Reynard aux Chatillon delivers a gryphon foal the morning Lucia Camoreux comes to visit. It comes out squealing, eyes shut and wings folded, sticky with placenta. Within an hour its wings open, beating softly, as it stands to take food from its mother’s beak.
Reynard sees Lucia as he returns from leading the foal and mare into a paddock isolated from the pasture. The mare cannot be kept from flying, of course, but she will return to the smaller enclosure as long as her flightless child is there. She will lick its wings so she can always pick it out of the herd. In twenty-eight hours, she will boost it into the air for its first flight.
“Why do you separate them?” Lucia leans on the fence, wearing riding pants and a long coat of faded scarlet. Reynard touches his hat.
“The young one’ll be sharpening his claws soon enough,” he says. To tell the truth, he is surprised to see her, though not because she is a hero of the revolution standing in his pasture. “His mother teaches him to redirect his aggression. Not to scratch the other boys and girls.”
He surveys the dale in which his paddocks sit, a flat place surrounded by hills that support thin lines of elm trees. A few storage sheds sit around the fences, and the long stable takes up one whole side of the valley. The gryphons in flight taunt the ones on the ground, then they switch places, a game that will continue all day with different players. The breeze is crisp. The whole pasture smells heavily of manure, but it is a kind, green scent Reynard has never minded.
A hinge creaks far off. From the stable, his daughter Aveline emerges, her hands soiled and her long black hair tightly restrained. Seeing Lucia, she quickens her stride toward them.
“What did you have her doing?” Lucia asks.
Reynard hardly hears: the foal has stepped back from its mother and is standing up, facing her. He’s seen these youthful rebellions turn violent before. Lucia has to repeat her question before he answers, “Oh. Aveline? Nursing Dameciel’s upset stomach.”
“Brave woman.” Lucia wrinkles her nose. “She’s grown. She looks…very much like Itienne come back to us.”
Reynard’s thoughts stumble over an unexpected open pit. Without taking his eyes from the foal, he can tell Lucia regrets her words already, and is unaccustomed to the feeling. “Did you have something to tell me?” he asks.
“Yes.” Lucia recovers herself. “I came to warn you to expect L’Escalier today. I excused myself from a meeting, in fact, in order to beat him here. I fear he’ll have a proposition for you.”
“On my land?” Reynard is focused first on the foal, second on how to pretend this conversation has not involved his lost wife. He is distracted, and that is a dangerous state of mind in which to deal with Sovereign Minister Dominic L’Escalier. “I don’t have anywhere to receive him.”
Reynard and Aveline do not live on the surface, which is for farms and gryphons. Locksgrove, the city, comes alive in the tunnels and on the cliff face. Reynard has met L’Escalier, the leader of the slave revolt, many times, but in taverns and manor offices—never here, never in his place.
“He said this could not wait.”
Working every day with temperamental stallions, Reynard is well-suited to notice signs of hidden discomfort, like the clear skies that often precede storms. Lucia has taught him revolutionary scholars are not all that different from gryphons.
Something is about to happen. He waits for her to tell him what.
Lucia drops her gaze. “There’s going to be a war.”
So be it. Locksgrove won its last war working with far less.
But then Lucia goes on. “Not against us, you understand. Between Lascony and the Abelard League. But given that they both border us, it demands a response.”
“Thank you for the warning.” The foal has backed down and let the mare groom it, but Reynard swallows, wipes his brow nonetheless. “But I’m a loyal citizen. I’ve nothing to fear from L’Escalier.”
Both Reynard and Lucia startle as if caught in a tryst. Aveline, wiping her hands on a rag, smiles at their visitor.
Aveline aux Chatillon could not respect a goddess more than she does Professor Lucia Camoreux. The conscience of the revolution, a walking library at L’Escalier’s side, and still gentle enough not to breathe a word of their secret meetings together. Aveline sees Lucia and Reynard standing in opposition—her skin like milky tea, his black as a gryphon’s eye—and rejoices at the sudden widening of her world.
It is through knowing the Professor that she has made a decision: their pasture will do no business with Dominic L’Escalier. Sell the gryphons to farmers, to riders, to people who will care for them. Not to soldiers.
Lucia has written a book called Treatise on the Failure of Revolutions that Aveline is making her way through one sentence at a time. Both women hope the new Senate will take it as scripture. Previous idealistic upheavals have gone sour because their leaders became seduced into too many evils they believed were necessities. Lucia has taught Aveline that L’Escalier, without sound advice, is a prime candidate for such seduction.
