The Serpent Sea
Book Two of The Books of the Raksura
Night Shade Books, January 2012
Cover art by Steve Argyle
Design by Rebecca Silvers.
Moon, once a solitary wanderer, has become consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court. Together, they travel with their people on a pair of flying ships in hopes of finding a new home for their colony. Moon finally feels like he's found a tribe where he belongs.
But when the travelers reach the ancestral home of Indigo Cloud, shrouded within the trunk of a mountain-sized tree, they discover a blight infecting its core. Nearby they find the remains of the invaders who may be responsible, as well as evidence of a devastating theft. This discovery sends Moon and the hunters of Indigo Cloud on a quest for the heartstone of the tree--a quest that will lead them far away, across the Serpent Sea....
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Moon had been consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court, for eleven days; nobody had tried to kill him yet, so he thought it was going well so far.
On the twelfth day, the dawn sun was just breaking through the clouds when he walked out onto the deck of the Valendera. The air was damp and pleasantly cool, filled with the scent of the dense green forest the ship was flying over. It was early enough that the deck was still crowded with sleeping bodies, most of them buried under blankets or piled up against the baskets and bags that held all the court's belongings. A few people stirred somewhere toward the bow, where the look-outs were posted. On the central mast, the fan-shaped sails were still closed. Their companion ship, the Indala, floated a short distance off the starboard side, pacing them.
Moon heard someone stumble up the narrow stairs from below decks. Then Chime climbed out of the hatch and squinted at the dawn light. He said, "Oh good. Another nice day to spend on this flying torture device."
Moon had been having variations on this conversation for days. Raksura weren't meant to live on flying boats, that had been very well established by everybody, but there was no other way to move the court to the new colony.
Indigo Cloud had been in decline for a long time before Moon had arrived, with outbreaks of disease, attacks by predators, and the Fell influence that had caused fewer warrior births. When the Fell attack had forced them to finally abandon the old colony, there hadn't been enough warriors to move the court in the normal way. Everyone knew they had been lucky to convince a Golden Islander trading family to let them pay for the use of the two flying boats. But while the Valendera was over two hundred paces long and the Indala only a little smaller, there just wasn't enough room to do much of anything but sleep or sit. The situation was the worst for the wingless Arbora, who were used to spending their days hunting, tending their gardens, or in carving, weaving, or working metal. When the Aeriat were sick of the cramped quarters, they could always go flying. Moon said, "Do you need me to say anything or do you just want me to stand here?"
"Yes, yes, I know, I know." Chime rubbed his eyes and glared at the lightening sky. Moon and Chime were both Aeriat Raksura, but Chime was a warrior and Moon was a consort. In their groundling forms there wasn't much difference between them; they were both tall and lean, both had the dark bronze skin common to many Raksura. Moon had dark hair and green eyes, and was used to blending in with real groundlings. Chime had fluffy straw-colored hair, and had never had to live outside the close-knit court. Though he had had his own unique problem to deal with. Chime added, "I just can't wait until we get to the Reaches. I've read all the old histories, but actually seeing it... Stone says we're nearly there."
Stone had been saying they were nearly there for three days, but Stone's idea of "nearly" was different than anyone else's. Moon just lifted a brow. Chime sighed, and said, "Yes, I know."
They stood there a moment, while Chime continued to grumble at a lower volume and Moon just enjoyed the predawn quiet while there was a chance. All everyone wanted to talk about, when they weren't complaining about the conditions on the boats, was how excited they were to be going to the new colony. Courts didn't move very often; Stone was the only one who could remember the last time Indigo Cloud had moved, turns and turns before any of the others had been born. But Moon had never looked at any place with the idea of living there forever. It was daunting, and he couldn't even pretend to share everyone's enthusiasm.
Moon felt something watching him, something not friendly. He looked toward the Indala and saw River, Drift, and two other warriors crouched along the railing, staring at him and Chime. They were all in Raksuran form, River's green scales catching the morning light and reflecting their blue undersheen. River twitched his mane of spines and frills, a not-quite-deliberate challenge.
Now that Moon was Jade's consort, River's place as the lover of Pearl, the reigning queen, was safe. But it didn't mean they were friends now.
Instead of hissing, Moon yawned, stretched extravagantly, and tried to look like a tempting target. A fight with a half-Fell half-Raksuran queen had left him with broken bones, but Raksura healed fast, and he was mostly recovered now. Though he was still a little stiff, especially in the mornings. A couple of days ago the mentors had all agreed that he was well enough to be up and around, and had given him his clothes back. The dark shirt and pants he had borrowed when he had first arrived at the colony were a little the worse for wear but cleaned of dirt and dried blood. Since then he had shifted a few times, and had done some easy flying around the boats, but nothing more strenuous yet. Beating River senseless and throwing him off the Indala would be a good test to see just how healthy Moon was.
But River didn't take the bait, just lashed his tail in contempt and looking away.
"What are they looking at?" Chime said, but he faced toward the Valendera's bow, and hadn't noticed River and his cronies. Halfway down the deck, Bone, the chief of the Arbora's hunter caste, and several other Arbora stood at the railing and stared down at something. Chime picked his way across the deck, stepping around the sleeping bodies. Any diversion being welcome, Moon followed him.
All the Arbora were shorter than the Aeriat and more heavily built in their groundling forms. Bone, despite the age revealed by his white hair and the ashy cast to his bronze-brown skin, was still heavily muscled and strong. He had a ridge of old scar tissue circling his neck, where something with big teeth had nearly bitten his head off.
Moon leaned on the railing next to him. All the Arbora were tasting the air, their expressions intent. "What is it?"
Bone nudged him with an elbow and pointed. "There."
They had been flying over increasingly dense forest for several days, the trees rising and falling in waves of vivid green fifty or so paces below the wooden hulls of the ships. Now a big shallow lake was just coming into view over the gently waving tops of the plume trees. A large herd of furry grasseaters grazed there, eating the reeds and flowering plants that grew in the water. Moon's stomach growled; they had been able to hunt sporadically along the way, but for most of the trip they had been living off dwindling stores of salted meat, dried fruit, and wilting roots. And it felt like forever since he had been able to hunt.
The hard line of Bone's mouth quirked in a smile. "I think everyone could do with a little fresh meat."
One of the other Arbora snorted at the depth of that understatement.
Moon caught hold of the railing and slung himself up to crouch on it. He said, "Tell the others." He leapt away from the boat, shifted to Raksuran form in midair and caught the wind.
Moon flew a long slow circle over the lake, playing the cool morning wind against his wings, to stretch his muscles and make certain he was well enough to stoop and dive. He didn't want to be the first to fall on the herd, meaning to leave it to one of the others.
He had been a child the last time he had lived with his own people, so young he hadn't known what they were called or where they came from. And this was the first time in his travels through the Three Worlds that he had even lived with other shifters. He hadn't known anything about Raksura, and he hadn't known he was a consort, the only fertile male Aeriat, born to be mated to a queen and to produce royal clutches and infertile warriors for the court. He had had a great deal of experience trying to fit into various groundling tribes and settlements, just in search of a place to live. But trying to fit into a group where he actually belonged, and had an important role, was...still daunting. He nursed a lingering fear that he was somehow going to wreck it and get thrown out of the court. It wasn't that odd a notion; he had gotten thrown out of a lot of places for various reasons.
By the time Moon had circled the lake twice, the decision had evidently been made to stop for a full-scale hunt. The two boats slowed to a crawl, then dropped lines. Arbora climbed down to tie them off to tall plume trees. All the Aeriat took the opportunity to jump off the boats and fly over the lake.
Aeriat didn't normally hunt for themselves unless they were traveling away from the colony; that was left to the Arbora hunters. Judging by everyone's enthusiastic response, this definitely counted as traveling away from the colony. They circled above the lake, their scales in shades of blue, green, gold, brown, and copper-red. They all had retractable claws on hands and feet, long tails with a spade-shape on the end, and manes of spines and frills down their backs. Moon was the only one here with black scales, the color that marked him as a consort; though he had a faint undersheen of bronze that caught the morning light.
The Arbora's shifted forms looked much like the Aeriat, except they didn't have wings. On the grassy shore above the lake, they climbed down from the boats on rope ladders, so they could butcher the kills. Normally this was a task reserved for the hunters, but Moon could see Arbora who were members of the other three castes joining in, teachers, soldiers, even a couple of young mentors, Heart and Merit, both leapt enthusiastically into the job. Just another sign that the long trip and confined quarters had worn on everyone.
