July 2020

Shona’s seaweed harness creaked loudly as a cold, whistling gale tried to fling her off the Spire. She held onto the masonry until the air stilled, until her guts ceased to cartwheel. In the six years since Shona had escaped the deluge, she’d rarely felt vertigo. Even when her fellow earthmasons raised the Spire as high as it hung now—a mile or so above the ocean that now wrapped the world—the sun-pummeled water below seemed little more than a great sweep of stone she could stand upon if she wanted to.

But thick grey clouds had rolled out of the north that morning, bringing an unpleasant depth to the world. Whenever the wind picked up, she tried not to think of her harness snapping. Tried not to see herself falling, and the Spire—her home, her family—dwindling to a dust-speck in the infinite emptiness above her.

“Everything all right down there?” Hendrick called from the lookout. He was peering over the crenellations four stories up, his cloud of thick red hair bright against bronzed skin. She gave a sign of assurance. “Okay. But I’ll pull you up, if this wind gets any worse. Fix what you can in the meantime, my love.”

The braids of dried seaweed joining Shona’s harness to the lookout quivered as Hendrick retightened them to their iron moorings.

Fix what I can. Hendrick’s voice, hard and certain as stone, always centered her. Even when he expected the impossible. Not even the Allcreator could fix what we broke, my mountain.

She did her duty anyway, pressing her ear to the cold granite and rapping her knuckles upon it, listening for the chime of ice crystals trapped within.

Like all earthmasons, she could feel the stone as though it were a part of her. Move it like a soft, supple clay with her will. She could sense the cracks the ice had formed: tiny, fine webs of them through the stone. With concentration, Shona knitted these shut beneath her fingers, teasing the ice inside them toward the surface for the sky to reclaim.

Once she’d cleared all the granite she could reach, she shook the rightmost tether to signal for Hendrick to lower her a little, and continued working.

The Spire would not last more than a few years longer. Four, if they were lucky. In the pre-flood days, a good repointing job could have added decades of life to an edifice, if not more, but the earthmasons back then did not have to contend with the endless frost-weathering wrought by a dead world’s cruel winds. A great earthmason could have trawled the ocean for replacement minerals, perhaps, but none of the thirty earthmasons to survive the flood had such talent. Not even Archmason Tybalt. The fifty-two lackblooms were even more useless, lacking power over stone.

The Spirefolk must find land, and soon, she thought as Hendrick pulled her back up. Or our fates will join those of the uncountable multitudes that drowned.

“That bad?” Hendrick asked, once she was back on the lookout.

He helped her unclasp the harness. She enjoyed the feel of coming out of it, letting the coarse, smelly seaweed plop onto the cold stone floor.

“It could be worse.” She kissed his dark lips, rough and dry as barnacles. “We’ll have to search harder.”

“Six years of this shit.” Hendrick looked at the shattered moon half-visible above, no grander than a clod of pumice crushed and strewn in a lazy arc. “If there were land, hummingbird, don’t you think we’d have found it by now?”

His honesty always stung, no matter how much she depended on it. “Any earthmasons who could break the moon could survive what comes after. They’re out there, my mountain. We will find them.”

What would happen after, Shona could not guess. Let tomorrow deal with tomorrow.

As she descended the staircase that corkscrewed around the Spire, Shona sighted movement through one of the tall, unglazed windows that marked each landing. It startled her. But she reasoned it must have been a kestrel—one of the Spire’s many stowaways—plunging to the sea for an afternoon meal. Her weariness made her jumpier than usual.

In the dungeon, the lowest level of the Spire, nine earthmasons sat shut-eyed in a circle. A few feet above them hovered a ball of dark polished iron: a helmstone, to keep them fixed on a single point of the building’s mass. It helped them carry the Spire as one, draw it across the sky with their collective will.

Most days, a meditation circle held seven or eight earthmasons. But today Shona’s five-year-old daughter Micah made the ninth. Bronzed and skinny, with the same red whorl of hair as Hendrick, she was sitting in dutiful silence with her legs crossed, her breathing steady.

Eight earthmasons had been lost in the six years since the deluge. Sickness had taken three. Suicide, two others. One earthmason had died from old age. And the last two—the last two had been slain during the Incident, but Shona did not like to think about that.

Micah’s eyes shifted behind their lids as Shona padded down the hall beside the meditation circle. Unfocused. She was no more ready than Shona would have been at her age. But they did not have the luxury of waiting.

Archmason Tybalt was studying the drylocks in the storage chamber when Shona entered. He gestured with his scruffy chin for her to shut the pinewood door, then went back to scratching figures on a clay slate with his stylus. His grey cat Despond sluiced in and out of his path as he traipsed through the oil-lit gloom, as if afraid to leave Tybalt’s shadow.

Shona sensed that something was wrong. She flattened down her work-smock. “Archmason.”

“The repointing went well, I trust.”

She sighed. No point mincing words. “The walls are weakening faster than I’d thought.”

A vein in his bald head moved, like a worm beneath vellum, but his face remained expressionless. “I see. Anything else?”

His hard blue eyes had not faded a bit since his time as a foreman for the Guild of Architects—a hundred lifetimes ago, it must have been. He’d been softer in those days. Gentler. And she’d been elated to join his building team, as any earthmason would have been. But the end of the world had dried out his soul like everyone else’s, leaving a husk of duties, procedures, routines. She missed the old Archmason.

“No. Nothing else. But I sense there is something you wish to tell me.”

Tybalt’s tone was grave. “Someone has been stealing from the drylocks.”

She frowned, not quite believing it. “Are you sure?”

“I have counted the figures three times. The papaya and blackcurrant leaves seem untouched. But the figs, carobs, runner beans—all have dwindled much quicker than usual this month.” Removing a sharkskin glove, he reached through the iron valve of a drylock, willing the metal around his flesh, and pulled out a few dried runner beans. This made the pendulum scale under the squat, rectangular storage device tick down half a notch. “It is hardly inexplicable. Think how many drowned kingdoms each of these is worth.”

“I promise you, I had nothing to do with it.”

