Beyond Blood #7: Judgement

Beyond Blood #7: Judgement

Part 7

Jarre listened to the sounds of his little squadron sleeping in the two tents they’d raised not too far distant from the bloodwood trees. He’d tied Xennar good and tight to the second tree. Though he was sure Xennar couldn’t see well with one missing eye and the other sitting in a shattered socket, the man had seen enough and had paused, as if thinking of struggling. If he had, Jarre didn’t know if he wouldn’t have executed the man on the spot.

Give me an excuse, Jarre had urged silently. Give me one fucking excuse to kill you. Just one.

The stars speckled bright above him, and Khandra had just risen full and huge, casting her silvery moonlight about the campsite. He had his back to the warm fire, so as not to ruin his night vision, but looking on the night brought some semblance of calm to him. He listened, pleased that Shiran had finally agreed to rest, and for this hour—and this hour only, she had insisted—she would sleep.

He heard a rustling in the tent with Tei, Nelai, and the Inventrix, as Shiran had insisted on keeping the wounded ones closest to her because “she could smell suppuration the instant it took hold.” Nelai swept aside the tent flap, and winced as she stepped through. Shiran had given the girl her own flight jacket, as it wasn’t covered in a dead man’s blood, and it sat slightly large on her frame. It made her look even younger.

Sun, she’s only four-and-ten summers, Jarre thought with a painful wrench.

She trudged forward and sat heavily on the flat rock at his side. Staring out at the snowy expanse, he tried not to prompt her. They sat in silence until he watched the big moon rise higher, Khandra’s cratered silvery cheeks winking at him.

He heard her inhale as if to speak, before letting it out slowly.

Finally, Jarre tried to speak as quietly as his basso voice would allow, “After the first time I flew into battle, I couldn’t sleep for three days. Every time I’d close my eyes, I’d see it again. Hear it.”

“Smell it,” she whispered.

He nodded, but wouldn’t allow himself to look at her. He thought perhaps she would find such scrutiny unbearable. “Some Navigators forget about it, try to force it from their mind. Some accept it and don’t allow the fear of the past to rule them.” 

“And for others,” she croaked, “it follows them…the shadowfall.” Nelai inhaled shakily, and with his quick glance he expected to see tears. But there were none.

He hoped she wouldn’t suffer from shadowfall…from this ordeal.

“As it did for me…” he admitted. “Until I laid to rest the names of my Wing on the Burned Stone. In memory. In honor for their sacrifice. As an end to the war and more dying.” He paused, uncertain how to speak. On this day she was no longer a child. “My shadowfall returned only because of my new fear.”

Her brow wrinkled. “Us?”

“I feared more than anything I would fail you, my student. And I did.”

She set her bandaged hand gently on his unwounded arm. “Everything you taught us helped keep us alive, Trainer.”

Jarre growled, “And yet, I shouldn’t have had to teach you such things.”

“When we explore, when we fly to parts of this world unknown, we will need to know these things. And I will insist you teach us all of your knowledge, no matter how small a matter.”   

He turned to her, admiring her fierceness. “Then here’s yet another lesson. When you feel the time is right, allow yourself to weep, wing runner. There is no weakness in it.”

She shook her head. “I won’t weep for that monstrous beast. Or for what I did to him.” She swallowed, and huddled down into the larger jacket as if she’d disappear inside of it. “If I weep it will be because…because I feared losing them. My squad. That fear is still…heavy. Real.”

And now the tough question. “Are you certain you wish to be a Navigator? You may very well feel that fear again once you’re out exploring the world.”

“Yes,” she hissed. Then more firmly, her eyes glinting with that inner fire, “Yes.

He gently patted her bandaged hand. “Then Navigator you are Seven Nelai.”

They remained in companionable silence until the first rays of the sun warmed the sky, then she leaned against him, closing her eyes in sleep.

#

Nelai opened her eyes to the watery morning sun, and quickly closed them again. Trainer Jarre nudged her gently awake and insisted she sleep in the tent. But that wasn’t where she would go.

She had decided.

She looked around, noting that her Inventrix was out in the field, likely hunting for breakfast, her squad asleep in their tents. She reached into her pocket and ran her thumb along the handle of the knife she’d refused to give up. The knife that had made slicing into flesh so easy.

Her squad wouldn’t be safe until all the traitorous beasts were dead.

She hiked up the hill, seeing the bloodwood branches; they creaked with the slight wind, as if those leafless branches were gnarled fingers clawing toward the sun. But the traitors were still bound to their trunks. Kitsu sat with his head back against the blood-red trunk, eyes closed. Xennar tried to look at her, but his single eye couldn’t rotate properly in its shattered socket.

It would be easy. They were bound. She approached Kitsu—no, the beast first, and tried to calculate the line she would draw across his throat with her knife—she would follow the line of his scars. But though she tried to make no sound, he opened his eyes. His fox-like face creased in pain. No, it wasn’t pain. The enemy felt no pain. They couldn’t.  

“The sun listened to my prayers,” the fox-man croaked. “You’re safe.”

Her voice sounded like someone else. Not hers at all. Devoid of emotion. Cold as stone. “But you’re not safe, you traitorous beast.”

His eyes were feverish. Too bright. “You would condemn yourself by killing one of your own Clan?”

“I’ve done it before.” She reached into her pocket and slipped the knife into her hand, holding it down at her side. With her thumb she opened the blade and it clicked in place.

“Yes, I can see it,” he said softly. “It changes you. All the killing.”

“Enough.” That word had the tiniest bit of inflection. “I don’t want to hear—”

“Me scream?” The fox-faced man shook his head. “I understand why you do this, little girl. More than you know. You see me the way I see the Wheelteeth, as murdering, vile beasts. But am I one? Was I one when I tried to save you?”  

Her words choked her with rage, bubbling up now like a crucible overflowing. “No, you’re just like him.”

Kitsu’s voice sharpened, “Say his name, girl. Or are you afraid to say it, because then it’ll be more real?”

She sprinted forward lifting the knife, knowing how easy it would be to cut him. To see the blood, dear Gods o’ the Forge, how easy it’d been to slice through skin and meat and bone. He leaned his head back, bearing his scarred throat.

Nelai’s arms trembled, her heart leaping into her mouth. One thrust. One slash. And it would be over. Her squad would be safe…She was close to the man now, could look down and see the acceptance of his fate in those eyes. Haunted eyes. Eyes that had seen pain. It shone from him like an aura.

