Rangie didn’t see which way the stranger came from, whether across the bridge from the city proper, or from outside, through the Wicker Gate in the mudbrick wall that enclosed the cantonment of Seggau-li. But she heard the tap of the staff approach along the road, and heard it pause at the front of the shop.
Her husband, Meelo, outside by the door, rested on the tripod of his skinny feet and rigid tail-feathers. But Meelo was Darjee and male, and singing a mourning song. It was doubtful that he even heard the stranger’s soft question, that caught his wife’s ear, indoors: “What ails you, goodfellow?”
Rangie straightened her apron and went outside.
The stranger squatted by her husband, bent-backed and clothed in a brown cassock and dusty leather coat, a staff of grey gunmetal propped against her shoulder. The cassock’s hood, pulled forward over the stranger’s brow, gathered the shadows around her snout.
Rangie was about to shoo her away for a Czuczun beggar, but then the stranger’s head came up. Rangie saw the white fang-tips that lined her narrow muzzle, and she thought her Czua instead, although no woman of that race would ever stoop in the street as she did and it was uncommon for a Czua woman to go about unveiled in the street.
Then she stood, long limbs unfolding beneath her coat: Rangie saw that the stranger was taller than any Czua and lacking in the breadth of her torso. A muscled naked tail coiled behind her feet – also an anomaly for a Czua woman to have an undressed tail, when this one was plainly no kind of prostitute. Rangie decided she must be Czua, after all, and a foreigner—from the north, maybe, where she had heard the heat caused folk of all races to grow long and lean.
“How can I serve you, goodwoman?” she asked.
There was a pause before the stranger’s reply. Rangie had encountered that before with foreigners, unused to the trill of Darjee voices.
“Goodwife,” she said, and indicated Meelo with the butt of her staff. “I thought him ill. Is he simple?”
All Darjee men are simple, Rangie thought, but bristled nonetheless at the presumption, the feathers standing up on her neck and arms. “He is Meelo the tailor. I am Rangie, his wife. He is in mourning.”
Another pause. “Forgive me. For what does he mourn?”
Rangie couldn’t help a sad little chirrup of her own. Meelo copied the sound and wove it into his song.
She composed herself. A Darjee wife had no time for such indulgences. “For our eggs,” she managed to say, “stolen from their nest while we trembled in the rafters above, this fortnight past.”
As she spoke, she saw again the monster’s face, lit half red by the fire and half silver in moonlight. She remembered long fingers reaching for her and Meelo, crouched in aborted ambush in the rafters above the door, their cries of challenge frozen in their throats, paralysed by the stare of its yellow eyes.
A shiver passed from the nape of Rangie’s neck down to her tail. She wished the conversation over, did not want her thoughts taken back to that dreadful night.
But the stranger’s attention had sharpened. Rangie caught a glitter of her eyes in the deep shadows of her cowl.
“Did you see the thief?”
The shivering spread to Rangie’s hands. She tucked them inside her apron. “A feathered snake,” she managed to say. “As thick as a Czua waist. With four arms.”
The stranger watched her intently. “And yours was not the first house raided?”
Rangie dipped her beak. “No. The snake came at the end of the winter rains.”
Another pause, but she had the impression that the stranger was considering now, rather than interpreting. She lifted her muzzle, as though searching for a scent. Rangie watched her, wondering.
“What have the city rulers done to hunt this stealer of eggs?” the stranger asked.
Rangie plucked a brown feather from her breast, flicking it from her fingers in a gesture of disdain. “The river is wide and the eyes of princes are weak,” she said, reciting the bitter proverb of the slum.
The stranger watched her feather drift down onto the sun-baked dirt. “Who then keeps the peace here?”
“Big Man,” she said. “When she bothers.”
“Will you take me to this Big Man? I would pay you, but I regret I have no coin.”
Excuses lined up on Rangie’s tongue. The day was starting. Darjee and buck-toothed, round-bottomed Czuczun passed along the street, on their way to jobs at the manufactories and on the docks, or in the homes of wealthy Czua and Darjee collaborators across the bridge. Her work since that night was twice as hard as usual, with Meelo lost in mourning. The excuses died under the weight of the stranger’s stare. She nodded.
“But first,” the stranger said, and stooped once again to Rangie’s husband. A claw sprang from the stranger’s fingertip and she poked the tailor’s brow.
“Ow,” said Meelo, rubbing at his forehead.
“Tailor,” said the stranger. “Bring me six pepper seeds and I will take away your pain.” She raised a warning finger. “But know this: the seeds must come from a house that has not known death, or the blessing will not work.”
Meelo regarded the apparition before him in mute wonder. His eyes rolled around to his wife. Then his face lit and he sprang to his feet. He tapped his beak against hers and scampered away down the street. “I will be back soon, my love,” he cried, over his shoulder. “Make our guest welcome.”
Rangie sighed, watching him go. Men.
“That was cruel,” she said, more weary than annoyed. “There is no such house.”
The stranger was unruffled. “He will remember that, sooner or later, and return to his senses.”
She considered reneging on her commitment, and shooing her on her way instead. The stranger regarded her with cool patience. Flustered, Rangie bustled inside to lock up the shop. Re-emerging, she indicated the opposite direction to that taken by her husband.
“I’m Rangie,” she said, again.
“Caraiss, is my name,” the stranger replied.
