by C.S.E. Cooney

For Janelle McHugh

Of the woman he was to wed on the morrow, Shursta Sarth knew little. He knew she hailed from Droon. He knew her name was Hyrryai.

“…Which means, The Gleaming One,” his sister piped in, the evening before he left their village. She was crocheting by the fire and he was staring into it.

Lifting his chin from his hand, Shursta grinned at her. “Ayup? And where’d you light upon that lore, Nugget?”

Sharrar kicked him on the ankle for using the loathed nickname. “I work with the greyheads. They remember everything.”

“Except how to chew their food.”

“What they’ve lost in teeth, they’ve gained in wisdom,” she announced with some pomposity. “Besides, that’s what they have me for.” Her smile went wry at one corner, but was no less proud for that. “I chew their food, I change their cloths, and they tell me about the old days. Some of them had parents who were alive back then.”

Her voice went rich and rolling. Her crochet hook glinted on the little lace purse she was making. The driftwood flames flickered, orange with tongues of blue.

“They remember the days before the Nine Cities drowned and the Nine Islands with them. Before our people forsook us to live below the waters, and we were stranded here on the Last Isle. Before we changed our name to Glennemgarra, the Unchosen.” Sharrar sighed. “In those days, names were more than mere proxy for, Hey, you!”

“So, Hyrryai means, Hey, you, Gleamy?”

“You have no soul, Shursta.”

“Nugget, when your inner poet is ascendant, you have more than enough soul for both of us. If the whitecaps of your whimsy rise any higher, we’ll have a second Drowning at hand, make no mistake.”

Sharrar rolled her brown-bright eyes at him and grunted something. He laughed, and the anxious knots in his stomach loosened some.

When Shursta took his leave the next morning at dawn, he lingered in the threshold. The hut had plenty of wood in the stack outside the door. He’d smoked or salted any extra catch for a week, so Sharrar would not soon go hungry. If she encountered trouble, they would take her in at the Hall of Ages where she worked, and there she’d be fed and sheltered, though she wouldn’t have much privacy or respite.

He looked at his sister now. She’d dragged herself from bed to make him breakfast, even though he was perfectly capable of frying up an egg himself. Her short dark hair stuck up every which way and her eyes were bleary. Her limp was more pronounced in the morning.

“Wish you could come with me,” he offered.

“What? Me, with one game leg and a passel of greyheads to feed? No, thank you!” But her eyes looked wistful. Neither of them had ever been to Droon, capital of the Last Isle, the seat of the Astrion Council.

“Hey,” he said, surprised to find his own eyes stinging.

“Hey,” she said right back. “After the mesh-rite, after you’ve settled down a bit and met some folks, invite me up. You know I want to meet my mesh-sister. You have my gift?”

He patted his rucksack, which had the little lace purse she’d crocheted along with his own mesh-gift.

“Oohee, brother mine,” said Sharrar. “By this time tomorrow you’ll be a Blodestone, and no Sarth relation will be worthy to meet your eyes.”

“Doubtless Hirryai Blodestone will take one look at me and sunder the contract.”

She requested you.”

Shursta shrugged, sure it had been a mistake.

After that, there was one last hug, a vivid and mischievous and slightly desperate smile from Sharrar, followed by a grave look and quick wink on Shursta’s part. Then he set off on the searoad that would take him to Droon.

Of the eight great remaining kinlines, the Blodestones were the wealthiest. Their mines were rich in ore and gems. Their fields were fertile and wide, concentrated in the highland interior of the Last Isle. After a Blodestone female was croned at age fifty, she would hold her place on the Astrion Council, which governed all the Glennemgarra.

Even a fisherman like Shursta Sarth (of the lesser branch of Sarths), from a poor village like Sif on the edge of Rath Sea, with no parents of note and only a single sister for kin, knew about the Blodestones.

He had no idea why Hyrryai had chosen him for mesh-mate. If it had not been an error, then it was a singular honor. For his life he knew not how he deserved it.

He was of an age to wed. Mesh-rite was his duty to the Glennemgarra and he would perform it, that the world might once again be peopled. To be childless–unless granted special dispensation by the Astrion Council–was to be reviled. Even with the dispensation, there were those who were tormented or shunned for their barrenness.

Due to a lack of girls in Sif, to his own graceless body, which, though fit for work, tended to carry extra weight, and to the slowness of his tongue in the company of strangers, Shursta had not yet been bred out. He had planned to attend this year’s muster and win a mesh-mate at games (the idea of being won himself had never occurred to him), but then the Council’s letter from Droon came.

The letter told him that Hyrryai Blodestone had requested him for mesh-mate. It told him that Hyrryai had not yet herself been bred. That though she was twenty one, a full year past the age of meshing, she had been granted a reprieve when her little sister was murdered.

Shursta had read that last sentence in shock. The murder of a child was the highest crime but one, and that was the murder of a girl child. Hyrryai had been given full grieving rights.

Other than this scant information, the letter had left detailed directions to Droon, with the day and time his first assignation with Hirryai had been set, and reminded him that it was customary for a first-meshed couple to exchange a gift.

On Sharrar’s advice, Shursta had taken pains. He had strung for Hyrryai a long necklace of ammonite, shark teeth and dark pearls the color of thunderclouds. Ammonite for antiquity, teeth for ferocity, and pearls for sorrow. A fearsome gift and perhaps presumptuous, but Sharrar had approved.

“Girls like sharp things,” she’d said, “so the teeth are just right. As for the pearls, they’re practically a poem.”

“I should have stuck with white ones,” he’d said ruefully. “The regular round kind.”

“Bah!” said Sharrar, her pointy face with its incongruously long, strong jaw set stubbornly. “If she doesn’t see you’re a prize, I’ll descend upon Droon and roast her organs on the tines of my trident, just see if I don’t!”

Whereupon Shursta had flicked his strand of stone, teeth and pearl at her. She’d caught it with a giggle, wrapping it with great care in the fine lace purse she’d made.

Hyrryai Blodestone awaited him. More tidepool than beach, the small assignation spot had been used for this purpose before. Boulders had been carved into steps leading from searoad to cove, but these were ancient and crumbling into marram grass.

In this sheltered spot, a natural rock formation had been worked gently into the double curve of a lovers’ bench. His intended bride sat at the far end. Any further and she would topple off.

From the smudges beneath her eyes and the harried filaments flying out from her wing-black braid, she looked as if she had been sitting there all night. Her head turned as he approached. Perhaps it was the heaviness of his breath she heard. It labored after the ten miles he’d trudged that morning, from the steepness of the steps, at his astonishment at the color of her hair. The breezy sweetness of dawn had long since burned away. It was noon.

Probably, Shursta thought, falling back a step back as her gaze met his, she could smell him where she sat.

“Shursta Sarth,” she greeted him.

“Damisel Blodestone.”

Shursta had wanted to say her name. Had wanted to say it casually, as she spoke his, with a cordial nod of the head. Instead his chin jutted up and awry, as if a stray hook had caught it. Her name stopped in his throat and changed places at the last second with the formal honorfic. He recalled Sharrar’s nonsense about names having meaning. It no longer seemed absurd.

Hyrryai the Gleaming One. Had she been so called for the long shining lines in her hair? The fire at the bottom of her eyes, like lava trapped in obsidian? Was it the clear bold glow of her skin, just browner than blushing coral, just more golden than sand?

Since his tongue would not work, as it rarely did for strangers, Shursta shrugged off his rucksack. The shoulder straps were damp in his grip. He fished out the lace purse with its mesh-gift and held it out to her, stretching his arm to the limit so that he would not have to step nearer.

She glanced from his flushed face to the purse. With a short sigh, as if to brace herself, she stood abruptly, plucked the purse from his hand and dumped the contents into her palm.

Shursta’s arm dropped.

Hyrryai Blodestone examined the necklace closely. Every tooth, every pearl, every fossilized ridge of ammonite. Then, with another breath, this one quick and indrawn as the other had been exhaled, she poured the contents back and thrust the purse at him.

“Go home, man of Sif,” she said. “I was mistaken. I apologize that you came all this way.”

Not knowing whether he were about to protest or cozen or merely ask why, Shursta opened his mouth. Felt that click in the back of his throat where too many words welled in too narrow a funnel. Swallowed them all.

His hand closed over the purse Sharrar had made.

After all, it was no worse than he had expected. Better, for she had not laughed at him. Her face, though cold, expressed genuine sorrow. He suspected the sorrow was with her always. He would not stay to exacerbate it.

This time, he managed a creditable bow, arms crossed over his chest in a gesture of deepest respect. Again he took up his rucksack, though it seemed a hundred times heavier now. He turned away from her, letting his rough hair swing into his face.

“Wait.”

Her hand was on his arm. He wondered if they had named her Hyrryai because she left streaks of light upon whatever she touched.

“Wait. Please. Come and sit. I think I must explain. If it pleases you to hear me, I will talk awhile. After that you may tell me what you think. What you want. From this.” She spread her hands.

Shursta did not remove his rucksack again, but he sat with her. Not on the bench, but on the sand, with their backs against the stone seat. He drew in the sand with a broken shell and did not look at her except indirectly, for fear he would stare. For a while, only the waves spoke.

When Hyrryai Blodestone began, her tones were polite but informal, like a lecturer of small children. Like Sharrar with her grayheads. As if she did not expect Shursta to hear her, or hearing, listen.

“The crones of the Astrion Council know the names of all the Glennemgarra youth yet unmeshed. All their stories. Who tumbled which merry widow in which sea cave. Who broke his drunken head on which barman’s club. Who comes from the largest family of mesh-kin, and what her portions are. You must understand,” the tone of her voice changed, and Shursta glanced up in time to see the fleetingest quirk of a corner smile, “the secrets of the council do not stay in the council. In my home, at least, it is the salt of every feast, the gossip over tea leaves and coffee grinds, the center of our politics and our hearths. With a mother, grandmother, several aunts and great aunts and three cousins on the council, I cannot escape it. When we were young, we did not want to. We thought of little else than which dashing, handsome man we would…”

She stopped. Averted her face. Then she asked lightly, “Shall I tell you your story as the Blodestones know it?”

When he answered, after clearing his throat, it was in the slow measured sentences that made most people suck their teeth and stamp the ground with impatience. Hyrryai Blodestone merely watched with her flickering eyes.

“Shursta Sarth is not yet twenty five. He has one sibling, born lame. A fisherman by trade. Not a very successful one. Big as a whale. Stupid as a jellyfish. Known to his friends, if you can call them that, as ‘Sharkbait.’”

Hyrryai was nodding, slowly. His heart sank like a severed anchor. He had hoped, of course, that the story told of Shursta Sarth in the Astrion Council might be different. That somehow they had known more of him, even, than he knew of himself. Seeing his crestfallen expression, Hyrryai took up the tale.

“Shursta Sarth is expected either to win a one-year bride at games, do his duty by her and watch her leave the moment her contract ends, or to take under his wing a past-primer lately put aside for a younger womb. However, as his sister will likely be his dependent for life, this will deter many of the latter, who might have taken him on for the sake of holding their own household. It is judged improbable that Shursta Sarth will follow the common practice of having his sister removed to the Beggar’s Quarter and thus improve his own lot.”

Shursta must have made an abrupt noise or movement, for she glanced at him curiously. He realized his hands had clenched. Again, she almost smiled.

“Your sister made the purse?”

He nodded once.

“Then she is clever. And kind.” She paused. The foam hissed just beyond the edges of their toes. A cormorant called.

“Did you know I had a sister?” she asked him.

Shursta nodded, more carefully this time. Her voice, like her face, was remote and cold. But at the bottom of it, buried in the ice, an inferno.

