Authors: Gillian Anderson,Jeff Rovin
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ilu woke in dull sunlight.
With his eyes still half-closed, the young boy growled like a
pup and stretched his bare, gangly limbs in unison. Then he deflated and lay for a moment on the narrow cot, feeling the warm new day from his fingertips to his toes. He squeezed his eyes shut then opened them wide, blinking away sleep. He snuggled down on the mattress filled with oiled sea sand and looked around the small, fragrant room. Like all the rooms in the complex, it was a tiny place, barely large enough for his bed and a standing closet for his few clothes and possessions.
The home in which he lived was shaped like a large wheel. It was constructed of heat-retaining basalt stones piled one atop the other and coated with thick plaster made from seawater and crushed jasmine petals. He inhaled the invigorating aroma deeply. Vilu once asked the house guardian, “Which wakes me first? The light of the sky or the warming of the new day?”
think, boy?” the man asked.
“The warming,” Vilu had replied without hesitation. “Because it not only warms, it makes the jasmine and the bed oils smell stronger.”
“Then it is the warming,” the man said, smiling.
“Anyway,” one of the other boys, Sahu, had said later, when they played in the courtyard after lessons, “it is always daytime during this season. There is always light. That wouldn't wake you.”
“It wakes the seabirds,” Vilu had replied. “I hear them. Why not us too?”
“They wake because they are hungry!” Sahu replied dismissively.
“If that were true,
would never sleep,” Vilu said, laughing.
Sahu had no answer for that other than to shrug and continue consuming the petal-flavored ice he had purchased.
But Sahu had a point. Vilu had learned in their school that at this time of the season the sun circled overhead like a block of ice caught in an eddy. Even the window shades, made of
skin, could not darken a room completely. Vilu would have to remember to ask their tutor if sleeping people could react to little variations in light. The Priests said that quiet minds were actually wiser than those that were fully awake. But the Technologists disputed that idea, as he understood it.
If adults cannot agree, then why bother learning anything?
the boy wondered. Then he smiled.
I wondered that in my head! Does that mean the Priests are right?
There were no lessons today and, lying lazily on the mattress, Vilu studied the dark, charcoal-gray light that rose on the walls. It barely illuminated the designs that reached from floor to ceiling. The designs had been cut in the plaster by the local Priest, hoping for Candescence to shine on this abode. A Technologist had added flecks of olivine to the eyes of figures in the design. Vilu didn't understand the markings. It told a story about designs in the night sky, about lights strung across Galderkhaan like phosphorous fish. The Priests recited it in words he heard nowhere else. A few of the older children found it interesting. He found it confusing and boring.
He stretched again and continued to lie in bed, listening to the soothing sound of the ocean as it sloshed against the coast. As dreamtime left, he began to hear the familiar sounds of voices along the
wharf, of the airships' ropes creaking on the current, of the fishers returning from their predawn huntâ
the boy thought with sudden excitement.
why am I lying here?
Typically, the bell would have rung by now and he would be at the adjoining home taking lessons with one of the teachers, but this was not an ordinary day. It was a time of celebration, the Night of Miracles, and the scholars were all in the capital city of Aankhaan, representing the village of Falkhaan in the festivities. Several of his friends had gone, but Vilu did not want to make the long journey by cart and raft. Those conveyances were too slow, too dull.
A real Night of Miracles would be if things were exciting for once!
he thought, only half regretting his irreverence. At least the morning had potential to be exciting
if he hurried
Vilu leapt from his mattress, its mushy surface retaining his shape. He pulled off his short white nightshirt, dressed quickly in loose-Âfitting drawstring trousers and a roomy pullover, and ran toward the flap that hung heavily in his doorway. Pushing it aside, he nearly tripped over his long blue pant legs as he sped through the corridor. He hitched them up and expertly rolled the bottoms as he ran.
Each of the eight spokelike sections of the circular home opened onto triangular communal courtyards between the residential arms. Here, young children could play with minimal supervision from the adults. The courtyards were protected from the street by heavy
skins that only the older children could raise.
Limbs churning, Vilu thrust himself through one of the skins like a force of nature. He had selected this exit because the communal caregivers were on the other end of the home, organizing recreations for when the children woke. Vilu did not want to be stopped and told to gather the little ones. For one thing, he did not want to participate in the games and plays designed to help children understand and celebrate what Vilu did not quite understand nor wish to celebrate. Only two things mattered dearly to him: the
who he swam
with in the sea and, moreâmuch moreâthe airships, especially the well-known ones piloted by the really great Cirrus Cloud commanders, the likes of
Azha in the fleet of
Qala. Vilu had heard that Azha of the coastal city of Aankhaan was in very bad trouble, but he didn't care: she had once given him a ride in the clouds and he would always love her for that.
“I wondered when we would see you!” cried a fish seller wheeling his basket from the airship field to the market.
“You'd better hurry!” yelled another.
Vilu only had time and breath enough to wave with a circling motion, showing respect to the older women. He was glad his mother's mother was not here, for then he would have to stop and bow to her. There were more rituals in Galderkhaan than a restless boy had time for.
Arms and legs pumping, Vilu squinted against the light but he did not turn from the sun. He wanted to try and spot the great airship of
Qala, see it soaring clear and proud before the massive vessel passed in front of
, the light in the skyâteaching that distant ball of magma just who had command of the air!
A large hollow sound echoed through the skies. Vilu felt it in his belly.
That was it!
He had to hurry.
Breathing hard, the young boy ran across the densely packed, sun-hardened sand, wishing he had paused to pull on his footings. But there had been no time, and hadn't the local Priest once said to the fishers that labor toughens the flesh the way strife toughens the spirit the way destruction had strengthened the Candescents? Isn't what they were celebrating todayâthe disaster that gave birth to all life?