She led her along the riverbank: this way was quicker, even with the morning traffic. Makeshift stalls—piled with moulding vegetables and yesterday’s stale loaves, stolen trinkets and the city’s broken cast-offs—leaned forlornly against the tenement blocks that lined the path along the top of the Seggau-li floodwall. The floodwall was mudbrick, and tumbledown in places. Below, the cockleboats of poor fisher folk were roped to eyelets in the wall, so they could float up on the tide and not be lost. Sail-barge captains somehow managed to avoid collision on the crowded waterway, as they tacked their vessels upstream and down. Across the water, the city’s floodwall was high and made of fitted stone; the houses beyond were plain, but whitewashed and neat. In the distance, the onion-topped towers of temples and palaces were visible through the city haze.
Rangie stopped to point. “There.” With the tide low, the wide maw of a sewer pipe hung clear of the river, draping tongues of weed and a fall of discoloured water. “That is where the beast lies during the day. It preys across the water because to hunt in the city would bring the Prince’s magicians down upon it.”
Caraiss regarded the pipe, the river traffic, and the scaffolded arch of the bridge, upriver. Her leather coat creaked as she leaned over the ragged parapet to examine the mud beach below.
“Let us speak with Big Man,” she said.
As they continued on their way, Rangie’s attention was caught by a white-whiskered old Czuczun, squatting to relieve himself in the lee of a vendor’s cart. His lower jaw hung slack, displaying the rotten spades of his rodent incisors as his head swivelled to follow Caraiss. His defecation forgotten, the Czuczun shut his mouth with an audible click. Rangie watched the old man scuttle away. She had to hurry to catch up with Caraiss.
She led her down shadowed laneways, under the bridged balconies of tenements. In daylight, the pall of fear that hung over the cantonment lifted, somewhat. A horde of children, Darjee and Czuczun, raced by on some hectic pursuit. Rangie felt a pain in her chest, for her unhatched young who would never play such games. The pang returned more sharply when they passed beneath a row of fluffy Darjee chicks, screeching wordlessly from their mother’s windowsill.
Czua youths loitered at a street corner, all fangs and knuckles without their adult bulk. Their hostile gazes flickered from Rangie to Caraiss, but they made no move to interfere with their passage.
They came to a cleared space amid the tenements. In its centre stood a stockade of bamboo, tied in bundles thicker than Rangie’s arm, the top of each stem cut to a point. A wood-framed tower stood within, walled in wicker, roofed with clay tile. Stone buttresses at its corners came above the level of the stockade, each mounted with a small, old-fashioned brass cannon.
A Kneshi kept guard at the only gate, the horizontal cylinder of its body supported on four pillar-legs. Its long face, thrust forward from its shoulders, bifurcated into muscular trunks, each tipped by a single nostril cupped between three dextrous lips. Its tusks were capped with iron. The Kneshi raised its ears threateningly and held its halberd to block their path.
“We’re here to see Big Man,” said Rangie, hating the shrillness that crept into her voice.
The Kneshi gazed down at her with beady black eyes, it’s expression unreadable. It switched its attention to Caraiss, for a moment, then grunted and shuffled about to tap on the gate. The gate opened and a Czua snout poked out. The Kneshi grated a few words. The Czua stuck his head all the way out, then retreated quickly. The gate was shut again.
The Kneshi shuffled back to face them, fixing its gaze on Caraiss. If she was bothered by its scrutiny, the tall foreigner gave no sign.
Rangie hopped from foot to foot, her thoughts going to her sweet fool of a husband. She hoped that Caraiss’s impossible task didn’t further fracture Meelo’s heart. It occurred to her that she could leave, now. Her service to Caraiss was done. Curiosity and pride, always her weaknesses, made her stay. Few Darjee ever entered Big Man’s fortress. Even fewer had the courage to want to do so.
After a few minutes, the gate swung wide. The Kneshi stepped aside and Rangie and Caraiss entered. A quartet of Czua males, with bared chests and arms and naked tails, glaives in hand and pistols in their belts, fell into step beside them. Rangie held herself as tall as she could, determined not to show fear, even with their carnivore rankness filling her nostrils.
A score or more fighters, Czua and Kneshi, loitered about the compound within the stockade, dicing, smoking, sewing clothes, and tending to arms and armour. A handful of Czua women lounged among them, heavily robed in contrast to the half-dressed males, but unveiled and with naked tails. All of them paused to watch Rangie and Caraiss be escorted past.
The four guards marched them to the foot of the stair beneath the tower door. A grey-muzzled Czua waited at the top of the steps, unveiled but robed and with her tail properly covered. Big Man descended unhurriedly, her stance outwardly relaxed. But Rangie could smell the tension in her. Did she know Caraiss, already? Were they enemies?
Big Man was tall for a Czua female and bulked, Rangie guessed, nearly twice as large as Caraiss. Yet Caraiss did not seem diminished by comparison.
Footsteps clattered behind Big Man A young Czua raced down the stair. Big Man put out a hand to catch the boy, but didn’t take her gaze from Caraiss.
“Go inside, Tsudai,” she said.
The boy ignored her and wriggled under his mother’s arm to stand beside her, his arms around Big Man’s thigh. He stared up at Caraiss, nose twitching inquisitively.
“A fine boy,” said Caraiss.
Big Man’s hand tightened on Tsudai’s shoulder. “He has his father’s wilfulness.”
“I have come about this serpent that raids houses in the night.”
Big Man smoothed her whiskers with her free hand. Rangie was certain she saw a quaver in the gesture. She wondered whether Big Man’s fear was for Caraiss or the snake.
