The Siren Depths
Book Three of The Books of the Raksura
Night Shade Books, December 2012
Cover art by Steve Argyle
Design by Rebecca Silvers.
All his life, Moon roamed the Three Worlds, a solitary wanderer forced to hide his true nature--until he was reunited with his own kind, the Raksura, and found a new life as consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court.
But now a rival court has laid claim to Moon, and Jade may or may not be willing to fight for him. Beset by doubts, Moon must travel in the company of strangers to a distant realm where he will finally face the forgotten secrets of his past, even as an old enemy returns with a vengeance.
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"It's a long way," Moon said. He walked along the wide expanse of the branch, his heel claws catching in the rough wood. The air was fresh and cool and green-tinged early morning sunlight filtered down through the thick layers of the mountain-tree's leafy canopy. "I think you're taking too many Arbora." He was trying to come up with better objections to the trip, but so far that was all he had.
"I know I'm taking too many Arbora." Stone was in his groundling form, sitting on the branch, surveying the two flying boats below. "Try telling them that."
The boats had been tethered to one of the colony tree's larger garden platforms so they could be loaded more easily. Both were from the Golden Isles, with long graceful hulls made of lacquered wood and sails fan-folded up into the single central masts. Together the two ships had been large enough for the entire Indigo Cloud court to crowd aboard, but on the way back they would carry only four overexcited Arbora, six warriors resigned to their fate, and one impatient groundling.
A small crowd had gathered on the boats and the grassy platforms below the hulls, mostly Arbora carrying provisions aboard or finishing off the last few repairs, or who were saying goodbye to the travelers. Several warriors flew circles around the masts, staying out of the way.
"I can see why you need Blossom," Moon admitted. Niran, the groundling whose family owned the vessels, had taught Blossom to pilot the smaller ship, the Indala, on the long journey to the Reaches. She would be piloting it again on the longer journey back to the Yellow Sea. Once the two ships reached the Golden Isles and Niran's family, Stone and the other Raksura would be flying back under their own power, with the warriors carrying the flightless Arbora. "Why do you need the others?"
"Company for Blossom. And Niran." Stone unfolded long legs and pushed to his feet. His groundling form was lean and tall, like Moon's groundling form, like the groundling forms of most Aeriat Raksura. He had one bad eye, partially blinded by a white haze across the pupil, and was so old his skin and hair had faded to gray. He also wore gray, pants and a loose shirt. "And for me. I'm not spending this trip trapped on those flying baskets with nobody but warriors to talk to."
Stone was cranky, moody, and had lied to get Moon to follow him across the Three Worlds, and Moon wanted him to leave slightly less than he wanted to lose a wing. They were the only two adult consorts in the court, and Moon needed the company and the reinforcement. And Stone was the closest he had ever had to a father, or a male relative of any kind. And he thought he had succeeded in concealing all that, but one of Stone's more annoying qualities was his ability to guess what Moon was thinking. Stone glanced at him, amusement in his one good eye, and said, "I won't be gone that long."
Before Moon could retort that he didn't give a piss how long Stone was gone, Stone shifted, dropped off the branch, and spread his wings to glide down toward the flying boats.
Stone's winged form was huge; tip to tip his wings were more than 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. Old and experienced enough to get the boats and Niran to their islands and the Arbora and warriors safely home, Moon reminded himself. He knew all his objections were irrational. And maybe you're just jealous. Squelching that thought, he dropped off the branch, snapped his wings out, and swept down toward the platform.
On the way down, Moon banked out to catch the spray from the waterfall where it fell from a channel in the mountain-tree's entrance knothole. The water plunged down to collect in various pools on the wide platforms extending out from the trunk, formed where the tree's thick branches grew together and intertwined in broad swathes.
Moon circled above the Indala and Valendera where they were tethered near an irrigation pond, rope ladders dangling down from their decks so the Arbora wouldn't scale the wooden hulls. Sanding out claw marks had been one of the major repairs they had had to make, along with rebraiding ropes and patching tears in the sails. From what he could see, the water casks and food supplies had already been loaded, and the Arbora on the decks were mostly just milling around talking.
Moon spotted Chime near the stern of the Indala and landed lightly in the high grass next to him. Chime ducked as Moon shook the water off his scales, and said, grumpily, "Consorts are allowed to sleep late, you know."
Moon lowered his spines and folded his wings back into a compact mass on his back. "I wanted to see them off. What are you doing up this early?" Chime didn't usually crawl out of his bower-bed until mid-morning at the earliest. The times Moon had slept with him, he had had to climb over Chime's unresponsive body to get out.
"I wanted to see them off too, but I'm also on patrol today." Chime absently kicked a tuft of grass, annoyed.
Moon was unsympathetic. Patrol meant a day of circling the immediate area under the mountain-tree's canopy, watching for predators and other incursions, not exactly a difficult job. And while it might be dull, at least it was a necessary task. Trying to change the subject, he said, "I'm glad you decided not to go with the ships."
Chime shrugged his spines a little uncomfortably. "After Flower died, I thought I'd better stay here. Maybe I can give Heart advice, at least." He had started out life as an Arbora, a mentor; the pressure of disease and lack of warrior births at the old colony had forced the change to warrior on him. Even after all this time, he still wasn't fully reconciled to it.
Moon said, "Heart can probably use the help." She was the most powerful mentor in the court now, the leader of the caste, since Flower had died two months ago. But she was young, and some members of the court weren't happy with her as chief mentor. Like they weren't happy with a mostly feral solitary with no bloodline as their first consort.
"Maybe I'm a little afraid, too," Chime said, as he looked up at the Indala. The ship moved gently, swayed by the breeze, the light wood creaking. "Our last trip was...a little much. That's as close as I want to come to being eaten by something."
That was putting it mildly. "I don't think this trip will be that bad."
"I hope not. The mentors have been doing auguries, and they haven't seen anything bad, but..." Chime sighed in resignation. "You know that's not always reliable."
Yes, Moon knew that wasn't always reliable.
A last flurry of Arbora leapt or scrambled down off the boats. Blossom and Bead appeared at the railing, saw Moon and Chime, and waved, both of them bouncing with excitement. Moon waved back, though he wished they weren't going either. He liked them, and they both tended to defend him to the other Arbora. He tried not to feel like he was losing some of his best allies and told himself they would only be gone a few months at most.
"Here comes Jade," Chime said.
Moon looked up as Jade banked down from above, the soft vivid blue of her scales standing out against the gray wall of the mountain-tree's trunk. She headed directly for the Indala's deck.
"I guess Pearl's not coming." Chime watched the knothole, but no one else appeared.
Pearl didn't like groundlings, but it was Moon's opinion that she didn't much like Raksura, either. The Arbora had held a formal goodbye for Niran last night, and Pearl probably considered it all that was necessary.
Moon partly extended his wings and leapt up to land on the railing, careful not to score the newly polished wood with his claws. Chime landed after him and headed down to the stern toward Blossom and Bead.
Jade stood on the deck, speaking to Niran. "I want to thank you again for helping us," she said. "If you hadn't, we would never have made it here." She stood out, even among the brightly colored Arbora crowded around. As a queen she was larger, stronger, with a silver-gray web pattern over her scales, and her mane of frills and spines reached all the way down her back to the base of her tail. Her only clothing was a broad necklace and belt with silver chains linking polished opals.
Niran shook his head, a little self-conscious. He was about the size of an Arbora, but slimly built, with gold-colored skin and long straight white hair. He had distrusted the Raksura at first, but forced proximity and shared danger had brought him a long way since then. He said, "It was my grandfather who insisted on helping you, but I'm glad he did." He waved a hand at the clearing, taking in the mountain-trees, the platforms of the suspended forest, all of the Reaches. "I wouldn't have missed this trip for anything. My only regret is that Grandfather will be furious that he missed it, and undoubtedly take it out on me." He nodded to Moon and added, "And I know he would like to see you again, if you ever return to the East."
"I won't be going back," Moon said. He wasn't happy to see Niran go, either. In the times when life with the court became overwhelmingly strange, it had been good to have a groundling to talk to. But he knew how much Niran missed his family and the Golden Isles. "But thank him for me."