“She was clubbed to death on this beach. I found her. We had come here often to play–well, to spy on mesh-mates meeting for the first time. Sometimes we came here when the moon was full–to bathe and dance and pretend that the sea people would swim up to surface from the Nine Drowned Cities to sing songs with us. I had gone to a party that night with a group of just the sort of dashing handsome young men we would daydream about meshing with, but she was too young yet for such things. When she was found missing from her bed the next morning, I thought perhaps she had come here and fallen asleep. I thought if I found her, I could pretend to our mother I had already scolded her–Kuista was very good at hanging her head like a puppy and looking chastised; sometimes I think she practiced in the mirror–and she might be let off a little easier. So I went here first and told nobody. But even from the cliff, when I saw her lying there, I knew she wasn’t sleeping.”

Shursta began to shiver. He thought of Sharrar, tangled in bladderwrack, a nimbus of bloody sand spreading out around her head.

“She was fully clothed, except for her shoes. But she often went barefoot. Said even sandals strangled her. The few coins in her pocket were still there, but her gemmaja was gone. I know she had been wearing it, because she rarely took it off. And it’s not among her things.”

A dark curiosity moved in him. Unable to stop himself, Shursta asked, “What is a gemmaja?”

Hyrryai untangled a thin silver chain from her hair. If she had not been so mussed, if the gemmaja had been properly secured, it would have lain across her forehead in a gentle V. A small green stone speckled with red came to rest between her eyes like a raindrop.

“The high households of the eight kinlines wear them. Ours is green chalcedony, of course. You Sarths,” she added, “wear the red carnelian.”

Shursta touched the small nob of polished coral he wore on a cord under his shirt. His mother had always just called it a touchstone. His branch of Sarths had never been able to afford carnelian.

“Later, after the pyre, I searched the sand, but I could not find Kuista’s gemmaja. I was so…” She hesitated. “Angry.”

Shursta understood the pause. Hyrryai had meant something entirely else, of course. As when calling the wall of water that destroyed your village a word so common as “wave” was not enough.

“…So angry that I had not thought to check her head more closely. To see if the gemmaja had been driven into… into what was left her of skull. To see if a patch of her hair had been ripped out with the removal of the gemmaja–which I reason more likely. But I only thought of that later, when… when I could think again. Someone took the gemmaja from her, I know it.” She shook her head. “But for what reason? A lover, perhaps, crazed by her refusal of him? She was young for a lover, but some men are strange. Did he beat her down and then take a piece of her for himself? Was it an enemy? For the Blodestones are powerful, Shursta Sarth, and have had enemies for as long as we have held house. Did he bring back her gemmaja to his own people, as proof of loyalty to his kinline? Was he celebrated? Was he elected leader for his bold act? I do not know. I wish I had been a year ago what I am now… But mark me.”

She turned to him and set her strong hands about his wrists.

“Mark me when I say I shall not rest until I find Kuista’s murderer. Every night she comes to me in my sleep and asks where her gemmaja is. In my dreams she is not dead or broken, only sad, so sad that she begins to weep, asking me why it was taken from her. Her tears are not tears but blood. All I want is to avenge her. It is all I can think about. It is the only reason I am alive. Do you understand?”

Shursta’s own big, brown, blunt-fingered hands rested quietly within the tense shackles of hers. His skin was on fire where she touched him, but his stomach felt like stone. He said slowly, “You do not wish–you never wished–to wed.”

“No.”

“But your grieving time is used up and the Astrion Council–your family–is insisting.”

“Yes.”

“So you chose a husband who… Who would be…” He breathed out. “Easy.” She nodded once, slowly. “A stupid man, a poor man, a man who would be grateful for a place among the Blodestones. So grateful he would not question the actions of his wife. His wife who… who would not be a true wife.”

Her hands fell from his. “You do understand.”

“Yes.”

She nodded again, her expression almost exultant. “I knew you would! The moment I held your mesh-gift. It was as if you knew me before we met. As if you made my sorrow and my vengeance and my blood debt to my sister into a necklace. I knew at once that you would never do. Because I need a husband who would not understand. Who would not care if I could not love him. Who never suspected that the thought of bringing a child into this murderous world is so repellent that to dwell on it makes me vomit, even when I have eaten nothing. I mean to find my sister’s killer, Shursta Sarth. And then I mean to kill him and eat his heart by moonlight.”

Shursta looked up, startled. The eating of a man’s flesh was taboo–but he did not blurt the obvious aloud. Had not her sister–a child, a girl child–been murdered on this beach? Taboos meant nothing to Hyrryai Blodestone. He wondered that she had not yet filed her teeth and declared herself windwyddiam, a wind widow, nameless, kinless, outside the law. But then, he thought, how could she hunt amongst the high houses if she revoked her right of entry into them?

But.”

He looked up at that word and knew a disgustingly naked monster shone in his eyes. But he could not help it. Shursta could not help his hope.

“But you are not a stupid man, Shursta Sarth. And you do not deserve to be sent away in disgrace, as if you were a dog that displeased me. You must tell me what you want, now that you know what I am.”

Shursta sat up to remove his rucksack again. Again he removed the lace purse, the necklace. And though his fingers trembled, he looped the long strand around her neck, twice and then thrice, before letting the hooks catch. The teeth jutted out about her flesh, warning away chaste kisses, chance gestures of affection. Hyrryai did not move beneath his hands.

“I am everything the Astrion Council says,” Shursta said, sinking back to the sand. “But if I wed you tomorrow, I will be a Blodestone, and thus be more useful to my sister. Is that not enough to keep me here? I am not so stupid as to leave, when you give me the choice to stay. But I shall respect your grief. I shall not touch you. When you have found your sister’s killer and have had your revenge, come to me. I will declare myself publically dissatisfied that you have not given me children. I will return to Sif. If my sister does not mesh, you will settle upon her a portion worthy of a Blodestone, that she will never be put away in the Beggar’s Quarter. And we shall be quit of each other. Does this suit you, Damisel Blodestone?”

Whatever longing she heard in his voice or saw in his eyes, she did not flinch from it. She took his face between her palms and kissed him right on the forehead, right between the eyes, where her sister’s gemmaja had rested, where her skull had been staved in.

“Call me Hyrryai, husband.”

When she offered her hand, he set his own upon it. Hyrryai did not clasp it close. Instead, she furled open his fingers and placed her mesh-gift into his palm. It was a black shell blade, honed to a dazzle and set into a delicately scrimshawed hilt of whale ivory.

“Cherished Nugget,” Shursta began his missive:

It is for charity’s sake that I sit and scribble this to you on this morning of all mornings, in the sure knowledge that if I do not, your churlishness will have you feeding burnt porridge to all the grayheads under your care. To protect them, I will relate to you the tale of my meshing. Brace yourself.

The bride wore red, as brides do–but you have never seen such a red as the cloth they make in Droon. Had she worn it near shore, sharks would have beached themselves, mistaking her for food. It was soft too, to the touch. What was it like? Plummage. No, pelt. Like Damis Ungerline’s seal pelt, except not as ratty and well-chewed. How is the old lady anyway? Has she lost her last tooth yet? Give her my regards.

The bride’s brothers, six giants whose prowess in athletics, economics, politics and music makes them the boast of the Blodestones, converged on me the night I arrived in Droon and insisted I burn the clothes I came in and wear something worthy of my forthcoming station.

“Except,” said one–forgive me; I have not bothered to learn all their names–“we have nothing ready made in his size.”

“Perhaps a sailcloth?”

“Damis Valdessparrim has some very fine curtains.”

And more to this effect. A droll scene. Hold it fast in your mind’s eye. Me, nodding and agreeing to all their pronouncements with a fine ingratiation of manner. Couldn’t speak a word, of course. Sweating, red as a boiled lobster–you know how I get–I suppose I seemed choice prey while they poked and prodded, loomed and laughed. I felt about three feet tall and four years old again.

Alas, low as they made me, I could not bring myself to let them cut the clothes from my back. I batted at their hands. However, they were quicker than I, as are most everybody. They outnumbered me and their knives came out. My knife–newly gifted and handsomer than anything I’ve ever owned–was taken from me. My fate was sealed.

Then their sister came to my rescue. Think not she had been standing idly by, enjoying the welcome her brothers made me. No, as soon as we’d stepped foot under the Blodestone roof, she had been enveloped in a malapertness of matrons, and had only just emerged from their fond embraces.

She has a way of silencing even the most garrulous of men, which the Blodestone boys, I assure you, are.

When they were all thoroughly cowed and scuffling their feet, she took me by the hand and led me to the room I am currently occupying. My mesh-rite suit was laid out for me, fine ivory linens embroidered by, she assured me, her mother’s own hand. They fit like I had been born to them. The Astrion Council, they say, has eyes everywhere. And measuring tapes too, apparently.

Yes, yes, I stray from my subject, O antsiest (and onliest) sister. The meshing.

Imagine a balmy afternoon. Warm, with a wind. (You probably had the same kind of afternoon in Sif, so it shouldn’t be too hard.) Meat had been roasting since the night before in vast pits. The air smelled of burnt animal flesh, by turns appetizing and nauseating.

We two stood inside the crone circle. The Blodestones stood in a wider circle around the crones. After that, a circle of secondary kin. After that, the rest of the guests.

We spoke our vows. Or rather, the bride did. Your brother, dear Nugget, I am sorry to say, was his usual laconic self and could not find his way around his own tongue. Shocking! Nevertheless, the bride crowned him in lilies, and cuffed to his ear a gemmaja of green chalcedony, set in a tangle of silver. This, to declare him a Blodestone by mesh-rite.

You see, I enclose a gemmaja of your own. You are no longer Sharrar Sarth, but Damisel Sharrar Blodestone, mesh-sister to the Gleaming One. When you come of croning, you too, shall take your seat on the Astrion Council. Power, wealth, glory. Command of the kinlines. Fixer of fates.

There. Never say I never did anything for you.

Do me one favor, Sharrar. Do not wear your gemmaja upon your forehead, or in any place too obvious. Do not wear it where any stranger who might covet it might think to take it from you by force. Please.

A note of observation. For all they dress so fine and speak with fancy voices, I cannot say that people in Droon are much different than people in Sif. Sit back in your chair and imagine me rapturous in the arms of instant friends.

I write too hastily. Sharrar, I’m sorry. The ink comes out as gall. I know for a fact that you are scowling at the page and biting your nails. My fault.

I will slow down, as if I were speaking, and tell you something to set your heart at ease.

Other than the bride–who is what she is–I have perhaps discovered one friend. At least, he is friendlier than anyone else I have met in Droon. I even bothered remembering his name for you.

He is some kind of fifth or sixth cousin to the bride–though not a Blodestone. One of the ubiquitous Spectroxes. (Why are they ubiquitous, you ask? I am not entirely sure. I was told they are ubiquitous, so ubiquitous I paint them for you now. Miners and craftsmen, mostly, having holdings in the mountains. Poor but on the whole respectable.) This particular Spectrox is called Laric Spectrox. Let me tell you how I met him.

I was lingering near the banquet table after the brunt of the ceremony had passed from my shoulders.

Imagine me a mite famished. I had not eaten yet that day, my meshing day, and it was nearing sunset. I was afraid to serve myself even a morsel for the comments my new mesh-brothers might make. They had already made several to the end that, should I ever find myself adrift at sea, I might sustain myself solely on myself until rescue came, and still be man enough for three husbands to their sister!

I thought it safe, perhaps, to partake of some fruit. All eyes were on a sacred dance the bride was performing. This involved several lit torches swinging from the ends of chains and what I can only describe as alarming acrobatics. I had managed to eat half a strawberry when a shadow dwarfed the dying sun. A creature precisely three times the height of any of the bride’s brothers–though much skinnier–and black as the sharp shell of my new blade–laughed down at me.

“Bored with the fire spinning already? Hyrryai’s won contests, you know. Although she can’t–ah–couldn’t hold a candle to little Kuista.”

