I caught it! he thinks. I actually caught it!
As the wave swells beneath him, Jack looks out over the wind-swept, all-but-deserted beach (where his sister Jilly stands watching, dwindled to doll size) and surrenders to the same mix of elation and terror that makes roller-coasters irresistible. The cry that bursts from his lips is the primordial cry of the ocean: raw, fierce, and proud. Jack's up so high that he can see over the crest of the dunes to the houses beyond; even to his own house, where the antlike figures of his father, Bill, his older sister, Ellen, and Uncle Jimmy are hard at work taking down the porch screens. It seems entirely possible that he might fly to them, joining the gulls angling through the air on the knife-edge gusts and thrusts of wind preceding Belle like the outriders of an advancing army. Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird; it's a plane; no, it's Super Jack!
The ocean yaws and pitches. The next thing he knows, he's falling. The surf is miles below. He screams, desperately trying to right himself, or the world. At the same time, he catches sight of Jilly. She's up to her waist in the surf, arms rigid at her sides, gazing at him with an expression of fearful excitement, her mouth open as if she's shouting at the top of her lungs. But he can't hear her. Then he can't see her anymore either, because the wave curls behind him and slaps him down. There's no time to register the pain of striking the surface in the pummeling he receives beneath it as the wave rolls him toward shore. Jack tumbles like a sneaker in a washing machine, slammed into the bottom again and again until his body is numb and all sense of direction fled. His lungs burn with the need for air. A directionless roar envelops him.
He struggles against the current, but the incoming surge passes him off smoothly to the outgoing tide, which drags him back the way he'd come … or a different way, he can't tell. At last he goes limp, thinking to conserve his strength. He's wishing he hadn't come down to the beach with Jilly to look at the storm-tossed surf; more than anything, he's wishing he hadn't accepted her dare to ride one of the enormous waves. "In or else, Jack," she'd taunted. "You're not chicken, are ya?"
When will he learn? Why does he let her talk him into these things? Bill's going to kill him … assuming the ocean doesn't do the job first. He'd give anything to go back and change the moment when he'd pulled off his shirt and run headlong into the water. It seems like ages ago; another life altogether. Pinpricks of light are flaring and dying in the dark of his inner vision, illuminating shapes he doesn't want to see: immense, unmoving forms that also take notice of him somehow, as if the flashes by which he sees them are lighting him up as well, bringing him fitfully, like a flickering ghost, across some invisible threshold and into the range of their perceptions. He senses a sluggish stirring in the depths and imagines a scaly arm or tentacle reaching for him as he might reach to swat a fly. He strikes out blindly.
The current falls away as if grown weary of the game. With the last of his hoarded strength, Jack kicks and claws his way toward what he hopes is the surface.
All at once, there's air to breathe … if you call this breathing. Sputtering, half-blinded by spume and spray, he flounders, legs churning, arms splashing. Shards of leaden sky shatter across his eyes, but no glimpse of shore obtrudes to guide him, no hint of where he is in relation to the land. For all he knows, he's been swept miles out to sea. His straining toes brush no bottom. Wherever he turns, a wave is waiting to slap him in the face. He wants nothing more than to strike back, bursting with a rage that rises up in him like the wave he'd caught, or that had caught him, and like it crashes down. It pours through and out of him, leaving him drained, empty, tossed about like a cork. It's all he can do to keep his head above water.
Dazed and half-drowned, Jack finds himself recalling the expression on Jilly's face, the naked avidity with which, having set these events in motion, she'd watched them take their course, her insatiable eyes drinking in his spill like she thirsted for it, and it's this memory, rather than his current predicament, that swings open, wider than ever, the floodgates of his fear: his deepest, most secret and spectacular fear. Not of dying. No, it's the prospect of losing Jilly that truly terrifies him.
But that can't happen. He won't let it. He opens his mouth to call her name. Water rushes in. He swallows it like a stone. With a last, stinging slap, the ocean slams over his head, severing his sight from the sky. Sinking into those sisterless depths, he feels himself breaking apart, all the bits and pieces of Jack Doone dispersing in different directions like minnows fleeing a predatory darkness.
