By C.S.E. Cooney
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of C.S.E. Cooney and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.
That was the day the sky went dark.
No eclipse was scheduled on the priests’ calendars to spur the fervent into declaiming the last days. No dust storm had blown up from the Bellisaar Wasteland, spinning the air into needle and amber and suffering all unwary walkers the death of a thousand cuts. No warning.
Just the dark.
Outside the gates of Rok Moris, a white sun blazed. Rattlesnake basked. Sandwolf slunk to fit inside the meager shadow of a sarro cactus.
Inside the gates, blackness. Frost glistened on brick, boardwalk, dirt path, temple column. Quiet canals formed ice at the banks. Olive branches silvered and verdy bushes withered, and each bloodpink bougainvillea bush shed its papery petals to show the thorns.
In the hottest driest month of the year, to the hottest driest city in the Empire of the Open Palm, a long and endless winter night had come.
Fa Izif ban Azur and his Army of Childless Men marched upon Rok Moris.
Kantu groaned and rolled. A moment for the past to catch her. Ah. There it was. Like Lady White Skull, who calls you to the canals with her song and begs a ride upon your back. And halfway across the water, her bony claws dig in, and she drowns you.
“Kantu!” The voice was nearer now, almost familiar.
Her nose was clogged. Something congealed and unpleasant. She started to touch the mess of her face, but it felt strangely spongy, with a deep throb that reached the back of her brain.
“Is it winter?” she muttered.
It was dark and cold, a darkness and a coldness that ate at you. Not a desert darkness. Not the clean crisp starry dark of Bellisaar’s nightfall. Wizardry.
“The Fa,” Kantu remembered aloud. Gooseflesh sprang to her arms. She made herself say it again. “The Fa came. And we fought.”
The Bird People had fought – but not against the Fa. Their battle was, and had been for years, against their occupiers, the Empire of the Open Palm.
The Fa’s arrival in Rok Morris had been an inadvertent blessing; his dark spell upon the city, their call to arms. No more desperate acts of midnight sabotage. No more skirmishes or staged protests. The time had come for the Bird People to rise, rise up from the middens, up from the Pimples, up from the Catacombs beneath Paupers’ Grave. They rose up, armed with cudgels, torches, oil bombs. Three to a carpet they flew, bombarding the Grand Palace of Viceroy Eriphet with fire and rage, taking out the houses and offices and barracks of the Audiencia lordlings. They flew and they fought the rulers of the city, their invaders and oppressors. At last, at long last – after so many weary guerilla years!
And the Viceroy’s guards engaged them in the streets, bringing down the carpets with their nets, and the Gate Police came with their spears…
Kantu tried to answer, got as far as a croak. Her lips felt fat, crusted together, a pulsing purple ache.
A quick breeze rushed overhead, along with her name in an urgent whisper. Kantu groaned louder, trying to be helpful.
Rokka Luck! A matter of seconds, and the sound of a velveted landing, footfalls. Then a soft blue light, and Mikiel was there, with a ghost of a grin on her long, bony face, helping Kantu to sit upright.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” hissed Mikiel. “Manuway said you jumped carpet.”
“Guy with a net,” Kantu murmured. “Taken us all down. You’d’ve done the same.”
“I would have dropped a brick on his head,” Mikiel answered, “not myself.”
“Heat of the moment.” She paused. “What’s that light?”
Mikiel touched the glowing blue button on her shoulder. It flickered off. Then, at another tap, blazed up again.
“Kipped it off a Childless Man. Once the Fa marched in, his soldiers were everywhere. I just sort of swooped down and plucked it off one of them. Figured the Fa had plenty more in his chest of wonders. Why not ward the dark with borrowed wizardry?”
Because, Kantu thought, the wizard is a god, and all gods are vicious.
She rubbed her bruised eyelids and tongued wincingly at the crusted coppery bits in her mouth. The weirdness of the witch light transformed Mikiel from best friend back to the alien thing she once had been. Her red hair seemed black as Kantu’s own, but her skin, paler than quartz, turned almost transparent, and Kantu thought she could see to the bone.
Mikiel did not hail from Rok Moris – nor any city, village, town or tent of the Bellisaar Desert. She had been born in the north, further north than the fountains and flowers and silver opulence of Koss Var the King’s Capital. North, even, of Leevland where the fjords ran deep as the mountains rose high.
She came, she said, from the top of the world, from a land called Skakmaht, where demons made their homes in flying castles made of ice.
Mikiel’s wanderings had taken her to every land imaginable. But it was in Rok Moris she had decided to stay, eight years ago, when she found the Bird People and allied herself to their suffering. Kantu knew many of Mikiel’s secrets, but not this first and deepest: why Mikiel had remained. Only the Rokka Mama knew that.
The Rokka Mama had adopted Mikiel into their raggle-taggle tribe, bunking Mikiel with Kantu in a subcell of the ‘Combs.
“Why?” Kantu had thundered. All the sullen rancor and blistering jealousies that characterize the age of seventeen roared in her words. “She’s a stranger. She’s too tall. She talks funny.”
“Because, Kantu, you are of an age and very alike. Yes – very! Both of you are headstrong and preposterous. Both of you,” she sighed, “still believe in justice.”
“Well. She looks dead. Drowned. She’s so white.”
“Then she’ll complement you well, my dark one. Be kind. She’s come a long way.”
So Kantu, grudgingly, had taught Mikiel to walk the mazepath of the Catacombs, how to weave a carpet with thread that could fly, and finally, how to take to the skies. In turn, Mikiel showed Kantu how to dance with a knife strapped to her thigh, how to use a slingshot and flirt in twelve languages. For eight years they lived and fought alongside each other. As unlike in looks as Rok Moris from Koss Var, Kantu came to consider Mikiel her sister. Their hearts beat a twin tattoo on the Thundergod’s drum.
And now, in all the chaos of the uprising, Mikiel had not forgotten her.
She found me, Kantu realized. Even in this darkness, she found me.
As if Mikiel caught the thought, she grinned again, and her eyes sparkled. They were a limpid, pearly blue in color, almost white. Despite the witch light, she became herself again.
“You’re dreaming, Kantu,” she said. “Too many blows to the head.”
“Just the one. Didn’t improve my nose, I’m afraid.”
“That meat hook? The gods could not improve it.”
“Got any salt, Mik? Want to grind it in a little?”
Mikiel made to throw her arm around Kantu’s shoulders. Her movement cast a strange shadow onto the crumbling alley wall. It was taller and boasted more angles than even lissome Mikiel could account for. Leaning back, Kantu glanced from the shadow to the thing casting it, and whistled through her teeth.