I squinted up at this living beanstalk of a man, wondering if he ever toppled in a frisky wind. To my surprise, when I opened my mouth to speak, the sentence came out easily–in the order I had planned it, no less.

(I still find it strange how my throat knows when to trust someone, long before I’ve made up my own mind about it. It was you who first observed that, I remember. Little Sharrar, do the greyheads tell you that your name means Wisdom? If they don’t, they should.)

“I cannot bear to watch her,” I confessed.

“Afraid she’ll set someone’s hair on fire?” He winked. “Can’t really blame you. But she won’t, you know.”

“Not that. Only…” For a moment, my attention wandered back to the bride. Red flame. Red gown. Wheels of fire in the night. Her eyes. I looked away. “Only it would strike me blind if I gazed at her too long.”

What he read in my face, I could not say (although I know you’re wishing I’d just make something up), but he turned to follow her movements as she danced.

“Mmn,” he grunted. “Can’t say I see it, myself. She’s just Hyrryai. Always has been. Once, several years back, my mother suggested I court her. I said I’d rather mesh with a giant squid. Hyrryai’s all bone and sinew, you know. Never had any boobies to speak of. Anyway, even before Kuista died, she was too serious. Grew up with those Blodestone boys–learned to fight before she could talk. I wouldn’t want a wife who could kill me with her pinkie, would you?”

My eyebrows went past my hairline. In fact, I have not located them since. I think they are hiding behind my ears. My new acquaintance grinned to see me at such a loss, but he grasped my forearm and gave it a hearty shake.

“What am I doing, keeping you from your grub? Eat up, man! You’re that feral firemaid’s husband now. I’d say you’ll need all your strength for tonight.”

And that, Nugget, is where I shall leave you. It is morning. As you see, I survived.

Your fond brother,

Shursta Blodestone

He was reading a book in the windowseat of his room when Shursta heard the clamor in the courtyard. Wagon wheels, four barking dogs, several of the younger Blodestones who had been playing hoopball, an auntie trying to hush everyone down.

“Good morning, Chaos,” a voice announced just beyond his line of sight. “My name is Sharrar Sarth. I’ve come to meet my mesh-kin.”

Shursta slammed his book closed and ran for the door. He did not know if he was delighted or alarmed. Would they jostle her? Would they take her cane away and tease her? Would she whack them over the knuckles and earn the disapprobation of the elders? Why had she come?

The letter, of course. The letter. He had regretted it the moment he sent it. It had been too long, too full of things he should have kept to himself. He ought to have expected her. Would he have stayed at home, receiving a thing like that from her? Never. Now that she was here, he ought to send her away.

Sharrar stood amongst a seethe of Blodestones, chatting amiably with them. She leaned on her cane more crookedly than usual, the expression behind her smile starting to pinch.

No wonder. She’d come nearly twenty miles on the back of a rickety produce wagon. If she weren’t bruised spine to sternum he’d be surprised.

When Shursta broke through the ranks, Sharrar’s smile wobbled and she stumbled into his arms.

“I think you need a nap, Nugget,” he suggested.

“You’re not mad?”

“I am very happy to see you.” He kissed the top of her head. “Always.”

“You won’t send me away on the next milknut run?”

“I might if you insist on walking up those stairs.” He looked at his mesh-brothers. His mouth tightened. He’d be drowned twice and hung out to dry before asking them for help.

Hyrryai appeared at his side, meeting his eyes in brief consultation. He nodded. She slung one of Sharrar’s arms about her shoulders while Shursta took the other.

“Oh, hey,” said Sharrar, turning her head to study the newcomer. “You must be the Gleaming One.”

“And you,” said Hyrryai, “must be my sister.”

“I’ve always wanted a sister,” Sharrar said meditatively. “But my mother–may she sleep forever with the sea people–said, so help her, two children were enough for one woman, and that was two more than strictly necessary. She was a schoolteacher,” Sharrar explained. “Awfully smart. But I don’t think she understood things like sisters. She had so many herself.”

For a moment, Shursta thought Hyrryai’s eyes had flooded. But then she smiled, a warmer expression on her face than any Shursta had yet seen. “Perhaps you won’t think so highly of them once I start borrowing your clothes without asking.”

“Damisel,” Sharrar pronounced, “my rags are your rags. Help yourself.”

There was a feast four days later for the youngest of Hyrryai’s brothers.

“Dumwei,” Sharrar reminded Shursta. “I don’t know why you can’t keep them all straight.”

“I do not have your elasticity of mind,” he retorted. “I haven’t had to memorize all three hundred epics for the entertainment of the Hall of Ages.”

“It’s all about mnemonic tricks. Let’s see. In order of age, there’s Lochlin the Lunkhead, Arishoz the Unenlightened, Menami Meatbrain–then Hyrryai, of course, fourth in the birth order, but we all know what her name means, don’t we, Shursta?–Orssi the Obscene, Plankin Porkhole and Dumwei the Dimwitted. How could you mix them up?”

By this time Shursta was laughing too hard to answer. When Hyrryai joined them, he flung himself back onto the couch cushions and put a pillow over his face. Now and again, a hiccup emerged from the depths.

“I’ve never seen him laugh before,” Hyrryai observed. “What is the joke?”

“Oh,” Sharrar said blithely, “I was just mentioning how much I like your brothers. Tell me, who is coming to the feast tonight?”

Hyrryai perched at the edge of the couch. “Everybody.”

“Is Laric Spectrox coming?”

“Yes. Why? Do you know him?”

“Shursta mentioned him in a letter.”

Shursta removed his pillow long enough to glare, but Sharrar ignored him.

“I was curious to meet him. Also, I was wondering… What is the protocol to join the Sing at the end of the feast? One of my trades is storyteller–as my brother has just reminded me–and I have recently memorized a brave tale that dearest Dumwei will adore. It is all about, oh, heroic sacrifice, bloody deeds and great feats, despair, rescue, celebration. That sort of thing.”

Observing the mischief dancing in Sharrar’s eyes, a ready spark sprang to Hyrryai’s. “I shall arrange a place of honor for you in the Sing. This is most kind of you.”

Groaning, Shursta swam up from the cushions again. “Don’t trust her! She is up to suh–hic–uhmething. She will tell some wild tale about, about–farts and–and burps and–billygoats that will–hic–will shame your grandmother!”

“My grandmother has no shame.” Hyrryai stood up from the edge of the couch. She never relaxed around any piece of furniture. She had to be up and pacing. Shursta, following her with his eyes, wondered how, and if, she ever slept. “Sharrar is welcome to tell whatever tale she deems fit. Do not be offended if I leave early. Oron Onyssix attends the feast tonight, and I mean to shadow him home.”

At that, even Sharrar looked startled. “Why?”

Hyrryai grinned. It was not a look her enemies would wish to meet by moonlight.

“Of late the rumors are running that his appetite for hedonism has begun to extend to girls too young to be mesh-fit. I go tonight to confirm or invalidate these.”

“Oh,” said Sharrar. “You’re hunting.”

“I am hunting.”

Shursta bit his lip. He did not say, “Be careful.” He did not say, “I will not sleep until you return.” He did not say, “If the rumors are true, then bring him to justice. Let the Astrion Council sort him out, trial and judgement. Even if he proves a monster, he may not be your monster, and don’t you see, Hyrryai, whatever happens tonight, it will not be the end? That grief like yours does not end in something so simple as a knife in the dark?”

As if she heard, Hyrryai turned her grin on him. All the teeth around her throat grinned too.

“It is a nice necklace,” Sharrar observed. “I told Shursta it was a poem.”

The edges of Hyrryai’s grin softened. “Your brother has the heart of a poet. And you the voice of one. We Blodestones are wealthy in our new kin.” She turned to go, paused, then added over her shoulder, “Husband, if you drink a bowl of water upside-down, your hiccups may go away.”

When she was gone, Sharrar nudged him. “Oohee, brother mine. I like her.”

“Ayup, Nugs,” he sighed. “Me too.”

It was with trepidation that Shursta introduced his sister to Laric Spectrox that night at the feast. He need not have worried. Hearing his name, Sharrar laughed with delight and raised her brown eyes to his.

“Why, hey there! Domo Spectrox! You’re not nearly as tall as Shursta made you out to be.”

Laric straightened his shoulders. “Am I not?”

“Nope. The way he writes it, I thought to mistake you for a milknut tree. Shursta, you said skinny. It’s probably all muscle, right? Wiry, right? Like me?” Sharrar flexed her free arm for him. Laric shivered a wink at Shursta and gravely admired her bicep. “Anyway, you’re not too proud to bend down, are you?”

“I’m not!”

“Good! I have a secret I must tell you.”

When Laric brought his face to her level, she seized him by both big ears and planted an enormous kiss on his mouth. Menami and Orssi Blodestone, who stood nearby, started whooping. Dumwei sidled close.

“Don’t I get one? It’s my birthday, you know.”

Sharrar gave him a sleepy-eyed look that made Shursta want to hide under the table. “Just you wait till after dinner, Dumwei my darling. I have a special surprise for you.” She shooed him along and bent all her attention back to Laric.

“You,” she said.

He pointed to his chest a bit nervously. “Me?”

“You, Laric Spectrox. You are going to be my friend for the rest of my life. I decided that ages ago, so I’m very glad we finally got to meet. No arguments.”

Laric’s shining black face broke into a radiance of dimple creases and crooked white teeth. “Do you see me arguing? I’m not arguing.”

“I’m Sharrar, by the way. Sit beside me tonight and let me whisper into your ear.”

When Laric glanced at Shursta, Shursta shrugged. “She’s going to try and talk you into doing something you won’t want to do. I don’t know what. Just keep saying no and refilling her plate.”

“Does that really work?”

Shursta gave him a pained glance and did not answer.

Hyrryai came late to the feast and took a silent seat beside Shursta. He filled a plate and shoved it at her, as if she had been Sharrar, but when she only picked at it, he shrugged and went back to listening to Laric and Orssi arguing.

Orssi said, “The Nine Islands drowned and the Nine Cities with them. There are no other islands. There is no other land. We are alone on this world, and we must do our part to repeople it.”

“No, no, see–” Laric gestured with the remnants of a lobster claw, “that lacks imagination. That lacks gumption. What do we know for sure? We know that something terrible happened in our great-great grandparents’ day. What was it really? How can we know? We weren’t born then. All we have are stories, stories the grayheads tell us in the Hall of Ages. I value these stories, but I will not build my life on them, as a house upon sand. We call ourselves the Glennemgarra, the Unchosen. Unchosen by what? By death? By the wave? By the magic of the gods that protected the Nine Holy Cities even as they drowned, so that they live still, at the bottom of the sea? Let there be a hundred cities beneath the waves. What do we care? We can’t go there.”

Laric glanced around at the few people who still listened to him.

“Do you know where we can go, though? Everywhere else. Anywhere. There is no law binding us to Droon–or to Sif–“ he nodded at Sharrar, whose face was rapt with attention, “or anywhere on this wretched oasis. We know the wind. We know the stars. We have our boats and our nets and our water casks. There is no reason not to set out in search of something better.”

“Well, cousin,” said Orssi. “No one could accuse you of lacking imagination.”

“Yes, Spectrox,” cried Arishoz, “and how is your big boat project coming along?”

Laric’s round eyes narrowed. “It would go more quickly if I had more hands to help me.”

The Blodestone brothers laughed, though not ill-naturedly. “Find a wife, cousin,” Lochlin advised him. “Breed her well. People the world with tiny Spectroxes–as if the world needed more Spectroxes, eh? Convince them to build your boat. What else are children for?”

Laric threw up his hands. He was smiling too, but all the creases in his forehead bespoke a sadness. “Don’t you see? When my boat is finished I will sail away from words like that and thoughts like yours. As if women were only good for wives, and children were only made for labor.”

