Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

None Owns the Air

“Push! Push! Damn it, put your backs into it!” Kino Ye’s voice rose to a panicked screech as the four sweat-drenched soldiers strained against the spokes of the giant winch. “Push!”

But one of the spokes snapped as the man leaning against it fell face-first into the sand, and the winch whipped around and tossed the other three men through the air to land sprawling on the beach a few paces away. The finger-thick cable began to unwind from the winch rapidly, the howling of the spinning drum rising in pitch. The cable reached its end and snapped with a loud crack.

The soldiers at the winch for the other control cable, twenty paces away, stumbled as the counterbalancing force from the first cable disappeared. They looked up, jaws wide open.

“Oh, by Kiji’s beard!” Kino covered his face.

Having been freed from one of its two control cables, the giant kite—with a straw man hanging underneath as the test pilot—bobbed in the air a few times before spinning into a nose dive. It accelerated downward, spinning faster and faster, until it crashed into the sea with a noiseless splash in the distance.

“I didn’t realize that the king’s officers are now paid to fly kites and to take the gods’ names in vain.”

The speaker was a young woman at the top of the sand dunes. Instead of a dress, she wore a pilgrim’s white leggings and pale robes. Her hair was worn loose in the manner of unmarried maids, and her face was a feminine copy of Kino’s. She gave Kino an affectionate smile.

“Lowi! What . . . are you doing here? You should have written first.” Flustered, Kino told the soldiers to take a break and came over, embracing the young woman awkwardly.

“What kind of greeting is that to give your only sister? Your last letter home said that you had been selected for the Navy. The Navy! I thought, but my brother has always wanted to be an army engineer. . . I couldn’t wait to find out what you were up to. But then not a word in two months! Mother and Father are worried sick. So I offered to come out for a surprise visit.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t written. I’ve been . . . occupied.”

Lowi looked at the spools of cables and half-finished giant kites scattered around the beach and lifted an eyebrow.

“It’s complicated. Why don’t we have lunch, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

• • • •

Kino watched the young boy capering and singing and giggling on the stone floor as though he were performing in some rustic inn full of drunken, indulgent patrons instead of the court of King Dézan, one of the seven most powerful men in the world.

What gives man power? What adds to his fame?
The gods move us, pieces in the Great Game.

Kino squinted to discern the king’s reaction to this performance. As he listened to the boy’s eerie song from atop his high throne, the king’s face was hidden in the shadows cast by the flickering torches below.

The boy’s head and arms convulsed as he twirled in place, the very image of someone in the throes of religious ecstasy.

King Dézan’s palace in Kriphi, capital of Xana, was small by the standards of the Seven States of Dara. After all, Xana consisted of only the two smallest and most remote islands of the archipelago. The beams of the Great Hall were only as thick as a man’s waist; the walls were not covered in gold leafs or hung with rich tapestries; and the floor was tiled with rough-hewn, plain blocks of stone, without the intricate patterns one might see in the palaces of cosmopolitan Boama or magnificent Çaruza. Yet, as the boy’s reedy voice echoed off the bare walls and floor, the palace’s stark furnishings added to the sense of foreboding and awe.

Two rows of ministers and generals lined the sides of the Great Hall, and every pair of eyes was focused on the dancing figure.

The will of the gods is dark, murky, an ocean,
Read the currents, oh king, and do not fear motion.

“What do you think?” whispered Sora Ingda to Kino, the young aide standing behind him. Ingda, former Secretary of the Navy, had recently been demoted to a minister of the fifth rank, temporarily administering the Navy until a suitable replacement could be found. He and Kino stood at the very end of the line on the left, almost at the door, as far away from the king as was possible while still remaining in the Great Hall.

“He sounds just like a street performer I saw the other day who claimed to hear the voices of the gods,” whispered Kino. Then, realizing how his comment could be taken to be sacrilegious, he quickly added, “Though, of course, Lord Kiji works in mysterious ways.”

I really need to learn to stop blurting out whatever comes to mind, Kino thought. Having been a part of Minister Ingda’s staff for only a week, he had no idea how pious his master was.

Sora Ingda chuckled. “We shall see. The currents of fortune have pushed me out here. But perhaps the tides are turning.”

Kino wondered, for the hundredth time, how it was that, out of all the students who had taken the civil service examination this year, he had ended up with Sora Ingda. He had wanted to join the Army’s engineering division, and his free-form essay discussed ideas for improving the field logistics of the Xana Army with a new type of all-terrain transportation vehicle that rode on spring-loaded mechanical legs instead of wheels. Why would the former Navy Secretary be interested in him?

The Xana fleet’s surprise invasion of Crescent Island had been Ingda’s brainchild, and the armada’s defeat by the combined Amu-Haan fleet had almost cost Ingda his head in addition to his office. Serving Ingda was not a great start for his career.

Sora Ingda continued to whisper, “Lord Kiji may be mysterious, but palace politics is not. Duke Zyn brought this ‘oracle’ in to see the king; that tells me all I need to know.”

“I’ve heard that Duke Zyn does not have much use for ships,” Kino said. He was encouraged by the apparent irreverence in Ingda’s comment.