Everyone said their last goodbyes, or in Stone's case, cuffed Moon in the head and said, "Don't do anything crazy while I'm gone."
Moon and Jade retreated to the knothole to watch the boats leave. The Arbora on the platform untied the ropes and both craft lifted easily into the air. Their sails didn't expand; both ships were powered by tiny pieces of rock from the heart of a flying island that allowed them to travel on the lines of force that crossed the Three Worlds. The sails were only for extra speed on windy days. The Valendera floated gracefully off the platform, then turned to find the path through the green caverns of the mountain-tree forest. The Indala followed, its hull scraping a spiral tree on the edge of the platform and its turn just a little jerky. Moon hoped Blossom didn't run into anything on the way out of the Reaches. The path upward through the tree canopies wasn't that far away, and he thought she would do better once she was up in the open air.
That was Moon's last tie to his past, to the groundling world, severed. It should have felt like a relief. Moon wasn't sure what he felt. Which was nothing new, so maybe he shouldn't worry about it.
Jade took Moon's wrist. She looked thoughtful. "Do you wish you were going?"
Startled and guilty, Moon felt himself flush. "No," he said. "Why would you think that?"
She shook her head, and watched the boats slowly vanish into the dim light and mist of the forest. "You've always traveled so much. Is it hard to stay in one place?"
"No, it's not hard. It's just...different." Moon didn't think staying in one place would be the problem.
Three Changes of the Month Later
Moon had, at several points since they arrived at the new colony, asked various people exactly what consorts were supposed to do, besides be mated to a queen to produce royal clutches and infertile warriors for the court. The fact that no one seemed to have a straight answer wasn't encouraging.
When he asked Chime, they were out watching over the Arbora hunters, who were stalking game on the platforms of the suspended forest. The court was still unsure of all the dangers in this new place, and it was much safer to have a group of warriors keep watch while the hunters were focused on their prey, while the soldiers stayed behind to guard the platforms and entrances of the colony tree. Since Aeriat, especially royal Aeriat, didn't normally hunt, Moon was technically supposed to be just along for the exercise, even though he had more experience with hunting and being stalked than all the warriors put together.
Moon had been able to help a little with the warriors' other new duties, like exploring Indigo Cloud's new territory and helping the hunters make detailed maps of the platforms and the connecting bridges between them. They were also noting predators and all the different types of grasseaters and where they ranged, which were abundant and made good staple prey, and which were scarce and better left alone to increase over long periods.
Answering his question, Chime said, "Consorts are supposed to listen to the Arbora, any concerns they have, or things they aren't happy about, and try to gently point it out to the queens."
Perched near them, Balm said, wryly, "It helps if they listen to the warriors, too."
"Of course," Chime said, as if that was self-evident. Then ruined it by adding, "But warriors' concerns are too frivolous to worry about."
Balm eyed him. "So who cares what warriors think?" Balm was Jade's clutchmate, one of the female warriors sometimes born to queen's clutches. Having been a warrior all her life, her perspective was somewhat different than Chime's.
Moon rolled his eyes and turned his attention back to the platform, feeling the conversation had gone off on a tangent that would make it difficult if not impossible to return to the original subject. The afternoon was warm and the air so damp it might as well be raining, the light dim through cloud cover somewhere high above the leafy canopy. From the branch they had a view across to the platform about two hundred paces below, where the Arbora were hunting.
It was a huge surface, spiraling halfway around the enormous bulk of a mountain-tree, heavily forested with a stream of runoff falling down onto the smaller platforms nestled in the branches below it. Moon could catch occasional flashes of color from the Arbora's scales as they climbed and leapt among the thick greenery. Arbora might be smaller than Aeriat and lack wings, but in their shifted forms they were scaled and powerfully muscled, and their teeth and claws were just as sharp. Unfortunately, the suspended forest was just as rife with predators as it was with grasseaters.
Moon wasn't as worried about the forested hunting ground as he was the platform directly below it. It was overshadowed and overgrown with bulbous white vines with dark purple leaves, concealed by drifts of mist. What little he could see looked dangerous and Moon thought all it needed were piles of bones along its rotting edges.
Balm was saying, "If you don't listen to the warriors it just causes more problems with the young males--"
Chime snorted in a derisive way that was an invitation for Balm to hit him. "Warriors complain a lot. Much more than Arbora. If you listen to them you wouldn't have time for--"
"All you people complain more than anybody else I've ever met," Moon said, "With less reason." He had tried to keep his opinions on running the court to himself, because there was nothing he knew less about than managing a Raksuran colony. And he thought Jade did a good job of keeping an eye on the Arbora and the warriors. He had no intention of butting in and causing trouble by repeating "concerns" unless he knew a lot more about the situation.
Chime stiffened in offense, but Balm laughed. "It's probably true."
Moon nudged his shoulder against Chime's. "It was a joke."
"It was not." But Chime settled his ruffled spines anyway. "Oh, speaking of complaining, there was something I wanted to let you know. I heard some of the others talking; they're worried that Stone won't come back."
Moon frowned, startled. "Why wouldn't he come back?"
Balm said, "He's been gone a lot over the last twenty turns or so. He was gone more than he was at the old colony." She shrugged her folded wings, her expression thoughtful. "I don't know, I think that was one of the reasons things got so bad. For example, if he was there, I don't think Pearl would have sent Dust and Burn off to other courts."
Moon didn't comment. Dust and Burn were the young consorts who had belonged to Amber, the sister queen who had died before Moon had come to the court. If they had still been there, Jade would have been able to take one of them and there would have been no need for Stone to go on the trip to Star Aster to ask for a consort, which had led him to find Moon.
"So, since we're settled here now, there's been some talk that he might leave again," Chime finished. He turned to Moon, his brow scrunched in worry. "What do you think?"
Moon rippled his spines, hoping he was conveying unconcern. One of the things he had finally figured out over the past few months was that while he could read Raksuran body language fine, his own didn't quite match theirs and didn't always mean what he thought it did. Realizing this had explained at least some of his problems fitting into the court. "Stone didn't sound like he wasn't coming back." And Moon had had the strong impression that Stone was ready to settle down. "He's wanted to come to the Reaches for a long time; I don't think he was planning to leave any time soon."
"That's good." Chime settled his spines, then said, reluctantly, "Of course, River said--"
Balm hissed in disapproval. "Chime, no one cares what River said."
Moon could guess what this was about. "I'd rather not be blind-sided." River was Pearl's favorite warrior, and the leader of her faction. Like Balm, he was a warrior from a royal clutch; in River's case, it had given him an attitude. It had been made worse by the fact that Pearl, for some unfathomable reason, had decided to sleep with him.
After the trip back from the freshwater sea, Moon had been hoping River would be reconciled to his existence. He hadn't been. If anything, their relationship was worse, since Moon had realized that River wasn't just making trouble, he really did honestly think Moon was a terrible consort and bad for the court.
Balm's face was grim. Chime flicked his spines at her and said, "It's ridiculous, but River said Stone was going to use the trip to the Golden Isles as a way to look for another consort." Looking at Moon, Chime's expression turned guilty. "It's not true, of course. I shouldn't have mentioned it."
"That's why I told you not to," Balm said.
Chime hissed at her. Moon said, "It's all right. I would have heard it sooner or later."
Chime still looked uneasy. "I just--"
A distant shriek made Moon's spines flare. He went still and scanned the platform.
"That was an Arbora," Chime whispered, shocked. "Someone's hurt."
Balm shushed him. Then she said, "There! See it?" an instant before Moon spotted the thrashing in the undergrowth, near the center of the wooded platform. He sprang off the branch, snapped his wings out and dropped toward it, hard flaps speeding his way.
Balm and Chime were right behind him. Several other warriors dropped off various branches and vantage points to converge on the spot.
Moon dove on the platform and saw the flicker of scales through the trees and undergrowth as Arbora ran toward the disturbance. From the way the trees swayed and thrashed, whatever they were fighting in there was huge.
Then Balm called to him, "Moon, stay back! Let us handle it!"