She pressed the edge of the blade to his skin, saw the thin line of blood well from the tiny cut—mirroring the one that the beast—no, that Tsavo had given her. “Tell me why I should spare you.”

Again that pain in his eyes…that shadow…and she recognized it. “I don’t want to be spared. I made the Offer, and it was taken. I die gladly.” He leaned forward into the blade, and the blood poured as it cut deeper. “But do me a great honor, girl, and make someone else do this.”

“W-Why?”

“Because it’ll change you more,” he said, his throat bobbing against the blade. “If you do this, then you’ll know nothing other than the killing. The fear, girl. It will take you, rule you. As it has ruled me ever since I lost my squad, since I saw them tortured in front of my eyes by the enemy. I wanted nothing else but the killing. All of them had to die, all of the beasts. Never again would another squad be tortured. Never would we be weak. But…” Again she saw the pain of realization glint in his fox-bright eyes. “I can see now that my Clan isn’t weak. You, little techworker, are strong. Fierce. If any dare to threaten us again, you’ll stand firm. Look at you!” More blood poured from the cut. “You bleed fire, girl. You are the Cog Clan!”

She pulled away, taking the knife from his throat. She didn’t tremble, not anymore. He was right, and she knew it.    

Nelai glanced away from Kitsu, seeing her Inventrix watching with those scrutinizing eyes darker than pits. Gracefully, the Inventrix walked from the shadows, surety in every movement. “You’ve been called to judge. How do you find them?”

“They’re guilty of treason,” she said without hesitation. “And yet, Kitsu risked his life to save me…I almost forgot that…b-because I’m…afraid.”  

Those black eyes watched her. Weighing. “Will you give me the knife?”

Her fingers tightened on the grip.

A crease of pain marred that too smooth façade, but those eyes weren’t young, not completely. “Keep the knife. Hold it close if it brings you comfort. But don’t use it when there’s no need. Don’t let your fear rule you.”

Her words eerily matched Kitsu’s.

Nelai tucked the folding blade into its hilt and placed it back into her pocket.

“I swear to you on my life,” said the Inventrix with astonishing might, “that I’ll not allow these men to hurt you or your squadron.”

She nodded to her Inventrix as one would to an equal. In acceptance of that vow. Nelai didn’t question whether or not she’d hold to that vow, not with the frightening determination that creased the lines of her face.

“Now,” said the Inventrix, her expression softening. “You should rest.” Then with the faintest warm smile, which made her look yet again as a youngling. “And you know where it is you’ll feel most comfortable resting.”

Weary now, Nelai nodded, determined to return to her tent. She stalked downhill, but she didn’t waver. She stuck her head inside the tent, seeing that Tei and her bed roll were no longer there. Nelai didn’t question for a moment where her Second had gone. Walking as if the heaviness inside translated to the heaviness of her tired limbs, she moved to the next tent and poked her head inside.

The big Harvester was softly snoring. But next to his bulk Tei lay huddled in her bed roll, pressed against the bigger boy’s side with Dupresh huddled close on the other side. Du had cleaned the blood from his jacket, and he’d done so without expression; blood that had smeared on his jacket when he embraced her, her covered in Tsavo’s blood.

Nel watched them as they slept. How at peace they looked. How so very exposed. Innocent. Untouched by their ordeal.

My squadron. An intense feeling in her chest arose, and she wasn’t sure if it was fear for them, or perhaps something else. Something as searing as the forges themselves.

Tei opened a sleepy eye, and without word opened the blanket of her bed roll. Dupresh also opened his warm brown eyes, and moved to give her room, only to close them again. Nelai plopped down in the space offered between them, and at once the warmth of them pressed against her skin, enveloping her.   

That same warmth was in her breast. And she knew what that was. What she felt for them.

And as her Trainer had urged, she allowed herself to weep silent tears. Not because she feared for them. But because the strength of the love she bore for them was stronger than she’d ever thought possible.

#

“Dragons!” Awan cried in his big voice. “Dragons approaching!” Then he hesitated, perhaps remembering that he was supposed to give positions on all incoming flyers.

Tei gave the information for him. “Fifty degree upslide from current position, but descending rapidly at almost a…ninety deg’ angle. There are only two flyers that can hover like that…”

Nelai knew, and she held her breath as the brass dragons lowered themselves into the clearing. The biggest dragon craned his head around, his huge quicksilver eyes taking in potential dangers around him, his saber-like claws digging into the earth. How fierce he looked, this battle dragon. Perched atop his back was the familiar form of her blood-uncle. And how at ease he looked! She’d never actually seen Uncle Valin in his flight gear, but he wore it as if born to it.

She’d only ever remembered him in his gray-and-brown techsuit, worn and patched, wearing an equally solemn and melancholic expression. But her uncle had always smiled at her. Slipped her sweets when her mother and father weren’t looking. He’d even built her toys from the remnants of their techwork, always birds. Or flyers. Anything that flew.

The smaller dragon’s longwings brushed the trees on each side, and Nelai’s techie mind instantly marveled at the make of them. Violet-colored eyes, sharp as gemstones, landed on her and the little dragon bounded forward. “I can smell the blood! There are injuries here, Zefir-sibling!”

Hearing the creature speak in such a certain contralto astonished her. Nelai stood her ground when the little dragon came to her, and arched that graceful pseudo-metallic neck. Gentle dragon hands reached out to touch her shoulder. And Nel squeaked when that muzzle buried itself in her abdomen, sniffing.

“No fever, no suppuration, good, good,” the dragon announced. “May I see your injuries?”

“Innari,” said Uncle Valin as he slipped easily from the bigger dragon’s back. “I’m sure that the Inventrix patched her up just fine.”

Innari snorted dubiously, and the force of it smoothed back Nelai’s hair. And those big, round eyes studied her. “How did you come by your injuries, little one?”

She glanced behind to see her squadron instinctively forming up around her in a defensive position. Did they worry that her uncle and Ambassador Zefir were also traitors? Well, she supposed the traitor’s scar on Uncle Valin’s cheek might worry them.

Jarre burst from the tent, moving his arm in its sling as if trying to flap his arms and fly away with them. “Oh, praise the sun’s rays! I’ve never been happier to see your ugly faces staring back at me! Sun, I could kiss you all right now.”

Her uncle raised a brow. “Dear Gods o’ the Forge, if you’re this happy to see us, then something terrible has happened.” He looked worriedly at Nelai, and asked, “Nel, are you well?”

