“Sister,” says a woman’s urgent voice at Ratri’s elbow. “Sister. You have a ghost on you.”

When Ratri stops in the street, foot-traffic breaks around her and flows on like the tide around the stony cliff-pillars beneath the city. But one small figure stands rooted sturdily at her side.

The lightskinned stranger is the ochre of the dry steppe dust from which she has surely blown in. She wears a motley of travel-stained sheepskin and fraying embroidered wool with bone-button toggles and beaded tassels, arranged over the chamois trousers and low boots of a grassland qazaq. Her black braids are pinned in coils at the sides of her head, a glossy knot behind each ear; the tufts of the braid-ends stick straight out from the center of each knot, giving her the aspect of some small, bristling bird.

Her eyes are black too, bright and sharp as lava-glass, and her stern black brow is a single long line. That black-eyed glare prickles Ratri’s skin like salt on the wind.

“I know,” Ratri tells her. “I have two.”

The little qazaq cants her head and narrows her shrewd eyes. “You cast too many shadows,” she agrees — disapprovingly, as though Ratri is to blame for being haunted.

Ratri plants the butt of her mother’s second-best harpoon in the street and leans on it, considering the stranger.

The venom-green sea in the harbor below casts shards of white sunlight into the midmorning air, and the wind off the water exhales the heady mingled stink of rendered whale-fat and pine tar. The current of traffic in the serpentine downhill lane is broken here and again by jostling eddies of conversation and the idlers who clot around alleymouth vendors hawking fresh-split oysters and skewers of grilled eel.

The streets of Issarit are the same as they’ve ever been, but Ratri is not, has not been for months. Her ghosts lie over her like layered veils, so that the bright city is muted, strangely muffled, a dream that leaves her only more tired. The sun doesn’t touch her.

The black-eyed, glaring woman beside her is a vivid shard of reality and memory at once. Ratri can see herself reflected minutely in the stranger’s clear and steady gaze.

“Where are you from?” Ratri asks her.

The woman shows her teeth. “What’s it to you, Giant-sister?”

“My mother was steppe-blooded. Of Qishiq clan, from east of the Great-river’s bend.” She’s never herself seen the Great-river or its bend, but she heard tales enough in girlhood to imagine she knows the spice-sweet smell of the golden grass, would recognize the line of the dry, alien horizon.

The little woman weighs her in a look. “Chuka clan,” she grudges at last. “We rode from Great-river’s Ishai Sweeps south to Moon Ash Scar.”

Neither of these place-names means anything to Ratri, but she catches tense and tone. “Rode?”

The steppe-woman turns her head toward the harbor. “The black empire came down.”

“Ai,” says Ratri, as her mother’s ghost shivers. “There’ve been rumors. That they’re waking.”

The steppe-woman makes an obscure gesture, a warding or a warning. “The black god turns in the north. They spill across the river to set the steppe afire, and the grass burns horizon to horizon.”

Ratri feels a centipede of unease, her own or her mother’s, crawl her spine. “How many of your people came away?”

The woman has a falcon’s glare. She spreads her arms to either side, defiant. “Me. Only me. Shrike, witch-woman, ill-omened. Turned away by Nang clan and Sazhiq. Seventy-one days I rode to find the Ivory City, until my good pony foundered on the ash.” Her eyes are over-bright, full. “And I laid her down and then I came on foot. Twenty-two more days I walked through ghosts to reach the Whalebone Gate. And now I am here, Issarit, Ivory City, the Last City, and it will spit me out also.”

“No,” says Ratri. “Why?”

The daylight changes, refracted strangely over road and rooftops, and both women turn their gazes up. A massive aethrial drifts by leagues above on some warm wind-current, its tentacles pale, lazy streamers trailing in the near-cloudless sky. The wind carries it onward and away.

“Work,” the steppe-woman says. “No work, no coin, no room in the city.”

The shaft of Ratri’s mother’s harpoon is warm in her hands, and she feels something — her mother’s ghost on her — reaching for this woman, for grief and fellowship and the strange-familiar. “I might could help,” she offers.

