Saturday, January 21, 2017

Beyond Blood #2: The Sign for Heart


Part 2

Jarre's mate raised his brow, his expression certainly displeased. Zhandei even went so far as to cross his arms, a sign that his mate was far more than merely displeased. Zhandei made such a gesture as one of the Flight Ledge Leaders whenever his subordinates made a serious mistake with the flight cradles.

Zhan used his well-muscled arms to move himself from the comfortable chair in their shared abode, to the mechanical contraption with its six-legged walker, and sat primly in the cradle seat, deftly using the controls with his hands to make the walker move forward. "And you didn't think, O light of my life, if I would have any objections to you using our home as a training facility?" As Jarre hesitated, Zhan nodded curtly, his dark Nav-short curls bouncing over his forehead. "Or worse, you knew how I'd react."

"The children need it. A place to become a true squadron, beyond—"

"Blood," his mate finished. "Yes, I know. And I agree. I know how it worked for you and your squadron. I love that you've found more kin, my dearest bit of sun, I do. But..."

Jarre tried not to grin. That would only make it worse. But his mate was making all of Jarre's arguments for him. And with a sigh, Zhan realized that too. "Damn you, Jarre. Did it not occur to you that perhaps having so many in my private space might be...uncomfortable for me?"

Jarre's near grin disappeared. He'd never once seen his mate act self-conscious about his injuries, though in private Zhan had moments where he struggled. Struggled to rise, to work, to know that the mechanical walker was the only way he could ever move around and walk. But among the Navigators, on the flight ledges, his injuries were no shame. They were a mark of bravery from battle. Scars. Injuries. Wear it well.

But Jarre hadn't considered that in those moments at home, his mate didn't have to pretend to wear it well.

"Sun bedamned," Jarre muttered. "I didn't think about...that...you..."

Zhan shook his head. "They're outside waiting, aren't they?"

"I...well..."

Another sigh. "Let them in, Jarre."

"I can find another place—"

"Love, just let the little ones in, will you?" Zhan moved the walker forward, and the series of legs made their strange walk-pattern, mechanical feet soft on the woven rug.

Feeling shame for the first time in a long while—for the first time since the war ended—he went to the door, pushed it back into the side panel, and gestured his wayward trainees inside.

Tei was first to enter, her head held high and self-assured. When the girl spotted Zhan, she smiled broadly and began to sign: Blood-kin! How fare you?

Zhan smiled that quiet, charming smile of the kind that suggested he was contemplating the state of the world in meditation. That smile had drawn Jarre to him in the very first instance they met. "Perhaps we should speak aloud, little cousin, for the benefit of your squadron. It would be rude not to."

The girl seemed uncertain, but nodded, placing her hands down at her sides to stifle the need to use them.

Dupresh entered, peering around carefully at everything, using the Nav hand-speak: Greetings; Nelai was next, and she bowed to Zhan. Awan clomped inside in his typically heavy-footed manner, blinked at Zhan, and quickly looked down as if afraid to let his eyes linger too long on the walker.

Sun-and-stars, Jarre berated himself. Now I see what Zhan means.

He inhaled to steady his next smile, saying, "Well'home, my students, to where you'll sleep and study for the next several months. Here, you'll eat, breathe, and—" he nearly said shit, because that's the phrase his own Trainer had used on his first day of flight training, "—and live flying. You'll learn so much you'll fly in your dreams."

Tei muttered, "I've already had my sunwing dreams. Doubtful the sun will give such dreams to the rest of them."

Zhan's eyes flashed. "In my home, you and your squad are just that—a squadron. Squadron is beyond blood. Whether or not they have sunwing dreams means nothing when you're in the air relying on them."

The Nav girl blinked in surprise.  

"I hope, cousin," Zhan continued, "one day you'll understand that."

Jarre's heart swelled almost to bursting, and he couldn't help but sign: Love you, light of my life.

His mate snorted, but turned his walker to gesture to the wide, thick oaken table. "Please eat." Without another word, Zhan turned the walker through the wide open doors to their sleeping quarters and closed the door.

He would have to find a way to apologize to his mate.

In the meantime, he had training to do. He clapped his large hands together loudly, and he noticed Tei, Awan, and Nelai jumped, but that Dupresh still looked around, unfazed by the sound.

Sun, he still didn't know how to deal with the cleaner boy and his blood-defect.

"Eat," he rumbled. "Then to the books."

#

Nelai watched Awan reading while moving his lips to sound out the words, his eyes intent on the page. Tei still slept on her cot, though the barest hint of the morning's light made it from the window, which looked out from their mountain home, and far higher than Nelai was used to. Navs took quarters nearest the flight ledges in the mountain, while techs were always so close to the underground that you could smell the forge caves. Dupresh stared out the window longingly for a moment, before picking up his book, Variance on Flight Signals, and sat down next to Awan.

Awan raised his eye and spotted her watching him. He frowned in a big way, much like the older boy did everything in a big way. "Problem, Seven?"

"No..." She cleared her throat. "Just wondering why your blood-parents gave permission, you know, for this."

His scowl also looked big. "My blood-parents are dead."

"Oh," she mumbled. "I'm sorry."

Awan shrugged his broad shoulders. "They died when I was young. An attack on our grain silos. I was passed between my closest blood-kin, but none of them particularly wanted the responsibility." With that he turned back to his book with more focused intensity, and had begun to whisper the words aloud, before his eyes flicked back to her. Nel realized she was still watching him, and so was Dupresh. "And before you ask, I volunteered like the rest of you. That was something none of them could accept, such blood shame. Turning my back on my blood purpose...for this." Again, he shrugged tightly, but his mouth firmed in a line. "I have no bloodline any longer. Which is why I didn't need 'one of the blood' to give permission."

Because he no longer had any blood.

Her stomach fluttered again, that sick feeling. She'd feared such a reprisal against her own decision from her own kin, but it was a tenuous thread and could happen at any moment. Her mouth worked, but nothing came out but a throaty, "I'm sorry. I can't imagine..."

Dupresh made a series of gestures quickly, but he had taken to the hand speak with astonishing ease. Jarre had them using the more intricate hand-speak of the Navigators when they needed more instruction. Questions were to be put in sign-speak only, but this was far too quick for her to translate.  

"Du," she said. "I don't know what that means. Slow down."

"He said," came Tei's voice, "he is sorry for Awan's loss. You know, losing his parents...and that his own blood turned him out."

The Nav girl rose, stretching from her place on the cot, and like a sleepy feline paced toward the table, snatching up the morning pastries Awan had gathered from the mess hall before the sun even rose. Plopping down on the chair next to Dupresh, she plucked the book from his hands. "This is a child's book."

Dupresh made curt gestures, his face creased in anger. I'm no child. And this book is for me. Therefore, not for a child.

"It is," said Tei in response. "I'd finished this book before I was eight. If none of you can read beyond this level, you'll never make it."

Nelai opened her mouth to demand an apology, but Du placed up a brusque palm to halt her response. Touching his finger to his chest, he then thumped a chest to his heart. She knew a fist to the heart was the sign for Navigator…and also heart. The other signs came too quickly to catch the possible meanings to even a single word.

Whatever Dupresh said made the Nav girl frown, and look down at the table.

Awan tapped his finger on the tabletop. "What did he say?"

Defiant, Tei lifted her gaze and stared into his eyes. "He said, 'I am a Navigator. Flight is in here.'" She gestured again the sign that meant Navigator, or maybe heart. "Then he said...'my dreams are stored in here, and I won't let them fly away, not for any reason.'"

Awan touched Du on the shoulder, and the smaller boy looked up. The Harvester touched his fist to his chest with a solid thump-thump sound. "Me too. Those dreams are all I have now."

