The Harbors of the Sun
Book Seven of The Books of the Raksura
Night Shade Books, July 2017
Cover art by Yukari Masuike
2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Series
A former friend has betrayed the Raksura and their groundling companions, and now the survivors must race across the Three Worlds to rescue their kidnapped family members. When Moon and Stone are sent ahead to scout, they quickly encounter an unexpected and potentially deadly ally, and decide to disobey the queens and continue the search alone. Following in a wind-ship, Jade and Malachite make an unlikely alliance of their own, until word reaches them that the Fell are massing for an attack on the Reaches, and that forces of the powerful Empire of Kish are turning against the Raksura and their groundling comrades.
But there may be no time to stage a rescue, as the kidnapped Raksura discover that their captors are heading toward a mysterious destination with a stolen magical artifact that will cause more devastation for the Reaches than anything the lethal Fell can imagine. To stop them, the Raksura will have to take the ultimate risk and follow them into forbidden territory.
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Sleeping in swamps was always difficult. The brackish mud was too cool against Moon's scales to be comfortable, and every time he managed to doze off, something crawled over him. The clouds of insects sheltering in the tall grass weren't much interested in Raksura, but the ugly little things that looked like fish with legs had sharp teeth and were annoyingly persistent. Moon had always found sleeping in his scaled form awkward and not restful, but the distractions made it nearly impossible.
Fortunately for his temper, the sky was finally darkening toward evening. Moon shoved himself up out of the mud and slid through the sharp grass blades and over to a much larger puddle. He found a knot of driftwood near the edge and chunked it in. "Stone, wake up."
Bubbles broke the muddy surface, then a big dark scaled tail whipped up and took a swing at Moon. He dodged and went to find a less muddy place to clean off in.
He waded through the waist-deep grass out to one of the pools where the sea entered the wetlands. Sitting on his heels in the cool saltwater, he scrubbed the sticky mud off his scales with handfuls of sand. The empty sea stretched out, the evening sky was indigo and purple, and the quarter moon gleamed on the water. The breeze held saltwater and the intense green scent of the wetland grasses, leavened with various flowers and laced with bird scat and dead fish. All the groundling shipping that he had spotted throughout the afternoon, both surface sailing ships and flying boats, had already made port.
Moon glanced around again out of habit, even though nothing could see him except for a few tall spindly shore birds striding away through the shallows. Then he shifted.
His wings, tail, spines, and black scales flowed away into his soft-skinned form. Anyone watching would now see a tall lean groundling, with dark bronze skin and dark hair. He was dressed in light pants cut off at the knee and a loose brown shirt, the kind of clothes some groundlings wore for sailing or other work. It wouldn't draw attention in most of the groundling ports Moon had visited, but this wasn't exactly a groundling port. He felt the wind lift his hair and scratched at the back of his neck where he hadn't managed to get all the mud out of his spines.
With no warning, Stone stepped out of the grass. Moon twitched in spite of himself. Stone was in his groundling form now too, with gray skin and hair, in battered clothes much like Moon's, and a pack slung across his shoulder. He was somehow already dry and mostly clean, despite having been buried in a mud wallow for most of the afternoon. Clearly not in any better a mood than Moon was, he said, "What's taking you so long?"
"I'm waiting for you." Moon hissed at him and followed him back through the grass.
The port that lay just beyond the wetland was far enough from the protected Imperial Kish territories to be wary of Fell. Since Raksuran consorts were almost always mistaken for Fell by uninformed groundlings, approaching it by air in the late afternoon daylight had been impossible. Also, it had been several long days and nights of flight across the archipelago to the mainland coast, and they had needed a few hours rest. If their quarry had come here, they were already too late to catch them; the best they hoped for was some confirmation that they were on the right track.
They slogged through the weeds until they came to a seawall constructed of huge chunks of sandy-colored rock. It was nearly fifty paces tall, and reminded Moon of the ancient roadways in the east and down in the Abascene peninsula. Following Stone, Moon clambered up, the rough texture of the rock still holding the day's heat and warm against the hard soles of his feet.
At the top they could see the lights of the port, though it was already dark enough not to be able to make out much detail. But Rorra had described it well enough for Moon to know what they were looking at.
A long curve of lights marked the dock area where the sea-going ships would tie up, though many lay at anchor in the protected harbor. Just past the docks were tall dome-shapes dotted with light that weren't made of stone or metal or wood, but were a kind of resin excreted by tame creatures that sounded like a combination of herdbeast grasseaters and skylings. The domes were used as dwellings and warehouses for cargo. Past them were clusters of tall spindly metal structures that looked like giant flowers; those were docks for flying boats. Between them a mutli-storied web of bridges and walkways and suspended structures linked the stalks for the groundling crews and formed an upper city for the skylings.
