From the author: Half-starved orphans like Calife have two choices in life: stay on the streets of Hark and die, or become a child soldier for the Harkish Army and ride airhorses, which can't take flight with anything heavier than stunted children on their backs. Calife has no desire to return to the streets, but she won't stay small forever. What lengths will she go to in order to keep riding?
"Never forget, ladies, how lucky you are," says Miss Reeper all the time. "You could have died in an alley from plague or starvation, or grown up to become disgusting harlots. But The Harkish Crown, in its wisdom and mercy, has lifted you out of the gutters and has given you a great destiny instead. The least you can do is repay its kindness. So pay attention."
Miss Reeper is the Headmistress. Her school, outside of Hark's city walls, is where you go to become an Air Knight.
You can only be an Air Knight if you're a street orphan first. A landhorse can carry a big man and all his gear, but an airhorse can only take off with a really light load.
I heard they tried regular kids at first, but they always grew too big and got too heavy.
They have to use starving ones.
Sairee is my friend. She is shorter than me, even though she's much older. Her upper arms are skinnier than her forearms, and her thighs don't touch together. She'll be an Air Knight forever.
"I heard they're going to start using dwarves," she whispers to me one day, over breakfast. "Isn't that stupid?"
We always eat outside, in the assembly yard, so Miss Reeper can make sure we don't cheat. We have to eat exactly what they give us: no more, no less. "Light and strong, light and strong," Miss Reeper says, "like little butterflies."
"Why would they use dwarves?"
Sairee wrinkles her nose. "They think we can't decide for ourselves. Like we're too young."
Kaiya leans forward. "But they let us decide about whether to go back. They took Linn back to Hark last fall when she said she wanted to leave, remember?"
"Exactly," says Sairee.
"Remember, ladies," Miss Reeper says, pointing to the Flight Stone in the center of the yard. "Little butterflies. Not big, clumsy rocks."
Sairee will graduate and be a full Air Knight when the next Accounting comes. We all know she's ready—she's old enough and she's stopped getting taller. But I haven't. I worry about it all the time. I'm not like Linn. I don't want to go back to Hark and sleep in a doorway under crawling rats.
I want to keep riding airhorses.
The airhorses are the most beautiful things there are. You can see through their skin, like glass. They have narrow heads, like hunting dogs, and their eyes change color every time they blink.
When they open their wings, it's silent and cold, like mist going over the moon.
I want to be an Air Knight forever, too. But I only will if I stop growing in time. Airhorses can't take off with anything heavier than the Flight Stone, and if the pan you stand on come Accounting Day goes down to the grass and the Flight Stone's pan goes up, you go back to Hark, whether you want to or not.
I learn from Kaiya how to cheat.
I don't like making sick, but I like it when I take off on all that beautiful flying glass, and all I can hear is wind.
"Calife," says Miss Reeper, during lunch one day. "Come with me."
She leads me away from the yard and into the Doctor's building.
"I've been watching you at morning drills," says Miss Reeper, as Dr. Hatch looks hard at me and pokes my skin all over. "You seem to be tiring out easily. Why is that?"
"I'm not tired," I lie. Dr. Hatch examines my fingers and touches my hair.
"Mmm-hmm," says Miss Reeper. "Maybe you have a cold. Starve a fever but feed a cold, they say."
"I'm not sick."
"I daresay you are."
I don't answer her. I look away, at Dr. Hatch's tools. She has a lot of them—big scary scalpels and big scary bone saws.
"The Harkish Crown is not in the business of abusing children," says Miss Reeper. "We select you girls for your naturally smaller size, innocently begotten from your early, harsh life on the streets. Do you understand? We do not want girls to behave contrary to Nature, if Nature can remedy what your earlier misfortune has brought."
Oh, yeah, Linn used to say sarcastically. They take real great care of us now. I had more to eat back when I stole bones from the butcher.
"I understand," I say.
"From now on, at the end of meal times, you will come straight to Dr. Hatch. She will watch you and make sure you behave yourself, until you have proven to me that you can be trusted to keep down everything you've been given. Is that clear?"
Dr. Hatch talks. "It's not bad," she says. "She hasn't been doing it for long."
"Good," says Miss Reeper. "You must always nip these things in the bud."
Sitting in Dr. Hatch's office, sometimes I think about nipping buds. I feel like a branch with most of its buds already nipped off, but even like this, I'm still too big and clumsy to fit into my vase.
And I think about how my legs are kind of like branches, coming out from my knees, and my feet are like big clumsy buds. And how loud and cold it is inside the wind when you fly, and how warm the glass airhorse is underneath you, and how airhorse harnesses are different from landhorse saddles. You don't need anything below your knees to ride an airhorse.
Dr. Hatch gets up from her desk and says, "I'm going to the latrine."
I watch her leave.
There's a rumor going around that Miss Reeper goes into the assembly yard every night with a chisel and takes an itty-bitty piece out of the Flight Stone, like a kind of secret game.
Either way, I'm not going to lose.
I go to Dr. Hatch's tool case and take out the bone saw.
This story originally appeared in Daily Science Fiction.
In KJ Kabza's debut print collect, sand cats speak, ghost bikes roll, corpses disappear, and hedge mazes are more bewildering than you’ve ever imagined. These 11 fantasy and science fiction stories have been dubbed "A fresh new voice in the genre" (Booklist) and "Bursting with both ideas and emotion" (RT Book Reviews) and will take you deep into other astonishing realities. Cover and interior illustrations by Dante Saunders. Introduction by Gordon Van Gelder.
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