Hyrryai raised her glass to him. Shursta reached over to fill it from the pitcher and watched as she drank deeply.

“I will help you, Laric Specrox!” Sharrar declared, banging her fists on the table. “I am good with my hands. I never went to sea with the men of Sif, but I can swim like a seal–and I’d trade my good leg for an adventure. Tell me all about your big boat.”

He turned to her and smiled, rue twining with gratitude and defiance. “It is the biggest boat ever built. Or it will be.”

“And what will you name her?”

The Grimgramal. After the wave that changed the world.”

Sharrar nodded, as if this were the most natural thing. Then she swung her legs off the bench, took up her cane, and pushed herself to her feet. Leaning against the table for support, she used her cane to pound the floor. When this did not noticably diminish the noise in the hall, she set her forefinger and pinkie to her lips and whistled. Everyone, from the crone’s table where the elders were wine-deep in gossip and politics, to the children’s table where little cakes were being served, hushed.

Sharrar smiled at them. Shursta held his breath. But she merely invoked the Sing, bracing against a bench for support, then raising both fists above her head to indicate the audience should respond to her call.

“Grimgramal the Endless was the wave that changed the world.”

Obediantly, the hall repeated, “Grimgramal the Endless was the wave that changed the world.

Sharrar began the litany that preceded all stories. Shursta relaxed again, smiling to himself to see Hyrryai absently chewing a piece of flatbread as she listened. His sister’s tales, unlike Grimgramal, were not endless; they were mainly intended to please greyheads, who fell asleep after fifteen minutes or so. Sharrar’s habit had been to practice her stories on her brother when he came in from a day out at sea and was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. When he asked why she could not wait until morning when he could pay proper attention, she had replied that his exhaustion in the evening best simulated her average audience member in the Hall of Ages.

But Shursta had never yet fallen asleep while Sharrar told a story.

The first city was Hanah and it fell beneath the sea
The second city was Lahatiel, and it fell beneath the sea
The third city was Ekesh, and it fell beneath the sea
The fourth city was Var, and it fell beneath the sea
The fifth city was Thungol, and it fell beneath the sea
The sixth city was Yassam, and it fell beneath the sea
The seventh city was Saheer, and it fell beneath the sea
The eighth city was Gelph, and it fell beneath the sea
The ninth city was Niniam, and it fell beneath the sea…

Sharrar ended the litany with a sweep of her hands, like a wave washing everything away. “But one city,” she said, “did not fall beneath the sea.” Again, her fists lifted. “That city was Droon!”

That city was Droon!” the room agreed.

“That city was Droon, capital of the Last Isle. Now, on this island, there are many villages, though none that match the great city Droon. In one of these villages–in Sif, my own village–was born the hero of this tale. A young man, like the young men gathered here tonight. Like Dumwei whom we celebrate.”

She did not need to coax a response this time. Cups and bowls and pitchers clashed.

Dumwei whom we celebrate!

“If our hero stood before you in this hall, humble as a Man of Sif might be before the Men of Droon, you would not say to your neighbor, your brother, your cousin, ‘That young man is a hero.’ But a hero he was born, a hero he became, a hero he’ll remain, and I will tell you how, here and now.”

Sharrar took her cane, moving it through the air like a paddle through water.

“The fisherfolk of Sif catch many kinds of fish. Octopus and squid, shrimp and crab. But the largest catch and tastiest, the feast to end all feasts, the catch that feeds a village–this is the bone shark.”

The bone shark.”

“It is the most cunning, the most frightening, the most beautiful of all the sharks. A long shark, a white shark, with a towering dorsal fin and a great jaw glistening with terrible teeth. This is the shark which concerns our hero. This is the shark that brought him fame.”

This is the shark that brought him fame.”

By this time, Sharrar barely needed to twitch a finger to elicit a response. The audience leaned in. All except Shursta, whose shoulders hunched, and Hyrryai, who drew her legs up onto the bench, to wrap her arms around her knees.

“To catch a shark you must first feed it. You must bloody the waters. You must send a slick of chum as sacrifice. For five days you must do this, until the sharks come tame to your boat. Then noose and net, you must grab it. Noose and net, you must drag it to the shore where it will die upon the sand. This is how you catch a shark.”

This is how you catch a shark.”

“One day, our hero was at sea. Many other men were with him, for the fishermen of Sif do not hunt alone. A man–let us call him Ghoul, for his sense of humor was necrotic–had brought along his young son for the first time. Now, Ghoul, he did not like our hero. Ghoul was a proud man. A strong man. A handsome man too, if you like that sort of man. He thought Sif had room for only one hero and that was Ghoul.”

Ghoul!

“Ghoul said to his son, ‘Son, why do we waste all this good chum to bait the bone shark? In the next boat over sits a lonesome feast. An unmeshed man whom no one will miss. Let us rock his boat a little, eh? Let us rock his boat and watch him fall in.’

“Father and son took turns rocking our hero’s boat. Soon the other men of Sif joined in. Not all men are good men. Not all good men are good all the time. Not even in Droon. The waters grew choppy. The wind grew restless. The bone shark grew tired of waiting for his chum.”

The bone shark grew tired of waiting–

“—Who can say what happened then? A wave too vigorous? The blow of a careless elbow as Ghoul bent to rock our hero’s boat? A nudge from the muzzle of the bone shark? An act of the gods from the depths below? Who can know? But our hero saw the child. He saw Ghoul’s young son fall into the sea. Like Gelph and Saheer, he fell into the sea. Like Ekesh and Var and Niniam he fell into the sea. Like Hanah and Lahatiel, Thungol and Yassam. Like the Nine Islands and all Nine Cities, the child fell.”

The child fell.

“The bone shark moved as only sharks can move, lightning through the water, opening its maw for the sacrifice. But then our hero was there. There in the sea. Between shark and child. Between death and the child. Our hero was there, treading water. There with his noose and his net. He had jumped from his boat. Jumped–where no man of Sif could push him, however hard they rocked his boat. Jumped to save this child. And he tangled the shark in his net. He lassoed the shark with his noose and lashed himself to that dreadful dorsal fin! Ghoul had just enough time to haul his son back into his boat. The shark began to thrash.”

The shark began to thrash.”

“The shark began to swim.”

The shark began to swim.”

“Our hero clung fast. Our hero held firm. Our hero herded that shark as some men herd horses. He brought that shark to land. He brought that shark onto the sand, where the shark could not breathe, and so it died. Thus our hero slew the bone shark. Thus our hero fed his village. Thus our hero rescued the child. He rescued the child.”

He rescued the child.”

It was barely a whisper. Not an eye in that hall was dry.

“And that is the end of my tale.”

Sharrar thumped her cane to the floor again. This time, the noise echoed in a resounding silence. But without giving even the most precipitous a chance to stir, much less erupt into the applause that itched in every sweaty palm present, Sharrar spun on her heel and glared at the table where the Blodestone brothers sat.

“It was Shursta Sarth slew the bone shark,” she told them, coldly and deliberately. “Your sister wears its teeth around her neck. You are not worthy to call him brother. You are not worthy to sit at that table with him.”

With that, she spat at their feet and stumped out of the room.

Shursta followed close behind, stumbling through bodies. Not daring to look up from his feet. Once free of the hall, he took a different corridor than the one Sharrar had stormed through. Had he caught her up, what would he have done to her? Thanked her? Scolded her? Shaken her? Thrown her out a window? He did not know.

However difficult or humiliating negotiating his new mesh-kin had been, Sharrar the Wise had probably just made it worse.

And yet…

And yet, how well she had done it. The Blodestones, greatest of the eight kinlines gathered together in one hall–and Sharrar had had them slavering. They would have eaten out of her hand. And what had she done with that hand? Slapped their faces. All six brothers of his new wife.

Shursta wanted his room. A blanket over his head. He wanted darkness.

When his door clicked open several hours later, Shursta jerked fully awake. Even in his half doze, he had expected some kind of retributive challenge from the Blodestone brothers. He wondered if they would try goading him to fight, now that they knew the truth about him. Well–Sharrar’s version of the truth.

The mattress dipped near his ribs. He held his breath and did not speak. And when Hyrryai’s voice came to him in the darkness, his heartrate skidded and began to hammer in his chest.

“Are you awake, Shursta?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” A disconsolate exhalation. He eased himself up to a sitting position and propped himself against the carven headboard.

“Did your hunting go amiss, Hyrryai?”

It was the first time he’d had the courage to speak her name aloud.

The sound she made was both hiss and plosive, more resigned than angry. “Oron Onyssix was arrested tonight by the soldiers of the Astrion Council. He will be brought to trial. I don’t know–the crones, I think, got wind of my intentions regarding him. I track rumors; they, it seems, track me. In this case, they made sure to act before I did.” She paused. “In this case, it might have been for the best. I was mistaken.”

“Is he not guilty? With what, then, is he being charged?”

“The unsanctioned mentoring of threshold youths. That’s what they’re calling it.”

She shifted. The mattress dipped again. Beneath the sheets, Shursta brought his hand to his heart and pressed it there, willing it to hush. Hush, Hyrryai is speaking.

“What does that mean?”

“It means Onyssix is not the man I’m hunting for!”

“How do you know?” he asked softly.

“Because…”

Shursta sensed, in that lack of light, Hyrryai making a gesture that cut the darkness into neat halves.

“Well, for one: the youths he prefers are not, after all, girls. A few young men came forward to bear witness. All were on the brink of mesh-readiness. Exploring themselves, each other. Coming of age. Usually the Astrion Council will assign such youths an older mentor to usher them into adulthood. One who will make sure the young people know that their duty as adult citizens of the Glennemgarra is to mesh and make children–no matter whom they may favor for pleasure or succor or lifelong companionship. That the privilege of preference is to be earned after meshing. There are rites. There is,” her voice lilted mockingly, “paperwork. Onyssix sidestepped all of this. He will be fined. Watched a little more closely. Nothing else–there is no evidence of abuse. The young men did not speak of him with malice or fear. To them, he was just an older man with experience they wanted. I suppose it was a thrill to sneak around without the crones’ consent. There you have it. Oron Onyssix is a reckless pleasure-seeker who thinks he’s above the law. But hardly a murderer.”

“I am sorry,” Shursta murmured. “I wish it might have ended tonight.”

From the way the mattress moved, he knew she had turned to look at him. Her hand was braced against the blankets. He could feel her wrist against his thigh.

“I wished it too.” Hyrryai’s voice was harsh. “All week I have anticipated… Some conclusion. The closing of this wound. I prepared myself. I was ready. I wanted to look my sister’s killer in the eye and watch him confess. At banquet tonight, I wished it most–when Sharrar told her tale…”

“The Epic of Shursta Sharkbait? You should not believe all you hear. Especially if Sharrar’s talking.”

“I’ve heard tell of it before,” she retorted. “Certainly, when the story reached the Astrion Council, it was bare of the devices Sharrar used to hold our attention. But it has not changed in its particulars. It is, in fact, one measure by which the Astrion Council assessed your reputed stupidity. Intelligent men do not go diving in shark-infested waters.”

The broken knife in his throat was laughter. Shursta choked on it. “No, they don’t. I told you that day we met–I am everything they say.”

“You did not tell me that story. Strange,” Hyrryai observed, “when you mentioned they called you Sharkbait, you left out the reason why.”

Shursta pulled the blankets up around his chin. “You didn’t mention it either. Maybe it’s not worth mentioning.”

“It is why I chose you.”

All at once, he could not breathe. Hyrryai had leaned over him. One fist was planted on either side of his body, pinning the blankets down. Her forehead touched his. Her breath was on his mouth, sharp and fresh, as though she had been chewing some bitter herb as she stalked Onyssix through the darkness.

“Not because they said you were stupid, or ugly, or poor. How many men in Droon are the same? No, I chose you because they said you were good to your sister. And because you rescued the child.”