They made their way along the seawall as it sloped down slightly until it was only twelve or so paces above the muddy ground. When it turned toward the harbor, Moon and Stone climbed down and headed in toward the domes.
Moon tasted the air and winced. Groundling cities were combinations of thousands of different scents, but this place had a bitter undertone of predator musk. It confirmed the warnings that Rorra and the Kish-Jandera had heard about the port. It also made the skin of Moon's fingertips itch, an urge to flex the claws he didn't have in this form.
The area around the nearest dome was lit by tall lamps hanging from metal poles. The dangling glass bubbles were filled with the darting, glowing flickers of trapped insects. More light spilled out of a large round door, and figures moved inside.
It was too far from the flying boat docks to be useful to them, so Moon meant to pass it by. But as they crossed the edge of the circle of light, a shape came rumbling out toward them.
It was large and thick, with heavy muscles in its arms and legs, and slick light green skin. Its head was a rounded lump set directly on its shoulders, and its nose and wide mouth were equally compressed, as if it was designed not to give an enemy anything to get a grip on. Its hands were big and clawed, and bone spikes stood out all over its body, up the outside of its arms, on its shoulders and the top of its head. Moon thought they were inserted, not natural, since there was bruising on the skin around them. It was wearing a harness of fishskin with various sharp metal implements attached to it and a bone armor plate over its genitals. From the webbing on its feet, Moon guessed it was a swampling.
It advanced on them, making a gargling noise Moon realized was a laugh. In gravelly Kedaic, it said, "Soft skins. You know what we do with soft skins here?"
Stone stopped and tilted his head to regard the swampling with his one good eye. The other eye was clouded, and had been from birth; Moon had never been sure how well Stone could see out of it. Stone said, easily, "No. What do you think I'll do when I find out?"
Moon winced and rubbed his temple, and said in Raksuran, "Don't." They had been traveling hard, Stone doing the flying so they could move as fast as possible, feeding on nothing but the fish Moon could catch during the brief rests when they found an uninhabited island or a sandbar. If Stone's temper snapped, it would just make this harder.
To the swampling, Stone said, "Wait." He turned to Moon and said in Raksuran, "'Don't' what? You're the one with the temper."
Moon folded his arms. "You're senile and delusional." Admittedly, Moon wasn't exactly in a good mood either.
"After him, you're next." Stone turned back to the swampling. "Now what do you want?"
The swampling hesitated, rocking back and forth, the blades on its harness jingling. It had clearly expected them to be afraid. That they weren't implied its estimation of their ability to defend themselves was incorrect, possibly fatally so. But it rallied and said, "There's nothing but trouble for softskins here."
Stone said, "Good, that's exactly how we like it."
Moon snarled in irritation and asked the swampling, "Is there a resting place for flying boat crews?"
The swampling looked from Moon to Stone. Stone seemed to be taking up far more room than could be accounted for by the size of his groundling body. The swampling stepped back and pointed. "They mostly stay on the hive masts, and the webs."
That was no help. Moon suppressed a hiss of frustration. They didn't have time to search the whole upper city.
Stone eyed the swampling a moment more, then stepped past it and walked on into the darkness. As Moon followed, the swampling made a last attempt to dominate the encounter and called after them, "Careful. Somebody might get eaten."
"Not just now. Maybe later," Stone called back.
Moon hissed at him. "That's not funny."
Stone glanced at him. Moon couldn't read his expression in the dark, but he was fairly sure he was getting that annoyed look again.
There were broad pathways of hard-packed dirt between the domes, and no real attempt to light the way. The other structures seemed makeshift at best: shacks and lean-tos made of driftwood and fragments of large insect carapaces, probably from the same creatures who made the resin for the domes. Huddled figures sat outside, watching the foot traffic pass. The scents were intense, bitter and smoky and rotten and sweet, and Moon could identify few of them. Stone didn't react to it, but then Stone didn't react to a lot of things. Though his senses were much more acute than Moon's, he was able to filter out scents and sounds much more effectively.
They found their way through a cluster of domes, most brightly lit and rowdy with small crowds of various species of swampling and a variety of other scaled groundlings. Like the first swampling had said, Moon didn't see any groundlings with soft skin. No one approached them, and most ignored them, but Moon caught one or two watching them with a possessive intensity. It made his back teeth ache and his prey reflex twitch. He hoped he and Stone could do their business and get out of here without killing anybody. He said in Raksuran, "Maybe we should have done this in daylight."
