Monday, January 23, 2017

Beyond Blood #3: Treachery


Part 3

Nelai sat behind Dupresh in the longwing flyer in her secondary flight seat, checking and rechecking the gauges, heart pounding. These flyers were newly minted from the forge caves, tinkered and re-tinkered by the first-level techworkers until they hum-ticked perfectly, their smooth brass hides gleaming in the early winter morning light. She peered at each of the four wings, so extensive that she could barely see their tips from her vantage point, but the second pair just below the first pumped downward as the first curved up when Dupresh tested them on the flight ledge. Trainer Jarre called them grassflier wings—what the Wheelteeth apparently called dragonflies—but either way they were light, thin, and astonishingly beautiful.

Gods o' the Forge, don't let me fail and crash this beautiful thing. Not only was it the most elegant technology their Clan possessed, but few of even the most advanced and honored Navigators had flown one. The Inventrix herself had stated to the Council—according to their Trainer—that the longwings were reserved for their new Expeditionary Squadron, and would always be.

Nelai knew that if they failed today, her squadron would bear the shame of it, and all other squadrons that might be in the future; Du would have to go back to his hopeful blood-kind, crushed, Awan would have nothing to go back to, and Nelai would have to tell Mother that she was right all along. Even Tei would have to bear the shame of it.

Dupresh lifted his hand in the signal for: Flight check go.

On the ledge next to them, Tei went through the same flight-checks, and Awan sitting huge behind her called out that all the gauges looked good. Nel couldn't do that with Dupresh, so her friend had taught her the tap-code language that he used to communicate among his kin when working. They'd worried that their Trainer would find out about Du's blood-defect, but he'd known, saying, "While I wish our own Clan would support you, Dupresh, and accept this inborn defect, I fear most won't. You already have much to prove simply based on your blood. One day, I hope it will change. I won't expel you from training, not for this."

They had quite a few observers, not just Navigators on the flight ledges, but a small crowd had gathered on the distant, empty field below. Perhaps Harvesters. Or maybe even Du's blood-kin, for they certainly weren't from the Sevens. And she saw a glint of a brass creature—and knew the battle dragon, Ambassador Zefir was watching. Maybe even her Uncle Valin.

She tapped on Dupresh's shoulder: All systems ready. Flight on mark.

Unlike the hawklings, which were made for single Navs, or even the thopter bombers, which were made with a secondary Nav as backup and as the offloader for the bombs, the newest longwings were designed to distribute some of the flight commands between two. They could be flown singly, but they really shined with two Navigators.

Which why Nelai kept looking to her other side to see who was second to Trainer Jarre.

The Inventrix lifted her voice, "All systems check, Trainer!"

Jarre stood in his seat, his basso voice easily lifting above the sounds of the whirling engines at idle, and the buzz of activity of those attending to the launch cradles—one of whom was Zhandei. "Listen up, Expeditionary Squadron Prime! First Leader Dupresh will take the lead as planned in Flyer One. Second Leader Tei to take position two hundred meters behind in Flyer Two, and the Inventrix and I following at one thousand meters behind them in Flyer Three. Landing location is the grasslands clearing over the Sunset Mountain pass, ten flight minutes beyond. When there, I suggest you set up your tents quickly, because it gets cold this time of year and you don't want to have to re-pitch a tent the next day in the snows and freeze your ass off."

Her squad chuckled, and Dupresh made a gesture of amusement.

Three days of field training in the middle of nowhere, learning how to explore the world.

"If for any reason, either Flyer One or Flyer Two needs to make an emergency landing, they will signal, and the others will land as close as possible. With the winter winds over the pass, we'll ascend to the upper airs." He paused taking their measure with his eyes, before he grinned at them. "Ready Squad Prime?"

Nelai lifted her voice, nearly choking on how excited she was, but she echoed her own squadmates, "Squad Prime ready!"

"Masks latched!" her Trainer crowed, plopping back down into his seat. "Flyer One go!"

Nelai let out a nervous squeak, but she latched her flight-mask, not yet turning on the hand-sized canister to vent purer air into her lungs—that was for ascending in the mountain pass. Her hands were gloved, her red leather flight jacket fur-lined, and her scarf tight against the cold upper airs that might get between her layers.

