Sky kingdoms. What was there to say about sky kingdoms?
A great deal, as it turned out, and at the same time basically nothing. It had taken a while for Kio to get her to hear him out–in her defense, Karla had been nine years old, even less interested in her friend’s history lessons than she typically was right now.
He’d won her over, though, when he had explained how you could use an understanding of their history to find your way around. A sky kingdom was a radial system. Many years before Karla and Kio, before the Rokhshan claimed Nashido and perhaps many years before that, the people of the high sky had been nomads, traveling in fleets between naturally occurring islands. All this, nine-year-old Kio breathlessly informed nine-year-old Karla’s back, was written down in their annals. On their most common landing sites, they built temples first, then camps around them that gradually grew. When they began to settle down, they built further rings to trade with one another, while the camps became palaces that were extensions of the temple. The outer rings were about trade with the surface, the kind that would have been handled through Nashido, once upon a time.
They stood there now, on one of those gantries that had been made for launching to the middle kingdom where she and Kio ruled alone.
Although, she thought, I guess we’re king and queen here too.
She adjusted her pack, which was sitting fine, and looked up at a high tower poking up over the tops of the buildings. “The temple.”
“Yeah,” Kio said, his eyes fixed on it too. “We just have to get across this gantry, and we’ll be there.”
“You might wanna look at your feet while we do,” she told him. “So you don’t die.”
“Can’t make me.” Kio’s mouth twisted in a sardonic smile that might have been an imitation of hers, if she had been capable of being sardonic.
“Then hold my hand, at least.” She held it out to her side.
A moment later, she felt Kio’s cold fingers grasp it. They started walking.
A crunch underfoot. Kio’s hand tightened in hers. Or hers clenched his.
She kicked something that clattered. A bilious lump rose in her throat. Kio was feeling with his feet, trying not to break anything, kicking up a monstrous clatter. She pulled him forward. They both stepped on bones–her on something big and round–and suddenly not even halfway across the platform they were both running.
Karla couldn’t have said what the gantry looked like. She kept her eyes fixed on the temple tower poking above stately columned roofs topped with carved eaves. There were more crunches, more clatters, Kio breathing heavily beside her–
–then the edge, with no stairway, a sharp turn to the left, agreed on without speaking–
–she and Kio were lost in a garden of bones.
The sky kingdoms shared a basic design, but their cultures had become different through the unfathomable lengths of their reigns. They weren’t perfect copies. Knowledge from the others could not tell her how to get them off this dock.
If they had shared knowledge, maybe they all could have gotten their people out safely, ahead of the end.
Karla stole glances at the temple. One instant, it flashed with light, a thin zigzagging ray the same color as the atmosphere crystals on Nashido. It could have been a knife through her, except…no, that didn’t make sense. Nobody got stabbed and then woke up with more questions.
Crunch. Clatter. Pound pound pound breath coming shallow. The sounds sloughed off her brain.
She looked down once, gagged, shut her eyes.Luckily, she had sure Harpooneer feet. She found a way for both of them by following the upward curve of the ramp, until it spat them out onto an inner street with archways rising up on either side.
Kio’s hand dropped from hers. The shaggy-haired boy stumbled a few paces a way, braced himself against a doorway, and threw up. Karla tried not to follow suit. When one person was freaking out, the other person got proportionally calm. She hadn’t read that in a book, it was just her life. It wasn’t quite working.
“Some archaeologist,” she said when Kio stumbled back to her. “One of your favorite authors could have barfed on that doorstep.”
“Guess that makes me a philosopher.” Kio wiped his mouth shakily. Karla put a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t usually joke this much.
“I remembered…” He looked down. His uncertainty was at odds with the empty grandeur around them. “I thought about year zero.”
“Did you remember anything?” she asked without thinking.
Kio didn’t seem to mind, but shook his head. His mouth moved.
She leaned closer. “What?”
“Garden of bones,” he murmured. “Garden of bones.”
Karla pulled him close and stroked his back until he stopped muttering.
“Do you know where we are?” she asked, when she thought he was ready.
“This is probably a landing district. Focused on the surface. And Nashido.” He separated from her and looked around. “It explains why there were so many…so many people back there. There was a rush to get off, a crowd they were all stuck in when whatever happened. Maybe they were thinking the Rokhshan could save them.”
“What did the Rokhshan do for these kingdoms again?” She knew, but a question like this would settle his mind.