Though Aveline agrees, she admits to herself that her motives are more basic: she fears for the safety of her grphons. Last year, when Dameciel injured his wing on a windmill, she slept in the stable beside him, unable to leave for fear the infection would spread. She saw the torn, blood-spattered skin whenever she closed her eyes.
Aveline is no general. No waster of life.
Her father will object to her decision, of course. There never was a more loyal soldier of the revolution: Reynard tended mounts for L’Escalier when the revolt was still confined to back alleys and outskirt farms. But Aveline believes the best way to celebrate freedom is to exercise it occasionally.
Dominic L’Escalier wields power like a fiddler wields his bow, but her family won a war so they wouldn’t have to be anybody’s slaves. That goes for gryphons just as well as humans.
When Lucia tells her who is coming, Aveline gives only a tight nod. Her father does not notice anyway: he’s watching his foal again before Aveline can get a sentence out.
Lucia smiles, asks if Aveline has managed to get out to see friends lately, but it has the ring of distraction. At the sound of cart wheels rolling up the dirt track, they both break off. And at the sound of a roar coming from the pasture, even her father looks up.
The roar freezes Reynard to his core. The herd is not at rest. They circle, like lightning in storm clouds.
Ouragan. Of the three stallions, this is the only one Reynard could never acclimate to the side pasture. When a creature can fly, it becomes far more dangerous for it not to know its place.
Dominic L’Escalier is standing at the outer fence, chatting with his bodyguards. Ouragan is circling, leaping to the air then strutting over the ground, around an arc that centers on the Sovereign Minister.
“Get back,” Reynard tells Aveline. “Behind the shed.”
“If I need you, I’ll call! Go!”
Ouragan is sire to the foal birthed that morning. He’s picked fights before. Foudre, never the strongest male, bears a strip of discolored fur from where Ouragan slashed his haunch with a hatchet-sized foreclaw.
Ouragan tightens his circle around the fence, bellowing and shaking his mane. Three gryphons take flight all at once, all skittish yearlings. They wheel in the air as others follow them up, an ever-widening helix of dark shapes against the clouds.
Reynard throws the side gate open and strides into the pasture as it swings shut behind him. Man and beast are alone now, enclosed together.
Ouragan veers to meet him. Reynard keeps his eyes downcast, his movements slight. Fortunately, it is overcast, so there is no danger of a shadow spooking the gryphon.
“Reynard,” calls Dominic L’Escalier. His voice is cautious, and a little excited.
A roar hits Reynard’s ears.
He rolls across the pasture grass. Hooves thunder by him. A wing-tip feather grazes his face, tickling.
Ouragan is charging the fence again. L’Escalier’s towering guards close ranks in front of him, but they needn’t bother—the stallion halts once more to face Reynard as he rises. Under the rage is a bond of trust Reynard can use. He foaled this beast, after all.
He makes it to his knees. Then he points down the road, points hard, so L’Escalier can see. To speak a warning would be too much loud noise, too fast.
The Sovereign Minister of Locksgrove swivels his head to look where Reynard is pointing. Reynard resists the urge to slap his own forehead. L’Escalier is only brilliant in two or three ways.
Ouragan snarls. His mouth froths. Reynard points to L’Escalier, then again down the road, as softly as he can, as hard as he must. At last the Minister gets it. He draws his guards by the shoulder down the road and out of sight.
“Right then,” Reynard says, and smiles at Ouragan. “Now you and I can talk.”
His smile is calculated. After smiling he yawns, as though he is at tea, and not much interested in it. Boredom will put the gryphon at ease.
Time to move in. Sifting his feet through the grass, his loose shirt stained with dew, Reynard approaches the wild-eyed stallion.
Ouragan roars. Reynard stands firm, though ancient instinct screams at him to run. A sudden movement now, too close to dodge, would mean death.
Two more steps. One. Arms-length away, Reynard stretches out his hand to Ouragan’s mane, stroking with his fingertips. Grooming.
A new roar dies in the gryphon’s throat. He pants. Reynard feels the hot breath. On the far side of the pasture, a few of the circling colts gain the courage to land.
Reynard’s hands shake as he places them on either side of Ouragan’s mane. His father showed him this—had his father trembled as much? Fool, he thinks, the hard part is past. Now it’s all rhythm.
He breathes, in and out, seeking the pulse of Ouragan’s life. Their breaths synchronize.
Ouragan looks down.
His throat rumbles, but he steps forward to nuzzle Reynard. Reynard, at the same time, looks up. Lucia stands just outside the fence, while Aveline has crept into the pasture, wielding the stout sharpened pole Reynard keeps behind the shed. Their last resort.