The steppe-woman glares. “For why, giant-sister?”

“For why not?” Ratri shrugs: a tale too long for the telling. “What’s your name?”

Shrike,” the woman repeats impatiently.

“Ratri,” says Ratri, and offers her hand.

Shrike takes it. Her fingers are light and fine as bird-bone, but she’s only just grasped Ratri’s broad, callused hand when they close like a wire snare. She yanks Ratri off-balance toward her, glaring mad-eyed. “Sister,” she hisses. “I see the sea stained red.”

Ratri sees it too, sometimes, in dream or memory. “Listen,” she says wearily. “You want work, or no?”

The galley of the Suntouched Horizon is a stinking coffin, and Ratri has to duck her head to fold herself in beneath the ceiling. Under the crazed glass moon of a smoking oil lamp, the Ald Bastid rattles his ugly bone dice onto the table and doesn’t look up at her. “Whatsit, Tallspear?”

“New one,” Ratri says. At her shoulder, Shrike rattles as if in answer to the dice, a soft clacking of beads and buttons.

The Bastid looks up. “Hands or back?”

“Eyes,” Ratri tells him.

He turns his own, fogged and rheumy, to the little steppe-woman. “Is’t so?” he demands, and surveys her skeptically. “At how many leagues canst’e spy a gull on a clear day?”

“What is a gull?” Shrike asks.

“A white bird,” Ratri tells her.

“And what is a leagues?”

The Bastid sucks his teeth.

“She doesn’t know all the words,” Ratri says. “But she knows others in plenty. And she’s got eyes, and the Sight besides.”

“Ah,” the Bastid breathes, and takes in the steppe-woman afresh. “How many Sights?”

“Three,” Shrike says. “The living, the dead, and the signs.”

The Bastid creaks on his bench. He takes up the dice again and clatters them in his gnarled fist.

“A black shadow beneath stars,” the steppe-woman tells him. “Four birds winging, and a foul wind.”

He casts the dice and bends above the table like a vulture to read their fall. “What shadow?”

“The wrong one.”

He glances up and nods once. “Come aboard, then. T’ mournful giant’ll find’e a hammock, show’e sheets an’ spars.”

Shrike takes to the rigging like a spider, and to the sea like a salt-born. When Ratri wonders at it, the little qazaq says, “The ship is like a pony.”

Ratri has never been aboard a pony, but she accepts this. A ship is many things, not all of them congruous.

She teaches Shrike the language of ship and sea, the geometries of sail and coastline. She shows Shrike how to catch and split and grill the yellow shallows-eels, and Shrike tells her of the flashing silver-sided fish, the kikutin, that flood the springtime river of her home. Shrike carves tokens of wood and whalebone, and knots them into the long ropes of Ratri’s hair.

Their hammocks hang side by side in the sluggish darkness of the ship’s belly. At night when the sea whispers to the wood and the ship sighs and groans, Ratri hums the strange wordless steppe-songs her mother had used to soothe her as a child, and Shrike teaches her the words.

They don’t talk of Ratri’s mother. Nor do they talk of her smaller, silent ghost, the one that curls like a fist in her belly.

When Shrike sleeps, Ratri retrieves her mother’s harpoon and lies with it beside her, whispering promises to the cold iron edge of it.

“Did you have children?” she asks Shrike one morning, over cups of bitter mak.

“No,” Shrike says. “I do not, in general, care to be touched.”

Ratri does, or did, but now when she takes Kal or Anatol down to the hold it feels dreamlike, meaningless, a thing that happens in fog. Nothing touches her; her skin is always cold. Anatol remarks the coldness. She feels like there’s a stony hollow within her that nothing can fill, a terrible stillness at her core. She’s a shell around an airless silence, a held breath where her heart should be.

She teaches Shrike the names of knots. Shrike teaches her six qazaqi curses, and how to brew the dry tawny leaf she calls ti. It tastes the way Ratri imagines the steppe-grass smells.

