Chime had his hands full of babies, brand new and gleaming with it. They were so small, no bigger than his cupped hands, that it would be hard to tell which were Aeriat and which were Arbora until they shifted. He had said as much to the parents, three times now, and he was getting ready to say it again.
“This one has to be a warrior,” Whip said, even though he should have been old enough to know better. “She’s so light.”
“That’s because she’s the size of my foot,” Chime said with exasperation.
“My mother said the same thing about me,” added Bead, a small and stocky Arbora teacher, nearly the opposite of the tall, willowy build common to Aeriat warriors. She was a few years younger than Chime and looking a little squinty-eyed going into hour five of Rustle's labor. It was the first clutch born in the mountain tree since Jade and Pearl had agreed that the colony's crops and hunting yields could support a new generation. The only reason half the court wasn’t gawking over Bead's shoulder was that Rustle had been sensible enough to go about the whole thing on the wrong side of midnight. Whip was lucky he’d even been told.
“Just don’t come to me when you’re disappointed,” Chime muttered.
They were in a small side room off of the nurseries in the most protected part of the colony, nestled deep inside the mountain tree. Arbora generations ago had carved the living wood into scenes of royal Aeriat and Arbora teachers holding newborns, older fledglings whimsically climbing their taller forms. An offshoot of the tree’s main spring passed through here in a colorfully-tiled channel, gurgling quietly along the curves and adding a coolness to the air above the heated floor.
Chime was heavily involved in the birth by this point, despite his initial plans against it, helping Bead to wipe down the babies before tucking them away into a large, woven basket. They had lined it pragmatically with plain, sturdy blankets, but Whip and apparently every Arbora artisan in Indigo Cloud had seen fit to top it off with runners of exquisitely colored embroidery and blankets of soft fur. Already two of the fledglings had shifted between groundling and back, a good sign. Rustle had given birth to four already; a Raksuran clutch was usually five.
Chime let his hand hang absently into the basket, and one of the shifted babies, a little, rust-toned female Arbora took the opportunity to gnaw curiously at his finger. Tiny, soft spines ran up and down her wingless back. She flicked her tail happily from side to side, the spade-shaped crest at the end of it adorably oversized in way that turned his insides to warm pudding.
It had been a long time since he’d done this. The Arbora had stopped clutching even before his startling shift from Arbora to Aeriat. He hadn’t realized he’d missed it.
As a member of an Arbora caste, Chime had grown up measuring his worth by what he produced – whether works of art or medicine or augury. Arbora were hunters, farmers, artisans, shamans; their contributions to the colony were tangible. He had never realized how different the Aeriat could be until he’d suddenly become one of them. Now, his worth was measured against people who produced nothing he could touch, status instead determined by an indecipherable mishmash of age, pageantry, entourage, and birth.
Bead leaned forward and said discretely, “Don’t be too harsh. They were hoping for Aeriat.”
“They should be hoping for mentors,” he said but half-heartedly. These children would be the first to have no memory of the old, failing colony. There were still Arbora who spent most of their day clearing musty detritus from the new colony’s long-abandoned rooms (which to Stone – and only Stone – was the true old colony). Even if they were safe now, the number of Aeriat they had lost in years of fighting, illness, and low birth rates was at the front of everyone’s minds.
"Well," Bead murmured slyly, "if you're hoping for mentor births, put in a word or two with Moon on behalf of the rest of us, will you? He understands he’s not expected to visit only his queen's bed, doesn’t he?"
The smile she gave him said that she knew exactly whose bed besides Jade's Moon had been visiting. Chime made a point of cleaning babies like he hadn't heard her.
Heart knelt at Rustle’s side, monitoring her health with a mixture of common and arcane senses. It was frustrating to have so little idea what those senses were telling her, and Chime kept glancing back and forth between the babies in his hands to Rustle’s belly, scaled softly dark gold in her Arbora form.
Rustle smiled, looking tired but healthy. “One more to go?”
Chime’s fingers froze where they’d been scratching the belly of the little Arbora, apprehension prickling up his spine. Rustle lifted her head off the pallet, paling. They all knew these things happened – and often happened to them – but the walls around them had changed, and the smells and the sounds had changed, and they’d thought this had changed too. And maybe it would change, but not yet.
“No,” Heart said finally, palm spread over Rustle’s belly. “That’s all of them.”
“But there are only four,” Whip said.
“I know,” Heart said miserably. It was her first birth, too.
“Is there – a stillbirth?” Bead asked. “Do we have to get it – the baby out?”
“No,” Heart said, and she looked at Chime, the edges of her mouth pulling down like they had weights attached. “Sometimes if part of the clutch fails early enough, your body...takes care of it.”
Chime realized he had reached his hand out to Heart’s to double check. He jammed his fist under his thigh and sat on it.
“How does her heart feel?” he blurted.
“Good,” Heart said, her voice a puzzled mix of defensive and depressed. “Strong. Is there something that makes you think – ?”
Whip leaned forward into Chime’s peripheral vision, one hand shielding the fledgling clutched against his chest. Rustle started to look a little panicked.
Chime winced. “What? No, I can’t – sorry. She looks fine. They’re all fine. I was just checking. Because the heart usually knows if – if something is off elsewhere.”
“Oh,” Heart said uncertainly. “Ok.”
“You have four healthy fledglings,” he said because somebody had to, and he hated when it had to be him. He pulled back the blanket to see that the babies had sensed the upset around them and promptly shifted out of groundling form. Their beaded skin shone many colors in the light, curled up into tight protective balls, tails flicking. Two of them had tiny, delicate wings folded against their back, still shriveled and damp. It would be another week before they were able to fully extend them and years before they were big enough to carry them in flight. He handed one of the Aeriat to Rustle.
Bead squeezed his forearm reassuringly, and Chime took in a shuddering sigh.
The naming ceremony took place after everyone had the chance to nap their way back to consciousness. Namings weren’t formal, and everyone who wandered by was welcome. Already a good crowd of Arbora and Aeriat had dropped in on the nursery for a bit of long-awaited good news.
Chime watched as each of the visitors hesitated in turn the moment they realized there were four, not five fledglings. When they recovered, they said what Chime had said – you have four, beautiful, healthy babies; congratulations. One of the early arrivals must have slipped out again because past a certain point, nobody was surprised anymore, and they could come right out with the congratulations and the sympathetic hugs. Nobody said anything if Rustle clung a little more tightly during the embraces than was usual.
Chime tucked himself into the back and tried to look fully in support of Heart’s abilities. He wasn’t a mentor anymore; it didn’t do anybody any good for him to be up there looking like he was holding back advice.
Heart handled it well, doling out simples for good health and conducting the traditional augury. Mentors rarely found signs of doom in an infant’s foretelling, even when births had gone badly. It had happened a few times at the old colony; of course, never in a way that suggested a practical response, more like, “Ho hum, the colony might be doomed – well, nothing we didn’t know yesterday.”
Still, he couldn’t help holding his breath along with the rest of the room, which was probably why he didn’t notice Balm sneaking up on him.
“It’s good to let her get through it herself,” she said, right next to him.
Chime twitched with the suppressed urge to shift to his winged form. She didn’t need to sound so surprised at his restraint. He thought about pointing out that maybe the reason all the warriors thought he was a complete loss at protocol was because he was a complete loss at warrior protocol.
“Thanks,” he said finally.
Moon peered uncertainly into the room. His dark satin tunic left his arms bare, but he lacked the assortment of arm bands, bangles, cuffs, and rings that usually accompanied exposed Raksuran skin. A ripple passed through the crowd as people turned to look at the newcomer. At his height and dressed in black, he was easily identifiable as a mature consort of breeding age. Until recently, Indigo Cloud had had only one.
Normally, Chime and Balm would have had to remind Moon that as first consort, he wasn’t supposed to sit in the back, but thank heaven, Moon reacted to children like they had a gravitational pull. He kept taking just one step closer to peer over the heads of the people in front of him; at which point, the closest head would look back, and upon recognizing Moon – first consort of the court and chosen consort to Jade, sister queen – the person belonging to the head would obligingly step out of Moon’s way. It wasn’t long before Moon was at the front of the crowd, elbow deep in babies.