Another group of Arbora had gone after some of the grasseaters that had retreated into the trees, and the younger ones went through the shallows, digging for clusters of edible roots. It was just as well all the work could be done on the ground; early on in the journey, Niran, the groundling whose family owned both flying ships, had put his foot down about butchering kills on the ships' decks. Moon could see his point; nearly all the woodwork, from planks to railings to masts, was now scored with claw marks, and would need to be sanded down eventually.
Three warriors wheeled and dove on the herd, and the hunt was on. Moon found Chime, who was still a novice at hunting, and made sure he managed his first kill successfully. Then Moon took a small buck for himself. Like all the Aeriat, they dragged the carcasses off into the reeds to eat immediately; the second kill would be for the colony. They met Song, a young female hunter with coppery scales, already there eating her kill. "This was a fantastic idea," she said between bites.
After he finished eating, Moon left Chime with Song and swam out into the lake to wash the blood off his scales, then took a second kill to haul back for the Arbora. Dragging the carcass up onto a sandbar to bleed it, he scanned the sky to see where the others were. Most of the Aeriat were finished, though Chime and a few others still circled above the lake looking for prey. The herd had all moved off now, either further down the shore or into the trees.
A flash of vivid blue made him glance up, but it wasn't Chime coming in for another pass. Jade cupped her wings and dropped down toward the sandbar.
She was the sister queen of the Indigo Cloud Court, and like all Raksuran queens, she had no groundling form. She could shift only between her winged form and a wingless shape that looked more like an Arbora. Her scales were blue, with a silver-gray web pattern. Behind her head, the frills and spines formed an elaborate mane, reaching all the way down her back to her tail.
She landed neatly, her claws digging into the sand. Folding her wings, she picked her way through the lilies toward Moon. He shifted for her, though he was still standing in the water and it soaked his pants to the knees; his groundling skin was more sensitive and he liked to feel her scales against it.
She caught him around the waist, and he relaxed against her. Her teeth grazed his neck in affectionate greeting, and she asked, "Did you have any trouble flying?"
"No, my shoulder's fine." He was a little sore, but it was the welcome ache of unused muscles finally being pushed to work. He nuzzled her neck. "My back's fine, too."
"I'm tempted to find out for myself." Jade's growl had a warm tone to it. She rubbed her cheek against his. "But we can't afford the time."
The grassy bank was very tempting, but she was right, they had to get the ships moving again. They hadn't had much chance to be together onboard, between the crowding and Moon recovering from his broken wing. But now that Indigo Cloud had adopted a fledgling queen and two consorts from the destroyed Sky Copper court, it wasn't quite so urgent that Jade get a clutch immediately.
Song, Root, and Chime banked down to circle overhead, and called to them that it was time to leave.
Later that afternoon, Moon woke when a strong cool gust cut across the flat roof of the Valendera's steering cabin. It carried the clean scent of rain, but with a bitter undertone that meant thunder and lightning, and the force of it made the wooden craft creak and rattle.
Moon pushed up on one elbow for a better taste of the air. At the moment that was harder than it sounded. He was nestled between Jade and Chime, with Song, Root, and a few other warriors curled up around them. Jade had an arm and her tail wrapped around Moon's waist and he was warm and comfortable from the sun-warmed wood and the heat of friendly bodies. He had to wriggle to sit up enough to look out over the wooden boat's stern; what he saw made him wince. That's a problem.
In the distance, just above the forest's green horizon, a dark mass of storm built, reaching out toward them with gray streaks of cloud. On their journey so far, they had gone through a few days with rain, but no high winds or lightning. It looked like their luck was over.
Jade stirred sleepily, disturbed by his movement. Sounding reluctant to wake, she murmured, "What is it?" After the indulgence of the hunt this morning, most of the court were spending the day napping. Many had fed to the point where they wouldn't need to eat again for two or three days.
Moon squeezed Jade's wrist. "There's a storm to the north."
"What?" She sat up, shouldered the others over enough that Root and another young male warrior rolled right off the cabin roof. She spotted the storm and frowned, then slapped her hand on the planks, making a loud hollow thump. "Niran! Come out here, please."
Niran's voice came from somewhere below. "What now?" He sounded angry, but that was normal for Niran. He was the only groundling aboard, a grandson of the Golden Islander family who had traded them the use of the two flying boats. It had been Niran's grandfather, Delin, who had wanted to help them; Niran had distrusted the Raksura intensely, but had volunteered to stay and try to protect the valuable ships when the Fell had forced Delin and the other Islanders to flee. Forced proximity and shared danger had made Niran trust them, but it hadn't made his personality any less prickly.
Niran came out of the cabin, a figure as short as the Arbora, but slim and with golden skin and eyes. His long straight white hair was tied back with a patterned scarf and starting to look dingy; it was hard to bathe on the boat, especially for those who couldn't just fly down for a swim in a pond. He was dressed in a heavy robe, borrowed from one of the Arbora, and clutched a pottery mug. "What is it now?" he demanded again.
"There's a storm coming," Jade told him, and pointed.
Niran squinted in that direction. Groundling eyes weren't as keen as Raksuran and he probably couldn't see the cloud formation. "Oh for the love of the Ancestors, that's all we need," he muttered, turned and stamped back inside the cabin.
"The boats can't outrun it, I suppose," Jade said, still frowning.
"I doubt it," Moon told her. The power to keep the ships aloft and moving came from the tiny fragment of sky-island, kept in the ship's steering apparatus, that let them ride the lines of force that stretched across the Three Worlds. Their progress was steady, but not very fast, and a storm-wind would tear the sails apart. Moon sat up all the way and nudged Chime over. "I think we'll have to stop and winch them down to the ground."
Chime twitched awake and sat up, blinking. "Winch what to the-- Oh." He stared uneasily at the approaching clouds. "That's not good. What do we do?"
"Don't panic," Jade said. The others were blearily awake now, looking into the wind. She prodded Song with her foot. "Song, go and find Pearl."
Song nodded and pushed to her feet. She shifted and jumped off the cabin roof, to land on the railing and leap again, taking flight toward the Indala. Pearl was the reigning queen, and Jade's mother, and while the situation between them was better than it had been, there were still ripples of tension. Since Moon had caused one big wave of tension by becoming Jade's consort and not Pearl's, it was a relief that Pearl had decided to spend much of her time on the other ship.
"I wasn't panicking," Chime said with dignity. He drew his legs up, wrapped his arms around his knees. "I just never liked storms, even in the colony. Do you know what happens if lightning hits you?"
Jade didn't bother to answer that. Most of the Raksura, especially the Arbora, would be used to weathering storms safe inside a colony, not in the air on a fragile flying boat. Moon wasn't happy about it either. Thunderstorms made him edgy. The day after his family had been killed, he had been caught in one, huddled high in the branches of a too-small tree. The Tath had still been hunting him so he couldn't chance climbing any lower, and the storm had grown in intensity all day, as if it meant to tear the whole forest apart.
At least he wasn't going to have to face this one alone.
Niran came out of the cabin again, dressed now in the clothes Islanders usually wore on their boats, white pants cropped at the knee and a loose shirt belted at the waist. He held a copper spyglass up to one eye, twisting the lenses to focus on the storm. He said, "We need to find a place to shelter, and we'll have to lower both ships to the ground and tie them off-- Wait, what's that?"
A dark shape flew toward them out of the gray clouds. Moon squinted to identify it. "That's Stone."
Stone was the line grandfather, the only other adult consort in the Indigo Cloud court, the oldest person Moon had ever met, as far as he knew. Queens and consorts grew larger and stronger as they grew older, so Stone's shifted form was nearly four times Moon's size.
Consorts were already the fastest flyers among Raksura, so fast only queens could keep up with them. Stone's approach was at nearly full speed, and he reached the ship in only a few moments. He cupped his wings to slow down at almost the last instant, then dropped down onto the stern deck. The ship dipped under his weight and Niran grabbed the railing to steady himself, cursing in the Islander language.
Stone shifted to his groundling form, and the boat righted. He caught hold of the edge of the cabin roof and slung himself up onto it, as the last two warriors scrambled away and jumped down to make room for him. He sat down on the planks, a tall lean man, his face lined and weathered, dressed in a gray shirt and pants. Everything about him had faded to gray, his hair, his skin, something that happened to the groundling forms of the oldest Raksura. The only spot of color was in his blue eyes, though the right one was dimmed and clouded. He jerked his chin toward the streaked sky. "You noticed?"
