Adabi’s feet rested on the saxboard of the river boat, Thirsty for the Sea, as she tied a knot in an end of one of the boat’s lines. In her linen-draped lap lay a worn cedar box, its top the span of a large hand, tied on with simple twine. The boat’s owner, now paddling at the stern of the eye-prowed vessel, watched her with curiosity while his son, a boy of nine named Kaal, watched Adabi’s hands. The boy’s head was shaved where his father’s was close-cropped and black, spattered with grey at the temples. His skin like his father’s: dark as a cloudless desert night sky, and marked with gold stars, as was the tradition of his people when they ventured across land and sea. Kaal watched her nimble fingers with his warm brown eyes as she finished the elaborate knot, then whispered to it. He reached out his hand in curiosity and Adabi let him take it from her calloused fingers.
The boy startled as the knot fell back into a simple rope without, it seemed to him, having unraveled in any way. Adabi winked at him, her sparkling black eyes showing none of the wear of her wind-scoured skin; indeed, the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes seemed naturally a sign of mischief, rather than age.
The owner, Makud, laughed while he worked the tiller of the boat and said to his child, “Kaal, you could learn something from our passenger here!”
Kaal, still holding the limp rope, looked up at Adabi, and said, “How?“
Adabi stood in the rocking boat and stretched, arms over her head and groaning. When she exhaled and opened her eyes, she scanned the palms that lined the river, the languid movement of a crocodile as it shifted its ancient weight in the shallows, the flock of ibis overhead. She pointed at the flock. “Kaal, what is that?”
He looked nonplussed. “A flock of ibis?”
“It is,” she said. “And what if you took your sling and struck one down? What would it be?”
The boy’s face screwed up in the struggle. His father smiled on as he plied the languid river. The boy said, his voice uncertain, “It’s still a flock?”
“And,” continued Adabi, “What if you struck down another? Or another after that?”
The boy’s face moved as it followed his thoughts.
She asked, “Did I hand you a knot?”
He opened his mouth to answer, but paused. Then he said, “Did you only hand me the rope?”
Adabi smiled as the boat pulled beside the dock, aided by longshoremen. She looked up, approved of the physique of one, then looked back to the boy, whispering to him, “Then where did the knot go?”
Before he could answer, as no answer was forthcoming, she handed him a small strip of papyrus, inscribed with a passage in the Language of Names: “The Knot Adug, holding fast, free only by its own will”.
She tucked her cedar box under her arm, then turned and grabbed the hand of a longshoreman who pulled her up to the dock without effort. She thanked him with a word and a private smile before he turned to aid Makud and his child in moving their goods to shore. Makud, his laden of shoulder with a sack of barley, caught Adabi’s eye and, as the sack was lifted from his shoulder, gave her a gesture of thanks. She smiled and moved into the crowd of people in this city of Ku.
She followed the longshoremen and their glistening, golden, broad backs to the market that now thrummed with life. Smells rose to her nostrils: olives and garlic, donkeys and their shit, the perfume of a spice that she did not know. Drawn by the unfamiliarity, she approached a stall where a family rolled out flatbreads, roasted them on the stone cover of a small oven, covered them with a paste, and handed them to passersby in exchange for coins of copper or glass or, in one case, a knowing glance.
She asked of the purveyor, a man whose olive oil-soaked skin was much younger than his eyes.
Her purse now empty of its lone coin, but her first hot meal in three days steaming in her hand, she walked through the market square, passing the bread from hand to hand while it cooled enough to eat.
Finally, she raised it to her lips, but it paused there without touching them. Before her was the Temple of Ashu, its title inscribed on the entablature above its gate in the Language of Names. Before it on a palanquin stood a woman, clothed only in the gold-edged, sheer linen of the noble and priestly among these People of the River. From her shoulders extended the neck of an ibis, ending in its long, curved bill. Her red-rimmed, gold eyes perused the crowd of adoring supplicants, many of them in the dust-sifted clothes of pilgrims who had traveled some distance.
Ashu’s arm was extended, and she held in her hand the sun, the Strong Right Eye of the City of Ku or perhaps of the entire river valley. Slowly and with great and practiced care, she set the sun down below the horizon, bathing the sky and the city itself in red.
Her task complete, Ashu’s attendants raised the palanquin to their shoulders with smooth grace, turned it slowly that all might see the might of the Great Name of Ashu, and walked her into the temple.
