Near the peak of the great tree, a small door stands open to the night air, a rare portal into the heart of the old colony. From her perch, Consolation can hear laughter issuing from it and the clear tenor of the storyteller reciting How Nut Brought Back the Sun and got his Name. The story falls in the category of generally-improbable and probably-not-history that her favorite kethel loves and First finds bafflingly, irritatingly impractical. Consolation has never been sure if the Raksura believed them. If these stories were inventions for the education of fledglings, what were they teaching? This version is not for babies, however. Based on the vocal reactions of the audience, she is pretty sure the description of how Nut hid the ember of the sun inside a nut casing, and the casing inside his pants, is some kind of raunchy joke.
On a near branch, a warrior stands, watching the darkness, betraying no indication of listening to the ongoing story. Above, another sentinel circles. And somewhere in the dark, Consolation knows, their three sisters wait, watch, and listen. These two are the warning, the invisible siblings, the enforcers. Consolation has learned many tactics from Malachite’s deployment of her aeriat. She holds very still.
Holding here, listening, every muscle still and poised, her blood rushes with a thrill like battle. First hates these excursions to Opal Night. He says it’s foolish and dangerous to taunt the Terror of Western Reaches, who is at once their flight’s greatest threat and only ally, by venturing uninvited (and she would never be invited) into the vicinity of her cherished consorts. Malachite had made clear that should Consolation ever come close enough to see a consort of Opal Night, she would not long see anything as Malachite would pluck her eyes from her head and rip her head from her shoulders for good measure, and drive all Consolation’s people from the Reaches to wander the three worlds alone and homeless. Consolation has witnessed the great queen’s capacity for head ripping. Malachite is truly magnificent. Yet she cannot resist.
Shade’s stories are clever and tricky. He is a master storyteller, and Consolation can appreciate his skill even when she cannot understand all of his words. She memorizes incendiary, solar, inferno and incandescent to ask Rise about later. She tries to memorize the cadence of his voice. Shade is like her, half Raksura and half monster, yet entirely unlike her. Because Shade and his siblings were raised to be Raksura and Consolation was raised by other lost children and one stolen, grieving Raksura consort.
Malachite and her people have never spoken of Shade or any of their half-Fell children in Consolation’s presence, but her kethel described them to her when he returned from his adventure with Moon and the grandfather — the children Malachite wanted so badly that she murdered a Fell flight to retrieve them, despite their pale skin and black scales. They look half-Fell like Consolation and her siblings, but they walk, talk, and smell like Raksura. Consolation is fascinated.
Shade has only reached the part where Nut talks to the wise line grandfather in the moon when the warrior stationed near the door moves. Five warriors crest the tree and intercept the circling guard, one dropping to speak quietly with the warrior on her branch, two diving into the upper branches. The watch is changing and this is Consolation’s cue to depart. She cast a regretful last look toward the glow of the doorway and steps off the branch. Her claws catch the trunk below, where it is too thick to shiver under her weight, and she descends by short plunges through the thickness of the foliage until the tree opens into a glade. She leaps into a silent glide, matte black wings a adjusting minutely to keep her aloft without disturbing the air as she slips through the shadows, twisting, falling, and coasting through a heart-stopping moment of exposure to the rising moon before she passes under the canopy of a neighboring mountain tree. A faint whisper of voices brushes her ears and she grasps hastily at a massive branch overhead, muscles straining to stop her momentum. Five warriors pass close, so close. And then they are gone and she is away into the night, flying too fast for any warrior to follow.
She cuts a wide and winding route back to the mountain thorn tree where her flight is encamped. The moon sets before it comes into view. She is looking for her sentries, pursing her lips to whistle to the watch, when a muffled shriek emerges from the darkness to her right. Consolation closes her mouth on the incipient whistle, frowning, and turns toward the noise. She weaves between branches and sees the flicker of four, no, five shapes flitting in the darkness between the trees. Five distinctly aeriat shapes, colorless in the dark. The wind brings her the scent of strange Raksura warriors, male and young, and she gnashes her teeth angrily. She cannot kill them. Malachite said so.
