When Kirit Densira left her home tower for the skies, she gave up many things: her beloved family, her known way of life, her dreams of flying as a trader for her tower, her dreams. Kirit set her City upside down, and fomented a massive rebellion at the Spire, to the good of the towers–but months later, everything has fallen to pieces.
With the Towers in disarray, without a governing body or any defense against the dangers lurking in the clouds, daily life is full of terror and strife. Nat, Kirit’s wing-brother, sets out to be a hero in his own way–sitting on the new Council to cast votes protecting Tower-born, and exploring lower tiers to find more materials to repair the struggling City.
But what he finds down-tier is more secrets–and now Nat will have to decide who to trust, and how to trust himself without losing those he holds most dear, before a dangerous myth raises a surprisingly realistic threat to the crippled City, in Cloudbound.
Cloudbound will be available September 27th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
As children, we learned early that the clouds were dangerous.
Turns out the city wasn’t all that much safer.
Between three towers, the council platform hung suspended, its thin profile on the horizon the only thing protecting the city from itself now. Councilors paced, barely visible at this distance, preparing for their morning votes, while I peered at them through sharp cracks in the Spire wall. I wanted to be out there, in the open sky, leading. Making Laws, rediscovering our past, keeping tower from fighting tower. Not here, accompanying Kirit Skyshouter on a cloudtouched expedition into the Spire’s remains.
But Kirit and I dangled from tenuous ropes in the Spire’s dim afternoon light anyway. We swung within the cracked walls and over the deep gaping center of the Spire because the council and my mentor, Doran Grigrit, had asked it of me.
“No one else can find the codex, Nat, and few want to go in the Spire as it is. She’s offering to help,” he’d said on the council plinth earlier that morning. “The Singers knew how the city grows, why it roars. How the towers rise. We’re on the verge of a new age, with new discoveries, but we need to retrieve as much knowledge from the past as we can, before the Spire cracks further and our opportunity is lost. None of the other Singers have been near as helpful in this effort, not since the new Laws. Take her in.”
And here we were.
I hummed a verse of a popular song.
The Spire cracked as a Shout rose up,
freed the city, freed us all.
“Knock it off, Nat. I’m trying to count tiers.” Her voice was rough, even when she spoke. The healers said it could stay that way forever.
“That’s Councilor Densira to you, Skyshouter.”
These days, children sang of Kirit the hero. She was that. She was my wing-sister too, and would always be. But she had faults, and a stubborn streak, and her friends stood a fair chance of getting killed. I knew all about that. Worse, she’d been acting strangely in the past few moons, since the fever. Distant. Obstinate.
“What deal did you cut with Doran?” I said, then sneezed. Bone dust everywhere, even so many months after Spirefall. A cold east-spun wind whistled through the cracks running the Spire’s outer wall. The stuff silted the dim light.
She didn’t answer. Singers hadn’t been keen on helping the council or the towers much lately. A fair number of towers hadn’t wanted to help the Singers in a while either. And no one was sure whether Kirit was Singer or Tower any longer. Probably not even Kirit herself.
I took my eyes off of her for a moment to squint at the carvings we swung near. Panels depicting winged battles, skymouths attacking with grasping tentacles and rows of glass teeth, tower fighting tower. Singers and their carvings. Their tattoos. The city was well and done with all of that.
Life was better lived in the open towers, not in this walled one. Out in the sky. Not trapped in the Gyre’s echoes at the Spire’s center, where I’d nearly died not that long ago. Where Kirit had nearly killed me.
And where I’d tried to kill her in turn.
I sneezed again and the rope swung.
She made it sound like I was sneezing on purpose.
“It’s the dust.” I kept the irritation out of my voice. The city’s hero wouldn’t be able to blame the newly elected junior councilor from the northwest quadrant for botching her search. I wouldn’t give her any reason to complain.
Besides, I was curious. My mother, Elna Densira, had spoken of the codex with a mix of reverence and fear since Kirit and I were children. She’d said the pages contained our city’s survival in numbers: lists of what towers needed shoring up, a record of appeasements. I wanted to see what the city’s roars and rumbles over time looked like. I couldn’t imagine the heft of it.
We had nothing like that in the towers. Too heavy to carry up, too hard to maintain. Only the Spire and the Singers could keep records like that for generations. But instead of sharing their knowledge, they secreted it away. They practiced crimes against the city in its name.
We knew that now.
