In November 2018 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but knew I wouldn’t be able to manage 50,000 words of coherent narrative at that time. So instead I took the prompt list for World Anvil’s Inktober Challenge, and wrote a prompt a day. I posted them day by day on tumblr, but I’ve reordered them here to make things flow.
The world of Kestrien has three moons, one continent, a hurricane that never stops, and magic coming out of its hypothetical ears. The main narrative takes place in its modern age, nearly 1500 years after a worldwide apocalypse during which one of the moons, Demira, was shattered, and now hangs broken in the sky.
Part 1: The Seagrave Academy
Ever since the Fall of Demira, the people of Kestrien have blamed magic for their misfortunes. Now the island nation of Thari, troubled by the restlessness of the Sea of Storms on their eastern shores, has defied tradition and built the Academy to try and turn sorcery into science.
The storm was a dark wall on the horizon. Clouds stacked higher than the mind could grasp were slowly creeping closer, their tops surprisingly fluffy and pale, but their undersides nearly black. The line between the sea and the sky was a blur of distant rain. The sea had already changed colour, as if anticipating the storm’s arrival. It was a colour Jenna had never imagined, and found hard to describe: too blue to be called grey, too grey to be called green, too green to be called blue…
She’d never known the sea could be anything other than blue, the colour she’d seen in pictures all her life. Even familiarity with the moods of Lake Deshtar hadn’t prepared her for the breathtaking variety of the open ocean. Or for this storm-colour she couldn’t describe, this leaden hue that sent shivers of dread and anticipation through her in equal measure.
The wind, already brisk, was picking up in strength, and she had to squint directly into it to keep her hair from blinding her. She tasted salt on her lips. The roar of the breaking waves on the rocks below the cliff was beginning to make her ears ring. Her hands were cold, even shoved deep into her coat pockets. It was getting darker by the minute, night sweeping to overtake the clouds, laying out the dusk like a cloak for the oncoming storm.
On the periphery of her vision she could see the lights of Farsea coming on, the yellow-white glow begging her to turn her head towards its comfort. She kept her eyes on the sea, knowing that if she looked towards the town, the lights would dazzle her and make it harder to see through the deepening gloom.
The sea was rolling, churning, breaking itself into waves like walls, bigger and bigger by the second. Sometimes they frothed into a white foam that flashed dangerously in the dusk; sometimes they simply rose and rose until it seemed they’d engulf the clifftop and the lighthouse and the whole of Thari. And then they’d be gone between one gust of wind and the next, and Jenna couldn’t see how they vanished, if they sank again or if they somehow heaped on top of each other to assault the cliff with that endless, booming, yearning roar.
Cold drops of water hit her face. Spray, or the first rain? She couldn’t tell. The clouds had swallowed most of the sky. The sea was so dark it tugged at her eyes, gave her a dizzying sense of vertigo, as though it were a starless sky and she was gazing into the abyss.
She didn’t want to leave. She wanted to stand here as the storm arrived, and open her arms to the rain. She wanted the waters to rise and rush over her; she wanted to sea to engulf every scrap of the world she knew; she wanted to hurl herself into the breakers below…
The intensity of it terrified her. And she was starting to shiver. She could watch the storm from her window just as easily.
She turned to leave. As she did, she caught a glimpse of movement, something that made her pause and squint through the darkness to be sure. Someone else out here, waiting for the rain? She couldn’t be sure. She wondered if that other person felt the same call she did, of sea and sky and stone.
Probably just another student smoking something they shouldn’t be, she told herself. The wind struck her hard enough to shake her footing. Well, they can stay out here and get soaked. I’m going inside.
She told herself the pang she felt as she started back down the path was only tiredness. She fixed her eyes on the lights of the Academy and hurried to get back where it was warm.
“That’s… a lot of fish,” Jenna observed as she slid into the seat next to Mikhal’s.
“Welcome to Thari. You get used to it.” Mikhal was Tharil, but had lived in Merresh until he was sixteen, and so had grown up with the same sort of food familiar to Jenna. “At least, most of it. I’m not keen on anything with tentacles, personally. It’s just…”
He made a wiggling motion with his fingers and pulled a face. Jenna laughed. The table was filling up with other students, most of them already helping themselves from the heaped dishes.