Moon swallowed a growl but broke off, letting the others go in first. But he swept around in a tight circle, cupped his wings to slow down, and dropped into the branches of a spiral tree. He climbed down it until he had a view of the fight.
He saw a hole in the platform floor, surrounded by clumps of dirt and grass and torn roots. Something was inside it, visible only as long white tentacles a good twenty paces long. They had clawed tips, striking and slashing at the warriors and Arbora who dodged and struck back. The creature had one struggling Arbora in its grip, and two others lay sprawled on the ground nearby.
As the warriors attacked, two Arbora closed in, armed with the short spears they used to augment their own claws for hunting. They stabbed at the tentacle that held the captive hunter. The warriors swooped in from above to strike at it. Balm ripped one tentacle open with her foot-claws. Chime tried a similar strike, missed, and almost had an aerial collision with Sage, but it still helped distract the creature.
The warriors tore at it and the creature seemed to realize it was badly outnumbered. It tossed the hunter away and pulled its tentacles back into its lair. That's a relief, Moon thought. The thing looked as if it would be nearly impossible to fight in that defensive position. Now they just needed to retrieve the wounded and get out of here.
The Arbora snatched up the unconscious hunters and retreated as the creature sunk rapidly down into its hole. Then one tentacle snapped out, snatched a warrior out of the air, and yanked him down just as the creature disappeared underground. Moon gasped in dismay.
With a chorus of shocked cries and angry growls, everyone charged the opening.
That's not going to work, Moon thought. They couldn't possibly retrieve the warrior without losing half the others. Unless... These platforms weren't thick enough for an underground nest for something that large, and they were mostly roots. If that's not a lair, it's a tunnel.
He swarmed back up the tree, sprang into the air, and headed for the edge of the platform. Someone shouted behind him but he couldn't stop to explain. If he was right, he would only have a few moments to catch the creature.
He reached the edge and dove down, past the exposed roots jutting out from the side, and swung in to land on the platform fifty paces below. The white vines stretched up over his head, filling the damp air with a scent like sweet rot; the purple leaves cut off what little light there was. He scanned the underside of the platform above and spotted the torn roots and moss bundles hanging down where the creature had tunneled up through the forest platform to attack the Arbora. Ha, I was right. And he could hear something thrashing in the vines in that direction.
Moon tore through the thick vegetation, relying on speed and surprise to protect him from whatever else lived here, and headed toward the sound.
It cut off abruptly and Moon knew the creature had heard him. He crouched and sprang up, two flaps taking him high enough to catch hold of the mass of twisted roots that formed the underside of the upper platform. The creature might be able to spot him, but the vantage point gave him a view of the vine surface.
Dirt clumps fell down the tunnel opening and warriors and Arbora yelled at each other somewhere above. But below it, and as far as he could see, the vines were completely motionless. Moon hissed in frustration. The creature had to be here somewhere; it hadn't had time to dig down through to another platform.
He sensed movement near him and looked up with a snarl. A tree frog nearly twice his size huddled in the roots barely ten paces away, staring at him with wide frightened eyes.
Moon had never tried to talk to a tree frog before, but it was worth a try. In Raksuran, he said, "Where is it?"
It might not have understood the language, but it had seen enough of the situation to get the idea. It pointed to a spot about thirty paces south of the tunnel opening.
Moon didn't hesitate, scrambling across the root mass until he was above the spot. He caught a flash of slick white skin, too iridescent to be one of the vines, and dropped for it.
He crashed through the flowers into purple-tinged darkness and landed on something hard that writhed and snarled in fury. Moon sunk his claws in and yelled for help. He thought he heard a hoarse echo that sounded like Chime, then shouts from the Arbora. Then a tentacle whipped down and wrapped around his waist and Moon stopped paying attention to anything else.
It dragged him off the creature's body and slammed him into the rotting moss, and started to squeeze. Stunned, Moon curled around it and sunk his teeth into the dense flesh. The creature must not have been expecting that much resistance because he felt its body jerk. The tentacle under him flailed and tried to slam him down again.
Moon bit through a vein filled with some of the worst-tasting blood he had ever encountered, then felt another tentacle slap down and grab his leg. He had an instant to think oh, this is going to be bad. Then he heard a chorus of snarls and wingbeats as the rest of the warriors arrived in an angry rush.
The tentacle flung Moon aside. He hit the ground hard and rolled, staggered up to see tentacles flailing as the creature tried to flee. Warriors landed on the body, and several big Arbora leapt through the vines after it.
Moon spat out blood, decided the others could finish the creature off and started to tear through the crushed vines, looking for the warrior. He found the crumpled body a short distance away. It was Sand, a young warrior of Jade's faction. He was unconscious, shifted to his groundling form, but still breathing.
Chime crashed through the vines as Moon gently felt Sand's ribs to see how bad the breaks were. His own chest hurt and his ribs ached, so he knew Sand had to be badly off.
"You're alive! He's alive!" Chime shouted, waving to the Arbora who climbed out of the tunnel in the platform above. "Moon got Sand, and they're both alive!"
"Chime, Chime, take a breath," Moon said, his voice coming out hoarse.
Sand's eyelids fluttered and he groaned, then gasped, "What happened?"
"Nothing. We'll tell you later." Moon eased down into a sitting position. "Just lie still." He asked Chime, "Were the Arbora all right?"
Chime nodded, stepping through the crushed vines to crouch next to Sand. "Three of them are hurt, but nobody's dead." He touched Sand's forehead and frowned in concentration. Watching his face, Moon saw the moment when he remembered again that he wasn't a mentor and couldn't put Sand in a healing trance. Chime winced and drew his hand back, and Moon looked away.
After a moment, Chime said, "I hate hunting."
Nobody had been eaten, so Moon was counting it as a pretty good day. The warriors transported the wounded, the Arbora, and their kills to the colony and Moon went back with the first group. He managed to slip away from the storm of exclamations, explanations, and recriminations that immediately erupted in the greeting hall and flew up the central well to the queens' level.
Nobody was out in the queens' hall, which was a relief. It was a big chamber, the far side looking out into the colony tree's central well, with the open gallery of the consort level above it. There was a fountain against the inner wall, falling down into a shallow pool, and above it a huge sculpture of a queen. Her outspread wings stretched out across the walls to circle the entire hall, finally meeting tip to tip. Her scales, set with polished sunstones, glinted faintly in the soft light of shells mounted on the walls that were spelled to glow. He heard muted conversation from the direction of Pearl's bower, and quickly took the passage that led into Jade's.
At first, Jade hadn't wanted to move up here, feeling that the bower near the teachers' hall that she and Moon had shared when they first arrived was more convenient. But when visitors from other courts started to appear, it would look as if Indigo Cloud was far worse off than it actually was if the royal bowers were empty. And these chambers held what Moon thought was some of the best carving in the colony, and had their own hot bathing pool.
The heating stones in the metal bowl hearth radiated warmth, and Moon leaned down to put the kettle on. His ribs twinged, pain spreading up from his waist to his chest, and he winced. He shifted to groundling, then carefully pulled up his shirt to look at the damage.
He already had some bruises, black and purplish against the dark bronze of his groundling skin, but he didn't think anything was broken. But climbing up into the bed, a big wooden half-shell suspended from the ceiling, might be out for tonight. He could make do with sleeping on the furs and cushions near the hearth.
Then Jade slammed in from the passage and hissed at him. "You could have gotten killed."
Or maybe he wouldn't be sleeping in this bower at all. "We don't live in a safe place, Jade, we all might get killed."
She didn't like that answer. Her head tilted. "So maybe we should avoid throwing ourselves on top of predators. Alone. Without waiting for help."
"There wasn't time." Moon grimaced and managed to pull his shirt off over his head. "You've told me -- twice! -- to go after Fell--"
"The first time, I didn't expect you to actually attack a cloud-walker, and the second time, I told you to follow the kethel, not personally invade the Fell flight."
Moon had been scouting, not invading, but he didn't bother to mention that. "I don't see your point."
Jade's first burst of anger was already fading to exasperation. "My point is that you are the first consort. You can't afford to risk yourself."
"I'm not going to stand by and let someone get eaten."