After Spirefall, searchers had cut carvings from the Spire walls and sorted through rubble, but the codex eluded them. Then more tiers collapsed, and rumors of rogue skymouths in the Spire began. Most wouldn’t go near the Spire now, even if the new Laws didn’t forbid it.
If I helped bring the codex back today, that would make me, if not more of a hero, more of a leader, despite having only nineteen Allmoons.
Kirit continued her descent on the gently swaying rope and I followed, inching down the rough fiber. The silk of my footwraps caught on a splinter.
What remained of the Gyre’s winds were hollow sounds: bone shards knocked from balcony edges that skittered and bounced down the walls, the flap of a whipperling struggling to stay aloft and in the light, my breath coming fast as I lowered myself down the rope. Once a place to fight for the right to speak, the Gyre resonated now with ghosts and loss.
I gripped the twisted fiber and sinew rope tightly enough that my knucklebones showed hard and pale beneath my skin.
“I wish you’d brought newer ropes,” Kirit said.
“Complaining? Not very heroic, Skyshouter.” So many songs praised her deeds, her words, her sacrifice. She should know the city had bigger troubles than old ropes.
“If I’d had access to supplies, I would have brought my own ropes,” she snapped, looking up.
She always hated when I teased.
In the sunlight, the web of scars across her scalp and face from her burns gleamed silver. I bit back my frustration, and felt a twinge of regret. I swallowed that back.
“Council gave us these.” Most of the council had. Three councilors actually, from three separate towers and three different quadrants. These days, that represented a lot of cross-city cooperation. When Doran Grigrit, my mentor; Vant Densira, my tower leader; and Hiroli Naza, Lead Councilor Ezarit Varo’s apprentice, first told me what Kirit wanted to do, I’d balked. I’d been tracking runaway Singer fledges since Spirefall and working to address the unrest that was blowing through the city. Important things.
But curiosity won out, and my sense of honor. Lead Councilor Grigrit trusted me to keep an eye on Kirit, and not give her any special treatment. Meantime, Vant had asked me to grab as many Lawsmarkers as I could find on the way, as a service to Densira. We needed those.
“I wouldn’t tell Ezarit you’re going, or with whom,” Vant had cautioned.
Fine by me. Ezarit had enough power to drop me into the clouds if she wanted, even without full control over the council. I was merely a junior councilor. If she had no power over her daughter’s doings? That was her problem, not mine.
The bone walls creaked and the dust increased. I imagined myself falling again, wings torn, down the Spire’s depths. A feeling I could generate all too easily. And yet? I didn’t feel fear here.
Maybe I’d agreed to return in order to prove that to myself. To prove it to her. That I was not afraid of the Gyre, or the Spire, or Kirit herself. Neither afraid nor angry enough to cloud my judgment as a city leader. That was important to know, especially now.
The rope groaned and I paused, looking for the sturdy gallery tier the artifexes claimed still existed. Kirit hadn’t stopped. She wouldn’t ever stop, not without a solid bone wall right in front of her. “The ropes can take it, but the walls can’t, Kirit. Time to pick a tier and get going.”
She stayed on the rope. I bristled despite myself. “We shouldn’t even be in here. No one else is allowed in. Soon no one will be.”
“You can go back to chasing Lawsbreakers if you want.” Still descending.
“Not today.” She was always like this. I braced for more argument. “You said you’d be quick. Let’s just hurry.” Besides, Doran Grigrit had hinted there’d be extra tower marks in it for me if we returned with what Kirit sought. “If something happens to the city’s hero on my watch, I’ll never rise beyond it.”
Surprising me, she laughed, but the sound had a brittle edge. “And I’ll never rise beyond it if a city councilor gets hurt in my presence.”
She was right. The songs that called her Skyshouter would quiet further, then while those calling her Spirebreaker or worse would become even more popular. I didn’t want that for her. She’d suffered enough. We all had. She was gaining my sympathy, but she kept talking. “Elna would have my wings for it. And Ceetcee and Beliak too.”
Her bringing Ceetcee and Beliak into this, much less my mother? Clouds.
“This is city business, Kirit. If you care so much about what Elna thinks, you should visit.” She didn’t know anything about us anymore. We’d sent whipperling notes that Elna, who’d helped raise Kirit, was completely skyblind. That Ceetcee would be a mother before next Allsuns. There’d been no reply. Meantime, Ceetcee and Beliak helped me care for Elna as she learned her way in a darkened world. They were caring for me too. And I them.