“Of course not. Do you think I would have made you my successor if I could not trust you? But an earthmason is to blame. And there are only thirty of us, Shona.”

Did he have Hendrick in mind? Or Micah? She bristled to think he would ever suspect her family of thievery. Murder, in fact, since every soul in the Spire needed fruits and vegetables to keep the Slow Death at bay.

“Whoever it is, we will find them. There are only so many hiding places.”

“We will,” Tybalt agreed, returning the runner beans to the drylock. “But think what this will do to our relations with the lackblooms. To the threads of trust we’ve been weaving so carefully these six long years.”

“We cannot tell them. Not unless we want to risk another Incident.”

“Then how do you propose we catch the thief?”

“I don’t know,” she said, sadly. “I need time to think about it.”

The sun burned red that evening, its reflection on the sea like molten slag pouring from a crucible. The redness spilled through the windows along the stairway, engulfing Shona as she climbed to the feast room, eager for the fish that would soon be served. Shards of moon twinkled in the sky like early stars.

Which earthmason could have stolen the food? Jerold the Younger, who had once served the crownlaws? Reyna, when she wasn’t leading a meditation circle? Gellard Grey-Eyes?

Absurd. They were honorable men and women, all of them.

Maybe one of the lackblooms had learned how to bypass the drylocks. But it was her distaste for lackblooms, an ugly relic of the pre-flood world, more than any sort of logic that lent this possibility its appeal. The lackblooms had ruled over the earthmasons for centuries on the strength of their numbers, and had done so with a cruelty matched only by the earthmasons themselves, in the long-ago days when they had ruled. The days of the Stone Empire, and the Diamantine Queens, and the Long War that had ended it all.

She couldn’t let her anger cloud her judgment. The Incident had taught her the danger of that. Both peoples had slaked their anger with blood that day, a mere fortnight after escaping the deluge. The lackblooms had set it off; she would not forget that. Had threatened to disrupt a meditation circle unless their demands were met. But the earthmasons had been too quick to reply with violence. In the end, it had taken four deaths and far more injuries to convince the Spirefolk that cooperation was the only way.

The two peoples would never love each other—that much Shona knew—but they had reached a peace over the years. Had even worked out their share of duties, the lackblooms fishing and cooking, mending clothes and scrubbing floors, while the earthmasons held up the Spire. It was a brittle contract, held together by habit, but it worked. The thief was a threat to that, and had to be stopped.

“I’m telling you I saw it,” Old Lorrick mumbled through a mouthful of fish. “Wings this long”—lifting his arms for the other lackblooms huddled around him, rapt as children—”and wild fierce by the look of it. Weren’t no bird neither, I can swear to that. Not like any bird I seen in my life.”

“Sounds like you’ve been in the sun too much,” Hendrick shot from his corner of the feast room, with a chortle that sent bits of chewed fish flying.

“Hendrick,” Shona cautioned. She was cutting Micah’s blubber into edible chunks, her knife honed to razor-sharpness for the task.

Old Lorrick waved off Hendrick’s remark with theatric weariness.

“When did you see this creature?” Shona asked.

Old Lorrick itched his scraggly beard. “Two, three hours ago, while I was fixing up the seine. It was green, it was. Not like emerald but sort of like that. Darker.”

The highborn known as Cadmus, who resembled a great bat in his overlarge cloak, ceased stirring his blackcurrant tea and looked up, his dour smooth-shaven face suddenly bright with interest. The lackblooms had named Cadmus their leader not long after the deluge, just as the earthmasons had named Tybalt theirs—but Cadmus’ authority had been eclipsed over the years by the Archmason’s, as anyone could have predicted; a lackbloom’s ancestry counted for little on the Spire, while an earthmason’s talent counted for everything. With no small bitterness, Cadmus and his closest friends had come to accept that fact, so long as the earthmasons still called him “liege” and treated him as such.

“Like jade?” Cadmus asked.

“That’s it,” said Old Lorrick. “Like jade. But in spite of its flying, I’d swear it was featherless as a snake. Made me think dragons. Like what traders used to sight sometimes over the northern parts, beyond the reach of love or law.”

One by one, the other sixty Spirefolk in the feast room began to take interest.

Cadmus sipped his tea. “I’ve never known you to lie, Lorrick. I believe you saw this thing.”

Hendrick gave a snort.

“Is there something you wish to tell me, blacksmith?”

“Yes, my liege. I think your cloak’s too tight if you credit this old fisherman’s visions.”

Several lackblooms scowled at his disrespect.

“Well, unlike you, I can read,” said Cadmus. “And I have read Stories of the Ice Seas. It is always the same tale, of traders espying dragons made of gold or jade. Some say they are small gods that brought the powers of the earthmasons into the world. But I think they are beasts that earthmasons fashioned during the Stone Empire and loosed upon their foes, in the days before we cleanfolk took over and made things right. Now they wander the skies without purpose, aimless and alone.”

Steg the Spearmaker, a tiny grizzled otter of a man in a filthy work-smock, huffed at this. “Mudrats ain’t gods, Cadmus—making things that can live after ‘em like that.”

His slur inspired a ripple of insults from the earthmasons, which he just laughed off.

“That’s enough of that,” said Shona, stifling a childish image of Hendrick cleaning the smile off Steg’s face. “I thought I saw something in the sky this evening as well, but I did not get a good look at it. I assumed it was one of our kestrels. Could that be what you saw, Lorrick? A kestrel, and a trick of the light?”

Old Lorrick shook his thin grey head. “I know what I seen, stonemover. And that was not it.”

That night, in their family chamber, Shona and Hendrick and Micah washed their faces and arms with warm water from the furnace, changed into their bed-smocks, and prayed at each of their four small shrines to the Facets of the Allcreator.

Years ago, sleep would have sliced through Shona’s consciousness like a headsman’s axe the moment she laid down. But she didn’t fall into that pleasant blackness right away anymore, even with Hendrick’s comforting arm slung over her. Worries and aches kept her gazing at the wall long after she’d turned out the oil lamps. Gazing and wondering why she still prayed to a god she no longer believed in, not truly.

“Tense as stone, you are,” Hendrick whispered. “What’s wrong?”

