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Bless the Skies

Bless the Skies

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Bless the Skies

438 pages
5 hours
Nov 1, 2015


"Every legend begins with a lie."

Laeli Tavens, a thief shaped by the Sky-worshipping mythos of her island, stalks High Lord Lawrence Anderton across the country. She must save her twelve-year-old sister Elaina, whom the obsessive Anderton has kidnapped as bait.

Elaina copes with brutalities and tortures she cannot understand, while Laeli and her long-time ally Sophia navigate a country of prostitutes and assassins, war brewing around them. Though Laeli clings to a well-crafted denial of her past, she and her conspirators must conquer their secrets before Anderton’s trap ensnares them all.

Nov 1, 2015

About the author

Julie Elise Landry grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, and became something resembling an adult in Monroe, Louisiana. She wrote her first book in the fourth grade, stealing heavily from The Hobbit and Ella Enchanted, but learned not to steal when her mother grinned knowingly at the draft. In 2013, she graduated from the University of Louisiana at Monroe with a Master of Arts in English focused in creative writing. Her life has been an amalgamation of children’s stories, musicals, and violent horror films since the eighth grade, when she watched The Ring by herself on Halloween night. (She does not suggest any thirteen-year-olds follow her example.) Landry published the dark fantasy novel Bless the Skies in 2015. She has also been published in The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle, The News-Star, and Aftermath by Dan Snow. She wears blue metal glasses.

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Bless the Skies - Julie Elise Landry

Chapter 1

Elaina hides me with a blanket while I change in the alley. Though she presses her face into her arm to shield her eyes, I notice how she fidgets, too curious to hold still. Laeli obligates me to maintain an image of complete modesty around her little sister.

I only observe the ritual for the sake of peace.

I hate that you still do this, Laeli says. She sulks in the corner of our alley with her stolen sword in her lap, cleaning the blade. Her black hair and clothes blend into each other, but the steel shines against her. She trains her blue eyes on the weapon as she polishes it up and down with a rag, her face hard as she recites the same protestations she gave four years ago. I suppose she thinks I’ve contaminated myself—or poisoned Elaina.

I slip another arm through my bright green dress, pleased with how the newly dyed fabric will match my eyes. Elaina and I usually wear frayed shirts and pants in patchwork shades of brown and gray, endeavoring to blend into the background—as good thieves should—but I need to look my best at night.

Encouraged by Elaina’s furtive interest in my appearance, I rub my mouth with the back of my wrist, hiding my smile from Laeli.

I like it, I say. We learn a lot about potential marks, and we eat better when we’re not relying on the pockets you pick.

It’s disgusting, she says.

Well, the stars are endless. Her complaints are worthless—meaningless—and we’ve bled the town dry of anyone to rob. My work at the brothel served me well enough to take care of Elaina when Laeli disappeared for a year, and it serves well enough now to keep us all fed when Laeli’s thievery fails to provide.

I think Sophia looks pretty, says Elaina. She admires me openly before blushing and turning her face away once more. Her wavy brown hair, always dirty or drenched, drags over her shoulders when she moves. The men all like her.

"Don’t you mean Sally? Laeli gives her spotless sword one last unnecessary wipe with the rag before sheathing it, tossing the bit of cloth into the dirt. Isn’t that the name you use with your customers?"

Her questions surprise me—she usually hates to acknowledge the brothel at all.

I was Selena to my parents, I’m Sophia to you, and I’ve been Sally to the men of the Nest, I confirm with a smile, refusing to be ashamed for adapting. After fifteen years as Lady Selena Daggart—fifteen years of loving instruction in the nobler and finer skills—my parents burned along with their manor. A penniless orphan covered in dirt could hardly keep a lady’s name.

That name meant nothing, and eight years ago, I abandoned it along with the naïve girl I’d been. Names are worth as little as the endless stars, but each part of me deserves its own. The lady Selena, thief Sophia, and prostitute Sally need never meet.

You’re better than a whore, says Laeli.

