The Aeroliths

Issue #212

One night there was a storm, a big one that raged through the windows of the wizard’s house and set it swaying at anchor in the sky over the Emperor’s ivory city. I had not spoken the word to close the heavy copper shutters. (I admit that for a time I could not recall what the word was.) Some scrolls were torn from their places in the upper levels, and the next morning I found them scattered about the stone floor like leaves.

This one was among them.

Sylva wanted me to find it.

“Your name is a lie,” Sylva had told me, before she departed and took the winds, leaving the wizard’s house silent and becalmed.

“I am the wizard Theodulus now,” I said. “I wear his cloak. I bear his ring. I know the words of power.”

But I did not know the words to either free her or compel her.

“His name was a lie.”

She would not explain what she meant.

I knew she had been bound to this house to serve the wizard, as she served me now who had taken his place. But when the house returned to the Emperor’s capital and I had taken the wizard’s name, Sylva laughed once, harshly, and departed.

Now I waited for her return.

The scroll is coiled and damp with tears or rain or both. For Sylva, they might be one and the same.

She is the wind.

She has gone again, out in the empty blue beyond the windows, though she cannot go far, bound as she is to the house.

As the sunlight slants through the tall windows I spread the wet parchment across my knees and speak a fire into the hearth.

“Your name is a lie,” I hear her say again.

I bend and begin to read.

There had been in my great-grandfather’s day no rebellion, yet when the Emperor came to power the patricians opposed him in their own way. Emperor Theodorus, they said, did not wish to begin his reign in blood, so he banished all the noble houses to the mountain valleys of the north to mine the aeroliths.

We found our nine-hundredth aerolith that spring. I was wandering the lower slopes when I heard the sharp high cry of my eldest brother’s horn signal a find. When I arrived, my father and brothers were already there, chipping away the rock face at the sharp mouth of a gully.

“A shallow one, Sylva,” the youngest of my brothers said when I joined them. “Not far from the surface.”

He pointed to where a few slivers of rock drifted upward in the breeze.

By law no more than three aeroliths could be stored together outside the Emperor’s own storehouses. There were two of the stones in our lodge already, tugging at their leather straps in my father’s workroom like docked barges on a river. This find would mean, after it was fully unearthed and shaped, a trip to Cor Capitulus.

I told my father I was old enough to come with him.

“No,” he said. Then he sighed. “Not yet. Not this time. Soon.”

He had taken my brothers before. But I was different. I could tease motion from the buoyant flecks carved from the corners of the aeroliths. I had always known the coming weather from the mute breezes gusting at the valley’s edge.

And I was his only daughter.

I did not realize then what that meant.

Mother must have had words with him, though I never learned what they were. The next evening, as my brothers and father returned from the day’s work with the fully unearthed aerolith trailing behind them, she told me that when the stone was shaped I would travel with him to the Capital.

The stones gained potency as they were shaped. My father chipped and shaved at the rock—tethered now to the floorboards of the workshop—until it was the size dictated by the golden rods my great-grandfather had carried from Cor Capitulus: a length of nearly my father’s full outspread arms, and a height and width of half that. By the time it was finished, my father and brothers could all sit astride the grey carved boulder where it floated a few feet above the wooden floor and it would hardly settle at all toward the ground.

Two other stones were nestled against the rafters of the workshop. They would be winched down and, along with this one, fastened to a large wooden sledge of my father’s design, built so ordinary stones could be loaded into its bottom half. When the weight was balanced perfectly, a single mule could pull the buoyant sledge down out of the valley, with my father and whichever son he had chosen to accompany him riding on top.

This time it would be me.

Had I known what waited for me there though, what words would pass between the Emperor and his wizard upon my entrance to the Blue Hall, I would not have been so eager for the journey.

We saw the low white line of the walls of Cor Capitulus not long after lunch on our second day out of the mountains. Truthfully though, as my father explained, we were not out of the mountains at all. The wide, green fields we rode through were a valley, though one so large the mountains were simply now a low line on the horizon. The ranges continued to the south, he said, before falling away to vast red deserts. Even those did not mark the edge of the Emperor’s domains, which extended to the immense mesas of the far south known as the Shallows, where the Barons waged their petty wars.

When we were within sight of the walls my father pulled a wrapped parcel from beneath the sledge. Unwrapping it, I saw it was a blue robe I had never seen him wear before, with stiff bronze epaulets at the shoulders.

He saw my questioning look.

“The mark of a patrician,” he explained. “And one I am permitted to wear within sight of the city.” He climbed down from the sledge. “We walk from here.”

The Emperor’s Capital, in my father’s words, was a city of green boulevards and canals spilling out along either side of the River Is. The white walls resolved as we approached into monoliths of marble, huge vertical slabs rearing upward at regular intervals along the city’s perimeter, but no more a true wall than a row of ivory headstones. No army had ever marched across the Emperor’s plains.

“Not in the ages of the patricians,” my father said, pointing up at the stones as we passed between them. “Nor in the age that followed.”

We walked between them and led the mule and the floating sledge down a wide smooth avenue leading to the center of the city. Traffic parted on either side around us, and the mounted soldiers we passed periodically gave respectful salutes, which my father returned. At the beginning of a row of huge houses along a wide blue canal, my father turned the sledge down an equally wide side street.