Tei looked uncomfortable, and even squirmed when Dupresh touched her hand to gesture again. "I...I didn't know you'd had sunwing dreams. It can't be..."

"Possible?" came Jarre's deep voice.

All four of them jumped to their feet, and Nelai wondered if it'd broken something fragile that had been growing between them. Tei once again looked bored and aloof, Dupresh stared intently beneath the Trainer's gaze, and Awan couldn't decide how best to stand.

Their Trainer ignored them, perused over the remaining pastries, and began to munch on the savory offering with a kind of hearty smack of his lips. He let them remain like that, poised, uncertain, and continued to eat as he brought the plate to the table and sat down with a heavy plop. In the perfect silence, he looked at the books on the table, then rumbled, "Sit."

All four sat.

"Finish your reading, then suit up," he said, then held the pastry in the air as if it were a thopter. "Today we fly."

#

Now that the war was over, Jarre found the flight ledges eerily quiet this time of morning. Jarre surveyed his students, remembering when his Third Wing had been a flurry of action this time every morning, especially that horribly vivid overcat morning before his Wing had been downed...pinned and unable to move on the battleground while firebombs fell around them. Helpless. He could still hear the screams of his Wing as flechettes from above pinged against the metal of their crumpled flyers, silencing some of them forever…

He blinked, shaking his head against the press of memory.

Tei was glaring at everyone, mouth curled in disgust. "Trainer, this isn't what I thought you meant by flying."

Nelai was flapping her arms in perfect time to Jarre's claps. And Dupresh was focused so much on his hands that Jarre made certain to remain facing in the boy's direction, for when he turned away, Dupresh would leave his 'flight formation position' to come closer. Yes, he had to remember to accomade the boy's blood-defect. Awan gleefully flapped his arms, making noises of the engines at full force, looking like nothing so much as a massive bird squawking, but he'd gone through the formation positions perfectly.

He clapped again to the ready beat in his mind, the beat-hum of a thopter's wingbeats. "Timing is important for maneuvers, Tei. Back into position, wing runner. Now, time the downbeats and ascend."

He'd done that on purpose too, watching her surprise at assuming she was worthy for First position, but he could see the tension in her. Clearly, this hadn't been a mere slight to her, like he'd hoped; his intent had been to spur her on, but her lips trembled, her eyes watered, and her head bowed. In shame?

"Pattern number three!" he barked, gesturing the signal.

Dutifully, the little squadron moved their formation to a wide W shape as best they could with their small numbers, still flapping their arms. The little cleaner's eyes were so intent on him, he swore to the sun that Dupresh wasn't blinking.

"Pattern seven!"

They moved smoothly into a staggered line, Dupresh in First Leader position crouched down to pretend a lower altitude, while Tei at the very rear did so as well. Their movements and timing were smooth. But he remembered, when in the air all the practice in the world sometimes wouldn't prepare you for the fearful taste of bile in the throat, for the way the heart pounded so hard you thought it would burst from your chest, for the screeching sound of flechette bolts sheering through the flyer's wing, for the sensation of falling from the sky—

"Trainer?"

He blinked and realized he must have been standing in silence while these children—dear sweet sun they were so young—watched him like he'd watched his own Trainer at that same age. Jarre hadn't been much older than them for his first battle. Like everyone, he'd flown in the war at the moment he hit the age of majority, and his first battle had been, like all other Navs, at seventeen.

But for this Expeditionary Squadron, learning didn't mean survival. They didn't have a few scant years to ready for battle. To prepare for seeing those you trained with fall from the sky to kiss the ground. What they learned here didn't mean the difference between living to fight another day and flying to your ancestors among the eternal sundisk. Did it?

"Trainer?" ventured Nelai a little louder.

Jarre realized his hands were shaking, and his voice was hoarse as he bellowed, "Battle maneuver two!"

They blinked at him in confusion.

If he'd only chosen maneuver two, maybe his Wing would've never been downed.

His hands reached for the controls, desperate to veer away from the incoming spray of bolts, screaming through his flight mask, "Incoming!"

He was sitting among the wreckage of his thopter, strapped in and praying he wouldn't have to hear the screams of Arran in the second flight seat, who'd broken her leg, her ribs, her arm…barely conscious except when the hail of bolts rained down, and then his wing runner would begin screaming until hoarse, until she didn't scream anymore. He wanted to hear her screaming, because that meant she was alive—

He felt a hand on his, and nearly jerked away. But when Jarre looked down, reaching for his flight controls—where is the flight stick?­—struggling to remember what mission he was on, he saw a vaguely familiar moon-round face staring up at him with its accustomed intensity. The boy stepped back as Jarre snatched his hand away, feeling the sweat on his upper lip.

Dupresh met his eye, and made the sign for: SAFE.

The fog of memories still lingered, and he had to time his breaths against the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. Again, the boy made the sign, more gently but still emphatic: Safe.

Feeling the shameful sting at his eye, his voice rose to a painful bellow, "Dismissed!"

He spun around and retreated, trying his best not to give in to the shameful panic and run through the halls like a terrified boy.

#

They had all shuffled back to the Trainer's quarters, and Nelai reached for Dupresh's hand, and he squeezed for a brief moment before he let her go so no one would notice.

And finally, Awan, seeing that Zhandei wasn't there, spun around and demanded to the group, "What in the ten hells was that all about?"

Their Trainer had been yelling battle directions, before he began shouting at them about incoming flechette bolts. But the look in his eye...Dear Gods o' the Forge, he'd been lost somewhere, fear curling his lips as sweat broke out on his brow, trembling. Shaking. She never thought she'd see such a thing.

Tei sat on her cot in the corner of the room, and shook her head.

"You know," said Awan, almost accusatory.

The Nav girl's storm-colored eyes flashed. "Shut up, Harvester. Just...shut your mouth."

Dupresh made a series of inelegant signs, but he did so hesitantly. Blood-shame?

"It is considered a blood-shame, but it's not shameful," Tei growled. "But we don't...no one talks about it. Just don't say anything of it. And don't you dare question Zhan about it either. Pretend...you didn't see it."

Nelai gave the signs for please explain. "Tei, we want to understand. None of us will intentionally hurt him. But we need to know why it happened...what it is. It was...a little frightening."

The Nav girl closed her eyes, chewing on her bottom lip, before she nodded hesitantly. "Sun-and-stars, I never thought I'd say I wish you were all of the blood. I've never had to explain something like this before." Her eyes opened and something haunted creased her expression. "But you must swear to me, by whatever deities you profess to love, that you will never ask him. If it happens again, you ignore it..." She swallowed. "Speak of it to no one, not even other Navigators."

All three of them nodded solemnly, and Dupresh made a strange gesture—perhaps calling on whatever deity the vat-cleaners believed in. She was surprised to see Tei make the same gesture, before she realized that they were both calling to the Five Healers, deities that everyone called to when in need of healing.

For a moment it looked as if Tei would decide not to tell them, her hesitancy growing into something else. Fear. Finally, she said, "We call it shadowfall...but it's older name was battle shock. Sometimes when Navigators come back from war, their mind...lingers over the things they saw, people who died. Sometimes something triggers it. Other times it's so strong that they relive it."

Dupresh bowed his head, but still signed, We triggered it today. Didn't we?

"I think so," Tei whispered.

How? asked Du. I want to know so we don't do so again.

"I don't think it was anything we did." Tei held her hands together so tight that her knuckles looked like they would break through her skin. "He's never trained before, not formally, but as Third Leader he certainly trained his Wing to fly tight with the rest of the squadron. Maybe he remembered something about them."