"No, it wasn't worth the risk." Stone sounded less irritable. "The last thing we need is for some ally of the Hians to figure out that we're on the right trail."
Moon hoped they were on the right trail. When they had left the others, Lithe's visions had still been indicating movement.
They came to the area where the giant stalks of the flying boat docks towered up. Squinting, Moon saw several different boats anchored on each of the nearest, tied off to the elaborate flower structures that extended out to partially enclose their hulls. The upper city stretched overhead, the complicated webs of cable and platforms dotted with light. Voices and the sounds of movement drifted down.
They could safely ignore the bladder boats, which were kept aloft by giant inflated air bladders and were much slower and more difficult to steer than the others. There were several types of craft Moon didn't recognize, and some spiky shapes that might be made from the same material as the giant insect carapaces. But on the third flower stalk were three Kishan-made boats, grown from the moss that converted sunlight to the power that allowed them to fly. But none was the right shape and all were much smaller than their quarry.
An armor-plated form staggered toward them in the dimness, then staggered rapidly away as Stone growled low enough to make Moon's bones vibrate. Moon felt pretty certain that if the Hians had stopped here, they wouldn't have left the upper city. Even with Kishan fire-weapons, this place was too dangerous.
Below the nearest stalk lay one of the structures made from the nearly complete carapace of a giant beetle-like insect. The scents and the smoke drifting out was foul, and there were a few swamplings collapsed outside. Some of the big scaled groundlings stood near the door, watching Stone and Moon.
The predator scent was getting stronger. "We need to move," Moon said. It was getting harder to control his prey reflex. "Or we could shift and kill everybody in town." The longer he was here the more attractive the second option became.
"We wouldn't have to kill everybody." Stone eyed the group near the carapace. It was hard to tell if he was joking. He turned back to the docking stalk. "Let's see if there's any rational people in the upper levels."
A ramp curved up the first stalk. There were cage-like structures on the sides, which was disturbing, until Moon realized they were climbing bars, basically a staircase without steps, clearly meant for some race other than the swamplings or scaled groundlings. Moon was aware of more predators watching from below, though no one tried to follow them.
The ramp was gritty underfoot, with a texture that felt like metal. They followed it up two turns, to the first elaborate flower structure standing out from the main stalk. Small bulbs of light lit the interior, the glowing insects flickering inside them. More climbing racks filled the space, leading up to smaller rooms tucked in among the curving petals. On the floor of the chamber lay bags for supplies and some baskets. As Moon and Stone climbed closer, the miasma of the town faded a little and was alleviated by a strong scent of clean fur and fruit.
Several sources of the clean fur scent hung from the climbing bars. They were long limbed, long bodied, with narrow heads and large eyes in shades of yellow and green. Their hands had spidery, nimble fingers, and surprisingly, so did their feet. They must be a treeling race, not designed for the ground. Moon realized the small metal frames with the straps lying among the other supplies might be meant to help them walk on flat surfaces, like the way Rorra's boots worked.
As they drew level with the chamber, one of the treelings uncoiled from the frame, head lifting to stare at them in what seemed to be surprise. "What are you doing here?" it said in Kedaic. Its voice was rough and rippling, suggesting a throat with an unusual texture.
Moon had a bad moment, thinking that it had been warned by the Hians and recognized them, before it added, "The Ilmarish hate soft skins. It's dangerous for you to walk on the ground."
"We're not as soft as we look," Stone said. "It's not dangerous for you?"
"We're the only Lisitae who trade with them," the treeling said. "They can't afford to chase us away." Moon wasn't sure if that was the name of the race, a family, or another city. It continued, "Why are you here? Are you traders? You should go to the upper city. It's not as dangerous there."
"We're looking for someone," Moon said. "Are there any Kishan flying boats from Hia Iserae in the docks?"
Stone added, "With Hians aboard. They're about our size, but look like they have rock armor in patches on their skin."
The treeling blinked, then leaned back and spoke to the others hanging in the upper frames. Moon caught the words "Hia Iserae."
One of the others, smaller and with darker fur, peeled itself off the frame and hung upside down to say, "Better check with the portmaster." The treeling swayed toward them, sniffing thoughtfully. "Why do you want to know?"
Stone said, "They stole something from our flying boat, back in Kish-Jandera." That had the virtue of being true, though it had happened on the fringe of the ocean deeps. Two more Lisitae swung down to listen, their wide eyes fixed on Moon and Stone. It would have been disturbing, except there was just something non-threatening in their attitude. Or maybe it was the long languorous limbs and the fluffy fur. "Where's the portmaster?"
