Three gods shared a branch bare of leaf, snow, or blossom: the owl Salos’a, the sharp-eyed hawk, and Raven between them. “Well,” Raven said, in Ransel’s voice, “I thought it was funny.” The hawk looked at him with one eye, then the other, and Raven ruffled his shoulders. “Fine, whatever, I’ll find Crane.” He launched himself into the white sky, and the branch quivered.
The hawk looked at the owl. The owl looked at Zanja.
Zanja woke, not herself. She lay in darkness and took stock of her memories, rifling through them like cards, but the only gaps were where she had expected them--in her flight and captivity and in the storyteller’s memories, themselves distant like stories. Though less distant now, with the draft over her bare neck recalling the shocking cold of Watfield garrison’s cells. She shuddered, the cold air arcing over her neck, her temples, her scalp--
She sat up, fully awake now and aware--of the low fire in the hearth, when she had lit none; of J’han breathing easily in the bed beside her. Of the close-shorn hair bristling over the whole of her head. She reached up with a hand free of scars and felt her scarred cheek.
Well. Salos’a had found a new border for her to cross.
For a moment she smiled--you had to smile at Raven’s jokes, and this one was funny in its way--but Norina’s scar tugged oddly at her lip. And then she remembered her own body, next to Karis, and slipped out of bed.
Norina, already risen, was waiting in the hallway outside Karis and Zanja’s bedroom. She wore Zanja’s body stiffly, like a too-small coat straining at the seams.
“Has Karis woken?” Zanja murmured. It came out too loud; she did not know how to pitch Norina’s voice.
“If she hasn’t she will soon. It will be easier for us to explain together.” Zanja’s own teeth glinted for a moment, and Zanja could imagine the grimace Norina had made, though she could not picture it on her own face. “The fact, if not the process.”
“Or the reason.”
“Or the culprit,” Norina said, and then the door flung open.
“Zanja,” Karis said, looking unerringly in the right direction; but then her eyes caught up with her other senses. “No. No. This is a boundary too far.” She reached out to gather Zanja to her side, but pulled her hand back as if burned. “No.”
“It’s still me, Karis.”
“Do you truly feel that?” She reached out again, took Zanja’s shoulder and Norina’s nape in the palms of her big hands and held them, even as her hands twitched with discomfort. “How can you be yourself when you feel wrong, smell wrong--how are you still yourselves?”
“Air and fire,” Norina said. “We wear our bodies lighter than you.”
“Well, wear them heavier from now on,” Karis said. “Or I’ll put them on a string like Leeba’s mittens.” She choked, gathered them both close, and rocked them all together. “I’m tired of losing you. I won’t do it again.”
“We will find who did this,” Zanja assured her, though with no idea where to start.
Garland had built up the fire, put on the kettle, gently stirred up the porridge that had simmered on the fender and the sour-milk cornmeal batter he had left to work overnight, and greased, heated, and filled the cake tins when Medric clattered down the stairs and said “I don’t know why yet, but we’re breakfasting in Karis’s room today.”
Garland sighed. “Fine. Reach me down two of those wicker trays.”
“And leave your baking?”
“It’ll be done by the time we’ve made up the trays, and the kettle will be ready.”
Medric looked dubious, but as soon as they had stacked plates and mugs and knives and spoons, measured the tea, and set out porridge, butter, jam, and dried apple slices plumped in water, the kettle began to steam. Garland removed the cake tins from the hanging rack, rapped them sharply on the table, and pried open the hasps: the cakes popped neatly out of the hinged forms at the lightest pressure of a butter knife.
Medric watched Garland pile them in a napkin-lined basket. “Are these tins new?”
“They came with the house, but I didn’t want to use them until I could find a source for finer cornmeal; the usual kind is too coarse to show the design on the tops, but look, it’s come out quite clear.” The same pattern was embossed in low relief on both sides of each cake: a four-lobed flower with a center of nested loops. “A wheaten batter would show it even better, but it would burn faster, too.”
