Soon enough, people get hungry.
The Spire council had expected this. Wik paced from one side of the downtower alcove to the other, each step for one idea that had once just been a theory. Dust puffed up from the graying bone floor as he did.
The supplies weren’t the only problem. The towers knew how to feed themselves, even if trade routes had been disrupted. Then people realized that they did not have to give Spire tithes, and some thought they shouldn’t pay tower tithes either. Some became afraid of this new, mercenary freedom and the people who might take advantage of it.
One heavy step for the first bridge that was cut.
Wings swept around the other side of the tower, and Wik moved closer to the ledge.
At least this place had been cleaned. There was no detritus on the floor except the bone dust. The tower council had placed a heavy silk bolt over the entrance to the next tier up. Wik could move downtower, but where would that get him? Just down to more dust, and with night almost falling.
After the bridge fell, the towers had rallied to try to stop any more. Those people who had not become raiders already, and who kept away out of their own anger or guilt, began to form new councils. Nat had taken to the new structure quickly; so had some of the younger Singers.
Wik had not, and besides, he had not been given a choice.
Occasionally he heard the wind snapping out around his guards’ wings as they flew wide circuits around Densira and other lowtower cells, but this visitor was someone different. One more step for the burden of visitors. Nat landed and furled his wings, pulling a sling out from under his quilted jacket in almost the same motion. His greeting was curt.
“I checked on Macal too.” The way he blurted it out sounded like less an attempt at assurance and more like a guilty admission. Macal had also been placed under hesitant guard, although no one had decided what exactly to do with the Singers yet, or even who should make that decision.
There was the matter of the bridges, first.
One step for this new kind of enclosure.
Wik waited for Nat to say something.
Instead of speaking, Nat started to turn the woven bag inside out, prodding at its contents. At first, it looked like the bag had simply deflated; then, Wik saw the evening light sliding off of tiny tentacles and pillowish transparent bodies.
“I need you to keep these for a little while.”
“Are those the ones you found?”
“Yes. We’ve found more nests, but these are … calmer. Something might eat them out there, or they’ll just get in the way of our flyers. There have been reports of gryphons near the edge of the city.”
“That shouldn’t be happening. The skymouths … ”
“I know. Still. I can’t keep them.”
He held out the bag. Wik reached for the straps, but Nat shook the bag and the littlemouths crawled out in a sudden rush, one of them rolling end over end before grabbing Wik’s arm with two tendrils and reeling itself in. He caught the other two in the crook of his left arm, their almost-invisible bodies cool against his skin.
“You want me to shelter them here?” Wik was suddenly very aware of the fact that, not long ago, Nat had stormed into the Spire willing to fight his best friend to the death. He held no love for Singers, and Wik was already most likely demoted to menial work down here.
Work in the pens, he thought, and felt that he could be suited to that.
“Someone will come get them later.” Nat shrugged.
There wasn’t much daylight left.
Wik flinched as the dry, scratchy skin of the littlemouth dragged across his hand. They didn’t bite with those grinding teeth, did they? His skin prickled where the tendrils clung to it. He felt his own expression scrunch up and resettled it into a mask.
“Someone with some experience had to keep them safe,” Nat said, already turning and tightening his wingstraps around his shoulders. “Don’t scare them, and don’t leave the tower.”
“Where exactly do you think I would go?” Wik said, the words clipped and quiet.
Nat looked back at him as fast as if he had been hit. For a moment Wik wondered what Nat suspected Wik might be able to do. He had challenged the Spire before he was sure what the Nightwings were. Did he think that Wik might be able to fly up Densira without wings?
Nat didn’t respond, though. Gave a look that was maybe a mix between anger and pity. The call of a whipperling followed him, and then Wik was alone with the littlemouths.
The last time he had seen skymouths of this kind, they had been in a bag on Lith.
If he shifted his shoulders enough, the littlemouths would aim for high ground and cluster up around his neck. Their tendrils were not slippery, but tended to disappear from sight, cloudy impressions of limbs fogging the air out of the corners of his eyes.
He had been provided with necessities of life on the tower, at least, and the littlemouths still clung to his shoulders while he cleaned his teeth with the water and a simple mix of herbs that had been provided to him. One littlemouth crawled to the top of his head while he looked out at the dimming shape of the nearest tower in the distance. The tower’s edges were jagged and black, but if he concentrated he could hear the occasional voice on the wind, a child’s screaming laugh or a utensil dropping to the floor.
