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IMERIS DUCKED her head under the room’s carved lintel.
At twenty-one, having reached her full height some monsoons before, Imeris was no taller than the average student at the renowned fighting school of Loftfol. Yet she ducked like everyone else. The entrance to the bow store was lowered on purpose. All who wished take up weapons were forced to first show respect to the long-dead founders of the school.
Braziers in six small hearths provided a low orange glow and helped drive monsoon moisture from the air. Familiar smells of flowerfowl feathers, used for fletching, beeswax for the strings, and oils for the long wooden limbs surrounded Imeris, but the sight of a messenger bird with a tiny tube tied to one leg, perched on an empty bow rack by the seventh, unlit hearth, brought her to a sudden halt.
She stared at it. Loftfol used lorikeets for its messages, birds bred in the hollows of the school’s own boughs, but this was a blue-eyed bowerbreaker, near-blind, grey-feathered and brown-barred. These birds hunted flowerfowl in the utter blackness of Floor.
It has found this room by smell, Imeris thought.
This room, where Imeris always arrived first, before the break of each day, lest she be forced to share the archery practice range with Kishsik and his cronies.
The bowerbreaker was only half tame, its hooked beak well capable of ripping out flowerfowl throats. When Imeris tried to take the message, it turned, wings raised, as if to escape back up the chimney. She seized it by the back of the neck and stuffed it into her armpit, trapping it long enough to take the tube.
Inside, a message.
Addressed to her in Oldest-Father’s crude hand.
Youngest-Father must have told Oldest-Father about Kishsik, whom Imeris had injured during training. About the guilt that led her to avoid him, and how Kishsik’s friends interpreted this as a weakness and fear of reprisal. Oldest-Father or his courier must be close by, or else the bowerbreaker would have found itself a real live flowerfowl to feast on, instead of following the scent of old feathers into the bow store.
The message was a summons. A summons, when she should stay. She had demonstrated her proficiency in spine-fighting to Horroh the Haakim only yesterday, and today custom demanded her presence in the hall, to be recognised before the other teachers and students.
Their recognition means nothing. Horroh’s pride is enough. His confidence in me repaid. The forgiveness he showed after the accident with Kishsik.
Imeris knelt by the closest brazier, seeking better light, fingers trembling. She read Oldest-Father’s message again.
The witch has built a new dovecote, it said, in the wilds of Wissin. An informant waits at the ti-house to meet your youngest-father and me. If you are coming, come quickly.
The parchment was white against her liver-dark hand.
She had to go. She might already be too late. The bow she would have chosen for her practice called to her from across the room, but she could not burden herself with unwieldy weapons. The bony, retractable spines implanted in her shins and forearms were enough. Horroh had told her so, and she had proven the matter to her own satisfaction. Soon enough, the sorceress Kirrik would feel their bite. Her heart raced.
Time to fly.
She ducked out of the room, striding swiftly and silently down the polished corridor. Her best, closest exit was directly down, out of the hidden building that held the school’s heart, through the aptly dubbed “dark temple.” It would be disrespectful to the dead, but an effective way to avoid being seen by Loftfol’s scouts.
The dark temple was a boarded-up complex of rooms, excavated within the southernmost branch of the triple-trunked river nut tree that hosted the school. Imeris had completed five years of study at Loftfol; during her fourth year, the dark temple had been closed for good after a fire killed six students and a teacher. But not before Lehhel the Odarkim had led Imeris, Kishsik, and three others through it on a practice raid. Despite the name, the dark temple had been brilliantly—perhaps overenthusiastically—illuminated, to mimic the sun-bright emergents of Canopy.
Imeris stopped at her bunkroom for her wings. They were rolled and stuffed inside a case to form the pillow on her bunk. Always waiting. Always ready to take her away, because Loftfol was a means to an end for her, nothing more. Despite her record-breaking climb to win the title of Heightsman, Imeris disdained her fellow students’ desire for fame. She alone felt no yearning to bring down the gods and goddesses of the high kingdoms.
She touched the amulet hidden beneath her shirt, protection against foul, forbidden magic.
Her duty was simply to kill the sorceress, Kirrik, and then she would give up her armour, her knives, and her poison needles. Her days of performing the disciplines of cord strangulation and spine-fighting would be over. No more mad battles to win teachers of greater skill, of rarer talents, of seemingly impossible demands. Now was her chance, and she must not miss it.
Snatching up the pillow, she slipped back into the corridor, ignoring the delicious smells wafting from the kitchens, and found a chute for ash disposal at the corner junction of two halls.