"Wonderful," Awan muttered. "Now, when we're finally up in the air again, he might start acting like a madman and then—"

Tei moved so fast it astonished Nelai, but the Nav girl leaped from her place on the cot and launched herself at the big Harvester. Her fist struck him across the jaw so quick that Awan's lip burst, bloody, and Tei grabbed at his flight tunic, pulling him down to her steely-eyed level. "Listen here, you blood-ridden mudclod. He's not mad. There's nothing wrong with him. You just can't understand it, with your rice-sized brain rattling around in that skull of yours—"

Dupresh touched them both on the arm, mouth tight with displeasure. He made the formation signs for: Back to original position. When Tei quivered, lips still curled in a wordless snarl, the cleaner boy signed, Squadmates do not fight each other. Perhaps it is our lack of unity that triggered our Trainer.

Tei released Awan, stepping back, but breathing hard. Awan flexed his jaw, dabbing at the blood pouring from his lip.

Dupresh turned fully to the Nav girl, and made a strange amalgamation of the signs for stone and steady. Nelai knew that heart-names in the hand-speak of the Navigators were gifted to one another, and could differ in between groups. But she had no doubt that Du had just named Tei as stone-steady.

Tei, Dupresh signed. You know someone who has this, don't you? Someone close to you?

She wouldn't meet his eye, her hands still in fists.

"Tei," Nelai said quietly. "We want to understand. I know it's considered a blood-shame, but we're your squadron, and we won't tell anyone. Whatever you say to us remains here—" and she tapped her heart with two thump-thumps.

The Nav girl let out a sharp bark of a laugh. "You call this a squadron? This is a joke."

"It isn't a joke to me," Awan said, dabbing the blood from his lip. "What have you sacrificed to be here? You're born to this. Do you know what I have to go back to if I fail?" His bitter scowl only deepened as she remained silent. "No. You don't. Because you don't care. Because all you care about is not embarrassing your precious Navigator bloodline by working with mudclods, scumlickers, and sootfoots."

Dupresh made a gesture of having heard Awan, while still waving the older boy to silence. We've all made sacrifices. And I know what it's like to hold a secret. He tapped his ear, expression earnest.

Slowly, Tei looked at him. And Nelai silently urged the girl to listen to Du.

Deafness is a blood-defect in my immediate line, said Dupresh, his mouth serious. My blood-kin have sacrificed to hide it from others, even of my own kind. Once, a younger boy found out because I was working with him closely on repairing one of the vats with my mother, and he... Nelai wanted to thread her fingers through his as he had done for her, but she refrained as a glint of anger entered his countenance. I had to learn to defend myself that day, knowing that I couldn't tell my Elders of the boy's violence. I was so frightened that I nearly... Dupresh blinked rapidly, shaking his head. I harmed him greatly. To this day he still walks with a limp, though he never told on me. But if I'd let my fear consume me completely, I might have killed him. All to protect my secret.

Nelai had to fight not to make a sound of shock, knowing her friend—yes, how could he not be?—couldn't hear it anyway. She half-expected Tei to laugh at the idea that a vat-cleaner could physically harm anyone, but the Nav girl's eyes filled with tears.

Nel touched Tei's shoulder, but feeling strange about it, quickly took her hand away.

Du signed, his gestures as sharp as the intensity of his expression. We've been told our whole lives that 'blood is purpose.' We've been told that defects are to be hidden, even though it's no defect, not to me. We don't speak on it, because we're afraid. I've revealed to you something that can destroy my blood-kin, because Tei, I know you understand that fear. I can see it, even if I can't hear you cry.

Nelai bit her lower lip, knowing that if Tei wanted, she could tell any number of people about Dupresh. Perhaps, she could've all along, for they'd surmised why he didn't speak readily enough. But not only would he be dismissed from the training program, but the Du's bloodline of Raijansi would be doomed, forbidden from bearing any more children. All of them. And they would be gone. Just a malfunction in a breeding line, and soon forgotten. But would Tei doom these "scumlickers" who didn't mean anything to her?

Tei's eyes glistened, but her mouth firmed in a determined line. "My mother."

Awan blinked, and clearly looked embarrassed to have been glaring at her for the same reason the Nelai had been watching closely.

Since Tei didn't call her 'blood-mother' to outsiders, then Nelai had to assume that Tei's blood parents were...gone, and another kin had taken up the mantle of caring for the Nav girl.

"My mother has shadowfall, and..." Tei placed her hands over her mouth, before realizing that Dupresh couldn't follow her if she hid her lips. The girl sank back to her cot. "Sometimes it's so bad that I have to hide in another room when she wakes up in the middle of the night screaming. And then she cries... for hours. Sometimes she can't sleep, and I find her on the take off ledges, staring at the ground. Sometimes I think I'm stopping her from jumping…other times it shames me that I wish she would jump."

Awan looked anywhere but at Tei.

Now, a single tear did stick to the Nav girl's dark lashes as she demanded, "Now, do you see why I want to be here?"

Awan struggled, grunting out half-words, before he went quiet.

But Dupresh knelt in front of her, looking up into her eyes, and signed: Safe.

Tei shook her head. "She doesn't hurt me. She never has."

I know. Dupresh signed, You're still safe here.

Nelai nodded, and tried to mimic the simple elegance of Du's signs. Awan, as usual, made his gestures overly big. But they all signed, Safe.

#

Walking toward the Inventrix's lab made Jarre not only uncomfortable, but the near-panicked feeling settling just beneath his sternum, cutting off his airways, decreased slower than he expected. He couldn't speak to Shiran about this. Though she was sympathetic and kind, she was still Inventrix, and the idea of revealing his shadowfall to her was impossible. After pacing about the upper levels for nearly two hours, Jarre could only hope the person he most wanted to see was alone in the Inventrix's lab.

When he opened the door to the lab, the tension within him nearly spilled out in a tumble of words. But he managed to keep himself together as the brass mechanical dragon lifted his head from his sleepy repose on the heated stone floor, and smiled at him.

"Third Leader," said Zefir, shaking his huge brass head of his sleepiness. "What an unexpected surprise."

"Please don't..." Jarre swallowed around the sick feeling. "Don't call me that. Not...right now."

The dragon mechanical still had the capability to astonish Jarre how human-like his expressions were despite his inhuman form. And that dragon brow creased in concern. Zefir rose to his feet, and trotted over to him, curving his neck down too look at Jarre with those quicksilver eyes bigger than Jarre's own head. "All is not well? Tell me."

Zefir had always been sensitive to other's emotions, but since becoming Ambassador, it seemed the dragon was even more keen.

"I..." For a moment the words wouldn't come, not even to the creature he knew understood. A creature he considered as closest blood-kin. His squad brother. "It hasn't happened at all since...since I placed my Wing's names on the Stone. I've been sleeping soundly. Zhan even says I no longer speak in my sleep. But..."

The dragon remained quiet, only a slight ruffling of his expansive pseudo-metallic wings to show that those words were cause for worry. "How bad, Jarre?"

"I was watching them move in formation. Not even in the air! It's merely playacting now. But I started thinking about how badly I can fail them, because I've failed before."

"You worry about your students," Zefir finished.

Jarre crossed his arms over his chest, hoping it would make that tightness in his chest go away. "I scared them, Zef."

Zefir nodded. He could tell his dragon friend wished to draw him closer with a wing, the way he so often did with his own Navigator, for Jarre frequently saw Valin lying in the crook of the dragon's arm even while simply reading up on Council business. But that wasn't how Jarre interacted with the dragon, and it had never been, though Jarre now silently wished it were so just this once.

With a sigh, that warm, clean breath puffing against him, Zefir said softly, "You're not training them for battle, Jarre."