“You like? Crizion helped. She wanted to come, but it never would’ve carried three. So she went to scavenge food instead. Supplies are low.”
“Mikiel Maris Athery, you are such a goddaft show-off!”
Her friend shrugged, the mass on her shoulders bobbling.
“It’s just – we’re all so scattered down in the ‘Combs. The Rokka Mama had no carpets to spare for finding your sorry carcass. I had to do something.”
Her something had been to fashion a collapsible glider from the magic tatters and raveled rags of carpets too threadbare and patchy to carry riders. The contraption jutted up and out from Mikiel’s shoulders like the Great Raptor Rok mantling her prey.
“It flies,” she assured Kantu. “Sort of. You just have to talk gently to it. Lots of encouragement, that’s the way.”
Kantu wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Immediately regretted it.
“It carries you, sure. Mik, a praying mantis weighs more than you. Question is, will it carry two?”
“Come on, Kantu.” Mikiel neatly avoided answering by hauling Kantu to her feet. Every time she moved it was a kind of dance, even weighed down as she was. “We can’t stay in the streets. Too damned dangerous.”
“Wait, wait, wait a second.” Kantu cupped one hand to the back of her skull, the other to her forehead, trying to keep the world in one place. “Just tell me one thing, you demonic cursespawn of the North. Did we win? Is the city ours? Where is Viceroy Eriphet?”
“Eriphet?” Mikiel laughed. “Fled or dead. Who cares? Gone. Gone with all his guards. And every lordly wormling of the Audiencia who had a camel worth riding. May they cross Bellisaar in safety.”
“Of course.” Mikiel’s smile was sour. “Let them bellycrawl back to Koss Var with cracked lips and swollen stomachs. Let Eriphet confess to High King Vorst Vadilar that he lost the Empire’s southern stronghold to the desert scum he swore to crush. And then – please the Flying Gods of Thunder – let Eriphet and the Audiencia sip of the High King’s mercy.”
As familiar as fear was the mercy of the Empire of the Open Palm. The broken treaties, the marches, the massacres, the prison camps and slave labor, the promises oozing like toxin through honeyed lips. This mercy had the Viceroy Eriphet shown the Bird People during the forty long and bloody years of his reign.
Remembering this, Kantu barked with laughter. “May Vorst Vadilar show him the same!”
Heedless of her throbbing face, a wrist that was surely sprained, a broken toe and countless contusions, she did a jolly little shuffle, puffing up dust from the gutter.
“The Viceroy driven to the Waste! Rok Moris ours!”
Those two syllables would have flattened a priestess’s miter. Kantu stopped dancing. Every cut burned. Every bruise clenched. She collapsed, panting, against the alley wall.
“Why grim, Mik?” she gasped, though she knew. ”Why, when the city is ours?”
“Well –“ Mikiel gestured to the unnatural darkness. The wind moved with a black glitter, as though a billion tiny eyes traveled on it. Kantu could not smell the air, but she could taste it beneath the copper, all the way down her throat, in the acids of her stomach. The way the air tastes of glass when lightning strikes the sands.
“It’s the Fa. The streets are overrun with Childless Men. They did not march into our city last night because Eriphet called for help. Nor do they seem interested in pursuing the Audiencia into the desert. But the Fa – when he came, he brought the night with him, and it stays. He has already taken up residence in the Viceroy’s Palace. Um, the parts we didn’t burn. Citizens are being rounded up for questioning. And…”
By the milky blue light on her shoulder, Mikiel’s eyes seemed wide as windmills.
“Kantu, a reward has been posted.”
“For the Rokka Mama.”
Kantu’s hands fell to her sides, too nerveless even to form fists.
“And for you.”
They flew in slow staggering stoops across Rok Moris. Once they had to land behind a small branch library to let Kantu alight and vomit, and again after Kantu lost both her consciousness and her grip on the glider’s handholds. She landed on top of a noxious midden out back of the Star and Crescent tavern.
After this, Mikiel said, worried, “We could walk?”
“I’m fine. This is faster. And safer.”
“If that trash heap hadn’t been there…”
“I’m fine, Mik!”
They passed the High Temple to Ajdenia, brightly lit against the unnatural night. Its corridors and courtyards teemed with refugees harried from their homes by invaders, insurgents and the panicked city guards.
Kantu sent them a silent blessing. Let Ajdenia hold them, love them, calm them, keep them. Kantu had no quarrel with the Lizard Lady or Her people. But Ajdenia was not her god, and Kantu had her own people to look to.
They made a final graceless descent over the barren mounds of Paupers’ Grave, at the southernmost edge of the city. After the mounds, the land ended in an abrupt cliff that sheered off into a dark crack of earth. This was the Fallgate, the boundary of Rok Moris, the end of the known world. The black aperture ran across the desert, too wide to cross.
Like many a bloodstained altar, this cliff was a holy place. Viceroy Eriphet used to stage his executions there – at the very edge – proving once and for all that without their carpets, Bird People could not fly.
Beneath the mounds of Paupers’ Grave, the secret burrows of long bygone builders spiraled down and down into the cliff rock. The labyrinth, the mazepaths, the Catacombs. Where, in secret, the Bird People dwelled.
Kantu dropped from the glider with a wrenched groan, massaging the death grip out of her fists. Mikiel tumbled after but regained her balance in an instant, shifting her feet lightly until once again her sandals settled like petals on the dirt. Kantu shook her head in fond disgust, but Mikiel did not notice. She was busy shrugging the contraption off her shoulders and folding it back into her pack. She stroked the patchworks and ribbing, murmuring sweet thank yous.
“Good old thing,” she said. “Clever wings, clever threads, clever souls.”
From beyond the glowing circle cast by Mikiel’s blue button, Kantu spoke sourly.
“The rest of us get rugs. Rugs are good enough. They do the job. Only you would think of wings.”
“And you call yourself Bird People.”
“Know what kind of bird you are, Mik? A snowbird. Northern fluff flying south for winter.”
“Caw,” Mikiel deadpanned.
Kantu blew a sore but profoundly wet raspberry at her.
Laughing softly, Mikiel touched the blue button on her shoulder. The light winked off. For a moment, the two friends stood together, blind to each other and silent in the darkness.
Something cold and fierce seized Kantu’s hand. She gasped.
“It’s just me.”
“Mik, you’re freezing.”
“Come here, my quivering ice maid. You and your thin Skakmaht blood. Put your arm about me. You can hold me up, and I’ll warm you up. You’ll find there’s a distinct advantage to having feverish friends. Better than bonfires, really.”
