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As bridges burned, Mondarath fought above the cloud …
Each night, our city dreamed of danger, crying out for help I could not give.
Wind rippled between towers, flowing along tense borders. Since Allmoons, fighting had spread: Tower versus tower. Quadrant against quadrant. Blackwings versus blackwings. Blackwings against towers, and against quadrants. Even the trade gusts grew dangerous, between northwest and southeast, near the cracked Spire, and around the city’s edges.
This night, I joined Mondarath’s guard. I flew the city’s disturbed winds, looking for danger.
As tower leader, it was my duty to keep Mondarath safe. But I was more than a leader. In the dark, I clicked my tongue fast against the roof of my mouth, echoing. The hard-won Singer skill, learned when I was a fledge, revealed more fliers riding the gusts than usual.
I whistled my windsigns: “Magister,” “councilor.” Nearby, Lari, one of Mondarath’s best guards, whistled back “all clear.”
“On your wings, Macal,” she whispered.
“Silence,” I whistled in reply. Stick to windsigns.
We didn’t know where or when the blackwings from the southwest would try to attack next, but I was positive they were out there flying the darkness too.
Evidence of their visits accumulated along our borders—mysterious fires, cut bridges—as if they wanted us isolated and afraid.
Now, on the shortest night before Allsuns, my guards and I flew the darkness, echoing, trying to keep the bridges safe and the city whole. We kept alert for skymouths too, for bone eaters that had been seen near the Spire, and for our friends who had disappeared into the clouds—my brother Wik, Nat and Kirit, Ciel and Moc, Elna, Beliak, Ceetcee, Doran. Even Dix. So many lost. So much to guard against. So much to protect.
Especially this night. Tomorrow was a market day.
Mondarath and the surrounding towers desperately needed supplies. We needed to connect and trade. We needed a market badly.
Last Allmoons, after the council fell from the sky, battles roiled the south and blackwings chased Wik and his companions below the clouds. They’d fought Dix to save our city, then disappeared far beneath it. There’d been few markets since.
One night, the clouds had pulsed blue in almost-patterns, and goosebumps had risen on my arms. But there’d been no sign of the lost even moons later. And once the blackwings took the south, there had been few markets. Too risky.
Now we had to face the risk.
When I echoed again, I sensed the northwest’s towers rising around me—Mondarath’s broad tiers just below, then Densira’s slim, graceful form to the east. Viit was a sturdy monolith south of us, and Wirra a wisp in the distance.
My echoing, required for night flying, and the sharp hearing that came with training as a Singer Nightwing long ago, brought the city’s unrest to my ears all the time. Nights like these were the worst. Nightmares twisted the wind around distant towers rising pale and tall in the darkness. Dreams and hunger teased whimpers from children sleeping close together, even at Mondarath. Fear gave a hitch and a stutter to Sidra, my partner’s, breathing.
I tipped my left pinion and turned back towards Mondarath, completing my circuit of the upper tiers. Time to venture lower, then return to my own bed before Sidra discovered I was gone once again.
The moonset began to silver the cloudtop below our tower.
I sensed wings approaching fast and low. A flier was trying to circle Mondarath unseen, heading for the tower’s far side.
“There,” I whispered. “Got you.” Whistling windsigns in rapid order—“defend,” “lowtower,” “attacker”—I rallied the guards who flew with me. We dove in a knife formation, chasing the blackwing from the shadows.
“I’m friendly!” a young voice said—high-pitched and very frightened. “I’m alone.”
“A lie,” I said. My guards dropped their net, thick with the smell of muzz, over the flier’s dark wings. “Blackwings are never alone. Bind this one tight.”
As the stars faded in the sky, the flier ceased struggling. Mondarath no longer left anything to chance. My guards drew the muzz-laden ropes closed around the blackwing.
Wary and searching the horizon for more attackers, I circled near a lowtower balcony, echoing. I found no more wings in the sky.
* * *
“Whom do you fly for?” I shook the blackwing awake. In the dark, they might not see my marks, or know I was a councilor, but they knew they’d been caught. Lari lit an oil lamp and held the fretworked bone container so that light glared in our captive’s eyes. She handed me a skein of Lawsmarkers.
The blackwing squinted and fended me off with a hand. “I fly for no one now! I came for help!” I saw his face. His eyes wide with fear. Good.