We stopped at a set of bronze doors set in the face of a windowless stone warehouse.

“This is the Hall of Delivery,” my father explained.

He knocked, and the doors swung open silently.

He unhitched the sledge from the mule, and a team of men came from within and pulled the sledge inside. I followed my father after them. They pushed it to the center of an immense chamber, darkened but for where a central beam of light came down from windows high above. At the center of this chamber, a man in a long grey robe waited beside an immense coil of chain.

“Patrician,” the man said in greeting when we stood before him. He bowed, and my father bowed back.

“I bring these gifts to the Emperor.”

“The Emperor is grateful.” There was a narrow desk beside the man, upon which sat a huge ledger, quill, and silver and gold rods identical to those in my father’s workshop. The man applied these rods to the stones we had carried from the mountains, nodding approvingly and making notations in his ledger.

“And now their buoyancy,” he said.

My father bent to affix the huge chain to the bottom of the sledge.

“Stand back,” he told me.

He hit an iron lever on the side of the sledge that dropped the ballast stones from the lower half. Like a cork released in water, the sledge with its three secured stones lurched upward. The clerk read off measurements from the chain as it spiraled upward until the sledge and stones slowed to a halt far over our heads in a beam of sunlight above .

“These may be your strongest yet, Patrician,” the man said with what sounded like true mirth. “The blood runs strong in your hills.”

My father grunted but said nothing. The clerk made some final notations in his ledger and closed it in satisfaction.

“Your family’s debt to the Emperor is nine-tenths paid, Patrician.” At this it was my father’s turn to bow again. The clerk’s eyes fell on me. “You bring a new member of your family to court this season.”

“This is my daughter, Sylva.”

The man’s smile widened, and he pulled a bronze instrument from within a fold of his robe. I felt my father stiffen beside me, but it was simply a wide-faced timepiece. He clicked it open and stared. I could not see its face.

“Wonderful,” he said after a moment. “It pleases me the patrician families prosper, even in exile.”

With that we were dismissed. I stared upward again at the far reaches of the room. Our stones seemed bricks against the vastness of the chamber’s wide vaults. I realized our own were suspended among many, that there were dozens of floating stones in the upper chamber.

My father’s gaze followed mine. “This is where they are all delivered, from all the patrician holdings. When enough are collected, they’ll be carried to the Emperor’s quarries in the hills.”

“What are they doing with them?”

My father shrugged as we left the room. “It is not for me to know. Come, we will stay in the guesthouse maintained for patricians in exile. It is not far from the palace.”

On our walk through the Capital, my eyes wandered upward at the buildings we passed and the empty alleys of air above them. I imagined the Emperor lining his palace with our aeroliths until it rose and drifted over the city like a cloud.

It was not like that at all.

A runner came to the guesthouse the next morning as my father and I were breakfasting before a long wall of flint-glass windows that looked onto the market square below.

“Your daughter has been summoned for an audience with the Emperor,” the runner said. I saw my father’s face pale, and his eyes glanced toward me. “He will await her presence in the Blue Hall at four of the clock.”

The runner bowed quickly and was gone.

It had been, I believe, my father’s plan to deliver the stones and show me—as he had my brothers before me—the holdings beside the river that remained ours by right. I could not read his expression now.

“The Emperor?” I asked.

My father nodded. “Emperor Theodorus, and his twin brother, the wizard Theodulus. I have never met them.” He rubbed at his chin. “I have never been summoned to the palace in all my years in exile. My father saw the Emperor once, but it was years ago. Before I was born.”

“Why does he want to see me?”

Again my father’s eye flicked toward me, but he quickly turned his gaze to the crowds milling in the square beyond the windows. “I don’t know. I don’t know much about them. That is one way the exile has been effective: the patrician families have been removed from the environs of Cor Capitulus. We cannot form alliances. We cannot practice the swift games of politics. We rusticate.”

He sighed heavily.

“We are still of the old blood.” He looked at me again. “The Emperor who reigns now—it is he who exiled your great-grandfather.”

I felt my own eyes widen. “How is that possible?”

“The Emperor and his family are of the purest blood. But another benefit of the exile—” my father inclined his head “—time for anger to cool. I doubt the Emperor wishes to see you to discuss old enmities. They have hobbled the old houses, but they know they cannot do away with them completely. They need us.”

“Why?”

My father cracked his knuckles and looked uncomfortable. “Come, let’s spend the morning seeing after the estate. We will return for the midday meal and prepare for your meeting at the palace.”

The day passed quickly. We walked through the empty, echoing corridors of my family’s manor. I stared at the crest of three blue feathers that dominated the great hall, while my father talked in low tones with the steward who still lived in the servant’s chambers and coordinated the caretakers. I watched the Is flow by the manicured gardens where my ancestors had walked and dined. Through the wide windows of the manor’s upper levels, I looked for the shape of mountains in the distance, beyond the ivory teeth of the Capital’s broken walls.

I wanted to go home.

The Emperor at least was kind, though the kindness never left his eyes to touch his words or his visage. I stood alone before the Emperor and his brother in the Blue Hall and felt them weighing my fate.

