From the author: Navid is a bone-diver, and he will risk body and soul in the black river for a chance to lift his family to wealth and security beyond their trade.
Even if they did not study history, all the people of Ranzak knew one story older than their grandmother’s time and newer than the legends of the Prophet. Navid had learned it when he was no higher than his mother’s knee, and he was reminded often.
Four hundred years ago, when Ranzak was a more important city, a people whose name was burned from the scrolls and forgotten rebelled against the king-of-kings. This was Arlashan the fifth, of the third dynasty before the present king-of-kings, and he was called in later histories Arlashan the Cruel. The rebel army massed at Ranzak, and Arlashan defeated them. Many who had fought with the rebels surrendered when the battle turned, throwing themselves on the mercy of the great king. He ordered their hands cut off and thrown into the river, which was called the Winter Serpent. He had the handless rebels yoked like oxen to pull wagons and plows, and their hands sank into the silt of the riverbed and did not rot.
Now, when Ranzak was passed by far to north and south by the courses of trade from the east, people came to the city for two things: to buy the iron that came down in small loads from the mountains east to the east and was collected there for caravan and canal boat, and to buy wards of bone. The echo of dead spirits still clung to the hands of the dead rebels. Coats and necklaces hung with their bones made powerful wards, and they could be made nowhere else.
Navid was a bone diver, sinking through the cold currents to pull hands out of the silt. His father would boil them in lye to strip them to the bone while he recited poems from the book of the Prophet for protection, and when they were clean he would drill holes into them with a steel needle. Navid’s mother wove and sewed and stitched the bones to her finished coats. The whole city knew she was the finest weaver in the quarter of the Waning Moon. His sister was the smart one. She kept the books and haggled in the market for thread and for the potions and powders Father needed. She would run the house and the business after Mother. Navid was brave and steady, at least. That was good for diving, but he had no head for business.
He was not diving today. The currents were changeable at the end of spring. He might go in later, if the river seemed calm or the sun warm enough. For now he was casting coppers on the riverbank with Sepehr and Tandis, his diver friends, and with Rasam the potter’s boy, and Mehri, who ran messages and guided foreigners through the city in caravan season. Navid was only passing time, and he did not have money to waste, so he threw five sticks each time his turn came. He could make the thin, flat coins land in The Closed Hand pattern each time and keep his stake. Tandis was more ambitious. She threw nine sticks, trying for Heaven’s Stair. She had lost a week’s earnings and won it back again twice already. She bent over the game avidly, and the others caught her fire.
Navid relaxed onto the sun-warmed stone of the riverbank. Some old king had built a walled channel to contain the Winter Serpent’s floods and wanderings, but these blocks on the bank were all that was left. The wall had been torn and eaten by the water. The Winter Serpent was too strong for men to tame. Only the light of the Prophet’s temple restrained it enough to protect the city.
Navid lost the thread of the game and drowsed the late morning sun, listening with half an ear to the sound of the currents for the midday calm that might let him dive. It would be good to try. Spring was a bad season for diving and a good one for selling, so his father only had a few bones ready if another order should come. His friends let the turns pass him. He was good enough at throwing the Closed Hand that his sitting out wouldn’t change their winnings one way or another.
Haleh, who sometimes carded for the wool merchant on their street, came running up puffing and shouting.
“Navid!” She bent over and took a deep breath.
“What’s going on?”
“Someone important’s gone to your mother’s house. I saw the procession: guards in gold-wash armor, and criers, and a palanquin with red curtains.”
A noble at to his mother’s house. That might mean a special commission. Something important certainly.
Navid jumped up and ran for home along the wide streets where goods came down the canal docks. He breathed in a wash of coriander and almond from one stall, rose and honey from the next, blending with the flowers of the honeysuckle vine slowly dismantling a cracked brick wall.
The Waning Moon quarter was quieter. Like his family’s, most of the workshops there would not be busy until the currents slowed at midsummer and the boats came upstream for the canal trade. The street that led to their front door was filled with the procession Haleh had told him about: criers, heralds, servants, and soldiers in the gold-washed armor of the king-of-king’s army. Only diplomats or high nobles commanded those soldiers. The red-washed palanquin had been set down in front of his mother’s door. Whoever was so important was already inside, being received by Navid’s mother.
Navid went one more street and came inside through the narrow alley behind the house. He peeked through the crack of the unlatched kitchen door into the main room.
The guest sat next to the door in the high chair that was only uncovered for nobles. He was dressed in red robes embroidered with serpent-dragons in white and yellow thread, and his skin was pale. He had to be one of the easterners that came from Chin to the court of the king-of-kings, who were sometimes called ambassadors and sometimes exiles.
