Ezarit was dead.
I dimly recognized Nat and Wik moving toward me, but it was with the half-attention of instinct. They were like leaves drifting on the wind, warning me of a downdraft in the distance. I would keep them in mind, but for now what mattered was the way forward — and the way forward was a drop into terrible memory. The valley in front of me was unfamiliar, the tangled grass and bone stretching out farther than seemed possible. Last time I had been in a place like this, I had been driving bone eaters away from human bodies. Last time I had been in a place like this —
Ezarit was dead.
I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the bone floor, the sprigs of fibrous grass growing at the edge of the meadow. Distantly, I saw Wik wave Nat onward and Moc and Ciel rush out into the meadow. They didn’t know.
Of course, they didn’t know.
Forcing my gaze away from the floor, I looked up. Wik waited, tattooed hand outstretched. We had stood like this many times, hadn’t we? My memory of the first time I met him was cloudy, like a story written by someone else. We had been such different people then, Wik tied blindly to the Laws of the Singers and me ignorant of the reason the Spire existed in the first place. He had helped me recover from my own shouts, after I had saved the Tower. He had been pushy, then, the weight of his station hanging on him like a cloak meant for an older man. I hadn’t trusted him, and I didn’t regret it. Somewhere along the way, though, we had both been remade.
His torture at Dix’s hands had left the most obvious marks. Unlike mine, his scars would heal, but the dark circles under his green eyes spoke to the fact that he was nowhere near fully recovered. Down here in the strange air, subsisting on lichen, none of us would be at our best unless we found our way back uptower.
He had been there when I won the wingfight that changed my life. There had been so many changes then, and that fight was one of the many accomplishments in the Singer days when I had felt mingled wonder and disgust. I had thought that Nat was dead. That my attempt to share terrible Singer secrets with him had gotten him killed. That I would be remembered as the trainee who killed her wingbrother in cold blood, transformed completely by the Spire. Now, I had to remind myself Nat was still here, along with Ceetcee and Beliak. He was in as much danger as all of us, but he had lived far beyond that day in the Gyre, and had found a family.
Wik’s pushiness had left me with a strange mix of emotions toward him on that day in the Spire. Like many people in the towers, we had been used to being in close quarters. His tendency to touch my arms was not unusual, especially in the Spire: there was an unspoken Law that said to keep fledges and apprentices away from dangerous ledges in any way possible. But once I was safely pulled onto the council tier, there was no real reason for me to lean against him, catching my breath and trying to push my worries about Nat away just to replace them with worries about what the council would decide about my challenge. After that, after I had received my first skymouth ink tattoo, the distance between Wik’s body and mine seemed almost irrelevant. We touched one another as naturally as flying.
I still didn’t trust his mind - there were too many secrets, too much history in the Spire, and too much determination in my own heart for me to be so open. But when I had looked at his face next, really looked closely at the many blades and circles tattooed in silver on his tawny skin, recognition had mingled with the grief of the wingfight. Somehow, both of us would have to go on.
Wik put his arm around my shoulders, cupping my elbow with his other hand. He didn’t say anything as he lead me through the cave, and I was glad for it.
“Ezarit,” I said, not sure myself whether it was an explanation or a scream. My throat felt raw and scratchy, but it usually did. What good was the Singer ability to hear through solid bone walls when I couldn’t tell how loudly my own voice was coming out?
“I know,” Wik said softly.
I snarled. “I’m going to kill Dix.”
“Down here, I’m not sure anyone would stop you,” he said weakly. Of course, he had been hurt too. When he had first walked free, after he had been captured, he had stepped as gingerly as a fledge on a bridge.
I kept walking.”It will be the debt she owes me for Ezarit. I might not have the chance to tell Dix that, but I hope she knows.”