Our guards continued to search the night for more blackwings, to guard the crowded tiers filled with family and refugees above us. Meanwhile, the setting moon outlined everything in silver: the balcony, Lari’s watchful pose, the net draped over the prisoner, the prisoner’s worn black wingset.
Lari snorted. “You should have come in daylight.”
The young blackwing shook his head. “I told the quadrant leader I’d go, that I’d do what he wanted tonight. He’s a powerful blackwing. But I wanted to leave Bissel too. I needed to leave. There is too much infighting.” He sounded miserable. I would too, in his position.
A second guard stepped closer. Three of us, surrounding the boy. Six more flying close formation just beyond the tier.
“What should we do with you? So many laws broken.” I shook the Lawsmarkers so that they clattered. “Blackwings don’t hesitate to drop a Lawsbreaker into the clouds. They don’t care which tower’s Lawsmarkers you’re wearing either.”
The blackwings had first appeared in the southwest as Grigrit councilman Doran’s guards. Doran was dead now, but the blackwings had grown in power, then splintered into groups once their secretive leader, Dix, had disappeared. They were not forgiving of Lawsbreakers.
“Please,” the boy whispered. He knelt on the bone tier beneath the net. “Please. My aunts are in danger too. Blackwings fight amongst themselves. I had nothing to eat. I had to fly.”
I leaned closer. “What’s your name?” The boy smelled of sweat and muzz, but something rang true in his words. His eyes were hollows; his shoulders shook. “What did the blackwing quadrant leader ask of you?”
“My name’s Urie,” he whispered. “And the quadrant leader told me it was important to start as many fires as I could to disrupt the markets.”
I put the Lawsmarkers in my satchel and pulled out a strip of dried goose meat. Handed this to Urie. “Bring him water, Lari. Keep him bound.”
My guards did as I asked. Urie chewed on the dried goose as if it was the first food he’d tasted in a long time.
The blackwings had sent a boy to his death. Tower against tower. They’d asked him to do the unspeakable, alone, and they hadn’t even fed him. They probably thought a feeling of importance was food enough.
I’d have deserted them too.
“You might have a better chance here with us, Urie.” I kept my voice soothing, as I would with fledges. I wanted him to tell me everything. “You can do a very important thing for the city now. Tell me. Are there more of you?”
Urie nodded, eyes wide. “Six blackwings for Mondarath. Coming from the north. Before dawn.”
* * *
“Put five more guards in the air,” I ordered. “Tell six to come here.” We had twenty guards, counting myself.
I lifted the net and took Urie’s wings. “Make any disturbance, and you will not be with us long,” I warned.
The fear in his brown eyes gave me pause. He was barely older than some of my flight students. I didn’t like scaring fledges. But these were difficult times. The young man—an infiltrator? a traitor?—nodded his understanding. He curled up in his robe, bound and miserable.
The overnight breeze shifted to a brisk predawn gust. The best traders had always flown around the city’s outer edge in the early morning when the winds were fastest. Today’s wind snapped Mondarath’s makeshift market banners gleefully, and buffeted the few birds we had remaining.
But the wind carried on its back a taint, familiar and dreaded: smoke. I sniffed again and the scent was gone. Had I imagined it? Misjudged a morning cookfire?
I envied those who could still sleep in the tiers above, even restlessly.
There would be no sleep for me now.
The market would go on. We’d stop this attack before it began. With Urie tethered on the balcony, we had an advantage. We knew they were coming. The other towers would know too.
I pulled a bone marker from my pocket and scratched a message. “Take this to Amrath, then Varu,” I told the nearest guard. “Warn them of the danger. Tell them every remaining guard goes up in the air now. Even those still in training.”
We would make our stand. Our market wouldn’t be like the big Allsuns markets of old, but it would be a market nonetheless. Once it succeeded, we could hold more, better markets. Our bellies would fill with different foods, our ears with news from other towers. Our nightmares might ease. We would become a community again.
No longer isolated. No longer hungry.
But if we failed, there wasn’t much farther to fall.
In the air beyond the balcony, a shadow moved, its swift passage catching my eye. Another blackwing?
No. A large gryphon diving through the air, a wild kavik swooping around it, screeching.
Watching the spectacle, I tried not to see the birds as an omen. Singers had catalogued omens once, used them to weigh their actions in order to hold the city together. Though I was Spire-born, I’d left long ago to become a tower Magister, then a councilor. It had been many Allsuns since I’d followed their ways. Now with the Spire ruined and the Singers disgraced, the city had become a barbed collection of doubts and distrust.
