Okay, someone asked for a teaser from the sequel to The Floating Islands, so …
Actually, this was a bit difficult. Rather than showing you only a scene from Chapter One, I’ve chosen to show you a short piece from Chapter One and then another short piece from Chapter Two. Here we go:
Araenè opened a door at random and glanced through it at the bare room thus revealed, maybe fifteen paces or so across, unfurnished except for a single chair and gauzy draperies blowing in the warm breeze. The room’s windows were narrow and numerous, so there was a lot of gauze. Pink gauze. The chair, carved with ornate swirls and ripples, had been painted pale violet. Its cushions were a deeper purple. The walls were a sky blue. The combination of colors in the small space was a little . . . well, it was a little . . .
Ceirfei, peering with interest over Araenè’s shoulder, murmured, “Sugar cakes.”
Araenè had to laugh. That was exactly right. The room was exactly like a plate of cakes rolled in pastel sugars, the sort given out to children too young to have any subtlety. She shut the door, gently, and looked up and down the wide white marble stairway upon which they’d found themselves. “This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” she admitted, glancing sideways at her companion, “when I said I’d show you the hidden school.”
“Well, we certainly are seeing some new parts of it,” Ceirfei said, in a very serious tone that was like a smile.
He wasn’t nervous. He didn’t mind being lost. Araenè was relieved. If Ceirfei wasn’t nervous, she didn’t have to be, either. Embarrassed at her inability to find her way to places she knew, maybe. But not nervous.
She opened the door again. The room was still filled with pink gauze and blue-painted walls and that ridiculous violet chair.
“Up?” asked Ceirfei. “Or down?”
They’d already explored a series of chilly, windowless rooms far underground: one with long shelves stacked with delicate porcelain plates and platters and bowls, far fancier than the ones anybody actually used; and one with all sorts of fancy scented candles shaped like animals and birds and fish and flowers; and one with, prosaically, about a hundred sacks of rice and bundles of noodles. Araenè had hoped that last one would lead them back to the familiar kitchens, but instead they’d found themselves entering a long hot gallery with dozens of high windows that let in the rich afternoon light and the sharp briny scent of the sea. Finally they had come out of that gallery upon this wide spiral stairway. The gallery seemed to have let them out right in the middle of the stairway, because from this landing, it coiled endlessly up and down a perfectly smooth shaft of white marble, with nothing visible above or below but more loops of wide, shallow stairs and the occasional landing. Looking down made Araenè dizzy and looking up made her tired, but the pastel-sugar room didn’t seem to hold much promise. And going back along the gallery would be boring.
Araenè had meant to show Ceirfei some of her favorite places within the hidden school: not just the kitchens, but also the aviary where the little birds flitted among potted trees and flowers, and the room of glass, and the hall of spheres and mirrors. But today she couldn’t seem to find any door that would cooperate at all. Not even the ‘friendly door’, Akhan Bhotounn, which was nearly always accommodating. Araenè might have called out to Master Tnegun for help, but if she did that, she would have to admit, not only to Ceirfei but also to her master, that she couldn’t find her own way back to familiar places. She didn’t want to do that. She was already slow to learn things the other apprentices all seemed to absorb as naturally as bread absorbs melted butter.
Besides, she wasn’t really nervous yet. And Ceirfei didn’t seem impatient. That made sense, actually. He was never very eager to return to his family’s home, though the Feneirè apartment in the palace was beautiful and filled with every luxury, with servants to do all the work and bring you things.
Araenè never commented on the way Ceirfei preferred to visit her at the hidden school rather than ask her to come to the palace. She knew all about needing to get away from your home and family, so you could be yourself instead of the person everybody else wanted you to be. And no one worried much about chaperones or propriety, so long as they stayed in the hidden school – Master Tnegun and the other mages being presumably capable of keeping track of one young apprentice and her visitor. Even if her visitor was a Feneirè and the son of Calaspara Naterensei herself.
Araenè glanced at Ceirfei again. He still had that particularly sober expression that meant he was actually thoroughly amused. If he wasn’t worried about his parents’ fretting, she didn’t see why she should be. Really, Ceirfei was lucky in his parents. Mostly. In some ways. Anyway, he was lucky just to have a home and a family to go back to. Not that she would ever say so.
Besides, if it got too late, so that Ceirfei’s mother might miss him or Master Tnegun might miss her, or if they stumbled across anything frightening, she could call out then.
“Up,” she decided, because she knew Ceirfei would prefer it. He was a kajurai, and kajuraihi always preferred heights to any kind of secret subterranean chambers. “Up would be better?”
Ceirfei looked at her, knowing exactly what she was thinking. The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Definitely up,” he said gravely.