“So what’s good?”
“Depends.” Mikhal picked up his plate and snagged a piece of pink-grey, flaky meat from a nearby serving dish. “Do you like salty, very salty, extremely salty, or pickled to within an inch of its life?”
“Are there any other options?”
“That one over there’s been fermented for six months in a hole in the ground.”
“So that’s what that smell is.” Jenna steeled herself and reached for the nearest set of serving tongs. “Doesn’t anyone just put it in an oven?”
“I think that’s regarded as unimaginative.” Mikhal looked at her expression and laughed. “I’m kidding. This stuff is just the appetisers. There’ll be a main course with hot dishes after. I’m not kidding about the salt, though, so go easy.”
“I knew it.” Jenna glared at him without heat. “Who buries fish in a hole in the ground for six months anyway?”
“Ah… actually I wasn’t kidding about that, either.”
Jenna looked at him, then looked at the jellied, greyish lump in the bowl he’d indicated. Another student was in the middle of scooping out a big, wobbly helping with every sign of keen anticipation. She caught Jenna’s eye and offered her the spoon. Jenna tried not to show her horror on her face.
“But… why?” she whispered to Mikhal.
“Surviving on a narrow strip of land between the sea and the mountains does weird things to a culture’s sense of taste,” Mikhal said solemnly. “As for why we’re still doing it, I can only assume nobody’s told us we can stop.”
Jenna eyed him pointedly.
“Shall I pass it to you, then?”
“Oh Dyne no.” Mikhal shuddered. “It tastes like my worst nightmares. I’m a disgrace to my country. Have a crab cake, they taste like real food.”
It was large. It was almost definitely in charge. It was coming rapidly towards him. And Kerne was pretty sure his back wheel was caught in a rut on the edge of the causeway.
“Uh… nice…. crabby?” he tried, rocking the chair as hard as he could without unbalancing himself. He only seemed to be working the wheel deeper into the mud. “You’re one of the non-aggressive ones, right?”
The crab raised its enormous claws as if in answer. Was it the green ones, the black ones, or the bluebeard ones you had to watch out for? This one was a deep velvety black and taller than a car. The pincers were impressive, but Kerne would really rather be impressed from a distance. Sweat trickled down his face and he raised an arm to brush it away.
The crab paused. Kerne saw its feelers wiggle uncertainly.
“Wait… seriously?” He raised both his arms in imitation of the crab. “Grr! I’m scary! I’m a scarier crab than you are!”
The crab hunched back on itself. It clicked its pincers as if in challenge. Kerne snapped his fingers in response.
The crab began to retreat. Kerne started laughing, which seemed to alarm it even more. It suddenly turned and scuttled off sideways across the mud flats. Kerne watched it go, and only remembered his camera when it was already too far away to be worth the shot.
“Crap. And that was the whole point of the exercise.”
Kerne lowered his arms, took hold of the wheels, and rolled himself forward a few centimetres. It brought him perilously close to the soft mud drop-off, but it was enough to free his back wheel and reverse onto the solid surface of the causeway. From there, he looked over the mud flats. He could see more of the big black crabs in the distance. Oh well, it had worked the first time. He stuck a finger in the corner of his mouth and let out a piercing whistle.
Sure enough, one of them began to lumber towards him. Kerne grabbed his camera. Next time his cousin called him a liar, he’d have proof. And a cool story.
“So.” Jarill was the teacher’s name, a lanky graduate student with long, impossibly golden hair that seemed determined to escape from the loose knot it was bundled into at the back of his neck. He didn’t really look old enough to be the one standing at the front of the class. “The six elements. Who can tell me– no, wait. Is there anyone who can’t name the six elements?”
There was a moment of silence. Jenna was briefly tempted to raise her hand, to prove some sort of point about Merreshana culture and how thoroughly they’d cast off superstition. As if that wasn’t the exact reason she was here; as if she hadn’t spent the last five years arguing with her parents over the necessity of re-examining those beliefs. And anyway, it wasn’t true. Everyone knew the six elements.
