Twelfth Year of the Council of Adra-Isruk, Waxing Moon of Shattering Skies
One thousand, five hundred, forty three years before the Dawngate opened
He observed his charges spinning and charging across the platforms. Far below, the hot still air of summer turned the narrow streets to haze. Up among the towers, there was yet a breath to stir their hair, just enough to scatter the sounds of laughter and chanting off into air between the towers. To the west, a marching rank of clouds muttered and snapped. He felt the wind, and rechecked his calculations. Confirmed; they would travel 1.24 parasang each fenjaan-cycle. The rain would not reach here until after they should be inside.
The sun had descended another degree towards the horizon. It would soon be time to reposition his charges within the tower. Parents would begin arriving; the earliest few would need their belongings gathered and stowed.
He folded his limbs carefully, lowering himself to head level with the girl at his feet. She had been constructing of structure of interlocking blocks that rose nearly to his knees.
“It is time to leave, Miss Ajaru,” he said, just loud enough for her to hear.
“Uh-huh,” she said, grey eyes locked on her work, hands moving with quick, precise gestures, moving one block after another from a disordered pile to a sweeping, subtly curved wall. A frown passed across her face, and she lightly tapped an errant brick into accord with its neighbors. Forest-green braids cascaded down her back, softly lit from within by cunningly Shaped jewels of Luminosity.
Her parents had paid handsomely for the Blood Shaping that had removed the fluid from her lungs and the salt from her skin, and instead burned the blessings of the Spirit of Edifice into the essence of her. Architects, they had designed an architect to carry on their business.
“Will you be leaving this for tomorrow, Miss?”
“What?” she blinked, looking up. “It’s not done.”
“I am sorry. Your fathers will be here soon.”
“Oh,” she said, looking at the half-built wall with dismay. She rubbed dry and burning eyes – when she was building she often forgot to blink. “But…” She waved her hands over it. “I need to finish there. And the load bearing bit there. And – and what if it gets blowed over, Faris?” Her hands hovered over the piles of blocks, fingertips prickling to pluck and place and make reality out of the image that burned and sang in her quicksilver mind.
“’Blown over,’” he corrected, and laid a hand on her back. “I believe the safety walls will protect your work from the wind.”
Compare: height of wind barriers to Ajaru-su-Salimat’s construct.
Recall: friction and average mass of a one cubic aiwas cedar block.
Measure: wind speed (increasing at irregular rates).
“Confirmed,” he intoned, staring off into the eye of the wind. “Wind velocity must exceed 6.74 ppfc to affect-"
The last rose light slipped over the western peaks, setting the edges of her face aglow. Long dark hair floated on the evening wind, fine as spider’s silk. She pulled her cloak tighter as the wind tore the words from her mouth.
“You don’t see me as a woman, do you?” she said, wiping under her nose with the back of her hand. “Because I’ve been around all this time. Like your sisters.” She turned to him, jade eyes brimming with stars, and fumbled to clutch at his hand. “But everyone I see, I compare to you.” She searched his eyes with a fragile smile, and touched his cheek. “Don’t you ever do the same? After all these years?”
“You all right, Faris?” Ajaru asked, leaning forward and peering into his light-catching lens. She slipped out of her light robe and draped it over his shoulders. “Did you see her again?”
“I - Yes, Miss,” he said, and looked at his hands. Bronze, glinting in the dying sun, threaded with filaments of crystal and scribed with dim sigils. Trembling. “You should keep your robe. I do not feel cold.”
“She was pretty, wasn’t she?” she whispered, taking his metal hands. The Shapings etched across his shell told him that her hands were cold, but the knowledge was remote, abstract, a set of numbers. He couldn’t feel her touch. He increased the heat generated in his hands, and cupped them around hers.
“Dama Erishti was radiant,” he told her.
“You miss her,” she said, with the certainty of a child. One small, thin-fingered hand rubbed his arm. He looked up into her silver eyes, bright with genius and warm with concern.
“I remember how Akaid missed her,” he said. “But I am not him. Do not be concerned for me, Miss Ajaru. I am not in distress.” He rose, and stepped carefully over the sweep of her miniature walls. “Will you help me gather the other children?”
“Sure!” She turned, drew a breath, and hollered across the platform. “Hey! Time to go in!” Faces and groans rose to meet her cry. A powerful voice was another part of her design; one of her fathers had hopes she would become a singer.
“That was… not quite what I meant, Miss Ajaru.”
She gave him a quick, winning smile, then turned to shout at a sour-faced boy muttering in her direction. “I heard that! If Faris wasn’t here, I would kick you in your nethers!”
“Miss, I really cannot allow any nether-kicking…”
* * *
All the talk was of the war.
He knelt and arranged the weight distribution of Ajaru’s bags as one of her fathers spoke with the other parents. Outside the sky was darkening, gusts of wind making the bridges wail. The sky grumbled fitfully as distant forks of lightning broke across the sky.
“They say the Overlord vowed our destruction,” one of the adults said.
“She always vows destruction of whatever she doesn’t like today.” Faris didn’t need to look; the eyeroll was obvious from the man’s tone. “Now it’s us. A few years ago it was another pogram against the ottrekin. My mother said that when she was young, the Overlord back then vowed the destruction of rats. That’s just what the Henj have been like since… well, since they were Henj.”
