Chash sloshed through the mud on his way home, picking up bits of glass and hiding them in his pockets. His breath quickened every time he saw the sparkle of glass and he veered toward it, picking up every colored shard he found.
“Chash!” He ignored the voice. Maybe he’ll go away if I don’t respond. It didn’t work. Norio caught up to him easily, despite the bag he carried. “Picking up glass here again? Can’t believe there’s any left for you to take.”
“There isn’t much,” he mumbled. “Nothing wrong with taking it. No one’s lived here since the war ended.” They were both too young to clearly remember the night that the village had burnt while firebirds slashed through the skies overhead. What stories Chash knew had been woven into his mind by eavesdropping on elders who could not forget.
“If you say so.” Norio said. “Just buy your glass from the peddler. He’ll be coming down the coast soon.”
Chash’s face flamed.
“Oh, right. I forgot. You can’t afford it.” Norio shoved his bag at Chash. “Here. This is the reason I came after you. My mother sends food.”
“We don’t need it.” His cheeks were still hot, but he didn’t take the food.
“She insists. Says we still owe you from something Besu did during the war.” Norio lifted the bag up, holding it now just out of Chash’s reach. “Maybe if you take it, I won’t catch you digging through the mud looking for glass to sharpen your kite strings.”
It was rude not to take a gift freely offered and his grandmother, Besu, would be furious if he refused on their behalf. Even if she insisted on giving away much of the food they had, saying that others needed it more.
“Tell your mother thanks,” he muttered, reaching for the bag.
Norio jerked it back.
“What? I didn’t hear you.”
“I said, thank you.” Chash reached again, but this time, Norio stepped back and dropped the bag. Jassa fruits spilled out, their tender flesh breaking as they hit the ground. The bright orange skins were now coated in mud.
Chash dropped his gaze, staring down at his feet. Norio wanted him to kneel in the dirt, to watch him pick up the ruined fruit, but he wouldn’t. Not where Norio could see.
“You just going to let it rot?”
Chash said nothing.
“Some kite fighter you’re going to be.” Norio said. “Good luck at Festival.” Chash lifted his head as Norio ground a fruit down with the heel of his boot, then left. He waited for Norio to be completely out of sight before grabbing the dropped bag and filling it with fruit. None of this would matter once it was time for the festival.
The Festival of Wings was only four days away and it was how Chash planned to make his fortune. The event wasn’t focused on birds, but on kites. Huge as a man or small as a dove. Painted like a rainbow or glossy black. Made from paper, silk, linen, even hair…. No one agreed on what made the strongest kite or the fastest. But when the kite fights began, the owner of the last kite in the air earned the emperor’s favor. With his favor came a position in the imperial army and the chance to control one of the mighty firebirds who were reborn when killed in battle.
Daydreams lightened Chash’s step as he continued home, turning past the magistrate’s house. One of the windows was smashed. As the festival drew near, the poorest fighters in Santao broke windows to steal glass to coat their kite strings. He kept his head down. If Norio saw him here, he’d probably tell someone Chash was breaking windows now.
When he reached their cottage, Chash opened the door and crept inside quietly to avoid disturbing his grandmother’s work. She was hunched over a swatch of green silk, hemming a sleeve with golden thread.
“You’re late.” Besu set her needle down, then stretched her fingers. The skin around her eyes was red, and as she blinked, tears glimmered on her lashes. She hadn’t lit any of the candles at her table, even though the sun and moon were changing places. She needs to stop sewing after sunset. She’ll go blind if she doesn’t. Chash frowned. Suggesting to Besu that she stop sewing would have been like asking her to stop breathing.
“I wish you wouldn’t work so hard.” Chash emptied his pockets onto the table. He pulled the fabric inside out and shook it to keep glass slivers from surprising his fingers later.
“Mmm.” She rocked back in her chair as he lit the lamps. “Festival’s coming. And Lia pays well. She won’t be happy if her dress isn’t the finest in four villages.”
“If I win the fights this year, you won’t ever have to sew a dress again.”
“My hands like to sew. It’s my eyes that don’t care for it.”
“I’ll help you finish the dresses after dinner.” Chash stoked the fire. He set a pot of water to boil and began preparing dinner. Other men in the village didn’t cook or sew, but Besu had insisted he learn. It was only fair, she said, to take turns. After he had finished making the soup and setting the table, he sat down with Besu to eat. “I was on Manu’s crew for the fishing today. Said he saw a waterhorse in the waves.”