“Great,” Jarill went on. He turned to the blackboard behind him and quickly wrote with a piece of chalk: Fire, Air, Water, Metal, Stone, Wood. “So as you know, we’re all here at the Academy to try and figure this stuff out in a way that makes sense. Not just dusty rituals and obscure chants, but magic that can be quantified, tamed, and above all performed safely. And it turns out there’s a lot of rules and a lot of patterns and it’s not as littered with dead goats as you might think!”
Half the class laughed. Jenna was getting slightly annoyed by his attitude. It would be nice if the people in charge would take things seriously.
“But if you try to apply too many of the principles of science to the study of magic,” Jarill went on, “you’re gonna have a bad time. Because there are some things that just don’t fit, and some things you have to take on… faith, for want of a better word. For example, the six elements. You know what happens if you take, say, a stick, and break it down as small as you can?”
“You get splinters?” suggested a boy with bleach-blond hair. Jenna belatedly noticed that he was lounging in a wheelchair rather than one of the standard lecture theatre seats.
“You’re not wrong,” Jarill conceded, to more laughter. “But the other thing that happens is, at some point the pieces stop being wood. They lose that… essence of the element. They won’t work if you try to use them in spells. The elements are real, and powerful, and they can be harnessed, but if you start looking for them in the pieces that make up the world, they slip away like minnows.”
Jenna couldn’t help herself. She raised her hand. Jarill beamed at her.
“What about the idea that we invented the elements?” she said. “And that we’re just framing the world in that way because we’ve learned about it?”
“Popular opinion in some parts of the world,” Jarill said. He paused and looked at her thoughtfully for a long moment. “Particularly Merresh.” Before Jenna could bluster any sort of response, Jarill went on, “But yeah, that’s a possibility. The question then becomes, does it matter? If you could take someone who wasn’t born in our modern culture, who had a completely different idea of the make-up of the world, would they still be able to command magic? How can we ever find out? The six elements have been ingrained in every culture since ancient Avarra. Even the Demirans accepted them. So unless and until you want to take third year Philosophy of Magic – which I do not recommend if you like your brain not hurting – that’s one of the things you have to take on faith.”
“And!” Jarill cast a glance over the room. “Here’s another one. What elements make up darkness, do you think?”
“Air?” someone suggested.
“Nope, guess again.”
“Stone, maybe?” said a shy-sounding girl with the darkest black skin and hair Jenna had ever seen. “As in underground caves?”
Against her better judgement, Jenna raised her hand again. Jarill nodded to her.
“None,” she said. “Because it isn’t a thing. Darkness is just the absence of light.”
Jarill made a noise like a buzzer, or possibly a dying chicken.
Jenna felt herself redden.
“What do you mean, ‘wrong’?” she demanded. “It’s a provable fact–“
“Sure, if you’re studying physics. But we aren’t, are we?” Jarill tossed his chalk absently in one hand. “Darkness is a force to be reckoned with. I know you’ve all heard stories about shadow dae. Those aren’t just fairytales. And shadow isn’t just the absence of light. You can assign elements to light – fire, air, metal, wood, even water and stone under the right circumstances. Darkness is another matter.”
“So what is it, then?” interjected the blond boy. “Come on, we all guessed, tell us the answer.”
“Ah, well, about that…” Jarill turned and began to write on the board. “Welcome to Metaphysics 101: What is darkness? We just don’t know…“
“Okay,” Jarill said, undaunted by the small explosion that had just coated his glasses with soot, “maybe not quite like that. Third time lucky?”
“Perhaps we should re-examine the basic tenets…” Lukhan mused, leafing through the sheaf of notes on the lab bench in front of him. “I feel like we’re missing something.”
Rhinn stifled a laugh.
“I don’t know,” she said, “it looks like a series of direct hits to me.”
Jarill made a rude gesture in her direction. Rhinn just raised an eyebrow. Jarill’s labcoat was now scorched in several places, and had turned an intriguing shade of purple all along one sleeve.
