Dorial leaned against the rail of the port-side semaphore deck, flight goggles loose around his neck and the cold air sharp and welcome against his naked face. The airship Emergence hung just below the morning’s scattering of cumulus, so Dorial had a clear view of the old mining town he was tasked to protect.
The town called Jagged Peak was not exactly the crown jewel of His Majesty’s vast and varied holdings. Centuries of mining had left its central sky island nearly depleted of aether, and it had sank so far that the lowest cliffs nearly grazed the ocean’s blue-gray swells beneath. The buoyant houses and shops and agricultural platforms were anchored around the island in a funnel-shaped web of rope bridges and ladders, as if the town might somehow hold up the island that shared its name.
The townsfolk needed to cut loose the sinking island, or else risk being dragged down out of the sky and into the watery depths. They would wait, though, until the very last aether mine ran dry, risking their lives because of their livelihoods. They would probably wait too long. It was a doomed place, and a suitably dire sight to match Dorial’s mood.
Behind him the door slid open, and a cabin boy announced, “He’s ready for you, sir.”
Dorial nodded stiffly, steeling himself to face whatever fate awaited. He had broken no rules and received no reprimands from his squadron leader, and yet the captain summoned him.
The boy escorted Dorial down the portside passageway to the captain’s cabin and, irksomely, held the door open for him. Inside, Captain Tarjun sat behind a heavy carved-wood table, a cup of red tea resting cold and forgotten near his left hand. Neglected tea was a sure sign of the gravity of the situation.
“Ah, Ensign Dorial,” the captain said. “I have a temporary reassignment for you. His Majesty’s niece has run away from the palace, and he requires a rider to track her down and bring her safely home.”
Dorial blinked. Despite all the scenarios he’d pictured, this one caught him off-guard. He could not even parse whether it was meant as an honor or a punishment.
When he recovered his voice, Dorial said, “Forgive me, sir, but is there no one closer to the capital?” Jagged Peak was on the far western boundary of the kingdom, hence the strategic value of patrolling these skies despite the town’s diminished worth.
Captain Tarjun said, “This is a matter requiring a certain degree of discretion.”
“Discretion...?” That wasn’t a trait the battle squadrons were known for, generally.
“His Majesty wants this situation resolved quietly and... without scandal.” Captain Tarjun gave him a significant look.
Dorial finally took the captain’s meaning. Heat flushed up his neck, and his jaw tightened. “Ah. Indeed.”
Dorial had been called for because he was arukai—a soldier who had once been a woman. Only he could be trusted alone with the king’s niece, because of all the pterather riders only he was incapable of compromising her virtue.
At the aftmost end of the gondola was the eyrie of the pterathers, where Dorial’s mount nested among the rest of the bevy. Scourge, big for his age, had earned the instant respect of his peers with a gimlet glare and a flick of wingbones; Dorial had worked slower upon those same pterathers’ riders, with restraint and respect and his ever-low expectations. His squadron mates were genial enough now, but Dorial doubted his absence would weigh heavily upon their minds, so he bade goodbye to no one.
Dorial made a low rumbling noise in his throat—mimicking the sound of a pterather’s affectionate greeting—and Scourge came over, ambling clumsily on hind feet and the pads of his thumbs, with the elongated wing-webbed fingers tucked back along his forearms. Dorial reached up to scratch the pterather’s long, narrow snout, naked except for a double-ridge of feathers down the midline.
“Time to work,” Dorial told him. “At least one of us will be pleased with this assignment. Any excuse to fly is good enough for you, eh?”
Ever sensitive to mockery, Scourge huffed in Dorial’s face, but when Dorial brought out the flight gear all was forgiven. For this mission, he tacked up with a two-seated saddle, in anticipation of success. Scourge held his head low to take the bridle; Dorial carefully adjusted the bits to rest in the spaces between the pterather’s pointed teeth, then tossed the double reins over the pterather’s neck. The pre-flight ritual worked upon him like meditation, calming his anger and humiliation over the nature of his assignment.
Scourge crouched low and Dorial mounted, kneeling in the front saddle and clipping his flight harness securely to the pterather’s tack. Together they moved toward the launch hatch, Scourge’s four-limbed ambling even more awkward with the added weight of a rider.
“Release the hatch,” Dorial called to the waiting crewman.
The double doors in the floor swung open, and Scourge leapt toward the square of open sky. Dorial’s heart surged up into his throat as they fell toward the sun-dazzled blue of the ocean far below, then Scourge’s wings snapped open to catch the air, and they were gliding.
Just for a moment, Dorial threw his head back and closed his eyes, feeling the wind in his face and the ripple of powerful muscles between his bent knees. The cold nipped at his fleece-lined jacket, but heat radiated off Scourge’s back, and Dorial buried his hands—gloves and reins and all—deep in Scourge’s mottled brown plumage. There was no peace like flying.
Dorial opened his eyes. The airship Emergence hung above them, sleek and pale as the clouds above, dignified in its quiescence.
