A prequel to The Cloud Roads
Chime woke to dim dawn light coming in through the air shaft high above his bower. He wanted to sleep more, but his curved basket bed was too hot and crowded. Rill was cuddled against his chest, and she had been here when he went to sleep. But he didn't remember inviting the third occupant. Squinting back over his shoulder, he identified Braid. Grumpy and still half-asleep, Chime nudged the hunter with an elbow. "What are you doing here?"
Braid yawned. "Oh, is this your bed?" he said. "I thought it was Blossom's."
That was annoying. If someone was going to invade Chime's bower, it could at least be for sex with him. He elbowed Braid again. "Get out."
Rill poked him in the chest. "If you're getting up, tell Petal I'm working in the gardens today."
"I'm not-- All right, all right." Giving up, Chime pushed himself up and clambered over Rill to drop down out of the basket bed.
He pulled on his clothes, then picked his way through the stray belongings littering the floor to the doorway. His bower was at the top of the long open hall of the teachers' level of the colony. A faint breeze came down the air shafts, carrying the green scents of the jungle and the cool damp of the shallow river beyond the heavy stone walls. The groundlings who had originally built this structure turns and turns ago might have meant it to be a palace or temple, but it made a fine Raksuran colony, with lots of long passages and plenty of nooks and crannies for bowers. This hall had many tall doorways, opening to narrow stairways and bowers curtained off with long drapes of fabric, and there was a shallow pool of water down the center for drinking and washing.
Chime splashed water on his face to wake himself up, and made his way out of the hall and through the passages to the center well. It was a big airy chamber with a shaft open to the floors above and below, dawn light falling down it from openings in the upper part of the structure. Hanging beds with fruit vines hung down from the three levels above, their sweet scent lacing the cool morning air.
Chime was about to shift and climb down to the work areas below, when six warriors dropped down the shaft, their wings partially spread, spines flared, tails whipping around. Chime stumbled back as they flashed by, their bright scales blending into a rainbow of colors. "Watch it!" he shouted. This was just more confirmation for his private theory that wings made people stupid.
The only response was a laugh, echoing up from below.
Raksura were divided into winged Aeriat and wingless Arbora, and sometimes they were divided in more ways than one. The four Arbora castes of teachers, hunters, soldiers, and mentors cared for the colony and took care of its children, and produced everything it needed. The Aeriat, warriors and the queens and consorts, protected and guided it. Or that was the idea, anyway. In Indigo Cloud, the queens did the protecting and guiding and the warriors, especially the young male ones, mostly caused trouble.
"Stupid warriors," he muttered. "Oh, sorry, Balm." She was just climbing down from the open platform on the level above and dropped to land on the floor beside him. Balm was a warrior too, but a cut above the others; she was clutchmate to Jade, the colony's daughter queen.
She waved away the comment with a distracted expression, and shifted to her groundling form. Like all the warriors she was tall and slim, with sharp features. She had the dark bronze-brown skin common to the main Indigo Cloud bloodline, but her curly hair was a lighter color, reminiscent of the gold scales she wore in her other body. "They're just excited. Jade suggested to Pearl that we send a group to visit Mist Silver, and they all want to go."
Visiting other courts for trade and to exchange news was part of the warriors' duties, though they hadn't done much of it lately. In fact, Chime couldn't remember the last time Indigo Cloud had sent an embassy to one of their allies, and he knew no one had visited them for a couple of turns except Sky Copper, their nearest neighbor. Arbora were sometimes taken on these trading visits too, and Chime had a moment of excitement himself, knowing that as a mentor he had an advantage in trying to wangle a spot on the trip. "You think Pearl will let them go? I'd think she'd send you and Vine, not any of those idiots."
Balm shrugged, her mouth set in an ironic line. "I don't think she'll send anybody."
Chime, in the middle of convincing himself that he actually wanted to leave the safety of the colony and visit another court, frowned. "Why not?"
"Because it was Jade's idea." Balm shook her head, frustrated. "We need allies, but Pearl just doesn't seem to care anymore."
It had been obvious for a while that Pearl, the reigning queen, hadn't been as attentive to the court's needs as she should have been, and that she also seemed to be resisting Jade's natural transition from daughter queen to sister queen. Everyone knew it, but no one talked about it. Chime found himself hesitant to talk about it to Balm, though she had brought it up. But he took the chance and asked the question that many of the younger Arbora had been whispering to each other when they thought the elders weren't listening. "If we don't start visiting other courts again, where is Jade going to get a consort?"