"Yes." Jade settled her spines, which had bristled involuntarily at Stone's rapid approach. "Niran says we'll need to stop and lower both boats to the ground."
"If we can find the ground," Chime put in. "The forest has been getting deeper and there aren't that many breaks in the canopy."
"If we don't lower the ships, the high winds will surely tear them apart," Niran added, apparently braced for an argument.
Stone conceded that with a nod, but said, "We're nearly to the new colony. We should make it before the storm reaches us."
Startled, Chime said, "What? Really?"
Jade gave Stone a hard stare. "Are you certain?"
Stone shrugged. "Sure."
Annoyed, Jade tapped her claws on the roof. "Were you going to share this information with anyone else?"
"Eventually." Stone looked toward the bow and the endless sweep of the forest, as if gauging the distance. "I wasn't sure until today. We've been making better time than I thought we would."
Jade looked down at Niran. "Well?"
Niran set his jaw, but after a moment he said, "Very well. If you want to risk it." Then he added grudgingly, "Chime is right, the forest beneath us seems too thick for a good landing spot. We'd have to search for a clearing anyway."
Jade disentangled herself from Moon and pushed to her feet. She shook her frills out and shifted to her winged form. Moon rolled onto his back, just admiring her. She smiled down at him. "I'd better let Pearl know we're nearly there, too."
Jade leapt straight up, snapped her wings out to catch the air, then glided over to the Indala.
"I'll find Flower," Chime said, and threw a nervous look back at the distant clouds. He shifted to jump down to the deck.
Moon stretched out, taking advantage of having the roof nearly to himself, basking in the sun before the clouds covered it. Stone still sat on the edge, looking out over the mist-wreathed forest, his expression preoccupied. "So what's this place like?" Moon asked him.
Moon swore under his breath. He had gotten that much from everybody else. They were all very enthusiastic about it, but nobody had been able to say how much work they were going to have to do to make it habitable. "Fine, don't tell me."
Stone snorted. "I just told you. A tree."
Moon rolled onto his stomach, pillowed his head on his arms, and pretended to go to sleep, one of the only effective ways of dealing with Stone when he was in this mood. He had been hoping for something not much different from the ruin where the court had lived before, except more defensible. He had lived in trees, and they weren't comfortable. And he had seen how fast the Arbora could build temporary shelters, but they would have no time to do that before the rain hit.
He heard the wood creak as Stone moved around and stretched out on the other half of the roof. Then Stone said, "It's a mountain-tree, the place our court originally came from."
Moon opened his eyes a slit, to see Stone lying on his back with one arm flung over his eyes. A mountain-tree. Moon turned the words over, searching for familiarity, hoping it stirred his memory. For all he knew, he had lived in one as a child, but he didn't remember it. "I don't know what that is."
Stone's voice was dry. "You will before nightfall."
Moon was standing on the deck when Flower told Jade and Pearl, "I don't need to augur to know we need to get to shelter." She waved a hand toward the approaching storm. She was small even for an Arbora, her white-blonde hair wild as usual, and after the long journey her loose red smock was even more ragged. She was the oldest Arbora in the court, and age had leached the color from her skin so she looked far more delicate than she actually was. She was also the chief of the mentor caste, the Arbora who were shamen, augurs, and healers. "We'll have to go below the tree canopy anyway, so Stone's right, we might as well try to reach the new colony."
Pearl's tail lashed, though whether she was angry at the storm or angry at Flower, or just angry in general, it was hard to tell. Her scales were brilliant gold, the webbed pattern overlaying them a deep blue. The frilled mane behind her head was bigger than Jade's, and there were more frills on the tips of her folded wings and on the end of her tail. She was a head taller than any of the Aeriat, and wore only jewelry, a broad necklace with gold chains and polished blue stones. She said, "I could have gotten that advice from a fledgling."
Jade's spines twitched with the effort to keep silent, but she had been trying hard to get along with Pearl. Moon hoped she could last until they reached the colony. Flower, who was better at dealing with Pearl, said dryly, "Then next time ask a fledgling."
That had been in the late afternoon, and it was the edge of twilight now. Thunder rumbled continuously, the sky dark gray with clouds and the cool wind heavily scented with rain. The Arbora and Aeriat crowded around on the deck, waiting with nervous impatience, most of them in groundling form to conserve their strength. Moon, by virtue of being a consort, had a place along the railing. He stood next to Chime and Knell, who was leader of the Arbora caste of soldiers.
Knell scratched his shoulder through his shirt, grimacing. He had been wounded in the Fell attack on the colony, the attack that had killed many of the other soldiers, and had new claw scars all down his chest. He said, "I hope Blossom knows what she's doing."
Blossom was the teacher who steered the Indala, on Niran's instructions. Chime stirred uneasily, but said, "She's done fine so far."
"She hasn't had to do anything so far." Knell threw him a sour look. "Except go forward and stop."
Knell was Chime's clutchmate, along with Bell, the new leader of the teacher caste. Neither looked much like Chime, Knell and Bell both having dark hair in their groundling forms and being more brown than bronze, though they were both tall for Arbora. It wasn't unusual for Arbora clutches to produce one or two Aeriat warriors, something that the mentors attributed to generations of Arbora breeding with queens and consorts. It was unusual that Chime had been born an Arbora mentor, not an Aeriat warrior.
Sometime a turn or so ago, long before Moon had come to the court, Chime had shifted and turned into a warrior. Flower and the other mentors believed it was because of the pressure on the colony from disease and warfare, and the lack of warrior births. Unlike Arbora, warriors were infertile, and could also travel longer distances to find food. Chime had been horrified by the change, and from what Moon could tell, still wasn't that reconciled to it.
"All right," Chime said to Knell, annoyed, "Both boats will crash and we'll all die, are you happy now?"
"We'd better do it soon then, before the storm kills us," Knell told him.
Suddenly I see the resemblance, Moon thought, carefully not smiling. Knell was right about the storm, though. Moon could already feel the presence of lightning somewhere nearby, as a tingle on his skin.
From the forest below, Stone flew up through a gap in the canopy, his wings knocking aside branches and leaves. He shot up past them, circled back, then dove back down through the gap.
From the bow, Jade shouted back to Niran. "We need to follow him down!"
Niran, standing in front of the steering cabin, looked horrified. Thunder rumbled again, reminding everyone that they didn't have a choice.
The Valendera went first. It carefully maneuvered down through the narrow gap in the canopy, while Arbora hung off the sides to give directions to Niran. The ship sank past layers of branches that scraped at the hull and the railings, scattered leaves and twigs across the deck. Finally they moved down into green shadows, as the wind died away to a cool, damp, sweet-scented breeze. The lower branches of the trees grew lush flowers in blues and purples, that wound down the dark gray trunks. There was far more room under the canopy than Moon had expected, a vast green space. The flying boats could sail around down here easily. Niran eased the Valendera forward, gliding between the trunks, leaving room for the Indala to follow it down.
Moon leaned over the railing and tried to see the ground, but it was hundreds of paces down, lost in the shadows. Not far below the ship he could see platforms covered with greenery standing out from the trees and completely encircling the trunks, connecting the trees to each other in a web, many more than large enough for the Valendera to set down on. They looked like tethered chunks of sky-island, covered with grass and flowers, dripping with vines, most supporting glades of smaller trees. But as the ship drifted closer to one, he saw the platforms were thick branches that had grown together and intertwined in broad swathes, catching windblown dirt and seeds until they built up into solid ground.
Everyone was quiet, just taking it in. "These are mountain-trees," Chime said softly, as he leaned out over the rail. "The platforms are the suspended forest. I read about this a long time ago, but I never thought I'd see it."
Once the Indala had safely lowered down to join them, Niran came out of the cabin to look critically up at the tree canopy. "We should be safe enough if we can tie off somewhere down here."
Knell nodded, looking up. "We're going to get wet, though." High overhead, the heavy wind bent the treetops, rushed through the leaves, as rain fell in fitful gusts.
Stone caused a mild sensation by climbing down through the upper branches and dropping down onto the deck. Arbora and Aeriat scrambled out of his way and the ship rocked under his weight before he shifted back to groundling. The rainwater that had already collected on his scales splashed down onto the boards to form a pool around him, and his hair and clothes were soaked. Not seeming to notice, he pointed off between the giant trees. "That way."
