by Alter S. Reiss
When the shore-men of the Liassen dockyards saw the blinded ship by the first gray light of dawn, they turned their eyes away, and put their backs to their work. When sailors saw that ship, the deep gouges and angry red paint where its eyes ought to be struck them harder. They blanched as they turned away, or they walked back from the docks, spitting twice over each shoulder. One old veteran, deep lines in his face from wind and spray, fell to his knees, and pledged two fine bullocks to the sea, should he survive his next voyage.
There were few sailors who believed that a ship’s eyes would see it through storm and past reefs, but there were fewer who would be willing to sign aboard a ship whose eyes had been put out, and with red paint, no less. That was the way of sailor: they might have no faith in charms and good omens, but they had infinite belief in curses and foul omens. Whoever owned the ship with the blinded eyes would get no crew at all, even after the eyes were repainted, without some showy exorcism; a half dozen priests in heavy robes, with flute and cymbal, or perhaps some mountain holy man, or witch, or tamed demon.
It was all more or less as Alaneth had hoped, but she could not feel any great satisfaction as a handful of the shore-men were coaxed aboard by one of the port officers, and set to lowering a length of sailcloth over the ship’s prow, to cover those blinded eyes, so that the other operations of Liassen’s harbor would not be so greatly affected. She was close, but she had been close before. It was too much to believe that this time her leads would prove genuine, that what she sought would not slip through her fingers again.
Winter came early to Liassen, and Alaneth needed the warmth of her cloak as she slipped through the shore-men and cargoes of the docks. It had taken her a long time to grow accustomed to cold, but now she wore her clothing as naturally as a northerner, and ducked her head and shoulder into the wind, when it blew, as naturally as any native of Liassen.
She had come to the docks that morning not because she was seeking confirmation that her work of the previous night had borne its expected fruit, but because there was something there that she hoped to find. And she looked: in part with her eyes, but mainly with her nose. The smell that she was looking for was a complicated one. Sea air and foul water, salt and fish were parts of it, but those could be found anywhere on the coast. A slight acidic tang, fish oil and yellow spices, mixed in with a sweat that was almost, but not exactly, the same as that of men.
It took time, but she found it. Three men, in the red-fringed shirts of sailors, with flaring mustaches, and small braids in their hair. They watched her approach, at first with the half-leer they had for anything female, but that faded; she knew what they were, and it seemed, they had an inkling as to what she was. For a moment, they looked as if they would scatter and flee; Alaneth stepped forward, caught one of them by the arm. The others had their hands on their knives, long bladed, long handled things that were half tool and half weapon.
“I need your help,” she said. “The Crossed Lines Inn, at Riverport; come tonight.”
“What do you-” he started; she released his arm, and headed away. The port was not the place to discuss business. And even if it was, there were no answers that she could give that would interest them half as much as saying nothing. She had not sought them out for their virtues; rather for their flaws, curiosity not being the least of those. There hadn’t been any bait on the hook that she had thrown, but for these, the hook itself was as good a bait as any meat. She did not know how many of them would come, but there would be enough to accomplish her aims, if they could be convinced.
Which was to Alaneth’s taste. The Crossed Lines was never an expensive inn, but during the summer and early fall, it was a crowded one. Now, she could conduct her business without word traveling too far or too fast.
During those months when The Crossed Lines was most active, the long balcony on the second floor took the place of the common room; it was open enough that the breezes off the coast cut the stultifying heat, and the overhang of the tiled roof kept the visitors dry, in case of the occasional downpour. Now, Alaneth sat alone with a wine set that a grumbling house servant had brought up; the pitcher, krater, cups, and water jug were all coarse and poorly slipped, and the wine was sour, behind the gritty flavor of pottery.
Alaneth watched the sun set across the river, burning a track through the clear and cold sky, and waited, and listened to the birds. There was the rustling and cooing of pigeons under the eaves, the sharp, clear chirps of sparrows and finches in the woods, and from the river and the coast beyond, seagulls calling and squabbling. Her ears were not as sharp as they had been, but with concentration, Alaneth was able to pick out the calls that she was looking for. Three or more seagulls, headed her way, with a somewhat greater unanimity of purpose than seagulls could usually manage.
