Jun 10 2009 8:19am
“Jay Lake is an incredibly versatile writer, whose novels have ranged from space opera to steam-punk. But with Green (Tor Books), he shows us a different voice, and creates a character so strong and memorable that she will stay with you for a long time. Because this is not your average courtesan-turned-assassin novel.”
—Beth Meacham, editor, Tor Books
The first thing I can remember in this life is my father driving his white ox, Endurance, to the sky burial platforms. His back was before me as we walked along a dusty road. All things were dusty in the country of my birth, unless they were flooded. A ditch yawned at each side to beckon me toward play. The fields were drained of water and filled with stubble, though I could not now say which of the harvest seasons it was.
Though I would come to change the fate of cities and of gods, then I was merely a small, grubby child in a small, grubby corner of the world. I did not have many words. Still I knew that my grandmother was lashed astride the back of Papa’s patient beast. She was so very still and silent that day, except for her bells.
Every woman of our village is given a silk at birth, or at least the finest cloth a family can afford. The length of the bolt is said to foretell the length of her life, though I’ve never known that a money-lender’s sister wrapped in twelve yards of silk lived longer than a decently-fed farmwife with a short measure hanging on her sewing frame. The first skill a girl-child learns is to sew a small bell to her silk each day so that when she marries she will dance with the music of four thousand bells. Every day she sews so that when she dies, her soul will be carried out of this life on the music of twenty-five thousand bells. The poorest use seed pods or shells, but still these stand as a marker of the moments in our lives.
My silk is long lost now, as are my several attempts since to replace it. Be patient: I will explain how this came to be. Before that I wish to explain how I came to be. If you do not understand this day, earliest in my memory like the first bird that ever grew feathers and threw itself from the limb of a tree, then you will understand nothing of me and all that has graced and cursed my life in the years since.
The ox Endurance bore a burden of sound that day. His wooden bell clopped in time to his steps. The twenty thousand bells of my grandmother’s silk rang like the first fall of rain upon the roof of our hut after the long seasons of the sun. Later in my youth, before I returned to Selistan to see the truth of my beginnings for myself, I would revisit this memory and think that perhaps what I heard was her soul rising up from the scorching stones of this world to embrace the cool shadows of the next.
That day the bells I heard seemed to be tears shed by the tulpas in celebration of her passage.
In my memory, the land rocked as we proceeded, in a way which meant that I did not walk. I had eyes only for Endurance and my grandmother. My father drove the ox, so my mother must have carried me. She was alive then. Of her I can only recall the feel of arms as a pressure across the backs of my legs, and sense of being held too close to the warmth of her skin as I wriggled away from her to look ahead. I hold no other recollection of my mother, none at all.
Her face is forever hidden from me. I have lost so much in this life by racing ahead without ever pausing to turn back and take stock of courses already run.
Still, my unremembered mother did as a parent should do for a child. She walked with a measured tread that followed the slow beat of Endurance’s wooden bell. She held me high enough that I could look into my grandmother’s white-painted eyes.
Her I recall well in that moment. Whatever came before in my young life is lost now to my recollection, but my grandmother must have been important to my smallest self. I drank in the sight of her with a loving eagerness that foretold the starveling years to come.
The lines upon her face were a map of the ages of woman. Her skin seemed webbed, as if her glittering eyes were spiders waiting to entrap whatever little kisses and pudgy hands might stray too close. I do not suppose she had any teeth left, for her betel-stained lips were collapsed in a pucker which seem to me in memory to have been as familiar as the taste of water. Her nose was long, not so much in the fashion of most of Selistan’s people, and had retained a certain majestic force even in her age. She had no hair left but for some errant wisps, though as most of her scalp was covered by the arch of her belled silk I suppose this knowledge is itself a memory of a memory.
There must have been a washing, a laying out, a painting of the white and the red. These things I know now from my experience of later years, learned upon the corpses of those I helped prepare for the next life, as well as the corpses of those I have slain with my own hands.
Did my father run his fingers across his mother’s cooling body to do these things?
Did my mother perform that ultimate rite for him?
Did my mother and grandmother live well together in the presence of my father, or did they fight like harridans in the market?
So much has been taken from me. What has been given in return seems hollow next to the brilliance of that moment—the sharpness of the colors painted on my grandmother’s face; the rich, slow echo of Endurance’s bell and the silvery cascade from my grandmother’s silk; the faded tassels on the ox’s great, curving horns; the heat which wrapped me like a bright and stifling blanket; the dusty, rotten smell of that day as my father sang his mother’s death song in a toneless, reedy voice that sounded lost even to my young ears.