His mother, Farzah, sat opposite the easterner, only a little lower, wearing her best blue robe with the silver braid, as straight and poised and dignified as a queen in her throne room. His father, Balam, and his sister, Dorre, sat on low cushions at Mother’s feet. There would have been a place for him there too, if he had been in the house when the guest arrived. Father’s lips moved silently, praying for fortune. He was looking down so the easterner would not see.
The easterner raised a black and gold lacquer cup in toast wafting coils of steam in front of his face. Mother mirrored him and drank. The tea and the cup would have been his guest gift, the water heated over the house’s flame to offer hospitality. Navid had come in as the courtesies were finishing, just in time to hear the negotiation.
“Be welcome in my house and share my fire, Honored Su Linzhe,” said Farzah. “You raise us up and brighten our home with your presence, coming here from the great light of the king-of-kings.”
The easterner tapped his fingers on his cup, clearly impatient with the dance of welcome. You could never guess which nobles would demand it and which become bored, but Mother said it was always safer to choose too much courtesy. Nobles might be annoyed by it, but they could not demand punishment.
“I have come to buy a bone-ward,” he said, voice clipped and quick. “The men in Charces who buy for the court say that your house is best, so I have come here.”
“You honor me to say so, Sir.” Mother bowed her head[I needed this paragraph of Mother's action pulled up into the same paragraph as her line of dialog, like this, so that I wasn't confused as to who was speaking.] to acknowledge the compliment. He should not have admitted hearing that so soon. It would make it hard for him to bargain a good price.
“Your honor remains to be seen. I wish to purchase a thirty-eight-hundred bone coat. I require it delivered before I leave the city in twenty days. Can you do this?”
There were nineteen long bones, suitable for sewing into wards, in a human hand. Nineteen-bone charms were sold at crossroads in the busy trading months. The cheapest coats were two-hand coats, with thirty-eight bones sewn around the collar and over the shoulders. The heaviest coats Navid’s father ever made without commission were ten-hand coats, with one-hundred-ninety bones weighing down their cuffs and hems. One of those would sell for enough to keep the household for a month. Once, he had made a three-hundred-eighty bone coat for the son of the city viceroy, who was afraid his half-brothers meant to kill him for his father’s seat. That coat had been strong enough to turn aside daggers and burn poison from the prince’s wine.
A thirty-eight-hundred bone coat was almost past imagining. Su Linzhe would be able to walk unharmed through the grand battles of a hundred thousand soldiers that rumor said were common in his home. Maybe such a ward would even turn aside the thunderbolt arrows of the king-of-kings.
It was a mad request. There weren’t even stories about a coat like that, and even if it could be done, it could never be done so quickly. Navid could see his father’s frown. He wanted to refuse, to admit the job was too much and step away from it. Prophet grant that Mother disagreed. She could demand enough for it to change their lives, enough to buy Dorre a stake in a trading house, enough that Father could study the Prophet’s book instead of boiling bones in a stinking shed.
Mother kept her face calm despite the easterner’s rudeness. “That is a very short time. I could not promise work of the quality you deserve so quickly.”
The easterner snorted and set his cup down with a bang on the arm of his chair. “Ten days more then, if you must have it. Thirty days. It will be summer by then, and I am expected in Charces.”
Thirty days. That was still a crazily short time for such a large work, but even Navid could tell the easterner would not offer more. Father rested his head on his chest, signing to Mother that he wished to refuse the offer. Dorre’s hands were neutral on her knees, no vote, but they trembled with fear or hope or something in between the two. She knew even better than Navid what the price of a thirty-eight-hundred bone coat could buy them.
Mother held out her hands, palms up. Agreement. “I can accept such a contract. The price will be eight thousand sticks of silver.”
Navid stifled a gasp. That was ten years of their income, enough to invest, enough to buy businesses and live off them. More than anyone would pay for a coat. The easterner could haggle her down to half, and they would be happy.
“Done. You will have it if you deliver to my satisfaction. I will pay nothing if the coat is not perfect.”
He stood and placed his hands in Farzah’s, and the contract was sealed. For a long moment, Navid could barely breath. This Su Linzhe had just promised more than one of the great trading houses saw in a year’s dealing, without a pause. He must be a high prince in his own country, high as the grand nobles who attended the king-of-kings in Charces and never dirtied their robes with the dust of a city as old and low as Ranzak. One of his servants already had the tablet, written as the deal had been spoken, and Su Linzhe rolled his seal into the clay himself. Mother placed it into the hearth to bake, and bowed low. He went out with no word of farewell.
When the last servant was gone Navid rushed into the room, smiling wide at his mother.