That may be very nice, I laugh, thanking Elaina and telling her to let the blanket down. I’ve finished, and as tall as I am—especially compared to the petite Tavens sisters—I know her arms must be tiring. Fluffing out my white-blonde hair after removing its cord tie, I say, But I enjoy it.

Laeli’s eyes slash from me to Elaina and back as if such sentiments are too adult for a twelve-year-old. When I first met Laeli—when I found her chasing vagrants out of this alley with that stolen soldiers’ sword—she wasn’t much older than Elaina now. She underestimates everyone, but no one more than her sister. Closing my eyes for a moment, I sigh through my nose and pet Elaina’s hair.

Well, I guess I don’t enjoy it, I lie, but we need food for tomorrow. Unless you have a better idea?

We stand in silence for a moment. Laeli looks at me coldly and then shakes her head.

Alright then. I hug Elaina goodbye and walk alone to the Nest.

The night passes in an organized blur of perfume and sweat and flesh. A handful of men rent me and return me, no different than I was before the tin and copper horizen slid into my fingers.

After Sally works for what Sophia considers a small fortune and Selena considered an insult of an allowance, the Nest closes its doors. I retire to our little camp in the back alleys of Acrott rather than claiming the bed reserved for me at the brothel. The hard ground will never be comfortable, but that’s where Laeli wants to be. I will be glad to remove the green dress for the last time tonight—no matter where I rest.

Elaina has already fallen asleep, but Laeli waits up. Lying on her back, arms behind her head, she keeps her eyes still on the night sky and says nothing.

When I drop the purse of my wages at her side, she tilts her head to see it.

Thanks, she murmurs.

A high lord’s in town, I say, falling to the ground beside her. Anderton, his name was. He’s from somewhere on the other side of Vilez. When gathering with the other women to present ourselves as options, I giggled and bit my lip, judging him rather wrongly, as it turned out. He practically gagged before moving down the line.

For how long?

A few days. The girl he wound up with said he’s renewing a trade contract with Lord Caldwell. She said he enjoyed the sound of his own voice as much as he enjoyed abusing her, but I know better than to offer those lurid details to anyone outside the brothel.

Laeli probes the purse without looking at it, feeling the coins through the felt. Not much here, she says as she pockets my earnings.

Enough for Elaina. For now. And when this high lord vacates, we can sneak among his guards while they’re loading up his things. Grab what we can. Acrott’s position so near the port city of Cadecca ensures we see enough travelers to survive.

Distracted, Laeli nods.

Hoping to make her laugh, I continue, And the takings from him should keep us comfortable long enough for you to practice some archery at last.

We’d be better served sharpening your fencing skills, she says without smiling, though her body relaxes against the dusty ground.

No, I don’t think that’s right, I counter. I think you’re supposed to learn to shoot before I learn to swing a sword.

It’s our oldest, most tired joke from our happier times, from before she went away. Even with all the Skies’ blessings, I’ll never be interested in picking up a sword. The bow is the last bond I have to my parents and the only thing that joins all three of my masks.

I’d love to teach either of the Tavens girls.

Laeli rises from the dirt and stands in a fluid, graceful arc, and I watch her pace forward a few steps. I feel drawn to watch her, caught by the easy gestures of her small frame. Each twitch of her finger seems premeditated and precisely executed, in direct contrast with the wild look in her eyes when she pivots to face me.

I’m going for a walk, she says, her eyes set and narrowed in veiled desperation.

I shift my whole body away from her, clenching my jaw because I know where her walks end. If the brothel is my controversial haunt, the Copper Kettle is hers.

Just for one or two drinks, she swears, holding her pinky finger up to the Skies, showing the back of her hand in the customary gesture. From my own purse.

Does it matter? Damn the Sun, it’s just... it’s so wasteful. Sitting up, I tie my hair back, watching Elaina while she sleeps because I can’t face Laeli for the moment. Make sure you’re back before sunrise, I remind her.

It won’t be that long. Don’t worry.

I want to punish her with silence, but the words escape.

You know how she gets when she wakes up and you’re gone.

I’ll be back, she says, quietly now.

