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LEAPER PRESSED himself flat to the wall inside the queen’s wardrobe.
He was going to ask her. He’d waited long enough. He’d waited ten years, since he’d returned her pocket-clock. That was more than one third of his life. First he’d waited because he’d been too much in awe of her. Next, when he’d seen how they treated her, he’d kept silent because he didn’t want to complicate her life. Finally, once he’d witnessed her astounding capacity for forgiveness, he’d understood that complications were a thing they would just have to put behind them.
I am going to ask her.
Not right at that moment, though. It was a bad moment.
Cloth lengths hung from four paces above the floor, on brittle obsidian rails over Leaper’s head. Metal and stone embellishments to the silk garments tinkled as he straightened them behind him. The smell of hollowed floodgum was almost physical, as though if he wished to escape, he’d have to swim through oil of eucalyptus.
Beneath were her smells.
The ones Leaper still found intoxicating after ten years of obsession.
Ozone and sulphur, her royal right. Purest whale oil from seas so distant they might as well be imagined; marine behemoths so unlikely that it was easier to believe the oil some dead demon’s distillation instead. Snow cherry and mountain cedar, which were almost as mythical as whales.
He was going to ask her to run away with him, if she came into the room alone.
A slave’s child doesn’t ask a queen to elope.
A slave’s child shouldn’t have asked a queen to bed him, either, but he had, after ten years of longing, and she had, and now, only a few weeks after their consummation, he was more obsessed than ever.
She didn’t come into the room alone.
Sentries, clanging hilts against breastplate buckles, chorusing Your Highnesses from outside the doorway, signalled the majestic couple’s return to the bedroom together. Leaper couldn’t see them, but he scowled, imagining them still resplendent in their evening feast clothes. Queen Ilik said something muffled to King Icacis, and he responded with a rough guffaw.
Leaper risked a peek through one of the tree-shaped airing holes in the hinged calamander-wood doors. The queen preferred the cold blue light of the lamps, but her king insisted she have whale oil, insisted she burn it, both as a statement of wealth and because the warm, smokeless flame flattered her black skin.
It’s useful for maintaining the clocks, she’d told Leaper last monsoon, and yet today her favourite clock was broken, whale oil or no.
King Icacis’s turned back blocked Leaper’s view. The king, wrapped in silver-embroidered crimson, fancied shaving his greying head, followed by a charcoal-powdering of the stubble; skin rolls at the back of his thick neck made Leaper think of a shaved tapir.
“Aren’t we getting too old for toys?” Icacis rumbled.
And yet she loves him, Leaper thought.
“Give it back, please, Icacis.” Her measured voice made Leaper’s heart jerk like a leashed gibbon, but the king was already raising his voice, speaking over her.
“Don’t pull on it, woman. Let me look at it. If it means so much to you, let me fix it. Look, that spring is broken in half. A simple matter!” There came a clatter as he set it down on the side table. “In the meantime, I’ll have the slaves wind the clock twice a day instead of once. You see? You’ve been crying over nothing.”
Leaper clapped both hands over his mouth to keep the ugly laughter inside. Ilik’s voice came again, sounding tired and patient.
“I wish you hadn’t asked the slaves to wind it in the first place. Overwinding broke the spring.”
The king’s remorse was immediate.
“It seemed like a way to free you of a chore. I wanted to make things easier for you. That’s all I ever want.”
“I know.” She sounded helpless in the face of his solicitude, which made Leaper furious with both of them. She wasn’t helpless. Why pretend?
Leaper fumed some more while Icacis rained kisses on his wife.
Get on with it! Off you go!
As usual, he waited for a slow count of one hundred after the king had departed. Then, a deep breath, another peek to make sure the queen wasn’t in danger of being caught by the swinging doors, and he pushed hard against them.
“Twice a day!” he exclaimed, unable to contain his disdain.
He spoke to her in the language of the Crocodile-Riders. It was their secret language. He’d taught it to her, a few words at a time, beginning with their first meeting a decade ago when, partway through returning her pocket-clock, he’d been seized by the aftereffects of the translation bone he’d swallowed. It had tasted like dirt, that sliver of stolen bone from Floor. A dozen different tongues had come bursting into his throat, and Leaper had needed to share them with somebody or choke. It had made for a memorable visit.