That brilliance is reinforced by a skein of later experience, but it also stands alone like the first rock of a reef above the receding tide. I wish that the past were so much more open to me, as it is to the blue-robed men who sit atop the shattered heads of ancient idols in the Dockmarket at Copper Downs. For a few copper taels they will enter their houses of memory to recount the order and color of festival parades and marching banners in decades long lost to dust.
Distant memory is an art which absorbs its followers to lose them in the mazes of the mind. I am overtaken by recall of more recent times, of blood and passion and sweaty skin and the most pointed kind of politics. For all that was lost to me in the earliest days of my stolen childhood, those distant memories would still be safe and sane compared to what has passed since, if their return were ever granted to me.
It would bring me the sound of my mother’s voice, which I have lost.
It would bring me the look of my father’s face, which I have lost.
It would bring me the name they called me, which I have lost.
* * *
My image of my grandmother is as bright and powerful as sunrise on the ocean. She stands at the beginning of my life. Her funeral marks the emergence of my consciousness of the world around me.
For all that bright and shining focus on my grandmother, she was gone at the beginning of all things. Whoever she might have been to me in the rhythms of ordinary living is buried deep within the impenetrable fog of my infancy. I like to think she held me during the days when my mother must have worked the fields alongside my father. I like to believe she crooned to me songs about the world.
These things are less even than guesses.
My grandmother’s last moments aside, what I hold most in my memory from those first days of my life is Endurance. The ox seemed tall as the sky to me then. He smelled of damp hide and the gentle sweetgrass scent of his dung. He was a hut that followed my father but always cast shade upon me. I would play beneath his shadow, moving as the sun did if he stood for too long, sometimes looking up at the fringe dividing his belly where the fur of each of his sides met and a fold of skin hung downward. The white of his back shaded to gray there, like the line of a storm off the sea, but always spattered with dust and mud.
The ox continually rumbled. Voices within prophesied in some low-toned language of grass and gas and digestion which endlessly fascinated me. Endurance would grunt before he pissed, warning me to scramble away from his great hooves and hunt frogs among the flooded fields until he found a dry place to stand once more. His great brown eyes watched me unblinking as I ran in the rice paddies, climbed the swaying palms and ramified bougainvilleas, hunted snakes in the stinking ditches.
Endurance had the patience of old stone. He always waited for me to return, sometimes snorting and tossing his head if he thought I’d moved too far in my play. The clop of his wooden bell would call me back to him. The ox never lost sight of me unless my father had taken him away for some errand amid the fields or along the village road.
At night I would sit beside the fire in front of our hut and stitch another tiny bell to my silk under the watchful eye of my father. My mother was already gone by then, though I cannot recall the occasion of her death. Endurance’s breath whuffled from the dark of his pen. If I stared into the shadows of the doorway, I could see the fire’s fetch dance gleaming in the depths of his brown eyes. They were beacons to call me back at need from the countries of my dreams.
* * *
There came a certain day in my third summer of life which, like most days there, was hot as only Selistan can be. You northerners do not understand how it is that we can live beneath our greater sun. In the burning lands of the south, the daystar is not just light, but fire. Its heat falls like rain through air that one could slice with a table knife. That warmth was always on me, a hand pressing down upon my head to wrack my hair with sweat and darken my skin.
I played amid a stand of plantains. Their flowers cascaded in a maroon promise of the sweet, sticky goodness to come. The fat stalks were friends sprung from some green jungle race, come to tell me the secrets of the weather. I had made up my mind to be queen of water, for it was water which ruled over everything in our village. Warm mud was caked upon my feet from my sojourns in the ditches planning the coming of my magical queendom.
Endurance’s bell echoed across the paddy. The clatter had an urgency which I heard without at first understanding. I looked up to see the ox’s ears flattened out. His tail twitched as if he were bedeviled by blackflies. My father stood beside his ox with one hand on the loop of rope which served as a bridle. He was talking to someone dressed as I had never seen before—wrapped entirely in dark cloths with no honest skin exposed to the furnace of our sun except the dead-pale oval of his face. I wore no clothes at all six days out of seven, and my father little more than a rag about his waist. It had never occurred to me that anyone would have so much to hide.