“What have you done to us?” yelled Father. “We cannot make the coat in time. We will ruin ourselves trying and have nothing when he leaves us with a half-finished ruin no one will ever buy.”
“It’s not impossible.” Dorre talked with her hands. She always did that when she was calculating, moving invisible beads while she made the numbers agree in her mind. “We have enough in hand to by thread and ornaments for a noble’s coat.”
“It will have to be double layered,” said Mother, “to hold so many bones.”
“Still, we have enough, and we have credit if we need it. It is a fine season to buy thread, and Father has worked fast enough before to finish that many bones in the time we have. Can you find them quickly enough, Navid? We don’t have many left in the store.”
“I can. Of course I can.”
It would be more than he usually found in the last month of spring, but he could do it. He had to. He wouldn’t be the weak one.
“It is too dangerous,” said Father. “Navid will be diving long hours, risking himself, and it will bring an army of ghosts into our house. Even a ten-hand coat is hard enough to bind and balance. This thing will be hung with haunts and curses if we try to make it, double if we rush.”
“Balam, we are committed.” Mother laid a hand on Father’s shoulder. “Our reputation is at stake now, and we will deliver. I can weave a robe that will carry thirty-eight-hundred bones in the time we have. You can boil them and say your prayers. We will make good. You can have a year of rest when we are finished.”
That was the end of it. They might complain at times, but Mother was a queen in her own house, and she was fire that lit the way for all of them. Navid was happy to follow her orders this time and not to be held back by Father’s caution.
* * *
The Winter Serpent got its name for good reasons. It was cold and it was wild, with strong, unstable currents and unpredictable floods that made its channel shift and shook the foundations of the waterfront quarters. Every storm over the eastern mountains meant flood and commotion in the city.
The river felt alive when Navid was diving. It had moods, and you had to learn how to read them and how to let them guide you to be a good diver. He was very good. He dove the proper way, blind in the black water, feeling for hands just under the surface of the riverbed where the constant churning of the silt would bring them up. Some divers drank ghost liquor brewed from the dregs of the stuff used to clean bones, with alchemists’ powders that made the lye safe to drink. They said it let you see under the water, see spirits who could show you where their hands were waiting. Sepehr and Tandis used it sometimes, but it was dangerous. Divers who used too much got pale and shivered like they were cold all the time. Navid didn’t need it. He knew the river, and it knew him. They were old friends.
He left his clothes on a sunny stone and went in with nothing but his bag, tied on with rope he wet first in the river so the fit wouldn’t change while he was diving. He went in slowly, feeling the river’s mood. It was steady today, fast and biting cold. He usually didn’t do much diving until later in the summer, to build up their stock for the canal boat season. He let himself drift down gently, feeling for eddies and deeper currents that could be dangerous. The main current would carry him some distance before he had to surface for a breath, and then he would climb out and walk back to his starting point and dive again, until he was done with that section of the river for the day and moved upstream or down.
There was nothing to alarm him as he drifted, so on the second dive he went straight to the bottom and began to play his palms across the silt. You could read the patterns of it, if you were careful; follow the mounds and troughs to where anything heavier would fetch up. He felt the river’s muscles flex around him, pushing him this way and that as the currents stretched and settled. He let them take him. Fighting would only make him tired.
He dove all day, working steadily down the river. No one else was diving this stretch today, so there was no concern about territory. He dove and sifted steadily, letting the current slide him, surfacing when the water coiled tight around his chest. He found a hand on his third time down, a good one, with none of the flesh gone from long exposure to the water. He found a second before his first break, when he lay in the sun until he was warm enough to welcome the cold touch of the Winter Serpent again. You had to rest and sun yourself or the water would steal all your strength before you’d done a half-day’s work.
He found ten hands before the sun sank low enough to leave the river shadowed, and he walked home with his bounty. Ten hands in a day was more than he usually brought up in spring, but he usually didn’t dive all day until the summer currents slowed and made it easy. If he could keep up a pace like this, there’d be no trouble finishing Su Linzhe’s coat in time.
* * *
Making the thirty-eight-hundred bone coat was like trying to fit a whole season’s work into thirty days. Dorre was buying the red thread for the body of the robe while Navid did his first day’s diving. Mother began the weaving that night, after the evening meal. They all sat in the weaving room for a while, watching her and growing drowsy to the clack of her shuttle. Father recited the verses of Stepping from the Precipice and Falling to a Good Beginning from the Prophet’s book, and Dorre and Navid hummed the proper temple rhythms under his words.
