Calli Viit unwound a green silk tether from three bundles of long bone battens and spread them on her worktable. If she picked the right ones quickly, she might avoid further angering her father.
The wing design her father had sketched—a commission for a young boy—paired a traditional Viit pattern with fine-tuned control grips. Calli had prepared the silk the day before, adding a second row of stitching to the batten seams. Now she checked the rigging and the grips again. Without taking her eyes off the sketch, she swept her hand across the battens, selecting four that were appropriately child-sized. These, for the spars.
The buyer, Telise Naza, stood with her back to the balcony, watching father and daughter carefully. She’d bowed upon entering the workshop, saying, “I don’t wish to disturb you, Liras Viit, but I was passing by and wished to see your fine work again.” Calli’s father had acknowledged the praise with a stiff nod, then turned back to his bench.
Calli had been the one to return the woman’s bow. Her robes were thickly quilted, a common fashion for Naza tower, but Calli noted her frayed cuffs and hem. Looking to save a few marks by coming all the way to Viit, but still cautious.
Few buyers lingered to watch wingmakers at their craft.
When Telise Naza hadn’t left again immediately, Calli had followed her father’s example and returned to her work. The continued intrusion made a muscle jump on her father’s cheek.
From where she worked, Calli couldn’t read Telise Naza’s expression. The late morning light spilled over the woman’s shoulders and green silk wings, leaving her face in shadow. The same light bathed her father’s worktable and the back of his neck.
Calli tested the first batten the way she’d been taught as a young child: setting one end on the ground and bringing her weight to bear slowly on the tip. The pale span crackled, and she backed off quickly so the spar would not snap. The buyer hadn’t noticed the fault, but her father certainly had. His hands went still over his work.
Setting the batten aside without comment, Calli reached for the next. She kept her expression neutral. Slowed her breathing; did not look too hard at her father.
A bone hunter had sold them at least one bad batten. No customer should ever know that a faulty bone might get so close to a wing. Nor could this customer discover something was wrong with the wingmaker himself. Telise Naza might have heard rumors about Calli, but Calli hoped not.
Her father needed this commission, and for more to follow.
Calli tested three more spars against her weight. They bent but did not crackle.
She selected several shorter and thinner battens: all pale yellow or white, each light and strong. They’d been stripped properly from the outgrowth of a living bone tower, not harvested from a broken tower and bleached white, like the first rotten batten.
In the sky behind Telise Naza, a group of children Calli’s age swooped and dove in unison, followed by one of the tower’s magisters. Calli heard scraps of song. A lesson about wind shifts. The students’ wings cut patches of bright color in the deep blue air. Calli knew each span and spar, even from this distance. She’d tested them all.
Many hands shaped the frames of silk and bone that allowed Calli’s neighbors to soar between the city’s towers: silkweavers, bone and tendon hunters, wingmakers. Each touch had to be true. Every wingmaker knew the risks. The clouds below the city were hungry; they swallowed fliers whole. Any doubt about a wingset, or its creator, could ruin a reputation, a life.
A watchful customer was a bad sign.
Calli slipped a batten into a double-seamed pocket, and the wing began to take shape. The silk rustled, then stretched as she tucked the last bit of spar beneath a lip of fabric, locking it in. The sound was as familiar as her own breath.
“Watch what you’re doing. Don’t pierce the fabric,” grumbled her father without looking up.
Calli chewed the inside of her cheek. She’d never pierced fabric with a batten or a spar and was not about to do so now. Her father needed something proper to scold her for, something that demonstrated a wingmaker’s caution. He couldn’t voice his actual complaints. Not with a customer in the workshop. But Calli knew her craft well—better than well—even at her age; the scolding made her skin feel dry and hot. She dropped a batten and scrambled to pick it up.
“Why is she not with her flightmates?” the Naza woman enquired. She’d seen the other children working the wind. “Injury?”
Her father nodded, and Calli forced her eyes to her work. The questions came more often as she grew older.
“She has a fine hand,” the Naza woman said. She turned back to the worktables, and her cheekbone caught the light. Calli thought it very pretty the way her windburned skin stretched across the frame of her face, like silk over spars. The woman shared a brief smile as she assessed Calli’s seams. Calli’s cheeks grew warmer with pride.