Innari’s nose twitched, and she let out a low, rumbling growl. “The girl has a wound. It’s from a flechette bolt. I can hear the outline of it when I sing to it. Such outlines are unmistakable.”

Nelai didn’t hear any singing, but believed the dragon’s words. Besides, as a techie she knew sounds had a way of pressing against objects…that there were mechanical devices that could read those outlines.

That gemstone eye stared at the poorly wrapped bandages around her fingertips. They’d run out of material in their med-kit. “She lost some fingernails. They will grow back.” And the dragon’s snout turned in Tei’s direction. “Bolt wound to the lower leg. Luckily it missed the bone. And the knee. And arteries.”

Her uncle blinked in astonishment. Then as Trainer Jarre began to explain what had happened, her uncle’s expression grew harder than she’d ever seen. With the scarred X on his cheek, it made him look all the more frightening. And when their Trainer began to relate some of the squad’s story, Zefir release a furious growl that rattled inside of her chest.

Her squad firmed their stance, and Dupresh signed to her, Can we trust them?

Zefir’s eyes rested on her First. The dragon’s large, clawed hands began to sign with an elegance she didn’t think such a mechanical could make. I would never harm you, or your squad, First Leader. Yet, I admire any First who puts the safety of their squad above that of blind trust.

Again, she heard her uncle’s voice, “—and it was Raijansi Pujara who alerted some old wing runners that three of the gryphons on the storage ledge were missing. They told her to shut up and keep cleaning. But Zhandei caught wind of it when Pujara went directly to him, demanding that he do something. Zhan then came immediately to me.”

Nelai knew the Nav phrase “caught wind of it” often meant something more sinister. So too did Du.

Dupresh stiffened and demanded, What happened to my blood-mother? What did they do to her?

The great dragon’s wings fluttered. “Your mother is safe and well.”

But they tried to hurt her, Du insisted. Didn’t they? They wanted to strike her quiet! They would never believe a scumlicker!

“She was believed,” the dragon rumbled deeply. “Because there are some among our Clan that don’t think our inborn blood-purpose is all that defines us. Your blood-mother is clever. She even insisted to Valin that she come with us.” When Du blinked in surprise, the dragon continued, “Love and strength are not traits given solely to one type of blood, Dupresh. There are people among you that know it.”

When Dupresh trembled, the dragon assured him, “Worry not for your dragon-hearted mother, First Leader.

How can I not? Du demanded.

The dragon showed his teeth, but it wasn’t a pleasant grin. It was deadly. “Woe to anyone that would dare harm her.” He blinked, and the ferocious grin intensified until he bared all of his blade-like teeth. “Or any of you, Squadron Prime.”

And Nelai knew that woe had befallen one traitor. At her own hand. And she wanted to shake her head to thrust away the memory of plunging in the blade…

The Inventrix came from down the hill, signing a greeting to the new arrivals, though displaying no surprise to see them. “Innari, I have wounded men I would like you to attend to. If you’re willing.”

“Bad men, you mean,” the little dragon stated. “Yes, I must heal them. Must. But I won’t pretend that I don’t think they’ve done evil things.” She raised her neck in an imperious arch. “And I suppose I must carry them back home?”

“It’s your choice, Innari,” said the Inventrix.

“Very well then,” the little dragon grumbled. “I was hoping I could fly with the young ones! But now they get to have all the fun with Zefir-sibling. No one flies like my sibling. Well, except for me. I’m much faster, and they’d like it better—”

 Zefir nudged the smaller dragon with a wingtip.

“Oh, right. Yes. The wounded men.” And with that Innari paced at the Inventrix’s side and disappeared over the hill.

Trainer Jarre turned to them, and said in his booming voice, “Squad Prime! Time to mount up!”

The large dragon hunkered down, and his long, sail-lined tail tip flicked like an eager feline ready to pounce. Only Nelai suspected he was eager to leap skyward and be airborne again.

Valin vaulted easily to the dragon’s back, and held out his hand to her. She took it, feeling the familiar techworker calluses of his hand as he helped her up behind him. Then came Tei, the dragon allowing her to step on his sensitive nose in order to lift her to his back. And Awan looked dubious, but leaped behind Tei with an awkward thud.

Dupresh studied the dragon, expression blank. The dragon’s quicksilver eyes blinked, at peace with such scrutiny. Du signed, You understand. Don’t you?

“I am not the enemy, Dupresh.” The dragon stilled his flicking tail. “I understand your hesitation to trust me. Or anyone at present.” But the dragon paused. “Except that’s not what you meant.”

No, agreed Dupresh.

“Ah,” Zefir said in realization. “They are your blood now. Just as Jarre and Valin are mine. That will never change. Of that you need never doubt. And you’ll always worry for them. That also will never change.” He puffed a warm breath in her First Leader’s direction, practically dancing on his feet with the eagerness to be aloft. “Don’t worry for them on my back, First Leader. Come, now. Fly with your squad. It’s where you belong.”

With a respectful nod to the dragon, as one equal to another, Dupresh leaped behind Awan.

In a single bound upward, the dragon’s wings beat with powerful strokes, and they were aloft. She could feel the exhilarating lurch in her stomach as they gained altitude far quicker than even her longwing flyer could attain. Evening out, Zefir’s mechanical muscles flexed, the thin membranes of his wings catching air as if carving it out of his path.

Nelai thumped her chest twice in the sign for heart and Navigator as the cold air stung at her cheeks. But no, she wasn’t only a Nav. Her heart also beat in time to the hammer blows of the forge caves, to the songs of the lines. She wouldn’t forget one half of who she was in favor of the other.

You bleed fire, girl.

Quietly at first, she began to sing “Strong Fire.” The dragon slowed his pace, gliding; he craned his head back, cocking it to the side. Listening.

And her blood-uncle joined in with his tone-deaf voice, until they both caroled the song with the hearty enthusiasm of a second-level techworker.

#

Jarre glanced about the old Judge’s room, which had been sealed for so long that it took nearly a week for the cleaners to scour the place. Raijansi Pujara and a handful of Dupresh’s blood-kin had volunteered, and when the Inventrix had asked them why, Du’s mother had answered simply with, “For my blood-son. For my kind. And hopefully for justice done.”

Sigils for the various gods and goddesses graced the polished floor, etched into the very stone: the sundisk, the hammer of the Forge Gods, the five-point Palm of the Five Healers, others that had been added over time with less beauty, and now that he knew of it, an obsidian insert representing the cleaner’s Shadow goddess.