Chime felt something in his chest loosen. There was no better person to be up there. Having never known a Raksuran court until the day Stone gathered him up and brought him here, Moon might notice or be told that there should be five, but the missing fledgling would never strike him as a failure to be explained or forgiven, and there was no dimming his sincere happiness at the four that remained. Chime felt so relieved he didn’t know what to do. He thought he might even hug Balm, who usually just scared him a little.
“What would you have thought if you had been at another colony and their first consort had done that?” Balm asked.
Chime started. “Done what? Picked up a baby?”
“Walked in alone to a ceremony,” Balm said. Chime looked at her for a moment like he’d been slapped. He had no idea where this was coming from, and it felt like an accusation. All along his back, muscles twitched trying to lift phantom spines. Balm’s shoulders lifted in involuntary response. “I’m not trying to insult Moon; calm down.”
“I didn’t think you were insulting – ” but now that he thought about it, he did. He still did. He frowned suspiciously.
Balm made an impatient ‘move along’ gesture with her hand. “Chime, I’m asking what would you think?”
Chime pictured it: brushing shoulders with the jewel-encrusted Raksura of Emerald Twilight on one of those high balconies woven out of their mountain tree -- turning to see their first consort arrive unannounced and unaccompanied and taking a seat in back. He winced. Even someone as politically hopeless as Chime would have known in his bones that he was looking at a consort without the ear of his court, the deep end of the political backwater.
“Rain didn’t –“
“Rain owned any room he walked into. I’m not saying Moon can’t be humble – but I don’t want it to seem like it affects his place in the court. Especially when some of us act like it does.” She added, a little fierceness seeping in, “He should have the favor of the court.”
Chime still had whiplash from the subject change. He checked – no, Moon was still cuddling babies while Rustle clung gratefully to his arm. She looked happy for the first time since Heart’s revelation. “Okay,” he said. “You think having someone follow him around is going to help? That might work if you never, ever tell him that’s what you’re doing.”
“Stone says it’s usually a male warrior from the same royal clutch,” Balm said, watching Rustle hand her babies one by one to Moon, who was looking one by one a little shinier around the eyes, “or another favorite.”
She looked at Chime.
“Oh,” he said belatedly.
Moon never showed any sign that he understood what he’d done for Rustle and Whip at the naming ceremony. Obliviousness was a bit funny coming from someone who could put so much premeditation into his social behavior, but eventually Chime had realized that just because Moon spent a lot of thought on fitting in, didn’t mean he was good at it. The thing about Moon was that he got the most important things right – like valuing children or ripping a hole through anything that tried to eat a community member.
And there were a lot of things here that could eat them.
The old colony had come with its own set of dangers, but there was something about the mountain tree's fortress-like defenses that made the Reaches feel dangerous and crowded. Chime knew the tree would feel like home one day, but right now it seemed big and empty and closed off. At the old colony, there had been a direct route outside from nearly every room, and he had slept his whole life with fresh breezes against his face.
Chime finished his patrol with Vine and Floret around mid-morning, a warm breeze ruffling his spines as he cupped his wings to land, trying not to count how many extra stabilizing flaps he needed to stay upright. Flying was still terrifying. Whenever something darted at him from the thick forest, he wanted to land and find a solid base from which to meet it – like an Arbora. Aeriat instincts should be to duck and roll, to find safety in the air, not on the ground.
Moon must have been waiting for their return. He landed next to Chime in a flash of black and a rush of air, dropping halfway into a crouch without a single extraneous wing flick. Even Vine looked surprised to see Moon suddenly occupying the small space between them and nobody knocked over.
“Can I talk to you?” Moon asked.
“Yes,” Chime said gratefully. His back was tired and sore from flying, and a request from Moon would keep Chime from having to go with Vine and Floret to report the tedious details of their patrol.
He shifted to groundling and stepped up to Moon, threading his arms through the mane of spines and frills at the back of Moon’s neck; Chime wasn’t flying any more until he’d had a long, hot bath. Moon’s scales were smooth and warm, his frills soft like fine cloth or a cat’s ear. Chime let his weight rest against Moon’s chest, who shifted onto his heels to take it. Moon smelled like the spiced soap made by the teachers. It made Chime unreasonably happy. When Chime and Jade and the rest of the rescue party had arrived at the court of Opal Night, Moon had been gone so long he hadn’t smelled like the right soap anymore. He had smelled just like a foreign consort in the care of unfamiliar Arbora, and Chime had hated it desperately. He hadn’t really been afraid that they might not get Moon back until that moment.
“Chime…” Moon shot a glance at Vine and Floret. Floret didn’t bother hiding her sigh; warriors weren’t carried except when injured, especially not by a consort. For someone who could flub Aeriat protocol even worse than Chime, Moon seemed to care a lot about it. Chime told himself this wasn’t a ceremony, so Balm couldn’t be mad at him for not supporting Moon’s Raksuran etiquette.
“I just flew for four hours behind crazy daredevils who don’t know the meaning of caution,” Chime muttered. “If I fly any farther, I’m going to fall out of the sky.”
Moon frowned at Vine and Floret, his opinions on warrior survival skills well known. It probably hadn’t been fair to play on a known weakness. Moon’s arms came around Chime’s waist. They dipped into a crouch, then sprang into the air. Chime held his breath through the disorienting moment of freefall before the wind caught Moon’s wings with a jerk.
“What did you want to talk about? Did Jade get a clutch?”
“No. You don’t have to ask me that every time you see me.” The wind made the words indistinct, but Chime could still tell he was disgruntled.
“Sorry. You haven’t really been trying that long, anyway.” Chime searched Moon’s face for worry, but facial expressions were less subtle in this form, and he couldn’t see Moon’s spines from this position. Those that were visible moved more from wind than emotion. Chime blurted out, “I know you’re not infertile—”
Moon pulled his wings in and rolled, and they dropped like a stone towards the waterfall plunging out of the giant knothole at the colony’s main entrance. Chime screamed as his insides went hollow and his stomach tried claw its way out of his throat. Moon let them fall until Chime could feel the cool spray on his face. A few body lengths above the water, Moon snapped his wings open, and they glided into the main greeting hall along the water’s surface.
Chime put his face against Moon’s neck, breathing hard. Moon’s taut muscles shifted beneath his scales as he made minute adjustments to their flight, his steady heartbeat undisturbed by the maneuver. It took a lot of effort for Chime not to tip his head and put his teeth against Moon’s neck right below his ear. Chime never knew how Moon was going to react to those sorts of overtures, if he should be explaining himself and the implications every time, though he’d had more success than not.
The entrance hall was a big, echoing chamber with several levels and pools for greeting visitors. To reach the cavernous central well of the tree, visitors would need to pass on foot through a narrow, winding passage between folds in the trunk. It was one of those layered defenses that made the Reaches seem so scary.
The mountain tree had been grown and shaped by Arbora generations ago. No one in the court today remembered how to do it. There wasn’t much in the library either. Chime knew how complex magic could be on much smaller scales, and the reality of the tree awed him. Maybe that was part of what was preventing it from feeling like home.
He fell into those thoughts for a while and almost didn’t notice when Moon landed on a small balcony near the ceiling of the greeting hall.
“I’m sorry about the—”Chime waved a hand towards the knothole.
Moon shrugged, looking away. He shifted to groundling and sat down next to Chime on the edge of the balcony. “I wanted to ask you about the Arbora.”
Chime looked out across the entry hall. A group of Arbora hunters had paused near the waterfall to watch them, attention caught by Moon’s athletic entrance. Their scales glinted bronze, green, and gold in the dappled sunlight falling through the knothole. Spice, a stocky male hunter known for his loud mouth and silent feet, raised his hand in a wave. “What about them?”
“About me and the, uh – ”
“Oh,” Chime said, “about sleeping with female Arbora to increase mentor births.”