Her father grunted and kept his eyes on the customer’s second order, refurbishing a larger pair of wings. Beneath his brush, green and blue vegetable dyes formed a flock of wind-spun whipperlings on the pale yellow silk.
The woman raised an eyebrow, waiting for a more polite response. Calli tried to fill the void without giving offense. “My father taught me,” she said. “As his father once taught him.”
That was close to truth. The buyer nodded, satisfied. She turned to explore the skeins of bone chips hanging on the workshop walls, carved with sketches and plans. Three generations’ worth of wing designs. Each more detailed than the last.
“Your family has much talent,” she mused.
With Telise Naza distracted, Calli snuck a glance at her father’s hands. They held steady. That was luck. He’d been gone all night. When Calli’s mother had carried him back and dropped him to the workshop floor early this morning, he’d moaned and quaked while the night’s drinking wore off.
Calli’s mother had sworn to the workshop walls, “I’m not retrieving him again. He can rot with the fighting birds next time.” She’d set his tea-dyed wings in a pile beside him on the floor but had left her own unfurled. Ready to fly again. As she turned back to the sky, she gestured Calli to the balcony. “I don’t want your brother to grow up like this. Bent. Afraid. He can’t be a wingmaker if he’s afraid. We’ll go to Haim and stay with your uncle.”
Calli had lifted her brother Miran from his sleeping mat and nuzzled his dream-warm neck. Had helped her mother bind Miran tightly to her chest.
Miran had mumbled a child’s flying song Calli had taught him the night before. “Wings straight and full, forward we go.”
Her mother held Calli’s hand tightly. “I can send someone for you.”
“I will stay,” Calli had refused. She was too big to be carried, and she didn’t fly. Not yet. Unheard of in the city where children flew before they ran.
After a sour pause, her mother whispered, “The two of you deserve each other.” She’d let her breath out through her teeth. “Twelve years. Doubt spreads, Calli. Fear too. People will think you don’t trust your father’s wings. No matter how I try, you race with him to see who can destroy our reputation first.” To ease her sharp words, she placed her hand gently on Calli’s head. “Try once more for me? Just to Haim.”
Calli had shut her eyes tight against the weight of disappointment and her mother’s long-suffering sigh. Felt cool air on her head as her mother’s hand lifted.
“Send a bird if you need something.” She’d spread and locked her wings, blocking the sun’s warmth.
Calli had heard wing silk fill true as a gust carried her mother and her mother’s burdens away.
Calli blinked back tears, remembering. The distance between Viit and Haim was not far for most children. For Calli, it was the same as a flight across the city: impossible. She would remain in the tower she’d been born to, with her father, helping him until she grew old, or fell and was lost in the clouds.
“Those are fine patterns,” Telise Naza said, suddenly close by her elbow. Calli jumped. She turned back to stuffing batten sleeves and let her father accept the compliment for her in his own way. The woman was hightower. She would not appreciate a child replying too often like an adult. Especially one who should be flying with her towermates.
But Calli’s father grunted again, lifting his brush from the silk. He looked up at the Naza woman from beneath hooded eyes. His grim smile indicated that any further conversation would delay delivery, indefinitely.
Calli put down her work and guided Telise Naza to the balcony. Took her as close as she could to the edge, to the blue sky and the white clouds below, then stepped back, heart pounding. She would give anything not to be afraid of the expanse.
The customer turned and bowed to the wingmaker. Then she unfurled her wings and leapt from the balcony without another word.
Liras Viit watched the woman go. When his father was alive, the customers had bowed with respect too. Then they’d left the wingmakers to work in peace. The family business had thrived. Countless customers, all wanting wings. None who eyed the workshop like it might be filled with broken spars and torn silk.
His daughter Calli moved quickly back from the balcony, her face ashen. Her fear was a fault within her that Liras could not shore up. A wingmaker could not be afraid, not like that.
Karr, Calli’s mother, had had no such fear. She had once hoped to share his craft but found she had no touch for it. Did not understand the tools. Did not test each piece carefully. Her many attempts had been disastrous. Instead of trying again, she’d grown angry.
Calli did not anger. She listened. She learned. In the workshop at least. But that was not enough.
