Over open water, the wind was free, and Amphitrite was free with it.
Her wings cut through the air, and a current brought her higher, shooting her faster than she’d ever flown before. And still the wind urged her on. This was what Amphitrite was meant for.
The wind carried a loud quack to Amphitrite’s ears, and she banked to see her Uncle Kadmos, zooming toward her.
“Stop, stop!” he was screeching. “Look where you are!”
Amphitrite reluctantly stopped, frantically flapping her wings to stay in place, even as the wind buffeted her. She looked down, and her stomach clenched. In just moments, she would have flown over violently churning water. Fishland.
Uncle Kadmos struggled to hover beside her, his breath coming out in faint honks. “You can fly out over the water if you want to,” he said, “but you know the rules. You must always look down. Otherwise, you’ll miss the border and leave our territory! Then we will have war.”
Days later, the mallard clan had reunited in the water by the shore, and Uncle Kadmos’s lecture was still unending.
“You know the rules,” he said for the bajillionth time.
Amphitrite pretended to listen, but really she was watching her siblings. They were crowded around her mother, along with the rest of the raft, watching a fishing demonstration. Only Amphitrite and her uncle were apart.
“It’s about patience,” her mother was saying. “And knowing your limits. You have to know the length of your neck, how long you can hold your breath. Watch.” Then she dove under—Amphitrite could just see through the crowd as her mother’s webbed feet flexed in the air once, twice—then the mallard hen emerged with a glittering minnow held firmly in her orange beak. The raft bobbed in the water excitedly.
“The borders are important,” Uncle Kadmos said.
Amphitrite dragged her attention back to him.
“Here,” he said, “we can fish all we want. The fish know that we need sustenance to survive. So they send sacrifices, just enough so that we can live our lives.” Uncle Kadmos leaned closer to Amphitrite, and the sun made his green head glitter. “So long as we respect the borders, we have enough to eat.” Uncle Kadmos leaned back, relaxing his neck.
Amphitrite decided to try her luck. “Uncle,” she said, “I’m sorry about flying too far. I’ll be more careful next time. But I’m kinda hungry now, and, well…”
Uncle Kadmos regarded her for a few seconds, his face unreadable, then cackled suddenly. He was so loud, he attracted the attention of a few of their raft.
“You’re a smart one, aren’t you,” said Uncle Kadmos. He cackled again. “You saw straight through that one, didn’t you?”
“Um,” said Amphitrite. “I’m not sure—”
“We tell that load of fishfood about the war to all the ducklings,” Uncle Kadmos said, paddling closer, “until they’re old enough to see through it. Then we tell them the truth. And you, little Amphitrite, are ready.”
“Um, okay, but—”
“The fish have a monster.”
Amphitrite jerked back. “What?”
Uncle Kadmos nodded gravely. “They have a monster that can destroy us all. But so long as we never cross their border, they have promised us they will never release it.”
“But… how do you know?”
“Listen to your uncle, my little duckling,” a voice crooned.
Amphitrite looked up to see that her mother had come over, along with all the other ducklings.
“Your uncle is very wise,” the hen said, bending down to pluck a strand of seaweed from Amphitrite’s side. “He keeps our raft safe.”
“Well, I certainly try,” Uncle Kadmos said.
“You must promise me…” —Amphitrite’s mother looked around— “all of you, my ducklings, you must promise me that you won’t endanger our pact with the fish.” She looked straight at Amphitrite, her eyes darkly shining jewels. “You must never cross the border and release the monster.”
“I won’t,” Amphitrite said, echoed by her siblings. And, staring into her mother’s eyes, she meant it. Despite the sliver of doubt nested in her breast.
“Good!” the hen said brightly, bending to nuzzle Amphitrite. “Now,” —and she looked at Uncle Kadmos— “why don’t the two of you go out now and practice flying together?”
Uncle Kadmos fluffed out his wings, shaking away water droplets. “That sounds like a great idea.”
Amphitrite flew out over the open water. She could hear her uncle flapping somewhere behind her, watching her every move.
Reluctantly, Amphitrite turned her head down. Her neck twinged in protest. Her beak caught against the wind, forcing her to work harder. But she’d promised her mother. And, more importantly, if this flight got her uncle off her back, it was well worth it.
For what felt like hours, Amphitrite fought the wind. Gone was her joy in flight practice. Instead, Amphitrite was focused on the distant, rippling borders in the water. She fought the current with each wingstroke.
Then something brushed against Amphitrite’s wingtip. She looked up—and her neck cried out—and saw her Uncle Kadmos flapping right beside her.
“Good work!” he honked. “Excellent flying!”
Amphitrite was too out of breath to reply.
“You flew like a true duck today,” Uncle Kadmos said. “Now let’s go back, and we’ll see if your mother can’t help you catch a minnow.”
He banked and turned, soaring back the way they’d come.
Amphitrite stretched out her neck, long and forward, cutting through the wind like an arrow. Just for a moment. Just to feel what it felt like again to effortlessly glide forward, high above the ocean waters, one with the wind.
Like a true duck.
Amphitrite stopped thinking. She angled her wings and shot forward. Her uncle was honking something in the distance, but this time Amphitrite ignored him. She closed her eyes and just flew.
After a while, Amphitrite knew she must be over Fishland waters, but she didn’t care. She was betraying her uncle, her mother, her family, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t make herself care. She was one with the wind.
Amphitrite arrived home as the stars started to poke through the velvet sky, shining more brightly than the last golden rays of the sun. There was no moon tonight, and the night felt strangely empty to Amphitrite. It suited the guilt that had settled in her belly.
Down below, Amphitrite could see that the raft was already settled for the night. Only Uncle Kadmos was awake. As Amphitrite began her descent, she could see that he was honking something at her, probably revving up for the lecture.
“…monster!” Uncle Kadmos was saying. “She woke the monster!”
Amphitrite’s siblings started to stir, then her mother stood up. The hen stared up at Amphitrite, fanning out her wings, sheltering her other ducklings.
And Uncle Kadmos was screaming now. “Monster! Monster! Get away monster!”
Amphitrite twisted in midair, but she saw only the darkening sky behind her.
And now the rest of the raft was up and honking. “Get away! Monster! Leave us alone!”
Amphitrite landed, but the raft was running away. “Where is it?” she called after them. “I don’t see it—”
“Mama!” one of Amphitrite’s brothers cried. “What’s that horrible noise it’s making?”
“It’s so ugly!” her sister said, backing away. “What does it want from us?”
Amphitrite looked behind her again, arching her neck.
“We have to go,” Uncle Kadmos said, putting himself in front of Amphitrite’s family. “Everyone, take off now! We have to fly! We have to prepare for war!”
“What?” Amphitrite said, turning back. “But there’s nothing…”
Her mother met her eyes. And hissed.
Amphitrite took a few steps back. Her family took off in moments, blending in with the sky. She pictured her mother’s dark jewel eyes. She tried to fly again, but her wings were too heavy.