“They say waterhorse hair makes the best kite strings,” Besu commented. “But try catching one.”
“Manu put out a trap before we left. If there is a waterhorse, it’ll be too clever for it. He hasn’t caught one yet.” The tender bitterness of the sana root, only edible in the spring, washed over Chash’s tongue as he sipped at the edge of his bowl.
“Are you thinking of hunting waterhorse tonight?” Besu slurped her soup, squinting at him. A few drops splattered on the table, but she didn’t notice. “You’ll need a net for it. And be sure to take one of the lanterns.”
“I promised to help you sew.” Hours of embroidering tiny flowers for village women lay ahead. Chash had to be her eyes in the dim light to help her manage such delicate work, even as his own eyes watered and burned from lack of sleep.
“I’m a bit behind. Otherwise, I’d weave you something to catch the hair with. No need to harm the poor creature.” She set her bowl down, still half-full. “We should get to work. Maybe some of the hair will wash up on the beach. You can pick it off the rocks and I’ll dry it.”
He sighed and cleared the table. Fishing began at dawn and there weren’t many hours left in the night.
The days spent fishing were long and hard. Chash’s shoulders ached after pulling in heavy ropes, and when it stormed, the very sea itself battered already-bruised muscles. Manu had sent him to mend nets that day, an easier task than working on the boats. The waterhorse had not been caught the night before, but had thrashed around before it escaped into deeper waters, snarling and snapping the weave with its teeth.
He sat on an overturned barrel near the prow of the ship, tugging and testing the flax of the net as he searched for places that the waterhorse had broken. Chash plucked out strands of silky green hair that the beast had left behind and secreted them in his pocket. Other crew members hoisted sails while Chash fixed the nets, the rank smell of fish oil and pitch wafting toward him with every light breeze. As he worked, he caught snatches of conversations from the stern.
“…that waterhorse.” Norio’s voice floated over on the breeze.
“Old Manu’ll never catch it. All he’s ever gotten is bits of hair. Lucky for Chash the old man picked him to tend the nets. Not that he’ll scavenge enough to string a spool.” Aran replied.
Chash paused when he heard his name.
“Can’t believe he sews his own kites.” Norio said. “Even if he’s good with a needle.”
“Women make kites, men fly them,” Aran agreed. “Used to be that way, anyhow. Won’t be long and we’ll have girls working on the docks.”
“Besu doesn’t make kites. I tried getting her to sew one for me once.”
“Too bad, that. She’s the finest seamstress in the village.”
“Well, Besu must not think Chash can win. Otherwise, she’d sew him a kite,” Norio said.
“Can you imagine him trying to rein in a firebird?” Aran’s laugh bellowed. “He can barely haul a net up with those arms.” The two men laughed together, and others joined in.
Chash threw the net down and stood, his hand balling into a fist. This again. If they want me to prove I’m strong, I’ll prove it. A broad hand clapped down on his shoulder, then shoved him back down on his stool.
It was Manu.
“I think I hear sirens across the water. Thought you might need these to protect against the singing.” Manu handed two lumps of wax, dented by the heat of his hand, to Chash.
“Thank you.” Chash hunched over, staring at his feet.
Manu grunted, then walked off.
When I win the fight and go to battle for the emperor, they’ll see. Hauling fish doesn’t make a man. Chash shoved the plugs in his ears, muting Norio’s laughter, and kept working.
Besu’s table was piled high with cotton and silk that night, and Chash lit three candles at a time when they both should have been sleeping. Chash picked up a dress the color of weak tea, thrusting his needle into the cotton. After a moment, his grandmother reached out, fumbling for his hand, and took the cloth away.
“What did that dress ever do to you?” she muttered. Her fingers ran across the rippling fabric, her thumb pausing at a puckered hem. “Your stitches are crooked. And knots, Chash! The thread is loose where it should be tight and here – here – here – I shouldn’t feel anything at all.” Her shoulders heaved and she dropped it on the table.
She had always commented before on how the evenness of his stitches looked and how the colors of one pattern complemented another, not the way the material felt.
“Ah — here. Take it back and pull the stitches out. Carefully, Chash. There’s only enough of that color for one dress and who knows if the peddler will come before Festival.” Besu handed the sleeve back to him, her tired eyes puffed into swollen slits. “I wish you’d give up the fishing. There’s plenty of work to be had in Santao for two tailors.”
“You always ask that.” He took the sleeve back and picked up a small knife to rip out the stitches. “I want to do something bigger; will anyone care how well I hem a sleeve after I’m dead?”
