There was no wind the night my grandfather died. To say it was quiet does not give the stillness credit, for not even the gentlest breeze whispered between the sealed and silent shutters. The silence felt insatiable, as though any spoken sound would be swallowed by it, sucked deep into an unseen void more complete than the expanse beyond the towns docks. It was stagnant, haunting, and indescribably empty.
At fifteen, I’d long since shed my fear of dark and quiet places, yet there in my cot, surrounded by the many books and model ships that lined my grandfather’s study, I couldn’t help but recall the darker stories set upon the shelves. Tales about harpies of Hale’s Hearth, sirens of the deep, and ghosts of the expanse; ghosts said to be inky black and hollow, as though the shade of a man had chosen to stand unaided. Such accounts were surely the yarns of swaggering sailors, retold and reused to impress both brethren and barmaids. Of course, as well versed as most sailors were in regaling tried-and-true stories of the sky, few were creative enough to invent them from scratch, and every story started somewhere.
When the knock came at the door it sent a bolt of surprise through my chest. I quickly threw on a pair of breeches, and slipped an undershirt over my head. I answered the door as a second knock rapped through our small home. It was morning, still dark, but bright enough to make out the man at the threshold.
Standing before me was Tagus, the town seer. He was thin faced, with harsh cheekbones and a long beard that came to two points beneath his chin. His eyes were as blue as deep sky on a cloudless day, and though to a stranger he might seem a man of severity, I knew him to have a quiet manner and a reserved passion for his work. He stood slightly hunched, a cap in his hands, a far cry from the poised picture of a man I had known for so many years. His expression was solemn and his eyes downcast. I took a second look at the cap clutched near his waist; it was a tricorn, and nothing like the form-fitting skull caps often worn by men of the Deaconry. It was a faded black, with dark patches where armada insignia had long since been removed. I had seen it many times, even worn it on my own head as a child. It was my Grandfather’s.
The funeral ceremony was heartbreakingly modest. Of the six men and women who’d gathered that morning, half were strangers who attended simply to help usher the body to the burial site at the east pier. I’d oft heard tales of processions in the larger cities, like Verga or Grey Sands, lasting days or even weeks. But those stories were of nobility and the affluent, of which my grandfather was neither.
He had died that morning not far from where we now stood, loading quarried ragstone into a ship bound for Cape Helen. Though a shepherd in his final years, my Grandfather had spent most of his life at sky, and I knew the dock work he’d chosen to take on in the early hours of each day was not for the extra income, as he’d claimed, but instead to be close to the ships he’d called home for so many years. How cruelly ironic that his life would end pinned to a ship by an errant block of stone, forced to stare at the dusty rock as it stole his final breath from him. My grandfather had loved the wind. And it seemed clear to me he would have preferred to die by it. It was surely a small consolation to know he’d be laid to rest in it, as we all shall be.
With the help of those around me, I laid my grandfather in the wood braces of an empty slip. He had been wrapped from head to toe in a delicate shawl, nothing else with him but a single gold medal pinned to the material. It was a medal of merit; two interlocking triangles, with a golden eagle at their center. A commendation for a decade of service to the Arbiter’s armada.
Tagus stepped forward onto the suspended wood planking to lead the procession. He was dressed from head to toe in traditional seers robes, the silk glimmering as it flowed behind him. When he spoke his voice was hoarse, but he projected it well, raising it over the ever-present drone of the western winds.
“The Land Caster.” His lip curled into a subtle smile. “She was freshly-minted in an Edinwich shipyard when I’d come aboard. Commissioned by magnates of the Sovereign Freeholds, she’d a Belton-rigged mainsail and three overlapping staysails, which was unusual for a ship her size, and damn she was fast.” The attentive crowd chuckled.
Tagus went on. “Our captain Robyn Verona was a brilliant mind and a tenacious leader. It was she who, dissatisfied with our navigator, brought on a new, all together more radical sailor to plot our course, a falconer. Esmond Ellis.”
The sound of my grandfathers name sent a wave of grief coursing through me, and I wasn’t the only one.
Tagus paused, clearing his eyes, and his throat. “Our ship had been designed to chart the Dawnwall, taking pains to make record of the many territories yet to be explored. It was a wilder time then. How eager Esmond and I were to put our names on maps. The wonders we saw together, and the danger. Our first voyage through the Strait of Rataan resulted in the loss of a young lookout, a handsome lad, with golden hair and light blue eyes. He slipped while tying a knot in the rigging of the foresail. The task saved our lives, at the cost of his own. We watched him for a time, the small shape of his body growing smaller beneath us before he was overtaken by clouds. Esmond mourned for him the longest, blaming himself for charting the route, though it was no fault of his. Such was his nature.
