Clouds didn’t lie. Aven knew that now. They were always shifting and never completely trustworthy in their moods, true enough. The sky-prophets rarely spoke fully when they could, preferring to fog and fusticate their sayings. But, still, never lying. A bone-caster could only tell the brittle tales that came from calcy remains, just as a trochomancer could only speak in circles, always approaching but never arriving at the fact. A cloud’s nature to hide and mingle, Aven had learned, but they could not share anything that had not or would not occur, as reliable as the shadow that their passing cast.
The pain of knowing what clouds said, of how to read the lonely wanderers and the storm-masses alike, was like nothing else Aven had experienced in her years. Except, perhaps, the pain of knowing what she could have read in the heavens above that fateful morning when it all changed.
She had always wondered what that sky had looked like, the Aven Szawa of the future eternally kicking the hide of the past-self, to not look up and memorise the movements. The dance of the sky-messengers that morning must have been something to have seen, if she had the mind to do so. The future Aven, the one with the knowledge and lore of such things, could piece together what might have been there. Streaky white things hanging close to the horizon. Red-yellow shadowing still clinging there, the memory of night being banished by the angry dawn, bathed in blood and tindered like one of Morrow’s burnt offerings.
Ah, Morrow. How long it had been since Aven had thought of her once-constant companion. Morrow had been many things back then. Nanny, confidante, nurse and protector to the Szawa children. And slave too, although Aven-of-the-past could not have comprehended of the poison and grimy blackness in that word. Past-Aven knew not of slavery, beyond that some people were Wolves and some people were not, that Wolves ruled the others, and that Aven was a Wolf to the bone. Oh, and such a creature
The tale went, as her father would say it, that her lineage could be traced all the way back to the foundations, to the first foot-prints were laid into the hills of High Varka. When it was, if such a thing could be imagined, that the most High had long ago been a mere town rather than the sprawling
Fortress of Fortresses. Back when things were built of wood and straw, rather than burnished gold and wire. Before it grew and consumed the forests and caves around itself, before it shaped and distorted all mapping of the worlds, before the time that it sat, clear as the sun’s heart, in the middle of all that was known. All highways, sea-lanes and shadow-tracks pointed to it. All roads lead to High Varka, it was said, just as a spear’s long shaft inevitably points to the wicked, iron blade. And Aven’s family had been there, somewhere, fang-knife in hand and hems dipped in the scarlet that spilled and pooled from the forgotten ur-tribes. To be sure, somewhere between those early dawns and this one, the family of Szawa had flinched from aristocracy. No armies at their beck, no sprawling lands to claim as theirs alone. They were still leaders to some – Aven’s father was the family’s fourth officer, with a thousand bloodied Wolves at his disposal – but not true alphas.
Not that alphadom naturally bred competence. But the Wolf Empire had a way of winnowing those, or at least placing them into unimportant roles. Their bellies would still grow fat, their eyes milky and lazy, but never at the expense of the Empire. Skinners, Aven’s father would call them when he didn’t realise she was listening. Men who wore the garment of Wolves, but under that surface were merely dogs. Morrow may have been no Wolf, but Aven thought she bore herself as ably as a Skinner, perhaps more so. Not that she would have dared make a comparison, nor would Morrow have appreciated it. The slave was from different stock, from out in the eastern wilds. Nobles in their own world, far from the wire-trees of High Varka, but undoubted both bitter-savage and slack in their soul prevented them from
being as true and unyielding as the Wolf-kin. Owls like her were mysterious and did not blink in the face of the darknesses that laid in their dream-vales, but it weakened their spirit and bodies. They were no match for Wolves, and their vales and observatories were long-trodden down.
Aven had a hole in her heart thinking back at all that. High Varka, the Owls, Wolves and all the rest. Sorry for what had been done, sorry for her part that was played. But sorrow and anger were twined, like a vine that wraps and chokes a branch. Her sadness was a heavy rope that bound her, keeping her most times low and humbled. Over time, it had tightened over her skin and rubbed it raw. Most times she only knew anger now; her heart did not feel the heaviness of sorrow, but rather the rage that came
And if she’d only known to look up that morning, to know what the clouds had said and how to listen, would things have been different? ould she have changed any action that fell day, and would they have changed anything that followed? She did not know, and that not knowing made things only worse. But that was another tale, and this is this one.
The tale of a girl who became something else.