"I know that—"

"I don't think you do," said Zefir. "You fought for this peace, and still do. But I also know you're aware of how tenuous it is. It's only been five years. There's still a lot of hate. Still a lot of work to do. Not just with the Wheelteeth, but among our own Clan. And you know it."

Jarre frowned at those big quicksilver eyes. "You're saying I'm still training them as if I expect they'll have to use it one day to fight for their lives."

"Aren't you?" Zefir frowned, his expression mournful. "I wish I could tell you that there's no chance of that ever happening. But I won't lie to you and tell you that I don't fear it myself. I also know, squad brother, that we have to keep trying. And that it's important that we include other blood-kinds to do so. We have to reach for the future we want, even if we fear that future will never happen."

Jarre lightly slapped Zefir's nearest wing. "How did you get to be such a dreamer?"

"I learned it from my squad." Zefir did smile now. "Perhaps your students will learn the same thing from one another. They fit you well."

"What do you mean they fit me well?"

Now, Zefir's true smile brightened his expression. To others such a revealing of those teeth might look intimidating, or downright violent. But Jarre didn't think so, though Zefir had used that smile for both purposes as a battle flyer.

"I mean, squad brother, that you're good with training those 'not of the blood.' Those who want to fly despite all of the world telling them they can't. They're strong, Trainer. Because you'll bring forth their strengths. Because you'll be able to see those strengths even if they can't themselves, because you yourself know what it means to be strong."

"Good bleeding sun, now I know you're a blood-ridden dreamer."

Zefir laughed, his wings flapping slightly with his mirth. "Curse that much around your students?"

"Well, it can't be that bad," Jarre said, patting Zefir's wing. "My Trainer cursed more than all the demons of the ten hells together, and look how I turned out."

"Maybe not the best example," Zefir said with a chuckle, but it faded all too soon. "I think you should talk to Shiran."

"What?" Jarre snapped. "No...just...no, Zef."

The dragon sighed, and fluttered his wings. "I've spoken about my own shadowfall to her, and we both agree that our people need help, but they're too ashamed to come forward."

"So, I should what? Proclaim my problem before the Council to show other sufferers that their Inventrix won't doom their bloodlines to die out because of their defect?" Jarre's mouth twisted sourly. "You're spending too much time around the Inventrix. You're starting to manipulate just like their kind."

By the way the dragon's head dipped, Jarre knew he couldn't have said anything worse to hurt Zefir. But the dragon had been gaining practice as Ambassador at hiding his true feelings, and his expression didn't change.

No, he learned it in war as a way to hide his fear.

Zefir sat back on his haunches. "I was being less than forthcoming with you simply because the subject is so...uncomfortable. Think about speaking to the Council. And think about...maybe speaking of it more to those close to you. To me. Or your mate. To anyone who understands."

Jarre was shaking again, this time in anger. "I can't...relive it for the fucking Council. It's mine to bear. If you're so certain it will change things, tell them yourself."

"I have," said Zefir quietly. "Unofficially. But they say that I'm only a mechanical, that it's a machine's malfunction, and it will mean nothing to the Navigators and Riders who suffer."

The anger bubbled up, fierce and hot. He couldn't be certain if that was because he was still reeling from his shadowfall, which always made his moods wildly volatile, or that he was furious because of the Council's dismissal of Zefir's pain. Jarre had seen what the dragon's shadowfall had done to change him from a bright, trusting child to the more grave adult he'd become.

"I don't know if I can be part of a Council that dismisses you so easily," said Jarre.

The Council had indeed grown from the four people Shiran had chosen initially on the batleground, but many of them were older Navigators or Riders set in their ways; and while the Four—Jarre included—fought for including Council members from all blood-kinds in the Clan, realistically that was still a distant dream.

"We need your voice," Zefir said.

"Right now, I think my students need me more than the Council does."

"Then go to them," Zefir said with that same gentle smile.

Taking a steadying breath, he nodded, and with a wave to his former wing runner he turned to go. But the breadth of those brass metallic wings were suddenly in front of him, scars and all. The skin of the membranes remained silk-smooth, and when Zefir used them to press Jarre back toward him, Jarre wanted to bluster and protest, to make light of it. Pressed against Zefir's gently heaving side, the dragon set a large, clawed hand around him.

Jarre remained, simply allowing that small bit of the dragon's comfort. But when Zefir's strangely smooth tongue licked at his cheek, he couldn't help but give his squad brother a mock-frown. "Gah! Dragon spit!"

Zefir licked his other cheek for good measure, and when the dragon chuckled, Jarre could hear the microcogs within the dragon's chest whirr-ticking, the sound of his large, mechanical heart.

"All right, you," Jarre said in mock seriousness, pulling himself away reluctantly. "I've actually got to go now."

Nodding with a smile, the dragon sat back down in his favorite spot. Just as Jarre was at the door, Zefir's baritone rumbled quietly, "You didn't fail me, Jarre. And you won't fail your students."

Dear sweet sun, I pray you're right.

#

Nelai turned as the Ledge Leader entered the small quarters—his home—and had to avoid, with deft movements of his walker, the cots situated in the living space. She cringed, thinking that they should deconstruct the cots when not in use, in order to make the least amount of problem for Zhandei.

Awan still wouldn't meet the Ledge Leader's gaze. Nel understood it to be the Harvester's way of viewing injuries, especially severe ones. Injured Harvesters were shunned, and seen as a burden on their immediate kin, their lives a sad necessity. Nel herself didn't understand this, as the tech caves were dangerous places and the injured could be Line Directors, or trainers, or schematic checkers themselves.

"Good afternoon, little cousins," said Zhandei pleasantly.

Awan fidgeted. Tei snorted, but ceased to vocally display her annoyance at his referring to the squadron as 'cousins.' For he'd told her sternly, "In my home, all are kin."

Nelai muttered a greeting, as the rest of her squad remained quiet and avoiding Zhan's eye.

"Where's your Trainer?" asked Zhan.

All of them stared down at their books; Nelai saw Tei shrug. But Awan, said, "He ran off..."

"Council business?"

Tei shook her head, but still kept her eyes blankly on the book in front of her, lips trembling.

"Oh, sun-and-stars," breathed Zhandei. And Nelai saw a look of realization pass over his handsome features, his eyes filling with tears before the sturdy ledge leader bit back on them. "I had hoped it would never happen again. Dear sun..." He swallowed heavily before asking, "Cousins, do you understand?"

"Tei explained it to us," Nelai said quickly. "We won't ask him. We swear. Not a word."

Nelai was surprised to see Zhan's brow narrowing in anger. "Taught to ignore shadowfall like good little Navs. See but don't see." He moved his walker closer to them, then folded his hands in his lap. "Do you know if he's well now?"

Nelai bit on her lip, wishing that they had chased after their Trainer. The worried sensation had been pressing tightly beneath her chest all afternoon, until she couldn't focus on anything else. When she had blurted to her squad that they should go find him, Tei had grabbed her arm hard, yelling at her that they would do no such thing.

We brought him back, Dupresh signed to Zhan. I saw him return from the memories.

Tei hissed, glaring as if her eyes could ignite the cleaner boy by sheer force of will.

Moving the walker back, Zhandei nodded, mouth twisted in thought. "He always does... But it's hard sometimes. Right now, as your Trainer, you mean the most to him—all of you, so he would come back from the shadows for you." The walker began to settle in its 'sit' position, but Zhan moved toward the door. "I will find him, little cousins, and no doubt he'll have you back on the ledge in no time."

Nel leaped to her feet. "We'll go with you."