“Your father will return to the valley of your birth,” he said. He did not raise his voice, but it carried throughout the Hall. “With our thanks. The exile of your family is nearing an end.”

He wore the same face as his brother, the wizard, who stood at his shoulder. In the wizard’s eyes though there was a darker hardness. This was the cost, I would learn, of his power. He wore it around him like a weight.

The wizard leaned toward his brother and whispered a single word: “Aeolius.”

His voice was an echo of the Emperor’s, though edged with a power I could feel along the back of my arms and neck. Something moved beneath the surface of the syllables, waking memories.

I had heard that name before.

An image flared like a candle in my mind, and suddenly I sat once more beside the fire with my grandmother in my parents’ lodge in the mountains. My mother was of the shepherd villages that dotted the hills, and for a time when I was young her mother lived with us. I asked her one night about the aeroliths, about whether they had always been found among the stones of the hills.

“Oh, no,” she said.

She was smaller than my mother, and grey, though around her eyes and mouth it was possible to see the woman she had once been. It was also possible, with effort, to see the woman I might one day become.

“They came to be in time before,” she said. “A story all the villages tell, and every village tells it differently. Every mountain valley saw it from a different line of sight.”

“Saw what?”

“The battle. When the last of the sky-giants was killed, the one we called Aeolius the Walker. He had been worshipped. The men who made the stone ruins you see on the peaks would in days of dark summer sacrifice a virgin for the shepherding of the winds, long ago.”

It was impossible to tell whether she spoke from true memory or whether she seasoned her story to fit the glow of the fire and the howl of wind beyond the walls.

“Long ago. The patrician generals had driven him into the hills to die. But he was angry, and he broke their ships like firewood, snapped them like dry bones. His anger made him blind, and a wizard dove from above and drove a sword of lightning through his skull. But he was old, and his age made him weak, so instead of growing another or shaping one for himself of the clouds, he died.

“His body was only air though, so that when it fell it fell forever and is still falling. You feel it when the winds come down off the mountains. But his blood spilled out across all these valleys, and where it touched the rocks you find the sky-stones.”

My grandmother’s voice faded as the wizard leaned forward and spoke again into his brother’s ear.

The Emperor regarded me from his throne. The ceiling of the Blue Hall arched up around him, with painted clouds adorning the huge pillars and the stones of the dome high above. The wide doors inlayed with azure marble closed this chamber off from the rest of the palace, and me from my father waiting beyond them, like the entrance to a tomb. 

“Your exile is at an end.”

He could tell I was frightened. His eyes said that. But they also told me he could offer no words of comfort, that he could not speak to me as he would a child.

“You will remain here.” The Emperor stood. “You will be my brother’s charge. You will be taught. You will be tested.”

He watched me for a moment more, and his eyes said something more as well, but I could not understand them. Then he turned and left me alone with the wizard under the blue dome of painted stone sky.

“Clouds,” the wizard told me, “are born and wait all their lives for a day such as this.”

We were rising among them in the wizard’s tiny skiff. I was sullen. My fear had given way to resignation, but there remained a bitterness against the wizard for the assurance he had that I had indeed become his servant, and for my lack of strength to prevent it. It smouldered inside me like the thunderheads rising on the horizon.

“Clouds are not born,” I said.

His face was flint. “They are born,” he said. “They are engendered of the sky and of the earth’s vapors, the waters, her exhalations.”

It was true, but I wasn’t going to agree with him. I had seen enough cloudscapes to know they emerged from invisible layers of air like ghosts rising from the surface of a pond. We rode low among them, the wind whipping strands of my hair out of the elaborate braids the Emperor’s ladies-in-waiting had arranged earlier that morning.

I missed my father. I had not seen him again since they turned him away at the door to the Blue Hall. Then I had only time to grasp his hand for a moment before the doors opened and I faced the Emperor.

I had not seen them close behind me.

I glanced from the edge of the sky-ship to see if I could spot him—a solitary dot on the auburn thread of the road stretching from the city. The sledge that had brought the aeroliths to the Capital would be empty, as would my seat beside him.

The wizard spoke a word, and the fire in the central bier of the ship flared. The canvas of the bladder above us flapped, and we rose higher.

The wizard saw my gaze rise as well.

“Primitive,” he said, gesturing toward the gas bladder. “I explain this to my brother. Less efficient than the aeroliths.”

I said nothing.

“Tell me what they are like,” the wizard ordered.

“What?”

“The aeroliths in your valley. How are they discovered? How are they mined?”

“Don’t you know?” I asked.

Only days ago, when we had arrived at the Capital, I would have been horrified to imagine speaking to one of the Emperor’s family in such tones.

His eyes left mine and scanned the clouds we rode among. “I leave Cor Capitulus only by air. I know little of the lands beyond.”

“There are clues,” I explained begrudingly. I had often scouted our hills and gullies for the stones. “You can recognize a seam, sometimes, if it’s not too deep, by the way the stones lie. They tilt at unnatural angles. Sometimes they’re tethered to the ground by only a slender neck of natural stone.”

He nodded.