Niran turned to him, frowning. "Is it far? If the wind rises too much, we could still be driven into a tree."
"It's not far, and it's better shelter than this," Stone told him. "If you think it's getting too dangerous, we can stop."
Niran looked up at the treetops again to gauge the strength of the wind. He didn't look entirely happy, but he nodded. "Very well."
Stone headed toward the bow, where Jade and Pearl waited. Niran threw a thoughtful look at Moon. "It surprises me that he listens to my objections."
Stone was used to taking advice from the Arbora, and he had traveled further and dealt with more different peoples than anyone else in the court, even Moon. It had been Stone's idea to go to the Yellow Sea to trade with the Islanders for the use of their boats. But Moon only said, "He likes groundlings."
With a skeptical shake of his head, Niran went back to the steering cabin.
As the Valendera began to move again, Moon left the railing and followed Stone toward the bow, making his way through the Arbora and Aeriat. They crowded along the railings, clung to the mast, perched on every available space that gave a view. The fear of being caught in the storm had given way to excitement and anticipation, and uneasiness, since not everyone was as sure of their situation as Stone. Moon couldn't imagine the confidence it took to bring these people all this way, to live in a new place that only you had seen. Not that they had anywhere to go back to if they didn't like it, but still.
Jade stood against the railing in the bow with Flower. Pearl was there with River, Drift, Vine, Floret, and some other warriors. River flicked a resentful look at Moon, but even he was too preoccupied to provoke a fight.
Moon stepped up to the railing next to Jade, and she absently put an arm around his waist. He leaned against her, trying not to feel self-conscious in front of Pearl.
It grew darker, the green-tinted sunlight muted as clouds closed in high above the treetops. The drizzle turned into a light rain that pattered on the deck. The platforms of the suspended forest grew wider and more extensive. Many of them overlapped, or were connected by broad branches, with ponds or streams. Waterfalls fell from holes in some of the mountain-sized trees; Moon wondered if the water was drawn up from the forest floor through the roots. It was like a whole multi-layered second forest, hanging between the tree canopy and the ground, somewhere far below.
Then the trunks of the mountain-trees fell away, though the canopy overhead seemed even thicker. Moon realized they were sailing toward a shadowy shape directly ahead, a single great tree.
Jade looked back at Stone. There was tension in her voice as she asked, "Is that it?"
He nodded. There were nervous murmurs from the others, a shiver of movement that reverberated back through the crowded deck.
The multiple layers of branches reached up like giants' arms, and the trunk was enormous, wider around than the base of the ruined step pyramid that had formed the old Indigo Cloud colony. From the lower part of the trunk, greenery platforms extended out, multiple levels of them, some more than five hundred paces across. A waterfall fell out of a knothole nearly big enough to sail the Valendera through, plunged down to collect in a pool on one of the platforms, then fell to the next, and the next, until it disappeared into the shadows below.
The platforms held only flowers, mossy grass, and stands of smaller trees, but many showed signs of once being worked into beds for crops, with the remnants of raised areas for planting and dry ponds and channels that must have been for irrigation.
Everyone was silent. Then Pearl twitched and settled her spines. She said, "Stone. Lead us in."
The warriors moved back and Stone took two long steps forward, caught hold of the railing and vaulted it. He shifted in midair, his big form momentarily blotting out the view of the tree as he snapped his wings out.
Pearl hissed a command and went over the railing. The warriors followed, and Vine paused to pick up Flower. Moon leapt after Jade.
They flew through the light rain, and Stone lead the way toward the huge knothole, which was more than big enough for him to comfortably land in. He moved further in, around the edge of the pool, and shifted to groundling. Moon landed beside him, folded his wings, and turned to look around. Jade and the others landed and Vine set Flower on her feet. Chime and a few other Aeriat caught up with them a moment later.
In the cavernous space, folds of the trunk formed multiple nooks and chambers, extending back into the interior until the green-gray light failed. The pool, partly choked with weeds and moss, wound back away into the depths; the water fell over the edge of the opening, the sound as it struck the pond below so faint it was lost in the rain. Lush green vines wound over the walls, but Moon could see carvings in the smooth wood. Serpentine shapes, claws, a pointed wingtip. Like the images on the metal vessels and jewelry the Arbora made.
Stone walked beside the pool toward the back of the chamber. No one seemed to want to break the silence. Moon glanced back and saw River touch Pearl's arm, and point to something on the floor. He looked down and saw there were small squares set into the wood, something with a faint shine like mother of pearl, white shading to green and pink, glittering in the dim light. They were set all along the rim of the pool, scattered over the floor.
There was a doorway ahead, round and ringed with carvings. Stone stepped through, Jade and Pearl followed him, and the others trailed after.
Moon paused to taste the air, but there was nothing but the musky-sweet scent of the tree itself, and the earthy smells of dirt and dead leaves and water. Whether he liked it or not, this would be their permanent home, he reminded himself. He took a deep breath, told himself to stop worrying, and followed the others.
Light shone ahead in the entry passage and he found a disk set into the wall, a curving graceful shell-shape, like something that would wash up on a beach. It glowed now with the soft heatless light of magic; Flower must be renewing the spells on them as she went by. It was enough to show that the passage narrowed to only a few paces across and wound through several switchbacks, probably for defense. Major kethel, the largest breed of Fell, couldn't get through here at all without shifting to groundling form. Even minor dakti, the smallest Fell, would have to come through a few at a time; an attempt to swarm would probably leave them jammed up in one of these tight turns, and the whole passage could be easily blocked or defended from the inside. And if there were multiple exits, hidden in the folds of the trunk, it would be near impossible to trap the inhabitants inside. And that canopy, nothing could dive through that without knowing where the openings are.
Right at the point where Moon was wondering if the whole place was a maze, the passage widened out again and he heard water falling.
He stepped out into another cavernous chamber. Two glowing shells were already lit and Flower was just touching a third, its light blooming to catch reflections off walls so smooth they seemed lacquered. Two open stairways spiraled up the far wall, with slim pillars widely spaced along the steps. They criss-crossed and led up to balconies, higher levels with round doorways. Directly across from the entrance, just below the first cross of the stairways, there was an opening with water falling out of it, streaming down the wall to a pool in the floor. There wasn't any open channel leading away, but this could be the source for the water flow in the outer knothole.
The others moved around, staring, exclaiming softly. Stone said, "This is the opening hall, for gathering, for greeting."
Jade turned to take it in. "The court must have been huge."
Chime went to the nearest stair and ran his hand down one slim pillar, marveling at it. "Did they carve it all out?"
"No." Stone stood in the center, his face tilted up to the central well. "The Arbora made it grow like this."
Everyone looked around again, as if trying to picture it. Flower shook her head, regretful, awed. "There's much we've forgotten."
Moon moved to Stone's side and looked up. The well wound up through the tree in a big spiral to vanish into darkness. It was like the central well of the step pyramid that had held the last colony, only much larger and far more impressive; he wondered if the slight resemblance was why the Raksura had chosen the ruin.
Stone nodded toward a stair spiraling down the wall. "That leads down to the nurseries and the teachers' bowers. We should be able to fit most of the court in there, at least for tonight."
"One section of bowers big enough to fit all of us?" Chime muttered. "I don't know whether it means our court is too small or this one was too big."
"A little of both, maybe," Floret said, looking up at the well.
"This was our court." Stone's voice was quiet, but everyone went suddenly still. "You're all descended from the Raksura who lived here."
Except me, Moon thought. He had found Indigo Cloud intimidating enough when it had been installed at the small colony. Trying to imagine this place populated with hundreds of Raksura made his nerves twitch.
Thunder rumbled outside, and Moon flinched, then settled his spines to hide it.
"We need to get the others in, and tie off the boats," Jade said to Pearl.
Pearl flicked her spines in acknowledgement, but for once she seemed more excited than annoyed. She turned to the warriors. "Go back and tell Knell and Bone to choose a group of soldiers and hunters as guards and scouts, and have the rest of the Aeriat fly them over. We need to make certain there's nothing dangerous before we bring in the clutches and the rest of the Arbora."
Everyone scrambled to obey.
Moon helped fly the first group of Arbora, including Bone, Knell, forty or so other hunters and soldiers, and the two young mentors, Heart and Merit, from the boats to the tree's knothole entrance. With all the warriors joining in, it didn't take long, though the steadily increasing rain drumming on their wings and the deepening gloom under the canopy reminded them that time was limited. The other Arbora still stuck on the boats weren't happy with the delay, but they had to make certain the tree was safe.
