Let it be today.
Sylas glanced at the sun, already well above the horizon. By rights, the ritual of thanks for a new day should be performed at dawn, but he didn’t think the Lady would mind his lateness. So many Chesammos had forgotten the old ways; at least he remembered.
Let it be today.
Sitting cross-legged, he pressed his palms to the ground. There was good soil here, not the ash and dust of the desert. Grass and wild flowers grew in abundance around the buildings of the changer city: lush greenery, instead of the barrenness of his old home. The mountain breeze carried the scent of woodsmoke, the pungency of herbs, the promise of rain. Even after a year, it worried him to venture outside with nose and mouth uncovered, but the Aerie, unlike the ash desert, was rarely troubled by the caustic breath of the volcano.
She was Eurna, sacred to the Chesammos and giver of life.
Sylas pressed fingers and thumbs together in the peaked shape of the mountain that dominated the skyline to the south, and touched fingertips to his lips. He sent up a silent prayer.
Let it be today that I fly, if the Lady wills it. Maisaiea-yelai.
Master Olendis didn’t expect him to fly today. If he did, Sylas’s transformation lesson would be outside, rather than in Olendis’s study. Sylas often watched the lessons on the field, wishing he could be out there. One novice after another achieved first flight; they swooped and soared over the Aerie with the changer master in close attendance. One day, Sylas told himself; one day that will be me. Even after so many disappointments, the hair still stood up on the back of his neck at the thought. But he saw his peers fly and be apprenticed to masters and move on, and still he remained: the changer who could not change.
Master Olendis watched for Sylas’s arrival from his study door. “Come on then, if you are coming. Don’t dawdle like a lazy servant. I don’t have all day.” Master Olendis gave Sylas a withering look which conveyed both irritation and a firm belief that shape changing was utterly beyond his current pupil.
The study verged on austere. Sylas’s other masters had personalised their rooms with tapestries and paintings, vases of flowers, the occasional trinket. Master Olendis was one of the younger masters, only recently elevated and not yet under consideration for the changer council. Maybe he had not yet acquired decorations he considered suitable for a master’s study. Or maybe he preferred to keep his room simple.
Sylas eased himself into one of the large wooden chairs. Most masters replaced these uncomfortable things with padded armchairs, sometimes even upholstered settles suitable for lounging. No such comforts in this room. New masters were either overly friendly, remembering their own novice days, or overly strict, to win the respect of those they taught. Olendis tended to the latter extreme.
The master leaned on the table, steepling his fingers in a gesture uncomfortably like the Lady’s sign. Sylas tried to ignore the unintended blasphemy. “So, how long since you last marked?”
Between novices’ teaching days, marking with blood elder suppressed their changing. As an additional precaution, Olendis used a muted training pipe which only carried the length of the Aerie. This reduced the risk of a novice changing as a result of a call intended for another. Sylas suspected he could hear a full call from a master’s pipe without trouble. Unfortunately.
“Two weeks, Master, as you suggested.” A week longer than usual, to see if he was unusually susceptible to marking.
Olendis grunted. “It should have worn off by now. Have you heard calls these past few days?”
“Four times yesterday. Three the day before.” Sylas frowned as he cast his mind back. “Once the day before that, I think. Maybe twice.”
“No trouble resisting it, I suppose?”
When Master Olendis blew the training pipe for the other novices, Sylas heard the call, but it never came close to forcing the change upon him. He could hear the kye—the bird spirits that enabled the change from human to bird form. Each call over the past few days had caused a flurry of kye in his head—but he had never heard one over the others. His own kye remained as much a mystery to him now as at his first lesson.
“No, Master.” He remembered the first time he had told Master Olendis that he heard more than one kye. That he was sorry, but he could not make out which voice to listen to.
“What sort of lie is that?” Olendis had bellowed. “The untalented hear one kye. One only until such time as we can link with a higher kye to take on a second form, and even that is beyond some. No one hears many kye, boy. No one, do you hear me? Not Cowin—the youngest master in over a century. Not Elyta—the most talented changer in decades. If you have to come up with an excuse for your failure, Sylas, at least make it plausible. Understand?”
He understood. And held his tongue. When he remembered.