Mikiel twined her arm around Kantu’s waist. Kantu leaned in heavily, close to collapse.
“Easy on the ribs, Mik.”
“Lighten up, dead weight.”
They were used to doing this part of their work in the dark, for only thus had the Bird People kept the Catacombs secret from their enemy all these years. They counted their paces across Paupers’ Grave, the tombs and mounds and trenches that stretched along the entire southern border of Rok Moris, until they reached a certain burial mound. It was wider in circumference but lower to the ground than the others. The first and the oldest tomb. Their doorway underground.
As they reached it, Kantu’s knees buckled. Only Mikiel’s tightened grasp kept her from falling flat on her smashed face. Cursing, Kantu jerked to right herself.
Mikiel grunted in sympathy. “No rest for the recalcitrant.”
Kantu laughed, said, “Ow,” and sighed.
“What is the Fa?”
Kantu’s stomach lurched. Pretending a distraction she did not feel, she knelt before the mound, patting around for the trapdoor. Her hand caught on the round wooden dial, which, dried and splintered from centuries in the sun, scraped her fingers. Dust and sand fell away.
There, proud, the etched sign of the Thundergod, the Rok of Rok Moris, with her ragged wings shedding raindrops, and the diamond, bright upon her horned skull, shooting out lightning like a crown. The diamond needed no light to scintillate. It was older than the door, older than the tombs, the treasure of the Bird People. No thief could pry it loose from the dial, nor could even the sorriest beggar sell it for her gain. The diamond had some magic in it, deflecting attention and desire from the doorway. When the Bird People had fled to Pauper’s Grave in their hour of need, the diamond and the door had responded.
Kantu closed her fingers around the dial, turned it, and started to haul.
“The Fa,” she answered Mikiel on a heave, “rules Sanis Al. That’s the desert at the bottom of Bellisaar, east of here, hugs the coast. Not much plant life there – not even succulents. Very duney. We call it the Red Crescent for the color of the sands.”
The door creaked open.
“I’ll go down first,” Kantu interrupted. “Since I seem to have a habit of falling on people tonight.” Grasping the top rung of the hidden ladder, she swung herself into a hole she could not see, that she knew by touch and memory alone, and climbed down three short rungs. Then she dropped.
The drop was not a long one, but Kantu fell hard and forgot to roll. For a while she lay inert, breathing in short, painful gasps as her eyes tried to focus on the triple entrance to the mazepath.
The first door led, eventually, to a hole in the ground that went down a mile and had bones at the bottom. The second, to a tunnel that wound around to nowhere for as long as you had strength to walk it, then stopped. The third braided its way into the rest of the maze, and thence to the heart of the Catacombs.
In just a few minutes, Kantu promised herself, this blackness will end. I will see my friends. I will see Manuway. And Crizion. And the Rokka Mama.
Mikiel dropped through the darkness beside her, irritated.
“For once in your life, go slowly! Clodkin! If you haven’t noticed, you’re hurt.”
She hauled Kantu to her feet, slung an arm about her, and propelled her toward the correct entrance.
“Thanks, Mik. I’m just about done, I think.”
“I know. Kantu?”
“I know who the Fa is.”
“I just told you.”
“No, I mean –“ Mikiel stopped and sucked air, as if breath were her prayer for patience.
Half of Kantu wanted to watch her friend’s face. Half of her feared Mikiel once again igniting the blue light: its source, its possible sentience. Cowardice won. Kantu waited in the dark.
“I mean, Kantu,” Mikiel said slowly, “I’ve been to Sanis Al. It was a year ago, on a scouting mission for the Rokka Mama. It’s not nice – they’re in a drought; their crops and animals are failing.”
“Yeah,” Kantu muttered. “The rivers dried up when the rain stopped.”
Mikiel pressed on. “The Army of Childless Men exist to protect the Fa and his wives, to guard the Shiprock and drive marauders from their borders. They’re peacekeepers. They have never been interested in expanding their territory. Sanis Al was ceded to them by the gods. The Fa himself holds godright to the land. It’s in his blood. He never leaves it. So why is he here in Rok Moris? With all his soldiers around him? Why did he bring the wizard night? That’s what I was really asking. Not who the Fa is. What he is. What is he here for? Why did he post rewards for you? My question is, Kantu – what is Fa Izif ban Azur to you?”
The lie sat like a live coal on Kantu’s tongue. She wanted to spit it out, that it might light her way through the ‘Combs. But she swallowed instead.
“I’ve never met him. He’s just a story the Rokka Mama used to tell me, when I asked what made the sun rise every dawn.”
Within minutes of entering the heart of the ‘Combs, Kantu left Mikiel to the tender mercy of the Carpet Keepers. The twins immediately started scolding Mikiel for running off with their ragbags.
“Miss Athery, you know better!” Vishni reproached her with a sorrowful mouth. “You, who’ve flown with us these eight years.”
“No carpet,” Ranna spluttered, her color high, “even tatty old ragged ones that no longer fly – is to be treated lightly! They deserve respect – more than respect – reverence…”
But scolding turned to gasps of awe when they saw Mikiel’s glider.
“All those pieces!” Ranna exclaimed. “Working together!”
“It flies?” Kantu heard Vishni ask.
“Sort of,” Kantu murmured as she turned to go, smiling with raw lips. By the time she reached the threshold, Mikiel was flashing her stolen blue button around, chattering away about Crizion’s design for the glider’s construction and Mikiel’s own daring rescue of Kantu.
Kantu limped down the corridor to the surgeon’s cell, hoping to be scrubbed, rubbed, bandaged and sent to bed without further ado. She had not gone far before she started tripping on the cots and bedrolls lining the halls, and wading through the wounded to get to Rahvin’s cell. When she did, she found the surgeon gone – either on his rounds or for good – and his supplies scanty.
The Rokka Mama, however, was there, tending a long spear score down Manuway’s chest. His back was to her, so he did not see Kantu at the doorway, and Kantu saw only the bones of his spine and the sharps of his shoulder blades, the blood that had dried his curly hair to spikes. The Rokka Mama, bending to swab out his wound, did not see Kantu either. Her bramble of frosted black hair had been tied back in a braid and covered with a kerchief. Her round face, usually dominated by a radiant and implacable serenity, had gone haggard.
She looks, Kantu thought with a rush of shock, old.
The realization almost repelled her back into the hallway, back through the mazepaths, back up into the enchanted darkness and the blood-soaked city above.
“Surprise!” she croaked instead, too tired for tact.
Something in the Rokka Mama’s rigid posture cracked. Her gaze flashed from Manuway’s wound to fix on Kantu in the doorway, but the expression in her eyes did not change. Ghosts swam in the deep brown depths.
