“She’s a clever little beast, so talented indeed...even I had second thoughts about attempting to thought-form a fully functioning imprindium crystal at her age,” Sanubia said in a musing tone of voice.
“Are you seriously asking me to believe that you actually remember when you were thirteen years old? Get real.” Playa’s voice came over Sanubia’s shoulder, challenging and irreverent as always. Then again, it’s what she came to expect from her closest friend and senior advisor.
Trying hard to keep a smile from coming through her voice, Sanubia said, “I was thirteen once, you know, and I mean thirteen in human years.”
“You were never thirteen. Your mother seeded you with a three thousand year old mentality while you were still in her womb,” Playa retorted.
“Are you saying that in three thousand years I haven’t grown—spiritually and otherwise?” Sanubia turned around and faced her friend.
“You’ve grown old, we all have but what the millennia have done to us otherwise, I’d be hard pressed to tell you,” Playa said and laughed.
Sanubia passed her hand over her bald head. “I’ve lost the art of growing hair.”
“Most of us have. But then that’s what you get when you classify something that’s a natural part of human body ‘inessential’ and I was there when the Council sat on this decision so you have no one to blame but yourself.”
“Growing hair is inessential,” Sanubia murmured.
“I’d agree if we’d voted to remain in a pure energy state. But once we decided to play frontier gods, complete with a frontier mentality, we should not have discarded our ability to grow hair so lightly.”
“You still manage,” Sanubia remarked, glancing at Playa’s silvery white crew cut that went so well with her beige linen thought-spun shirt and floppy pants.
“Yes, but let’s not get lost in yesterday’s garden. That’s Mikki’s specialty. You summoned me to witness something or for consultation?”
“What do you think?” Sanubia asked and leaned deeply over the window sill while pretending to examine the yawning depth below. Memories flooded her mind without invitation. It tended to happen a lot lately and it was most bothersome.
When Kitaya was only five years old, the child made her first escape by climbing down the sheer rise of the vertical stone wall and even back then it was at the urging of her playmate, Joshua. Chatari had materialized in front of Sanubia without invitation and proceeded to wage her campaign to send the boy away to Rosiks. Mikki, never far away when Joshua’s name was mentioned, stormed inside the Rumination Chamber like a hurricane. She threatened to banish Chatari to the nether for sentry duty for a hundred years if she didn’t cease trying to take Joshua away from his “mother.”
“Kitaya has always been an excellent student and her mental strength continues to surprise me with every turn of the screw,” Playa said.
“Of course, no matter how talented she it, she’d not have been able to master the rudimentary principles of the Treetop Magic if the Council had not agreed to seed and prime her mind such that in a receptive state it was able to absorb the instructions directly from a Treetop’s mind. Without the Treetop ‘key,’ her talented mind would have remained dormant, able to draw upon the surface functions only,” Sanubia said, her voice hardening as she spoke.
“Why you continue to belittle her talent and achievement, is beyond me,” Playa said, her voice hardening as well. “She was barely five years old when the Council conducted their first seeding session. Afterward, most of our membership had actually hoped that the girl would fail in assimilating the loaned knowledge. But she surprised us all by hungrily drawing upon the open well of Treetop Magic which flowed into her mind during subsequent seeding sessions. Kitaya’s capacity to draw and assimilate the knowledge is simply extraordinary, so don’t sound like Chatari, who’s always been frightened by demonstration of power transfer that’s superior to her own.”
“We’ve been spoon-feeding her—that’s why it’s always been so easy for her to absorb,” Sanubia said.
“Now you do sound like Chatari. Could it be that you, our Mistress, are afraid that our young student might even eclipse her teachers, given enough time and dedication?”
Sanubia shook her head, half expecting a mane of hair to whip around her shoulders. “Our ancestors had made several attempts in the past to seed some of the basic principles of magic in the minds of the native tribal members and failed, time and time again.”
“Kitaya is different from the tribes out there and, dare I say, from most of us in Calamora. The child fears nothing. Every new skill opens up a road to new adventure for her. She draws the knowledge as eagerly as she accepts our food. She is thirteen years old and her mind’s strength is already at a level of some of our Veddlings’. She is most worthy of our teachings. They do not frighten her. Her talent is as genuine as her birthright and we have done little else but to open up a channel to allow it a free passage. Her talent will grow as we have not seen anything grow in our ranks. It was a right decision to teach her our ways,” Playa maintained and bowed to Sanubia to show that she wasn’t being adversarial.