The tools of Liras’s craft—his father’s tools, and those of his grandmother—lay on the workbenches. Awls and bone needles. A rare pair of metal shears sharpened to thin blades. Clamps and drills. Tendons for the more expensive wings. Fiber for the everyday pairs. Spars and battens.
There was no tool in the wingmaker’s set that would help him escape from the vortex of shame he’d created in the birdfighting ring. His debts and fears gathered around him like dark clouds.
Liras smelled the cool sheen of good silk. The raw green and blue dyes. He loved this place, this work. He knew he was as good at it as his father had been: the best wingmaker in the quadrant, if not the city. If only he could right his business. Keep enough marks together to pay his tower tithes, his suppliers.
And teach his daughter to fly.
He touched the cool metal of his silk shears. The grips that had been guided by so many hands. His designs lined the workshop wall, hanging with those of his father, his grandmother, and bone carvings older than that. He would do better. He was still young. If Calli never flew, he could train his son in wingcraft, as he’d trained his daughter. If Karr would let him.
If he could keep hold of his workshop, his tools.
Liras shifted painfully on his stool. No more birdfighting. He could not risk it. No more gambling of any sort, he promised himself again. He would find another way to move forward. As soon as he stopped aching from his latest failure. His latest shame.
Once the client was out of sight around the next tower, Calli took the brush from her father’s hand. “You must eat now. At least a little.” He hadn’t taken any food since the night before. Since his return from the birdfighting ring at Bissel tower.
He rose, groaning, and followed her from the worktables to the small area behind the shop, near the tower’s central wall. They sat on rolled sleeping mats as Calli unwrapped a packet of dried goose for lunch and set it on the table between them.
“Karr isn’t back yet,” he said, looking at the food Calli’s mother had left and knowing it for what it was. A goodbye.
“Only for a short time,” Calli said, wanting her words to be true. “To rest.” But they both knew her mother took every opportunity to leave the workshop. She had no touch for wingmaking, her partner gambled, and her daughter was afraid of the very sky.
Her mother had always returned before, but Calli wasn’t sure this time. Her father had never gambled away so much before. While his face and hands showed no bruising, Calli had watched him walk. His back and legs had taken a beating the night before. His hands trembled now.
“Don’t stare!” he grumbled and reached for the water sack that hung from the table. Took a sip.
Their store of tower marks, what they needed to buy more silk and battens, had taken a beating too, from the same men. Gamblers. Birdfighters at Bissel or Harut.
Her father had two problems, gambling and Calli. Both stood to ruin them all.
He put a piece of dried meat to his lips, then hid it in his hand. Calli didn’t feel like eating either. Now that her mother had left, more people would wonder why Calli hadn’t flown with her.
More than once, her mother had held her out over the edge while flight magisters flew below with a fiber net carried between them. She’d tossed Calli high, as was the tradition for first flight, and called for her to soar. Calli had tried. But in the bright, cold air, her arms and legs had tucked tight in panic and she’d dropped right into the net. The magisters carried her back sobbing, each time. Until she’d grown too big for her mother to toss her. Too big for the nets.
Over the years, her father had made her beautiful wingsets. Calli loved to trace their outlines with her fingers. To determine how they worked. But the moment she leaned into the wind, to follow her neighbors into the sky, she froze. She would step back, undo the wingstraps, and shake her head.
Her father always sold those wingsets to others. Calli could watch them ride the gusts without her.
She knew the real reason why her father gambled. Why her mother left so often. They couldn’t fix her, and it was destroying them. “Her fear could spread to Miran,” her mother often fretted.
For once, her father had been kind. “Someday,” he promised, “she’ll find the right wind.”
Calli folded the scrap of silk around the meat and put it in her pocket. Maybe later, they would feel like eating. Outside, the children of Viit tower swooped with their flight classes, while Calli helped her father back to his worktable.
As they passed the balcony ledge, his eyes searched the colorful wings in the sky, looking for signs of her mother returning.
He wasn’t able to take his seat without help. Calli braced and let him lean on her while he climbed to his stool.
“Let me show you something,” he said. He picked a set of bone carvings hanging from the wall on a yellow silk cord. Showed her a design newly cut on one. Calli traced the strange pattern with her fingertip.
