Skip to content
Home of the finest science fiction and science fact

Story Excerpt

by Ron Collins

Illustrated by Tomislav Tikulin

A fiery bolt streaked across the nighttime sky.

Orange fire grew over the western horizon.

Some of the common-bred claimed it was an omen from sky gods. Others held steadfast to the thought that it was a portent of war—a claim considerably more difficult to deny in these times of turmoil. To avoid panic, Father commissioned the scouting expedition that found strange wreckage of twisted metal amid the charred woods, and creatures scattered about, their bodies bloodied and broken.

Only one remained alive.

*   *   *

The thin feathers above my father’s brow arched with anticipation. “Happy birthday, Rythane,” he said, gesturing grandly for the sake of all Arroth. “Today you become prueaxe.”

His words weighed like water in my wings.

His golden teeth, honed for the hunt, gleamed sharp in the brilliant light of Aerthau’s Hall, the ceremonial chamber where three centuries prior the great one himself was crowned. Father’s subjects filled the sitting area, perched in masses along the walls. Whereas prior to the proceeding they had preened and squawked among themselves, now the trilling of their response to Father’s presentation echoed under the domed ceiling despite the expanse of wide gaps to open air at each end.

Their bodies warmed the morning chill.

When the echoes died, they gazed upon me with a crushing mixture of curiosity, devotion, expectation, and judgment.

Perched beside him, I placed my arm on the rest of my father’s throne, which was carved of pure crystal and mounted on a spire of granite that rose naturally from the floor. Cloud-fine silk trimmed my provincial blue robe. My wings, folded down my back and sides, curled over my knees in the form appropriate for royalty. A diadem inlaid with aquamarine encircled my head.

Mother sat forward in the balcony.

She performed the role of kalla in traditional style, keeping her everyday profile low but showing proper support for the Aerithane.

The age of prueaxe is twenty cycles.

It is when a young male in the royal line takes his rightful place at the hand of his father. Although members of common Arroth had followed my life, this was my first public role before them—my first brush with ceremonial function. As fitting, the Hythean choir, resplendent in swathes of crimson, were positioned to my left. An orator read from the speaking perch, telling the events of my life. I found it embarrassing to hear them blown beyond proportion, but the script called for a hero’s tale, and they had only me to work with.

I am not my father.

I would be better placed as a common-bred, a follower of natural law rather than its interpreter. Father has explained that this feeling was to be expected, that he had felt similarly in his flights as prueaxe and that his father had also before him felt so diminished. I wish I could believe this.

I scanned the crowd, hoping to see Seri among them but unable to discern her.

“And now, my son,” Father said in his booming voice. “My prueaxe. I present you a token of my pride and love.” He took to the air with stately grace, his ceremonial koska swirling about him like a swath of high sky.

Reed players blew their instruments, and a choir of voices rose in a single, piercing note.

Activity erupted from the entryway, and the crowd’s voice rose in a tumultuous rumble. Six bearers flew forward, laboring under the weight of a waist-high box, and draped fully in golden cloth that hung in the open air like moss from summer trees. They carried it on three sturdy crossbeams that had been threaded through open bores at the top of the box. Arriving, the gift bearers placed the box carefully, if not with an awkward lurch at the end, on the open dais in the center of the Hall.

I stood upright on my perch, letting my feet clench and relax again, feeling talons extend and retract as they removed the crossbeams and left the box. The motion made me wish I were soaring. Made me wish I were on the upper currents alone. Or, no, not alone.

My gaze scanned for Seri once again, and once again came up empty.

Alone then, and with the levers having been removed, I stretched my wings and glided in a rounded path to stand before my Father’s present.

The cloth that covered the crate was thin fiber with gold thread.

I slipped it off to reveal a cage.

The audience gasped.

A small, featherless creature huddled in one corner, its legs curled against its chest. It had hair like streak lightning, barren skin of smooth bearing, and wore clothes the color of deep ocean.

I recognized it at once—the creature from the fire.