“I’ve sewn for this village for generations. My mother before me and her mother before her. The people wear our clothing on their back when they marry, when they fight, when they die. They pass on our best dresses to their daughters, wrap their babies in the blankets that we stitch together from old clothes. Our family will be remembered.”
“Your mother, her mother,” Chash said. “Never any fathers doing the work.”
“They didn’t have the talent or the patience. But you do.” Besu clamped her lips together for a moment, then asked, “How is it different from mending nets? Men do that. You do that.”
All the hours of mending flax echoed in his bones as she spoke, how cord tightened around his fingers when he worked, smelling of seaweed, sand, and the stink of the tides. The way that the ocean seeped into his skin and roughed his fingers so that silk now snagged on his knuckles when he sewed at night. Working on the rough waters aged men until even their minds grew calloused and hard.
“How is it different?” she repeated.
“I don’t know. It just is.” Chash threaded a new needle. He stabbed the sleeve hard enough to pucker the fabric, but Besu didn’t stop him. Was it because she didn’t want to pick a fight or because she couldn’t see his work?
“It’s ridiculous, is what it is.” She narrowed her eyes at him for a moment, then picked up her own needle. “Only reason that Manu doesn’t have women mending his nets is because that might mean we’d have to be on the docks to do it. And then we’d want to fish. And after that, who knows? Maybe we wouldn’t need men anymore.” She snorted.
Chash didn’t answer.
Besu glanced in his direction, then stopped and rubbed her eyes.
“There’re only four days until Festival. Have you finished your kite?” Besu asked.
“Of course. I’ve been practicing for weeks when the storms aren’t heavy.” He wondered how a kite sewn by Besu would hold up in the wind. He wouldn’t ask her to sew for him now, however, no matter what Norio said — his pride was stitched into every line and fold of the kite he had crafted.
“Hm. Bring me your kite. If you’ve sewn any knots into it, there’ll be no flying it in a harsh wind.” She clacked her tongue, but her tone warmed him. He placed the sleeve in the basket at his feet and went to collect his kite from the shelf where it rested. Sewn from a year’s worth of dress scraps, its oval shape shimmered blue and orange and violet. The kite’s edges were pointed, the bottom weighted with folded fabric stitched closed. The extra weight would give it strength.
Besu grazed the silk with her palms, her eyes closed as her fingers traveled the stitches and bumps of the material. Her mouth turned up into a half-moon smile, lips almost touching her eyes.
“That’s one of Lia’s dresses. I remember stitching those flowers.” There was a little catch in her voice. “And Hana’s and Zholi’s. Won’t they be surprised.” She didn’t comment on the way that the different colors clashed with one another.
She smoothed the ripples in the fabric out, still smiling.
“I made a kite from a dress once,” Besu said.
“I didn’t know you’d ever made kites.” His forehead wrinkled. It had only been three years since women were first allowed to join the kite fights, after it was apparent that the emperor’s wives would bear only daughters. The year that Akrivi won, her golden dragon kite had slashed the strings of a hundred contenders with ease. His grandmother had cried as the last kite plummeted from the sky.
“I did. And I flew them too. Just not in the fights. I — women — weren’t allowed then, but I always thought I would’ve won. My kite was strong — and sewn from the finest fabric in three villages.” His grandmother laughed, so hard that it turned into a series of loud coughs.
“How did you find the coin for that? I thought your father raised pigs.” Chash patted her on the back.
“I sewed it from my wedding dress.” Besu cackled.
“Your wedding dress?” His hand fell away as he gaped.
“The finest fabric to be had.” Her hand caressed his kite one last time before she handed it to him.
“Oh.” Besu’s hands were covered with tiny nicks and scars. Did those marks come from fighting kites?
“I didn’t love your grandfather at first and I was so angry. Marrying him meant I’d never leave Santao. If my mother had found out I’d used that dress, though…” Besu laughed. “I hid what I’d done. Just cut the inside layer of the skirt shorter — better for summer anyhow. Never told your grandfather.”
Chash had never known his grandfather, nor could he remember his parents. His father had been killed in one of the emperor’s wars, his mother dead of sickness a few months later, and after Besu had taken him into her home, the war had come to Santao. Firebirds shrieked overhead as his grandmother dragged him with her, pounding on door after door, then leading people into the hills to hide. Some people said the firebirds had saved them from the raiders that stormed through the village, but he knew better. It had been Besu.
“I’m sorry you never got to fight,” he said.
