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“Do you want to die like this?” Üku screamed.
The white-haired Owl Mother had the back of Kylee’s tunic bunched in her hand, thrusting her forward, and that bunched fabric clutched between her shoulder blades by a wrinkled fist was the only thing holding Kylee over the precipice of the Sky Castle’s walls. The clouds below roiled and broke against jagged cliffs.
“I could let go and spare us all the time you waste shambling to your death. If you plan to die so young, why not leap headlong for it?”
Kylee wanted to tell Üku that she did not want to die like this, had no intention of dying young, and that the featherbrained old woman better pull her back up. But she couldn’t find her voice just then, so she swallowed and considered the strength in Üku’s arm, how long she’d been holding Kylee, and how much longer she could. Finally, Kylee managed to scrape the word no from the gravel in her throat.
“Then show me the reason you’re here,” Üku snapped. “Show me how you plan to survive! Call the eagle to hunt. You know the word. Speak it!”
Kylee cleared her throat, focused her mind away from the sheer drop and onto the giant bird of prey that lurked somewhere in this dusky sky.
She searched the low clouds for any sign of the black-winged ghost eagle. She looked at the mountain elk idly picking their way up the cliff below the Sky Castle’s walls, as comfortable on a nearly ice-smooth rock face with a foothold no bigger than a baby’s skull as an eagle was on a breeze. They chewed cloudgrass without care or worry. None of the local hawks were big enough to take a mountain elk, and none of the nobles would risk injury to their finest hunting eagles just to catch some gamey meat.
But the ghost eagle was ten times the size of the next largest bird of prey, and there was no prey in the world it couldn’t hunt, that it wouldn’t hunt if Kylee could marshal the Hollow Tongue she’d been studying and command it.
“Raakrah,” she said.
The elk stayed calm. How could they know a ghost eagle prowled the low clouds? When had that terror ever haunted the Sky Castle’s air, and why should a bird of the night stalk them in the day? Their lives up to that point had offered no clues for the situation they were now in.
Just like me, Kylee thought.
The wind blew her cloak around her. The braid of her black hair whipped, and she felt Üku’s arm shudder. How much longer could she hold Kylee there, tilted over the wall’s edge?
Maybe the elk were right not to fear her.
The Hollow Tongue was the bird’s lost language, known now only in fragments, and Kylee had little grasp of it, even after two full moon turnings spent studying. When you spoke the Hollow Tongue, you had to mean what you said, deeply and truly, or your words might as well be lies. No bird of prey ever listened to a lie. There was no word in the Hollow Tongue for lying. But there were infinite ways to say “kill.”
“Raakrah,” she said again.
The nobles and kyrgs and their valets, who had gathered on the outer walls to watch her, chattered nervously in huddled clumps. While there were others with some abilities in the Hollow Tongue, Kylee was the only one in the castle who had the interest of the ghost eagle, and so she had the interest of everyone else, but she had yet to command the dreaded bird successfully.
“Think!” Üku scolded. “What have you learned?”
* * *
Earlier that afternoon, just as the air began to cool for the evening, Kylee and Grazim, Üku’s only other student, had been learning to command colorful tulip hawks to fly between their fists, trading places.
The fact that she and Grazim hated each other made the exercise more interesting, and a few kyrgs and their valets had gathered to watch.
“Toktott,” Üku had snapped just as the birds crossed in midair, and suddenly, the tulip hawks adjusted their flight paths, slammed their bodies into each other, and then bounced backward. After one or two more attempts to pass, they each gave up and returned to the girls’ respective fists.
“Toktott means to block or to stop,” Üku said. “If you are to overpower the command I have given them, you will have to mean your own command with greater force of will than I have with mine. The Hollow Tongue demands the perfect marriage of word, truth, and intent. To use it, you will have to truly want your bird to do as you wish. Find your truth and speak it.”
“How can we speak our truth for someone’s else’s purpose?” Kylee asked.
“That,” Üku replied, “is the fundamental question of your studies. The Hollow Tongue demands your full self: your history, your beliefs, your knowledge, your feelings, and your desires. Either you control those things, or they control you.”
“Those are all the things that make you you,” Kylee noted.
“Exactly,” Üku agreed. “No one ever attained power over a bird of prey without first attaining power over themselves. Tame yourself and you can tame the world. So … what words might you use here, to tame this tulip hawk to the purpose? How might you make what you must do match what you want to do?”
“Sif-sif,” Kylee suggested, the word for trade or switch that they had already been using.
“And yet that is not strong enough.” Üku dismissed her guess. “What does khostoon mean?”
“Partner,” Grazim said, puffed with pride at her vast vocabulary.
Üku nodded at the other girl, even smiled. “Very good. Your birds already know your relationships to them, but not to each other. You must tell them. A partner or an ally is a mighty thing, but the two of you must believe you are partners to overcome those who would get in your way.”
Kylee blew a loose strand of hair from her eyes. There was no way she could truly see Grazim as her partner. Kylee had been born in the Six Villages, an Uztari town whose faith and fortunes were tied to falconry; while Grazim had been born to Altari priests who wandered the grasslands in exile, cursing falconry and all who practiced it. Grazim had run away to the Owl Mothers for shelter, for study, for purpose. Kylee had only come reluctantly, forced to study in order to protect her brother back home. Grazim resented Kylee’s connection with the ghost eagle, and Kylee resented Grazim’s eagerness to serve the Sky Castle. No amount of bird trading was going to change their mutual resentment. It’d be easier to kiss a vulture’s tongue than to believe she could ever be Grazim’s partner.
“Khostoon,” they both said without conviction, and the frustrated bird on Kylee’s fist did nothing in response.
“Girls, girls, girls,” Üku clucked. “If you succumb to your adolescent squabbles, you will never master the power you have. Even the mightiest eagle can be bested by a unified flock. Try again!”
Grazim frowned. Kylee frowned back.
“Khostoon,” they snarled in unison, again to no avail.
Üku looked at her feet. “I just don’t know how to get through to either of you. Are you so weak-minded that you can find nothing to share with each other? You’ve more in common than you think.”
Copyright © 2019 by Charles London