The ornithopter bomber dragon bucked in its steady flight as it encountered the upper airs, and Quarethstra Jarre’s young student fought with the controls, her movements panicked as the buffeting winds brought her off course.
Jarre barked, “No, shift up…Up. If you don’t reroute the—”
“I know,” his young charge responded.
He had to fight not to immediately take over in the second flight seat as she struggled, her small hands pushing the upslide course buttons desperately. He couldn’t see the panic in her eyes, not sitting behind her, but he could feel it in the way the bomber dragon—no they weren’t bombers anymore, their pot-bomb gripping feet had been altered to better landing gear—bucked at her guidance.
He peered about to see how his other students were doing with other Navs as seconds, and the training squadron fared no better as the high winds made flight much harder. That had been the point.
Jarre lifted his right hand and made the signal for V formation, hoping there would be no collision, though he trusted his fellow Navs to—
One of the ornithopter dragons banked up too quickly, clipping a wing with its nearest fellow, causing both to yaw perilously. Jarre’s massive hands clenched over the controls, his heart leaping up into his bedamned throat before the teachers in the secondary flight seat brought the wayward flyers under control with the ease of long practice in much more harrowing conditions.
“Land,” he said to his student.
She actually turned about to glare at him through her farviewer goggles, and snapped, “Because that stupid sootfoot and bedamned scumlicker almost crashed into themselves? You’ve got to be joking, Trainer!”
Such insolence from any Navigator in training would’ve never been tolerated during wartime, not when Jarre was Third Leader. But now that those being trained weren’t flying into battle, did it matter?
Hells yes it does, he decided.
Jarre growled in his basso rumble, “Insubordination will not be tolerated. One more instance and I’ll ground you for life.”
He saw her stiffen, and the flyer responded as she did. “You can’t…my bloodline is—”
“Land,” he snapped. “Take the first flight ledge that’s open.”
He raised his hand to signal to the other teachers that they were to take over primary flight controls and to land in the previously discussed landing location, which in this case was back home on the flight ledges. Without word or warning to Tanake Tei, he took control from her, and she let out a frustrated growl through the nose of her flight mask, but placed her hands on either side of her controls in the ready-but-at-rest pose seconds were to take.
Jarre could feel the furious pound in his head, and ground his teeth together, trying to excuse himself from the fact that his very small training squadron wasn’t progressing as quickly or as well as other Trainers were with their students. The old Navigator saying was: Poor Trainer makes poor students. Poor students die.
His fury wasn’t at his students, no, the anger was all at himself.
Ah, would my bloodline be shamed that a Quarethstra is failing at Training when it’s in the blood? As he automatically and without thought began the sequence for the thopter’s landing, the nagging thought still struck him: Is it because my very small squad is made of children from non-Navigator bloodlines within our Clan?
He knew what Valin would say to that. And shame burned bright that he kept wondering if his students were doomed to failure because of their breeding, that it had never been their blood-purpose to fly. He wanted to ask his squad brother for help, but he couldn’t bear the idea of seeing the hurt such questions would inflict on his techworker-turned-Navigator friend.
He aimed the thopter’s nose at the giant catch frames, ready to slow the dragon’s momentum as the thopter’s feet touched the edge of the ledge, running forward; with precision the flexible frame caught the nose and stopped them. He knew he should’ve let Tei have the practice, but again he’d naturally assumed that the Navigator girl didn’t necessarily need more practice in that regard when she’d already mastered it ten times over.
Unlike her fellow students.
He hopped to the ground, already seeing the teachers landing their craft in cradles in lines down the expansive granite landing strip. He heard Tei hop down gracefully beside him, and he noticed how tiny the four-and-ten year old looked. Like others of her line, she was sleek of form, whipcord thin. Many of her line were renowned hawkling flyers—the fastest in the Clan. She tore off her flight mask and scowled, glaring with eyes that marked her of her bloodline—a strange storm-cloud gray.