“What do you seek of me?” Big Man said.
“Your aid to slay it,” Caraiss replied.
“We tried,” Big Man said. “It killed eleven of my fighters before we retreated.”
“Nonetheless.” Caraiss shifted her gunmetal staff.
Big Man’s eyes followed its movement. After a pause, she shook her head. “We have nothing to offer.”
Caraiss regarded her for a moment, then dipped her snout. “I understand.”
She backed away a pace, then turned to leave. Pride forbade Rangie to bow alike. She turned on her heel where she was, holding her tail-feathers high, and followed.
The gate was still ajar, and they squeezed through. Outside, the Kneshi guard held its halberd uncertainly. Its ears flapped in agitation.
The killing ground was filled with Czuczun.
They arose with a gasp as Caraiss emerged. Her shoulders seemed to droop, a little, beneath her coat, as though a sudden tiredness had come upon her. Rangie recognised the old Czuczun from the marketplace, raising a skinny arm to point.
“Matsa-czuczua!” he cried.
“Matsa-czuczua!” the crowd echoed. It was self-evidently a Czua word, but not one with that Rangie had heard. The syllables “czuczua” were tantalisingly obvious, but the prefix, she didn’t know.
Caraiss lifted a hand; the crowd of Czuczun abated with hushed excitement. She paused. To Rangie, she seemed for a moment reluctant to speak.
“Tsetha-or, tsetha-or,” Caraiss said. I bring peace, I bring peace.
“Tse-uamha, tse-uamha,” the crowd responded. Bring us death, bring us death.
Rangie understood the words, but what the exchange might mean, she had no idea. Rarely had she witnessed any public displays of Czua religion, and never from Czuczun, the casteless untouchables of Czua cosmology. The Czuczun seemed satisfied, though. Almost immediately, the crowd began to disperse. Some lingered, to reach for Caraiss, their fingers stopping just short of touch, as she passed.
Rangie hurried at her heels. “What was all that?”
“Czuczun are simple folk,” Caraiss said. Which was no answer at all, but it was plain Rangie wouldn’t get a better one.
“What will you do now?” she asked, instead.
“I will slay this serpent,” Caraiss replied.
“Alone? It killed eleven fighters,” Rangie said.
Who is this woman? Rangie wondered.A caste above Czua, as Czua are above Czuczun?
Her stomach grumbled. She realised that she had gone out without breaking her fast. “Are you hungry?” she asked.
Caraiss turned to her. Her top lip peeled back from her fangs in a Czua smile. “I am, indeed.”
The shop was still locked up, when they returned. Of Meelo, there was no sign. Caraiss had to stoop to follow Rangie inside. She passed the side window’s shutters—incompletely repaired since the snake’s entry twelve days ago—without comment. Hammer and nails and new planking were still scattered on the floor.
She stood straight again beneath the high rafters of the back room, where Rangie and Meelo lived, and leaned her metal staff in the corner of the wall. She removed his coat and pulled back the hood of her cassock, revealing a long, furry skull, with round, neat ears and blue eyes, horizontally slit. A Czua face, except for the roundness of the ears.
Caraiss accepted a bowl of water and sat, cross-legged on the floor beside the table, to drink. Neither of their sitting stools had survived the snake’s assault. Rangie fretted as she bustled about, worried for her missing husband and filled with a turmoil of curiosity and brittle hope. Vengeance, she thought. Could this stranger really deliver it?
She had only Darjee food to offer, pulses, fruit and grains, but he made no complaint and ate heartily. They spoke little, and of nothing of consequence.
After their repast, Caraiss rinsed their plates while Rangie made mint tea. Caraiss helped her to finish repairing the broken shutter, and kept at it while Rangie saw to a Czuczun customer. The round-snouted little woman’s eyes strayed continually to the lanky foreigner.
Rangie itched to ask her what the Czuczun fascination was with Caraiss, but not with her in earshot. She over-charged the woman a full two pennies and the Czuczun made no complaint.
Rangie returned to her work. The quiet of the house felt oppressive, but she didn’t feel like talking or singing. She recalled the Darjee hatchlings on their sunny windowsill, and remembered how the monster had whipped about, spitting curses and splintering furniture, unable to reach her and Meelo in the rafters. Its tail had struck the hearth and dislodged the nesting dish from its place above the coals. The nest hit the ground edge-on, the eggs cracking against the brushed dirt floor.
Rangie had felt as if she would burst along with them.
Her gaze settled once again on Caraiss, sweeping up the litter of her repair work. Eleven fighters the snake had killed, and yet this lone foreigner had no evident qualms about facing it.
What manner of woman is she?
The shadows lengthened, the light outside turned orange, as the sun passed behind the city’s haze. Still, Meelo did not return. Rangie fretted more than she worked.
Caraiss shrugged her lean shoulders into her coat and gathered up her staff. She lifted her cowl. “It is time,” she said. “I thank you, goodwife, for your kindness. Do not worry for your husband, he is safe.”
Rangie wondered how she could know.
She had little desire to sit in the darkness, alone. A notion that had been stewing inside her all afternoon bubbled up her throat. “I’ll come with you,” she blurted.
Caraiss shook her head. “It will be dangerous.”
“You will kill the snake?” Rangie said.
“So I have said,” Caraiss replied.
“I’d see it done.”
Caraiss laughed: a dry rasp, but not, Rangie thought, at her expense. “So be it. Come.”