Awan lurched to his feet with his heavy, ungraceful movements, and Du bounced up too. Tei hesitated, before she firmed her mouth in resolve and leaped up with the kind of easy grace that Nel secretly admired in the girl.

Zhandei looked at each of them, and Nelai felt that he was taking their measure much the same way that Trainer Jarre did. "Yes, of course. That's only as it should be."

The walker pivoted and when the door opened, the legs made themselves narrower to pass through. Nelai walked at a rapid trot to follow after, her squad next to her. They moved through the broad hallways, always so bright and open to Nel, who was used to the fire-light of the forge caves rather than the open spaces high in the mountain. Many of those they passed greeted or nodded to Zhandei, but ignored or pretended not to see the squadron, even though the squad all waved polite greetings. Only a few Nelai recognized from the flight ledges greeted them, or smiled tightly as they continued on in their duties.

But Nelai spotted three men coming toward them, the man in the lead even broader, more muscled, and taller than their Trainer, and though he had gray shot through his close-cropped hair his features were eerily reminiscent of Jarre's. She saw Zhan hesitate, slowing his walker, as the lead man scowled so fiercely that Nel wondered if the man's intent was to shove them all over the broad walkways to fly without wings.

"Tanake Zhandei," spat the large man, crossing his arms and squaring his stance. "I'd never thought I'd see such honored blood wandering around with the likes of these abominations."

A flash of hot-flame rushed through Nel, and she had to fight not to glare at the man; her hands curled in and out of fists, but Du tapped the outside of her hand, and shook his head slightly. That face was blank, expressionless, the way she saw her friend react when...threatened? Faced with those who would curse his kind? Demean them?

Zhan's chin lifted, his demeanor haughty. "Well then, Quarethstra Tsavo, either I'm not so honored as you would believe, or, here's the more likely one, these children with me are damn fine Navigators. And you'll not say that word to them again."

The man slightly behind Tsavo—Quarethstra, then he is blood to Trainer Jarre—fidgeted; in comparison to the large man, this one had a face that reminded her of those Tamer's foxes; he was long, lean, his flight jacket unbuttoned to reveal horrible scars across the top of his chest and around his neck. But he stared at the squadron with a glint of uncertainty in those fox-bright eyes.

The stocky third man regarded them, his left eye missing, making his face look almost squinty.

Tsavo jabbed a huge finger in their direction, and Awan shifted his stance closer to Zhan's right hand in a defensive move. "You know how wrong this is, Tanake. These ones are perverting our way of life. For sun's sake, you have a fucking bedamned scumlicker dirtying our flyers with his fucking grubby little hands. I don't want to know how long it takes your flight crew to clean the controls where he's touched them."

Du's face was still eerily neutral, but a cold fire ignited in his eyes.

"He is an excellent student," Zhan said coldly. "No doubt Jarre will have named him First before long—"

Tsavo sputtered out a dark laugh. "Bleed me dry before I'll let that happen. Look at what my blood-kin is doing to us, to my own damned line! Jarre was always an excellent leader, but I never thought he'd teach these lowblood abominations."

Nelai reached for Dupresh's hand and threaded her fingers through his, squeezing so tight that it hurt; she could feel her friend trying not to shake, desperate to keep his expression dispassionate.

Zhandei allowed the walker to readjust the height where he sat, and he raised closer to being on level with the large man's stance. "Jarre is doing nothing wrong. Our Inventrix gave him these children, and he happily decided they were worthy of training. If you can't see that things are changing, and that we're no longer the only ones who have sunwing dreams then—"

"The sun doesn't give dreams to mudclods, scumlickers, and blood-ridden fucking sootfoots." The large man leaned closer, snarling. "The sun watches over us, It guides those of the blood. Our ancestors live on the sundisk. Do you think my ancestors would be happy to see these worthless pieces of shit trying to fly to the sundisk? If you think so, then I pray for your own ancestors, because they sure as the ten hells won't receive you."

"You know nothing of my honored ancestors," Zhandei spat, his own hands clenched on the controls of his walker. "I only know they're not hateful wretches like you, Tsavo."

Tsavo's face screwed up as if he wanted to spit on Zhan. "One day soon, you'll wake up and realize that all of the low blood in our Clan has risen up to places they weren't bred for. And that you helped them. When this so-called fucking peace ends, we'll be stuck with entire squads of scumlickers defending our home. And you'll see how fast we'll fall. To the hells with your lowbloods, because they'll never be a squad, not with that blood."

Awan shifted on his feet, back muscles tense, ready to spring. Tei didn't move, but she met Nel's eye, and something in the girl's gaze made her sign-name stone-steady seem all the more true. Tei lifted her chin proudly and said, "Squadron is beyond blood."

The man's eye fell on her, lips curled in disgust. "Not this blood, little Tanake. Shame on you child, for dirtying yourself with them. I would've expected you to fight for a better squad, because in the war, you'll die right beside the lowblood cowards they are."

Zhandei glared. "There is no war, Trainer. It's like you don't want peace. And any one of us who would rather fight than learn how to live at home in peace is a sun bedamned fool."

The fox-faced man beside the old Trainer scowled. "The Wheelteeth are beasts, Zhandei. They'll break the peace. And when they do we'll have made ourselves too comfortable, too weak. How can you fail to fear that?"

"Kitsu," said Zhan. "I fear that every day. But I also won't gear for war, because I have hope."

"I have scars just as you do, but I can't forget who gave them to me." The fox-face man, this Kitsu, made a battle gesture: To the end. "We must be ready, or they'll give worse than scars to our children."        

Du let go of Nelai's hand.

And which children, signed Dupresh, do you truly care about protecting?

Nelai was tense, but she reached again for Du's hand; she didn't know if it was for herself, or for him that she did so; she didn't know if it was to quiet him.

The following silence felt crystal-sharp.

The tense silence shifted as a pair of footsteps echoed down the hallway, and from around the bend came the familiar form of their own Trainer. Jarre saw the crowd of them, grinned in his easy-going way, and came toward them.

Tsavo looked ready to move, but Jarre walked toward him, nodded to acknowledge his presence, and then stood between the three men and his students as if the strangers weren't there. "Ah, ready to learn the most important lesson of being a Navigator, my students?"

Nelai couldn't speak; her mouth was dry.  

"Blood-cousin—" began Tsavo through gritted teeth.

"Not now, my old Trainer," said Jarre brightly. "I've important learning to impart on the Inventrix's chosen students. I won't keep you, because I saw your own students on the flight ledge...waiting. Certainly good to see you, blood-kin. I wish you a good day."  

For all their Trainer's light bluster, Nelai could see the way his eyes flashed between the points of escape and points of attack—he'd taught them that too, even though he'd said that they would never have need to use it.  

"Mark my words, cousin," Tsavo growled, "you've brought shame on our Clan."

The older Trainer strode off, and Kitsu regarded Jarre before nodding respectfully, and turning to follow. The eye-patch man turned to jog to catch up to the others.

Nelai didn't realize that her hand had been sweating where she clasped it with Du's, but her friend didn't release her, clutching just as hard. Awan visibly relaxed, and Tei still stood, stunned at the change in events.

Zhandei breathed out. "Jarre..."

"Ah, love," said Jarre. "Perhaps we can discuss this later. For now, I have important training to do, and it can't wait."

Nel's voice cracked as she asked, "What could be more important right now?"

"Well, my little student," said her Trainer, "I need to teach you all how to play cards."

Even Zhan stared at him in a mix of incredulity and mild annoyance, but her Trainer said, "I need to teach you how to play cards, because I saw how you all failed to use what you had been dealt. Terrible form."