Araenè couldn’t suppress a laugh. Embarrassing to be lost? Maybe; but if she had to be lost and wandering through unknown parts of the mage’s hidden school, well, there was surely no one better to be lost with than Ceirfei. “Definitely up!” she agreed, and ran ahead of him, taking the shallow steps two at a time.
Steps and steps, white marble underfoot and white marble walls, with a cool breeze blowing down from above. At first, the spiral stair didn’t seem to lead anywhere at all. There were no landings for the first four or five turns of the stairway. Araenè dropped back to a more sedate pace, breathless and starting to feel the strain in her calves. She might have suggested they go down, but no, she’d selflessly offered to go up . . . Ceirfei caught up to her, gave her an amused sidelong look, and took her hand in his.
He wouldn’t have done that if they were where anybody could see. Araenè, suddenly breathless for a reason that had nothing to do with running up stairs, decided that getting lost had actually been a clever idea. Then she wondered whether Ceirfei thought she’d gotten them lost on purpose. Then she wondered whether maybe she had gotten them lost on purpose, without even realizing it.
Surely not. Anyway, too much thinking was definitely not good. She pointed ahead, to the upward curve before them. “There’s another door!” She wasn’t sure whether she was relieved to see it, or not. She wanted to get them back to the familiar parts of the school . . . didn’t she?
“That’s fancy,” Ceirfei said, looking the door up and down. “Shall I open it? Or do you want to?” He didn’t sound confused or uncertain or breathless. He just sounded interested in finding out what lay on the other side of that door. But he didn’t let go of her hand, either.
“I’d better . . .” You never knew what you might find, opening doors in the hidden school. Araenè touched the latch carefully. It was made of crystal, to match the door, which was all ebony and crystal and very fancy indeed. The kind of door that looked as though it really should open to something more interesting than sacks of rice. But the latch didn’t feel hot or cold, or shower her fingers with sparks, or do anything but click down.
Araenè opened the door, carefully, ready to slam it again if she found a basilisk or a coiled serpent or a roaring fire surging toward her or anything else alarming.
But the room on the other side didn’t match the fancy door at all. It was a tiny square room, which contained nothing but layers of dust and a single unstrung harp resting on a stool in the middle of the floor. Dust had poofed up as the door skimmed across the floor, and now settled again slowly. The air smelled of age and solitude, and somehow of darkness and silence.
“Hmm,” murmured Ceirfei, peering over Araenè’s shoulder.
The harp, framed in the bar of light that fell in through the open door, was extremely elegant, carved of some dark red wood with ebony inlay. There was no dust on the harp at all. Araenè suspected that it might actually be strung with the winds or with musical notes that played without strings, or maybe with the voices of the forgotten dead. It looked like that sort of harp, somehow.
She closed the door again and said out loud, in her firmest tone, but without a great deal of hope, “You know, the kitchens would be better.” But when she opened the door a second time, she found exactly the same dusty room and exactly the same stool. Only, disconcertingly, this time the stool was occupied not by a mysterious stringless harp, but by a little dragon, perched perfectly still, its silvery-dark wings half open and its fine-boned head turned toward the door, its yellow eyes glittering.
Then other stuff happens. Meanwhile:
Trei flew above layers of air lucent as crystal. He could see a cool, dense wind arriving from the north, shoving the warm southern air upward. He could see the swift rushing wind that skirled out as the winds mingled, carrying streamers of cloud that formed and coiled and stretched out and dissolved again. He flew above all that activity, so high that the air seemed as still and pure as glass and he barely needed to shift a feather to hold his position. He flew so high even Milendri looked small. The white towers of Canpra glinted like tiny chips of white marble at the eastern edge of the Island, and the pastures stretched away from the city in a featureless blur of green. A scattering of other Floating Islands were just visible in the distance, Kotipa nearest, the rest half lost against the unbroken sapphire haze of the endless sea.
Trei had never before flown so high. That had been the assignment: to climb above all the winds that touched the earth. All the novices had immediately wagered hours of tedious featherwork on who could fly highest. Trei thought he might have won, but it was hard to be sure. Away to the east he could make out the dark fleck of another novice suspended in the crystalline sky, but it was impossible to tell which of them was higher.
That speck was probably Genrai, but it might be Kojran. Kojran was sometimes annoyingly vain, but Trei had to admit that none of the other boys was as good at bending the winds as he was. Kojran might have coaxed a dense lower wind to follow him all the way up the column of the sky to support his climb. But Genrai was the strongest flier, and he wasn’t bad with windworking either. Trei wouldn’t mind losing the wager to Genrai, but if Kojran won, Tokabii would be jealous– he always ran after Kojran and tried to beat him, like a little brother after an elder. And Rekei would be angry if either of the younger Third City boys won. Rekei always wanted the Second City boys to do best at everything, and that meant him or Trei. It would be all right if Genrai won because he was so much older, but Trei wasn’t sure his rival was Genrai.
