At the highest level of a giant forest, thirteen kingdoms fit seamlessly together to form the great city of Canopy. Thirteen goddesses and gods rule this realm and are continuously reincarnated into human bodies. Canopy’s position in the sun, however, is not without its dark side. The nation’s opulence comes from the labor of slaves, and below its fruitful boughs are two other realms: Understorey and Floor, whose deprived citizens yearn for Canopy’s splendor.
Unar, a determined but destitute young woman, escapes her parents’ plot to sell her into slavery by being selected to serve in the Garden under the goddess Audblayin, ruler of growth and fertility. As a Gardener, she wishes to become Audblayin’s next Bodyguard while also growing sympathetic towards Canopy’s slaves. When Audblayin dies, Unar sees her opportunity for glory—at the risk of descending into the unknown dangers of Understorey to look for a newborn god. In its depths, she discovers new forms of magic, lost family connections, and murmurs of a revolution that could cost Unar her chance… or grant it by destroying the home she loves.
Thoraiya Dyer’s fantasy debut, Crossroads of Canopy, is available January 31st from Tor Books! Read an excerpt below, and check out the author’s thoughts on Marc Simonetti’s gorgeous cover, inviting you into the rainforest…
Unar lies as still as a twelve-year-old can lie.
Eyes shut tight, anticipating her mother’s pleased and surprised reaction to her day’s work, she breathes, deliberately and deeply, with intent to deceive, in the wreckage of the cot that belonged to her sister. A curtain divides the cot from the rest of the hollowed-out, one-room dwelling. The corner twitches. Tickles her foot. Father checking on her.
Unar’s bent arm is her pillow. She keeps her legs curled so they won’t dangle over the splintered edges. The cot bars have been broken off to burn for fuel but the body remains whole.
Father thinks she’s sleeping. She’s never been so wide awake. He lets the curtain edge drop.
“It’s time to sell her,” Unar’s mother says from the other side of it, dashing Unar’s excitement to dust. Unar can’t remember if she was breathing slowly in or breathing slowly out. She can’t breathe. She doesn’t want to breathe.
And then her old friend anger finds her. Anger heats and eases open her lungs, letting in the steamy, mould-smelling air.
Father says in his soft, befuddled voice, “Wait a little. She’ll marry. We’ll have a dowry.”
“A slave price is more than a dowry.” Mother is as merciless as splinters.
“Your belly’s speaking, Erid. Eat these.”
Unar smells nut oil. She hears the rattle of cooked grubs being shaken out of a gourd. Surely, now, Mother will show surprise, will take back what she said about selling her only remaining child.
“What are they?” Mother asks, though she must be able to see what they are. “Why so few?”
“She grows too heavy for the highest branches,” Father says. “Besides, she spends the mornings helping me.”
Today, in search of prey, Unar trespassed over the border of their niche, into the Kingdom of Oxorland. She loves climbing into the mango-coloured sunset sky on the uppermost arms of the great trees of Canopy. Hugging the smooth, cool, powdery barks of gobletfruit and floodgum, she had pressed her ear to the wood, listening for the grind of grub jaws. Pried the fat, white gnawers out of their little tunnels with her bore-knife.
“She’s fit only for the block,” Mother says, voice muffled, mouth full.
In Oxorland, the suntrees, smothered in gleaming, poison-nectared flowers like copper bracelets weighing down a rich woman’s wrist, host many more grubs. They have softer wood, besides. Unar’s bore-knife went into them so easily.
“What’s the use, Erid? You’ll spend it all at once if we sell her. I know you. A lode of metal. A fine gown for begging from high-borns.”
“No! We’ll keep it. We’ll make sure it lasts till the end of our days.”
As eve ning approached, from her seat in the wind-tossed suntree crown, Unar saw a woman with midnight hair bound in a yellow-feathered headdress walking lithely along a branch path. Light-footed, the woman wore nothing but two slim cloths over hips and breasts, her moonset skin covered in sunburst patterns as though gold metal had been somehow pressed into her flesh. Merchants and slaves on the path had scattered hastily out of her way. The biggest man that Unar had ever seen, holding a wooden shield and bronze sword, walked in front of her, and six servants in hooded honeycoloured robes walked behind.
It was the incarnation of the sun goddess, Oxor.
“And our family?” Father despises his fortuneless family. Except when trying to claim a distant ancestor who saved the life of a god in disguise by sharing wood for a fire. “My blood?”
“Your blood will go on. You said yourself just now that she’s almost old enough to breed. They’ll feed her. They’ll let her lie with whom she pleases. She’ll be happier a slave, Uranun. Happier than stricken and starving.”
Unar has never heard a crueller lie. She half expects the tattered blue curtain that curls around the cot to be thrown back, for her mother to seize her and insist that her father take her to the market at once.