They formed up next to their Trainer when he gestured them to their flight spots, with him in the lead. "Then after that, I'll teach you all how to properly defend yourself."
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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Beyond Blood #1: Navigators Are Made, Not Born


The ornithopter bomber dragon bucked in its steady flight as it encountered the upper airs, and Quarethstra Jarre's young student fought with the controls, her movements panicked as the buffeting winds brought her off course.

Jarre barked, "No, shift up...Up. If you don't reroute the—"

"I know," his young charge responded.

He had to fight not to immediately take over in the second flight seat as she struggled, her small hands pushing the upslide course buttons desperately. He couldn't see the panic in her eyes, not sitting behind her, but he could feel it in the way the bomber dragon—no they weren't bombers anymore, their pot-bomb gripping feet had been altered to better landing gear—bucked at her guidance.

He peered about to see how his other students were doing with other Navs as seconds, and the training squadron fared no better as the high winds made flight much harder. That had been the point.

Jarre lifted his right hand and made the signal for V formation, hoping there would be no collision, though he trusted his fellow Navs to—

One of the ornithopter dragons banked up too quickly, clipping a wing with its nearest fellow, causing both to yaw perilously. Jarre's massive hands clenched over the controls, his heart leaping up into his bedamned throat before the teachers in the secondary flight seat brought the wayward flyers under control with the ease of long practice in much more harrowing conditions.

"Land," he said to his student.

She actually turned about to glare at him through her farviewer goggles, and snapped, "Because that stupid sootfoot and bedamned scumlicker almost crashed into themselves? You've got to be joking, Trainer!"

Such insolence from any Navigator in training would've never been tolerated during wartime, not when Jarre was Third Leader. But now that those being trained weren't flying into battle, did it matter?

Hells yes it does, he decided.

Jarre growled in his basso rumble, "Insubordination will not be tolerated. One more instance and I'll ground you for life."

He saw her stiffen, and the flyer responded as she did. "You can't...my bloodline is—"

"Land," he snapped. "Take the first flight ledge that's open."

He raised his hand to signal to the other teachers that they were to take over primary flight controls and to land in the previously discussed landing location, which in this case was back home on the flight ledges. Without word or warning to Tanake Tei, he took control from her, and she let out a frustrated growl through the nose of her flight mask, but placed her hands on either side of her controls in the ready-but-at-rest pose seconds were to take.

Jarre could feel the furious pound in his head, and ground his teeth together, trying to excuse himself from the fact that his very small training squadron wasn't progressing as quickly or as well as other Trainers were with their students. The old Navigator saying was: Poor Trainer makes poor students. Poor students die.

His fury wasn't at his students, no, the anger was all at himself.

Ah, would my bloodline be shamed that a Quarethstra is failing at Training when it's in the blood? As he automatically and without thought began the sequence for the thopter's landing, the nagging thought still struck him: Is it because my very small squad is made of children from non-Navigator bloodlines within our Clan?

He knew what Valin would say to that. And shame burned bright that he kept wondering if his students were doomed to failure because of their breeding, that it had never been their blood-purpose to fly. He wanted to ask his squad brother for help, but he couldn't bear the idea of seeing the hurt such questions would inflict on his techworker-turned-Navigator friend.

He aimed the thopter's nose at the giant catch frames, ready to slow the dragon's momentum as the thopter's feet touched the edge of the ledge, running forward; with precision the flexible frame caught the nose and stopped them. He knew he should've let Tei have the practice, but again he'd naturally assumed that the Navigator girl didn't necessarily need more practice in that regard when she'd already mastered it ten times over.

Unlike her fellow students.

He hopped to the ground, already seeing the teachers landing their craft in cradles in lines down the expansive granite landing strip. He heard Tei hop down gracefully beside him, and he noticed how tiny the four-and-ten year old looked. Like others of her line, she was sleek of form, whipcord thin. Many of her line were renowned hawkling flyers—the fastest in the Clan. She tore off her flight mask and scowled, glaring with eyes that marked her of her bloodline—a strange storm-cloud gray.

"Trainer," she said, lifting her farviewer goggles to her forehead. "You can't keep grounding us every time the others keep making stupid mistakes. The scumlicker is too stupid to—"

"That's enough," he said calmly now, but his basso voice had a habit of making him sound more intimidating than he was trying to be. "I've asked you before, Tanake, not to refer to your fellow students by such disgusting slang for their blood. In a squad, blood doesn't matter."

She gave him a dubious raise of her brow, but said nothing, clearly noting that he'd chosen to use her bloodline name in formality. Only angry Trainers did so.

His students were leaping from their thopters, and coming toward him in rapid strides. He'd at least taught them how to "hop to."

The teaching seconds, his more tolerant Navs though none of them Trainers, waved a curt goodbye to him as they made their way to other duties.

Jarre regarded them all—his very divergent group of students.

Raijansi Dupresh approached first, and as usual, he had an overly respectful manner of approaching, his eyes always intense on Jarre's face. At four-and-ten summers, the boy was the first to volunteer from the bloodlines of the vat-cleaners. At first glance, his often expressionless moon-round face gave him a witless aspect, but Jarre had seen those dark eyes focusing on him with a fierce spark glinting in those depths, and knew the boy's blank expressions were a way to hide his true feelings. Most distressingly, Jarre had yet to hear the boy speak a single word, and he feared he knew why.

Hurrying her steps to stride right beside Dupresh was Seven Nelai, a second-level techworker and possibly direct blood to Valin. In fact, the four-and-ten year-old girl looked so much like Valin that Jarre wondered rudely how close a blood relative she was. Likely a sibling's daughter, though it was improper to wonder at such things unless she openly claimed Valin as her blood uncle. Her mouth was in a firm line, an all too familiar an expression of serious intensity matched by the crease of curiosity to her brow.

And lastly, bringing up the rear, was the hulking, ungainly form of Kameratsu Awan. Though the Harvester was five-and-ten, his head was nearly to Jarre's chin (by no means short himself). Bloodline, as far as Jarre knew, was from the plough-hands rather than the pickers in the field, and so they grew large as oxen. The boy looked as if he disliked being so obvious in a crowd, nervous of his new growth, but boasted often of his feats of strength in the manner of younglings to cover his self-consciousness.

Tei left Jarre's side to stand in front of him, back rigid, stance perfect. Nelai stood next to the Nav girl, shooting a flat look in Tei's direction before Dupresh stood next to Nelai, touching her hand briefly. And again last, Awan stood his massive frame on Dupresh's other side, making the vat-cleaner look as a pebble next to a boulder.

"Squadron," Jarre said. "Report."

Tei opened her mouth, but shut it a moment later as his eye fell on her.

None of the others were forthcoming.

"Dupresh," Jarre said. Though Dupresh kept his gaze uncomfortably focused on Jarre's face, he said not a word. "Why didn't you move into your point in the V formation? Did you not see Nelai signal you that she was moving into position?"

Dupresh's mouth trembled, still not looking away.   

"Come boy," Jarre said, frustrated. "That little collision could have been disastrous."

The boy's eyes flicked down to his highly polished boots, face expressionless. In fact, now that Jarre thought on it, the cleaner boy was always immaculate in dress, his leather flight jacket well conditioned, and never a speck of so much as dust on him.

"This is serious, Raijansi." Jarre saw no sign that the boy would speak, though he still trembled, blinking. "Dupresh—"

"It wasn't his fault," said Nelai, frowning. No, not quite a frown. That was stark disapproval on that little face, her eyes burning in challenge. "I moved into position without him giving me the signal that all was seen and understood. It's my fault. If anyone is going to be expelled from training, then it should be me, Trainer."

Her lips pressed in a determined line. And for a moment Jarre remembered that's how Valin looked as his own Third Wing tortured him endlessly for being just an 'upjumped sootfoot.'