My father called my name. A thousand times I have strained in memory to hear his voice, but it will not come to me. I know it was my name, I know he called it, but the sound and shape of the word is lost to me along with his speaking of it.
Can you imagine what it means to lose your name? Not to set it aside for a profession or temple mystery, but simply to lose it. Many have told me this is not possible, that no one forgets the name she was called at her mother’s breast. Soon enough I will explain to you how this came to be, but for now believe that the loss is as great to me as it seems incredible to you.
Papa turned toward me and cupped his hands to call out. I know my name hung in the air. I know I ran toward my father with my hair trailing behind me to be tugged by the sun and wind. It was the end of my life I ran toward, and the beginning.
Laughing I came, covered in the dust and mud of our land, a child of sun-scorched Selistan. My father continued to hold Endurance’s lead as the ox tossed his head and snorted with anger.
Close by, I could see the stranger was a man. I had never seen a stranger before and so I thought that perhaps all strangers were men. He was taller than Papa. His face was pale as the maggots that squirmed in our midden pile. His hair peeking out from behind his swaddling was the color of rotting straw, his eyes the inside of a lime.
The stranger knelt to take my jaw in a strong grip and bend my chin upward. I struggled, and must have said something, for I was never a reticent child. He ignored my outburst in favor of tilting my face back and forth. He then grasped me by the shoulder and turned me around to trace my spine with a rough knuckle.
When I was I released I spun back hot with indignant pride. The maggot man ignored me, talking to my father in low tones with a muddied voice, as if our words did not quite fit his mouth. There was some small argument, then the maggot man slid a silk bag into my father’s hand, closing his fingers over the burden.
Papa knelt in turn to kiss my forehead. He placed my hand in the maggot man’s grasp, where the silk had so lately slid free. He turned and walked quickly away, leading Endurance. The ox, ever a mild-mannered beast, bucked twice and shook his head, snorting to call me back.
“My bells,” I cried, as I was tugged away by the maggot man’s strong hand. So the belled silk was lost to me, along with everything else to which I had been born.
That is the last thing I remember of that time of my life, before all things changed: a white ox, a wooden bell, and my father forever turned away from me.
* * *
The maggot man and I walked the better part of the day. My small brown hand was folded tightly within his huge pale one. He had looped a silken cord around both our wrists, lest I slip his grip and flee. I realized he was not a maggot, but a corpse. This man had walked into our village from the lands of the dead.
My heart flooded with joy. My grandmother had sent for me!
It did not take me long to understand how foolish that was. The maggot man smelled of salt and fat and the crispness of his cloth. The dead smelled, well, dead. If a person had been made ready for the sky burial, or an animal for the sacrifice, that was one thing; but anything that died under our sun soon became a stench incarnate.
He was alive enough. He must have been burning with the heat.
So instead I eyed the cord. It was a color of green which I had never before seen, bright and shining as the wings of a beetle. Women had their silks, but even my child’s eye could see this was another quality altogether. The threads of which it was made seemed impossibly small.
The cord did not matter so much anyway. We had walked past the huge baobab tree which had been the extent of my worldly travels up until that day. The road we followed was a cart track, but the maggot man and I might as well have been the last two people alive under the brassy sky.
I know now that my father had a name besides Papa, and my village had a name besides Home. The world is wider than a woman can walk in a lifetime, perhaps a hundred lifetimes. Every town and bridge and field and boulder has a name, is claimed by some god or woman or polity or tradition. That day, I only knew that if I turned and ran far enough, fast enough, I would reach the old baobab and follow the hollow clop of Endurance’s bell all the way to my little pallet and my own silk beside my father’s fire.
The fields around us had changed even with this short walk. They did not harvest rice here. There was no endless network of watery ditches full of frogs and snakes. Fences stood instead, dividing one patch of stone-filled grass from another identical patch of stone-filled grass. Faded prayer flags hung on fenceposts, almost exhausted by wind and sun. A few narrow-bodied cattle with large, sagging humps watched us pass. No light stood in their eyes, nothing like the spark of wisdom which had dwelt in the fluid brown depths of Endurance’s gaze.
Even the trees were different. Skinnier, with narrow, dusty leaves instead of the broad gloss of the nodding plantains at home. I turned, slipping my wrist around within the loop, to walk backwards and look down the long, sloping road up which we had been walking.
A ribbon shone in a broad land below us, silver bright with curves like the sheltering arms of a mother. Fields and orchards and copses surrounded it for a distance of many furlongs, punctuated with the rough nap of buildings and little smudges of forge fires. Was that water, I wondered?