Medric laid an empty half-tin on the breakfast tray. “Zanja will be angry if we eat them all before she can study that glyph.”
At the bottom of the stairs they nearly collided with J’han, coming down with Leeba for breakfast, and with Karis heading out. “I’ll take Leeba,” Karis said, backing onto the lower step to let Medric past with the tea tray. “Your wife is in my wife’s body, and the other way round. You should talk to her.”
“She’s what?” But Karis had already swung Leeba onto her hip--the only one of them who could still carry Leeba easily, and the only one Leeba tolerated it from--and gone. “There’s porridge and apples,” Garland called after them, “and the kettle’s hot!”
“Oh-hoh,” said Medric, grinning, Garland thought, more than was strictly kind. “Now my dream makes sense. I hadn’t thought it could be anything quite so interesting.”
The others were in Karis and Zanja’s room, Emil looking about as confused as J’han. Norina and Zanja, alone in the house, seemed unworried. Norina looked away as soon as they walked in, but Zanja looked up at J’han coolly, expectantly, and he knew the gaze; it was not Zanja.
He held her, wordlessly, his skin feeling only Zanja’s body but his other senses knowing he held his wife. No wonder Karis could not stay. He sat down, shaking, and let Garland put a mug and a plate in his hands.
“It’s a water witch, of course.” Medric flopped into Karis’s big armchair dramatically and hugged his knees. “You’d think I’d have learned to notice them by now.”
“Do you know that by induction, or did you dream of them?” Zanja, tall enough in Norina’s body to reach the hasps flat-footed, opened the shutters to the pale winter dawn; Norina, in Zanja’s, stirred the fire and fed it--the sorts of things Karis did without thinking, when she was there.
“Bit of both. This one’s far away, flexing their power. Possibly working some spell unrelated to any of us.”
“Unrelated, how? You mean they’re trying to strike close to the G’deon?” Emil twisted his fingers in sleep-knotted hair. “There’s nothing in Shaftal that could pull Karis out of her body. Well.” He smiled apologetically. “No magic, at least.”
“No, not that. But for some other working, if they need to manipulate fire and air, maybe they’ve used Zanja and Norina as their pawns. Proxies.”
Norina settled by the fire--kneeling, rather than cross-legged as Zanja would be--and sorted rapidly through Zanja’s glyph cards. “It’s possible. In water logic, symbol and action are united; by acting upon elemental talents, a strong water witch might exert power over other elements--or whatever else they’ve decided we stand for.”
Garland looked at J’han for explanation, but J’han was just as lost. “But that’s fire logic, not water--symbol becoming reality.”
Norina-in-Zanja made a dismissive head-tilt; it was a broader motion in Zanja’s body, but J’han knew exactly the gesture she meant. “Reality and action are completely different things.”
“Says the air blood,” added Medric.
Norina-in-Zanja laid out the cards she’d been searching for: the four elements in a square, and inside it a smaller square, at an angle to the first, the four implements, which even Garland could read: “The pen. The plow. The lamp. The axe.”
“Or, Symbol,” said Zanja in Norina’s voice. "Reality. Understanding. Action.” She crouched--the action came stiffly to Norina’s body--and sketched a series of loops around the cards. “In fire logic, symbol and reality are the same, and their synthesis opens the door to action. Understanding isn’t necessary; a fire blood doesn’t need to know why symbols show a certain path to walk it.”
“In air logic, reality and understanding are the same. That’s what being a Truthken is. That synthesis allows the creation of new symbols.” Everyone looked at Norina-in-Zanja with some surprise; she gave an exasperated jerk of the head that whipped Zanja’s short new braids wildly. “Who devised the ritual to kill Zanja? In any case, what are laws, but symbolic impressions of justice? If they encoded reality directly we would have no need of Truthkens to interpret them.”
“And action is--separate,” Emil finished, diplomatically.
Norina bowed Zanja’s head, as if accepting a rebuke for the years of stasis she had enabled, then demanded, before Karis took up her office, but said only “You have been paying attention.”