“Trainer,” she said, lifting her farviewer goggles to her forehead. “You can’t keep grounding us every time the others keep making stupid mistakes. The scumlicker is too stupid to—”
“That’s enough,” he said calmly now, but his basso voice had a habit of making him sound more intimidating than he was trying to be. “I’ve asked you before, Tanake, not to refer to your fellow students by such disgusting slang for their blood. In a squad, blood doesn’t matter.”
She gave him a dubious raise of her brow, but said nothing, clearly noting that he’d chosen to use her bloodline name in formality. Only angry Trainers did so.
His students were leaping from their thopters, and coming toward him in rapid strides. He’d at least taught them how to “hop to.”
The teaching seconds, his more tolerant Navs though none of them Trainers, waved a curt goodbye to him as they made their way to other duties.
Jarre regarded them all—his very divergent group of students.
Raijansi Dupresh approached first, and as usual, he had an overly respectful manner of approaching, his eyes always intense on Jarre’s face. At four-and-ten summers, the boy was the first to volunteer from the bloodlines of the vat-cleaners. At first glance, his often expressionless moon-round face gave him a witless aspect, but Jarre had seen those dark eyes focusing on him with a fierce spark glinting in those depths, and knew the boy’s blank expressions were a way to hide his true feelings. Most distressingly, Jarre had yet to hear the boy speak a single word, and he feared he knew why.
Hurrying her steps to stride right beside Dupresh was Seven Nelai, a second-level techworker and possibly direct blood to Valin. In fact, the four-and-ten year-old girl looked so much like Valin that Jarre wondered rudely how close a blood relative she was. Likely a sibling’s daughter, though it was improper to wonder at such things unless she openly claimed Valin as her blood uncle. Her mouth was in a firm line, an all too familiar an expression of serious intensity matched by the crease of curiosity to her brow.
And lastly, bringing up the rear, was the hulking, ungainly form of Kameratsu Awan. Though the Harvester was five-and-ten, his head was nearly to Jarre’s chin (by no means short himself). Bloodline, as far as Jarre knew, was from the plough-hands rather than the pickers in the field, and so they grew large as oxen. The boy looked as if he disliked being so obvious in a crowd, nervous of his new growth, but boasted often of his feats of strength in the manner of younglings to cover his self-consciousness.
Tei left Jarre’s side to stand in front of him, back rigid, stance perfect. Nelai stood next to the Nav girl, shooting a flat look in Tei’s direction before Dupresh stood next to Nelai, touching her hand briefly. And again last, Awan stood his massive frame on Dupresh’s other side, making the vat-cleaner look as a pebble next to a boulder.
“Squadron,” Jarre said. “Report.”
Tei opened her mouth, but shut it a moment later as his eye fell on her.
None of the others were forthcoming.
“Dupresh,” Jarre said. Though Dupresh kept his gaze uncomfortably focused on Jarre’s face, he said not a word. “Why didn’t you move into your point in the V formation? Did you not see Nelai signal you that she was moving into position?”
Dupresh’s mouth trembled, still not looking away.
“Come boy,” Jarre said, frustrated. “That little collision could have been disastrous.”
The boy’s eyes flicked down to his highly polished boots, face expressionless. In fact, now that Jarre thought on it, the cleaner boy was always immaculate in dress, his leather flight jacket well conditioned, and never a speck of so much as dust on him.
“This is serious, Raijansi.” Jarre saw no sign that the boy would speak, though he still trembled, blinking. “Dupresh—”
“It wasn’t his fault,” said Nelai, frowning. No, not quite a frown. That was stark disapproval on that little face, her eyes burning in challenge. “I moved into position without him giving me the signal that all was seen and understood. It’s my fault. If anyone is going to be expelled from training, then it should be me, Trainer.”
Her lips pressed in a determined line. And for a moment Jarre remembered that’s how Valin looked as his own Third Wing tortured him endlessly for being just an ‘upjumped sootfoot.’