Ignoring her promise, I brace my hands on the ground and sprout to my feet, clenching my teeth as I reach for my discarded daywear. Not bothering with a blanket because Elaina is asleep, I change back into my normal clothes, expecting all the while to hear Laeli’s boots tread away.

Finally, she repeats, I’ll be back, and leaves.

I settle to the ground. Lying on my side, I gently rest my hand on Elaina’s head, petting her light brown hair and wishing the moon were full enough to see her freckles in its light. She sighs in her sleep and moves into my arms—always eager to be held close—and I thank the Skies for giving me the Tavens sisters, no matter how rank Laeli will smell when she returns.

Laeli and Sophia believe I’m asleep after playing cards with my sister all evening, so I pace my breathing to convince them. I steal and store their real thoughts before drifting off once Laeli leaves for the Kettle.

When I wake in the morning, Sophia is still asleep with one arm slung over me. I wriggle away from her, holding my breath.

The morning light tickles my cheeks as I stretch, sit up, and rub my face. Dirt coats me in a thin crust, sneaking into the wet corners of my eyes as my hands pass over them. Wiping my palms on my threadbare brown shirt only dirties them more.

Sitting up and leaving Sophia to rest, I play with my bare toes and watch my sister work. She’s perfect. Her feet move weightlessly along the ground. She swings the heavy sword I can barely lift.

Every day, she wakes first—before the Sun rises—and fights an invisible person with her sword. She used to sleep later than anyone, but not anymore. Since she came back, I rarely find her sleeping at all.

My fingers itch as my eyes follow her around our alley and memorize her movements.

I imagine Laeli fighting Vitano Dother, the captain of the local guard. First, she tries to trick him by cutting up to the Skies. Dother pivots to dodge the blow, but she slides into his step and curves her swing around to nick his armor. She gives him no time to see any vulnerability, backing away only a moment before attacking again. She swings the sword diagonally down and then straight across. She thrusts, ducks a swing, impales his foot.

I wish I could see her fight a real person.

Even more, I want to be as good as she is—but she never lets me practice. She gets mad whenever she catches me mimicking her, even with sticks and long flower stems.

Wake early, take more, she says. Did you sleep well?

I nod, my throat closing because she must have followed my thoughts. I can never hide anything from her.

What do you want to do today? she asks.

I don’t know. My empty stomach threatens to collapse. Did Sophia get paid?

Laeli nods, cutting the head off her foe with a horizontal slice.

Then we can all eat together. They’ve skipped too many meals for me, trading shifts and pretending not to starve.

Laeli finishes one last move—an extravagant spinning technique I think must be useless except to scare people—and returns her sword to its sheath, guiding the blade with a flattened row of fingers along the fuller. I have a better idea. Let’s go alone, just you and me. Souring, she adds, She’ll be asleep for a while, anyway.

She does need her rest, I say, pretending to agree with what I wish Laeli meant. Sophia works hard—I wish Laeli wouldn’t get so angry with her.

We walk through the village, and I trail behind her, smiling as soon as we reach one of the main avenues. I like looking at people, enjoy being among them. They do funny things without realizing I’m there to see.

I remember Cadecca feeling so big, so endless, but Acrott feels like home. All around, I see pumpkins. We trade them as food to other Vilezian cities and towns—Sophia hates fried pumpkin steak, a popular item—but here, people have learned a hundred different ways to use the ever-present crop.

The apothecary sells lotions, oils, and powders made from the slimy brains and aged seeds. Thara Mayne makes the leaves and stems into paper, but her pumpkin candles sell better. A man who fishes in the creek in Branchoc Woods tries to sell pumpkin bait, but no one ever buys from him. His voice grows louder every time he’s ignored.

Acrotters respect no art more than pumpkin carving. Most of the stores and stalls advertise themselves with pictures carved into pumpkins, replacing them often to keep interest high. Sophia has taught me to read a little, but not much. I wish I could understand the funniest looking pumpkins. When we pass a portrait of High Lord Caldwell, I wonder if the carved writing beneath him is nice or mean.