Jarre had to fight hard not to grin at her ferocity in admiration. Instead, he kept his expression neutral. "I don't believe I mentioned anything about expelling anyone. Admitting to mistakes means you can learn from them. I'm not looking to ground anyone in this squadron for mistakes, so fear no such a repercussion if you admit to a fault."

"You wouldn't ground a true born Nav," she muttered so lowly Jarre almost didn't hear. "But what about the rest of us?"

Tei scowled, clearly hearing that statement. "If you were born a true Navigator, you wouldn't have made that mistake."

Jarre knew if he hesitated, it would be noted by his non-Nav students, but he had to agree. If any of them had been born among the Navigator bloodlines, such a simple mistake would've never been made. But he remembered Valin saying once, Would it have been easier for me if I'd learned such things as a youngling, instead of being chased from the flight ledges as a child to go back to the forge caves?   

And words came from him that seemed all the more true, "Navigators are made, not born."

Dupresh raised his gaze from his boots, hesitant. But his eyes fell on Jarre's face with that unnerving intensity, and Jarre said again, "Remember that, training squad. Navs are made, not born."

Something brightened in the cleaner's expression, and for the first time, Jarre saw the barest hint of a tight-lipped smile, before it instantly disappeared.

Weary now, Jarre gestured the signal to them: Dismissed.

The young ones broke from one another to go back to their various blood-kin.

#

Jarre still felt awkward whenever he spoke to his Inventrix. Unless summoned—no, she would insist it wasn't anything demanding of his obedience—he'd avoided her open invitation to visit upon her whenever he wished. But now...

He stood before the door to her lab, those wide, intricate doors, which revolved on a maddeningly chaotic mass of techwork. She'd altered it so that anyone could open it with the simple press of a button—except for Valin who liked the challenge of being purposefully locked out. Now, Jarre pressed the button, and held back on a flinch as the doors clicked and whirred, folding inward on themselves. He walked in with his purposeful stride, hoping to mask his discomfort, when he saw the young girl who was his Inventrix...

Shiran had grown in a matter of five years from a girl that appeared outwardly to be a seven-year-old to one that appeared nearly at her sixteenth year. He wasn't lulled into complacence by the disparity of her physical youth or rapid growth, knowing full well what sort of mind was hidden behind it. In an automatic response, Jarre came to a stop, heels together, back ramrod straight.

She looked up from the tome she was pouring over and chuckled a very adult-like chuckle. "At ease, Jarre." She smiled at him in a way that her predecessor had never smiled, and the incongruity of such an expression on an all too familiar face still made him fight not to squirm. "What brings you to my abode? Council matters? Or perhaps something else?"

He could see by the cant of her smile she had already surmised the answer. But before he could answer with his accustomed, nonchalant style, she hopped off of the stool she'd been perched over; Shiran gestured that he sit in the large leather chairs plopped in the middle of the chaos of machinery, books, and lab equipment around them. When he sat his big frame down, and she flopped gracelessly in the chair opposite, and gestured for him to continue.

Jarre breathed slowly through his nose. "I want to know why you gave me the task of being Trainer."

She raised a sharp brow. "I'm certain, Jarre, that isn't the entirety of what you want to ask. Aside from the fact that you are more than qualified to be a Trainer, what you're truly asking me is: Why did I give you the other blood-kind to train?"

He matched her earlier smile. "To the heart of the matter, Inventrix."

But her expression remained serious. "And what do you think my answer will be?"

So much like an Elder, he couldn't help but think. "Because no one else would take this task."

Shiran shook her head, the wild puffs of her dark hair moving with her. "I offered this to no one else."

Jarre studied her earnest expression, hoping in vain to read something there. "But Quarethstra Tsavo was my Trainer, and the best in the entire Clan. Certainly he—"

"Your old Trainer also still insists that Navigators be served in the dining hall, in the manner of the old tradition, instead of standing in line like everyone else. Some of his own blood had to drag him from the mess hall before he grew violent with the techworker standing in front of him."

She'd argued within the Council chambers the reason why such a tradition had to be changed, though she left the ultimate decision up to the vote of the Council. Jarre had seen the point of the tradition once—battle weary Navs had once been shown deference in the dining halls as a matter of respect—but now he could see it for what it had grown into: a way for his own blood to remain somehow superior to the other blood-kind of the Clan and their inborn duties. In the Council chambers, Jarre himself had argued for the repeal of such traditions.

He must be candid with his Inventrix, for she could see through even the lies he told to himself. "This isn't about the students, not truly. This is about my own doubt in my ability to reach them. I don't know how."

Now her smile was dazzling in its intensity. "To the heart of the matter, Trainer Jarre."

Trainer. Not Councilor. Or even his old blood-purpose as Third Leader of Kerlan Nyru's squadron. Trainer.

He chuckled, his voice booming in the vaulted expanse of her laboratory, but his mirth was strained. "I fear I will fail them. And I can tell that they want this. All of them. I haven't asked if they've had sunwing dreams, but I can tell that in their own way, the desire to fly are those dreams."

"In what way will you fail them?"

"They struggle. What should come naturally, does not. And I don't know how to make it natural for them."

"You yourself were born to this, but did it always come naturally as you say? Or was it a product of being taught by your blood-kin from the time you could speak? Certainly your early flights were far from perfect." When he grunted, half a chuckle, half a nod to the truth, she continued, "Perhaps the way to reach them is not through the way you were taught."

Again, she found a way for him to reach new avenues of thought on his own. To lead him to make his own conclusions. A new idea formed, and he laughed to himself to see what his mate would say. "Oh, Inventrix. Has anyone ever told you you're the ultimate teacher?"

She snorted. "I'm still learning myself."

"That's what all the best teachers say." He rose to his feet and she peered up at him, studying him in a way that made him feel like she could see through to his bones. "Thank you, Inventrix."

The Inventrix leaped up to stand, and she patted at his large, muscular arm the way a grandmere would a favored grandson. "Come to visit me again, as I would like to hear of your progress and of your students."

When he bowed, and spun to make his way to the door, he looked over his shoulder to see her with a pleased tight-lipped smile, in much the way a proud teacher would to an advancing student.

#

Seven Nelai stood in the mess hall with her mother in the usual line her fellow techworkers would form around the middle. Already, her blood cousins and other techie bloodlines were unwrapping their flatbread pieces from the cloths they'd warmed in the forges, and some of them broke off the right corner—as was traditional in respect to the ones who could no longer break bread with them—and chewed mindfully while waiting. Nelai kept her extra piece of flatbread, which she'd made herself, because Dupresh liked it so well.

The vat-scats didn't make flatbread. Not vat-scats, she corrected herself. It's mean, like the way Tei calls them scumlickers. But she'd been surprised to find that not all blood-kind made bread. They traded well enough with the Harvesters for extra grain, and reciprocated with bread, so at least Awan knew the taste of flatbread. But seeing the look on Dupresh's face when he took his very first bite ever...

In the massive lines across from them, in their drab gray worksuits covered in bits and pieces from things they'd cleaned, stood Dupresh and his own mother. The boy wasn't looking at Nel, and she knew the only way to catch his attention was to wave, because shouting would be useless anyway. So she waited until his chin raised, and those dark eyes spotted her. His moon-round face broke into a tight-lipped smile.

She flickered her hand in a flight signal, because it was easier for stealth than the more elegant hand-speak of the Navigators: Will drop back to your position.

He nodded, but his eyes flicked up to look at how long the line was for the cleaners in the back. Always in the back. Always last. Even though they didn't have to anymore.

Why couldn't Nelai just gather an extra two portions, since she was farther forward in the mess lines? Then she could hand it to Dupresh and his mother, give him the flatbread...it was okay now, wasn't it? She would do it. Even if her mother disapproved, as she so disapproved of everything. "Blood shame, Nel," she'd say sternly.

Yes, she'd do it. No more sneaking around, hiding that she gave Dupresh the Seven's famously hearty flatbread. As she stepped forward with her tray and bowl, the cook, a robust mid-aged woman, smiled down at her, plopped the vat-raised protein in its salty broth into the bowl with the savory rice balls perched on top.

"May I have two portions to give to my friends behind me?" she asked, her heart pounding.

Mother frowned. "Since when do we jump the line? Nel, what have your cousins put you up to?"

"Of course, la' little one," said the cook, spooning two more portions and setting all three bowls on the tray. "Don't drop it."

Mother placed her strong hand on Nelai's shoulder, stopping her with a stern frown. "Seven's don't jump the line. Give it back. Now."

"Respectfully mother," she said raising her chin. "No. It's not jumping the line. Not anymore. There isn't an order. Not like there used to be—"

"Nel, so help me," her mother hissed, eyes darting around as some of the other Sevens were looking on. "Forge Gods give me strength, you don't know what you're speaking of. Give back the bowls."

Nelai hated when her mother used that tone. Others in the mess hall were beginning to look. Then good. Let them look. She turned her back rudely on her mother, some of her blood-kin muttering to themselves, and she left the lines of her fellow second-level techworkers in their worksuits covered in soot and grease. Her mouth was dry as she walked around the Harvesters (Awan wasn't there, probably still out in the fields), walked beyond the lines of the few bloodlines of Tamers, smelling of wolves, felines, and the stock pens. And she came toward Dupresh, his eyes wide, his hands making gestures for: Fall back to position.

But instead she waited until Dupresh's mother realized that Nelai was holding out the tray for her to take. His mother's wide brow crinkled, before she realized Nelai's intent. "Begging your pardon, honored techworker, but what is this?"

Nelai's stomach fluttered uncomfortably. "I gathered bowls for you and Dupresh. I made some flatbread. You can share it." Now, with Dupresh's mother blinking at her, she felt the need to shove it into the woman's hands. "Can I sit with you? I would like to learn more about my fellow student's blood-kin."

Her face, nearly as moon-round as her son's, became expressionless. "Techworker Seven," she said, voice pinched. "Your own tables with your own blood-kin are far better. I wouldn't want you complaining of the smell at our tables." That last was said flatly, but her gaze had narrowed ever so slightly.

Dupresh tapped on his mother's small, petite shoulders in a sequence, but she ignored him.

"I'm not here to mock you, honored Raijansi..." Nelai broke off as such words brought a flinty look into her eye. As if those words themselves had indeed mocked her. "I-I only...Dupresh and I are students together—"

"Perhaps not for long, Techworker Seven," said Dupresh's mother, face again carefully expressionless. "Let us see how far our Inventrix takes this before she grows tired of simple vat-scats...comingling with others. If you decide to complain of the smell to your laughing blood-kin," and those eyes sharpened, and Nelai had never before seen such undisguised anger while a face remained expressionless, "then have the decency to do so at your own table, if you please, honored techworker."

Heat radiated from her cheeks like the fires of the crucibles; she still held the tray as if it could speak for her. She couldn't move, as if paralyzed; words were lodged in her throat as she heard the flurry of whispers all around her. It felt like the forges were burning her from...from embarrassment?

"Ah, there you are!" crowed a deep voice from behind her.

She spun around in surprise to see Trainer Jarre...no Councilor Jarre in his full green-and-black high-collared uniform that seemed to fit his tall, massive frame in an imposing manner. Many around him still weren't certain how to nod or bow to a Councilor, or truly what sort of deference they should give to a position created but five-years past. It wasn't one of blood. There was no inherent blood-purpose in it, but on the other hand, Nelai had heard her father say that "they tell us a Councilor is supposed to help be our voice. At least a techie is one of them, otherwise they'd all be sun-loving, stuck-up Navs."

While Nelai was staring in surprise up at her Trainer, he plucked the heavy tray from her and balanced it perfectly in one hand, while meeting Dupresh's mother with a respectful bow. The woman blinked rapidly. Mother hurried to Nelai's side, aghast that Nel may have inadvertently disrespected a Councilor, and placed work-hardened hands on Nelai's shoulder.

"Honored blood-mothers of Dupresh and Nelai," he said, voice rumbling with genuine seriousness. "I must ask your permission to train your children during all hours. It is a very regimented schedule, done in seclusion. But know while they're under my care as Trainer, that while training is dangerous, I will do everything to keep them safe."

Dupresh was watching closely, focused on Jarre's lips, but she could see the surprise turn to excitement on his face. A tiny squeak-sound escaped his lips, though she knew he was unaware that he'd made any such noise.

Nelai looked up at the big Trainer. "Is this some kind of special training?"

He shook his head. "Not special. A very old, very respected method. Navigators have not trained for flight duty this way in centuries. And with this new kind of expeditionary squad," and he met each of the mother's eyes, "it requires that I train them apart from their blood-kin. But first, I must ask permission."

Mother raised her chin. "You didn't need permission to take her away for this in the first place. Why not just take her at the demands of our Inventrix?"

Nelai cringed. The Council had required that "one of the blood" give permission for any who may want to train to fly, but she had known her blood-parents would say no. And her blood-uncle Valin knew that. So he'd given permission on her behalf. But Nelai had told her parents it was…"required by the Inventrix as a test."

And oh, how the lie ate at her.

Jarre narrowed his gaze at Nel ever so slightly. Disapproval. "Because you have a voice, Seven Denara. As both Trainer and Councilor, I would be remiss in not allowing you a choice. But know before you answer that your blood-daughter wishes for this with all her heart. It burns bright within. Even if you think it a mistake, isn't that what we should let our children do? Make mistakes?"

"No, Councilor," said Mother as sternly as she dared.

But before she could deny Nelai the chance to train, Dupresh stepped forward with his own mother, her moon-round face determined. "Most honored Councilor, yes, mistakes are to be made in order to learn. But more importantly, it is the wish of my blood, of all my kind, that my blood-son find his heart-wish. In all respect, honored Councilor, I don't think you understand...what this means. To so many of us."  

Dupresh smiled at his mother, and nodded to his Trainer. He signed in the Nav hand-speak, I wish for this.

Nelai couldn't believe that Mother would let a "simple vat-scat" show support for her blood-son in this training, yet deny Nel the chance. So many of the Sevens were watching already. Mother quivered, not quite glaring at the quiet pride that Dupresh's mother had in her gaze.

"Fine," Mother said tersely. "And when this training is over, then my daughter will realize how—" Nelai was certain her mother was about to say 'ridiculous,' but after a choked pause continued with, "—well, then she'll realize where she truly belongs. What she was bred for. Why you or our most honored Inventrix would do this to her, I've no idea. But if it's to teach her that she'll fail, and that she was bred for the true techwork of the Clan, then so be it."

Nelai wanted to leap to Jarre's side, wanted to beg him to take both her and Dupresh away right this instant.

Jarre regarded both of the mothers, and bowed again with a respectful elegance. Even still holding the tray. "I hear your acceptance. Now, I believe my new charges are quite hungry. So if you don't mind me jumping the line..."

Nelai was impressed that her Trainer knew such techworker concepts.

He gestured gently, rather than with the curt motions of a Trainer. "Come children. Time to eat."

And with one last bow, he spun about, expecting his trainees to follow.

Dupresh shared an eager smile with her as they followed after.
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