"So, Moon," Delin's voice broke through the sounds of chatter and splashing drifting across the mountain-tree platform. "Would you tell me about your mother?"
Moon twitched upright, feeling his shoulders tense as if the wings he didn't actually have right now wanted to flare out for balance.
He was in his groundling form at the moment, sunning himself on a patch of soft moss near the bank of the waterfall-fed pond at the center of this platform. It was a warm day, and not long ago he'd been swimming with some of the other Aeriat--warriors from Indigo Cloud and their allied court Opal Night--but after a while he hadn't been able to shake the suspicion that some of the Opal Night warriors weren't entirely comfortable just messing around in the water with the First Consort of Indigo Cloud. He wasn't sure if this was because he was the First Consort or because he still couldn't even fake acting like a normal one, but either way he hadn't felt like picking at it. Maybe that meant he was actually learning something after all this time? Anyway, instead he'd climbed out of the water, shifted out of his Aeriat form and reclaimed his clothes, and flopped down near where Delin was seated on an upside-down basket and working on another one of his sketches.
Now he propped himself on an elbow and gave the old Golden Islander a look that he hoped wasn't too obviously Please tell me you didn't just ask what I think you're asking. "Huh?"
"Malachite," Delin said, setting his sketchbook down and gesturing a little with his drawing tool. "Your mother. From all Niran and Diar have told me of their journey together, she is quite remarkable even for a Raksuran queen, but as her offspring I wondered whether you might have some special insight."
Moon sighed. He owed Delin a lot--all the Raksura in the Reaches did, really--and besides, he was a friend. And also too curious for his own good, but if not for that curiosity Moon might be dead a couple of times over by now, so all things considered it didn't really seem fair to rebuff him.
Still, Moon couldn't keep from shrugging. "I don't actually know Malachite that well." That might be arguable, but it felt true. "You've already heard most of the stories. You've seen how the others act around her."
"And the way she behaves around you, to some extent," Delin agreed, absently combing his fingers through his long white beard. All the Golden Islanders had white hair, so that wasn't a sign of age like it was for some other groundling species, but it was still easy to read Delin's age in his seamed face and the weathered tone of his golden skin. Moon thought his friend's color was finally looking better, though. He hadn't liked to say anything out loud, but Delin's frail appearance when Moon and the others rescued him from the Hians' flying boat had been seriously alarming. Now he seemed almost as lively as ever, to Moon's relief. "Even to an outsider it is obvious she is deeply concerned for your welfare. And I am reminded--" Delin's golden-eyed gaze fixed on Moon a little more intently, "I never did have the opportunity to ask you whether you experienced the same connection with your mother, when you first met her, that other Raksura seem to feel with their bloodline forebears. I have wondered if this is inborn or simply a result of nurture, and you might be the only living Raksura who could answer that question."
"I--" Moon looked out across the pond full of roughhousing warriors, none of whom were paying the least attention to consort and groundling. "I don't know. She can stop me from shifting, but most queens can do that. And she's really good at it. If there's something else... I wouldn't know what it feels like."
"I suppose that is true," Delin said, giving Moon a sympathetic look. "I apologize if I have made you uncomfortable by asking."
"It's nothing." Moon shrugged again. Delin almost certainly knew Moon well enough to tell when he was lying about something like that, but, well, it was reflexive.
"From the stories the others have related, your mother's ability to exert her will over other Raksura is indeed unusually strong. And even over the Fell rulers and progenitors, Chime tells me." Delin raised a feathery white eyebrow. "Is this something your sister Celadon has inherited? Do you think it might be passed on to your children?"
Moon sighed. "I have no idea. Really." He sat up straighter and brushed a few bits of moss from his pants. "I don't think she likes to talk about it. But whatever she put herself through to learn, I'm pretty sure I don't want our clutch anywhere near it." Just the thought made him flex his fingers, feeling the shape of the claws that would spring out from their tips in his winged form.
"That I can certainly understand," Delin said, a different kind of concern crossing his weathered face. "My descendants are well grown and can make their own decisions, and yet if there is anything at all I might regret about my association with your people, it is the danger I have sometimes placed them in by my own stubbornness." He chuckled to himself. "Though their stubbornness is surely also to blame for some of it. Especially Niran's."
"Mm." Moon certainly couldn't disagree about that. Niran might not share his grandfather's scholarly interests, but in other ways it wasn't hard to tell they were related. It was funny how things like that could run in families sometimes. He suddenly found himself imagining Fern, the boldest of the tiny royal fledglings, doing... well, anything even half as crazy as some of the things he and Jade had done in his few turns with the court, and it sent a shudder down his spine.
He'd lost count of the hours he'd spent worrying about the clutch since they were conceived--how to keep them safe, raise them, teach them. But somehow it had never occurred to him until this moment that they weren't just any babies, they were Moon and Jade's babies. Stone's descendants. Malachite's grandchildren.
