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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #21: An Offer of Life


The sun had risen since his Navigator was taken that night, and Zefir felt so cold inside that he was certain that his heat-cooling systems weren't functioning properly; his wings were numb, his cooling-wire veins looked engorged and throbbed through his pseudo-metallic wing membranes; his joints likewise felt painful, creaking with faint noises as he furled and unfurled his wings in helpless dejection. He had stopped pacing, because it did nothing to still the horrific guilt that he'd let his Navigator—his one true friend die. And Zefir hadn't even put up a fight. Him, a battle dragon, and he had acquiesced meekly out of fear.

To repair or destroy. And I've done neither.

He sat in the corner, seething. His mind conjured up all of things he should've done to the mob, or should've said to Kirwen. He imagined himself roasting her to cinders, and laughing about it afterward. He daydreamed about telling her and the bedamned mob just what he thought of them—they were all worthless wretches and didn't deserve to live. He imagined what it would be like to stomp them all into the ground, especially the pathetic human woman who had dared to throw mud at him. In his thoughts, he triumphed over them all with the ease of his physical might, or an eloquence that always seemed to escape him.

In his mind, the mob became faceless. And he tore his claws through them all.

But he remembered Kirwen's words, and they intruded on his desperate daydreams of victory: You wouldn't harm these frightened innocents, I know it. And then he remembered how the crowd screamed at the heat of his flame, how their eyes were wide in terror.

Those frightened innocents had condemned Valin. And he hated them for it. All of them.

When he lifted his eyes from his internal battle, he saw his sibling regarding him in deep thought. He almost wanted to shout at her, but swallowed his anger, knowing it wasn't aimed at her. "Yes, Innari?"

"I can hear the difference in your heart-mind, the way the microcogs move," she said, regarding him with a sideways cock to her head. "Whatever it is that you're thinking on, it's...unpleasant. And I promised Valin-friend that I would look after you."

He could even imagine what Valin would say if he were here now: Let her help you, Zef.

The wrenching sensation inside intensified, and Innari wilted, a puff escaping her horns. "Oh, I've made it worse. I can hear it. I'm sorry, Zefir-sibling. Maybe if you tell me what ails you?"

"No," he said firmly. "Thank you."

He was about to insist that she leave him alone, when Ferrei's voice called out, "Come sit by me, little flyer. I find myself in need of company."

Ferrei had been staring bleary eyed at the far wall, and Zefir watched as his sibling pranced eagerly over to his Second, sat at her side, and placed a warm dragon-chin on Ferrei's shoulder. Looking surprised, and amused, his Second patted that snout, and gave a wan smile, speaking to the dragon so quietly that Zefir didn't have the mental strength to focus on it.

Now torn from his misery, he regarded his squadron. Jarre was on a cot, his eyes closed in sleep, but he tossed and turned, muttering violently to himself. Perhaps shadowfall had him in its grip. Nyru was still pacing, slowly, methodically. His First would occasionally touch her forehead, or lean her head back toward the hanger door as if trying to peer out of it to the sky above.

Ferrei met his eye, and walked over to his side. Innari followed, swishing her tail as she walked. Whatever his Second had said to his sibling, Innari didn't speak, but solemnly watched them both.

Ferrei gestured toward Nyru, and touched her forehead. "She prays. It is one of our deepest prayers, and requires all of her focus. It can only be finished after an entire day. We call it the Offer of Life...she calls to the sun, but not to beg It for mercy."

Zefir had decided he would never truly understand the human need to call on deities, and from what he knew of them, they never listened anyway. Even still, he wouldn't malign her beliefs, and so simply nodded.

"I...I had considered joining her," Ferrei admitted, chewing her bottom lip. "But I was concerned for you, and I couldn't...I wouldn't be able to give it my all. As much as I wish to give my entire self to the act of this prayer, I can't. Because I vowed to watch over you. The little flyer too." She looked away from him, and Innari placed her chin on Ferrei's shoulder again. "The prayer begs the sun to make a trade...her life for his. But such a prayer shows hubris that some lives are more important than others. And so, the sun ignores our wishes to show that we're all equal, all taken to the sundisk when it is our time. We can't conceive of anything other than our loss, and so we continue—all day—to make the offer of exchange, knowing that It won't listen."