Emil knelt to trace the next part of the circle. “So for earth bloods, the unity of action and understanding creates...reality?”
“It does for Karis,” J’han said. “But she’s the G’deon. The rest of us can’t reshape the world.”
The fire bloods all looked at each other. “No, you’re just healers, farmers, and artisans with no capacity whatever for symbolic thought,” Medric said, though he said it more gently than he might.
“But water bloods,” Zanja said, pulling the Water card aside with Norina’s pale fingers, “create understanding by unifying symbol with action. They see patterns and complete them. Or else they act by creating and manipulating symbols--time in a jug of water.”
Medric reached for another corn cake. “And reality is not consulted for its opinion.”
“But neither is it changed,” said Norina. “Merely displaced.”
“Reality is water?” Emil frowned. “Water and time, both?”
“Time is reality. What is real is what cannot be undone.”
Zanja looked up, scanned their faces, and addressed herself to Garland; J’han supposed he must have looked like he understood. “Think of time as a river. Under its own power it can only flow one way: downstream. But a swimmer in the river can travel in any direction, anywhere the water reaches--to one bank or the other, to the surface or the bottom, and downstream or up. Some ways take greater strength, that’s all.”
“And some currents are insurmountable,” Medric added. “What we’ve seen of water magic, for all its drama, displaces as little as it can. And displaces, rather than destroys. I am increasingly of the opinion that there is a water witch using you and Norina to complete a very large pattern indeed.”
Zanja rocked on her heels, awkwardly, Norina’s muscles and habits of body pushing her towards a different stance. “One of the rediscovered glyphs is a single symbol for this cycle. We don’t know its name, and the explanation is no more than half-readable; I haven’t made a card for it yet.”
Medric put a corn cake in her hand. “You mean this symbol?”
Zanja stared in offense at the warm cake, the four-lobed rose brown and crisp on its surface. “This witch is herding us all like a cattle dog. I want to know what else she’s drawn into this pattern.”
Emil sighed heavily in agreement, but all he said was, “Eat your cake while it’s warm.”
Karis returned an hour before noon, her boots clean but her bare legs muddy to the knee. “Is Leeba in the apple orchard?” Norina asked. A wagonload of burlapped saplings had gone up the hill two days ago; it was the nearest spot one might find a patch of bare dirt deep enough to wallow in.
“Below it; there were some other children flying kites.” Karis’s eyes were on Zanja, her hands opening and closing as though she could take hold of her wife’s soul and wrest it out of her friend’s body by force.
“We kept breakfast warm for you,” Zanja said. Karis sat down next to her on the rug and took the offered plate, corn cakes wrapped in a napkin, without touching Zanja’s hand. Her own hand, Norina reminded herself; she was already becoming too comfortable thinking of it as Zanja’s.
Karis ate the first cake mechanically, so like her old self that Norina’s chest tightened at the sight. At the last bite she looked abruptly from Zanja to Norina. “That expression’s always been the same on both of you, did you know?” She breathed in, let the steam hit her nostrils. Norina could see the moment where she caught the scents of Zanja’s and Norina’s bodies and made the conscious decision not to retreat from her own senses. “Is there butter?” Garland passed her the dish. “How did we get you out of the kitchen at this hour?”
“I’m learning about water magic,” said Garland. “It’s like cooking, only more so.”
“How is that?” Karis split her second cake and slathered it with butter.
Garland handed her the jam pot before she could ask for it. “Right now, it’s time to start dinner, past time to start the lunch I was going to make but not quite time to start the lunch I am going to make, and almost time to start the dinner we’re having two nights from now. I have beans to soak, sourdough to feed, cabbage pickle to skim, and dried mushrooms to soak to make the stock to make the gravy so that Medric can have something festive on his birthday.”
“Did I tell you my birthday was coming up?”
“I did,” said Emil.
“All those dishes will be real because of work that happens now, or that happened days ago, or months. Starting the pickles, drying the mushrooms, grinding the grain--it’s all there on the plate at once, and the work I do now determines what we’ll eat tomorrow, or next week, or this winter.”
