There was no sign of Serik’s horse.
Aisulu and her brother, Serik, had searching for almost two hours. They’d followed footpaths and goat paths, tracked through sand and skulls and sharp-cornered stone.
“Well,” said Serik. “That’s it. Dulat’s going to kill me. I’m going to die.”
Aisulu slung an arm around her brother’s shoulders. “You think that’s bad? I’m going to have to do embroidery.”
They were standing together on top of a shale outcropping, which they’d climbed to use for a lookout. Above them the sky was high and huge and bright, wheeled with birds. Below them the mountain swept away, fierce and dry and the color of foxes. They could see up to the snow line and down to the power lines and the road. They could see the tracks of the goat herds and the hollow with the three tent-houses—?the gers—?where their herding family lived. What they could not see was any trace of stupid horses that had wandered off while their riders lay napping in the sun.
And the trouble they were going to be in was feeling less and less like a joke. Aisulu had been fetching water when Serik had come to her for help. Water was her job because she was a girl. She’d hauled pails of water up the mountain so many times that the wire handles had left raised yellow lines at the roots of her fingers.
Right now, Aisulu was meant to be bringing that water back. She was meant to be doing the morning milking of the yaks. Was meant to be churning that milk into butter. There was no chance she hadn’t been missed. Their mother, Rizagul, was probably already planning the embroidery project that Aisulu would have to start when she returned. Rizagul never missed a chance to school Aisulu in girls’ work. Aisulu did not mind girls’ work, but she liked other things too: tending the solar panels that powered their light bulb and their radio, studying math, and riding fast with her arms stretched out like wings. In a land where girls are supposed to have hearts made of milk, Aisulu had a heart made of sky.
And as for Serik . . . Aisulu might have needlework waiting for her, but Serik might have the whack of a folded belt. At fourteen, he was really too big to take a beating—?but if he lost his horse their uncle Dulat might make an exception.
On top of the shale outcrop, Serik stood with his head tipped back. He was watching the birds circling overhead. They were huge and black against the sky, a pair of golden eagles. Aisulu knew them well. She’d seen them all season, swooping in and out from a certain crag high up the mountain. For a while there had been only one eagle—?the father—?but now there were two again. That meant their eggs had hatched.
She watched Serik watching the birds. Serik, her brother: in their faces, they were almost as alike as twins: the same moon-roundness, the same eyes like sunlight through dust, the same wind-burned cheeks, dappled as red as the sunny side of an apple. In the last year, Serik had suddenly grown tall—?sprouting in both height and awkwardness—?while Aisulu had remained small for twelve, though wiry-strong, and sure-footed as a cat. But as little children they had been inseparable as a pair of puppies. Even now, at an age when girls and boys were pulled apart, they stuck together.
Except. Serik was watching the eagles with a look she didn’t understand, a longing so fierce it was almost like pain, or fear. His hand was squeezed tightly around his leg, above one of his knees.
“Hey?” Aisulu elbowed him. “Lost horse? Remember?”
Serik shook himself. “Strong Wind!” he shouted.
It was unusual among their people—?the Kazakhs of Western Mongolia—?to name animals, but children did it, of course. Serik had named his horse Strong Wind because, he said, the horse was fast. Aisulu had agreed to call him that because, she said, the horse was also prone to farting.
Serik cupped his hands to make a megaphone. “Strong Wind!”
Only the regular wind answered. The sun was warm but the air was turning chill.
Serik dropped his hands. “Now what?”
“I don’t know,” said Aisulu. “Maybe we could follow his smell?”
“Shut up,” he said, brotherly. Then he sighed. Together—?bracing each other and offering hands—?they edged and slid down the shale face. Back on the ground, Aisulu slapped her coat to shake the dust from it. The coat was her brother’s old shapan, knee-length and made of corduroy. It had been black when Serik had worn it, but now it was so faded that it looked like a chalkboard covered in eraser marks. The scant bits of embroidery around the collar were fraying, and the wind whipped the gold threads into her black hair.
“Your horse,” she declaimed, helping Serik down the last step, “is dumb as two bags of rocks and a Russian tourist.” She wrinkled her nose and tucked strands of loose hair behind her ears. To her mother’s endless exasperation, Aisulu had trouble keeping her hair neatly braided. “What next?”
“We should check the high meadow.” Serik bounced a bubble of air from cheek to cheek. Under his jean jacket, he was wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. Mickey alone was smiling. “But—?the herd was up there. We’ll probably run into them.”
He meant their father and their uncles.
He meant their oldest uncle, Dulat, with the empty eyes.
The bounce drained slowly out of Serik. He smeared his hands down his jeans. As he did, Aisulu saw something. There was a place in his leg—?the place he’d been squeezing—?and when he touched it, he flinched from his own hands, like a horse with a sore mouth overreacting to the reins. As she watched he squeezed again, seeking measurement of pain in a way that only humans do.
She’d seen him do this before. She’d seen a shadow of a limp that was beginning to change Serik, to darken him. She did not think anyone else had seen it. He hid it, and she did not blame him for that. They lived in a hard country. A goat with a limp got no help, except perhaps into the stew pot.
Serik caught Aisulu watching him and dropped his hand from his leg. He tugged his skullcap down and rubbed a knuckle into the middle of his forehead. “Look, Aish. You don’t have to come. I can walk up.”
“Serken, don’t be stupid.” He’d used her childhood nickname, and so she used his, though he’d almost outgrown it. They were on the edge of something, some big change. For a moment they looked at each other. “Look, we’ll go up together, okay?” She offered him a fist to bump.