Shiran sat in a simple camp-style folding chair placed at the apex of all the sigils, and she wore the Inventrix’s black-on-black uniform of the Judge’s regalia. The clothes only worn when called to judge the Clan’s worst offenses: treason, and murder of one’s own Clan members.

She looked like a stone sentinel, sitting there with inhuman stillness. Jarre wasn’t certain if he could even see her breathe. She held the blank white mask in her black gloved hand. The mask that represented all of the gods and goddesses. And none. A mask that had always fit her face. That same face rendered time and time again.

The huge mechanical doors to the chamber were thrown wide open, and a crowd had gathered outside. Men and women from all the blood-kind in the Clan. He spied more than a few Sevens at the front, Nelai’s parents too, as well as a small group of Dupresh’s blood-kin near Raijansi Pujara. Even Zhandei had rather rudely pushed his way forward, flanking the cleaners and their position up front, people having to allow them to remain or risk being stepped on by the walker’s mechanical feet.

Zhandei shared a look with him and signed, Sun’s rays be with you, light of my life.

The council members in their stiff green-and-black uniforms were arrayed in a semi circle on the outside edge of the god’s sigils, but Jarre had chosen for multiple reasons not to wear his Councilor’s uniform, and instead wore his normal flight clothes, the symbol of a Trainer—stars in a perfect circle—had hastily replaced the Third Leader patches on his shoulders.

Training was his purpose now.

Seven Valin stood in the middle of the Councilors, expression storm-ridden, arms crossed over his chest. Next to him stood Qinethi Rhin, their youngest member, and the Rider instinctively kept reaching for the quiver of arrows normally attached at her hip. Quarethstra Ferrei, Jarre’s blood-cousin and former Second, tapped her foot as if eager to be back out flying with Innari. The others, old battle scarred Riders and Navs arrayed themselves in neat lines around the other three.

Even Zefir was present, although not strictly a Council member; he pressed his admirable bulk into the corner, his wings tight against his back.

And Expeditionary Squadron Prime stood opposite, wearing all new clothes, not a speck on them. Their red leather flight jackets were now emblazoned with the Cog Clan’s Navigator symbol, the shield on their shoulders. Dupresh had the symbol of First Leader, the shield and single star. Jarre had hesitated at first to give him the patches, worried that the mostly Nav Council would sneer to see an ‘upjumped’ cleaner wearing it. But hells, the boy had more than proven himself worthy to wear it.

And Jarre would have words with anyone who dared question that.

Dupresh showed not a flicker of emotion, back ramrod straight, feet firmly together. Tei standing next to him had forgone the Healer’s offer of a cane to take the weight from her injured leg, and she stood staring straight ahead, mouth in a firm line. Nelai’s eyes would flick in the Inventrix’s direction, trying not to study her for too long before returning her gaze to the wall far distant—or perhaps she kept sharing looks with Zefir. Jarre couldn’t tell. And Awan fidgeted, his hands making fists and then relaxing them.

Shiran nodded to Jarre, and when he stepped forward a hush settled over those present. He used his Third Leader’s voice to make his words carry, “This trial stands for the attempted murder of our Inventrix, myself, and the newly appointed students of Expeditionary Squadron Prime. The trial also stands for treason, those so accused who attempted to incite a false war in our time of peace by attacking those mentioned while flying Wheelteeth gryphons. The accused are Kerlan Xennar, wing runner, Nogatare Kitsu, First Leader, and the now deceased Quarethstra Tsavo, Trainer and former First Leader.”

He was certain it was so quiet he could hear the collective breathing around him.

“As one of the victims, I, Quarethstra Jarre, have chosen to stand down from my Council position and will make no decision in the outcome of this trial.”

The Inventrix, back straight, face unreadable as the blank mask she held in her hands, called, “Bring forth the accused. They will be allowed to make their statements in defense.”

A mountain of a man, a Rider clad in a scout’s green, bristling with the arrows in its quiver on his hip, led the prisoners into the chamber. Both traitors walked with their heads held high, Kitsu with his eyes bright, and Xennar with pseudo-metal pieces drilled into his broken socket, led to the center by the Rider’s hand. Neither were bound. All knew that the Inventrix could crush them in an eyeblink. Chains were unnecessary.

Shiran nodded to the Rider, who backed away. She addressed the prisoners. “Xennar, of the bloodline Kerlan, you stand accused of—”

“Shit, Inventrix,” the man growled. “We’ve done this before. I already said I deny nothing. I’m guilty of it all. I tried to kill you, plain and simple. So, get this little children’s puppet show over with and put a bolt through my head already. Like Inventrix Mirena would’ve done.” He made a bitter chuckle. “For sun’s sake, girl, make a fucking decision. Show us what you do to traitors and Clan murderers instead of having your boot-licking shit-for-brains Council do it for you. Who are also traitors. You can see their fucking mark, clear as day. The ones who stopped our enemy from being exterminated like they should’ve been—”

Shiran’s face hardened. “The accused will keep his statements to defense only, or—”

“Or you’ll what?” Xennar’s hands made the curse signs all Navs knew and had used against the enemy. “Strike me? Ah, but you’ve already done that. I saw our true Inventrix that day. The one that would take vengeance into her own hands for the sake of her own! Let her come forth! Show us the Inventrix we need. Be the strength and terror of all the gods in one body! We don’t need a scared little weakling girl leading us. Be our Leader. Be vengeance itself!”

Astonished whispers made a shockwave through the spectators.

“How do you plead?” Shiran asked coldly.

Xennar spat on the sigils of the gods.

Even Jarre had to fight against the desire to backhand the man.

Spittle pooled on the outline of the sundisk. The Navs on the Council made gestures to their own ancestors to ward off evil. Then the man spat again, this time on the hammer of the Forge Gods; Valin tensed, but otherwise made no movement. But his fellow techworkers in the crowd let out strangled sounds of outrage. As no one made to stop him, Xennar made disgusting hocking noises in his throat, and then spat on palm of the Five Healers, saving some for the rest of the gods and goddesses.

Kitsu’s lips curled up in disgust.

Shiran raised a cool brow, and Jarre shuddered to see such an unconscious mirroring of Mirena’s gestures. Her voice was ice itself, “And what did this disrespectful display prove, Kerlan Xennar?”