Moon looked grateful. “Yes.”
“What did you want to ask? I mean, you should definitely do it. Consorts and their children are more likely to father mentors.” Chime added helpfully, “My mother’s father was Pearl’s consort Rain.”
Moon gave him a startled look. Chime realized that for Moon, Rain must seem like a mythic figure, his death and Pearl’s grief inescapably intertwined with events that had changed Moon’s life completely.
Chime frowned, suddenly worried. “You don’t mind, do you? You won’t be hurting Jade – the Arbora aren’t a threat to her –”
“Does it matter who I pick?” Moon asked.
“No, and no one will expect you to have a special obligation to whomever you choose. It’s not like being taken by Jade.” Chime hesitated. “Though – well – it is an honor to bear a high-ranking consort’s clutch – which you were, you know, even before we met your mother and nearly pissed ourselves in terror – so that will matter to, uh, the mother.”
Moon had that look on his face that meant he was trying to intuit the subtle hierarchies of a Raksuran court and finding it a slippery slope with few handholds. Chime was going to change the subject out of pity when Moon looked him right in the eye and said out of nowhere: “Who did you pick?”
Chime opened his mouth, but nothing came out. It had been the same at Flower’s funeral, like there was a wall between his brain and his mouth, and nothing could flow past it. Who had he picked? Her name had been Prize, a dark-eyed hunter with a gift for reading tracks at a glance, who had hated libraries but loved the way they smelled, and who had already given birth to a mentor in a previous clutch. She had died of lung rot before Chime had ever made the offer.
“I’ve never had a clutch,” Chime said finally.
“Oh,” Moon said, watching Chime’s face like he knew there was more to it. He glanced away, shoulders climbing towards his ears. “Who would you pick?”
Chime stared at him, realizing belatedly that Moon wasn’t asking just to torture Chime. “You want me to tell you who to clutch with?”
Moon shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t want to insult anyone or cause a coup.”
“That isn’t going to – I don’t think I’m the best person to ask.”
Chime picked at the roots of a epiphyte fern clinging to the edge of the balcony. “Well, I just—if I were still a mentor, I would have said: me.”
Moon squinted at him. “Were you a...female mentor?”
"No, I mean – ” Chime sighed, aggrieved. “Raksuran clutches can have multiple fathers, and it matters when the babies are conceived, so an Arbora woman who plans to clutch will sometimes take more than one fertile partner to bed, especially if one of them is Aeriat."
Moon looked at him. Eventually he said, "If you were a female mentor, I would give you a clutch, Chime."
“Shut up,” Chime said. Moon leaned back on his hands and grinned, broad and white against his bronze cheeks.
“Look,” Chime said after a moment, “I’d need both hands to count the number of Arbora who’ve asked me about you since the queens decided the colony was secure enough to clutch. Just walk into the teacher’s hall and look available, and it will take care of itself.”
“Thanks,” Moon said dryly.
“Don’t say yes to anyone who’s ever said anything nice about River or tried to throw you out of the colony.”
“And don’t tell me about it,” Chime added.
Moon shot him a look. Chime tried not to think about how he’d gone from someone whose bloodline was expected to enrich the colony to someone the Arbora evidently viewed as Moon’s bedroom gatekeeper. Worse was to think of the might have beens – that in some alternate history, with an Arbora willing to clutch with both of them, there might have been mentor siblings that were his and Moon’s.
Abruptly, Chime pushed off the edge of the balcony and shifted in mid-fall, flapping awkwardly towards the passage to the central well. Moon let him go; he wasn’t the sort of person to intrude.
Moon didn’t tell Chime which Arbora he’d chosen, but no one else in the colony was under the same restriction. Apparently Moon had taken Chime’s advice to heart, arranged himself artistically in the common rooms on the Arbora levels, and said yes to whomever asked.
What Chime hadn’t anticipated, and what was currently fueling a lot of delighted gossip through the colony, was that the Arbora would keep asking or that Moon would keep saying yes. Chime could no longer look Bead in the face, and even Heart had been beaming a little too brightly when Chime had tried to hide in the libraries.
In fact, Moon spent so much time saying yes to willing Arbora that in the middle of a dinner in the teacher’s hall, Jade walked in, picked Moon up where he was sitting between Blossom and Bead, and walked out with him to a chorus of cheers and raucous laughter.
Chime listened to the story with a jealousy that among Raksura was usually reserved for queens fighting over consorts. An infertile warrior could never have gotten away with carrying Moon off like that; clutches came first.
He woke up the next morning sandwiched between Rill and Spice. Rill had managed to sleep the entire night with both of her arms around his neck, Spice snoring at his back. Chime remembered - from a time when everyone had known him as Flower's successor and he had been welcome in a great many bowers - that Rill could sleep almost anywhere and in any position. It wasn't the same as it had been; he was aware as he never had been before of the difference in strength between the sturdy ground-based Arbora and the lighter Aeriat, who were dangerous for other reasons.
Rill opened her eyes sleepily and seemed to notice her stranglehold. "Sorry," she said, disentangling herself sheepishly.
Spice stopped snoring. He mumbled into Chime's shoulder, "Don't sleep past the monthly meet. Remember, people notice if you're not there."
"Stone notices if you're not there," Rill said. "And then he looks at you until you feel bad, which is immediately."
"Of course, he's missed more meets than all of us put together," Chime said. Something was niggling at him, but he couldn't figure out what. Meets didn't start until midmorning; they weren't late.
"He’s also been to more meets than all of us put together," Spice pointed out.
Rill shrugged, bored already. She lifted her eyebrows suggestively: "Bath?"
"Do we have time?" Chime asked.
"Sure, the queens and mentors have to get the agenda hashed out first,” Rill said. “Poor Moon is probably going to have to sit through the whole thing. I wonder - whoa!" At Moon’s name, Chime had shot up in bed, dumping Rill off his chest and bouncing Spice off the pillow. "Chime?"
"I have to go, sorry!" He tumbled out of the hanging bed, hastily grabbing clothing. Baskets of his possessions were stacked against the wall. He rooted through them, tossing jewelry onto a spare shirt: rings set with mother of pearl and jade; silver, gold, and copper bands etched with stylized images and precious inlay; beaded strings meant to be woven through hair. As he bundled these up, he remembered that Moon's borrowed clothes were starting to show the combined wear of his journeys.
He looked at his basket of clothing; there was nothing black. There was one person in the colony who would have a reliable supply of dark clothing and no reason not to share it. Chime groaned.
"Chime?" Rill leaned over the side of the bower curiously.
"I have to go make of mess of protocol for the entire court,” Chime said in a rush, bundling up the jewelry, “and earn the enduring disappointment of Jade, Balm, and Stone and probably be eaten by Pearl."
"Right," Rill said warily.
It was half by luck that Chime found Stone's bower. Stone hadn't shown any inclination to use the consorts' bowers above the queens' level for anything but melancholy reflection, usually manifested by long periods of staring expressionlessly out the bower's knothole door without moving. Where he slept seemed to change nightly, but Chime remembered that most of their baggage had been unloaded first in the teachers' levels.
After a few minutes searching, he found a private bower with a large hanging bed and several storage baskets he recognized as Stone's. Stone wasn't there, but a handful of the youngest Raksura out of the nurseries were. They stirred as he started lifting the lids off of baskets.
A young Arbora named Shimmer pushed up onto his arms and asked, "Is it time to wake up?"
"No," Chime said, setting aside baskets of jewelry, toiletries, tools.
"We don't have our own bowers yet," Shimmer said.
Chime shot him a baffled look. "I'm not going to find you some. I'm busy."
"I know, that's not....uh...ok," Shimmer trailed off. After a moment, he added: "We're going back to sleep."
"Okay," Chime said pointedly. As Shimmer settled awkwardly back into the pile of Raksura, Chime realized that these kids were in here because they were scared. Scared of the new colony with its cavernous empty spaces and the lingering rubble of the people who had once lived here. Stone, in his unreadable way, was a promise to eat the heart of anything that threatened them in the night - or just to ruffle their hair and hand out arbitrary commands about proper Raksuran behavior and how not to poke each other's eyes out with that.