Dupresh's hands were steady, his movements certain as the longwing flyer's legs lifted, the flight cradle forcing them back, its arms stretching to slingshot them into the air. She heard Zhan's voice call for go, and the Ledge Leader grinned at them.

The force of the flyer shooting forward always made her whoop, but today she laughed as they were suddenly airborne.

#

The steady buzz-hum of the flyer rattled deep in her bones, vibrating until Nel felt as if she was part of the longwing. She couldn't believe how in syncopation her reactions were to Du's, as if he felt it too, the moment when they both became the flyer itself.

It was midmorning by the time they reached the Sunset mountains, the glow of the sun hiding as she spotted a few darker clouds covering the peaks. The flyer began to buck with the early winter winds howling through the pass, and Dupresh forced the longwing higher, gaining altitude at a steady climb as Nelai readjusted the angle of the downbeat on the lower set of wings.

She spared a moment to look back and see if Tei and Awan's Flyer Two still paced them, and blowing out a relieved breath into her flight mask, she turned on the purer air of the canister—once used to invigorate Navigators for an upcoming fight. And now, flying over the pass, over the great glaciers below, they spotted the snow-dappled grasslands of the valley. They were to land toward the leading edge of the valley's bowl, and—

She squinted through her farviewer goggles. "What in ten hells?"

Du slowed the flyer much too soon, gliding for a matter of two heartbeats. He hesitated at this unexpected sight, and she could see his shoulders tighten.

There. She saw it for certain now. Coming toward their left flank were several small, single flyers. No, only three. But as she adjusted the magnification on her goggles to their utmost, she saw the feather-like wings with their small, rapid downbeats, and the pointed beak-like structure of...of gryphons.

The Wheelteeth. The enemy? No, they were enemy no longer.

Dupresh signed over his shoulder with one hand as best he could. Were we supposed to meet with a delegation from the Wheelteeth?

She tapped out: Trainer would have told us.

He nodded. Signal to Flyer Two to form up. Take our right flank.

Nelai lifted her hand and made certain to make the flight signals, not once but three times as taught. She peered back through her goggles and saw Awan make an affirmative gesture, and Flyer Two's wings buzz-flapped faster, as they gained on Flyer One. She could see Awan signaling to their Trainer—

Dupresh let out a muffled squawk of surprise.

The lead gryphon speared toward them, like a hawk after prey. Its beak-snout opened, and its flechette gun swiveled in their direction.

Nelai hissed, praying to the Forge Gods that this was some secret test her Trainer had put together. It had to be. There was peace now. But the gleaming barrel of the gun moved to track them, and she clenched hard at the controls, her heartbeat a terrified throb in her skull. She cried out as the retort of the large bolt echoed from that maw, and Du jerked the flight controls to the side; the longwing banked hard to the left. Nelai screamed as the bolt sheered through the side of the longwing; the sound of shrieking metal mirrored her own screams.

Dupresh lifted his fist in the signal for: Evasive maneuvers!

It couldn't be. It wasn't. She wanted to put her hands over her ears and block out the sound of their engine chugging, coughing. The world was suspended in this single moment, crystal clear; time hung, and when she swiveled to look for Flyer Two, it seemed to take an eternity. The hornet-buzz of flechettes rained through the sky and that moment of timelessness shattered; her mind refused to focus on the reality of hearing more bolts pierce the body of her flyer; she watched one spear through the metal, the sharp end nearly reaching her thigh—to within a hairsbreadth.

Tei forced Flyer Two to ascend rapidly, the grassflyer wings a blur of motion. But Nelai held her breath as bolts speared through Two's lower wings, turning them into crumpled, shorn masses of useless metal. They could still fly on only the top wings...

Dupresh lifted his hand in the signal for: RETREAT.

But the other flyer stalled, and began to fall, hurtling downward toward the ground; her squadmates managed to keep the flyer from spinning, to keep it even, its remaining top wings stabilizing it on its long descent toward the ground.

Navs call it kissing the ground, she recalled dully.

She felt Dupresh's hand slap her arm. She stared at him in incomprehension. Again, he hit her. Hard. Then he signaled: Vent heat!