“You do nothing, little girl!” he crowed. “I spit on the very gods themselves, and you do nothing! Now our people will see you for the weakling you are. They will see what happens when we go to war again. It’ll happen. Oh, we all know it will. We were bred to fight, bred for nothing else. We can feel it quiver in our very bones. And when the war starts again, you’ll cower. You’ll do nothing! Your words are empty, your actions cowardice!” The man half-turned to the crowd. “Mark her deeds this day, my Clan. See her as the weak Abomination she is! Go to our vats and grow us a new Inventrix, one with the cold fury and cunning to make our Clan the strongest again!”

Shiran moved not a muscle, so still that not even her dark eyes shifted. “Was this your reason for trying to murder those of your own Clan?”

“To save it,” Xennar growled. “From you. And from itself.”

Then Xennar barreled toward the Inventrix, his broken hands in fists. As if she were in a dance, Shiran moved from her seat still clutching the judge’s mask. Ducking from Xennar’s fist, she slammed her palm upward to his jaw. While he staggered back, Zefir unleashed a deafening roar, desperate to aid her by trying to spread his wings in the small space. But there was no need. With a graceful sweep of her leg, Xennar fell to the ground. And she lifted him to his feet by his neck with a single hand.

There was no anger on her face.

Do it,” Xennar croaked. “Kill me…” He gasped. “With your bare hands.”

Shiran released him, the faintest curl of disgust to her lip. “I’m not in charge of your fate, Kerlan Xennar. Your people are.”

“You’ll kill us all!” he screamed hoarsely. “You pathetic bitch! You’ll turn us all into useless weaklings and then we’ll die! We’ll all die when they come for us!”

Shiran gestured to the Rider that came forward. “Bind him.”

“Our Clan will die!” Xennar still howled.

ENOUGH!” her voice thundered.

Even Zefir flinched at the sound.

“Our Clan will not die!” And Shiran turned her eye on the crowd. “You’re as strong as you’ve ever been, my people. Learning how to live again, learning how to go on with your lives after all you’ve lost, that makes you strong. Living and learning, finding your heart’s purpose regardless of blood, that makes you strong! Raising your children to love, that is the ultimate strength. Our strength is not in war. Not the endless killing. Not in losing those children to the battlefield. It’s in living!”

Jarre tried to hide his grin. But failed. Here was his Inventrix. The true Shiran.

“And I know that’s hard sometimes,” she said, gesturing around her. “Our ways have been set for so long, we don’t know how to be anything else other than the war machine we became. I know you all fear that it will come again. And I must tell you that I don’t know if it will. But I will fight as hard as I can to make certain that doesn’t happen.” She breathed out slowly. “As should all of you. We must fight for the future we want, not for the future we fear may come to pass.”

Jarre recognized that last as Zefir’s words to him. He had no doubt that Zefir had said the same to his Inventrix. He shared a look with the dragon, and Zefir bared his sharp blade-teeth in a fierce grin.

Silence.

“Now,” she said, raising the porcelain mask above her head. “You have been accustomed to your Inventrix being your unquestioned ruler, your goddess that wears the face of all the gods. But I’m neither. I am Shiran. You are my people, and I am your Inventrix. I belong to you as assuredly as I feel you belong with me.”

Jarre’s grin widened. So, apparently she listened to him.

“Make your voices heard,” her voice rang across the stone. “Speak of your hurts. Those now and those past. Give your grievances and fears to the Council without fear of reprisal. Know that I will never doom your bloodlines to die out because of anything that is seen as a blood-defect—” at that, Dupresh blinked, “not even the shadowfall that has befallen so many of you. Be you of any blood-kind, you are all to be heard. This is the path to our future.”

Squad Prime were all nodding in firm agreement. Valin suppressed a smile, though Jarre could tell he wished to grin just like his dragon friend. The other Council members bowed.

She slammed the mask down on the stone, and it shattered into pieces.

The corner of the broken eye skidded against Jarre’s foot. He had the intense urge to lift his foot and crush it into dust.

Those in the crowd fidgeted, until Raijansi Pujara bowed at the same angle as the Council members. Others followed. Zhan in his walker bent forward.

Jarre could only recognize the slight tremble in Shiran’s fingertips from his time around her, otherwise he was certain only Zefir would’ve ever noticed.

“Now,” she said, voice grave. “Because we seek justice together, we must continue this trial.”

Kistu stepped forward, and shook his head. “There is no need for me to give testimony, Inventrix. I too am guilty. I thought what I did was for the benefit of our Clan, and…” he closed his eyes, before opening them to stare at Squad Prime. “What they say is true. This squad of children showed me the bravery of the Cog Clan, even when hunted by the most vicious of them all. A man of their own Clan. Not a Wheelteeth. Not any enemy from without. But from a man—” he paused, shaking his head, “—no, from men they should’ve relied on to keep them safe. I see now that the enemy lurks everywhere, and nowhere most strongly than in our own hearts. And that enemy is fear.”

Jarre nodded solemnly in agreement.

He turned to the Council, and winced as he got to his knees, clutching at his wounded abdomen. “I don’t beg forgiveness. Or understanding. I’ve not even begged that from the sun. Make your decision on my fate.”

The big Rider shook Xennar, who still struggled in the man’s grip.

Valin turned to his fellow Councilors, and they spoke amongst themselves. Jarre saw a few signs being thrown around, but couldn’t see them fully. Valin looked enraged, but calmed himself, signing back with less curt motions. Jarre only caught Valin signing, You don’t know what it’s like to be on the Posts, ready to die. But I do. And I would condemn no one to that.

Eventually, after a great amount of time has passed, Valin turned to the Inventrix and bowed.

“We have come to a decision,” Valin said, expression unyielding.

Jarre bit the inside of his cheek, wondering. Ah, his former wing runner had become good at keeping his expression unreadable. Jarre used to be able to beat Valin at cards so easily just based on the faint wrinkle between his brows whenever he got the ten of techs.

Shiran nodded.

Valin began. “The Council has decided that Kerlan Xennar and Nogatre Kitsu, by their own admission given without duress, are both guilty of treason.”

The crowd murmured tensely. Jarre heard more than a few of the techworkers, and even the Navs behind them yell, “To the Posts!” And from the Navs, some of which he recognized as blood-kin to those accused, “No water for traitors!” and “To the pits of the ten hells with them!”

Shiran raised her hand for silence. “Before the Council gives their sentence for punishment, are there any present who would offer to defend those so accused with evidence not yet given?”

Jarre highly doubted so.

But then Nelai stepped forward. Just a single step, head high.

Shiran raised a brow. “You would defend the men who hunted you?”

“Not men,” she said, voice strong. Firm. “One man. Nogatare Kitsu.”

Kitsu shook his head wearily. “I’m not worth it, girl.”