This posting had not been theirs for long, but Dorial found himself wondering when he and Scourge would see the Emergence again. Soon, if they completed their mission promptly and with discretion. Never, if they failed. He wondered if Scourge understood the cause-and-effect of their performance, or if such matters seemed arbitrary and inexplicable to the pterather.
Dorial adjusted his flight goggles over his eyes, then gently flicked the reins against Scourge’s neck. The pterather began to pump his wings in earnest, picking up speed, and together they angled toward the rising sun.
The journey from Jagged Peak to the capital would have taken half a week for the Emergence, but Scourge covered the distance in a single day.
True to its name, the enormous main island of Cloud City floated high in the sky. Centuries of tradition forbade the practice of aether mining within the capital, expressly for the purpose of maintaining its lofty elevation. Smaller sky islands trailed down from it in a loose spiral, hanging like a pterather’s tail. A web of ropes and scaffolding connected these islands to each other and tethered the multitude of floating structures that composed the city.
Dorial released pressure on the curb bit, signaling Scourge to climb.
The royal palace claimed the highest peak on the main island, the oldest portion built directly upon the stone with precipitous cliffs dropping away on all sides. Expanded over the centuries, the palace had grown into a miniature city in and of itself, surrounded by villas and gardens and temples on their floating platforms.
Scourge spotted the landing platform first and tipped his head to pull the lower reins, asking permission to land. Dorial gave it, and together they shot down like a stone; Scourge backwinged at the last possible moment and touched down light as a feather.
Scourge folded his wings smugly and crouched for his rider to dismount.
“Show-off,” Dorial muttered as he unclipped his harness and slid from the saddle. He gave the pterather an affectionate smack on the shoulder before leaving him.
He crossed the wide rope bridge that connected the landing platform to the palace proper and paused at the entrance where a servant stood ready, holding out a red silk cushion. Dorial unbuckled the willow-leaf blades he kept strapped to each thigh and placed them on the cushion. Only the royal guard were permitted weapons inside the palace.
Dorial stepped into an airy, high-ceilinged chamber, unlit except for what natural luminescence crept through the filigreed windows to dapple across the slate floor. After a brief wait, he was met by a matron of the Hearth Crone, presumably the missing girl’s religious tutor. The matron came wrapped in layers of soot-gray robes with her hair hidden beneath a white headscarf, impeccably clean and modest, though she held a flamboyant green-and-gold kaftan pinned under one arm.
“You are the one they sent for?” The matron looked Dorial over with a pinched expression, displeased.
“I’m told I am... uniquely qualified,” he said. “Dorial, rider of Scourge, ensign aboard the airship Emergence—at your service.”
“And what exactly are your qualifications, young man, that His Majesty should entrust the safety of his dear niece Navidha to you?”
“I am arukai.” The admittance tasted like acid in his mouth.
“Ah.” The matron raised her eyebrows, appraising him as if an entirely new person now stood before her. This response came as no surprise, but still it took all of Dorial’s inner strength not to clench his fists. He’d fought hard for respect, and now his superiors were using his assumed weakness as a virtue. But when His Majesty gave an insult—even by proxy—there was no choice but to accept it with grace.
The matron stroked the green-and-gold kaftan as if reluctant to part with it. “I’m told those beasts of yours can track a scent.”
“That is true.”
“See if this will do.” She handed him the kaftan.
“If Lady Navidha wore this recently, it should suffice.” He folded the kaftan respectfully over his arm. “I won’t return without her.”
“See that you don’t,” said the matron.
Outside, Dorial reclaimed his blades and crossed the bridge back to where Scourge waited more or less patiently. He tapped the end of the pterather’s snout and held out the kaftan, and Scourge flicked his forked tongue at the cloth, tasting the air around it. The hunt was on.
They flew in slow circuits around the main island, spiraling outward from the palace. Scourge skirted close over the rooftops, inhaling deeply to catch the scents below. Dorial frowned behind his flight goggles, anxiety writhing in his gut, as he considered all the ways this assignment could go wrong.
It was a comfort, at least, that they could not take Scourge from him. A rider trained for years with his young pterather, and the bond was a close one. A pterather who lost their rider—whether it be to injury or death or dishonor—would, more often than not, abandon their post to fly wild, hunting for their old rider until they either found him or died of exhaustion.
Dorial and Scourge could be reassigned, demoted out of military service, shamed in the eyes of their peers, but they could not be separated. And when it came right down to it, Dorial could live with humiliation so long as he did not have to live with it alone.
Scourge was more than a mount—he was a partner, a brother. A better brother than Dorial’s own bloodkin had ever been to him.
One more circuit around the island, and Scourge asked to land. They alighted on packed earth in front of a stately old edifice. Dorial had never been inside, but he recognized it as Cloud City’s renowned library.
“Here?” Dorial eyed the stone façade doubtfully. “Are you certain?”
Scourge twisted his neck to give Dorial a one-eyed glare, as if offended by his rider’s lack of faith in his skill.
“All right, all right,” Dorial muttered and dismounted. “No need to get testy.”