“Aveline,” he croaks, “go and tell L’Escalier he may approach.”
“Brilliant. Absolutely marvelous.” L’Escalier cannot stop gushing as Reynard and Aveline lead him around the edge of the paddock. “I couldn’t take my eyes off you, Reynard. At least until you ordered me to.”
Reynard is glad Dominic L’Escalier has not yet asked why his mere presence frightens gryphons. He probably doesn’t care. Lucia once confided in Reynard that the Minister cultivates unfamiliarity as a habit, to divert his enemies. The unfamiliar disconcerts animals.
“Every time I visit, you end up giving me orders.” L’Escalier grins. “The other breeders all bow and scrape before me. Which is why I’m here.”
Aveline catches her father’s eye with a firm message he cannot read. She is still carrying the pike as she leads the group of six—herself, Reynard, Lucia, L’Escalier, and the two bodyguards. Inside the fence the gryphons have settled, and now the only thing in the sky is the sun, promising a radiant summer evening.
They take the Sovereign Minister all around the pasture, Reynard showing him how the operation is getting on. L’Escalier nods at all the right times, sometimes conferring with Lucia on things she seems to have mentioned to him before—”Is that the famous Foudre?” or “You were right, that shed looks fit to blow away.” He is taken with the new foal, who is sharpening his claws with the enthusiasm of all nature’s new children.
“Capital,” he says. “Dear Reynard, if you’d accompany me back to my transport, I have a request I hope you’ll consider.”
Aveline is gripping the pike hard enough to snap it. She follows without being asked.
At the cart—pulled by a small mammoth of the type never allowed outside the city—L’Escalier motions his two bodyguards aboard with the driver, then turns back to the group.
“How many adults do you own, Reynard?” he asks.
“Twenty-six,” Reynard says. “Three stallions, nine geldings, fourteen mares.”
L’Escalier nods. He is a slight man, his nose pointed, eyes set like cut jewels into his face. “Those three will need gelding as well, then.”
Aveline plants the tip of the pike in the ground. “Why?”
Her question distracts the Minister from watching the sky. “I’m sorry?”
“Why do you want to geld our stallions?” Aveline repeats.
“Sir,” Reynard says.
L’Escalier waves it off. But in the split second beforehand, Reynard sees something raw and hot flood his daughter’s features.
“It’s the fashion in the cities of Lascony now to ride geldings in battle,” L’Escalier says. “Young noble twats want to lead armies, but can’t be bothered to learn enough airmanship to mount a stallion. The gelding gryphon is,” he searched for a word, “predigested. But they’ve asked for fifty. Twenty-six is closer than twenty-three. And nobody else’s will do. Not for the kind of war we’re going to have.”
The mammoth grunts as Lucia joins L’Escalier by the cart. Reynard suddenly understands the nature of the meeting she cut short to come warn him. “Does this mean Locksgrove has formed an alliance with Lascony?” she asks.
L’Escalier picks up the fighting note in her words and lays a hand on her shoulder. “Not an alliance, Lucia. A temporary partnership. Of mutual benefit.”
“And if their enemies turn their aggression on us?”
“Lucia, my butterfly, we will talk about this later.” L’Escalier clambers up into the cart, and avoids looking at Lucia’s face, where a withering glare is communicating that they will talk about it at length later. “Reynard, do you accept my proposal?”
“I…” Reynard has just found his voice. “Could you repeat it, sir?”
Standing upright in the cart, L’Escalier says, “I am offering you whatever price you care to name for all twenty-six of your adult gryphons to use as war mounts for the commanders of the forces of Lascony to use in their swift conquest of their opponents, the Abelard League, who are now are mutual enemies. Do you accept?”
“Father,” Aveline hisses, as Lucia refuses L’Escalier’s hand and mounts the cart alone, “that’s our entire breeding stock.”
Does she think I don’t know? No matter how many he sells to private buyers, simply knowing Lucia reminds Reynard daily that a fledgling nation of former slaves cannot afford luxuries like unfettered commerce. He sought out Dominic L’Escalier’s cause in his life’s one moment of white-hot rage, watched the one-time manor slave drill barely-armed troops and quote philosophers in his speeches, and has known ever since: the Minister is the father of freedom. There can be no repaying a debt to him.
And war? asks Aveline in his head. Is war not a luxury?
It is not a choice. They have never been his gryphons. They have always been Locksgrove’s. L’Escalier’s.
Aveline shouts, “Never,” as Reynard says, “Yes.”