“And that’s water magic?” Karis said, through a mouth full of corn cake. “Or is it a metaphor?”
“Both, I suspect,” Norina said, and Garland started. “You didn’t know? There’s earth in you too, of course, but it’s not the only source of your talents.”
Garland made a satisfied sort of noise. “Well.” He dusted his hands on his knees and took the empty plate from Karis. “I’ll be in the kitchen, then.” J’han, conscious of how he still recoiled from Norina’s wrongness, went with him; Norina thought of assuring him that she took no offense from his reactions, but judged that it would only make things worse.
“The hardest part,” she said when he had gone, “is seeing us so much less bothered than you, isn’t it?” Karis could not deny it.
Karis took off her boots and washed her feet in a basin before the fire, silent for a long moment. Emil refilled the teapot from Zanja’s small kettle and set it down by Karis’s side; she nodded her thanks. “The water witch is not in Shaftal.” Karis looked straight at Zanja--she was the only one of them who had not yet looked over Norina’s head or stared Zanja in the collarbones. “Nor among any of the tribes we have formal relations with, nor any of the unrecognized tribes we have commerce with.”
Karis’s power was bound to Shaftal, but her sense of the land, Emil knew, extended beyond its borders--how far beyond, he doubted even Karis knew. “But you found them?”
“No.” She propped her feet on the fender, stretching out her toes.
“She deduced her existence,” said Norina.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Karis said, and smiled one-sidedly. “Though I supposed it amounts to the same thing. I found a place where I would be, if I were a water witch. Far to the west, beyond the Otter tribe and the tribe beyond them and the tribe beyond them, there is a mountain about to wake up.”
“A volcano?” Emil said. “There isn’t one of those in the whole of Shaftal. We only even hear of them from travelers’ tales--most people dismiss them as myth.”
“They are no myth,” Zanja said flatly. “My people traded with tribes who came over the mountains, long ago, fleeing a great river of fire.”
“I think this is not the same mountain,” Karis said, “but near it, perhaps. There is a place in the earth where the rocks bleed.”
Emil shared a look with Norina, who looked as puzzled as he was; on Zanja’s face, it made her eyes almost comically large and dark. “I’ve always heard you can’t get blood from a stone.”
“If the stone is buried deep enough, hot enough, you can. I’ve seen it--the rock itself gives up water, and changes its nature, and the water is trapped under the earth, and the whole root of the mountain rises up.”
Emil tried to picture it, the skin of the earth straining over water and heat. “Swelling up like a boil,” he said. “How long until it bursts?”
“Not in our lifetimes,” Karis said, “but not long, either, in the life of the land. And when it does, there will be a blizzard of ash, falling many feet deep. The people across the mountains will die quickly--but people on this side will die, too. The clouds will dim the sun for weeks. Crops will die, and grass. People will starve.” She picked up her boots and clapped the soles together, knocking flakes of dry mud into the hearth. “That river of fire the tribes fled from--that’s the safe way to let the pressure out. I think the water witch knows that.”
“Do you think her tribe has done it before?” Zanja said.
“Somehow, yes. Maybe not this way, though.” Karis looked abashed. “I think your connection to me--both of your connections--makes you easier for other elementals to sense.”
“I’m starting to get that impression,” said Zanja. “But has the witch used us to get your attention? Or to work her own magic on the mountain?”
“Both, I think. I felt a weakness in the stone--I think the witch is trying to open a fissure in the mountain, but it’s not her sort of magic.”
“Hence, us,” Norina said. “She’s using us to let the air into the mountain, and the fire out.”
“I think she tried,” Karis said. “I don’t think she could hold the fissure open. I think she needs me to finish it.”
They had a goal now, even if none of them knew how it was to be accomplished. Karis strapped on her tool belt and went out into the square. “I need to go fix things,” she said. It was a joke between them, and yet not; Zanja knew how every poorly hung door, cracked tile, and loose brick in the town nagged at Karis. Karis fixed things the way Zanja massaged old hurts before a sprint--so that they would not catch and tear at her when she put forth all her power.