The maggot man slowed his stride to allow me my stumbling backwards progress. “What do you see?” His words were thick and muddled, as if he had only just learned to talk.
A land of rice and fruit and patient oxen, I thought. Home. “Nothing,” I said, for I already hated him.
“Nothing.” He sounded as if the word had never occurred to him before. “That is fair enough. You leave this place today, and will never see it again.”
“This is not the way to the sky burials.”
Something in his words miscarried, because he gave me a strange look instead of answering. Then he reached for my shoulder and twisted me around from the past to face the future once more. The clasp of his fingers ached a while.
* * *
We walked into the failing of the day, sipping every now and then from his leather bottle of water. The road we followed grew stony and thin. Even the fences gave up, the land unclaimed or unclaimable. Dark, rough rocks were strewn about, some so large the track was forced to bend around them. Everything which grew up here was dusty green or pale brown. Each plant wore a crown of thorns where in my home they would have born flowers. Insects hummed loudly enough to pierce my hearing before falling stone-silent at the sharp cry of some unseen hunting bird.
The shadows of the few remaining trees grew long about the time their numbers began to strengthen. I stumbled in my fatigue. Recovering my step, I realized we were heading downward for the first time since setting out.
Before us at the foot of the slope, I could see an iron-gray plain gathering darkness onto itself.
“This is the sea,” the maggot man said. “Have you ever heard of it?”
“Is it stone?”
He laughed. For a moment, I thought perhaps I heard the true man within the cloak of black cloth and muddled words. “No. Water. All the water in the world.”
That frightened me. A ditch was one thing, but enough water to cover all the land like a rice paddy was another. “Why do we walk there?”
“To see how strong you are.”
“No, no. Why do we go to this water?”
“Because the sea is the next step on the journey of your life.”
The immensity of it was beyond description. I saw how the far edge of the water faded into the distance. “I cannot swim so far.”
The maggot man laughed again. “Come. There is a house farther along our way. We can eat there. I will tell you of...” He paused, grasping for a word. “Water houses,” he finally said, and looked embarrassed.
Young as I was, I knew perfectly well that no one built their house of water. Either the maggot man was an idiot, which did not seem likely, or his words had failed him again.
“I am hungry,” I told him politely.
“Walk,” he replied.
* * *
We ate stew that evening in a wayhouse. I now realize how small and mean the place must have been, especially by the standards of my captor, but he had his purposes. It was much like my father’s hut—mud walls set with beams to make the frame of a thatched roof. The room was larger, though, so big that four tables could fit within and there still be room for the cook’s fire and her black iron kettle.
I had never seen such an enormous building.
We sat on a bench at one table. A few other folk were around. All glared at the maggot man. No words were said, but I knew even then that trouble followed him, that he was seen as a curse. He’d slipped free the cord. In memory I cannot say whether that was more to ease his dining, or to make less of a show of his trade.
Our stew was served within shallow bowls of earthenware. I peered at the outside where it angled away from me. A pattern of lizards and flowers chased one another around the curve. The lizards I could understand, in this sere, hard place, but the idea of flowers must have come from my home, for no one born here would see them among the thorns and rocks.
The dark brown stock filling the bowls was almost bitter. It had been made with some small, polished nut that split neatly in two beneath my spoon. Small grains floated in it instead of homey rice. A few leaves swirled loose, along with chunks of pale meat which tasted like ditch frog.
“Fish.” The maggot man smiled. The effect was ghastly on his pale face. “It is always good to fill your belly after a day.”
“Fish,” I said politely. I wished I had a plantain.
When he was nearly done he pushed his bowl between us. A dark green mallow leaf floated in the brown puddle at the bottom. “I have asked the word of the house woman,” he told me, almost proudly. “Boat. See this mallow leaf? It is like a boat.”
“There is mallow growing in your sea?”
The maggot man sighed. “I am trying to tell you why you will not have to swim.”
“I never swam because of mallow.” I poked his leaf. “Taro tastes better anyway.”
“Wood floats,” he said.
“So do I.”
“We will travel on a boat of wood, which floats like this mallow leaf in your stew.”
“I thought you said the sea is made of water.”
He threw up his hands and muttered at the rough ceiling of the wayhouse. He then looked at me with a frown. “You will be fearsome once you speak Petrean.”