We're going to be in such trouble.
Moon stood up abruptly. "I'm going down to the nurseries."
Delin came along, so in spite of his impulse to hurry, Moon took the stairs rather than shifting to his winged form and simply gliding down to the bottom of the colony tree's central well. Delin didn't seem particularly alarmed by Moon's sudden departure, but then, everyone in Indigo Cloud--Delin included--was used to seeing Moon rush off to the nurseries at all hours in the handful of days since he'd returned to the colony.
Delin passed the time as they made their way at groundling-speed down the stairs and corridors carved into the living tree by asking Moon a lot of questions about what Raksura babies ate, which Moon found weirdly soothing. Before he'd come to Indigo Cloud he would have had no idea how to answer; the subject had taken on a new and fascinating relevance over the last turn or so, but everything Moon had been at such pains to figure out was just boring basic knowledge to everyone else in the court. Delin, though, made a properly appreciative audience. He was especially interested when Moon mentioned that female Arbora could feed babies with their breasts just like the Golden Islanders and many other groundlings did, even though queens could not. Some of the teachers had fed the royal clutch when they were first born. "Not for long, though," Moon added. "The babies' teeth are only soft enough for the first few days. Then it gets a little dangerous."
Delin's eyes widened and he whistled softly between his teeth. "I wonder if your distant ancestors used to nurse their young longer than that. For a female creature's body to go through so much change for just a few days' sustenance is unusual." He shook his head and smiled slightly, stroking his whiskers. "My late wife certainly would not have been pleased about it, in the days when our children were little."
"Your guess is as good as mine," Moon admitted. "The mentors might know more." As he stepped under the stylized carvings of Arbora children and Aeriat fledglings decorating the arched doorway into the nurseries he felt even more tension leave his body. Bead, one of the teachers who helped care for the royal clutch, was sitting on a cushion by the entrance working on some kind of sewing project; she gave Moon a quick hand gesture as he and Delin came through which he couldn't quite parse. Whatever it was it couldn't be that urgent, since she didn't get up.
The nurseries smelled good, as always, like tea and flower soap and Raksura babies. But also faintly like...
Moon turned the corner into the niche where the royal clutch had their nest and twitched. The nest was full of Malachite.
It wasn't that Malachite was that big, especially not in her wingless Arbora form. Not much bigger than Pearl, the reigning queen of Indigo Cloud, who was a head or so taller than Moon. But Malachite somehow took up more space than she actually filled. Her black-green scales swallowed more than their share of light from the baskets of glowing snail shells that lit the room, the silvery webs of her battle scars more prominent than the contrasting color pattern that marked her as a queen. Her scales and her mane of spines and frills seemed to have a hard, sharp edge even in the softer Arbora form.
And the way her presence pressed against Moon's mind and senses was all the more intimidating because Moon knew she could also make herself absolutely disappear if she chose to. He'd seen her do it--or rather, not seen her do it.
None of this seemed to bother the fledglings, three of whom--Cloud, Solace, and Rain--were sound asleep in Malachite's lap. Sapphire was rolling around chewing happily on the end of Malachite's tail, and Fern seemed to be trying to use her grandparent's frills as climbing handholds. All five were the same babyish bronze color with just the faintest hints of other shades, even the ones in winged form right now; the mentors said that as a mixed royal clutch they were likely to grow up to be queens and consorts, but it was still too early to be absolutely certain.
Malachite looked up, unsurprised, and nodded at Moon as he came into view. Fern immediately seized this opportunity to go for a better grip on Malachite's frills. Forgetting himself for an instant, Moon winced sympathetically, but Malachite didn't so much as twitch. One set of those gold-sheathed claws that Moon had personally watched rip the head off a powerful Fell progenitor reached up and ever so gently disentangled the fledgling's soft little hands from the sensitive tendrils.
"Malachite." Moon nodded semi-politely. Delin, a few steps behind, made the Golden Islanders' greeting gesture.
"Moon," Malachite said, and then turned her deep gaze on Delin. "Scholar."
"I came to see the clutch," Moon said, then winced because the obviousness of the statement made it awkward. "And Delin wants to draw them."
"My library has almost no illustrations of Raksura infants, and none at all done at first hand," Delin explained, lifting his sketchbook a little.
"You give permission for this?" Malachite asked, her focus returning to Moon again. Although the cushioned nest was higher than the level of the floor, she still had to tilt her head upward a little to look him in the face from where she sat. Moon found this disorienting--he realized he'd never seen Malachite from this angle before. And she was impossible to read, as always. He couldn't tell if she disapproved or was just curious.
Moon sat down on the opposite edge of the nest, telling himself that he was just doing it to be closer to where Sapphire was now crawling about and not at all because it felt weird being taller than Malachite. "He's done pictures of most of the rest of us. This isn't any different."