“It’s supposed to be a spell to conjure a light breeze,” Lukhan went on absently. Rhinn wasn’t sure he’d even heard the exchange. “Why does it keep doing that instead?”
“Maybe you’re pronouncing the words wrong,” Rhinn suggested helpfully.
“Are you impugning my linguistic skills?” Jarill demanded.
“I’m impugning pretty much everything about you right now.”
“You want to take a turn?”
Rhinn flinched despite herself.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
Jarill seemed not to notice her reaction. She often wondered exactly how much he knew – or guessed.
“Then quit backseat driving.”
“Your hair’s on fire.”.
“It’s just smouldering a bit, it’ll be fine. I have lots of hair.”
“Maybe something about the framing device…” Lukhan was saying.
Rhinn and Jarill exchanged glances.
“Coffee break until he comes back to the real world?” Jarill suggested. “Not that you get breaks, seeing as how you’re not supposed to be here…”
“Sounds good.” Rhinn cast one last amused glance at Lukhan’s distant frown. “You’re buying.”
Everyone in the Academy had enough to eat. Basic meals were provided three times a day on the Terrace for students, faculty, and guests, and additional luxuries – such as coffee, or dessert – could be bought cheaply enough that there was little space for anyone to go wanting.
And yet, Jenna thought, there was something about Rhinn that looked… starved. It wasn’t her tall, gangly frame, though there certainly wasn’t any spare flesh on her. It was something about her eyes, and the way she watched the students chattering, laughing, and sharing tables, while she sat alone. Something about the hardness of her posture, her expression, refusing to invite pity. Something about her silence, in the middle of all that noise.
“She’s the Chancellor’s daughter?”
“Yeah,” Mikhal had said. “I think that’s why people don’t like her. They think she’s reporting back to him.”
“People don’t like her?”
“Have you talked to her?”
“No. She doesn’t seem like she wants company.”
Jenna shot him an incredulous glance. Mikhal was normally so good at reading people.
“Let’s test that theory,” she said, getting up from her seat.
The lighthouse was built of the black stone that formed the oldest buildings in the Academy, but weathering over thousands of years had made it look as though it had been carved from a single spur of rock. Even up close, you had to squint to see the joins between the ancient blocks. Its strange design looked almost mechanical, like a series of rotating drums stacked on top of each other, though it was clear that the stone had never moved since its construction. Even in the middle of the day, the white glow of the lamp was visible against the clouded sky.
Awe washed over Jenna. Stark and silent and unwavering, the lighthouse was an artefact of another age, something so old it was unimaginable, and which had kept its secrets despite the best efforts of priests, sorcerers, and scientists.
“It’s really never gone out?”
“Not according to the stories,” Shanae replied, her soft voice barely audible over the wind. “After the Fall… people took shelter here when the storm was at its worst. Even though it’s right next to the Sea of Storms, the Shield kept them safer than others further inland. It’s the only reason Thari even exists as a country.”
“But it isn’t an ossolith.”
“Not as far as anyone can tell. It wasn’t damaged when Demira shattered, like the others. And it’s said that it was here even before the Age of Demira, that it was built by Cevelas, or even some older civilisation. They say the Demirans tried to lay claim to it when they returned to Kestrien, but the people here knew even then how important it was. They used to think it was the work of a god.”
“We know better than to believe in gods now, of course,” Shanae said with a shrug. “But still no-one knows what keeps it alight, or how it powers the Shield.”
“I’m surprised no-one from the Academy has tried to take it apart.”
“There’s a whole department dedicated to studying the lighthouse,” she said. “But no-one wants to take the risk of damaging it somehow. Without the Shield…”
She trailed off, but she didn’t have to finish. Without the Shield, Thari could not survive, on the edge of the wild sea and its wild magic.
“Even so,” Jenna said, “you’d think someone with more curiosity than sense would have tried it by now.”
“Enough people still see it as holy,” Shanae said. “It would be unthinkable to interfere directly with it.”
As unthinkable as studying magic in the first place? Jenna wondered, but she didn’t pursue the point.