“I rescued the child,” Shursta repeated in a voice he could barely recognize.

Of course, he wanted to say. Of course, Hyrryai, that would move you. That would catch you like a bone hook where you bleed.

“Had you not agreed to come to Droon, I would have attended the muster to win you at games, Shursta Sarth.”

He would have shaken his head, but could do nothing of his own volition to break her contact with him. “The moment we met, you sent me away. You said–you said you were mistaken…”

“I was afraid.”

“Of me?” Shursta was shivering. Not with cold or fear but something more terrifying. Something perilously close to joy. “Hyrryai, surely you know by now–surely you can see–I am the last man anyone would fear. Believe Sharrar’s story if you like, but… But consider it an aberration. It does not define me. Did I look like a man who wrestled sharks when your brothers converged on me? When the crones questioned me? When I could not even speak my vows aloud at our meshing? That is who I am. That’s all I am.”

“I know what you are.”

Hyrryai sat back as abruptly as she had leaned in. Stood up from the bed. Walked to the door. “When my hunt is done, we shall return to this discussion. I shall not speak of it again until then. But… Shursta, I did not want you to pass another night believing yourself to be a man whom… whom no wife could love.”

The latch lifted. The door clicked shut. She was gone.

The Blodestones took their breakfast in the courtyard under a stand of milknut trees. When Shursta stepped outside, he saw Laric, Sharrar and Hyrryai all lounging on the benches, elbows sprawled on the wooden table, heads bent together. They were laughing about something–even Hyrryai–and Shursta stopped dead in the center of the courtyard, wondering if they spoke of him. Sharrar saw him first and grinned.

“Shursta, you must hear this!”

He stepped closer. Hyrryai glanced at him. The tips of her fingers brushed the place beside her. Taking a deep breath, he came forward and sat. She slid him a plate of peeled oranges.

“Your sister,” said Laric Spectrox, with his broad beaming grin, “is amazing.”

“My sister,” Shursta answered, “is a minx. What did you do, Nugget?”

“Nugget?” Laric repeated.

“Shursta!” Sharrar leaned over and snatched his plate away. “Just for that you don’t get breakfast.”

“Nugget?” Laric asked her delightedly. Sharrar took his plate as well. Hyrryai handed Shursta a roll.

“Friends,” she admonished them. “We must not have dissension in the ranks. Not now that we’ve declared open war on my brothers.”

Shursta looked at them all, alarmed. “You declared… What did you do?

Sharrar clapped her hands and crowed, “We sewed them into their bedsheets!”

“You…”

“We did!” Laric assured him, rocking with laughter in his seat. “Dumwei, claiming his right as birthday boy, goaded his brothers into a drinking game. By midnight, all six of them were sprawled out and snoring like harvest hogs. So late last night…”

“This morning,” Sharrar put in.

“This morning, Sharrar and Hyrryai and I…”

Hyrryai?” Shursta looked at his mesh-mate. She would not lift her eyes to his, but the corners of her lips twitched as she tore her roll into bird-bite pieces.

“… Snuck into their chambers and sewed them in!”

Shursta hid his face in his hands. “Oh, by all the Drowned Cities in all the seas…”

Sharrar limped around the table to fling her arms about him. “Don’t worry. No one will blame you. I made sure they’d know it was my idea.”

He groaned again. “I’m afraid to ask.”

“She signed their faces!” Laric threaded long fingers through his springy black hair. “I’ve not played pranks like this since I was a toddlekin. Or,” he amended, “since my first-year wife left me for a man with more goats than brains.”

Sharrar slid down beside him. “Laric, my friend–just wait till you hear my plans for the hoopball field!”

“Oh, the weeping gods…” Shursta covered his face again.

A knee nudged his knee. Hyrryai’s flesh was warm beneath her linen trousers. He glanced at her between his fingers and she smiled.

“Courage, husband,” she told him. “The best defense is offense. You never had brothers before, or you would know this. My brothers have been getting too sure of themselves. Three meshed already, their seeds gone for harvest, and they think they rule the world. Three of them recently come of age–brash, bold, considered prize studs of the market. Their heads are inflated like bladder balls.”

Sharrar brandished her eating blade. “All it takes is a pinprick, my sweet ones!”

“Hush,” Laric hissed. “Here come Plankin and Orssi.”

The brothers had grim mouths, tousled hair, and murder in their bloodshot eyes. They had not bothered looking at themselves in the mirror that morning, for Sharrar’s signature stood out bright and blue across their foreheads. Once they charged the breakfast table, however, they seemed uncertain upon whom they should fix their wrath. Sharrar had resumed her seat and was eating an innocent breakfast off three different plates. Laric kept trying to steal one of them back. Hyrryai’s attention was wholly on the roll she decimated. Orssi glared at Shursta.

“Was it you, Sharkbait?” he demanded.

Shursta could still feel Hyrryai’s knee pressed hard to his. His face flushed. His throat opened. He grinned at them both.

“Me, Shortsheets?” he asked. “Why, no. Of course not. I have minions to do that sort of thing for me.”

He launched his breakfast roll into the air. It plonked Plankin right between the eyes. Unexpectedly, Plankin threw back his head, roaring out a laugh.

“Oh, hey,” he said. “Breakfast! Thanks, brother.”

Orssi, looking sly, made a martial leap and snatched the roll from Plankin’s fingers. Yodeling victory, he took off running. With an indignant yelp, Plankin pelted after him. Hyrryai rolled her eyes. She reached across the table, took back the plate of oranges from Sharrar and popped a piece into Shursta’s mouth before he could say another word. Her fingers brushed his lips, sticky with juice.

It did not surprise Shursta when, not one week later, Laric begged to have a word with him. “Privately,” he said, “away from all these Blodestones. Come on, I’ll take you to my favorite tavern. Very disreputable. No one of any note or name goes there. We won’t be plagued.”

Shursta agreed readily. He had not explored much of Droon beyond the family’s holdings. Large as they were, they were starting to close in on him. Hyrryai’s mother Dymorri had recently asked him whether a position as overseer of mines or of fields would better suit his taste. He had answered honestly that he knew nothing about either–and did the Blodestones have a fishing boat he might take out from time to time, to supply food for the family?

“Blodestones do not work the sea,” she had replied, looking faintly amused.

Dymorri had high cheekbones, smooth rosy-bronze skin, and thick black eyebrows. Her hair was nearly white but for the single streak of black that started just off center of her hairline, and swept to the tip of a spiralling braid. Shursta would have been afraid of her, except that her eyes held the same sorrow permeating her daughter. He wondered if Kuista, the youngest Blodestone, had taken after her. Hyrryai had more the look of her grandmother, being taller and rangier, with a broader nose and wider mouth, black eyes instead of brown.

“Fishing’s all I know,” he’d told her.

“Hyrryai will teach you,” she had said. “Think about it. There is no hurry. You have not been meshed a month.”

True to his word, Laric propelled him around Droon, pointing out landmarks and places of interest. Shops, temples, old bits of wall, parks, famous houses, the seat of the Astrion Council. It was shaped like an eight-sided star, built of sparkling white quartz. Three hundred steps led up to the entrance, each step mosaiced in rainbow spirals of shell.

“Those shells came from the other Nine Islands,” Laric told him. “When there were nine other islands.”

“And you think there might be more?”

Laric cocked his ear for the hint of derision that usually flavored such questions. “I think,” he answered slowly, “that there is more to this world than islands.”

“Even if there isn’t,” Shursta sighed, “I wouldn’t mind leaving this one. Even for a little while. Even if it meant nothing but stars and sea and a wooden boat forever.”

“Exactly!” Laric clapped him on the back. “Ah, here we are. The Thirsty Seagull.”

Laric Spectrox had not lied about the tavern. It was so old it had hunkered into the ground. The air was rank with fermentation and tobacco smoke. All the beams were blackened, all the tables scored with the graffitti of raffish nobodies whose names would never be sung, whose deeds would never be known, yet who had carved proof of their existence into the wood, as if to say, “Here, at least, I shall be recognized.” Shursta fingered a stained, indelicate knife mark, feeling like his heart would break.

Taking a deep, appreciative breath, Laric pronounced, “Like coming home. Sit, sit. Let me buy you a drink. Beer?”

“All right,” Shursta agreed, and sat, and waited. When Laric brought back the drinks, he sipped, and watched, and waited. The bulge in Laric’s narrow throat bobbled. There was a sheen of sweat upon his brow. Shursta lowered his eyes, thinking Laric might find his task easier if he were not being watched. It seemed to help.

“Your sister,” Laric began, “is…”

Shursta took a longer drink.

“Wonderful.”

“Yes,” Shursta agreed. He chanced to glance up. Laric was looking anywhere but at him, gesturing with his long hands.

“How is it that she wasn’t snatched up by some clever fellow as soon as she came of age?”

“Well,” Shursta pointed out, “she only recently did.”

“I know, but… But in villages like Sif–small villages, I mean, well, even in Droon–surely some sparky critter had an eye on her these many years. Someone who grew up with her. Someone who thought, ‘Soon as that Sarth girl casts her lure, I’ll make damn sure I’m the fish for that hook! Take bait and line and pole and girl and dash for the far horizon…”

Shursta cleared his throat. “Hard to dash with a game leg.”

Laric plunked down from the high altitude of his visions. “Pardon?”

“Hard to run off with a girl who can’t walk without a cane.” Shursta studied Laric, who in turn tried to read the careful deadpan of his face. “And then, what if her children are born crooked? You’d be polluting your line. Surely the Spectroxes are taunted enough without introducing little lame Sharrar Sarth into the mix. Aren’t you afraid what your family will say?”

Damisel Sharrar Sarth,” Laric corrected him stiffly, emphasizing the honorific. He tried to govern his voice. “And… And any Spectrox who does not want to claim wit and brilliance and derring-do and that glorious bosom for kin can eat my…”

Shursta clinked his mug to Laric’s. “Relax. Sharrar has already told me she is going to elope with you on your big wooden boat. Two days after she met you. She said she’d been prepared to befriend you, but had not thought to be brought low by your, how did she put it, incredible height, provocative fingers and… adorable teeth.” He coughed. “She went on about your teeth at some length. Forgive me if I don’t repeat all of it. I’m sure she’s composed a poem about them by now. If you find a proposal drummed up in couplets and shoved under your door tonight, you’ll have had time to prepare your soul.”

The look on Laric’s face was beyond the price of gemmajas. He reached his long arms across the table and pumped Shursta’s hand with both of his, and Shursta could not help laughing.

“Now, my friend,” he said. “Let me buy you a drink.”

It was at the bar Shursta noticed the bleak man in the corner. He looked as if he’d been sitting there so long that dust had settled over him, that lichen had grown over him, that spiders had woven cobwebs over his weary face. The difference between his despair and Laric’s elation struck Shursta with the force of a blow, and he asked, when he returned to Laric’s side, who the man might be.

“Ah.” Laric shook his head. “That’s Myrar Yaspir, poor bastard.”

“Poor bastard?” Shursta raised his eyebrows, inviting more. It was this same dark curiosity, he recognized, that had made him press Hyrryai for details about Kuista’s death the first day they met. He was unused to considering himself a gossip. But then, he thought, he’d had no friends to gossip with in Sif.

“Well.” Laric knocked back a mouthful. His gaze wandered up and to the right. Sharrar once told Shursta that you could always tell when someone was reaching for a memory, for they always looked up and to the right. He’d seen the expression on her face often as she memorized a story.

“All right. I guess it began when he meshed with Adularia Yaspir three years ago. Second mesh-rite for both. No children on either side. He courted her for nearly a year. You could see by his face on their meshing day that there was a man who had pursued the dream of a lifetime. That for him, this was not about the Yaspir name or industry or holdings, but about a great burning love that would have consumed him had he not won it for his own. Adularia–well. I think she wanted children. She liked him enough. You could see the pink in her cheeks, the glow in her eyes on her meshing day. And you thought–if any couple’s in it past the one year mesh-mark, this is that couple. It’s usually that way for second meshings. You know.”