The warriors are tossing a dark shape back and forth through the air. The shape emits another frightened shriek, accompanied by laughter from the warriors and a quiet voice hushing the group. These idiots cannot be Opal Night warriors.
“Stop!” pleads the dark bundle as it tumbles through the air, crying out first in the Fell language and then, stumblingly, in Raksuran, and Consolation flashes hot with rage. These strangers, these trespassers have a person. One of her dakti, now free falling towards the hindmost of the warriors. Consolation stoops on the tumbling shape, snatching it from the waiting hands of the warrior and kicking backwards as she passes. Her feet connect solidly with his chest and abdomen, and she uses his mass to redirect her dive, launching off his body with a rending drag of her claws. Now he is the one screaming. Consolation folds her wings and barrels into his nearest companion before the other warrior can react, sending him wheeling into a tree branch with a wet thwack. She opens her wings and cups them, beats hard to turn her fall into a steep climb past the the last three warriors, now scattering in confusion. One dives after his fallen wing mate with a cry of distress.
She isn’t allowed to kill them. Consolation turns the silent dakti in her arms, so that she can grab hold of Consolation’s armored collar flange. The dakti wraps all of her limbs tightly around Consolation and tucks her head under Consolation’s chin. She folds her wings tightly out of the way. One remains bent at an impossible angle, clearly broken, but she does not make a sound. Consolation squeezes the dakti a little too hard, seething. She needs to think and she can’t think while she is angry. She summons the memory of Malachite’s freezing calm command and faces the warriors.
“The Reaches are not home to Fell trash!” one of the warriors tries, sounding satisfyingly frightened, and strangling a bit on what is clearly a rehearsed speech.
“If you know what I am, then you know there aren’t enough of you. Leave now.” Consolation is proud of how calm her own voice sounds, even though the last words come out in a snarl.
“Our queen will kill you!” the warrior shouts, but his declaration lacks conviction. Consolation thinks she sees the blur of one of his fellows pull at the leader, snarling indistinctly.
“I don’t think so. I think your queen doesn’t know where you are. I think I could kill you now and no one would know what happened to you,” Consolation replies in the silky tones of her Fell progenitor. She shouldn’t have said that, Consolation thinks, because the logic is too tempting. She is not allowed to kill Raksura. But these fools do not know that. She digs her claws into her palm and thinks of Malachite. No mistakes.
A massive dark body abruptly blots out the smattering of stars directly overhead. Consolation watches her prey flee, harrying their wounded between them, as her kethel circles. A near invisible wave of dakti pours into the small space between the mountain trees, chittering angrily. Consolation points at five of the them.
“Follow them,” she says. “Find out where they came from. Then come back to me. Don’t get caught.” The dakti give chase and Consolation looks up at her kethel, signals home. “Home, now, my brave,” she whispers in the dakti’s ear.
The mountain thorn is very old, and had been very long without Raksuran residents. When Consolation’s flight arrived, a thick tangle of thorns obscured the colony entrance. The flight spent days tunneling inside while Malachite took Consolation on a tour of the boundaries of Opal Night’s lands. You can have this tree, she told Consolation, its inner rooms, the plants and animals on its platform branches and on the forest floor below. Do not leave our territory. Do not steal consorts. Do not kill Raksura or I will kill you.
In the Raksura’s long absence, many animals had made their home in the colony tree’s abandoned rooms, leaving old nests, heaps of bones, and lingering odors. Most recently something sour-smelling and water-loving had burrowed in the old consort’s hall and backed up the drains from the bathing pools, flooding hallways and bowers on three levels. When the flight moved in, the animal occupants vacated.
“Animals know the stench of Fell,” Consolation heard one of Malachite’s warriors say. “Animals are smart enough to leave when monsters come to stay.” The aeriat had many opinions. It was something of a relief when Malachite left and took her warriors with her, leaving behind only her senior-most warrior, Rise, as advisor/spy/babysitter.