"Good question," Balm said, her expression somewhere between rueful and grim.
Jade couldn't take her place as sister queen without a consort. Chime didn't understand why Pearl was so set against it, if she was tired of ruling the court herself. "But--"
"I'd better go." Balm gave him a regretful smile. "We'll talk later."
Meaning Balm didn't want anyone to hear her criticize Pearl. Glumly, Chime watched her climb down the inner wall. For the first time that morning, he shifted to his Arbora form.
And everything went dark.
He woke lying on his back, blinking up at the worried faces that hovered over him. Braid was here now, and Rill, and Petal, as well as Balm. But the person crouched next to him was Jade, the young daughter queen, the soft blue of her scales vivid against the gray walls. He stared at her, startled. She watched him with worry and some other emotion he couldn't quite place. Fear? What's she afraid of?
"What happened? Did I fall?" he tried to ask, but his voice was a strangled croak. He was in his Raksuran form and he could feel the gritty stone floor under his scales. He started to lift a hand to his head.
"Just lie still." Petal caught his hand. She was leader of the teachers' caste, and she and Chime had been friends since the nurseries. He had never seen her look this disturbed. Her voice tight and tense, she said, "Flower's coming."
Chime stared at her. He cleared his throat. "Am I hurt?" He didn't feel hurt; stunned, maybe, and a little sore in the back. Nobody answered, they just looked at each other, like...like he didn't know what. Fear made his heart pound. "What is it? Tell me!"
They all looked at Jade. Jade took a sharp breath, as if about to plunge into something unpleasant. "Chime, something happened when you shifted. You don't look like yourself. I mean, we can still tell it's you, but it's you...if you were a warrior."
He stared up at her, incredulous. "That's not funny," he said weakly, but no one was laughing. "That can't... What? That's not..." He pulled his hand from Petal's grasp, stared at it. The scales of his shifted form should be gold-brown, a common color for Arbora in his line. But the light fell on dark blue scales, catching a gold undersheen. The blue was close to Jade's shade. There were blue Arbora, but it wasn't as common... "Oh, this can't be happening." Chime pushed away from them, shoved himself to his feet. He staggered; his balance was off, his body oddly light.
Someone must have carried him out of the central well; they were in one the smaller side rooms, the one with a fountain pool fed by a channel in the wall. Chime almost swayed over backwards, stumbling to the pool. Catching himself on the rim, he stared down at his reflection.
He was looking at a Raksuran warrior, tall, lean, with blue scales. Horrified and fascinated, he raised his spines to see if they were longer, and something else extended out behind him. It took him a moment to realize he was looking at the edges of his wings as they unfolded from his back. "Oh, no."
Jade said sharply, "Chime, don't." She stepped up behind him to press on a spot between his shoulder blades. Some reflex he didn't understand made the wings fold back in at the pressure. "There's no room in here. If you extend your wings, you'll hurt yourself."
Your wings. That was why his back felt heavy, why his balance was gone, why his body felt light. Warriors had lighter bones than Arbora. He turned to Jade, saying helplessly, "What happened?"
She spread her hands. "I wish I knew."
Chime turned to see Flower stood in the archway, Balm behind her. Flower was in her groundling form, a small woman with ragged white hair, dressed in a loose smock. She was thin for an Arbora, with the paling skin and white hair that signaled advanced age. She planted her hands on her hips, annoyed. "Balm said Chime was hurt and I don't even see..." She met his gaze, and blinked. "Chime," she finished. "Oh. Oh, my."
"It just happened," he blurted. Flower had been Chime's teacher since he had been a child, since they had first told him he was going to be a mentor. Back then, he had thought she could do anything. He still thought so. "Can you fix it?"
"Ah..." Her expression of growing consternation was not encouraging. "Give me some time."
Braid said, "Maybe he should try shifting again. That's how it happened."
Chime leapt on the idea. "Yes! Yes, I'll try--" Ignoring Jade, Flower, Petal, and Balm's chorus of "Wait!" Chime shifted.
The startling thing was that the change felt the same as it always had, no pain, no odd sensation of the world twisting around him. He whipped around to stare down into the pool, overbalanced and nearly pitched in headfirst. He caught himself and grimaced, waiting impatiently for the water to still again.