Jarre had to fight hard not to grin at her ferocity in admiration. Instead, he kept his expression neutral. “I don’t believe I mentioned anything about expelling anyone. Admitting to mistakes means you can learn from them. I’m not looking to ground anyone in this squadron for mistakes, so fear no such a repercussion if you admit to a fault.”
“You wouldn’t ground a true born Nav,” she muttered so lowly Jarre almost didn’t hear. “But what about the rest of us?”
Tei scowled, clearly hearing that statement. “If you were born a true Navigator, you wouldn’t have made that mistake.”
Jarre knew if he hesitated, it would be noted by his non-Nav students, but he had to agree. If any of them had been born among the Navigator bloodlines, such a simple mistake would’ve never been made. But he remembered Valin saying once, Would it have been easier for me if I’d learned such things as a youngling, instead of being chased from the flight ledges as a child to go back to the forge caves?
And words came from him that seemed all the more true, “Navigators are made, not born.”
Dupresh raised his gaze from his boots, hesitant. But his eyes fell on Jarre’s face with that unnerving intensity, and Jarre said again, “Remember that, training squad. Navs are made, not born.”
Something brightened in the cleaner’s expression, and for the first time, Jarre saw the barest hint of a tight-lipped smile, before it instantly disappeared.
Weary now, Jarre gestured the signal to them: Dismissed.
The young ones broke from one another to go back to their various blood-kin.
Jarre still felt awkward whenever he spoke to his Inventrix. Unless summoned—no, she would insist it wasn’t anything demanding of his obedience—he’d avoided her open invitation to visit upon her whenever he wished. But now…
He stood before the door to her lab, those wide, intricate doors, which revolved on a maddeningly chaotic mass of techwork. She’d altered it so that anyone could open it with the simple press of a button—except for Valin who liked the challenge of being purposefully locked out. Now, Jarre pressed the button, and held back on a flinch as the doors clicked and whirred, folding inward on themselves. He walked in with his purposeful stride, hoping to mask his discomfort, when he saw the young girl who was his Inventrix…
Shiran had grown in a matter of five years from a girl that appeared outwardly to be a seven-year-old to one that appeared nearly at her sixteenth year. He wasn’t lulled into complacence by the disparity of her physical youth or rapid growth, knowing full well what sort of mind was hidden behind it. In an automatic response, Jarre came to a stop, heels together, back ramrod straight.
She looked up from the tome she was pouring over and chuckled a very adult-like chuckle. “At ease, Jarre.” She smiled at him in a way that her predecessor had never smiled, and the incongruity of such an expression on an all too familiar face still made him fight not to squirm. “What brings you to my abode? Council matters? Or perhaps something else?”
He could see by the cant of her smile she had already surmised the answer. But before he could answer with his accustomed, nonchalant style, she hopped off of the stool she’d been perched over; Shiran gestured that he sit in the large leather chairs plopped in the middle of the chaos of machinery, books, and lab equipment around them. When he sat his big frame down, and she flopped gracelessly in the chair opposite, and gestured for him to continue.
Jarre breathed slowly through his nose. “I want to know why you gave me the task of being Trainer.”
She raised a sharp brow. “I’m certain, Jarre, that isn’t the entirety of what you want to ask. Aside from the fact that you are more than qualified to be a Trainer, what you’re truly asking me is: Why did I give you the other blood-kind to train?”
He matched her earlier smile. “To the heart of the matter, Inventrix.”
But her expression remained serious. “And what do you think my answer will be?”
So much like an Elder, he couldn’t help but think. “Because no one else would take this task.”
Shiran shook her head, the wild puffs of her dark hair moving with her. “I offered this to no one else.”
Jarre studied her earnest expression, hoping in vain to read something there. “But Quarethstra Tsavo was my Trainer, and the best in the entire Clan. Certainly he—”
“Your old Trainer also still insists that Navigators be served in the dining hall, in the manner of the old tradition, instead of standing in line like everyone else. Some of his own blood had to drag him from the mess hall before he grew violent with the techworker standing in front of him.”