The upper tunnels, unlike the tide-washed slums at the cliff base, are clean, and well lit by skylights that allow shrubs to grow. Other than the mammoth traffic, this neighborhood—reserved by L’Escalier for government employees—is quiet.
Smoke from a fire, scented with cinnamon, drifts along the tunnel, wide enough for three mammoths abreast. The beasts prefer it down here, out of the sun, where their shaggy coats don’t make them sweat.
Aveline skirts around one. She’s been keeping ahead of Reynard all the way home. She pushes through a red curtain into their main chamber without holding it open. Reynard walks into it.
No matter how many times L’Escalier offers him a palace on the cliff face, Reynard doesn’t want to move. He and Aveline each have their own room, and the kitchen is in a third, all separated from the main chamber by their own curtains. Aveline is brushing hers aside when Reynard enters.
He calls her name. She sighs and turns around. The large dining table sits between them.
“Will you explain why you disrespected me in front of Dominic and Lucia this afternoon?”
“You know damn well why, father. What were you thinking? Every last stallion and mare sold off for Lascon nobles to prance around on?”
“Watch your tongue.” He moves around the table; she keeps her distance. “We have the colts and the yearlings, and it’s still the foaling season. I won’t sell a pregnant mare. We’ll get new breeding stock.”
“I don’t care about the breeding stock!” she snaps. “Did you raise Ouragan and Foudre and the others to fight wars? They’ll die on the ends of pikes!”
A heavy hand clutches Reynard’s stomach. She does indeed look a great deal like her mother.
“The gryphons aren’t ours,” he says. “We raise them for those who will buy them. We must sell outside Locksgrove if that’s where the market is.”
“Amazing.” Aveline’s words are made of ice. “L’Escalier is back at the palace, but I can still hear him talking. Tell me, father, what do you call a living being that can be bought and sold at its owner’s whim?”
“I call it my job!” At some point Reynard begins to shout. “I do what I was born for. What others do with it is not my concern.”
“Then I was wrong. It’s not just the gryphons enslaved. It’s you.”
It is as though she has slugged him in the gut. The wind whistles out of his lungs and he collapses into a hardwood chair. Aveline looks more appalled than angry—she may not have meant to say so much—but her features harden again. She disappears behind her bedroom curtain, and returns carrying a wax tablet, which she thrusts at Reynard.
Handwriting runs across it in several rows. Of course, Reynard cannot understand it, but he can tell every other row was written by a practiced hand. Every second row is scratched more messily, though the writing tightens by the end.
He recognizes the script of the odd-numbered rows. He has seen it on letters from the university, the ones he glances at before going in search of someone to read them to him.
“Lucia’s been giving me lessons,” Aveline says. “I’m learning to read and write. I won’t spend my life tending war machines, father. I won’t be a slave.”
Reynard struggles to stand. He lays the tablet on the chair so he doesn’t drop it. “You’re turning your back on everything we are.”
“You turned first. What about mother? What would she say about this war?”
This is enough. So Aveline wants to hurt him. Very well. He is a strong man. He can hurt back.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he hisses. “You weren’t five years old when the chains broke. You know nothing of slavery. And less of your mother.”
“Then tell me.” Aveline stands her ground. “Tell me all about how beautiful she was. She must have had a lustrous mane, and silky wings. You’ve never cared for anything without wings.”
When Reynard gathers himself after this, he is sitting in one of the hardwood chairs, warmed by a fire he doesn’t recall starting. Aveline must be in her room, or out on the streets looking for one of her friends. He makes a pot of stew with fresh vegetables and broth, leaves a bowl out as a peace offering. It grows cold.
Long after the skylight darkens, he notices he sat on the wax tablet with the writing lesson. He hauls himself up, joints snapping, to put it someplace out of the way.
The foaling season passes. Aveline refuses to have anything to do with the adult gryphons, spends all her time exercising and grooming the yearlings. She cleans the stable, then cleans it again, and does everything she can to avoid her father. Once, she respected his willful determination to soldier forth on his own course no matter the consequences; now her old respect sickens her.
When the appointed day comes, the mares and geldings are led through the paddock gates into waiting trailers whose cloth coverings are emblazoned with the blue boar of Lascony. Each gryphon folds its wings and munches at the oats left for it, while the Lascon drivers lock the rear gate. Even Ouragan goes quietly, though Reynard has to lead him in by hand.
The trailers take them to the front lines, to the scraps of land Lascony and the Abelard League have been struggling over for longer than Reynard or L’Escalier have been alive. The gryphons fly over these provinces, bearing commanders who urge soldiers forward. The Lascons later use them as scouts. When things go bad, they become bombers.