Shursta nodded.

“So the first year passes. No children. The second year passes. No children. Myrar starts coming here more often. Drinking hard. Talk around Droon was that Adularia wanted to leave him. He was arrested once for brawling. A second time, on more serious charges, for theft.”

“Really?” Shursta watched from the corner of his eye, the man who sat so still flies landed on him.

“Not just any theft… Gems from the Blodestone mines.”

Shursta loosed a low whistle. “Diamonds?”

“Not even!” Laric leaned in. “Semi-precious stones, uncut, unpolished. Not even cleaned yet. Just a handful of green chalcedonies, like the one you’re wearing.”

The breath left Shursta’s body. He touched the stone hanging from his ear. He remembered suddenly how Kuista Blodestone’s gemmaja had come up missing on her person, how that one small detail had so disturbed him that he had admonished his sister to hide her own upon her person, as if the red-speckled stone were some amulet of death. He opened his mouth. His throat clicked a few times before it started working.

“Why… why would he take such a thing?”

Shrugging, Laric said, “Don’t know. They made him return them all, of course. He spent some time in the stocks. Had to beg his wife to take him back. Promised her the moon, I heard. Stopped drinking. But she said that if she was not pregnant by winter, she’d leave him, and that was that.”

“What happened?”

“A few months later, she was pregnant. There was great rejoicing.” Laric finished his drink. “Of course, none of us were paying much attention to the Yaspirs at that time, because we were all still grieving for Kuista.”

“Kuista. Kuista Blodestone?”

Laric looked at Shursta, perturbed, as if to ask, Who else but Kuista Blodestone?

“Yes. We burned her pyre not a month before Adularia announced her pregnancy. Hyrryai was still bedridden. She didn’t leave the darkness of her room for six months.”

“And the child?” Shursta’s mouth tasted like dried out fish scales.

“Stillborn. Delivered dead at nine months.” Laric sighed. “Adularia has gone back to live with her sister. Sometimes Myrar shows up for work at the chandlery, sometimes not. Owner’s his kin, so he’s not been fired yet. But I think that the blood is thinning to water on one end, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” said Shursta, who was no longer listening. “I… Laric, please… Please excuse me.”

Shursta had no memory of leaving the Thirsty Seagull, or of walking clear across Droon and leaving the city by the sea road gates. He saw nothing, heard nothing, the thoughts boiling in his head like a cauldron full of viscera. He felt sick. Gray. Late afternoon, evening, and the early hours of night he passed in that lonely cove where Kuista died. Where he had met Hyrryai. Long past the hour most people had retired, he trudged wearily back to the Blodestone house. Sharrar awaited him in the courtyard, sitting atop the breakfast table, bundled warmly in a shawl.

“You’re back!”

When his sister made as if to go to him, Shursta noticed she was stiff from sitting. He waved her down, joined her on the tabletop. She clasped his cold hand, squeezing.

“Shursta, it’s too dark to see your face. Thunder struck my chest when Laric told me how you left him. Are you all right? What died in you today?”

“Kuista Blodestone,” he whispered.

Sharrar was silent. She was, he realized, waiting for him to explain. But he could not.

“Sharrar,” he said wildly, “Wise Sharrar, if stones could speak, what would they say?”

“Nothing quickly,” she quipped, her voice strained. Shursta knew her ears were pricked to any clue he might let fall. Almost, he saw a glow about her skull as her riddle-raveling brain stoked itself to triple intensity. However he tried, he could not force his tongue to speak in anything more clear than questions.

“What does a stone possess other than… its stoneness? If not for wealth… or rarity… or beauty–why would someone covet… a hunk of rock?”

“Oh!” Sharrar’s laughter was too giddy, almost fevered, with relief. She knew this answer. “For its magic, of course!”

“Magic.”

It was not a common word. Not taboo–like incest or infanticide or cannibalism–but not common. Magic had drowned, it was said, along with the Nine Cities.

“Ayup.” Sharrar talked quickly, her hand clamped to his, as if words could staunch whatever she thought to be his running wound. “See, in the olden days before the wave that changed the world, there was magic everywhere. Magic fish. Magic birds. Magic rivers. Magic… magicians. Certain gems, saith the grayheads, were also magic. A rich household would name itself for a powerful gem, so as to endow its kinline with the gem’s essence. So, for instance, of the lost lines, there is Adamassis, whose gem was diamond, said to call the lightning. A stormy household, as you can imagine–quite impetuous–weather workers. The Anabarrs had amber, the gem of health, the gem that holds the sun, said to wake even the dead. Dozens more like this. Much of the lore was lost to us when the Nine Islands drowned. Of the remaining kinlines, let me think… The Sarths have sard–like the red carnelian–that can reverse the effects of poison. Onyssix wears onyx, to ward off demons. The jasper of the Yaspirs averts the eyes of an enemy…”

“And the Blodestones?” Shursta withdrew his hand from her stranglehold only to grip the soft flesh of her upper arm. “The Blodestones wear green chalcedony… Why? What is this stone?”

“Fertility,” Sharrar gasped. Shursta did not know if she were frightened or in pain. “The green chalcedony–the bloodstone–will bring life to a barren womb. If a man crushes it to powder and drinks it, he will stand to his lover for all hours of the night. He will flood her with the seed of springtime. Shursta… Why are you asking me this, Shursta? Shursta, please…”

He had already sprinted from the courtyard. Faintly and far behind him, he heard the cry, “Let me come with you!”

He did not stop.

The Thirsty Seagull was seedier by night than by day. Gadabouts and muckrakes, sailors, soldiers, fisherfolk, washing women, street sweepers, lamplighters and red lamplighters of all varieties patronized the tavern. There were no tables free, so Shursta made his way to the last barstool.

Shursta did not have to pretend to stumble or slur. His head ached and he saw only through a distortion, as if peering through a sheet of water. But words poured freely from his mouth. None of them true, or mostly not true. Lies like Sharrar could tell. Dark lies, coming from depths within him he had never yet till this night sounded.

Women!” he announced in a bleared roar. “Pluck you, pluck you right up from your comfy home. Job you like. Job you know. People you know. Pluck you up and say, it’s meshing time. Little mesh-mesh. Come to bed, dear. No, you stink of fish, Shursta. Wash your hands, Shursta. Oh, your breath is like a dead squid, Shursta. Don’t do it open-mouthed, Shursta. Shursta, you snore, go sleep in the next room. I mean, who are these people? These Blodestones? Who do they think they are? In Sif–in Sif at least the women know how to use their hands. I mean, they know how to use their hands, you know? And all this talk, talk, talk… All this whining and complaining… All this saying I’m not good enough. What does she expect, a miracle? How can a man function, how can he function in these circumstances? How can he rise to the occasion, eh? Eh?”

Shursta nudged the nearest patron, who gave him a curled lip and turned her back on him. Sneering at her shoulderblades, Shursta muttered, “You’re probably a Blodestone, eh? All women are kin. Think that’s what a man’s about, eh? Think that’s all he is? A damned baby maker? Soon’s you have your precious daughters, your bouncing boys, you forget all about us. Man’s no good to you till he gets you pissful of those shrieking, wailing, mewling, shitting little shit machines? Eh? Well, what if he can’t? What if he cannot–is he not still a man? Is he not still a man?

By now the barkeep of the Thirsty Seagull was scowling black daggers at him. Someone shoved Shursta from behind. He spun around with fists balled up. Nobody was there.

“Eh,” he spat. “Probably a Blodestone.”

When he turned back to the bar, a hand slid a drink over to him. Shursta drank before looking to see who had placed it there.

Myrar Yaspir stared at him with avid eyes.

“Don’t know you,” Shursta mumbled. “Thanks for the nog. Raise my cup. Up. To you. Oh… It’s empty.” He slammed it down. “Barkeep, top her up. Spill her over. Fill her full. Come on, man. Don’t be a Blodestone.”

Amber liquid splashed over the glass’s rim.

“You’re the new Blodestone man,” Myrar Yaspir whispered. “You’re Damisel Hyrryai’s new husband.”

Shursta snarled. “Won’t be her husband once my year’s up. She’ll be glad to see the back of me. Wretch. Horror. Harpy. Who needs her? Who wants her?” He began to blubber behind shaking hands. “Oh, but by all the gods below! How she gleams. How she catches the light. How will I live without her?”

A coin clinked down. Bottle touched tumbler. Myrar’s whisper was like a naked palm brushing the sandpaper side of a shark.

“Are you having trouble, Blodestone man? Trouble in the meshing bed?”

“Ayup, trouble,” Shursta agreed, not raising his snot-streaked face. “Trouble like an empty sausage casing. Trouble like…”

“Yes, trouble,” Myrar cut him off. “Yet you sit here. You sit here drunk and stupid–you. You of all men. You, whose right as husband gives you access to that household. Don’t you see, you stupid Blodestone man?” His hand shot out to grab Shursta’s ear. The cartilage gave a twinge of protest, but Shursta set his teeth. When Myrar’s hand came back, he cradled Shursta’s gemmaja in his palm.

“Do you know what this is?”

Shursta burped. “Ayup. Green rock. Wife gave me. Wanna see my coral?” He fished for the cord beneath his shirt. “True Sarths wear carnelian, she says. Carnelian’s the stone for Sarths. You ask me, coral’s just as good. Hoity-toity rich folk.”

“Not rock. This–is–not–rock,” Myrar hissed. His fingers clenched and unclenched around the green chalcedony. By the dim light of the wall sconces, Shursta could barely make out the red speckles in the stone, like tiny drops of blood.

“This is your child. This is the love of your wife. This is life. Life, Blodestone man. Do you understand?” Myrar Yaspir scooted his stool closer. His breath was cold, like the inside of a tomb. “I was you once. Low. A cur who knew it was beaten. Beaten by life. By work. By women. By those haughty, high-nosed Blodestone bastards who own more than half this island and mean to marry into the other half, until there is nothing left for the rest of us. But last thing before he died, my grandad sat me down. Said he knew I was unhappy. Knew my… my Adularia wept at night for want of a child. He had a thing to tell me. A thing about stones.”

Dull-eyed, Shursta blinked back at him.

“Stones,” he repeated.

“Yes. Stones. Magic stones. So.” Myrar Yaspir set the green chalcedony tenderly, even jealously, into Shursta’s palm. “Take your little rock home with you, Blodestone man. Put it in a mortar–not a wooden one. A fine one, of marble. Take the best pestle to it. Grind it down. Grind it to powder. Drink it in a glass of wine–the Blodestone’s finest. They have fine wine in that house. Drink it. Go to your wife. Don’t listen to her voice. Her voice doesn’t matter. When she sees how you come to her, her thighs will sing. Her legs will open to you. Make her eat her words. Pound her words back into her. Get her with that child. Who knows?” Myrar Yaspir sank back down, his eyes losing that feral light. “Who knows. It may gain you another year. What more can a man ask, whose wife no longer loves him? Just one more year. It’s worth it.”

All down his gullet, the amber drink burned. In another minute, Shursta knew, he would lose it again, vomitting all over himself. He swallowed hard. Then he bent his head to the man beside him, who had become bleak and still and silent once more, and asked, very softly:

“Was it worth the life of Kuista Blodestone? Myrar Yaspir, was it worth the death of a child?”

If cold rock could turn its head, if rock could turn the fissures of its eyes upon a living man, this rock was Myrar Yaspir.

“What did you say?”

“My wife is hunting for you.”

Myrar Yaspir became flesh. Flinched. Began to shudder. Shursta did not loose him from his gaze.