She checked that the door was shut, afraid her voice might carry into Micah’s room. Then she told him about the stolen rations, feeling his pulse rise in his closely pressed chest.

“Whoever it was, I’ll throw ‘em in the fucking sea. But how’d they get into the storage room? It’s damned impossible to break in without the meditation circle noticing. Unless—”

“They break in from the outside.”

“That’d leave traces in the masonry, wouldn’t it?”

“I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, it would.”

“Have you noticed anything odd? When you’re closing up the cracks?”

Shona thought about it. “I haven’t worked on that part of the Spire in months. By Tybalt’s reckoning, the thief hasn’t been at it that long.” She was seized by an impulse. “I can look now. If you’ll help.”

“It’s the dead of night, Shona. You’re to lead the meditation circle tomorrow morning. Besides, Tybalt’s got the key and he’s asleep.”

“We don’t need to go through the storage room.”

The lookout was dark and empty. Nights were much darker now that the moon was just a thin sneer of shards between the stars. Cold wind whipped Shona’s face raw as Hendrick fastened a pair of oil lamps to her harness. She kissed him, grateful he’d agreed to this despite his reluctance.

“Be quick about it,” he said. “Two minutes. Alright? I don’t want to have to explain this if we’re noticed.”

“I will, my mountain. I promise.”

He loosened the moorings, a little at a time, as Shona climbed over the crenellations and down the outer wall of the Spire.

She rapped her fingers on the granite for what must have been the hundredth time that night. And found nothing. The patterns of ice gave no sign that an earthmason had altered the stone.

Disappointed, she was about to give up when she thought of something. Below the dungeon hung the Roots: a dense tangle of moss and dirt and stone that had come along for the journey when the earthmasons, in their haste to escape the floodwaters, had ripped the Spire from its foundation. Could an earthmason have entered the storage room through there? It seemed absurd. The Roots were a deathtrap, ever on the verge of crumbling loose. An earthmason had almost perished trying to repurpose their stone once.

Still, she had to check. Had to be sure.

She signaled for Hendrick to lower her, conscious that he was getting impatient; it had been much longer than two minutes.

The Roots rustled in the wind: a vast, dark mass eager to swallow her with its shifting tendrils. Shona unfastened one of the oil lamps from her harness and raised it to study the clumps of earth that’d refused to fall into the sea for six years.

Her breath caught. Carved into the dirt was a row of thin furrows. Like the marks of claws, or the talons of a siege grappler. Or something else. Gently she ran her fingers through them, surprised by how deep they went. She felt something smooth at the base of a furrow and teased it out with surgical care, thinking any moment a clod of rock would collapse on her.

It was a jade claw, with a jagged end as though broken off.

Allcreator take me.

“There’s no way they could’ve wormed through the Roots.” Hendrick was studying the claw at his worktable, his huge shadow on their chamber wall quivering in the lamplight. They spoke in whispers so as not to wake Micah. “No bloody way. The Roots would’ve collapsed in the attempt.”

“A skilled enough earthmason could do it.” Shona sipped a cup of hot papaya tea with a blanket wrapped around her. “I suspect I could do it, if I were careful enough.”

“And seal it after you like that? So there’s no trace of you?”

“Sculpting is my specialty, Hendrick. Just as smithing is yours. I am sure it could be done.”

“Maybe you’re the thief.”

His sarcastic tone did not drain the remark of its nastiness, but Shona chose to ignore it.

Hendrick dimmed the lamp. “We should wake the Archmason.”

“No. I’m afraid he might suspect us.”

“But you said—”

“That he affirmed his trust in me. What else would he say?”

“You’re cynical, hummingbird.”

“From his standpoint, we’re the ones who brought another mouth into the world. If we could be so selfish once, why not again?”

“He’d assume the jade thing was in our possession already. That we’d just pretended to find it. Is that it?”

“We can’t prove we did.”

Hendrick sighed in resignation. “Keep it to ourselves, then.”

Fear lurked at the edge of Shona’s awareness while she meditated. Fatigue gnawed at her strength. The Spire seemed to grow heavier by the hour as she focused on the helmstone.

It wasn’t until after Reyna had taken Shona’s place in the circle—and she was trudging up to her chamber, the cold afternoon light stabbing her eyes—that her fear was free to gain shape.

The thief was not from the Spire.

No matter how many times she turned it over, it sounded mad. But it was the only explanation.

Any earthmasons who could break the moon could survive what comes after. They’re out there, my mountain. We will find them.

“No, you fool of an earthmason. They will find us,” she told herself.

But who were they? And why—why had they broken the moon? Drowned the world and all creatures in it?

The Spirefolk believed the Allcreator had done it. The earthmasons assumed it was revenge for the lackblooms’ tyranny, while the lackblooms held that it was punishment for centuries of decadence, of impiety.

But Shona had never embraced the divine explanation. In her bones, she had always felt that earthmasons somewhere in the world, beyond the reach of love or law, had engineered the cataclysm. It had given her hope. Hope that those earthmasons, however mad or monstrous they might be, were still alive somewhere. That there was still land. Civilization. A chance of rebirth.

A land inhabited by monsters was no paradise, but it was better than death. Anything was better than death.

“An ambush? Are you mad?” Hendrick was smoothing a bent harpoon back into shape at his worktable. “If the thief is what you think, they won’t be taken as easy as that.”

Shona stood behind him, resting her hands on his shoulders affectionately. “If they were so dangerous, they wouldn’t need to use stealth. I have figured it out, Henrick. The thief’s an exile. Or a runaway, perhaps. The thing Lorrick and I saw in the sky—it’s their craft.”

“What in the sacred name do you mean?”

“In the days of the Stone Empire, when earthmasons were at the height of power, the scholars imagined we would someday build stone chariots that could fly. Not like the Spire, slow and unwieldy, but something as easy to move as your flesh. Something even the lowest earthmason could maneuver, it would take so little skill.”

“That sounds nice. But the Empire fell when we decided it would be more interesting to fight each other. And I doubt any earthmasons since the collapse ever found the trick to bloody sky-ships.”