The air inside the library was cool and smelled of cedar and old leather. Behind a long curved desk sat a young man, scrawny and hardly out of boyhood, dressed as a disciple of the Scholar in a brown kaftan embroidered with black calligraphy. Dorial loomed over him until the boy looked up, startled. “May I help you?”
“I’m looking for a young lady—high-born and unaccompanied—who may have visited here earlier this week.”
“Seekers of knowledge fall under the Scholar’s protection,” the boy replied automatically, as if the words had been trained into him. “It is not my place to discuss the library’s visitors.”
Dorial rested his hands suggestively upon the pommels of his willow-leaf blades. The scholar-boy swallowed.
“I am here on official business,” Dorial said. “His Majesty’s orders.”
“Right, of course, in that case...” The boy scrambled out of his chair, ready to serve. “I believe the young lady you seek was here three days ago. Would you like to see the books she requested?”
Dorial was a whole three days behind her—Navidha could be anywhere by now. But if he learned something about her interests, perhaps that would help him narrow the search.
The boy led him through the maze of books and scrolls, selected a large volume from the shelves, and laid it out on a reading table for Dorial to examine. “She spent the better part of an afternoon poring over this one.”
Dorial opened to the title page: the book was an old treatise on the nature and origins of aether. “Rather an odd selection, wouldn’t you think?”
“On the contrary,” the boy enthused. “This is a classic. At the time of its writing, it was the definitive work on the subject.”
Dorial cast him an arid look. “I meant, rather odd for a young lady.”
“Oh. I suppose...?” The young scholar looked as if he were struggling to comprehend the possibility that anyone wouldn’t run away from home in order to read two-century-old densely worded academic manuscripts.
Dorial shook his head and dismissed the boy, who scurried back to his post by the front entrance. Then he flipped through the book, muttering, “What were you looking for?”
A sheaf of paper fell out of the pages, surprising him. It was folded like a letter but without the wax sealing. He gently uncreased the paper and looked over the neat black words calligraphed across the first sheet.
My dearest pursuer,
By the time you read this I will have moved on from the library and shan’t be returning there. I’m afraid your search must go on, for which I can only apologize.
No doubt my uncle has conscripted you to perform this task against your better wishes. As recompense for the inconvenience I have caused you, please accept the enclosed tale, which I have composed especially for you.
Dorial might have crumpled the whole sheaf and left it behind but for the exceptional oddness of that signature. Your servant, the highborn lady had written to a soldier of low rank and little repute. He set the letter aside and looked to the extra pages.
Once upon a time in a faraway realm there lived a boy of pedigree and privilege. His father was a successful merchant with a fleet of seven airships at his command. His mother played the kanun and the tanpura and the kamancheh, and had done so for the Emperor’s pleasure on several occasions. The boy did not have a head for figures like his father, nor an ear for harmony like his mother, but he was gifted in his own way, for the boy had been born with a magic gemstone in his brow.
The boy with the magic gemstone in his brow saw djinn everywhere, and the djinn saw the boy. He fascinated them, and they doted upon him like aunties with their favorite nephew. When he was little, the djinn would carry him in their arms and fly him in circles around the island that was his home. The boy learned to love the sky as ardently as his companions did, and nothing on his home island could hold his interest when compared against the offer of flight.
The boy’s mother worried about his safety every time he disappeared with the invisible djinn. The boy’s father, however, worried over the boy’s neglected education. The father’s three sisters had between them five sons, and he watched with envy as his nephews studied their figures, and practiced tying knots, and learned the care and feeding of pteravods. The eldest of the five eagerly accepted an apprenticeship aboard an airship in his trading fleet, yet his own son showed no such enthusiasm.
The boy had little interest in trading. Traders prayed to the God of Winds for an uneventful journey, whereas the boy yearned for the opposite. When the boy grew heavier, the djinn stole an aether-lifted chariot so they could pull him along on their adventures.
One day, as the boy and the djinn traveled through gray and storm-heavy skies at the edge of the Empire, they came upon an airship painted with Imperial gold and indigo. But this airship had no royal standard, instead flying the red flag of piracy.
Look! the boy cried. The pirates have stolen the Emperor’s airship! We must steal it back.
The djinn tightened their flying formation and muttered among themselves. All were in agreement: it would be highly amusing to steal from pirates.
The pirates had spear launchers and flaming tar bombs, and every one carried a scimitar strapped to his hip, but they could not see the djinn. They fired spears at empty air and swung their scimitars wildly, cutting nothing.
The pirates could see the boy, but even this did not help them much. The boy had stolen a bolt of lightning from the stormclouds above and stored it inside his magic gemstone. Every time the pirates attacked, he would zap them with a bit of lightning.
Soon all the pirates were relieved of their weapons and locked up in the brig. The djinn ran wild through the gondola and explored all the crawlspaces between the aether bags inside the enormous envelope. The boy dressed up in fineries he discovered in the cargo hold and paraded about, pretending to be a prince. After a while, the boy and the djinn agreed this adventure must draw to a close, but what to do with the airship? The boy convinced the djinn they should return it to the Empire, so they set a course for the Capital.