She tilted her head forward, then threw it back, downing her cup of wine in a single swallow. She was going to have to be convincing, to bargain, and neither of those things came naturally to her. There was the papery sound of wings, and an unmistakable tearing sound, of skin being separated from skin. Once, twice, then more. Five seagulls landed on the balcony, and five people stepped away from where the birds had been.
Two of them were the men that she had found on the docks, and another pair of men, not that different in appearance from those first two. The fifth was a woman, with wild black hair, and pale yellow eyes. As they walked, they all tucked a white and yellow kerchief or token into their shirts; as Alaneth noted that, she was seized with a wave of avarice and longing, which she fought back, in a vicious and internal struggle. If they thought she coveted their souls, there could be no talk of business between them.
Either they had not noticed her desire, or they were not willing to let it upset them, because they came on, the woman striding forward where the men hesitated. “You said you had business for us,” she said, as she sat, grabbing up a cup of wine.
“The merchantman from the Keidor Isles,” said Alaneth. “It will be in port for a few more days, I think.”
That drew a round of raucous laughter from the gull people who were now all gathered around her table, drinking her wine. They loved the sea as well as any, but lacked the fear of tempest that most sailors had. Blinding a ship was exactly the sort of joke they would appreciate. “There is something aboard that ship which I need for you to steal.”
“Steal?” asked one of the gull men, drawing himself up, offended.
There was a pause, as she fought back her reaction. But Alaneth couldn’t help it; she laughed. After a half second, the gull people joined in, with sharp, raucous laughter. “Steal?” one of the others, copying the voice and tone perfectly. “Steal? Steal?”
“What is it?” asked the woman.
“It is a jade bracelet,” replied Alaneth, moving her hands to show its size. “It is etched with a fine pattern.”
“Ahhh,” said one of the men. “A thing which you cannot get for yourself, then-a thing that-”
She had hoped that the gull people would not have figured what it was that she was missing, but that had never been a realistic hope: Alaneth was not the only one who could sense more than her form suggested, and the gulls were familiar enough with changers.
“A valuable thing,” said the woman. “A thing difficult to steal.”
“They do not know what they have,” replied Alaneth. “They think it a jade bracelet; that is all.”
“Payment!” said one of the men. “What payment do you offer for a thing such as this?”
It was confusing, trying to talk to all of the gull people at once. And it was a difficult question. “There are many other fine things aboard that ship. They are held in a tulip wood chest in the cabin, beneath the captain’s table; it cost me much to learn this, and I give you this knowledge in-”
“Not enough!” said one of the men. “Not enough! We know things as well, but we do not expect you to take the risks, and for us to take the rewards. There is danger in that ship, and not because its eyes are lacking.”
“I am not wealthy,” said Alaneth, “and I have spent most of what I had in seeking this out.”
“Why not work and gather more?” asked a gull man.
“Why not work yourself,” snapped back Alaneth. “I think you’d make a fine miller.”
Another burst of raucous laughter and drinking of her wine by the gull people. A gull man might work as a sailor, for a while, but he’d jump ship with anything he could carry, given the slightest opportunity. And her people–her people did not work, either on land or on shore, for anyone other than themselves.
“Little money, then,” said the gull woman, after the laughter died down. “And nothing other than the telling that rich ships have rich cargoes. What else can you give?”
Alaneth considered. “My gratitude,” she said.
“Gratitude?” said one of the men. “Gratitude?” echoed another. “Can we spend gratitude? Can we eat it?”
Alaneth looked into the gull woman’s eyes. “My gratitude is not something to scorn,” she said. “With or without the bracelet.”
The gull woman considered, nodded slowly. “If we can trust it,” she said.
“If you and yours do not steal from me,” said Alaneth. “You will be allowed in my home, for as long as I have breath in my body. You may shelter there, and nest, and I will extend my protection over all that is of yours that is in my home. I swear it.”
There was chatter and laughter at that, and Alaneth ignored it. It was a good offer that she was making; if the gull people took it, they would benefit for generations on the strength of a single night’s work. And the gull woman was the key to it; she knew it.
“If we can trust it,” repeated the gull woman.
“Indeed,” said Alaneth, and took another drink of wine. She could threaten them; if they did not get her the bracelet, the gull people would not be hard to track down and kill, once the bracelet found her way back to her. But that was not what the situation called for.