Malachite's eyes, focused now on Delin, grew more piercing. "He said the other groundlings had no real drawings of fledglings before. Now they will."
"What difference does it make?" Moon kept from snapping mostly because of the babies. Sapphire had rolled lazily toward his knee and was now getting a grip on his pants leg to pull herself up to standing. Fern was the only one of the five who had been just barely starting to do that when he and Jade and the others had left with the Kishans some months ago. Baby Raksura shifted forms almost at random, and right now Sapphire's Aeriat claws were pricking through the silky fabric of his pants, her little soft wings fluttering.
Diverted from the temptation to argue, Moon smiled down at Sapphire and started murmuring quiet encouragements as she wiggled to her feet--the teachers had told him Raksura babies understood most words a lot earlier than they could speak them--while Delin cleared his throat politely and spoke up again.
"Not that I anticipate great interest outside of scholarly circles, but in fact I imagine that seeing how Raksura care for your young might make people of many other species less uneasy around you." He pulled up a cushion and smiled benignly at Fern, who had both little hands wrapped around the fingers of one of Malachite's big ones and was using this for balance as she took a few wobbly steps with an expression of great concentration. Really, Delin seemed scarcely more intimidated by Malachite than the babies did, which was completely unfair. But Delin was oddly like Stone in some ways--too old to be scared of most things, maybe.
"And what's your interest, Delin-Evran-lindel?" Moon thought Malachite might possibly be a bit amused now, though no twitch of her spines betrayed it. She and Moon were watching Fern too.
And then suddenly the stern, determined expression on the fledgling's little face as she lined up her next step made her look like Malachite, for just an instant. Fern's adult coloring hadn't really started to come out yet, and her baby scales were much lighter than Malachite's, but...
Moon blinked, and it was gone. Almost. He wasn't sure he'd ever be able to unsee the resemblance completely, though.
"Me? I will add to my own store of knowledge, as ever," Delin said placidly as he opened his sketchbook across his knees. "That is most of what I do these days. Though also, I think I will share the best ones with my eldest daughter." He chuckled. "She is not especially interested in my research, but she has a great fondness for infants of nearly all intelligent species, so perhaps the gift will placate her in some small way after my long and unplanned absence." Tilting his head toward Moon a little, he added, "And I would be happy to make copies for Moon and Jade, if they wish. To remember their children's early turns by, as my people sometimes like to do."
"You people make pictures like this of your own children?" Malachite's gaze flicked from Fern to Delin and back again, her clawed fingers curling with the utmost delicacy under Fern's little ones.
"Certainly, those who can do so. I wish now that I had some with me to show you." Delin's golden eyes twinkled and his drawing tool began moving across the paper. "Niran in his swaddling clothes, perhaps."
Moon had to agree, that was quite the mental picture. "If you do one for Jade and me, all the Arbora with clutches are going to want one too," he pointed out, but he was surprised to realize how much Delin's offer appealed to him. The Arbora made lots of pictures, of course, but for some reason they never decorated things with images of Raksura in their groundling forms, and they didn't include the same kinds of little everyday details Delin put into his. Delin's pictures weren't as beautiful as an Arbora artisan's, but when you looked at them you really knew who they were meant to be.
When Moon had lived on his own, before finding out anything about other Raksura, he'd encountered several groundling species whose young matured very quickly--and he'd rather envied them, especially during the time he'd still been a fledgling scraping and scrambling to survive without a parent or any other family. Getting to one's full growth and being accepted by everyone as an adult after just two or three handfuls of turns had seemed so practical, so desirable.
But after seeing how much the royal clutch had grown and changed in just one turn, the thought that he only had a dozen or so turns to spend with them like this before they became adolescents, less than another dozen after that until they'd leave the nursery entirely... even though part of him still couldn't quite believe he was truly going to stick around in one place for that long, another, bigger part insisted, No, it's already going by too fast! and it made his chest hurt a little. It would be good to have a picture to remember what it had been like when his first clutch looked like this.
Sapphire's high, gravelly little voice broke into his thoughts. "Fly?"
Moon blinked down at her and smiled. "Sure." He picked Sapphire up under her armpits and swooped her up overhead as she giggled, then landed her on his lap and bounced her a few times on his knee.
Looking up, he caught Malachite wearing a thoughtful expression that probably matched his own. She wasn't looking at the babies, though--she was looking at him. Moon swallowed.
Malachite looked away first, turning her gaze down to the sleeping fledglings in her lap and smoothing Rain's frills gently with her free hand. Rain, the male who everyone said already looked the most like Moon--the one he and Jade had almost named Dusk, after Malachite's dead consort. Suddenly Moon felt certain that choosing a different name had been the right decision.