Zanja wished she could do that now, but she was still learning Norina’s old hurts--and the reverse, the places where Norina’s body was haler than hers, and compensating for injuries it had never taken made her overreach, overbalance. If they could not reverse the trade--well. Karis would still feel it more keenly, no matter how long it took Zanja to learn to run and shoot again, or how her muscles ached in the meantime.
As if reading her thoughts, Emil clasped her shoulder, letting the warmth of his hand sink in. “Please promise me,” he said, “that this ends without your dying again.”
“You would have me live out my life in Norina’s body?”
“Would that be so bad? For Karis, yes. But if she could live with it, could you?”
Zanja looked into his face; her eyes were almost at a level with his. “If I had no other choice, then yes, easily. But if I did...whatever that door is, I have to go through it.”
Emil of all people knew how intolerable she would find that stasis. “Well. Until then, Medric and I could use your help in the library.”
They were looking for maps--”The very oldest,” Medric explained, “and the very newest. Everything in between stops on the near side of the mountains.”
“Most of those newer ones are my making, and they do not always agree with the older charts.”
“I know. That’s why we wanted you to look at maps of some of the places we haven’t sent embassies yet. If there’s a pattern to the inaccuracies in the older maps--or in how the lands have changed--maybe you can see it. Annotate the older ones, point out anything that looks like it might point to our mountain.”
Zanja tried, valiantly, but in the end all she could do was to point out where she thought the territories lay of the Eagle Hunters and the Red Dye People. “Although…” She traced the two river valleys. “The Ashawala’i never ventured deep enough into either people’s lands to be sure, but I think these two rivers might have the same source. They both believe that humans came up out of the land of the dead, and that things there are mirrored in this world. If there was one river of fire on the other side, there should be one river of water on this side, near a pass, where they crossed over.”
“That’s something, at least.” Emil sketched a rough copy of the map and began filling it in with guesses about the likely location of the river source, the pass, and where the river of fire might have had its source on the other side.
“Karis said it wasn’t even the same mountain,” Zanja said. “Will any of this help her?”
“It may help Medric, if he can find this place in his dreams.”
“And if nothing else,” Medric said, “it keeps us occupied.”
It was not enough occupation to keep the three of them busy, and Zanja soon drifted to the glyphic lexicon, which still exerted its familiar pull. By touch, she opened it straight to the page she wanted: the four-lobed rose which encompassed the elements and the implements. Behind the glyph was drawn a real flower; two women supported the flower from either side, one cutting its root with a knife, the other catching the juice that spilled from the cut in a silver dish.
What could be read of the facing page dealt largely with the flower’s medicinal uses--detailed instructions for preparing and using a plant that survived nowhere in Shaftal, not even in the new glass-houses of the Sainnites. The rest was a series of glyphs known only from the lexicon itself, themselves mostly only half-translated.
“Whatever this glyph’s name is,” Zanja said, “that is also the name of this witch, or her tribe.”
Emil and Medric accepted this pronouncement without questioning Zanja’s insight, but it got them no further forward. “If we knew what we don’t know, we’d know another thing we don’t know,” Medric said. “What a lovely circle we’re in!”
Travesty had emptied out somewhat with mud season, but the small dining room was still full of guests neither Norina nor Zanja wanted to face. Emil and J’han took host duty on themselves; Karis was still out in the city. Garland set a table for Norina and Zanja in the china room.
Zanja’s eyes went straight to the morning’s cake tins, washed and polished and back on their shelf. “That glyph must have become a family’s house name,” she said. “Maybe even the name of this house, before it was called Travesty. Perhaps some of the oldest Watfielders would remember.”
“We don’t need the name of the glyph to use it; you can act without understanding, and I can understand what it means without needing to name it.”
Zanja considered and rejected two or three rejoinders on realizing they were all justifications for indulging her fascination with the glyph. Zanja was not normally this transparent; perhaps it was an artifact of reading one’s own face. “What does it mean, then? To you?”
