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MOONLIGHT HAD followed Unar in the hours since she’d slipped out of the Garden, and now, as a shadow on a branch resolved into a rain-silvered silhouette, she realised something else had followed her, too.
Unar wanted to ignore the crouching outline above and to the left of her. Barefoot on her own broad bough in loose leaf-trousers and a red Gardener’s tunic, she was impatient to see if she could reach the thing, several body lengths below, that she’d come for. There, barely discernible in the dark, a cloth-wrapped bundle was stuck in the fork of the next lowest lateral branch, tantalising her, but half-heard myths of the Understorey kept her gaze fixed to the silhouette.
She gripped her bore-knife. It had proven useless in her descent through the mighty forest. This was a gap-axe tree and couldn’t be bored into by any means short of magic. The knife should puncture a lung easily enough, though.
“Who’s there?” she called defiantly.
“You climb well,” a man’s low, amused voice replied. “For a Gardener. But you’re trespassing. You crossed the border many minutes ago.”
“Both of them.”
Unar had been aware of it even before she reached the crossroads. She’d felt the Garden’s power shrinking as she crossed horizontally from the realm of the birth goddess into the realm of the rain goddess. Then she’d felt queasy in her gut as she’d climbed lower and lower, crossing the vertical border from Canopy into Understorey.
Here, none of the Canopian gods or goddesses held sway. All the magical gifts of Unar’s mistress had faded completely. Only Unar’s physical strength and stamina mattered here.
“You’ve crossed the border, too,” she said. “Who are you?”
The man leaned forward out of the tree’s moonshadow. A lined brow suggested he’d seen at least twice as many as Unar’s sixteen years. Water dripped from his glossy, tousled hair. Raised, charcoal-rubbed scars in the shape of tears streaked down cheeks that in daylight would be dark brown, naming him neither Understorian, nor slave, but a Canopian dedicated to the rain goddess, Ehkis. The tears of her Servants were said to have terrible powers, but below the magically defended border, they could do nothing but mingle harmlessly with the rain.
Unar relaxed her grip on the bore-knife.
“I’m Edax,” he said. “Bodyguard of the Bringer of Rain. Shall I tell you her birth name while she’s sleeping?”
“You’re not her Bodyguard,” Unar said, shocked. “If you were, you’d be with her, watching her.” As if the rain goddess’s Bodyguard, her most trusted, feared, and beloved, would betray childhood secrets from a time before the nature of her soul became apparent.
“She sleeps in the bottom of a lake. Who can harm her there? Meanwhile, I’m cursed with a Bodyguard’s sleeplessness.”
“It’s a gift.”
“You think you want that gift, little adept from the Garden Temple? You think you want to be a Bodyguard to the next incarnation of your goddess, when she is reborn a god? And what if she is a woman, again, and then another woman, and then a woman a third time? Mulch for brains!”
“You’re the mulch for brains if you think you can guess the next gender of the one I serve.”
The goddess that Unar served, Audblayin, the birth goddess, had been a woman for three incarnations. She was old now, so old. Surely she would take a turn at being a man. She must be a man. Then she would need a woman Bodyguard, and Unar would be waiting, ready to take the power that being a Bodyguard would bring.
To never need sleep!
“You have bigger problems than the next incarnation of Audblayin. Staying out after dark, for one thing. Will the Great Gates of the Garden not be closed to you forever, little Gardener?”
Unar raised the rain-speckled bore-knife higher as Edax came closer again. She realised as he moved along the underside of the branch, with a brazenness only a chimera should have owned, that he must be what he claimed to be. With utter certainty, she knew she couldn’t fight him and live.
But he didn’t know everything. The Great Gates were already closed, of course. Unar had climbed them. Edax eased himself down to the final branch between them. The flaps of a sodden, silver-star-embroidered, indigo jacket hung loosely over his black tunic. Also hanging were the paired hems of a calf-length skirt, split up the sides to give him freedom to climb while still appearing formal when he stood on a flat platform. She couldn’t see if he was barefooted like she was or wore boots.
“I came for that,” she said, indicating the bundle below them with her knife tip, not looking away from him.
“And what is that, exactly?” he asked.
“I felt it. When I was higher. I felt new life on the brink of being extinguished. Audblayin shares that power with all of us. So we can tend the Garden.”
He dropped suddenly, suspended by clawed toes in front of her, upside-down with his skirt hems held in one hand, loincloth and concealed throwing knives showing, grinning, making her gasp. It wasn’t right, to have feet like that. Unar had heard rumours that those who served Orin, goddess of birds and beasts, were permanently changed in size and shape, but nobody had ever mentioned to her that the Bodyguard of Ehkis had the grey toes and talons of a sooty owl.
“Shall I fetch it for you?” he asked whimsically.
“Yes,” she said at once.
“What will you give me in exchange?”
“What do you want? I have nothing but what you see, and what you see is owned already. Audblayin gives no gifts to the Servants of her rivals.”
“She owns you while you’re in Canopy,” Edax said salaciously. “Just as my oaths keep me celibate while I, one who walks in the grace of Ehkis, find myself in Canopy. This is Understorey.”