This time, Caraiss led the way, into the deepening dusk as the mist rolled in off the sea. Few others were about, and those that were hurried to reach their homes. The houses were locked and barred. Those Czuczun who had no doors to shut sought refuge in the deepest, smallest cracks and spaces they could find. Homeless Darjee had jumped and shimmied to the highest vantages available.
The smells of Seggau-li were the smells of the city: of coal smoke and the river’s stink of rotting sewage, or of brine when the sea washed in to take the filth away. In Seggau-li, there was always, too, the faint, undefinable tang of fear that comes, conjoined, to poverty. This season, it had grown to resemble the aura of the slaughterhouse district, where the Czua took their herds for meat, so strong it fouled the tongue as well as the nostrils.
Caraiss halted by a fallen section of floodwall, a short way downriver of the sewer outlet. “This is where it climbs up,” she said.
She led Rangie to an alley mouth, ripe with garbage. Here they could conceal themselves in the shadows, yet still observe the pipe across the river. Caraiss folded herself to sit, tipped forward, chest against knees. She cradled her staff loosely against her shoulder.
Bodies shifted in the depths of the alley. Rangie peered nervously into the gloom, but Caraiss seemed unperturbed. There was a click, and a bladed spike as long as Rangie’s arm sprang from each end of the metal staff. The movements inside the alley stilled.
If the hooded woman was amused, she gave no sign. Only her snout protruded from her cowl. Rangie squatted beside her, taking care where she put her tail.
The night deepened. Traffic on the water was minimal, a handful of barges lit with coloured paper lanterns, riding the tide as far as it would carry them. The mist that wreathed the city on the other side glowed red with the light of thousands of lamps and hearths, shining from windows thrown open without fear.
Rangie wondered if Meelo had come home, and what he would think, finding home empty. She hoped he had more sense than she, and just stayed put.
“There,” said Caraiss.
Rangie heard the splash and saw the spray of white foam beneath the sewer mouth, but was too slow to see the thing that made it. An arrow-shaped ripple moved rapidly across the water. Rangie’s heart rate quickened. What in pity’s name, she asked herself, are you doing here? There was still time to run, but something stopped her. Perhaps nothing more than her amazement at Caraiss’s equanimity.
The ripple disappeared below her line of sight. Moments later came the clatter of a falling brick. A dark bulk heaved up onto the road.
“Do not look into its eyes,” Caraiss said. She stood smoothly and moved out into the open.
“Nagai. I am here.”
The snake whipped around to face her. Yellow eyes glowed within its dark silhouette. Rangie had to clench her cloaca tight, until the sudden, urgent desire to vacate her bowel had passed. Nagai, an abstract little thought repeated. Another Czua word she hadn’t heard before.
The snake reared, spreading its four arms wide, and hissed a challenge. The back half of its length coiled, preparing to attack.
An ululating Darjee war cry sounded from above. A figure launched from the rooftops and landed astride the snake’s back. It raised an axe, and Rangie cried in recognition. “Meelo!”
She screamed his name again as the snake bucked and tossed her husband aside. He smacked hard against a wall and bounced back to the ground. Heedless of the snake, Rangie dashed to where he fetched up.
The snake began to lunge her way. Too late, it realised its mistake and twisted frantically back towards Caraiss.
She had moved as well, closing the gap between with rapid strides. Even as its arms engulfed her, she struck, one point of her spear impaling the monster between its upper pair of limbs.
Rangie grabbed her husband by his shoulder feathers and hauled him clear. “Fool!” she told him. “Where have you been?”
He twisted to get his feet under him, gripped her forearms while he stood. “I was ashamed,” he said.
“Fool,” she said again, and tapped his beak hard with hers.
Caraiss had the snake pinned, her spear point deep in its chest. It chirruped like an injured hatchling, its tail flopping uselessly. All four hands gripped the shaft of the spear with, as though the snake was assisting in its own muder, while Caraiss leaned on the spear and worked it methodically back and forth. Soon enough, the snake grew still. Its voice failed. Its fingers slipped, lifeless, from the spear.
Eleven men, Rangie thought, in wonder. Eleven men it killed, and she dispenses with it like a woman slaughtering vermin.
Caraiss planted a foot on the monster’s chest and pulled her weapon free. Rangie released her husband and moved cautiously to take a closer look. A shiver of the snake’s tail made her jump, but it was only a belated reflex of dead nerve and muscle.
Caraiss straightened her cowl. She was breathing heavily, but appeared unhurt. “Brave Darjee,” she said, at their approach. Whether she meant Rangie, or Meelo, or both of them together, Rangie wasn’t sure.
The snake looked smaller, in death. Its body was scaled grey, save for a ruff of dark feathers around its throat, and smaller clumps at the shoulder of each arm. A long forked tongue flopped from its lipless mouth. It stank of the sewer.
Caraiss wiped her bloodied spearpoint on the monster’s ruff and, with a click, retracted both points back inside the staff.
“What is it?” Meelo asked.
“A Nagai,” said Caraiss. “A male, not come into its godhood.”
Godhood? Rangie stared at her. She asked, “Where did it come from?”
“The distant east. I had thought its kind extinct.”
“Extinct?” Meelo echoed.
Caraiss nodded. “A long time ago, the Nagai ruled, as gods, over others. They were cast down and hunted from the world.”
“By the Godbreakers,” Rangie breathed.
Caraiss’s snout came round, sharply enough to startle her. “So they have been named, yes,” she said.