“Seriously, Nat. You can wait safely up top. I’ll be right there. You have enough Lawsmarkers, you don’t need to salvage any more. You’ll barely be able to fly home with that.” She’d missed my point completely and was eyeing my salvaging satchel. The word “safely” burned.
“Always seem to need more these days.” I tried to keep my voice light, but this was harder than I thought it would be. We had so much unsaid between us. “I can carry more than you think.”
Deep in the spire, an enormous crack sounded, then tapered off to a rip like battens piercing silk. Echoes of bone striking bone reverberated as a piece of a tier tumbled into the depths. Over this sound rose a rush of wings. Gray- and brown-bodied wild dirgeons and two midsized gryphons shot up from the Gyre in a cloud of beaks and feathers. My favorite messenger bird, a whipperling named Maalik, burrowed into my robes with a squawk.
“Watch out!” The escaping flock surrounded the ropes and rocked it. Scratched us in their passage and were gone in another cloud of bone dust that left us coughing and struggling to cling to the swinging rope.
I held on tight, but Kirit slipped, her feet scrambling to wrap the line again. She grabbed too late for the rope with her knees and dangled for a moment from her fingertips. Her wings, half open for safety, buoyed her in the Gyre’s breeze, and I struggled to keep my balance as the rope swung wildly. The gallery wall we’d anchored to creaked.
“Easy!” I whispered through gasps for clear air. Whether I spoke to me or to her, I wasn’t sure. Below us, the dark pit rippled with shadows.
If I had to, I could dump the satchel I carried into the Gyre and grab her before she fell too far. I hadn’t found anything I couldn’t bear to lose yet.
Except Kirit. I couldn’t let her fall. Birdcrap. I shifted my grip on the rope, readying to help if she needed me. Her Spirefall injuries hadn’t healed well.
“I’ve got it.” Her voice was level, tightly controlled now. Still her arms shook as she gripped the rope. She turned her face away so I couldn’t see her discomfort.
She hooked a ledge with her good leg and climbed over a solid-enough-looking gallery wall. “I wanted to search this tier next anyway.”
Maalik cackled and climbed to my shoulder, pinpoint claws never breaching my silk robes. He tested my earlobe with his beak, gently. Yes, bird. Still here. “Some help you were.”
Tossing my spear, bow, and carry bags onto the tier, I followed her. The Lawsmarkers I’d found, plus a few metal scraps, clacked and screeched as the bags hit the floor.
Searchers had turned through the rubble. But scavengers had been here too. The signs were all over. The cages far below, broken during Spirefall, had been pulled to pieces to remove the precious wire mesh inside.
Rubble began to shift and slide as Kirit made her way into the alcove. Bone dust billowed, and she coughed again. “Too much dust,” she muttered. “You were right.”
At least I was right about dust. Maybe I could find out why she’d been distant. Ceetcee would want to know why she hadn’t answered our messages. “How’s it downtower at Grigrit? Dusty there too?” I remembered cleaning a downtower midden once with her, so long ago. I wrinkled my nose at the memory.
She grunted. “Damp. Doran’s kept us on the lowtower’s dark side. Cold there.”
She could have had a hero’s quarters once she recovered from her Spirefall injuries, but she’d chosen to live downtower. That must have made her very bones ache.
“Are you maybe a little cloudtouched?” My joke fell flat. I kept going. “Who’d want to live that far down by choice?”
“Singers and fledges don’t have a choice,” she snapped, but kept sifting rubble. So much for conversation. It didn’t look like she knew what she was looking for, that was for sure.
“If the council hadn’t taken the Singers’ wings,” Kirit began again, “I could have used Wik’s help here. And Moc and Ciel’s.”
In previous searches for the codex, Wik had provided nothing, especially under guard. But I didn’t say so. “The Singer twins?” I shook my head. “They don’t listen. Won’t stay in their classes. If we brought them to the Gyre, they’d probably turn scavenger and disappear.”
“What? It’s been going around.” She blinked at my tone, and I bent to hide my dark expression, gathering my weapons from the tier floor instead. Once we’d been closer than friends. Almost siblings. But even then, we’d teased and squabbled. Things were harder now.
“Scavengers aren’t hurting anything,” she finally said, avoiding a bigger fight.
“They’re thieves.” She caught my look and frowned. I frowned right back. “I have responsibilities now, Kirit. All Lawsbreakers weaken the towers. Scavengers are Lawsbreakers. They cause disorder that we can’t afford. You’d understand if you were on the council.” I sounded like Doran and Ezarit when I said things like that. Strong. A leader.