Ilik turned reluctantly from the clock. She was short and plump with a perfect bottom and pert breasts. When she smiled, one endearingly crooked tooth parted the pronounced bow of her lips before the others did. His heart jerked again. She was self-conscious about that smile and rarely shared it; certainly he’d never seen it in the early days when he was Aforis’s pupil and she was a distant, jewelled thunderhead gazing serenely over a green, glass-floored royal audience chamber.
Older than Leaper, she was not as old as the king. Her grey hairs went unnoticed in the magnificent tower of her royal coiffure. Grey stormbird feathers and strings of silver and diamond alternated with her long thin braids to form a glittering, open-throated flower shape, flowing up and back from the crown of her head.
She kissed him. Gave him a warning look, which he ignored. He went straight to the clock, turning it over, cradling it along his forearm. A tree shape of green soapstone fronted the case. Slippery-smooth branches disguised the wooden cage where the mechanism was mounted.
Inside, the spring was broken. Not in half, though. It had snapped near the attachment at one end. The position of the key showed that the clock had been freshly wound when it happened.
“That’s it, then,” she said, also in the language of the Crocodile-Riders, sighing, sagging a little against him.
“No,” Leaper said. “Why? I’ll fetch a replacement.”
“The maker of this clock died during the Hunt. Before you and I met. She was from Eshland. The only one who used springs and”—Ilik touched the two places, at root and crown of the soapstone tree, where slivers of bone were inset—“two bones, one to balance the other, to slow the clock in the first few hours after winding.” They were slivers of Old God’s bone. Here in Leaper’s home niche, where his relatively weak magic was strongest, the hairs on the back of his hands lifted at the clock’s proximity, and he could smell tallowwood and bone tree bark.
“Somebody must have taught her,” he said. “This clockmaker from Eshland. She couldn’t have been the only one.”
“Whoever taught her is long dead. My clockmaker, already ancient when we met, was away for years herself. She learned on her travels, failing to specify where she travelled. Some of her neighbours refuse to believe she’s dead. They think she’s on another of her journeys.”
Leaper made an irritated grumbling noise.
“How can it be, that of the hundreds of thousands of people in this city, only one was capable of work like this?” For you, I would travel along the dead clockmaker’s trail, if not for the prophecy. “Could there be a comparable clockmaker in Understorey or Floor?”
“It is the law of specialisation, my brave climber,” she said, tucking a lock of his fringe, half black, half white, back behind one ear. “In a place of many people, the work of survival is accomplished quickly. For the upper classes, there may not even be any work to be done. A woman may dedicate her life to one area of specialised accomplishment. Where there are few people…” She shrugged and turned away. “Where there are few people, as in Understorey, each one must carry the rough knowledge of all, for survival. If a woman of Understorey dreamed of greatness, even if her labour could be spared, is it likely she’d find a teacher expert in whatever it was she wished to learn?”
“My sister learned,” Leaper pointed out darkly. “She was Understorian.”
“She learned in Canopy. After she’d learned as much as possible from those in Understorey who specialised—from a desire to destroy Canopy.”
“Yes,” Ilik agreed soberly. “For survival. That was before Imeris made peace between Loftfol and Ehkisland.”
“Why do you say the clockmaker from Eshland died during the Hunt?” Mention of Imeris stirred some vague memory of a clockmaker dying ten years ago, when his mortal sister had been set against the goddess of beasts. He lowered the broken clock carefully back down to the table. “Do you mean Orin’s monster killed her?”
“Yes. Leaving neither apprentice nor descendants.”
“But some of her neighbours think she’s travelling.”
“Some do. Others have had her workshop boarded up. Stuck spirits were said to haunt it even while she lived there. She worked with bones. It’s not known if her body fell or is still in there, sealed away with all her raw materials like an Understorian.”
Leaper still often exercised his impulse to break into buildings and steal shiny things, and he managed somehow both to perk up at the news the old workshop was boarded up with treasures intact and to turn sour a second time.
“Haunted by her stuck spirit,” he repeated scornfully, uneasily recalling the instances of Nirrin’s and Igish’s souls still being in the ether when the birth goddess Audblayin called them back to their old bodies. The word for “spirit” in the language of the Crocodile-Riders was sharper and deeper, making it sound a menacing, ill-omened force instead of something harmless and insubstantial. “There’s no real reason other people couldn’t have moved in there. No reason a complete stranger couldn’t have taken over her work.”
But Ilik, unimpressed by his reaction, snapped sharply back into the royal syntax and the Canopian tongue.