Yes, focus on her flyer. On flying. She reached for the controls, hearing the blaring of the warnings, the gauges all swinging wildly. But venting the excess heat would be impossible as the engine's coolant had been pierced, so she focused on redirecting all of the remaining and rapidly dwindling power to the wings as—

One of the gryphons broke from formation to chase after Flyer Two as the longwing flew heavily toward the leading edge of the grasslands, aiming for the edge of the dark forest that bristled at the mountain's foot. And she knew that Du would follow, that their only chance was in landing as close as possible to one another, and then flee on foot into the forest where the gyrphons couldn't track them. She prayed—to the Forge Gods, to the sun if It would listen—that the second gryphon wouldn't open fire. And while it chased them, it didn't open its maw. Nelai didn't know which deities had listened, and didn't care. Her squadmates might have a chance...

Her flyer banked hard to the right, and another round of bolts narrowly missed them when—she heard it, the grinding mechanics of the two left wings. She tried to keep the top left wing going, like a broken bird, but it stuttered and ceased with a hiss. Dupresh cut off the power to the wingbeats completely—and they glided, keeping from a downward spin. It was all they could do—glide downward.

Easy prey.

She lifted slightly in her seat to look rearward, hoping to see her Trainer close. He would know how to battle them. Jarre could save them. With what weapons? But the third gryphon had unleashed its bolts on Flyer Three, and she screamed again—this time in fury—to see her Trainer's longwing spiraling from the sky.

When she turned back, the ground was close. And they were falling faster than she thought. Desperately, she released the long, almost horse-like legs of the landing gear. If they could pull up just a fraction, then the legs would take the impact. But more bolts speared against their side, shredding what remained of the pseudo-metal canvas of their wings. Nelai covered her head with her arms, and closed her eyes as the ground rushed toward her.

She was jerked tight against her flight straps, and sharp pain was all along her chest. But she dared to open her eyes only to see her flyer sliding on its belly, the right wings snapping off completely, the landing legs decimated. Soil and grass plumed around her; but she saw them sliding to within a handspan of Flyer Two. The nose bumped against the other downed flyer. Heart in her mouth, trying desperately not to vomit, Nelai forced what bit was left of the left wing to lift up over the heads of her fallen squadmates—she could see Tei and Awan still there. Alive? But at least the bolts would have to sheer through the wing, slowing it, before injuring them.

Dupresh released his flight straps, and grabbing up the pack beneath him, he turned to her. She was staring at him, not understanding. He reached for her, grabbed her cheek, and his eyes bored into hers. His hand signed: Uninjured?

"Y-yes..."

She struggled with the flight straps, and released them. Grab the pack! she thought. They both leaped over the side, and when she hit the ground, she found that pain over her chest again—from the flight straps. Du raced for Flyer Two, and he had clambered up the side when two bolts pierced the wing hovering above them, but Dupresh kept moving.

Awan unstrapped Tei from the flyer, Tei whose face was ashen. And the large Harvester boy lifted her; the Nav girl screamed, trying to muffle it. But Nelai watched in horror as Awan held Tei in his arms and dropped to the ground, seeing the blood covering the girl's right leg.

Forge n' Fire, all the blood.

"Tei's been hit," Awan said, his voice wavering. "The bolt pierced the flyer and into her leg. I had to pull her off of it. Gods, it can't be..."

Du slapped his arm. Can you carry her while we run?

"I...I can carry her, but it'll slow me down. I don't know if I'm fast enough."

Then we need a distraction. Dupresh looked toward the edge of the forest. I'll run at an angle toward the forest. It will take more time to get there. Then once they see me, flying toward me, all three of you run.

Tei was gritting her teeth, breathing hard against the pain. She moaned, "No..."

I'm First Leader, Du signed, his mouth in a firm line. Do as I say.

"You're no Leader, Du," Nelai said, putting her pack on her back. "Not for this. We have to—"

He signed more forcefully: Do as I say.

"God's o' the Forge." Nelai gestured to him. "Give me your pack. I'll carry it. It'll only weigh you down."

If they survived this, their pack had food, water, shelter, and med-kits. She couldn't leave it behind.