They flew straight up to the Emperor’s palace, returning the airship with its valuable cargo and delivering the thieves in chains. The Emperor’s seneschal hung a medal of bravery around the boy’s neck, and the boy spent a whole afternoon with the royal magician, introducing the man to the djinn and talking about magic. Thanks to the boy’s actions, the lords and scholars and commanders of the Empire began to view the djinn with respect and esteem, and in return the djinn felt less inclined to make a nuisance of themselves.
Surely, the boy thought, Father will be proud of me now.
Dorial blinked and looked up from the page, half-surprised to find himself still seated at a reading table in the library, instead of adventuring through far-away skies in the company of mythical spirits. He ought to be angry with himself for succumbing to distraction; instead, he could not shake the feeling that the story served a purpose beyond merely delaying his pursuit, that some hidden meaning lay within. What sort of game was Navidha playing with him?
If the story was intended as a clue, Dorial saw three possible hints: the mother’s instruments, the father’s airships, and the boy’s gemstone. Cloud City hosted three civilian docking structures, each visited by dozens of airships every week—slim chance that anyone working the docks would remember a lone girl, even a lady. The other two destinations, though, could be checked and eliminated with relative ease.
Dorial left the library and flew first to the luthier’s shop on the edge of the main island. Scourge snorted dismissively, catching none of Navidha’s scent, and when Dorial went inside to inquire, the luthier said he’d seen no one who fit the description. Next Dorial flew to the gemstone dealer in the district where the wealthiest merchants lived, and he asked the dealer the same questions, to no avail.
Dorial let Scourge take to the sky while he considered the problem. The wind in his face helped clear the cobwebs from his thoughts. If she already owned a gemstone, where would she go? What were gemstones used for, when they weren’t embedded in the foreheads of imaginary boys? Worth a try, he thought, and steered Scourge toward the city’s smiths and jewelers.
Outside the silversmith’s studio Scourge perked up, flaring his nostrils, and Dorial’s pulse leapt with anticipation. Still, he approached the shop entrance with caution, palms resting on the pommels of his willow-leaf blades. Why did the girl want him following her? If this was a trap, then whatever mercenaries she’d hired were in for a nasty surprise. Dorial did not wear his blades for show.
Dorial reached for the door and found it locked, the storefront apparently closed at the moment. So he followed the muffled clanging of smithwork around the back to an open-air workshop. There was a small but blazing-hot forge, a roof for shade, and yellow lacquer panels that could be slid closed to form walls, but at the moment the middle-aged silversmith worked with the sunlight streaming in from the west.
“Hello?” Dorial called politely. This did not look like an opportune location to set a trap. “Excuse the interruption.”
The smith glanced up and waved a hand to usher Dorial inside before returning his attention to the workbench. Despite his age the smith was clean-shaven, and his right arm was noticeably stronger than his left, the muscles bulky from years of working at his craft. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for someone,” Dorial said. The heat from the forge pricked sweat from the back of his neck. Dorial dressed as his squadron mates did, in rough-hewn trousers and shirt beneath a vest and thigh plates of hardened-leather armor, with a cap and gloves and a jacket on top of it all. The gentle breeze through the open walls might have helped the smith, but it did nothing to keep Dorial cool.
The smith looked Dorial in the eye when he spoke. “Someone in particular, I take it.”
Dorial frowned slightly. Was that amusement crinkling at the corners of the smith’s eyes? What exactly was going on here? He cleared his throat. “A young lady, high-born, unaccompanied. I believe she came here yesterday or the day before.”
Yes, that was amusement all right—a knowing grin blossomed across the smith’s face. “Of course, of course. She said you’d be along to pick it up.”
Dorial blinked. “Pick what up?”
“Her commission, of course.” He was still smiling, as if he’d expected Dorial’s confusion.
“That’s not why I—” Dorial began, but the smith was already wiping his hands on his leather apron and heading toward a door that must have served as the rear entrance of the shop.
“Wait here,” he said before disappearing inside.
Dorial shifted his weight from foot to foot and scanned his surroundings, disquieted by this turn of events. He did not appreciate the feeling of being toyed with.
When the smith returned, he carried a piece of finished silverwork, and Dorial wondered if this were all an elaborate joke. But the smith held it out as if waiting for Dorial to inspect and approve the piece. It was a diadem composed of an elegant swirl of silverwork with a blood-red cabochon in the center.
“It looks... nice?” Dorial said, at a loss.
The smith huffed at the weak praise but carefully folded the diadem in a protective cloth before handing it over. “She left this for you, as well,” he said and produced a leather envelope of the type used by couriers to transport important documents.
Dorial tucked the diadem into the inside pocket of his jacket before accepting the envelope. He eyed the smith, wondering exactly how much the man knew and whether he should leave before reading the contents. But the smith turned his attention back to the work table and the half-finished project thereupon.
So Dorial opened the envelope and pulled out the top sheet of paper, on which Navidha had written a second letter.