“Should I let them succeed this time?” Sanubia asked, knowing her friend would understand she was referring to the two children, standing a hundred feet below, just inside the stone archway and getting ready to make yet another bid to scale the wall.
“Yes, let them go then conduct a search to appease Mikki. I’ll track their progress and keep them safe when they’re skirting New Havedon,” Playa said.
Once again, Sanubia leaned over and stared into the yawning depth below the widow.
“Do we really have to conduct a search of our messy grounds?” she asked with quiet anguish.
“Mikki expects it. We do it every time Kitaya skips her lessons and goes to the smithy to sit by the open fire pit and watch Joshua work the bellows and hammer steel blades into a fine edge which would be refined by many immersions in cold water,” Playa said with a snicker.
“I get your point, my friend. No need to drive it in with a lecture. At fifteen, Joshua’s already promising to become a fine blacksmith,” Sanubia said.
Playa cleared her throat as a pre-amble to speaking. “But that’s not what he wants to be and neither does he want to build shelters or bridges. He knows we don’t need any craftsmen in our fort. It’s one of the reasons why he wants to leave Synoor and sail the stars. He’s made enough raking and tilling tools to make Mikki happy but what he wants to fashion from steel are weapons. He’s a soldier at heart, Sanubia, like his father. We can’t keep him here forever. You have to decide on his fate very soon.”
“I know,” Sanubia said heavily. “I was just hoping it wouldn’t come…so soon.”
Last year Joshua had made a very fine hunting blade as a present for Mikki who kept turning it over in her hands as if it was a lump of hot coal. Poor Mikki, always so worried the children would cut themselves or break a leg when climbing over the ruins of the fort. She had tried to interest the boy in herbal medicines but Sanubia could have told her that this young human would never be an apothecary.
Joshua had his father's dark coloring and the stubborn brow, high and clear, but the hazel-green eyes and a shaggy mane of blonde hair were his mother’s. Perennially tanned and already muscular at fifteen, since he enjoyed physical work and was the darling of the Tillers, Joshua was a handsome boy who was already stepping over that threshold which divided boys from men—and that’s what worried Sanubia.
It’s why she let Mikki wreak havoc with the girl’s room every other week after bolts on the door were bent or melted and furniture legs were used to pry out stones in the wall that would not move under the girl’s mental command. Sanubia could have told Mikki that no matter how many bolts the maid threw at the door, no matter how many spikes were driven into the furniture to bolt it to the floor, no matter how thick the iron bars on the window, the young Veddling-in-waiting would find a way to melt, to bend, to strip and pretty soon even re-shape and re-constitute if that’s what was required to free her a passage to go and visit her childhood companion in the smithy.
That fateful night, some thirteen years ago, when Kao came as quietly as a stalking cat and dropped a squirming bundle at the gate then ran, was something of a milestone for the Treetop Witches. Of course it was Mikki who swished through the air that night with noble haste but little regard for her navigating skill and stunned herself when she hit a sapling tree that grew just inside the gate. Sanubia would have laughed if the situation had not been so grave. Flying Mikki was maybe even sillier than a running Mikki. Playa and Abby, who followed with greater care and dignity, had to pick up Mikki and pour some sense into her by wreathing her head with an energy circle which repaired the great gash in her forehead but left the imprint of the rough bark in Mikki's skin as a memory of her dashing frenzy. The Treetops opened the gate readily enough because they’d already seen through the Council’s sanctioned use of the Cube of Present what Kao had done, and what he so generously dumped on their doorstep.
Mikki ran out first and gathered the squirming bundle in her arms and tried to stand up. Playa rolled her eyes skyward and her patient expression hardly rippled as she went to pick up Mikki who fell flat on her ass under the squiggling burden. Abby just sighed and went to lend a hand. They pulled everyone into the mental loop and held Council briefly, three steps away from what the Treetops defined as an official threshold of their fort. Such were the dear and uncomfortable memories of Joshua’s arrival in their midst.
Later on, when the Council sat down to a voting session whether or not to admit a male into their midst, it was Abby who opened the session.
“I’m sure we all remember our collective history,” Abby said, “so I can safely state that there has never been a male admitted to the circle of Treetops since the dawn of our time. Now, this child is human which at this moment I think is to his advantage, but I could be wrong. Only time will tell. Either way, I hold reservations about taking in this human boy.”