Once they were assembled in the greeting hall, Pearl told them, "The Aeriat will search upwards, the Arbora will go down. Move quickly, make certain there's nothing dangerous here. You can stop and gawk at it all later." She jerked her head at Knell. "You stay here with the soldiers and make certain this level is safe."
Flower turned to Merit and Heart, both bouncing with barely restrained excitement. "One of you go with Chime, and light the lamps for the Aeriat. The other stay here with Knell and light the rest of this hall and the passages around it."
"I've never done shells before." Merit looked anxious. "Just moss and wood."
"You'll learn as you go," Chime said firmly, and caught Merit around the waist. He sprang up after the warriors who were already climbing the central well.
Moon hissed to himself in frustration, torn between wanting to join the warriors who were heading upward, and wanting to be a good consort. Stone had already disappeared and was unavailable to give advice; possibly he was making his own search or getting reacquainted with the place. Not wanting to admit to insecurity, even to himself, Moon followed Jade and Flower and the Arbora exploring party down the stairway that led below the greeting hall, to the section Stone had said they should make their camp for the night.
They followed the curving stairs down into another large central chamber, with a high domed roof and round doorways leading away. Only a little light from above fell down the stairwell and the room was a dark pit, even to Raksuran eyes. But the only scent was of must and leaf rot, and the space felt empty. Moon ran his hands over the wall as high as he could reach, feeling for light shells. Groundlings would have brought a candlelamp or a torch, he thought, frustrated. The hunters went down the steps, spread out along the wall in the dark, searching, until someone said, "Here's one!"
After a moment a shell further down the steps started to glow, revealing Flower standing on tip-toes to reach it. Jade and the hunters turned to look around the room.
The light crept up the wall, onto carvings of trees that curved up across the ceiling. It was a forest, picked out in detail, with plumes, spirals, fern trees, many others Moon couldn't name. Their branches entwined overhead, and their roots came down to frame the round doorways that led off to different rooms, as if you were standing in an enclosed and protected glade. The hunters murmured in appreciation, and Bone said in a hushed voice, "If every part of this place is as beautiful..."
Flower nodded, amusement and awe mingled in her expression. "If this is just the teachers' gathering hall, I can't wait to see the queens' level."
"We'll see it later." Jade stepped over the edge of the stairs to drop down to the floor. "We need to find all the approaches to this section, make certain we can guard it tonight." She turned to Bone. "And there has to be more passages outside, a better place to land the boats and unload them."
"We'll find it," he told her. He turned for the nearest doorway and made an abrupt gesture. The other hunters scattered and Flower hurried after them to light the shells. Moon and Jade followed more slowly, lingering to look. The other doorways led into an interconnected, multi-leveled maze of rooms, smaller stairways winding up, with balconies extending out over the wells. Without the sound of moving water it was too silent, haunted, much of it lost in darkness. Moon tried to shake off his uneasiness as he followed Jade through the empty place.
In one of the first rooms, they found something hanging from the ceiling, a big wooden thing like half a nutshell, only it was nearly ten paces across. It swayed gently when Jade pushed at it. "It's a bed," she said, sounding startled. "Stone's right, I think they grew this. Or made the tree grow it."
Moon felt the thick rope supporting one end of the bed, and realized it wasn't rope but a heavy vine. It joined the wood seamlessly, with no knots. The basket beds made for the old colony were obviously an attempt to duplicate this.
As they wandered through the level, they found more beds hanging from the ceiling or extending out from the walls. There were also shallow metal basins set into the smooth wood floors. Flower scratched experimentally at one, and said they were probably for the stones that mentors spelled to give off heat. She added, "I hope it means they had a forge, somewhere lower down."
"Did they bring the anvils?" Moon asked, remembering there had been some concern about that at the old colony.
"I left with Stone before they settled all that," she told him, looking around distractedly. "Niran thought they would plummet right through the ship's hull, and he may have been right."
Moon kept finding bits of debris, things left behind that hinted at the life once lived here. A spill of beads in the dust, each carved like a tiny flower; a curved wooden comb, some of the tines missing; a scrap of faded fabric caught on a carving; a white-glazed bowl, set aside and forgotten on a ledge.
Finally one of the hunters called Jade to come and look at another entrance on a lower level. It was a large round doorway closed by a heavy wooden panel that slid into place and sealed with bolts. After some tugging and pushing they had got the panel open, and found the doorway sat just above a big branch, nearly forty paces across, that lay nearly atop one of the old garden platforms. The Arbora thought it would be a good spot to secure the two boats, and would make it easier to unload them.
Moon followed them out the doorway into the rain and picked his way across the big muddy expanse. It felt like solid ground, barely trembling in the wind, and was covered with rambling root vines, probably all that was left of the crop that had once been planted here. He watched as, with careful maneuvering and a lot of shouted instructions, Niran and Blossom brought the two ships close in to the massive trunk. A picked group of Arbora scrambled under Niran's direction to cast ropes over the huge branch at both ships' bow and stern.
As the Arbora finished fastening the ships into place, Pearl and some of the Aeriat flew out of the knothole entrance above them and spiraled down to land nearby. To Jade, Pearl said, "The upper levels are empty."
Chime came over to Moon, squelching in the mud, his tail twitching with excitement. "It's the best colony we could ever have," he said. "There's so much room!"
Bone came out to report that he and Flower and the other hunters had ventured nearly down to the roots, to the bottom of the habitable areas, and found no sign of anything big enough to threaten them. "There's a lot of dirt and beetles, and tiny treelings that eat beetles, but that's all," Bone finished, the rain dripping off his spines. "The roots and the ground may be a different story, but the doors down there are sealed, and we didn't want to chance opening them without more help."
Lightning cracked somewhere overheard, and everyone ducked and winced. Jade said, "Even if there's a Ghobin colony down there, we still need shelter now."
Pearl didn't look at her, but she told Bone, "Call back the searchers and tell them to start unloading the boats. Have everyone keep to the teachers' level for tonight. We'll worry about the rest of the place tomorrow."
Everyone scattered to obey. The Arbora started to climb off the boats, all carrying loads of baskets and bags. Tired of feeling useless, Moon jumped up to the Valendera's railing to help. Rill, a teacher who was organizing the activity on the deck, called to the cluster of Arbora around her, "Take these first! We're bringing in the food stores and the bedding now, we'll worry about the rest later!"
Moon took the basket someone handed him, and flew it back to the doorway. He landed to carry it into the foyer, and was directed up the passage to a larger chamber where they were putting everything until they could decide what to do with it. He thought it was too small for even the goods stored on the two ships' decks, but he knew how quick the Arbora could be to arrange and organize, so he decided to keep his mouth shut and let them handle it.
As he came back down the passage, the clutches and fledglings were being carried carefully in by a group of teachers. Moon passed Bell carrying the Sky Copper clutch. The little queen Frost was in one arm and Thorn, the consort, was in the other. The smaller consort Bitter was wrapped tightly around Bell's neck, and from Bell's expression it wasn't comfortable. As they passed, Frost informed Moon, "This place is dark and wet and it smells funny!"
It was hard to argue with that. Moon said, "It'll be fine." Just keep telling yourself that, he thought.
But in the rush to unload the Valendera and Indala, Moon forgot his misgivings. Once the rest of the Aeriat returned, it was easier for them to move things from the decks down onto the platform, where the Arbora could then carry them into the tree. The wind was rising, but the two ships had been as well fastened to the giant branch as they could manage, their sails tightly folded. They were vibrating, but not showing any sign of movement that might cause damage.
As Moon lifted a cask off the deck, a warrior with gold scales passed him, carrying a basket. He glanced up in time to see her face. "Balm?"
She was Jade's clutchmate. She had been staying on the Indala and while Moon had asked after her, he hadn't managed to see her during the trip. Startled, she hesitated, as if about to speak. But the wind gusted and knocked a smaller warrior off the railing right toward Moon. He dropped the cask in time to catch the warrior, but when he set him back on his feet, Balm had already moved away. Moon collected the cask, giving up for the moment; it wasn't as if he knew what he was going to say to her, anyway.
They had gotten everything off the open decks of both ships, and moved part of the contents of the Valendera's hold, when the rain suddenly increased from an annoyance to a drenching torrent. The wind was still rising, hard enough to stir the branches of the lesser trees, and it was getting darker as night drew in.