“Even if the blood elder affects you more than others, it should have left your body by now. If you weren’t running out of options I’d not have chanced it. But the risk of you changing by accident was minimal.” It would have been nice, Sylas thought, if Olendis could have kept the sneer from his voice.
After so long as a novice, Sylas had a rash of the red marks left by piercing his skin with a tokai needle dipped in blood elder tincture. All changers had a few—relics of their training days—but Sylas’s chest looked like he had been switched with a nettle. The marks were less livid on his golden-brown skin than on a fair Irmos, but still noticeable. On Casian’s Irenthi skin they were like a drop of blood in a pan of milk, bright red on white. Casian’s skin bore three pinprick marks. He was not only the first Irenthi changer in generations, but had taken naturally to changing. If Sylas did not love him so much, he would resent him bitterly.
“Well then,” said Olendis. “Shall we begin?”
Sylas closed his eyes, his muscles tensing even as he attempted to relax. This constant cycle of trying and failing had become something of an ordeal, making this part harder for him each time. Still, he would not have utterly failed until he gave up, and that he would never do unless the council sent him away.
He let his mind float, as he had been taught, extending his consciousness in all directions. He felt the aiea-bar—the energy the changers drew upon to make their change—as a pressure across his ribs. It came from the island, the Irenthi said. But Sylas believed, as did all the desert Chesammos, that the power came directly from the Lady herself. She depended on the changers, and the changers on her. Without that relationship, the island would die. He drew the aiea deeply into himself, like taking a deep breath of air before putting his face into water, and waited.
Master Olendis took the pale green linandra pipe from a pouch at his belt. Sylas noticed, as he prepared himself, that Olendis checked he was ready before putting it to his lips and giving one long, steady blow. The note that tumbled out rang clear as spring water. It rushed through the room like a summer’s breeze, and the aiea-bar responded.
And so did the kye. He tried in vain to separate one voice from the others, but they yammered like the noise in the great hall when all the Aerie came together for feast days: hundreds of conversations piling one on top of the other, incomprehensible. His hands twitched with the impulse to cover his ears, but it would do no good. The voices were inside his head; they spoke in his mind. Covering his ears would shut them in, trapping the insanity inside his skull.
“Sylas?” Master Olendis prompted.
“I… I feel them,” Sylas said, stumbling over the words. “They call to me, but I cannot understand what they say.”
Olendis sighed, dropped the pipe back into his pouch, and pulled the drawstring tight.
“That will do. We can try tomorrow, but I shall be speaking to Master Jesely and Master Donmar.” He waved Sylas away, like shooing a fly. “Go. I have told you before what I think of this nonsense.”
Idiot. Stupid, stupid idiot. He knew not to tell Master Olendis what he heard, but once again he had forgotten.
The air didn’t smell as sweet going back across the courtyard. His heart felt like a weight in his chest. The unused aiea lay heavy across his ribs, crushing them. He couldn’t face anyone. His friends knew when his lessons with Olendis were, but they rarely asked him how they went any more. Not one of them had been novices when he arrived—those youngsters had all moved on—but each new intake so far had accepted him. He dreaded the day when they did not.
He hardly noticed Benno charging up the gravel to meet him, arms flailing in excitement. If he had to meet anyone, Benno would be his first choice. The child’s cheerfulness might lift his mood.
“Hey, Sylas.” The lad galloped along with the awkwardness of a child whose legs have grown and who hasn’t yet got them back under control. He grinned, showing a front tooth missing. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been looking for you.”
“With Master Olendis. And before you ask, no, I can’t wrestle right now. I’m not in the mood.”
“Transformation class, huh? Hope I’m a changer when I’m older. I’ve watched them change on the field. It doesn’t scare me. Will you wrestle later?”
“Maybe.” He enjoyed teaching Benno to wrestle. At least he was good at something. “Why were you looking for me?”
“You asked me to keep watch for Casian, so I’ve been watching.”
Sylas’s heart leapt. He could cope with Master Olendis’s displeasure—even being reported to Master Jesely or Master Donmar—if Casian were back at the Aerie.
“Uh huh. Arrived a few minutes ago. I tried your room and the refectory, and one of the others said they’d seen you come this way.”
Sylas ran for the main Aerie building, Benno’s voice following him. “So when’s my wrestling lesson? Sylas? Can I see you later?”
But Sylas did not look round. Casian was back.
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