“I give you three days, Domo Yaspir. Turn yourself in to the Astrion Council. Confess to the murder of Kuista Blodestone. If you do not speak by the third day, I will tell my wife what I know. And she will find you. Though you flee from coast to bay and back again, she will find you. And she will eat your heart by moonlight.”

Glass shattered. A stool toppled. Myrar Yaspir fled the Thirsty Seagull, fast as his legs could carry him.

Shursta closed his eyes.

The next three days were the happiest days of Shursta’s life, and he drank them in. It was as if he, alone of all men, had been given to know the exact hour of his death. He filled the hours between himself and death with sunlight.

For the first day, Sharrar watched him as the sister of a dying man watches her brother. But his smiles and his teasing–“Leave off, Nugget, or I’ll teach Laric where you’re ticklish!”–and the deep brilliance of peace in his eyes must have eased her, for on the second day, her spirits soared, and she was back to playing tricks on her mesh-brothers, and kissing Laric Spectrox around every corner and under every tree, and reciting stories and singing songs to the children of the house.

Hyrryai, who still prowled Droon every night, spent her days close to home. She invited Shursta to walk with her, along paths she knew blindfolded. He asked her to teach him about spinning fire and she said, “Let’s start with juggling maybe,” and taught him patterns with handfuls of fallen fruit.

Suppers with the Blodestones were loud and raucus. Every night turned into a competition. Some Shursta won (ring tossing out in the courtyard) and some he lost (matching drinks with Lochlin, now known to all–thanks to Sharrar–as Lunkhead), but he laughed more than he ever had in his life, and when he laughed, he felt Hyrryai watching him, and knew she smiled.

On evening of the third day, he evaded his brothers’ invitation to play hoopball. Sharrar immediately volunteered–so long as she and Laric could count as one player. She would piggyback upon his shoulders, and he would be her legs. Plankin, Orssi and Dumwei were still vehemently arguing against this when Shursta approached his mesh-mate and set a purple hyacinth into her hands.

“Will you walk with me, wife?”

Her rich, rare skin flushed with the heat of roses. She took the hand he offered.

“I will, husband.”

They strolled out into the scented night, oblivious to the hoots and calls of their kin. Their sandals made soft noises on the pavement. For many minutes, neither spoke. Hyrryai tucked the hyacinth into her hair.

An aimless by and by had passed when they came to a small park. Just a patch of grass, a bench, a fountain. As they had when they met, they sat on the ground with their backs to the bench. Hyrryai, for once, slumped silkily, neglecting to jolt upright every few minutes. When Shursta sank down to rest his head in her lap, her hand went to his hair. She stroked it from his face, traced designs on his forehead. He did not care that he forgot to breathe. He might never breathe again and die a happy man.

The moon was high, waxing gibbous. To Shursta’s eyes, Hyrryai seemed chased in silver. He reached to catch the fingers tangled in his hair. He kissed her fingertips. Sat up to face her. Her smile was silver when she looked at him.

“The name of your sister’s murderer is Myrar Yaspir,” he said in a low voice. “I met him in a tavern at the edge of Droon. He had three day’s grace to confess his crime to the Astrion Council. Let them have him, I thought, they who made him. But when I spoke to your grandmother before dinner, she said no one had yet come forward. I believe he decided to run. I am sorry.”

The pulse in her throat beat an inaudible but profound tattoo through the night air.

To an unconcerned eye, nothing of Hyrryai would have seemed changed. Still she was silver in the moonlight. Still the purple flower glimmered against her wing-black hair. Only her breath was transformed. Inhalation and exhalation exactly matched. Perfect and total control. The pale light playing on her mouth did not curve gently upward. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking sinkholes. The gleam in them was not of moonlight.

“You have known this for three days.”

Shursta did not respond.

“You talked to him. You warned him.”

Again, he said nothing. She answered anyway.

“He cannot run far enough.”

“Hyrryai.”

You–do–not–speak–to–me.”

“Hyrryai–”

“No!”

Her hand flashed out, much as Myrar Yaspir’s had. She took nothing from him but flesh. Fingernails raked his face. Shursta did not, at first, suffer any sting. What he did feel, way down at the bottom of his chest, was a deep snap as she broke the strand of pearl and teeth and stone she wore around her throat. Pieces of moonlight scattered. Fleet and silver as they, Hyrryai Blodestone bounded into the radiant darkness.

One by one–by glint, by ridge, by razor edge–Shursta picked up pieces from the tufted grass. What he could salvage, he placed in the pouch he had prepared. His rucksack he retrieved from the hollow of a tree where he had hidden it the night before. The night was young, but the road to Sif was long.

Despite having begged her in his goodbye letter to go on and live her life in joy, with Laric Spectrox and his dream of a distant horizon, far from a brother who could only bring her shame and sorrow, Sharrar came home to Sif. And when she did, she did not come alone.

She brought her new husband. She brought a ragged band of orphans, grayheads, widows, widowers. Joining her too were past-primers like Adularia Yaspir, face lined and eyes haunted. Even Oron Onyssix had joined them, itching for spaces ungoverned by crones, a place where he might breathe freely.

Sharrar also brought a boat.

It was a very large boat. Or rather, the frame of it. It was the biggest boat skeleton Shursta had ever seen. They wheeled it on slats all the way along the searoad from the outskirts of Droon where Laric had been building it. Shursta, who had thought he might never do so again, laughed.

“What is this, Nugget? Who are all these people?”

But he thought he knew.

“These,” she told him, “are all our new kin. And this–” with a grand gesture to the unfinished monstrosity listing on its makeshift wagon, “is Grimgramal–the ship that sails the world!”

Shursta scrutinized it and said at last, “It doesn’t look like much, your ship that sails the world.”

Sharrar stuck her tongue out at him. “We have to finish it first, brother mine!”

“Ah.”

“Everyone’s helping. You’ll help too.”

Shursta stared at all the people milling about his property, pitching tents, lining up for the outhouse, exploring the dock, testing the sturdiness of his small fishing boat. “Will I?” he asked. “How?”

Laric came over to clap him on the shoulder. “However you can, my mesh-brother. Mend nets. Hem sails. Boil tar. Old man Alexo Alban is carving us a masthead. He says it’s a gift from all the Halls of Ages on the Last Isle to Sharrar.” Taking his mesh-mate’s hand, he indicated the dispersed crowd.. “She’s the one who called them. She’s been speaking the name Grimgramal to anyone who’ll stand still to listen. And you know Sharrar–when she talks, no one can help but listen. Some sympathizers–a very few–like Alexo Alban, started demanding passage in exchange for labor. Though,” his left shoulder lifted in a gesture eloquent of resignation, “most of the grayheads say they’ll safe stay on dry land to see us off. Someone, they claim, must be left behind to tell the tale. And see?”

Laric dipped into his pocket, spilling out a palmful of frozen rainbows. Shursta reached to catch a falling star before it buried itself in the sand. A large, almost bluish, diamond winked between his fingers. Hastily, he returned it.

“Over the last few weeks, the grayheads have been coming to Sharrar. Some from far villages. Even a few crones of the Astrion Council–including Dymmori Blodestone. Each gave her a gem, and told her the lore behind it. Whatever is known, whatever has been surmised. Alexo Alban will embed them in the masthead like a crown. Nine Cities magic to protect us on our journey.”

Shursta whistled through his teeth. “We’re really going then?”

“Oh, yes,” Sharrar said softly. “All of us. Before summer’s end.”

It was not to Rath Sea that Shursta looked then, but to the empty road that led away from Sif.

All of us,” Sharrar repeated. “You’ll see.”

Dumwei Blodestone arrived one afternoon, drenched from a late summer storm, beady-eyed with irritation and chilled to the bone.

“Is Sif the last village of the world? What a stupid place. At the end of the stupidest road. Mudholes the size of small islands. Swallow a horse, much less a man. Sharkbait, why do you let your roof leak? How can you expect to cross an ocean in a wooden boat when you can’t even be bothered to fix a leaky roof? We’ll all be drowned by the end of the week.”

“We?” Sharrar asked brightly, slamming a bowl of chowder in front of him. “Are you planning on going somewhere, Dimwit?”

“Of course!” He glanced at her, astonished, and brandished a spoon in her face. “You don’t really think I’m going to let you mutants have all the fun, do you? Orssi wanted to come too, but now he’s got a girl. Mesh-mad, the pair of ‘em.”

His gaze flickered to the corner where Oron Onyssix sat carving fishhooks from antler and bone. Onyssix raised his high-arched eyebrows. Dumwei looked away.

With a great laugh, Laric broke a fresh loaf of bread in two and handed the larger portion to Dumwei.

“Poor Orssi. You’ll just have to have enough adventure for the two of you.”

Dumwei’s chest expanded. “I intend to, Laric Spectrox!”

“Laric Sarth,” he corrected.

“Oh, yes, that’s right. Forgot. Maybe because you didn’t invite me to your meshing.”

“Sorry,” the couple said in unison, sounding anything but.

“And speaking of impossible mesh-mates…” Dumwei turned to Shursta, who knelt on the floor, feeding the firepit. “My sister wants to see you, Shursta.”

For a moment, none of the dozen or so people crammed in the room breathed. Dumwei did not notice. Or if he noticed, he did not care.

“Mumsa won’t talk about her, you know. Well, she talks, but only to say things like, if her last living daughter wants to run off like a wild dog and file her teeth and declare herself windwyddiam, that’s Hyrryai’s decision. Maybe no one will care then, she says, when she declares herself a mother with six sons and no daughters. And then she cries. And granmumsa and Auntie Elbanni and Auntie Ralorra all cluck their tongues and huddle close, and it’s all hugs and tears and clacking, and a man can’t hear himself think.”

Shursta, who had not risen from his knees, comprehended little of this. If he’d held a flaming brand just then instead of ordinary wood, he might not have heeded it.

Sharrar asked, carefully, “Have you seen Hyrryai then, Dumwei?”

“Oh, ayup, all the time. She ran off to live in a little sea cave, in the… That cove.” Dumwei seemed to swallow the wrong way, though he had not started eating. Quickly, he ducked his head, inspecting his chowder as if for contaminates. When he raised his face again, his eyes were overbright. “You know… You know, Kuista was just two years younger than I. Hyrryai was like her second mumsa, maybe, but I was her best friend. Anyway. I hope Hyrryai does eat that killer’s heart!”

In the corner of the room, Adularia Yaspir turned her face to the wall and closed her eyes.

Dumwei shrugged. “I hope she eats it and spits it out again for chum. A heart like Myrar Yaspir’s wouldn’t make anyone much of meal. As she’s cast herself out of the kinline, Hyrryai has no roof or bed or board of her own. And you can only eat so much fish. So I bring her food. It’s not like they don’t know back home. Granmumsa slips me other things, too, that Hyrryai might need. Last time I saw her… Yesterday? Day before?” He nodded at Shursta. “She asked for you.”

Shursta sprang to his feet. “I’ll go right now.”

But Sharrar and Laric both grabbed fistfuls of Shursta’s shirt and forced him down again.

“You’ll wait till after the storm,” said Laric.

“And you’ll eat first,” Sharrar put in.

“And perhaps,” suggested Oron Onyssix from the corner, “you might wash your face. Dress in a clean change of clothes. Shave. What are they teaching young husbands these days?”

Dumwei snorted. “Think you can write that manual, Onyssix?”

“In my sleep,” he replied, with the ghost of his reckless grin. Dumwei flushed past his ears, but he took his bowl of chowder and went to sit nearer him.

Obedient to his sister’s narrowed eyes, Shursta went through the motions of eating. But as soon as her back was turned, he slipped out the front door.