"In the upper city, toward the fifth stand over, that way. The one with the ktarki flyer. It has a loop, like this." One long furred limb made a gesture. "The portmaster's structure is large and round, with a light at the peak of the roof."
"Thank you," Stone told them.
"Go up!" one called as they turned back to the ramp. "Stay away from the ground!"
They followed the ramp up. On the ground below, a group of predators stared at them, intently following their progress. Moon was too occupied by his trail of thought to snarl at them. "So did the Hians plan to stop here all along? And if not, why stop?"
Large Kishan flying boats like the one the Hians had could carry a lot of food and water. This was why Jade and Malachite meant to search other potential directions and sightings of Hian flying boats; there just wasn't a good reason for the Hians to come to this port, and even Lithe had been afraid her vision was wrong.
Stone rumbled under his breath, but it was thoughtful rumbling, not irritated rumbling. "Either something went wrong with their boat, or someone was waiting for them here," he said.
They reached the point on the stalk where a bridge led off the ramp and into the walkways of the upper city. The maze of structures extended up several levels above. Some were just awnings stretched over platforms, others had driftwood walls and thatched roofs, and many were secreted bulbs, like the domes down on the ground.
The further they walked, the more activity there was, and the more variety among the races. Moon saw more treelings, some furred and some with shiny scaled hides. There were tall, willowy groundlings with long limbs and narrow skulls that curved back. They wore long draperies that concealed much of their bodies, and there was something about their delicate appearance that was deceptive. There were others that were blue-skinned like the Serican traders in the east, and some who were a dark brown, but Moon didn't see any that looked like Kish-Jandera. Music, mostly drums and other staccato instruments, vibrated through the metal and plank walkway.
There was too much activity for Moon and Stone to draw attention. Some groundlings glanced up to watch them pass, but most were too occupied with speaking to each other or with moving goods along the walkways. Some of the platforms were acting as gathering places, and some seemed to be caravansarai and depots for supplies. From the scents of cooked meat and spiced oils, some were selling food.
Stone veered off toward one and Moon stopped to wait without protest. Cooked groundling food wasn't that filling, but it might stop Stone from ripping apart the next predator-swampling that looked at them funny.
Standing out of the way beside a heavy support cable, Moon caught movement overhead and nearly shifted. It was only a big skyling, climbing along a web of rope above. It was hard to get a good look at it in the intermittent light, but the body was rounded, with reflective shells and multiple hands that gripped the supporting bars of the web. Some smaller skylings that looked a little like the eastern Dwei buzzed along after it.
Stone returned, slipping past a noisy party of furred groundlings. He shoved a packet of greased paper at Moon. "Hold this."
It was full of fried dumplings. Moon scented sugar dough and his stomach growled. Stone took another packet out from under his arm and poked at it tentatively. "What's that one?" Moon asked, hoping it was meat.
"I don't know, I asked for some of everything they had." Stone tasted it and shrugged. "It's bug paste." As he tucked it away in his pack, he tilted his head toward the far side of the walkway. "Did you see that?"
Moon spotted the little turret. It extended out and up from the other structures, and there was a distinctive muzzle sticking out of it. It was an emplacement for something like a Kishan fire weapon, part of the port's defenses against the Fell.
They started off again, following another party of assorted groundlings, and shared the dumplings. A few were filled with more bug paste, the shell fragments and tiny wings scratchy in Moon's throat, but the others had spicy sweet root centers or chopped fish.
Then Moon spotted a round peaked roof with a blue light atop it. A number of skylings of different sizes and shapes slept on the roof and the web structure above it. Stone had stopped to taste the air speculatively at the walkway to another food place. Moon nudged him. "There."
They made their way to the little bridge that led to the portmaster's house. It was a couple of levels tall, with open galleries allowing a view into the dimly lit interior. A few figures moved around inside and a dark blue groundling guarded the bridge, along with something wearing a lot of clothes and a shell over its head. Hoping it might be possible to skip meeting with a figure as official as a portmaster, Moon said, "We're looking for a Kishan flying boat from Hia Iserae, with a Hian crew. We were told to ask here if one had been in dock."
The blue groundling turned to consult the shellhead, who gestured for them to follow it and started across the bridge. Moon groaned under his breath and followed with Stone.
They stepped onto the lower gallery. It had high ceilings, and the cool breeze coming off the sea swept through it. The outer portion was occupied by smaller versions of the tall slim groundlings with the elongated curving heads. They all fled inside at Moon and Stone's approach. The shellhead ignored the effect they were having on the house's inhabitants and led them up a ramp to the upper part of the structure.