Chime opened another basket and was rewarded with a pile of dark cloth. He had pulled out two shirts and a pair of pants when he realized Stone was crouched behind him sorting through the jewelry Chime had brought.
"Uh," Chime said.
"Balm picked you?" Stone asked. Chime couldn't tell if he was disappointed or happy or even interested. Chime had a moment of jealously for the kids in the bed. Like every other child in Indigo Cloud, Chime had grown up knowing he was Stone's favorite because children were Stone's favorite. That had probably expired by now.
Stone started separating the jewelry into two piles. One of them was distinctly smaller than the other. After a while, he pointed at one of the baskets of jewelry Chime had set aside. Chime pushed it over. Stone selected a gold arm band and a thick ruby ring and added them to the smaller pile. He nodded at Chime's clothing choices, adding only a red sash detailed in gold from a nearby basket.
"That'll do." Stone went over to the bed and started waking the kids up by asking them questions about their plans for the day until they started answering him. Chime surreptitiously added two of his bracelets back to the approved pile and left the rest to pick up later. Apparently, there was no danger of Stone wanting them for himself. He picked up his bundles and headed up to Jade's bower.
Chime arrived grumbling, dropping onto Jade's balcony from a passage in the ceiling, wings spread to soften the landing. He checked over his bundles and had a moment of artistic irritation that the red and gold sash didn't complement his blue scales.
Worried that he would be too late to intercept Moon, he had taken a shortcut, a tunnel-like passage through folds in the trunk meant for Arbora. Even with his wings clamped tightly to his back, he'd jammed his left wing joint into a low hanging fold. He was waiting for the stinging to fade before he shifted in case the minor injury translated to something worse during the shift.
Jade lifted her head as he came in, and Chime missed a step, noticing only now that he was walking into the private bower of a sister queen and her new consort while in his Raksuran form, wings open. That sounded like something protocol-obsessed Aeriat didn't do. But Jade only gave a small nod and retracted her wings where they had been spread over the bed. In retrospect, there was no way that Balm would have come up with the idea that someone start stalking Jade's new consort without telling Jade - unless it was meant to be an exceptionally lethal prank.
Chime dumped his bundles on the bed and pulled himself up, wings awkwardly extended as he tried to find space to put them that didn't involve overbalancing and falling off the bed. Now Jade was looking at him.
"Is that...easier?" She was wearing that same expression on her face that everybody had when he tried to play warrior: like they knew he looked like an idiot and they were trying to figure out how much leeway he deserved.
"I jammed it coming over here," he muttered, unwrapping bundles. Normally he wouldn't have admitted anything else to someone who'd had wings their entire life, but Moon was there, even if he was asleep, and Chime found himself adding, "I forget they're there when I'm climbing."
To his surprise, he felt a gentle touch on his wing, Jade's fingers cool against the sore joint. He froze, his spines lifting slowly in confusion, even as he recognized that she was feeling for swelling or breaks. He had done the same for many apprehensive Aeriat over the years, whether awkward fledglings or casualties of battle, until the day he shifted and woke up Aeriat instead of Arbora.
"Ow," he said.
"You're fine," she said, still with that uncertain expression on her face, and Chime felt an unexpected rush of affection followed by an inconvenient rising want. She was beautiful, dangerous, and at home in her skin in a way he never would be again. He wished he had shifted before coming in; in Raksuran form, he could smell the sex that had happened here clearly, and he made the mistake of looking at Moon.
The hanging bed was more than ten feet across, and Moon was curled up in the middle of it, in some kind of post-breeding-marathon stupor, wrapped around a pillow like it was responsible for keeping him there. His groundling form was slender, tightly muscled in a way that most consorts his age weren't. It was no surprise that River had given up challenging him directly, even before Moon had ended up in battle against a Fell-born queen twice his size. Chime could see the pale scar of the injury that had almost killed him cutting across his shoulder, stark against his otherwise smooth, bronze skin.
Chime had helped Heart watch over Moon while they hid among the drifts of sand inside the old ruin beneath the Dwei hive, waiting for the Dwei to attack or the rest of the colony to arrive. Or for Moon to die of his injuries, Chime supposed, which would have left them all free to go. They had been a uniquely useless combination, him and Heart, one with experience but no power to use it and the other with the gift but not the skill.
Moon opened one green eye to look Chime over with groggy suspicion; apparently there was only so long he could ignore two shifted Aeriat muttering over his head.
Chime glared at him, feeling exposed. He shifted back to groundling to throw a shirt at Moon's face without accidentally tearing it. The bed swung slowly with the change in weight and Chime took a little bit of shallow joy watching Moon try twice before he managed to roll over and pull the shirt off his head.
"What is this?"
"New clothes," Jade said.
"They smell like Stone."
"Okay, not that new," Chime said. He tossed the pants at Moon and flipped open the jewelry bundle with a flick of his hand.
Jade shifted to Arbora and lay back against a pile of cushions, lips pressed together with contained amusement. Moon glanced at her, blankets puddled around his waist and holding Stone's shirt in front of his bare chest. Some private conversation seemed to pass between them. Jade dropped her eyes to the clothes in his hand and back up to his bare shoulders, making a show of settling back more comfortably into her nest of pillows, eyebrows raised expectantly. Moon's expression turned wry but couldn't hide the flush rising on his cheeks. Chime felt deeply out of place.
"Are you going to put it on or do I need to leave?" he said and had to set his jaw when Moon startled like he'd forgotten Chime was there. Moon pulled the shirt over his head, sneaking glances at Jade the whole time.
Chime grabbed the first arm that came through the sleeves, holding onto it grimly through Moon's offended jerk and started slipping bracelets over his wrist. Moon popped his head through the neck of the shirt and shot him a disgruntled look. Jade was no longer pretending not to laugh. Chime responded with a look that said: 'Do I look like I care?' and took the opportunity to drop a pendant on a long chain over Moon's neck.
"Ok, enough," Moon said, tugging down the shirt. He stood up from the blankets in one strong motion. The blankets fell away, leaving behind a mile of smooth, tan skin rising up in front of Chime's face. Chime looked away, not quite certain he should be so obvious about how much he wanted to look. Raksura were open with each other, but consorts were not like other Raksura, and queens didn’t always like to share. Jade noticed. For a moment, the long mane of spines around her head lifted to half-mast, then lowered with a flick of unconcern. He didn’t know what that meant.
Moon dropped back to a crouch, fully dressed. "What is this?" he said again.
Chime rolled his eyes. "We took a vote: we don't mind that you're not prissy enough to be a consort, but we decided that if we worked hard enough we could probably fake it for you."
Moon looked helplessly at Jade. She shrugged. Chime enjoyed the feeling of having a queen on his side for a few short seconds until Moon’s expression turned a little sad and uncertain, and Jade caved like an undercut river bank in a flood.
"I don't want anyone to doubt that you have my support,” she said. “I guess all of this show seems silly to you, but it’s expected. I’m supposed to be providing for you."
Chime added, "What she means is we want River to choke on his own tongue when you walk into a room."
Jade laughed. "Yes."
Moon looked at them both for a long moment. Then he said, "Ok, but I have a bracelet already."
Apparently this was the right thing to say because Jade reached out and pulled him suddenly against her, brushing her teeth against the skin just behind his ear, her frills flaring out happily. Moon endured this like it was a common distraction he had come to expect, staring expectantly at Chime.
"What bracelet?" Chime said.
Moon rooted around in the pillows for a moment before coming up with a wide red and gold bracelet decorated with intertwined Raksura. It was the courting gift Jade had given him.
"That's adorable," Chime said patiently, "but you know you don't have to wear that all the time."