“Yes, he thinks of the Navy as but ferries for his troops. You might also find it helpful to know that there are rumors that Prince Ponahu of Amu is seeking a new secondary consort, and Duke Zyn’s daughter is said to be a favorite of the young man—though I suspect he’s more interested in Duke Zyn’s money.”

Kino looked over at Duke Zyn, standing at the other end of the Great Hall, almost at the foot of the throne. There was just the barest hint of a smile under the pious expression on the face of the commander-in-chief of the Xana Army.

The four elements guide and bind the fates,
The paths of both greater and lesser states.
Amu’s people are blessed with watery souls,
Earthy Cocru cannot long stand their roles.

Kino nodded, gradually coming to understand Ingda’s hint. Duke Zyn had been advocating that Xana seek an alliance with the seafaring power of Amu to counterbalance the overwhelming superiority of Cocru cavalry on the Big Island. (If Duke Zyn’s daughter were to become one of the higher-ranked royal wives of Amu, he would surely say it was but a happy coincidence.)

Ingda had objected to the proposal, pointing out that Amu and Cocru were friendly neighbors and that Amu had always been even more contemptuous of Xana than the other states. Besides, it made no sense to ally with Amu, the closest state to Xana. If Xana was to expand its territory, it should ally with states that were farther away while attacking its neighbors.

King Dézan had been vacillating between Zyn and Ingda’s arguments. And it seemed that Zyn had finally decided to bring in a “prophet” as support. If Zyn’s policy were adopted, Ingda’s Navy would be starved of funding in favor of the duke’s Army. Kino’s career prospects just got even worse than abysmal.

Sora Ingda turned around and looked Kino in the eyes. He whispered, “I know you’re not religious. But you do know how to act like you are, yes?”

Kino was flustered. “I . . . think so.”

“Good, if you don’t want to be stuck in a tiny office all your life, follow my lead. When the currents are turning, sometimes you have to jump in and see where the flow takes you. I picked you because in your essays I saw a glimmer of boldness and creativity and a lack of pious nonsense. I hope I was right.”

Before Kino could ask for clarification, Ingda had stumbled into the middle of the Great Hall like a drunken man. Arms and legs spasming, he zigzagged his way to the boy dancing before the throne and pounced on him, wrestling him to the floor in a heap.

The assembled ministers and generals were too stunned to say anything, except for Duke Zyn, who sputtered, “What . . . what is the meaning of this?”

Ingda rolled off the boy and lay on his back, flapping his arms and legs wildly. His eyes were turned up in his head so that only the whites were visible, and foam gathered at the corners of his mouth. When he began to speak, his voice was oddly inflected, deep, otherworldly.

“Silence! I am Kiji, Master of Winds and Lord of the Open Sky. Who dares to mangle my message?”

Duke Zyn’s face darkened. “Guards, seize him!”

Ingda sat up and continued to intone solemnly, “Those who would be great must follow the direction of the winds. Observe the currents flowing through air, not water.” His face was turned toward Kino.

Kino cursed under his breath. This might be the end of his patron, and this act could take him down as well. But a surge of excitement made his face flush. Ingda was right about him: He did like to gamble.

He stumbled into the middle of the hall, imitating Ingda’s drunken gait. He rolled his eyes up and made spittle gather between his lips. “I am Tazu, Lord of the Sea. Kiji, it is good to see you! This boy was sent by me as a joke, but I see you have seen through my trick.”

Not quite as elevated as the speech of the gods ought to be, thought Kino. And the voice is a bit squeaky. But the best I can do considering I’ve only had ten seconds to come up with it.

From the flickering shadows atop the throne, the king gestured once with his left hand. The palace guards who were about to rush at Ingda stopped.

Still flapping his arms and legs on the ground, Ingda began to sing:

Two fight over the earth, one dominates through fire,
Three sail over the water, but none owns the air.
Power abhors a vacuum, need demands complement.
Cocru and Faça draw their strength from solid land;
Deep miners of Rima wield fire in either hand.
With ships, Amu, Haan, and Gan rule the watery element,
But he who masters air, the empty realm,
Seizes the vantage point, holds the world’s helm.

“Your Majesty,” Duke Zyn said, rage making his voice tremble. “We all know that Minister Ingda is not known for his piety. I doubt he has been to the temple on Mount Kiji more than once in his life. Why would Lord Kiji speak through him? Plainly, he’s trying to undermine the true prophesy of the gods, which points to strengthening our army and an alliance with Amu as the right path forward for Xana. We have put up with his nonsense for far too long, I’m afraid. I demand that he be immediately arrested and tried for blasphemy.”

Sora Ingda flopped around on the ground like a fish that had just been dragged out of the water, moaning incoherently. Kino fell down and began to do the same. Soon he was out of breath; being possessed by the gods was surprisingly hard work. A part of him wanted to laugh at the absurdity of their performance.