“Do you think one who walks in the grace of Airak hasn’t considered it?”
Leaper stared at her.
“Considered what?” he asked in the same language.
“Sneaking off in disguise to be a clockmaker in Eshland.” She waved one hand. It was spiderwebbed with silver chains. “Do you think one who walks in the grace of Airak doesn’t know that the haunting is a foolish tale? That all the woman’s tools, her scrolls, her materials, must still be there? I could have pretended to be her long-lost niece and spent my life doing what I love, solving clockwork puzzles, deciphering hard-won secrets.”
“You hadn’t met me then,” Leaper said winningly. “It’s like you just said. When the clockmaker died ten years ago, we were still strangers.” So why would a queen have plotted to run away? That wasn’t the time. The time is now. Ask her, Leaper. But the words wouldn’t take shape in his mouth.
“Do you think,” Ilik continued quietly, “one who walks in the grace of Airak knows nothing of the hidden nest you’ve been building for ten years, Leaper, in the guaiacum tree on the southern edge of Eshland? The southern edge, where the sun shines all the time? Where our Airakland king holds no sway? Do you think I haven’t noticed that the goods stolen by the so-called Adept Sneak Thief have all been luxury goods of the varieties I favour?”
Leaper felt five years old again, standing before Oldest-Father with stolen saltbread on his breath.
“Have you been laughing at me all this time?”
“No.” She took his face between her hands. The chains chimed softly. “Never that. But I cannot betray him.”
“You’ve already betrayed him.”
“Only recently.” She lowered her lashes. Now they were both ashamed. “Is a man who doesn’t know he is betrayed betrayed? For that matter, is a god?”
Leaper jerked his face out of her hands. He didn’t want to talk about his oath to Airak: to serve faithfully. To serve until death. To leave all other bonds and affections behind, and not to love.
As though that were something a person chose.
Admittedly, Leaper had chosen to flit above and below the barrier, as well as across the borders of various kingdoms, so that the magical bindings that helped enforce his oaths were weaker than they should have been. He’d been cautioned by the Godfinder, Unar, who’d been his guardian for a time, but he’d ignored her advice and done it anyway.
Certainly, in contrast to his fellow Servants of the lightning god, he’d had no trouble engaging in acts of physical love.
“One who walks in the grace of Airak,” he said, “will go to Eshland for a replacement clock spring. For now, that will satisfy me. To see your favourite piece functioning again.”
“I love you,” Ilik whispered, and Leaper felt fleetingly nauseous. How could he know that she meant those words, since she spoke the exact same words to Icacis as well? “I love you more than I love him, more than anyone, but he needs me more than you do.”
“I’m yours to command,” Leaper whispered back, and that was also something he’d told Airak many times, forming the words with his lips but never feeling the binding nature of them in his bones.
She gazed at him in silence.
They should have taken to the king’s bed then, and sweated passionately in unison, but Leaper turned away, love and resentment tangled with a sudden claustrophobia. Without a word of farewell, he went to the wardrobe, and slid a carved panel in the back to one side. He heard fricative fabric and the feathery whoomp of her sitting on the bed, but didn’t look back.
If she’d called his name, if she’d commanded him, he would have gone to her.
She said nothing. Had never been the type to forcibly contain man or beast. Ilik never begrudged him his freedom, his secret roaming about the palace, even though she herself was not free. Who else in his life had loved him without restricting his movements? Not his mothers. Not his fathers.
Who else had loved him without telling him what to do? Not the Godfinder. Not Aforis.
Not the lightning god, Airak.
The hidden tunnel was revealed. Whale oil greased the edges of the panel; fish smell mingled with the fresh flower scent of the queen’s perfumed water on Leaper’s skin. He didn’t have to slither on his belly through the darkness, but could manage a sort of crouching shuffle.
He had to turn to slide the panel back into place behind him. Ilik watched him, bright-eyed, still silent, from her perch on the edge of the bed. Her hair ornaments glittered in the glow of the whale oil lamps. Water ran through a dozen clocks behind her.
Closing the panel cut off Leaper’s last source of light, but it didn’t matter. The tunnel brought him to what he knew from long experience was the smooth back of a relief map of Airakland.
I was going to ask her, he fumed. Instead, she laughed at me. I’ll ask somebody else! I don’t need her.
There he paused, listening, to make sure the other room was empty. Then he pressed on the corners of his exit.