“Oh you can’t!” Mikki wailed, “He’s so little and helpless; his mother was slain by Kao’s foul reptiles and his kin in the city are under attack even as we speak. We can’t turn him away. The cats will rip him apart in the jungle and we can’t return him to a city that’s being ravaged by merciless pirates. He’s a gift...my visions showed that he’s a sign from...”
“Oh for god’s sake, Mikki,” Playa intervened, “if I didn’t know better I would say that you eat poison mushrooms for breakfast. Your visions are just as palatable. We’ve spent three days in Council with the Cube of Present and we’ve seen what’s happening in the city. Bresling’s pirates did just enough damage for the city folk to crush their spirit enough not to be able to mount any kind of resistance, even if such a thing did occur to those numbskulls, and what’s left of Banoran’s castle and his marines isn’t worth frying in a small pan. The boy is Joshua Velomenti, an Allied citizen of Espheraz, and his father was a Captain in the marine task force. He’s dead, along with his entire troop. Bresling has flash-frozen Banoran in between two slabs of vermhillian and his secretary, Murman Phend has a new boss and a new job. The New Havedon fate is folding down as it should but ours will definitely suffer significant wear-and-tear if we decide to admit this male human child into our midst.”
“You can’t mean that, Playa,” Mikki sniffed and hugged the toddler.
Sanubia rose to take charge of the session because she knew Chatari would strive to bottle the issue every step of the way. In the end, two-year-old Joshua was surrendered to Mikki’s care. But Sanubia knew Mikki should not be burdened with such horrendous responsibility alone and told the Council that every Treetop would share the responsibility for raising the human boy. A few days later, Sanubia repeated herself when she instructed the Council to share another bundle of responsibility, though this time the baby was a female.
* * * *
It had all been easy, too easy, Kitaya thought as she walked behind Joshua who had to be moving powered only by pride and sheer stubbornness because the three moons already sat high in the sky and they had been walking since that morning. The sky had the indigo blue crystal transparency and felt artificial to Kitaya. She was sure that if she’d picked a large tree-corn from the low-hanging branches of an aktcheia tree, and threw it at the crystalline sky, she’d hear a distinct clinking sound. Ever since they scaled the wall, they were under a safety bubble all right. Josh couldn’t see or feel the presence of the Dormant Shield the Treetops maintained over Calamora but she did as clearly as if it was a gauze sheet billowing in the wind. She knew, though she’d never tell Josh, that they had made it this far without interference from anyone, because the Witches had screened them from the outside elements. Synoor jungles were never quiet, day or night, because there were as many nocturnal creatures as there were daylight species. Kitaya suspected that indeed there was a perfect balance between the night life and day life of the world’s jungles and that it was the Treetop Witches who maintained such equilibrium. She kept hearing the high-pitched screams of night-vultures fighting over a newfound carcass and she kept hearing the swishing noise of dart-bats as they weaved their way up through the giant leathery leaves of pava trees, in search of nectar bells hiding on the undersides. She heard tresallis domes, gently ringing each time a dew-drop struck them, and she kept hearing the responding melody of uleya pools that collected moisture from the ground and then let it well up in drinking holes. She heard anguished whispers of wooly logs that so frightened the human tribes when they ventured into the jungle and she heard the seductive sighs of rakka vines, enticing anything that walked or crept along the ground to move their way and die in their crushing squeeze. She heard everything that echoed in the night jungle, but Josh did not and that was her greatest worry. The jungle around them was teeming with fawn colored bear-cats and black panthers with green-burning eyes that gave the jungle its name of the “living green hell,” but none of the predators as much as dared to test the safety perimeter. She kept hearing the low-rolling snarl of the panther for hours now but Josh didn’t give any sign that he heard something…threatening.
“It’s just ahead, I know it.” Joshua stopped and wiped his forehead into his tunic sleeve. He had a knife to cut through the leathery leaves that at times seemed to wrap them rather than just obstruct their path. The knife’s handle was not yet finished. The raw wood would have long reduced Joshua’s palm into a bloody pulp if not for Kitaya thought-shielding his flesh from the abrasive wood. Had they been in Calamora he would have started to wonder why the wood didn’t blister his palm. But out here, he was in his “hero” state and didn’t ask questions of himself. Once Kitaya had flashed them to the wall where Josh had found a fat vine hanging from somewhere above, she could have flashed both of them to the other side of the wall but instinct told her that Joshua would not appreciate such “help.” He wanted to scale the wall for her to see his strength and prowess.