If Ceirfei had been allowed to fly today, he would have won. Ceirfei was always the best at everything. Nobody would mind Ceirfei winning. But Ceirfei’s family wouldn’t let him try anything that seemed dangerous. Obviously falling from the very vaults of the heavens was no more deadly than simply falling into the sea off the balcony of a First City tower, but people who couldn’t fly never thought of that. It was too bad. Everything was better when Ceirfei was allowed to join the rest of them. And every time his family refused, everyone had to wonder whether they were going to ground him permanently. Trei didn’t like to think about it.
Probably that other novice was Genrai. Trei tilted his wings a minute degree, spreading the feathers of his left wingtip, sliding through the sky toward the other boy. He was beginning to think that other novice was above him. If he was, and if it was Genrai, Trei though he would just concede. He could go down, back to the novitiate. He could strip off his wings and have a hot bath and something hot to drink, everyday comforts after the grandeur of the heights. His wrists and arms were tired and his back ached all down his spine. And the other novice was close, now. Almost close enough . . . yes. It was Genrai. Trei recognized the older boy’s angular, bony build, so different from stocky Rekei or little Tokabii.
Then he looked again, staring through the layered wind with his crystalline kajurai eyes, and saw he had been wrong after all. The other novice was not Genrai at all. It was Nescana.
Nescana, Genrai’s sister, was the very first girl novice ever. She was fifteen – three months older than Trei. She’d been supposed to get married. Genrai had actually put off his own audition for years so she would be old enough to get married. But it turned out she hadn’t actually wanted to get married at all. She’d put it off and put it off and then the kajuraihi had announced the special audition for girls just in time, so she hadn’t had to after all. There was a lesson in that, though not the kind adults wanted you to notice.
Nescana said she’d walked all the way from Third City the day before the special audition and then sat outside all night waiting. Trei understood that perfectly, but then he wasn’t from the Islands. Kojran and Rekei were offended by the whole idea of girl novices and annoyed to have a whole third of the novice hall blocked off for a girl – not that they’d say so where Genrai could hear, of course. Trei thought that was ridiculous. Obviously anybody, girl or not, might be sky-mad, so why not let girls audition if they wanted to?
Master Anerii had been the ones to make the kajuraihi audition girls, after Trei had pointed out how ridiculous it was to refuse girls the chance. “If the dragons approved a half-blood Tolounese boy, I expect they’ll approve full-blooded Islander girls,” he’d pointed out. “Why not? Everyone says we need more novices. Well, then, don’t you think the dragons would know better than you whether girls would make good kajuraihi?”
Master Anerii had been gruff and sarcastic and impatient, but then he had argued Wingmaster Taimenai into allowing the special audition after all. Nescana hadn’t been the only girl to audition, but she’d been the only one to succeed.
“The only girl novice, and she would have to be my own sister!” Genrai had complained. “What use is that? I ask you!” But he had been proud when his sister had woken up after her audition with crystalline eyes that could see the wind. Trei had been surprised to find himself jealous of Genrai because his sister was a kajurai novice – because his sister was here. Alive. Obviously it only made sense to let girls be novices, but he had discovered he hated even looking at Nescana at first, because she made him think of Marrè.
But of course that wasn’t fair. Nescana was nothing like Marrè. Nothing at all. So he had made himself be nice. He would have wanted the boys to be nice to his sister, if it had been Marrè.
And Nescana did work very hard to catch up with the boys who had auditioned at the beginning of the summer.
That was the problem. Because Nescana was not supposed to be in the sky today. That was partly because she wasn’t supposed to try the advanced exercises yet, but mostly because she was grounded. Nescana was very bad at following rules. She’d slipped out six nights in a row to fly. Everybody did it, but not everybody made it six nights before they got caught. Nescana had been grounded for a whole senneri.
But here she was anyway. Breaking all sorts of rules. Again. And she was even a little higher than Trei. He could see the warmer air she’d coaxed to rise with her. She had a real gift for pulling the winds, but . . . she might not understand long and exhausting the flight down would be. She wouldn’t know the tricks for resting on the wing. She might be in a lot of trouble, and not know it yet. Trei arched his wings just a little, turning in a slow, climbing spiral to catch Nescana’s column of warmer air. She wasn’t stupid. Probably he could get her to listen to him.
And besides, he wanted to get above her because it wouldn’t be fair at all if she won the exercise when she hadn’t even been supposed to fly in it at all.
