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Chapter One

Moon had been consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud Court, for eleven days and nobody had tried to kill him yet. He thought it was going well so far.

On the twelfth day, the dawn sun was just breaking through the clouds when he walked out onto the deck of the Valendera. The air was damp and pleasantly cool, filled with the scent of the dense green forest the ship flew over. It was early enough that sleeping bodies still crowded the deck, most of them buried under blankets or piled up against the baskets and bags that held all the court’s belongings. A few people stirred somewhere toward the bow, where the look-outs were posted. On the central mast, the fan-shaped sails were still closed. Their companion ship, the Indala, floated a short distance off the starboard side, pacing them.

Moon heard someone stumble up the narrow stairs from below decks. Then Chime climbed out of the hatch and squinted at the dawn light. He said, “Oh good. Another nice day to spend on this flying torture device.”

Moon had been having variations on this conversation for days. Raksura weren’t meant to live on flying boats—that had been very well established by everybody—but there was no other way to move the court to the new colony.

Indigo Cloud had been in decline for a long time before Moon had arrived, with outbreaks of disease, attacks by predators, and the Fell influence that had caused fewer warrior births. When the Fell attack had forced them to finally abandon the old colony, there hadn’t been enough warriors to move the court in the normal way. Everyone knew they had been lucky to convince a Golden Islander trading family to let them pay for the use of the two flying boats. But while the Valendera was over two hundred paces long and the Indala only a little smaller, there just wasn’t enough room to do much of anything but sleep or sit. The situation was the worst for the wingless Arbora, who were used to spending their days hunting, tending their gardens, or in carving, weaving, or working metal. When the Aeriat were sick of the cramped quarters, they could always go flying.

Moon said, “Do you need me to say anything or do you just want me to stand here?”

“Yes, yes, I know, I know.” Chime rubbed his eyes and glared at the lightening sky. Moon and Chime were both Aeriat Raksura, but Chime was a warrior and Moon was a consort. In their groundling forms there wasn’t much difference between them; they were both tall and lean, both had the dark bronze skin common to many Raksura. Moon had dark hair and green eyes, and was used to blending in with real groundlings. Chime had fluffy, straw-colored hair, and had never had to live outside the close-knit court, though he had his own unique problem to deal with. Chime added, “I just can’t wait until we get to the Reaches. I’ve read all the old histories, but actually seeing it… Stone says we’re nearly there.”

Stone had been saying they were nearly there for three days, but Stone’s idea of “nearly” was different than anyone else’s. Moon just lifted a brow. Chime sighed, and said, “Yes, I know.”

They stood there a moment while Chime continued to grumble and Moon just enjoyed the predawn quiet. All everyone wanted to talk about, when they weren’t complaining about the conditions on the boats, was how excited they were to be going to the new colony. Courts didn’t move very often; Stone was the only one who could remember the last time Indigo Cloud had moved, turns and turns before any of the others had been born. But Moon had never looked at any place with the idea of living there forever. It was daunting, and he couldn’t even pretend to share everyone’s enthusiasm.

Moon felt something watching him, something not friendly. He looked toward the Indala and saw River, Drift, and two other warriors crouched along the railing, staring at him and Chime. They were all in Raksuran form, River’s green scales catching the morning light and reflecting their blue undersheen. River twitched his mane of spines and frills, a not-quite-deliberate challenge.

Now that Moon was Jade’s consort, River’s place as the lover of Pearl, the reigning queen, was safe. But it didn’t mean they were friends now.

Instead of hissing, Moon yawned, stretched extravagantly, and tried to look like a tempting target. A fight with a half-Fell half-Raksuran queen had left him with broken bones, but Raksura healed fast, and he was mostly recovered now. Though he was still a little stiff, especially in the mornings. A couple of days ago the mentors had all agreed that he was well enough to be up and around, and had given him his clothes back. The dark shirt and pants he had borrowed when he had first arrived at the colony were a little the worse for wear but cleaned of dirt and dried blood. Since then he had shifted a few times, and had done some easy flying around the boats, but nothing more strenuous yet. Beating River senseless and throwing him off the Indala would be a good test to see just how healthy Moon was.

But River didn’t take the bait, just lashed his tail in contempt and looked away.

“What are they looking at?” Chime said, but he faced toward the Valendera’s bow, and hadn’t noticed River and his cronies. Halfway down the deck, Bone, the chief of the Arbora’s hunter caste, and several other Arbora stood at the railing and stared down at something. Chime picked his way across the deck, stepping around the sleeping bodies. Any diversion being welcome, Moon followed him.

All the Arbora were shorter than the Aeriat and more heavily built in their groundling forms. Bone, despite the age revealed by his white hair and the ashy cast to his bronze-brown skin, was still heavily muscled and strong. He had a ridge of old scar tissue circling his neck, where something with big teeth had nearly bitten his head off.

Moon leaned on the railing next to him. All the Arbora tasted the air, their expressions intent. “What is it?”

Bone nudged him with an elbow and pointed. “There.”

They had been flying over increasingly dense forest for several days, the trees rising and falling in waves of vivid green fifty or so paces below the wooden hulls of the ships. Now a big shallow lake was just coming into view over the gently waving tops of the plume trees. A large herd of furry grasseaters grazed there, eating the reeds and flowering plants that grew in the water. Moon’s stomach growled; they had been able to hunt sporadically along the way, but for most of the trip they had been living off dwindling stores of salted meat, dried fruit, and wilting roots. And it felt like forever since he had been able to hunt.

The hard line of Bone’s mouth quirked in a smile. “I think everyone could do with a little fresh meat.”

One of the other Arbora snorted at the depth of that understatement.

Moon caught hold of the railing and slung himself up to crouch on it. He said, “Tell the others.” He leapt away from the boat, shifted to Raksuran form in midair and caught the wind.

Moon flew a long slow circle over the lake, playing the cool morning wind against his wings, to stretch his muscles and make certain he was well enough to stoop and dive. He didn’t want to be the first to fall on the herd, meaning to leave it to one of the others.

He had been a child the last time he had lived with his own people, so young he hadn’t known what they were called or where they came from. And this was the first time in his travels through the Three Worlds that he had even lived with other shifters. He hadn’t known anything about Raksura, and he hadn’t known he was a consort, the only fertile male Aeriat, born to be mated to a queen and to produce royal clutches and infertile warriors for the court. He had a great deal of experience trying to fit into various groundling tribes and settlements, just in search of a place to live. But trying to fit into a group where he actually belonged, and had an important role, was… still daunting. He nursed a lingering fear that he was somehow going to wreck it and get thrown out of the court. It wasn’t that odd a notion; he had gotten thrown out of a lot of places for various reasons.

By the time Moon had circled the lake twice, the decision had evidently been made to stop for a full-scale hunt. The two boats slowed to a crawl, then dropped lines. Arbora climbed down to tie them off to tall plume trees. All the Aeriat took the opportunity to jump off the boats and fly over the lake.

Aeriat didn’t normally hunt for themselves unless they were traveling away from the colony; that was left to the Arbora hunters. Judging by everyone’s enthusiastic response, this definitely counted as traveling away from the colony. They circled above the lake, their scales in shades of blue, green, gold, brown, and copper-red. They all had retractable claws on hands and feet, long tails with a spade shape on the end, and manes of spines and frills down their backs. Moon was the only one here with black scales, the color that marked him as a consort, though he had a faint undersheen of bronze that caught the morning light.

The Arbora’s shifted forms looked much like the Aeriat, except they didn’t have wings. They climbed down from the boats on rope ladders so they could butcher the kills on the grassy shore above the lake. Normally this was a task reserved for the hunters, but Moon could see Arbora who were members of the other three castes joining in; teachers, soldiers, even a couple of young mentors, Heart and Merit, leapt enthusiastically into the job. Just another sign that the long trip and confined quarters had worn on everyone.

Another group of Arbora went after some of the grasseaters that had retreated into the trees, and the younger ones dug through the shallows for clusters of edible roots. It was just as well all the work could be done on the ground; early on in the journey, Niran, the groundling whose family owned both flying ships, had put his foot down about butchering kills on the ships’ decks. Moon could see his point; nearly all the woodwork, from planks to railings to masts, was now scored with claw marks, and would need to be sanded down eventually.

Three warriors wheeled and dove on the herd, and the hunt was on. Moon found Chime, still a novice at hunting, and made sure he managed his first kill successfully. Then Moon took a small buck for himself. Like all the Aeriat, they dragged the carcasses off into the reeds to eat immediately; the second kill would be for the colony. They met Song, a young female warrior with coppery scales, already there eating her kill. “This was a fantastic idea,” she said between bites.

After he finished eating, Moon left Chime with Song and swam out into the lake to wash the blood off his scales, then took a second kill to haul back for the Arbora. After he dragged the carcass up onto a sandbar to bleed it, he scanned the sky to see where the others were. Most of the Aeriat were finished, though Chime and a few others still circled above the lake looking for prey. The herd had all moved off now, either further down the shore or into the trees.

A flash of vivid blue made him glance up, but it wasn’t Chime coming in for another pass. Jade cupped her wings and dropped down toward the sandbar.

She was the sister queen of the Indigo Cloud Court, and like all Raksuran queens, she had no groundling form. She could shift only between her winged form and a wingless shape that looked more like an Arbora. Her scales were blue, with a silver-gray web pattern. Behind her head, the frills and spines formed an elaborate mane, reaching all the way down her back to her tail.

She landed neatly, her claws digging into the sand. Folding her wings, she picked her way through the lilies toward Moon. He shifted for her, though he was still standing in the water and it soaked his pants to the knees. His groundling skin was more sensitive and he liked to feel her scales against it.

She caught him around the waist, and he relaxed against her. Her teeth grazed his neck in affectionate greeting, and she asked, “Did you have any trouble flying?”

“No, my shoulder’s fine.” He was a little sore, but it was the welcome ache of unused muscles finally being pushed to work. He nuzzled her neck. “My back’s fine, too.”

“I’m tempted to find out for myself.” Jade’s growl had a warm tone to it. She rubbed her cheek against his. “But we can’t afford the time.”

The grassy bank was very tempting, but she was right; they had to get the ships moving again. They hadn’t had much chance to be together onboard, between the crowding and Moon recovering from his broken wing. But now that Indigo Cloud had adopted a fledgling queen and two consorts from the destroyed Sky Copper court, it wasn’t quite so urgent that Jade get a clutch immediately.

Song, Root, and Chime banked down to circle overhead, and called to them that it was time to leave.

Later that afternoon, Moon woke when a strong cool gust cut across the flat roof of the Valendera’s steering cabin. It carried the clean scent of rain, but with a bitter undertone that meant thunder and lightning, and the force of it made the wooden craft creak and rattle.

Moon pushed up on one elbow for a better taste of the air. At the moment that was harder than it sounded. He was nestled between Jade and Chime, with Song, Root, and a few other warriors curled up around them. Jade had an arm and her tail wrapped around Moon’s waist and he was warm and comfortable from the sun-warmed wood and the heat of friendly bodies. He had to wriggle to sit up enough to look out over the wooden boat’s stern. What he saw made him wince. That’s a problem.

In the distance, just above the forest’s green horizon, a dark mass of storm built, reaching out toward them with gray streaks of cloud. On their journey so far, they had gone through a few days with rain, but no high winds or lightning. It looked like their luck was over.

Jade stirred sleepily, disturbed by his movement. Sounding reluctant to wake, she murmured, “What is it?” After the indulgence of the hunt this morning, most of the court were spending the day napping. Many had fed to the point where they wouldn’t need to eat again for two or three days.

Moon squeezed Jade’s wrist. “There’s a storm to the north.”

“What?” She sat up, shouldered the others over enough that Root and another young male warrior rolled right off the cabin roof. She spotted the storm and frowned, then slapped her hand on the planks, making a loud hollow thump. “Niran! Come out here, please.”

Niran’s voice came from somewhere below. “What now?” He sounded angry, but that was normal for Niran. He was the only groundling aboard, a grandson of the Golden Islander family who had traded them the use of the two flying boats. It had been Niran’s grandfather, Delin, who had wanted to help them. Niran had distrusted the Raksura intensely, but had volunteered to stay and try to protect the valuable ships when the Fell had forced Delin and the other Islanders to flee. Forced proximity and shared danger had made Niran trust them, but it hadn’t made his personality any less prickly.

Niran came out of the cabin, a figure as short as the Arbora, but slim and with golden skin and eyes. His long straight white hair was tied back with a patterned scarf and starting to look dingy. It was hard to bathe on the boat, especially for those who couldn’t just fly down for a swim in a pond. He was dressed in a heavy robe, borrowed from one of the Arbora, and clutched a pottery mug. “What is it now?” he demanded again.

“There’s a storm coming,” Jade told him, and pointed.

Niran squinted in that direction. Groundling eyes weren’t as keen as Raksuran and he probably couldn’t see the cloud formation. “Oh for the love of the Ancestors, that’s all we need,” he muttered, turned, and stamped back inside the cabin.

“The boats can’t outrun it, I suppose,” Jade said, still frowning.

“I doubt it,” Moon told her. The power to keep the ships aloft and moving came from the tiny fragment of sky-island, kept in the ship’s steering apparatus, that let them ride the lines of force that stretched across the Three Worlds. Their progress was steady, but not very fast, and a storm-wind would tear the sails apart. Moon sat up all the way and nudged Chime over. “I think we’ll have to stop and winch them down to the ground.”

Chime twitched awake and sat up, blinking. “Winch what to the— Oh.” He stared uneasily at the approaching clouds. “That’s not good. What do we do?”

“Don’t panic,” Jade said. The others were blearily awake now, looking into the wind. She prodded Song with her foot. “Song, go and find Pearl.”

Song nodded and pushed to her feet. She shifted and jumped off the cabin roof, to land on the railing and leap again, taking flight toward the Indala. Pearl was the reigning queen, and Jade’s mother, and while the situation between them was better than it had been, there were still ripples of tension. Since Moon had caused one big wave of tension by becoming Jade’s consort and not Pearl’s, it was a relief that Pearl had decided to spend much of her time on the other ship.

“I wasn’t panicking,” Chime said with dignity. He drew his legs up, wrapped his arms around his knees. “I just never liked storms, even in the colony. Do you know what happens if lightning hits you?”

Jade didn’t bother to answer that. Most of the Raksura, especially the Arbora, would be used to weathering storms safe inside a colony, not in the air on a fragile flying boat. Moon wasn’t happy about it either. Thunderstorms made him edgy. The day after his family had been killed, he had been caught in one, huddled high in the branches of a too-small tree. The Tath had still been hunting him so he couldn’t chance climbing any lower, and the storm had grown in intensity all day, as if it meant to tear the whole forest apart.

At least he wasn’t going to have to face this one alone.

Niran came out of the cabin again, dressed now in the clothes Islanders usually wore on their boats: white pants cropped at the knee and a loose shirt belted at the waist. He held a copper spyglass up to one eye, twisting the lenses to focus on the storm. He said, “We need to find a place to shelter, and we’ll have to lower both ships to the ground and tie them off— Wait, what’s that?”

A dark shape flew toward them out of the gray clouds. Moon squinted to identify it. “That’s Stone.”

Stone was the line-grandfather, the only other adult consort in the Indigo Cloud Court, the oldest person Moon had ever met, as far as he knew. Queens and consorts grew larger and stronger as they grew older, so Stone’s shifted form was nearly four times Moon’s size.

Consorts were already the fastest flyers among Raksura, so fast only queens could keep up with them. Stone’s approach was at nearly full speed, and he reached the ship in only a few moments. He cupped his wings to slow down at almost the last instant, then dropped down onto the stern deck. The ship dipped under his weight and Niran grabbed the railing to steady himself, cursing in the Islander language.

Stone shifted to his groundling form, and the boat righted. He caught hold of the edge of the cabin roof and slung himself up onto it, as the last two warriors scrambled away and jumped down to make room for him. He sat down on the planks, a tall lean man, his face lined and weathered, dressed in a gray shirt and pants. Everything about him had faded to gray, his hair, his skin, something that happened to the groundling forms of the oldest Raksura. The only spot of color was in his blue eyes, though the right one was dimmed and clouded. He jerked his chin toward the streaked sky. “You noticed?”

“Yes.” Jade settled her spines, which had bristled involuntarily at Stone’s rapid approach. “Niran says we’ll need to stop and lower both boats to the ground.”

“If we can find the ground,” Chime put in. “The forest has been getting deeper and there aren’t that many breaks in the canopy.”

“If we don’t lower the ships, the high winds will surely tear them apart,” Niran added, apparently braced for an argument.

Stone conceded that with a nod, but said, “We’re nearly to the new colony. We should make it before the storm reaches us.”

Startled, Chime said, “What? Really?”

Jade gave Stone a hard stare. “Are you certain?”

Stone shrugged. “Sure.”

Annoyed, Jade tapped her claws on the roof. “Were you going to share this information with anyone else?”

“Eventually.” Stone looked toward the bow and the endless sweep of the forest, as if gauging the distance. “I wasn’t sure until today. We’ve been making better time than I thought we would.”

Jade looked down at Niran. “Well?”

Niran set his jaw, but after a moment he said, “Very well. If you want to risk it.” Then he added grudgingly, “Chime is right. The forest beneath us seems too thick for a good landing spot. We’d have to search for a clearing anyway.”

Jade disentangled herself from Moon and pushed to her feet. She shook her frills out and shifted to her winged form. Moon rolled onto his back, just admiring her. She smiled down at him. “I’d better let Pearl know we’re nearly there, too.”

Jade leapt straight up, snapped her wings out to catch the air, then glided over to the Indala.

“I’ll find Flower,” Chime said, and threw a nervous look back at the distant clouds. He shifted to jump down to the deck.

Moon stretched out, taking advantage of having the roof nearly to himself, basking in the sun before the clouds covered it. Stone still sat on the edge, looking out over the mist-wreathed forest, his expression preoccupied. “So what’s this place like?” Moon asked him.

“A tree.”

Moon swore under his breath. He had gotten that much from everybody else. They were all very enthusiastic about it, but nobody had been able to say how much work they were going to have to do to make it habitable. “Fine, don’t tell me.”

Stone snorted. “I just told you. A tree.”

Moon rolled onto his stomach, pillowed his head on his arms, and pretended to go to sleep, one of the only effective ways of dealing with Stone when he was in such a mood. He had been hoping for something not much different from the ruin where the court had lived before, except more defensible. He had lived in trees, and they weren’t comfortable. And he had seen how fast the Arbora could build temporary shelters, but they would have no time to do that before the rain hit.

He heard the wood creak as Stone moved around and stretched out on the other half of the roof. Then Stone said, “It’s a mountain-tree, the place our court originally came from.”

Moon opened his eyes a slit to see Stone lying on his back with one arm flung over his eyes. A mountain-tree. Moon turned the words over, searching for familiarity, hoping it stirred his memory. For all he knew, he had lived in one as a child, but he didn’t remember it. “I don’t know what that is.”

Stone’s voice was dry. “You will before nightfall.”

Moon was standing on the deck when Flower told Jade and Pearl, “I don’t need to augur to know we need to get to shelter.” She waved a hand toward the approaching storm. She was small even for an Arbora, her white-blonde hair wild as usual, and after the long journey her loose red smock was even more ragged. She was the oldest Arbora in the court, and age had leached the color from her skin so she looked far more delicate than she actually was. She was also the chief of the mentor caste, the Arbora who were shamen, augurs, and healers. “We’ll have to go below the tree canopy anyway, so Stone’s right: we might as well try to reach the new colony.”

Pearl’s tail lashed, though whether she was angry at the storm or angry at Flower, or just angry in general, it was hard to tell. Her scales were brilliant gold, the webbed pattern overlaying them a deep blue. The frilled mane behind her head was bigger than Jade’s, and there were more frills on the tips of her folded wings and on the end of her tail. A head taller than any of the Aeriat, she wore only jewelry, a broad necklace with gold chains and polished blue stones. She said, “I could have gotten that advice from a fledgling.”

Jade’s spines twitched with the effort to keep silent, but she had been trying hard to get along with Pearl. Moon hoped she could last until they reached the colony. Flower, who was better at dealing with Pearl, said dryly, “Then next time, ask a fledgling.”

That had been in the late afternoon, and it was the edge of twilight now. Thunder rumbled continuously, the sky dark gray with clouds and the cool wind heavily scented with rain. The Arbora and Aeriat crowded around on the deck, waiting with nervous impatience, most of them in groundling form to conserve their strength. Moon, by virtue of being a consort, had a place along the railing. He stood next to Chime and Knell, who was leader of the Arbora caste of soldiers.

Knell scratched his shoulder through his shirt, grimacing. He had been wounded in the Fell attack on the colony, the attack that had killed many of the other soldiers, and had new claw scars all down his chest. He said, “I hope Blossom knows what she’s doing.”

Blossom was the teacher who steered the Indala, on Niran’s instructions. Chime stirred uneasily, but said, “She’s done fine so far.”

“She hasn’t had to do anything so far.” Knell threw him a sour look. “Except go forward and stop.”

Knell was Chime’s clutchmate, along with Bell, the new leader of the teacher caste. Neither looked much like Chime, Knell and Bell both having dark hair in their groundling forms and being more brown than bronze, though they were both tall for Arbora. It wasn’t unusual for Arbora clutches to produce one or two Aeriat warriors, something that the mentors attributed to generations of Arbora breeding with queens and consorts. It was unusual that Chime had been born an Arbora mentor, not an Aeriat warrior.

Sometime a turn or so ago, long before Moon had come to the court, Chime had shifted and turned into a warrior. Flower and the other mentors believed it was because of the pressure on the colony from disease and warfare, and the lack of warrior births. Unlike Arbora, warriors were infertile, and could also travel longer distances to find food. Chime had been horrified by the change, and from what Moon could tell, still wasn’t that reconciled to it.

“All right,” Chime said to Knell, annoyed. “Both boats will crash and we’ll all die. Are you happy now?”

“We’d better do it soon then, before the storm kills us,” Knell told him.

Suddenly I see the resemblance, Moon thought, carefully not smiling. Knell was right about the storm, though. Moon could already feel the presence of lightning somewhere nearby, as a tingle on his skin.

From the forest below, Stone flew up through a gap in the canopy, his wings knocking aside branches and leaves. He shot up past them, circled back, then dove back down through the gap.

From the bow, Jade shouted back to Niran. “We need to follow him down!”

Niran, standing in front of the steering cabin, looked horrified. Thunder rumbled again, reminding everyone that they didn’t have a choice.

The Valendera went first. It carefully maneuvered down through the narrow gap in the canopy, while Arbora hung off the sides to give directions to Niran. The ship sank past layers of branches that scraped at the hull and the railings, and scattered leaves and twigs across the deck. Finally they moved down into green shadows, as the wind died away to a cool, damp, sweet-scented breeze. The lower branches of the trees grew lush flowers in blues and purples that wound down the dark gray trunks. There was far more room under the canopy than Moon had expected, a vast green space. The flying boats could sail around down here easily. Niran eased the Valendera forward, gliding between the trunks, leaving room for the Indala to follow it down.

Moon leaned over the railing and tried to see the ground, but it was hundreds of paces down, lost in the shadows. Not far below the ship he could see platforms covered with greenery standing out from the trees and completely encircling the trunks, connecting the trees to each other in a web, many more than large enough for the Valendera to set down on. They looked like tethered chunks of sky-island, covered with grass and flowers, dripping with vines, most supporting glades of smaller trees. But as the ship drifted closer to one, he saw the platforms were thick branches that had grown together and intertwined in broad swathes, catching windblown dirt and seeds until they built up into solid ground.

Everyone was quiet, just taking it in. “These are mountain-trees,” Chime said softly, as he leaned out over the rail. “The platforms are the suspended forest. I read about this a long time ago, but I never thought I’d see it.”

Once the Indala had safely lowered down to join them, Niran came out of the cabin to look up at the tree canopy critically. “We should be safe enough if we can tie off somewhere down here.”

Knell nodded, looking up. “We’re going to get wet, though.” High overhead, the heavy wind bent the treetops and rushed through the leaves as rain fell in fitful gusts.

Stone caused a mild sensation by climbing down through the upper branches and dropping down onto the deck. Arbora and Aeriat scrambled out of his way, and the ship rocked under his weight before he shifted back to groundling. The rainwater that had already collected on his scales splashed down onto the boards to form a pool around him, and his hair and clothes were soaked. Not seeming to notice, he pointed off between the giant trees. “That way.”

Niran turned to him, frowning. “Is it far? If the wind rises too much, we could still be driven into a tree.”

“It’s not far, and it’s better shelter than this,” Stone told him. “If you think it’s getting too dangerous, we can stop.”

Niran looked up at the treetops again to gauge the strength of the wind. He didn’t look entirely happy, but he nodded. “Very well.”

Stone headed toward the bow, where Jade and Pearl waited. Niran threw a thoughtful look at Moon. “It surprises me that he listens to my objections.”

Stone was used to taking advice from the Arbora, and he had traveled further and dealt with more different peoples than anyone else in the court, even Moon. It had been Stone’s idea to go to the Yellow Sea to trade with the Islanders for the use of their boats. But Moon only said, “He likes groundlings.”

With a skeptical shake of his head, Niran went back to the steering cabin.

As the Valendera began to move again, Moon left the railing and followed Stone toward the bow, making his way through the Arbora and Aeriat. They crowded along the railings, clung to the mast, perched on every available space that gave a view. The fear of being caught in the storm had given way to excitement and anticipation, and uneasiness, since not everyone was as sure of their situation as Stone. Moon couldn’t imagine the confidence it took to bring these people all this way, to live in a new place that only you had seen. Not that they had anywhere to go back to if they didn’t like it, but still.

Jade stood against the railing in the bow with Flower. Pearl was there with River, Drift, Vine, Floret, and some other warriors. River flicked a resentful look at Moon, but even he was too preoccupied to provoke a fight.

Moon stepped up to the railing next to Jade, and she absently put an arm around his waist. He leaned against her, trying not to feel self-conscious in front of Pearl.

It grew darker, the green-tinted sunlight muted as clouds closed in high above the treetops. The drizzle turned into a light rain that pattered on the deck. The platforms of the suspended forest grew wider and more extensive. Many of them overlapped, or were connected by broad branches, with ponds or streams. Waterfalls fell from holes in some of the mountain-sized trees. Moon wondered if the water was drawn up from the forest floor through the roots. It was like a whole multi-layered second forest hanging between the tree canopy and the ground, somewhere far below.

Then the trunks of the mountain-trees fell away, though the canopy overhead seemed even thicker. Moon realized they were sailing toward a shadowy shape directly ahead, a single great tree.

Jade looked back at Stone. There was tension in her voice as she asked, “Is that it?”

He nodded. There were nervous murmurs from the others, a shiver of movement that reverberated back through the crowded deck.

The multiple layers of branches reached up like giants’ arms, and the trunk was enormous, wider around than the base of the ruined step pyramid that had formed the old Indigo Cloud colony. From the lower part of the trunk, greenery platforms extended out, multiple levels of them, some more than five hundred paces across. A waterfall fell out of a knothole nearly big enough to sail the Valendera through, plunged down to collect in a pool on one of the platforms, then fell to the next, and the next, until it disappeared into the shadows below.

The platforms held only flowers, mossy grass, and stands of smaller trees, but many showed signs of once being worked into beds for crops, with the remnants of raised areas for planting and dry ponds and channels that must have been for irrigation.

Everyone was silent. Then Pearl twitched and settled her spines. She said, “Stone, lead us in.”

The warriors moved back, and Stone took two long steps forward, caught hold of the railing, and vaulted it. He shifted in midair, his big form momentarily blotting out the view of the tree as he snapped his wings out.

Pearl hissed a command and went over the railing. The warriors followed, and Vine paused to pick up Flower. Moon leapt after Jade.

They flew through the light rain, and Stone led the way toward the huge knothole, which was more than big enough for him to comfortably land in. He moved further in, around the edge of the pool, and shifted to groundling. Moon landed beside him, folded his wings, and turned to look around. Jade and the others landed, and Vine set Flower on her feet. Chime and a few other Aeriat caught up with them a moment later.

In the cavernous space, folds of the trunk formed multiple nooks and chambers, extending back into the interior until the green-gray light failed. The pool, partly choked with weeds and moss, wound back away into the depths. The water fell over the edge of the opening, the sound as it struck the pond below so faint it was lost in the rain. Lush green vines wound over the walls, but Moon could see carvings in the smooth wood: serpentine shapes, claws, a pointed wingtip, like the images on the metal vessels and jewelry the Arbora made.

Stone walked beside the pool toward the back of the chamber. No one seemed to want to break the silence. Moon glanced back and saw River touch Pearl’s arm, pointing to something on the floor. He looked down and saw small squares set into the wood, something with a faint shine like mother of pearl, white shading to green and pink, glittering in the dim light. They were set all along the rim of the pool, scattered over the floor.

There was a doorway ahead, round and ringed with carvings. Stone stepped through, Jade and Pearl followed him, and the others trailed after.

Moon paused to taste the air, but there was nothing but the musky-sweet scent of the tree itself, and the earthy smells of dirt and dead leaves and water. Whether he liked it or not, this would be their permanent home, he reminded himself. He took a deep breath, told himself to stop worrying, and followed the others.

Light shone ahead in the entry passage, and he found a disk set into the wall, a curving, graceful shell-shape, like something that would wash up on a beach. It glowed now with the soft, heatless light of magic. Flower must be renewing the spells on them as she went by. It was enough to show that the passage narrowed to only a few paces across and wound through several switchbacks, probably for defense. Major kethel, the largest breed of Fell, couldn’t get through here at all without shifting to groundling form. Even minor dakti, the smallest Fell, would have to come through a few at a time; an attempt to swarm would probably leave them jammed up in one of these tight turns, and the whole passage could be easily blocked or defended from the inside. And if there were multiple exits, hidden in the folds of the trunk, it would be near impossible to trap the inhabitants inside. And that canopy, nothing could dive through that without knowing where the openings are.

Right at the point where Moon was wondering if the whole place was a maze, the passage widened out again and he heard water falling.

He stepped out into another cavernous chamber. Two glowing shells were already lit and Flower was just touching a third, its light blooming to catch reflections off walls so smooth they seemed lacquered. Two open stairways spiraled up the far wall, with slim pillars widely spaced along the steps. They criss-crossed and led up to balconies, higher levels with round doorways. Directly across from the entrance, just below the first cross of the stairways, there was an opening with water falling out of it, streaming down the wall to a pool in the floor. There wasn’t any open channel leading away, but this could be the source for the water flow in the outer knothole.

The others moved around, staring, exclaiming softly. Stone said, “This is the opening hall, for gathering, for greeting.”

Jade turned to take it in. “The court must have been huge.”

Chime went to the nearest stair and ran his hand down one slim pillar, marveling at it. “Did they carve it all out?”

“No.” Stone stood in the center, his face tilted up to the central well. “The Arbora made it grow like this.”

Everyone looked around again, as if trying to picture it. Flower shook her head, regretful, awed. “There’s much we’ve forgotten.”

Moon moved to Stone’s side and looked up. The well wound up through the tree in a big spiral to vanish into darkness. It was like the central well of the step pyramid that had held the last colony, only much larger and far more impressive. He wondered if the slight resemblance was why the Raksura had chosen the ruin.

Stone nodded toward a stair spiraling down the wall. “That leads down to the nurseries and the teachers’ bowers. We should be able to fit most of the court in there, at least for tonight.”

“One section of bowers big enough to fit all of us?” Chime muttered. “I don’t know whether it means our court is too small or this one was too big.”

“A little of both, maybe,” Floret said, looking up at the well.

“This was our court.” Stone’s voice was quiet, but everyone went suddenly still. “You’re all descended from the Raksura who lived here.”

Except me, Moon thought. He had found Indigo Cloud intimidating enough when it had been installed at the small colony. Trying to imagine this place populated with hundreds of Raksura made his nerves twitch.

Thunder rumbled outside, and Moon flinched, then settled his spines to hide it.

“We need to get the others in, and tie off the boats,” Jade said to Pearl.

Pearl flicked her spines in acknowledgement, but for once she seemed more excited than annoyed. She turned to the warriors. “Go back and tell Knell and Bone to choose a group of soldiers and hunters as guards and scouts, and have the rest of the Aeriat fly them over. We need to make certain there’s nothing dangerous before we bring in the clutches and the rest of the Arbora.”

Everyone scrambled to obey.

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