Our Empire fell. But our Empire was not the whole world.”

Hendrick set down the harpoon and looked at her. “Wanting to believe that won’t make it so.”

“Will you help me set up an ambush or not?”

“It’s a bad idea. If Tybalt catches you, what will you tell him?”

“The truth,” she said, and went to make herself some tea; she would need to keep alert if she hoped to catch the thief.

The stone softened under her hand like clay in the sun, until she could fashion a small hole through it with ease. She peered through the hole: no one in the storage room.

The midwife Imogen, as alert as any earthmason despite her old age, was managing Shona’s harness from the lookout. Whenever Hendrick was busy in the meditation circle, Shona relied on Imogen to help her mend the Spire.

Shona had to move quickly lest the midwife suspect she wasn’t sealing ice-cracks. After checking that Imogen wasn’t looking over the crenellations, Shona expanded the hole she’d made. She grew it until it was big enough to crawl through, then shook a tether for Imogen to unspool her. The ropes of seaweed slackened with a crinkling sound, allowing Shona to worm her way into the storage room.

Inside, she sealed the wall around her tethers, fixing them in place, and got out of her harness quietly. A single oil lamp was flickering, low. She ran her hands across the floor until she found it: a spot one armspan across with no cracks or fissures, as if the stone had been melted down and set anew. Just as she’d anticipated.

She buried the end of a long line of sea silk in the spot— shallowly enough that the thief, while emerging from the Roots, would not notice it before setting it loose—then took the line with her as she got back into her harness and crawled out of the room. She resealed the wall as she went, leaving just enough space for the silk.

Outside, she signaled for Imogen to lift her. When she reached the story she wanted, she climbed partway around the Spire to her chamber window, then clambered through it. She pulled the line of sea silk as taut as she could, tied its other end around a ceramic bowl, and hung the bowl off her bedside table, high enough to shatter when it fell. The next time the thief opened the floor of the storage room, someone in her chamber would hear it.

The next day, Shona arrived at the meditation circle to take Tybalt’s place—but Reyna was sitting there instead, her deep eyes ringed with dark circles like those of a nun after a Lunar Fast.

“What do you mean he’s missing?” Shona whispered to her, once she’d drawn her far enough from the circle that they would not disturb it.

“Tybalt was meant to take my spot in the meditation circle,” Reyna explained. “But he never appeared.”

Shona tried to squelch the tar-bubble of fear rising in her.

“Did you visit his chamber?”

“Shona, I’ve looked everywhere. The Archmason’s gone.”

“Have Gellard take my place for now. I’ll return soon.”

Shona hurried to the Archmason’s chamber on the second story. When her knocks went unanswered, she focused on the reinforced lock—much too dense for one earthmason to break—until the wards inside it clicked home. A trick she’d learned as a vagrant before the Guild of Architects had scraped her up.

Tybalt’s cat Despond slipped through her legs as she opened the door. The chamber was even more spartan than Shona’s, with a ratty cot, a dust-covered shrine, and not much more. The air smelled of fish stew; the Archmason liked to eat in his room.

She searched the place for signs of a struggle, found none.

She raced back down to the dungeon and into the storage room, surprised it was unlocked. It looked just as she’d left it a day ago. The line of sea silk—as far as she could tell—had not been moved.

There was just one change: a red stain on the floor near the drylocks, no larger than a coin. It might have been nothing—drops of tea that Tybalt had been sipping during his last inspection, perhaps—but Shona suspected it was blood.

“You don’t think he…?” Reyna stood in the doorway, voice edged with fear.

“Jumped? Never. Not Tybalt.”

Shona had no choice but to tell the Spirefolk.

But the thief—the thief had to stay a secret, until she could prove it was not one of them. They would gorge on the chance to blame each other if she gave it to them.

After hearing the news, the Spirefolk she’d summoned to the feast room—everyone, save the earthmasons in the meditation circle—traded looks of disbelief, of despair. Hendrick kissed Micah’s head and whispered something reassuring to her.

Shona’s voice chiseled through the silence: “When was the last time any of you saw him?”

Gellard Grey-Eyes lifted his small, sun-cured head. Though not blind, as Shona had assumed once, his eyes had a milky pallor equal to his name, the residue of some affliction in his youth. “I took Tybalt’s place in the circle. He went into the storage room to tally up our food, if I remember right. I don’t know if he left the room. I was deep in meditation by then.”

Cadmus stared at Shona over smooth, steepled hands. “Tybalt and I were not friends, as you know. But I know a hard man from a soft one. The only thing that could have killed him was another earthmason.”

Murmurs of agreement filled the room.

“Or a lackbloom with the edge of surprise,” said Hendrick. “But we don’t know he’s dead. We’d be fools to assume it.”

“I agree,” said Shona.

“Seeing as you’re the Archmason until we find him,” said Cadmus, “what do you suggest we do?”

“Stay in groups. Avoid the dungeon except to meditate. Keep your eyes open for any trace of Tybalt. And most importantly, do not let his disappearance distract you from your duties. We still have a Spire to maintain.”

Old Lorrick ran long fingernails through his beard, his sun-reddened eyes fastened on something only he could see. “All these years searching for land—it’s only after that thing in the sky showed up someone disappears. Very curious.”

“What are you suggesting?” said Reyna.

“Only that things have taken on a strangeness since we headed north. Can you not feel it?”

“I can feel my head annealing whenever you speak,” said Hendrick.

Old Lorrick shot him a look.

“We should resist indulging in superstition,” said Shona, trying to channel Tybalt’s calm, “when our situation’s vexing enough as it is.”

Cadmus was watching the clouds change color on the third-story landing outside her chamber. He turned as she came up the stairs, cloak stirring in the chilly air.

“It’s a queer thing, but I could swear I heard someone in the harness a few days ago, in the dead of night. Most likely just the wind, of course.”

“Most likely, my liege,” said Shona, fumbling for the chamber key in her trouser pocket.

“Who would be inspecting the wall at that hour, in such bitter cold?”

She made to open her chamber door when Cadmus touched her shoulder, his dolphinskin glove so soft it might have been air.

“Is there something I can do for you, Cadmus?”