“It was worth it, in the end. I wouldn’t have made a good soldier.” Besu reached out, her bony hands clasping his face for a quick squeeze. “It’s time I went to bed. You need to spend time on your kite now — I’ll finish the sewing in the morning.” She let go of his face, then walked into the next room. His grandmother was wrong, he thought. She would have made an excellent warrior. What had the first emperor been thinking when he decided that women were not worthy of taming his precious firebirds?
The next day, Chash strapped his kite to his back for the long walk to the practice field. The far edges of it flapped past his shoulders, bits of tail breaking free from the twine binding it. He caught glimpses of blue from the corners of his eyes as he walked, never quite knowing if it was kite or sky or ocean that he saw.
Warm breezes from the eastern winds brushed his cheeks and he hummed a little as he walked. It would be a good Festival if the winds kept up and the storms stayed behind. His kite rustled as someone nudged Chash’s shoulder, pushing him off the rocky path.
“That the kite you’re fighting at Festival?” Norio said.
Chash kept walking. He didn’t want trouble.
“Hey, I wanted to talk to you for a minute.”
What could Norio want? Chash stopped.
“Just thought I’d say I was sorry. About the other day. The fruit.” Norio edged closer. The wind had picked up and the edges of the kite on Chash’s back flapped as if they longed to take flight.
“Fine,” Chash muttered.
“Show me your kite. I want to see how you sew.” Norio gestured to Chash’s back.
“No, I don’t think so.” Fliers never let their competitors look at their kites this close to Festival — opponents could spot a kite’s weaknesses and plan for it.
“Come on.” Norio reached for the kite, grasping the edge.
Surprised, Chash turned. The fabric ripped and Norio stumbled back with rounded eyes.
Chash’s chest tightened so hard that it hurt.
Turquoise silk fluttered in Norio’s fist.
“No.” Chash’s hand trembled as he twisted his arm around, trying to feel the kite on his back. Its spine hung crooked, the edge of it snapped and slapping against his side.
“I can show you how to fix—”
“You? You’re going to show me how to fix a kite? You can’t even mend your own tunic.”
“I don’t have to. My mother does that kind of work.” Norio’s lip curled.
“Only because you’re too stupid to figure out a pattern.”
“At least I don’t sit around at night and sew dresses with my grandmother.” There it was. The same taunt Norio had been using since they were children. Besu told Chash to turn his back on an insult and walk away — that fighting didn’t make a man — but she didn’t understand. She couldn’t. Over and over and over — it didn’t matter what he said or where they were — Norio never stopped. Wouldn’t stop unless Chash made him stop.
Chash jumped at Norio. The two men tumbled to the ground, the kite frame cracking as they rolled over dust and broken bricks. Splintered wood dug into Chash’s shoulders, but he kicked at Norio, sending the other man sprawling. Norio’s hand missed him, punching the air by his face.
Chash’s fist plunged into Norio’s stomach.
He sucked his breath in as Norio choked.
Norio’s next punch connected with Chash’s jaw, smacking him backward on the ground. A flash of jagged black and white squares cut across his vision before it cleared, leaving his neck stiff and his head throbbing.
Norio stood up, brushing off his trousers. He hunched over, wheezing, and offered Chash a hand up. When Chash didn’t take it, Norio shrugged.
“Suit yourself.” He kicked at the dirt by Chash’s head as he walked away.
That night, while Besu snored on her sleeping mat, Chash spread out the pieces of his kite. The shaved bamboo of the spine and spars had splintered and broken, and the silk was ripped and torn. Earth and red brick dust was ground into the fabric, muting its many colors. Bits of waterhorse hair glistened, each one a reminder of a precious hour spent combing the beach at dawn. Even if there had been the spare money or material to craft a new kite, there was no more time.
What would it feel like to control a firebird’s golden chains? To do something more than haul fish out of the ocean? Chash picked up his needle. The material rustled against his skin as what he envisioned began to take shape. He stitched and cut, using thread to create his own pictures, embroidering birds and fire against the fabric. When he finished, he leaned back in his chair.
It was no longer a kite, but it might make someone a nice hat.
He buried his head in his hands.
His grandmother shuffled to the table. Her hand warmed the back of his neck as she stroked his hair.
“I thought I’d win this year,” Chash blurted.
“You still can. Look.” She moved, the frigid night air quickly flooding the space her hand vacated. He lifted his head.