Which only made Rangie wonder what other names they might have had. She knew nothing of the written histories of the world. Darjee song chronicles, concerned more with tragedy than accuracy, conflated the Godbreakers’ razings with the conquests of the Czua, though it was well known that these events had been some decades apart.
Lanterns approached along the road: Big Man, veiled and robed, with a crowd of her fighters. Rangie’s feathers bristled as the newcomers gathered around. Big Man’s eyes were visible above her veil. Her gaze travelled from the monster’s blunt muzzle to the fat tip of its tail.
“This isn’t the one we fought,” she said, at length. “That one was bigger.”
“Perhaps your fear made it seem so,” snapped Rangie, the words popping out of her beak almost before they had finished assembling themselves in her head.
“Rangie!” Meelo gasped.
She bristled, defiantly, at these armoured fighters who had fled, when she and Meelo had not. Big Man barely glanced at her—a feather-brain Darjee and not worthy of her anger—before returning her attention to Caraiss.
“It’s not the same one,” she said.
Caraiss sighed, seeming suddenly tired, as she had when the Czuczun congregated outside Big Man’s fortress. She nodded. “Then there is another. A female.”
Big Man directed her men to skin the snake. Two of the Kneshi produced knives, but could not separate the snake’s hide from the flesh beneath. They sat back, shrugging their trunks in defeat. Rangie thought of Caraiss’s spear point, piercing the monster’s breast with such ease.
Big Man had her men fetch a pole instead, which they wedged into the wound Caraiss had made. They raised the snake up, flopping grotesquely, and propped the pole against the floodwall so its burden could be seen easily from across the river.
“The female will come out, when night returns,” Caraiss said to Big Man. “Abandon your fortress. She will blame you, knowing nothing of me, and seek you there.”
“And where will you be?” Big Man demanded. “While it tears Seggau-li apart, hunting us?”
“I will not fail you,” said Caraiss.
Big Man’s expression was hidden behind her veil, but it was plain from her taut gestures that she disliked having her impotence highlighted in front of her men.
Caraiss went home with Rangie and Meelo, where she made a poultice for the lump on the back of the tailor’s skull. She felt Meelo over and pronounced him unbroken but badly bruised. Sure enough, by dawn, Meelo was so stiff and sore he could barely move. Caraiss had to boost him up onto his sleeping perch.
While her husband dozed, Rangie asked, “What will you do now?”
“Nagai are all born male,” said Caraiss. “When two meet, they fight. The strongest becomes female, and grows. Soon after, they mate, and the female lays her eggs. I want the eggs, or the younglings, if they are already hatched.”
“This female,” said Rangie, mulling her tea, “she is powerful?”
“She is dangerous,” Caraiss agreed. “Much more so than the male.”
“Can you stop her?”
“I believe so.”
Rangie stared at the leaves in the bottom of her cup, and wished she knew what future they had to tell. “I believe so.” Not, “Yes.”
When evening neared, and Caraiss bestirred herself, Rangie once again stood with her. “I’m coming.”
Meelo trilled his dismay. She looked up into his wide eyes. “Don’t fear, my love,” she said. “We are going where the snake is not.”
“I, too,” he said, but could hardly raise himself on his perch, and subsided again with a mournful whistle.
Rangie jumped up beside him to rub his beak with hers. “Don’t fret,” she said.
Caraiss chuckled. “Brave Darjee.”
They returned to the river, where the male Nagai slumped on its pole. This time, Caraiss descended the fishermen’s ladder over the side of the floodwall, and waded out among the cockleboats. She helped Rangie into one, taking care to keep dry the unlit lantern she carried, and they lay down in the bottom of the boat to wait, Caraiss on her back, Rangie on her belly, with her legs tucked beneath her and her head low between her shoulders.
The slow rocking of the boat was soothing, as were the darkening pinks and purples of the sky. Rangie soon began to doze.
She awoke with a start, in full darkness.
The night was clear, and moonless, the constellations bright overhead. The breeze was cool over her still-damp legs. Her pulse thudded in her ears. “Has it come?” she whispered.
“Not yet,” Caraiss replied.
Rangie subsided with a sigh of relief. She twisted her neck to look up at the sky. “Are the stars different where you come from?” she asked, after a while.
“Where I come from?” Caraiss repeated. “They are the same, near enough. In the far north, though, the Charioteer, the Seahorse,” she pointed, “those constellations that fill the northern part of our sky are in the south, and other stars fill the north.”
“What constellations are there?”
“There is a five-tailed cat. A farmer with a scythe. A balance-weight.”
They fell silent again for a time, then Rangie said, “People will die, while we gather eggs.”
“I cannot save them all,” Caraiss said softly, and Rangie was not at all certain what she heard in her tone.
A howl rent the night, dreadful with woe. Rangie froze. It was not a sound made by any Czua or Czuczun, Darjee or Kneshi.
There followed a booming splash, and Rangie clamped her beak shut on a chirp of terror. She strained to listen for the snake’s passage, over the frantic hammer of her own pulse in her ears.
Caraiss lifted her head to peer over the cockle’s rim. Rangie did likewise. A massive shape heaved itself through the break in the floodwall, and was gone from sight.
“Now,” murmured Caraiss.
They sat upright, and Caraiss loosed their mooring. They dipped their paddles over the sides of the cockle and pushed across the turning tide.