The next day, Father began boiling bones in the shed against the side of the house, burning incense over the altar flame to drive out the scent of meat and tar and lye from the boiling kettle, reciting the verses of Peaceful Repose and of Turning from the Darkness Toward the Sun’s Flame to ward off any unquiet ghosts that might have followed their bones from the river. Dorre went back to the market, to buy white and gold embroidery thread, and silver ornaments and clasps, and buttons of carnelian to finish the coat once it was cut and sewn. Mother kept weaving, and she smiled. She always smiled when she was making something beautiful.
The whole city was loudly wondering why an eastern prince would need the heaviest ward ever woven in Ranzak. Wits said it was to survive the spiteful glances of a haughty princess he meant to woo, and doomsayers said he meant to overthrow the king of Chin by sorcery and vengeance would come back to Ranzak when he failed. Navid stayed out of those discussions when his friends started them. Su Linzhe would pay, so the family would make what he demanded.
Navid dove every day, from an hour or two after dawn until the sunset chilled the riverbank too much for him to keep on working. He had to work long and hard to find enough. He hadn’t dived so much at the end of spring before, and maybe this was why. After that first day, he dived long hours for just a few hands and walked home stumbling and shivering. The heat didn’t come back to his blood until he sat with his back against the chimney bricks and drank warm broth and honeyed tea.
The days stretched out. Mother finished the cloth and cut it. In another city, where weavers and dyers were known and merchants came to buy cloth that people could boast of at home, she could have kept her household with weaving alone. But no one came to Ranzak to buy cloth or coats that weren’t hung with bones and the whispers of unquiet ghosts.
Father drilled the clean bones, and the two of them together began sewing them to the coat, ranks from hem to collar, stripes twisting around the sleeves, the black-stained bones dark against the bright red linen.
No one said anything to Navid. They pretended to be cheerful. Mother and Dorre praised him and cosseted him when he came home tired. Father warned him not to push too hard, to be careful of the cold and currents. No one had to say anything. He knew he was failing the family. Fourteen days gone and he had only brought back eighty hands. Still more than two thousand bones to go. He would never find enough in time now, diving like he had been since the first day/etc. His friends couldn’t help him. No one kept stockpiles in the spring, and the other divers had their own families or masters to support. The ones who dove for free and haggled with tailors to sell their bones each time couldn’t afford to take credit, and all his family’s money was already gone for thread and buttons and clasps fit for a noble easterner and to the alchemists to fill Father’s boiling kettle.
Navid had to do better, or it was all dust in the gutter and they’d be begging for credit all year just to keep afloat.
* * *
Tandis had no bones to spare, but she had been happy to pay her tossing debt to Navid with a bottle of ghost liquor instead of coppers. Father refused to make it, and he’d never give it to Navid even if he did. Tandis knew Navid needed the help, but even she wouldn’t risk diving with him. No one would while he was having such bad luck. It would rub off on them, and they’d have to pay the fire keepers for a cleansing before they could work again.
Navid swirled the liquor in its bottle, dark as the river, dirty as winter rain. He pulled out the cork. It smelled like charcoal and vinegar and hot dust. The river rolled dark and moody below. The sun was hot on his back, but he felt cold. He’d only ever tried ghost liquor once, on a dare, and he’d never dived with it. No choice now. He had to do more, and he was already aching from yesterday’s work. He couldn’t get there just by pushing.
He took a drink, bitter and sharp. It burned going down, settled like ice in his chest. He set the bottle next to his clothes, closed his eyes, and dove. The weight of the ghost liquor pulled him down fast. He kept his eyes shut, but he saw. Little puffs of white mist floated up from the riverbed, wisps of fraying spirit lost into the flow. There were ropes and trunks of water outlined by cold white sparks, currents stirred up by angry ghosts. He lost track of the river watching the lighted currents, so much that he forgot himself and blundered into a dark one. The river didn’t need any help from spirits to grab him and tumble him end over end in a vein of cold water.
He kicked out and finished dropping to the bottom. There were wisps of ghostlight puffing from the mud, but when his fingers brushed them they snuffed out and he found nothing but black silt. He chased the firefly sparks until his chest was burning for a breath. He kicked up wild for the surface. He’d stayed too long. He broke into the light and gasped and floated for ten breaths before he started kicking for the bank.
The sun was hot, but the light stained sallow after the white under the water. He dove again and arrowed for the bottom. He chased the brightest flake of ghostlight he could see into an eddy up against the north bank, but there was only the dust of bones worn down to nothing by the current. He punched his fist in to the useless bottom and kicked up to breathe again.
He chased shadows and flashes through the morning, until he had to rest on the stones under the sun with nothing to show for it. He had to do more, to see better. He had to find the bones.