I was distantly aware of Wik letting me go but still following, walking quietly. My mind roiled. I didn’t know whether it would be best to dwell or to try not to think about Ezarit, so I ended up exhausting herself by doing both at the same time. I walked quickly through the outgrowth of the cave, still not entirely sure where the tier would open out. It was chance that brought me to the ledge where we had eaten our last meal.
The wind blew steadily, playing itself out after the storm. It made me want to fly, to fight.
“We should practice here,” Wik muttered. “The wind behaves strangely.”
I nodded. I was beginning to see past his cold affect, though, and I could tell that he was following the same thought I was and simply wanted to get away from the towers. With the other valley between them, I was more than willing to do the same. We left Beliak in Djonn’s care, certain that the artifex could at least shout for Aliati and Doran if Beliak’s wound showed signs of getting worse.
Worse than before, anyway.
The thought of his wounded leg made me think of purple bruises on brown skin, and I pulled my wingset on with angry, brusque movements. Without stopping to think too hard about the fact that I didn’t know the wind patterns down here, I dove off the tower.
The cold, wet evening air seemed to stick to my face as if someone had thrown a cloth over me. Above the clouds, the retreating storm might have left us a beautiful sunset and clear skies. Birds might have returned to roosts. Here, though, the color of the clouds just changed from murky blue to off-gray green.
With great reluctance from both sides of the bargain, Wik had traded one use of Hiroli’s wings for a promise to keep littlemouths glowing for her later. Unused to the size and behavior of her wingset, he trembled and tipped back and forth in the sky for a moment before wrestling the wings back under control. Even with my own set, the strong gusts of air were a challenge.
For a little while we both wobbled back and forth on unfamiliar currents. Then we took turns following in one another’s wakes like Nightwings, getting a hang of the air. It was not cold enough to make me shiver, but still noticeably chilly.
A gust ruffled the air near my right wingtip, and on a whim I dipped my left wing to encourage the gust to power me into a gradual turn. Wik followed without either any difficulty or any apparent surprise. His footsling passed less than a span from my face, and then we settled into a gradual spin downward together. Instead of straightening out, he spiraled a few body-lengths from me. I couldn’t see whether he was smiling, but there was no reason to spiral through the mostly-clear sky otherwise — he was just having fun.
We spiraled downward two tiers. My laughter felt wrong in my throat, as if it had been too long since I had wanted to make that sound. We were moving fast enough that I couldn’t catch Wik’s eyes, couldn’t reach out to erase that negligible space between us.
I spotted an outcropping on the other side of the same tower from which we had flown, and gently tipped my wings back and forth to ease out of the spiral without turning too tightly or colliding with Wik. I kew that I wouldn’t have been able to maneuver like this before my Singer training, but thanking the Gyre for it felt wrong.
Wik hissed as he landed, and I remembered too late how gingerly he had sat against the wall earlier, still feeling the sting of the lashes on his back. I helped him remove Hiroli’s wingset and set it down against the bone outcropping.
When I straightened up, Wik was standing in the same place where we had landed. He was looking at my hands, I realized, Maybe he had noticed how careful I had been to protect both the precious wingset and his tortured skin. I thought of birds in pairs, returning to nests at night. I looked back and then crossed that negligible space and kissed him, full of grief.
We were both more practiced at fighting than we were at this, both of us hesitant and quick. The kiss was just a question, then, a reframing of all the time we had known one another. The real answer came when he took my hand. Again he shook, tired from the cold and the flight. I intertwined our fingers. Like a bridge, I thought. Holding one another this way made our grip stronger.
He raised our hands and kissed my fingers, his expression still sour and serious. With my other hand I touched the knife-marks that striped his cheeks like scars. I supposed that I had long ago memorized his face — the pursed lips that made him look perpetually unhappy, the severe hairline that made him look older than he was. His bright, bright eyes and the quickness with which his expressions could change, especially when he was with Moc and Ciel, the members of his family who both exasperated him the most and whom he loved the most. All those knife-shaped markings, for deaths I hadn’t been in the Spire to see, and all the marks neither of us would ever have. There was something right about keeping track of how much one had lost, but with the Singers gone — and no telling yet whether the city was better for it or not — those marks would never be made.