At the sewer pipe, Rangie jumped up first, splashing into the filthy stream inside while Caraiss held the little boat steady. Then Caraiss tossed her staff up ahead of her and climbed after. With nowhere to fasten it, the cockleboat spun away aimlessly on the current. Rangie breathed through her beak, trying to ignore the stink and the squelch of soft things beneath the water.
“How will we get back across the river?” she asked.
Caraiss’s teeth flashed in a grin. “Why, over the bridge, of course.”
“It will be guarded,” Rangie said, but knew what the answer would be before the last word left her beak. The bridge was guarded to prevent slum-dwellers coming in to the city after dark, rather than to stop them leaving. Her head bobbed in embarrassment, that Caraiss should have deduced what she ought to have known.
Caraiss said nothing more.
Rangie stared into the pitch black ahead, and tried not to think about what might happen if the snake returned before they were done. Her hands shook as she lit the lantern. She held it up high, and walked at Caraiss’s shoulder into the depths, both holding their tails high and clear of the water.
The clay tube of the outlet gave way to a rougher cylinder of mortared brick. They ducked around a rusted steel ladder, bolted to the ceiling, giving up to a stone manhole. Small pipes from the houses above joined the main sewer at the height of Rangie’s head. They came to an intersection, two more large pipes flowing into the one they followed. Caraiss continued without deviating.
The tunnel became less regular. Brick gave way to natural stone, scarred by the work of iron tools—an underground stream that had been incorporated into the sewer network. The water level, too, grew less even, sometimes over their knees, at others down almost to their ankles.
Rangie kicked something under the water, that clattered along the uneven stone. A length of wood, she thought at first. Caraiss paused, and in the swaying light of her lantern, Rangie saw it was a splintered bone she had stumbled on. Caraiss glanced back at her, the lantern lighting the inside of her hood, so that Rangie could see her face clearly. It did nothing to help her read her expression.
Not twenty paces further on, the tunnel walls opened out into an underground cavern. Its ceiling rose little higher than that of the tunnel, but its far side was beyond the reach of Rangie’s lantern light. Caraiss waded forward cautiously, and stopped. She prodded beneath the surface of the water with the butt of her staff.
“The ground drops away here,” she said.
Rangie raised her lantern high, to give its light the furthest reach she could.
“There,” she said, and pointed. Near the limit of the light, along the near wall of the cavern, a pebbled beach rose from the water.
They waded across to the scummy shore. The acrid tang of phosphate seared Rangie’s nostrils, overwhelming even the stink of the sewer and bringing tears to her eyes. Great pats of guano dotted the beach. Her steps faltered when she saw that among the driftwood and other flotsam were piles of bones: ribs, pelvises and spines, limb bones splintered for the marrow, skulls fanged, buck-toothed and tusked. Beaked Darjee skulls lay scattered among the rest, the rest of the soft-boned avian skeletons consumed with the victims’ flesh.
Caraiss continued to the peak of the beach, and a mound of pebbles and coarse sand there. Rangie willed her legs to follow, past a great heap of what looked like torn and weathered vellum. A shed snakeskin, she realised with a start.
She climbed up the side of the mound beside Caraiss. Nestled within was a clutch of soft-shelled eggs, each the size of Rangie’s head. As she watched, a lump moved across the surface of one, the youngling within shifting position.
“Close to hatching,” she said. As were mine, she added to herself, the shadowed image seared into her mind’s eye: the male Nagai delicately plucking bits of broken shell from her weakly flailing babies before popping them into its mouth. She had thought she would feel vengeful. But she didn’t, only sick at the thought of what was about to happen.
Caraiss raised her staff. The spear blades sprang from its tips. Rangie turned away as she raised the weapon. Oh, pity. She closed her eyes, but couldn’t stop herself from hearing the soft ‘pock’ when the spear pierced an egg, the slurp as it was withdrawn. Her arm quavered, holding up the lantern. She had to prop her elbow with her other hand.
“It is done,” Caraiss said.
A puncture blemished the upper curve of each egg, each wound weeping a trickle of red-streaked albumen. One, she had preserved, and she lifted the long skirt of her coat for a makeshift sling to carry it. “We must hurry.”
Rangie led the way back to the tunnel. They moved faster now, knowing the course. In a surprisingly short time, they reached the ladder and manhole they had passed on the way in. Rangie sprang for the bottom rung, gripping with both feet and one hand while she still carried the lantern. The ladder shuddered as Caraiss hauled her greater weight up onto it, awkward with her staff and the egg under one arm.
Rangie reached the top and tried the cover. “I’ll have to drop the light,” she said.
For an answer, Caraiss swung herself to one side of the steps. The lantern fell past her and struck the water with a plop. Darkness was instant.
Blinking afterimages, Rangie set her back against the manhole’s wall, raised both hands against the stone lid, and pushed. She weighed little, having a bird’s hollow bones, but with a solid perch to brace herself against, arm muscles originally evolved for flight could do their work. The cover lifted, grating hollowly on cobblestones as she slid it aside.
She climbed up, and Caraiss after her. A crowd of Czua and Darjee citizens filled the street. They stared in astonishment at the filthy apparitions who emerged from the ground at their feet.
“Look!” Rangie cried.
The jagged rooftops of Seggau-li were silhouetted by fire.
They raced for the bridge. On the river, slum dwellers were taking to boats and rafts, fleeing past the dedicated majority still manning the bucket lines.