Moon stared at him mulishly. Chime was reminded that Moon had not grown up in a crowded court, where he would have learned that yelling was a good way to express strong opinions. Moon’s version of yelling was silence followed by coiling his muscles in preparation for leaping at your throat. Behind Moon’s ear, Jade smiled like a hunter standing over a freshly killed buck.
"Fine," Chime said, irritated because the bracelets and the pendant he'd already given Moon were in greens and blues to match Moon's eyes. He'd have to swap them all out. Looking down at the collection of jewelry he'd brought, he realized that the only pieces that matched Moon's courting gift were the ones Stone had added, along with the crimson and gold sash he'd tossed on the pile. It was obvious Stone had foreseen this entire conversation.
Chime made a noise of frustration. "Alright, get over here, and I take back everything I said about you not being prissy enough."
Jade wouldn’t let them leave without running her hands through their hair until it was almost orderly. Moon got a little of his own back, slipping two bracelets onto Chime’s wrist while he was distracted. “At least pick two that match, you colorblind Aeriat,” Chime said, and then had to pick them out himself; there was a reason Raksuran artisans came from the Arbora.
He felt better, easier than he had when the last thing he’d said to Moon was “Don’t tell me about it,” before Moon went off to single-handedly raised the morale of all the female Arbora in the colony.
They were in the hallway when Vine and River found them, dropping down the wall in a series of controlled falls and glides. They were both so agitated that River shifted to groundling, changed his mind, and shifted back to Raksura before addressing Jade.
“Pearl sends for Chime to come to the mentor’s surgery,” River said.
Chime’s heart stuttered. “Who’s hurt?”
“What’s going on?” Jade said, mane flaring out defensively.
“A trading party arrived from Emerald Twilight,” Vine said. “They’d been attacked.” He looked at Chime. “Heart requested your help.”
Chime knew he looked relieved. “Yes, of course.” He shifted, still surprised by the sudden top-heavy weight of wings spreading out from his back, and stepped past Jade towards the central well.
They followed, Jade asking, “By what? Were we expecting them?”
“Yes, but not today. We don’t know what happened.”
Chime jumped down the well, wings spread to glide to the Arbora levels. The rooms they’d chosen for the mentor’s surgery were more functional than grandiose, the biggest reserved for an apothecary’s shop full of well stocked cabinets. An air shaft provided a handy spot for drying herbs while an offshoot of the tree’s spring kept the temperature cool.
Heart was in the first room bent over a padded table, examining a white-lipped warrior in Raksuran form staring determinedly at the ceiling while she prodded the deep slashes running down his leg. Merit came running in from the next room clutching a needle and thread.
Stone stood along the wall in groundling form next to an Indigo Cloud soldier named Vision. The soldiers must have brought the wounded party here. There were two other members of the trading party, both in groundling form in deference to Stone – a female warrior pressing bandages to her companion’s wounds and a young male pacing worriedly at the edges of the room. Chime could tell they were from Emerald Twilight from the Arbora detailing on their packs; it had the same precise, symmetric style he’d seen at close range on Halcyon and her warriors.
The young male stopped pacing and bristled when Chime came into the room, quivering with nervousness when Chime was followed immediately by Jade, Moon, Vine, and River, all winged. Chime ignored him and shifted to groundling to join Heart, crowding the female warrior away from the wounds. They were deep and messy; he pressed his lips together unhappily.
“Who are you?” the warrior asked suspiciously.
“A mentor,” Chime said, annoyed.
Jade interrupted. “Tell us what happened.”
“But he – ” the warrior protested, rubbing at a stain on her cheek that Chime realized with a sick feeling was probably Raksuran blood.
“I used to be a mentor,” he told her finally, knowing that bitterness didn’t make him sound less irritable. “I still know how to stitch.”
She gave him a horrified look. That was fine; it wasn’t like Emerald Twilight didn’t already know just how bedraggled Indigo Cloud looked compared to the huge and bustling courts of the Reaches. He began pulling out the ingredients of a simple for knitting flesh. Heart or Merit would have to mix it themselves to imbue it with a mentor’s power.
“Tell us what happened,” Jade said again firmly.
“A spotted groundcat, a big one,” the female warrior said. “It must have been old; it had a lot of legs.”
Jade’s spines dipped minutely in relief; groundcats weren’t intelligent, and they traveled alone. “You were on the ground?”
“A platform. Sometimes they get stuck too high in the forest. That’s when they get desperate.”
“Northeast, less than an hour’s flight.”
Jade looked at Vision, the soldier standing next to Stone. “That’s within our hunters’ territory,” Vision said. Chime hadn’t missed the way she’d smiled when Moon came in the room – friendly, familiar. “We need to hunt it down, soon, while we know where it is.”
“Will you show us?” Jade asked the Emerald Twilight warriors.
“I will,” the young male said.
Jade turned to Vine. “Find all the warriors that can be ready to leave the colony quickly. This is going to be a search party as much as a hunt.”
“I’m going,” Moon said, which shouldn’t have been surprising.
“No,” Chime and River said together and froze, looking at each other in revulsion. Chime glared at River but spoke to Moon, “You’re a consort; you can’t just follow strange warriors into dark forests because they say they have something neat to show you.”
“Especially if you’ve done that same thing before with warriors from this same court,” River added acidly.
“We’re not here to steal your consort,” the female warrior snapped. “Brindle nearly lost his leg!”
River rolled his eyes. “If he’s dumb enough to go with you, you can have him.”
Jade opened her wings until they stretched from one wall of the room to the other, mane blossoming out behind her head like a dangerous and predatory flower. Moon was hidden almost entirely behind her.
River’s spines went flat and an instant later he shifted to groundling. They stared each other down for several beats, Jade’s eyes narrow and River’s wide, until River said with impressive dignity, “I meant he should be more careful.”
“And who will stand between them and my consort should they make the attempt?” Jade asked, eerily calm.
“Which we won’t,” the female warrior muttered under her breath.
River bared his teeth, but eventually he forced out, “I will.”
“You can tell my mother I thank you for your dedication to her court.” She snapped her wings shut, revealing Moon glaring cold death at River as if Jade’s wing hadn’t just been between them.
The young male who’d volunteered to guide them swallowed noticeably. Jade barely noticed, turning to Moon, her expression becoming apologetic. Before she could say anything, Stone stepped away from the wall. He smacked Moon on the arm as he walked out, saying as though bored, “You’ll stick with me,” before he disappeared down the hall toward the colony entrance.
Moon spared one look at Jade, who had clearly been about to side with River and Chime, and darted down the hall after Stone. Jade grimaced ruefully and with a tip of her head, called the others to her, following after.
River hung back, staring at Chime.
“What?” Chime snapped.
“You’re a warrior. You should be going.”
“I’m a mentor. I should be staying.” Chime handed the simple ingredients to Heart who took them over to a work table with a mortar and pestle. Merit ducked under Chime’s arm and began to stitch up the smaller slashes as the female warrior held the injured warrior – Brindle – down. Brindle hissed, gripping the edge of the table as Merit worked. Chime bent over Merit’s shoulder, double-checking that the slashes had been thoroughly cleaned of debris.
A shadow fell over him, but he just picked up a light-spelled rock and held it over the warrior’s leg. It took him several moments to realize that River was standing over him, spines up and wings half extended, a physical threat. This had been one of the hardest things for Chime to get used to about being Aeriat. Arbora didn’t usually fight for dominance; they painted and wove and built and wrote and augured and crafted and blacksmithed for dominance.
Chime stared at River. Then he handed the light rock to the female warrior and deliberately walked past River to help Heart with the simple. “Does it look right?” Heart asked, looking uncomfortably between Chime and River but seeming reluctant to get involved in warrior business.
“Yes, it’s fine—”
River reached out and grabbed Chime’s arm, twisting it up and away from the table, claws and scales digging into his groundling skin. Chime’s heart leapt into his throat, but he refused to shift. If he had to fight River, he’d lose. He looked determinedly at Heart and spoke with a tone of derision: “Use a little now, but let the rest steep.”
“Ok,” Heart said, startled and shooting River an unhappy look, indicating clearly that he was fast approaching the limits of her willingness to look the other way on warrior nonsense.