On the table was a kite like no other Chash had seen. It was shaped like a swan and made of the palest pink silk. Its huge wings spanned the width of his own arms. He picked it up, marveling at the tiny perfect stitches that bound it to its frame. Each bar was carefully carved, and the maker had whittled each end to a point before sliding it into tiny pockets of fabric to hold it securely. A tail of thin white ribbons floated from the end of the kite.
“You can’t get spidersilk anymore,” Besu said. “It was part of my dowry.”
“It’s beautiful.” It took hours to make so many stitches so evenly — hundreds of hours spent on a kite for a woman not allowed to fly it.
“I wanted to fight kites when I was younger. They didn’t allow it then. I was supposed to want to be a wife and a mother, but I didn’t want any of those things. When Nemh — your mother — married, I thought I was free, but then your parents died. That night that the firebirds saved the village, I left you in the caves with Manu.” Besu pressed her hands over her heart, folding her fingers into one another. “I told him I was going back to look for others, but I lied.”
“Why didn’t you go?” Chash asked.
“I went home first. All your things were still spread out on the floor. A blanket, an old pile of sticks you played with. A broken sandal I was mending…” Besu spoke as if his old toys were there in the room between them. “I saw those things and tried to imagine my life without you. I couldn’t. So, I took the kite, and I came back.”
He bowed his head.
Besu touched his shoulder, then crooked a finger under his chin to lift it.
“It was a good choice. I live on in you.” She leaned back in her chair. “Since we don’t have wings, we make kites. I want you to have this. My wings.”
“I can’t, Grandmother.”
“I want to see the kite fights. To see you fight.”
“You’re not that old,” Chash protested.
“It’s my eyes that are weak, not my heart.” Besu patted his hand, gesturing to the kite. “The strings… I wove them from flame reed and seagrass.” He picked up a string, gingerly at first, expecting it to be coated with broken glass or woven around hidden razors. It was thick but there was no sign of hidden danger.
“There’s no glass — how were you going to cut the other kites down?”
“I wasn’t. I’ve seen sixty Festivals and at every one, there’s far more wounds than winners. Look at your hands.” Besu shook her head. “The last kite in the air is the one that wins. If the rope was strong and I was clever, I thought I wouldn’t need to hurt anything or anyone. Maybe I could win by enduring.”
His finger ran up and down the ridges of the cord. It smelled like salt and ash, just as a firebird would. His firebird.
“You can put your own strings on it. No need to indulge an old woman’s dreams.” Besu rose, patting his shoulder before lumbering back to bed. He nodded, but he tucked the string into his pocket.
On the morning of the festival, the sky was cloudless, and the breeze was light. Besu took Chash’s arm and chattered away at him like a small bird as they climbed up into the wagon that traveled the road up the coastline towards the docks of Cantara. The two of them packed in with six women, most of them wearing dresses he had made. He cradled Besu’s kite in his arms, wrapped up tightly in an old blanket, careful not to bump it into one of the women as the wagon rocked and swayed down the old dirt road that led away from Santao.
“Besu, I’m so glad you’re coming with us to Festival this year. My husband told me that he’s never seen me look so fine before.” One of the women preened, holding out her arms to showcase the tiny leaves that Besu and Chash had sewn across the length of the dress. Her comments provoked a round of admiration and competition.
For once, Besu smiled and didn’t comment on what the women wore, other than to thank them for their praise. Her face turned up, toward the sun, as the others sang a traveling song. Chash leaned back against the wagon’s rail and let the road rock him to sleep.
A light jab woke him.
“You slept the whole way,” Besu chided. With a groan, Chash rose and handed her the bundle with the kite. He hopped down from the wagon, then gently helped Besu and the kite to the ground. The faint scent of cinnamon and sugar wafted from one of the street stalls as a bee buzzed past him. No doubt it had escaped from one of the beekeepers who came to festivals, shouting about charmed honey and wax. Such small magic was costly and outlawed in the kite fights, though it was always rumored that some fighter had charmed their strings.
“Pickled limes.” Besu clutched his arm. Her nose poked ahead of her feet as she sniffed the air, turning first in one direction, then another. “Where are they?”
“That way.” Chash frowned. She should be able to see that stall. It’s just a few steps away. He took the kite from her and cradled it underneath his other arm, not daring to strap it on his back.
“The sun’s almost to the top of the sky. We need to hurry to the kite field.” He tried to walk a little faster, but Besu struggled to keep up, squinting and wobbling with uncertainty as she walked. He slowed his pace to let her lean on him and they made their way past the longest pier in Cantara, ignoring the cries and shouts of vendors. He stopped a few times, marveling at the tiny ash-dragons that zipped between the cooking fires, and the mechanical birds that called out endearments to them both from jeweled cages. Besu jabbed a bony finger in his side, and they continued.