The bridge’s near end was guarded by a squad of Kneshi mercenaries, who lumbered to intercept the tall foreigner and his Darjee companion. Their Czua captain raised a hand to stay them.
A crowd of the cantonment’s denizens had gathered at the other end of the bridge: Darjee and Czuczun, many of them armed, but not yet desperate enough to try and force their way past the muskets and halberds opposite. They gave way to Caraiss, and Rangie slipped through in her wake.
“Matsa-czuczua,” the Czuczun murmured. Rangie couldn’t help a twitter of annoyance that, still, she did not know what it meant.
A salvo of cannon fire erupted from somewhere in the cantonment’s heart. Big Man and the snake had found each other, then.
“Rangie!” It was Meelo, lurching from the shadow of a house, still bowed by the pain in his back. He caught her shoulders. “I hoped you’d come this way.”
“What has happened?” she asked.
“They say Big Man set her tower alight with the snake inside,” he replied. “We must flee while the Wicker Gate is still clear of the fires.”
Rangie wriggled from his grasp. “I have to see this done.”
“Why, love?” he wailed. “This isn’t a fight for little folk like us.”
Because of our dead babies, she thought. Because this is still Darjee land, underneath, and someone has to show that Darjee are not so small as we seem. But she could articulate none of it, only: “I must.”
He wailed again, wordless, and pressed his axe into her hands. It was a poor weapon, and what she might do with it Rangie had no idea, but it was what he had to offer and so she accepted it.
“Don’t be killed,” he said.
She tapped his beak with hers. “Wait for me by the gate.”
She hurried after Caraiss.
They crossed the path of the battle before they reached Big Man’s fortress. The splintered wreckage of a makeshift barricade half blocked the street. Broken Czua and Kneshi bodies lay scattered behind it, along with a pair of shattered gun carriages. Rangie was caught by the surprised expression on a dead Czua. His body ended below his ribs. A spatter of entrails indicated the direction his legs might have gone.
Further on, a second barricade stood intact. A trail of trampled shanty huts led, perpendicular, away from it. The path of ruin crossed two more streets and punched through the bottom storey of a tenement block. On the far side, they found more dead fighters. Piles of dark rags among them were the corpses of Czua women, veiled to travel the streets.
A gunshot sounded. Caraiss sprang into motion once more.
Big Man slumped with her back against the plinth in the centre of Seggau-li’s market square. A powder horn spilled its contents at her side. She held a musket propped between her knees, while she tamped the barrel, one handed.
Her other arm was in the grasp of the monster towering above her. Rangie’s steps faltered. The female Nagai was far larger than the male had been, rearing up to half-again Caraiss’s height.
The snake shook Big Man’s severed limb at her and screeched, “Where is he, that killed my mate?”
The Nagai lifted another hand. From it dangled a small body: Big Man’s son, Tsudai, held by the scruff of his neck. For an instant, Rangie thought the boy dead. Then the Nagai took his tail between a pair of claws and snipped off its end. Tsudai screamed. Big Man wept helplessly and tried to raise her gun.
“Where is he?“
“Here,” said Caraiss.
The snake spun. Its eyes glowed yellow with fury. They passed across Rangie as it turned, and suddenly she was rooted to the spot. The Nagai spread its arms wide and hissed, its feather ruff standing like a fan about its head.
Caraiss stood calmly. She reached into the fold of her coat and produced the Nagai egg.
“My children!” the snake gasped.
“This is the last,” Caraiss said.
A shudder ran through the serpentine body. “Give it to me,” the Nagai pleaded. “Give it to me, and I will leave.”
Caraiss placed the egg carefully on the ground and stepped away. “Release the boy, and we shall see.”
Rangie strained against the spell that held her. She felt something give, the Nagai’s hold weakened, perhaps, by its distress. She fought to move her limbs, staggered a step when the resistance abruptly ceased.
The Nagai’s arms flexed in agitation. It looked from Caraiss, to the egg, and back again.
Its upper pair of arms whipped around. One flung Big Man’s severed arm at Caraiss, the other tossed Tsudai high in the air.
The snake charged. Tsudai’s wail of terror mingled with his mother’s as Caraiss dashed to catch him. The Nagai had eyes only for its egg.
Rangie reached it first, her reactions faster than her thoughts. She raised the axe over her head. The Nagai recoiled. Its fingers twitched, but there was no way it could reach Rangie before the blade came down. It stooped low, weaving to try and catch her eye, but she refused to look at it.
Now what? Rangie thought, and: Fool of a Darjee, what in pity’s name are you doing here?
The Nagai shifted uneasily, eyes swivelling to the side, tracking Caraiss as she circled in.
“Step away, little bird,” the snake hissed. “Let me have my egg, and I will let you keep your life.”
There was compulsion in the serpent’s voice, but it was undermined by the accompanying note of panic. Rangie resisted the urge to obey. The soft shell of the egg distended as the youngling inside turned. Oh, pity.
Rangie raised her eyes, and met the Nagai’s stare. A mother‘s stare. She lifted her beak, to prove to herself as much as to the snake that she still could. The yellow eyes widened in surprise. Still holding the monster’s gaze, Rangie turned her head to reach the inside of her arm with her beak. She yanked out a couple of feathers, held them a moment for the snake to see, then spat them into the air.
“What I think of you,” she said. “Blood for blood. Your children for mine.”
She brought down the axe with all the force she could muster.
The Nagai howled. Rangie sprang straight upward as the serpent lunged. A clawed hand caught her foot and she was flung aside as Caraiss struck the Nagai from the side.