With a hiss, River dropped Chime’s arm and bounded out the door after Jade and the hunting party. Chime let out a breath, eyes closed in relief. He rubbed at the depressions River had left in his skin.
“I’m sorry,” Heart said. “I didn’t know if I was supposed to say something or if that was the sort of ‘caste business’ I’m supposed to ignore.”
Chime looked at her helplessly, letting out a snort that sounded a little hysterical. He said with perfect honesty, “I don’t know. I don’t understand anything warriors do.”
“I think you did pretty well,” Merit offered.
“Thank you,” Chime said awkwardly. He wished he felt like he’d won and not like he’d have to be careful of dark corners and lonely hallways for the next few days.
“You did alright.” It was the female Emerald Twilight warrior. They stared at her. She added, like it pained her to have to spell it out: “You didn’t have to fight him to prove he had no power over you, but if he comes back to push it, that’s not going to work.”
Chime sighed. “I know.”
River had been awful to Chime and Moon both for a long time because he had been terrified that the new arrivals would threaten his fragile status quo. But now River had lost his cherished place as Pearl’s subsitute consort even without Moon or Chime’s intervention; he must feel helpless and frustrated and forgotten every time someone like Jade reminded him of his true place in the court.
The worst part, Chime realized, was that he and River were the same in a sad, miserable way. River had mistaken himself for a consort; Chime continued to mistake himself for a mentor. And they were both stupidly in love with royal Aeriat who had a tendency to throw them over when there were clutches in the offing.
After Heart put the warrior Brindle into a healing sleep, the female warrior, whose name was Dare, immediately curled up underneath the table and went to sleep. Merit and Heart retreated back into the apothecary workshop to straighten up and fiddle with the arrangements of herbs.
There wasn’t much to do but wait for the simple to finish steeping, so Chime gave in to curiosity and pulled over the trade packages the warriors had brought for Indigo Cloud. It was an artisanal shipment for the Arbora, raw materials for jewelry and other crafts: packets of mineral pigment, rocks overgrown with crystals, copper ingots and settings.
Chime put aside the uncut gems and precious metals, looking over the pigments in interest. Color was only dimly visible through the wax paper packets, but he spotted rusty ochers, glauconite greens, blues of cobalt and indigo, and – he noted with cautious delight – a red too brilliant to be anything other than cinnabar: rare, toxic, and likely to turn black if handled improperly. He itched to whisk the gifts away to the teachers’ workshop where they could be safely stored and where, even if Chime was still reluctant to use them himself, he could at least watch someone else turn bare media into colorful art.
“We were told you had madder and silver ore.” Dare watched him, head pillowed on one arm.
Chime nodded absently. “Madder isn’t in season, so we have stored pigment from last season. But you don’t need it, if you have cinnabar.”
“Not that much of it I hear,” she said dryly, clearly remembering the remonstrations of a frustrated Arbora artisan. Chime had been on that side of the conversation himself with the warriors in charge of trade many times. “That’s to pay for the silver.”
Chime looked at it adoringly. “It will.”
Dare looked at the door to the central well, framed by large, gleaming shells glowing with warm light. She sighed and offered reluctantly, “If he comes back, stand next to Brindle. That will make it my business, and he’ll know that.”
Chime stared at her.
“You said you don’t know warriors, so I’ll tell you – that queen wanted you here. He’s clearly not her faction, but that didn’t give him the authority.” Dare shifted onto her back, staring at the underside of the table. “Were you really a mentor? An Arbora?”
She looked green. “That can happen?”
Chime didn’t feel like explaining to her exactly how close Indigo Cloud had come to total destruction; circumstances so desperate that some instinct Chime hadn’t known he possessed had decided it was better to be able to fly than to breed.
“Yes,” he said, and walked out of the room in the opposite direction River had gone.
He walked through the halls for a while, running a hand over the smooth bumps and ripples in the natural wood, broken up by carvings and precious inlay. In places where the shell lights were close enough together, the stored sunlight had given rise to plants and the associated ecosystems.
He found himself near the nurseries, always situated in close proximity to the mentor’s workshop. In the old colony, he’d come here daily. In the new colony, the last time he’d been to the nurseries had been a few days ago looking for Moon.
“Oh – hi,” someone said. Chime looked up and saw Ember standing in the doorway in groundling form. He was holding a tiny, bronze-scaled baby in the crook of his elbow. Ember looked young enough to be barely fledged himself, but up close Chime could see that part of that was his slight build and shy nature.
He gave Chime a wary look, probably the only person in the colony who would ever look that way at Chime. During the weeks Ember had spent in the colony with only Pearl and her warriors for Aeriat company, River had convinced Ember that Moon would probably eat him given the right motivation. Ember knew Chime was Moon’s favorite and all that implied – even if Moon didn’t. Since Jade and her warriors had returned with Moon, Ember had managed to both shy away from Moon and follow him around with obvious fascination. Chime should have known this would happen; to a sheltered, well-bred consort, Moon was disorientingly queen-like.
“Hi,” Chime said.
“Is the trading party alright?” Ember asked.
Chime realized belatedly that Ember was also of Emerald Twilight. “Yes, did you want to see them – it was Dare, Brindle, and – I don’t know the other one.”
Ember’s expression fell. “I don’t know them. I can – I can talk to them when they’re feeling better. Did you come to look at the clutch?” Ember lifted his elbow with the sleeping baby; she was the baby Arbora from Rustle and Whip’s clutch that had gnawed on Chime’s finger.
“Yes,” Chime said and found that it was true.
As they walked through the passage, Chime couldn’t hear the usual hectic buzz of working teachers and playing children. Then they came around the corner, and Chime saw the spade-shaped end of a golden tail waving absently across the smooth wood floor. He stumbled to a halt. Ember looked back curiously.
Pearl must have come down to the Arbora levels in anticipation of the monthly meet and changed her plans when they were interrupted by the trading party. With Ember watching him, there was no way to turn back without offering insult to Pearl. And anyway, it was unlikely she would have any interest in Chime at all, overshadowed as he was by the bright and shiny creature that was Ember. He forced himself to move forward.
The chamber was mostly empty, the teachers having taken the other children to play elsewhere during the queen’s visit. Pearl and Rustle sat at the edge of the bower where Rustle’s clutch slept. Pearl’s scales reflected brilliantly gold in the shell lights, and even in Arbora form, she was the biggest thing in the room. Blossom sat with them, updating Pearl on the health of the clutches as the head of the teacher’s caste. Floret shifted restlessly at Pearl’s back, clearly aware of the large hunting party that had left her behind on guard duty.
Ember folded his knees and tucked himself into Pearl’s side, one hand stroking over the soft scales of the baby Arbora in his arms. Pearl draped her tail over his bent knees. Chime very nearly laughed to see Frost, the fledgling queen, sitting in Blossom’s lap, staring at Pearl with a constipated mixture of fury and awe. Chime wondered what kind of show she’d had to put on not to be taken away with the other fledglings.
Pearl turned away from the clutch as Chime walked up. Against all common sense, her eyes narrowed in interest. Floret, Blossom, and Ember – so much more sensitive to the subtle politics of the Raksura than Indigo Cloud’s other breeding-age consort – noticed Pearl’s change in mood and looked at Chime curiously.
“Heart requested your help with the injured Emerald Twilight warriors,” Pearl said. “Are they well?”
Chime nodded. “One of them was attacked by a predator near our colony but will recover. Jade took the warriors to hunt it down.”
Pearl lifted one eyebrow, delicately ridged with blue and gold. “The warriors?”
“And Stone and Moon,” Chime admitted, internally cursing River. Frost let out a frustrated hiss, wriggling against Blossom’s arms. Blossom resettled the little queen with practiced ease.
Pearl rippled her spines, amused but dismissive. “She should enjoy that while she can. She won’t always be able to abandon the colony on an impulse.”