Esmond cared more for his crew than himself and he worked tirelessly to make sure we never forgot it. He guided not only the course of our ship, but the course of our lives. He was water in a drought, gunpowder in a fight, and a lighthouse in the fog. He will be missed by we who were his crew, his friends, his family.”
Tagus then gestured to me. “Would the boy Ellis like to speak his piece?”
I sensed the eyes of all present fall upon me and felt my breath catch in my throat. Anything I’d had the mind to say suddenly escaped my thoughts. I shook my head, feeling an immediate and immense shame in the silence that followed.
Tagus nodded, lifted his hands to the sky and spoke the final words. “Esmond Ellis, we the free people of the Dawnwall, citizens of Ram’s Rest, hereby commit your body to the sky. No one is above that which lies below.” The seer brought his hands to a wooden lever at his side and pulled it. The floor fell apart beneath my Grandfather’s body, releasing him off the edge of the cliff. I watched him fall, the abyssal sky open and waiting to receive him. He seemed so small before I’d lost sight of him. So impossibly far away. I wondered if his body would ever meet the boy from The Land Caster. Or if separate they fell, alone for eternity as the wind slowly dissolved their flesh and turned their bones to dust. Such is the nature of death on the Dawnwall. Eventually all will take the final step into oblivion, and far better to do so after the spirit has left the body, lest one spend their final days short of breath, dying of starvation and thirst.
When I was eleven my grandfather caught me playing a game on the Rest’s lip, far from the safety of the town’s scaffolding. Two friends and I had goaded one another to close our eyes and take steps backwards on a slab of bare rock overhanging the expanse. I had gotten the closest, no more than half my body length from thin air before my grandfather had snatched me into his arms. That day, I had been taught the consequences of a fall. Starved for three days, I was left locked in my room without water or food. Agonizing pain had gripped my stomach tight. I had begun chewing on the leather bindings on my school books before my grandfather allowed me a meal.
“This is what will happen,” he had said. “A fall means your death will not be sudden. It will be drawn out, and the pain will be two-fold what you felt today before it is done. For the Dawnwall has no end, and the expanse no bottom. To fall is a fate worse than any other, by hell and deathless soul.”
My grandfather had instilled in me a dread of the void beyond our small town, and rightfully so. “Even the most hardened of captains respects the sky,” he had told me. “No one is above that which lies below.”
From the very beginning of the age of flight, man had explored as far as technology would allow. Crews traveled for months against the jagged sunlit cliff wall in all six cardinal directions: east and west— horizontally to its face, sur and sub— vertically to its face, and north— out into the endless sky. Those who returned did so with tales of powerful storms, maelstroms so violent they could splinter masts to pieces, rip planking from hulls, and twist sailors apart like soft clay. It wasn’t long before it was understood that each expedition had not found separate storm systems, but rather one: The storm ring. As old as time it churned around us, acting always as both a natural barrier to wall beyond, and as a constant reminder to all that no ruler, however large his fleet, however fervent his followers, can control the winds. Most academics agreed the Dawnwall likely continued on much further beyond the thunderous black clouds. How far, none could say. Some, like Tagus, believed it to be endless. “Time is infinite,” I’d once heard him argue, “the sky equally so, so lies the world.” Though if anyone were privy to things untold, it should be him.
Tagus was the first to take to my side after my grandfather’s body had disappeared into the sky. He placed a wrinkled, sun-beaten hand to my shoulder, speaking prepared and practiced words of consolation. “This day will shape the choices you make,” he began. “For it is through the darkest clouds we find the clearest skies.” Despite Tagus’ sympathy, I was skeptical of these seers who claimed a second sight through time. No doubt the young lookout who’d fallen to his death from The Land Caster would have benefitted from such foresight, yet he was provided none.
Once Tagus had gone I was quickly met by Gybon Blythe, the town’s butcher. He was a big man, nearly as wide as he was tall. His hair was parted in the center and winged at the sides, mirroring the mustache of his messy beard, which was formed into curls at its ends. He approached aggressively, the wood dock creaking precariously under his heavy steps. He extended a thick finger in my direction. “Aelyn.” He growled.
Most the townsfolk referred to me by this, my forename, despite the well-known fact I preferred my surname, Ellis. I had long since stopped trying to correct many of them, and certainly didn’t mean to now, given the wild look in Gybon’s eyes.