Zefir tried not to show that it made no sense to him. "So, it's meaningless."

If she was offended, she didn't show it. "It may seem that way. Some say it's to remind us that we have no say in death, that we all eventually fly to the sundisk. For others, it's a pure way to show their respect and love for another in peril...I made the prayer the first time that Denaru ever crashed on a mission flight. He was wounded, and it was many a day before his downed Wing could be rescued. I did so because I..." She swallowed, and began to pet at Innari's snout in slow, thoughtful strokes. "Because if the sun would ever take the exchange, I would've gladly given my life for his. Even now I would."

Zefir glanced at his First on one of her pacing circuits. "So, she's giving honor to Valin by making the offer to give her life for...for his. Because she would do so if it were possible."

"And yet must come to terms that it's all for naught." Ferrei continued to stroke Innari's nose, and his sibling released a soothing rumble. "And if there's death, then we can't change that."

Zefir lowered his eye, hating to ask. But he had to know. "Does she feel responsible...?"

Like I do?

"That's for her to add to her prayer if it's so, and not for us to ask. But in a way all Leaders feel responsible, because that's our purpose." Ferrei made the sign for landing safe, crash below. An odd mixture that Zefir had a difficult time translating until she said, "I know what guilt feels like, Zefir. And you should know it's not your fault. You made a decision to land safely for a short time, rather than to crash and hope for survival."

"Everything I've done has been too safe," he growled. "I could've ripped the mob apart. I could've killed Kirwen dozens of times over. If I'd fought rather than surrendered in the first place, none of us would be here. But I've been a coward."

Ferrei arched a brow, frowning. "I've seen you do brave things in the name of your squad. You're no coward, dragon. Everything you've done has been to keep us from harm. All of us. Even your newborn sibling." She left his sibling's side and came toward him, until Ferrei reached his chest; then wrapping her knuckles gently against his chest panel and the slowly puckering scars there, she looked up into his eyes. "Who is it that has a bedamned bomb inside of him? If that's not brave, I don't know what in ten hells is."        

Innari made a surprised sound, her horns puffing. "A bomb? Whyever would you put one of those inside you, Zefir-sibling?"

He gestured with his nose to the hangar door above. "To escape."

Innari narrowed her eye on the door above, her wings fluttering. "Why not just open it? It's simple enough. Give me a couple of days and I can break the code."

Zefir lifted his head, staring at her intently. "You can what? How?"

"I know things about mechanicals," she said as if he were ridiculous for asking such a thing. "I just do. Don't ask me how."

Zefir let out a sob-like chuckle, remembering some of Seren's last words: I can help you and your squadron escape. Through her last creation. Oh, how like Seren not to think of explaining what was obvious to her.

"Can you break it open in less than two days?" Sudden, terrifying hope was beginning to lighten the cold heaviness inside him, but he balked at letting it blossom and thrive.   

She pursed her lips. "No, because the lock requires two key codes and two people to enter it. I'll need to go through sequences for both, and I doubt I can do so as quick as that. If I enter it incorrectly three times it'll lock down, and never open until re-keyed."

Zefir rose to his feet, trying not to pace. "Then two days, Innari. Two days...then we escape." He butted her with the tip of his wing, pushing her toward the hangar door. "And we go to rescue Valin...before it's..." Too late.

"Rescue," she said, as if chewing on the word. "I like this concept. Being a rescuer. Yes, I must work quickly so we can fly with Valin-friend. Do you think he'll like flying?"

Zefir's lips curled into a smile despite his need to keep his hope low. "He was born to fly. He was meant to soar." Words that Seren had said about Zefir, but he knew it was true for Valin too.

"Good," Innari said, with a sharp nod. "Now, no one bother me. The calculations will require all my focus." She looked up at Ferrei, as the Second Leader started to walk away. "Except for you, Ferrei-kin. Will you...stay with me? Not to talk, because I can't, but just to...sit with me?"

"Of course, Innari," answered Ferrei with a gesture.

Innari made the same gesture, opening her fingers.

Always at your side.

Zefir made the movement inelegant in his need to make the gesture matter. He was coming for Valin, and he would be forever at his Navigator's side.