He took another drink of the ghost liquor, a deep swallow this time. It filled up his stomach with icy weight and his mouth with the taste of ashes. He dove again, and the light was everywhere. The Winter Serpent bloomed with shadows from the ghostlight lamps dancing in every fleck of foam. He saw a lantern shining far below. That had to be a hand for him. He fell toward it.
The river fought like a snake that could smell the sweetness in his blood. It wrapped thick coils hawser-tight around him and tried to throw him down the current. He twisted, slipped through and beat up into light bright as the sun over his head. He had it. Three fingertips above the silt, the hand still whole and safe below. He grabbed it, and saw his companions in the black at last.
The water was full of ghosts. They drifted white and hollow, with sharp shadows where their hands should be. He couldn’t look at those un-spaces. It felt like a bruise growing behind his eyes when he tried to. He didn’t need shadows. He needed another lamp. Where was the other hand? They liked to stay in pairs.
He pulled himself along the bed toward the next bright light. He felt the spirit following, one hand a shadow, the other absence shining in his bag. They both sifted the bottom, looking for the twin. Navid’s chest burned, but he could get it. He could bring it up before he lost the thread. He could breathe any time. He only had to let go and fall back down into the air.
He found it, just ahead of the spirit. It stared white and blind at the hand going into his bag. The ghost reached for it straight through him and found his heart. Cold fingers twisted wire-tight. Beat. Beat. Black covering the ghostlight now. He kicked up off the mud. One kick. Two. It lost its grip. He tried to breathe.
* * *
Navid shivered and shook. Hands were pulling at him, trying to hold him still. He tried to shake them off.
His eyes opened to brightness. He was in bed, in his mother’s house, warmed by the sunlight and the chimney behind him. He had tangled sweat-soaked sheets around himself. He threw them off. The sun felt good, and he rolled to press his back against the warm stone of the chimney. His bones didn’t ache, but there was still a cold feeling under his hot skin. He opened his eyes again and blinked them clear. His father was there, standing next to the window, stooped a little with the slant of the ceiling. He was chanting, so low Navid had to strain to hear it. The verse of Vigilant Attendance finished; he changed to the verse of Joyful Rising with the Dawn and smiled down at Navid.
“How long was I asleep?”
Two days after that blackness. How had he even made it to the surface, if he was that weak? The bones!
“The hands. I found two.”
His father held up a hand to slow him.
“Don’t worry. Your friends brought them along with you. The bones are boiled and sewn to the coat already.”
Father smiled again. Why was he smiling? They only had thirteen days left, and Navid hadn’t brought back what they needed. Father should be finding another diver, should be working, doing something, not smiling at Navid while the family was disgraced for failing to deliver on their promises.
Navid tried to stand up, but he couldn’t even sit. His arms buckled under him when he pressed. Father frowned.
“You rest. Now that you’re awake to drink it, I will bring you tea, and then broth, and you can build your strength back. You were wandering in ghost-dreams and fever. It will take time to pin your soul back into your heart again.” His voice was husky from all the chanting he had done the last weeks.
Father went out, reciting under his breath again. Navid lay on his pallet. He couldn’t do anything else yet. He should be diving.
He lay in bed and drank tea and broth while Father recited verses of protection and healing over him. By sunset, he had graduated to stew filled with pepper and fish and river clams and regained enough strength to walk as far as the chamber pot.
The next day Tandis and Sepehr and Mehri all visited. Sepehr had done a little diving for Father, but he’d had worse luck than Navid. Mehri said Dorre was walking the city and trying to get bones from other coat makers, but no one had enough, and they wouldn’t sell to her on credit.
Of course they wouldn’t. Navid had known they had to find the bones themselves before his stupid failure with the ghost liquor, and nothing was different now except for wasted time. That was enough. He’d had a chance to save them, to make this a triumph instead of a disgrace, and he’d ruined it. There was no way they could finish the coat before Su Linzhe left the city now.
He was four days in bed, with Father mumbling and singing over him the whole time instead of working. All Navid could think about was the coat and the bones they needed. His mind drifted away from the sun back to the darkness of the Winter Serpent. He tried to remember it as only darkness and forget the ghostlight that had tricked him.
With nine days left until the coat was due, he got up and defied Father shooing him back to bed. He helped Dorre clean after the morning meal, and she said nothing when he slipped out the kitchen door to go to the river. She understood how important it was. It would be her buying into a merchant house if they got the silver.
His strength was back. Whether it was Father’s verses or Mother’s broth or just rest in a warm bed, the chill and the weight was out of his bones again, and he dove easily. He knew the river again, and it played with him instead of fighting. The ghostlight was only a bad dream, and he felt no icy fingers. He stayed at the river until two hours before sunset and found three hands. He was back at his best, but it was still impossible. The bones were buried too deep, and the spring currents were too strong for digging in the silt.