In general, I know the rich are worse than any honest thief—worse than pigs, as Laeli says—but Caldwell rarely bothers anyone. He just lives quietly on the edge of town, so most of his people look happy as they walk around, living. Children run back and forth among their parents’ stalls, men and women call across the avenue to one another, and now and then, Sophia’s friends from the Nest will appear to pull grinning men into alleys and corners. I list the women’s names to myself.

My stomach whines when I smell caramel.

We should buy something sweet, something to fill us up. Honey rolls!

Laeli places her hand on top of my head—still taller than me, though I’ve been growing. When I lean in and wrap my arms around her, she smiles almost sleepily and then, slides away.

Alright. Elaina gets what Elaina wants. She ruffles my hair, and her bumbling touch throws lengths of the brown stuff in front of my face.

Seeing a chance to get what I really want, I modify an evasive maneuver she’s taught me, ducking and rolling away from her hand. Behind her, I grip her legs to pull myself up, beaming and hoping for her approval.

You’ve been practicing! she says. Then, her gaze turns to the nearby baker, who stands in front the stall outside his store. She pauses, debating, before focusing once more on me. You want to practice something else though, don’t you?

I breathe sharply and bite the sides of my tongue. Yes.

Laeli just stares, waiting for me to say it, to ask. Her deep blue eyes look like whirlpools ready to swallow me, but I feel desperate enough to face them.

I want to steal something.

She examines the market around us, and I look with her.

Acrotters are farmers and gossips. They work hard for just enough to survive, planting, growing, and harvesting their pumpkins while peering into their neighbors’ windows. Some of them look back at us, and I can imagine what they see: a dirty woman with choppy black hair and a dirty little girl with freckles, known thieves who can’t be trusted. They draw their stocks and wares nearer to themselves and order their children to keep close.

Not here, she says, an eternity later. Not them. The baker is too well-liked. The town has put up with us this long only because we leave them alone, and we’ve always been young enough to pity. But we’re getting older. And I can get away from a guard, but—

Before she says the words, I know what they are.

But you can’t. You don’t know how.

Running my front teeth over my bottom lip, I pull away from my sister, anger building. "I can! I can, too, Laeli, I can! Why don’t you trust me?"

Laeli kneels with her hands on my shoulders, like she did when I was younger. She triggers an image of a man with my brown hair and eyes—our father, I think. I cannot be sure. But he kneels with his hands on my shoulders.

Elaina, stop, she says, her eyes wide and pleading—pitying. Let’s just buy the honey rolls and go back to Sophia. Alright? We can practice some hand blocks after breakfast.

Jerking myself away from her, I spit on her feet and hiss, The Sun burn you! before running away, back to find Sophia and to sulk until Laeli comes back.

She cursed me.

She cursed me in language I never thought Elaina knew.

Shutting my eyes, I concentrate on blocking out her words to ward off what they might bring. The Skies dislike orders and presumptions, the Sun especially. And to wish burning on me...

Elaina clung to me as a child. She depended on me for protection, for shelter, for everything—until we met Sophia. Then, I had to leave. A few weeks away turned into months—turned into more. I never said goodbye.

I’ve been back for four years, but nothing feels the same.

I’m not the same.

From the hollow of my stomach, an emptiness rises through my throat to the back of my mouth. I look down the main avenue toward the Copper Kettle. Acrott largely ignores the outer world, but the bar on the edge of town collects what little news does arouse local interest. I could sit in a corner in the shadows, have a drink, and listen to the latest gossip from the villagers who speak so loudly. It wouldn’t take long, and Elaina would be happier by the time I returned.

But I remember how Sophia’s eyes accused me last night when I fell down beside her, drunk again. Biting my cheeks, I grip the pommel of my sword and choose the path to the baker instead. I buy Elaina’s honey rolls with the last of my plunder and some of Sophia’s earnings, planning to take the long route back to our alley.

The Skies are bright and filled with Clouds today, curved and comforting overhead.

A group of children crowd an old woman as she passes through the street, each voice begging for a story. The old woman attempts to herd them away with a knotted cane but harumphs when she fails, lowering herself onto a crate against the wall.