She thinks I’m dead, Kantu realized. She thinks I’m a spirit sending, a terrible shadow thing, coming back one last time to tell her I am no more.
Then the Rokka Mama’s body shuddered and pitched forward. Manuway reached to steady her, turning slowly to look over his shoulder. His eyes widened at the sight of Kantu and he whispered something swift and low to the Rokka Mama, who had hidden her face in her hands. At last, the Rokka Mama nodded. She raised her face and looked again at Kantu.
Kantu surged into the room, making the formal sign of the Thundergod with her fingers. Her words burst from her lips like a child’s.
“You’re not hurt, momi?“
Of all the Bird People who called the Rokka Mama mother, only Kantu was hers by blood. Usually it made no difference.
Her voice ragged, the Rokka Mama replied, “Sore grieved, pili. But sound.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“You’re whole? Still of one piece?”
“More or less. Finish up with Manuway. I can wait.”
Kantu propped herself up against a wall while the Rokka Mama finished dressing Manuway’s wound. Manuway watched her, his eyes tracking Kantu’s gradual slide to the floor, where she slumped, eyes slitted with exhaustion, knees crooked to her chest. He was not a man to smile often, but he smiled now.
“Last I saw you,” he said, “you were hurtling through the air.”
“Had to meet a man about a net.”
Kantu never could manage long sentences whenever Manuway smiled.
“I saw what you did. Thank you.”
“It was little enough. How many dead?”
Grim again and therefore easier to look at, he answered, “Hard to say. More than half of us are missing.”
He recited the roll of absentees. Kantu felt each loss in her own skin, a thin slice of lightning.
“And Crizion jhan Eriphet,” he finished.
“Crizion?” Kantu’s mouth went dry.
If Mikiel was her right hand, Crizion was her left. The daughter of Viceroy Eriphet, a princess of the Audiencia, Crizion had grown up watching the Bird People fly, both on their carpets and off the cliff. She had come to the Rokka Mama in secret one morning, clothed like a beggar.
“I offer myself as blood ransom,” she had said. “Cast me from the Fallgate and have your vengeance.”
And the Rokka Mama had kissed her sad face, on the bridge of her nose, between big brown eyes as wide and wary as a wild antelope’s. And she had said, “My vengeance is to love you. Can you bear it?”
“Crizion,” Kantu repeated, swallowing. The floor moved beneath her like water, and before she could reconcile her own matter to this new consistency, she was on the table beside Manuway with the Rokka Mama’s broad arms wrapped about her.
“Oh, Kantu. Drink. Drink! I don’t know what you were thinking, jumping carpet.”
“Noble self-sacrifice, Rokka Mama.”
Kantu swallowed the infusion, which tasted of mint and a mild stimulant. The latter summoned the specter of her usual swagger.
“With Manuway captaining, unaware we were doomed for net meat, and Elia leaning so far off the fringe with his slingshot that a whisper would’ve flattened him, it was left to yours truly to act. You can’t say I was wrong. Only look at Manuway. Alive. Whole. Our favorite weaver, bigger and beautifuller than ever.”
Like most Bird People, Manuway was small, with a short torso, wide chest, and a large, shaggy head that sat like a stone gargoyle upon his burly shoulders. He was too thin for his frame, and his skin was laced with scars. Though his features were unsubtle, his black eyes rarely betrayed a gleam of the thought behind them. He had watched his wife Inilah step off the Fallgate while Eriphet smiled on. Her spirit, woven into thread by her widower, animated one of the swiftest, smartest, toughest carpets from which no careless rider could idly tumble.
It had taken some clever maneuvering before Kantu could jump untrammeled by that carpet’s protests. It kept trying to buck her back to safety.
They had been good friends, Kantu and Inilah. Since Inilah’s death, Kantu had striven not to love her widower too dearly.
Manuway stood now, squeezing the Rokka Mama’s shoulders with his battered brown hands. She gave him a tired smile, scratching at her hairline beneath the kerchief. An unspoken question passed between them.
“If you can,” she answered. “Don’t overtax yourself.”
“It is owed,” he reminded her.
Sighing, the Rokka Mama stepped aside. Kantu was given no chance to concur or demur, for she did not realize his intent until Manuway had stooped close to cup her face in his palms.
It was as if she suddenly had no face at all, was nothing above the neck but a nest of downy fledglings, soft and warm and restless with too many heartbeats. She had seen him coax mice and lizards and wrens to these hands, had seen him conjure the dead to his thread so gently that the carpets wove themselves for love of him. Now, beneath his hands, Kantu’s swollen tissues shrank, cuts closed, bruises vanished. With a click, her nose moved back into place, unhappily returning her sense of smell.
The stink of her body, the dried sweat, the dried blood, the gutter where she had lain, the trash she had fallen into, all rushed into her nostrils and left her feeling dizzy and shabby with rekindled memory.
When he was done, Manuway placed a thumb to the bridge of her nose and stroked down to the tip of it.
“All better,” he said.
Kantu tried to swallow, found she could not. “Did you make my nose any smaller?”
“Some of us,” he told her, “like it as it is.”
“For myself,” said the Rokka Mama in her rollingest voice, which could incite in the timid and downtrodden such acts of bravery and bravura that poets wept to write of them, “I think it is a very fine nose, a splendid organ, a queen amongst olfactory instruments. You could travel the length and breadth of Bellisaar and never stumble by accident over such magnificence.”
“Unless you fall face-first into a cactus,” Kantu parried. She grinned wryly at Manuway. “Thanks, friend. I owe you one.”
“You saved my life, Kantu.”
“My nose is larger than life.”
He almost laughed then. She saw his broad, oddly bony shoulders move. “Very well. No debt.”
Fearful to twitch or breathe lest his hands fall away from her flesh, Kantu continued to smile witlessly up at him, until a disturbance near the door caught her eye.
But Kantu had not slid off the table before the Rokka Mama seized her, dragging her back bodily and placing herself between Kantu and the door.
“She’s not alone.”
Then Crizion spoke.
“To Tesserree, High Princess of Sanis Al, Thirteenth Wife and Favorite of Fa Izif ban Azur, God-King of the Red Crescent, I give you good and loving greetings.”
The Rokka Mama’s grip had not lightened, but Kantu stopped fighting it.
Crizion’s forehead bore a blue gem, a costlier twin to the button Mikiel had plucked from the Childless Man, though it glowed with the same eldritch light. It seemed to be embedded in her bone, for the flesh around it was raised and red, and spidery veins ran from the gem down her face and neck. Her chestnut hair was loose, but instead of lying silk-straight as it usually did, it rose around her head, licking the air like flame. When she spoke, blue fire filled her mouth.
