Even at night Sunfire Falls City burned with color, all its many artworks set ablaze by electric lighting that stayed on between the buildings until the dawn. More light was added by the electric lanterns of the steam trucks and steam cars that still trundled through the streets, moving goods for restocking and people out to enjoy themselves. The gondolas also added to the glow, looking like lines of fireflies going out from under the palace and bringing back treasures from every part of the city.
Ember liked to watch them as they got near the cliff station. At this time of night they were empty as often as not, but when they weren’t the passengers were very easy to see in their dangling glass sided rooms. She had witnessed all kinds of people gathered together, families, businessmen, partygoers, city guards, workmen, groups of young folk, couples.
Ember watched a young Bortin couple talking–arguing?–in the approaching cabin closest to her, the man the pale pink of a winterlander, the woman the deep brown of a summerlander. Ember had no idea what they were conversing about, but they were both very animated, like most Salshirans. She saw the young man say something loudly and turn his back, giving her a good view of his face.
Eyes and mouth turned down, face lined with pain.
The two of them stood that way for a moment, the woman thinking, the man looking out at the night with his hurt. Then the woman turned him around and kissed him. Ember saw the man relax and take the woman in his arms, just as the cabin vanished beneath the edge of the cliff.
She sighed, long and deep, and winced as she felt her ribs grind together.
Thek. Everything felt out of sorts when she was in her true form these days. She shifted, trying to find a comfortable position, but only located other spots where her insides seemed at war with themselves.
Why couldn’t her life be easy, like what Mehkhol talked about? He spoke about flying for a day at a time like it was nothing. Here she couldn’t even get off the ground.
But then, he had been born that way. As an Alleji, not a Garagran.
Perhaps the stories about Kai making Alleji out of Garagrans had lied. Perhaps there was no way to change. Or perhaps there was, but the only thing a Garagran could change to was something broken.
Perhaps Kai just intended for her to be a cripple for the rest of her life.
She slumped, then winced again as something pulled wrong across her collarbone. She tried to ignore the discomfort but it didn’t work.
She heard footsteps and tilted her head back toward them
Light, very light. Lahnria? No. Not that light.
She turned her head to look.
“Beautiful night out, isn’t it?” Tala said.
The small woman was carrying a large book in her hands. She was also dressed up, with her short black hair accented with tight braids and a line of polished wooden beads, and wearing a bright blue silk tunic over a smooth silver-gray country skirt.
Unusual for her. The woman usually wore cargo pants and a work shirt, or overalls.
No. Wait. Ember flipped through the recent past, trying to recall all the people at the long, vast, Tavarin dinner table.
Tala had been dressing up more lately. Not entirely fancy, but pretty. A little prettier than many of the other women in the palace going about their day-to-day.
Right. A female trying to impress. Of course.
Trying to impress Ean.
Suddenly she felt the old, instinctive urge to rend someone who was trying to make off with something of hers. A growl pushed toward her throat from deep in her chest.
No. No no no. Ember pushed it down.
Thek. Kai, help. I want to bite her. Over Ean. When did this happen?
Tala apparently didn’t notice her internal struggle, as she walked up right next to her and looked out over the city as well.
Good. The last thing Ember needed was someone else deciding she was homicidal.
“So many people. Close to a million in Sunfire Falls alone. It’s incredible, isn’t it, all those people living in once place?”
“Beautiful, too,” Ember volunteered. A little politeness seemed like a good idea.
She saw Tala smile a little.
“That it is. Do you know the city has been here for over two-thousand years?”
Ember nodded. Bethania had taught her as much.
“Elayal Tavarin founded it a few decades after the War of the Four Prophets, when he brought his family and followers to the valley. Records say that Kai lead them to this place. He knew this was where they were to build when he saw the sunrise set the waterfall ablaze with light.” She swept her hand across the cityscape to the waterfall, then dropped the arm back to the book and looked up at Ember. “Some of those hahrex-towers came from trees Elayal planted himself.”
What was she getting at?
“It was supposed to be a place of safety, where the followers of Yahsaw could worship in peace safe from the madness of the Garagran kings. It’s been just that for two millenia, remaining safe by being quiet and hidden here in the mountains.”
“And then you came.”
Oh. That. Yes.
Ember looked directly at the little woman and waited.
Instead, Tala opened the big book in her hands.
“‘Alleji. No creature in all of Eddenloe is more capable in the sky, or better armed for fighting Garagrans. Known for having a body like a lion, wings like an eagle, feathers brighter than sunlit snow, and a voice that can shatter mountains.’”
She snapped the book shut and looked up at Ember.
“That doesn’t look like you.”
Ember ducked her head and looked away.
“Do you want to defend this country?”
Ember snapped her head back around and glared.
“Yes, of course.”
Tala flinched, but held her gaze.
“How are you going to do it?”
Ember looked down at the ground, then looked back out at the city again.
“Do you think it will be as beautiful when it’s on fire?”
Ember saw the image of the city burning again. She said nothing. What was there to say? She had no answer.
“Maybe Ean will succeed and convince the Council that the answer is yes, a hundred thousand should die for one. But do you believe that? If you don’t, then maybe the best thing you can do for the people of this country is to leave.”
Tala watched her for a moment, waiting for some answer. After a kella in which Ember could find nothing to say, she turned around and walked back toward the palace.
Ember ignored her departure, unable to look away from the city.
The city that might die because of her.
A tightness welled up inside her, something that drove all the ill fitting parts together in a way that went beyond pain.
She thought of Zak. Nanli. The Tixeries. Bethania, Mirza, Trin, the King. Ean. More.
This was their home. How could she watch them lose it for her?
But how could she live if she left?
The pain increased until it was unbearable, like something was trying to get out of her chest, like she was absolutely alone and needed someone to hear her pain, but it was a pain that no words could express.
Something broke, and she raised her head, opened her mouth, and let the pain out.
The song pierced the sky, raw notes composing a slow, lilting melody in a minor key, with harmonies laced underneath and through and above. She did not know how she made the music, only that she had to or die.
Hear me, Kai. Answer me, or I will perish.