“Let’s head back. The others should be done by now.”
At first it was only a shadow on the sea; Jenna took it for a distant cloud or approaching squall. But it moved too fast, and cut too straight a path from the horizon. She pointed it out to Mikhal, who frowned as he shaded his eyes with his hand.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It… doesn’t look right…”
Even as he was speaking, Jenna saw that it wasn’t a shadow so much as a low-lying cloud, racing across the waves like a living thing. It was seconds from reaching Thari’s shore. She heard Mikhal’s sudden indrawn breath.
“Oh shit, we should get inside–“
His hand closed on her arm, but before either of them could move, the cloud reared back like a breaking wave. For a breathless heartbeat Jenna thought it was going to engulf the shore like water, but then she saw that the crest of the wave was curving back the way it had come, as if the cloud were striking an invisible wall and being repelled.
A moment later she realised that was exactly what was happening.
“That’s the Shield?” she whispered.
“Yes.” Mikhal was still gripping her arm, but he seemed to have forgotten his intention to pull her away. “Those… those must be dae. Hundreds of them! Right out of the heart of Dyne’s Storm…”
Jenna tried to push away her fear and play things cool.
“I guess that’s a pretty normal sight in Thari, then,” she said.
“No,” Mikhal replied, voice taut. When Jenna glanced at him, he was as white as a sheet, his eyes fixed on the shadows now darting back the way they’d come. “There is nothing normal about hundreds of storm dae swarming the coast. We’d… we’d better tell someone.”
Behind them, belatedly, a bell began to sound from the Academy, frantic and ominous.
“I think they know,” Jenna said.
In Merresh there would be snow by now, a thick white blanket under blue skies at high noon, the mountain air breathtakingly crisp and clear. It would be cold, so bitingly cold it was like a crystal knife slashing your exposed skin, but there would be a brightness and brilliance to the sensation, a brief sharp shock to be born as you hurried about your business well-wrapped in coat, boots, and scarf.
In Thari the air was clammy and chill, the wind never seeming to drop from its low moan, the rain never seeming to stop. A grey curtain hung between the heavy grey clouds and the restless grey sea, and everything dripped constantly, every overhanging roof and every branch on every tree. The cold was thick and clinging and penetrated even the warmest layers with nasty little tendrils. As they approached Solstice Eve, Jenna spent as much time as she could indoors, hurrying between buildings when she was forced outside, and often longing for a good log fire on a comforting hearth, rather than the Academy’s effective but uninspiring thermal propagation system.
She thought Kerne was kidding at first when he tried to explain the tradition of the Festival of Lights.
“You’re going to go outside, for hours, and stand around a bonfire, while setting paper boats on fire and throwing them into the river.”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds.”
“Will the rain magically stop?”
“Not usually, no.”
“How about the mud, any chance of that clearing up?”
Kerne shook his head.
“Well, count me out,” Jenna said.
“What? No!” Kerne looked scandalised. “You can’t miss it, not when you’ve never seen it before!”
Jenna glared at him, then turned to Mikhal for moral support.
“I mean, it is pretty amazing,” Mikhal said. “Even with the rain and the mud.”
“How can it possibly… you people are insane!” Jenna shot a glance at Shanae, who shrugged. “Even in Merresh we stay indoors for the day, we just go outside to watch the sunrise and sunset, and it doesn’t rain there…”
“Trust us, it’s worth it,” Kerne promised. “Like, there’s hot wine and food stalls and lots of music and things, and there are tents for if it rains too hard–“
“Oh good, yes, that sounds exactly like how I’d want to spend the Solstice, crammed into a dripping tent with lots of muddy people–“
“– come on, you have to at least try it. Just once. You have to see the lights.”
Kerne’s puppy-dog pleading rarely found success with Jenna, but it wasn’t really Kerne who persuaded her. It was the way Mikhal wasn’t backing her up by telling her she could stay behind if she wanted to. Jenna narrowed her eyes at him. Mikhal looked away.
“I always go,” he said, and Jenna had known him too long not to read half a dozen other things in the simple statement.