The gull woman nodded, finally. “We’ll do it,” she said. Which incited a storm of yelling argument from the others, as was to be expected. Alaneth relaxed, and watched the argument play out. In the end, the woman carried the point, and promised that they’d be back with the bracelet, the next night, or the night after.
Once that was done, there was nothing left but drinking, until the gull people left and afterward, as the stars wheeled through the clear, cold sky. This was closer than she had ever been, but Alaneth could not let herself hope. The feel of the jade around her wrist, the feel of wings. It had been so long, just believing it possible would burn her up like straw.
The wine held the hope off, until the first fingers of dawn touched the horizon, and she fell into a dark and dream-ridden sleep.
There was the sound of gulls approaching; she poured the wine and the water, and mixed, her hand trembling only slightly. It had been very long without hope, very long indeed, but she would not let herself feel its lure. It could destroy her utterly, were it to fail.
The gulls landed, changed from birds to people. They were laughing, boisterous. As they approached, grabbing for the cups, one of the men took a green circlet from inside his shirt, and tossed it on the table.
Hungrily, Alaneth grabbed it. It was warm to the touch, warmer than the air around it; wherever clothing waited while the wearer was transformed was never so cold as the winter air. But it felt right; the faint impressions of scales, the patterns and symbols that had been carved into it. The polite thing to do would be to wait, to talk before-
Alaneth couldn’t wait; she put it on. And nothing. She stopped, stared at her arm, tried to will the skin and hair away, into. . . . Her first thought was that it had been too long, that she had lost the skill of it could no longer change. And then.
“It’s a fake,” she said. She had been following a fake. But for how long? It might have been years, decades. She pulled the bracelet off, looked at it. “A fake.”
There were five of the gull people, and one of her, but they edged back, one half-turning as though he would fly away. “Not us!” said one of the men. “That’s what was on the ship! Not us!”
She didn’t care much about what they thought, anymore. She brought her fist down on the table; the wine set jumped, two of the cups overturning, spilling watered wine over the scarred oak. “A fake!” she yelled.
There was a commotion below, and then a redbearded man came through the door, thumbs hooked in his belt. He looked around with a satisfied air. “You’ve noticed my little deception, I take it,” he said.
This was too much. Alaneth roared her frustration, leaping to her feet, and the gull people scattered, turning to birds as they leapt off the balcony. If they were behind this, none of them would survive; she might still be trapped in a human body, but her rages were no smaller, and no likelier to fade and be forgotten.
“Don’t be hard on them,” the man chuckled. “I thought you were planning something like that, and made my preparations.”
“You,” said Alaneth, reaching for her knife. He was a big man, and he was wearing a sword considerably longer than her weapon. But these were tactical considerations; she had made the decision to kill.
“Eh eh eh,” he said, slipping a jade bracelet out from his sleeve. She moved, but a hammer materialized in his hand before she could get around the table. “That’s not a very good idea,” he said.
The hammer was a broad headed iron tool, of the sort carpenters used. Jade was a hard stone; it might resist. But then, it might not. “Sit,” he said, and she sat.
“I’d feel a bit more comfortable if you kept your hands on the table,” he added, as he sat down, and she put them there. The bracelet was on the table as well, with the hammer over it. Alaneth could see the hammer coming down, the bracelet shattering.
“Lovely,” he said, with a bright smile. “You’ve caused me a bit of trouble.”
“Have I?” asked Alaneth, inwardly marveling at her own control; there was no trembling in her voice, no white lipped rage. Perhaps she was beyond those things.
“The eyes of the ship,” he said, picking up a cup of wine and filling it with his free hand. “And suchlike. No matter; that sort of thing is to be expected.”
“Indeed. And you interest me more than most prospects. It’s been more than sixty years, you’ve been chasing this, at least as far as I’ve been able to determine. Most changers don’t live half that long, without their souls.”
Alaneth forbore interrupting. The man wanted to talk; she would let him talk.
“I’ve never seen one quite like this,” he said, gesturing at the bracelet with his hammer. “I wonder what it is that you turn into, but nowhere near enough to let you demonstrate the truth of any answer you’d give. In any case, in the usual course of things, I’d find a buyer for something like this, and leave him to work out the arrangements. But this time is different. I think that the two of us can come to an arrangement.”