She’d argued within the Council chambers the reason why such a tradition had to be changed, though she left the ultimate decision up to the vote of the Council. Jarre had seen the point of the tradition once—battle weary Navs had once been shown deference in the dining halls as a matter of respect—but now he could see it for what it had grown into: a way for his own blood to remain somehow superior to the other blood-kind of the Clan and their inborn duties. In the Council chambers, Jarre himself had argued for the repeal of such traditions.
He must be candid with his Inventrix, for she could see through even the lies he told to himself. “This isn’t about the students, not truly. This is about my own doubt in my ability to reach them. I don’t know how.”
Now her smile was dazzling in its intensity. “To the heart of the matter, Trainer Jarre.”
Trainer. Not Councilor. Or even his old blood-purpose as Third Leader of Kerlan Nyru’s squadron. Trainer.
He chuckled, his voice booming in the vaulted expanse of her laboratory, but his mirth was strained. “I fear I will fail them. And I can tell that they want this. All of them. I haven’t asked if they’ve had sunwing dreams, but I can tell that in their own way, the desire to fly are those dreams.”
“In what way will you fail them?”
“They struggle. What should come naturally, does not. And I don’t know how to make it natural for them.”
“You yourself were born to this, but did it always come naturally as you say? Or was it a product of being taught by your blood-kin from the time you could speak? Certainly your early flights were far from perfect.” When he grunted, half a chuckle, half a nod to the truth, she continued, “Perhaps the way to reach them is not through the way you were taught.”
Again, she found a way for him to reach new avenues of thought on his own. To lead him to make his own conclusions. A new idea formed, and he laughed to himself to see what his mate would say. “Oh, Inventrix. Has anyone ever told you you’re the ultimate teacher?”
She snorted. “I’m still learning myself.”
“That’s what all the best teachers say.” He rose to his feet and she peered up at him, studying him in a way that made him feel like she could see through to his bones. “Thank you, Inventrix.”
The Inventrix leaped up to stand, and she patted at his large, muscular arm the way a grandmere would a favored grandson. “Come to visit me again, as I would like to hear of your progress and of your students.”
When he bowed, and spun to make his way to the door, he looked over his shoulder to see her with a pleased tight-lipped smile, in much the way a proud teacher would to an advancing student.
Seven Nelai stood in the mess hall with her mother in the usual line her fellow techworkers would form around the middle. Already, her blood cousins and other techie bloodlines were unwrapping their flatbread pieces from the cloths they’d warmed in the forges, and some of them broke off the right corner—as was traditional in respect to the ones who could no longer break bread with them—and chewed mindfully while waiting. Nelai kept her extra piece of flatbread, which she’d made herself, because Dupresh liked it so well.
The vat-scats didn’t make flatbread. Not vat-scats, she corrected herself. It’s mean, like the way Tei calls them scumlickers. But she’d been surprised to find that not all blood-kind made bread. They traded well enough with the Harvesters for extra grain, and reciprocated with bread, so at least Awan knew the taste of flatbread. But seeing the look on Dupresh’s face when he took his very first bite ever…
In the massive lines across from them, in their drab gray worksuits covered in bits and pieces from things they’d cleaned, stood Dupresh and his own mother. The boy wasn’t looking at Nel, and she knew the only way to catch his attention was to wave, because shouting would be useless anyway. So she waited until his chin raised, and those dark eyes spotted her. His moon-round face broke into a tight-lipped smile.
She flickered her hand in the signal-speak, because it was easier for stealth than the more elegant hand-speak of the Navigators: Will drop back to your position.
He nodded, but his eyes flicked up to look at how long the line was for the cleaners in the back. Always in the back. Always last. Even though they didn’t have to anymore.