It was full dark when Shursta finally squelched into the sea cave. He stood there a moment, dripping, startled at the glowing suddenness of shelter after three relentlessly rainy hours on the sea road. There was a hurricane lamp at the back of the cave, tucked into a small natural stone alcove. Its glass chimney was sooty, its wick on the spluttering end of low. What Shursta wanted most was to collapse. But a swift glance around the flickering hollow made it clear that amongst the neatly stacked storage crates, bedroll, the tiny folding camp table, the clay oven with its chimney near the cave mouth, the stockpile of weapons leaning in one corner, Hyrryai was not there.

He closed his eyes briefly. Wiping a wet sleeve over his wet face, Shursta contemplated stripping everything, wrapping himself in one of her blankets and waiting for her while he dried out. She hadn’t meant to be gone long, he reasoned; she left the lamp burning. And there was a plate of food, half-eaten. Something had disturbed her. A strange sound, cutting through the wind and rain and surf. Or perhaps a face. Someone who, like he had done, glimpsed the light from her cave and sought shelter of a fellow wayfarer.

Already trembling from the cold, now Shursta’s shivers grew violent, as if a hole had been bored into the bottom of his skull and was slowly filling his spine with ice water. Who might be ranging abroad on such a night? The sick or deranged, the elderly or the very young. The desperate, like himself. The outcasts, like Hyrrai. And the outlaws: lean, hungry, hunted. But why should they choose this cove, of all the crannies and caverns of the Last Isle? Why this so particular haunted place, on such a howling night? Other than Hyrryai herself, Shursta could think of just one who’d have cause to come here. Who would be drawn here, inexorably, by ghosts or guilt or gloating.

His stomach turned to stone, his knees to mud. He put his hand on the damp wall to steady himself.

And what would Hyrryai have done, glancing up from her sad little supper to meet the shadowed, harrowed eyes of her sister’s killer?

She would not have thought to grab her weapons. Or even her coat. Look, there it was, a well-oiled sealskin, draped over the camp stool. Her fork was on the floor there by the bedroll, but her dinner knife was missing.

Shursta bolted from the cave, into the rain.

The wind tore strips from the shroud of the sky. Moonlight spintered through, fanged like an anglerfish and as cold. Shurta slipped and slid around the first wall of boulders and began to clamber back up the stone steps to the sea road. He clutched at clumps of marram grass, which slicked through his fingers like seaweed. Wet sand and crumbled rock shifted beneath his feet. Gasping and drenched as he was, he clung to his claw-holds, knowing that if he fell he’d have to do it all over again. He’d almost attained the headland, had slapped first his left hand onto the blessedly flat surface, was following it by his right, meaning to beach himself from the cliff face onto the road in one great heave and lie there awhile, catching his breath, when a hand grasped his and hauled him up the rest of the way.

“Domo Blodestone!” gasped Myrar Yaspir. “You must help me. Your wife is hunting me.”

The first time Shursta had seen Yaspir, he had looked like a man turned to stone and forgotten. The second time, his eyes had been livid as enraged wounds. Now he seemed scoured, nervous and alive, wet as Shursta. He wore an enormous rucksack and carried a walking stick which Shursta eyed speculatively. It had a smooth blunt end, well polished from age and handling.

“Is that how you killed Kuista Blodestone?” he blurted.

Myrar Yaspir followed his gaze. “This?” he asked, blankly. “No, it was a stone. I threw it into the sea, after.” He grasped Shursta’s collar and hefted. Myrar Yaspir was a ropy, long-limbed man whose bones seemed to poke right through his skin, but rather than attenuated, he seemed vigorously condensed, and his strength was enormous, almost electrical. Hauled to his feet, Shursta felt as though a piece of mortal-shaped lightning had smote down upon the Last Isle just to manhandle him. “Come,” he commanded Shursta. “We must keep moving. She is circling us like a bone shark, closer, ever closer. Come, Domo Blodestone,” he said again, blinking back rain from his burning eyes. “You must help me.”

Shursta disengaged himself, though he felt little shocks go through him when his wrists knocked Myrar Yaspir’s fists aside. “I already helped you, child-killer. I gave you three days to turn yourself into the Astrion Council. I am done with you.”

Myrar Yaspir glanced at him, then shook his head. “You are not listening to me,” he said with exasperated patience. “Your wife is hunting me. I will be safe nowhere on this island. Not here and not in Droon cowering in some straw cage built by those doddering bitches of the council.” He bent his head close to Shursta’s and whispered, “No, you must take me to Sif where you live. Word is you are sailing from this cursed place on a boat the size of a city. I will work for my passage. I work hard. I have worked all my life.” He opened his hands as if to show the callouses there; as if, even empty, they had always been enough.

Shursta felt his voice go gentle, and could not prevent it, although he knew Myrar Yaspir would think him weakening.

“The Grimgrimal is the size, maybe, of a large house, and we who will sail on it are family. You, Domo Yaspir, are no one’s family.”

My wife is on that boat!” Myrar flashed, his fist grasping the sodden cloth at Shursta’s throat. His expression flickered from whetted volatilty to bleak cobweb-clung despair, and after that, it seemed, he could express nothing because he no longer had a face. His was merely a sand-blasted and sun-bleached skull, dripping dark rain. The skull whispered, “My Adularia.”

Shursta was afraid. He had only been so afraid once in his entire life, and that was last year, out on the open ocean, in that breathless half second before he jumped in after Gulak’s young son, realizing even as he leapt that he would rather by far spool out the remainder of his days taunted and disliked and respected by none than dive into that particular death, where the boy floundered and the shark danced.

Now the words came with no stutter or click. “You have no wife.”

The skull opened its mouth and screamed. It shrieked, raw and wordless, right into Shursta’s face. Its fists closed again on the collar of Shursta’s coat, twisted in a chokehold and jerked, lifting him off his feet as though he had been a small child. Shursta’s legs dangled and his vision blackened and he struck out with his fists, but it was like pummeling a waterspout. Myrar was still screaming, but the sound soon floated off to a far away keening. Shursta, weightless between sky and sea, began to believe that Myrar had always been screaming, since the first time Shursta had beheld him sitting in the tavern, or maybe even before. Maybe he had been screaming since killing Kuista, the child he could not give his wife, and who, though a child, had all the esteem, joy of status, wealth and hope for the future that Myrar Yaspir, a man in his prime and a citizen of proud Droon, lacked.

Is it any wonder he screamed? Shursta thought. This was followed by another thought, further away: I am dying.

The moment he could breathe again was the moment his breath was knocked out of him. Myrar had released his chokehold on Shursta, but Shursta, barely conscious, had no time to find his feet before the ground leapt up to grapple him. He tried to groan, but all sound was sucked from the pit of his stomach into the sky. Rain splattered on his face. The wind ripped over everything except into his lungs.

By and by, he remembered how to breathe, and soon could do so without volunteering the effort. His mouth tasted coppery. His tongue was sore. Something had been bitten that probably should not have been. Shursta’s hands closed over stones, trying to find one jagged enough to fend off further advances from a screaming skull-faced murderer. Where was his mesh-gift, the black knife Hyrryai had given him? Back in Sif, of course, in a box with his gemmaja, and the pressed petals of purple hyacinth that had fallen from her hair that night she left him. All his fingers found now were pebbles and blades of grass, and he could not seem to properly grip any of them. Shursta sat up.

Sometime between his falling and landing the awful screaming had stopped. There was only sobbing now: convulsive, curt, wretched, interrupted by bitter gasps for breath and short, sawtoothed cries of rage. Muffled, moist thumps punctuated each cry. Shursta had barely registered that it could not be Myrar Yaspir who wept–his tears had turned to dust long ago–when the thumps and sobs stopped. For a few minutes it was just rain and wind. Shursta blinked his eyes back into focus and took in the moon-battered, rain-silvered scene before him. His heart crashed in his chest like a fog-bell.

Hyrryai Blodestone crouched over the crumpled body of Myrar Yaspir. She grasped a large stone in her dominant hand. Myrar’s bloody hair was tangled in her other. Her dinner knife was clamped between her teeth. As he watched, she let the head fall–another pulpy thump–tossed the dripping stone to one side and spat her knife into her hand. Her movements ragged and impatient, she sliced Myrar’s shirt down the middle and laid her hand against his chest. She seemed startled by what she felt there–the last echoes of a heartbeat or the fact there was none, Shursta did not know.

“It’s not worth,” he said through chattering teeth, “the effort it would take to chew.”

Hyrryai glanced at him, her face a shocky blank, eyes and nose and mouth streaming. She looked away again again, then spat out a mouthful of excess saliva. The next second, she had keeled over and was vomitting over the side of a cliff. Shursta hurried to her side, tearing a strip from his sleeve as he did so, to gather her hair from her face and tie it back. His pockets were full of useless things. A coil of fishing line, a smooth white pebble, a pencil stub–ah! Bless Sharrar and her clever hands. A handkerchief. He pulled it out and wiped Hyrryai’s face, taking care at the corners of her mouth.

Her lips were bloodied, as though she had already eaten Myrar Yaspir’s heart. He realized this was because she had been careless of her teeth, newly filed into the needle points of the windwyddiam. Even a nervous gnawing of the lip might pierce the tender flesh there.

Blotting cautiously, he asked, “Did that hurt?”

The face Hyrryai lifted to Shursta was no longer hard and blank but so wide open that he feared for her, that whatever spirits of the night were prowling might seek to use her as a door. He moved his body more firmly between hers and Myrar Yaspir’s. He wondered if this look of woeful wonder would ever be wiped from her eyes.

“Nothing hurts,” she mumbled, turning away again. “I feel nothing.”

“Then why are you crying?”

She shrugged, picking at the grass near her feet. Her agitated fingers brushed again a dark and jagged stone. It was as if she had accidently touched a rotten corpse. She jerked against Shursta, who flailed out his foot out to kick the stone over the cliff’s edge. He wished he could kick Myrar Yaspir over and gone as well.

“Hyrryai–“

“D-Dumwei f-found you?” she asked at the same time.

“As you see.”

“I c-called you to w-witness.”

“Yes.”

“I was going to make you, make you w-watch while I–“ Hyrryai shook her head, baring her teeth as if to still their chattering. More slowly, she said, “It was going to be your punishment. Instead I came upon him as he was, as he was k-killing you.”

And though his soul was sick, Shursta laughed. “Two at one blow, eh, Hyrryai?”

“Never,” she growled at him, and took his face between her hands. “Never, never, never, Shursta Sarth, do you hear me? No one touches you. I will murder anyone who tries. I will eat their eyes, I will…”

He turned his face to kiss her blood-slicked hands. First one, then the other.

“Shh,” he said. “Shh, Hyrryai. You saved my life. You saved me. It’s over. It’s over.”

She slumped suddenly, pressing her face against his neck. Wrenched back, gasping. A small cut on her face bled a single thread of red. When next she spoke, her voice was wry.

“Your neck grew fangs, Shursta Sarth.”

“Yes. Well. So.”

Hyrryai fingered the strand of tooth and stone and pearl at his throat. Shursta held his breath as her black eyes flickered up to meet his, holding them for a luminous moment.

“Thief,” she breathed. “That’s mine.”

“Sorry.” Shursta ducked his head, unclasped the necklace, and wound it down into her palm. Her fist snapped shut over it. “Destroy it again for all of me, Hyrryai.”

Hyrryai leaned in to lay her forehead against his. Even with his eyes shut, Shursta felt her smile move against his mouth, very deliberately, very carefully.

“Never,” she repeated. “I’d sooner destroy Droon.”

They left Myrar Yaspir’s body where it lie, for the plovers and the pipers and the gulls. From the sea cave they gathered what of Hyrryai’s belongings she wanted with her when she sailed with the Grimgrimal into the unknown sky, and they knelt and kissed the place where Kuista Blodestone had fallen. These last things done, in silent exhaustion Shursta and Hyrryai climbed back up to the sea road.

Setting their faces for Sif, they turned their backs on Droon.

___
Copyright 2013 C.S.E. Cooney

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