Chime didn’t have Flower’s knack for responding dryly to the criticisms Pearl lobbed like it was her duty, but he was still more used to talking to queens as a mentor than as a warrior. He finally came up with, “We’re lucky to have a reigning queen to protect the colony while she does.”
Floret gave him an incredulous look over Pearl’s head, lips pressed together like she was keeping in hysterical laughter. Pearl eyed him but evidently decided to be amused. He had taken his first sidling step backwards to escape, when Pearl asked, “You are adjusting well?”
She sounded frighteningly like one of the teachers who had raised him, checking in on his studies. He remembered suddenly that she had visited the nursery while he was little to see Jade and her clutchmates. He wondered if she’d held him, asked him questions like these.
“Um, to the colony? Yes,” Chime said.
Pearl took the baby Arbora from Ember, placing the baby back in the basket and uncurling her tail from Ember’s lap. She flicked her spines at her audience. “Leave us.”
The back of Chime’s neck prickled where his own spines would have been anxiously rising. He looked at Blossom, but she gave him a look of blank confusion, gathering up a frowning Frost. Chime sat, crossing his legs and holding his ankles to keep his hands still. Footsteps faded away as Blossom, Floret, and Ember left the nursery. Pearl watched him silently, spines lifting halfway but without any defensive stiffness, like she was thinking over a problem.
A furious rustling caused Chime to turn around in time to see Blossom dragging Frost away from the playroom door over loud protests that Chime was part of her faction being that he belonged to Moon. Chime whipped back around, embarrassed that he’d given away his nervousness by jumping so quickly at any sound.
Pearl was watching the sleeping clutch. “Rustle tells me you have not been to visit this clutch you helped deliver.”
“I – don’t come to the nurseries as much. I’m not a mentor anymore.”
Pearl gave him a knowing look. “There is a lot here that you might have had.”
Chime looked at her in despair. Had she really sent everyone else away so she could pick at old scabs? Pearl returned his gaze, not as casual as she sounded. He felt her empathic link to the colony at the edge of his awareness, a sense of belonging so strong it laid a person bare, dismantled their heart’s defenses.
She tilted her head, watching him coolly, and added, “Did you notice that in the end, we didn’t need more warriors to move the colony? Just groundlings and,” her lips twitched, “Blossom.”
He forced out through a suddenly sticky throat: “Yes.”
Pearl flicked her tail, apparently bored with this line of questioning. “Jade told me you agreed to help our first consort grow into his rank.”
Chime hestitated, but Jade had already told Pearl. “I helped him dress for today’s meet.”
Pearl snorted. “An effort which is now chasing groundcats throught the forest...? Never mind. I had thought you would settle better as a warrior if you had a warrior’s task, but it seems you’re not entirely a warrior either – Jade and I spoke of your new gifts.”
“I can’t control them,” Chime said quickly. “And they only really work on huge, appalling things.”
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t of value. You understand that as a favorite to the consort of a sister queen, you have become part of the face we show to the Reaches?”
“Yes,” Chime said miserably. He felt the pressure of the colony bearing down on him through Pearl, hundreds of minds who loved one home, who belonged to one court. The urge to subvert himself to that unity was overwhelming. “I’m sorry . I can try to be more like the warriors – I only stayed behind because Heart—”
“We are glad you’ve given Heart the benefit of your knowledge.”
“I – thank you,” Chime said, surprised. “She’s a talented student.” He rubbed his thumb over the knob of his ankle, nervous and grounding.
Pearl frowned thoughtfully. “You like the new colony?”
Chime couldn’t lie to her like this – literally, lying to the colony while connected to the colony was so dissonant a sensation as to cause motion sickness – but he couldn’t, wouldn’t tell her his most closely kept fears when she’d taken him apart like she thought it was nothing – nothing to him, nothing to her. “It’s beautiful,” he said hoarsely.
Pearl looked away, studying the nursery like she was cataloging it for the first time: the babbling brook moving through its mosaic channel, the tumbling babies and fledglings carved above every lintel, and beneath it all, the rich, warm color of the living wood. Chime let out a breath as she broke eye contact, released. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into a forgotten corner and burrow into the awfulness of what he’d lost and cry and cry until he woke up tired and hollowed out, enough of the poison drained for him to face another day.
Pearl turned and recaptured his gaze with the full force of her connection to the colony behind her. It dragged every emotion he had been trying to shove to the back of his mind back out into the sunlight. Like scrabbling for footing on a debris slope that kept shifting underneath him. He sucked in a breath.
Pearl said: “I don’t think you realize what it meant to the court when you changed, so pay attention: You were the first symptom I could not ignore. This mountain tree belongs to you because your sacrifice was one of those that brought us here.”
Chime stared at her. A sacrifice? He had never thought of himself as part of the events that had moved the court out of the old, doomed colony. After all, once he’d transformed, he could no longer augur the future for the benefit of the court. It was so contrary to what he’d understood for so long that he didn’t want to believe her, but her connection to the colony had opened him up and planted her message where it could not be removed, deep inside next to all the truest things he had learned in childhood. Like she had held him as a fledgling and told him this would one day be true.
Pearl looked away, the connection broken. She stood to leave. Immediately, Ember appeared from the doorway, following after. Floret was close behind, eyeing Chime like she was waiting for him to do something crazy. There was no way they hadn’t heard the whole thing. Chime pulled his knees up to his chest and put his head down for a while, just breathing slow, calming breaths.
Moon found him later, tromping into the nurseries with his scales covered in mud and blue groundcat blood. Chime had retreated back into a less traveled corner where the teachers could avoid tripping on him and the children could better ignore him. At some point, Bitter had edged up along the wall and fallen asleep against his side. Frost and Thorn were engaged in a mixture of play fighting and intermittent napping a little distance away.
“What happened?” Moon asked. “Blossom told me I should come down here.”
Chime shook his head. He didn’t want to talk about it to anyone. Moon could find out easily – Pearl had made sure to say her piece in front of Arbora and Aeriat. It was the same as if she’d called Chime a war hero in front of the entire colony. He didn’t know what that meant or what it would change – except make him shocky and overwhelmed and hiding in the nurseries.
Moon stared down at him in mute frustration. There was a trail of mud clumps and occasional blue smears leading from his clawed feet towards the central well. He couldn’t shift without ruining the clothes Chime had borrowed from Stone. Moon opened his mouth, but stopped – Thorn had latched his claws onto the ridged scales along the back of Moon’s calves. He was only as tall as Moon’s thigh, and in his shifted form, he looked like a glossy black miniature Moon.
When Moon looked down, Thorn shifted, revealing a thin, broad book in his hands, the cover painted in delicate swirls of bright color, a stylized pattern of trees and ivy around images of fledglings and Arbora in many colors. It was a reading primer, each page lovingly illustrated. Chime hadn’t seen it in years – not since he’d finished painting it and presented it to the teachers a decade ago.
Thorn held it up hopefully. “I can’t, not right now,” Moon said. He waved a claw at this body. “I’d get it dirty, and it’s too nice to ruin.”
“Where did you get that?” Chime asked hoarsely. He cleared his throat, coughing.
“Stone gave it to me – to Thorn.”
“Because you’re helping Thorn?” Chime prompted him. Moon gave him a stubborn look, like he’d rather Chime would go back to pretending he didn’t know Moon couldn’t read Raksuran or that Moon worried about it. Chime rubbed blearily at his eyes. “Do you like it?” he said finally, flushing.
Moon hesitated. Chime knew he worried deeply when it came to gifts and obligations, and Moon was shy but sincere when he admitted, “It’s beautiful. I didn’t realize – I know you put art everywhere, and you people have more jewelry than anyone I’ve ever seen, but I didn’t think children would have something like this.”
Chime looked between the book and Moon’s awed, quiet expression. Some feeling was trying to claw its way up his throat, and he couldn’t handle any more emotion in his life at this moment. He said, “I can’t really deal with this right now.”
Moon eyed him. “Maybe if you tell me what happened.”
Chime thought about it: “No.” Moon’s eyes narrowed. Chime glared back at him. “What?”