I’d never realized there were more kinds of words in the world. “Will my father speak Petrean, too?”
A shadow clouded his eyes. “No,” he said shortly. “We must go. It is another few hours’ walk to the port.”
* * *
I followed the maggot man into the deepening gloom of night. My feet began to get in one another’s way. Keeping my pace was especially difficult when the road made a sharp bend or wound through a steep drop along some gully.
The maggot man walked on. His stink had blown off with the evening breeze. Instead my nose was tickled by the scent of salt, and a rot I’d never smelled before.
I was ready to go home. The next time I stumbled, I let myself fall to the ground. The green cord slipped from his wrist. I bounced up off the road and sprinted away.
The maggot man was faster than I might have credited. He was upon me in dozen steps, grabbing me up into his arms while I kicked and screamed, then working one hand free to slap me very hard across the mouth.
“Do not break from me.” His voice now was stone, hard and unforgiving. “Your path is set. The only way forward is at my side. There is no way back.”
“I am going home,” I shrieked at him through the taste of blood in my mouth.
“You are going on.” A rueful smile slipped across his face. “You have...” He reached for a word a moment, then gave up, instead saying, “Fight. You are strong in body and spirit. Most girls would have run at the first, or fallen crying later in the day.”
“I don’t want fight. I want to go home.”
He still held me in a very tight grip. Together we turned, looking back up the road. “How far do you think you could find your way across that wide country of rocks and thorns? If I had not carried water, what would you have drunk?”
I would lick the sweat from my hands, I thought, but the sting of his blow was a sharp, hard lesson that warded my lips. “I will come to your sea,” I told him grudgingly. “But then I am going back home.”
“You will come to my sea,” he agreed. He said no more than that.
* * *
Quite late in the evening we found an inn. I had finally collapsed of sheer fatigue. I made the last part of this journey slumped across his shoulder. The moon gave the night land a sheen like silvered tears. I wondered if it would polish me bitter bright as well.
The maggot man had a little room already taken, I realized much later. At the time, we walked through a huge kitchen and up what I later understood to be a flight of stairs to a high room with nets draping from above. A hutch stood within, a thing of bars and boards. Alongside it was a bed and a rough table, all beneath a sloping roof with an inset window tightly shuttered.
Before I knew what he was about, the maggot man dumped me into the hutch and slid latches across the door.
“You stay there,” he said. “No running. I must do things, then sleep.”
I howled, screamed, hurled myself against the bars, raged at the top of my lungs. The world did not hear. The maggot man sat at his table with a carefully-trimmed candle and for a long time poked a narrow stick into a little packet of papers sewn together within leather sheets. Every now and then he smiled at me, somewhere between indulgence and mirth.
My bell for the day was unsewn. I did not have my silk or my needle. I knew then that I was little more than an animal to him. Caged, kept, to be taken over the mallow-filled waters of the gray sea to whatever dead land the maggot called his home.
I cried until sleep claimed me, though his candle flickered and his stick scratched and scratched against the paper. In my dreams that scratching became the claws of a mangy wolf, pale as death, jaws set to drag me away through a frog-filled ditch the width of the world.
* * *
I was awoken by words I did not understand. The maggot man had opened the door of my cage and held a plate with fried dough twists and slices of yellow fruit I did not recognize. He spoke again.
“You utter the tongue of demons,” I told him.
“Very soon I will speak to you only in the language of your new home,” he said in my words, “except at extreme need.” He shook his plate at me, then repeated whatever he had said before.
I did not want to come out within reach of his hard slap, but my stomach had other ideas. The dough smelled good and the fruit looked sweet enough. I followed the growling of my hunger from the cage.
“Eat,” he told me. “Then we will go find our boat.”
The dough tasted every bit as good as it had smelled. Likewise the fruit—sweet and fleshy and sour all in a single mouthful. This was as fine a morning meal as my father had ever made for me.
When I had finished my food I looked to see that the maggot man had gathered up a fat leather satchel. He held out his hand with the green twist of silk already around his wrist.
I could have fought harder. Perhaps I should have. I do not know what good it might ever have done. I am still fighting even now, so perhaps I only began the struggle slowly and never stopped. That day my curiosity overtook my anger as I willingly bound my hand to his. Decent food and a weariness of struggle were all it had taken to break my young spirit to the maggot man’s desire.
“Come,” he said, “let us see to our boat.”
“I do not have to swim?”