The animal residents left, for the most part, but left behind their rubbish and clogged drains. Consolation’s flight found unclogging drains, which was adventuresome and dirty fun, easier than cleaning, with which they were equally unfamiliar and even more unprepared. They found rooms with less mud and used branches to sweep out the worst of the refuse. They lit fires where First said the ceilings were open enough to draw the smoke safely outside, because no one knew the mentors’ trick for making the odd object glow or stones heat.
Consolation knew her flight was not so much dwelling the old court as camping in it, like scavengers. Eating bloody in the living spaces and tossing the bones on the piles left by the vanished animals.
It turned out that living like people instead of monsters required all sorts of skills and tools. Cleaning required soap, and some inkling of how to apply it. Consolation’s flight, having been raised by monsters, not people, had none of the requisite skills. They had no soap, nor the skill to make it. Rise did not know how to clean either. Warriors are useless for that sort of thing, Consolation learned. Cooking, cleaning, gardening, weaving, sewing — all such domestic tasks are the domain of the arbora. Malachite would not allow arbora to visit.
First looked at the musty, mud covered consort’s rooms and said they might as well have left them full of water, since the dakti enjoyed swimming and the flight did not have consorts anyway. And then he looked guiltily at Consolation.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t live like people who might have consorts some day,” he said, trying to make amends, though he knew perfectly well that they will not. Malachite would never allow it. The situation seemed ripe for an angry exit, so Consolation took it, stalking out of the room and ascending to the top of the tree to brood in solitude. She thought about Opal Night’s secret half-Fell children, and how they did not, by all reports, stink of Fell.
When she returned, she told the flight that they would plant vegetables. Gardening seemed like something her people might be able to handle. It would give them a lot to do anyway, and busy people have less time to squabble. They could start by clearing the old garden platforms, digging with their hands and knives for now. And look for plants that looked like food grown wild; she had overheard Heart, the mentor from Indigo Cloud, talking of reclaiming their old tree, finding wild mint and potatoes.
“People eat vegetables,” she shouted at her flight when they grumbled. “We are people! People do not disembowel their food inside, either. People wash, so they don’t stink of death.”
Rise returned from Opal Night with soap, buckets, rags, and instructions from someone named Moth.
Consolation’s people do not like cleaning, but they try. To the rebellious, Consolation says: there is the door. You may go back to your Fell progenitors now. No one takes her offer to leave. Consolation can say that they are no longer living in squalor, which is a word she learned from Rise. Consolation hates it, but loves to scream it at her people when they drag a bloody kill into the court to share.
“You will not butcher animals inside our home,” she tells them. “That is not what people do. Even if you think you are going to use the bones and skin, I don’t care, butcher them out on the platforms. We are not monsters who live in squalor.”
It was six cycles of the moon before the dakti succeeded in making something resembling soap. A year before Consolation heard Rise tell her junior warriors that the mountain thorn really didn’t stink anymore and smelled remarkably like a real colony.
Consolation thinks that is true, because no one at Opal Night smells her nighttime visits. On the afternoon after her secret visit to Shade, and the hostile encounter with the trespassing warriors, she meets Rise on one of the grazing platforms. Her stomach twists with a thrill of anxiety until it is clear that Rise remains none the wiser regarding her visit and has not come to inform the flight of their imminent doom. She is instead preoccupied with First’s report that someone harried the herd beasts to their deaths in a long fall off the edge of the platform during the night.
“And you say they were tormenting one of your people,” Rise says, pensively, frowning down at the trompelled mud at the edge of the platform.
“I didn’t kill them,” Consolation says. She knows she sounds both angry and sulky, when she means to sound proud.
“Yes. We need some other deterrent,” Rise agrees, unperturbed by Consolation’s hostility. “Where did they go? Did the dakti find their court?”
“They flew out to the plains at the western edge of the Reaches,” Consolation said, and Rise frowned. “The dakti saw them with groundlings.”
“I sent Kethel to ask.”
“Maybe they do not want to explain their injuries to their queen. Or to lead you to their home court.” Rise’s voice darkens, “I will speak to Malachite and we will find out whose warriors have been to Opal Night’s territory.” Rise looks up, her face lifting into a resigned smile. “Do you have questions for me to relay to the court while I am there?”