The field was full this year. There was a platform at the edge of it, built high above the low pastures where the fighters assembled, attaching strings, and making quick, desperate repairs. The Festival of Wings was one of twelve held around the country. Every year, Cantara prepared for the emperor’s arrival, but he chose to honor richer cities. To save face, the villagers claimed that the firebirds hated the sea, and the emperor didn’t travel without them.
Chash and Besu went to the field just as the crier shouted for the fighters to line up. The wind blew hard, and a few kites shot upward, their owners hurrying to wind the string back on the spool.
“Be careful,” he told Besu. “Not everyone watches where their strings fly.” She nodded and he realized how ridiculous it was to caution a woman who had lived through wars and floods and years of starvation. Carefully unfolding the kite, Chash removed the spools of kite strings that he carried in his pockets, wrapped up tightly in leather. Besu stared out at the field, her eyes unblinking.
She should have gotten her chance. His stomach tightened. It was an accident of birth and time that he stood here to fight using the kite that she made so many years ago.
The kite field was a battleground in miniature — the youngest fighters yelped as they slit fingers on razored strings. Men and a few women raised their kites, brilliantly colored rectangles, diamonds, and six-sided shapes thrashing in the wind. Shouts of anger and gasps of frustration echoed throughout the crowd as fighters fought for control of their lines, bringing each kite into the air for battle.
When he turned to Besu, her face was relaxed. It was then that he understood, watching her gaze toward the sounds of fighting, rather than the kites flapping in the wind. She can’t see. Not enough to watch me fly her kite.
I’ll tell her what’s happening. Make this the best fight she’s ever been to. Chash knelt to fasten the lines, fighting back the sudden tightness in his throat. Someone tapped his shoulder and he looked up.
“Hey,” Norio said.
“Hey, Norio.” Chash didn’t stand to greet him.
“Norio, I haven’t seen you since you were standing at your auntie Lia’s knee,” Besu said. “Come here and give this old woman a hug.” She smiled and gave Norio a squeeze. “Chash is getting ready for the fights — and why aren’t you? Your mother says you’ve been practicing for weeks.”
“I am — I mean, I have been.” Norio said. “Could I have a minute with Chash?”
Besu looked at Chash, and he nodded.
“Well, it was good talking with you.” She patted Norio’s arm before weaving toward the chatter of relatives gathered near one of the younger fighters.
“What do you want?” Chash asked, watching Besu to make sure she found her way to her friends.
“I just want to say I’m sorry about the kite. About what I said.”
“You’ve been saying it for years. Why do you care now?”
“My mother found out about our fight. She told me about the day the firebirds came to our village… I don’t remember it and she never would tell me anything about the war before.” Norio stared down at the ground. “Besu saved our family. I knew we owed her a debt, but I never knew why.” He knotted his hands together. “Mother wants me to offer you my kite.”
“What about you?” Chash asked. He’d imagined getting an apology for years. Now that he had it, he didn’t feel vindicated. He just felt sad.
“I don’t want to give it up,” Norio admitted. “But I’m the one who broke your kite. I’m the one who has to make it right, not my family.”
If I take his kite, he can’t fight. Part of him wanted to agree and take the kite so Norio would regret the hundreds of small insults that rested between them. But how could he face Besu if he won the battle by taking away Norio’s ability to fight?
“Besu’s losing her sight,” he said. “She asked me to fly her kite. It might be the last time she sees the fights. Keep your kite — we’ll meet in the air.”
“I knew she was going blind, but…” Norio stopped, then reached out and offered Chash his hand. “Thank you.” The two men shook hands and wished each other luck. Chash picked up his spool again as Besu came back to their spot, slowly navigating across the field.
If I win, what happens to her? There was glory in going to war. It would change him into a man. His fingers hesitated over the shattered glass strings. But what kind of man would I be? He was tired of fighting insults with fists. It felt good to forgive.
He set his own spool down, ignoring the blood on his fingertips. Besu was nearly blind — to control a string coated in crushed glass would challenge her. He looped the cord she had made around a new spool, then fastened it to the spine of the kite.
“Come.” He took Besu’s arm. The crier shouted, warning spectators away from the fight. The field emptied out as men, women, and children retreated toward the platform, forming a small crowd around its outer perimeter.