"I don't think it worked," Braid offered helpfully.
Chime groaned. As the ripples faded, he saw the groundling form of a warrior, tall, thin. He still felt too light, but not as if he was about to float off the floor. It was recognizably him, same eyes, same nose, same mouth, just arranged on a longer face. His skin was the same even bronze, his hair the same brown. He slumped on the fountain rim, miserable. "How could this happen?"
Jade looked at Flower, the scales on her brow furrowed. "It's a good question. How could this happen?"
Balm added quietly, "And is it going to happen to anyone else?"
In the ensuing worried silence, Braid said, "Are we all going to switch, Arbora into Aeriat and Aeriat into Arbora? Because that would be horrible."
Chime glared up at him, fury temporarily overcoming the humiliation. "Yes, that would be horrible! How could anybody possibly live like that?"
"Chime!" Flower's sharp voice didn't quell his hysteria, but it did make him shut up.
Flower sat on the rim beside him. She said, quietly, "Chime, hold still, and look at me."
His throat went dry. Powerful mentors like Flower could look into your mind, see sicknesses, other things that weren't supposed to be there. Chime was nearly as strong as Flower, but he had only done it once, to a younger mentor named Merit. He had had other mentors do it to him for practice, but this was different. He took a deep breath, and looked into Flower's eyes.
He blinked, and she was sitting back. Her expression was tight and closed. He said, "Did you do it? I didn't feel it." He should have felt something; he always had before.
She nodded, looked down and cleared her throat. "I didn't sense anything wrong. You're perfectly normal."
"Perfectly normal," Chime repeated. The words sounded hollow. He wasn't the only one who thought so. The others stirred uneasily, and Balm and Jade exchanged a worried look.
Flower hissed under her breath, and got to her feet. "Come with me."
Flower took him to her bower, and made everyone wait outside.
Her bower was bigger but neater than his, with baskets holding extra blankets, cushions, and clothes stacked against the far wall, a pot and cups for tea neatly set out by the metal pan that held warming stones, and books and writing materials lay on every flat surface.
Chime sat on a fur mat, swallowing nervously. "What? Did you see something in my head you didn't want the others to know about?"
Taking a seat opposite him, Flower gave him a grim look. "No. But I wanted to do this in private." She took a deep breath. "Use your power."
Chime went still and a cold lump settled in his stomach. Aeriat couldn't be mentors. Queens and consorts mating with Arbora was what produced mentor births among the Arbora, but even queens didn't have mentor abilities.
His throat had gone so dry it hurt. He looked around, his mind going blank for a moment. Something simple, something easy, he thought. Something any mentor apprentice could do. He picked up a smooth river stone from beside the hearth.
He took a deep breath, focused on the stone, and borrowed some of the sunlight falling down the hall's airshafts. Carefully, he slid it into the stone.
I'm just panicking, he thought, and took a deep calming breath. He tried again, and again. Feeling tears prick his eyes, he looked up at Flower.
Her expression made his heart sink even further. She started to speak, hesitated, then said, "Maybe it will come back."
Chime hid in Flower's bower most of the day, huddled miserably in a back corner behind the storage baskets for the winter blankets. He tried shifting back and forth, as fast as he could, then at longer intervals, but he was still a warrior.
By the time Rill and Blossom managed to coax him out that evening, he had a burst of optimism. Maybe his mentor's ability had only temporarily vanished, from the shock of changing into a warrior. Both Rill and Blossom agreed to a test, and he tried to put one, then the other, into a light healing sleep.
It didn't work.
"Maybe it worked a little?" Blossom said hopefully, as Chime slunk back into hiding. "I think I feel better."
His next visitors, sometime later, were Knell and Bell, his clutchmates. Knell was a soldier and Bell a teacher; Chime had been the only mentor to turn up in their main bloodline. Their hunter mother and the soldier who had sired them had died turns ago, taken by the same illness that had taken Rain, Pearl's consort. Chime was so depressed by this point that he could barely answer Knell and Bell's questions, and he didn't come out to talk. Bell tried coaxing and Knell eventually graduated to threats, but Chime didn't budge, and they finally gave in and left.
Time wore on. At some point that night, Flower wearily said the same thing she had been saying for most of the day, "Chime, come out. You can't hide from this."