Kestrel wakes with a groan. He lies unmoving amid the tangled sheets of the bed, his thoughts sluggish and muddy. The room stinks of stale beer and cigarette smoke. What little light filters past the curtains reveals a shadowy murk that looms up like a wave before his bleary, half-open eye. He watches with vague interest the emergence of beer bottles, cigarette butts, pizza crusts, loose feathers, and dirty clothes from this inchoate mass, not quite connecting any of it with certain dimly remembered events of the previous night. He's doing his best to ignore an urgent need to piss. Every muscle and bone in his body hurts. His teeth hurt. His eyelashes. He feels like he might be all right if he could lie absolutely still for about a thousand years.
"Gad?" he croaks. "Pip?"
No answer. His friends still asleep, the lazy good-for-nothings. The burning in his bladder is preventing his own return to that enviable state. With another groan, louder and more self-pitying, not just an expression but an advertisement of suffering, Kestrel rolls onto the floor, a journey of mere inches; at some point and for some reason, both equally forgotten, he or someone else had slid the thin mattress off the bed. Which, he realizes, explains the odd perspective of the beer bottles. Still, as he rises to his feet and lurches into the bathroom, a nagging doubt accompanies him, as if he's overlooked something. He passes his hand over the lumen on the bathroom wall, then immediately deactivates it, senses shrieking in protest at the hammerflash of light, and does his business in the dark. It's only when he staggers back into the room that Kestrel notices the other beds are empty.
And freezes long enough to digest the implications of this discovery. When he has, he rushes to the window and yanks the curtains open, recoiling from an explosion of sunlight and startled pigeons on the ledge outside. He squints with horror into the brightness of day. Two floors below, Bayberry Street bustles with carriages and pedestrians. Kestrel feels like he's been caught in a downdraft, a dangerous wind shear.
Cursing, he faces back into the room and sees that a note has been left on top of one of the beds. He wafts it to him, reads Gad's scribbled hand: Kes—tried to wake you. Gone to the Gate. See you there!
He crumples the paper, lets it fall to the floor. Tried to wake you—not too Oddsdamn hard, they didn't! How difficult can it be to wake one sleeping person? That, come to think of it, he does kind of half-remember, like the ragged remnant of a dream, having been jolted awake by the impact of his mattress striking the floor, and threatening the disturbers of his sleep with grievous bodily harm if they didn't leave him alone, is irrelevant. What matters is that his two best friends have deserted him. The pendulum clock on the wall reads twenty past ten: pentad assignments are almost certainly posted by now.
But maybe it isn't too late, after all. Perhaps there's been a delay, and he can still catch the tail end of the ceremony. Scarcely pausing to preen before the bathroom mirror, licking his hands and smoothing the worst of his ruffled feathers back into place so that it doesn't look quite as much like he's just flown backward through a hurricane, Kestrel throws on clean clothes, fastens his dice pouch to his belt, swings his half-empty waterskin over his neck, and clatters down the stairs to the lobby of the Pigeon's Roost … where he collides with the eponymous innkeeper, a cadaverous, something-more-than-middle-aged airie with a scarred and withered wing his colorful clothing cannot heal or conceal.
"Getting a late start this morning, young Kestrel?" There's nothing pleasant in Pigeon's pinched smile or the frosty glitter of his gray eyes beneath bushy pewter eyebrows. The vibrant red feathers of his headcrest fan open as he speaks, resembling a crown of flames in the brilliant sunlight streaming through the front windows.
Kestrel blushes at the sudden memory of jeering at Pigeon and pelting him with pizza crusts when he'd come to their room for the third time with a complaint about the noise; this after the common room had closed and they'd moved the party upstairs. "Er, about last night," he begins. "I feel terrible …"
"You look it." Pigeon grunts with satisfaction, headcrest stiff and at its full extension. His pointed ears have pricked up as well, hoisted by fine silver chains that run from the top and sides of his scalp to a series of small rings and studs piercing the helixes of his ears. Such elaborate architectures of jewelry, reminiscent of the rigging of sailing ships or suspension bridges, are considered fashionable among airies of Pigeon's generation, but Kestrel and his friends eschew such garish ornamentation. Kestrel wears but a single piece of jewelry, a thin chain of three braided threads—two gold, one silver—that coils about his left ear to dangle an inch below the lobe. He has a habit of flicking the loose ends with his index finger when nervous or impatient, as now.
"I'm sorry about the noise and, well, all the rest of it," he gamely presses on, keeping his voice low so that the clerk at the front desk—a delph in dark glasses who stands as motionless as the pile of rocks he pretty much resembles—won't overhear the humiliating apology. And because he's a trifle sensitive just now to loud voices, including his own. On the hangover scale of one to ten, he's got to be pushing eleven.