“Fine,” she said, and tried not to grimace too hard at Kerne’s triumphant response.
Later, huddled in as many layers as she could pack under her coat, fingers frozen even inside her gloves, Jenna’s opinion hadn’t changed much. Oh, she could see some of the appeal, the carnival atmosphere, the lights of stalls and tents, the music, the crowds… but why not do this in the summer? Yes, it was just as likely to rain then, but at least the air would be warmer, and there would be leaves on the trees, and the daylight would last a few more hours. No amount of delicious spiced wine could make it worth it to be out here, and Jenna was just starting to wonder if she could slip away without hurting anyone’s feelings, when Mikhal appeared from somewhere and towed her through the crowds to the river’s edge.
“We’re lighting the lanterns,” he said. “Here, I’ll get you one.”
It wasn’t exactly a boat. It reminded her more of one of the paper balloons they sent aloft in Shill to celebrate the birth of a child. The candle inside was squat and broad, and though the lantern seemed flimsy, its protection charms were evident in the delicate writing around its waterline and the faint pulse in Jenna’s fingers when she took hold of it. They always made it out to sea, Mikhal had told her. Always.
She dutifully lit the candle from the proffered taper, and followed Mikhal to what looked like a huge fishermen’s net in the water, packed with a shoal of the little paper boats. It was pretty, Jenna supposed, but wouldn’t the sky lanterns be just as pretty, and involve less mud? Still, she held her tongue and let Mikhal lead her over to where the others were huddled near the river bank, passing a large bag of deep fried crab sticks back and forth between them. The short, dull Solstice day was waning, the grey light fading. Somewhere to the west, hidden behind the mountains and the clouded sky, the sun was almost below the horizon.
Someone, somewhere, must have been keeping track of its exact position. Just as Jenna realised that she couldn’t see any trace of twilight left in the sky, there was a shout, and then the sound of a gong being struck, and then a rolling cheer from higher up the river. All at once, the lanterns came flooding past like an avalanche of tiny lights. They raced down the river on the current, a stream of light that seemed to go on and on for far longer than Jenna could understand, until she realised that it wasn’t just the lanterns of Farsea, but those of all the other towns further up the river. And when she looked out to sea, she saw them spreading like a wave of tiny stars, their small magic keeping them afloat and aflame, and as she turned, she saw the same blossoming of tiny pinpricks of light all along the coast, the Sea of Storms assailed by a million and more resilient, rebellious flames.
“There,” Mikhal said quietly, by her ear. “Now the days get longer. Now the light starts coming back.”
Jenna’s breath caught. There were drumbeats behind her, music interspersed with feet stamping, the beginning of the Song of the Dead, and it filled her with a rush, the sense of all these people together in this moment as one, defiant against the dark, refusing to be broken as the Sea of Storms broke itself upon their shore all day and all night. The lanterns had spread so far into the waves that it almost looked as though the stars were being reflected in the sea, the stars that Thari hadn’t seen for hundreds of years.
She found Mikhal’s gloved hand and wrapped it tightly with her own.
“We’re going to find her,” she said.
“Yes,” Mikhal replied, his eyes reflecting a dozen dancing lights as he looked out to sea. “We are.”
Mikhal tried ramming his shoulder against the tree one last time. The sturdy trunk barely flinched, whereas his shoulder tipped over from a mild ache into outright pain. Mikhal grimaced, stepped back, and looked up into the branches.
The Dragonfly Dancer (‘really flies! really dances! for children 4 and up!’) was still securely wedged into place far above their heads. Mikhal had become privately dubious over the last few days as to whether the toy really was suitable for a 4-year-old, given how far it was capable of going, and how little control said 4-year-old had over its course. This latest incident wasn’t doing much to assuage his doubts.
“I think it’s stuck for good,” he said.
Kiera tore her eyes away from the brightly coloured gossamer wings peeking out of the leaves, and looked at him with heartbreaking incredulity.
“Oh,” she said. Tear began to well up in her eyes, but she looked down at the ground and bit her lip. After a moment, she just said, “Okay.”