You lot won’t like my stories, she warns, clearly trying to win some favor with her tormentors—or, maybe she just enjoys the thought of scaring them. For most of the elderly, that’s the only power they have left. Run back to your mothers before my cane finds your heads!

She wears a long ragged dress, layers of differently dirtied fabric sewn in patterns covering countless holes. Her gray hair, cropped short and frayed, sticks out in all directions, but her skin looks smooth from this distance, too pale and too healthy to have spent even a day in the pumpkin fields. From the cadence of her speech, I suspect she came from Cadecca. When the children finally promise to leave her alone in exchange for a story, the one she chooses convinces me.

My mother told it often. I cannot walk away.

We were once a barren land encased in an endless shadow, she begins, as my mother began. It was not yet the Skies, but a darkness that went on forever.

Her open palms sweep across the Skies above us.

"There weren’t any humans, only animals—ugly animals—and dust," she says.

Her lips curl in time with the girls’ disgusted laughter.

They roamed over cracking black rock and fed on each other, mouths always dry and thirsting. But the strongest and the wisest of the creatures fought, battling one another for dominion over the darkness. The strong were too strong, the wise too wise, and they could not defeat one another.

Her lap becomes a stage for her hands, for the prowling animals and their great battle atop her skirt.

So, they joined together, she says gravely.

Lifting her arms from her knees, she leans forward a bit and whispers, her palms turned to one another, "They became one, an even uglier set of creatures than the animals they’d wanted to rule, a blended breed of wolves with falcon claws and wings: the kowlin. They devoured the rock as well as the animals, destroying everything, until finally their talons dug so far into the rock that surges of dust flew higher into the air than the kowlin could reach in flight."

Her elbows stretch back to the Skies.

Some of the dust scattered, littering the shadow above with lighter, brighter specks.

Her fingers dance overhead—the shine of the endless stars.

Most of the dust came together and formed into a great new sphere.

She cups the Sun in her hands.

All these bits were furious at the insult, angry with the kowlin for this banishment to darkness. Their rage lit fire to the rock, birthing the livid Sun. And the Sun burned the barren land below, heating it beyond what the kowlin could bear to touch.

Back on her lap, her own fingers jump and flinch at the supposed heat of her skirt. She forms her hands into a pair of wings, signaling the kowlin’s exodus.

They took flight to escape the heated rock, never to descend again. But the air cooked them, boiling them down and down until they burst into vapor, and they cried so much and so long from the pain that salted water filled the valleys of the barren land, and the tops of the mountains grew moist.

She wiggles her wing-fingers to mime the rain.

The Sun would have boiled the waters, too, but the kowlin transformed into Clouds, shielding the land from the Sun’s ravaging light.

The joined wings disintegrate above her skirt, each hand pulling away and forming a flattened blanket that casts shadows on her lap.

As Clouds, they escape the full wrath of the Sun’s vengeance, and they shield us from the unbearable pain, weeping now and then to remind us of their unwilling sacrifice.

One of the youngest boys curls up on his pumpkin and sniffles.

Shaking her head almost sadly, the Cadeccan storyteller continues, The Clouds wept and the Sun burned, and together, they made the woods and fields on islands like Vilez. The darkness brightened into our bright blue Skies, lit up by the angry Sun.

You make the kowlin sound mean, complains one of the children when the story ends. "My mama says they were nice, that they were noble!"

Your mama thinks the world exists between her legs, counters the old woman, rapping the child so cruelly that its head opens and bleeds. As it wails, she shouts even louder, Anyone else want to contradict me? But the children aren’t listening anymore. They crowd around their wounded, pulling it away and cursing the woman as Elaina cursed me.

The fresh words of the legend blend with my sister’s curse, and I turn back the way I came to enter the butcher’s shop. With the money left, I buy a boneless pork leg and give strict instructions to wrap the meat tightly.

I refuse to touch it or smell it until necessary.