“If the witch has drawn us into this pattern--in which water is created from stone and fire from trapped water--she knows that she cannot simply use us to move the fire out into the air and halt the pattern there. Her magic requires her to complete the glyph. Therefore, she intends to return us to our own bodies--or at least, intends that we should return. Hence our principal concern should be the volcano, which will threaten Shaftal if we cannot pacify it. Our task is to give Karis whatever support she requires to do so.”
“I have a map, for what it’s worth,” Zanja said. “We have the glyph. We can be with her when she makes the attempt. And I dreamed of Salos’a last night; perhaps I can have the dream again. What else can we do?” What else can you do?
It was the question Norina had been asking herself all day, fruitlessly; but if she could not change her own relationship with reality, she could still shape Zanja’s. “We will need to devise a ritual.”
They retired to Norina’s office, letting their earth lovers keep their beds. There was a wool rug and a small brick fireplace; she and Zanja had both slept in worse. The ritual, they agreed, would have to be simple and direct--a way to translate the endless loop of the glyph into a single action. “A knotted rope?” Zanja suggested. “With the ends whipped together, but loosely?”
“No,” Norina said. “I know the place we need. Or rather, Garland does.”
The owl and the hawk still shared their branch. Between their talons, leaf-buds swelled. Of Raven there was no sign, but from far away came the cry of a crane. Follow, the owl said. Follow, follow.
I have no wings, Zanja protested, but she followed, covering the the land in great strides, until she came to a saddle-shaped mountain pass. A crack beside the path widened below into a deep gorge. From its side, waterfalls poured out of the riven earth to tumble, wreathed in steam, to a riverbed far below. The waters flowed east, still steaming, to part and flow on either side of a tree-covered ridge.
Before her to the west, the pass looked down into a deep valley--forked, like the river bed, around a peak that rose where the saddle’s horn would be. There stood the crane; when she saw Zanja she leapt into the air and took off, west by southwest, toward a slumping cone-shaped mountain, bare of snows despite the season and plumed with curls of smoke. Come-come-come! the crane cried. Come-come-come-come!
Garland’s fine cornmeal came from a mill twelve miles up the Corber river, though owing to the river’s twists it was only seven miles overland. The miller bought grain from upstream by barge and sold it downstream to Watfield, and the road to the mill was narrow and ill-kept. After the second time Karis had to lift the wagon bed from axle-deep mud and find the track again, the carter refused to go on. “Go afoot if you must; I’m not letting my horses break an ankle to take you through there.”
Emil paid her for the whole trip anyway, plus one of Garland’s pastries, and she went on her way more content than he did. The sun was already high and they had two miles to go, his bones ached with the damp, and the cloth-wrapped bacon turnover in his jacket pocket had ceased to be an effective hand-warmer a mile ago.
Still, with Karis to find the path the others could follow safely, if wearily. Medric floundered in the sucking mud, which Emil was used to, but Norina and Zanja were both still unsteady on their borrowed legs, and struggled to keep up. It was noon before they found the place: a slate-roofed stone watermill with two wheels, the taller fed by a flume, the smaller, breastshot, by the river itself. “They can’t use the same axle,” Medric said, wiping his glasses.
“It just looks like they do,” Karis said. “The axles run parallel in the same housing. Probably they added the second wheel later for the triphammer, and didn’t want to sink a new pier.”
Norina made a small expression of satisfaction; on her own face, Emil would have missed it entirely. "Did you know about the triphammer?" he asked.
A wheel within in a wheel; a mechanism for turning a circular motion into a linear one. "By inference, yes."
The miller came out, shaking the dust from his apron. “Hey now. I wasn’t expecting visitors.” He looked up at Karis, went silent.
“Yes,” Zanja said, playing Norina’s part. “This is Karis G’deon.”
“You have grindstones on the lower story, of course,” Karis said, “and a pounding mill above?”