The Ald Bastid rattles his dice and whistles to the winds, and the Horizon skims the green-glass sea like a kestrel on the wing. Great shadows rise beneath the waves and the Bastid’s dice find them. Shrike perches atop the Horizon‘s mainmast and calls directions in a shrill, carrying voice like a gull’s; later, she takes up oars and learns to row. Ratri stands in the first longboat every time. Her mother’s harpoon spills blood in billows, staining the sea. They bring four good whales home to Issarit, and ivory coins rattle like dice in every sailor’s pocket.

They do not find the quarry Ratri seeks. She doesn’t sleep any longer, lying awake to murmur to the harpoon all night. She grows gaunt beneath the shadows of her ghosts.

The Bastid finds her on the deck, wind-whipped, in the gray of an early morning. “Longarm,” he rasps. “Ye waste away. Did’e bring me the grass-woman for ano’er pair of hands, or t’ balance the loss of ye?”

“I need to find Krakatan,” she tells him.

He barks a laugh and steps back from her. “Not wi’ my ship and crew, ye mad meg. Ye’d damn us all.”

Ratri shakes her head, rattling Shrike’s charms. “I know what to do,” she tells him.

The cloudy gaze on her is shrewd. “Ye know it’ll not bring ’em back. Yer ma’r, or the bairn.”

“I’m not a fool,” Ratri tells him wearily.

“Arn’t ye?” He laughs at her again. “Arn’t ye, giant girl?”

She and Shrike share a night watch, and Shrike brings a bottle of rakia. Ratri doesn’t drink, so the little woman drinks for both of them.

“Why do you chase a shadow?” she asks Ratri. The sea soughs and sighs around them, and clouds like tattered sails scud across the blue-black sky above. Witchlight flickers along the northern horizon.

“Kakatan,” Ratri says. “Shipbreaker. The Monster, Issarit’s Bane. Older than the City.”

“I didn’t ask its name,” Shrike says. “I asked why. You don’t chase glory. You chase the shadow itself.”

Ratri watches the faraway blue flame of the witchlight. The north: the black empire. “Do you know him?” she asks Shrike. “His face, I mean, or his name. The son of empire who led the raid against your clan?”

Shrike tips the bottle up. When she lowers it, she wipes the back of her hand across her mouth and nods. “I know his face and his name.” She taps her temple.

“Would you not kill him? If you could?”

Shrike watches the horizon as well. “If I met him,” she says, “in the City, on the street, I would put a knife in his eye.” She strokes the carved bone hilt of one of the steppe-knives at her hips. “But I do not hunt him. He took my clan from me. I don’t want him; I want my clan. And as I still live, if I still live, time and the river promise me another. Why chase evil, when you could chase joy?” She drinks again.

Ratri turns her face away. At length she says, “Krakatan killed my mother. I lost the child I was carrying.”

“I know,” says Shrike, not unkindly. “I see the ghosts on you.”

Ratri shrugs. “So for them, I hunt it.”

Shrike’s black eyes are depthless. “Ghosts don’t want to be revenged,” she says. “They want to be let go. Open your hand.”

Ratri gets up and paces to the other side of the deck, and leaves the steppe-woman drinking alone under the night.

Three nights later, with dawn balanced just below the edge of the world, they sail into an aethrial hatching ground. Ratri and Shrike, neither on watch, are tumbled from their hammocks by the excited cries of the sailors on deck.

“Come,” Ratri tells Shrike. “This is a thing you’ve never seen.”

From a distance, the whole expanse of the sea ahead glimmers with a pale, strange radiance, like the lamplight of a city beneath the waves. “What is it?” Shrike breathes.

Ratri grins at her. “Aethrials. The great cloud-skimmers? The little ones are hatched like this, in banks out at sea.”

The ship leans into the wind and they gain on the eerie glow, until they’re carried within and it’s all around them: thousands of tiny candle-flames burning beneath the waves. The sky has descended; they glide through a field of floating stars.