But Dupresh either didn't hear her, or chose to ignore it. He bent his knees, looking above, and then without another word sprinted from their precarious cover. Nelai watched, seeing her friend run faster than he'd probably ever had in his life. The gryphons circled overhead, and she heard shot—not the big flechette guns in the beak-maw, but smaller, aeropistol shots coming from the first gryphon.

They can't target him well with the big guns. Or they're out of bolts.

Tei's eyes were riveted to the small cleaner boy as he dodged and zig-zagged. She grimaced, saying, "Let me run on my own. It hurts but I'll—"

"Shut it, Tei," Awan growled. "Think light thoughts."

Nelai tapped his arm as the gryphons were at the farthest point of their flight circle, and she barked, "Run!"

The big Harvester burst from the confines of their downed flyers, Nelai on his heels. With big, ground-eating strides, he ran with Tei bouncing in his arms, and Nelai didn't look up, she didn't dare. Focus only on the dark line of trees, on the brush of snow on their needle-leaves. Focus on running, on the way her breaths puffed in the cold air. She heard the buzz of the gyphons closer now; a hornet-buzz whistled passed her and she heard the flechette bury in the soft ground where she'd been a breath before.

And there—the sheltering canopy of the forest. She felt the air grow cooler as they passed beneath the branches. Awan kept running, fighting to leap over decaying, fallen logs, fighting as the terrain canted uphill. But Nelai stopped at the tree line, and she turned back.

Where's Du?

She saw the pack nestled in the grasses. It was all she could see of him. Gods, they shot him! And her legs quivered, but she had to go to him.

"Nelai!" Tei called.

"He's down," she said blankly. "I have to go to him—"

"Listen to me," Tei said emphatically, her eyes burning fever bright. "If he's down, he's gone. We have to keep moving. If they land and come after us..."

"He's not dead!" Nel shrieked. She heard the panic, the near breaking point in her own voice. "I can save him!"

"Damn it, Nel!" Tei was staring at her with those stone-steady eyes. "I'm your Second, and your Second says to move your fucking ass. Understood, wing runner?"  

She sputtered, her breaths heaving as if she wanted to vomit. She glared at the small, wiry girl held in Awan's arms, saw the blood from her leg coating the arms of Awan's jacket. Something vile bubbled up from inside of her, and she spat, "You hated him anyway. If you hate me just as much, then let me go to him."

Awan stepped down the slopping hill, his arms trembling; Tei gritted her teeth as she was jostled, but said into the eerie quiet of the forest, "Godsdamn it, Nelai. I don't hate him. I don't hate you either. Come with us. Now."

Awan growled, "Move your ass, wing runner. Do as your Second says."

Another shot from above made Nelai's muscles move.

Together they fled.

#

The children! The children are down! Jarre felt the impact of the nose of his flyer smashing into the ground, saw the sleek body of his flyer crumple; he heard the Inventrix let out a terrified scream, like the screams of his wounded Wing. Like Arran strapped in the flyer next to him, screaming when the enemy would unload more bolts into the downed flyers and—

His mind whirled as the flyer came to a halt, but he automatically hit the release button for his flight straps; he turned to look at the Inventrix, who was clearly shaken, but unharmed. Gods, she's really a youngling. Already she'd unstrapped herself, grabbing up her pack, and leaping with a large bound to the ground. He followed after her, hunched in the shadow of their wrecked flyer. He saw a Rider-style cam-and-pulley bow on the back of her pack, but it'd do no good to shoot at the gryphon above at the altitude it maintained.

She looked up at him for direction, the fear glinting in those old-but-young obsidian eyes. They were close to the edge of the forest. They could flee there for cover, running around to where the children's flyers were; one thousand meters. Gods, why did he insist on giving them such a lead for their first true flight?

First flight, last flight. No, it wasn't their last, it couldn't be. They were alive, he knew it in his bones; he knew the sun wouldn't take them from him, not even his ambivalent deity would be so cruel.

"Inventrix," he said. "We make for the trees at the gryphon's widest arc."

She nodded, mouth firming like he'd seen her predecessor do.

