trade, fishing, irrigation. Have flooded, have killed, have ruined lives. They have leveraged their stolen magic into power over humans, and exploited humanity’s good nature for too long.
Rory’s father Declan serves tea as Nels tells stories of Lutea, the bistros and the theaters and the schools. They don’t mention the wheels, the great cogs forever turning, fueling the joy that Nels describes. Not that Tinholm is much different, with its three wheels along the river. Her name is Margo, Rory reminds himself, mind drifting. Nora gives his hand a squeeze, anchors him to the present.
“And do they have Tribute Days in the capital, then?” Liam asks from their place on the couch next to Rory’s father Heath, who flinches at the question.
Heath, who works in one of the wheelhouses as an engineer, amid the grease and metal, teetered between relief and despair after hearing what happened at the Tribute. Declan settles next to them, tea served, and Rory aches to see the hollow looks in his fathers’ eyes. They both lean toward Liam, as if by their collective will they can protect them from what Nels might say—and from what will happen tomorrow, or the next day.
“Every year,” Nels says, blowing on his tea.
Which might mean to say that Tinholm is lucky, visited only every five from an official Voice to carry out the ceremony. Or it might mean something else, though what Rory isn’t sure. He’s heard stories, though, that in the city there are ways to getting out of Tribute, ways of paying to make sure your children aren’t among those called. Not that Declan and Heath could afford it. Not that Konrad would let them, even if they could—not when it was their family that had tended the water shrine before Tinholm had been taken into the empire. Not when there were still whispers they had never given up the old beliefs. And not when Rory had stopped returning Konrad’s affections and started going out with Nora. And people claimed rivers were petty and vengeful.
For a while no one talks, the tea a convenient excuse to sit in quiet. Rory takes his mug, feels a small vibration from it, just the slightest of tickles. As a Dowser he’s connected to all waters, and he looks over the surface of the tea at Liam, whose open mouth belies the questions they want to ask. But the weight of their fathers’ presence silences them.
“Thank you again for tending my shoulder,” Nels says, suddenly. “It’s feeling much better.”
Declan bows his head. “It would have been better still if I could have gotten to you right away, but the wound wasn’t too serious. I hope there’s not much pain.”
Nels grins. “Not pain so much as embarrassment,” he says. “I must be getting old. Time was, even a faulty restraint wouldn’t have found me so off guard.”
Rory purses his lips. Nels must be in his late thirties—not old, even by the standards of those in the room. His fathers are both in their sixties, old enough to remember the time before Tinholm joined the empire fifty years before. Which was long before the real troubles began, when the wheels and the guns poured out from the capital like a flood. Rory only remembers flashes from before that—back when he was supposed to take over as tender of the shrine.
“Still, you must be some sort of healer,” Nels says. “You ever consider moving to the capital? I’m sure there’s a lot you could teach people.”
“My first lesson would be that this is nothing,” Declan says, gesturing at Nels’ bandaged shoulder. “Your injury was mostly superficial—I imagine the river had more interest in escape than really hurting you. Before...well, before I could have healed almost anything. I once helped my mother reattach a severed arm. What I can do these days...well, it doesn’t compare.”
“Then I’m glad I wasn’t more seriously injured,” Nels says with a laugh, as if it were a grand joke. “Some reason you’ve lost your potency, though? If you could really do what you claim—now that’s something the hospitals in the capital would pay almost anything for.”
Declan’s gaze drifts to the window, though it’s dark outside. Rory knows what he’s looking at. Beyond the glass, beyond the street, is where Margo winds through Tinholm.
“Most of our healing is derived from water,” Declan says. “The magic of water. Something about the magic, though...it really only works well when the water is freely given. Which hasn’t happened in a long time.”
Nels gives a weak smile and downs the rest of their tea before standing. “Well, I’m grateful all the same. If you’ll excuse me, I fear your Voice has a few questions as to what exactly happened today. Good night, and thanks for the tea.”
The weight of what is unsaid presses down on all of them, the way their eyes shift to the door as if expecting a heavy boot to kick it in. Now they all share Liam’s expression, mouths half open, something in their eyes pleading with each other, but they don’t speak. Instead Rory and Nora see Nels to the door, watch them disappear into the night. Then, with Declan and Heath’s help, they move the bench and the rug it sits on, pull up the loose floorboards, and descend the hidden stairs into the hollow below. The stone, so perfectly smooth, is waiting for them. They have a busy night ahead.
A lie about rivers: A river can never die, it’s water never fully lost. The different faces they wear are only masks to trick men into lowering their defences, to keep humanity subservient and weak.
The horses wear goggles today, ridiculous bulky things that make them look like locomotive engineers transformed into animals. The air is dry and the sun beats down with the rhythm of summer, every summer since the troubles began, where the heat blasts everything not irrigated by Margo, not fed by the energies she provides the town and farms. Balance, the empire calls it. Security from the whims of nature and rivers. There are other words for it.
