II
Alida

The day I realized that maybe everyone wasn't quite the same was a bit after my twelfth birthday. Well, I'd obviously known that people were different before then – How else would I have been able to understand that one of my parents was male and the other female? And I had no problem rhyming off my brothers' names, or in matching the names to their faces. Sharn and Delvar – twins but hardly identical, Sharn always the taller of the pair – and my older brother, Aran; as noisy as Delvar was quiet and already rivaling my father's height at fifteen. But still, people were more or less the same: they walked the same, spoke the same words and more or less reacted in the same way.

We lived on the border of the civilized world, near one of the heavily guarded passages that led to the Wilds. I had never gone more than a few steps into one of them before the patient guards turned me back, and even my clever brothers had never managed to slip past their diligent guard. But they had to be wary – they stood between the people of Stancorrie and the inhabitants of the Wilds, a vicious place to which exiles were thrown, a place populated by vyrae and gryphons, by the dragons and diranelle, by waterfolk and earthkin, and many creatures that no one saw long enough to name. It was a part of every parent's recital of threats – "Be good, or we'll send you to the Wilds." No empty threat, either. I'd lost one of my cousins to the Wilds, though we did recover his body. What was left of it, at least, which was barely enough to identify him as my cousin.

The cliffs that bordered the Wilds, on the other hand, had no guard placed on them. South from the passage we lived nearest was a great waterfall, and every year the thawing ice would bring down a wealth of stone with it. Construction of a new home was always begun in the spring for that reason, and many a stonemason ordered his stone from Stancorrie. Not all the stone was suitable for building, though, and sometimes the stones that came down in the spring thaw were rare; small diamonds and sapphire, or vein gold or silver. Whoever found a stone kept it, or sold it, because the effort of wading through the still-freezing water and half-melted ice was considered to be work enough. Many a person had caught ill after rescuing some gem from the water, and it was a joke that the one who profited most from the spring thaw was the healer.

I, at a mere twelve years of age, was considered too young to enter the dangerous spring waters, but that didn't stop us from searching the banks for any gem that might have worked its way ashore. Having told our mother where we were going, she gave us a lecture on how we were not, under any circumstances, to go into the water, before pulling out a set of mudclothes for us to go and muck around in. Then we set off, my oldest brother first, a patient, dignified expression on his face as he tolerated being sent to watch us, Sharn bounding alongside and Delvar following a bit later. I would have been next to Aran, but I had remembered an idea from the year before – I wasn't allowed in the river, but a bucket wouldn't come to any harm, would it?

Once we arrived at the river, Sharn and Delvar ran downstream, grabbing up sticks to poke through the soft banks for any gems that might have been partially buried. Aran paced upstream, his light hair already a bit lank from the mist drifting from the falls, leaving me behind. I looked down, but there wasn't anything that looked inviting, so I crossed the sturdy wooden bridge and began my search on the other side of the river. I heard a whoop of delight as Delvar found something – "Emerald!" – and answering shouts as my other brothers found treasures of their own.

Usually there would have been more children around, even adults, but the waterfall had taken especially long to thaw this year, and most of my neighbours were busy with the spring planting. My father, on the other hand, was already out resetting his traps, not about to miss the chance to catch the spring-stupid animals that lived along the border. He wasn't born in Stancorrie, but had been attracted by the stories of the gems that came from the waterfall, and ensnared as surely as a rabbit by my mother, a beautiful woman and the only one now left of her line in Stancorrie. Once her brothers had realized just what was between my mother and father, they arranged for them to take the house, and spread out to make their names in the world. Like me, my mother had no sisters, though, unlike me, she'd never met any of her cousins.

I was glad that my cousins weren't here. They had never seen the attraction in harvesting the river, and though their mothers and fathers – my father's brothers and sisters, and their spouses – were trailsmen, they didn't show it. They complained about the cold mud in their boots, about how they might slip and fall into the river, about how the wind made their ears ache with cold, and yet they always demanded the best of the catch. My mother, too, made us share it with them, even though they rarely even so much as pointed out a nice piece of quartz, much less anything more interesting. With them, there was no fun in being at the riverside, and so I had learned long ago not to mention the spring thaw when they were over.

Delvar gave up on his side of the river, for other than the emerald he had found early on in the day, all the rest had gone to Sharn and Aran. His face glowing from the cold, he joined me in my search, tossing the pretty stones and gems into my bucket or slipping them into his pockets. My toes were starting to hurt from the cold, but we would be leaving soon, so I said nothing about them, instead looking into the water for any gems. My bucket idea may have worked – probably would have worked very well indeed – but I'd yet to see anything in the river today. With a sigh of disappointment, I returned my gaze to the bank, and lunged for a piece of something small and silvery at the same time as Delvar. Our hands closed around it together, and though I usually would have given it up without a fight, something within me didn't want to let go of it. So I tugged and struggled furiously until Delvar relinquished it.

"It's not big enough to be worth much, since it isn't silver, so I guess you can have it for your collection," he said dismissively, though I saw the concern on his face. I felt sorry, but there was nothing for it now. So I covered my embarrassment by studying the fragment. It was fairly flat, and, as Delvar had observed, it wasn't silver. There was a small piece of dirt still on it – I flicked it off and brought it closer to my face, then nearly threw it back into the river, ashamed by the sudden hunger that swept through me as I looked at it. Stones were not for eating – only the youngest of children didn't know that – but every time I thought about the metal, the urge to bite it deepened, until, confused and hungry, I shoved it into my pocket.