There was no time to grab his own pack, so he took hers, throwing it over his shoulders. She hunkered down, like children did when racing one another. But her eyes were on her target. No doubt with her heightened Inventrix-senses, she listened for the buzz of the flyer. She barked, "Go!"

He ran beside her, hoping she could keep up. But soon it was apparent that it was she who was fighting to slow to stay with him. He snapped, "Break! Z form!"

They began to zig-zag across the open expanse, and he heard the tell-tale sound of an aeropistol being shot—so the gryphon was out of flyer-sized bolts. The familiar roar of blood pounded through his temples, the old battle-fury transforming his body; it was a heady sensation.

He heard Shiran cry out; a bolt had landed between her feet and she'd had to stop suddenly to avoid it; but she flew faster then, moving with a speed no mere normal Navigator could match. With her Inventrix speed, she made it to cover, and turned to gesture the gryphon's position: Dodge left now!

Without thinking, he followed her direction. He zagged to the left, but fell face first as he felt the bolt slam into his back; not his flesh, no pain. The bolt had hit the pack on his back. Jarre scrambled to his feet, his breath ragged in his throat. But he made it to cover, and turned with the Inventrix as she continued on—toward the children.

They're alive. They're alive.

He kept that chant going in his mind as they ran.

#

Nelai couldn't feel her feet anymore; they were numb stumps, her legs like flatbread dough. It was getting harder to see as they went deeper into the steep terrain, the canopy tight overhead, blocking them from sight above, but also blocking the sun. Ahead of her, Awan stomped forward like one dead, his breaths shaky, but he still held Tei in his arms. Though she'd ordered him, he refused to put her down.

"There," Tei said, pointing.

Nelai could see the mouth of a cave, dark and secluded. It would be as safe a place as any to stop and rest. Together they trudged into the cave, smelling the distant, faint musk of some predator that had made it a home long ago. They moved to the back of the cave, and Awan nearly collapsed to his knees as he set Tei gently down on the cold stone.

With the med-kit she dug from her pack, Nelai moved to Tei, assessing the wound as she'd been taught as a techie—with logic and facts. She saw that the bolt had left a hole, but had thankfully missed major arteries near the knee. Even still, Tei had lost a good amount of blood, and would be weak until she recuperated. Numbly, Nelai ripped at the cloth around the wound, and began to stitch the wound closed.

He's dead, she thought numbly, letting her fingers do their automatic work. He's dead and I just left him there to die.

She was beyond feeling that tight sensation in her chest, the shaky breaths of needing to cry. There was only the numbness. Her eyes remained dry. Her hands began to shake, but Tei remained quiet, her eyes haunted.

Slowly, Tei reached out to still Nelai's trembling. "It's okay, Nel. We're safe. We made it and we're safe."

"Don't lie to me like a little child, Second Leader." Her voice sounded hollow. Dead. "Not all of us made it. And we still might not."

Awan had his head bowed, his eyes closed. "We'll get through this..."

Facts. Fact would save her techworker mind in the way it was bred to do. Assess the situation, focus only on the cold logic. "Tei is injured. You can't keep carrying her, Awan, so we must remain here. There's no way to get back home, and no one will go looking for us until after three days have passed. There's no way to salvage the flyers, even if we could make it back to the clearing and the gryphons weren't patrolling that area. We have enough food in our packs to last us one of the three days, but the Inventrix was supposed to teach us how to forage. And we've only one pack."

"We can ration," said Tei, watching Nelai's fingers do their work.

Awan pressed the heel of his hand against his eyes, shaking his head. "It'll get cold tonight, but we can't light a fire or they'll find us. They'll find us, gods, they'll find us."

"Wing runner," Tei said quietly, but with firmness. "Look at me, Awan."

Slowly, the big Harvester took his palms from his eyes, those eyes bloodshot.

"They're not going to find us, not if we're clever." She gestured to the cave and the space around them. "We'll set alarms around the perimeter, that way we'll know if they approach."

Nelai smeared some of the healing-gel on the wound, hoping it wouldn't suppurate or they would have other problems. Her mind still chewed at the puzzle the situation presented, when a realization clicked into place. "The question is: why did they attack us in the first place?"

Her squadmates stared at her.