She knew exactly where the old com-link station was. She didn’t even have to close her eyes to summon her forward-see probe. She just blinked and studied the impression the probe brought her back. The wind-swept plain spreading from the edge of the foothills, bathed in the blue-white light of the twin moons looked like something a color-blind person might see. The details of the boulder fan stretching just below the lowermost line of giant akka trees that grew along the hill slopes were of excellent quality but lacked substance that is normally visible in three-dimensional objects. The pale moonlight had robbed them of the physical property of a real landscape. The com-link station sat in the middle of the flat darkness, its boxy shape once again sharply outlined for anyone to see when still far away. Kitaya walked with this knowledge for nearly an hour before they finally emerged from the jungle and on to the moon-lit plane.
“Do you think we’ll find bodies of the slain Allied marines inside?” Joshua asked in a whisper.
“No, Josh. It’s been thirteen years since anyone alive sat at any of those instrument panels we’ll find inside.”
“No, Josh. None of the marines have actually made it to the com-link station to send a call for help. If they had, the situation in New Havedon today would be very, very different.”
“How do you know this?”
Kitaya sighed. “We were both there when Mikki showed you what the com-link station looked like before Bresling’s privateers rained fire on the world and after. I stood next to you when you leaned over to see the scene in the Mirror Well so it’s nothing that the Treetops showed me selectively and not to you.”
“Oh yeah, I remember. But some of the marines could have survived and came back later on…it would be exciting to actually meet someone like me, a man, you know…” his voice trailed off. He must have realized how silly he sounded for just thinking about it.
“Let’s go, Josh. The sooner you convince yourself that there is nothing useful to find inside the place the sooner we can go back home.”
“My home is out there, in the stars.”
“I’m not arguing about this again,” she said and moved past him. He caught up to her and blocked her path.
“I only argue with you because otherwise you wouldn’t talk to me,” he said, his voice soft and low.
“That’s not true. I’ve always talked to you. I skip my lessons to come and talk to you.”
He reached with his hand and stroked her left cheek. “I can’t believe that I have you here, all by myself without them around.”
She let him stroke her cheek two more times and then gripped his hand.
“They’re always around, Josh and both of us have been warned about inappropriate touching,” she said.
“What’s inappropriate?” Josh murmured and drew his hand down the side of her neck and across her upper chest.
She wanted to knock his hand away and at the same time wanted it to continue exploring lower to where she felt twinges of pain that was uncomfortable and welcome at the same time.
“I love you, you know,” Josh said, his words growing slurred. She knew only too well what the distorted speech meant.
“I love you too, Josh,” she said hurriedly. She only had a minute or two before the powers-that-be intervened and terminated Josh’s bold emotional and physical quest.
“Not like that, Taya, I love you for real like I feel your heartbeat when you stand beside me. I want to put my arms around you and…” His voice faded even as his eyes closed and his head drooped until it came to rest on his chest.
Kitaya tried to shuffle closer to Josh but her feet had been planted in the ground by a force that was greater than all the need and desire of human tribes in the galactic fields.
“You do know that this is precisely what Sanubia fears the worst?” With those words, Playa materialized before her. The strong moonlight, no longer filtered by the screen the Treetops maintained over the Calamora Fort, turned her silver hair into a sparkling halo.
“He is so alone in Calamora, Playa, and so hungry for a touch or any show of human emotion…”
Playa wouldn’t let her finish. “He’s a boy who is soon going to become a man. He is hungry for love and companionship of his own kind. I’m afraid that you don’t understand just how much the two of you can’t be playmates and friends anymore.”
“I love him,” Kitaya declared fiercely.
“Perhaps so, but will his love for you endure when you grow into someone who can take over his thoughts in a blink of an eye, or turn him into a crystal spider monkey or upstage him in a thousand different ways in a misguided belief that you’re helping him?”
“I would never do that.”
“You do it every time he goads you into flashing him where he wants to go.”
“I just want to help him.”
“Are you really helping him by making things unnaturally easy for him, only to have him resent the ease with which you always accomplish everything and as a result grow even more bitter and envious?”
“I love him. I want him to be happy,” Kitaya whispered, tears sitting in the corners of her eyes.
“Then let him go.”
“Where?” The question was a cry driven by fear and desperation.