“I don’t know what you’re hiding. And I don’t know why you’re hiding it. But I would remind you that secrets don’t last long on the Spire. Give Hendrick my regards, Archmason Shona.”

He dipped his head in farewell and made his way down the stairs.

Shona untied the ceramic bowl from the line of sea silk and set it on the bedside table.

Hendrick was sitting on the cot, unlacing his boots. The smell of death rose from his feet as soon as they were free.

“It was a clever idea, hummingbird. But you didn’t account for the thief being cleverer.”

“They must enter the room through a different spot each time. I should have inspected the place more thoroughly.”

“Or they sensed the silk as they were coming through. Made sure it didn’t come loose.”

“Perhaps.”

“Seems they really don’t want to get caught.”

Shona sealed Hendrick’s foul-smelling boots in the wall, then collapsed into the cot beside him. She was so tired not even her aches could have kept her from falling asleep if she dared shut her eyes. He ran his great leathery hand over her arms and legs, neck and scalp, checking as always for small blood spots and other signs of the Slow Death. His exhalation held relief, but it was temporary.

“Cadmus confronted me, Hendrick. He knows we’re not telling them everything.”

“That pompous shit can get tossed to the sharks.”

“One lackbloom talks to another. Soon they all want answers.”

“So tell them the truth. That an earthmason from outside the Spire’s been stealing our food. That Tybalt may’ve tried to ambush them. May’ve gotten killed.”

Shona looked at him. “You believe me, then.”

He nodded. “I didn’t want to tell you, but I thought maybe the thief was Tybalt himself till he vanished. He spent more time in the storage room than anyone. I thought maybe—maybe he figured someone would find out, and telling you was his way of protecting himself. I’m ashamed it even crossed my mind.”

“I won’t pretend it didn’t cross mine as well,” Shona admitted.

“The thief must be here, right? They’ve got to set down somewhere. They must be hiding in the walls of the Spire.”

“Or under it.” She sat up, her fatigue swept away by adrenaline. “They’re hiding inside the Roots.”

“That’s madness. It would—”

“Collapse, yes. Unless you’re the sort of earthmason who can break moons and fly sky-ships.”

Hendrick covered his face. “Allcreator take me. You want to go down there.”

“If we’re right, do you know what that means?”

He spoke the word tentatively, like a fickle spell. “Land.”

“Land,” she said. “They’ll know the way to land.”

“You’re mad to even dream of going in that deathtrap.”

“I won’t deny that, Hendrick.”

“And—damn everything—I’m as mad for helping you.”

Shona was in charge of the storage room now that she was Archmason, but she felt no less like an intruder entering it without Tybalt’s permission. Habits were slow to thaw on the Spire. Inside, Hendrick helped Shona moor the seaweed harness to the wall. It was unlikely anyone would notice it missing at this hour, but Shona still prayed that no one visited the lookout.

When she was finished donning the harness, Hendrick gave her the longknife he’d sharpened that evening, and she strapped it to the harness alongside two oil lamps. A second knife gleamed in Hendrick’s belt.

Since the seat of the harness only had room for Shona, Hendrick linked himself to a harness tether for safety, looping one end of an iron chain around it and looping the other end around his belt.

Shona knelt to open a hole in the floor when a fresh fear constricted her.

“What is it?” Hendrick whispered.

She could sense the Roots below them, huge and heavy.

“What if we’re wrong? What if there’s nothing down here?”

“The thief may’ve fled already. That’s true. But we’ll never know unless we look.”

And if they captured the thief, what then? How would she handle learning that her kind had drowned the world after all? The very thought twisted her guts with guilt.

But it was this or death. There was no other way.

Shona carefully formed a hole in the floor, revealing the dark brown surface of the Roots.

She sculpted their path downward in slow, deliberate scoops while Hendrick packed the dirt and rock they displaced back into the walls above them, leaving just enough room for the harness tethers. The deeper they went, the slower they worked, pausing each time a tremor passed through the Roots. The tremors grew louder.

Shona paused to drink from her waterskin, passed it to Hendrick.

“I can sense a pocket over there.” One hand on the stone, Shona pointed to a spot perpendicular to their path. “No, there.” She adjusted her finger downward. “It’s at least as big as our chamber, but I can’t tell much more than that.”

Hendrick brushed water off his beard. “How far?”

“Too far for the harness. We’ll have to leave it behind.”

“No.” He grabbed her before she could pull the clasps. “Too dangerous. If the ground falls from under you, you’re finished. I’ll go.” He unchained himself from the tethers.

“Hendrick.”

“You would leave Micah an orphan?”

“Listen.” She took his hand. “Nothing we do here will matter unless we capture this person. And as strong as you are, there is only one of you.”

His chewed his lip, looking anguished. But when she took off the harness, he did not stop her.

They tunneled through the earth until the pocket was an armspan ahead of them, seeming to throb under Shona’s hands with a hundred possibilities. Her heart was racing; her skin was clammy with sweat.

They both drew their longknives, and Shona opened the last stretch of stone.

It was a room: half again larger than their own, the walls smoothed with great care. A few stone containers rose from the floor, as large as the drylocks in the storage room; the lid of one was askew, letting out the scent of fish. Shona crept into the room with Hendrick, scanning the objects on the floor in wonder: a small midden of fishbones, scuffed clothes made of yellow-grey silk, little white spheres that gave off light, a pair of greaves with jade plating. Atop a shiny black book with strange gold characters across its spine sat a steel-and-glass disc with a twitching needle at its center.

A tunnel led to another room. Inside was Tybalt, lying still.

They rushed to him and pulled him upright. His face was cut, bruised. An elaborate steel brace bound his wrists, and a sharp wire running from its intricate little wards was looped around his throat.

Tybalt’s eyes snapped open, bloodshot.

“Shona.”

“Thank the Allcreator you’re alive. Where are they?”

“Catching fish, I assume. Listen. She is not wicked, I don’t think. She—she seems scared.”

“We’ll decide that for ourselves,” said Hendrick. He knelt to cut the brace’s wires, but Tybalt flinched away.

“It’ll tighten around my throat if you try to break it.”