“My beloved Duke Zyn, you don’t get to demand anything.” King Dézan’s voice was as thin and unsteady as the flickering flames, but there was a sense of authority to it that could not be defied. “It’s true that Minister Ingda, a bold and irreverent man, is not known for his regular gifts to the Temple of Kiji, while you have been one of its most lavish donors. But it’s hard to imagine that a young aide, barely more than a boy, would have the temerity to pretend to speak for the gods in front of me.”

Kino buckled even harder on the ground, willing every tired muscle to demonstrate an otherworldly air. The urge to laugh at the spectacle he and Ingda were making had completely disappeared.

“But Sire—”

“Enough! When Minister Ingda is released from this trance, tell him what Lord Kiji and Lord Tazu have said. And inform him that he is now the Secretary of the Xana Air Force.”

• • • •

“. . . and so now I’m supposed to come up with a way for Xana to dominate the skies.”

Kino stretched out his legs and tried to enjoy the way the smooth sand cushioned him. The siblings were sitting under a thatched roof held up by four poles on the beach. The sea breeze was cool and refreshing, their lunch of salty seaweed tea and plank-grilled fish filling but not heavy.

“Oh, will wonders never cease! Mother and Father were so worried about the corruption of the capital on your spirit, but I always had faith that you would find your way back to Lord Kiji. What was it like to have Lord Kiji speak through you?”

Kino had left out the truth about the “prophesy” in his account. His little sister had always believed far more than he in the power and involvement of the gods in the world. So he just shrugged noncommittally.

“I understand, of course, it’s indescribable. But how have you come to think the thing to do is to build bigger kites?”

Kino was relieved to be asked a question that he could answer.

“I know that battle kites aren’t too useful except for shoreline reconnaissance. But what else can I try? I came up with some new dual-cable designs to see if I could get better maneuverability, but you’ve seen the results. Men aren’t birds. We don’t know how to fly.”

“But if Lord Kiji prophesied it, you will figure out how to fly. Like all true prophesies, it seems so obvious once it’s been made: Kiji is our patron god, and, of course, Xana’s rise must depend on the element over which Lord Kiji holds sway. It makes perfect sense.”

Kino laughed in a way that was closer to despair than mirth, and took a sip of salty, bitter tea. “I’m glad this is all so simple to you. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been thrown into the middle of a storm, and I have no idea where to steer my vessel. Others have placed bets that I have to cover.”

“I believe in you. You’re the cleverest person I know. Lord Kiji wouldn’t have picked you if you weren’t the right man for the job.”

“I’d better come up with something, quick. The king isn’t going to wait forever, and Ingda and I both are living on borrowed time.”

“You make the king sound like a tyrant! He’s not going to kill you if you can’t carry out the will of the gods.”

Oh, if only you knew, Kino thought. I doubt if the king really was fooled by that “prophesy.” He tried to sound more positive. “I suppose I could end up just pushing paper in a windowless basement warehouse for the rest of my career. That would be a fitting punishment for failing to fly.”

“Oh, Kino, you sound so selfish. This isn’t about you, or Secretary Ingda, or even King Dézan. Have you forgotten why Xana is going to war? The rest of Dara have never viewed us as their equals just because we’re poor and out of the way. Amu and Haan took Crescent Island from us; none of the other states would aide us against pirates from the north; our ships pay more duties at the ports on the Big Island than everyone else’s.”

She grew more impassioned and waved her arms as she went on. “Don’t you remember how Father lost his business and all his property in Cocru because the local officials thought they could get away with treating a man from Xana that way? Don’t you recall how the tourists from Amu were shocked to find that Mother could read because they thought the women of Xana little better than animals? Have you blotted from your memory the time I went to visit Ginpen and the teahouses wouldn’t even let me be seated inside, claiming that I reeked because I was a Xana peasant?”

Kino’s face flushed. Lowi was right. For the last few months, he had been so absorbed in the task at hand and his own career prospects that he had, in fact, thought little about why Xana was fighting in the first place. Truth be told, he had never been as patriotic as his sister. The causes of nations and peoples and gods never held the same appeal to him as simple curiosity and the drive to solve a problem. But his sister reminded him of his duty.

“Xana’s injustices will not be forgotten by any son of Xana. I promise you that I’m doing my best, Sister.”

Lowi’s voice softened. “Sometimes we must trust in a power greater than ourselves. I was planning to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Kiji after visiting you. Why don’t you come with me?”

Why not? It’s not as if I’m getting so much done sitting around here, thought Kino. He looked affectionately at his sister. And this might be my last chance to take a scenic trip with someone who loves me before the king throws me into a prison, or worse, chops off my head for blasphemy.

“If you pray fervently, Lord Kiji will surely give you the inspiration you need.”

• • • •

Mount Kiji, a towering, broad stratovolcano, dominated the landscape of Roui Island. It possessed several craters, two of which were filled with lakes: Lake Arisuso, higher, bigger, evening-sky blue, and Lake Dako, lower, smaller, emerald green. The western shore of Lake Arisuso was the site of the Temple of Kiji, and Lake Dako, where the hostel for the pilgrims was attached to an abbey. From here, the journey to the Temple would take another day.

By the time the monks at the hostel had settled Kino and Lowi into their room, there was still about an hour of daylight left. Kino wanted to rest up for the arduous hike the next day, but Lowi, energized by proximity to the holy site, would have none of it.