Why couldn’t Nelai just gather an extra two portions, since she was farther forward in the mess lines? Then she could hand it to Dupresh and his mother, give him the flatbread…it was okay now, wasn’t it? She would do it. Even if her mother disapproved, as she so disapproved of everything. “Blood shame, Nel,” she’d say sternly.
Yes, she’d do it. No more sneaking around, hiding that she gave Dupresh the Seven’s famously hearty flatbread. As she stepped forward with her tray and bowl, the cook, a robust mid-aged woman, smiled down at her, plopped the vat-raised protein in its salty broth into the bowl with the savory rice balls perched on top.
“May I have two portions to give to my friends behind me?” she asked, her heart pounding.
Mother frowned. “Since when do we jump the line? Nel, what have your cousins put you up to?”
“Of course, la’ little one,” said the cook, spooning two more portions and setting all three bowls on the tray. “Don’t drop it.”
Mother placed her strong hand on Nelai’s shoulder, stopping her with a stern frown. “Seven’s don’t jump the line. Give it back. Now.”
“Respectfully mother,” she said raising her chin. “No. It’s not jumping the line. Not anymore. There isn’t an order. Not like there used to be—”
“Nel, so help me,” her mother hissed, eyes darting around as some of the other Sevens were looking on. “Forge Gods give me strength, you don’t know what you’re speaking of. Give back the bowls.”
Nelai hated when her mother used that tone. Others in the mess hall were beginning to look. Then good. Let them look. She turned her back rudely on her mother, some of her blood-kin muttering to themselves, and she left the lines of her fellow second-level techworkers in their worksuits covered in soot and grease. Her mouth was dry as she walked around the Harvesters (Awan wasn’t there, probably still out in the fields), walked beyond the lines of the few bloodlines of Tamers, smelling of wolves, felines, and the stock pens. And she came toward Dupresh, his eyes wide, his hands making gestures for: Fall back to position.
But instead she waited until Dupresh’s mother realized that Nelai was holding out the tray for her to take. His mother’s wide brow crinkled, before she realized Nelai’s intent. “Begging your pardon, honored techworker, but what is this?”
Nelai’s stomach fluttered uncomfortably. “I gathered bowls for you and Dupresh. I made some flatbread. You can share it.” Now, with Dupresh’s mother blinking at her, she felt the need to shove it into the woman’s hands. “Can I sit with you? I would like to learn more about my fellow student’s blood-kin.”
Her face, nearly as moon-round as her son’s, became expressionless. “Techworker Seven,” she said, voice pinched. “Your own tables with your own blood-kin are far better. I wouldn’t want you complaining of the smell at our tables.” That last was said flatly, but her gaze had narrowed ever so slightly.
Dupresh tapped on his mother’s small, petite shoulders in a sequence, but she ignored him.
“I’m not here to mock you, honored Raijansi…” Nelai broke off as such words brought a flinty look into her eye. As if those words themselves had indeed mocked her. “I-I only…Dupresh and I are students together—”
“Perhaps not for long, Techworker Seven,” said Dupresh’s mother, face again carefully expressionless. “Let us see how far our Inventrix takes this before she grows tired of simple vat-scats…comingling with others. If you decide to complain of the smell to your laughing blood-kin,” and those eyes sharpened, and Nelai had never before seen such undisguised anger while a face remained expressionless, “then have the decency to do so at your own table, if you please, honored techworker.”
Heat radiated from her cheeks like the fires of the crucibles; she still held the tray as if it could speak for her. She couldn’t move, as if paralyzed; words were lodged in her throat as she heard the flurry of whispers all around her. It felt like the forges were burning her from…from embarrassment?
“Ah, there you are!” crowed a deep voice from behind her.
She spun around in surprise to see Trainer Jarre…no Councilor Jarre in his full green-and-black high-collared uniform that seemed to fit his tall, massive frame in an imposing manner. Many around him still weren’t certain how to nod or bow to a Councilor, or truly what sort of deference they should give to a position created but five-years past. It wasn’t one of blood. There was no inherent blood-purpose in it, but on the other hand, Nelai had heard her father say that “they tell us a Councilor is supposed to help be our voice. At least a techie is one of them, otherwise they’d all be sun-loving, stuck-up Navs.”