As a mentor, Chime knew that lack of food and sleep could make Raksura overwrought and paranoid, and that warriors had always claimed to need more food and sleep than Arbora. This knowledge didn't help, because he still thought they were planning to kill him. "Are you going to kill me?"
Flower, who had apparently reached her limit, snarled and stamped out of the room. Sometime later, Chime sensed rather than heard someone else enter. He thought it might be Knell coming back to haul him out of hiding. Unexpectedly, it was Stone's voice that said, "Chime. Come out of there. Now."
Stone was the line-grandfather, the only consort left in the court. Indigo Cloud hadn't had good luck with consorts, the only fertile male Aeriat. In the past generation, they had died, of disease or from fighting when the court had been attacked. Several turns ago, Pearl had sent away the last of the young ones to other courts when her own consort had died.
Stone was so old his Raksuran form wouldn't fit into most of the rooms of the colony. That didn't matter, since Chime was pretty certain that even in groundling form, Stone could beat a warrior senseless. Especially him. Chime asked, "Are you going to kill me?" At this point, it would be something of a relief.
"Nobody's going to kill you, you little idiot." His voice was flat and his tone suggested he had only a limited amount of patience for this, which Chime had just expended. "Don't make me come in there after you."
Stone wasn't known for making idle threats. He wouldn't have hurt an Arbora, but then Chime wasn't an Arbora anymore. Chime crawled out from behind the baskets, and eyed Stone warily. As a groundling Aeriat, Stone looked like a tall lean man, his face lined and weathered. Everything about him had faded to gray, his hair, his skin, even his clothes. The only spot of color was in his blue eyes, though the right one was dimmed and clouded. Even in his groundling form, Stone made the bower seem much smaller.
He tossed a skinned grasseater haunch down on the mat and said, "Eat."
"I'm not hungry."
Stone cocked his head. "Did I ask you if you were hungry?"
"Um, no." Chime sat on the mat, tore a strip off the haunch, and obediently stuffed it in his mouth. He had been sick all day, so he expected to just vomit it up, which would serve Stone right. Instead it sparked his appetite, and he finished the haunch and half of the basket of fruit sitting beside Flower's hearth before he stopped for breath. "Is there bread left?" he asked Stone.
"If you wanted bread, you should have eaten with the others." Stone sounded like he was talking to a sulky fledgling. Chime had never known if all line-grandfathers were like Stone or if he was unique to Indigo Cloud. Young consorts were sensitive delicate creatures, sheltered by the court. Since Indigo Cloud had none left, they would have to try to get one from another court, when it was time for Jade to take a mate...
Chime stared at Stone, letting the last piece of half-eaten fruit fall from suddenly nerveless fingers. "I can't make clutches, not anymore, not like this." Aeriat consorts and male Arbora were fertile; warriors, male and female, weren't.
There was possibly a trace of pity in Stone's expression. "No, you can't."
Chime took a deep breath, rubbing his eyes. He had never made a clutch, but it was important for mentors to pass on their bloodline. He had always planned to ask to have clutches with Rill or Blossom or both, when they were ready. Another part of who he was, gone. "I don't... I don't know..."
"Chime." Stone leaned forward. "I don't know why this happened to you, but I know you can't hide down here. You have to get up, go out, and take up your life."
Chime just sat there, pushing fruit pits around on the grainy floor. A part of him knew Stone was right. The rest of him still wanted to wail at the unfairness of it. "Can I hide down here for one more night, and come out tomorrow?"
Stone sighed, stretched out a long arm to ruffle Chime's hair, and said, "One more night. If you don't come out tomorrow, I'll come back here and make you regret it."
Chime nodded glumly. It was only fair.
Stone left, and Chime sat there a long time, listening to the quiet movements of the colony around him. He hadn't been paying attention before, but he thought most of the Arbora in this hall must be either asleep or off in one of the common areas talking. Talking about me, he thought, with that reflexive starvation paranoia. Then he realized he might be right. They might be talking about what had happened to him. Trying to understand why, fearing it might happen to them, too. Flower had said she would have the other mentors start searching the libraries, to see if there is any record of this happening before. He wondered if they had found anything yet. You should get up, go up to the library chambers and see if they're still there, see what they found. The thought of facing the others, knowing he was no longer one of them, made his heart twist.
He had just managed to overcome his depressed inertia and got to his feet, when he heard soft footfalls on the steps to the bower. He tasted the air automatically, hoping it was Flower coming back. But it was Balm who pushed the curtain aside, and said, "Chime, Pearl wants to see you."