“We make scrapings,” I went on, still sullen but warming to the memories. “If they drift on the wind, you know you’ve struck near a true aerolith. We—my brothers and my father—will drill a stay into it, and then they’ll dig it free.”

We were moving so fast the clouds passed us only slowly, rearing and breaking like horses of foam.

“Do you know why the aeroliths are found only in the valleys,” he asked, “and not on the plains or near Cor Capitulus?”

I nodded again. “My grandmother told me stories. Legends.”

He pulled the tiller, lowering a gossamer sweep that caught the wind and turned us in a broad rising arch toward an approaching wall of clouds, the thunderheads I had seen earlier.

“Legends,” he said, “are only deep history.” He was a wizard, so his words were clear and audible, even in the howling of the wind, even when almost whispered.

We flew on in silence.

The wall of clouds reared higher, like a cliff of broken white, the sun lost behind it. The wind, which we had ridden on earlier, was now cold and biting as we turned into it.

I had never seen clouds like this. I had seen them from the ground and wondered what it must like to be among them. But here were mountains of cloud, growing and shifting, that dwarfed any mountain below.

“This is the cloud-wall,” the wizard said. “Hold the sweeps steady.”

He pushed the tiller into my hands and walked to the prow. By now the clouds were so close I had lost all sense of scale. It was as though we were approaching a wall of fog.

I heard the word the wizard spoke, but I did not understand it. The force of it crackled in the air around us, hanging for a moment like a curtain, and then the clouds responded. A long shaft opened in the white wall. The ship slipped along it, and the clouds reared up on either side as though we sailed a narrow canyon.

“There are faces!” I shouted.

There were visages in the clouds. Or they were the clouds. They were watching as we passed, but they seemed to fall away, dissolving into cloudscape, as soon as I noticed.

I thought again of my grandmother’s stories of the sky-giants.

“They are anima,” the wizard said. “Spirits of the air. They are tethered here as guardians.”

“They’re angry,” I said.

“They are jealous.”

Soon we were past the broiling walls of white and into a hollow open to the sky but still surrounded by clouds. At its center floated a structure of stone. The boat lifted closer, and I saw that it was a narrow tower set on a carved platform of pale stones.

“The aeroliths,” I breathed.

He nodded.

There were men working on the outside of the structure. As we approached I could see they were stonecarvers, shaping the exterior with chisels and hammers.

“The winds surrounding my house,” the wizard said as we approached it, “are treacherous. You must know not only the word to part the cloud-walls but also the pathway through the labyrinth of wind that surrounds it.”

He was telling me there was no escape.

When the ship was close enough, the wizard gestured and a silver rope snaked from the vessel and tied itself to the edge of the stone platform. Stepping off the ship was like stepping onto firm ground.

The house hung solid and heavy in the sky.

I had arrived at my prison.

When we entered the house, I gasped. My eyes followed the circular line of the wall, but instead of the sloping ceiling of the tower above, I saw layer upon layer of balconies rising upward to be lost in a grey haze of distance. The wizard glanced at me before brushing past.

“It is a house of borrowed space,” he said over his shoulder.

There were workers on the inside of the house as well, doing a hundred tasks I couldn’t follow. The tower was a single round room, perhaps a quarter as large as the Blue Hall had been, with stairs running at staggered intervals to the balconies above. A huge circular table was in the middle of the floor, and the wizard walked to this now. A woman, bent and ancient, hovered over a mountain of gears and springs on the table’s surface.

“Will it be ready?” the wizard asked. “It must be the greatest you have ever constructed.”

The woman clucked her tongue and barely glanced up. “It will be everything I have ever constructed.”

Her voice was thick. I heard within it the blow of hammers in caverns far beneath the earth and somehow also the motion of branches in wind.

She met my eyes and smiled.

I followed the wizard to chairs and a cold fireplace at edge of the wide room. There was a tray with a kettle and a few pewter cups, all empty. The wizard took one, stared into it for a moment, and then sipped absently.

“How many gods are there?” he asked me.

My attention was still wandering the interior of the house, continually straying toward the room’s apex, where the rows of balconies stretched away in endless vantage. The staircases connecting each level were tight spirals of carved iron that drew the eye upwards and inwards like the shell of a nautilus.

“I don’t know,” I answered absently.

He set the cup back down on the tray with enough force to startle me. “How many?” he demanded. “What is the name worshipped in your village in the mountains?”

I thought for a moment, confused by his questioning. Father had an old and faded portrait of the Emperor in our lodge, and he would occasionally light a spiral of incense before it. He taught my brothers and me words to say that might have been a prayer. But my mother’s people—the people of the mountains—had a small shrine on the highest peak with a white stone they said was a tooth of the Walker.

I mentioned both to the wizard.

“So it is in all places.” The wizard took his cup again and sipped from it. Steam was rising from it now. “We have as many gods as we have villages, as many pantheons as we have languages. It is inefficient.”

I waited.

“My brother—the Emperor—will never rule a house so divided. Even now the Barons of the south believe they can carve the Shallows into their own holdings.”

He put the cup back on the tray.

“Why am I telling you this?”

I blinked. He was staring at me, waiting for an answer. I could hear workmen calling to each other far above. “I don’t know,” I said again. I looked around the house. “Because I will live here.”