“We’re not sure yet but Sanubia has started to work on it. It should have been done a while ago if not for Mikki. It’s what is slowing things down as we speak. Joshua has to re-join his people.”
“Rosiks are not his people. He was born on Espheraz. He is Captain Velomenti’s son. Sanubia told me this herself. Send him back home, to his real family.” Kitaya wiped her nose into her tunic’s sleeve.
“It’s not that simple,” Playa said.
Kitaya knew it wasn’t but she hurt too much to think straight. The Treetops considered Joshua’s future perhaps as often as every six months. Means of returning him to Espheraz was not a problem. Explaining his sudden appearance in the midst of his father’s family members would be a huge problem. Even if the Treetops imbedded blocks in Joshua’s mind to stem the flow of memories of growing up on Synoor in the Calamora Fort amongst the silver-eyed women who were considered to be frontier gods by the local tribes, the Allied authorities on Espheraz would grow very, very suspicious of a teenager suddenly appearing in their midst. They would definitely send a scout party to Synoor and that was the last thing the Treetop Witches wanted.
Ever since the Allies had established their first outpost on Synoor, a trickle of rumors spread throughout the Allied star fields about magic that lived in Synoor jungles, invisible but thriving nevertheless. Treetops didn’t fear discovery. They could maintain their habitat invisible under the Dormant Shield for all eternity. What they feared was human curiosity and determination. If the Allies re-established their regency on Synoor, it was a given that scout parties would march into the Synoor jungles day after day, looking for the source of the magic that lived in the jungle. So far, Kao and his Pandragons were content to merely hunt and eat the humans who wanted to settle on their world. But Kao was a crafty reptile. It would not be long before Kao grew wise to the benefits the offworlders could offer him—for information about the Treetop Witches. After all, Kao’s ancestors had been coming to the Calamora’s Northern Winter Gate for centuries, banging their massive fists on its dense wood and calling to the gods to reveal themselves—or else. It was the post-script threat that had initially amused Sanubia to a degree where she relaxed a phrase in the Treetop Protocol and granted Kao’s distant ancestor an audience. To date, it was her only decision that she truly, really regretted.
“Are you going to wipe his memory?” Kitaya asked when Playa continued to hover before her, three feet off the ground as was her habit.
“Do you think I should leave the experience of finally scaling our wall and victoriously making it this far in Josh’s memory to torture him even more than he already is?”
Mutely, Kitaya shook her head.
“You know Josh will never give up his dream to leave Synoor.”
“Yes, Playa, I know it and when the Mistress decides on the means to give Josh his freedom, I want to go with him.”
“No argument there, child, but you’re also a Veddling-in-training.”
“I don’t want to become a Treetop Witch, Playa. I am as human as Josh. I want to go with him. I love him.”
“I know you do, but I must repeat myself—it’s not that simple. Amongst the human tribes, you could never become a Treetop Witch.” Playa floated to stand on solid ground.
“Are you challenging me, Playa?” Kitaya asked, voice hollow.
Playa laughed. “Far from it, child. You could never become just a Treetop Witch because you’re more talented than all of us put together. You are the seed of a new magic order. Sanubia knows it and, sorry to say, Chatari knows it too. You have no choice but to stay and complete your training.”
“But I don’t want to stay without Joshua. I want to go with him!” Kitaya flung her arms out and finding her feet no longer rooted to the ground, she lunged at the sleeping Josh and hugged him, sobbing.
“Unlike Josh, you don’t have a family out there in the Allied star fields,” Playa said.
“I don’t care. I’ll stay with Josh’s family.”
“I’m flashing all of us back to Calamora,” Playa said, voice hardening. “This jungle is teeming with life, most of it hostile and there’s no need to keep feeding their curiosity when this conflict does now show a promise of quick resolution.”
“I want to…” Kitaya’s words already echoed through the cavernous depth of her chamber.
“Sleep,” Playa said. “That’s what you want now and that’s precisely what you need. Josh is already in Mikki’s capable hands, being rocked and sung to sleep though for the life of me I can’t understand why that woman does it when she damn well knows he’s not been awake since I materialized in front of him.”
“She does it because she loves him,” Kitaya said in a fading voice. Playa floated her body to the huge four-poster bed that still looked like a toy in the cathedral chamber and tucked the covers in around her.
“I know, my child, I know,”
she whispered just before her presence faded from the room.