They are struck with arrows, rocks from slings, ballista bolts. Many gryphons together can turn the tide of a battle, but the more who appear in the same sky, the more seem to die.
One day at the beginning of autumn, more than half the remaining gryphons cross a churning river to plant a bridge for the Lascon army to cross. A hidden Abelard ambush force surges out of the underbrush before the Lascons can hammer the planks into place. They throw nets at the gryphons and stab them and their riders with pitchforks until long after they die. Trapped on the other side of the river, the other Lascons are crushed by the main Abelard force. Less than half escape. Ouragan, the fierce, throws his untrained rider and takes to the sky, but a crossbow fusillade shreds his wing and sends him crashing to the ground. He dies on impact, a last act of rebellion against the men awaiting the satisfaction of butchering him with scimitars.
Two days after, the news reaches Locksgrove. Dominic L’Escalier walks out of a senate meeting, in the middle of a speech, and sends his steward to find Reynard aux Chatillon. Once again, Lucia arrives first, and finds Aveline, who, seeing the Professor hastily wiping mucus and tears from her face, knows instantly what has been lost.
Reynard descends into a café on the cliff face, on the fifth level of a boardwalk that rises another six stories above their heads. Tables form a constellation on the wooden walkway before the shop, which is recessed into the stone. L’Escalier has already claimed a table, and ordered two overlarge mugs of coffee. The other tables are empty.
L’Escalier gets up to pull out Reynard’s chair. “I hope you don’t mind the short notice,” he says, “or the venue. This place used to be a big-time exporter’s private roaster. His old house slave runs it now.”
“What is it you want?” Reynard asks, rubbing his eyes. The coffee smells dark and strong.
“We can’t just talk?” L’Escalier takes a long sip. “I’d have met you somewhere with stronger spirits, but it’s hardly noon, and I need to keep a bit of respect with the people.”
Reynard stifles a yawn. Aveline still does her share of the work in the pasture—more, if anything—but speaks to him two and three words at a time, and not at all when the work is done. Since their fight, he has not slept well.
L’Escalier sighs. “Very well. Yes. I do need your help.”
Some giggling from below, maybe the crowd around a street performer. Someone wheels a cart along the next boardwalk up.
L’Escalier asks, “Have you heard the news from the war?”
Reynard feels a chill. He wishes he were back with the colts. “Nothing to do with me. Sir.”
“Impressive that you should have missed it. I can’t get people to talk about anything else.” L’Escalier forces on a smile. Reynard gulps the bitter coffee. “The truth is it might have more to do with you than you realize. You helped Lascony once. They—or I—we’re hoping you might do it again.”
So that’s what this is. Reynard’s eyes drift out to sea. The sky is steel-grey, the breakers on the ocean like cold white fingers. Autumn is roaring past.
He hears himself say, “I can’t. I only have colts and yearlings, not ready to ride. Find someone else.”
L’Escalier shakes his head, lowers his voice. “There’s no-one else. The others breed work animals or poncy show mares for rich traders. We are a new city, Reynard, without many options. You have the only war mounts I trust.”
Dominic L’Escalier alienated Reynard’s daughter, enslaved the things he cared most about, to die in a war about which they understood even less than he does. Now the Minister wants to do it again. To gryphons even less prepared, who will die even faster.
He could not have done any of these things had Reynard not consented. By the breaking of his chains, Reynard himself has been broken.
Reynard stands up and kicks the chair back, knocking it into another. “Tell Lascony you’re done. I’m not selling the colts. They can’t carry the payloads you want and they’ll spook at crossbow fire.”
“Sit down,” L’Escalier says. “Drink your coffee until you can think rationally. Remember we have an agreement.”
“We had a—” Reynard fumbles for words. “A business relationship. I don’t work for you.”
Now L’Escalier is standing as well, his mug forgotten. “You work for your city. Do you understand what’s going on out there? The Abelards are marching on the Lascon capital. If they take it, and that is a matter of weeks,” he pounds his knuckles on the table, rattling the mugs, “they will make Lascony a client state. And there is nothing between Lascony and Locksgrove save the few thousand militiamen the Senate can draft. We’ll be overrun.”
He steps around the table, looking up a bit to stare into Reynard’s eyes. “Ask Lucia. She can read the signs, Reynard. Do you want to wear chains again? Do you want to go back to being a slave?”
Reynard lurches forward. L’Escalier narrows his eyes. “Go ahead. I didn’t bring a bodyguard. Watch. I order you to come out, guards!”