"I know. I know you're not." She pressed her hand to her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut. "But...you have other responsibilities."
Other responsibilities, like fathering a clutch. Moon waited, his heart pounding, for her to bring that up.
Jade had decided three months ago, after the flying boats had left, that they should have a clutch, but nothing had happened yet. Moon was doing his part at every opportunity, so he had no idea what was wrong. And he found himself extremely reluctant to ask Jade if she had changed her mind.
He had also wondered if having a clutch was harder than he had supposed. He had seen groundlings have babies, but never another Raksura; he hadn't even been sure if they had live births or eggs, and he hadn't known that queens and Arbora females could control their fertility. Because of the problems at the old colony, all of the Arbora had stopped clutching long before Moon had gotten there, and the youngest babies had been nearly a turn old. But if there was something he was doing wrong, he was certain Jade would have pointed it out.
At one point another possible answer had occurred to him, but since Stone had already left with Niran and the others, there was no one to ask about it.
Jade looked at him, and must have sensed his agitation. She shifted to her Arbora form, the closest equivalent that queens had to a groundling form. Her whole body softened to look like an Arbora's, and her wings vanished. She had the same blue and silver-gray coloring but fewer spines, and more long frills in her mane. She stepped close, put her hand on the back of his neck and pressed her forehead to his. She said in a growl, "I understand that you had to help. Just don't get yourself killed."
Moon closed his eyes, breathing in her scent. "I realized where it was taking Sand, and there was no time to tell anyone else. I had to go."
She stepped back. "No one died; I'm satisfied with that." She eyed him. "I'm going to get a mentor to see to you."
Moon sat down on the furs, trying not to yelp when his abused muscles contracted. He didn't need a mentor, but he was too relieved that they weren't going to talk about clutches or his inability to provide them to argue. "Is Pearl going to give you trouble about this?"
Heading for the passage, Jade made an eloquently derisive noise. "I can handle Pearl."
Moon lay back on the furs, squinting at the ceiling overhead, considering his favorite carving. It depicted a whole court of Raksura, in different woods and set with polished gemstones. Queens in the center, larger than the others, and consorts next, with a darker wood used to represent their black scales, then clusters of male and female warriors, bodies twined or wings flared in flight. The outer edge was Arbora, wingless, stocky and muscular where the Aeriat were slender. The artwork everywhere in the mountain-tree never showed Raksura in their soft-skinned groundling forms, something else Moon didn't understand. Even though he had grown up alone, outside of a Raksuran court, he had known in his blood that both his forms were him, that he didn't belong in one body or the other but both.
You're still here, he reminded himself. Considering his past record at trying to fit in to settlements, this was an achievement.
end chapter one
Two days later, the queens called for a formal augury.
Moon was still getting used to the vagaries of Raksuran behavior, but even before the augury started he had already gotten into trouble with Chime by making a comment implying that it was just a way to shift blame for important decisions onto the mentors.
"No, this kind of augury is very accurate, and very important to the court," Chime insisted, too loudly.
"I didn't say it wasn't." Moon couldn't help glancing around to see if anyone else had heard.
They were in an anteroom on the edge of the cavernous greeting hall, which at the moment held almost every member of the court. Arbora and warriors gathered on the main floor and lined the two open stairways that criss-crossed up the far wall, below the balconies and the round doorways opening into the higher levels. Above the staircases, the huge well wound up in a big spiral through the tree.
Almost everyone was in their groundling forms, though several younger warriors kept their wings and clung to the walls or hung from the balconies by their foot-claws or tails. Only the babies and fledglings in the nurseries, and a few teachers who had stayed there to watch them, were missing. There was a low hum of conversation, some jostling among the warriors and younger Arbora, and an air of anticipation and impatience. But even with almost everyone present, there was still plenty of space in the greeting hall: a reminder of how small the Indigo Cloud court was now compared to its former glory.
Unappeased, Chime persisted, "So what's wrong? Why do you think this is a bad idea?"
Moon hissed, annoyed. "I don't think it's a bad idea." He just didn't think it was a good way to solve this problem.
And he was worried about what else the augury might reveal.
"But then why--" Chime began, when Balm gave them both a prod from behind and said, "Come on, Jade's waiting."
Jade was waiting, sitting at the edge of the clear circle in the center of the hall, radiating impatience. Moon started toward her, and Chime and Balm followed.
The hall had been an impressive enough sight when they first arrived at the tree, but was even better now that the wood and inlay had been cleaned and polished, all the shells spelled to glow with soft light, and the moss scrubbed off the walls. The water that streamed out of a high channel and fell to the pool in the floor was now clean and sweet.
Jade looked up at their approach, smiling briefly though the angle of her spines said she was somewhat annoyed. She said, "You look nervous."
The warriors around her made way and Moon took a seat on the floor behind her. He was nervous, though he didn't want to talk about it. As a distraction, he said, "Chime is trying to make everyone think I don't want the augury."
Jade leaned back to give Chime a look, as he and Balm took seats behind Moon. Chime said, "I am not. I was just asking--"
Balm poked him again. "Ask later."
Heart waited in the center of the hall with Merit, the next most powerful mentor, both in their groundling forms. Heart was lovely, with the dark amber skin and bronze-colored hair common among the Indigo Cloud Arbora. Though the two were close in age, Merit had always looked and sounded younger, with wide-set eyes, warm brown skin and fluffy light-colored hair. Inexperience and a somewhat frivolous turn of mind had caused him to be passed over for the position of chief mentor. From what Moon could tell, he seemed more relieved by that than anything else. Heart looked nervous now, and kept rubbing her hands on her light-colored skirt, as if her palms were sweaty. There were many different ways to augur, and he wondered if it was the first time she had done one like this. Or at least done it in front of so large an audience.
Waiting at her feet was a large shallow bowl made of marbled green-gray stone. It might have some deep ceremonial significance now, but Moon had first seen it used by the Arbora to grind nuts into meal. It was surrounded by a dozen or so much smaller bowls of dark blue glazed pottery.
"Where's Pearl?" Moon whispered to Jade.
Jade's tail twitched in irritation. Her impatience with the whole process was ill-concealed, and Moon wasn't sure of the reason. "She has to make an entrance. Here she comes now."
Moon glanced up. Pearl, her wings spread, dropped down the central well.
Pearl wasn't the oldest or largest queen Moon had ever seen, but she was still impressive. Her scales were brilliant gold, overlaid with a webbed pattern of deepest indigo blue. The frilled mane behind her head was like a golden sunburst, and there were more frills on the tips of her folded wings, on the triangle-shape at the end of her tail. Like Jade, she wore only jewelry.
She landed gracefully on the polished wooden floor and folded her wings. Her favorite warriors landed in a half-circle behind her, River, Drift, Coil, Floret, and Sage. Behind him, Moon heard a faint rude snort from Chime, and a rustle as Balm elbowed him in reproof.
Pearl sat down, and gave Heart a nod. Heart picked up a small bowl and started to stand.
Jade said, "This could be a waste of time without Stone here."
Heart stopped, looked uncertainly from one queen to the other.
Pearl tilted her head in subtle threat. "Nevertheless, we're doing it."
Jade and Pearl had managed to work out a way to rule the court between them that was uneasy at best and violent at worst, but it worked, and that was the important thing. But one point they had been unable to resolve was whether to let the Arbora clutch this season or wait.
Jade had been in favor of letting the Arbora produce clutches as early as their first two months here, and it had been Pearl who had wanted to wait until the colony tree's garden platforms had been fully reclaimed and planted. But within the past couple of months, both had reversed their positions.
Jade sat back, her mouth a thin line.
At Pearl's nod, Heart went to her first. She knelt and shifted to her Arbora form. Pearl held out her hand and Heart scratched across the scales of Pearl's palm with her claw. Heart held the bowl out, but no blood welled. Pearl flicked a spine in amusement, and said, "You have to bear down, child."
"Sorry," Heart whispered, embarrassed. There was a rustle and murmur of amusement through the watching crowd, combined with relief that Pearl had decided to be in a good mood. The Fell influence focused on the court had affected Pearl badly, working on a mind already depressed by the loss of her consort and the other setbacks Indigo Cloud had faced over the turns. Pearl was better than she had been before the court had moved here, but she still hated "trouble." Which she apparently defined as any member of the court doing anything that caused her to notice they existed.