The map popped out of its frame onto a thick carpet strewn with lounging cushions. The trunks of the represented trees were inlaid carvings from the actual wood of their real counterparts. Leaper pushed the map back into position and gratefully straightened his knees and back. Calm, now. A job to be done. Think about Ilik later.
He was in the king’s study, a place he’d been visiting far longer than the queen’s bedroom. If Airakland’s guardian deity didn’t take a covert hand in running the kingdom, who would care for the citizens whose tributes and belief gave the lightning god his power? King Icacis was completely incompetent, and for all the things that Leaper loved about Ilik, she thrived in an inner world of poetry and clockwork puzzle solving. She was no saviour of the stricken or the slaves.
Leaper padded over the carpet to the other side of the study. He drew a sheet of square-cut paperbark from a pigeonhole set above the writing desk, selected a stick of charcoal, and composed the missive in his head.
Royal salutations from One Who Upholds the Glorious Law of Airak, Lightning Lord, to One Who Upholds the Glorious Law of Akkad, She of Fruitful Bounty.
If One may remark on the light rainfall provided by the minimal, most recent monsoon;
and if One may remark on the inclination of the current young incarnation of the rain goddess Ehkis to rebel against what she considers “the suffering and indignity of being born host and hostage to an immortal”;
and if One may remark on the deep desire of the citizens of Airakland for fresh fruit to supplement a currently inadequate diet in the face of the failure of forest floor flooding and resulting minimal prey;
and if One may remark on the spectacular height of Your Majesty’s palace, which is almost the equal of a Temple emergent, garlanded by metals, dried out by the lack of rain, and highly susceptible to strike by lightning;
One might be tempted to offer the following solution to our mutual problem: that One Who Upholds the Glorious Law of Akkad send a secret caravan of fresh fruit to the palace of One Who Upholds the Glorious Law of Airak.
One would clandestinely make a generous gift in Your name to the Lightning Lord, protecting Your palace without drawing the ire of Your patron goddess. Meanwhile the excess fruit not given in tribute would bring relief to the hungry innocents of Our kingdom.
Leaper paused, charcoal in hand, the paperbark page still blank.
Pain and anger at the queen’s rejection threatened to overwhelm him, but after a moment or so he was able to set his feelings aside and return to the task assigned to him. He drew a deep breath and tried to release his additional irritation that the letter composed in his head, the letter a true king might write, would need to go unwritten and unseen, since Icacis, the actual king, had bananas for brains and an unpractised scrawl in place of a scholar’s calligraphy.
Leaper pressed the charcoal to the paperbark. First too heavily. Then too lightly. He brought to mind, not the proud fierceness of the regal firewheel tree, but the weird, crooked shoots that sprang from rootstock after the main trunk of the tree was lightning-split and killed. He made some words larger than others. Inserted random capital letters.
What emerged was a tragically accurate imitation of King Icacis’s hand.
RoYal SALUTaTiONS to ONE WHO UPWHOLES the gloriouS law of Akkad, Fruitful LadY.
One haS been unable to ignore Not Much RAIN in the LAST YEAR’S MONSOON due to the rebellion of the raiN goddess EhkiS against her adViSers. One has been warned of the vulnerabilitY of YoUr pAlace to lightening caused bY drY winter thunderstorms; meanwhile MY PEOPLE are without efficient freSh fruit thanks to the Shortage of water. In the service of Your palace and MY PEOPLE, one who upwholes the glorious laW of Airak begs You to send me a secret caraVan of assorted fresh fruit. One will enSHURE that Airak’s protection is eXtended to Your High hOme, and that the hungry children of this niche are fed. REGARDS. ICACIS OF AIRAKLAND.
Leaper folded the missive, dripped its lips with beeswax, opened a drawer lined with chimera skin, and hefted the hand-span-wide, carved-bone royal seal. The seal left the impression of a burned tree but also imbued the skin-smooth bark with magic. Once the message was read, the paper would catch fire and turn rapidly to ash.
There would be no evidence that the king of Airakland had ever suggested such a thing as a secret trade with the king of Akkadland in defiance of the rain goddess.
Nor would there be evidence that Leaper, an infiltrator from the Temple, had forged a message from his king.
Now there was time for tears.
Now there was a place for his hurt to take hold of him, to rattle the hot rain loose from his eyes.
I do need her. There is nobody like her.
Copyright © 2019 by Thoraiya Dyer