He nodded. “Because you will serve me here.”

“But you haven’t explained anything.”

“One black cloud,” he whispered. “On the horizon. A single black cloud has escaped my weave of molding spells. As below, so it must be above: unity under dominion. Snare it for me. Bring it to heel. That is your test.”

“Why?” I asked.

His smile was empty. “Because you are of the blood.”

Even as he spoke, his image wavered and fell to smoke. I heard movement at the doorway, but by the time I reached it he was gone, his form a figure on his departing air-ship already being swallowed by distance.

He was a wizard. He had left me, had slipped away, while I thought I still spoke with him.

Around me I heard the continuous sound of workmen chipping and shaping stone and the muttering of the woman bent over her mound of springs and gears, but I was alone in the house.

I did not know how to catch a cloud. I was imprisoned in a sliver of stone, which was itself cocooned within a hollow of clouds. From the windows of the house I could not even look down on the landscape below, hoping for a glimpse of the valley of my family.

The winds were stagnant and weak.

“You are of the blood,” the old woman said, echoing the wizard. Workmen continued to hammer at the stones of the house, and the balcony upon balcony arched up in an impossible dome over my head, but my mind was a blank.

I watched the old woman work, twisting together braids of copper sheeting and gears. Gear seemed to fit inside gear with the impossible geometry of the house itself.

“Because my father is a patrician,” I muttered. “I am a valuable hostage.”

“Not your father’s blood,” the woman clucked, and a spring within the pile of gears before her clicked in sympathy. “Your mother. You are the wind.”

My grandmother had been able to blow out a fire by flexing her fingers. It had been a trick to impress children, a tiny bit of imprinted magic, nothing more.

There was a candle burning beside her as the woman worked at the clock. I waved at it, but nothing happened.

The old woman smiled.

Something groaned inside the unborn timepiece before her, and the woman sighed. “The black cloud. Come.”

We climbed several sets of stairs, passing men pulling trunks or shelves from places I couldn’t quite see, polishing cabinets, and unpacking crates. None of the men would meet my eyes. They kept their heads bowed and whispered polite words as we passed.

When we reached the upper reaches of the wizard’s house (though there were still balconies fading to haze above), the woman stopped before a wide window that looked out into the boiling white clouds.

“There.” She pointed.

The sun filtered through a thin cap of cirrus above the bowl of clouds the house hung within. It felt as though the house floated in the midst of a chapel of white ivory.

Even as we watched, something passed over the sun and cast the tiny shadow on the wall of cloud before us. I craned my neck and saw a piece of cumulus, thick with rain and shadow, passing haphazardly along the slope of white.

“You must bring it to heel,” the old woman clockmaker said. “It irks the wizard.” She grinned as though we shared a secret. “His hold on the winds is not complete.”

I watched the cloud until it had disappeared from view. Part of me went with it, angry and rebellious.

I glance up from the scroll. Clouds have risen around the wizard’s house like mist, and I hear the faint patter of rain come from somewhere far overhead.

The timepiece ticks softly beside the door, its concentric rings gleaming like coins in the firelight. This was the clock that foretold the wizard’s fate, and it still speaks occasionally, though almost always in riddles.

“Who fashioned you?” I ask it.

It chuckles with the sliding of gears.

Something in her account troubles me. The wizard she describes is not the wizard as I recall. He was distant and sometimes harsh, but he was not cruel. He was not so hungry for power.

Time changes things, perhaps, but the wizard kept himself out of the step of time.

No, it is more than that. I feel like I am reading in a mirror, as though something has been reversed.

Sylva’s script changes here, growing more hurried, the ink carried across the page as though the strokes are reeds bending in a gale.

I don’t know how to catch a cloud. The wizard grows impatient. He comes to the house in the evenings, bringing orders for the workman and words for the old woman who labors over what is becoming in her hands an infant timepiece. It chirps at her fingers and on occasion whispers.

“You have knowledge of the winds in your veins,” the wizard tells me, but I shake my head. Though I am his prisoner, I will not play his games. My father was right to fear bringing me to Cor Capitulus.

“Indeed he was,” the wizard says.

The old woman chuckles.

“Let me go home.”

“I cannot.”

“He hungers for sight,” the old woman says later. Springs shudder under her fingers. “He has been promised vision by his brother.”

“Vision?”

“His eyes are weak. The Emperor has promised him new vision. Seeing stones.”

“What do they want?” I ask her. I am thinking of the wizard and his twin.

Gears groan and her knuckles crack. “Power,” she says. “The Barons of the south in their wind-ships test the Emperor’s authority. He cannot exercise dominion. He will send his brother when this weapon is completed.”

I stare at the labyrinth of metal at her fingertips. “What are you doing?”

She smiles. It is night, and the candles that line the table make the metal before her gleam like embers. “Giving birth,” she says.

I shake my head. This is house of riddles. Outside the windows there is only blackness. The house—my cage—is itself still enclosed in cloud.

“A single cloud,” the wizard orders again the next morning. He has come to his house early. His tea service is blue silver, and the steam from the cups this morning is thick, wreathing his head. “A single cloud, and you shall have your reward.”

“My freedom?”