When he went home, he spilled the hands out on the table. They crouched like thick-legged spiders, staring up at him. The whole house heard the clatter. Father was first to meet him.
“Where have you been, Navid?” he asked sternly.
“Where do you think? I was diving, to make sure I could, and to see if I could do better this time.” Mother and Dorre had followed Father into the kitchen. “I can’t. I can’t get enough bones in time, not any way I know how. We have to do something about it.”
“Perhaps we can negotiate with Su Linzhe,” said Dorre. “We could tell him what happened to Navid. He won’t want a death-debt on him for a coat.”
Navid felt himself flush. Using his weakness to get concessions from Su Linzhe would shame him, but if it was what they needed. He kept quiet.
Mother shook her head. “No. He won’t care what happened to Navid. He’s so far above us he won’t fear a debt or a ghost following him home. If we come to him, he might just demand the coat half-finished and pay us nothing. The magistrate won’t issue a judgment if he does, not with him carrying a seal from the king-of-kings.”
“It’s done then,” said Father. “We can’t finish the coat in nine days, so we won’t. We’ll say nothing to the foreigner if he comes looking, and he’ll leave. He won’t lower himself to a petty dispute with merchants. That would admit to caring about money and trade. When we’ve finished the coat, someone will buy it. A thirty-eight-hundred bone coat will be a wonder, even in Charces.”
Mother frowned, but she nodded. Easier to think Su Linzhe would just go away than that gold-armored soldiers would smash in their door to take the coat. Navid could imagine that easily enough. Who would stand up for their family against a high noble? What were they thinking? They might keep the coat and sell it, and maybe it would be a wonder for the king-of-kings’ court, but they would never get enough to pay for all the materials, all the time and lost reputation. Father had been the one terrified of what failing would cost when they began. Why was he ignoring it now?
Father recited the verse of Dutiful Acceptance going out, and Mother hummed under him. They wouldn’t take any argument from the children. They were afraid. They thought Navid couldn’t handle the weight of his failure, so they pretended it didn’t really matter.
He would show them both. He was strong enough to save them.
* * *
Navid went into his father’s workshop and stole the fire-carrier, the little bronze pot Father used to bring back coals from the temple to relight his altar on festival days. It was stamped with verses from the Prophet’s book, the letters twisted to look like the towers and pyramids of a great palace. The handle was black from years of use. Navid took it, and a bar of wax for sealing, and went out into the black night, for the last chance to redeem his failure. There was only a little moon, but Navid was a bone diver, used to being sure without seeing. He walked quickly through the blind night streets.
What he needed was a flood. It would strengthen the currents, but it would churn the silt and bring a new crop of hands to the surface for him. The weeks after a flood were always the richest for the bone divers, even if they had to dive careful and short to stand the currents and the cold. He could bring up all the bones they needed in three days of flood diving, if he kept his courage.
The only trouble was the season. There would be no storms in the mountains or floodwaters down the Winter Serpent until the autumn. The Prophet’s flame held the cold rains back in summer so the fields could be worked and people could travel the mountains without fearing wind and mudslides. The temple was built out over the Winter Serpent to restrain the wildness of the water with the order and charity of the flame. Only a grave offense would make the flame withdraw its protection.
Navid had already committed one blasphemy by taking Father’s fire-carrier without permission or ceremony. It would take three to call the storm he needed, and maybe the flame would consume him for them when he came to judgment, but that would be after his mother had years weaving for nothing but the joy if her skill and the beauty of her work, after his father had years to study the Prophet’s book and the commentaries in the temple, after Dorre was established in a trading house with a family of her own. He only had one talent he could support the family with, and the river had to cooperate.
He committed his second blasphemy leaning out over the river bank. For a moment, the handle of the fire-carrier burned in his hand. He bit down on a scream and plunged it into the river. There was no steam, and when he pulled the fire carrier back, full of cold, dark water, his hand was not marked or tender. The burn had only been a fancy. He sealed the lid of the fire-carrier tight, warming the wax in his hands and pressing it all around the rim in a thick coat. Once it was set, the water would keep it stiff. He tied it where his bone-bag should sit.
The fire keeper temple was always open, with priests as ready to tend the faithful as the flame, even at night. The sun’s servants didn’t need to sleep. They would stop him if he came in with a sealed vessel wet from the river, but he still had one more blasphemy to do.