Kirit had been offered a seat straight off, and her choice of mentors. Council had even kept the seat open while Kirit endured her Spirefall wounds and the resulting bone dust infection that nearly took her leg. After Allsuns, when she’d finally recovered enough to hear the offer, they’d asked again.
And she’d said no.
The city needed her, her family needed her, and she’d refused. I hadn’t. Nor had Ezarit and Doran. Hiroli hadn’t, even though she’d lost her family in Spirefall. She still wanted to help fix the city. In council we learned to debate, worked to keep towers from splitting off or severing bridges, tried to govern without the Singers, even defended towers from raids and riots. It was hard work, and we gladly did it. But not Kirit.
A verse of The Rise came unbidden, the melody learned from years of repetition, the words those she’d tried to teach me in the Gyre.
The city rises on Singers’ wings, remembering all, bearing all;
Rises to sun and wind on graywing, protecting, remembering.
Never looking down. Tower war is no more.
The city was coming apart: each tower for itself. As the songs warned.
“Hurry, then,” I said. But she dithered, turning this way and that. Searching. “Kirit, really. If you don’t know where to look, let’s end this. Whatever you want from Doran, there’s got to be a better way to get it. I have a vote to prepare for.” I hadn’t meant to say that last bit.
“Vote? More Laws? Because of the riots?” She must have heard the rumors. There’d been market riots over food, over fair trades. Over Singers walking past. The most recent on Varu, two days ago. There’d been so many skymouth losses during Spirefall, and too much anger from survivors.
“You’d know if you were on the council, instead of making expeditions like this one.” It came out sharp and fast. Maybe I’d meant it to. I wanted to fight with her about this—her responsibility—about everything.
Even here, in the Spire’s ruins. Especially here.
She met my gaze for a moment. Her shoulders squared. “There haven’t been any riots on Grigrit,” she said. “Doran runs a tight tower.” But then she sighed. “Let’s do what we’re here for, and argue about that later. The codex should help. And then you will tell me who’s getting new Laws this time.”
All of them, I wanted to say. All the Singers. Including the Nightwing Wik. We’d get Rumul too, if we could find his body.
But we’d been sworn to secrecy until the council was ready. It was our one chance to unify the city, and the timing had to be right.
“Nat,” she said again. She reached out a hand, silvered with two Singer marks, and seared with the wilder lines—marks made by skymouth tendons acrid on her tawny skin as she’d fought Rumul to the death. The fight that had eventually cracked the Spire.
I was caught between taking her hand and revulsion. Not at the appearance of her hand, but at the thought of all she’d done. The Spire had cracked, and the skymouths hidden inside—hidden by the Singers in order to protect the city—had escaped. Many had died. She’d fought then too, and me beside her; Spire and tower fighting together until all the monsters had been captured.
Now she was a hero, but increasingly unwelcome. The city had found its path without her. But Doran had trusted her enough to come here, with an escort, saying “She’s earned another chance, Nat. Her decisions lately notwithstanding, she defended the city once.”
Her fingers hung in the air, inches from my arm. Then they trembled and she pulled away. Her brass-flecked eyes, much like Ezarit’s, but framed by silvered scars, seemed to plead with me. Then she bowed her head. “I’m sorry, Nat. I’m sorry for your anger.”
“You have to pick a side, Kirit. You can’t be tower and Spire both. Not anymore.”
“If I can’t be both, who can?”
“Why would you want to? They were monsters. You knew that when you fought Rumul. Before that too.” Anger, bubbling up. Singers had killed my father in order to keep their terrible secret. They’d tried to kill me.
Not they. She. Kirit.
“It’s not that simple!” Kirit threw up her hands. Dust curled in the disturbed air currents. “Some worked against Rumul, from the inside. Why are you repeating rhetoric when you know the truth, Nat?” The tower creaked again. “Many fought for the towers.”
I knew it wasn’t that simple. My father had tried to do just that a generation before.
On my wrist, a faded blue silk cord held a single message chip. One of my father’s carvings, found after Spirefall. “They moved too slow. Too many died,” I said, each word sent after her like arrows. “You should be angriest of all.”
I reached out then, to the Kirit I’d known since childhood, to Kirit Densira, not Kirit Skyshouter, but my hand grasped air. She’d already turned away to search more of the dim tier, and a large alcove nearby.