He shakes his head. “You will serve me.”

My anger is hot and sudden. The tea, when I throw it toward his face, congeals in the air between us. He watches it without flinching. In another moment it rains down into the kettle.

“You cannot compel me,” I say, though my voice is soft. I would make it harder, but there seems no point.

“He would take you for a wife,” the old woman says later. The clock has now taken form on the table before her.

“My father was right.”

She nods. “He was. You have both royal blood and the wild wind-blood of the hills. Blood touched by Aeolius.”

“I’ll throw myself from a window,” I tell her.

The woman bites her lips for a time, as though wondering what effect this would have. Here in this house of dreams, where days run together like clouds meeting in a wind, even such a finalizing action would not perhaps have the intended consequence.

“He would catch you, I think,” the woman finally says.

She looks older. She has aged these past days. Her fingers tremble over the metal face of the timepiece she has fashioned.

“What time is it?” I ask her.

She looks down at it. “Now.”

The clock has figures I do not recognize and far too many hands. Its face is a series of concentric circles like the rings of a tree.

There are fewer workers in the house now. The sound of hammering and chisels on the outer stones has slowed. The house is nearing completion.

The woman is ancient. She sits in front of the clock, mute. Her eyes follow me as I pace the stone floors.

The wizard comes. “It is time.”

The old woman nods. She closes her eyes, leans down upon the metal face of the clock, and breaths a final shuddering sigh.

The clock begins to tick.

I watch the wizard watch her and then carry her body beyond the doors of the house. In a few moments he returns with a long blue gown.

“We will wait upon my brother in his palace this night,” the wizard says. “You will wear this.”

I shake my head.

All the workers have gone. We are alone.

“I speak the word of unbinding,” he says gravely, then speaks it. I feel it, prickling like fire up and down my arms. “Your garments will fall to dust.” He pauses for a moment. “I will wait outside.”

I should defy him. I should flee up the stairs or wait, stubborn and naked, for his return. But I am frightened and powerless, and he said we would be visiting the palace, which means leaving the house. I tell myself perhaps there will be opportunity for escape.

The gown is beautiful, finer than any fabric I have seen before.

The clock has moved to the wall. I did not see it move, but now it is there, beside the door, keeping an inscrutable time.

“You are naked, Sylva Sybila.”

I spin, covering myself, but the voice is only that of the clock. It is not the old woman’s voice.

“Who are you?” I demand, angry and ashamed.

“I am the timepiece.”

I shrug into the gown. “Then what time is it?”

“It is the beginning,” it says.

The wizard steps back into his house. It is impossible to read his face, as it always is. He says nothing, makes no apology, but bids me follow. Outside, we find the same skiff waiting that brought me here.

The clouds around the house are roiling. It seems the house—disguised, I now see, with its outer surfaced carved to mirror the whorls and billows of a cloud—rides at the center of a cyclone. For a moment I am terrified to step into the boat, but my anger overcomes my hesitation.

I will find a way to kill the wizard. I try to make the words like steel in my mind, forcing myself to believe them. I will escape to my family’s valley in the mountain.

The wizard watches the clouds as we approach the wall of white. Before, he stood in the prow and spoke a word to part the walls of cloud, but now he says nothing. They part nonetheless, stretching backward like ribbons of steam, ripping away until the whole tent of cloud collapses, opening like a pale flower and falling away.

The house floats behind us in an empty sky.

The wizard’s eyes widen, but he says nothing.

It takes me time to realize the power has come from me. Instead of dwelling on what this means, my eyes run along the curve of the land below us, hungry for green and the ribbons of blue sketched out on it like veins. The landscape is beautiful.

We drop toward Cor Capitulus on the River Is. The city, enclosed in its ivory walls like broken teeth, rises up around us, and we come to rest in a field of short-cropped purple grass in a wide courtyard of the Emperor’s palace. I feel the sky above me, tensed and waiting. I can feel it in the wizard as well, his face a mask that seems even harder, more opaque, than before. Only his eyes are alive. When they glance in my direction I see fear, and my anger falters.

But not enough.

I will kill him, I repeat again to myself, and escape.

I assume we will walk into the palace, perhaps return to the Blue Hall, but instead we move farther into the courtyard. There is a low wall of crimson hedging, and I follow the wizard through an archway of leaves to a circular lawn. The Emperor—his face a mirror of the wizard’s—sits at a low table at the lawn’s center. Officers stand behind him in uniforms of pink, grey, and blue. Guards line the inside perimeter of the hedge.

“Well met, brother,” the Emperor says, smiling with his eyes alone. The officers with whom he has been conversing bow low and fall away.

“Well met, sister,” the Emperor says, inclining his head as we approach. “She has passed the test?”

The wizard nods slowly. “I did not bring us through the wall of cloud. It was her anger. It unraveled the cloud-binding completely.”

The Emperor raises a single eyebrow. “She is stronger than we thought.” He pauses. “Or angrier.”

My mind reels, and I can feel the sky tensing again. I think of the old clockmaker and my grandmother. I think of Aeolius dead and bleeding in the hills.

I had done it? With my own strength? With my anger?

“The black cloud?” the Emperor asks.