The other parent looked out at the storm, hands fretting. “But now there’s this… zealotry. The Henj are far away. All the people outside the city talk about is Blood Shaping. How unnatural it is-”
“They’d have us living in caves, eating raw meat. That’s ‘natural’ living. The Henj-men don’t matter. It would take them weeks to march here. We’d be ready.”
“Stop fussing, Faris,” Ajaru complained, tugging her long braids out from under her pack.
Faris pulled his hands away. “Are you sure you do not wish your robe back?” he asked. “It will rain soon.”
She frowned at him. “Without it you’d have nothing on at all.”
“That is true,” Faris replied. “But I do not need protection from the weather.”
She put her fists on her hips. “Father-Naram says you can’t never leave the house without pants.”
“That should be ‘cannot ever.’”
“Is she ready, Faris?” Ajaru’s father asked.
“Yes, Mani Naram,” he bowed respectfully.
The architect fiddled with his collar. “Was this a good day?” he asked, gazing down at his silver-eyed daughter. She was bouncing restlessly from one foot to another, looking anxiously out at her half-finished construct on the platform.
“Every day is unique,” Faris said. “Ajaru is always stimulating to interact with.”
The corner of Naram’ mouth twitched. “And exhausting to keep up with.”
Faris inclined his head respectfully. “She has a restless mind. Fortunately, I do not tire.”
“Father,” she tugged at the hem of his sleeve. “I was building a wall. Like the one Father-Dipani’s making. Only real small. And I added a curve to it. And it’s made of wood. And-"
“And I want to see it, love,” Naram said. “But not today.”
Her father brushed a fraying evergreen braid behind her ear. She squirmed impatiently away from his hand, hovering on the balls of her feet, ready to bolt out to her abandoned work. “It would only take a moment, father.” Faris shifted slightly to the right, ready to sweep her up if she ran for the door.
“We need to get home before it rains,” Naram said, and pointed at the lowering sky.
“Your father is correct,” Faris said. “It is dangerous to be on the towers during a lightning-storm. I will be descending once I see you all safely off."
“But-” She stared out at the half-finished wall, fingers worked the air, caressing and placing imaginary blocks. Faster they flew, like swallows darting through the air. “It makes my fingers all itchy inside, Faris. I got to finish. I need to.”
She jammed her fingertips between her teeth and bit hard. “Thtop,” she groaned at them, rocking back and forth.
Naram gasped and made to snatch them free, but Faris help up a hand.
He bent with a humming of metal on metal, and lowered his voice to a murmur only Ajaru could hear. “I have many to get to safety. Please help me. Take your father. The south bridge is the quickest route.”
Miserable silver eyes rolled from the platform to his lens. “Ih hurths,” she whispered around her fingers.
“I know, Ajaru,” he laid a gleaming hand on her cinnamon-colored shoulder. “Would you like me to hold your hands for you? Keep them still?” She nodded once, and unclenched her jaw.
He snatched her hands out of the air and held them close between his own. They fluttered like anxious birds. “She did not draw blood this time,” he told her father.
Naram rubbed his eyes and sniffed quickly, quietly. “If I’d known,” he said. “If we’d known how much this would hurt her, we never would have…”
Deep in his chest, the anamnesis flickered and spun.
“I should leave the constabulary,” he said. The ghost-light of the moon fell across his hands. They didn’t seem different. There weren’t even any blood stains to wash away. It had been quick, clean. Forgettable. A formality of paperwork. “This isn’t what – this can’t be what the Spirits gave me this talent for.”
She wrapped her arms around him from behind, dark hair sliding down his bare shoulders like the breath of snow. Erishti’s voice whispered in his ear. “The hostages would have died,” she said, “if you hadn’t taken the shot.”
“’Every blessing has two faces,’” Faris said, his voice echoing the long-dead woman’s Kishite lilt. “She is burdened with a great talent. A purpose she was made for. She will grow into it, as all do.”
Naram watched his daughter fighting her own hands, and said nothing.
“Let me walk you outside,” Faris said.
“Don’t let go,” Ajaru bit out.
“I will not.”
By the time they’d made it to the bridge, her hands had largely stilled. A haze of grey was sweeping west through the alabaster towers, bringing the sharp, heavy scent of cold water on hot stone. The sky flickered and pealed.
“This is unsafe,” Faris said. "Will you be able to get her home?”
Naram nodded. “Yes, it’s not far. But I think we’ll get dren- By the Spirits!” he gasped.
There were wings in the sky, diving through the black and angry clouds. The sky pulsed and shattered, and still more fell, weaving through the forks of lightning, white light glinting off dark metal. Birragas, the turquoise glow of their Motion-Shapings flaring, forcing air across their half-teardrop surfaces.
And on the back of each, a warrior in armor, weapons strapped to belts and shoulders.
“The Bird-Men of Henj,” Faris said. He looked back at the few families scurrying home before the falling storm, then down at Ajaru.
She looked to the sky with wide grey eyes, gulping in the soaked air. “How do they build those?” she said. “Is that as big as you can make them?”
“I will see you home,” Faris said.
To be concluded.