My father’s voice echoed in the chamber. “To you, my son, I present this creature. It is one of a kind, as are you.”

The audience applauded.

I bent to examine my gift. It was proportioned similarly to an Arroth, but half my height and without wings. It appeared to be male and, like myself, had arms and legs. Its eyes were round and blue, its nose blunt. Its feet were flat rather than curled and useful.

I looked at my father, then scanned the audience as they still applauded, seeing then the true purpose of the gift.

By presenting the creature in this fashion, Father had reduced its status from that of a wild avatar of the Sky Gods to one of a simple pet the prueaxe was expected to keep. In one stroke, he had quelled the fear that had spread like gale-blown fire through the ranks of the common-bred.

The creature stood, filling the box’s height. Its talonless hands gripped the bars. Its eyes were deep with anger, and it trembled in terror as it called out in a ragged voice. Even though its language was arcane, these were expressions I understood. It was in a place where it didn’t belong and in a situation that it didn’t understand.

I, however, did understand.

“Thank you, Father. I will keep it sound. I will protect it, shelter it from torrents when the storms come, and see that it enjoys open skies.”

The audience smiled.

My father nodded.

*   *   *

I named the creature Kagari after the animals that forage on the ground. He reminded me of them, except that his hair was neither as thick nor as prevalent. Like the kagari, his hands had fingers and thumbs, but no hunting talons. And like the kagari, his teeth were flat.

I fed him kagari food, and he ate it.

The name seemed to fit.

The bearers took Kagari to my aerie, where, despite the fact that I let him have free run, he merely sat quietly against the wall, eating sparely and staring out the window with a vacant expression.

He tried to run away the first night, but the manor proper is suspended from the tallest cliffs of Arroth, and Kagari had no wings. I found him in the morning on the window ledge, clinging to the wall, his body quivering, his fingers pale with fatigue.

*   *   *

That morning I ate with my father in his pod.

Unlike his public chambers, Father’s private aerie—which was positioned near the peak of the tallest mountain in the South Ranges—was decorated in simple fashion.

We perched at a bare wooden plank and ate from ceramic plates. The morning skies were calm, so the pod was left open to expose the arc of the horizon, dusty in the distant view. The morning sun slanted across the platform, bathing the cliffside of the aerie with soft orange light. The scents of rock and harsh foliage joined that of the food.

To Father’s routine, our meal started with hard nuts and a jelly imported from the lowlands. We drank clear water from goblets and finished with flesh from pulled from jonga and kayala.

I am an only child, and with my ascension to prueaxe my father now had an heir. Already, lines of anxiety had lifted from his expression.

“A prueaxe needs a mate, Rythane,” he said. “I believe Cyleen of Jaeron is the most appropriate choice.”

I considered my response.

Cyleen was beautiful. Her family held sky along the north ridges of the Crystal Mountains. Their air was clear and smooth, and their land full of livestock. Their blood ran with strong leaders, too. Perhaps of greater import, an alliance with Jaeron would make both the Parchech to our south and the Evvarian to our east take note. Both had advanced against us over the past cycle, and both were suffering drought this spring that foretold of difficulties they might face in feeding their populations in the wintertime to come.

All this made Cyleen an obvious choice.

“Perhaps,” I replied, speaking words I had practiced several times. “Arroth might be made stronger if I were to pair from within.”

My father frowned. “Provide me your reasoning.”

“If war is on the horizon, the resolve of common Arroth would be strengthened if they were ruled by those who were true-bred.”

It was not an argument I liked, but it was one he would consider.

Father sat in silence.

“Jaeron could still be made an ally through treaty,” I added. “We share a border, and our common cause could be enough to bind us.”

“I see,” Father said. “And I suppose Seri would be a stronger match for the good of all Arroth?”

“She would make a strong kalla.”

“Seri is common-bred, Rythane. As much as I like her, you know she cannot be brought into the house.”

There it was.

