Authors: A.C. Smyth
Table of Contents
Crowchanger: A Changers of Chandris Novel
Copyright © 2013 by AC Smyth. All rights reserved.
First Kindle Edition: January 2014
Published by Chandris Publishing
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Editor: Karen Conlin
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The right of AC Smyth to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, incidents, and dialogues are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form—written, electronic, recording, or photocopying—without written permission of the author. The exception would be in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.
With thanks to Barbara, Charmaine, Elizabeth, Jackie, Joanne, Lisa, Monika and Penny, for encouragement and friendship, and for endless rereads of subtly different material.
To my husband and daughter, for putting up with me tapping away on the keys hour after hour.
To my editor Karen, who is probably twitching at all these ungrammatical phrases.
To the folks at Streetlight Graphics for the cover and formatting.
And to Jo and Merilyn: it’s ALL YOUR FAULT.
et 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.
Casian lay stretched out on his bed, hands behind his head. His visits to his mother were pleasant enough, but it was good to be home. The Aerie was home, after five years. The students’ quarters were not as opulent as his mother’s house, where the rooms dripped luxury as if to compensate for being on the edge of the ash desert, but he added personal items to soften the basic decoration. His mother had been delighted to see him, as ever. The servants had fallen over themselves to meet their young lord’s needs. Here he was just another journeyman changer. His talent gave him status, but no one at the Aerie cared that he was heir to the holding of Lucranne.
He had come straight from the field when he landed. Stripping off the tunic he had been given to cover himself, he fell into the half-doze that often restored him enough after a night flight. His kye took the form of a white owl with black-streaked wings. It preferred to fly by night, so the Creator knew he needed sleep, but he had important news for the visitor who would come.
The sound of the door roused him. The soft clunk of the handle; the pause while the person on the other side listened to see if the noise had wakened him; the grate of hinges as the door swung open. Back in Lucranne, he would have been wide awake in an instant, reaching for the dagger he kept beneath his pillow, nerves alert against possible assassins. No assassins here. He opened his eyes a crack to see Sylas’s familiar form just inside his room.
“I won’t stay,” Sylas said softly. “I needed to see you for a moment.”
Casian sat up, patted the edge of the bed, and shifted to allow him enough room to sit.
“Something’s bothering you.” He surprised himself with his ability to read Sylas. On the surface, they could hardly have been more different, the Irenthi nobleman and the desert-dweller, but they shared a bond he could not explain. Casian reached to stroke a dark curl from Sylas’s face, as always amazed at the contrast between the white of his own skin and the golden-brown of the Chesammos.
Sylas smiled. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too. What’s wrong?”
Sylas sagged like a puppet with its strings cut. “I need to go and see Master Jesely. Things didn’t go well today.”
“A lesson? Olendis or Gwysias?”
“Master Olendis. I said ‘they’ again, and he says he’s going to report me. If Master Jesely won’t put in a word for me, I think I’m finished here.” His friend’s voice was empty. Becoming a changer meant the world to Sylas.
Casian squeezed Sylas’s thigh and Sylas leaned into him. Funny how natural that felt. Casian could sense his friend’s pain, but this could make his own decision a lot easier. Mismatched couple they might be, but Creator help him, he cared for the man as much as he had ever cared for anyone, besides himself.
“I told my mother about you.”
Sylas raised his head, gave Casian a confused look. “You told her? By the Lady, Casian, what were you thinking? You are the heir of a great house. Your mother will have you sent home.”
“She wants to meet you. She says I seem happier. That you must be ‘good for me,’” he raised the pitch of his voice a little, trying to mimic the tone of his mother’s voice. He wanted Sylas to smile. The attempt fell flat.