The guards I’d summoned joined us on the low tier.
I separated six out, including Lari. “We’ll fly north and east beyond the city’s edge.” The wind was quickest from that direction. While Urie might be lying, we would soon find out. “We will find the attackers before they can surprise us. The rest will guard Mondarath, and our captive blackwing.”
At the balcony’s edge, facing away from the city’s towers, I tightened my wingstraps. Sidra would be furious when she woke. She’d tell me I needed to be a leader now, not a hero.
Leaders did what was needed. I leapt, and my guards followed me, echoing, back into the night sky.
When we were well east of Mondarath and the city’s outer edge, I spotted a tight formation of blackwings below us, flying against the silvered clouds. They’d begun their turn. We would not have the advantage of surprise for much longer.
“Hawk,” I whistled, and my guards shifted into the formation, fast and sure.
As we approached, the blackwings seemed to fold in on themselves. One flier looped around to overtake another. I saw the gleam of a knife in the moonlight. Their formation burst apart as the second flier spun defensively and the other four tried to stay out of the way.
“A weakness,” Lari whistled, using an old sign for wingbreak.
Indeed there was. “Hold formation until we break them up. Lari, with me.” I tucked my wings and dove hard, an old wingfighting trick that sent me tearing between the two fliers just as the attacker turned, preparing to slice his victim’s footsling.
My dive disrupted the gust they rode and sent the attacker into a tumbling spin. His knife flew from his fingers. The other blackwing dodged and then circled back.
The air erupted with cries as Lari engaged the blackwings who’d tried to stay out of the fight. My guards dove quickly to help her. Six pairs of green and blue wings spun and dove among four pairs of black, then three.
With a scream, a defeated blackwing disappeared into the clouds.
The blackwing who’d nearly had their footsling cut rose on a gust. They dove, shouting, right past me. Came close enough that I could hear the black edge of a wing flap on the wind. I saw the fighter’s face: dark skin, darker tattoos around her eyes. She flew straight at her attacker, anger overtaking fear.
Locking my wings, I joined her in pursuit. No matter who lost, it would be one less blackwing to fight later.
I pulled a glass-tooth knife and slashed at the attacker’s black silk wings. While he focused on dodging me, the woman on his tail destroyed his footsling.
The silk parted with a ripping sound. The attacker dropped fast.
Now there were only three blackwings gliding the wind beyond the city. Seven still from Mondarath.
The tattooed blackwing whistled to her remaining companions, and they dove for the clouds. Moments later, we saw them skimming the brightening mist, taking a fast circuit of the city back to the southwest.
“Pursue?” Lari whistled.
“Back to Mondarath,” I signaled. “To guard the tower … and the market.”
* * *
We circled slowly back up, tired from the fight and still on the lookout for more blackwings.
When I landed on the upper tier, crowded with Mondarath families and the refugees we’d taken in from other towers, I noted the guards had already tied Urie to a grip on the far edge. My escort on the night raid began to arrive, sunrise illuminating their blue and green wingsilk from below, outlining the bone battens and wingframes in a soft glow.
“You did well.” I bowed to each of them as they landed. As dawn tensed the sky, they clasped my arms. We’d stopped the attack. Now we stared into the clouds for any further sign of friend or foe.
As the tier began to wake, unaware of what had transpired, I loosened my wingstraps again.
Once more, I was a Magister and councilor. A teacher and a leader. The sun was coming up. And today’s markets had to be flawless. I had a different duty now.
Walking as silently as possible across my tier, I shucked my wings from my shoulders. I stepped carefully between sleeping forms arrayed in crowded geometries of legs, heads, and arms on my tier. Children and adults lay on mats and with their cheeks pressed against the hard bone floor. Finally I reached the silk and down mat I shared with Sidra. She still slept, though fitfully.
I set my wings beside the mat and wrapped a sleeping quilt around my shoulders as if I’d just woken. Padded on silk-bundled feet to the cooking area where I found myself a bone cup in the nets hung from the tier ceiling. Poured it full of old chicory from a goosebladder. With a sip, sour and sharp, the exhaustion from the fight was chased away.
The night watch was done. As morning broke above the clouds, I would stand with my tower, my citizens, no matter what came.
Copyright © 2017 by Fran Wilde