Neither of his usual hulks materializes. The proprietor of the shop is stock-still with his hands in a vat of soapy water.
“Strike me,” L’Escalier says. “But then say yes. Do you want them to take your daughter, Reynard? Do you know what they do to pretty girls like Aveline when they sack cities? Are your yearlings worth more to you than keeping her from that fate?”
Reynard’s fist connects with L’Escalier’s jaw. The Minister stumbles. He catches himself on the edge of another table and turns back to Reynard.
“Do it again, if you must.”
Reynard digs his nails into his palm, and turns, caring only to put distance between himself and this man who burns everything he touches.
“Air support, Reynard,” L’Escalier calls after him. “Scouting. Leadership. Flanking maneuvers. Evacuating the wounded. The Abelards dispatched entire cohorts against your gryphons. They determined the course of battles.”
He stops. Without turning, he says, “I didn’t raise them for that.”
“Why did you raise them?”
A fisherman is rowing through the bay, headed for home. There is about to be rain. The eyes of the silent, waiting Minister drive Reynard into his own head, toward a fight with this question he has never before dared to meet.
“For the same reason you hold power and start wars,” he tells L’Escalier. “Because we are good at nothing else.”
“I didn’t start this war.” L’Escalier steps close again and whispers. “The Abelards despise us, Reynard. They wish we did not exist. Lascony alone keeps their wish from coming true, and there’s about to be no more Lascony, unless you let go of your moon-damned yearlings.”
Clear as day, Reynard sees each of the gryphons he has raised since he inherited the paddock. Unfolding its wings for the first time. Scratching at grass and bark and the walls of the paddock while its mother guided it around. Taking flight for the first time, its roars joyful, like a human child running for the sake of running. Its muscles flowing like water, with no motion wasted. Carrying a commander out to the battlefield. Falling from the sky, punctured with pikes, life leaking out.
Cursing Reynard aux Chatillon, with their last breaths, for delivering them life only to send them back into slavery to save his own skin from the same fate. Condemning him, in some strange gryphon language he would never speak, for his crime of delivering a human daughter into the praxis of suffering.
He cannot unburden himself of his debt. Cannot decide for a whole city. Nor for Aveline.
He says, “Yes.”
Aveline and Lucia leave the University campus at dusk. It is hard to tell the time, since few people in the low tunnels are bothering to maintain the light cycles anymore. They stay huddled in their caverns with their families, or flee to sea, crowding the bay with boats. Collisions have occurred. Aveline doesn’t know where they think they’re going.
She herself is going to the empty pasture to take Lucia to shelter with Reynard—though she isn’t certain Reynard knows why people are hiding. During their lesson, Aveline had to tell Lucia how her father sits in the shack most days, staring at the wall. They still are not talking, but she has begun to bring her father tea, which he sometimes even drinks.
Lucia can explain to him that the fall of Lascony took three days, and that Dominic L’Escalier has fled the city. None of it shocked Aveline, but to tell Reynard his one-time hero has abandoned Locksgrove will require Lucia’s gentler touch. Her father still wants desperately to believe the Sovereign Minister is good.
A left, and a right. A few tunnels remain, and then they will be at the pasture. They’re close enough to the surface to tell it’s raining. Will they drag us all away from here? she thinks. Will all these tunnels will start leaking, with nobody to maintain the seals? Will the gryphons that are left go feral? Will they prefer it that way? Will they remember us?
In the shack, with wind howling and rain dripping through the roof, Aveline asks Reynard and Lucia about slavery.
Reynard is stuffing plaster into the cracks in the shed, blotting out a rain-washed view of the pasture with each one he closes. He wants to keep doing this for a while. There are some holes left. But then Aveline asks again in a small voice—”What is it going to be like?”—and Lucia can’t answer.
His daughter needs him. It is the first time in a long time. Even before she turned against him, they were more like business partners than anything else.
Lucia is sitting on a sack of oats. She has unbuckled and unsheathed a long, gently-curved sword, and placed it on the table. Aveline is on the floor in the corner, her knees drawn up around her long pike. Reynard drops into one of the chairs.
“Not a death sentence,” he says. “Some people made a good life. My father did, and his father. If you have a trade, you become more…more valuable.”
“Reynard,” Lucia says, but Aveline interrupts her. “I want the truth. All of it. Did slavery kill Mom?”
Lucia closes her eyes, rests her hand on the sword hilt. Reynard’s throat clenches. He nods. “Your mother died because she was a slave.”