While Nelai was staring in surprise up at her Trainer, he plucked the heavy tray from her and balanced it perfectly in one hand, while meeting Dupresh’s mother with a respectful bow. The woman blinked rapidly. Mother hurried to Nelai’s side, aghast that Nel may have inadvertently disrespected a Councilor, and placed work-hardened hands on Nelai’s shoulder.
“Honored blood-mothers of Dupresh and Nelai,” he said, voice rumbling with genuine seriousness. “I must ask your permission to train your children during all hours. It is a very regimented schedule, done in seclusion. But know while they’re under my care as Trainer, that while training is dangerous, I will do everything to keep them safe.”
Dupresh was watching closely, focused on Jarre’s lips, but she could see the surprise turn to excitement on his face. A tiny squeak-sound escaped his lips, though she knew he was unaware that he’d made any such noise.
Nelai looked up at the big Trainer. “Is this some kind of special training?”
He shook his head. “Not special. A very old, very respected method. Navigators have not trained for flight duty this way in centuries. And with this new kind of expeditionary squad,” and he met each of the mother’s eyes, “it requires that I train them apart from their blood-kin. But first, I must ask permission.”
Mother raised her chin. “You didn’t need permission to take her away for this in the first place. Why not just take her at the demands of our Inventrix?”
Nelai cringed. The Council had required that “one of the blood” give permission for any who may want to train to fly, but she had known her blood-parents would say no. And her blood-uncle Valin knew that. So he’d given permission on her behalf. But Nelai had told her parents it was…”required by the Inventrix as a test.”
And oh, how the lie ate at her.
Jarre narrowed his gaze at Nel ever so slightly. Disapproval. “Because you have a voice, Seven Denara. As both Trainer and Councilor, I would be remiss in not allowing you a choice. But know before you answer that your blood-daughter wishes for this with all her heart. It burns bright within. Even if you think it a mistake, isn’t that what we should let our children do? Make mistakes?”
“No, Councilor,” said Mother as sternly as she dared.
But before she could deny Nelai the chance to train, Dupresh stepped forward with his own mother, her moon-round face determined. “Most honored Councilor, yes, mistakes are to be made in order to learn. But more importantly, it is the wish of my blood, of all my kind, that my blood-son find his heart-wish. In all respect, honored Councilor, I don’t think you understand…what this means. To so many of us.”
Dupresh smiled at his mother, and nodded to his Trainer. He signed in the Nav hand-speak, I wish for this.
Nelai couldn’t believe that Mother would let a “simple vat-scat” show support for her blood-son in this training, yet deny Nel the chance. So many of the Sevens were watching already. Mother quivered, not quite glaring at the quiet pride that Dupresh’s mother had in her gaze.
“Fine,” Mother said tersely. “And when this training is over, then my daughter will realize how—” Nelai was certain her mother was about to say ‘ridiculous,’ but after a choked pause continued with, “—well, then she’ll realize where she truly belongs. What she was bred for. Why you or our most honored Inventrix would do this to her, I’ve no idea. But if it’s to teach her that she’ll fail, and that she was bred for the true techwork of the Clan, then so be it.”
Nelai wanted to leap to Jarre’s side, wanted to beg him to take both her and Dupresh away right this instant.
Jarre regarded both of the mothers, and bowed again with a respectful elegance. Even still holding the tray. “I hear your acceptance. Now, I believe my new charges are quite hungry. So if you don’t mind me jumping the line…”
Nelai was impressed that her Trainer knew such techworker concepts.
He gestured gently, rather than with the curt motions of a Trainer. “Come children. Time to eat.”
And with one last bow, he spun about, expecting his trainees to follow.
Dupresh shared an eager smile with her as they followed after