My dearest pursuer,
I’m afraid I must further delay the completion of your mission, as I still have some tasks left to accomplish before I may return to my uncle’s palace. I have asked the silversmith to present you with my commission, hoping you will see fit to deliver it to me. I am sure such a task is beneath your talents, though I promise it will serve to hasten our meeting.
I deeply regret any frustration I have caused you, necessary though it may be, and I look forward to knowing you soon. To pass the time, please see the enclosed.
Dorial hesitated, the rest of the pages still tucked away in the envelope unseen. If he left now without taking the time to read the story, he might catch Navidha at her next destination. But what if she had hidden another clue in this narrative? Dorial decided he must read on in order to complete his mission.
The boy with the magic gemstone in his brow went on many adventures with his comrades the djinn, and he became well acquainted with each of them. One day he noticed a few of the djinn were missing, and so he asked where they had gone. The djinn told him a story.
Long ago there was a powerful djinn who viewed humanity with scorn and stole whatever she liked from them. And long ago there was also a powerful sorceress who spent her waning years cultivating a garden of rare magical plants, in which grew a black pomegranate tree. The powerful djinn desired a taste of those magical black pomegranates, and so she snuck into the garden at night and plucked a basketful of ripe fruit from the tree. But the powerful sorceress caught her in the act, and so she trapped the djinn inside an oil lamp and cursed her to serve the desires of men. And this is what the powerful djinn has done ever since.
What a sad story, the boy said to the djinn. But where are our missing friends?
The lord that holds the oil lamp wished for more servants, the djinn told him, and so our friends have been enslaved.
The boy declared, We must go and rescue them!
As they flew to the far away island where the lord lived, the boy plotted and schemed and strategized ways to free his friends. But when he arrived at the opulent mansion and approached the lord, he found the man in a state of distress.
These djinn make disastrous servants, the lord told the boy. When they carry a pitcher of milk, it sours. When they carry a platter of fruit, it goes rotten. They set fire to the linens and blow out the lamp flames. They misplace my wife’s jewelry and bring her live mice instead. And you’d think invisible servants would be wonderful, but I never know where they are! If I had any wishes left, I’d wish them all gone!
The boy hid a smile. He was not in the least surprised to hear this report of his friends’ abilities as servants. But he put on a serious face and offered to solve the lord’s problems. All the lord had to do was give the boy the oil lamp.
The lord, who had used up all his wishes anyway, eagerly agreed.
The boy lit the oil lamp and called forth the powerful old djinn. She towered over the others, and there was a glint of hatred in her eyes. The boy wondered how many men would dare make wishes if she were visible to them, with that thirst for revenge written on her face.
I will grant you three wishes, the powerful djinn said.
When he considered what he might wish for, the boy found he was content with his life and wanted for nothing. This, indeed, was the fulfillment of all he could remember wanting: to fly with the djinn to distant islands and have great adventures and do heroic deeds.
So the boy spent only one of his wishes, and with it he wished for all the trapped djinn to be free. The once-trapped powerful djinn was touched by his kindness, and she abandoned her vendetta against mankind to instead go adventuring with the boy. Together they flew many skies and explored distant islands and sought heroic deeds in need of doing. And they were content—even if the boy’s parents were not.
Dorial tucked the pages away in the courier’s envelope and walked back to where Scourge waited for him, considering the problem of where to search next.
His first thought was the oil lamp, but the story did not specify whether the lamp was ceramic or bronze; did he need to find another smith, or a potter? The diadem would let Navidha wear a stone on her brow, like the boy in the story, but why would a young lady need to purchase an oil lamp? There must have been hundreds of lamps available for her use in the palace.
Then Dorial remembered the old sorceress with her garden of magical plants. Cloud City had no sorceresses, of course—sorcery was the province of folktales and embellished histories—but there were herbalists and apothecaries. A rare plant would be something Navidha could not acquire within the walls of her uncle’s palace.
Scourge launched into the air once more. Dorial increased pressure on the curb bit, guiding the pterather to descend toward the lower islands of the city. Scourge dove through a layer of stratus, cold moisture clinging to the pterather’s plumage in tiny droplets like a dusting of crushed glass. From below, the clouds were lit up with sunset colors, liquid gold and melon pink across the deep darkening blue of the sky.
The lower islands of Cloud City were poorer, meaner, but also more jovial and lively. The people had less but shared more. An air of authority tended to make them nervous, though, and the lower city reminded Dorial uncomfortably of the island where he grew up. Of a childhood spent desperately trying to be a person he could never be, a person who did not fit in his own skin.
Dorial and Scourge worked their way down from one apothecary to the next, Dorial asking questions and Scourge sniffing the air. When Scourge finally perked up, catching a scent, they landed in the center of a floating market square ringed with stalls and shops. The evening market bustled, and Dorial half-wondered if the pterather had followed the smell of lemon-soaked lamb kebabs and cardamom flatbread instead of hunting for Navidha. But Scourge swung his large head in the direction of an herbalist’s shop.
Once inside, the voices of the marketplace were reduced to a gentle murmur. The failing daylight left the shop cluttered with shadows, the glow of a hearth fire not enough to illuminate the far corners of the room. An old woman bent over the hearth, checking the progress of some decoction in a small cast-iron pot. She took her time stirring, leaving Dorial to wait awkwardly by the door. Dorial cleared his throat.