Common-bred meant incapable, unimportant. Common-bred cannot go to school or have sway in decisions of rulers. Common-bred have no skill but that of their family trade. It is the law, the natural order of Arroth and all other of Aerthau.

“She’s different, Father,” I said.

“How long has our family ruled Arroth?” my father replied.

“Over three centuries.”

“You doubt three centuries of history?”

“I only know what I see.”

Father grinned. “That is good. That skill will make you a fine ruler someday, Rythane. But now you are young. You still have need to grow, to see reason in our ways. When you are older you will see why these orders have given us three centuries of peace.”

I nodded.

Still, I felt sick. My father would arrange this match as his own father had arranged his pairing to my mother, and his father’s father had arranged before him.

“I understand,” I said.

“I will call for a council with Taggach today.”

*   *   *

I met Seri for the last time that evening.

We sat on the sundown side of the canyon, resting our backs against the red cliffs as nighttime crept across the sky. The swirling wind came from the north. Seri clutched her thin knees to her chest. Our arms brushed, and stray feathers clung to one another.

Seri turned to me, her gaze like hot metal, telling me she knew what I needed to say.

“My father is to meet with Taggach of Jaeron,” I said.

She waited, eyes glittering in the growing darkness, but it was all I could manage.

“You are prueaxe. It was bound to happen.” She stood, then bent to kiss my cheek. “Have a good life, Rythane. Rule well.”

Her wings caught thick wind, and I watched as she glided over the canyon and turned toward her home.

I sat alone for several minutes, her kiss burning against my cheek.

The stone drew heat from my back.

My jaw clenched. I swallowed what felt like a handful of pebbles.

Seri had been the strong one, as always. She had taken the conversation from me, knowing what needed to be done and closing our relationship as it needed to be closed.

She would make a better prueaxe than me.

The sky had grown to indigo. I spread my wings and stepped into the wind.

*   *   *

I began talking to Kagari that night.

The sun had fully set, and the western sky was the color of a cut sapphire.

The evening stars, Hevron and Ravell, blazed to the north, and a chill breeze swirled through my aerie. Below, in the lower reaches of the foothills, the common-bred prepared for the evening in the tree hutches and cavern openings. Far away, a messenger was likely arriving at the House of Taggach of Jaeron.

I pulled a blanket over my shoulders and thought of the future.

Who would Cyleen be? Would she laugh at my humor? Would her eyes glisten when I arrived in her sight?

Would she be interested in learning from me?

In other words, would she be like Seri?

Doubtful. Impossible, actually.

Kagari huddled under a blanket. His hair was as tousled as a common hawk’s nest. His eyes were haggard, and his cheeks chalky.

“You are not eating,” I said to Kagari.

Kagari did not indicate he heard me.

“Do not die on me.”

I knew he could not understand, but the sound of my voice echoing in open space was somehow comforting. Speaking aloud released unseen pressure and gave my thoughts a place to grow.

So I told Kagari about Seri, lingering over our first meeting and how we had flown to where the air was thin and ice seemed to form around our eyes; how the warmth of her excitement felt like sitting in the sunshine. I explained how I would meet her after lessons to discuss what I had learned. I chuckled as I remembered her first questions, then grew serious when I told Kagari how I realized I was breaking code.

Common-bred are not to be taught the great truths of the world.

The law is very clear on that point.

Yet, Seri had no difficulty understanding me. She listened intently and even questioned specific points she hadn’t followed, leading me to new perspectives of my own. It was that inquisitiveness that changed me. Her ability to find the right questions that gave me the presence to see the truth of her existence.

Seri, I knew in my heart, would outdo me in any classroom.

When I was finished telling my stories, I paused and spent time gazing out the window into the star-strewn sky.

Kagari looked at me then, cocking his head.

The muscles around his eyes constricted, drawing together and making his focus more intense. He stood before me, his head at the level of my waist.

“Stewart,” he said, clenching his fist to his chest.

I was speechless.

“Stewart.” He repeated both the word and the motion.