And she spoke to Kitsu, not to the Council, the Inventrix, or the crowd. “You saw what Tsavo was doing, and you tried to stop him. Nearly at the cost of your own life. You were willing to die to save us.” She paused, lower lip trembling before she continued, “My First Leader says you were praying, and my Trainer explained to me that it was the Offer of Life. You offered your life for ours.”

Many of the Navs murmured to each other.

“I know you’ve lost much.” Nelai’s gaze dropped, looking like an awkward youth, before she lifted her eyes once more. Eyes full of fire. “But I wanted to thank you, Nogatare Kitsu, for saving my life. It is a debt I can never repay. The wounds I bear now will remind me of you, and what you did. When they become scars, I will remember you.”

Kitsu’s eyes watered.

Nelai swallowed, eyes dry. “I want you to know that there’s one person who will not condemn you in her thoughts, nor curse your name.”

Tears spilled from Kitsu’s eyes.  

Jarre had never felt so proud of Nelai than he did in this moment. And he blinked back the stinging in his own eyes, smiling at the girl as if she were his own child. Hells, they’re all practically like my own children.

“Thank you…oh, hells, girl,” croaked Kitsu, half-laughing, half a sob, “I don’t even know your name.”    

“Seven Nelai,” she said.

Kitsu closed his eyes nodding, as if desperately committing it to memory. “Nelai…and what does your squad call you? What’s your name in the air?”

“Strong fire.”

And the man barked out a pleased laugh. “Fitting. Absolutely perfect.”

Turning to the Inventrix, Nelai asked, “Is there no way to spare him?”

“For the crime of treason, yes,” Shiran said sternly. “Were he to have actually murdered one of us, the answer would be no. And yet there’s no blood on his hands. He offered no direct harm to you or the rest of us, though he conspired with those who did.” She regarded the Council. “Will you take this into consideration for your verdict, Councilors?”

Valin inclined his head respectfully, but his eyes were on his little niece. Jarre was certain Valin was no less proud at her bravery in speaking.

The Council decided to adjourn to another antechamber, and disappeared within.

Jarre moved to stand closer to his little squadron, and he placed a big hand on Nel’s shoulder—the unwounded one—and squeezed lightly. “What you said was a great kindness.”

She bit her bottom lip. “I’m not sure it was. He wants to die. Perhaps, I’m condemning him to life.”

Dupresh signed, Perhaps. But I admire that you were brave enough to say such things.

Tei stared at the closed antechamber door. “Since he saved you two, then he deserves to live. He fought admirably in the war, and I think he did all this because…”

“He was afraid,” Nelai finished. “Of losing his Clan like he lost his squadron.” She shuddered, and Jarre patted her shoulder. “I understand that perfectly now.”

“Doesn’t make what he did right,” Awan said gravely.

The Councilors streamed out of the antechamber, not a one with a readable expression. Valin bowed again to Shiran, before standing straight, chin raised. “As is written in our Laws, passed down from Inventrix to Inventrix—” and Jarre heard the slightest wry tone in Valin’s deadpan voice, knowing that Inventrix Mirena had altered the Laws and their history for her own gain, “—there are only two punishments available for the crime of attempted murder: execution by firing squad, or the Exile Posts. The Council asks that there be a third option for our sentence.”

Shiran gestured for him to continue.

“We have condemned Kerlan Xennar to death,” Valin said without inflection. “But we ask for neither the firing squad nor the Exile Posts. But rather we wish to ask you for a gentler death, to show that our Clan is a merciful one. A sleep-draught. If this is possible.”

She inclined her head. “I can make such a draught.”

Xennar looked like he’d spit on them all if he could. “Fuck your weak sleep-draught! Give me a real death! Give me the firing squad! Hells, even the Post would be—”

His big Rider guard lifted the gag to the man’s mouth.

“As for Nogatare Kitsu,” said Valin, raising his chin, “he offered no direct harm to any of the victims. However, as he consipired with traitors and acted on treason, we sentence him to be forever exiled from our Clan and its lands.”

Kitsu bowed his head in acceptance.

Perhaps, Jarre thought, condemning him to life was crueler than killing him.

“And as for Quarethstra Tsavo,” Valin continued, the scarred X at his cheek jumping. “He is no longer alive to defend himself, owing to the Inventrix’s actions to protect the children from harm.” And Valin glanced at Shiran, knowing the truth of who had landed the killing blow, though he had agreed with Jarre that it would be better—and sadly, safer—for Nelai if no one knew.

Jarre had insisted that they tell no one else. Not even Nelai’s parents.

“But at the private testimony to the Council from former First Leader Tsavo’s own blood-kin, Quarethstra Jarre, and from the Inventrix, and Expeditionary Squadron Prime—and by admittance of both Kerlan Xennar and Nogatare Kitsu—we have clear evidence that Quarethstra Tsavo attempted murder as well as treason.”

The stillness in the room and without was palpable.

Valin’s stern, unreable expression cracked for but a moment, deepening into anger. “Quaresthra Tsavo offered harm to our Clan’s children. Never forget that.” His expression flattened once again, and he clearly wanted to say more.

In the Council chambers, Jarre had listened as Valin certainly said more. He’d told the Navs and Riders that they were fools for being so shocked that one of theirs would try to murder blood-kinds they saw as “beneath them,” would offer harm to mere children who dared to upset their precious blood-purpose. Valin’s voice had risen with the fire Jarre knew well from his wing runner, “Because none of you understand any of the other blood-kinds, because you don’t know us. Because you never ask, never see! We’re invisible to you, and you want us to stay that way. Don’t act surprised that such violence was the result of some rising up to become seen.”    

But now Valin appeared every bit the stoic Councilor he’d become. “It is not in the Council’s power to condemn a man after death. We leave that in the hands of the gods. But we find Quarethstra Tsavo guilty of attempted murder and treason.”

Jarre wasn’t one to condemn the dead either. But in this case, he’d make an exception.  

Shiran raised her hands, bowing her head toward her people. “This trial is now done.”

#

Nelai’s mother had refused to see Trainer Jarre for the fifteenth—twentieth?—time in two months, and Nel had fallen into a sort of listlessness. The simple quarters she kept with her immediate bloodline—her mother, father, grandmere, grandfere, and her much younger siblings—seemed altered somehow. But she knew nothing had changed for them. While for her everything had changed. So she reasoned the numb feeling inside was because she looked on her old life differently. Not poorer, or worse…but different.