“That’s his voice,” Kantu whispered, remembering.
Dreamily, drowsily, almost imperceptibly, Crizion’s head turned, her attention shifting from the Rokka Mama to Kantu. Her familiar face, her lovely, dainty, friendly face, her tiny nose, keen Audiencia cheekbones, shy mouth, eyes gone whimsical and nearsighted from too much scroll-diving, her I-can-outstubborn-even-you-my-dearest-friend chin, her face – Crizion’s face – was almost unrecognizable.
Crizion was not in possession of herself.
Kantu did not mean to move, but her head shook. And kept shaking, side to side. Tears spurted from her eyes, though nothing else all that long, long night had made her cry.
It’s like staring into the sun, she thought, only to find it staring back.
“To Kantu jhan Izif ban Azur,” Crizion continued in a voice calm and deep as a cathedral bell, “Handprint of the Thundergod, Storm Bird, Rain Bringer, Savior and Sacrifice of Sanis Al, I extend to you my heartmost greetings. And this message: Return the life you stole from your people. The Fa your father begs you.”
“No!” shouted the Rokka Mama. “My daughter is not for you!”
“Return,” said Crizion, “or I will raze Rok Moris to the ground. Woman, man, child, all within these city walls shall perish, crushed by freezing darkness. Their dust shall be swept from the Fallgate, and night shall lay forever across this barren acreage, that no one living will rebuild upon it, nor no green thing grow within it for all eternity.”
Kantu did stand now, though she had to cling both to Manuway and the Rokka Mama to keep her feet. Manuway’s grip was no less furious, no less tender than her mother’s, and Kantu knew this meant far more than she had time to understand. The Rokka Mama was wild-eyed, her knuckles white. Her large, lined brow was sheened with sweat. She looked capable of any atrocity.
Kantu touched a frizzled tendril of her hair, and the Rokka Mama shuddered again, like an earthquake of the bones.
“We can’t run any more, momi. We must go to him.”
Kantu had one strong memory of her father. The rest she had built patchwork, like Mikiel’s wings, out of things the Rokka Mama had told her.
The memory was this. She was nearly five and the joy of the Shiprock. She was let to run loose wherever her dimpled limbs could carry her, and it was general knowledge that, like a cat, she followed the sun, to play in its rays or nap in its warmth at whim. When her father was at the Shiprock, she followed him, for the sun rose in his ankle and set in his eyebrow. Momi said so. Everyone said so.
Momi was father’s thirteenth wife and his favorite. The Fa kept her bed-night sacred, shared with no other wife, and Tesserree was at his side most every day, his best friend and confidante. One night a week the Fa took a rest from his conjugal duties, and this night, too, he spent at Tesserree’s side. Often Kantu joined them on the Fa’s enormous bed, as they read to each other, or talked softly over palace matters.
The other Modest Women did not grudge Tesserree the Fa’s partiality. Rather, they came to her for counsel, to mediate domestic squabbles before they escalated into feuds, or for comfort when they missed their families and homelands. Tesserree was Mother to all the Shiprock, it seemed, but never less than Kantu’s own momi.
This once, in the memory, perhaps for the first time, Kantu and the Fa her father were alone. It was sunset, and they were standing on the roof of the Shiprock, overlooking all of Sanis Al. They saw the golden domes of her father’s palace, the graceful arches and promenades and flowering towers of the city, the painted rooftops, the warm white stucco, the rainbow mosaics tiling every sidewalk and street. Best of all, running through the city and out into the distance, were the Mighty Rivers Anisaaht and Kannerak, Serpents in the Thundergod’s Claws, which brought fertility and abundance to the Red Crescent.
“Do you like what you see, pili?”
Kantu smiled up at him. Momi was taller than the Fa, but he was as large as the sky. His face was painted gold like the sun, and his eyes were deep and black as night.
“It is yours. It belongs to you, as your godright. And you belong to it. Do you know why?”
Kantu nodded, bringing her right hand to her left breast. Beneath her thin cotton shift, a red handprint burned across her skin, where the god had touched her in momi’s womb. The Fa had a mark very like it on his face, beneath all the gilding.
“You are my daughter,” he said, “my beloved daughter. That mark sets you apart. Had you been born my son…” Here his voice frayed into sadness, and he looked away from her, across the scarlet sands.
“But you are better than a son,” he said. “For if you were my son, you would be mortal, destined to bear the heavy mantle of mortality on your shoulders, the weight of living and loving and knowing that all good will sift from your fingers like sand. Had you been a boy, at the hour of your birth, I, the Fa, would have died, and passed like breath between your lips and lived again in you. She who had been your wife would become your mother, and you would have no father but yourself. From that hour to the birth of your heir, you would rule as Fa. Alone.”
“But I am not a boy!” exclaimed Kantu. This she knew, and she was proud of it.
“No,” he said, smiling a little, at last. “You are my beloved daughter. You are our hope, and you shall be our god. Do you understand?”
Again Kantu nodded, although she did not.
“In another month, on your birthday…”
Kantu held up five fingers, like the handprint on her chest.
“Yes, my love, when you turn five years old, we shall stand here, on the roof of the Shiprock, which is the tallest point of Sanis Al, and you shall fly.”
The Shiprock jutted from the sands, like a stone ship with stone wings, as if it had been abandoned by colossal seafarers in the days when Sanis Al was a kingdom of merpeople and Bellisaar still an ocean. The volcanic breccia and igneous rock that composed the formation had been hollowed out and reinforced over the centuries by the mason-artisans of Sanis Al, and now the stone was home to the Fa’s hundred wives, their servants, and the Army of Childless Men who guarded them. Kantu loved the Shiprock, loved her desert, loved her father, and she took his slender brown hand and kissed it.
For one warm and splendid moment, his hand rested on her head. Then he squatted down, which he had never done before, to be eye to eye with her.
“Kantu,” he said, “what I am about to say is most important. On the day of your birthday, you must come to this great height willing to fly. You must say to yourself, and to me, and to all the people who will be waiting below: This is my choice. This is my will. My life for yours. My blood for rain. Repeat that.”
Kantu did. She said it until he knew she had memorized it.
“And so,” sighed the Fa, “your sacrifice saves us all.”
Not long after that, momi came up and joined them. She kissed the Fa and smiled at him, kissed and smiled at Kantu, chatted lightly about the lustrous wheel of sunset, about the first shimmering constellations and the stories told of them, about nothing much at all.