No, not okay. Not okay at all. Not okay that Kiera was crying. Not okay that she had already learned not to trouble people with it. She was only four! When he’d been four, he’d screamed if he’d so much as bumped his head, and their parents had comforted him, like parents were supposed to. But Kiera… Kiera was already learning not to cry. And not to expect much. And not to get too attached to anything or anyone.
Mikhal looked back up at the tree. It wasn’t that tall, was it? I mean, yes, okay, it was taller than the house, technically, but the dragonfly wasn’t so very high up. And he was nine years old, which meant he was practically a grown up, and definitely shouldn’t still be afraid of heights.
… it was pretty high up, though. Higher than the garden wall. Almost high enough to see into his bedroom window. Mikhal felt sweat breaking out on his forehead. It would be so easy to just take Kiera back inside and pretend nothing had happened. He knew Mother wouldn’t do anything about the lost toy. She’d tell him he shouldn’t have bought it for Kiera in the first place, just like she had every day for the last week. Kiera wouldn’t make a fuss. Kiera tried so hard now not to make a fuss.
“I’ll get it for you,” Mikhal promised.
Kiera turned big hopeful eyes on him. And he’d said it now, so he had to do it. There were a couple of branches low enough that he could jump up, grab one, and pull himself up the trunk of the tree with it. That part wasn’t too bad, he was hardly off the ground. Even the next branch was okay. It wasn’t much different from climbing up the stairs. The rough bark of the tree hurt his hands a bit, but it gave him grip, made him feel he was secure when he levered himself further up.
Maybe I’m not scared of heights anymore, he thought, pleased by the notion. Maybe I grew out of it.
Then he got up high enough to see over the garden wall. The Tharil Embassy was built on one of Deshtar’s many escarpments of rock. Although the entrance to the complex was at street level, the land at the back fell away steeply. It meant that the Consul’s official residence had a view all the way to the shores of the lake. And it meant that Mikhal had a view right down a sheer drop to the rooftops of the Craft Quarter.
Everything seemed to spin for a moment as a hot rush of terror throbbed through Mikhal’s head. He closed his eyes and clutched tightly to the branch. His heart was pounding so heart he thought it would choke him. His arms were shaking. The idea of moving so much as an inch was impossible. All he could do was hold on and hope the drop didn’t leap up and get him…
“Yeah?” Mikhal said, trying to keep his voice calm. It came out higher pitched than he’d have liked, but Kiera didn’t seem to notice.
“You’re nearly there.”
He cracked one eye open just enough to peer along the branch. Sure enough, he could see those rainbow wings, fluttering a little in the breeze. Kiera was right, he was nearly there. He wouldn’t have to move far at all, he could just lie along the branch, push himself out with his feet, grab it…
He could feel the view behind him. The rational part of his mind tried to point out that the branch he was on was over the garden, that even if he fell, he’d only land on the lawn. And also, drops couldn’t sneak up on you and drag you down into them.
It was about as much use as reasoning with an angry cat.
“Mikka? Are you okay?”
She looked worried now. No, she looked scared: scared that something was wrong with her big brother, scared that it was her fault. Mikhal took a deep breath. Then he hauled himself onto the branch, pushed with his toes, grabbed the dragonfly, scrambled back to the trunk of the tree, and half-climbed, half-fell out of the tree as quickly as he could.
“Here you are.”
His breath was coming too fast and he felt dizzy and he couldn’t quite believe what he’d just done, but it was worth it. Kiera’s face lit up as she took the fairy figure from his hands and hugged it – careful of the delicate wings – and petted its pink and purple hair like she thought it might have been scared. Mikhal found his legs were wobbly, so he sat down on the grass and tried to think about something other than that long, long drop over the garden wall. Kiera sidled in close to him; he absently put his arm around her.
After a moment, he felt her petting his hair. He was a little embarrassed to admit that it helped.
“I think maybe the dragonfly dancer should dance a bit less enthusiastically from now on,” he said.
“Yeah,” Kiera replied. “She needs to be more careful.”
Mikhal laughed and squeezed her tightly.
“Let’s go inside.”