Who am I to fret about the flesh of my soles?
Vilu wondered. To the contrary: he embraced the pain, the hardening.
Other Galderkhaani adults who knew the boy laughed and dodged as he raced toward the sound of the sea. The vast waters were an unlikely beacon, his birth mother, Otal, had said, because the surface boats did not interest him.
“You were birthed in a tower in Mendokhaanâyou should run to the sound of the wind!” she had said.
Perhaps she was right; he did not see the woman very much since she moved to Aankhaan, so he could not discuss it with her. But the wind was a tease. Now it was here, now it was there. What was the point in running after it? He always knew where the sea was, and where there was sea there were fish and where there were fish there were airships. Even his teachers approved of that reasoningâdespite the fact that Vilu desperately longed to be in that selfsame fickle air!
It's like playing with a
thyodularasi, he thought. Part of the fun was that you never knew what it would do!
Unlike most of the citizens of the coastal village, Vilu did not care about the water for any other reason. His one passion was for the great airship that launched from the tower on the warm dawn currents, then spotted the legions of fish and sea giants and signaled the smaller airships and boats. He loved
Qala's ship so much that he even began to learn the flashing mirror-talk they used to communicate.
The young boy swung past the other housing complexes and decided to avoid the market that was sure to be crowded. Leading with his head of dark curly hair, he angled into a net street where the large fine-mesh sheets were suspended on high horizontal bars for repair. Workers were deftly handling bone needles and large coils of sinew that came from the herds of lumbering
that were bred for food, clothing, and rope. The net workers who knew Vilu, including two of his mother's lifelong men friends, Moge and Ura, stepped aside to allow him passage as he approached.
“You're not going to make it!” Moge said, laughing as he jabbed a calloused finger at the boy. “The approach horn has sounded!”
make it!” he gasped. “I am not old like you!”
Another horn blared across the rooftops and through the streets.
“The airship is at the mooring tower,” Ura added tauntingly, using hand gestures as he spoke. “You'll have to run harder.”
Vilu said, throwing his arms up in a universal gesture of emphasis.
Vilu heard the dull flap of the great airship's wings as it soared across the tops of the homes, following the coast toward an imminent docking at the tower. The great oval shadow of
Loi's vessel was followed by the shadows of the much smaller airships and the nets they used for cloud farming. The multitude of long tapering shadows covered the net street with a design that looked like spots on a sacred
as it slithered through the coastal sands. Vilu loved to see the coastal flagship of the great fleet move from the fishing vessels like a teacher leaving its young to play, but he did not look up, he could not.
Though it was frowned on, since many elders were still asleep, Vilu cut through the radial arm of a small home belonging to the
, the old man who represented their town in the capital city. He dashed through one flap and out the other before the servants even knew he was there. That deposited him in a dark alley where
gathered to rest in the shade and wait for scraps from passersby. The head of one of the sleek creatures rose and it honked as Vilu passed. The boy waved, missing in his attempt to pat its head as he raced by. The animal barked after him.
Vilu smiled back at the animal, looked ahead, then stopped running so abruptly that he scraped the soles of his feet with the suddenness of it.
The boy was at the mouth of a large courtyard that was built around a great oval pool, a hip-high basalt construct where ice water was melted for the many homes. Within the encircling wall the pit was cut deep in the packed sands, with long spokelike lumps marking the location of underground pipes that carried water from this pool, and others like it, throughout the village. Typically, before and after school, children sat astride the mounds and rode them as if they were the heralds of the Candescents riding their winged, heat-breathing
When the mounds leaked, those games included splashing until the repair teams arrived.
Today, there were no children or their parents, talking, often loudly, about matters involving lovers or some political issue concerning Priests or Technologistsâissues that Vilu did not really understand or care about. The scene in the courtyard was like nothing he had ever experienced. Nearby, in the alleys and streets that were used by peopleânot like the one he'd just gone through, which was frequented by
âhe saw small groups of adults huddled, watching in uncommon silence. They too were staring into the courtyard, which was not quite silent.
Beside the pool, on the side nearest Vilu, was a stone hut where the water guardian lived. He was an elderly citizen whose job it was to make sure people did not swim or drown in the pool. Normally, when children were riding the mounds, the tall old man, Lasha, was outside, where he pretended to be Tawazh, the primary sky god, chief herald of the Candescents. He would wave his arms in large gestures, ordering his minions to survey the northern regions beyond the sea, the eastern lands beyond the mountains, look for signs of the high gods' return. Sometimes Lasha's companion, Fen, emerged wearing a white cloth over her head and declared herself to be a Candescent, the only one greater than Tawazh, and yelled at Lasha to stop playing and pay attention to the white, furry little
that had interrupted their morning walks to leap into the water at the far end.
Today, Fen was already gone to her job as a record-keeper at the House of Judgment and Lasha was not being godly. He was fighting with a womanâfighting and losing. His back was against the rear wall of his narrow hut, his arms raised to protect his face, his belly turned away, protected by his hip. The woman was scratching at him with stiff, sweeping hands, kicking with agile legs. When he wasn't trying to protect his eyes the old man was trying to grab and restrain the woman's wildly moving arms.
Vilu stared through the bright morning sunlight, just as the others were doing. The
he had passed moments before waddled from the shadows of a doorway, thumping over on flippers. These
ended with stubby, webbed fingers from which the animal could extend four sharp claws per flipper. Absently, Vilu brushed the animal away by its whiskered snout. It grumbled low in its throat and nuzzled the boy anyway. Vilu ignored it. He had never seen physical conflict and was riveted. Violence was forbidden, unworthy, punished with banishmentâand the boy was suddenly more frightened than anything else.