Pearl took Heart's claw in her free hand and drew it across her palm again. This time the blood came, and Heart carefully caught a few drops in the little bowl.
Jade held her hand out as Heart stood and came to her. Despite her air of annoyance, Jade managed a smile at Heart as her blood was drawn. It was Moon's turn next, and Heart drew her claw more gently across his groundling skin.
He watched his blood drip into the little bowl, mingling with Pearl's and Jade's, and felt his heart beat a little faster.
Heart might have felt his pulse pound through his hand. She gave him a quick reassuring smile, then stood to carry the bowl back to the stone vessel waiting at the center of the circle. She shifted to her groundling form as she knelt, picked up a copper ewer, and poured a little water into the bowl. She swirled it gently to mix with the blood, then poured it into the larger stone container.
Merit and a couple of the other young mentors shifted from their groundling forms, took more of the small bowls, and began to move among the other Arbora, bypassing the infertile warriors. Moon wasn't sure how they decided who to pick, but suspected it had something to do with the different bloodlines in the court. Another Raksuran thing he had no idea about.
After a few moments they carried the bowls back to Heart. She took each, mixed the contents with water, then added them to the stone vessel. That was Moon's blood, mixing with the blood of the rest of the court, and possibly it should have been a significant moment. Moon just felt nervous.
Heart poured the last bowl, then leaned over the vessel to study the result. Merit and the other mentors joined her, their expressions tense with concentration.
The chamber grew profoundly silent as everyone waited. Jade tapped her claws on her thigh. Moon felt someone breathing on the back of his head and twisted around to find that Chime had risen to a crouch, craning his neck to try to see into the vessel. Moon elbowed him and he reluctantly subsided.
Finally, Heart said, "The signs are favorable for new clutches at the end of this season."
It sounded like good news, and there was a pleased murmur from the watching Arbora. Moon was the only one close enough to hear Jade hiss under her breath. But Heart was frowning, and Merit gave her an uneasy glance. The other young mentors looked confused and uncertain.
Pearl's voice was tightly controlled. "And what else?"
The chamber fell silent again, this time in anxious anticipation. Heart said, slowly, "Someone watches."
Everyone froze. Oh no, Moon thought. Jade's claws stopped tapping. Heart looked up, belatedly realizing the effect those two words had had. "Not the Fell! Not like before. I'm not sure... I don't think this is even about our court. It might be another court we have contact with."
"It might be a shadow of what happened before," Merit said, still concentrating on the bowl. "It's definitely not about us."
"Not the Fell, and not us," Jade repeated, as a wave of relief passed over the court and everyone breathed again. Moon rubbed his forehead and managed not to growl. They hadn't needed that scare, brief as it had been.
Pearl's spines shivered in barely controlled irritation. "Anything else?"
Heart looked into the bowl again and said reluctantly, "There are signs for...some upheaval."
"How much upheaval?" Pearl asked.
Heart shook her head slightly, still studying the swirled pattern of blood and water. "Not...terrible upheaval." There was a nod of agreement from Merit. "But...the course will not be smooth."
Pearl frowned, considering that. Jade said, "That's usual for our court, isn't it?"
There was another stir, this time of relief and amusement. Pearl made a dismissive gesture. "We're still learning to live in this place. Doubtless there will be setbacks."
Bone, the leader of the hunters' caste, added, "And if these upheavals don't interfere with the clutching, then they can't be too difficult to handle."
Bone was old for an Arbora, and his groundling form showed the signs of age, with white hair and an ashy cast to his dark bronze skin. He was heavily built and had a ring of scar tissue around his neck where something had unwisely tried to bite his head off, testifying to his fighting prowess. He tended to be a calming influence on the court. His opinion carried weight and the fact that neither he nor the queens were worried seemed to reassure everybody.
That signaled the end of the augury, and everyone started to mill around and talk. Jade leaned over to Moon and whispered, "I'm going to talk to Pearl. I still think it would be a bad idea to let them all clutch at once. If we can at least get some of them to hold off for a while--"
"What was that?" Pearl suddenly stood over them. The Arbora and warriors nearby rapidly dispersed, hurried out the passage to the knothole, vanished up or down the stairs, or climbed up to the levels overhead. Chime practically bolted. Balm, after she caught Jade's eye, followed at a more sedate pace.
Jade stood, settled her wings deliberately, and said, "I don't think we should let them all clutch at once."
Pearl cocked her head. "Oh, and you think choosing which ones can clutch now and which will wait isn't going to cause trouble?"
Jade was unimpressed. "I think they're quite capable of choosing for themselves."
Pearl snorted in grim amusement. "Then you're a fool."
Moon thought one solution might be to let the Arbora who wanted to clutch draw lots to see who went first, but he knew enough to keep it to himself until he could mention it to Jade in private. Pearl was more than capable of rejecting any idea that came from him.
Moon had never been sure if Pearl despised him because he was a feral solitary dragged in by Stone when she had been expecting a respectable consort with an important bloodline from Star Aster, or if she just didn't like him. She had at one point suggested that he become her consort instead, though it had been pretty clear to Moon that it had been for the strategic value of having a consort again, not for any personal attraction. At least he hoped so; sometimes, with a Raksuran queen, it was hard to tell.
Jade bared her teeth. "Let's tell the Arbora that you think they're incapable of working it out for themselves and see what they say to that."
Moon felt it likely that the Arbora already knew Pearl's opinion. It wasn't like they hadn't known her all their lives.
Pearl counter-attacked, pointing her claws at Moon. "Your consort hasn't done his duty by the Arbora yet; is that why you're not eager for them to clutch? If none of them produce mentors, we'll know whose fault that is."
Jade flared her spines. "You don't know that."
Moon decided now would be a good time for a strategic retreat, and eased to his feet. Consorts were supposed to sleep with Arbora females, in the belief that it helped the Arbora produce warriors and mentors. Moon had female Arbora friends but he didn't know if they had planned to clutch or if they wanted to risk trying it with his unknown bloodline; asking them seemed like it would be the most awkward thing in the world. And if he couldn't give Jade a clutch, he doubted he could give one to an Arbora, and trying would just expose his weakness.
Moon crossed the greeting hall, passing the last few Arbora still gathered there, when Heart ducked around a column and said, "Moon, can I talk to you?"
"Sure." She seemed anxious, and Moon tried not to find that ominous. She might want to tell him something to pass on to Jade. They moved off through a short passage into one of the unused smaller chambers off the greeting hall. "What is it?"
Heart looked up at him. She still smelled of fresh Raksuran blood; when she had shifted to groundling the blood staining her claws had transferred to her fingernails. "The augury... There was something about you. Oh, nothing terrible. It was just that your blood was woven all through the part of the design that indicated an upheaval."
That...doesn't sound good. Moon extended his senses, making sure no one was in earshot. He could hear movement and voices in the balcony passages above, but no one seemed to be paying attention to them. He lowered his voice anyway. "What does that mean?"
Heart hesitated. "I think it means that your interest will part from the interest of the court. For a time, anyway. I'm not certain." Her gaze was worried. "You weren't...planning to leave the court, were you?"
That took Moon by surprise. "No. Why would I?"
"Sorry, it's just-- That's what it looked like." She shook her head in frustration. "It's very hard to interpret individual strands in general auguries; Flower always thought it was a mistake to try. And this was an unusual augury anyway, with that intrusion about the watcher."
"Why didn't you say anything about it to the others?" Then it occurred to Moon that she might be about to, that she might have wanted to warn him first.
"It was a personal augury, not one for the court. And... I thought it would just make trouble for you. There was nothing in the augury that indicated danger for the court." Heart smiled a little wryly. "I don't want to upset anyone over a minor issue, like a disagreement over something the court will do."
That was a relief. "Thank you for...telling me." He had almost said warning me.
"As I said, it's probably nothing," Heart told him and slipped away. Moon wished she didn't sound quite so much as though she was trying to convince herself.