A sling chair hung from the roof, and sitting in it was a curving skull groundling, only this one was tall, probably a few heads taller than Moon when standing. Moon wasn't sure if it was female or male or some other gender. The concealing robes, all in different shades of blue, didn't reveal any hint. Moon was guessing this was the portmaster. Smaller versions of it were seated around on multi-colored cushions, apparently partaking of something that looked like smoke in glass bowls.
The shellhead addressed the seated groundling briefly in a deep voice, speaking a language Moon didn't recognize. Then it turned and said in Kedaic, "Be seated, the portmaster will speak to you."
Moon really didn't want to sit down, he just wanted to ask their question, get an answer or not, and get out of here. His hesitation wasn't obvious to anyone except Stone, who elbowed him hard in the ribs. They both sat down on the bare wood floor, and Moon pulled the pack off his shoulder in order to look like they had all the time in the Three Worlds.
The portmaster said, "What are you?" Its voice was light and high, and it spoke the Kedaic so fluidly and musically that it sounded like a different version of the language.
In some cultures, the question would have been offensive to the point of being a tacit invitation to violence, while in others, it might be the normal way to open a conversation with strangers. There was no way to tell which, so Moon just said, "We're from the east, from the far end of the Abascene Peninsula." This was true in one way, at least. It was where the Indigo Cloud court's old colony had been, and where Moon had lived most of his life before Stone had found him.
The portmaster tilted its head in a way that Moon wanted to read as predatory. "But you look for Kishan craft?"
This close to the Imperial Kish borders, with ships from all along the coast passing through, the portmaster had to know they didn't look much like the groundlings from the Jandera cities. But lots of different kinds of people, groundling and otherwise, lived in Kish. Again, it was hard to tell the portmaster's attitude. "We were traveling with friends from Kish-Jandera. Hians traveling in a Kishan flying boat stole something from us, and we were told they came here."
The others tittered and whispered to each other. On a Raksura, the portmaster's expression would have been described as arch, except Moon would have slammed a Raksura across the room by now. It said, "Stole what?"
It clearly didn't believe them, and Moon could understand why if not sympathize. He and Stone looked like people who traveled on foot and slept in the dirt, not like people who traveled on flying boats with cargo valuable enough to steal. But there was nothing else he could do but keep trying. He took a deep breath to weave a better lie, when Stone said, "People. They stole people."
The room went silent. The sudden focused attention made Moon want to twitch. Stone continued, "From our friends, they stole a father and a grandfather. From us, a grandson and a granddaughter."
Everyone looked at the portmaster. It held up one graceful hand. One of the little ones jumped up and Moon braced himself to move. But it went to a doorway into an interior room and returned almost immediately with what looked like a stack of thin plates of wood. As it carried the stack to the portmaster and held it up, Moon realized it was a record keeping system.
The portmaster leaned over the stack, turned the first plate over, and ran a finger across it. It said, "A ship listing its origin as Hia Iserae docked at stalk gal-alan, in the fourth position from the top, two days ago. They left the same night." It made an open-handed gesture. "That is all we know here. If you go to that stalk and ask, there may be more information to be had."
Stone was already standing and Moon shouldered his pack again and pushed to his feet. Stone said, "Which one is gal-alan?"
The one with the record stack handed it off to another helper and said, "I'll show you."
It walked with them down to the bridge back to the main walkway, and pointed. "Three stalks to the north, facing out from the sea."
It darted back into the structure before Moon could say thank you. He followed Stone back to the walkway. "How did you know that would work?"
Stone glanced at him. "You mean telling the truth?"
Moon nodded. Stone just looked at him. "What?" Moon demanded.
Stone sighed and slung an arm around Moon's shoulders. "Nothing."
They made their way over the walkways toward the gal-alan stalk, and Moon tried to make plans. They should have enough metal trading bits to buy more food before they left. It would have been nice to buy lodging too, and sleep somewhere not covered with sand or mud for a few hours, but he didn't know if they had the time to lose.
That was assuming they could find someone to confirm the direction the Hians had left in. If they couldn't, they would have to return to the others and see if Lithe had a new direction, or if a real horticultural had been found to trace the Hians.
They reached the stalk, having to shoulder their way through a loud, excited gathering of spindly skylings with what looked like flowers sprouting from their heads who were all apparently intoxicated. Moon gently moved a flower antennae out of his face and squeezed past onto the bridge that led over to the stalk. There were two flying boats docked in the upper portions, one made of the same mossy material as a Kishan boat, but much smaller, and the other resembling a spindly ball of spider web. Below them, docked as far from the others as possible, was an air bladder-style boat.