“We should go see the Mingén falcons,” she said, and dragged Kino outside. The monks pointed them to a short path through the dense evergreen forest surrounding the hostel, and soon they were on the shore of Lake Dako.

Even though it was now the beginning of summer, the water in the glacial lake and the air around it were still bone-chilling cold. Kino pulled his light summer cloak tighter around himself.

“There!” Lowi pointed up into the sky.

From the ground, the falcons circling overhead looked like stringless kites. With a wingspan of about twenty feet, these fearsome and majestic raptors were bigger than any other predatory bird found on all the islands of Dara. The birds lived only near the peak of Mount Kiji and were sacred, said to act as the god’s messengers and guards.

“Could you not learn the secret of flight from them?”

Kino snorted. “Do you think you’re the first to think that way? Countless scholars and philosophers have asked that question since the beginning of time. Decades ago, the great engineer Mouji had looked into the topic deeper than most. He studied birds great and small, from hummingbirds to hawks, from wild geese to sparrows, and he came to the conclusion that Man could not imitate the birds.”

“Why not?”

“A matter of mathematics. Birds have hollow bones and are relatively light, but they still have to have fairly large wings to fly. He took measurements of different species of birds and found a relationship between wing size, weight, and flight speed. All else being equal, weight increases proportionately with volume. But as the dimensions of a bird are increased, volume goes up as a cube while surface area only goes up as a square.”

“You’ve lost me.”

Kino picked up a branch and drew some explanatory diagrams on the muddy shore. “Basically, you can’t just scale up a small bird to get a bigger bird. A bigger bird generally requires much bigger wings, proportionately speaking, to achieve flight. The alternative to bigger wings is to fly faster. But at the weight of a human being, we do not know how to flap smaller wings at a speed necessary to fly nor how to build larger wings sufficiently light and rigid to permit a slower speed.”

“How big would the wings have to be for me to fly as fast as the falcons?”

Kino squinted up and tried to do the calculations in his head.

“Big, really big. Much bigger than the falcons’. Impossibly light and strong.”

“You sound like a worshipper of Lutho, all this talk about numbers and impossibilities.”

Kino shrugged. “I’m not a mystic chanting Lutho’s name. I simply elucidate the laws of nature.”

“But what you say doesn’t make sense. Look at the falcons. Their torsos are much larger and look heavier than men’s, and yet they fly slowly with wings that you say are too small.”

“That . . . is a mystery,” Kino conceded. “I don’t recall reading about the Mingén falcons in the collected notes and papers of Mouji. The falcons are sacred, as you well know, so he couldn’t capture them, measure them, and dissect them the way he did with other birds. It’s possible that their bodies are even less dense than other birds’.”

Lowi laughed. “Or perhaps their closeness to Kiji gives them an extra lift.”

Kino shook his head. “Though I cannot explain precisely how, it must be the case that the falcons also follow the same rules as other birds. We just don’t know enough about them. Even the gods cannot break the laws of creation and nature.”

“How can you still lack faith even after your experience?”

Kino gave an ambivalent smirk and said nothing.

One of the Mingén falcons broke out of its circular pattern and folded its wings tight against its body. It dove straight down, first slowly, then faster and faster. Plunging like a meteor through the air, the huge bird splashed into the water barely a hundred paces away from where Lowi and Kino stood. The impact sounded like thunder, and foamy waves rose up and collapsed like a watery tower.

“Blessed be Lord Kiji,” said Lowi, her eyes sparkling. “Aren’t you glad you came? Who can doubt the prophesy of Lord Kiji in the presence of such power?”

A few seconds later, the falcon burst out of the lake, water cascading off its iron-black feathers in sheets. The bird followed a graceful arc and landed on a branch overhanging the lake, one of its monstrous claws clutching a struggling fish at least as long as a grown man.

“Messenger of Lord Kiji, please restore my brother’s faith,” prayed Lowi.

But Kino’s brows were furrowed. Something . . . wasn’t right. He gazed at the falcon and the branch it was resting on.

The branch barely dipped under the falcon’s weight.

• • • •

The next morning, no matter how much Lowi pleaded and threatened, Kino refused to budge from his bunk.

“I really don’t feel well. Hiking up to the Temple will be the end of me.”

“But you seemed perfectly fine last night—even drank a full flask of rice wine while you asked the groundskeeper all those questions about the falcons!”

“Maybe I ate something that didn’t agree with me.”

“I ate the same things you did.”

Kino moaned and pulled the blanket over his head.

“All right.” Lowi’s voice softened. “I’ll go up without you and pray especially hard. Try to sleep and get better. Perhaps Lord Kiji will visit you in a dream and give you the answer you seek. I’ve often heard such tales.”

As soon as he was sure Lowi was really gone, Kino rolled out of the bunk. Tiptoeing past the other hostel cells and the central hall where some of the monks and pilgrims were engaged in morning prayer, he slipped outside and onto the path into the woods.