I did my best to mouth the foreign sound, and Kagari smiled, his dull, white teeth showing in the dim light of my aerie.

“Rythane,” I said, pointing a taloned finger at my own chest, still disbelieving what was happening.

“Rythane,” Stewart mimicked. His voice was flat and carried none of the inflection an Arroth’s would. But the word was recognizable.

I smiled at him.

We spent the rest of the night pointing and listing off names. I thrilled as I learned pieces of his language. Honnea was “moon”; creatha was “bed” or maybe “nest.” We covered “floor” and “window” and “air” and several others. Though he could not make hard sounds, I had greater difficulty speaking his language than Stewart had speaking Arroth. Both of us rushed through the room picking items and naming them, exchanging hurried glances before racing to the next item. By the time Honnea hit its apex, we had covered most of the aerie.

We were exhausted, too.

Stewart retreated to his blanket. I lay in my “bed” and stared at him, my troubles temporarily forgotten. He had language. He was no mere animal, not a pet to be simply kept—as were the kagari I had named him after.

“Goodnight,” he said as he pulled a blanket over his shoulder.

Uncertain of what he meant, I remained silent.

Stewart soon made his sleeping sounds.

I watched his chest rise and fall as Honnea slipped toward the horizon.

*   *   *

A prueaxe has little to do but watch and learn—but there is more of that than can be imagined. Politics, ceremony, etiquette, history. They all touch the life of a prueaxe in ways that influence every moment of every day.

I watched the way our people treated my father, how they bowed with his approach, how they provided ideas and interpretations of events but deferred to his opinion in the end. My father was a strong leader, bold and decisive. He weighed advice with a measured hand and made his decisions justly. He allowed discussion until the conversation became circular, then he chose a path.

In this process, I saw his interpretations and the reason for his decisions.

I saw that not all issues are as clear-cut as they first appear, that behavior is learned, and that generations of such lessons have made the Arroth expect to be told what to do.

The Aerithane cannot afford to be seen as weak lest his people lose their ability to overcome obstacles of life.

For several lightsets I did nothing but watch and learn how my people are led.

Each evening I returned to my aerie and shared words with Stewart. We both learned how to speak with each other rapidly enough, but nuances of each language were still mysterious.

I did not tell my father of Stewart’s language because, as much as I would have coveted his counsel on the matter, I also feared that Father may see Stewart as an affront to the Arroth. If common-bred were not to be educated, a pet would clearly cause similar controversy.

So, to some practical degree, I kept Stewart’s language to myself to ensure his safety.

Yet, I had to admit there was something else that restrained my disclosure.

A secret is, in some fashion, power.

And the secret of Stewart’s language was, perhaps, the only power I actually held.

*   *   *

Taggach replied to Father’s offer in proper time, sending word that he would bring Cyleen to Arroth. They would arrive in ten lightsets.

I went to my creatha late that evening.

Despite pleasant temperature and a wind that blew soothing tones against the manor walls, I was still unable to sleep.

“My life is changing, Stewart,” I said, not certain he would understand.

Stewart sat up in his creatha, his form looming like an apparition in Honea’s weak light. “What’s wrong?”

I sighed. “I am prueaxe, now. I am to pair.”

Stewart hesitated. “Seri?”

I shook my head. “No.” The image of Seri’s face hung in my mind.

“Why no?” Stewart replied. His use of broken language mimicked his understanding of Arroth politics.

“I cannot.”

Again: “Why?”

I sat up, letting blankets fall around me. The chill air prickled across my skin and made me restless.

“It is not done.”

“Arroth no . . .” Stewart let the sentence dangle as he struggled over a word. Our shared vocabulary was functional more than ideological. With the air of inspiration, he went to the window. Pointing outside, he spoke a word in his own language. “Free?”

I mimicked the word, but did not understand.

“Free,” Stewart repeated. “Fly.” He made a symbol of flapping wings. “Free.”

“Arroth flies anywhere he wants,” I replied.