#

Valin knew he was sweating too much, and he could taste the salt on his lips; the sweat poured from his forehead and beaded over his cheeks, his lips. The heat of the sun, though summertime was almost at an end, was oppressive. It made his dry mouth worse, his voice hoarse as the never ending line of people stood before the bloodwood Post and aired their hatred or grievances. But he couldn't stop speaking to them, giving them his condolences. So many of their stories blended together in his mind...

And I held her hand as the suppuration from her wounds killed her—
My daughter—son—father—mother—cousin—aunt—brother—sister—friend—lover—
Your ground forces and their cog-horses trampled our wheat—
Your battle wolves tore apart our goats—sheep—fowl—and there was no food—we've no vats to rely on like you and your scum—
I watched as my squadron fell from the sky—
I go to fly to fight you and your kind, and you may take me from my family—daughter—son—mother—father—friends—lover—

With the agony of his hand, no longer numb, and his shoulders and legs burning, he couldn't focus on their individual words any longer. He didn't want to become dull to their pain, but his mind numbed, and the words he spoke became harder and harder to spit out.

Kirwen had left her spot as sentinel—what a hour ago? Though his guard had changed from the first one. At least he thought so.

"I'm—" he croaked, and his throat seized.

He could barely swallow, and he lapped at the sweat on his lip, just for a taste of water, however salty. How long was it until sundown? Valin thought he might have finished his condolences to the young man in front of him, but couldn't be sure. He felt the now familiar splatter of spit fall down his cheek—ah, so this man had better aim. Most of his tunic was covered in spit now, but they couldn't get close enough to hit his face, pushed back by his guard.

Hours passed. They must have, because the air was cooler. The sun was dipping below the mountain's peak, and he stared at it, wondering if it was the last sunset he would ever see. It wasn't spectacular, like the color of the clouds at dusk when the Innari moon was in the sky for the harvest. No, this sunset was ordinary.

Slowly, he became aware of an old, strong female voice, "—and my mate, oh, she was a feisty one. Determined to be a Rider. A warrior astride our flesh-and-blood horses, because she always got air-sickness, and couldn't be a Navigator. Couldn't fight in the air, so she did so on the ground."

He didn't want to tear his gaze away from the sunset, desperately trying to remember it as if this sight would hold any great meaning to him. Valin didn't know if the woman was done with her grievance, but he said, "I'm sorry."

"Thank you."

The response was so startling, that he looked down and saw—truly saw her. Standing before him, tapping her cane on the ground, was Elder Lyth in a suit of all white. She bowed her head slightly, placed her hand to her heart, and said, "Thank you."

"I..." He didn't know what to say. His eyes felt hot, and he wondered if he would be able to weep. Hells, he'd done his fair share already. "Your mate, she died how long ago?"

"Long, long time." She tapped her cane. "Before your birth even. I've harbored such anger for so long. It still feels fresh."

He opened his mouth to say 'I'm sorry' again, but she waved that notion away. Instead, she walked toward him, the guard hesitating to stop an Elder, and she poked at the guard's belly with her cane.

"Fetch me a bucket of water, Renzu." She stared at the guard with such unwavering intensity, that the man fidgeted. "Go on. I'm not about to carry the bucket myself."

"But honored Elder—" Renzu started.

"Yes, yes, I'm well aware of your duty, boy." She waved dismissively at him. "I'll keep watch until you return."

Valin let out a laugh at the idea of her keeping the angry ones at bay, but choked back on it as he saw that no others had come forward.

"But...but honored Elder, I can't give him water." The man looked miserable to be arguing with an Elder. 

"I'm not a doddering old fool, Ren, I know that. But I'm his kin, and I'll be damned to the fiery pits and poked by the nine-demons before I let any one of my family perish of simple thirst. Go on now," and she prodded him again, "don't make me ask you again, Atsuke Renzu, or you'll hear from your own Elders."

Valin released another laugh, this one sounding more than a little hysterical. Oh, when any Elder of his Clan, even those not of his bloodline, dared to use your full name, you were in serious trouble. When he was ten-years-old one of the Nav Elders had chased him from the flight ledges for the fourth time, swearing that Seven Valin would hear about it from his own bloodline Elders.

Elder Lyth turned to him. "Quiet, Lyth Valin."

The next bout of laughter died on his lips.