The wind howls through the following silence. Amid the drumming of rain and the scent of wet wood, Reynard realizes they expect him to explain how she died. He will do it to fill the silence.
“The revolution didn’t happen overnight. Much as it looked like it did.” A gust of wind reaches into the lantern on the middle of the table, flickering the flame. “There were other fights. Earlier. In the streets, in the pastures, field slaves against the house. Itienne, your mother…she was out too late. Some people had died the night before.”
“Slave or free?” Aveline asks.
“Don’t remember.” Reynard is talking now the way he breathed long ago with wild dead Ouragan. With the memory they enter the same rhythm, drawing strength from each other. With the story they survive a bit longer. “She walked into the middle of a skirmish. Not far from here. Carrying eggs. Our mistress wanted some.”
He swallows. “Both sides said they don’t know who hit her. And I never found out. I buried her the same night.”
Now everyone falls quiet. Lucia grips the sword hilt. Reynard squeezes the wall putty in his hands, then, all of a sudden, drops it.
Aveline perks up. “Did you hear—”
“Voices.” Lucia takes up the sword. “Both of you stay here.”
Aveline jumps to her feet with the pike. “I’m coming with you.”
Reynard finds the strength to stand. “You are not.”
There’s a pitchfork in a hay pile, ten paces away from the door. If he can reach it and return before any Abelard soldiers appear, he and Lucia might be able to bottleneck them in the shed door.
He doesn’t know when he decided to fight, or to die. Perhaps it was the story, but more likely it was Aveline, who now gives him a look in response to his injunction. It is defiant, nakedly so, but not contemptuous. She does not mean to hurt him. She is like the wax tablet now, a simple statement of fact, telling him the way things are.
And it’s all right. Just because she can protect herself, doesn’t mean he can’t protect her too.
Lucia puts her hand on the door. “If they have lights, we can sneak up on them. If not, nobody leaves this room.”
“I need to run for the pitchfork,” Reynard says. “They’ll have armor. I can’t fight bare-handed.”
Lucia recalculates in her mind. The voice comes again, and Reynard strains to listen, but he can’t pick any one out of the wind.
“All right. They may well still be too far away to see us in the dark. When I open the door, run to the hay pile. Then keep quiet and surprise them from behind.”
Reynard nods. There isn’t time for anything else. Lucia grips the edge of the door. Throws it open.
He runs. The ground vanishes under his feet. The paddock is dark, but the Abelards are carrying a light that shines a demonic red over the fences and pasture. Reynard grabs the pitchfork out of the hay pile, and whirls around.
Somebody shouts from within the paddock. “Lucia! Reynard!”
Reynard freezes. An Abelard might know Lucia’s name. Maybe. But his?
“Lucia! Aveline! Reynard!”
He hears a sword strike point-first into soil, then, right after, a fist hitting bone. Rushing with the pitchfork, he arrives in the pool of light at the same time as Aveline, who lodges her pike in the tines of his weapon so he cannot move it.
Reynard turns from her to the man lying on the ground, who’s managed to hold onto the torch despite Lucia having knocked him flat. Just one of Dominic L’Escalier’s many talents.
“I deserved that,” he admits. “But please don’t do it again.”
“Why not?” In the half-light, the sword glows like the blade of some ancient hero. Reynard and Aveline enter the paddock, where Dominic is getting to his feet under the watchful and enraged eyes of Lucia. “Tell me why.”
Dominic holds out his hands. Other than the torch, he’s unarmed. “You want to know what I did.”
“I know what you did. Ran off in the night and struck a bargain with the Abelards. How many of us did you sell? Thirty percent? Fifty?”
“You’re right.” He dodges another blow, quickly adding, “Half-right. I did strike a deal, but I didn’t sell humans. Don’t you see?” He looks straight at Reynard. “I sold gryphons.”
Reynard had thought this was done hurting him. But there is more still. “What do you mean?” he asks.
Dominic straightens up. “I already told you what a difference they make on the battlefield. Two dozen of them can be worth a whole light infantry, if a good general knows how to use them. They’re living weapons.”
Reynard is thinking of the foals in first flight, of the power of their wingbeats as he loses them in the sunrise. There is no creature in the world that knows so well where it’s going.
“The Abelard League has wanted their own mounted force since they first fought the Lascon gryphons. And they were prepared to take Locksgrove to do it—their country is all mountains and mines, no pastureland. But they didn’t want to. I mean, look at you three. Look at us. Everyone in this city is armed. Maybe the revolutionary militia can’t stand up to a trained fighting force, but they would have had to fight tunnel by tunnel through the underground, with clubs and pikes hiding in every cavern.” Dominic straightens up. “They’d have won. But with heavy losses. Nobody is ever going to take this city without watering the caves with blood. It’s the way we’re built.”