Once he had reached the spot by the lake where he and Lowi had stopped the day before, he turned and walked along the muddy shore, taking care not to get his moccasins and leggings in the ice-cold water. Staying alert, he peered into the dense trees and climbed up one of them from time to time to get a wider view.

There! He had found it. Plunging through the undergrowth, he reached a giant stone cairn, as tall as a man and as wide around as a small house.

The hostel groundskeeper had been a trove of information the night before, telling him about the monks’ practice of giving burials to the corpses of Mingén falcons after they died from old age or disease. Assuming Kino had found the right one, this particular grave was only about a month old.

It took Kino two hours to remove enough stones to reveal the carcass, and four more to completely free it. Luckily, the dead bird was a juvenile with a wingspan of only about eight feet. The torso itself was about the size of a child of ten or twelve. The chill glacial air around the lake had kept the corpse from decomposing, and the bird looked as though it had just died. As irreligious as Kino was, he felt a sense of awe at being this close to something that was considered by everyone to be sacred. He muttered a prayer and steeled himself.

Ever since Lowi raised the question, Kino had thought of nothing except how it was possible for heavier-than-man falcons to achieve flight. He knew that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find the answer. Studying these birds—capturing them and dissecting them as though they were any other wild animal—would immediately mark him as a blasphemer.

But the desire for the answer was like hunger. He felt compelled to move into forbidden territory. He tried to reassure himself with thoughts that investigating the corpses of the sacred birds was likely to get him into less trouble than studying live birds if he were caught.

Taking firm hold of the legs, Kino took a deep breath and pulled.

The body did not move.

Kino squatted and pulled harder, grunting. The corpse barely shifted. He examined the feathers and squeezed the skin underneath. No, the corpse didn’t seem to be waterlogged.

Based on how little the branch yesterday had dipped from the weight of the fully-grown Mingén falcon, this juvenile shouldn’t be too heavy for Kino to move. He had settled on the theory that the Mingén falcons had some kind of body structure that made them much lighter than their size would suggest.

So much for that idea. I’ll have to cut the bird open. Kino took a deep breath to steady his nerves before committing sacrilege.

• • • •

That afternoon, Kino accomplished something no one in all of Dara had ever done: dissect a Mingén falcon. He meticulously peeled away each layer of the bird’s body, making note of any interesting features that might have something to do with flight.

The feathers were light, dense, and oiled to catch the wind and keep the water out. The bones were hollow but strong. The muscles around the breast bulged with the strength necessary to power the wings.

So far, all was as expected.

But inside the body cavity, Kino discovered something odd: a network of thin-skinned sacs connected to each other and to the bird’s lungs. Empty and flabby, they took up little space inside the body. He had no idea what they were.

Careful measurement showed that the body of the falcon was at least as dense, if not denser, than a human body.

Yet it can fly, thought Kino, feeling his heart speeding up.

Again, in his mind he saw how little the branch had dipped with the falcon standing on it.

There was no choice. He had to capture a live bird.

• • • •

Lowi returned from the Temple three days later, and found a Kino who had suddenly discovered religion.

“What a miracle!” said Lowi when she saw her brother.

Kino had to bite his tongue as he listened to Lowi recount how the monk in charge of the hostel described Kino’s conversion to her, “I’ve never seen anything like it. The young master spends all day meditating at remote spots along Lake Dako, vowing to not journey up to the Temple until he has sufficiently purified himself. When he returns in the evenings, he spends all his time at the abbey, studying the scriptures and wisdom sutras left by generations of monks. I’ve never seen a pilgrim more dedicated or fervent. He says that he will not go into the presence of Lord Kiji until he has completely recovered his faith, and that is why he has requested an extended stay here.”

Earnestly, Lowi asked, “Can I meditate and study with you?”

Kino looked away, embarrassed. “Though I’m your older brother, in spiritual development I’m far less advanced. I feel this is a journey I have to make myself.”

Lowi nodded in understanding. “The path to Kiji is different for everyone. I’ll stay at the abbey for a while, too. When you need me, I’ll be here.”

In truth, the “wisdom sutras” that Kino studied in the evenings were the observation logs of the Mingén falcons maintained by the monks over the centuries. The monks kept the notes in an effort to extract messages from the movements and habits of the falcons, thought to be messengers of Kiji.

Thick volumes were filled with interpretations by monks who specialized in divination: Three falcons whose head feathers were white rising to hunt in the morning meant that the three brother states of Faça, Haan, and Rima were on the warpath; an especially large falcon diving into Lake Dako in the afternoon ten times meant that Amu would suffer ten years of drought on the island of Arulugi; and so on. Other monks with a more philosophical bent of mind construed the patterns of the falcons’ flights as expressions of Kiji’s (and by transference, his worshippers’) love of freedom and indomitable spirit, of Xana’s special status as the scorned guiding star for the rest of Dara, of forbearance and hope and disdain for worldly goods, and any number of other positive values.

To Kino, the mystical and fanciful passages were of no interest at all, but the meticulous observations of the falcons over the centuries, including charts, tables, drawings, maps, formed a valuable collection of natural history data. He poured over the notes to detect patterns and tried to confirm his theories with further observations during the day on his “meditation” trips.

