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To Fly a Kite
Fourteen days after Miles, Tristan, and I broke the aether network, I dreamed the Cauldron brewed a storm. I watched a vast, many-armed spiral of clouds from the highest reaches of the sky. Half-awake, half-dreaming, I opened my eyes, but all I saw was the vision.
The storm pinned down my arms and legs as it grew larger, larger, impossible as it swelled, hundreds of miles wide. A weight pressed my chest, denying me breath. The storm forced me to watch as it moved east. It was coming, and I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.
A low, wavering wail sounded—me, mewling and weak. I forced a breath for another small, helpless whimper. Again. I sucked in a gulp of air and screamed.
The sound set me free. The storm winked out. I could see my tent, smell the air drowsy with the last traces of dream-resin. A full night’s sleep tasted sour on my tongue.
While I tried to convince myself it had been a nightmare, I opened a trunk, pawing through it for clothes. It was just a dream. Just a dream.
But what if it wasn’t?
I dressed in splendid garments the Amaranthines had given me, rich with color and proven against the cold. Outside, the sun rose on the white-shrouded world of a winter come too early, dazzling my eyes. The vision gnawed at my gut, driving me to ask the craftsmen for the makings of a kite. I took sturdy twine, dowels, glue, and wings of bright yellow paper up the stone-crowned slope of Bywell Rise.
My fingers knew the task by heart, even if they numbed in the too-chilly air. I’d been making scrying kites since childhood, under my father’s watchful eye. As I waited for the glue to set, I stood in the wind and put my back to the sunrise. Below me, the Amaranthine camp ringed the hill with colorful domed tents dyed saffron, scarlet, summery green, and the largest pavilion dyed in deep indigo and patterned with a scattering of stars.
Aeland’s final harvest lay under last week’s snow, destroying what should have carried Aeland through winter in comfort and plenty. I hadn’t been with the Circle the night they stood against the storm. Aeland had needed me, and I hadn’t been there.
The soft crunch of snow under heavy-soled boots pulled me from my thoughts. Tristan Hunter climbed the hill to crouch by my side. I glanced at him, but turned back to the horizon as he pulled a carafe from a leather sling.
“Good morning, Tristan.”
“Good morning, Grace. I see you roused from a screaming nightmare to climb the rise and fly a kite.” Tristan opened a glass jar filled with the roasted root tea Amaranthines used to stay alert. Steam caressed my face as I took a sip, the bitterness of the root mellowed by the spices that joined in its brewing.
“It’s for a spell.” The tea warmed my stomach. “I’m being foolish, but I have to know if I had a dream or a vision—oh Solace, I needed this.”
Tristan waved off my thanks. “And you need a kite for that? Tell me more about this spell—wait.”
The air took on the scent of summer grass and meadow flowers, a smell that spread from the Waystones behind me. Tristan loosed his sword and dagger, moving to face the stones.
“Who approaches?” Tristan asked.
A man emerged from behind a sentinel stone at the top of the hill, pausing with his hands well away from a hip quiver. A winter breeze set the hems of his scarlet-and-saffron robes to fluttering. “Tristan. What is this? Did the Grand Duchess send a party after you?”
Another Amaranthine. I stood up, ready to bow my head in greeting at my introduction.
“The Grand Duchess came herself,” Tristan said, lowering his bow. “But why have you come?”
The stranger swiped a hand over his face. “Does Her Highness know what these monsters are doing in Laneer?”
“She’s been informed.” Tristan shifted his weight—a casual gesture, but it put him between me and the other Amaranthine. “Why did you come here from Laneer, rather than go to Elondel? It’s dangerous.”
The stranger swept it aside with a careless gesture. “To find you. To bring you back and warn the Grand Duchess about—Wait.” He looked at me, narrow-eyed. “Who are you?”
Tristan stood aside to let the man have a look at me. I swept back the fur-edged hood of the felted Amaranthine tunic I wore, and he recoiled. His hand came up, a balanced dagger pinched between his fingers.
Tristan raised his arms, blocking the way. “Aldis, stop. She’s a friend.”
A friend. Soft warmth spread across my face to hear Tristan call me so. But the stranger’s face puckered in scorn.
“She’s no friend. She’s an Aelander. Do you have any idea what they’ve done in Laneer? What they’re doing here?”
“We know now,” I said. “And it’s horr—”
“Don’t speak to me,” Aldis said.
“Stop that. She had no idea,” Tristan scolded. “When she learned the truth, she helped destroy the aether network. Her brother nearly lost his life, undoing what was done in their name.”
I nodded, while Aldis stared murder at me. “It’s over,” I said. “The abomination is destroyed.”
“Let’s try this again,” Tristan said, “only we’re going to be civil. Aldis, this is the Liberator, Dame Grace Hensley. Grace, this is Sir Aldis, Hunter for the Grand Duchess.”
They shared a name, but they didn’t look like brothers. They were both handsome, but where Tristan’s finely boned face and fair hair made him beguiling, Aldis’s auburn brown hair fell in loose waves around sharp cheekbones and a square chin in a blunter, more angular face. He eyed me with open dislike, but the knife went back in its sheath.