This time, he seemed to be waiting for a response. “With a slaver,” she said.
“If you like,” replied the man. “I buy and sell things. And if we cannot come to an agreement, there are dealers in slaves who would find you a bargain: it is a useful thing indeed for a master to hold a slave’s soul in his hands.”
He took another drink of her wine, gave her another smile. “But the arrangement I am thinking is not precisely that of a master to his slave. I would hold the bracelet, and you would work for me. After a reasonable time–sixty years, let us say–you earn the bracelet back. You’ve not aged much in the time without your bracelet; surely sixty years would not be too long to wait, not with the surety of getting it back when that time is up.”
“Work,” hissed Alaneth.
“Nothing particularly difficult or dangerous,” said the man, apparently interpreting her comment as a question. “I would merely assign you tasks that require the sort of inventiveness and tenacity with which you’ve been pursuing the bracelet. You would be well taken care of, good clothing, better wine than you seem to have been drinking.”
He smiled, with the look of a man who has finished a game, and knows that he’s won. “So,” he said. “Have we an agreement?”
Alaneth’s fingers whitened, as she pushed down on the table. Then she propelled herself over it, in a single convulsive movement.
It wasn’t the reply he expected; the hammer didn’t come down. And that was all Alaneth knew, as her teeth found his throat, and tore. They were small, more pegs than fangs, just like any humans, but there was the salty taste of blood in her throat, blood, and the faintest tang of her wine, which he had stolen.
They were on the floor; he was trying to push her off, shift the weight so that he could get his sword clear of its scabbard. She held her grip as long as her teeth could hold it, then bit again at the blood-slick throat. There was no thought there, no impulse of self-protection, just a pure and unwavering desire to see him dead.
He gave a sudden jerk, sending her across the floor, into the table, cracking the back of her head against one of the chairs.
She staggered up to her feet, leaned back against the table. Her left eye was shut–she thought it might have been hit with the hammer, possibly more than once–and her right hand was covered in blood, too slick to get a good hold on her knife’s hilt; much of that blood was probably hers.
But the movement that had thrown her across the floor was the last that the man would make. Alaneth watched the last gurgling bubbles came through the blood and the torn fragments of his throat; they stopped and he was still.
If she had died at that moment, it would have been enough: years of rage and frustration had gone into that attack. But she had not died, and her bracelet had not been broken. She found it on the table, where the man had left it, and she put it on.
This was no fake: it melted into her arm as soon as it touched her skin, and she felt the old heat, that she had not felt for more than a century.
There would be no room for her on the balcony; already, she could feel her bones moving, growing, knitting. Two, three quick steps, and then she was over the railing. Her eye still hurt; it would be some time before that would heal completely. But there was nothing wrong with her wings-they caught the air as she fell, pulled her up out of the dive. With a lazy flap, she gained altitude. And with a sudden burst of joy, she gained more.
It had been a long, long time since she had last flown, and it was scarcely prudent to strain herself, given the beating that she had taken. But she could no more restrain herself in the air than she could when she had gone for the slaver’s throat. She flew high enough that her wings creaked with the cold, and the air was so thin in burned in her throat.
And then she flew, and when the dockyard of Liassen was below, she dove. The owner might be dead, but the blinded ship remained. She breathed her fire on it, raking it from stem to stern, and then flew out to sea.
It had been a long time indeed since Liassen had seen a dragon, but they had seen fires on the docks before: the shore-men and sailors were already trying to contain the blaze bare seconds after she had fired the ship. And she chose to let them; that blast had held the last of her rage. Alaneth did a quick roll, celebrating the feel of the muscles in her back and wings, the freedom of flight.
Tracking down the gull people would require a bit of work. But they had done her a service, and she owed them the gratitude that she had promised. With, perhaps, a minute or two of terror until she pardoned them for the trick that had been played on her, and their failure to aid her against the man who had come with her soul.
But it was not in her to blame them too much for that. Gulls would be gulls. And dragons would be dragons.
Alter S. Reiss is a field archaeologist and scientific editor who lives in Jerusalem with his wife and son. “Rumor of Wings” is his first published fiction.
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