But Kantu saw, hidden in the folds of her robes, momi’s fists were clenched like stones.
Every Bird Person who could still walk ascended with Kantu and the Rokka Mama to the surface of Rok Moris. Crizion went before them, the blue nimbus that crowned her lighting the way.
With the effortlessness of a shadow, Mikiel slipped in next to Kantu, saying only in her deceptively mild way, “So the Fa’s some kind of demonic ventriloquist, is he? Tough luck on Crizion.”
But Kantu, whose fear and weariness had rubbed her nerves to screaming sensitivity, caught the shark’s glint in Mikiel’s eye as she gazed at Crizion’s unprotected back. It reflected the razored steel in her hand.
“No, Mikiel,” Kantu said quietly. “It won’t hurt him, but it will kill her.”
“She might thank me.”
Mikiel’s pitiless whisper did not carry, but Crizion turned her head. She turned it, and kept turning it, until one degree further would snap her cervical vertebrae for certain, and Crizion said nothing, but something screamed beneath the blue-eaten fires of her eyes.
The knife clattered to the ground.
The Bird People marched with Kantu and the Rokka Mama, once again driven from their sanctuary. The walking wounded bore nothing but their anguish. Others carried carpet rolls upon their backs. The carpets whispered to each other, rippling like wind things, like water things. Some Bird People carried those who could not walk but who would not be left behind. Only a few remained in the tunnels, with heartsick volunteers to tend them.
When the Rokka Mama had tried to convince everyone to stay, that the coming exchange was nothing to them, Manuway stopped her.
“We have followed you for twenty years, Rokka Mama,” he said. “Do not forget – this city is ours, and you were born of it, long before you became wife to a god.”
And mother of one, Kantu thought. Then – not yet.
Men awaited them on the mounds of Pauper’s Grave. Hundreds of men, Childless Men, dressed in their vests of white bone, their red tunics that bared both shoulder and knee, their sandals that laced up the legs. These were the sons of the Fa, and the sons of the Fa before him, all those who had been born without the red handprint marking him heir to the god-right. These sons had been given to drink a potion at their comings of age which rendered them impotent, they might never bear rogue wizard offspring in the fullness of manhood. They were at that time sent from their mothers to be trained at the barracks of the Shiprock.
They were lithe and lethal. Their faces were unlined, pure, painted silver as the Fa’s was painted gold. They wore their hair unbound, beaded with glass and bone.
Kantu realized they were all blood to her. Brothers, uncles, great-uncles. Hers.
They stared back with avid interest. Some of them hated her, she could see. They blamed her for the slow death of the Red Crescent, the desiccation of Anisaaht and Kannerak, the stupefying toll of people and livestock brought down by twenty years of drought and starvation. Others watched her like the Bird People watched the Rokka Mama. As if she were all their hope. A gift from the Flying Thundergod to succor and aid them in their darkest hour.
Kantu took a deep breath, but she could not smell the Bellisaar Wasteland, the sweet smoky green of creosquite, or the good, dry, desert sands that carried the musk of night hunters upon their particles. She could smell only her father’s magic and his longing, the blackness of his despair coloring the air all shades of night, calling her to his side.
“I’m here.” Her voice, already rough from wear, broke.
The ranks of Childless Men parted, and the Fa her father stepped forth.
Fa Izif ban Azur was not even as tall as she remembered him. Kantu matched him height for height, and even among the Bird People she was small. His nose was like hers, a great curved hook, but with his piercing eyes and the gilded planes and hollows of his face, the prominence gave him an aspect at once regal and forbidding, like a golden eagle. He was dressed in similar garments to his sons and brothers and uncles, only without armor. A long scar ran across his throat.
And Kantu remembered what had made that scar. And she remembered that though she had thought to check Mikiel for a knife, she had forgotten the Rokka Mama.
“Momi – no!”
She was too late. Tesserree had broken free of Manuway’s grip and was rushing on the Fa, silent but savage, her teeth bared. A deadly crescent of sharpened bronze glinted in her fist. Kantu knew the instrument, knew every image etched upon its bitter edge, and the ancient lettering laying out the strictures of sacrifice.
The Fa stood very still, watching his wife run to him.
Three Childless Men caught and held the Rokka Mama yards before she came within striking distance. Though each soldier was as sinewy as a mountain lion, not one of them handled the Rokka Mama with brutal or callous indifference. It was if they believed they held a fanged butterfly, or a hummingbird that spat poison. Whether this was because they thought Tesserree herself dangerous, or because the Fa still loved her, Kantu could not say.
“Tess.” Fa Izif ban Azur stepped close to the Rokka Mama, close enough to pull the kerchief from her hair. Dark masses fell around her face and shoulders in tired clouds, webbed in gray.
“Every night,” he said, “I dream of you.”
At his gentleness, the Rokka Mama collapsed. Only the grips of the Childless Men kept her more or less upright.
“I killed you,” she said. “I killed you, Iz – you cannot be here!”
One of the soldiers handed the Fa the bronze dagger she had wielded. He stroked the edge with his thumb, his golden face absorbed.
“With this blade, you cut my throat on the eve of Kantu’s fifth birthday.” His voice was dark and slow, like gore welling from a wound. “And the blood ran out of me, and into the soil of Sanis Al. For a while it was enough. Even without the rain, my blood sustained the land. But without a son who bears the god’s handprint, I cannot die. And as my blood returned to me, and as my wounds healed, my land grew brown and withered. Years have passed, and I have allowed them to pass, but I cannot allow it any longer. Tess – without you, my heart is a wasteland. Without Kantu, so is Sanis Al.”
“I will lay waste the world,” said the Rokka Mama, “for Kantu.”
“Our thoughts have always been twins,” said the Fa, “running in joyous parallel. But in this, we run cross-purpose, ramming together like two boulders. It is my lifelong sorrow. But I spoke you true through my handmaiden.” He gestured to Crizion, still haloed in blue. “Rok Moris falls tonight if Kantu fails to fly.”
Kantu stepped between her parents, vaguely aware of Mikiel and Manuway tugging at her, of voices calling her name in protest. Her friends. These were her friends, who loved her, who had grown with her, fought beside her, laughed at her jokes, tended her scrapes, who had flown with her. Her friends, who, with Viceroy Eriphet now driven to the sands and the Fa eager to return to Sanis Al, might at last be free.
Tiredness seeped from her marrow. Kantu’s sight whitened for a moment, and her body flashed on the visceral memory of falling.
She had always loved riding the carpets, ever since Manuway’s older brother, now long dead, taught her the way of it. The tumble, the soar, the zip, the whirl, the joy and jubilation. Especially when she was flying for flight’s sake, not to escape the Gate Police or hound the Audiencia.