A gust knocked another Aeriat off the railing and the smaller Arbora were getting stuck in the mud, and Moon thought it was time to halt for the night. The last thing they needed was for an Arbora to get swept off the platform or an Aeriat slammed into the trunk. He caught Song, and told her to pass the word to the others to get inside. Then he shooed a last few Arbora off the Indala and braved the wind to fly over to the Valendera's deck.
Arbora ran around helping Niran close and fasten down the hatches so the ship wouldn't fill with water. Moon found Bead pulling down the last of the waterproofed awnings and helped her bundle it up. "We need to get inside, it's too rough out here," he told her.
She nodded distractedly, water streaming off her head frills. She trembled with exhaustion. "We've got everything off the decks, all the food stores-- I think everything else can stay for now."
"Good." Moon saw Floret and Root perched on the branch, and waved them down. As they dropped down onto the deck, he handed the bundled awning to Root and handed Bead to Floret, telling them, "Make sure she gets inside. Tell the others we're done for tonight."
Floret scooped up Bead and leapt back to the branch. Root said, "You know, consorts aren't supposed to do things like this, not unless they're line-grandfathers, like Stone."
Moon, about to turn away, paused and stared down at him.
Root stepped back, saying defensively, "That's what I always heard."
Moon lifted his spines. "Get in the tree."
Moon stalked across the deck, caught a last few Arbora and Aeriat and sent them after the others. The problem was that Root might well be right. But for most of Moon's life, traveling from groundling cities to settlements to camps, joining in for community work was one of the best ways to be accepted. For smaller settlements, it was sometimes required for travelers who wanted to stay for even a few days. And he found it hard to believe that a real consort raised in a court would just stand around and do nothing while everyone else was frantically working. You could ask Stone or Jade or Flower, he told himself. But they might answer you. And it might be the wrong answer. He had no idea what he would do if Jade told him to just sit to one side and watch. Besides die of boredom and frustration. No, it was better to keep pretending he just didn't know any better, at least for now. Hopefully he could keep it up for a long time.
Moon found Blossom and Niran in the bow, arguing. Or at least he thought they were arguing; the rain was so heavy now they might just be shouting to hear each other. He got their attention by lifting and spreading his wings, shielding them from the downpour. Blossom turned to him and waved a hand in exasperation. "Niran thinks he should stay out here tonight!"
Moon should have seen that one coming. Stubbornness in the face of implacable odds was Niran's specialty, and he was determined to bring both ships home intact to his family, whether it killed him or not. Moon would rather get Niran home intact to his family. He said, "Niran, we don't know this place at all. Something could climb up here, crack this boat like a nut, and eat you."
His clothes dripping and his white hair plastered to his scalp, Niran shook his head. "I've spent many nights in strange places aboard these ships--"
"Yes, with your people. Not alone." Moon had seen how the Islanders had reacted when the Fell had threatened them; they had been more than willing to abandon the ships to save the crews. "You're telling me your grandfather and sister would think this was a good idea?"
Niran just set his jaw and didn't try to answer that. "If the wind grows worse--"
"You won't be able to do anything," Blossom insisted. "If something happens to the ships, we can always give you their value, or fix them. We can probably fix them."
Moon considered just grabbing both of them and dragging them inside. But Niran seemed to be swayed by Blossom's argument. Water streaming down his face, he grudgingly admitted, "Very well."
Niran and Blossom still wanted to check over both ships, but finally they admitted both were as secure as possible. Moon picked Niran up and jumped down from the railing to land on the grassy platform, now awash in mud. He set Niran down, as Blossom swung down the side of the ship after them and landed with a splash.
They squelched through the mud, Niran staggering in the wind, and made their way toward the circle of light that marked the doorway. Blossom scrambled through, and Moon gave Niran a boost, then climbed in after him.
Niran sat down on the floor with a gasp of relief, and Moon resisted the urge to shake the water out of his spines. The foyer was still crowded with wet muddy Raksura; no one had shifted to groundling, since that would just transfer the mud to their clothing. Others were carrying the last of the baskets and bundles away down the passage.
"That's everyone!" Bone called out, and he and two other hunters put their shoulders to the heavy door, sliding it closed and shutting out the rain and wind.
Blossom took Niran's arm and helped him up. "Come on, let's find Bead and Spice. They were supposed to make up a bower for us."
"A what?" Niran said, wringing his shirt out as he followed her.
Someone handed Moon one of the pieces of scrap cloth being passed around, and he used it to scrape the mud off his feet and claws. Finishing, he glanced up in time to see Balm slip unobtrusively down a passage. He tossed the cloth back onto the pile and followed her.
He caught up with her just past the foyer, where the passage divided into three directions, all heading up into different parts of the teacher's level. "Balm, where are you going?"
She stopped, her spines twitching uneasily. "To find somewhere to sleep--" Three young warriors slid past, carefully not looking at her, and Balm hissed. "I'm tired of feeling like I did something wrong."
Balm hadn't done anything wrong, except be unlucky enough to be used by the Fell to spy on the colony. Fell could influence groundlings, cause them to believe anything the Fell told them, and to do things they would never do in their right minds. They could use this power to a lesser extent on Raksura, but it didn't work as well. The Fell had been able to make Balm tell them about the court's plans, but she had had no memory of it, no awareness of what she was doing. Moon had seen enough groundlings in this same state to know it wasn't her fault. But it had put Balm at a severe disadvantage in the maneuvering for dominance between Pearl's faction of warriors and Jade's. He said, "Then stop acting like it. Don't let them treat you like this." Jade's influence could only protect Balm so far. River and his cronies couldn't attack Balm outright; now that Pearl was taking more interest in the court, the last thing River wanted was to make her angry enough to intervene. But they could make Balm's life a misery, and know that they were hurting Jade by proxy. And Balm just didn't deserve it. "You belong with Jade."
Balm hesitated, obviously torn. But she said, "I'll...think about it," and turned away.
Moon hesitated, half-tempted to follow, but he didn't know what else to say to persuade her. He turned to the passage to the teachers' hall.
As he walked through the bowers this time they were anything but haunted and silent. Flower and the other mentors had been renewing the spells on every light-shell they could find. The warm light caught red and yellow highlights in the wood, chased the shadows away, threw the wall carvings into high relief. Arbora and Aeriat were everywhere, cleaning dirt and debris out of the bower beds, hanging wet clothes off the stairwell balconies, pulling bedding out of baskets. Their voices echoed through the rooms; they were excited to finally be here, relieved to be free of the cramped quarters on the boats.
Moon wanted to check on Bitter, Frost, and Thorn, and see the other clutches, so he followed the sound of squeaking and chattering. He had been the one to find the three Sky Copper fledglings in the Dwei hive, where the Fell had been keeping them as part of their plan to make more Raksuran crossbreeds. He wasn't sure if the clutch had gotten so attached to him because of the rescue or because he was the first Raksura they had seen after their colony had been destroyed. Whatever the reason, Frost persisted in telling everyone that they were Moon's clutch now.
There had been no question that Indigo Cloud would adopt them, and at the moment the court had no other royal fledglings. If Moon and Jade didn't produce any fledgling queens of their own, Frost could end up as reigning queen of the court. Moon knew that wasn't anyone's preference, but that it was a relief to have the option available. And it would be twenty or thirty turns at least before Frost would be old enough to even be considered a sister queen, which gave him and Jade plenty of time to have their own clutches.
He found a round doorway with the lintel carved with baby Arbora and Aeriat, tumbling in play, and stepped through into a big low-ceilinged chamber.
At the moment, it was a chaotic mess, with Arbora children and a few warrior fledglings, all badly overexcited and shifting at random, as the teachers tried to calm them and put them to bed in nests of blankets and cushions. It was even more obvious here that there had been far more Arbora births than Aeriat. Hopefully things would even out, now that the court was in this new colony and free of the Fell influence that had haunted it for so many turns.
Circling the chamber looking for the Sky Copper royals, Moon passed a maze of smaller rooms opening off the main area, and several shallow fountain pools, now dry. The place had been meant to house far more children than Indigo Cloud could boast.