“What is it?” she said.
“A way for us to fly together. So I can teach you, without you being afraid.”
The wings of this design were larger than any she’d seen in the sky. A second set of straps and controls dangled from the first harness. She closed her eyes, then opened them. Looked again. These wings might hold two fliers.
Her father had never given up on her.
Calli touched the carving. “Thank you.” She felt whipperlings turn circles in her belly.
“We need it,” he said. “People won’t have confidence in my work if you don’t.”
Calli nodded and returned to the customer’s wings, leaving the yellow cord and bone carvings on the worktable. Without enough silk and bone, that new design would never be built. A quantity few could afford, especially her family.
She would not have to disappoint her father again.
That afternoon, Liras tried to remain at his workbench and finish the customer’s wings, but the pain grew too much.
He let Calli help him to a sleeping mat and put salve on his back. His shame at his failures spread as she applied the medicine.
“When mama returns, things will be better,” she whispered.
Liras knew she was lying. He’d watched Calli’s face as she unwrapped their lunch. He’d seen Karr’s eyes as she turned to leave with their son. Her latest departure was humiliating, but not as much as the realization that Calli was old enough now to want to protect him with lies.
When she was young and hadn’t understood the birdfighting, they’d told many lies to protect her. That he’d dropped the marks while visiting customers. That he’d landed badly on a tower. Now Karr was done with all the lies, and Calli was old enough to see through them and craft her own.
Liras felt sick all over again. He had to change. Food and supplies cost marks. All the family had left was a promise of a payment when they delivered Telise Naza’s wings. But that would not cover everything: Liras’s tithes to his tower, and what he still owed the birdfighters. The tower councilman would not take another excuse. He’d sell Liras’s tools, or his quarters. Send him downtower. And no one would bow to the wingmaker then, or his flightless daughter.
Liras could feel his father’s legacy, his children’s future, slipping through his fingers like wind.
He’d sworn to avoid the birdfighting ring on Harut before, but sometimes he did so well that the temptation was too much. Certain of the winner last night, he’d lost even more marks. Marks he didn’t have. Bissel tower’s fighting birds were smarter and trickier than the ones he’d chosen, from Naza and Densira.
He would not make the same mistake again. He would not risk it. There were other ways to get tower marks. To begin again.
His eyes drooped, but he could not sleep. He heard Calli’s footsteps and watched from slitted lids as she climbed up on his stool and began to finish his work. He knew there would be no stray marks, and it pained him. She put the clients’ wings in the afternoon sun to dry, then lifted the child’s wings. Tested the winggrips one last time. Then she set the smaller wings next to the larger pair. Sunlight lit the silk and traced the frame within. Beautiful.
His daughter had talent. It should not matter if she flew. But fear spread, and doubt.
Liras swore he would find a way to finish the new wings for her, to try again.
Finally, her father snored on his mat.
Calli fed their whipperling, humming to it as she cleaned its perch. Then she began organizing the worktables and putting supplies back into the ever-emptier storage baskets.
She stopped for a moment to watch the tower guards and the magisters fly high between the towers, and the colorful children’s wings her father had made swirl on the wind.
Her father had left the skein of carvings with the new wing design on the table. She didn’t touch it at first, but as the afternoon wore on and the workshop’s quiet began to get to her, she found a sharp knife and a spare scrap of bone. She copied her father’s design, trying to learn the choices he’d made. She admired the new angles of the wing seams, and how they supported and curved the entire architecture enough to support two fliers rather than the usual awkward rescue-carry with a wing-hook, basket, or net.
Perhaps, if it came to it, she could trade this design to the tower councilman, for food and a few months more in their quarters. She cut carefully, trying to get every line down.
A guard swooped closer and finally landed on the balcony. Calli rose to greet him; to try to block his entry.
“My father is resting,” she said.
The guard looked at her and smiled. He’d come before to collect tithes, but she’d never spoken to him. “You remember me?”
Calli shook her head.
“Doesn’t surprise me. I caught your mother once. You were a baby. Caught you both, actually.” He held out a hand and closed it around air. “Caught you by the foot. Darn near missed too.” He grinned. “Luckily, I don’t miss.”