He had filled the fire-carrier upstream from the temple bridge. He slipped into the water quietly and floated on the surface, letting the current carry him. There was no sound but the rushing of the river against banks and bridge footings, no light until the glow of fire spilling from the temple windows gilded the water. No one looked out of those windows, but he still felt a sudden fear of discovery. Maybe the eyes of the Prophet himself would look out of the altar flame and see what Navid was planning.
He drifted under the bridge and lifted his hand up to catch it. There was only a handspan between the water and the worn stone. The walls of the temple went straight up from the bridge, curving back into the dome. Light spilled out from a hundred windows carved in the shapes of sun-welcoming flowers and morning birds and twisting flames, but here at the waterline, everything was in shadow.
Navid felt for a handhold to pull himself out of the water. The bricks were old as dust, with every edge worn round and smooth. He found a gap of crumbling mortar and levered himself up enough to brace his feet on the bridge. He kept his thoughts tight on his goal and his eyes looking up. He walled the river and the darkness he was carrying out of his mind, walled away what Father would shout if he knew what Navid was doing.
He didn’t have to climb too far. There were small altars around the outside of the temple, and they were just as holy as the huge one in the center; it was all the Prophet’s flame. He kept his hands as clear of the windows as he could and felt carefully for each foothold among the carvings and cracked bricks until he was a little up the curve of the dome. A few steps farther and it would be bent enough for him to stand, but this was far enough.
The nearest window was shaped like a round sun disk. He settled his toes firmly on a carved ridge under it and leaned in. He pulled the fire-carrier into his hands. There was an altar, almost straight down. He cracked the lid off and thrust the vessel out, turning it over at the same time.
The water fell in a glittering arc, catching the flicker of every flame. The lid clanged like a gong on the stone floor. The water landed and flashed to steam with a scream of outrage from the fire, shrill as a hunting bird. Heat washed up with it, and he felt it hot as shame on his face. His hands burned again and he dropped the fire-carrier. Heads turned to look, and Navid leapt back. He took one half-step down the steep wall and kicked off, clear and diving. He hit the water and went deep before he heard a shout of outrage from the priests.
When he surfaced on the far side of the bridge, the light from the temple’s windows was red, and it pulsed as steady as a heartbeat. He heard the priests inside, singing verses and hymns to beg forgiveness. Let it not be enough.
* * *
The storm woke him and the whole city with thunderclaps loud as the mountain shattering. They never saw the sun that day. Rain lashed down in silver curtains, and winds made tiny whitecaps in the streets. Good people stayed inside and prayed at their altars for the storm to calm.
Whenever it was slack, Navid looked out his window, east to the mountains, and clutched a coal of hope tighter. The nearest peaks were all hidden in black cloud and a worse storm than was falling on the city. The river would be rising. The flood would come. Fallen trees from the high forest would trail their roots along the mud and churn it. The currents would buck and shift and trouble the silt as they found a new balance.
Navid stayed in his room most of the day, keeping the hope pressed down in his chest. The rain broke everyone else’s resignation. Mother and Dorre scolded him for smiling when he was careless at the morning meal. They were finally upset about the failure of the thirty-eight-hundred bone coat, and they took it out on him. Father stayed in his workshop all day, singing to his altar flame.
Navid wanted to tell them to smile. To explain how good the storm was, that he could fix it now, but they wouldn’t understand, and if Father found out what Navid had done, he would be furious. Navid had no idea what he would do then. Father was a pious man, and Navid had never blasphemed where he could hear.
* * *
Navid left the house next morning in a peach-colored dawn. Dark clouds still brooded in the mountains, but here they were shredded and the soft light flowered over the city. The river was bloated and racing. The stones beside the bank were under the floodwaters. Navid hung his clothes on the corner of a shed at the canal docks, a few hands above the water.
He went in, walking out instead of diving down. His hands touched the water and they burned again, hot and then cold, and when he looked, the characters like towers from the handle of his Father’s fire-carrier were burned in white relief onto his palm, but then he blinked and they were gone like ghostlight. He rubbed his palm; no pain. No time to wonder; he had work to do.
The Winter Serpent nearly ripped his feet from under him before he was waist deep. The current was a rain of fists against his side. The ropes of pressure that had wrapped him before were tree-trunks striking him end-on this time. He fought for every span toward the bottom while the flood forced him downstream fast as a running horse. The river was cold and wild and stiff as metal, and it was full of bones.
He caught three hands floating before he even found the bottom. The silt was churned and ragged. It seemed like the hands were reaching for him, it was so easy to pull them up. His bag was full before he found the surface for a breath again.