I extended a common pleasantry. “How now, Gybon?”
“Light o’ pocket.” Gybon said, coming to stand before me.
“The ewes were my grandfather’s debt.” I said, as bravely as I could. “There is nothing for it.”
“Grandfather!” Gybon pursed his lips and blew, his wet mouth flapping beneath his mustache. “He wasn’t your grandfather boy.”
I felt heat surge into my cheeks, a burning mix of anger and embarrassment. I clenched my teeth tight and said nothing. Despite the man’s blatant apathy, he wasn’t wrong. Though Esmond Ellis had not been a blood relation, he was as close to one as I’d ever get. Esmond had taken me in when I had had no one. He’d given me his name, his time, and his love.
Gybon snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Oy! You listenin’? Without a will it means what’s his becomes the property of the township, savvy?”
In an instant my anger subsided, replaced instead with sinking fear. “You’re mistaken.”
Gybon’s voice deepened with a confident sneer, his posture straightening. “All his assets will be divvied out to heads of household by this time tomorrow, and I mean to collect my ewes ’fore someone else does.”
I stuttered, trying to make sense of the man’s words. “All his assets… is all I have.”
“You’re head of your own household now.” Gybon said, relishing in my discomfort. “You’ll receive your fair share. Esmond had an extensive library, did he not?”
“He does, he did.” I said.
“You’d best head home then and pick out the one book you’d like to keep.” The butcher grumbled a heavy laugh, turned his back, and made his leave.
That evening I sat in my grandfather’s study, quiet and alone. When the tears came they felt hot against my cold face. The grief rolled over me with the weight of all the wall above, pressing from within me deep, stuttering breaths.
It had been an unseasonably cold spring morning when Esmond had hiked up the inner wall of the Rest to an abandoned watchtower on the northwestern rim. An old remnant of a war long forgotten, the tower house lay ruined amongst the tall grass of a small plateau. The tower itself still stood, its stones sturdy and weather-worn. It had been a favorite spot of my Grandfathers, one he’d oft visit to read and write. That is where he’d found me, bundled up beneath a crumpled canvas balloon and lit by fading lamplight. My basket had been caught between the rocks at the very edge of the enclave. A foot further and I’d have never been found at all. Most unwanted newborns set out to sky never touch solid ground again. Instead, they drift amongst the clouds, their oil slowly burning off until their baskets drop into the expanse. Cast from someplace far above, from a city much higher set in the Dawnwall, a westerly wind had, by pure luck, sent me into the town that would become my home, Ram’s Rest.
Too old to be my father, Esmond had asked I call him grandfather — so I had. He was a good man, stern, but loving. He’d given me everything, and now that he’d gone, everything would go with him.
I’ve little doubt the heartbreak would have ended me then, had I not been saved from my darkest thoughts by the library surrounding me. My grandfather had not been one to often encourage lethargy, or leisure, but he had never discouraged time spent enriching the mind in literature.
Most of the books in the room were thick guides to living as a shipman. Tomes dedicated to knot tying, proper sail trimming, and endless volumes on reading the wind and mastering the elements. Others were of a more historical nature; explanations of the makers of the world, and the many ages that had passed before I’d been born. And of course, there was the fiction, the entertaining yarns of pirates and skirmishes at sky. Some stories even speculated about the ends of the Dawnwall, the wonders that might lie above the sur storm ring, and beneath the sub storm ring.
As my mind had drifted, and my tears had begun to dry, something new on the shelf caught my attention. Tucked away between a thick hardback and a model Bilander was a book I’d never seen. I rubbed a sleeve across my face, clearing my vision, then slipped the book free into my hands. It was dusty, its binding frayed and its leather cover scratched and worn. Inlaid on the front was a familiar symbol, one I had seen drawings of in a book of navigational equipment; four concentric rings with an arrowed sphere at its core. An armillary sphere, a gyroscopic compass used by ships in the expanse, notably more reliable than the simpler magnetic compasses. The sphere used the magnetism of the lumina in the Dawnwall to keep ships on course, even during the harshest weather conditions.
I quickly moved to my grandfather’s old reading chair. The chair was wood, but with wool-stuffed cushions for comfort. It was an ideal spot to lose myself in a new story. I settled in, placing my new book in my lap. I ran my hand over its face, tracing the relief of the armillary sphere with my calloused fingers. The book had no title, and no author, neither on the face nor the spine. It was no larger than any other book in the study. Quite the contrary, it was small and unassuming, and in that moment, I found myself perplexed for having missed it for so many years.
With bated breath, I opened the cover to the first page.
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