“Only the fighters are allowed to stay on the field until the kites are in the air,” Besu chided him.
“I know.” Chash pulled her to the center of the field, ignoring the confused faces of the other fighters. She peered at him, then at the line that the fighters had made with their bodies. He pushed the spool into her hands. “I used your strings. I’ll help you guide it.”
A horn blew in the distance and the line broke, each fighter running with their kite until the wind caught it, taking it aloft. Chash and Besu ran last, his hand over hers as they hobbled together, four clumsy legs stumbling over grass and mud.
“We won’t win,” she shouted, laughing.
“That’s not true!” The kite had soared up to the clouds, its silken wings spread high. They stopped, holding the spool in both their hands. Besu’s head swiveled and finally stopped, but she wasn’t looking in the right direction. Another kite snaked toward theirs, shaped like a red box. The lines of it glittered when the sun caught it.
She whispered, her head down, “I can’t see it. All I see is clouds.”
“Then I’ll tell you what’s happening.” Chash kept one hand steady on hers and helped her spin the spool, pulling the string taut. The red kite neared. It swooped down toward the swan, and he reached out with his free hand to keep the line steady.
“I feel something,” she said.
“There’s another kite near us. It’s red and the corner is a bit crinkled. I think it’s paper.” The swan caught the wind, its wings billowing out with the breeze, as the red kite swirled, dancing on the breeze. The sparkling glass lines drew his eye to the red kite’s owner. Maken. She almost won last year. Chash’s grip slackened on the spool and Besu faltered.
The string on their swan slipped, loosening as the red kite dove.
“It’s coming for us. Pull, Grandmother!”
He grabbed the line above the spool, trying to yank it back, but he was too late.
She pulled just as the red kite sliced the air, sliding down under the swan’s string. Maken yanked her spool hard and fast, snapping Besu’s string in one swift motion. The spidersilk rustled in the air, teasing Chash as the wind caught it and spun it into a spiral before dropping it to the ground.
He still held the line just above the spool. It tugged at his fingers. Besu wound, then slackened the spool, trying to keep control of a kite she couldn’t see. A kite that no longer flew. She had wanted to be a kite fighter so long, just to lose her battle in its first moments of flight. Chash couldn’t bear it.
“You did it,” he said, hoping that the sound of his voice wouldn’t betray the lie. Her face was lifted, but there was no sign that she didn’t believe him. She knew that the kite had fallen — she had to know — and yet, the joy on her face was so pure that Chash wanted to hold it there just a little longer.
His eyes stung as the red kite pulled away, caught by another wind. A dragon-shaped kite slammed into its middle.
One of the other kite fighters came up to them. Emi was young, but she bore the marks of a fighter already, the tip of her pinkie wrapped in bloodied cotton. Her eyes met Chash’s, but she didn’t say anything about the broken string in his fingers. Kites still dove and slashed through the sky overhead, circling spectators and fighters like angry eagles.
“There’s about three kites above us now — can you see them?” he asked Besu.
“No.” Both of her hands gripped the spool now. He moved his fingers up the line to keep the string taut and preserve the illusion that the kite still flew.
Emi furrowed her eyebrows. He mouthed, Hush.
“You just caught one,” he said. A narrow blue diamond slashed at Norio’s kite swiftly. Norio mopped his forehead with the back of his sleeve, squinting at the sky as his body hunched forward.
“It’s the red kite!” Emi said. “Your bird — it just wrapped around it and yanked. And now it’s falling to the ground.”
A kite was falling but it wasn’t red. Norio held strong despite the sweat beading on his forehead, his knuckles clenched around the handles of his spool. His red kite lifted, then neatly slit the blue diamond’s string as it descended through the air. Spectators wandered toward the fighters, pointing and whispering as one kite after another fell. Emi whooped at the sky.
Chash fought the impulse to let go of the string.
“I see a blue kite,” his voice wavered as Norio’s aunt Lia came barreling toward the three of them. She’ll stop this — Lia has a mouth big enough to talk for three people.
“Chash, you’ll put Besu to sleep talking that way. Besu, do you remember Aso? That’s his blue kite you’ve almost got,” Lia pushed Emi out of the way to stand next to the old woman. She looked at Chash and explained, “That night your grandmother led us to the caves, Aso wouldn’t go — he said we shouldn’t take orders from a woman. Until a firebird spat ashes right next to him. I never saw him run so hard.”
“I never liked him,” Besu chuckled.