Some of the infant creatures have begun their ascent and drift up from the sea-surface like a slow, soft spray, translucent beads of light rising to envelop the ship. Shrike laughs in wonder and turns a circle, watching the night glitter. Ratri laughs to see her laugh.

“They come!” the Bastid bellows. “To boats! To boats!” Running feet slap and thump the deck as the shout echoes from voice to voice.

Shrike looks round-eyed to Ratri, who grins again, her blood thrumming fierce and hot. “Whales come to aethrial hatches to feed. A whaleship crew can make its fortune here.”

Ratri claims her accustomed place in the first boat, standing poised at the prow as the boatheader sings his orders to the rudder and oarsmen; Shrike takes a bench among their number. They slip through the starlight water, and Ratri glimpses for a moment the multitude of great shadows sweeping below.

To port, the second boat calls a breach, and Ratri turns her gaze in time to see a sleek dark ridge of whalespine crest the water, shedding incandescent droplets. “Second will best us!” cries someone at her back, and second’s oarsmen jeer.

“Haul on, haul on!” the boatheader sings out. “She lies ahead!” Ratri can see now another long silhouette running before them, but even as she watches, this one shrinks below.

“She sounds!” she calls. “We’ve lost her!”

The boat is offset briefly, shuddering in the water, and Ratri hears a plash. She turns back, astonished, and finds that Shrike has risen to her feet and stands now atop her bench, staring black-eyed at nothing. Her oar spins uselessly away in the boat’s wake.

Before anyone can cuff her or curse her back down, the texture of the light changes. All around them in the glittering water, little sparks are whirled away on unseen eddies, or wink out entirely.

A vast, engulfing darkness rises from below.

“Stern all!” bellows the boatheader. “Stern all, for your lives!” The oarsmen hardly need the command; all but Shrike have already thrown their furious strength into backing the boat. They’re imbalanced without Shrike’s oar, and the boat weaves its course drunkenly.

To port, the whale that the second boat had pursued breaches again, this time writhing with madness: a tentacle the breadth of a big man’s body, hoary gray and crusted with barnacles, constricts it nearly in two.

“Shipbreaker!” someone bawls. “The Shipbreaker, below!”

Boats and oarsmen, sea and ship fall away from her awareness. Ratri braces against the longboat’s thighboard and adjusts her grip on her mother’s harpoon. Her heart chants in her ears, her blood a tidal roar. Come to me, she sings in her mind. Come up, come up, and come to me. The shaft of the harpoon is sleek and hot as a living thing in her grasp. The air tastes of iron.

Another whale surfaces thrashing as a tentacle slithers around it in grisly embrace, and then it’s dragged below. A spreading cloud of rust in the water blots out the aethrial lights. “Come!” Ratri screams at the sea. “Come up!”

Behind her, the boatheader wraps a strong arm around her waist and tries to grapple her, but Ratri will not be moved. The boat shudders as something brushes it from below, and he falls back. “Come up!” she screams again.

Krakatan, the Shipbreaker, does.

It rises like an island from a churning black sea, water and blood sluicing from the barnacled expanse of it. Broken harpoon-shafts, gray and slimed with age, stand like spines from the mottled dark skin, some still trailing frayed and rotting rope-ends. Lashing tentacles and screaming whales whip the water around it to red-frothed frenzy, and the second boat is flung free of the sea’s clutch, making splintered jetsam of men and oars.

The harpoon Ratri holds is weightless; Ratri herself is weightless. The monstrous mountain rising from the sea before them is all the weight there is, the axis of the world. All else diminishes as it grows to blot the sky.

The boat bucks again. A tentacle snatches one of the oarsmen from the stern into the air, hanging him howling by his ankles; a second snakes up to wrap his chest and shoulders. They pull him in two and empty him splashing into the sea. The ragged halves of him are plunged beneath in the monstrous grasp.

Another oarsman retches in great heaving gouts over the side of the boat. “Stern!” the boatheader still bellows, as though the word means anything.