“No, you do not have to swim. We shall sit easily as we pass across the sea.” He added something in his words, which I of course could not then understand.
We set out into the bright morning along a muddy street in a village larger than I had imagined could exist. We passed amid a cacophony of men and horses and dogs and ox-carts, as we headed for the water’s edge. I even heard the clop of ox bells, but none were the tone of Endurance. No one remained to call me back, while this strange, pale man continued to push me forward on the path which he had chosen for me.
I followed him into the future.
* * *
My memory is a curious thing. Though I was quite young I recall these early conversations quite clearly. They were of necessity in the tongue of my birth, for I spoke no Petraean then. I even recollect Federo—and how young he was then—looking for words he did not know, such as ‘boat’. I did not know what a boat was either, not in those first days. My memory supplies the substance of the conversation rather than the specifics, so as I think back to that time, it seems to come back to me in the language of my enslavement rather than the language of my cradle.
Likewise with the memory of my first ship. I know from recalling those days that she was named Fortune’s Flight, for those are among the first words of Petraean which I learned. Years since I have looked in the ship books at Copper Downs, and so I know that Fortune’s Flight was an iron-hulled steam barquentine. She was built on the shores of the Sunward Sea where the princes of the deep water have foundries to make such things. This knowledge fuses into my memory so I can recall the arrangement of her masts and sails and smokestack as she rode at anchor offshore, even though at the time they must have seemed to me nothing more than strange trees, while the mysteries of steam would have passed beyond any understanding I could have summoned.
Fortune’s Flight rises white-hulled and gleaming on the waves of recall. A cloud of gulls circles her fantail crying their soulless lament. Swabbies move about her deck and whistles blare orders in those codes which all sailors know. She is lean and beautiful, her narrow stack streaming pale smoke. She is a house upon the water, a hunter’s courser set to carry his prey back to the manor hall to be dressed and hung.
I must have then seen her as a white building with a treed roof, for I cannot imagine another view to my youngest eyes. Now that I know her power and her purpose, I cannot look back on the ship of my captivity with less awareness than I possess today.
How we were transported from my first view at the water’s edge to her decks is clouded by forgetfulness. There must have been a boat. Whether it was a local man earning a tael for his ferry work or one of the ship’s company come to fetch her passengers, I cannot say.
She was crowded with drums and bales and capstans—all the furniture of navigation and its intents. We looked back at the shore from the rail. Much water stretched between us and land, a river wider than all the ditches in all my father’s fields laid together. I tried to imagine how many rice paddies could be flooded from this sea which they kept so far from my home.
The look of the water desert was alien, strange as if the sky had been bound to earth. Shore was more familiar. The houses and barns seemed so small. They were built with mud walls, just as Papa’s hut, except here in this place people washed their buildings over with pale colors. Some bore painted designs, flowers and wheels of lightning and lizards and things which I did not have names for. The land rose behind the town, bearing with it the single road we had walked down the night before.
“You brought me far to test my strength,” I said.
“Hmm.” The maggot man did not lend any words to his answer.
I had walked that distance. I could walk the same distance back. I stared at the land so brown and grey above the ragged colors of the town at the edge of the sea. After a short time, he tugged gently on my shoulder. I turned to the chaos of the ship. The maggot man and I wove our way to a little house amid the jumble of men and equipment and cargo.
“Here,” he said as we pushed within. “Here we stay.” This was followed by another burst of his Petraean gabble.
My first thought was that the floors were wood, not dirt. The place was handsome enough, lit by a tiny round window filled with glass. There were two beds, each larger than any I had seen in my life until then. A table with a chair before it clipped to the floor. A black mounting gaped in the ceiling, from which a chain depended holding a small oil lamp with a hooded glass.
No cage waited in the middle of the room.
I had never seen such a wealth of space and privacy. Not to be shared, surely as our room the night before was, but dedicated to one man and his needs. One man and his girl.
The iron rail at the base of the bed was firm and cold to my touch. The paint was textured with generations of repetition, layers over layers of flecking and pitting. “What do we do here?”
He answered in Petraean.
I whirled on him, my voice rising as my dignity slipped away from me. “What do we do here?”
The maggot man smiled, his mouth tight and sad. He answered once more in Petraean. He then added in my words, “We journey across the Storm Sea to Copper Downs.”
I seized on petulance, the last refuge of children. “Don’t want to go to Copper Downs. Want to go home.”
His smile shrank to nothing. “Copper Downs is your home now.”