“Hold that line tight then — that wind’s pulling him around like a baby bird,” Lia advised. “Isn’t he a little old to be out here? Kite fighters should be young if they’re going to battle for the Emperor.”
Chash gave her a look.
“I never knew you sewed kites, Besu. All these years and you never said a thing,” Lia said. A woman Chash vaguely recognized from previous festivals had stopped to watch them. She glanced at Chash, then at Besu’s hands, and smiled before waving over a cluster of elders who all looked as old as his grandmother. She pointed at Besu, saying something Chash couldn’t hear.
“What was the point when I couldn’t fly them?” Besu asked. “My line feels slack — what’s happened?”
“The wind — it’s slowing.” A man picked up the story that Lia had continued. The small group that had gathered around them was growing, some faces familiar, others simply curious. Why were they all here, watching a woman with a downed kite when they could be seeing the end of the fight? How was he going to end the story before the fight did?
Chash swallowed and strengthened his grip on the cut line, yanking it up suddenly to mimic the feeling of attack.
“Chash! What’s happening?” Besu called.
But before he could speak, the crowd spoke for him.
“The green is coming for you — you’d better dart to the left —”
“Besu, do you remember me from the flood in Chansec? You brought all those women from Santao and cooked for us when we were all so tired from rebuilding the houses. I still have the blanket you made for Shenshi.”
“Oh, oh — I think your cords are too strong for Tado’s kite — he’d best catch some wind. Besu, remember when you had to help Amna drag him home after he drank all that suls —”
“There goes the dragon! We’d better not lose you to the emperor, Besu.”
The words tumbled over one another, as people from three villages competed to tell the story of Besu’s kite fight, interspersing it with the memories they shared of Besu and Chash’s youth. The remaining kites swooped overhead, diving and tearing at razor strings, but as each kite fell, its owner came over to weave the story of their own kite into the tale of the grandmother’s conquests.
Norio was the last.
His hands were bloody, his tunic damp with sweat. Chash’s heart hiccupped when the other man stopped in front of them, holding the red kite that had claimed victory. He just came to brag. He let go of the string. Besu began winding the spool up, then stopped as she realized there was nothing left to wind.
“Grandmother,” Norio said, and Chash turned away. “Hold out your hands.”
The spool dropped from her fingers as she extended her hands, palms up, to Norio. The man knelt in the mud, gently resting the red kite on her skin.
“Our kites tangled. It was a hard fight. When our strings came together, I couldn’t tell which one broke first. But mine hit the ground before yours. I honor you, Grandmother.” Norio and Chash’s eyes met. Chash smiled first.
“Thank you, but I cannot accept,” Besu said. She patted Norio’s cheek and chuckled. “I’m a bit old to join the army, don’t you think?”
“Besu won! She won!” A roar came up from the crowd as a young child shouted the words, jumping up and down, caught up in the story that the village had woven. Emi grabbed Chash and wrapped her arms around his chest. He stumbled backward and hugged her back, then pulled Besu into the hug as well. Besu’s answering laughter was as warm as the sun but ten times closer.
Besu shook her head at him as the three of them broke apart.
She turned to Chash. “It was a beautiful story you told me.”
Her words hushed the crowd and they dispersed, people scattering across the field to pluck shreds of torn silk from the grass and collect fallen shards of glass.
“I just wanted you to win,” Chash swallowed, his throat dry. A great wave of emotion welled up inside of him for this woman who had made him what he was. And he wasn’t a warrior.
“Your heart is kind, but I worry that I’ve failed you.” Besu sighed. “You didn’t have to lie. I wasn’t smiling because I was winning. I was just happy to share your dream. I should never have asked you to give that up.”
He reached for her hands and took them in his. Her fingers matched his own, with knuckles a little too big for her hands, and curved, even nails. These hands and everything they’ve taught me…this is who I am. Who I want to be. That man doesn’t need a war to be proud.
“The village loves you, Grandmother. I love you,” he said. “The emperor has enough men to fight for him. Maybe it’s time more of us became tailors.”
“If I had someone to help with the dresses, I might be able to sew a kite once in a while,” Besu leaned against him as they walked through the field of battered kites. “Teach you a few things about flying them.”
“What? Train your competitor?”
Besu swatted at him, and they laughed. Chash thought of the days that lay ahead of them both — of saying goodbye to the work that he hated and devoting himself to pattern, color, and thread.
Since we don’t have wings, we make kites. His grandmother’s words came back to him and Chash smiled. There was more than one way to fly.