"Moon," Bark called, a little desperately. Her arms were full with a crying Arbora toddler. She nodded down toward her feet, where Bitter was in Raksuran form, trying to hold onto Bark and two very young and squirming Arbora. "Could you--"
Moon crouched down, untangled Bitter's claws from Bark's skirt and coaxed him to let go of the toddlers. "Bitter, if you want to hold them, you have to shift. Otherwise you could scratch them." From what Moon had seen, the Arbora that age shifted randomly back and forth, but their claws and spines were still soft; Bitter's had already hardened, and he was still learning how to handle them.
Bitter looked up at him with big eyes, then reluctantly shifted. As a groundling he was a thin little boy, with dark bronze skin and a thatch of dark hair, dressed in a shirt that was too big for him.
Moon sat Bitter down on the nearest cushion, put one of the Arbora in his lap and the other next to him. Now that they weren't being accidentally prodded by Bitter's claws, they settled comfortably against him and shifted back to groundling.
"Thank you," Bark said in relief. The baby she held settled down too, and sniffled and hooked claws into her shoulder. Bark nodded toward a bundle of blankets nearby. Frost and Thorn were curled up asleep there, Frost in her wingless form and Thorn as a groundling. He was clutching her tail in one hand. "Those two went right to sleep, but Bitter's been upset about the storm. Haven't you, sweet baby?"
Bitter looked up at her and nodded solemnly, keeping a firm grip on the Arbora. Moon suspected it wasn't the storm. Any upheaval had to be frightening for him. Bitter, Frost, and Thorn had seen their entire court killed, the queens and consorts, the other children in the nurseries, the Arbora who had taken care of them, everyone they had ever known.
Something similar had happened to Moon, he just didn't remember it. He told Bitter, "I won't be far away. Jade and I are just out there in the central hall. All right?"
Bitter nodded solemnly again, and allowed himself to be tucked into a nest with the Arbora babies.
Moon left the nurseries. Bitter obviously remembered what had happened to his court, all too clearly. Moon's earliest memory was of living in the forest with Sorrow and the others. So he must have been even younger than Bitter when his court had been destroyed.
Just down the passage, he found Chime, Flower, and Rill in the teachers' hall, all in groundling form, unpacking baskets and laying out bedding. Root and Song were already there, vigorously drying off their scales. With the glowing shells casting light on the carved forest, surrounded by the noise and scents of the rest of the court, the hall was much more welcoming.
Moon's scales were dry enough now, and he shifted to groundling and stretched, trying to ease his sore shoulder. Chime looked up, still flushed with excitement, and told him, "Jade's staying in here tonight, and Pearl is near the stairs on the level below with some more warriors. That way if anything tries to get in, it'll run into one of us first. One of them. You know what I mean."
"Good." Even if nothing else had taken up residence in the tree, there was always the chance their presence would attract predators.
Flower carried a basket over to the heating basin, and dumped out a load of small flat river rocks. She sat beside the basin and held out her hands. After a moment, heat started to rise. She sat back with a sigh, and tucked her skirts under her feet. "That's better."
Rill nodded, pulling out more blankets to hand to Song and Root. "It'll get the damp out of the air." She glanced around and pointed to one of the baskets. "Moon, those are some things from Jade's bower, and we put yours in there too."
As far as Moon knew, he didn't have any things except the clothes he was wearing. Everything he had owned had been left behind in the Cordans' camp. He went to open the basket.
On top were heavy quilted blankets and bed cushions, in shades of dark blues and sea greens, with patterns picked out in gold. He lifted those out and set them aside, figuring that was what they would be sleeping on tonight. Next there were a few rolled leather wraps; peeking inside one, he saw it held jewelry, silver strands wound with polished green stones and deepwater pearls. Jade had used all the jewelry she had been wearing on their trip to the east to pay for supplies and to give to Selis, in return for helping them. Apparently there was plenty more where that came from. He was beginning to realize that the Raksura didn't measure wealth in gems or even the sturdy colorful fabrics the Arbora made. He wasn't sure what they did measure wealth in. "That's a lot of jewelry."
Flower sounded wry. "It's nothing to what Stone's collected over the years."
"I only hope we found it all." Rill, unpacking a copper-chased kettle, made a helpless gesture. "He had it hidden all over the colony. After everything that happened--"
"Don't worry about it, not tonight." Chime took the kettle away from her and set it on the warming stones.
Looking for more bedding, Moon pushed the leather rolls aside. The fur blanket beneath, the long soft hair dyed to the purple haze of twilight, looked familiar. He pulled it out to find it was bundled around a belt with a sheathed knife, the dark soft leather tooled with red in a serpentine pattern, with round buckles of red gold. These were the consort's gifts Jade had left at the bower he had been using in the teachers' hall at the old colony. The knife's hilt was carved horn, the blade was a tooth, sharp as glass but as strong as fine metal. He hadn't accepted them at the time, having no idea what he would be getting into and mostly certain that he hadn't wanted to get into anything. Now... Now it's different, he reminded himself. And he still really wanted that knife.
He left it and the belt on top of Jade's jewelry and added the blanket to their nest of bedding. Suddenly self-conscious, he looked around to make sure no one was watching him, especially Stone. Then he realized he hadn't seen him since they arrived. "Where's Stone?"
Flower, carefully unwrapping a cake of pressed tea, said, "He went up to look around the queens' level. That was a while ago," she added, frowning.
Chime dropped a last cushion onto a pile of bedding and glanced up, worried. "You think something's wrong?"
"No, not wrong, just..." Flower hesitated. "This place was his home, a long time ago."
She was right, this had to be strange for Stone. Moon put the lid back on the basket and said, "I'll find him."
He took the stairs up to the greeting hall, where the soldiers had spread their bedding out around a hearth basin near the fountain. Merit was still with them, looking small next to the bigger Arbora. Merit waved, but the soldiers just stared at Moon with wary curiosity.
He shifted and jumped to climb straight up the wall, finding plenty of handholds built into the carving, rough from where generations of Raksura had hooked their claws. He followed the spiral well up and up, climbing past open balconies and galleries.
Somewhere far below, he heard a voice raised in song, that echoed up through the passages of the tree. Moon winced. Please, not tonight. Hopefully they were too weary for a full chorus.
The court had sung once aboard the flying boats, one night when they had been passing over a grass plain. It had been a dirge for the dead members of the court, and for the colony ruined by the Fell. The mingled voices had been so low and deep, so heavy with pain and loss, the deck of the Valendera had trembled like a sounding board.
Moon had slipped away from Jade's side, retreating to the deck cabin. The door was partly open, and he ducked his head inside. Light came from glowing moss stuffed into the glass candlelamps, and Niran sat on the bed, which folded out from one of the benches along the wall. He said, "You might as well come in, everyone else does."
Knowing Niran, Moon took that for the invitation it was. He stepped in, and sat cross-legged on the deck. For a normal voyage, Niran would have quarters belowdeck, but all those rooms were stuffed with supplies and Arbora. The waist-high wooden pillar in the center of the cabin held the fragment of flying island that kept the boat aloft, and let it travel the streams of force that crossed the Three Worlds. There were also a couple of clay water jars, and baskets of supplies, one with a pottery bowl and cup stacked atop it. Niran had a few bundles of paper next to him on the blankets, and a wooden writing tablet in his lap. He said, dryly, "I'm keeping a record of our travels, for my grandfather. He would never forgive me if I didn't."
Moon settled his back against the wall to support his sore shoulder. "It'll help him get over missing this trip."
"Hopefully." Niran nodded toward the door. "You don't participate in the...concert?"
Moon hesitated, debating several different excuses, then settled for, "I don't know how." Not counting the court's stupid rules and customs, everything else about being Raksuran he had either learned from Sorrow or figured out for himself. The singing was alien, and it made him deeply uneasy. In its own way, it was as disturbing as the queens' connection to every member of their court, the connection that let them keep you from shifting, or draw you in and make you feel like you were sharing a heart. It was too much like the Fell's power to influence and cloud the minds of groundlings. Jade hadn't shown any evidence of that ability yet, but that might be because she wasn't the reigning queen. Moon wasn't looking forward to the time when she did.
Niran lifted his brows and made a note. "I forget sometimes that you have only recently joined them."
Moon had wondered if anybody else would ever forget it. And you're worse than all of them, he told himself now. He hadn't even tried to sing, just run off to hide with the only available groundling.
Climbing the wall of the mountain-tree, he pushed the uncomfortable thoughts away. They were all here now, and it was time for new beginnings.
The greeting hall was far below him when the ceiling finally curved up to form a wide circular gallery. He climbed up onto it and found it opened into another hall.