Lost in thought, he started across the chamber. Then a warrior came off a balcony somewhere above in an uncontrolled tumble and landed in front of him. Moon stopped abruptly and shifted by instinct. "Sorry," the warrior gasped in contrition, sprawled on the floor and looking up at Moon. It was Coil, who was one of Pearl's younger warriors, though Moon didn't know him well. "They threw me off the--"
Two more warriors landed nearby, and one pounced forward to pin Coil down. From Coil's expression of mingled embarrassment and fear, this wasn't play, at least for him. Annoyed, Moon said, "Get off him."
The warrior looked up, baring his teeth. It was Band, another member of Pearl's faction. The one who was looking on with a grin was Fair, his clutchmate. Band said, "Why? We're just having fun."
A disproportionate amount of the trouble Moon had had in the court came from the younger male warriors. The female warriors and the older males always seemed able to find unobjectionable ways to spend their free time; the younger males couldn't manage to.
It also didn't help that Moon had discovered early on that his patience for being argued with by young male warriors was close to nonexistent. Band's mocking grin was too much to bear. Moon grabbed Band by the throat and threw him.
Band landed about twenty paces away, sliding across the smooth polished wood of the floor. Coil seized his chance, skittering out of reach. But Fair surged forward and stopped a bare pace away. He had been one of those trapped and wounded during the Fell attack on the old colony, so he would have missed the battle to free the court and other events that might have convinced him that Moon was not exactly a safe or easy target. He snarled, "I wonder how tough you are without a queen to defend you, solitary."
Moon stepped forward, closing the distance between them. He said, deceptively calm, "My queen's not here. Stop wondering." He had gotten used to having the solitary accusation thrown in his face during almost every disagreement, but he still felt the prickle along his nerves that told him his spines had hardened and lifted, spreading out across his back and up onto his head, out of his mane of frills.
Fair fell back, his spines flicking uneasily, his attempt at intimidation having failed. He said, "I wouldn't want to hurt you."
Moon hissed in amusement, and shifted to groundling just to emphasize his point. He stepped past Fair and headed for the stairs at the far end of the chamber. No one was stupid enough to try to leap on him from behind. Unfortunately. A good fight might clear the air.
Moon took the stairs down to the teachers' hall and the passage to the nurseries. As he stepped through the round doorway carved with baby Arbora and Aeriat, his appearance was greeted with a chorus of squeaks and trills of delight. That made up for a lot of aggravation.
Moon went out with the hunters again the next day, with Balm and Chime and some other warriors. Pearl had made the stipulation that the area be searched first to make sure there were no tentacle creatures.
"As if I wasn't planning to do that already," Bone confided to Moon before they left. "The damn thing wasn't even any good to eat."
They got back to the tree at dusk, and Moon flew on inside while the warriors were still helping ferry the Arbora and their kills to the tree. As soon as Moon reached the greeting hall, the disturbed state of the colony was obvious. All the warriors who hadn't come on the hunting trip seemed to be in motion, flying around in the upper levels, and a group of Arbora were in a tense conversation by the fountain pool. Bell, the leader of the teachers' caste, saw Moon arrive and hurried over to him. Moon demanded, "What is it?" He hadn't seen anything wrong near the knothole.
Bell was one of Chime's clutchmates, though their groundling forms didn't much resemble each other. Bell had dark hair and his skin was more brown than bronze. He said, "We had a visit while you were gone, a queen from Emerald Twilight."
That could be good or bad, Moon thought. They had traded with Emerald Twilight warriors, but hadn't had a formal visit from an Emerald Twilight queen since what everyone insisted on referring to as "the incident" which had occurred on the way back from the forest coast. The augury, with the vision of upheaval and the odd "someone watches" message came to mind; he wondered if the court being watched was Emerald Twilight. "Which queen?"
"Tempest, with five warriors," Bell told him. "They didn't stay long and we didn't even get to see them. They met with Jade and Pearl and Heart up on the queens' level."
"They didn't want to stay the night?" That definitely wasn't good, at least from Moon's limited understanding of relations between Raksuran courts. The visitors should have stayed at least until morning and there should have been a special meal for them, put together by the Arbora. And it was also odd that the only Arbora included in the meeting had been Heart; for the other visits, Bell, Bone, and Knell had been there to represent the Arbora castes. Bone had been away leading the hunt, but Bell and Knell were both here. "Uh... Were they not invited to stay?"
Bell's expression was deeply worried. "I don't know."
"Right." Moon looked up. The warriors wheeling around up in the central well were all keeping their distance from the queens' level gallery, clearly not wanting to antagonize the occupants. "I'd better get up there."
"Good luck," Bell called after him, as Moon leapt up the wall.
Moon climbed rapidly, and as he swung up onto the gallery of the highest warriors' level, Vine landed beside him and clung to a claw-scarred pillar. Keeping his voice low, he said, "Moon, do you know what happened with the visit?"
"No, I just got back. Weren't you there?" Vine had fallen a little out of favor with Pearl, but not with Jade, and Moon was surprised he had been left out.
"Nobody was. No warriors, I mean." Vine glanced out into the well. "Not even River, and he's not exactly thrilled about it."
All right, that was odd. River had been Pearl's favorite so long he thought he was a consort.
"See if you can get them to tell us what happened," Vine urged as Moon moved away.
Moon ducked through an empty bower, out to an interior passage, then up the smaller stairwell that led past the queens' level and to the consorts' quarters. As he passed through the unused rooms, he couldn't hear any disturbance from below. That might be a good sign. If Tempest had delivered some sort of insult or threat from Emerald Twilight, he thought Pearl would probably still be ranting about it.
The stairs opened into one of the smaller halls, the walls carved with scenes of Arbora building bridges between platforms in the suspended forest, the mountain-trees towering over them. Stone had told him that this hall was meant to be a private retiring room for consorts, where they could compose themselves before joining any gathering in the larger hall beyond. Moon had thought that sounded pointless, before he had found himself using the room for exactly that purpose when they had entertained visitors from other courts.
The round doorway led to a short turning passage only a few paces long, there to block any direct view from the queens' main hall into the retiring room. It was also great for eavesdropping, to make sure you wanted to join any meeting in the hall before you committed yourself by walking into it, but Moon didn't bother with that now.
Pearl, Jade, and Heart were still here, sitting around on cushions near the large metal bowl hearth. The hearth was filled with heating stones, and the best water kettle and the best tea set the court owned were out, along with a scatter of seating cushions for the absent visitors. So it looked like they had actually intended hospitality, whatever had happened.
And something had happened. Jade faced away from Moon so he couldn't see her expression, but her spines were flared. Heart, in groundling form, seemed dispirited, and Pearl looked grim, her spines twitching in agitation.
As Moon stepped out of the doorway and shifted to his groundling form, Heart was saying, "I just don't think we should -- you should -- worry before we know for certain. We don't even know--"
Pearl spotted Moon and cut Heart off with a hiss. Startled, Heart lifted her head, saw Moon, and immediately looked guilty.
So I'm not supposed to know what happened, either, Moon thought, crossing the hall toward them. That was a little odd, though at least it meant that Emerald Twilight probably hadn't declared war on them. He took a seat on the cushion next to Jade. She didn't look up. Pearl stared at the hearth. Heart cleared her throat, and said, "How did the hunt go?"
"It was good." Moon wondered how long they could keep this up. They had to know the others would have told him that Tempest had been here. "No trouble this time."
An uneasy silence followed. It was so uneasy, Pearl stirred and asked, "Did you find the hopper herd Bone keeps talking about?"
Moon admitted, "No, but we found some big lopers."
"Ah." Pearl flicked her spines again, looked at Jade and looked away. "Just as well."
Moon glanced at Jade, then took a good look. She was absolutely rigid with fury.
"Was it about Halcyon?" he blurted, before he realized that might not be the best thing to say at the moment.
Jade twitched at the name, then made an effort to unclench her claws. "No. No, it wasn't about her." Her voice was husky, strained. As if she had been snarling at someone, or trying not to.
"What was it about?" Really worried now, Moon put a hand on her wrist. Pearl watched them with a completely opaque expression. Heart had her shoulders hunched slightly, as if braced for Jade's response.
