To Katherine and Scarlet


Milo of Order Murro

Milo slipped in the darkness, falling to one knee. The stones of the beach cut his skin, and the blood darkened the oiled wool of his leggings. The old fisherman, Kirot his name was, paused and looked back at him, lifting his lantern and one white eyebrow in query. Are you coming, or staying here? To the north, the waves cracked with ice. To the south, the deep darkness of the village waited for their return. Milo forced himself to stand. A little more blood would do him no harm. He’d lost enough, God knew. Kirot nodded and turned back to the long, slow trudge along the shore.

The rhythm of their steps sounded against the waves like the complex patterns of a marriage dance. Milo could almost conjure up the thrill of the violins and the tapping of the shell drums. He had heard it said that of all the thirteen races of mankind, the Haaverkin had the most exquisite sense of music. In fairness, he’d only heard this said by other Haaverkin. A woman’s voice rose in the music, ululating in a sensual harmony with the strings, and Milo recognized that he was hallucinating. The voice of the water, his father called it. He’d heard it before sometimes when he’d been out on the boats in the dim light before dawn or limping back in to shore after a long day on the cold northern waters. Sometimes it was music, other times voices in conversation or argument. Some of the very old or very young claimed that the sounds were real, that they were the Drowned calling out to their brother race. Milo’s father said that was rot and piss. It was only a man’s mind playing tricks on itself, and the roar of ice and water to give it ground to play on. And so that was what Milo believed.

The coast nearest his village was ragged. Cliffs and stony beach, fat green crabs and snow-grey gulls. Some nights the aurora danced green and gold in the sky, but tonight it was low dark cloud and the smell of snow coming. The moon struggled now and again through the cover, peeping down at the two men and then looking shyly away. No, not two men. Not yet. One man and one nearly so. Milo had been a boy that morning, and would be a man before he slept, but he was still in the dangerous place between places, neither one thing nor another. It was why he was here.

He knew that the best thing was not to look directly into the glow of Kirot’s lantern. The tiny light would blind him. Better to stare into the shadows and leave his eyes adapted to the dark. But without his willing it, his gaze slid toward the flame, and he didn’t have the will left to pull it away. Of the hundreds of small fishing villages along the Hallskari coast, each had its order, its ritual, its secret and signs and mysteries. Bloody battles had raged between some for generations over disagreements whose origins were lost in the dark waters of history. Order Wodman, their faces tattooed in blue and red, sank the ships of the green-faced Order Lus, and Order Lus burned Wodman salting houses until the elder clan came from Rukkyupal to force a reconciliation. In some orders, to become a man meant a monthlong voyage in a boat of your own design. In others, the boys would fast until the great rolls of Haaverkin fat were reduced to thin folds of skin. For Milo and the boys of Order Murro, there was the initiation. A night of songs and coddling, a last chance to sleep in the women’s quarters, and then from dawn to dusk a series of ritual combats and beatings that left Milo’s back raw and his knees shaking-weak.

And after the last of these, the secret initiation about which no boy knew and no man would speak. Even now, all that Milo could say for certain was that it involved walking along the shore at low tide on the longest night of the year.

Kirot grunted and stepped to the left. Milo’s hazy mind failed to grasp why until he trod into the freezing puddle between the stones. The cold bit at his toes. Any of the other races—Firstblood, Tralgu, Yemmu, even the oil-furred Kurtadam—would have been in danger of death with a wet leg on a night like this. The dragons had made Haaverkin to survive the cold, and Milo only felt the wet as another insult to his dignity in a day rich with them.

Kirot heaved a great sigh, stopped, and took a bone pipe from his hat. He tamped tobacco into the bowl, took the stem between his rot-grey teeth, and leaned close to the lantern, sucking at the smoke like a baby at the teat. His face was a labyrinth of ink and age lines. When he looked at Milo, there was a solemnity in his expression that said wherever they had been bound for, they had reached. The old fisherman held out the pipe. Milo considered whether he should pretend to cough on the smoke. Boys weren’t allowed tobacco, though most of them found ways to sneak pinches of it from their fathers and older brothers. The bone bowl was warm, and Milo inhaled deeply, the glow of the embers like the bright eye of a Dartinae. It must have been the right thing, because Kirot smiled.

“Listen to me,” Kirot said, and hearing a voice that wasn’t swimming up from inside his own head startled Milo. “Of all the orders in all the villages of the Haaverkin, only ours knows the great secret of the world. You listening? There are things only we know.”

“All right,” Milo said.

“Josen, son of Kol. You remember him?”

Milo nodded.

“He wasn’t lost in a fouled net,” Kirot said. “He spoke of what you are about to learn outside the men’s circle. His own father killed him. Yours’ll kill you too, if you tell our secrets. What you learn here, no one ever knows, except us. Follow me?”

Milo nodded.

“Speak it,” Kirot said. “This isn’t time for being unclear.”

The warmth of the smoke cleared Milo’s head and soothed the aches in his flesh. He took another draw and exhaled through his nostrils. A particularly large wave roared against the stone shore, leaving spears and daggers of ice behind as it drew back into the ink-black sea.

“If I speak of what I learn here tonight, my life will be forfeit.”

“And no one will even know why,” Kirot said. “Not your mother. Not your wives, if you have any such. To everyone, it will have been sad mischance. Nothing more.”

“I understand,” Milo said.

Kirot stretched his broad shoulders, the joints of his spine cracking like snapped twigs.

“You know how it is, waking up from a good sleep?” Kirot asked. “You’re in some warm little dream about drinking goat’s milk with your dead aunt or some such nonsense, and then you come to, and it all fades away. Maybe if you were sick-tired to start or some dog’s started yapping in the night and woke you, you’re a little here and a little there at the same time. Don’t matter, though, because the dream that was all solid and real just ups and slides out of your mind. When the time comes to haul out for the day, and you can’t even say what it was you were dreaming about.”

Milo drew on the pipe again. His knees shook less and his back hurt more. A breath later, he noticed Kirot’s mildly annoyed gaze on him. Milo shook his head.

“Ask you again, and attend it this time. You know how it is, waking up from a good sleep?”

“I do.”

“Good, then. So that dream that fades? That’s the whole world. You, me. The sea, the sky. Every retching thing there is. It’s all a dream the dragons dream, and if the last dragon ever wakes up, we’re fucked. Everything that ever happened comes undone and cooks off into nothing.”

He said it in the matter-of-fact voice that belonged to conversations about weather and the odds of a good catch. Milo waited for the rest of the parable. Another wave rattled the stones and ice. In the dim light of the lantern, Kirot looked abashed.

“All right, then,” the old man said, turning his back to the sea. “No point waiting here. Come on.”

At first, Milo thought they were heading back to the village, and pleasure and disappointment fought for the

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