“You’re late,” the herbalist said without looking up.
She straightened, one hand on her stiff lower back. “She told me you’d be coming. Now where did I put it...” The herbalist shuffled past a long work table that doubled as a sales counter and rummaged around in the back of the shop.
Dorial stepped up to the counter. “One of your patrons left a letter for me? A young lady, highborn and unaccompanied?”
“Ah, here it is,” the old woman said, lifting a sheet of paper triumphantly. She passed it to him.
There was no letter this time, only a single page written in Navidha’s neat, compact, now-familiar handwriting. Dorial glanced at the herbalist, puzzled, then bent his head to read.
As the boy grew older, his mother and father grew concerned. It was one thing for a child to spend his days adventuring with the djinn, but it was another matter entirely for a young man to do so. Young men were meant to be mastering a craft, or learning their figures, or practicing swordplay. Magic was for children. So the mother and father sat the boy down to have a serious discussion about his future.
We must cut out your gemstone, said the boy’s father.
I do not want to cut out the gemstone, said the boy. I love the magic—it is who I am.
But if we do not, you will never grow up and become a man, said the boy’s mother.
The boy said, Then I will stay a boy forever.
On the night before the boy’s fourteenth birthday, his parents hired the monks from the local temple to visit their home. The monks tied the boy to his bed and cut out the magic stone with a heated iron knife.
The next day the old powerful djinn arrived to celebrate the boy’s birthday, only to find him blind to her. Infuriated at the loss of her truest friend, she crept into the boy’s house that night and murdered his parents in their sleep.
The boy grew up, became a man, and inherited his father’s business, which languished and failed under his direction. By middle age, he had sold off all seven airships of his father’s fleet and spent the last of his coin on wine and whores, and he died of cholera in a charity house on the outskirts of nowhere.
He never saw another djinn.
Dorial stared, dumbstruck, at the paper in his hands. He flipped the page over, but the back side was blank. That was all there was.
“Did you like my story?”
Dorial glanced up, startled, to find a young lady standing in the doorway. She had crow-black curls and wide cheekbones above a pointed chin. She smiled, and the look she gave him was full of anticipation and hope. Dorial, with his habit of expecting the worst, could not fathom why.
He cleared his throat. “Rather a grim ending, I’d say.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Navidha said softly, sadly.
Dorial shifted his weight, uncomfortable with this strange lady and her unfathomable moods. Were all royals like this? He did not know what to say to her.
Quick as a whip, she stepped closer and offered him her hand. “Forgive me, we have not been properly introduced. I’m called Navidha.”
He took her hand and inclined his head. “Dorial, rider of Scourge, ensign aboard the airship Emergence.”
“Well, not at the moment,” she corrected.
Dorial dropped her hand. “Excuse me?”
Navidha looked around, pretending to survey their surroundings. “Last I checked, we’re not aboard an airship.”
“The Emergence is my current posting,” he said stiffly. “And it is past time I returned you to the palace, so I may resume it.”
“We could...” she said, drawing the word out playfully. “But if we go now, I’ll have to be vexed with you, and I shan’t be inclined to tell you what I’ve been doing all this time.”
“What makes you think I’m curious to know?” Dorial countered, though of course he was. He couldn’t help but feel invested in the mystery.
“You have a curious soul. An incurious man would not have read my stories, and not have seen my clues, and not have found me.”
She was looking straight at him with her wide anise-black eyes, seeing him for what he was, and she had called him a man anyway. Where Dorial expected insult, he found only acknowledgment. And that mattered. “Very well. I can allow you some time, so long as you accept me as an escort.”
Navidha wandered away from him, idly touching a display of dried herbs as if collecting her thoughts. “Tell me, Ensign Dorial, what do you know of aether? What is it, exactly?”
“Aether is... an element, like water or metal or wood.”
“Rain falls. If you throw a stone up, it always comes back down. Even air sinks, thicker near the sea and thinner above the clouds,” she said. “But not aether. Of all the elements, only aether rises. The inexplicable nature of aether proves the existence of magic.”
Dorial frowned at her logic. He’d had schooling enough to read and write, to do sums, and even to navigate by the stars. But he was no scholar of alchemy—what did he know of elements?
“There was magic in the world once,” Navidha continued. “All the stories tell us this. I want to discover it again, for the glory of our kingdom.”
Dorial laughed. “Djinn and gemstones?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” she said, perfectly serious.
He folded his arms. “What, then?”
“Wouldn’t you like to find out?” she said. “I know I would.”
Dorial had expected the king’s niece to be a frivolous young lady, the sort to run away in pursuit of some romantic infatuation, or perhaps simply to cause a stir or attract attention. He did not know what to do with the girl he’d found instead, who devoted her passion to something larger than herself.
Doubtfully, he said, “So that is what all this is for? The research, the diadem, the herbs?”
“Necessary preparations. I have a plan.” She paused and gave him a considering look, but said simply, “It’s complicated.”