“They, uh…they served as ambassadors.” Kio began to tiptoe up and down the corridor, finally looking at his feet, making a survey of all the plances they had to search. “Most people up here were too high and mighty–literally, heh–to talk to anybody on the surface. So the Benefactor raised up House Rokhshan and their retainers as intermediaries. No surface people were ever allowed up to Nashido, of course, but they could relay messages down.”
This all sounded strange to Karla when she pictured the grandeur of the capital city on the Big Island. It seemed vaster than anything this huge sephulcre could offer up. What did the sky kingdoms have, pretty columns and magic letters that stopped working when they felt like it?
The surface people had planes. Much more magic, in her opinion.
But then she remembered her mother’s letter, and the implication that Kio’s family had taken surface people as slaves. She shuddered. Anything that made Mara’s dictums sound reasonable had that effect. If she’d believed in the Benefactor, she would have prayed to him for a regular mother. Even if she still had to be dead.
“What’s our plan, then?” she asked Kio, who was returning from his street survey.
“Make our way toward the temple,” Kio replied. “Map the place, and then conduct a circle-by-circle survey. Right now, we need more information. Do you remember what we’re looking for?”
Karla dipped her head. “Basic supplies. Runes–“
“–and rune creation devices–“
“–do you want me to answer or not?”
“Rune devices, anti-dragon weaponry, and more tea really would be fantastic, we’re running low.”
They set off toward the open other end of the alley. “Why don’t we just grow tea?” Kio asked.
“Why don’t we?” Karla let Kio move ahead. Though her mind was spinning with purple beams and skulls and images of Harpooneers, this did sound like a fantastic idea.
They made their way down the narrow arch-lined street, which stayed narrow, though wide boulevards intersected it every handful of doorways. Karla soon figured out that they were walking a radius that crossed each of the concentric rings that made up the city. Each of these was a string of wide, sunny squares extending out of sight in every direction, like an airy forum had been stretched and wrapped around the temple tower.
That settled what was different about this one. There was a lot more open space than most of the others. Searching it would be easier.
“Could this island have drifted north from someplace warmer?” she wondered aloud. Island suddenly seemed like the right term: every now and then, bits of dirt and green stalks poked through cracking pavement. “And that’s why we haven’t found it before?”
“Eh?” Kio was looking up. “Oh. Could’ve.
Each ring seemed older: the carvings less elaborate, the stones less grand, the illegible writing on the signs rougher. Karla poked her head through a window to see if anything was changing inside the shops and houses. But she pulled back out like a fire had exploded in the window. There was a table inside, laid for a meal. Dishes, forks, ceramic cups. The end hadn’t even given them time to clean up.
Karla forced herself to look a little longer–she might want to swipe one of those cups–but she didn’t want to be in there right now. There was a smell, a death-stench, that time had not been able to wear away. Somewhere in that room, if she looked hard enough, would be another root from the garden of bones.
When she got back, Kio was staring at the tower. She joined him on a little bridge over a dry canal.
It had grown larger. She was close enough to see that the beam of light had shone from a separate structure from the square roof she’d seen from the landing gantry. The temple roof was built of elaborate panels carved into monolithic slabs that fitted together to form the chamber, but it wasn’t half as striking as the other spire. That one was a triangular prism of glass, the tallest structure on the sky kingdom. Clouds drifted behind its razor-sharp edges.
An orb of violet light sprang up in the top corner of the prism. As Karla’s mouth opened, another appeared on an opposite edge, and a straight beam shot between them. No sooner had it landed than another orb formed lower down, and yet another above it that started a whole new beam. Before long, there was a helix of light in the prism, spiraling down below the rooftops out of view.
“Kio,” Karla breathed, suddenly hushed, “what’s doing that?”
“I was gonna ask you.” Kio’s voice, too, was reverential, the way it always got in Nashido’s library. He grabbed three pages out of his coat at random and shuffled through them without reading.
“What does the color remind you of? Our–”
“–our crystals. Yeah.”
“So that’s rune magic.” Karla began to forget about the weight on her back. “You’re the rune guy. Could that happen on its own?”
“I don’t know.” Kio glanced away from the prism and then gave up on looking anywhere else, even at her. “The crystals are steady, but this is an active display that doesn’t seem to have any…any function…”
The canal under their feet might have been dry since the moment everything ended. It wouldn’t run on its own. Nothing could for long. Not Nashido, not this temple.
“There’s…” Kio began.
“You don’t think…” Karla managed. “Somebody’s…”
Both of them shared one glance, then started running, not pausing to take off their packs.
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