“Well, the wheel has to raise the hammer anyway,” the miller said, “and the pounding mill is for polishing the grain before it goes into the grindstones--”
“So you just let it flow down. But then how do you lift the grain to the loft? Can you power a bucket-lift off the triphammer mechanism?”
Norina cleared her throat and Karis nodded, a little sadly. “Maybe I’ll be able to look at the wheels when we’re done here. Right now, we need to get to that crack in the rock.” She pointed downstream, without looking, and Emil saw the narrow cleft in the bank as though it had just opened at her command.
The miller showed them the trail, or what passed for one. Downstream from the mill, the rocky shingle vanished into the stream; the cleft in the rock face looked out on open water, but from the end of the shingle it was just possible to pick one’s way up and across the face itself, thrusting one’s toes into slick footholds, and lever oneself up into the crevice. Karis went first and hauled the others up after her one at a time. There was only just room to sidle past her, or belly-crawl between her feet, but past the entrance the cleft widened enough to let the five of them face each other. Emil came in last. “Karis?”
“It’s a good place. I can work here.”
“Then, Madame Truthken,” Zanja said, “Draw your knife.”
The dark was near-total, with Emil’s body blocking the daylight, but he could just see Norina and Karis each draw the blade Karis had made her. Zanja pricked the finger of Norina’s body with her own blade, and then took the hand Norina reached out, pricked her own body’s finger, and closed its hands around the hilt of the blade. Norina stained her own blade with both women’s blood and gave it back into her body’s hand. And together, they dug their bleeding hands into the earth of the cave floor, clasped them under the loose dirt, raised them joined, and pulled them apart.
“Oh. Yes, that should do it,” Medric said.
Karis huffed. “If it doesn’t I will hunt down this witch myself.” She shrugged out of her jerkin and shirt.
“Do you need to see the map again?”
“I see it,” Karis said, and dug her hands into the loose earth Zanja and Norina had stirred--and then she flexed her arms, and drove them deep into the cave floor. Emil felt the walls shake as what should have been solid stone was suddenly not. Karis lay panting, her naked torso half-buried in sand and flaked shale, eyes closed, and the earth trembled around her.
“I see it,” Norina’s voice rasped. “The smoking mountain. Karis has found it.” She gurgled, as if speaking pained her, and sat shivering. Zanja’s body clasped hers by the shoulder, but did not look away from Karis.
Karis wrestled with the earth for a long time. Her exposed shoulders turned shiny with sweat, and then black with dust, little by little. At one point she gasped and kicked as if drowning, and Zanja and Norina hurried to strip off her trousers, too; with a great sigh she dug her bare legs into the earth, impossibly deep, and deep below the surface a tremor ran through the rock.
The earth gave way to Karis, slowly, in scrapes and fits, until suddenly the ground opened under her and her mud-slick hands scrabbled at the edges of a rent in the cave floor. Medric grabbed one arm and Emil the other and together they heaved her up onto the ledge. Norina and Zanja, on the other side, darted for the cave mouth and the others followed.
Zanja peered down into the water. “Can we swim long enough to tow Karis up to the shingle?”
“We’ll have to,” Norina said, and between them all they did, and clambered up the beach after her.
Karis, naked and filthy, dug her bleeding knuckles into the loose pebbles and seemed surprised they did not part for her. “Oh,” she said. “It’s done.” She looked at Norina’s body. “Or most of it.”
“One step at a time,” Norina said, from Zanja’s mouth. “Let’s get you some clothes.”
The miller was happy to give the G’deon a spare shirt and leggings in exchange for advice on new machinery, and he let them launch a river-barge only half-full of meal. The Corber took them back to Watfield by sunset. Zanja, laughing, managed to toss a rope over a docking pile on the second attempt. “I’ll get used to these long arms yet,” she said, and Karis glared at her.
J’han met them at the doors of Travesty; Zanja could see the moment where he looked for Norina in her face, and realized she was not there. But he smiled at his wife in Zanja’s body and embraced her, not long, but tightly. “The mountain?”
“Safe,” Norina said.