They crossed over to the relative quiet of the stalk's platform. A ramp with climbing bars curved up to the berths above and another led below. "Fourth position from the top is down here, next to that bladder-boat," Moon said, and started down. If the boat had been here long enough the crew might have seen which way the Hians went.
"I hate bladder-boats," Stone said.
The last bladder-boat people they had run into had been hostile and far too eager to shoot their projectile weapons at Raksura. Maybe it had something to do with the general unreliability of air bladders as methods of transportation.
First they followed the curved walkway into the empty berth the Hians had used. The flower shape formed a partial roof overhead, and the empty space for docking was an open oval meant for the boat to fit into. It was a little cramped for a Kishan ship the size of the one belonging to the Hians, but it must be worth it to dock in partial shelter. There was nothing left in the folds of the flower that formed little rooms, no signs of previous occupation, not even any trash left behind. Moon crouched down and sniffed close to the floor, while Stone paced around and tasted the air.
Moon sat back finally, shaking his head. They were closer to the ground here and the bitter miasma that came from the swamplings' part of the city covered any subtle odors.
Stone grimaced in annoyance and headed out of the berth, and Moon pushed to his feet to follow.
They traced the stalk's ramp around to the bladder-boat's berth and found a groundling curled up in front of the opening to the dock. It had very white skin, and patches of silver-blue hair, and was dressed in light silky fabrics. They stood there for a moment, but it didn't move.
"Is it dead?" Moon started to say, and it suddenly sat bolt upright with a yelp.
Moon twitched, startled, though Stone didn't. The little groundling curled up in a protective ball, staring at them with huge aquamarine eyes. It said something in a language Moon didn't understand.
Stone asked it, "Do you speak Kedaic? Or Altanic?"
It blinked at them, then said in Kedaic, "Are you thieves?"
"Do we look like thieves?" Stone said, deadpan. "That's a little insulting."
Still wary, it edged toward the door. "Sorry, you startled me. I'm supposed to be guarding the ramp."
"We're not thieves." Moon just wanted to get this over with. He didn't think this groundling would have any information, and they would have to head back to meet the others and lose any advantage they might have had. "The portmaster sent us here. We're looking for any news about a Kishan-made flying boat that docked here two days ago, with Hians aboard. They were in the next berth on this level."
The groundling's narrow shoulders relaxed a little. It rubbed its nose, which was a flat triangle, and yawned. "Yes, I saw that ship. It traded cargo with another Kishan ship that was docked up top and then left."
"Traded cargo?" Moon hadn't been expecting that.
"Which way did it go?" Stone added.
"Don't know." It looked from Stone to Moon. "I didn't see it leave."
Stone looked away, obviously controlling the urge to growl in frustration. Moon wondered about that cargo. Maybe they had the wrong Hian flying boat, and this one was just a group of traders. Maybe Vendoin's boat had docked somewhere else in the city and had lied about its origin to the portmaster, or Lithe's augury had been wrong and it hadn't stopped here at all. He said, "What cargo did they trade?"
"I didn't see it." The groundling leaned against the doorframe, relaxing more as it became increasingly clear that Moon and Stone really were here for information. "They went back and forth a lot, kept us awake through our rest day."
Moon considered the possibilities. "So all you saw was a bunch of Hians going back and forth between the two berths." Stone glanced at him, gray brows drawing together.
"Heard, mostly." The groundling made an elaborate gesture with its stick-like arms, then added, "But why would they do that except to exchange cargo?"
Moon was certain they had been exchanging something. Stone said, "How long was the first Hian boat here? The one that was docked in the upper part of the stalk."
"I don't know." It rubbed its nose again, thoughtfully. "It was here when we arrived. I guess they were waiting for the second Hian ship, to exchange cargo."
Moon asked, "Did you see it leave? The first ship, the one that was waiting for the second one."
The groundling made another gesture. "It went south."
Moon switched to Raksuran to say to Stone, "They switched flying boats."
"Huh," Stone commented. He asked the groundling, "Where was it docked, the flying boat they traded cargo with?"
The groundling pointed upward. "The first berth on the second tier, the one facing the sea."
Stone was already halfway around the curve of the ramp. Moon said, "Sorry we woke you," and followed.
The Kish-Jandera and the Hians could track the moss used in the motivators of their water sailers and flying boats; it was how the Hians had found Callumkal's sunsailer out in the Ocean's fringe. The sunsailer's horticultural shaman had been killed during the Hians' attack, but Lithe and the surviving Jandera navigator had been able to cobble together a tracking liquid so they could follow the Hians toward the coast. But the range wasn't limitless and it had given out by the time the sunsailer reached the archipelago, leaving them with only a general direction and Lithe's visions to guide them. The Hians had obviously planned ahead to foil any attempt to track them, with the second flying boat waiting here.