"Why would the Wheelteeth attack us?" Nelai continued. "We're on our own lands, but nowhere near Wheelteeth territory. We're unarmed. So, why go after us? And how did they know where to find us?"

Tei gritted her teeth as the gel stung. "Because they wanted to break the peace."

"I don't think so," Nel said, thinking. "If that were the case, why not attack our flyer scouts? Or Rider scouts? Why not assault our home itself? The expeditionary squadron is nothing to them. They have nothing to gain from this."

"They're the Wheelteeth," Awan snarled. "Does the enemy need a reason to hate us?"

"But why us specifically?" Nelai countered.

Tei gasped, and it wasn't because of her wound. "Maybe they're not Wheelteeth."

Awan stared at her in confusion. "They fly gryphons—"

"But anyone can fly them," Nelai finished. "Who else but our own people would know that we were flying, much less to which location? Only our Trainer and the ledge Navs knew where we were going. Not even our own blood-kin know."  

"Sun preserve us." Tei halted Nelai's hand as she moved to bandage the wound. "What Navs would do this to us? Why? There's no honor in it, not for any of the blood."

Nel snatched her hand away. "I don't know if you noticed, Second, but there are more Navs that hate me, Awan and Du—not you, because you have the blood—than support or ignore us. Even you hate us."

"Godsdamn it," Tei muttered, and her grip on Nelai's hand grew tighter. "I don't hate you, Nelai. And I don't hate, Dupresh. I hated what I thought you were all taking from me, because I thought I had some right to this while you didn't. And I said mean things, because I thought I was...better. But I'm not better than you. And I'm not better than Dupresh. What he did..."

Something trickled through the numbness, and Nelai had to look away, knowing what true shame felt like. It gnawed at her, breaking through the lack of feeling, and she desperately fought against it.

Tears fell down Nelai's cheeks, and she hated them, angry that she was weeping like a weak little child. Angry at everything, at the memory of seeing Du's pack lying there in the middle of the battleground, knowing he was hurt.

"I'm sorry, Nel," said the Nav girl, clinging tighter to her hand. "I'm sorry I said those things. I'm sorry I led you to believe I hated you." Tei's eyes were bright in the darkness of the cave. "But we're squad. I won't leave you. Squadmates don't leave one another."

Nelai wanted to wipe away the cursed tears on her face, realizing she would smear the Nav girl's blood over her skin if she did so. But she began sobbing, and couldn't stop. "But I left Du there...and he's gone. I let him die! I should've..."

The older girl embraced her fiercely, until the bruises the flight straps left ached. But Nel didn't care. She grasped desperately at Tei, letting her body wrack itself with the sobs that wouldn't be contained. Slowly, the sobs stopped, and her eyes had no more tears to give.

Awan was watching the entrance of the cave, but Nel could see the glint of tears glistening on his own cheeks. He rose tiredly to his feet, riffled in their one pack and drew out the long hunting knife. "Later I'll sing for him...for our Trainer too. That's what my kind does when we...lose people."

"So do we," Tei said, letting go of Nelai. Her expression hardened. "Navigators also sing when the battle is won." She shook her head, but put her hand to her forehead, perhaps dizzy. "To task, Squad Prime. We'll set alarms."

Nelai helped Tei to her feet, but the Nav girl waved Awan away. She hobbled out of the cave, grabbing Nel's pack.

#

Jarre looked above and there were no gryphons circling; he raced from cover toward the crumpled wrecks of the longwings. He was eating his own heart, the panic nearly overwhelming. Merciful sun, don't let me find them...gone. Not like this. I don't know if I can survive that.

Without slowing he bounded up the side of Flyer One...and it was empty. Clambering over the bent wing to Flyer Two, he saw blood splattered over the inside of the first flight seat, and his eyes watered, before the panic twisted inside of him, becoming something hotter, more destructive. He slammed a fist down on the tortured pseudo-metal of the wing and heard it groan.

Shiran was below him, her cam-and-pulley bow out and arrow nocked, scanning the sky. "They made a run for it?"

"There's blood..." Jarre gritted his teeth as the rage grew inside, scorching his mind.