Her father, a stalwart kind of man with big hands and a gentle smile, came to her and ruffled her loose hair as if she were still four-years-old. “Nel, I know you won’t talk to us about what happened…” He glanced in Mother’s direction while she dressed in her tech worksuit getting ready for her shift on the line. “But you have to understand why we can’t let you…you know, do what you want. Flying is dangerous, little heart. And we care about you too much to let you just—” he formed his hand into a thopter, and made a plunging noise to crash his hand.

“I know,” she said.

“Because we love you, Nel,” Father said, again ruffling her hair.

“And I love you too. But I also love my squad.” She met his eye in a way that made him look away uneasily. Both Mother and Father had been unable to meet her eye at all. “I don’t know how to explain what being apart from them feels like.”

Mother shrugged her feet into her heavy workboots. “You’ll forget about them, Nelai. It was never meant to be. I’m sorry that the Inventrix was so cruel in letting you think that those like us belong somewhere else. Besides, I’m sure the vat-scat has already forgotten about you. I mean, they remember so little, the poor dimwits. So don’t feel bad—”

Nelai rose to her feet, shaking. Her hands curled into fists, and she felt the bandages on her fingertips digging into her palm. “Dupresh isn’t dimwitted! He’s the bravest person I know. Gods o’ the Forge, he saved me. He risked his life for mine, for all of ours. And he won’t forget me. I’m his wing runner, and he’s my First Leader. He won’t leave me behind. None of them will.”

Mother struggled for something to say to that.

Father threw on big arm around her. “Why won’t you tell us what happened, Nel?”

She agreed with her Trainer that she should tell no one else of what she did to Tsavo—for her own safety. If others who thought like Tsavo knew, then she might very well become a target. Some may even clamor to condemn her for killing one of her own Clan…even if it was in self-defense.

But more than that she didn’t want to relive it. Didn’t want to terrify her parents. And maybe she worried they wouldn’t understand. But the wounds she bore had made her resilient parents weep. She’d never seen her mother look so frightened, not even when she forbade Nelai from ever going back to flight training “no matter what the Inventrix says.”

It’d been then that Nelai, tired of the lie, told them that Uncle Valin had given the required permission as ‘one of the blood.’ And she thought her mother might very well get herself condemned by killing the ten hells out of Uncle Valin. She’d heard the shouting match when her blood-uncle had come to visit her.

But now, Mother had forbidden Nelai from rejoining her squadron. She wouldn’t give permission, not for anything.

That didn’t stop Trainer Jarre from trying. But Mother slammed the door in his face. Every time.

So when there was a polite knock on the door, even her grandmere and grandfere sighed, and went back to dressing her siblings. But Mother stamped toward the door, her workboots making heavy march sounds on the woven rug. She was already barking, “No! I’ve said no, Trainer—”

And when she opened the door, she stopped.

Nel got to her feet. There was the first prickle of joy she’d felt in months.

Her squad stood outside her door, wearing their new flight jackets.

Awan said wryly, “Can Nelai come out to play?”

Tei elbowed him in the ribs. Hard. And Dupresh glared at him.

Nel chuckled, the first sound of mirth she’d made in…too long to count.

Tei bowed. “Honored Sevens…please forgive this intrusion. But we, as Seven Nelai’s squadron, feel like we owe you a visit in order to explain to you why we need our wing runner.”

Mother’s mouth moved without sound, taken aback. Whether it was at a Navigator girl addressing her as ‘honored’ or for the fact that they were here at all, Nel didn’t know. “I…well…”

Jumping up, Father gestured, “Please come in.”

They entered, looking around. Dupresh bowed, and he began to sign, but Tei spoke for him, as Nel’s parents couldn’t read the Nav’s hand-speak.

Honored Sevens, Du began. Your blood-daughter has proven her strength time and time again. We call her ‘Strong Fire.’ And our squadron, if a true squadron we are to be, needs that strength. The fire. We need Nelai.

Nelai didn’t know if the heat in her cheeks was from hearty embarrassment to be so praised, or because she felt it deep down as truth unquestioned.

“Honored Navigator—” Mother said to Tei.

“No, Mother,” Nel corrected. “Tei is translating. But Dupresh is speaking. Respond to him directly.”

Uneasily, Mother said, “Honored…er, well…”

First Leader, Dupresh offered. Or cleaner. Or Navigator. As I am not merely one, but all three. I also hope that you will use my heart-name if you wish.

Mother blinked, but frowned in frustration. “With all due respect, I don’t see why you’re here. You can fly without Nelai. And you will. Because while your blood-parents might be fine with you dashing about the sky, getting yourselves killed doing Forge Gods know what, forgetting your blood-purpose, I won’t let that happen to my daughter.”

Awan’s expression hardened. “My own blood-kin disowned me for my decision to fly. And yet, I still chose this. And would again. I know that your blood-daughter loves you, but I fear she may choose the same.”

Her parents both looked aghast. Mother’s brow creased in pain. “Nel, you would…would forsake your own blood? You would give up your name? For…for this?”

And again her Mother found it hard to look into her eyes, but Nelai met her mother’s eyes squarely. “If I have to. Yes.”

“Why?” her father croaked.

“It’s Valin, damn him,” her mother raged. “He started putting thoughts in her head. That the Navs are better than us. Just because he gave up on his purpose, doesn’t mean he had to convince my daughter—”

“He didn’t convince me of anything.” Nelai wished she were standing beside her squad. Or even that her blood-uncle was here. “But he understands.”

Dupresh gestured to her, Why have you not told them?

“Of what?”

And her First Leader looked solemn. You haven’t told them why you want to go back into the air. They don’t understand why you defended Kitsu. Or why you would fly with a vat-scat—and Nelai’s cheeks warmed that he knew what techies called his kind—like me. You need to tell them, Nelai.

“And if they still don’t understand?” she asked.

Du dipped his head respectfully. I know your blood loves you, Nelai. Leaving them forever would hurt them. And you. Let them know that too.

She wouldn’t tell her parents of the terror, or the pain of their ordeal. Instead, she would tell them what flying, and her squadron meant to her. How she had felt while fighting beside them to keep one another safe.

Then to her squad, “Would you…you all help me with my story?”

Awan, Tei, and Dupresh gestured almost in perfect syncopation, At your side.

And Nelai settled down with her mother and father, her squadron, and began.

#

The winds were pleasant, and the sun shone warm in the crisp air, spring just beginning to poke its head from the fading snows. And Nelai turned the longwing flyer toward the sun, hearing her mother behind in her in the second seat.