In the gloaming, Adabi sat at the edge of the river and looked upstream with some concern as she chewed on her flatbread, discovering the savory paste to be made of beans, garlic, and salted fish, and pondering the unfamiliar spice that had drawn her to the stall. Satisfied that a boat that approached into the torchlight of the docks was another modest trading vessel unaffiliated with her pursuer, she relaxed and sopped up bean paste from where it had fallen in her lap, then lifted the edge of her tunic to suck the last bits of paste from its weave. Among the people of the market, she had seen none spill the paste from their bread. She determined that there must be a technique she lacked.
The flock of ibis stalked around muck-rooted rushes, seeking insects among their sodden feet. Adabi watched for a while, then caught the eye of one bird, who looked back, unable to turn its red-cornered golden eye from her gaze. “Bird,” she said, “I am Neti, though known by that name to few. I would ask of you a favor, and hope that you would tell me the fair price of its doing.”
The bird turned its other eye toward her in curiosity, then spoke. “Good evening, Neti, I am Bi, of the flock of Ashag Tibu. What would you wish?”
“Bi,” she began, “I would like to know what you see when you fly high above this city of Ku. Do you see any approach from the south, up the river that would concern the earthen-beings that live in these walls of stone and daub?”
The bird turned its head so that its other eye now faced her. “I know not what concerns the earthen-beings. I am a bird of the air. But I will conduct you to my queen, if you wish: Ashu, the Ibis of Dawn, whose vision is matched only by her beauty. She knows of the matters of earthen-beings and, many years ago, went into its walls, never to return. I have seen her when I fly high above, emerging from the temple in the center of Ku, to raise the sun each morning.
Adabi wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, then wiped her hands on her linen trousers, tucked her cedar box under her arm, and rose. “Would you accept a loaf of barley bread, filled with fat insects, for your assistance?”
The ibis shifted to the other eye again as though it couldn’t believe what it was hearing. “I should very much like such a thing!”
“We are agreed, then,” she said, gesturing toward the lantern-lit city behind her.
The bird leapt into the air as Adabi walked behind, giving the others of the flock a start. Bi paused from time to time on a wall or roof to let the woman — an earthen-being incapable of flight — catch up with him. She wended her way through the longshoremen and sailors gathered together in a miasma of music and the aroma of beer, then through the closing market, pausing to snatch a moldering flatbread off a cart bound to be carried to the midden at the edge of town. When she looked up from the fetid cart, she spied a girl, perhaps ten years of age, her eye looking with purpose to the top of the market stall where Bi now stood. The girl was loading an almond-shaped stone into her jute sling. Adabi’s eyes widened momentarily, concerned for her own reputation among the flock of Ashag Tigu as much as for the life of Bi, and from her lips whispered these words: “Slingstone, I am Neti, and I will deal with you in good faith. Do you wish to kill this bird?”
From the sling came the voice of the slingstone, its voice dripping with desire, said, “Oh, how I do. I, Babur, will splash its brains! My teeth will bite deep into its skull! To fell a bird, fleet of wing, that is my desire!”
The sling pouch departed the girl’s hand and began to move in its arc behind her back.
“Babur, smasher of skulls, surely you will be lost after this moment. Do you not wish for destiny greater than this tiny bird? Fly wide this time and I will show you mightier foreheads to cleave.”
The stone’s arc behind the girl was nearly complete, the pouch pulling the sling taught behind her shoulder, and it hummed as it gained speed from the girl’s practiced arm.
“Neti, splitter of words, what could be greater prey than this bird flying free?”
“Babur, splitter of heads, If you spare this bird and fly wide, find your way to my pocket and I will see you come to rest in the head of a king.”
“A king!” exclaimed the almond-shaped stone, “Swear to it, or you will find me embedded in your eye, dealer-in-names!” The sling now hung in space above the girl’s right shoulder and her finger released the knot at one end of the sling.
“I swear!” Adabi whispered hoarsely.
The stone flew free. Bi, sensing the motion, flapped to safety one stall away and gave Adabi a look. “Please make haste!” implored the bird, “For my kind is unwelcome in the cities of the earthen-beings!”
The girl looked at Bi with first expectation, then disappointment while her father patted her shoulder. “Keep practicing, little Edeg!” he encouraged her. The girl looked perplexed, as though unaccustomed to missing her target. The father and daughter continued on their errand.
Neti dipped her hand into the purse, empty of coin, that dangled in the front of her trousers and found there the almond shape she expected. It quivered with anticipation. “A king,” Adabi heard it mutter to itself.