But not until that night, when she had thrown herself from the sky, toppling the guard with his net to save the lives of her friends, had Kantu felt completely happy. And whole. And, somehow, right. As if falling was her purpose. Always had been.
How awful it had been to wake up battered but alive, unfulfilled and alone.
In that moment of remembrance, Kantu understood the Fa her father. Not even Tesserree as once she had been, young and in love with her god-king husband, could fathom his secret heart and mind, but suddenly Kantu could. She bore the red handprint on her breast. And she knew beyond any last lingering doubt what she must do.
“Do I have to –“ she stopped, swallowed. “Do I have to return with you? Must the ceremony take place at Sanis Al, on the Shiprock? Or can we do it here?”
“It must be from a height,” said Fa Izif ban Azur, understanding her instantly, as she had him. “And you must be in the desert. Here, daughter, we stand at the edge of a cliff, and this is Bellisaar. Sanis Al is the Scythe at Bellisaar’s Belt. The deserts are extensions of each other.”
“All right,” Kantu whispered. “All right.”
Fa Izif ban Azur made a short, almost helpless gesture with his slender hands, beckoning toward the Fallgate. He wore no rings. The only gold about him was his face. Kantu slipped past him and trudged down one of the many dirt paths of Pauper’s Grave, keeping her head bent until she came to the cliff’s edge. She felt the Fa follow behind her, and the march of a thousand sandals on packed earth, and the bare feet of the Bird People padding along too. When she was five feet from the edge, she stopped and asked her father, without turning around, “Will Crizion be herself again?”
“I swear it.”
“And Rok Moris given back to the Bird People?”
“I swear it.”
“If Vorst Vadilar’s armies invade again…”
“You have my word,” said the Fa, “that Sanis Al will fight with Rok Moris against all invaders. She has but to call.”
“And the Rokka Mama?”
“Tesserree,” Fa Izif ban Azur said gently, “will return to the Shiprock. For she is my wife and my chosen one. The next Fa must come of her.”
How many times these last twenty years had Kantu woken to the sound of her mother’s hoarse weeping? How many times had the Rokka Mama cried out her husband’s name in her sleep, haunted by a love that would not die though she had done her best to murder it? For it is terrible to love a god, but more terrible to be loved by one in return – and loved best above all women.
Would the Rokka Mama, returning to Sanis Al, be whole? Or would what Kantu was about to do shatter her forever?
Turning around suddenly, Kantu cried, “I love you, momi,” and flung her arms around her mother. The Childless Men still gripped her, but Tesserree’s tears ran down Kantu’s face like kisses. From there, Kantu ran to rain kisses on Mikiel’s burning eyelids, and on Crizion’s forehead where the blue jewel still glowered, and then she went to Manuway and pressed her lips to his, and his arms clenched around her, and his heartbeat hammered into hers. She felt, for a moment, that he would lift her and spirit her away on his carpet, saving her from death as he had not saved Inilah – no matter the cost.
Kantu did not know where she found the strength, but something wholly inexorable filled her, and she staggered from Manuway’s arms.
Then she backed up to the edge of the known world, where the Fa her father now knelt, palms upraised. His position denoted reverence and relief and grief, and Kantu understood once again with that same jagged clarity that he loved her more than his own life, and would have gladly given his life if it could possibly have made a difference.
“I want you to know,” Kantu said, staring at Mikiel’s fierce white eyes, her mother’s streaming face, Manuway’s rounded shoulders, her father’s bowed head, her brothers, the Bird People, “I want you to know,” she told them all, “that this is my choice. This is my will. My life for yours. My blood for rain.”
Then, taking the bronze crescent from Fa Izif’s open hands, Kantu raised it to her throat, and with one quick snicking motion, she slashed through skin, muscle, vein and artery.
Before she could even feel the pain, she turned around and stepped off the cliff.
Night parted as she fell.
Somewhere in the black depths of the canyon, a sun burst open, rose up. Belly down, Kantu fell, bleeding out. Her blood fell onto the sun and sizzled there. The dark was gone, and everything was light and song, a chorus of young girls singing.
Kantu knew them. She had almost been one of them, daughters dead at five that their land might thrive. Five times five years Kantu had outlived the Fa’s long line of daughters, and now at her death was a woman grown. She had known fear and friendship and love. She had seen beyond the boundaries of Sanis Al.
At five she would have been happy to give her life for the rain. But she would not have understood all that she gave.
Kantu fell, bleeding out, and she heard the singing.
She fell into light, but even in that blind radiance, she knew her friends were with her. Three to a carpet, speeding past her freefall, keeping pace, the Bird People attended her death all the way down.
Manuway was there, and Elia. Ranna and Vishni. Mikiel, winged, and Crizion riding with her, a new scar on her forehead and her face her own again. Kantu felt them with her as she fell, but she could not see them. Everything was heat and light. She knew she should be cold by now, but her body was turning to molten gold.
And then she went to a place where even the Bird People could not follow.
Kantu fell through the center of the world, thence to the top of the skies. She crashed with a thud and opened her eyes.
There was a land here, at the end of everything.
Fiery golden roses bloomed along golden roads, and the hot wind was heavy with their sweetness. Rivers of red lava ran beside the roads, and the rivers and the roads all led to a ring of tall mountains made of glass, where crystal towers sparkled, the smallest of them taller than the Shiprock. From these towers, ten thousand girl children with diamonds on their brows and mantles of white feathers trailing from their shoulders came running, falling over themselves to greet her.
“Kantu! Kantu!” they cried.
“The last of us to fall!”
“The first to fly!”
Kantu wanted to beg them to explain, but her throat was slashed open, and her voice had drained out with her life’s blood.
They seemed to understand. Laughing, they took her by the hands, by the hem, by the sleeve, by whatever they could touch, and like a rushing wave bore Kantu up the tallest mountainside, this one of red glass with a glaze of gold upon it. They pulled and pushed and danced around her, coaxing her along the path. They stroked the torn flesh of her throat, and the rags of her clothes, and her big, beaky, oft-broken nose, and Kantu, though she was tired, felt she had barely walked at all but they gained the peak.
Then the children pointed down, and Kantu looked where they gestured. From this unbelievable height, atop a mountain of the sun, Kantu could see the world. Her world. Her feeble, arid world, fragile as a child’s ball – and in dire need of her attention.
“It was too big for us,” the children told her. “And we were too small. But you are different. You are strong enough to last.”
How? Kantu wanted to ask. How am I different?
For answer, the children cast her from the mountain.