We left shortly after that, the boys and I exchanging stones and smiles, though I had to force my mind to stay away from thoughts of the strange bit of metal.

"How was your day?" my mother asked over supper. "Anything nice?" Of course there was – we had already shown her most of the best of the stones. But it was a formality, and in any case, our father hadn't seen them yet. So we hurried to finish our food so that we could bring out our stones – fragments of sapphire and emerald, chips of ruby and diamond, bits of gold and silver, and stones that weren't gems but were still nice all the same. Our parents admired them properly, holding them up to the globelights to see their colour, comparing the size to other, invariably smaller stones and generally praising our work.

"Alida found something new," Delvar told them proudly. "Show them!"

I didn't want to, but the fierce possessiveness that inspired my mood scared me enough that I fished the silvery metal from my pocket. Seeing it once more, it was as though I hadn't eaten supper, and it was only the presence of the rest of my family that kept me from biting it as my stomach kept insisting. My mother took it from me and studied it carefully, and I clamped down on the urge to snatch it away from her.

"Platinum," she named it after a moment. "Not as valuable as gold or silver, but a nice piece all the same."

Platinum. So my silvery bane had a name after all. Unlike me, however, my mother seemed to lose all interest in the metal once she had named it, making my stomach churn guiltily. What would she think if she knew that I wanted to eat it? Why would I want to eat it?

"Is it like some of the other stones, the ones that you need to eat to keep you healthy?"

"No, not at all."

Embarrassed, I dropped it into the bucket with the other stones that I'd collected and ignored it for the rest of the evening.

Later that night, as I tossed and turned in my bed, my mind kept drifting back to the piece of platinum. It had such a lovely sheen, glimmering so nicely, and what would it feel like as I chewed it, sliding down my throat? No! Stones were not for eating! But sleep wouldn't come to me, and the only dreams I slipped into were ones of the silvery metal. Everything I stared at reminded me of it: the sliver of moon in the sky, the sheen on the mirror next to the door…

I gave up. There was no way that I would be able to sleep if I didn't take matters into my own hands. I would bite it, I decided. Just once. And I would hurt my teeth, and then my stomach and subconscious would realize what a bad idea it was, and then it would stop haunting me. I slipped out of bed and into the kitchen, where the bucket of stones and gems sat, the platinum glimmering on top. I reached out and bit down sharply.

My teeth ached.

It tasted cold and metallic.

It was wonderful.

I dropped it, stunned. This was worse than just wanting to know what it would be like. Now I knew, and I wanted to bite it again and again, to find more and more…

"Alida," my mother said, making me jerk guiltily. She was standing at the door of the room she shared with my father, still wearing the same clothing she'd been wearing during the day, a worried expression on her face. "Alida, dear, what's wrong?"

I burst into tears, and, seconds later, she had her arms wrapped around me, rubbing my arms and back as I sobbed. "Sh," she whispered. "Sh, sh. It's all going to be fine. Sh." She sat me down at one of the chairs and then picked up the piece of platinum with two slender fingers, looking at it with far more interest than she had at supper. "It's about this, isn't it?"

I nodded and sniffed. "I'm sorry, mom. I know I shouldn't eat stones but it was there and then I needed it and then I bit it and it was so good and I was scared and then you were there and then–" I ran out of breath and fell silent and the small smile on her face.

"Don't worry, dear. This is all normal."

"But–"

"You're my daughter."

"Delvar and Sharn weren't interested in it, and Aran was only looking at it because he thought it might be a weird kind of silver," I mumbled, staring at the table as my neck prickled with embarrassment.

"Yes, but they're boys, aren't they?" She shook her head a bit. "You're just growing up, dear. We'll work through this together."

I sat up a bit straighter, interested. "I thought you only had weird cravings when you were pregnant."

"Usually. This is different, though. Your body is changing, and its needs are changing with it." She picked up a little clay jar next to the over and pulled out a few flakes of silvery metal – more platinum. "It's easier to eat, dear, if it's flaked. If you find more, bring it back. We'll need more now that there are two of us."

"Are you mad at me?" I asked quietly.

"Mad? Why would I be mad?" She hugged me tightly. "My little girl is growing up, that's all. And you did better than I did, dear, because none of your brothers came running home telling me that you're eating stones. My brothers, on the other hand, thought that I'd gone completely crazy, and they wouldn't let my mother and me alone until she explained that it was normal. Of course, your brothers will find out someday, too."

"Why? Are they going to start eating metal too?"

"No. They're boys. But they'll need to know why your daughter might start eating platinum someday, if you aren't around to take care of her. My brothers may live far away, but if I were ever hurt or killed, they would be here by Year's End to take care of you, or to hide you."

"Hide me? Why?"

"Because you're my daughter. Because you're a Daughter of the Skies." I began to ask another question, but she simply hugged me again. "We'll talk more tomorrow, dear. It's getting late now. After all…" She hesitated a bit. "Well, every mother has to talk to her daughter as she becomes a woman, after all, and I might as well take care of that now. And it will give us an excuse to get away from your brothers. They don't need to know just yet. Now go to sleep."

I stood, but paused and looked longingly at the platinum flakes on the table. At my mother's smile, I picked one up and bit it, delighted by the ache of my teeth and the cool metallic taste. I ate the others in short succession and then, my hunger assuaged by the small pieces of metal, felt myself yawning.

"To bed, Alida," my mother repeated firmly. "We'll talk tomorrow."

Sleepily obedient, I stumbled back to bed and dreamless sleep flavoured with a warm contentment in my stomach.