A few wall-shells glowed, enough to chase away some of the shadows. More round doorways led off into other chambers, and there was a dry fountain against the wall, the pool below it empty and stained with moss at the bottom. The carving above it made him hiss in appreciation.
It was a queen, a queen bigger even than Stone's shifted form, her outspread wings stretched out across the walls to circle the entire hall, finally meeting tip to tip. Her carved scales glinted faintly in the dim light, and as Moon moved closer he saw they were set with polished sunstones.
High above her head there was another open gallery. The rooms off this level had to be the bowers and halls for the reigning queen and her sisters, and he was guessing that the level directly above was for the consorts.
The gallery was a little high, but Moon crouched and made the leap up, caught the ridged edge and swung up onto the floor.
The open space was ringed with doorways into a series of interconnected rooms. Moon shifted back to groundling, and wandered through the empty spaces, finding bower beds, heating basins, and dry fountain-pools, easily deep and wide enough for swimming. He found a couple of small stairways that led to the queens' chambers just below, and then another one that seemed to wind down a long way, probably to join the main stairs in the central well. There was an opening to the outside somewhere, because the air moved with the rush of wind, damp and fresh. With the place cleaned and swept, with warming stones and running fountains, furs and rich fabrics, it would be ridiculously comfortable. Moon couldn't imagine being born into this kind of luxury.
In a room against the outer trunk, he finally found Stone. He stood at a big round opening to the outside, looking out into the rainy gloom. The opening had a heavy wooden sliding door, like the one they had found on the lower entrance. Stone must have opened it, dislodging the dirt and rotting leaves now scattered across the floor.
Moon stepped up beside him. A giant branch blocked the view directly overhead, but the doorway looked down on the platforms far below, now sodden under the pouring rain. In the failing light, he could just make out the old irrigation channels and ponds filling up, making a ghost outline of the gardens that had once been there.
Stone didn't look around. His expression was, as usual, hard to read. He said, "It feels...wrong. It's too quiet."
The rain was a rushing din, but that wasn't the kind of noise he meant. Moon said, "It's not quiet downstairs." He leaned against the wall beside the opening. The air smelled rich with the rain, the dark earth and loam. "Were you here when they built-- grew this place?"
His eyes still on the drowning gardens, Stone's brow furrowed. "I'm not that old."
Thunder rumbled, not quite close enough to make Moon twitch. "But you lived here."
"For a while. I was a boy when Indigo and Cloud led the court away." From his expression, it was hard to tell if it was a good memory or a bad one. "I was too young and stupid to see it as anything but an adventure."
Then these rooms had been filled with light and life, when there had been so many Raksura here they had had to leave for more open territory. It had to be strange to see it like this, dark and empty, scented of nothing but must and stale water. Moon had never gone back to a place he had lived before. Unless you counted the Cordans' camp, and he hadn't felt anything there except impatience.
Still lost in memory, Stone added, "No one ever thought I'd get a queen, but Azure picked me out of the lot."
Moon frowned at him. "Why didn't they think you'd get a queen?"
Stone tapped his cheek, below his clouded right eye. He said, dryly, "I wasn't born perfect."
Moon had always thought that was a fighting injury, like the rest of Stone's scars. He knew consorts often went to other courts; Stone had been trying to get one from Star Aster when he had found Moon. But he supposed another court wouldn't want an imperfect consort either. "What do consorts do, when they can't get a queen?"
Stone thought about it for a long moment. "It depends on the court. Here... It wouldn't have been so bad. All the benefits of being a consort, and none of the responsibilities."
Moon was still working out what he felt about the benefits and responsibilities of being a consort. Before Jade, he would have been more than happy with the less complicated life of a warrior; all he had ever wanted was a place to live. Finding a place to live without having to hide what he was had been a completely unexpected turn of luck. But he could imagine how someone raised with the idea that the point of his life was to be a queen's mate and to make clutches would see things differently. "That could seem...pointless."
Stone didn't looked away from the ruined gardens. "It depends what you make of it."
Thunder crashed, near enough to send a tremble through the wood underfoot, and Moon flinched back from the flash.
Stone glanced at him, lifting a brow. Moon was prepared for some sort of remark, but all Stone did was drop a hand on the back of Moon's neck and shake him; affectionately, not hard enough to rattle his teeth. "Let's go."
Stone shoved the door into place, slid the bolts home, and they made their way down again. They took the long stairways down through the silent spaces, since Stone didn't seem to want to shift. The light-shells had been sporadically lit, giving glimpses of balcony-bowers hanging out over circular wells, dry fountains and pools, and carvings of Aeriat, Arbora, strange plants and animals mixed in with the more familiar. Much of it was inlaid with polished shell or glittering stones, or clear crystal. The singing had died away, and most of the court must have settled into sleep.
When they reached the greeting hall they found Knell, sitting at the hearth with the other soldiers. He nodded to Stone. "The hunters are at the stair just below the teachers' bowers, with Pearl and some warriors. Jade's just below us, outside the nurseries."
Stone looked around the hall thoughtfully. "I'll come back up later and sleep here."
Moon saw the flicker of relief cross Knell's face. This was the only entrance they had found so far that wasn't sealed, and if anything was going to object to their presence here, it would probably choose to enter that way. Stone would be a big deterrent.
They took the stairs down to the teachers' hall. Vine, Floret, and Sand had joined the others there, all in groundling form, and settled into a pile of bedding on the other side of the chamber. Root, demonstrating a youthful lack of nerves, was already curled up asleep.
Sand had always been in Jade's camp, but Moon had thought Vine and Floret were closer to Pearl. Either they had changed their allegiance or they were just here to help guard this side of the nurseries and the Arbora's bowers; it made him a little edgy not to know.
Moon sat down on one side of the hearth, Stone took the other and settled into place with a groan. Flower dipped cups of tea out of the steaming pot for them, asking Stone, "Are you all right?"
He gave her a sour look. "I'm old."
Flower smiled. "We'd noticed."
Jade came in from the passage, and Chime asked her, "Are we settled for now?"
"Finally." Jade shook out her head frills and shifted to Arbora. "Everyone is convinced that we need daylight to finish exploring, and we need rest before we make plans and argue about where to put everything."
Song said, "Your consort got your bed ready."
Lifting his cup, Moon froze, self-conscious. He had made the sleeping place without even thinking about it. When he and Jade had flown to the east together, they had quickly got into the habit of taking turns, one finding and preparing a place to sleep and the other hunting for food. Aboard the flying ship, he had been recovering from his injuries and staying in a cabin with the mentors and Chime, who had been taking care of him. He realized he had no idea how to live with Jade inside a colony, and he kept running into subtleties of Raksuran behavior that he had no idea how to react to. He knew the others were staring at him, and made himself take a sip of tea as if nothing was wrong.
Jade tilted her head to study Song thoughtfully. Song's eyes widened and she said, "I was just teasing!"
"Hmm," Jade commented. She went over to the baskets and opened one to dig through it.
Chime gave Song an exasperated look, then turned to the others, obviously changing the subject. "How much food do we have left?"
"Enough for several days, plus the fresh meat from the hunt this morning," Rill answered. "We still have about half the dried meat, because the Aeriat were refusing to eat it. We're getting low on dried fruit, sava flour, dried sava, and roots."
Stone said, "There are a lot of plants in this area that we can eat. Since no one's been eating them for who knows how many turns, there should be plenty around."
Jade sat down next to Moon, then leaned over to put something on the floor in front of him. It gleamed red-gold against the wood, catching the light; it was the bracelet that Stone had taken to Star Aster, the token to be given to the new consort. Moon picked it up. Having seen more of the Arbora's artwork, he could tell now that the fluid serpentine shapes etched into the band were two entwined Raksura. He looked up to see Jade watching him, the scales on her brow faintly creased with worry.
Moon put the bracelet on, just under the knobby bone in his wrist. Jade pulled his head down and her teeth grazed the skin behind his ear in a gentle nip.
Flower cleared her throat and smiled faintly. "At least there should be plenty of game around here, too."
Stone set his cup down. "We'll need to reestablish our territory. I should be able to find the old boundaries."
Jade glanced up. "Our territory? I wouldn't think we'd need to worry..." She eyed Stone more sharply. "Unless there's another court in this area?"
"There's several. This is the home forest, where our bloodlines were first born. There used to be colonies everywhere through here. Too many." Stone shrugged. "Now there's plenty of room."
end chapter two
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