“For now,” Medric added, “which in this case seems to mean for four or five hundred years.”
“And if that’s not enough the next G’deon can deal with it,” Karis said. “I’m tired.”
“And hungry, I hope. Garland says dinner will be ready as soon as you’ve washed up.”
Zanja, in the turmoil, had completely forgotten Medric’s birthday, but Garland had outdone himself, making an entire feast to Medric’s ascetic restrictions. There were bread dumplings with mushroom gravy--the dumplings cooked in the broth to thicken it with their starch, instead of with butter-and-flour; pickled red cabbage stewed with juniper berries until it was glazed in its own juices; and fat white beans braised with onions, carrots, parsnips, and celery root, with dried thyme and sage and fresh rosemary, the vegetables meltingly soft and the beans still whole and floury in their skins. For dessert, there were soft wheaten buns with deep dimples filled with apple butter.
“A triumph,” Emil said. “An absolute triumph. I’m half afraid that, now you know you can feed us all at one stroke, we’ll never see roast pork again.”
“Half afraid?” said Garland.
“The other half won’t miss it. Is there more of the mushroom sauce?”
Medric smiled in wonderment throughout the meal and finally sighed. “Emil, I’m leaving you for our other husband.”
“I’m not surprised,” Emil said. “I hear he can cook.”
Karis ate without stopping, piling her plate a third and a fourth time, until her cheeks finally acquired some color. “Thank you,” she rasped.
Garland accepted praise in his usual offhand way, sitting between Zanja and Norina, watching their reactions to the food with fascination. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to taste with someone else’s tongue.”
“It is strange,” Norina allowed. “In my own body I don’t think I would like this juniper flavor as much as I do, but it’s amazing.”
“No, I think that’s just Garland,” Medric said. “I didn’t think I liked juniper either.”
“I do like it, but I think Norina’s right. It tastes right with the cabbage, but I think that’s because I know they should taste good together.”
Garland said no more, but when they were lingering over roasted walnuts--because of course there were roasted walnuts to follow--while Emil made the tea, Garland disappeared into the kitchen and came back with three mugs of hot frothed milk. “For Medric--”
“--and I know you’re both tea drinkers, but give this a try.” He pushed one mug toward Zanja and one toward Norina. “It’s an experiment.”
Zanja tried the milk. It was no more than lightly sweet, with spices that worked with her own tastes and Norina’s palate to be comforting and surprising at once. Karis leaned over, still not quite daring to touch, and sniffed the cup, then sniffed Norina’s. “These are completely different, so how is that they smell almost the same?”
Norina took a deep draught of hers. “Water magic,” she said. “Also buckwheat honey, I think?”
“Not in mine,” said Zanja, but whatever was in it was making her gloriously sleepy. She turned to Karis. “I should sleep with you tonight.”
Karis looked at her hands.
“You don’t have to touch me. Just share the bed, for now. Start getting used to this, if it’s not going to change on its own.”
Karis looked at J’han. “I think that’s a good idea,” he said mildly.
“I’ll try,” said Karis.
Three gods shared a branch, newly sprouting: the owl Salos’a, the hawk, and Raven between them. Below them, the crane waded, its head just brushing the new-grown leaves. “See,” the Raven crowed, “I told you I’d fix it. Why don’t you ever believe me?”
The hawk tossed its head, buffeted Raven with one wing, and flew off. The branch split, fell away, and Raven had to scramble for a new perch. The crane and the owl watched, unconcerned, as the hawk rose up and rode the air above them. When it was quite out of sight, Salos’a turned to Zanja.
She picked up the fallen branch. Break it, said the god, or mend it.
She snapped it over her knee. The owl shut its eyes.
Zanja woke, herself, in Norina’s bed, J’han asleep next to her. She laughed, as one had to laugh at Raven’s jokes, and then slipped downstairs to her own room. Norina gave her a crooked smile as they passed in the doorway. Zanja ran her scarred hands through her own hair and slid into her own bed, and Karis stirred in her sleep to embrace her.