"Honored Elder," said Renzu, straightening. "I can't possibly…leave you here. He may try to harm you—"

"While trussed up like a snow goose for dinner?" She snorted, and her piercing gaze grew stronger, her wispy brows lowering in displeasure. "Don't insult me again, boy." She pointed with a gnarled finger. "Bucket. Now."

Renzu—who Valin now recognized as one of the squad's regular guards—couldn't hide his flush of shame or his displeasure as he broke into a run for the mountain.

Valin peered down at her, his eyes feeling dry as he blinked. "Why are you doing this?"

She inhaled slowly and settled herself like a guard at rest, her cane before her. "When you get to be my age, you think on things, heavy things from all angles, drawing from experience and—well, I won't always say wisdom. And I've thought about you a great deal. Unlike you Cog scu—" she stopped herself and closed her eyes with a sigh, before opening them again. "Unlike the Cog Clan, our families are not built solely on bloodlines, or birthing ties. We don't meekly do our duty to give life to children that will conform to the ideas of one person's—your Inventrix's—idea of perfection. Our families are more than that. They're large, messy, complicated. They're distant, they're close. We take in the wayward, the lost. But gods help anyone who would dare to harm ours."

Valin wanted to understand; he felt like his mind was on the verge of some revelation. Then his mind gave him: A squadron is beyond blood. And he understood. His squad was his family. So was Zefir. They were family in a way his people didn't like to think on.

"When I heard you were up here on the Post," said Elder Lyth not meeting his eye for the first time, "I reacted with a smug kind of glee. Here, I thought, here one more of the scum was getting what they deserved. But then little Mayra told me that you had apologized for the loss of her grandfere. And I didn't believe it. No, I didn't want to believe it. How could any of you creatures care about what you'd taken from us?"

Valin's painful hand was still gripping the handkerchief that Mayra had given him.

"And I decided to stand in this hellish line." She moved her cane, automatically tapping it to the rhythm of the tech lines. "The others tried to let me pass to the front out of respect, but I knew I must stand as all the others, aching back and all. And I heard them. I saw what they did to you. Out of the same kind of hate I've been bearing in my breast for decades. The pain of loss makes us do many horrible things. I can't apologize for my people, I know I can't." Her mouth became a thin line, and for a moment tears formed in her eyes before her pure strength of will beat them back. "But you're doing just that. Not for your people or their actions, but for the loss and horror and sorrow those actions have wrought."

Valin clutched at the handkerchief. Hard. Even though it hurt.

"Any man who stares in the face of death and is determined to apologize for an entire Clan's hurts is a man I'd be proud to call my own." She inhaled a steadying breath. "And so, Seven Lyth Valin, I stand here as one of your family. And I find I must apologize. At least for Zareth's actions. I know the truth of the matter, for even that boy wouldn't dare to lie to me when I asked. He's lost so much, and the anger finally had an easy outlet. You. And for that, I say—I'm sorry."

"Thank you," Valin croaked.

If only our Clans could forgive one another as easy as that.

She smiled, an old weary smile. "Would you mind some company? I feel like sitting here with you for a while. At least until the line disperses."

When Renzu had returned with a bucket of water—mercifully clean water—Elder Lyth sent him out again for a chair, "not one of those flimsy folding chairs, boy, but a real cushioned chair," and soon enough Renzu and another guard came hauling a high-backed chair over the hills to place in front of Valin.

The entire line went silent when Elder Lyth cupped an old gnarled hand, dipped it in the bucket of water, and standing on her tip toes, brought it to his lips. Eagerly and without thought to how it would look, he drank of the water from her small hand. Sweet, clean, refreshing. He could feel it's coolness trickle down to his rumbling belly. He barely stopped himself from lapping at her palm to get every last drop.

Then with her own handkerchief, she dipped it in the water and proceeded to clean the sweat and spit from his face. The coolness of the cloth made him moan involuntarily; the salt crystals from his tears were no longer a dried crust at the corners of his lashes.

Finished now, Elder Lyth made a tired, pained grunt as she sat primly in the chair. She gestured to the next person in line.

No one else spat on him. Those with the fire of violence in their eye kept a respectful distance, and Renzu no longer had to restrain some from trying to strike him.

As the night wore on, and Khandra brightened the sky with her silver light, Elder Lyth fell into a light doze and her snores could be heard over her Clan's grievances.

Valin still gave his condolences to all that passed.

Read Part 22: Bargains, Offers, Threats

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