“How do you do?” I asked.
Aldis ignored me. “What justice is the Grand Duchess considering? I have a few suggestions.”
“The Grand Duchess will enter diplomatic communications with the Queen,” Tristan said. “There’s a lot you need to know before you can really form impressions of this place.”
Aldis glanced at me one more time. “Where can I find her?”
“The indigo tent. She’ll want to see you.”
Aldis marched straight for me, forcing me to step aside for him. I spared a glance at his retreating figure and hoped his toes froze off.
“Well. He seemed pleasant.”
“We have to assume that Aldis discovered Aeland’s true purpose in conquering Laneer.” Tristan watched the saffron-and-scarlet figure trot across the camp, headed for the deep blue tent that housed Grand Duchess Aife. “He’ll argue in favor of punishing Aeland, and Aife trusts him. He needs to be countered.”
How could we counter against Aeland’s abominable motive for the Laneeri War? There would never be a day when remembering the soul-engines in the basement of Clarity House wouldn’t flood my system with the horrified lurch that made me want to retch. Aife hadn’t spoken to me of the abomination, preferring instead to see me as instrumental in the liberation of the dead. But Aldis had been in Laneer. He had seen the atrocity of war, understood that Aeland was responsible for every drop of blood that soaked its ground. He would tell Aife those things, and I couldn’t see her looking on me with kindness after that.
“Aife trusts you,” I said.
Tristan pressed his lips together. “Indeed. Shall we continue?”
“Let’s.” I steadied my grip on the kite and climbed the rest of the way.
A dead child waited for us at the top of the hill. I could see right through his sore-covered skin and the holey tunic that hung off one skinny shoulder. He stared at the kite under my arm before looking at me. His lips moved, but I couldn’t hear him.
“Ahoy.” I crouched just as if he were alive and showed him the kite. He reached out, but his fingers slid right through the paper, and he vanished.
The child ghosts were the worst of all the apparitions to appear from the broken soul-engines that fueled the aether network. They deserved it least of all, and I couldn’t do anything to help them, had no talent that would serve them. They were cut off from the Solace, all the pathways between here and there stopped up by the Amaranthines in camp.
“Poor lad,” Tristan said. “Life wasn’t easy on him, either.”
But he should have had the comfort of the Solace when he died instead of the fate he’d suffered.
“All right.” Tristan scuffed his way to a tall stone and leaned against it. “How does the kite spell work?”
“A bit of witchcraft. A little blood, and I’m linked to the kite.” I stripped my left hand of its glove and mitten, fished my white-handled bolline out of my pocket, and spilled three drops of my blood on the kite’s nose.
Soon a cheerful bit of yellow flew in a clean blue sky, stretching a thread of my soul between me and the blood I’d shed on the paper. The kite dipped and swirled in the upper breezes, caught its breath, and steadied as I emptied my mind and sent my senses out. Westward, crossing polar breezes. Westward, pushing upwind over the ocean, where the air dampened and swirled around the depressed air from the north. And where they fought …
The kite dipped, diving to the ground. I hauled on the line, caught the wind again, and what I saw strained belief:
A storm spread out miles wide, spinning away from the Cauldron off the coast. It was wrong: too vast, too violent. The storm came east even as it swelled with fury. East to Kingston, where millions huddled in the dark and cold with no aether.
I reeled the kite in with shaking hands.
“A tidy trick,” Tristan said. “You should have eaten first.”
“Yes, Mother.” My head spun with the turning of the land, my hunger multiplied by my wind-reading. I hadn’t been dreaming. I wasn’t mistaken. The storm I sensed in my half-wakeful daze was real. And if it broke on the shore, I couldn’t count how many it would kill.
Tristan caught my shoulder, steadying me. “But really, you’re green around the edges. What did you see?”
I shook my head, trying to clear it. Maybe I was still dreaming. Maybe this was still a nightmare. “A storm. It’s bad. It’s—I have to go.”
“Go where? Grace? What are you—?”
I laid the kite in the snow and set off, my feet slipping along the slope. Tristan called my name, but I kept my course, aiming for the long tent that served as a stable.
“Grace.” Tristan caught my arm and held fast. “Explain yourself and let me help.”
“I have to get to Kingston. There’s a storm. It’s huge, and it’s headed straight for us.”
“And you need to be there.”
I swept my arm in a wide arc. “Look what happened when I wasn’t there.”
“You can’t blame yourself for that. They kicked you out of the Invisibles, remember? Besides, Miles needed you.”
“You’re right,” I said. “But being rational never stopped guilt before. This storm that’s coming, it’s worse than last week. I have to get back—”
Tristan caught my hand. “And then you’ll be taken in for treason. And what good will you do then?”
“I can’t just sit here!”
“No one is asking you to. Miles can be moved if we pad a wagon. Aife sits on the cusp of a decision. Help me convince her to move the camp. It’s time we went to Kingston anyway. Come on,” Tristan said, heading toward the Grand Duchess’s tent. “The less time Aldis has to whisper venom, the better.”
Copyright © 2020 by Chelsea Polk