The patrons sneer beside me, as hateful as every mundane boor in this sedentary, listless town. But the butcher does his duty as always, and I leave the shop—penniless again—with a sizeable portion of meat wrapped in paper and string. I take side alleys to the center of town, avoiding crowded areas when I can.

In any civilized region, the watchtower stands tallest, reaching into the Skies as high as humans dare go. Cadecca’s watchtower reaches higher than Acrott’s, but only sky scribes—whose privileges allow them to go nearer to the sight of the Clouds—may enter, and so the smaller stature here makes no difference to me. Only the circular peristyle attached to the watchtower concerns me, earthbound as I am.

As I pass through the colonnade, the ever-burning fire in the center of the circle all but blisters me with its heat. A sky scribe operates levers and ropes with care, ensuring a square of thick fabric overhead moves in an exact pattern with the Sun to shade patrons from its rays, a man-made mimicry of a Cloud.

Crouching beside the fire, I set the baker’s wares on the ground and unwrap the pork leg, uttering a verbal shiver when I lift its slimy mass into my hands.

Because the kowlin lost their physical forms when the Sun burned them into vaporous Clouds, they hunger for flesh. On a rainy day, all the sky scribes in Acrott work to maintain the fire while the denizens sacrifice chicken, cow, pig, and even horse flesh into the flames to soothe the Clouds’ sorrow.

Today, the sky scribes assigned to the fire and the moving shade are the only human witnesses to my offering.

After standing, I toss the flesh into the fire, forcing myself to remain while it burns. The gradually rising smell of the cooking pork turns my stomach. Though I am prepared, the compounded years of that smell and its associated offerings assault me. Heaving, retching at the odor I now despise over all others, I imagine my mother’s face—my face—and stay until the flesh burns to ash. I cannot walk away.

The honey rolls cool by the time I return to the alley. Sophia’s awake, playing cards with my sister. I see that Elaina’s been crying but pretend not to notice. I drop the small bag of sweet things between them, relishing in the destroyed game.

Elaina always prefers playing with Sophia.

The honey rolls you wanted, I say, my voice caught in the back of my throat where that hunger for the Copper Kettle builds.

Elaina moves away from the food.

I’ve been thinking, I say, unable to take it, unable to stand her hatred or disappointment. Maybe training should go differently today. Maybe it’s time you picked a pocket of your own.

The way her face shifts and brightens in an instant convinces me entirely that I’ve made a terrible mistake.

Laeli grips my shoulder and pushes me low to the ground while she looks around the busy street from behind our stack of crates. She watches the crowd while Sophia distracts Ruben Unslinger in the alley across the way. Sophia typically won’t play that part of the game, scared it will ruin her reputation at the Nest, but Laeli said the mark she’s chosen for me is so forgetful, he might not even remember losing any money. She said he has a lot of it—his father owns one of the largest pumpkin fields to the south of the town settlement.

If things go well, I’ll get some experience, and Sophia might get a new friend.

I chew my nails, imagining my role over and over. If I had any friends, it would be easier. I’d hide in the gang of them, running past the young landowner while pretending to play. With the little scissors concealed behind my belt, I’d cut the purse from his waist and disappear. Then, I’d celebrate with my friends—my accomplices—and use the gold horizen to sleep indoors.

One last time, says Laeli, her eyes flitting to every face between her and our target. Elaina, one last time.

I walk across the street, I sigh, hating that she caught me rehearsing and now forces me to do it aloud. I pretend to look at things in the stalls. Laeli washed me in a horse’s drinking trough so I’ll look less suspicious. When she sees me, Sophia will make Unslinger pin her against the wall, so he’ll have his back to me.

He’ll have waited so long for his payoff by that point—whatever payoff is—that Laeli says he won’t think of anything else.

I walk past him; I lift the purse. I walk back into the crowd, never running. Then I come back, I finish.

And we’ll hope he assumes he spent it all at the Kettle last night.

How are you so sure he was there? I ask, watching from the sides of my eyes to see her reaction.

Her frantic gaze turns to me then back to the crowd, but she ignores the question. It’s answer enough.

I don’t like you doing this, she says. I wish you— But she

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