Wik sighed. After everything that had been done, he was left with a downtower cage and skymouths in his hair.
He would try to sleep, and the littlemouths would forage if they needed to eat. For now, though, they seemed inclined to stay near him, one scuttling around to his shoulder blades when he lay down.
He turned onto his shoulder and felt the littlemouth behind him, suddenly enough that it made him flinch. He reached backward for it, but the creature seemed to want to evade his grip. A moment later it pressed against his back again, a tiny, slightly cool weight like he imagined a tame whipperling would be. Scowling, Wik edged over to be sure that he wouldn’t lean on any of the littlemouth’s arms.
A moment later, a tentacle flopped over onto his chest. He could barely feel it, the weight more like a cloud than like an animal.
The mat was thin and uncomfortable. Wik groaned, wishing for his alcove on the Spire. Wishing, for a moment, that it was before all of this. They had all changed. Kirit’s voice had gained not only the slight buzz that skymouth shouters could hear, that second tone almost like an echo, but also a new rasp from her injuries.
Wik began to hum. Without any particular song in mind, the hum became the Rise. Wordless, it didn’t matter whether it was the Spire's version or not.
Two of the littlemouths immediately drifted in front of him, propelling themselves along with gentle pushes of their legs in movements that made them look lighter than the air. They settled in a small pile, their tiny glass teeth reflecting the last of the light. The evening was blue-black and cold, with gusts from Lith’s direction that would have been gentle but unreliable to fly. For once, there were probably no night flyers out, risking the well-deserved awe and suspicion of the towers.
Of all the towers he had heard fell, he had never thought one of them would be his own.
He had suspected, though, that one day he might take a more personal fall. It was not surprising that he had been marked as the one who had kept dangerous secrets. Wik did not begrudge the accusation particularly, because it was true, and because he would keep more secrets if he needed to in order to help the City. At the moment there seemed to be no direct way in which he could, and the futility of it made him feel heavy and hollow.
One of the littlemouths began crawling toward his supplies, and with detached frustration he watched it go. What if he lost one in the tower? A moment later the desire for company, for some sound closer and warmer than the slight creaking of the bones, lead him to stretch his hand out. Was he supposed to chirp to these things as if they were whipperlings? A few piping hums, the kind that had calmed and intrigued the skymouths in the Spire cages, brought the little creature floating back. It sat in front of him, now nearly invisible in the dark except that he had already known it was there.
In the morning, Kirit came to get the littlemouths. She landed with a clatter, bracing herself with her hands against a wall. Wik was almost sure that she could manage to either land properly or circle around again, so did not rush to help her. By the time he had crossed the room she was standing straight up without any need for it, no longer leaning.
A littlemouth weighed down his wrist. He was not sure, but suspected it had been the one that had sat behind him. Almost immediately he grasped Kirit’s arm, feeling the thick ridge of scar tissue from where the skymouth had scarred her. Burn scars warred with silver tattoos on her face and hand as she met his eyes. The littlemouth reached curious arms over to her. She flinched at first, then stilled when Wik released her, the littlemouth continuing its tiny migration on its own while Kirit’s gaze drifted away.
The third littlemouth needed to be coaxed from his shoulder, Wik standing as still as he could and staring out at the sky while Kirit gathered up the looping arms. When she moved away, with the littlemouths piled in her arms, he noticed how the scars had hardened her expression.
“The council wants to meet with me. About joining them,” she said with that glass-edged voice, not quite looking at him. Her wings rattled as she limped toward the ledge.
“I’ll decide when I’m in front of them.” Her tone was hard too. Two people with that rough buzz under their voices, refusing to have a conversation. At least they understood that about each other.
“I heard about the bridges,” Wik said.
She nodded, but did not reply. A littlemouth hooked its arms into one of her braids. Wik thought, what have you heard, Kirit Skyshouter?
What name should he take now? He chuckled at the thought of becoming Wik Densira, gaining a new home simply by breathing in enough of the dust of it. Switching places with Kirit just like that. Would Macal take a new name? Maybe one would be allotted to him.
Kirit had been sick.
The most respect he could give her would be to say only exactly what he meant. Often enough, that meant saying nothing. The Spire-born Singers would have to make decisions too.
Therefore, when Kirit kicked off from the tower one-legged, the bad leg tucked inside the harness and the littlemouths just glassy impressions around her, Wik didn’t say goodbye.