The sun had not yet set when Bi alighted atop the entablature of the temple, cooling from the afternoon sun high above the bustle of the streets. A pair of temple guards stood along the steps, their heads shaved but for a coiled braid on their forehead, a symbol among the People of the River of their devotion of seven years to the service of the temple. They each wore a linen skirt with a stiff apron at their waist, which held in its waistband a long fang of bronze. In their hands, they each held a dagger spear, its head cut from a luminous, green metal that Adabi had never seen.
Adabi strode purposefully toward the entrance while the guards watched, their senses dulled by tedium and uninterested in this short, skinny middle-aged woman. But as she was about to cross the threshold into the outer chamber of the temple, a priestess emerged from the shadows inside and stood before her.
“Good evening, pilgrim,” said the young priestess. Her hair, uncut since becoming a woman, coiled in tiny, black twists around her head and down her back. Each tress ended in a gold thimble that tinkled like bells. Her eyes, painted in the tradition of her order with gold dust, kohl, and cinnabar.
Adabi looked her up and down for a moment. “Little acolyte, I come to your mistress to be introduced by Bi of the flock of Ashag Tibu. She beckoned to the nervous bird who fluttered at the floor of the entrance, and the bird leapt to her shoulder. “Tell her I bring her news.”
But the acolyte merely looked at Bi with suspicion, who looked about himself nervously, wary of the roof now over his head.
“Get that filthy river animal out of this sacred place,” sneered the acolyte.
Adabi was taken aback only momentarily. “You misunderstand,” she said, “I ask out of respect for Ashu. Make way.”
Bi, sensing danger, leapt into the air.
The guards at the gate of the temple took notice of the change in tone and turned, placing their hands on the pommels of their daggers. But before they could draw them, Adabi said, over her shoulder, “Soldier, I am Adabi. what is your name?”
Bi’s wings completed their first flap as the bird twisted toward the open gate of the temple, toward freedom and away from roofs and the butchery of his kind that they sheltered.
“Urud,” he said as his fingers began to close around the hilt.
“And you, brother soldier?”
“I am called Azug, though my mother called me Burdun,” as the bronze slipped free of the waistband of his apron.
The acolyte’s eyes widened and her lips began to part. Her tongue, practiced began to form a word.
But Adabi’s words were prepared first: “Burdun, do you wish an appointment that would make your mother proud?”
Burdun-called-Azug’s brow clenching like a fist as the sparkling bronze cleared its sheath, “I wish to speak with her in the waters of the underworld!”
Bi’s wings completed their second flap. His body, still twisted from his initial leap, sought to straighten that he might fly free of humans and their skyless environ.
The acolyte’s first word was ill-chosen. “Adabi,” she said. But it was not the true name of Neti, the girl who had walked out of her village twenty years ago, holding the hand of a cunning boy who could speak to the clouds. She was under no obligation to deal truthfully with the acolyte.
She ignored the woman and continued,
“Burdun, if you kill Urud, I will take you to her.”
The bronze veered in its course, following Burdun’s eyes as they left Adabi’s chest and landed on Urud’s. Urud saw the threat and wheeled toward his companion in confusion.
The acolyte continued, her eyes flashing in fear, “Adabi, turn from here and I will grant you pardon.”
Adabi reached into her purse. “Babur, smash this pretty brow for me.” She had barely brought back her hand to throw before the stone leapt from her hand with a thrumming sound and toward the acolyte, her hands raising to protect herself, but far too slow. Babur struck her with the sound of an axe on the trunk of a tree and the acolyte keeled over backward, landing formlessly.
Behind Adabi, the two practiced soldiers faced each other with shouts and grunts, grappling and attempting to gain advantage. They would bar her way no more. “Bi, I would join you again with your queen. Will you come with me?”
Bi, unwilling to pass the two fighting men, circled the foyer and alighted on the corpse of the acolyte. “I dislike the places of earthen-beings,” said Bi, a waver in his voice.
“I will protect you and see you free to the sky again, comforted with the knowledge of your queen’s freedom. If you must, fly free. But I would see the two of you together again, if I can.”
Bi thought for a moment. One of the guards — Adabi did not turn to see which — shrieked in pain, perhaps at a broken finger. “I will join you.”
The inner sanctum of the temple was unguarded, though it was surrounded with thick curtains. In its entranceway, embroidered upon the curtains, was a promise. Adabi raised her hand to touch the words. A shout came from behind them, as someone came across the fighting duo in the front.
Bi alighted atop a funerary urn topped with the graven head of a hawk. Bi’s eyes were wide with fear. “Please,” he begged, though no further words came from his arched bill.
But Adabi stayed in place, tracing the characters with her fingers. She scowled. “Bi, I’m sorry. Fly free. I may never leave this place.”