The wizard shakes his head. “My eyes?”

The Emperor nods.

The wizard pulls from his cloak a tightly rolled parchment.  “Do you know the lands to the south?” he asks me, turning from his brother.

I shake my head. The Emperor eyes the parchment.

The wizard touches the parchment to his lips to unlock it and throws it down on the ivory table before the Emperor, where it unfurls to a surprising size, one end rolling down upon the grass. It is a map, and in the air above it, shapes spring up of dozens of tiny crafts.

“Galleons and city-ships,” the wizard says grimly. “Palaces. Dreadnoughts. The Barons of the south build entire fleets from the gas they harvest in the desert. They war among themselves. They refuse my brother’s sovereignty.”

They seem to be waiting for me to say something.

“Why don’t we crush them?” the wizard goes on, when I say nothing. “Why don’t I call storms down to wreck their wooden fleets?”

The Emperor stirs but says nothing.

“Because it’s not enough,” I venture. I remember what the wizard had said about gods. “Conquest alone is not enough.”

“Because it lacks elegance,” the wizard says. He moves to the map and surveys it with its floating ships as though preparing to sample a banquet laid before him. “Because the Emperor rules by right and by nature, not by force alone.”

There will be no more patrician families, I realize. There will be no more gods in the hills.

“Enough,” the Emperor says. “You have made your point.”

He sighs deeply, a sound like a spring loosening within him. It sounds like the clock in the wizard’s house.

“It is time,” he says. “With your servant, you have the power. I will send you south.”

The wizard’s eyes are hungry. “With my eyes?”

“It will be painful, brother.”

The Emperor stands.

“You may regret it,” the Emperor presses. When the wizard says nothing, the Emperor continues. “Here? Now?”

“You have given your word.”

I can feel it. I will have a moment. Whatever task they bend themselves to will be grim and fraught with power. I can already feel it pricking up and down the back of my arms and legs. I lean into it, letting the wind lick at the back of my neck, letting my anger build slowly.

“Bring water,” the Emperor says to one of the soldiers edging the greensward. “Bring the stones,” he tells another. He turns back to his brother. “I will call a golem. Only such a one can touch you.”

The wizard nods. His eyes are bright.

“Once I give it the word, it will not cease. Even I will be unable to call it off. When the blade descends, you cannot flinch.”

“It will not happen, brother,” the wizard whispers.

The grass is whispering at my feet as well, bowing toward me. The Emperor and his brother do not notice.

Or rather, the wizard does not. The Emperor looks to me—the glance of an instant—and nods.

He knows. He is giving me this moment to escape.

Why?

A soldier returns, bearing a silver bowl, which the Emperor uses to wash his hands and rinse a long, slender blade he pulls from a sheath at his side. Another soldier brings a bundle wrapped in a golden shroud. What is within is glowing, pulsing, and all attention slides toward it so that we do not see the silver figure, the golem, step from behind the Emperor, half again as tall as he.

There is a dark spot in the heavens, twisting and fluttering like a bird.

It is my black cloud. It is coming.

No one below notices. The stones are unveiled and in the Emperor’s hand, the wizard’s eyes fastened on them as though they were bits of bread and he a starving man. The Emperor places them in one of the huge hands of the silver figure, the blade in the other.

“You are sure, brother?” he asks.

The wind is growing. The cloud is nearer.

The wizard nods, impatient, his eyes still on the stone. They do not see the cloud or care. It will be upon us, and I will escape. I will break through the crimson hedge around the garden and lose myself in the Capital. I will find a boat perhaps and drift out of the city, down the River Is, and through the broken ivory teeth that mark the wall. I will find my way back to my parents’ valley.

And the wizard’s wrath will follow.

For a moment my determination falters. The cloud stumbles in the air.

The silver giant grips the wizard by the forehead and leans him back, over his silver knees. The thin blade is close over his eyes. The stones glow.

I bring the cloud, plunging us all in darkness.

The guards cry out, but we are lost to them. I have placed us in a chamber of winds. I can feel them in my veins, rushing in sympathy with the currents, with the cloud, that I have called down around us.

The blood of Aeolius.

Now is my time to run.

But the wizard is screaming. Beside me in the darkness, someone twists in the grasp of the silver golem and I hear a sick, sucking, wet sound.

A word is bellowed, and the cloud shatters into transparency.

The winds die. My blood quiets.

The Emperor is standing at his throne, his clothes disheveled, his face livid. The anger in his eyes says something has been stolen, that he has been outwitted.

For a moment I do not understand.

Beside me the silver giant is helping the other to stand. The tears on his cheeks are crimson. His eyes are bright and hard. They are stone.

“Peace, brother,” he says, though the Emperor has not spoken.

“You . . .” The Emperor looks at us both, and I fear the anger I see there. “You . . .”

“I see,” the other says. “I have the sight.”

“It was to be mine! You stole it from me!”

Now the guards are around us. Anxious, clustered faces surround the Emperor like planets around a sun. They ignore the wizard and me.

He takes my hand and puts his lips to my ear.

“No more wind,” he says. “Come with me and be free.”