Calli shook her head. She didn’t remember. The guard’s clothing—dark green hood, wings trimmed to a fighting curve—marked him as a hunter. “What happened?”
“Wing tore. Karr’s own design, I heard. Headstrong, your mother. Temper too, right?” Calli bowed her head, hiding her fear. Her mother had flown with the baby; what if she dropped him too? No. Calli had tightened the straps herself.
The guard looked around the workshop. Cleared his throat. “Councilman sent me to collect tithes.”
“My father is not well and we are waiting for a customer to pay. Can you come back?” She pointed to the two pairs of drying wings. “This will more than cover the tithe,” she lied. She hated lying.
The guard frowned. “Tomorrow or the next day. No more.” He winked at Calli and left.
She watched him go, tense. Not enough time. From her worst nightmares, the sound of air rushing past, the sick feeling of falling towards the clouds, nearly closed over her.
Now she knew why. She rubbed her foot where the guard might have caught her.
A trader from Densira passed the guard in the sky, then landed on their balcony. She carried a torn wing strapped to her chest and several spans of silk in two hip panniers. Calli eyed the fabric longingly. “We have no marks to pay you for the silk,” she finally admitted. “But I can patch your wing for you. Tighten the set. Make them faster.” She made herself sound confident.
“Of course, why not?” The trader was young, ambitious. Offered half the silk. Waited while Calli made the adjustments and re-aligned a grip. Watched her carefully. It would have to be enough.
By the time Calli unrolled her own sleeping mat, she could barely keep her eyes open.
When Liras woke, it was to a cold bone floor. He swallowed hard against the stale residue of drink coating his mouth: the taste of regret. His ears rang and his head ached. Rough fabric covered his eyes.
Liras’s memory of the final game the night before was hazy. He shouldn’t have had so much to drink, but it had dulled Karr’s leaving. Softened his worries, too many to count.
His fingers twitched. Counting. He’d left the workshop in the last of the evening light. Stepped carefully around his sleeping daughter and filled his pockets with skeins of wing designs, hoping to trade those for tower marks at Haim. He’d snuck away again, before it was too dark to fly.
His fingers touched empty pockets. He groaned again.
On the way to Haim, he’d heard cries and laughter coming on the wind from Bissel. The sounds of fighting birds. Before he knew it, he’d stumbled to the ring’s edge.
“Calli,” he called, his mouth dry. But Calli was not there. The fabric across his eyes was tied tight. He was alone. A sleeping quilt wrapped tightly around him. He could not move more than his fingers.
And the smells were not of his quarters, either. “Calli,” he called. Frightened. “Karr?” He hadn’t meant to go far. Only a couple of towers over. Was he still there? Shame bloomed in his chest.
A face appeared above him, supported by a broad stalk of a man. Dennit Harut. Birdfighter. Very young, very savvy with games of all sorts. His red face shone in the dim light. Liras coughed, then turned to retch. His arms, he found, were bound by more than quilts. Rough fiber scratched at his bared elbows. Where were his flying robes? His wings?
“You look like cloudfood,” Dennit said.
Liras cursed himself. Wished the clouds would swallow him. Calli must know he’d gone. Karr would know soon. The sunrise sky outside gave him no chance to sneak back home, even if he could convince Dennit to release him.
“Whatever I lost,” Liras said, “My family will pay back.”
“Your family? They’ve given up on you. Moved on.” Dennit snorted.
“Not Calli.” Liras was not a big man. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, then his left. They were unbound. Unbroken. Good. At least they’d left him that.
Dennis saw the quilts move. Chuckled. “We’d never damage your hands, or your tools. The take is too good.”
Liras tried to figure what they wanted most. Then he realized. Dennit rubbed his thumb across a bone carving. The sketch of Calli’s wings.
He shook his head. A wave of nausea swept over him. “Those haven’t been tested. They aren’t for you.”
“Says who?” Dennit laughed now, loudly. “Interesting wings. If you’re good enough to design them, they’re good enough for me.”
Liras blushed at the praise, then hated himself for it. Dennit aimed a kick and stopped at the last minute, testing the air. Liras flinched.
“You’re too smart to keep losing at birds,” Dennit said. “You pick the wrong wings almost every time. Why did you come back, wingmaker?”