“Is there a key?”

Tybalt shook his head. “All magic. Their metalcraft is unlike anything I’ve seen. She has a—a flying thing. Allcreator take me; if I’d known what we were dealing with, I would not have ambushed her.”

“What does she want?” asked Shona.

“We have tried to communicate, but it is difficult. Her language is unfamiliar to me, though not entirely. Some words I know; I am not sure why. She has escaped from something or someone, I think. She has the air of one who has endured many ordeals.”

“Do you know where she came from?”

“No. But she does not look—well, like us.”

Before Shona could ask what he meant, the Roots shuddered slightly as if something had struck them. She fashioned an alcove in the wall and pulled Hendrick into it, then sealed it closed save for a hole to peer through.

The sound of stone parting. Then, footsteps.

A small, hunched woman shuffled into the room, pulling off a suit of jade armor one piece at a time. Her skin was pale as a moon-shard and crisscrossed with paler scars, and her hair flowed down fine and white as asbestos when she removed her jade helm. She might have been a hundred years old until she turned her head, and then looked no older than a maiden, with a perfectly smooth face but for a pair of slanted scars. Her eyes were huge. One had a black pupil so large it seemed a hole in her head; the other was a ball of neatly etched jade.

As the woman approached Tybalt, clutching a fat brown fish like a cudgel, Shona was certain the woman would hear her heartbeat through the wall.

“Fel,” said Tybalt. “If you let me go, I could be more useful to you.”

Fel mumbled something in a harsh tongue and tossed the fish to Tybalt. Then she hauled a cask of water into the room. Her back turned to Shona, she poured the water into a stone basin she’d made, then ripped the salt from it in a sweeping motion and drank with animal fervor, head bowed and slurping.

Shona opened the wall quietly, and she and Hendrick moved toward the stranger in slow, tentative steps, spreading out to flank her. Were Shona more skillful, she could have drawn the stone from the drinking basin around Fel’s legs to trap her. But her magic was too weak at that distance.

She had to settle for barbarism. Focusing, she levitated the longknife with her magic and guided it silently toward a spot behind Fel’s spine, holding it in place there; Hendrick levitated his own blade behind Fel’s heart, so that it looked as though a pair of invisible assassins were on the cusp of ending her.

“We do not wish you harm,” said Shona, praying Fel understood her tone if not her words. “Please do not move.”

Fel went stone-still. Then, in defiance of Shona and Hendrick, the knives edged back from Fel slightly as she turned around, baring neat jade teeth. Tiny colorful piercings sparkled in her nose, cheeks, eyebrows.

“Stay calm,” said Hendrick, holding up his palms in restraint.

To Shona’s horror, the knives began to glide toward her and Hendrick, glimmering, steady as hate.

“Calm.” Fel rolled the word in her mouth like a bitter morsel of something.

Shona and Hendrick pushed back as hard as they could, but it did not matter; the knives drew closer, and closer still. Hendrick swiped to grab one, but the hilt twisted out of reach. Fel laughed: a cruel sound, thick with contempt.

Allcreator save us if this fails.

Shona dropped to her hands, flinging her strength into the ground. The stone cracked with a thunderclap; tremors surged through the Roots. Fel let the knives drop with a startled gasp and reached down to keep the floor from collapsing. Hendrick lunged at her, slamming her against the wall. She sucked in air through squeezed pipes and sprang a stubby jade spike from a knuckle, then stabbed Hendrick’s abdomen, twisting into it. Blood bloomed through his work-smock, dark as wine.

Shona grabbed the spike-arm and pinned it to the wall. Fel tried to scream, but Hendrick had her locked in a sleeping grip. In seconds, she slumped to the ground, unconscious.

The Roots rumbled and shook. A slab of floor fell away to reveal a patch of night-black ocean. Cold air sucked Shona’s hair toward the hole as she tried to close it. Tybalt helped her, reaching with bound hands until the ground resealed. Slowly, the tremors subsided.

Hendrick sat against the wall, clutching his wound. Shona’s throat tightened at the sight of it.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “The healer can fix it.”

Tybalt shook his head. “There is no chance of climbing up in that condition.”

“Don’t be so optimistic.”

But Tybalt was right. Shona would have to make the journey alone.

“If that—that thing moves so much as a finger, don’t hesitate to knock her out again,” she said.

With Tybalt’s help, she found the sky-craft in a carefully sculpted tunnel sealed off from the other rooms. She remembered the running paths that some birds used to gain momentum for flight, and assumed the tunnel held a similar purpose.

The craft was made of jade and wood and canvas, with a pair of long, hinged wings folded up against its flanks and a carriage just large enough for one. It stood on two legs with sharp-clawed feet. One claw was broken off.

Shona climbed into the craft and concentrated on its wings. The jade fixtures bent to her will with surprising readiness, dragging the wood and canvas parts with them as they shifted into a slow flapping motion. But as soon as she tried to move the legs, her hold on the wings slipped, and they fell limp. Controlling both at once did not seem possible.

She felt around inside the carriage—and found a device chained to the wall. It was a crystal sphere about the size of her fist, and it held a jade model of the craft on a metal spindle. She was baffled until she thought of the helmstone that held up the Spire. A depression at the front of the craft clicked as Shona placed the sphere inside it. She focused on the little model, on moving its wings and legs at once. The craft mirrored the movements.

So that was the trick.

She walked the craft across the tunnel to get a feel for it, then back again. It felt slow and heavy, and after some missteps she thought it might be safer to climb back up the Roots. But a fresh surge of tremors quashed that idea.

She opened a path to the sky, then took a running jump into the void, willing the craft’s wings to flap hard against the icy skirling air. A swelling gust tried to flip her instantly, like a shove from a drunken brawler, and the mirrored starlight on the water disoriented her, wrecking what was left of her balance. She felt herself swerving into endless night, dizzy, panic stabbing her thin bubble of concentration. She was falling, falling into a chasm of stars.

Fly. Fly. Fly.

But the wind chanted, “Fall, fall, fall,” as it swatted her and hammered her and whipped her.