She’d seen him, though, and was laboring to climb. Trei was so close now he could see the strain in her tight wrists and the way she caught short, gasping breaths of the thin air.
Nescana really looked a lot like her brother. She and Genrai weren’t twins, she was three years the younger, but they looked almost like they might be twins. Even though she was a girl, Nescana was actually a little taller than Trei was, which wasn’t fair. That was probably another reason she’d gotten so high: she was too tall and too strong for a girl. Where Genrai was thin, Nescana was gawky, all knees and elbows, with hands that looked too big for her narrow wrists. She was much too bony to be pretty. Besides, her eyes were too wide-set, her nose too large, her mouth too wide, her chin too strong. Trei thought she would have made a far more convincing boy than his cousin Araenè had ever managed. Not that he would ever have said so to either girl.
But she wasn’t clumsy in the air. For a girl who’d just started flying, she was really good. Not that Trei was jealous, that would be stupid. But he wasn’t going to let her win, either. He gritted his teeth and put a little more arch into his wings.
Nescana ducked her head, looking for him. When she saw how close he was, she swore, her voice thin and breathless.
“You’d better go down!” Trei shouted up at her. His own voice was thin, too, at this height. “You’re going to be in so much trouble!”
“Less, if I win!” gasped Nescana. “I can do it! I said I could and I can!”
“Down will be harder than you think!” Trei called. He closed up the last of the distance between them, his wingtip almost overlapping hers. He held the arch in his wings . . . and held it . . . and closed up the spread feathers of his wingtips . . . and he was above Nescana at last. She swore again, her language pure Third-City. Trei might have laughed at her except he didn’t have enough breath to laugh.
Nescana swore once more. “You should let me win!” she said. “That would be polite!”
“I won’t! Don’t be stupid! Give up, and we can both go down!”
“I won’t!” she called back.
Trei didn’t think it mattered, actually. He thought they were both going to run into the limits of the thin air, and it wouldn’t matter how good either of them were at rising in place or coaxing the winds to help them. But he could show her the techniques she would need to get down safely. She’d be all right. He was sure she would be. He let himself slip back down, or he let her catch up, until their wingtips once more nearly overlapped and he could talk to her without shouting. “Let’s go down!” he called. “I’ll say you got just as high as I did!” It was almost true. If they stayed high, that girl might make it true. She wasn’t going to stop.
“I can get higher!” Nescana’s jaw tightened as she tried, but Trei could see how her narrow wrists trembled and how the muscles of her neck and back clenched with effort.
“You really don’t know how much strength going down will take!” Nescana was so new to flying, she probably thought down was as easy as falling. “You’re going to overfly your strength! We need to go down!”
“You wouldn’t say that to Genrai!” said Nescana. “We can get higher! At least, I can!”
“Genrai has more sense than to overfly his strength!” Trei snapped. “You overfly your strength and fall into the sea, you’ll drown! It’s really hard to get out of the water once you’re in! You haven’t learned anything about that yet! You don’t want to find it out the hard way!”
Nescana was too stubborn for a girl. Changing tack, he called, “I’ll show you a trick! A way to rest in the air!” Then he tucked one wing and turned the other and swung neatly over on his back, instantly taking the strain off his arms. He meant to rest just for a moment, surrounded by thin air and brilliant light. He meant to make sure Nescana tried this trick, too. Then he would talk her into dropping back toward the sea. He would stay close to her all the way down, in case she got herself into trouble. More trouble.
Instead, turning, Trei found himself staring into a twisting, layered complexity of barely-visible shape and movement, terrifyingly huge and close, so close he could have almost put out a hand to touch it.
He couldn’t breathe. He spilled air and dropped and barely caught himself. Beside him and now a little above him, Nescana cried out.
The dragon was transparent as ice, glittering with opalescent blues and golds around the edges. Its long body coiled and uncoiled, rippling in several directions at once until the whole sky seemed streaked with half visible movement and Trei was dizzy from trying to focus on it. The dragon’s great wings spanned the sky from east to west; the sunlight slanting across the feathers turned the quills and barbs to crystal and spun glass. Its head was as fine boned and delicate as a bird’s, but crystalline teeth longer than a man’s hand glinted within its narrow jaw. The deep-set chatoyant eye that gazed at Trei was larger than his whole head.
There you go, dragons everywhere, that’s a pretty good intro, I think.
Also, if you haven’t met Nescana yet, you might want to read her story before you read The Sphere of the Winds. Nescana is featured in the novella “Audition” in the collection Beyond the Dreams We Know. In fact, that may be my personal favorite out of the stories in that collection.