Rory rides beside Konrad and wishes he had been sent out with Nels and Nora and Dev instead. Being alone with Konrad reminds Rory too much of when he first graduated and was made a full dowser, when Konrad’s advances became obvious because they were no longer forbidden. Their relationship, such as it was, didn’t last long, and Rory feels a sort of clinging resentment behind Konrad’s glances now.
“Was Liam disappointed with the delay?” Konrad asks as they scan the cliffs, Rory letting the feel of water guide him without consciously thinking about it. “Or was there a celebration at your home last night?”
“My sibling looks forward to serving the empire,” Rory says, the expected answer. “Though I think they have more aptitude as a builder than a dowser.”
It’s an old argument, and a true one, though of course every family with a child chosen for Tribute makes a similar claim—anything to get out of having to participate.
“They say that dowsing often runs in families,” Konrad says. “You were lucky enough to make it through, after all.”
Rory bites his bottom lip, tastes blood. And he remembers again, more vividly. Water, water and the need to breathe so bad that he takes it into himself, into his lungs. His parents taught him that water gave people life, gave them spirit. And that there are moments still when humans and rivers can touch in ways that go beyond skin, that reach back to that original, liquid state. Elrin, the river they have brought for Tribute. Rory. They know each other even as their names dissolve, as they feel the hunger and fear, the uncertainty and stress. Their waters mingle as Rory drowns.
“I...” He’s spared having to say anything as the river breaks from cover and runs. There’s the faint whine of Konrad’s gun as it’s unholstered, but Rory doesn’t hesitate, urges his horse into a run. The river is stumbling, tripping over nemself in an effort to flee. Gale. Nir name is Gale. Like all rivers, the knowledge of name, of identity, comes in the connection between them, the moisture of even this blasted air. Rory knows Gale, and Gale knows Rory.
There is no attack—the bullet would have made it impossible for Gale to shift back to liquid, even for a moment. Rory doesn’t even draw his weapon, just rides up on Gale’s flank, cutting nem off from the cliffs, offering nem the option of surrender or further resistance. Ne drops to nir knees, glaring up at him, or maybe beyond him, at the sky, devoid of clouds and any hope of rain.
“Had enough of running?” Konrad asks as his horse walks him near.
“I’ve had enough of hiding,” Gale answers, lips cracked, hands raised. Rory dismounts and puts the salt iron restraints back on Gale’s wrists.
A lie about rivers: Rivers need borders, need banks and dams, or they will run to nothing. They erode the landscape, flood, recede, go dry. They are fickle, and need a strong hand to guide them and keep them on course, to maintain their promise to humanity.
Rory waits beside Nels in the main wheelhouse, where there are cells capable of holding rivers. Around them, dour-faced members of the militia stand, uniforms clean and pressed. The town transforms around Tribute time, the chosen families shrinking to nothing while everyone else grows large, backs straight, voices loud in exaltation of the Empire. Inside, Declan administers fresh water—just enough to purify Gale and make nem able to participate in the Tribute, which has been pushed off another day. Konrad looms nearby, arms crossed, watching Declan work, eyes fierce.
“Care for a breath of fresh air?” Nels asks Rory, nodding toward the stairs that lead up to the roof.
Rory shrugs and follows, unable to swallow the knot of worry at seeing his father so close to Konrad’s scrutiny. Declan, once at the heart of the community as healer, as tender to Margo’s shrine, now relies on Heath and Rory to keep them all fed and clothed. Rory doubts very much it was luck of the draw that put Liam in the current Tribute—what better way to wipe away resistance than to force families who respected the water to choose between complicity or death?
The roof of the main wheelhouse is the tallest place in town—the first act of the Empire was to convince its people of the benefits of its new edicts, its new technologies and advancements. Stepping into the fresh spray of the great wheel, Rory breathes deep, feeling traitor for how refreshing it is to experience the wet air.
“It’s quite a town,” Nels says as they look out at the buildings trying to push beyond the strictly planned design of the capital.
Rory has no illusions, knows that Tinholm exists for its mines and for the farms that funnel food and materials into Lutea to be transformed into metal of wheels, bullets for guns, and the full bellies of soldiers. Grain to keep everyone else just hungry enough to believe more would come after the next campaign, the next river chained. But it is home, and Rory can’t help but love it.
“It could be,” Rory says, gaze catching on the river that bisects the town. Margo. Always Margo. Buoys anchor her in her bed, all linked from the main wheelhouse north and south to the smaller wheels that provide energy to the homesteads and farms beyond the city center. They bob in the water as it flows, pushing the great wheels that, in turn, power the buoys and the rest of town, a cycle twisted back on itself—an unbroken chain.