“First has a list.” First has been sending ever more elaborate lists of questions to the arbora at Opal Night in a stealth campaign to compel Lithe’s attention. He can write, sort of. Their sire taught them things, as they are quick to inform Rise. When First doesn’t know the characters, he draws pictures.
“I do have a list,” said First, looking at something behind Consolation. “I’ll go get it.”
First drops off the edge of the platform, winging away with suspicious haste. From the other end of the platform, a dakti in groundling form is advancing across the grass looking outraged, dragging one of her sisters by the scruff of the neck and shouting something about plants. The angry dakti freezes several paces away when she finds herself facing her queen, but rallies her courage when her captive begins to struggle. She thrusts the other dakti forward.
“She ate my rosemary. And rue and mint! Again!” The dakti pauses for reaction, and getting none, adds, “Rue isn’t even for eating.”
Consolation stares at her. It would probably be discouraging to her dakti to admit that Consolation doesn’t know what she is talking about. The accused, reeking of something pungent, quails. Rise looks bemused. Consolation assumes her discomfort amuses Rise. She feels too tired to be angry.
The angry gardener grabs the offender’s face and pries open her long mouth to display greenery caught in her teeth, which the gardener points out with a grunt of wordless outrage.
“Sorry,” the herb-eater says indistinctly through her open mouth.
“It sounds as though the gardener needs a helper,” says Rise, who has managed queens and warriors for decades, and is no fool. “And it sounds like Rue here needs a job.”
“I like the ones with the pointed leaves. They’re zingy,” says the culprit.
Consolation has, in the past year, been forced to learn patience. Sometimes. And so she doesn’t tear Rise’s face off and scream at the dakti until they die of fright.
“I agree,” she says, and waves them away imperiously. “Make it so.” The bossy gardener leaves looking bossy and mollified, her newly assigned helper trailing behind her looking oddly pleased for someone sentenced to the mercy of a bossy taskmaster. Rise departs for Opal Night and Consolation heads inside to find her small colony’s resident elder.
Sun is the miracle who changed everything. She arrived one day with a sour-faced Rise and an escort of disapproving warriors, after a lengthy exchange of lists and replies between the flight and Opal Night concerning the identification of edible plants, and one minor poisoning catastrophe. First believes that the ancient arbora insisted on coming in person because the Opal Night arbora could not stand to think of how Consolation’s flight was messing up the old colony tree. She was wary and reserved when she first arrived, but soon her personality bubbled out. No arbora, Rise says, can maintain an attitude of reasonable caution when infused with enthusiasm for a project. And Consolation’s new colony had so many projects that needed a guiding hand.
Sun’s fingers are gnarled and her skin and hair faded, not to grey like Indigo Cloud’s old consort, but more of a buff, almost white, and she knows how to do everything. She had been a soldier, then a hunter, and finally a teacher, before she grew old enough to do nothing but, as she says, sit and tell stories of the past. She knows many stories. Not Stories stories, but tales about the Raksura of Opal Night she has known and all the heroic, ridiculous, happy, and tragic events that have befallen them during her long life. Consolation’s kethel dotes on Sun. He carries her about, ready to supply muscle for any task, once holding up weakened garden platform for hours while Sun confered with the dakti about maintenance and repairs and drains.
“As patient as a mountain tree!” Sun proclaimed, gazing reprovingly around at the fidgety young warriors.
“I hear you’ve sent my patient kethel on a mission,” Sun says, when Consolation finds her, sitting in a sunny patch in the colony’s open inner hall.
“He’s the best at talking to groundlings,” Consolation says with a grimace. “Or anyway, he’s done it before.” She pauses. “Sun. How does a queen warn away other queens without killing people?”
“That is a difficult problem,” Sun says. “You need them to respect you. To see you as a court, and not just a dangerous presence. Not Fell.”
“How do I do that?”
“It will be difficult. The Fell are known for treachery.” Consolation growls half heartedly at Sun, who just smiles and pats her hand.