Liras shook his head. “I need the money.” He scanned the room. Dennit had gathered a few wingmaking tools. A pile of silk. Nothing from Liras’s collection at Viit, he realized with relief. Perhaps Calli could keep those tools, hide them. He turned his face to the floor, refusing to look at Dennit again. “I won’t make wings for you. Nor for anyone you promise them to.”
He tried to relax his body so the kick would hurt less. When Dennit’s foot connected, jarring shoulder and spine, Liras realized there were other things that hurt more.
Calli fed the whipperling silently. Furious. Her father had never been gone this long before. The sun had risen on his rumpled, empty sleeping mat. What if he’d fallen? Jumped? The guard would return for tithe soon. Telise Naza was due to collect her wings. They were ready, but there was no way a customer would give marks to a near-child. Calli’s mother was still gone. Calli needed a plan.
But it wasn’t the customers who arrived first, it was a birdfighter. A man almost too big for the workspace. He blocked the morning light with his wings. Two more men landed behind him.
Calli stepped in front of the messenger bird she’d been feeding. Untied its foot from its perch while she spoke. “The tower guard,” she said as she knocked the whipperling with a batten to set it fluttering into the sky, “will be here shortly. What do you want?”
She kept hold of the batten, wishing it was pointier.
“Delivering a message. Liras is staying with us.” He gestured to the other men. They all looked like him. Brothers, Calli guessed. She’d overheard her father telling her mother that the best—he had said sneakiest—Harut birdfighters were brothers. “He’s... ill. You need to pay a delivery fee to have him carried back.” Dennit Harut. Calli remembered the name now.
“Where?” she said. “How ill?”
“We’ll tell you when you pay the fee.”
The whipperling returned and settled its wings noisily on the perch. Calli shook her head. “No money here. You took it all.”
Dennit needed to leave before the buyer arrived.
“We’ll accept your tools this time.” Dennit looked around for a stool to settle on. “I can wait.”
No. His presence would ruin the few shreds of reputation her father, and her family, had left. Where was the guard? Calli felt very young, very small. But she would not give this man any wingmaking tools. They were her tools too.
“You can’t be here when we’re settling up with a client. Wingmaker’s tradition.” She was lying through her teeth, but Dennit might not guess. Wingmakers were a secretive bunch.
“I was thinking of learning your traditions,” Dennit said, smiling. His dark eyes were cold and hard.
Calli’s voice didn’t shake this time. She would never teach someone like Dennit. “Leave here now and return my father. Then we will settle with you.” She waved the batten at him, trying to look fiercer than she felt. She wished someone would come.
“If you’re so brave,” Dennit said, “come and get him yourself.” He laughed, and his brothers echoed him. “I’ll make you a wager: You can have him free and clear, if you can carry him home.”
“And if not?” Calli’s relief that her father was safe faded. Carry him. Home.
The guard glided past the wingmaker’s worshop. Once. Twice. Dennit rose. “We always need more tools.” He readied his wings. “We’ll wait for you at Bissel. Maybe.”
Then he left still laughing, his wings catching the sunlight as he dropped from the tier. A gust buoyed him, and sent him on his way.
The guard nodded to her and kept circling until Dennit and his brothers were out of sight.
Calli watched them glide the air between the towers. Her shoulders tightened at the thought of so much nothing, but she couldn’t look away.
When the woman from Naza arrived, Calli told her the truth. “My father is ill, but I can help you.”
The woman sniffed. “I will return in a few days.” She turned and left the balcony without paying. No money for tithe. None for the birdfighters.
Calli gave the whipperling a piece of graincake. One of few she had left. The bird had done well, even if Calli had failed. The roaring in her ears grew louder. Just like when she tried to fly.
“There’s always risk,” she explained to the bird, trying to calm herself. “Everyone needs to do their part. A wingmaker makes wings. A wingmaker flies.” She was the only Viit wingmaker, at least right now.
Calli wondered at her family. Scattered across three towers, all of them bent, like wing battens, but not broken, not yet.
She knew the tensile strength of bone better than almost anyone. She knew how much pressure silk could withstand before it ripped. She knew how many hands touched a wing. All the weak points.