Dorial lifted the story page off the counter and held it up as if it were evidence. “I thought magic was for children.”
She grabbed the page from him, balled it up in her hands, and dropped it into the herbalist’s lit hearth. The flames flared brighter for a moment, consuming the crumpled page like a flower that bloomed and died in seconds. She watched, entranced, the fire reflecting in her eyes.
“It’s just paper,” she said. “There’s still time to write a different ending.”
Dorial shook his head. “I’m afraid you’re out of time.”
“But you’ll still be wanting this, I hope,” the herbalist interrupted.
Dorial jumped; he had forgotten about the old woman. She was holding a lidded woven basket, which she slid across the counter toward them. Navidha thanked and paid the herbalist, then slung the basket’s leather strap over her shoulder and left the shop. Dorial followed her out the door. In the market square, Navidha tucked her hand under his elbow and they walked side by side, as if they were out for a stroll through the royal gardens. It seemed inappropriately familiar, given his relatively low station, but Dorial couldn’t think how to disengage her touch without insulting her.
Scourge was easy to find, not only because he perked up at the sound and smell of their approach but also because of the circle of empty platform surrounding him. Everyone else in the marketplace had given the beast a wide berth, wary of sharp teeth and claws.
“We have one last errand to run, you and I,” Navidha said as they stopped in front of the pterather.
Before Dorial could answer, Scourge interrupted, bending his neck over Navidha and wuffling in her hair. She held very still for this inspection, but she did not seem especially disturbed at having the snout of a massive winged predator in her face.
Dorial reached out to scratch the hollow behind Scourge’s jaw, and his eyelids drooped with contentment. “He doesn’t scare you?”
Navidha smoothed her palms down the front of her richly embroidered kaftan, steadying herself. “There will be worse things to fear before this quest of mine is complete.”
She was so clever and brave and determined—Dorial could not help but admire that, even if he found her optimism a bit naïve. She would pursue this with or without him, uncaring of the danger she might put herself in.
“One more stop,” he reluctantly agreed, “and then it’s back to the palace with you.”
Dorial got out the spare flight harness and held it up for her as one might hold up a cloak. Navidha threaded her arms through the leather straps and clumsily fastened the buckles, while Dorial tried his best to assist without actually touching her.
“Don’t worry,” Navidha said brightly, “this errand takes us back up to the main island.”
She unraveled a colorful scarf from around her neck and tucked her hair securely beneath it, preparing for flight, but when it came time to mount the pterather, she lost some of her shining confidence. Scourge crouched, folding his wingbones carefully back and presenting the length of his forearm as a mounting step. Navidha still hesitated, eyes wide as if the climb daunted her.
Dorial sighed. “I’ll pull you up,” he said, mounting with ease, then leaning down with his hand outstretched.
Navidha grabbed his hand, and he heaved her up onto the saddle seat behind him. Next he had to show her how to kneel properly in the saddle and how to clip her harness to the tack. Apparently, highborn ladies didn’t get a great deal of practical experience with flying, however much they might enjoy writing about it.
Dorial was careful, though, to keep an expression of bland patience instead of showing his amusement. While Navidha might be in trouble herself for running away, that didn’t preclude the possibility that she could cause trouble for his career if she wanted to. Best not to offend someone of high station.
Scourge, ever the show-off, launched himself into the air with a velocity no docile pteravod could hope to match. The market platform dropped out from under them like a stone.
Navidha let out a little shriek and buried her face in the back of Dorial’s coat. Dorial stiffened at the warm pressure between his shoulderblades, intensely aware of the impropriety of the moment, but she didn’t seem to notice. Instead, she let out a giddy laugh, the sound muffled a bit by the sheepskin. She mustered her courage and slowly leaned away from him, leaving one hand pressed to the small of his back as if touch alone held her in the saddle.
Dorial released pressure on the curb bit, and powerful wingbeats carried them upward.
“Where are we going?” he called over his shoulder.
The office of the royal cartographers was a wide, low structure built into the steep stone side of the main island. The building had a modest landing platform of its own, but it was also connected by rope bridge to the massive floating towers of the military docks, where half a dozen royal airships of varying size and purpose were currently berthed for the night.
The hulking silhouettes of the dock towers made Dorial vaguely uncomfortable. The training facility for pterathers and their riders was not in Cloud City, so Dorial had only a passing familiarity with these docks, but something about them still brought to mind his time as a young recruit. That difficult time, before Scourge had chosen him, when he’d faced an uncertain fate.
Scourge backwinged over the little platform, alighting with a whoosh of air. Dorial unclipped his harness and shifted in the saddle to see to Navidha, worried about the strength of her stomach after that landing. But when he turned, he found Navidha grinning, wide-eyed with delight. The wind had pulled loose her headscarf, and her black curls were a mess, but if she knew she didn’t seem to mind.
Dorial slid down first and then reached up to help Navidha dismount. She stumbled a bit when her feet landed on the platform, and Dorial had to steady her with a hand on her elbow. “Those saddles can be hard on the knees,” he said, trying to be sympathetic despite the unimpressively short distance they’d traveled.