From the tier above, a floor had collapsed into a pile of rubble in the alcove. A carved stool stuck crookedly from beneath shards of ceiling and wall. Several more cracks ran across the floor where we stood.
“Rumul’s office was above,” she whispered, turning in place. Getting her bearings.
My wrapped foot slid over the bone floor, testing the seams. The wreckage signified that the floors—tough outgrowths of bone at each new level—could sunder and break without warning.
Working in secret before his death, my father, the artifex Naton, had riddled the Spire with holes. I was glad he’d drilled Rumul’s office as thoroughly as he had, but I wished I didn’t have to walk through it now.
I looked closely at the fallen ceiling, and the small patch of sky that showed through another hole in the wall. Those weak points had helped us bring down Rumul. And the whole Spire too, releasing the monsters within. Now the same weaknesses threatened our safety.
Kirit shivered like she was still feverish. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Kirit’s ears were sharp, even after her illness. Secret Singer training. Echoes. Eerie stuff. Flying at night was good, but the sharp hearing? Disturbing.
I peered into the Gyre. “Just bone chips falling from where we hit the walls, probably,” I said. “Don’t go thinking everything’s a skymouth!” I made tentacle-finger gestures and a face to go with them, wide jaw, tongue wagging. It must have looked awful, but suddenly I was afraid too—of the Spire collapsing, of the clouds far below, of a skymouth lurking, uncaptured and invisible, below—and I didn’t want Kirit to see it.
I was a city hero, just like her, or at least to some. And a city councilor. A junior councilor.
“No time to be afraid.” Kirit whispered. She picked up the pace of her search, pulling shards of bone from the rubble.
The slop rope we’d descended swung and smacked against the wall. A sudden breeze? The soft scratching sounds could have been my imagination. Then a screech echoed up the Gyre that made my skin crawl. Kirit turned, eyes wide.
“Only bats,” I said. Please be bats. But a dark shadow circled the lowest visible tiers, far too big for a bat. As it moved, its tail swung and flicked. A beam of sunlight hit it from above. Feathers glistened on broad wings. A long beak stitched up and down as it sniffed the air. I edged back, pulling Kirit with me.
Clouds. Those feathers are the size of my arm.
“There were songs,” I whispered. “Old ones. Of things living in the clouds that carried away the dead.” Let’s fly, Kirit. What’s down here is wrong; it is danger.
Words from an ancient song echoed in my ear, in an old friend’s voice:
They eat the stars.
They crack the bones.
Peering over the gallery edge, I struggled to remember the rest of the words. But all was dust and darkness.
Ceetcee, Beliak, and I had studied with the old windbeater, Tobiat, while I was being punished for attacking the Spire. Weighed down with so many Lawsmarkers, including Treason, I could barely fly. I couldn’t hunt. The day Ceetcee—whom I knew from wingtest—landed on my lowtower tier with fruit for Elna? I’d waved her off with a wary “We don’t need that.” But she’d stayed, had even coaxed Tobiat uptower. When Beliak brought two geese he’d shot, and work for us to share—winding sinew and fiber into ropes for bridges—I began to feel part of the city again. Not a Lawsbreaker. Productive. Tobiat had singsonged at us while we worked.
Tobiat had been sharing what history he knew. It was clear, now. Singers had kept the city’s stories to themselves for generations. Verses from “The Bone Forest” and “Terror of the Clouds.” “Corwin and the Nest of Thieves.” After Spirefall, scavengers had found carvings far downtower that had matched his songs. But Tobiat had died in the market riots at Viit, and I was already forgetting what he’d taught me.
Doran was right. Each new violence cost us stability, good people, knowledge. Even though the council was preserving Tobiat’s legacy, his trove of songs, for the good of the city, it wasn’t the same.
“Must be a gryphon,” Kirit said, shaking me out of my thoughts. She sounded hopeful. Gryphons were sharp-beaked and aggressive. “Or a trick of the light. Come on.”
“That’s far bigger. Worse than a gryphon. That could be a bone eater.”
She’d heard the songs too, of course. Right from the Singers themselves. Shook her head. “They’re cloudbound. Never seen this high.”