I considered this. We had not brought my silk with my thousand bells. “Papa will be there? And Endurance?”
“Your new home.” This was followed with another burst of his alien words.
Lies. All was lies. He had lied to Papa, he lied to me. Endurance had tried to warn me, but I’d followed my father’s words in coming with this man.
Had Papa lied to me as well?
I resolved I would go home and ask him. It only waited for my moment. I gathered myself on one of the beds and watched the maggot man carefully.
* * *
Soon enough he tired of watching me in return, and set to his little table. He brought papers from a box and made more of his scratches. Once in a while he glanced at me, but his heart was in his reckoning, not in being my guardian.
The floor groaned and swayed like a tree in a storm, though the window’s light was bright with a clear sky. The yip-yip of the sailors was calm. The boat shifted, I realized, like Endurance settling in for the night. Below the floor something huge chuffed and squirmed. Perhaps they had a giant ox to tow them through the sea?
It did not matter to me. I was leaving soon. Though I could no more stop my mind wondering than I could stop my lungs breathing, I did not care.
This game was over.
I waited until the time between each of my captor’s glances at me was more breaths than I could count. It was easy enough to occupy myself studying the latch on the door to this little house. A great shiny lever was placed below a handle which was obviously meant to be grabbed. When we entered the maggot man had used it to close the door.
Though I had seen few doors in my life, animal pens had gates. This was no different. I had been wrong about the lack of a cage, I realized. This cage was bigger, the bars less visible.
At his next glance and return of attention to his papers, I was ready. I leapt from the bed, grabbed the handle, and threw open the door. Head tucked down, I sprinted past the knees and thighs of the sailors toward the rail. I was faster than any of them suspected. The floor of the boat was just as crowded as before, with more ropes coiled as great cloth sheets were raised snapping into the wind.
Men shouted, but it was less than a dozen steps to the edge. No one had been waiting for me. No one had been watching for me.
How far could we be from the shore?
But when I vaulted the fence and dove for the sea, I saw there was no land nearby. Water was water. I could swim here as well as in a ditch at home. Unfortunately, this ditch had grown to the width of the world, too far to reach the other side.
Then I was in the sea. The water was colder than I thought, and stung my mouth terribly. This was the taste of the sweat of the earth. Everything beneath was dark and gray. I could see nothing.
I found the surface easily enough and began to swim away from the boat.
Behind me they shouted. I rolled to my back and looked as I continued to swim. Angry men lined the side rail, pointing and yelling. I smiled at their discomfort even as one raised a great spear.
With a flash, a silver arrow sped toward me. I started to scream as it passed above my head. I turned again, almost slipping beneath the water.
For a long moment I could see the end of everything. I don’t imagine death meant anything sensible to me at that age, but I knew people did die, and once dead they did not return.
A triple arch of jagged teeth yawned above my head. This monstrous thing was the very mouth of hunger loosed in the sea. I could see the pale curves of its maw behind its teeth, narrowing to a dark throat that no part of me larger than my head would pass down. A chilled stench of blood and filth shivered my spine.
That dart flew into those pale geometries and embedded itself in the roof of the monster’s mouth. A blue spark exploded in that darkness bright enough to sting my eyes. I heard a shriek like a woman in pain.
With an enormous splash, the mouth closed. It sank beneath the water, dragging with it a rough, gray head larger than Endurance. For a long, slow moment, somewhere between one of my heartbeats and the next, a black eye stared at me. It was ringed with flesh as pale as the maggot man’s skin, and had the filmy hue of the dead. Though this glaring orb lacked the wisdom of Endurance’s brown eyes, or even the simple flickering life present in the eye of the smallest birds, still I felt the sea-beast take my name among the secret hatreds graven into its frozen heart.
I kicked in place a moment, my heart chilled as cold as the surrounding water. The monster had nearly taken me. Worse, there was no land to reach no matter how far I swam. The boat creaked and groaned behind me, men calling out as it turned to fetch me from the waves.
Water at home had held only snakes, frogs, and turtles with knife-sharp beaks. The sea held every kind of throat ready to swallow me whole. When they threw the ropes down to me, I grasped readily enough at the rescue.
The tears I cried for my home were mixed in with salt spray when they hauled me aboard. Once more I went willingly into the house of my captivity. If I did so a third time, I knew I would be lost to myself forever.
For more from the world of Green, check out Jay Lake’s Tor.com short story “A Water Matter”