Ratri breathes her mother’s name, the name she’d meant for her daughter. With all her strength, she throws.

The harpoon flies, its arc a beautiful precision in the chaos, and for a moment all stands still around it: the harpoon an axis now, a pin to hold time in place. Ratri feels each beat of her heart as slow as rolling thunder, feels the breath bottled in her chest.

The harpoon strikes true and bites deep, sinking a full third of its length into that glistening hide.

Still the scummed black sea boils. The little needle of the harpoon tilts and is lifted into the air like the pointer of a barometer as the mountain continues to grow, and behind Ratri in the boat the reel rattles and hisses as the rope spools out after it. The harpoon recedes above, vanishes into the clouded heavens, and the rope-end catches. The line pulls taut; the reel groans and the boat lifts drunkenly, tilting up from the water. Oarsmen and boatheader tumble aft together. Ratri clings to the gunwale.

Before them, one of the Shipbreaker’s eyes rises from the dark-stained sea.

It rises like a moon, vast and lambent silver, the staring black pupil an eclipse at its heart. It rises fixed, Ratri thinks, on her.

She crouches and gropes desperately for a second harpoon.

“No!” a woman screams shrilly. “Motherless scum-devil! Bloated worm-food, clanless, sisterless, blighted nothing!”

The boat shivers and lurches, the line that fastens it distantly above to the Shipbreaker’s hide creaking as a little figure darts lightfoot up to the longboat’s prow, brushing past Ratri. Shrike balances there for a long moment, poised defiantly between Ratri and the monster’s eye, and then she leans back and hurls one of her bone-hilted knives with all her strength.

It sinks to the hilt in the black pit of that monstrous pupil.

From the deep-below black, a sound rises, more felt than heard.

The sea itself seems to roar, low and faraway; the boat trembles underfoot, the water fracturing into odd ripples all around them. Everyone on its surface is still; the boat hangs still.

The Shipbreaker dives.

The mottled gray mountain slides, a precipitous avalanche. Barnacles and broken harpoons rush past them, gaining speed, and then Ratri’s mother’s harpoon, little pin among the rest, falls past and away beneath the tide. The rope, gone slack, begins to run out anew, this time fixed fathoms below and still sinking.

The black-eyed woman turns back, bristling and radiant with fury. She holds out her other knife. “Cut the line!” she screams at Ratri.

“I have to kill it!” Ratri cries back.

“You can’t!” Shrike screams at her. “Cut the line or kill us all!”

Ratri holds her breath. The line rattles urgently past, time accelerating beyond all control. In the silence between one heartbeat and the next, she hears her mother sigh — her mother’s ghost, speaking with Shrike’s voice — Open your hand, girl.

She reaches for Shrike’s knife, and cuts the line.

It snaps and sings, and the end that slithers down into darkness only narrowly misses Shrike, who ducks and tumbles back into the boat. The reel-end whips back and bites deep across Ratri’s forearm, and she cries out and drops the knife with a clatter, sinking to the boat’s floor.

“Stern all!” the boatheader bellows, regaining his feet, and the oarsmen scramble for their benches. All save for Shrike, who makes her way across the pitching floor of the boat to crouch beside huddled Ratri.

“All right then, Giant-sister?” she asks softly.

Ratri shakes her head, and the charms in her hair, wood and whalebone, rattle like dice, like coins, like laughter. “Yes,” she says at last. “No. I will be.”

“You will be,” Shrike agrees, and offers her hand to help Ratri up. Ratri opens her own hand to take it.

The oarsmen row them back through the red-stained sea to where the Horizon waits, as the sun lifts like a waking eye above the edge of the world. Ratri feels nothing but wind and the dawn’s first warmth across her back.

Illustration: The Ship “John W. Brewer”, ca. 1845 by a Chinese Painter

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Wren Wallis
Wren Wallis is a writer of speculative fiction who lives in outside of Boston. Her short fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lackington's, and Daily Science Fiction as well as assorted anthologies. Her website is wrenwallis.com, and she is on Twitter as @invisibleinkie.