"So you've got some manners after all." Pigeon's head bobs in a fashion queasily reminiscent of his namesake bird, which Kestrel has never encountered in such numbers as here in Mutatis Mutandis, strutting about the busy streets of the Commonwealth's capital like they own the place. The pigeon population of distant Wafting, his home nesting, is kept small and timid by the many species of raptors that call the Featherstone Mountains home.
"Which is more than I can say for your molting friends," the innkeeper continues in a growl. "Slunk out of here this morning without so much as a peep. I was within a feather of tossing the lot of you out last night. I still might."
Eager as he is to be gone, Kestrel's ashamed of his behavior and doesn't want to make things worse by rushing off. Rumor has it that Pigeon's withered wing is a souvenir of his pilgrimage; but however he got it, the injury prevents him from flying now. Oh, he can summon a wind strong enough to sweep himself aloft, but that isn't real flying. Not to an airie. There's no precision to it, no grace. The truth is, Kestrel and the others treated him so meanly because his handicap had awakened not just their pity but their darkest apprehensions of suffering a similar injury. But that's no excuse. Kestrel thanks the Odds that his parents are staying with boggle friends in another quarter of the city. His father, Scoter, had admonished him during the long flight from Wafting to remember that he would be representing his nesting at the Proving and afterward and to act accordingly. Kestrel's pretty sure that throwing pizza crusts at the crippled proprietor of one's lodging while singing obscene limericks at the top of one's lungs isn't what his father had in mind. "We're grateful that you didn't," he says. "We'll pay for any damage or incovenience."
Pigeon's smile grows warmer, his headcrest relaxing into a less martial display. "Hard as it might be for some to imagine, I was young once. Raised a bit of a ruckus myself the night after I passed my Proving. Took me four tries: of course, the tests were harder in those days—ask anyone. So I had cause to celebrate!" He whistles his laughter, fine chains glittering frostily amid his feathers; across the lobby, the delph behind the front desk turns a face as rough and inscrutable as granite in their direction. "No, I don't begrudge noise or high spirits," says Pigeon. "It's rudeness I can't abide. After all, master Kestrel, we're airies, ain't we?"
"Yes, sir." Kestrel swallows, wondering if Pigeon's feathers are dyed or are naturally that excruciating shade of red. His hangover has entered into sadistic symbiosis with his senses; the noises from Bayberry Street, the countless bruises and muscle strains the Proving had inflicted on his body and wings, the smells from the common room, of frying sausages, eggs, and onions mixed with tobacco and marijuana smoke … all of it's growing more and more intolerable. He can feel each individual feather on his body, and every one of them aches in its own unique way.
"I expect that sort of behavior from the, er, lower races," Pigeon continues, dropping his voice a notch and flashing Kestrel a wink at the phrase, employed by some airies as a euphemism for their earthbound brethren, "but we airies should be above all that. They look up to us, you know. We have to set an example."
"Yes, sir," Kestrel repeats, impatience and discomfort by now outweighing his guilt and very nearly his politeness. It's like listening to one of Scoter's interminable lectures. He flicks the end of his earpiece. "It won't happen again."
A trio of dark-skinned manders has meanwhile entered the inn: two females and a male. The air shimmers with radiated heat around their scantily clad bodies, giving them an insubstantial, shadowy look, like walking mirages.
"I'll be right with you, gentlemutes," Pigeon calls out in a hearty voice, gesturing to the desk clerk to remain at his post, although the delph has shown no inclination to leave it.
With polite nods, the manders step into the common room, just off the lobby.
Pigeon puffs out his sunken cheeks in a theatrical sigh. "Well, you'll excuse me: duty calls. Good as they are for business, for no one thirsts like a mander, I'm always worried they'll burn the place down, and the servant, Odds save her, is a flighty thing who gets so nervous around manders that she costs me a fortune in spillage. Will you be wanting breakfast, master Kestrel?"
Kestrel winces, stomach churning at the thought of food. "I'm late as it is."
"Then I wish you good fortune. May your pentad prove as loyal and brave, and your pilgrimage as profitable, as mine."
Kestrel's smile freezes at the possibility that Pigeon's words, in the guise of a blessing, are actually a curse: a wish, in revenge for those pizza crusts and cruel taunts, that Kestrel, too, enjoy the profit of a crippling injury.
But the innkeeper has already turned and is hurrying away.