Pillow between her knees, she squeezed into the chute, letting the wooden flap fall over the opening behind her. Counting the distance as she had been taught, she had her forearm spines out, ready, just as open air embraced her.
She stabbed them into the lip of the chute and swung hard, forwards through a cloud of ash, catching the bark of the river nut tree with both shins. Retracting her forearm spines, she dangled by her bent knees for a moment, rearranging the ashy pillow so it wouldn’t fall, then taking advantage of wet bark weakened by the monsoon to pry the boards loose from one of the windows of the dark temple.
Letting the timbers fall, Imeris pushed her pillow in ahead of herself. If the window was a high one, the pillow could break her fall, but when she wriggled through, she found the floor only a pace and a half below the sill.
Inside the maze-like complex, fluorescent fungi stained the walls as they had stained the fishing room of her home. The fungi showed the greenish outline of dozens of life-sized wooden dummies carved to represent the soldiers of Canopy. Their faces were barely human, mouths open, wooden shins and forearms sheathed in heavy wooden robes, alien weapons raised. Sword slashes and arrow holes in the wood showed where students had scored points during their testing in the replica temple. Imeris found the effigies as creepy and repulsive now as she had on her first encounter. Do not look at their faces, Lehhel had barked. Canopians have eyes, they have mouths, they have beating hearts, but they speak only lies. Look for the spines and seams of your brethren, and if you do not see them, let your knives and needles fly.
Imeris had been momentarily grateful to him for not mentioning dark skin as an enemy trait, only to find him frowning furiously at her spines, as though they were somehow stolen.
In the second room she came to, the wooden dummies were blackened by fire.
I should not be here, Imeris thought, imagining the suffocating smoke. Impatience to find the hidden tunnel that led down to the emergency escape was tempered by shame at how quickly she had desecrated the resting place of her fellow students.
Then her fingers, feeling at head height along the wall, found the symbol of Loftfol, a pattern of thirteen points arranged in the shape of a spearhead. She pressed both thumbs into its centre, releasing the counterbalance within the wall, and the hidden door swung open.
Imeris darted down the tunnel. She came out onto a platform planed across the top of a house-sized burl, and in the relatively unsheltered space, the monsoon greeted her with a wet slap across the face. Loftfol was too far away from Canopy for much light to penetrate, especially in the rain, but it buoyed her to find the bulky, barely discernible shape exactly where she remembered it.
The school maintained a series of trebuchets for escape in case of catastrophe. Here, the lowest one waited. If any single enemy qualified as a catastrophe, Kirrik the body-stealing sorceress certainly did. Kirrik was an old, hated soul in a young, stolen body, and she had escaped Imeris once, because Imeris hadn’t known who she was or what was happening.
Imeris knew now. Knew that the same sorceress who had brought down the Temple of Airak—in an attack spoken of in awed, exultant tones at Loftfol—had done her utmost to harm Imeris’s Understorian family. Kirrik had died more than once at the hands of Imeris’s fathers, but she’d always found another body to steal, another way to survive. That would not happen this time.
Imeris touched her amulet again. She was faster than her fathers. Stronger. Better trained. It could all be over—before the end of the monsoon—if she did not hesitate. If she was not too late.
Imeris pulled off the oilcloth protecting the machine. Exposing it to the damage of the downpour, she set about checking all of its ropes and counterweights, a difficult proposition in the dank dimness, carried out mainly by feel. She’d fix it later, would replace the ruined rope and wind the priceless granite counterweight back up into position before water and its own heaviness could see it lost back to the darkness of Floor.
An informant waits at the ti-house.
Youngest-Father didn’t want Imeris to be the one to do it.
Nirrin was your friend, he’d said gently, before her body was stolen by the sorceress. I should be the one to kill her a final time, and with one of Vesev’s knives, too.
But Youngest-Father wasn’t the only one who kept the dead smith’s handiwork at his fingertips. Youngest-Father hadn’t been there in the forge. He hadn’t seen Nirrin’s sweaty face changing, her blue eyes widening, becoming vacant, before turning strangely triumphant. He wasn’t the one who had offered an arm to Nirrin, the smith’s daughter, as she spun on her heel and stumbled, as though she’d forgotten she wasn’t wearing her leg brace.
The smith’s son, Vesev, had just finished his sister’s new brace. She’d gotten so tall since the last monsoon; they were of a height, both taller than Imeris. Vesev’s eyes were olive-green where Nirrin’s were blue, but they both had handsome smiles, pink cheeks, and a whorl of hair above the left temple. He handed the reshaped steel to her, carefully, because of the sharp hooks down the front of it that Nirrin used for climbing. With that brace, she was as nimble as anyone.