Walking up the central stair to the queens' chambers on the top level, Chime realized it hadn't been paranoia. The colony felt disturbed and too quiet all at the same time. Some of the light stones in the stairwell were fading, making shadows cluster more thickly in the big space. Automatically he reached up to brush his hand against one to renew it, and then let it drop. He slid a sideways look at Balm to see if she had noticed, but if she had she didn't comment on it. She hadn't objected to walking up the stairs in their groundling forms instead of climbing the inner well, either. He cleared his throat and waved a hand around, indicating the silence in the wrong places, the faint sounds of talking and movement in others. "Is this about me?"
Balm glanced at him and admitted, "Yes. Everyone's very disturbed."
They reached the top of the steps, and Chime was startled when Balm turned down the passage to the big chamber that was used as a gathering hall. Whenever Chime had been called up here with Flower for a private meeting, it had always been in either Pearl's or Jade's bowers. Using the gathering space felt...official.
The chamber was large, the only opening to the outside a shaft in the center of the high roof. The light from glowing moss baskets in the wall niches left most of the space in shadow. But Chime saw the fruit vines growing down through the open shaft were mottled and discolored. When did that happen? he wondered, shocked. If there was a plant blight on the vines growing on the outer walls, that could be a serious problem for their crops. Why hasn't anyone done anything about it?
There were a few warriors sitting up on the ledge around the upper perimeter of the chamber; Chime saw Floret, Vine, Sage, and Pearl's longtime favorite, River. It was too dark to read their expressions, but their body language looked nervous. Pearl herself was pacing on the raised stone platform at the back of the room. Even in the dim light, her scales were bright gold, the webbed pattern over them the deepest indigo; her mane of frills and spines was full and extending all the way down her back. She was a head taller than all the other Aeriat.
It took Chime a moment to notice that Jade was sitting on the edge of the platform with Flower. He realized the other Arbora caste leaders weren't here, not Bone, Knell, or Petal. That hit Chime suddenly like a blow to the stomach. He wasn't an Arbora anymore, and rules for warriors and Aeriat were different. He felt a lump grow in his throat and sweat break out all over his groundling skin.
Chime had never been afraid of Pearl, from the time when he was barely old enough to walk and she was just the big gold person who visited the nurseries. He was respectful of her temper and wary of her bad moods, but never afraid. She was a queen, he was an Arbora, and she was supposed to protect him. That was the way it worked.
Now he wasn't an Arbora, he was something else, and he was afraid.
Pearl glanced up, saw him, and went still. Chime dropped his gaze immediately.
She said, "Come here."
Chime made it to the bottom step, then collapsed in a heap and covered his head. He heard the whisper of Pearl's folded wings as she came toward him. Her claws clicked on the steps, then she crouched in front of him. Her hand lifted his chin, and he didn't resist. He looked up into her face, so beautiful even when she frowned. She said, "I'd hoped it was a lie. Shift."
Chime swallowed in a painfully dry throat, and shifted. Even kneeling on the steps, the unexpected weight of his wings forming on his back made him fall over. He sprawled, and awkwardly pushed himself back up into a sitting position.
Pearl stood, looking down at him, and hissed under her breath.
"I'm sorry," Chime said miserably.
One of her spines flicked in annoyance. "Did you do this on purpose?"
He sat back, aghast. "No!"
"Then be quiet." Pearl stood and looked at Flower. "Well?"
Flower spread her hands. "We have some hope the change will reverse itself."
We do? Chime thought, startled into hope. Then he took a better look at Flower's face. She didn't look very hopeful.
Pearl didn't seem to think so, either. Her tail lashed, and she said with bitter amusement. "Let's hope it happens soon. Apparently our time is limited."
Silence sank over the room again. It was so quiet, Chime heard scales whisper as one of the warriors on the ledge changed position. Then Jade said, "Chime, is there anything you want to ask? About...being a warrior?"
Chime was too numb with relief that Pearl apparently wasn't going to kill him to form a coherent question. But he knew Jade had spoken to him to remind the others it was still him in this different body, and he shouldn't let the opportunity go by. He said, "Has anybody done anything about the blight?"
The room seemed to freeze and they all stared at him, as if he had asked something else. He realized no one knew what he meant, and pointed up to the discolored vines around the shaft. "The plant blight."