She kept her mind on the model in the crystal sphere. Now that she was too far from the Spire’s light to see it clearly, she could focus on the weight of the craft and on the movement of the wings, as if she were sitting shut-eyed in a meditation circle. And the craft steadied itself, wobbling. She forced the wings to flap harder, harder. Veering a little, she saw the dwindling silhouette of the Spire, ink-black but for faint specks of lamplight, and flew toward it.

She alighted on the lookout harder than intended, causing the craft to creak and shudder. Relief flooded her chest as she jumped to the ground—followed by a sudden wave of fear.

Cadmus was standing before the stairway entrance in his everyday clothes, clutching his cloak tight around himself for warmth. An oil lamp rested on the ground beside him, as though he’d been waiting for her.

His mouth moved a few times before words came out.

“I don’t—I cannot quite believe it,” he said, approaching the craft, the golden pommel of his ancestral sword glinting like sunlight from under his cloak.

As soon as she took a step toward the entrance, his hand went to the sword, as if afraid she would grab it with her magic. It was a reasonable fear.

“Hendrick’s hurt,” she said, almost pleading. “I need to get help.”

“Something’s found us, haven’t they?”

She hesitated. “Yes.”

“I knew it. I knew you were hiding something. And when I saw that the harness was missing, I knew you were scheming with that brute. But this,” he said, marveling at the craft, “I could not have guessed at this. What numinous beings have found us, Shona? A seraph of the Allcreator? As liege lord of the cleanfolk, I deserve to know.”

She thought of Hendrick bleeding out in the Roots, and of the sword under Cadmus’s cloak. Thought of how its castle-forged edge might feel against her flesh if she were too slow or too clumsy to stop it. She had seen that sword used only once, during the Incident. Had seen the clean red path it had made through the earthmason—a miner no older than herself—who had tried to stab him with a longknife. The sound had been wet and final; she did not wish to hear it again.

“A survivor of the deluge, like ourselves,” she said. “Not a god. Not a seraph. Just an earthmason, like me and Hendrick and Tybalt.”

“You would insult my wits by claiming a mudrat made this vessel?”

“She’s down in the Roots right now, unconscious for the moment. I can take you down to see her—my liege.”

The anger on his face melted away as he studied the craft more carefully, taking in its intricate construction. And the expression that replaced it was something else altogether. Fear. He was afraid that she was telling the truth.

He swallowed, looking slightly sick, and shook his head in disbelief. But he said nothing more after that, and made no move to stop her as she hurried to the stairway.

A minute later, the healer, a fat man wrapped in a thick sharkskin blanket, was rubbing his half-open eyes as he answered the door.

“Alucart,” she said, “I need your help.”

She roused Gellard Grey-Eyes next, explaining in a breathless rush everything she could compress into the seconds afforded to her, and the three of them raced down to the dungeon, past the meditation circle, into the storage room, where the seaweed harness, its tethers still snaking down into the hole from their moorings, awaited them.

“Is there really no other way?” Alucart asked as Shona pulled up the harness.

“It does seem quite dangerous,” Gellard concurred.

Biting down contempt, Shona rounded on them. “Do you imagine for a moment that Hendrick or Tybalt would not do the same for you? Well, do you?”

The men traded looks of equal parts shame and dread.

Then Alucart quickly took the harness and donned it.

“I’m just a lackbloom,” he said defensively. “I can’t bend fucking rocks if the Roots start collapsing, can I?”

Gellard was slower at digging than Hendrick had been, but Shona had practice now and remembered the path to Fel’s chamber.

When they emerged, the men gasped in wonder.

“What in the sacred name is this place?” asked Gellard.

“I did tell you,” said Shona.

“And I—I thought I believed you. Truly, I did.”

Tybalt looked up at the sound of their voices, his face awash with relief. “You’d better hurry, Hendrick’s losing a lot of blood.”

Shona’s heart sank at how pale Hendrick had become. Sweat glazed his brow. His hands were failing to stanch the wound even slightly.

Without hesitation, Alucart opened his instrument case and went to work. Hendrick winced as the healer poured a precious half-cup of wine on his wound. “Hold still, you restless orangutan. You want me to sew this shut properly or not?”

Shona wasted no time in binding Fel from head to foot in seaweed rope, taking care to cover her eyes. She tied her hands tightest, afraid that Fel would cut through her bonds with other things hidden inside her. Only death could stop a skilled earthmason from moving stone, but restricting sight and movement made their magic less precise. It wasn’t perfect, but it would serve until Shona could seal Fel in a proper room and place some earthmasons around her.

Gellard hoisted Fel over his shoulder like a sack of gravel, trudged back toward the hole they’d come down.

Shona kissed Hendrick’s warm, damp forehead as he was being mended, knowing it would be an arduous climb back up the Roots without his help.

“Be strong, my mountain,” she said. “Once Fel is safely contained, we will come back for you and Tybalt.”

“That’s good to hear,” he mumbled through a haze of delirium, and laughed.

A few days later, the Spire was a different place. The walls were thrumming with frenzied conversation, and Fel—strange, mysterious Fel—was still bound up like a bedlamite on the third story with several earthmasons guarding her.

And Shona, too tired to even feel it anymore, was sitting beside Hendrick in bed, while he spooned fish stew into his mouth in hungry slurps. His recovery had been quicker than she’d expected, and her heart sang a little whenever he awoke from one of his deep, precarious sleeps. Alucart came by three times each day to change Hendrick’s dressings.

“I owe you my life,” Hendrick had told him one morning.

“We can discuss repayment when we find land,” Alucart had replied.

The Spirefolk knew what was at stake now. Shona had told them everything she could afford to tell. Every face in the feast room had drifted through a dozen shades of astonishment as she gave her account of recent events, from the missing food to Tybalt’s kidnapping and her struggle to find him. She left out her belief—and now Hendrick’s—that Fel’s civilization had broken the moon. But now the Spirefolk knew that others had survived the deluge, that there must be land, and most of them rejoiced in this knowledge.

Most, but not all. Some wondered why Fel had left her refuge in the first place. And why her kin would welcome eighty-two new bellies to fill.