Jade let out her breath and forced her spines to relax. She managed an apologetic smile and reached over to squeeze Moon's wrist. "It was about territory, they were just trying to push us, make us react. It was stupid, I let Tempest make me angry, we almost..." She added, "It was nothing."
Moon hesitated. If he had had the slightest inclination to believe this, Pearl's ironic expression and Heart's furtive twitch would have squashed it. His first impulse was to think it was something about him, but he knew he was overly suspicious. Actually, overly suspicious was putting it mildly. And he couldn't think what it would be, unless Tempest had tossed off some casual insult that had caught Jade at the wrong moment. Though that didn't seem to fit Pearl's reaction. Whatever it was, he had the feeling it wouldn't help to press the point, at least not now.
And he could always get Chime to try to ease the truth out of Heart, later.
Moon said, "All right." He added, "You should get something to eat."
"I should," Jade agreed. She tightened her grip on Moon's wrist and stood, hauling him to his feet. She met Pearl's gaze with a look of pure steel-eyed hate. "We'll talk later."
Pearl rippled her spines in a shrug, resigned and amused. "For all the good it will do."
Over the next few days, Jade and Pearl continued to say nothing about what had happened during the meeting with Tempest. Chime reported that Heart refused absolutely to tell him or anyone else what had been said. When Chime had asked her the first few times, she had said only that the queens didn't want her to discuss it. When he had kept asking she had growled at him that it was none of his damn business and if he asked her again she was going to rip his frills out. "You could ask Balm," Moon had pointed out.
"You can ask Balm," Chime had retorted. "She can't kill you."
Yes, Moon supposed asking Balm to violate Jade's confidence wouldn't go over well. If Jade had even told Balm what had happened. Moon gave up on ever knowing. Maybe it had been nothing, just an exchange of insults that both queens would eventually get over. And it was only a day later that something happened that put the whole incident right out of his mind.
One of the good things Moon had discovered was that teaching fledglings was acceptable work for consorts, and he thought he was fairly good at it. Though he would feel a lot better about his efforts if he could just get Bitter to fly.
Moon nudged Bitter with an elbow, nodding toward two young warriors as they dove past, their wings slanted back for maximum speed. "That doesn't look like fun?" By this point, he already knew the answer, he just wanted Bitter to know he hadn't given up asking.
Chewing on a piece of hard yellow fruit, Bitter just shook his head.
It had turned into another warm day, bright sunlight falling through the heavy canopy of leaves high above. Moon and Bitter were sitting out on one of the mountain-tree's smaller branches, an expanse of rough gray wood twenty or so paces across. They had a good if oblique view of the giant knothole, the waterfall, and the multiple levels of garden platforms.
Bitter's clutchmates, Frost and Thorn, fledgling queen and fledgling consort, were flying in the waterfall's spray, dipping and wheeling in the cool air currents off the rush of falling water. A few warriors were also in the air, most further out over the clearing formed by the tree's giant canopy, some on watch, others just stretching their wings.
Bitter eyed all the fliers noncommittally. He was small for a fledging his age, his groundling form a thin little boy with dark bronze skin, dark hair, and grave eyes, dressed in a brown shirt and pants a little too big for him. He didn't talk either, except in whispers to Frost and Thorn, but at least he could talk if he felt like it. He apparently didn't feel like flying at all.
"You're going to have to do it some time," Moon pointed out. He didn't want to press the issue, but it would have been nice to have a clue as to what the issue was. Bitter liked to fly with Moon, clinging to his chest, so it wasn't a fear of height or fast motion. It had to have something to do with the destruction of the court of Sky Copper. Bitter, Frost, and Thorn were the only survivors, rescued from their Fell captors and brought to join the court of Indigo Cloud. It had been a traumatic and terrible event for the three fledglings, but Moon wasn't sure how that had evolved into Bitter's refusal to learn to fly.
Bitter leaned on Moon's arm and sighed, apparently weary of Moon's wrongheaded persistence on this point.
A large number of Arbora were out on the platforms, digging or weeding in the gardens, probably discussing their plans to clutch. An Arbora had been making his way down the branch toward them for some time, collecting balls of moss fallen off the higher branches that could be dried and used in weaving. His scales were green faded to gray in large patches, and heavily scarred in spots. As he reached them, he said, "Hello, consort. Hello, little one." It was Dash, a very old Arbora, who wasn't doing particularly well in his old age. He had been ill in the various sicknesses that had plagued the old colony, and injured in fighting the Fell, and it had all taken a toll. He put his bag aside and sat down beside Moon and Bitter, grunting as his bones creaked. "Now, which one are you?" he asked Moon.
"Moon, Jade's consort," Moon reminded him. Dash remembered the distant past better than recent events, and he tended to confuse Moon with the long-gone consorts who had died or been sent away to other courts turns ago.
"Ah, that's right, you're new." Dash stared downward, frowning. "What are they doing down there? In that pool."
Moon leaned forward to look. A few hundred paces below, some Arbora were working on a small platform, close enough to the waterfall to be drenched by its spray. They were digging out an old drainage pool and channel that had been choked with dirt and weeds. Moon said, "Trying to get it working again. It's probably got something to do with the blocked drains inside the tree."
The drains and water channels inside the tree had been one of the biggest problems in getting the colony livable again. The mountain-tree drew so much water up through its roots that it expelled it in springs. Some of it was discharged through the waterfall, but the channels carved through the tree also used it to fill the bathing pools and to flush out the latrines into the roots. But generations of disuse had left many of the channels clogged; there was a whole group of Arbora who had done nothing for all the past months except trace the channels throughout the enormous space and hunt down the obstructions. It was all they talked about and everyone had learned to be careful which levels of the bowers to avoid if you didn't want to hear about drains. And no one wanted to hear about drains.
Moon whistled sharply for Frost and Thorn to call them to the branch. They probably needed a nap by now, and he wanted to be able to make a quick escape if Dash wanted to talk about drains.
Frost and Thorn wheeled toward the branch and landed next to Dash. "We're hungry," Frost announced.
"Say hello to Dash," Moon reminded her. The teachers had told him that fledgling queens could be difficult to raise, but Frost seemed to be taking that to an extreme. She had good days and bad days, and on the bad days she threw fits, she panicked the other young Arbora and Aeriat with wild claims, and was rude to an extent that had even managed to mildly shock Stone.
Much of Frost's misbehavior had to come from the terrible experience of seeing her court destroyed. And if anyone should be able to understand that and handle her, it was Moon. At least, that was the theory, and she had been better since things had settled down in the court and he was able to spend more time with her. The trick seemed to be to get her to behave without squashing the natural aggression she would need to be a good queen.
Jade had also been visiting the fledglings frequently, though at first, Frost had regarded her with suspicion. Though just what she was suspicious of, Moon didn't have a clue. But recently, Frost had started to seem more curious than wary, watching Jade play with the baby Arbora and other fledglings and occasionally joining in.
But this was apparently going to be a good day, because Frost said, "Hello, Dash," obediently enough, and climbed into Dash's lap by way of apology.
"Hello, Dash," Thorn echoed, and added, "Frost is hungry, I'm not. I don't want to go in yet."
Thorn had been doing better than the other two, but he was also better at concealing his feelings. Being pretty good at concealing his feelings himself, Moon found it easy to tell, but he wasn't certain anyone else had noticed.
"But did they check the underroots?" Dash asked, absently looping an arm around Frost and letting her settle in his lap, though his attention was still on the platform. His scaly brow knit in worry. "It doesn't look stable to me."
"It doesn't?" Moon craned his neck to look down again. Maybe the near end of the platform was slumping a little. But several Arbora were occupied with digging out the channel, and another was at the opposite end of the dry pool, pulling dead vines out of the broken clay, and none seemed worried by it. Moon wondered if they could tell; the slump might not be noticeable unless you were viewing the platform from this angle. He decided to take the kids inside and then fly back over and let the Arbora know--
The Arbora who was digging out the vines yanked at a recalcitrant clump, throwing her entire body into it. The vines came loose in a spray of dirt and she sat down hard. A crack sounded from below, loud enough to startle the Arbora working on the nearby platforms. The nearest patrolling warriors abruptly veered back toward the mountain-tree's trunk.