Now, it was more important to appreciate the time we had. “I missed you,” I said. I hadn’t realized how much.
“I had hoped you would rescue me. Dix said …” Wik hesitated. I squeezed his hand. “Dix said that Rumul would have been right to throw you down once he knew you were capable of destroying the Spire. It was obvious Rumul was too wounded to make decisions like that any more.”
Dix and Rumul had kept Moc as their captive, too. I shivered. Wik gently slid his hand away and put his arms around me. I tried not to touch his back where he had been hurt. We had sat like this once before, sharing a cloak, humming. I turned my face against Wik’s neck and hummed the Rise. He did the same, softly since his mouth was close against my ear. The song had always been a comfort, a sign that we as a community could rise higher than our lowest towers. The fact that we hummed it wordlessly meant even more. It could be the Singer version or the Tower version, but right now, the difference wasn’t important. The tiredness of the long day seemed to spill out of me like wind from wings, but with it came the memories that had driven me out of the nearby meadow in the first place. When I first met Wik, Ezarit was alive. So was my father.
“I believed you would come find me,” Wik said. Belatedly, I realized that he was still talking about Laria. I tangled his robe around my hand to try to focus, clutching hard enough that my fingers felt numb.
We stayed like that for a while and then I met his eyes, trying to memorize even the brown flecks in the green. I kissed him again, determined this time to express the way I thought of the distance between us, and heard the hum in his throat shiver against my own bones.
When I broke the kiss and looked up, my gaze and my hope inevitably drawn uptower, he resettled his arm around my shoulders.
“The council wanted me to renounce the Singers,” I said. Like Macal had done, but there was no need to open yet another wound right now. “But we thought Rumul was dead and the towers were starting to be just as isolationist as the Spire was. I thought maybe people could see that the Singers weren’t exactly the problem. That we could have Nightwings who protected the city without also hiding so many things from the towers. But no one wanted to listen to me. They just needed someone to hate, and the Singers were their target. They were just so angry that the Skyshouter wouldn’t be their hero.” I could feel my throat tightening with anger as I thought about it.
“They were scared after the Spire fell,” Wik said. “When people are afraid they want an easy solution to their problems.”
“Ruining my life doesn’t have to be that solution.” I pressed my forehead against his, insisting that even if we disagreed, we could still hold one another up.
“Knowing just how attached you are to the Singers won’t help our cause if we can ever get Doran to help us. That’s a long shot anyway.”
“I know. And we won’t stop being aware of that fight.” I had a feeling that Wik was frightened too. “But right now, the only Singer I’m thinking about is you.”
The distraction seemed to relax him even more. This time he initiated a kiss and pressed his fingers against my throat. His thumb circled over one of the scars from the skymouth during Spirefall, and I let the kiss end, wondering whether he would not want to think about the strange, raised skin. Instead, he pressed his lips feather-light against the scars. I rifled my fingers through his hair, trying to figure out how to silently thank him.
Instead, he muttered “thank you” to me — for the rescue — and drew away. His posture shifted imperceptibly to a more straight-backed Singer defensiveness. Even the set of his shoulders had changed for me, for a little while.
As we readied to go back to the others, I hesitated with one hand on my wingstraps. “I need to ask you a favor,” I said.
“Walk with me out into the meadow next time we go. I need to be able to go out there. If there’s an attack, it’s …” I hesitated. Remembered council members falling without wings. “It’s safest to know the area between the towers in case we’re attacked. But when I think of going out there it’s like there’s a spider web between me and the meadow. I can’t go through alone yet.”
“I will.” His expression remained the same, but his eyes looked kind.
We flew back as close to one another as we could, almost wingtip-to-wingtip.
By the time we got back, Lawsmarkers were falling from uptower.