Hendrick wasn’t one of the worriers. He sighed in contentment as Shona scratched a spot on his back beyond his reach, then plopped back in the cot. He was looking a hundred times livelier since Alucart had tended to him.

“I love you more than the Allcreator, did you know that?”

“You’re talking a lot more today. That’s good,” said Shona, setting his half-finished bowl of fish stew on the bedside table.

He winced while adjusting himself, then closed his eyes with a tired smile.

Tybalt came to visit, looking haggard as death but grateful to be free of the brace. It had been a simple offer to Fel: “Remove the brace if you want to eat.” And after three days without food, she had taken it. Shona had feared what Fel would do once the rope was untied momentarily from her eyes and hands. But any urge to rebel must have withered at the sight of half the earthmasons in the Spire surrounding her. So, carefully adjusting the wards, Fel had removed the device from Tybalt’s neck and wrists, taking perhaps longer than needed. Now Tybalt could not stop rubbing the red line imprinted on his throat, like a man who’d escaped a hanging at the last moment.

Hendrick sat up as Tybalt stepped into the bedroom. “Archmason.”

“Not anymore,” said Tybalt. “I have ceded that burden to Shona. I am old and weary, and it is my right.”

Hendrick looked at Shona. “You didn’t tell me that.”

Shona shrugged. “I did. But I don’t think you heard it.”

“How are you feeling?” Tybalt asked Hendrick.

“To tell you the truth, bored.”

“Well, enjoy it while you can.”

Tybalt pulled a book out of his sharkskin satchel: the black one with gold characters that Shona had glimpsed among the stranger’s artifacts.

“Fel still refuses to learn our tongue,” he said. “It will take some time to communicate. But I have studied this item carefully, and I think you should know what I have found, Archmason.”

Gently, as though handling a delicate instrument, he opened the book. Hundreds of silvery pages swished apart to reveal surfaces slate-blank but for snatches of light or shadow where creases had formed.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Are those pages made of—metal?” said Hendrick.

Tybalt nodded. “Yet softer than any parchment, and that’s not the strangest thing about them. Shona, would you care to close the window shutters? And cover the gaps with a blanket, if you would.”

Once the room was dark, Tybalt procured something from his pocket which began to glow, illuminating his face at ghoulish angles. It was one of the light-spheres that belonged to Fel.

“Look,” he whispered.

Shona and Hendrick leaned over the book. To Shona’s astonishment, thousands of jagged white characters—not unlike those of the Diamantine Script of the Stone Empire—had appeared on the pages.

“Impressed? Well, that’s not half of it. Observe.” Tybalt moved the light-sphere in a slow clockwise fashion over the pages. And as he did, the characters transformed—once, twice, three times—before settling back into their original shapes where the rotation ended. “Four overlapping texts, do you see? A most economical way to make a book.”

“Ingenious,” said Hendrick, his face bright with interest.

Shona nodded in agreement.

“My grasp of the Diamantine Script is much too weak to tease out more than a few traces of meaning, alas,” said Tybalt.

“So it is the ancient script,” murmured Shona, not quite believing it.

“A distant offspring of it, anyway. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. I see it in your eyes. And it appears to be true. The Stone Empire did not fall. Not completely. But you need not take my word.”

He flipped to another place in the book, and an illustration more dazzling than any Shona had ever seen—either in the temple manuscripts that had once filled the capital, or in the murals that had emblazoned the lackblooms’ high manse walls—flooded the darkness with shimmering colors, each touched with a silvery tint like a rainbow poured through mercury.

The illustration showed a thin, steepled mountain rising from an icy waste. And as Tybalt moved the light-sphere, slowly, very slowly, a throng of people—hundreds of them, men and women and children—seemed to trudge toward the mountain from outside the page. Bundled in filthy rags, they dragged with them dogs and horses and onagers, huge wagons piled with goods. Shona recognized their diamond sigils.

“Remnants of the Stone Empire,” she said.

“So it seems,” said Tybalt. “This mountain-I cannot be sure just yet, not until I have studied the script more carefully—but I do believe this mountain is where we will find Fel’s people, if there are more of them.”

“The ones who broke the moon,” Hendrick muttered to Shona, and she nodded in wonder. They had to be.

Days passed, then weeks, as the Spire drifted further north, into emptinesses colder and cloudier, where the daylight seemed to drag its feet. And every morning and evening, when she was not meditating, Shona went to the lookout to scan the horizon.

When Hendrick was fully recovered, he joined her too, sometimes hoisting Micah on his back to see above the crenellations, her red hair whipping like fire in the icy wind. No one complained of the cold or the wind. All that mattered was the horizon.

But it was fine and crisp as a sword’s edge—no mountain in sight.

After a month of searching, Shona’s hopes began to fade. Fel, in her maddening silence, was no more useful than a statue, and Tybalt’s progress in deciphering the book had proven painfully slow.

But Shona was always the last one on the lookout, even as the dwindling light of dusk made the distance inscrutable.

This night was no different. Hendrick had left her with a kiss, and had taken his warmth with him down to bed, and now she was alone atop the Spire with the shadows hardening around her, and with the stars and the moon-shards stretching like strange, luminous silt-plumes in that second ocean above her.

A cold gale whistled sadly through the crenellations, flicking back her sleeves and scorching her raw face for a moment, and she wrapped her arms around herself, as if this would help. She felt like the walls of the Spire just then, weak and tired and cracked from the cold. She belonged in bed with Hendrick, she thought, and turned to leave.

But as she did, she caught a flicker out of the corner of her eye—and paused, feeling the same small tug on her awareness as when she’d glimpsed Fel’s craft for the first time, though she had not known it then.

She leaned out over the crenellations, searching the horizon.

The flicker came again, stronger—a thin orange light, not like the silver-white of the stars. A wisp of cloud was half-obscuring it. And then it wasn’t, and the light grew with her certainty, its faint aura limning a thin, steepled shape that rose from the distant water.

Her heart was thudding so loud she could not hear the wind anymore. Could not feel the stone beneath her, either; she seemed to be hovering above it, as if in a dream.

But it wasn’t a dream. It was real.

They had found land.

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