He had big plans, plans that he had no intention of revealing to Lowi.

• • • •

It took most of the day for Kino to apply what he knew about fishing in water to the new medium of air.

He found a shallow cove at the eastern end of Lake Dako and built a funnel-shaped stone weir across its opening. Fish could swim into the cove easily but had a much harder time getting out.

After a while, so many fish had become trapped in the cove that their panicked movements churned up the muddy bottom, turning the cove into a brownish flaw in the otherwise perfect emerald that was the lake.

The falcons hunting over the lake noticed the commotion and flew over to investigate. Though they were the top predators in the region, most were cautious by nature and only circled high overhead, observing and trying to understand this new development.

But one of the falcons, an adolescent, apparently decided that it had waited long enough. Tucking the wings around its body, it dove, aiming its talons at one particularly large fish that wriggled tantalizingly in the shallow mud. With a loud splash, the falcon disappeared beneath the surface.

Kino leapt up from his hiding place behind the reeds and swung his dagger at the rope tied to the stake driven into the shore. The pulled-back sapling sprang up and launched the strongest net that Kino could acquire over the spot where the falcon had disappeared.

As the astounded falcons circled overhead and cried out indignantly, Kino struggled to complete his ambush. The young falcon, snared by the net, tried to fight its way out of the water and turned into an explosion of feathers and fury. Kino tossed bags of sand he had prepared onto the net, trying to knock the bird back into the water so that it would drown.

The young falcon almost managed to free itself from the net when Kino’s last bag of sand hit it right on top of the head. Stunned, it seemed to hang suspended between air and water for just a second before finally falling back, its cries choked off by the water.

Kino had worried about how he was going to drag the net holding the drowned falcon onto the shore. After all that studying and hard work to set up a trap that worked, it would be a shame to lose the body. But the corpse practically bobbed onto the surface of the water.

Kino waded into the water and managed to pull the corpse onto the shore without too much trouble. Compared to the month-old carcass of the dead juvenile that Kino had examined earlier, this body was much larger but also far, far lighter.

Curiouser and curiouser.

In a few places, the monks’ records had noted the surprising lightness of the dead falcons. But the monks had attributed the phenomenon to the birds’ proximity to Kiji, and Kino had not known what to do with the information.

Over the rest of the afternoon, Kino repeated his dissection. The blood from the newly dead bird was bright red and smelled rich, strong. But Kino paid little attention to how his clothes were quickly soaked. He had to get inside the body cavity before the body cooled.

Instead of being flabby and empty, the strange sacs inside were puffed up and translucent. They reminded Kino of the swim bladders inside a fish (except there were many more of them), or the air-filled ox bladders that fishermen out on the Gaing Gulf used to make their rafts float better. The filled sacs took up most of the space inside the bird’s chest cavity and squeezed the other organs against the walls.

Holding his breath, Kino sliced through one of the sacs with his knife.

The sac hissed and collapsed as whatever gas was trapped inside escaped. Kino put his nose down and took a deep whiff. There was no smell save the sharp tang of the falcon’s blood.

Kino sliced through a few more sacs quickly. Then he tried to lift the carcass again.

It was much heavier now.

Impossible as it might seem, the Mingén falcon had been held aloft by a gas that was lighter than air.

But where did the gas come from and what was it? Kino had no idea. Solving one mystery had only led to another.

“Brother, what are you doing?”

Kino turned around, his heart pounding.

In a moment, Lowi’s face was drained of blood as she took in the sight. Her eyes kept on moving between the dismembered carcass on the ground and Kino’s bloody hands. She seemed to have lost the power of speech.

And so Kino spoke for both of them. He told Lowi everything in a hurry: his own lack of faith in Kiji or any of the other gods of Dara; the comfort and joy he found in learning of another invariant law of nature that could be expressed in numbers and measurements; the compulsion that had gripped him and forced him to try to probe for the truth, even at the risk of committing a crime that would bring shame and disgrace and worse to the whole family.

Lowi listened, her face impassive. And finally, even after Kino had run out of words, she remained silent, seeming to stare through and past Kino.

“It’s the River of Air,” said Lowi. “It has to be.”

“What?” asked Kino, carefully.

Lowi turned to face him, her eyes now focused. “There is a spot on the shore of Lake Dako that cannot be reached by any path. There, at the bottom of a steep cliff, an endless stream of bubbles rises from the bottom of the lake to burst into air. The Mingén falcons travel there every few days, and they seem to take delight hovering and perching over the bubbles.”

Kino was incredulous. “How do you know this?”

“It’s a secret concerning the Mingén falcons, revealed only to those who have taken holy orders at the Temple.”

Kino realized with a pang that this meant that Lowi had already decided to join the nuns at one of the shrines to Kiji. He had always known that, given her fervent faith, there was a possibility that Lowi would decide on a life of permanent spiritual and physical seclusion from her family.

It took a few moments for the full implications of what she had just told him to sink in. “Wait, why are you telling me this? It’s forbidden—”

“Let me finish! At first I was going to report you to the abbot. Even though you’re my brother, one who aids and abets a blasphemer is as bad as the blasphemer himself.

