Riverkeep - Martin Stewart Page 0,1

breasts rot-swollen, her cheek cut with a debtor’s mark. But as always the most recent entry was the next number—3,102—offered with the prayer of the Riverkeep: that the number might be never filled.

He closed the ledger. The mold-edged pages, heavy with moisture, fell with a report that bounced round the boathouse like the slamming of an enormous door. Wull heard the creak of Pappa’s boots in the darkness.

“Yer coming tonight.”

Wull shook his head. “It’s too cold.”

“Ah’ve told ye, that’s—”

“I know, it’s just . . . Not tonight, Pappa, please.”

Pappa regarded him a moment, shifting the wad of lakoris leaf around in his mouth. Then he shook his head.

“Yer nearly sixteen” was all he said.

The air was sharp and hard in Wull’s lungs. Even wrapped in layers of seula gut, he felt the chill on the exposed flesh inside his boots and around his waist like the cut of wire. The white, still world communicated itself as a sharp whine outside of his hearing, and he stamped his feet on the bäta’s exposed ribs and buried his face in his elk-fur collar, peeping over when his eyes could stand the cold.

The lanterns, staked in the riverbed where the currents met and the flotsam gathered in eddied clumps, made glowing islands in the velvety darkness, their flames fuzzed in the fog like dandelions. The industrial might of Oracco was silent, the howls of its foundries and smithies carried away on the east wind. The only sound in the smothered world was the rhythmic clicking of the oars and the soft noise of the blades moving through the water.

By the fifth lantern, they had discovered a graygull, torn open by a seula—“Not much else left for them,” Pappa said—and the broken spokes of a carriage wheel. The gull was flapping limply, trying to fly on shattered wings while it bled onto the ice. Pappa reached down and gently snapped its neck between his thumb and forefinger. Wull watched him ease the body into the water on scar-twisted palms.

As far out as the edge, at lantern twenty-two, they still had found nothing more than knots of weed and grass clinging to the ice rods. Wull peered into the unseen and untended wilderness beyond the last outpost of the keep’s realm, in the depths of which lurked the bustle of Oracco’s ports, the flashing steel of bandits, and, past a scattering of hamlets, the Danék’s estuary and the wider sea.

He trailed his glove tips in the water and flicked droplets out toward the beyond. Pappa saw him, tut-tutted, then—as he turned the bäta toward the boathouse and its warmth—they found 3,102.

It was male, fat-backed and facedown, white flesh streaked with a pattern of cuts and bruises Wull knew came from the fierce, swirling currents near the footbridge where Mamma had drowned. It had been wearing a uniform that still clung to it in scraps, and there were murky tattoos spilled along its visible skin. Pieces of its scalp were missing, and leaks of blood and fluid colored the wafer of snow-dusted ice that had crept around it.

Pappa looked at Wull.

“The footbridge,” said Wull.

Pappa nodded solemnly. The flames cut his face into slices of light and dark, one eye hidden in the black wedge behind his nose. “May Lavernes keep thee,” he muttered, lifting the oars from the water. “Here, Wulliam—row.”

Wull took the oars, turned the bäta, and heaved it forward. Even now, its great weight pulled at him as though it might shatter his wrists. He looked down at the floating form of 3,102. It looked bunched, not loose, and sat tightly in the water.