“Maybe not when the Spire had skymouths hidden in the Gyre,” I said. In talking with Doran and Hiroli about the towers, and how fast they used to grow—which was Hiroli’s project—we’d compared rumors. That skymouths in the clouds had battled gryphons and bigger birds. That they’d won. “Maybe they were keeping the bone eaters in check.” My voice was little more than a whisper, quiet against the scratching sounds below. I closed my eyes against the vision of a giant mouth opening wide while invisible tentacles wrapped Kirit, pulling her away.
“If there are bone eaters this high,” she said without looking away from the rubble pile, “the city has bigger problems than the Singers.”
The memory of Spirefall, and of almost losing everyone I cared about, was still too fresh. Ceetcee had fought that day. Beliak too. I took a calming breath and let it spool out from between my lips. “Now we really have to hurry,” I said, pulling her with me towards the slop rope. “Up and out.”
But she pulled back, then slipped my grip. Headed towards the rubble.
“If it’s not a gryphon, its something else.” she said, “A bone eater won’t want living bone. Otherwise the towers would have been food long ago. We’ll be fine.”
“Unless it’s dining on Singer skeletons from Spirefall.” Typical tower talk, these days. But she froze. She didn’t turn, didn’t yell at me. I wished she would yell. Ceetcee and Beliak certainly would have. Ezarit too. Sometimes I was an idiot.
But I could try to fix my mistakes. “That wasn’t your fault, Kirit.” I said quickly. Maybe I only made things worse. “Tell me more about what we’re looking for.”
No Singers we’d questioned would describe the codex well enough to anyone from the towers. Bone tablets, they’d said. Big ones. There were a lot of those.
Kirit held her scarred hands up, an arm span apart. “Most pages are this big. Marks carved on both sides. We need…” She stopped to think. “The pages charting the city’s roars”—she meant the destructive, roaring quakes—“the Gyre challenges, and”—she paused, swallowing hard—“the appeasements.”
“You mean Conclave.” When Singers had fed Lawsbreakers to the clouds after a roar, it was not called an appeasement. It was called a Conclave. “Use the word if you’re going to think it.”
“Yes. That. They’re marked with numbers of Lawsbreakers and kinds of Laws too.” So many Laws. So many ways to break them. Again I felt the ghost weight of Lawsmarkers around my wrist. The Lawsmarkers I’d gathered uptower bumped against my side.
“Forget the challenges.” The fewer pages we had to find, the faster we could be out of here.
“No. The city needs to know how many times Singers had challenged Rumul and the leaders before him. To know that not everyone agreed. To see differences among the Singers. Between Rumul’s allies and Wik, for instance.”
“It won’t do any good, given the city’s current mood. They’re guilty of not doing enough, at the very least.”
“Even Wik? You fought by his side. And he yours. And me?” She stared at me.
I felt another twinge of regret. “You were taken to the Spire against your will.” But in the end, she’d sung Singer vows. The only reason she didn’t need to heed Escort, the new Law, was because she was the Skyshouter. “You ended the Singers’ reign.”
She was right about one thing. The city had bigger problems now. And the city was about to call on her to renounce the Singers. To denounce them all, even Wik. I was forbidden from telling her; we needed her help first.
She bit her lip and stepped through the ruins of Rumul’s office in silent disagreement, ignoring sounds from the Gyre that were now loud enough that I could hear them too.
Her silence rankled. “You know I’m right. The people have every right to be angry over what happened in their midst.” You have to know I am angry too. “I fought by your side. And Ceetcee, and Beliak. All of us, together.”
At home, Beliak had given me extra pitons, a sack of spiced apples. Meantime, Ceetcee had worried about the Spire’s stability, and Kirit’s. About her behavior lately. “She’s been through so much. Give her a chance,” she said.
I was trying. Despite how frustrating Kirit was. And how stubborn.
“We care about you, Kirit,” I said as gently as I could. “All of us worry. Let’s hurry.”
“If you care, quit distracting me. Keep an eye on the Gyre and whatever’s down there,” she said. Gruff rejection. I took another deep breath and complied.
Trying to watch both the Gyre’s depths and Kirit as she navigated the rubble was a tough task. After a while with no movement from below, I decided she must have been right about the gryphon. I joined her in the alcove.
“I’m trying to think like Rumul,” she said. That gave me chills, but she added, “He might have put the codex and other valuables somewhere out of the way.” She hadn’t told me to get back to my post. “They brought it to the Spire’s roof during the last…” She paused, but I waited her out. The gap in her sentence spread.
It was only a word, I knew. But her not saying it, while she wanted me to forgive the Singers? Not all right. Making her say it would give me some satisfaction at least.