“But then, the way you described that compulsion to know the truth, to find out . . . is very familiar to me. I’ve always felt that way, too, about the mysteries of Kiji and the other gods. I want to understand the mission that Kiji has for us as a people, the signs he has placed into the world to guide us, the way he shapes the world and moves all of us to do the right thing. Even though we’ve known each other all our lives, I never realized that you felt the same way—only the god you worship goes by a different name.”

Kino wanted to argue, but he had to concede that there was something irrational about the compulsion he felt for knowledge, the curiosity that moved him like no other desire. It is, perhaps, no different than the love a mortal held for a god.

“I don’t understand what you’re doing, Kino, but I can empathize with your devotion. I have prayed for guidance all this time, and my heart tells me that what you’re doing is not a crime. Why else would Lord Kiji allow his messenger to be caught? The gods work in mysterious ways. And I think Lord Kiji is speaking and working through you, even though you don’t know it. Just as the fool is often uplifted over the wise man, it may be that the least pious are also in some ways closest to the gods.

“I had knowledge that would be helpful to you, and because I believe in you, I wanted to share it with you, no matter that it’s forbidden. I do not know if I have defied Lord Kiji or carried out his will by doing so, but sometimes in life we must take a plunge and let forces greater than ourselves lift us or throw us down, as the case may be.

“I pray that whatever penance may be due be visited only upon me.”

• • • •

Kino admired the view from the gondola of the Dézan Falcon with a mixture of pride and sorrow.

Below, fields, forests, mountains, and lakes passed at a dizzying clip. Outside the window, he could see the great feathered oars, like fans, beating against the air rhythmically as though the Dézan Falcon was swimming through air. The shanties from the oarsmen echoed through the gondola.

This is how it feels to be a bird. This is how it feels to be on top of the world.

Kino Ye, First Pilot and Assistant Secretary of the Xana Air Force, now had a bright career ahead of him. Yet all he could think about was a young girl locked away in a windowless cell in a monastery.

The body of the great airship on top of the gondola was cylindrical, as long as a racetrack from end to end, with a diameter in excess of thirty feet. The cylinder was made from flexible, strong bamboo bent into circular hoops connected to each other with longitudinal, thicker bamboo poles. Every twenty feet or so, internal cross-girders provided more structural rigidity. The whole frame was then covered in a layer of thin leather.

But it was the inside of the airship that was truly wondrous. Twenty spherical lift gas bladders, each thirty feet in diameter, were squeezed into the bamboo frame. Made from layers of silk made airtight with wax and oil, these bladders gave the airship the gift of flight.

The airship arrived over the Gaing Gulf, where a few old warships, survivors from Secretary Ingda’s ill-fated adventure near Crescent Island, were moored. The ships were empty shells, devoid of crew.

Kino looked over at Secretary Ingda. “We’re ready for the trial.”

Ingda had been smiling nonstop since he came aboard, marveling at everything. Who could blame him? He had been given a budget that was bigger than the combined budgets of the Navy and the Army, and his nemesis, Duke Zyn, had just been thrown into prison by royal decree. The charge: suspected treason against Xana and spying for Amu.

“Go ahead,” said Ingda.

Calmly, Kino gave the order, “Prepare the firebombing run.”

The order was relayed from the cockpit to the back of the gondola, and the smell of burning tar gradually wafted into the cockpit.

“At this height, we’re beyond the range of even the strongest longbows,” Kino explained. The ships on the sea below bobbed like toy boats in a bathtub.

“Ready,” came the response from the back of the gondola.

Kino looked over at Ingda, who nodded.

“First salvo, standard parabolic pattern,” Kino said.

They felt the ship jerk upward slightly as the fire pots, filled with burning tar, were released from the gondola. They fell toward the surface like diving falcons, and moments later, exploded in fountains of flames against the ships below. The burning tar stuck to the sails, the rigging, and the slick decks. Before long the ships had turned into smoking, fiery infernos.

“How are you able to hit them so accurately from this high up?” Ingda asked.

“It’s just a matter of basic math,” said Kino. But the pride in his voice was unmistakable. “It will be harder to hit ships in actual battle conditions, especially with a choppy sea, but still, with the right surface support, two or three airships should make quick work of entire armadas,” Kino said.

“There are no possible countermeasures?” Ingda asked.

Kino considered this. “The other states will need to find their own sources of lift gas to construct airships. Meanwhile, maybe they can launch battle kites to engage the airships or take evasive maneuvers, especially if the ships are small. But it will take time to develop such tactics.”

“This will change the balance of power in all of Dara,” said Ingda. He stroked his beard and continued to smile. “I was right to bet on you. You’ve done it. You’ve really done it!”

Kino’s smile was ambivalent. He didn’t feel the excitement he had expected to feel at finally coming up with a weapon that would force the rest of Dara to treat Xana as an equal. He didn’t sense the joy he had hoped for at fulfilling the dreams of his people. Revenge, now within reach, did not taste sweet.

Instead, his mind was filled with imagined scenes of horror on the ships below. He thought about the men who would die helplessly at sea while the airships hovered over them with impunity, raining down fiery death like gods motivated by whim, striking at mortals who could not fight back. His stomach turned at the thought of such a war among unequals.