He looked into space again, obviously still struggling with concepts and language. He flapped his arms and said, “Fly to Seri?”

I laughed at this. Fly to Seri. “No,” I said.

“No free, then.”

“No,” I replied. “I am not free in that manner.”

Stewart’s face grew rigid. His lips turned downward, and his eyes grew hooded. “Like Stewart.”

I felt sorry for him then and ashamed of myself.

I watched him for some time, worry building like gray clouds. His eyes were shrunken and growing dark. I had found gouges and scratches at the door over the past few lightsets but had ignored them to the best of my ability. But the fact of his raw fingers and hands made certain assessments obvious.

Someday perhaps I could bring Stewart into the world, to expose him to situations and let him learn to live among common-bred. But now he was a prisoner, a play toy as my father had once called him.

“It is just not done, Stewart,” I finally replied. “Seri is common-bred. She is not fit to be kalla.”

“You love her,” Stewart said.

I nodded. “I think so. But even if a royal could consider a common-bred, my father would still choose Cyleen.” I glanced to the south where even imagining the Parchech gathering their forces made the feathers surrounding my neck tingle. “War could be on the horizon,” I said. “She is the best choice.”

“What if Rythane flies to Seri anyway?”

“It will not happen.”

“What if?”

I thought. What if I did leave with Seri? Such things occurred in common circles but, in all of history no prueaxe or Aerithane had ever made such a bold flight. The scandal would be devastating.

The thought was ice along my spine.

“No, Stewart,” I replied. “I could not do that.”

“Because Seri is common-bred?”

“Yes.” My reply left my mouth dry.

He was quiet, staring out the window. “Our common-bred gave my people the stars,” he finally said.

I slipped under my blankets and lay in the darkness, trying to ignore him and go to sleep. Tomorrow would be a long day.

Stewart walked to my creatha and stood over me. His stare penetrated like invisible talons. “How can you lead with your heart,” he said, “if you cannot follow it?”

Then he returned to his creatha.

Wind whistled outside, and the sound of Stewart’s breathing eventually rasped in the air.

I did not sleep for a long time.

*   *   *

My father met Taggach’s caravan in Aerthau’s Hall. I felt eyes upon me as I waited, but I did not react. I was prueaxe, after all. I understood my position.

The reception was exquisite, complete with fresh field hare and seared bloodsauce.

A carafe of spring water was placed at each table in cool decanters that sweated despite the Hall’s altitude. After the welcoming ritual, my father and Taggach led the procession to the Common Hall. Taggach’s sash was the soft blue of midday sky, Father’s the color of night surrounding Honnea. I followed in their wakes, pleased that I was able to remain stoic, if not calm.

We took our places, father and Taggach in the center of the main perch, me to my father’s left. In the kalla’s alcove, Mother was radiant in shimmering aquamarine, her freshly preened wings crossed before her in perfect form.

Seri stood in the back of the chamber.

Our gazes locked.

The feathers along her brow turned downward, and her shoulders slumped with the weight of avoided inevitability. As strong as she was, Seri had not actually come to grips with our parting.

I dragged my gaze from her.

What did she think of me? I did not ask to be born a prueaxe. Did she hold me responsible for my position?

Deep inside though, I was pleased to know Seri ached for me as much as I ached for her.

Horns blew, and the chamber grew instantly still.

Father’s royal guard opened doors at the far end of the hall, and music began.

More of the guard escorted Cyleen in, flying her perch through the doorway, then pausing as she collected herself.

She was tall and regal. Her angular face reminded me of my mother’s. She took wing and glided down the central corridor with controlled grace, using the rising warmth of torchlight to glide so elegantly above. The audience whispered softly as she landed before me, her ceremonial garb of cinnamon colors settling gently around her. Her eyes were raised to meet mine rather than downcast as was traditional.

I smiled.

She would be a modern kalla. I could not help but admire her.

“Welcome, Cyleen of Jaeron,” I said. “I have eagerly awaited your arrival, yet your presence has still stolen my breath.”