She put the arrow back in its quiver and slapped the bow back on its mechanical holster across her pack, and then in two graceful, feline-like bounds she was up on the flyer. She scratched the dried blood with a finger and then brought it up to her lips. Jarre gasped as she tasted the blood. "Tei. It's her blood. But not enough to suggest that she—"

"Don't say she's dead, Inventrix. Don't you dare."

"I don't think she is. Not from this." Shiran peered around at the sky, before she turned back to the flyer. She touched the flechette bolt that had speared through the side of the machine, and ran her fingers across the unbloodied end, brows pressed in confusion.

Jarre felt as if he were being immolated from within, and again he felt old hatreds rise to the surface; the same as when, long ago after the loss of his Wing, he begged the sun to kill all of the Wheelteeth Navs, even knowing that asking such a thing was the deepest kind of blasphemy. "If I have to murder these fucking Wheelteeth with my bare hands, Inventrix, I will. This...this attack—"

"It isn't the Wheelteeth," said his Inventrix calmly.

He blinked at her, the fire within stuttering. "But they attacked with gryphons."

"We have captured ones in storage," Shiran said. "The composition of this bolt here—" and she gestured to the flechette coated in Tei's blood, "—is from our forges. The Wheelteeth tech forges could never make their weaponry as well as ours, and I'd know the composition of our own anywhere. I can smell it, for godssakes."

Were she anyone other than his Inventrix, he might have questioned her. But the rage-fire inside died, turning to that cold fear again. "Dear sweet sun, those were our own people?"

Her eyes were darker than he'd ever seen, and she no longer appeared the young girl; those eyes held knowledge and saw the world in terms he couldn't fathom. "Those three Navs tried to start the war again. You saw it, the second gryphon didn't attack. The children were meant to escape back home with news that the Wheelteeth had attacked, had killed their Trainer and Inventrix. But something in their plan went wrong. Perhaps they only meant to put a few holes in the flyers, but they downed them instead."

Jarre met the dark fury in her gaze. "If their plan had worked, the war would not only renew, but it would rage on for centuries again."

Her mouth firmed into a tight line, and for a moment Jarre saw the rage of her predecessors stamped into her youthful features. "Gods help those traitors, because when I find them..." Her eyes turned inward, and he had no doubt that each scenario of vengeance played through her mind with Inventrix logic and rapidity.

The fact that she didn't voice what she would do made a chill travel down Jarre's spine.

"We move," Jarre said. "The children are clever. They'll look for shelter. Some place they can't be seen from above."

For a moment he wondered if her stare would turn him to cinders, but he knew the rage wasn't aimed at him. "If she's still bleeding, I can track Tei's blood. My senses are better than the Tamer's wolves. One of the benefits of my kind, Third Leader."

He paused. Yes, this was battle. No longer was he Councilor. Or even Trainer.

She leaped to the ground and waited until he landed beside her. "For all my knowledge, I'm young, Jarre. While I've even seen battle from afar, I've never lived it. In this, I'm not your Inventrix. For now, I'm merely one of your underlings. If you order, I'll follow."

He nodded firmly, and moved out. As he walked, he scanned the grasslands, seeing something nestled in the distance. Without a word, he sprinted out, but he heard her pacing behind him. Now, he thought he saw what it was. A pack. Running faster, he knelt in the grass.

Just a pack that had fallen.

Shiran had her bow out once more. "It's Dupresh's pack. And the footprints lead away from the scent of Tei's blood."

The boy had been using himself as a diversion. The fire within had banked low to a steady, focused heat. The rage would keep him going when all else seemed lost.

"Who should we track?" asked his Inventrix. "Or should we split up?"

They could split up, but he feared that was yet another path to disaster. No matter what she said, Shiran was Inventrix, though she was more than capable of defending herself—a creature reborn faster and stronger than any normal person. But if Shiran was killed, even if he returned with the children and his claims of treachery from within, some may not believe him. The war would begin anew.

The Clan needed their Inventrix.

"We stay together." And though his stomach wrenched, he knew from experience he couldn't second guess his decisions. "We follow Tei's blood. Awan and Nelai are likely with her."

Leaving Dupresh on his own. Sun save them all.
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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 overcast 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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