When her patient kethel returns to his impatient queen, its with the news that the unwelcome, unnamed warriors are captives of the groundling traveling party they had gone to for aid.
“Groundlings put them in a metal cage. There are rumors of Fell presence,” Patience says with a smirk. “Raksura, Fell, all flying shifters are the same to the groundlings.”
“Huh. Do we just leave them there? This bears some thinking,” First says.
While Consolation thinks about it, the kethel finishes his dinner and begins the story of Indigo and Cloud to anyone in earshot, which is a lot of the flight. Consolation knows he’s telling this tale of an impulsive queen as a rebuke to his own impulsive queen. Her patient kethel was not fooled about what his queen was doing out late and alone on the night she stumbled upon strange warriors, up to no good. He also knows that Consolation likes this particular story about a reigning queen who politics her way out of war in the Reaches after her favorite daughter makes a mistake. But Consolation has no wise mother to get her out of a predicament with a powerful court. She only has herself. Everyone is missing the point anyway, she thinks, annoyed. She doesn’t go to Opal Night to plot the future theft of a consort. She goes to learn how to be a person.
She snaps out of her sulk to a dakti hovering awkwardly in front of her. She’s a small one with a faint blue sheen to the black scales of her other form and a talent for tracking. The dakti’s mouth opens and closes almost inaudibly.
“She wants you to give her a name,” First says, in the dry tone of voice that also says, you are fool and this is not my problem.
“Like Rue, and Gardener, and Patient Kethel, and Brave,” says the dakti, finding her voice. Bright, hopeful eyes watch Consolation, waiting as her queen mentally flounders. Consolation feels as if she has been flying upside down and is suddenly right side up. A name. The dakti want names. Of course they do. Why didn’t First tell her.
“Your name is Blue,” she says, and immediately wants to retract it, but keeps her internal horror from showing on her face. She needs to assign this naming task to someone more suited. To First, if there is any justice, or Patience, or Sun. The dakti, however, looks ecstatic to receive her prosaic name. She lunges forward to hug Consolation and darts away before anyone can swat at her. Consolation takes a moment to glower at everyone.
“If the Indigo Cloud court is named after Indigo and Cloud, are we the Consolation court?” Rue whispers loudly to Gardener.
“We don’t have a consort stupid.”
“But we’re Consolation’s flight,” Rue insists and her friend shushes her.
Consolation looks across the hall at Sun, listening to Patience with an indulgent smile, and Rise, handing the arbora a cup of tea. She watches Rise answer a dakti pulling at her sleeve, probably giving the dakti a name, because now everyone wants one.
Consolation has always liked her name, and has been proud of it, because her sire named her. She like its length, and the way the long vowels sat in her mouth. But as a name for long sought home, she now thinks it sounds a little…sad. She growls quietly.
“Our court is not Consolation. It’s Sun Rise,” she declares, glaring at them. Rise looks scandalized.
“That is not appropriate,” Rise protests, but Sun is poking her and laughing. Consolation feels she has done enough naming for today. She gets up. Patience, thrown off his storytelling stride by the interruption, watches her. She remembers that Indigo sacrificed her pride to correct her mistake and save her court from destruction.
“If the groundlings expect Fell, we should give them Fell,” she tells him, and makes a dramatic exit.
In the morning, Consolation, Patience, Blue, and the newly named Trick, Tremble, and Vivid fly out of the Reaches to the open plains. They find the groundling town after dark. The Raksura are in a cage in the open center of town, and Consolation brings her flight down on top of it. Patience, crouched over the cage in his enormous other form, wants to slam the cage up and down until it breaks and the Raksura fall out, but Consolation makes him wait. She calmly knocks the weapon out of the loudest guard’s hands, tells him to let her people go and if they shoot things at her, she will be angry. She reminds him that he does not want the Fell angry. The town decides to let the Raksura go.
“What now?” asks one of the warriors, sick, afraid, and trying for stoic, when they have been carried away and deposited in the broken courtyard of a tumbled down old temple.
“I don’t care,” says Consolation. “You figure it out. I’m going home.”