Rangie twisted frantically to right herself before she hit the ground. Her feet touched first but her momentum took them straight out from under her again. She felt tailfeathers snap underneath her as she bumped to a halt on her back.
Caraiss danced with the Nagai. Claws and spear stabbed and riposted in a blur.
The fighters parted. The Nagai’s breath came in grunts and rasps, one arm hanging useless by its side. Caraiss seemed slightly bent, her right elbow held tight against her side.
“Why must you do this?” the Nagai wailed.
“Truth is eternal,” Caraiss rasped. “God is truth. A god that dies is a false god.”
“I claim no godhood here.”
The Nagai screamed and charged. Caraiss stood quietly until it was almost upon her. Then the spear whirled. Severed fingers flew from one slashing claw. The fighters parted, came together again. Caraiss was knocked to her knees, a spray of blood from the side of her head. A Nagai hand tumbled from a second arm.
Caraiss found her feet and stepped inside the Nagai’s crippled reach. She stabbed her spear into its belly.
The snake shuddered as she sawed up through its torso. Entrails spilled from the wound. The Nagai uttered a staccato of hiccuping gasps.
Caraiss pushed forward, and the monster flopped twitching to the ground. Rangie could hear Caraiss’s ragged breathing, even over her own, in the sudden quiet. She leaned heavily on her spear, her head bowed.
Rangie saw Big Man rise, beyond her, and raise her musket.
“No!” she cried.
Caraiss looked up, too late. Rangie shoved her aside. The musket boomed. The shot went wide of both of them.
Big Man sagged.
The musket clattered from Big Man’s grasp as Tsudai flung himself into his mother’s embrace.
Caraiss put a long-fingered hand on Rangie’s shoulder. “Brave Darjee. Thank you.”
They stopped to bind Big Man’s and Tsudai’s wounds before they left. Caraiss ignored her own. She said to Big Man, “You should leave. Get the boy out.”
The Czua gave no response.
Rangie looked up at the Darjee statue on the plinth above her. It was an old royal marker, the square a crossroads once, when this land lay beyond the city’s sprawl. The stone was pitted with age, the Darjee’s features all but worn away by the weather, her beak broken and one arm. The remaining hand wielded a sceptre and upon her head was a battered crown.
“How old is she?” Caraiss asked.
Rangie supposed the statue must have been old even before the Godbreakers came, and cast down the Darjee queens with their claims of divine right.
“Five hundred years, at least,” she said. “This was a Darjee city once, with a Darjee name and a Darjee queen. Now we scuttle in the shadows of Czua.” She could not stop the words, even knowing she might take offence.
But, “The wheel always turns,” Caraiss said. “The Czua will diminish, their age will end, and then, who knows? Already there are new races arising in the far north, where the lands grow cold again. Perhaps one of those will overthrow the Czua.”
“Perhaps Darjee will,” Rangie said.
They walked through deserted streets towards the Wicker Gate. The fires had run their course through this part of the cantonment, but a haze of smoke lingered between the houses.
“Why would she try to shoot you after you saved her son?” Rangie asked.
“I defeated the Nagai when she could not,” said Caraiss. “Because of that, she is diminished. Others will challenge her.”
Their next turn brought them in sight of the wall that marked the edge of Seggau-li, with only the midden heaps and the shadowed vaults of the forest beyond. Meelo rose stiffly from where he squatted in the shadow of the Wicker Gate. Caraiss waited while Rangie and her husband rubbed beaks and assured themselves they were both still whole. Meelo cried over Rangie’s broken tailfeathers.
Holding tight to Meelo’s arm, Rangie looked up at Caraiss. “Will you stay?” she asked, but thought she knew her answer.
Caraiss shook her head. “My task here is done.”
“You could stay,” Rangie said. “You could put yourself in Big Man’s place.”
Caraiss laughed. “And why do you suppose, brave Darjee, that I would be better in her place than she?”
“Because you would,” Rangie said, and realising how foolish that sounded, she added, “Because you killed the Nagai. Because you could be no worse. Because Big Man fears you.” None of which were real reasons, but she couldn’t put her real reasoning into words, so she stood there with the feathers of her arms and neck bristling, daring Caraiss to argue.
“Ah,” Caraiss said, softly, “and she is right to fear me. Big Man knows what I am.”
“A Godbreaker,” said Meelo. Rangie looked at him in surprise.
Caraiss nodded. “I fought the Nagai when they lived in ziggurats of marble and gold. With my kin, I burned untruth from the corners of the world.”
How can that be so? Rangie wondered. The Godbreakers’ razings were centuries past. She had supposed Caraiss a descendant of that fearful horde. But looking up at her, and with what she’d seen her do, she thought: How can it not?
“Did you pass through Darjee lands, back then?” she asked.
“I did not,” Caraiss said.
She blinked tears. She couldn’t have borne that.
“Matsa-czuczua,” Meelo breathed, and Rangie knew—near enough—what it must mean.
Sadness touched Caraiss’s face.
She reached out, her long arm bridging the gap. Rangie felt her claw penetrate her brow feathers and scratch the skin beneath.
Caraiss stepped back and, with a sweep of her coat, turned and marched beneath the wicker arch. Rangie watched her go, down the moonlit road between the midden piles, until she was lost beneath the deep eaves of the forest beyond. Still she stood, looking after her, with Meelo silent at her side, and the benediction of the Godbreaker burning on her brow.