He wasn't sure what they all thought he had been referring to, but the room breathed in relief again. Pearl looked up at the vines, her spines folding down into her mane, and said, "They tried. Nothing helps."
Flower let out her breath in a long sigh. "You'd better go, Chime."
Chime started to stand, overbalanced and almost banged his head on the top step. He shifted back to groundling and stumbled to his feet. Balm took his wrist to steady him. She said, kindly, "I'll walk with you."
They left the gathering hall, but out in the stairwell foyer, a warrior dropped from the ceiling. It was River. He hissed at Chime and said, "You're not one of us, no matter what you look like."
"I know," Chime snapped. "That's the only thing that keeps me from killing myself."
Balm snorted in amusement, and shouldered River out of the way. Two landings down the stairs, she said, "Try not to mind that. They're not sure what your status is going to be, and it worries them."
It worried Chime, too.
Chime woke the next morning, curled up on a cushion behind Flower's baskets. Bleary and confused, he frowned at the hall's ceiling high overhead, wondering how he had ended up here.
Memory washed over him and he moaned. He still had his long awkwardly light body; it hadn't just been an extended nightmare.
Flower leaned over the baskets and said, "Chime, remember what Stone told you."
He winced and buried his head in his arms. "I know, I know. I'll come out. In a while."
Flower sighed, and after a moment he heard her leave the bower.
He lay there, listening to the other inhabitants of the hall rustle around and talk quietly. Eventually, the hall went still.
Chime climbed slowly out, his legs cramping from disuse. He stumbled out of the bower and took the passage at the other end of the hall, headed for the other side of the colony. He managed to avoid running into anyone, and came out on a platform overlooking the river.
It was another cool damp morning, a few clouds dotting the blue sky to the south. The colony was built across a shallow river that cut through a narrow valley, jungle-clad hills rising to either side. Some of the lower hills had been turned into garden terraces, where the Arbora planted the crops that helped sustain the court. Raksura had built the terraces, but the building was a relic of some long-ago groundling empire. It was made of gray stone in the shape of a step pyramid, and this platform was one of many extending from the outer wall, and used mostly for sunning. It had a shallow square pool filled with rainwater, and Chime had chosen it for that and the fact that it faced away from the gardens where the Arbora would be working this morning, and the platforms that the warriors frequented.
Chime took a deep breath and shifted. He looked down at himself, unable to squelch the last spark of hope, but he was still a blue warrior. He swore wearily and started across to the pool.
Walking in this too-light body was odd; each step still felt as if he might lift right off the ground. He stepped carefully up onto the pool's edge. The water was strewn with blue lilies but mostly clear, and it gave him a fairly good view of himself. All right, he thought, how do I do this? He frowned, trying to figure out how to make the new muscles work. He lashed his tail, his spines lifted and flicked, and then his wings started to unfold. They stopped with only the outermost section extended, the way they had the first time. They seemed to be stuck there, in a resting position, and he rolled his shoulders, shook himself, and bounced up and down before he finally found the right combination of muscles.
His wings stretched and spread, unfolding to nearly eighteen paces, the weight of them making him hunch forward until he got the trick of balancing with his tail. The scaly membrane caught the light, reflecting an edge of gold under the blue. It wasn't as if he had never seen wings close-up before, but these were attached to him, and that was different.
Trying to move them was like suddenly having four arms. It took effort to make the muscles contract by themselves, without moving his arms, hands, spines or tail. After a time, he managed to make the right one curl in toward him. The front edge of the wing looked razor-sharp, but the skin folded over the joints was smooth.
"You're going to have to work on that."
He twitched and his wings snapped in, a jolt that made him stumble forward and step into the pool.
Balm strolled forward, watching him critically. "You have to catch the wind and play it, mold it, with the surfaces. It's like...having sex with the air."
Chime grimaced. "When I'm having sex I'm not worried about falling to my death."
"If you fall to your death, I'll catch you," she said.
Chime stared at her. Balm apparently expected him to fly. "I'm not going to fall because I'm not going to be in the air. I was just-- Just--" He didn't really know why he had come out here, he had just been drawn to the sun and the wind.
Balm folded her arms. "Chime, you have to do this. This is what we are. If you won't fly, you won't be an Arbora, but you won't be an Aeriat either."
"I know that! I know--" He took a deep breath. "I need more time."
"If you put it off today, you'll put it off forever."