She’d immediately turned and knocked Vesev down with the brace. A single swift, unexpected blow. Imeris hadn’t reacted as she should have. She hadn’t understood what was wrong with her friend.
Now she understood. She would not hesitate again.
Oldest-Father understood, too. He might be deficient in kindness and generosity, but he knew all about revenge. Though Oldest-Father had trapped demons, he had never been to Loftfol. On some level, despite all the gruff criticism, he understood she had surpassed him and the time was right. No more murmuring about the elusive enemy around the hearth. No more frustration in Oldest-Father’s eyes. Nor naked fear in the eyes of Youngest-Mother, whose magical abilities made her vulnerable to possession by the sorceress, should their hidden home’s location be revealed.
Imeris was not afraid of defeat. Her soul was safe while she wore the amulet. Nirrin and Vesev had been without the benefit of such protection. She was afraid that Oldest-Father would not wait for her.
Imeris fitted the final part, the crank of the windlass, into position. Ideally, ten or twelve people would leap up onto the trebuchet’s throwing arm to bring it down quickly while the windlass was wound, but there was an alternate method, a series of pulleys attached to the mechanism, which would allow Imeris to lock the arm down, raising the payload in its woven basket.
She seized the tidily stored coils. It wasn’t bark-rope, but incredibly strong and resilient strapleaf fibre, waxed for longevity. Imeris threaded the thick line through the sheaves in the dense, heavy turpentine blocks.
Then it was done. She pulled reams of rope through the system until her back ached and the trebuchet was ready to loose. Only the semicircular moving upper part of the platform still needed adjusting. Imeris used the same pulleys she’d used for loading the trebuchet to swivel it until it aimed east.
East. Wissin. That was where her fathers waited.
She checked the compass-points built into the fixed part of the platform a second time. It was dark in the school’s shadow, though by now it was full day, and she had no brand or lantern for light; the marks were barely visible, and she touched them to reassure herself.
There was no more time to waste. She climbed into the sling designed for human use, pulled her wings out of the pillowcase, and connected the short lengths of bonewood that formed her climbing frame. Before long, she was shrugging into the seams and taking hold of the handgrips. The folded membranes were not chimera skin, but the next best thing, made from the leather of a dayhunter, the most common kind of demon seen in her part of Understorey.
After the sorceress is dead, my duty will be discharged, Imeris thought grimly, kicking at the release mechanism. It seemed stuck. I will have revenge for Nirrin and Vesev. They were friends she should never have had.
Having friends was dangerous. Is dangerous. If our home is ever found, villagers of Gannak will try to kill my fathers for refusing to raid Canopy. Loftfol will try to kill my fathers for opposing Kirrik, even though the school wants to kill Kirrik for stealing students’ bodies. But Kirrik … Maybe Kirrik loses some of her memories each time she takes a new body, but she still remembers my fathers. She remembers they killed her before, and if she learns their location or if her memories of where they live resurface, she will try to kill them. Oh, and Canopians will come after them simply for existing.
She kicked it a second time, harder. Yet my family wants me to be great at something? They think I have some glorious destiny? Killing Kirrik is it.
Then I can leave Loftfol. My duels in Canopy will be done with. I will not need to train to fight anymore.
With the third kick, she felt the ratchet release and the ponderous load of stone begin its plummet through empty air.
Instead of plotting a course for war, I can live in peace. Canopy will stop searching for the sorceress. Their soldiers will stay above the barrier. My victory will seal the trust of both my teacher Horroh and my sister, Audblayin; I will become a bridge between Loftfol and Audblayinland, convincing them they need not quarrel. Kirrik’s corpse will buy forgiveness from Gannak. Neither my Canopian family nor my Understorian family will need to hide anymore. I can make other friends wherever I wish.
Imeris flew, higher and faster than a simple drop from a tree trunk could ever provide. Her gliding frame snapped out into the locked position. Rain pelted off the sudden umbrella it formed. If not for the terrible swiftness of her flight, the water might have gathered there, weighted her down, and drowned her in the monsoon floodwaters of Floor.
All my separate faces will become one face. All my pulled-apart pieces will become one piece.
The Loftfol school built impressively robust and finely calibrated machines. Not a single errant trunk obstructed Imeris’s path. She remained airborne for a count of two thousand, passing trunks that swarmed with creatures climbing up and away from the water, sweeping closer and closer to the lower limits of Understorey.