Then I understand. The man at my side is Theodorus, the Emperor. He has stolen the wizard’s sight, and he has left the wizard chained where his fury can do the least damage. The wizard always held the true power, and with his sight and his house he would have held even more.

This was a trap of the Emperor’s devising.

We are halfway across the verdant lawn when his brother’s bellow halts us. His face is a continent of hatred and suspicion at war. The guards watch with confusion, but the wizard knows he is trapped. He must maintain the illusion or fear losing all power in the chaos that would ensue.

“You will leave me here, brother?”

“I am your wizard,” Theodorus says. “You are the Emperor.”

“And her?” He points at me.

“She is as powerful as we hoped.”

He needed me. He needed this moment, and my fury, to betray his brother.

The wizard gives a last glare of anger and sinks to his throne, holding his hand over his soft and human eyes.

“I speak the word of unbinding,” he hisses.

It falls on me like a blow.

There is a vine of roses growing up the side of the wizard’s house. Someone has piled soil into the stone gutters along the wall, and the hungry loam holds rain from the clouds we pass through. I will cut the vine down soon. There are no roses in the clouds.

“We must be invisible,” Theodorus tells me.

But he is Theodulus now. He has stolen his brother’s name, as well as his sight, his power, and his house.

The setting sun glances off the walls of the carved house just as it does the true clouds we sail within.

“We fly south,” he says, “at my brother’s command.”

“You planned it all along,” I whisper. “You were building this house for yourself.”

I can do nothing more than whisper. The word of unbinding has taken hold. I am losing myself. I try, in the evenings, to hold him, to press my face against his chest, but he slips through me as though I am air. When I cry, the breezes beyond the open windows of the house carry my calls.

Before the winds take us south, I bend them to the north and we pass over the hills of my childhood. Our sheep dot the slopes like clouds themselves, and for a moment think I hear the sound of my father’s hammer on stone. We pass overhead, carved of the aeroliths he quarries.

I will not return home a ghost. I will stay with him, in the house he has stolen.

“We must go south,” he tells me.

I sigh and let the winds have their way. Soon there will be deserts beneath.

“The Barons?” I ask. “You will conquer for your brother?”

He laughs, but his laughter is sad. “The Barons are nothing. My brother would have destroyed them and missed the greater danger they obscure.” His eyes of stone are on the horizon. I can read nothing in them, but they catch the light like diamonds. “The god is coming.”

The timepiece ticks on the wall behind us, its dozens of hands sweeping like blades.

We are going to war.

I lower the scroll and look out the open windows. The land here is carved and broken, with mountains as jagged as the bones of brittle giants. The Emperor has built his kingdom on the back of corpses.

But those gods are long dead.

Sylva has given me the wizard’s secret. This was never his house. He was Theodorus, the Emperor. How long did the true wizard fume in his brother’s palace, his power broken, his vision snatched away? After his brother’s departure to the south, the power of the false Emperor waned and he became simply a figurehead. As the wizard, Theodorus (who I knew by his stolen name) scattered the fleets of the Barons and then slept until I stumbled upon his house in the clouds.

And then he fell to face the unborn god.

The house is mine now. The timepiece speaks to me. The winds would do my bidding, were they but guided.

Sylva has still not returned.

I roll up the scroll and set it in a pile with the others cast down by the storm. Then I speak the word that will return them to their places in the shelves high above. They fall upward like leaves until they are lost in the faint lamplight.

I follow them, my footsteps ringing on the metal of the spiral staircases. There is no end to the measure of the house’s height. I could climb for days. The house holds mysteries for a hundred lifetimes.

But I seek only one.

She was waiting for me to finish the scroll, silent and unseen, perhaps in the house itself. She finds me when the great hearth on the lowest level is only a spark in the darkness below.

“Where are you going?”

“I read it, Sylva,” I tell her. I cannot push her away. Her hands are the breeze on my neck and chest and back. “How you were taken. How you were lost.”

She is quiet.

“The wizard is gone. The Emperor is dead. The house is mine.”

“You are a boy, Diogenes,” she says. “You do not have the power.”

“Not yet.” I reach out a hand but grasp nothing. “I am taking you home. To your family. To your valley.”

“I will not be a ghost for them.” Her voice has moved away.

“You won’t. I will reverse the word of unbinding.”

Her laughter comes from below. “Not even the wizard could do that.”

“I’ll find a way.”

She blows the fire out far below and then is around me again in an instant, pushing me against a wall of woven carpets.

“You are a boy, Diogenes,” she tells me again, forming lips that smell and taste of rain.

I hold her as best I can, a sylph, a thing of air, a twisting form of wind pressed against me.

In the morning she is gone once more. She will not be far. She cannot leave.

But the winds have returned. They answer again to my bidding, and I turn the house into them, back toward the valleys surrounding the Emperor’s city, where sheep dot the hills like clouds and patrician families still mine stones lighter than air.

I am taking her home.


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Stephen Case holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame and is a professor at a liberal arts college in Illinois. His fiction and reviews have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Strange Horizons, Black Gate, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His novel First Fleet is a science fiction horror epic in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, published by Axiomatic Publishing. Stephen lives south of Chicago with his wife, four children, two dogs, and two chickens. Find him on the internet at www.stephenreidcase.com.

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