Nels’ eyebrows arch and he laughs. “I wish I could have shown you Lutea before...all this. I wish I could have shown you the theaters and the universities, the students debating in the street. The art. There was a band of rivers once, that played in the Great Hall. A long time ago. You know what Lutea originally meant? The music of water. Or, if you listen to certain unpopular scholars, the harmony of water.”
“And what’s the sentence for listening to unpopular scholars?” Rory asks.
Nels’ grin could cut iron. “Same as the sentence for being an unpopular scholar. Or for giving aid to a river. Or for any of a hundred other things.”
“Well, if the sentence is all the same...” Rory lets his voice trail off, drowned by the noise of the wheel, the hum of the energy feeding Tinholm.
Behind them a door opens. Neither of them turn.
“The river should be well enough for Tribute tomorrow,” Konrad says.
“I’ll see my father home, then,” Rory says. “Unless you need me for anything else.”
Konrad hums, his voice blending into that of the wheel, but eventually he shakes his head. “You’re dismissed.”
A lie about rivers: A river does not feel pain like a human. Does not love like a human. Is not a human. They lack a vital spark, without which their water can never thicken into blood.
“What happens?” Liam asks after Rory’s fathers have gone to bed, when it’s just them, Rory, and Nora in the small space under the floor, where water carved stairs and walls from stone to make a chamber large enough to keep certain memories alive. Before Margo was chained. Back when she thought this would only be a temporary situation. Around them, hung on the walls, are wood panels they have carved. Declan, mainly, but Heath and Rory as well, and even Liam has carved one or two. Depicting the stories they’re not allowed to tell anymore, the beliefs they’re not allowed to have. At their feet, bits of metal litter the rock, make walking difficult. “When you’re taken for Tribute?”
“It hurts,” Nora says, before Rory can think of an easier way to think of it. “No matter what they tell you, it hurts. The weight on your chest as you struggle, the feeling of water rushing into your lungs, the burn of your brain screaming for air—it all hurts.”
Liam shudders, but doesn’t turn away. Rory tries to remember what he had felt, before Tribute, when a Speaker from the capital had come, river in tow, to drown twenty children and see who came back touched by the water, able to dowse. He had been part of the very first Tribute in Tinholm, part of that reminder, that binding, where the entire town was tainted by a bullet fired from the capital—it poisoned them still, fifteen years later.
“Some try to trick the testers, to go limp and play dead,” Rory says finally. “But there’s no point. The connection is only made at the end, after the life has started to fade. It’s like...like it leaves enough space for the water to come in. If you try to pretend, they’ll know. There are tests they have, to see if you can really feel it. And if they find that you’re faking, they’ll just do it again. Only...I’ve never seen anyone come back after a second time.”
“But...what’s it like?” Liam asks. They nudge a large metal screw with their foot. “To have that connection. To be a dowser.”
“Like you’ve lost a part of yourself,” Nora says, “but gained something else. Not worse, not better, but different.”
“It’s like you’re broken in two,” Rory says. “The you on the surface that’s the same as always, that people see and feel that they know. And then the you that’s below the surface, hidden. Maybe it’s shallow, or deep. Calm, or raging. But it’s part of something larger, a current that flows through and connects everything. An undercurrent that pulls at you constantly.”
They’re all quiet for a time, in the glow of a single candle that flickers light across the wooden scenes around them.
“What should I do?” they ask.
“When it all starts,” Rory says, “you’ll know what to do—what you can.”
After Liam goes to sleep Rory and Nora stay below, voices hushed, lips brushing, hands busy to the rhythm playing within them, through them, until there is nothing but warmth and the taste of water.
A lie about rivers: The price humans pay for safety is Tribute. To create those who can hunt the rivers, who can bring the order of the empire forward, to the benefit of all. Without dowswers, rivers would run free. And when rivers run free, everyone suffers.
Rory didn’t sleep much. And now his father Heath is at work in the northern wheelhouse, and his father Declan has gone to the main wheelhouse to make sure Gale is healthy enough to perform. Liam and the rest of the Tribute are gathered by the southern wheelhouse, where the ceremony will be performed, and no doubt Nora and Dev are with them. All morning, a stream of people to the door, heads hooded, eyes dark. All morning, handing out wooden triptychs, stories that still need to be remembered. Stories now scattered through the town, hidden inside walls or in locked drawers.
Which leaves Rory, staring out across Margo’s waters. And Konrad, who announces himself with stiff cough.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Konrad asks.
Rory looks up at the sky, which is beginning to cloud. Maybe there will be rain. His hand clenches, and he realizes it’s gripping the handle of his gun. He’s been trained to think of it as an extension of himself. A poisonous tool that’s been grafted into his being. He takes in the scene again. The darkening sky, the water sweeping past, the buoys bobbing, pulsing with the power of the wheelhouses—the power of the Lutean Empire.
“It could be,” Rory says.