She did not fall again. This time, her great white wings flared out around her, gathering the hot wind beneath them. Her bones turned hollow as flutes, and her bloody rags were changed to burning feathers. Kantu shot down from the mountaintop in a swift stoop, parting the air like a knife through silk. She swooped steeply first over that fiery country, her eyes seeing everything at once, in the most minute detail. Only when she was kissing distance from the ground did she pull up again, her massive talons snatching great clumps of flaming roses as she rose. With these clutched firmly to her feathered belly, she left that burning golden country, left all those laughing, singing, waving little girls, and returned to the world.
Such monumental winds Kantu brought back with her, gathered like nestlings under her wings. Such sheer sheets of lightning when she blinked, and dazzling white tridents of light spearing the heavens from the diamond in her brow.
In this world, the tremendous trailing roses that she gripped in her talons swelled and blackened into clouds that wept fits of rain. She seeded the sky with storm petals, and beneath her shadow, Bellisaar and Sanis Al bloomed.
By the storms, Kantu announced her presence. She also sent rain dreams, a ceaseless stream of them, to the Fa and his wives, to his sons and soldiers and to all the people of Sanis Al.
“Hear me, S’Alians, for I am your god. It is I who bring the rain, and I who put pause to it. Listen well as a new law falls upon our land. There is to be no more sacrifice. Sing for your thunder. Dance for your floods. Lift the first fruits of your harvest to the altars of my temples. But no more – no more! – will rain be bought by innocent blood. Raise your sons and daughters in the fullness of life. I am the Rok of Rok Moris. I am the Thundergod of Bellisaar. I am the Raptor of Sanis Al, and I am here to stay.”
In her sleep, the Rokka Mama smiled. Lines of worry and anguish vanished from her brow, and she murmured, “That’s right, pili,” breathing more deeply and freely than she had done for twenty-five years.
And the Fa, who had not slept since watching his daughter step off a cliff, lingered over his thirteenth wife as she dreamed. With no one to see him, his eyes wept tears that glowed as blue as wizard light. His face shone like the Red Crescent washed clean.
After weeks of good rain, the young god tired of flight. She drew the floods back into her wings and left the Red Crescent for a time, searching for something familiar. She scanned the far horizons until she landed on a low earthen hill she thought she knew, then rummaged around in herself for a form she barely half-remembered.
Her body collapsed in a heap of feathers. An ancient wooden dial scraped her palm.
Kantu did not know how long she lay there, feeling how the earth shook with her heartbeat, announcing her presence to her friends in the catacombs like a giant who first politely bangs the big brass knocker before blowing the roof of a house down. Hours passed. Or minutes. It was hard to tell these days. No one came. After a long while, she rolled to a crouch, drew her immense raptor’s beak back over her head like a crown, and set it securely between her two horns that it would not fall forward at an awkward moment. Her human face emerged, everything a bit dusty. There was nothing she could do about the diamond on her brow. She wiped her prodigious nose. She stood and spat. Her tongue felt dry and rough as sandstone.
Throwing the feathers back from her body until they settled behind her shoulders like a blanket roll, she stretched, hearing all sorts of pops and crackles and creaks as her body protested this cavalier treatment. She sat down again suddenly. Her feet hurt.
“Ow,” she told bare toes and overgrown nails. “You never ached as talons.”
“Next time,” said Mikiel from behind her, “you’ll know to rest them once in a while. A solid month of rain, Kantu! We’ve all started to mold!”
Scrambling up and whipping around, Kantu could barely gasp before Mikiel was upon her with a rib-crushing embrace. She couldn’t see Mikiel’s face, but her tears cut ravines into the dust upon Kantu’s clavicles, and she laughed a little, shaking her friend, trying to get her to smile again. Something else thumped her.
Crizion joined them, a second circle of arms. More crying and scolding:
“Kantu! You’re back! You look so tired! Don’t you know, even a god must rest!”
“I didn’t, actually. I should’ve. Thanks for telling me.”
They touched her face, her feathers, her new curly golden horns and the sharp maw tilting up between them, its empty mask open to the sky, the sparkle on her forehead that made the lightning, her bloody rags, the scar on her throat. Though their voices were brave, their fingers shook. They wept more than they smiled.
What – had they thought her gone for good? So transformed as to be unrecognizable? Forgetful? Did they not know they were her own, that she was theirs?
“It’s all right,” she tried to tell them, trying to believe it. “We’re all here now.”
Then Manuway was there. Kneeling there. Kneeling before her, head bent. And this Kantu could not bear. No one could – not even a god.
“Oh, hell. Fjord and flame and demons of the farthest north. Manuway. Stand up. Stand up, please.” She tugged his sleeve, his shoulder, his obdurate chin. “I’m still me. I am! My blood oath on it. And you know – my blood’s not a thing I idly fling about. Only in dire emergencies. This is getting… getting dire. Up. Come. Come here, Manuway!”
When he did not stir, she lifted him with an exaggerated grunt, and mashed her body to his. There was a deep thrumming in his skin that she heard like a song. And then his large hands stroked Kantu’s rough black hair as if trying to braid the hour before dawn. Kantu drew back to look at him. Manuway met her eyes, as even Mikiel and Crizion had not yet done, and smiled.
As ever, Kantu’s tongue knotted itself into mush and monosyllables. No use coaxing speech of it – she knew that from long years of practice. So she kissed Manuway instead. A quick kiss that turned into a deeper kiss that might have turned into something else had Crizion not primly cleared her throat. Mikiel was bent double, whooping.
“All right, all right,” Kantu said mildly. “I’m done – for now!” she added, when Manuway opened his mouth to object. “Meantime, Mik, stop cackling. Crizion, love, do you have anything to eat?”
“I have prepared a feast, Kantu,” Crizion said, solemn but dimpling.
“Lead on, friends. I’m starving.”
for Mir and Kiri
C.S.E. Cooney’s fiction and poetry can be found in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy (2011 and 2012), Clockwork Phoenix 3, Apex, Subterranean, Strange Horizons, Podcastle, Pseudopod, Ideomancer, Goblin Fruit, and Mythic Delirium.
Her collection of story-poems How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes is available on Amazon, as is her fairytale-with-teeth novella Jack o’ the Hills. She was the recipient of the Rhysling Award in 2011 for “The Sea King’s Second Bride”.
“Life on the Sun” is the sequel to “Godmother Lizard,” which appeared here on Sunday, November 11th, 2012, and which Louis West at Tangent Online “said “entranced me from the beginning… I highly recommend it.”
She lives in Rhode Island, where the monsters are. (Whether they were there before she arrived is up for debate.)