He was a long walk from his clothes, but the sun was warming. He walked slow and easy, composing himself for another fight. People were out repairing, bailing out, and shoring up now that the rain and wind were still, and Navid heard whispers follow him. No one dove the day after a storm. It was too dangerous. He piled the hands on the roof of the half-sunken shed. No one would touch another diver’s bones, not with the risk of a double curse for thieving and ghost-baiting.
He went in again, and this time a twisting current dragged him straight down and pressed him into the mud. He curled tight to give it less to grab and managed not to get stuck. He pulled up bones as fast as picking berries. He had to fight back up against that dragging current, but he kept calm. He had the time. He hadn’t wasted all his breath searching for nothing in the silt. Maybe the fire was angry for his blasphemies, but something had answered his prayer. He had a real chance to save his family.
By the time he walked back to his clothes with the second load of bones, there were people watching. Sepehr was there and Haleh and others who had no work on a wet morning. They looked at him with wide eyes, like he was a grand show. He didn’t stop to talk. He needed to finish this before the river changed its mind.
In again, and the current shook him back and forth while he went down. He nearly cracked his head on the bank, but he twisted to hit with his feet and push off.
The next time he came back to his bones and his clothes there was a larger audience. His family was there. Father didn’t smile. He stared at Navid. He knew something. Maybe he even suspected what Navid had done. None of them called out from their place above the flood. Neither did he. They could see the bones. They knew the stakes of this last toss. He had to finish it.
Nine times into the flood, with only walking back to his beginning for a rest, and he was finished. He borrowed a fisherman’s basket to carry one hundred and twenty-three hands up to his father. Dorre clapped and praised him. Mother drew him close and hugged him. Father looked grim. Probably he had discovered the stolen fire-carrier and suspected what Navid had done. Maybe he was only angry at the risk Navid had taken diving in the flood.
He looked unhappy, but he said nothing, and held out his hand to take one of the basket’s handles for the walk home.
* * *
Su Linzhe knew his coat was ready, and he had heard the same rumors about how it was done as the rest of the city. On the thirtieth day, his servants came in ahead of him with the payment.
The first of them brought a gold and silver fire-carrier and presented it to Father. They brought his sister a dress of yellow silk embroidered with serpent dragons, and a necklace of pearls and coral beads for his mother, and one gave Navid a protection charm, a bronze hand holding a coal from the temple fire that would never lose its warmth. He had to stifle a gasp when he took it. It burned in his hands and felt white hot against his skin when he hung it around his neck. He had to stare at his chest to be sure it wasn’t burning him, and he strained to keep a fixed smile on his face.
After the gifts, they brought heavy chests of silver coins, and one of raw gold, and lacquer cups, and bales of silk thread, red and midnight blue and pure white. And when it was all carried in and piled in the main room, Su Linzhe came in, dressed only in his light shirt and loose trousers, and Mother and Father hung the thirty-eight-hundred bone coat on him.
The bones were black against the bright red, so many that the cloth under them was like a sullen ember under a night’s worth of soot. The silver buckles glittered cold. He raised his arms and the bones rattled. The room smelled of cold earth and black ash and the sharpness of the boiling kettle. Navid could feel the ward twist the air. The pressure was more than the bottom of the Winter Serpent. He could feel the power waiting to throw him back with enough force to break his bones if he took a single step toward Su Linzhe with anger in his heart,. He heard the whispers of two hundred ghostlight hands rubbing finger against finger.
Su Linzhe clapped his hands together and bowed once, until his back was nearly flat. He went out and his servants followed him and left them alone among the piled treasure. When the last one was gone, and his family was distracted by the piled wealth, Navid took off the hand talisman and put into a pocket, away from his skin. The burning stopped, and his hands showed no scars. The Prophet’s flame had not forgiven his blasphemy.
Dorre was nearly crying. She would have a place in a respectable trading house this year, and a household of her own when she found someone to share it. Mother smiled. She could weave that silk thread to whatever she wished and not need to sell it to keep them, or put away her loom and pay others to weave for her if that was what she wanted.
Father still scowled at Navid. They had not spoken alone since his blasphemy and his diving, but Father’s fingers, still stained black from boiling so many bones, tapped the rhythm of a sacred song against his thigh. He would have the time to study in the temple that he always wanted. They had done this. They had lifted themselves up, and Navid hadn’t failed his family.
What would he do now? He was brave enough, and he could hold himself steady against a current, but why would a wealthy boy dare the Winter Serpent for a crop of old hands and curses? He would never dive again. It would be a stupid risk. He would have to find something else he was good for. That was almost as frightening as remembering the white faces he had seen through his eyelids when he drank and dove, or the burning when he touched a piece of the Prophet’s flame. Today, though, he would lie on the riverbank and let the sun warm him deep inside his bones, and that would be enough.
This story originally appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.