Konrad draws nearer. “I’ve been hearing some troubling rumors. About your family. About their loyalty.”
A wind snakes up Rory’s back, making him shiver even in the heat. Fear rises as bile in the back of his throat. Doubt kills surer than bullets, Nora likes to say. Rory just nods. If Konrad knew about what is happening, there’s no way they’d be having this conversation in the open air, with a thousand ways for it to go wrong for him.
The truth is a triptych of images carved in wood. The first panel—Heath and Liam working on something in the secret of the space beneath their home, parts stolen from the wheelhouse strewn about. The second—Rory and Nora finding Gale in the dead of night, giving nem water enough to hide a device inside nir body, where only someone trained to look, like Declan, could see it. The last—
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about my family much longer,” Rory says.
The smile that spreads on Konrad’s lips is predatory, like the big cats that used to stalk the cliffs before the rains stopped and drove them off and away. Or maybe it just drove them into town so they could learn to wear clothes and carry a gun and speak with the Voice of empire. Konrad must think Rory is talking about Liam, that whatever happens today will either break their parents or tie them too closely to the empire to ever consider resisting. But Konrad sees only the surface of the situation, the water calmly flowing by. He doesn’t see beneath, to the currents hidden there, building their way up.
“And will I have to worry about you?” Konrad asks. He wets his lips with his tongue.
Rory is saved from having to answer by the main wheelhouse exploding.
A truth about people: They often find ways to surprise you.
The heat of the explosion from the wheelhouse—hearing the roar and seeing the shock bloom on Konrad’s face—is like seeing that first breath after a body’s been pulled the from the river, that first spark of hope that maybe, this once, death has passed over and life will go on. It’s a fragile thing, like the whole world has slowed, waiting for that moment. And then everything speeds up again, and Rory knows his time has come.
Konrad is already past him and stands on the edge of the river, pistol in hand. There is screaming now, over the cackle of the fire and the moan of the wind. The sound of the water along the banks, though, has stopped. Konrad watches the wheelhouse, the devastation, but Rory keeps his eyes instead on the buoys in the water, how one by one they still. Somewhere far away there is another boom, and Rory follows Konrad’s gaze north, where a fireball is lifting into the sky, brighter than the sun.
“No,” Konrad whispers, and he must feel the sudden surge as Margo stretches, as the buoys drain of the magic being pumped into them by the wheels. Konrad begins to mutter, points his gun at the water’s surface. It won’t be as effective as shooting a river in a humanoid body, but a poison is still poison.
Rory hits directly between Konrad’s shoulder blades, snapping his head back and sending him sprawling into Margo’s waters, his gun tumbling to the ground. There’s not even a scream as he disappears, as he slips under the suddenly calm mirror of the water. There is no thrashing, no struggle that Rory can see, but he doesn’t stay to watch, already running south.
The fighting is done before Rory arrives, most of the Tribute children fled and Dev restrained and unconscious with a bullet wound to the shoulder. Bodies litter the riverbank, militia and Tribute alike, lifeless reminders that there’s no going back now.
“Shouldn’t be a minute,” Liam says, hand shaking as they keep Dev’s pistol pointed at the ground.
Nora, Declan, and Gale come running out a moment later, and they all take cover as the final explosion tears a hole through the roof of the wheelhouse and the last of the wheels screeches to a halt. They hold their breath—they don’t have much time before more of the militia responds.
The final buoys go dark, and for the first time in fifteen years Rory watches as Margo pulls herself from her banks, all that water sucking into a giant humanoid form, a woman who by human standards would be in her middle years, skin blue, eyes closed, face pointed up at the sky, which suddenly fills with the sound with thunder.
Rain. The town will need it, with the loss of the irrigation, with what will happen next. And Margo gives it, shrinking from the release; smiles when she opens her eyes and looks down and she sees Gale. The two embrace.
“Sorry to cut short the reunion,” comes a voice from behind them, and they all turn to see Nels running toward them, Heath just behind.
“They’ve already responded to the main wheelhouse,” Nels says. “I’ve stashed horses for you near the cliffs. It should give you enough of a head start to get away. They’ll be looking for you, but without fresh dowsers it will take them too long to follow. I’ve got friends who will find you and help figure out where to go from there.”
“What about you?” Rory asks. “Won’t they know your part in all this?”
“I’ve got connections it’s hard to ignore,” they say. “Plus, someone’s going to half-drown me and leave me for dead. I’ll be fine.”
It almost seems too easy, unreal. And yet, watching Margo surround Nels’ head with a bubble of water—watching their bright smile even as they slip from consciousness—Rory can feel the effort of it, the weight of it, which none of them would have been able to carry alone. None of this has been easy, but together they are a current building, a wave crashing. Together—
The sky opens and the rain falls, helping to conceal their escape. They run, humans and rivers—they run for a future that seems almost real.