“I’m fine,” she said brightly and stepped away from him. Her cheeks colored a little, embarrassed at needing his assistance but not resentful of him for providing it. “Shall we go inside?”
As they walked up to the entrance of the cartography hall, Dorial cast her a sidelong glance. “There were no maps in your stories, I’d like to point out.”
“No?” she answered with feigned innocence. “I’ll have to write one with maps in it, then. Magical maps, of course.”
Dorial pressed his lips together to keep himself from laughing. There was something infectious about her effervescent mood. He did not look forward to her inevitable disappointment when he delivered her back to the palace.
Navidha let herself inside, Dorial following. She called out, announcing their arrival, and one of the royal cartographers emerged from a door on their left. Like the boy in the library he wore the brown kaftan of the Scholar, but he seemed a little older, a little wiser. Not quite so awed by Dorial’s flight gear and willow-leaf blades and posture of authority. The cartographer exchanged a familiar greeting with Navidha—too familiar, in Dorial’s opinion—but it did not seem quite like a reunion among friends so much as a gathering of co-conspirators. One to which Dorial had been accidentally invited.
While he could not help but feel like an intruder, the cartographer welcomed him into their confidence without question. “Come along into the map hall,” he urged them both.
Compared against Cloud City’s cavernous library, the map hall was small and modest, though the strategically placed oil lamps kept the room well lit even at night. Instead of books, there were maps—maps everywhere. Some were stored rolled up like scrolls and tucked away in little square cubbies. The largest hung framed upon the walls. The rest were housed in custom-built wooden chests with wide shallow drawers, lined up in rows as if they were bookshelves.
The cartographer led them to a long table, whereupon an array of maps were laid out. The topmost map was well familiar to Dorial, showing His Majesty’s holdings and the lands surrounding them.
The cartographer flicked a questioning glance from Dorial to Navidha. “Shall I explain...?”
“Please do,” she said. “As you described it to me.”
He nodded and turned to Dorial. “The sky islands are not perfectly stationary—their position wanders over time. It’s a slow process, but with a thousand years of maps it’s possible to calculate the speed and trajectory of each island’s wander. By tradition, we draft our maps with Cloud City in the center and plot the position of all other islands relative to the capital, but in actuality Cloud Island also wanders. We can prove this with the star maps.
“So what I’ve been searching for, at the request of the lady Navidha, is a true center for the sky islands. A sort of magnetic north, if you will, for all of aether magic: the island that does not wander.”
Navidha sucked in a breath, excited to see the glint of victory in the cartographer’s eyes. “You’ve found it?”
He grinned and tapped the far northwestern corner of the map with his index finger. “Here; a small island chain called the Pearl Isles. They do not wander relative to the stars.”
“So that is where I must go,” she said quietly, almost to herself. “The heart of aether magic. Perhaps even its origin.”
Dorial stared at the map; on paper, the Pearl Isles did not look especially worthy of notice. “What do you hope to find there?”
“Answers,” she replied. “And if I’m very lucky, I’ll find the next questions—the ones I don’t yet know to ask.”
Navidha thanked the cartographer for his service and passed him a coin to pay for his discretion, though Dorial doubted it was necessary to buy this man’s loyalty. From the respect in his gaze, she already had it.
Dorial and Navidha walked out into the night, where Scourge waited for them. He crouched motionless on the platform like a massive gargoyle, moonlight catching on the smooth planes of his plumage. They stopped beside him, Dorial disquieted to find a reluctance inside himself; he ought to mount immediately, pull her up after him, and fly for the palace, but he did not.
“I’m afraid it’s time for you to decide,” Navidha said, her mood shifting like the wind, anticipation vanishing in favor of a hesitance that bordered on dread.
“Decide what?” Dorial replied stiffly, as if he did not already know what she would ask of him.
“Which it will be,” she clarified. “Return to the palace? Or aim for distant skies, in search of magic and adventure?”
Deep in his gut, Dorial knew that if he returned her to the palace, she would not simply forget about her chosen mission. He could absolve himself of responsibility for her, at least in the eyes of his superiors, but sooner or later she would find a way to escape again. And then she would be traveling halfway across the known world, a highborn lady facing dangers her sheltered upbringing had never prepared her for.
Was it not Dorial’s duty to protect her? And what waited for him back on the Emergence but tedious patrols and the constant need to prove himself?
Scourge stuck his snout in Navidha’s face, gave her one last sniff, and let out a low whistle of approval. Dorial patted the pterather’s neck, acknowledging his opinion. Rider and mount were in agreement.
“You were wrong,” Dorial told her. “This is not our last errand. I can’t have his Majesty’s favorite niece freezing to death on my watch, so you’ll be needing your own flight gear. There’s an awful lot of bright, cold sky between here and the Pearl Isles.”
Navidha smiled like sunlight dazzling through a parting in the clouds. Dorial shook his head, bemused at her excitement. He could not muster such unbridled optimism; it was not in his constitution.
But perhaps Navidha had enough hope for the both of them.