“So you offered an alternative,” Lucia says. “Trade money for the breeding stock, instead of lives.”
“I told them we could only sell colts and yearlings, but they were happier with that than with losing them to the enemy.”
“So war can go on in peace,” Aveline mutters. “Having gained a third dimension.”
Dominic turns toward Reynard. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but to be honest, I didn’t think of the plan until yesterday. There wasn’t time to explain.”
“So it’s over,” Lucia says. “We’re arms dealers to the continent now.”
“You must admit it’s a fine role to play,” Dominic replies. “Everyone needs us alive and selling more than they need us destroyed.”
“Yes,” Lucia says, taking up the sword and sheathing it. Her eyes are dark, and when Dominic reaches out a hand to her, she neither takes it nor responds at all. “Yes. I must admit that.”
Reynard drops the pitchfork with a thud. While Dominic is distracted, he takes the torch out of the Minister’s hand, then turns.
Dominic jerks around. “Reynard—”
Behind him, though he doesn’t see, Lucia throws her arm out. “Let him have the light. He’ll need it.”
“But where’s he going?”
“I don’t know. And don’t ask. He’s the one you made pay, Dominic. Not the Abelard League.”
Another weapon hits the dirt. Someone hurtles toward the shed. Reynard keeps walking.
Once the tunnel city of Locksgrove is no longer underfoot, the pastureland turns to forest. The woods drip year-round with mist, the needles on the trees heavy with water, the soil slick with mud. There are just three roads. On one of these, Dominic met with the Abelard ambassadors. On the day the revolution began, fog made solid walls over all three.
Aveline follows her father’s torch to the edge of the woods before she musters the will to call out to him. These trees have a threshold: the last farms clear-cut such a perfect line one can stand with a foot in and a foot out of the forest.
He turns. It is light enough to see his face.
“Did you know I was following you?”
“I didn’t,” Reynard admits. “I knew I wanted to walk. Not much else.”
“Why here?” She is drawing nearer. In addition to her pike—more of a walking stick now—and her coat, she has brought several yards of rope. “You’re not a woodsman.”
“No. But your great-grandfather was. Did I ever tell you?”
He must have looked like you, she thinks.
“He captured the ancestors of all the gryphons we sold,” Reynard says. “Day by day, in the woods, never able to get farther than the line of soldiers stationed on the other side to capture fugitives. In two years, he brought back twenty-six. That’s been a good number for our family.”
“I brought this.” Aveline drops the bundle of rope at her feet. “To make snares. Or a net.”
He stares at her. His surprise, Aveline thinks, must mirror her own. Didn’t she hate this man? Didn’t she rail every day against his weak will, his blind equation of L’Escalier to the whole city? Hadn’t he made war on the Abelards?
No, she thinks. No. He didn’t.
Reynard takes the coil of rope in his hand.
“Get new breeding stock,” Aveline tells him. “And keep breeding. Father, you’re the best at it. L’Escalier knows, everyone knows. So rebuild the pasture. No more staring at the wall.” She points at the woods with her pike. “Get in there.”
“Why?” her father asks. “Aveline…you were ready to abandon all of this.”
She shakes her head, dries her eyes. “I didn’t understand what Lucia was trying to teach me. Or to teach all of us. Nothing is good on its own. Sometimes, we just face down charging stallions, and…right at those moments the only thing that makes sense is to be kind.”
Aveline lays her hands on her father’s shoulders. “We can make them good, father. They’re not weapons or even tools, they’re hopes, yours and mine and their own. We can raise the gryphons free.”
There is a long silence, broken by morning birdsong from within the trees. At last, Reynard says, “I think so too.”
Aveline backs off, suddenly confused. “You do? And you came here without any equipment? What were you going to do, wrestle them?”
“I suppose…” These words are not calculated. She perceives he has just thought of them. “I suppose I was waiting for you to bring the rope.”
In the next moment, a moment that lasts a long time, Aveline is grateful for the knowledge she has taken for herself. Not everyone knows the instant they have made a decision that will alter the rest of their life, but she does now. She will follow her father into the forest, into his understanding of beautiful doomed things. She will accept his skills, but she will also read and write, and in doing so, perhaps will save Locksgrove by saving the creatures it has made.
The best of it. The best of her father.
“Come on,” Reynard says. “It’s just early enough to catch one still asleep.”
He slings the rope across his shoulders, and they step together into the shadows.