“You can’t pretend you’re above all the Spire’s horrors by not saying that word.” Ceetcee would swat me if she ever found out I was talking to Kirit like this. “Speaking a truth brings it out into the open. You know that as well as I do. Say it.”
“Conclave” was an important word. But Kirit remained silent.
“It’s part of our history, and part of the city’s survival. Everyone knows what happens when the city roars unappeased,” I said. Towers cracked and broke. People died. Monsters escaped.
“After that—after Conclave—Rumul must have hidden the codex.” The hook she used to test the rubble knocked loose a tumble of bone. I heard a quiet sob. “You haven’t seen a Conclave, Nat. They were horrible.”
She was right. I’d never seen one. I couldn’t imagine what they were like. I was about to reply when a sharp sound echoed off the walls. A clatter and a raucous screech.
“What’s the bone eater doing?” Kirit smoothed her robe.
“I thought you said it wasn’t a bone eater.”
She didn’t reply.
I stepped on the pile and levered myself up, hoping my legs wouldn’t wobble. The pieces of floor and ceiling, the wreckage of Rumul’s worktable, shifted and settled. I moved again, holding my breath. At the pile’s edge, closest to the wall, I spotted a faint glint of brass peeking from a knotted and torn package of gray silk. Metal. I reached for it. Metal was worth many tower marks.
The floor beneath me creaked as I neared the Spire’s ruined wall.
“Nat,” Kirit whispered.
“The artifexes promised this tier was still safe. Ceetcee too.” Especially Ceetcee. I put as much confidence into my voice as I could. “Promised” was a very strong word for what she’d said. “Hoped” was closer.
My ears picked up sounds that none in the city ever wanted to hear. Cracking sounds, from deep within the walls.
Kirit heard them too of course. “Nat, get back!”
Backing up, I knocked loose a pile of small tablets. Carvings excised from Spire walls. They rattled to the floor. One broke, exposing another layer of carvings. More secrets.
“Nat,” Kirit whispered again. The cracking noise grew louder.
“What?” I asked, sharply. I wanted to get the brass.
The Spire’s outer wall crackled over the wind. Then the thick noise of bone ripping from bone filled my ears. The far edge of rubble where I’d stood moments ago disappeared. In its place was blue sky, a cloud of windblown dust. The new hole in the wall ran down to the tier floor. There, existing cracks darkened, then widened near my feet. I backed away fast, the tier below me already visible. More rubble fell away.
The surface beneath my feet began to move. I slipped.
“Kirit! Run!” I turned and scrambled, but the crack was too wide and I fell into it, riding a wave of dust and bone. The Spire echoed with the sound of debris falling hard to the next tier. In the dust cloud, I grabbed for anything solid as I slid, and caught my bone hook on something that hadn’t moved, hadn’t fallen in. The edge of Rumul’s worktable, wedged at an angle in a crack.
My feet swung free above the lower tier. The bone hook, strong enough to carry a flier beneath me, held true. “Kirit?” I said, over the roar in my dust-filled ears. My face and arms were caked in bone dust. What was left of the pile we’d been searching was a jagged mess below me. I stifled a sneeze.
Our spare rope dropped down the hole beside me. Kirit, breathing hard, slid down the rope. “We’re going down. It’s too unstable up here.” Her voice was calmer now. Whatever else, Kirit could think straight in emergencies.
She dropped to the floor. Using one hand, I grabbed the rope, while holding fast to the bone hook with the other. When I was ready, I let the bone hook go and swung the weight of my body onto the rope, then through air that sparkled with tiny shards of bone to the tier floor. Once down, I eased to my hands and knees, not trusting my legs yet. Beneath my aching hands, bone dust and metal glittered. I clutched at the shiny bit of brass that had caught my eye above. Squared corners, etched, my fingers told me. I dropped it in my satchel. The metal had poked from a silk-wrapped packet above. Where was that packet? I crawled forward, searching. Kirit could have the codex. I could sell the brass.
Kirit caught me searching. “Scavengers are Lawsbreakers, huh?”
“We’re on council business, with permission. This isn’t scavenging.” I might have grinned.
“You haven’t changed so much after all,” she said. She sounded happy about that.
“I’ve changed,” I said, readying my arguments. But they all fell away as a shadow blocked the light from the Gyre and the hole above my head. Kirit and I turned together as an enormous bird blacker than night blocked our exit.
Copyright © 2016 by Fran Wilde
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