“I just feel like this is the part where someone tells me this is what it’s like talking to me all the time.”
“No,” Chime said honestly, “you’re worse.”
Thorn tugged at Moon’s leg. Moon crouched down next to him, ruffling the spines at the top of his head. “I can’t right now. I’ll come back later after I’m clean and we can work on reading, ok?”
“Ok,” Thorn said reluctantly.
Moon grabbed Chime’s wrist, dragging him up and out of the nurseries. They reached the central well, the giant inner hollow of the tree opening up above their heads until the walls faded into a haze of floating dust and mist coalescing in the cool, damp air. Moon dropped Chime’s hand, waiting for him to shift, but Chime stepped forward and put his arms around Moon’s neck, burying his face against the warm, soft scales under Moon’s chin.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to keep doing this,” Moon said, exasperated.
Chime shook his head. All the tightness Pearl had wound up inside him was finally coming undone, the knot in his throat loosening. A tremor moved down his body, and he tightened his arms around Moons neck.
“Chime, are you going to tell me–” Moon stopped abruptly. He’d pulled one of Chime’s arms away from his neck and was holding it just above the marks River’s grip had left in the nursery. Moon’s voice turned homicidal. “Where did you get this bruise?”
Chime shook his head, laughing into Moon’s neck. River was the last thing that mattered.
He was trying, and failing badly a lot of the time, but it was okay; he would get better. And it felt like what Pearl had been telling him, more than anything else, was that nobody, least of all her, mistook him for a warrior. He was a mentor, one who had sacrificed himself for the court and who was making do like any casualty of war, permanently changed.
Moon finally put his arms around Chime and leapt up into the well.
Chime nearly fell asleep lulled by the movement of flight and by promise of control in Moon’s arms circling his rib cage. What Pearl had done, holding Chime in the thrall of the court, was as close as Raksura came to being intoxicated, and his brain recovered slowly, skittering from thought to thought.
Moon set Chime on his feet inside the bathing room, hands hovering over Chime’s hips like someone who had just put down a particularly unsteady vase and was waiting to see if it would topple. There was a pipe jutting from the wall just below the ceiling that could be unblocked to release a small waterfall. Moon stood under it in his winged form, muddy water draining through a grated hole in the floor. Chime found a wash cloth and hung back out of most of the spray, wiping absently at any wing or outstretched arm that came within reach until Moon’s black scales gleamed an inky, bottomless black under the water.
Moon shoved the stopper back into the pipe with a sharp twist. It closed with one last wild, pressurized squirt that splattered across Chime’s tunic, already streaked where it had been pressed against Moon’s mud-caked torso.
Moon saw Chime’s wet and muddy clothes, and the spines along his head and back lifted, expanding out like they were on the surface of a balloon before they fell back towards each other and down. He might have been bemused or angry or resigned. Moon’s Raksuran was fluent and natural; it was the rest of his body that spoke with an accent.
“I don’t have a lot of clothes,” Moon said.
Chime pulled a towel from the stack and began rubbing methodically at Moon’s arms. “It’s okay. I don’t really care what I’m wearing right now.”
Moon frowned at him. “I don’t know what that means.”
Chime gave him a bug-eyed look. “What kind of secret Raksuran meaning could that possibly have?”
Moon threw up his hands. “I don’t know! I didn’t think there was any hidden meaning to ‘Go sleep with the Arbora so they have mentor babies’ either, but you’re mad and stopped speaking to me and then Jade kidnapped me.”
“I didn’t – Jade isn’t – you didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody’s mad at you. We’re mad at the Arbora.” Chime didn’t know how to explain it until he did: “They were being greedy.”
Moon gave him a flat skeptical look. Chime threw the towel over Moon’s head and started gently drying his mane of spines and frills.
Mostly dry, Moon shifted to groundling, his hair a little damp. He still wore the fine black clothes, the embroidered red sash, and bands of gold on his arms and at his throat that Chime had brought him that morning. His skin was a warm, healthy bronze against the dark cloth, his eyes a clear green. Seeing the finished combination all at once was arresting; Moon looked like the first consort of a Raksuran court. Chime swallowed, stunned.
Then Moon grimaced and started pulling at Chime’s spoiled clothes. Chime let himself be undressed. He stepped forward to bite lightly at Moon’s neck, but he still felt so worn that when Moon dipped his head, Chime just put his cheek against Moon’s collarbone to rest there. He didn’t want anything more than feel Moon’s warmth against his body, an echo of the belonging he’d felt from the colony, only more focused and just for him.
Moon found a long robe of dark blue and silver and wrapped him in it and dumped him on the hanging bed. Chime dozed face down in blankets that smelled like Moon listening to Moon change out of his good clothes and open storage baskets to put the jewelry carefully away.
There was a soft footstep at the door, and then Weave’s voice at the entrance of the bower, speaking shyly, “Moon, Bead and I have been working, and -- we brought you some new clothes.”
Chime lifted his head over the rim of the bed. Weave stood at the edge of the doorway, barely peeking in. Her tunic gleamed in the light, something silkier than the usual teacher’s work wear. Her dark auburn hair had been carefully brushed. Moon came to take the clothes from her, and she leaned towards him.
Chime huffed. He rolled out of bed, already in winged form as he hit the ground. Weave startled when he suddenly appeared looming over Moon’s shoulder, wings half open. “He’s busy.”
Weave looked between them. Moon had turned to lean his back against the edge of the doorway, watching Chime with a bemused expression. Weave said, “Oh.”
“For the foreseeable future,” Chime added.
“Thanks for the clothes,” Moon said.
“You’re welcome,” Weave mumbled, retreating down the hallway with a self-conscious look over her shoulder at Chime.
“Hm,” someone said, amused.
Chime realized that the blue-tinted shadow on the other side of the shell light was Jade, and she had just watched him throw a fertile partner out of Moon’s bower. His stomach gave an unhappy wobble in embarrassment. He shifted reflexively to groundling, stepping back into the bower. Moon frowned and caught Chime’s elbow, pulling Chime up against his side.
“Are you alright?” Jade asked.
Chime looked at her in surprise. “I – what?”
Jade frowned. “Blossom said Pearl –”
“He won’t tell me what she did,” Moon said, frustrated. “I found him in the nurseries. He was nearly catatonic.”
Jade’s eyes were intent on Chime’s face. She didn’t react to Moon’s comment, and Chime suspected she knew what he and Pearl had talked about. Pearl had mentioned that she and Jade had spoken. Chime looked back at her, wondering what it would be like one day to feel the colony through her eyes, without the filter of Pearl’s criticism.
“She was telling the truth,” Jade said.
Chime swallowed. “I know.”
Jade watched him a moment more, apparently not quite satisfied Pearl hadn’t left lasting damage. She reached out and brushed his fluffy hair away from his forehead affectionately. Her scales had a pleasant texture against his skin. Chime relaxed slowly, sinking into Moon’s side.
Jade looked up at Moon. “So, I hear you’re unavailable? Forever?”
“He said they were being greedy,” Moon said. Chime hissed at him.
Jade looked thoughtfully at the door. “It’s true. There’s a subtle line between what the Arbora are allowed to expect from you and what is – getting a little rude. They took advantage.”
Chime nodded emphatically. Moon looked at the both of them with a frustrated grimace. “How am I supposed to know where that is?”
Jade cocked her head at Chime, smiling. “You don’t need to if you have a gatekeeper – that’s very traditional. My mother would be delighted.”
Chime flushed. Jade stepped forward with that same predatory confidence he had envied in her earlier. She shared a look with Moon, and an incredulous wave of heat shot up Chime’s spine. Was she really – Moon’s head dipped in agreement, and then Jade was leaning down until her lips touched the shell of Chime’s ear.
“Gatekeeper,” Jade murmured, “can I come in?”
Moon’s hand tightened around his elbow, holding him up. Chime managed to squeak out an answer: “Yes.”
With a smile, Jade put a hand on his chest and pushed him back towards the bed. Moon went with them.