She did not understand how to fix her family any more than she knew how to keep herself aloft in the air without fear.
Calli laid out the customer’s wings again. The beautiful whipperling pattern. Strong but not strong enough. And not fit to her measurements. She eyed the extra silk from the trader.
“If you can carry him, you can have him.”
That was what Dennit had said.
This was impossible. Beyond the balcony, across the wide expanse of sky, towers shone bone white: sunlit and surrounded by deep blue sky. The balcony was bright and welcoming, but Calli refused to step into the sunlight, to venture closer to the edge. Not yet.
Calli couldn’t fly, couldn’t carry an adult like her father. If she fell trying, who would catch her? Who would tell her mother, or teach her brother how to shape a wing?
With the last question, she realized she’d already decided.
She understood the principals of flight, in theory. In practice? She’d bound herself to her tower and her fear. To Viit. To her father. Today, she could not be afraid.
She pulled the chip with her father’s design from her pocket and began to strip the client’s wingset. Took apart the panels, broke up her father’s carefully painted whipperlings.
In order to support them both, Calli needed a very different kind of wing. She began a long row of stitching down the foil edge and shaped a wider curve with the wing. Built it for lift, not speed. She used all of the trader’s silk. She might still fall, but if she could make it away from Bissel with her father, maybe they’d have a chance.
A clatter on the balcony. The trader, returned. “Liras is still ill,” she called. The trader shook her head and placed a second batch of yellow silk on the balcony.
“Your adjustments were excellent,” she said, then left Calli alone.
Calli picked up the silk. Descended a ladder to find some of the bone hunters downtower.
“We need more battens,” she said when she found them. She tried to sound as much like her father as possible, but when she told them how many battens she needed, they laughed.
“Why should we help you? How will you pay?” Word had already spread.
Calli realized she had nothing to lose. “I’ll pay by not telling anyone you tried to slip us dead bone,” she finally said. It was a guess, but to her amazement, they stood. Prepared to do as she asked.
She returned to the workshop. By the time the bone hunters returned with her battens, she had finished most of the pocket seams. Some of the edging. She worked until it grew too dark to see. Filled bone lanterns with the last of their oil and lit them. Bloodied her fingers with bone needles, used silk thread like she could spin it herself.
Early the next morning, she woke at the worktable. The light from the balcony drew a sharp shadow on the workshop floor. Her mother stood there, looking at the nearly completed, sunwarm wings. “Those are beautiful. A client will be happy. You are almost as talented as your father. Where is he?”
Calli smiled sleepily. “Getting more bone.” She hoped this answer would satisfy. It seemed to.
“One day, you can teach your brother,” she said.
Calli nodded. “I like teaching him. I’ll make sure he knows the tools. He’ll be a good wingmaker.”
Her mother smiled sadly. “You could be too.” The unspoken if only hung in the air.
A small batten snapped in Calli’s grip. “I am trying. You didn’t bring Miran.”
Her mother bowed her head. “So much like your father.” She looked around the workshop. “You won’t come to Haim now?” She touched Calli’s shoulder. Calli shook her head. “Soon you may not have a choice.”
Her mother turned and left the way she’d come.
Calli’s heart pounded as she watched her mother’s wings grow small with the distance. She’d lied again. To protect her father. The wind and her pulse made a goodbye for her mother. Always leaving. Always determined to save everyone her way. But that wasn’t Calli’s way.
When she was finished, the wings Calli had made would not furl in the traditional way. They dragged behind her on the floor. But the grips were sized perfectly. The wings, carefully seamed. She might make it if she didn’t curl up in fear.
The guard had described her mother’s failed flight. Her own design. Calli heard the wind in her ears again, softer now. She’d checked each seam, each span. They would need to make two successful flights. There and back.
She knew the winds, in principle. She knew methods for working upwind, ways to hold a course. What she didn’t know was if she’d freeze again. If she’d lose her chance. To rescue her father. To earn the right to call herself a wingmaker. To fly true.
Now or never. “Wings straight and full, forward we go.” Calli threw herself from the tier and spread her wings; the sharp sound of her fear lost in the wind, drawing down after her.
Then the updrafts caught her and lifted. The large wings fought her each time she tried to turn, wallowing in the air. But the wind finally lifted her wings and took her in the right direction, downwind.