Cyleen returned my smile, a dimple forming in the soft feathers of her left cheek. “I am pleased to be here, Rythane of Arroth. You, too, have taken my breath.”

My father and his guest beamed with happy splendor. Tears glittered in my mother’s eyes. In the distance, Seri slipped silently from the meeting chamber.

*   *   *

I had dinner with my father that night.

Cyleen and I would formally pair the following afternoon.

“You are quiet,” my father said.

I nodded.

“I am sure you have much to think about.”

Again, I nodded. My father’s stare was piercing. I wanted to talk to him, but my heart ground against my ribs, thudding with the precision of a death dive.

“I have decided my first task as prueaxe,” I said.

Father grinned. “I knew you would, son. What will it be?”

“I want to build schools for common-bred.”

“I see,” Father said, a red anger rising to his cheeks. “Despite law that forbids it, you intend to attempt to educate the lesser Arroth?”

“There are good minds in the common-bred ranks, Father,” I said. “I’ve seen them. Seri, for one, is brilliant.”

I waited for a response, and when none came, I filled the silence.

“It is a practical matter, Father. If we use all our resources, we will be stronger than the Parchech to the south. Stronger, also, than the Evvarian to the East.”

Father’s brows knitted, and he stared at me until his long silence became unbearable.

My face flushed with embarrassed heat. “It was just a thought, Father.”

“It was an inappropriate thought. The Arroth live in balance now. It is a balance that has provided prosperity for centuries, yet now you intend to break it?”

Anything I said would merely add to father’s anger.

“Who put this idea into your head?”

“No one, Father,” I said, panic flickering along my spine.

“I have raised you to be prueaxe, Rythane. These thoughts are not yours. Was it Seri? Has she poisoned your ideals?”

My stomach tightened. He would have Seri dismissed from the community without second thought if I did not offer another culprit. It was a thought I could not bear.

“No, Father. It was Stewart,” I said, giving voice to something that was not quite a total lie.

“Stewart?” My answer took him aback. “Who is Stewart?”

“Your gift, Father.”

“You mean Kagari?”

“I was wrong to give him that name. He explained he is Stewart.”

Father waved an annoyed hand. “Whatever its name, you can’t expect me to believe Kagari can voice such thoughts.”

“He is intelligent, Father. He has language.”

Father swallowed his food with no little anger, then called to his servant. The young Arroth scurried over, bowing with wingtips lowered in proper respect. The feathers around his eyes were yellow, and he wore a simple robe.

“Go to my son’s aerie. Bring the pet.”

The servant left with a nod.

Father strode to the window and stretched his wings, looking as if he were going to fly away. The position of Aerithane is fraught with difficulties. It would be good for him to get more time in the currents.

I cleared my throat. “There are rumors of the Parchech building an army.”

“The Parchech can always be trusted to build armies,” he replied.

The servant returned shortly with Stewart in tow, then bowed quietly and took our dirty plates with him as he left.

“Stewart,” I said, rising.

“Rythane,” he replied. His expression showed caution tinged with fear.

Despite our earlier conversation, my father stared slack-jawed.

“He knows a trick.”

“There is more.” I plucked a single feather from my back. “Feather,” I said.

Stewart smiled. “Hathee,” he replied with the proper term. We continued with “foot” and “eyes” and “table.”

Father stared at Stewart. His wings flickered with interest. “I’ll be,” he said. “You have been prueaxe for only a short while and already you are performing miracles.”

I started to explain that this was as much Stewart’s doing as mine, but the glimmer in my father’s eye made me realize it would be like speaking to the wind.

“And you say it was Kagari who framed your first attempt at policy?”

I nodded. “It was.”

“I see,” Father said, one taloned finger scratching absently against the tabletop. His brows knit together. “Go to the kitchen and give the women thanks for a meal well served. Then go to your aerie. You are dismissed.”

Knowing better than to argue, I stood and left.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023. Kagari by Ron Collins

Back To Top
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop