The higher she went, the brighter the world became. Patches of blue blossomed like flowers through the canopy. Sky.
She pulled herself past the final spool of giant fronds only to find herself stopped. Ahead, the single great stem thickened into a bulb. The underside of the rastis’ crown. She couldn’t see past it. Worse, a dense collar of vines feathered downward, some bearing the yellow galls that warned of stingers hiding within, others pale and white with the sap Aryl knew to be glue and poison in one. Even without these hazards, none of the vines could hold the weight of an Om’ray child, let alone an adult.
She wedged herself into the topmost spool, leaning back to study the problem. Flitters flew by, their small brightly colored bodies revealed by their clear wings. Her kin hadn’t flown up there. Aryl frowned, eyes searching the vines. There had to be a way.
Suddenly, she sensed her brother was now above her. “Costa?”
“Here!” Costa’s call was triumphant. Aryl pulled herself to a stand to look for him, careful to keep her head well below the reaching tips of the vines.
At first, she didn’t see him, then glimpsed brown tunic in the midst of the vines and stifled a cry of her own. Remarkably, Costa wasn’t waving off stingers or trapped in sticky vines. Where was he? Halfway around the stalk and three body lengths higher. “How did you get there?” she demanded.
“Here,” he repeated, this time pointing straight down.
Aryl worked her way around the spool until she was beneath where her brother so mysteriously hung in what should be midair—with vines. She looked up and laughed in surprise.
Mystery solved. Costa stood on a ladder of slats and braided rope. It hung free from the bulb, leading—she tilted her head—past the broadest portion. Any vines that might touch a climber if shifted by a breeze were carefully tied back, not cut. She assumed they’d be released after the harvest, to hide the way up and protect the rastis’ tender crown.
To any Yena, such a ladder was as easily run as a flat bridge. Aryl’s brother eased to one side to let her rush past, but she stopped beside him to claim a quick one-armed hug. “I knew I brought you for a reason.”
Costa laughed. “Remind me later.”
Later, Aryl didn’t remember climbing the rest of the ladder, or the moments it took to pry open the door leading through the decking above.
For once she did, she was in a world none of the stories or shared images could have prepared her to experience.
The crown of the rastis—this one and those to every side—grew a grove of its own. Tall, slender stems rose upward, uniform and so densely packed Aryl couldn’t have forced her body between them. They sprouted dull gray and straight, so thin her fingers met around them. At waist height, they changed.
Aryl followed one of the stems upward with her fingertips to where it thickened. What looked smooth to the eye felt woven, like cloth. No, not cloth, she decided, but a rope of the most tightly spun thread imaginable. The texture deepened into a spiral that wound up the remainder of the stem, its line traced in crimson that spread wider and wider until, overhead, the stems were vivid red and thick, edged in orange. They appeared taut, as if ready to burst.
The Watchers moaned again, the deep vibration rattling the decking that was as much coaxed from the living rastis as fastened to it. Costa clung to the doorframe as he climbed through to join her, his eyes wide. “Aryl!” he mouthed.
The moan died away; the world steadied. It was temporary, she knew. “Hurry, Costa.”
The decking curled around the flattened top of the bulb for several steps in either direction. It held more than a door. A large sling and pulley array was fastened to one side, its precious metal chains wrapped in cloth to protect the rastis during use. Costa walked over to the other feature, a sturdy plank ladder slanting up and into the stalks, wide enough that three could climb at once.
The stems obscured the top. The ladder was partnered by another set of cloth-covered chains. Aryl put her hand on one and looked up. “This must be how they bring down the ripe
” She put her foot on the first rung.
“No!” Costa grabbed her arm to haul her back. “This is far enough—too far, Aryl. We’d only be in the way.” His free hand waved at the roof of gently swaying stems. There was more blue between them now. “There’s no room. Stay—”
“There’s all the room in the world.” She shook free. “I want to feel the M’hir for myself. I want to touch the sky. Don’t try to stop me, Costa. Wait here if you must.”
He lifted both hands and stepped aside, automatically wary of the deck’s edge. When Aryl felt his weight on the ladder behind her as she climbed, she smiled to herself.
The first twenty rungs plunged them deep within the strange aerial grove of the rastis, until Aryl couldn’t see in any direction but straight ahead to the next slat of wood. The stems brushed against her and one another. They didn’t feel like plants anymore. They moved without wind, as if impatient. With each upward and inward step, she could see the stems swelling, enlarging along the spiral indentation, turning slowly as they did.
There were always scents in the grove—decay from the shadowed water below, blends of musk and sweet and sour from the creatures who moved and climbed. Above all the rich blend of growing things, the perfumes that changed with the seasons as flowers opened, ripened to fruits, and fell into the water to rot.
Here? Aryl had smelled dresel all her life, but that faint clear spice was nothing to the heady draft now entering her nostrils. She felt as though she climbed through fragrance, warmed and pierced by shafts of brilliant light.
The ladder met two others at a triangular platform, unexpectedly small. As Aryl stepped up to it, her head cleared the top of the rastis stems at last.
The world exploded away on every side, roofed in blue, carpeted in red-orange, punctuated by taller growths with their clusters of green leaves.
They had to be, though Aryl had trouble connecting these full, lush tops, filled with flitters, to the spare, hard-to-climb trunks that stretched their pale columns from the water below.
She shook off the vegetation’s spell and moved, mute and staring, to give Costa room beside her. She pointed to the strange harsh line against the sky. “Costa. Do you think those are mountains?”
“I think I’m going to be sick.” He shaded his eyes with one hand. Aryl followed suit. “Yes. They have to be. The world, Aryl. It’s too small.”
“This can’t be all of it,” she reasoned. But the same dismay kept her voice low too.
The red of the rastis extended only so far. The seemingly vast groves of the Sarcs, the Teeracs, the whole of their clan—from this new perspective they melded together into a smallish mass, one bounded by wild stone and by a darker, more twisted foliage that itself gave way to an expanse of glittering light. Aryl squinted. “Is that the ocean?”
“It can’t be. The other clans are between us and the sea. That must be where the Tikitik have their crops. I’ve heard they need water open to the sun. They have ways to control what will grow in a place. An understanding beyond any Om’ray . . .”
As well as Costa, Aryl
the others, knew where they were, with the slightest effort, who they were. Her head turned to seek them. “Costa. Look. There. They’ve strung the lines.”
Her eyes fought the bright sunlight until she could make out what she hadn’t before. The rastis groves were covered in ropes, as if a weaver bigger than any imagined in a nightmare had used the strong nekis trunks to support its looping web.
Figures were moving into the open along that web, bare feet sure despite the rope’s bounce and sway. Arms were extended, for balance and to run fingers along support threads too thin to see from this distance. Almost flying, she thought with an envy close to pain.
That could have been her.
Should have been her.
Aryl could see the pattern they made as it took shape, here and in the distance. Each Om’ray was running to his or her place along a curved line beyond the rastis groves, downwind.
Flitters launched into the air, as if disturbed. Instead of wheeling and crying in protest, they plunged without sound into the canopy, disappearing from sight.
They fled the coming M’hir. She knew it. Could almost
The Om’ray had found their places and stopped, waiting. Aryl saw flashes as hooks were freed from their belts and held ready.
Watchers moaned again. This time Aryl could tell their sound came from the mountains.
Costa’s fingers locked around hers as the world seemed to take and hold an endless breath. He pulled, urgently, and Aryl obeyed, dropping to lie beside him on the small platform. His arm went over her.
she heard, not words but mindspeech.
As she grabbed for her own hold on the platform, she twisted her neck to see.
The crimson stems nearest her face trembled in the silence. Trembled . . . then bent ever-so-slightly. No, they weren’t bending. Aryl’s eyes widened as the stems began to twist open.
Costa stiffened beside her, lifted up as if compelled to look closer.
she sent, reinforcing the sarning with a grab at his hand, determined to hold him safe.
Then there was no need for warnings.
The M’hir struck.