Her father’s design had been true! And Bissel was nearly a straight shot, as long as she didn’t run into anyone. The return home would be upwind, and harder.
Calli’s heart raced and bubbled sickeningly in her throat, but she breathed and focused on keeping her muscles relaxed. She could not curl up. She had to do this.
Other fliers stayed out of her way as she wobbled between the towers. A relief. Calli didn’t want to cause a crash as she bounced on the gusts.
She hoped her mother wouldn’t spot her. She’d be too triumphant. Calli wasn’t doing this for her mother, not anymore. Or even for her father. Plus, she was so scared that fear filled her like a batten in a silk pocket. She didn’t want anyone to see that either.
Calli let the fear test her. Hoped she was not weak, would not break.
She passed Densira, then Naza. Saw her neighbors’ tiers up close for the first time. She heard the wind in her ears, buoying her up.
This is what I am. Batten and spar. Wing and wind.
She was no longer afraid.
Liras heard Dennit curse just before something made a clumsy landing on the balcony at Harut where the birdfighters had him tied.
“Why are you here?” Dennit’s shock echoed loudly through the tier. “You look like a fledge in its father’s skin.”
Liras couldn’t see anything behind the rag over his eyes, but Calli’s voice came then, ragged and shaking, loud enough to carry. “This fledge will carry her father home. You made a deal.”
Calli’s voice. Here. Across the sky. Beyond the tower.
Liras held his breath to test whether he was hallucinating. Coughed when he could hold it no longer. He wished he could see. He tried to imagine Calli’s hair wind-tossed, her cheeks bright with the cold air. Things he’d never dared hope to see.
His daughter had flown. To get him.
On what wings? With whom?
A rough hand grabbed his elbow and jerked him upright. Jostled his frame and dragged him forward. “Yes, I made you a wager. And you have to carry him home to complete it.”
Dennit’s voice was tight, his honor on the line. Liras knew Dennit didn’t want to let him go. But Calli stood her ground. Finally, in the waiting silence, Dennit muttered, “Fine.”
With a push from Dennit, Liras stumbled forward. His daughter’s fingers caught his arm. His fingers brushed her cheek. Wind-cold.
“Let me fly us both,” he begged.
“No,” both Calli and Dennit said at the same time. Then, softer, Calli’s voice, “No.”
Liras held his breath again. Calli was young. She’d spent all her life in his workshop and none of it in the sky. If she made one wrong calculation; one wrong move, they could both fall.
But if his daughter was ready to take that gamble, Liras had to be as well. His shame had weighed on her; his faults, his doubts. Dennit removed the blindfold, and Calli hooked him into the double flier. Would it hold both of them?
Liras turned his head to look at his daughter. Sweat- and wind-streaked. Smiling like he’d never seen before. “I did it,” she whispered. “It worked.”
A familiar pattern of blue and green whipperlings crossed the wingspan between panels of undyed silk.
She had done it in her own way, on her own time. She’d flown.
Now he and Calli pushed off the tower’s edge, and together they fell from the balcony.
And fell and fell. Calli couldn’t compensate for the added weight. She over-trimmed the wings and spilled more air. She couldn’t figure out how to cross the wind. How to turn and fly the back-and-forth pattern that would get them home.
Liras clutched at the secondary grips, trying to help steer. “We can stop on Naza,” he suggested.
“I can do it,” Calli said, fighting for calm. He felt the wingset’s edges slowly curve as she worked the cams, the finger controls. The wings filled, and they righted. Flew true.
Liras forced himself still. He would not be the one to throw his daughter off course. Never again. He would not be the weak point.
Soon she had the hang of it. When they neared the cloud top, Calli finally found a gust strong enough to allow her to turn.
“No more birdfighting,” Liras promised. If Calli could fly, they would find more customers. Get more supplies. Change was possible.
“I believe you,” she said. Karr had never said that.
The wind picked up enough to lift them both. Slowly, they rose.
“You take great risks,” he shouted into the rushing air.
She didn’t answer at first. He felt the entire rig shake with her laughter.
Her voice carried on the wind. “I’m a wingmaker,” she said. “And I learned from a master.”
Return to Issue #181