“This is Understorey,” she agreed. “Your goddess-given abilities to walk sideways and upside down won’t work here, will they? Your tears will melt neither bones nor iron bars. Why did you offer to fetch it when you can’t reach it? You’re a liar. You’re wasting my time.” His owl talons were able to encircle the smaller branch that he hung from, but they couldn’t penetrate the bark of the gap-axe tree.
New life on the brink of being extinguished. That bundle stuck in the tree fork could be the baby, Imeris, only fourteen days old. Unar had never met the baby’s father, the merchant, Epatut. Imeris had fallen some ten hours ago. Everybody was looking for that baby, though. Epatut had offered a huge food reward. He’d even paid the Servants of the death god, Atwith, in order to learn that the child’s spirit had not yet passed under their master’s eye.
Unar didn’t know Epatut, but she admired him for so desperately seeking a child who was probably far out of reach and alone in the dark, with death only a matter of time.
Except that I have surely found her.
Edax continued to grin and watch in silence while Unar stubbornly roped the wet, lichen-dappled bough of the great gap-axe tree. It was slippery, dangerous work. The tree was taller than seven hundred men standing on each other’s shoulders, and falling wasn’t the only risk. Understorians could be lurking anywhere in the gloom.
Worse, the longer she stayed below the border of Canopy, the more the arcane aura faded from her skin. By morning, the unseen magical barrier she’d passed through so easily would no longer admit her back to the high stratum that was her home.
Ten hours since the baby had fallen. Perhaps Imeris’s aura was gone already, but Unar had to try. Nobody had tried to get Unar’s sister back a decade ago when Isin had fallen.
Isin had fallen during the monsoon. Unar paused with her fists tangled in rope, remembering. The rain had seemed to hang, fixed like spiderwebs. Water ran off branches unpredictably. There had been dry patches in odd places. Puddles in others. A man screamed that his dried fruit storage room was flooded and his fire was out, blaming the external stair tacked on by a neighbour.
All of that fell away when Unar, six years old, saw the open door of the hovel. Lacewings filled the black hole of it like flies in a dead animal’s mouth. Her first, stupid thought: Our fire is out, too. Mother will be mad.
Father had halfheartedly called her name. That was how she knew she’d pushed ahead of him, teetering precariously on the path. The broken lock was gone. Stolen. It had contained a minuscule amount of metal. Faint light from the excuse for a window showed the empty crib.
Mother has taken Isin to the forge.
Mother had never taken either of her children to the forge.
Isin is taken, little Unar had thought, horrified. Isin is stolen, like the lock.
But, no. The ashy, wet smears on the splintered floor told the story. Isin had climbed over the railing and fallen into the wet ashes of the fire here. She’d crawled there, to get cooked grain from the cold wooden bowl with both hands, leaving ghostly, glutinous handprints here. Footprints there, where she used the bars of the crib to pull herself up. Landed on her bottom. Maybe she had cried.
She’d crawled to the open door and fallen into the dark.
Drips slowly, inexorably carried the ash and sticky grain residue over the edge. Unar had shrieked Isin’s name.
And what had Father said?
We’ll get another.
Another lock? Another child? Unar was afraid she knew which one he really meant, and when he tried to gather her, to push her inside, she bit his hand.
She didn’t run away. Not then. Not yet. Not until years later, when she heard them talking and knew they intended to make her a slave.
“Your rope is too short,” Edax observed, bringing her jarringly back to the present.
Unar wanted to cry. The man who claimed he was the Bodyguard of the rain goddess was right. She could return to the Garden for more rope, but by then it would be too late.
When she turned back to Edax, he stood beside her on the bough.
“Take my ankles,” he said. For a moment, she simply stared up into his face. He couldn’t be Ehkis’s closest and most loyal Servant. Nobody with such grave responsibilities would be so rash.
Matching his impulsiveness, she wrapped her arms around his knees. Together, they toppled, face-first, the rope tied tight to Unar’s climbing harness. It jolted them as they reached the end of it. Unar’s grip on Edax’s knees slipped to his feet. She managed not to recoil from them, even as the long owl-toes flexed, keeping the sharp talon-tips turned inwards. His hands grappled with the bundle.
“I have it,” he shouted.
“What do we do now?” Unar cried as they swung in a pendulum arc, crashing into the gap-axe’s smooth, unyielding trunk. But Edax, serpentlike, doubled back on himself, scaling the rope with the cloth-wrapped burden tucked under his arm, and with both of Unar’s hands freed, she was able to climb up after him.
“Here,” he said, breathing heavily, handing the bundle to her.
When Unar unwrapped it, her hands still shaking from the chance she’d taken, she found not a baby, but a bag of half-rotten blue quandong and white satinash fruit. Some of the seeds had germinated but withered in the absence of light.
“New life,” Edax said. “Are you going to save it?”
Made mute by the deepness of her disappointment, Unar spread her hands, spilling the seeds and the wrappings into the blackness below.
Copyright © 2017 by Thoraiya Dyer