The Arbora on the slumping platform froze in place, looking down. Then half the platform split off and crumbled away beneath their feet.
Dash made a strangled noise of horror and the fledglings squeaked in alarm. Several Arbora next to the wooden shaft of the drain outlet clung to the torn roots still attached to the branch, as chunks of the clay pool came apart under them. The nearest warriors dove for them, but the female on the far end of the platform flailed as the dirt dissolved around her. She made a wild grab for a big root, and for an instant it supported her, then it jerked loose and sent her tumbling down with the rest of the debris.
The warriors were close enough to get the others, but not her. Moon pushed Bitter and Thorn toward Dash. "Stay with him!" Then he shoved to his feet and dove headfirst off the branch.
Plummeting through the air, Moon had to fight the urge to shift. But as he fell past the crumbling platform, it rained chunks of dirt, clay, and broken roots down on him; he couldn't extend his wings in this debris. Without them, he might as well take advantage of his heavier groundling body to fall faster.
Far below the Arbora tried frantically not to fall faster, clawing at the mass of roots unraveling around her.
The last of the debris from above dropped away and Moon shifted. He snapped his wings out for two hard beats, stooping on the Arbora like prey on the wing, and snatched her out of the air. She keened in his ear as she grabbed him, but managed not to sink her claws through his scales. He caught movement above him and twisted instinctively, pulling his wings in. A clump of wood and dirt as big as a hillock fell past, barely missing them.
Up by the fallen platform, Moon saw the warriors had retrieved the other Arbora from the platform. Good, they got them all. That was a relief. Watching helplessly while an Arbora fell to his or her death was not something Moon wanted to do, ever.
He twisted around and spread his wings again, angled them back to catch air and slow his fall. Turning the headlong plunge into a glide, he came around toward the waterfall, away from any more falling debris. "You all right?" he asked the Arbora. From her build and dark green scales, he thought she might be Plum, one of the younger hunters. But her face was buried against his chest and he couldn't be sure.
She made a choking noise and nodded. Moon took another swing around, to check where the rest of the debris would fall. The Kek, groundlings who lived among mountain-tree roots, had a village beneath the tree but it was on the far side of the trunk from here and further out. And the biggest chunks of wood and dirt were hitting the slope of the trunk and disintegrating; none of the debris would make it to the ground in big enough pieces to cause damage to any Kek who happened to be foraging below.
Moon found a draft and rode it up, hoping he hadn't broken any of Plum's ribs. He had tried not to hit her too hard, but he hadn't wanted to risk overshooting her, either.
He came up over one of the big garden platforms, where a crowd had already gathered on an open grassy area. Warriors circled overheard, and a group was gathered around the other rescued Arbora. Moon swept in to land lightly on the grass, and tried to set his Arbora on her feet. She shifted to groundling, but didn't let go of him.
Chime reached them first, partially extending his wings for a long leap across the platform, over the heads of the Arbora who bounded toward them. "Is she all right?" he demanded, patting Plum's hair anxiously. "Are you all right?"
Plum took a deep breath and managed to unclamp her hands. "Yes, I am." She looked up at Moon. Her eyes were wide and her skin had flushed a dark copper; she looked as if she was about to be sick. "Thank you, Moon. I've never-- I've never fallen before-- I mean, Sage dropped me once accidentally when we were little, but it was only a few paces--"
The other Arbora reached them, Merit, Bark, and Rill first. With exclamations of relief and sympathy, they coaxed Plum away from Moon and guided her over to sit down.
"It's lucky you were there," Chime muttered, watching them. "I don't think any of the warriors were close enough or fast enough to catch her."
"You're a warrior," Moon pointed out. It still occasionally slipped Chime's mind.
Chime gave him an exasperated look. He hated being reminded. "I know, but I couldn't have caught her."
He might be right; consorts could fly almost twice as fast as warriors, and Plum had been trapped in the falling debris for a good while. But Moon had been close enough to help and there was no point in wondering what would have happened if he hadn't been here. "You didn't 'hear' anything before it happened?"
"No." Chime grimaced. "Still useless."
Since they had returned from the leviathan city months ago, Chime had been having erratic flashes of insight, but it was always about things that they didn't really need to know. He could sometimes tell when a cloud-walker went by overhead, so far above the forest it was invisible even to Raksuran eyes. If Heart put him in a light trance, he could hear deep rumbling voices, which the mentors thought might come from the mountain-trees. But he hadn't been able to augur or predict anything, or tell where dangerous predators were. It was disappointing, but then Chime's strange new senses had been so much help on the leviathan, it seemed like ingratitude to expect more.
Towards the trunk, Moon caught a glimpse of Jade, spiraling down with Balm to examine the place where the platform had given way. Knell, the leader of the Arbora soldiers' caste, was standing on the edge of this platform, waiting for them. Hands planted on his hips, his whole body was expressive of disgruntled disgust. He's right, we didn't need this, Moon thought.
Then Pearl landed nearby, scattering Arbora. She looked around at them and said, "No one's hurt?"
"Everyone's all right," Rill told her. "The warriors got them in time. Moon saved Plum."
Then Pearl focused on Moon. "Where are the fledglings?"
Alarmed, Moon looked up at the branch. But Dash had them, bringing them down the wide path atop the branch toward the climbing ridge along the trunk. Bitter, in his winged form, clung securely to Dash's neck, and Dash was leading Frost with a firm grip on her wrist. She was craning her neck to watch the activity on the platform, and hanging on to Thorn, who trailed docilely along behind them. There was nothing wrong with Dash's instincts as a teacher, either; Frost was definitely the one most likely to make trouble.
Pearl followed his gaze and her spines twitched, in relief or possibly thwarted irritation. She couldn't blame Moon for leaving the fledglings with an elderly and respected teacher. Pearl hissed, and looked for the next target. "Knell!"
Knell bounded over to land nearby. His spines carefully flat, he said, "They think it was the water. The channel for the fountain was plugged, but the water inside it was seeping out and wearing away at the platform's roots."
"Of course it was." Pearl turned to look across this platform, then up at the ones nested in the branches and dripping roots and vines. "We'll need to check every platform with a channel, plugged or not."
Knell was tough, but Moon saw him brace himself as he told her, "Jade and Balm are starting that now."
But one of the things Moon had learned about Pearl was that she never reacted the way anyone thought she would. Instead of an angry outburst at Jade's presumption, she confined herself to an ironic snort. She said, "I'll send warriors to help them." She glanced around at the Arbora who had gathered to listen. "I want you to keep off the platforms with blocked pools, but are you willing to stay out here and finish the planting?"
Knell looked at the others, taking in their mood. Some looked uneasy or reluctant, but most nodded. Someone in the back said, "I guess now we know what the upheaval in the augury is."
There were a few murmurs of rueful agreement. Another Arbora said, "We need to get the ripe berries picked on the lower platforms. I don't think we can afford to waste the day."
Pearl nodded in acknowledgement. "Work as quickly as you can." She crouched and sprang into the air, snapped her wings out, powerful beats taking her up toward the knothole.
Chime let his breath out in relief. "That went better than I expected."
Moon had to agree. "Are you going to help Jade and Balm?" Chime had a better eye for detail than the average warrior.
Chime nodded absently. "I'd better. I think I'll start with this platform."
Knell gave Chime an annoyed glare. "This one doesn't have a blocked drain."
"Better safe than sorry." Chime leapt into the air.
Knell turned to Moon, and said, a little stiffly, "Will you stay out here?" Knell was another of Chime's clutchmates, but when Moon had first arrived, he had been one of the Arbora who had objected to him joining the court. Even after everything that had happened since, it still seemed to color all their dealings. "It would make the others less uneasy."
Some of the other Arbora still within earshot were watching Moon anxiously. "It'd sure make me less uneasy," Spice seconded fervently.
Moon thought they were overestimating his abilities, especially if one of the large platforms collapsed. But it was good to be asked. "I'll stay," he said.
end chapter two
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