"You're old, Delin-Evran-lindel," Malachite said quietly. "You have many descendants who obviously value you. Why aren't you at home, making pictures of their babies?"
Delin's drawing tool didn't stop moving. "Would you ask Stone the same question?"
"A Raksura line-grandfather of Stone's age can tear through a pack of Tath in the time it would take you to finish a cup of tea," Malachite pointed out, her voice even drier than usual. "I doubt you could even outrun one." Fern, apparently tired from her efforts, flopped against Malachite's knee and began gnawing idly on one of Malachite's jeweled claw sheaths.
"True, but I am not without my own resources." Delin glanced up, then back to his paper again. "I have, for example, my wits. And many friends, some of whom have sharp teeth of their own."
"Friends can't always be around." Malachite's eyes bored into the middle distance. "Wits alone can't shed blood."
"And if the day comes when I have to shed blood, perhaps that will be the end of me." Delin shrugged and carried on with his work. "Until then, I no more wish to be confined than Stone does, and I don't have nearly as much time as he does to waste. And for all they grumble, I think my family values what I accomplish no less than Stone's family values him." He chuckled to himself. "Others can take care of things in the Islands very nicely. Diar's husband draws just as well as I do, and he likes it at home with the children."
Malachite said nothing further, just looked at him. Unfazed, Delin transferred his drawing tool to his mouth for a moment so he could blend something on the paper with his fingers. When he retrieved the tool his thumb left a faint charcoal smudge on his beard. Malachite's lips twitched, and she nodded at last.
The silence stretched.
Moon should have felt uncomfortable, but he realized that for the first time he could remember, he was sharing a small space with Malachite and his spines weren't on edge. Well, he didn't have spines right now, but still. The whole thing was almost... companionable. Just a boy, his clutch, and his mother who abandoned him for thirty-odd turns and left his siblings to be eaten by Tath, Moon made himself think, experimentally, but for some reason it didn't quite sting like it was supposed to. Nothing broke the quiet for a while but the scratching of charcoal on paper, Cloud's soft snores, and Sapphire humming tunelessly as she investigated the beaten copper panels on Moon's belt.
Moon was just starting to notice that he could feel Malachite's eyes on him again when Fern hauled herself up to her feet and began tugging emphatically on Malachite's hand, muttering something that sounded like it might include "Moon!"
"Hmm?" Malachite shook her head slightly. Careful not to disturb the three sleeping fledglings in her lap, she leaned toward Fern and twitched her spines a little in an expression of curiosity that would have looked understated on any other Raksura--which meant that on Malachite it seemed almost unbelievably exaggerated. Moon tried not to stare.
"Moon," Fern said, definitively this time. "Moon. Fly. Moon." She bared tiny sharp teeth at Malachite.
Malachite straightened, looked across the nest at Moon, and raised a scaled brow.
Moon felt the corners of his lips turn up. "You heard her."
Without waiting for a further cue, Malachite snatched Fern up in her powerful hands and swooped the giggling fledgling upside-down, then tossed her tumbling across the nest toward Moon. Fern shifted shape in midair and fluttered her wings ineffectively, cackling mad baby cackles, as she sailed over the cushions and furs to thump squarely against Moon's chest.
Letting out a huff of breath, Moon caught her and wrapped her in his arms, and before he quite realized what he was doing he grinned across the nest at Malachite. As his gaze met hers, the corners of her lips twitched into something almost a smile--but then her spines stiffened nearly imperceptibly and she turned her face away, staring at the wall.
Moon felt something sticky in the back of his throat. He swallowed and said, stupidly, "I caught her."
"I know." Malachite sighed. After a moment she looked at him again, her smile returning a little less stiffly this time. "I hope you always will."
"Yeah." Moon closed his eyes and breathed in, letting the smell of Fern fill his nose as the fledgling burrowed deeper into his embrace. "I hope so too."
Artifact: One thick sheet of beaten reed paper, sealed and waterproofed with clear plant lacquer. Sketched in fine charcoal on the paper, with careful attention to anatomical detail, is a scene consisting of several figures.
A spiny, darkly elegant scaled person dominates the upper right-hand side of the image; the creature should be menacing, but the artist's lines convey a softness in her posture at odds with the dangerous power of her body. A few curved strokes efficiently suggest three sleeping infants curled up on and around her knees. At lower left, a strikingly beautiful young man with dark hair cradles in his lap a toddler whose scaly skin contrasts with his own smooth complexion.
At the center of the composition is another scaled child, in lifelike motion with wings outspread. One arm stretches back as though she's just let go of the hand of the figure at upper left; the other stretches forward, little clawed fingertips just brushing the fingers of the man at lower right, who is reaching out a hand to catch her.
The artist him- or herself is not pictured, but in the corner of the sketch is a signature in heavy, elegant Altanic characters: [[D-E-L]].