“Oh, it’s so beautiful…”

Nelai was grinning behind her flight mask. She’d taken her father up first, and had given him an easy, carefree flight. But his stomach had rebelled, and he’d retched over his boots when they landed. However, her father had tried to smile at her, while still looking miserable. “It was nice, Nel. Beautiful. But I don’t know how you stomach it.”

Mother had no such problem. At least at the sedate pace they flew.

Nel turned to her Mother and asked, “You want to go higher?”

Mother glanced through her goggles at the trees that looked like mere pinpricks. “Can you?”

“If you want. You can see the edge of the Sunset mountains from a higher altitude.” 

Mother’s eyes crinkled at the corner, her smile hidden behind the mask. “Yes, let’s go higher.”

And Nel raised her arm in a signal to the longwing next to her, seeing Du sign back to her that all was acknowledged and that he would follow.

Du had his own mother in the second’s seat. And Tei and Awan flew in one of the Inventrix’s newest version of their longflyers, even more sleek and beautiful than the ones they’d lost, practicing maneuvers five hundred yards from them.

Du signaled, Leader. Evasive maneuver. Dive!

Tei and Awan accelerated to gain altitude, leaving room for him. All of a sudden, Du’s longwing banked to the left and began its dive.

Mother gasped. “They’re going to crash!”

“Ah, no,” Nelai said, chuckling. “My First Leader is in perfect control.” She pointed when Du reached the bottom of his dive and the dragon-like nose pointed back upward, the grasslfier wings beating fast. “See?”

Mother blew a breath out. “Don’t do that with me in this thing, or I might have the same reaction your father did. Forge n’ Fire…is your, er, um, Leader…good at this?”

“Very,” she answered honestly. And then turned around to glance at Mother, seeing her eyes closed for a moment, before her mother opened them again. “Mother…what did my First Leader discuss with you before we launched? You talked to him for a long time.”

Mother made shooshing motions. “Gah, pay attention, little heart.”

Dutifully, Nel turned back to her controls, still smiling.

“Well…er, First Leader Dupresh, he said…or maybe it was your Trainer—”

“Trainer Jarre was just translating. Du speaks only in signs.”

“Yes,” Mother said, “I know. But this First Leader of yours said that as his duty, he would do everything possible to keep you safe. When I asked him how since he’s no older than you, he said, ‘If I must, I would give my life for hers. For all of them.’ And honestly, Nel, he looked so fierce. Determined. It was a little frightening. I know you said that he already saved your life by running out into the fire for you when you were…were attacked.” Nelai heard her mother choke, before clearing her throat through the flight mask. “I almost didn’t believe it. But looking into his eyes, I could see that he was serious.”

Nelai still grinned beneath her flight mask.

“I’d always thought his blood-kind had no emotions,” Mother said thoughtfully. “I’d thought it was bred out of them. You can never see it on their faces. But he said that his people hide their expressions in order to protect themselves. From others in our own Clan. Our own Clan, Nel. Dear Forge Gods, from people like me. But he said he wouldn’t do that any longer, for he has nothing to hide.”  

Mother lapsed into thoughtful silence.

Nelai didn’t prompt her, listening instead to the slow, graceful beat of her flyer’s wings. The peaceful feeling washed over her; she felt as if she were the flyer itself. She was just another piece of its mechanical puzzle. Just another gear inside its heart.

“I like them,” Mother stated. “Your squadron. They act like they’re your own blood. And you’re so very happy around them.”

Nelai watched the sun paint the snow-capped mountains with its rays. “Navigators say that ‘Squad is beyond blood.'”

“Hmm.” Mother looked down as Dupresh signaled that he would form up behind her. “Yes, well, just don’t forget where you came from, little heart.”

Dupresh made the signal to land, and Nelai gave the affirmative. Mother was silent on the long, slow descent, but she whispered a little prayer to the leader of the Forge Gods, after whom Nelai had been named. As Nel landed and the longwing slowed to a rapid halt in the flight cradle, her mother let out a little squeak.

Nel hopped from the flight seat, and helped her mother to the ground. Her father had cleaned himself up, and waited for them both, still looking ill. But Nelai was distracted as Dupresh’s longwing landed next to hers, and he helped his own mother from the seat, picking up the tiny woman and setting her down.

She watched as Raijansi Pujara grinned widely, and threw her arms around her son, pressing her lips to his forehead. The woman bounced on her toes, clapping her hands in pure delight, laughing so brightly that Nel never would’ve guessed the woman capable of such sound.

And Dupresh was grinning back.

Mother and Father whispered something between them, then moved toward the happy pair. Nelai worried until she heard Mother say, “Honored Raijansi, mother of Dupresh, I believe we should get to know one another better…because our children consider one another as blood. Would you take food with us in our quarters? I promise you we make the best flatbread in all the Clan.”

Dupresh’s mother outwardly hid her shock well. She froze in place. “Are you…you…” she swallowed, glancing at Nel to see if this was in jest. “Are you quite certain?”

“Quite,” said Mother. “We would consider it an honor.”

“Then I…I would be delighted, honored Sevens, to take food in your home. Though I admit I’ve never had flatbread.”

“Well then,” said Father cheerily. “Better to start off right by eating the best.”

Mother and Father bowed to the woman, and Dupresh blinked in surprise. Then turning, their parents walked together from the flight ledge and back into the heart of their mountain home.

Dupresh grinned. And he held out his hand.

Without hesitation, Nelai took it, and squeezed. She looked around her, seeing Trainer Jarre watching the skies with Zhandei on the far end of the flight ledge, holding hands with one another. The two watched Tei and Awan in flight with the same kind of wonder she hoped she would never lose. Dupresh stared at the dipping longwing, eyes glinting, and he leaned forward as if to launch himself after them.

She turned to Dupresh, certain now of what she would do. “Du…I never had the chance to give you the Shadow’s blessing. May I do so now?”

He smiled, and clutched gently at her wounded hand. He couldn’t speak, not with both his hands in hers, but he nodded, leaning down. Nelai pressed her lips first against his right cheek, her stomach aflutter as if her flyer had taken a steep dive. But like she could never do in a dive, she closed her eyes for a moment as she kissed his left cheek. Then opening them, she finally pressed her lips against his forehead, and drew away.

Together, they both turned to the sky.

Then they both leaned forward, eyes on the nearest longwing. They ran, still clutching one hand together.

They were going to launch skyward to their squadron. Together.

Where they belonged.

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