"I will not."
"You will." Balm stepped forward, her expression stony. Her disapproval was much more intimidating than River's, mainly because he actually cared what she thought of him. "You'll let fear rule you."
"I won't." He hissed at her. "You think it's easy to be a mentor? Making simples that could kill if we get the slightest element wrong? Making light and heat with our hands? I won't let fear rule me because I never have before!"
She laughed. "That's easy enough to say."
Chime snarled, whipped around, and stepped to the edge of the platform. The river was below, and the green of the jungle, a flight of white water birds just lifting above the trees in the distance. Chime spread his wings, or his wings spread of their own accord, he wasn't sure. The wind caressed his scales and he wanted to lean into it.
Before he could change his mind, he did.
Suddenly he was gliding, the river and the spiral trees flashing below. Don't panic, he told himself, but Balm was right. He could feel the wind against the inner scales of his wings, and it was like nothing he had ever felt before. It was like folding paper with your fingers, or molding clay. Like the wind was a solid substance he could smooth or bend at will.
"Chime!" Balm was suddenly under him, and he stared at her. Her spines were flat, her wings fully spread. He had never seen her, or any other warrior, from this angle before. We're beautiful, he thought. She shouted, "Pull your wings in!"
"What?" That didn't sound like a good idea. "Why?"
"You don't know how to land!"
"Oh!" He concentrated and his wings snapped in, much faster than he had expected. He dropped like a rock, but Balm snapped her wings in and rolled, caught him as he fell, and twisted back around. Her wings unfolded and cupped the air, and they sank to a gentle landing on a sandbar in the river. Chime let go and stumbled away, ankle-deep in the cool shallow water. "That was... That was..."
"A good start." Balm smiled.
They practiced most of the morning, and Chime never did manage to land on his own, mostly because he was afraid to try. But he could glide now with a degree of confidence. And he had admitted to himself that it was stupid to have wings and not be able to use them.
After that, Chime ate in the teachers' gathering room, then went back to Flower's bower and slept most of the afternoon. It surprised him how exhausted he was; flying was apparently more like work than it had always looked. He didn't wake until Flower walked into the bower and sat down beside the bowl hearth.
Chime sat up, rubbing his eyes blearily. Then he saw Flower was holding an old scroll-book, and that woke him up. He his heart pounding, he said, "You found it."
Flower set the scroll aside. "Yes, we found a mention of it in the histories of other courts."
"You did?" From her expression, it was easy to see it wasn't good news. She looked tired and discouraged. His heart still sank, though by this point he hadn't really expected anything else. "I won't go back to normal. This is permanent."
"I think it must be, Chime."
He watched her face carefully. Flower looked far more upset than that news warranted. Everyone had pretty much expected it to be permanent; the idea that it might not be had been a last-ditch hope. Uh oh, Chime thought, suddenly convinced he was going to die. "But there's something else."
Flower pushed the hair out of her eyes, weary and discouraged. "This has happened before, in courts that were on the verge of collapse. Warriors can travel further, don't breed, so they're more useful than Arbora when a colony fails. It's a natural process." She sighed. "A natural process for colonies that are...dying out."
"But we're not-- Oh." A great many things flashed through Chime's mind. All the sicknesses that had come and gone over the last ten turns or so. The lack of young consorts, which had always seemed a temporary thing while Pearl was grieving for Rain, but Rain had been dead for so many turns now. The blight on the vines at the top of the colony, that no one could cure. Pearl knows, he thought, remembering her cryptic comment about "our time being limited." Jade knew, they all knew. "How long? I mean, how long have you known..."
"We didn't know." She shook her head. "We suspected. We feared. Now we know."
Chime sat back. His problems suddenly seemed small to the point of complete insignificance. "We have to do something," he said. "There's got to be a reason. There's got to be something we can do."
"Stone has some ideas," Flower said, but didn't explain. She reached over and squeezed his wrist. "Don't say anything to the others yet."
"I won't," he promised. Flower got to her feet and left. She had left the book, and he sat there for a time, his hand on the cover. As a mentor, it would be his job to study the histories and try to find solutions to offer the queen, and he still meant to do that, to do as much of a mentor's job as he could. But as a warrior... Whatever his job as a warrior would be, it was going to involve flying.
Chime got to his feet and went to look for Balm again. It was time to learn how to land.
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© Martha Wells 2012
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