Stone reached the ramp and stopped so abruptly that Moon bumped into his back. "What?" he demanded.
Stone tasted the air. His mouth twisted into a growl. "Fell."
Moon hissed in startled reflex, then glanced back at the bridge to the bladder-boat's berth to make sure the groundling hadn't heard. "How close?"
"Somewhere nearby, on the ground." Stone started down the ramp. "I'll keep them occupied. Make sure the Hians didn't leave anything behind in that berth."
Moon considered telling him to be careful but there was no point in that. He started up the ramp at a run. They knew at least one flight of Fell had followed the sunsailer, maybe two. Or maybe one was following the other flight. Moon snarled under his breath, frustrated at himself. It was his fault one of those flights was still taking an interest in them, but there was nothing he could do about it now.
The climbing racks were tempting, but Moon didn't want to shift yet. Some races had even better night vision than Raksura and he still didn't want to chance being seen, not until he had checked this last berth.
He passed up through the darkness to the upper tier of flying boat docks, where two of the ramps led to empty flowers and one was guarded by a furred groundling sleeping in the shadows of the doorway. There was no sound of movement from the berths, but the wind played with something light and metal and jangly, maybe attached to one of the boats. On the next tier all three berths were empty, and he found the one facing the sea.
At first glance, there was again nothing left behind, not so much as a discarded fruit rind or muddy footprint. Moon paced around impatiently, sniffing the walls and floor, trying to be thorough even though he wanted to get back down to Stone. Then he glanced up at the petals where they curved over the berth. There was something up there, just a dark shadow on the edge of the metal.
Moon hesitated, but this berth was facing out and away from the hanging city structure, and as long as he stayed inside it, nothing could see him from below. He shifted and the change flowed over him, his skin turning to dark scales, spines growing from his head and back, claws from his hands and feet, and the weight of his furled wings settling on his back.
He crouched and leapt, caught the edge of a petal with the claws of one hand and one foot, and leaned in for a closer look. The dark substance on the metal was moss, scraped from the hull of a Kishan flying boat. Moon used his free hand to carefully collect it. It was from the upper hull, not from a motivator, so he didn't know if the usual Kishan method of detecting the boat's direction would work with it. But it was worth a try, and it might help Lithe with her scrying.
He dropped back to the floor, shifted back to groundling, and dug one-handed in the pack until he found his spare shirt. He carefully wiped the moss off his hand, rolled the shirt into a ball to protect it, and tucked it away.
Moon went down the ramp at a run, and stopped just above the last level to taste the air. The Fell taint was faint, and he didn't hear any screaming from the ground or the upper city.
He started around the last curve and saw the base of the stalk, lit with only a few of the flickering insect lights amid the carapace huts. A crowd of swamplings and an assortment of other groundlings who stunk of predator gathered in the cleared area, watching something. Moon followed the faint trace of Fell stink to the crowd.
He found Stone standing with folded arms, on the outskirts of the group. The swamplings had loosely surrounded a big soft-skinned groundling, who was paying no attention to them and looking up toward the tops of the docking stalks. It was taller and wider than Moon, and probably male. His skin was pale and it was hard to tell if it was tinged with any other color under the insect-lights. His face was boney and heavy, his hair dark and tied back in braids. He wore nothing but a short wrap of fabric around his waist, held up by a belt of braided cord.
Moon stared, looked blankly at Stone, and stared at the figure again. Bare feet, no weapons, no pack, clothing little suited for traveling even in this climate, and the casual disregard of the swamplings and other predators that could only mean it was far more dangerous than they were. He looked again at the pale, colorless skin, the blocky brow. Baffled, he said, "A kethel?"
Stone's expression was somewhere between incredulous and homicidal. "Have you ever seen a kethel wear clothes?"
Moon was still trying to get past the braided hair. He had seen kethel wear collars or chains around their necks, probably given to them by rulers or their progenitor. He wasn't even sure a kethel understood how to disguise itself as a groundling, unless a ruler had told it to. But what ruler would tell it to braid... "The half-Fell queen," Moon said, and the words came out in a growl.
Just then the kethel turned and met Moon's gaze. It froze.
Moon stalked forward, a snarl building in his throat. Stone had already slipped away through the crowd of distracted swamplings, circling to come up on the kethel from behind.
The kethel hesitated, lowered its head in indecision, then bared its teeth at Moon. Its fangs had been filed or cut back somehow, so they weren't piercing its lower lip.
Moon said, in Raksuran, "You're following us."