In truth, he had wondered if there was a place for fairness in war. Many atrocities had been committed against Xana by the other states. War seemed to be a force that compelled everyone it touched to behave in ways barbarous and impossible to comprehend.

For a man who didn’t believe that the gods intervened much in the affairs of the world, he didn’t feel much in control of his own destiny. Whether it was the machinations of courtly intrigue or the aspirations of the people of Xana, the compulsion to know the truth or the unswerving logic of escalating force—he seemed doomed to be moved by currents that he could not direct.

One might as well call such forces gods.

And now, with the invention of the airship, what force have I unleashed upon the world? Which way will the currents of history flow? Oh, Lowi, did you know that your faith in Xana’s just cause would lead to so much suffering and death?

But still, he was a man who had to function within a bureaucracy, and there were roles to play, forces to appease. “I’ve done nothing but follow the inspiration of Lord Kiji,” said Kino, avoiding looking into Ingda’s eyes. “And your lordship, of course. Without you, the airships could never have gotten off the ground.”

Secretary Ingda looked at Kino with interest. “I do believe you’ve learned the art of deflecting praise upward, Assistant Secretary Ye.”

“I speak but the truth. You were the one to convince King Dézan of the importance of the lift gas, and induced him to issue the decree to the Temple.”

The priests of Kiji had been outraged by the royal order that the Air Force be allowed to set up a lift gas collection plant at the holy site of the River of Air next to Lake Dako. But the outrage was quickly muted after the king made a lavish gift of land and jewels to the Temple. Whether or not something was sacrilege, it seemed, depended on how much one was willing to pay for it.

“You praise me too much,” said Ingda lightly. “The real credit belongs to King Dézan, as I’m sure we can all agree.”

“Of course, I have learned how to drift with the currents,” said Kino. “And I studied under the best.” Better that this ship of death bear the king’s name than mine.

Secretary Ingda chuckled. “I look forward to how high you can fly, Kino. You have been commissioned to lead the first battle group. I hope you aren’t thinking of taking time off any time soon. It’s the price of success.”

Kino’s heart sank. “I had hoped to visit my sister for a few weeks.”

The greedy and crass bargaining from the priests had disgusted Lowi. That the heads of her order could be swayed in a matter of spirituality by money—they made little attempt to come up with a theological explanation for why they capitulated to the royal decree—was beyond belief. That she herself had played a role in the desecration of the holy site was almost too much to bear. The embarrassment created by her loud condemnations of the decision finally gave the priests no choice. Lowi ceased to be allowed visitors, and her family was told that she was sequestered in deep meditation that could not be interrupted.

Kino had hoped that his newly exalted status as the king’s favorite might buy Lowi a measure of respite.

Ingda shook his head. “There’s too much to do to prepare for an invasion. I can’t allow you to leave your post.”

“But I’m an engineer, not a soldier.”

“No one knows how to make war with an airship. New weapons require new tactics. Who could be better at inventing them than you, the hero of Xana?”

Ingda had told Kino once that serving a king was a bit like being friends with a tiger: One had best never forget who was really in charge. Servants who allowed their own fame to exceed that of their master did not have long careers.

Alas, it seemed that Kino had been too careless in “deflecting praise upward,” as Ingda had put it. In a moment, Ingda’s veiled threat made Kino understand his calculus: Kino would either die in battle—if the airships failed to perform—or forever be associated with the brutality and horrid deaths that such a monstrous weapon produced. Either way, he was out of the way as a rival.

Kino gazed at Ingda, who stared back impassively. “I’d like to ask for a favor, Secretary.”

“Speak.”

“My sister is a novice at the nunnery near Lake Arisuso. But I have not heard from her for some time. I’d like it made clear to the monks and priests there that she must be cared for properly.”

“It is done. Go to battle without any worries.”

And Kino understood that was all the concession he would get.

Searching for the truth of the world, discovering how it functioned—whether through the will of the gods or inflexible laws of nature—was a pure pursuit that was not enough by itself. Credit had to be assigned, money had to be made, and the right names had to be glorified. Anyone who was careless in navigating the currents of power could suddenly find himself trapped in a net and sinking, struggling, into an alien world.

Lowi could not tolerate the priests’ hypocrisy, while Kino thought he had learned how to interpret the false meanings behind every sentence spoken at court. But both of them, as it turned out, had too much faith in forces that ultimately could only be ridden, but not mastered.

The currents will go where they will, Kino thought. But he wasn’t sure if he should be comforted by the idea.

“Launch the long-haul kites,” Kino ordered. “Pull in the oars and let’s ride the currents for a while and see where they take us.”

“May Kiji’s blessing be with you,” said Ingda.

“And also with you,” said Kino.

The gods do work in mysterious ways. Lowi would perhaps say that all that has happened was willed by the gods, and I could say that everything has gone according to random chance and human plan. Between religious ecstasy and a practiced act, who can tell the difference?

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Ken Liu

Ken Liu

Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint in 2015, along with a collection of short stories.