If there is no barrier down there, she had asked Youngest-Father as a child, how do you know when you have reached Floor?
When your feet touch dirt, Youngest-Father had said, grinning. Floorians do not climb. They say they have a sacred connection to dirt and water. A Floorian might shoot you out of a tree, but she will not follow you into it. She would rather a floating house than a high branch for keeping dry.
Imeris saw no floating Floorian villages below her, but she did see a handful of lantern-lit windows and coiled bridges, evidence of Understorian dwellings shut up tight till the end of the monsoon.
Then the grizzled, grey bark of the ancient magenta cherry tree she’d been aiming for widened across her field of view. In Understorey, the great trees were known by their body, texture, and scent before ever the shape or colour of their leaves was guessed at. This one bore a dimly seen pattern of scars from Loftfol students landing, the gouges too deep to be shed with the seasons. It smelled of sweet, sap-filled wounds turned dark, hard, and glassy.
Imeris cracked the frame of the glider with a sharp jerk of her tired arms, slowing her flight, changing it from a glide to guttural stutter, catching the tree with her forearm spines in the instant before she dropped.
She clung to the trunk, recovering her breath, blinking sweat from her brow out of her eyes.
Not that eyes were much use in the dark. She thought of the bowerbreaker, wishing fleetingly for its keen sense of smell.
Imeris climbed in an exploratory spiral. She couldn’t have landed too far down from the emergency provisions cache that the school kept in this tree. The bridges of Wissin were stored away for the duration of the monsoon, but she could use the village’s bridge-firing ballistae to fly to the next tree, and the next, until she reached the ti-house, Breeze, where her fathers no doubt already trespassed.
An informant waits.
Informants of years gone by had varied in utility. Sometimes they pointed the finger at spinewives with a touch of dementia, or village Headmen who seemed greedy for influence or resources. Other times, they noticed a pattern of fighting men going missing, or vanished graduates of Loftfol too canny to have fallen, which might indicate that the sorceress was building another sleeping army somewhere. During Imeris’s childhood, there had been sightings of the bodies of Kirrik’s one-time lover and of her son, both whose souls had been displaced by Kirrik in succession. The reports had stirred unease but not terror, since neither of those men were known to wield magical powers.
But Nirrin’s possession transformed Oldest-Father’s routine defences and Youngest-Father’s casual information network into something more serious.
In the blackness, Imeris’s hands found the sliding panel with its identifying pattern of thirteen points arranged in the shape of a spearhead. Inside were dry, slow-burning tapers, tinder, flint and steel, and a store of hard, translucent ghost-gourds. Lighting a taper and dropping it into the hollow of a gourd, with its narrow neck that admitted air but insufficient rain to douse the taper, she strung the makeshift lantern from her weapons belt, letting it dangle behind her with the collapsed wings of the glider, and continued her rapid ascent, this time in a small, soft circle of yellow light.
It wasn’t enough light for her enemies to spot her from a distance, but it would help with a climb made more dangerous during the monsoon. Magenta cherry bark was hard, solid, and safe enough, but Breeze was built in a lemon ironwood tree. That fragrant favourite of ti-sellers was a hazard to its customers when saturated with water. In the rain, the wrinkled, grey-brown bark flaked away more easily, leaving even softer new orange bark beneath, occasionally sending unwary climbers to their deaths.
Imeris tried not to disturb any of the tree-dwellers holed up for the season. Smoke came out of chimneys, tickling the back of her throat. Occasionally, lights were visible in translucent windows. Many of the platforms were covered or dismantled.
She uncovered a bridge-ballista outside the carved, closed door of what must have been the Headman’s house.
I will come back, she thought guiltily. I will replace all the parts that are ruined.
She refused to admit the possibility she wouldn’t come back or that, if she did, she would be an empty shell with Kirrik’s soul inside.
The bone amulet rested lightly around her neck.
Yes, her sister, once called Ylly, now Audblayin, had said gravely. It will protect your body from being stolen by another, just as our fathers’ amulets protect them. But I must ask you, Issi, to return all of the amulets to me when the sorceress Kirrik is dead. They’re made from the bones of an Old God. They can be misused.
Imeris had promised to bring the amulets to her sister when their task was complete. She had thought Kirrik’s bones would be trophies enough for her. She had vowed to tattoo the enemy’s face on her left shoulder, the way Middle-Father tattooed himself with demons he had killed.
She hadn’t known that the face of the enemy would be Nirrin’s.
Copyright © 2018 by Thoraiya Dyer