The kethel glared. "Consort." It slid a wary glance back toward Stone. "Old consort." Its voice was deep and rough, and it spoke Raksuran. It added, "She sent me."
"What does she want?" Moon said. He took the last step forward, so he was easily within its arm's reach. Major kethel were far stronger even in their groundling form than a consort or a warrior, but with Stone ready to gut it, Moon figured it was worth taking the chance. His back teeth were aching and the skin on his fingertips itched with the urge to shift. "We're not drugged now."
It dropped its gaze, with a flicker of unease. "She helps you."
Moon had never seen a kethel talk for long before a ruler took over its mind and voice. He kept waiting for that to happen. It spoke the Raksuran words with an odd accent, as if it had learned the language from someone who could barely speak it.
"Helps us?" Moon hissed a laugh. "We know what kind of 'help' Fell give Raksura."
The kethel's gaze lifted briefly. "Help you find the weapon."
Moon gritted his teeth. "Why?" It was his fault the Fell-born queen knew about the weapon, the dangerous artifact from the foundation builder city. He had been drugged and sick and panicked when he told her about it, but that was no excuse and it was like a stab from a claw every time he thought of it.
Moon had been half-aware of a swampling in his peripheral vision, now it stalked aggressively toward them. "You softskins--"
Moon turned on it and let loose the snarl of thwarted fury he had been withholding, in time with the kethel's deep warning growl. The swampling flailed, fell on its backside, and scrambled away. The watching crowd flinched and edged back.
Moon met the kethel's gaze. It said, "Weapon. Other Fell want it."
"Help by leaving us alone."
"Other Fell won't leave you alone," the kethel said. "They follow too. She warns you."
Stone stepped between them suddenly, shouldering Moon away a pace. The kethel fell back a few steps, lowering its head, turning its gaze away. Stone eyed it, his expression revealing nothing. He said to Moon, "We need to go."
Moon didn't care what happened to the stupid swamplings and their predator friends, but the fate of the groundlings and skylings in the bustling upper city worried him. He asked the kethel, "You think you're going to feed on this city?"
The kethel grimaced and showed its fangs again. "We don't eat groundlings."
Stone rocked on his heels toward it and the kethel fell back another step. It said, again, "She warns you. She helps you," and turned away.
The swamplings, proving they weren't incapable of learning, scattered as it strode off through the crowd.
Watching it disappear into the shadows, Moon said, "You believe that? That the half-Fell flight won't attack the city?"
Stone snorted. "No." Then he added, "Maybe. But if it was telling the truth about the other Fell flight following us too..."
Moon hissed a breath, trying to think how to warn the city without lengthy explanations and the risk of being exposed as shapeshifters who would look exactly like Fell to everyone here. It's not like we have to come back here. "We can make sure the city's prepared for Fell."
Stone followed that thought immediately. His brows quirked as he considered it, then he sighed. "I wanted some of those rice ball things at that other food place we passed."
"You should have got some while we were there." Moon glanced around. The swamplings gathered in a rough circle around them, clearly having some sort of debate as to whether to rush the strangers or just keep staring at them. The sensible ones casually wandered off into the shadows. This was the edge of the port and Moon and Stone had a clear path to the sky on the far side of the stalk, away from the fire weapon emplacements in the upper city. Moon didn't see anyone on the ground with projectile weapons. "Ready?"
Stone stepped back and shifted. His form flowed into existence, large dark wings lifted and spread. Moon turned and flung himself at the swamplings, shifting in mid leap. Swamplings and the other predators scattered and cried out as he bounced off the ground and snapped his wings out. Moon landed on the climbing rack of a landing stalk, and paused to watch Stone.
As a line-grandfather, Stone's winged form was far bigger than Moon's; tip to tip his wings were three times the size of Moon's twenty pace span. Raksuran queens and consorts grew larger and stronger as they grew older, and Stone was very old, and very strong. He was also hard to see, though that had nothing to do with the flicker of the inadequate insect lights. It was something to do with being a line-grandfather that made his form seem nebulous, terrifyingly so for groundlings. It was as if you could only see him in pieces; razor sharp spines lifting above the dark shape of his head, huge gnarled claws flexing as he left the ground. All combined into something huge, dark, and frightening. Moon was used to it, and now hardly noticed it, but the screaming and running told him that it was having the desired effect on the swamplings.
Everyone here would believe they had seen a major kethel and a ruler, if not a dozen major kethels and rulers. The city would have time to ready its defenses if the Fell were on the way.
Moon swung to the next climbing rack and leapt into the air, flapping to gain height and get away from the bridges of the upper city. Stone swept past him as he caught the wind, and Moon banked to follow him.
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