She thinks, I can’t be a slave. That’s not what I’m for.
This conviction shines in her mind; she turns it like a coal on a fire. What is she for? Cutting dead branches for others to burn? Digging grubs?
Unar shivers on the broken cot in the dark behind the flimsy curtain and thinks of the proud poise of the sun goddess.
I wasn’t born a goddess or a god, and there’s nothing I can do about that.
She raises her callused hands to cover her mouth, to keep the sobs inside. But then her eyes open, and she stares at her hands.
Maybe they are the hands of a goddess.
How would anyone know if they are or not? Mighty souls don’t always choose wealthy bodies, so Teacher Eann says.
The soul enters the body at first breath. Anybody can be chosen. Usually a baby that takes its first breath close to the place where the old body died, but not always.
More than one goddess is missing from her Temple. Ilan, goddess of justice and kings. Irof, goddess of flowers. I could be one of them, not yet discovered.
That would teach her mother a lesson for wanting to sell her. If Unar had the mighty magic powers of a goddess, oh, how her mother would regret her careless selfishness!
The monsoon is over. The paths are open. Unar resolves to go to the closest Temple. How do they test for goddess souls? Does it hurt? It can’t hurt more than having a mother who hates her. The Temple lies in the crown of the biggest tallowwood tree, one of the emergent trees that rise even higher than the canopy and are always bathed in strong, full sun. Unar’s never dared dig for grubs there, because the biggest tallowwood is the sacred emergent of the goddess of birth and life, Audblayin, Waker of Senses.
At the Temple, they’ll know how to tell.
When her parents try to sell her as a slave in the morning, to have the sigil of obedience burned into her tongue forever, she’ll already be gone. Goddess or no, she won’t come back to the hovel.
As soon as she makes the decision, Unar’s heart races. The smell of quince blossom and wood fern fills her nostrils. Something inside her chest, like a seed sending out a tiny root, begins to grow there. No idea she’s ever had has felt so right, yet the sensation is distressing; she clutches at her rib cage. Had she eaten a grub that somehow survived and is squirming around in there? The seed-feeling stops.
Unar thinks the thought again, deliberately: I will go to Audblayin’s Garden.
Her whole body thrills with it. She hasn’t swallowed a live grub; it feels more like she’s swallowed a thousand candles. Hugging herself only makes it pulse harder. A second heart she didn’t know she could have. She almost cries out to ask her parents what’s happening, but stops herself in time.
This isn’t a thing of axe makers or woodcutters. It’s a thing whispered about in the school or the square.
A thing of Temple Servants and gods.
I’ll wait until they’re sleeping, and I’ll go.
Until now, the Garden seemed a place of dread. Life-sized carvings on the Gates show soldiers and spell-casters, victorious, defending the Temple in a hundred battles. They say there’s an invisible wall around it that keeps out wrongdoers, and in Unar’s world, wrongdoers means have-nothings, so that she, a have-nothing, can’t help but be a wrongdoer.
Yet when Unar sets out, the humming seed inside her seems to put out an added leaf whenever she takes the correct turn. The lower branch roads aren’t lit. Bats scream about their fruit-feasts, and Unar startles an owl. She carries only her bore-knife, heavy at her waist, and the night is cold and damp through the holes in her knee-length, knotted tunic. She sleeps in her father’s castoffs, too shameful to be seen by daylight.
When she finds the Great Gates, takes a deep breath, and approaches them, she stares up at the flickering strings of lanterns for so long that she almost trips over a skinny boy, about her age, sitting with his arms around his knees on the abandoned platform before the Temple.
“Too late,” he says softly. “The Gatekeeper’s already locked it for the night. We have to wait until morning.”
“We?” Unar’s shoulders stiffen about her ears. Why are they being quiet? Do sleeping monsters guard those tall wooden walls with the Garden’s pointed pavilion roofs and curling passionfruit tendrils showing over the tops? “Why are you waiting here?”
“Why do you think? I’m not trying to get pregnant, am I?”
Disappointment drops Unar’s shoulders. Is that what the Garden is for?
“I think you’re mean, and you look hungry. Are you going to rob the first Servant who comes out with a night soil bucket?”
The boy’s face falls. His bare arms are brown as bear hide in the lamp light. He’s lanky and long-faced with short, sun-bleached hair, and he carries nothing. Under the loose tunic and short waist-wrap that barely covers his loincloth, it’s easy to see he hasn’t so much as a knife or a coil of rope on him.
“I didn’t mean to be rude to you.” He holds his knees tighter. “Forgive me. I misspoke. My brother died in the monsoon. He drowned only three days ago.”
“I’m sorry.” Unar takes a deep breath. She kneels next to him. It’s easier to whisper. “I’m sorry I was rude to you, too.”
His smile is hesitant.
“They keep their night soil in the Garden. It’s good for the plants.”
“My brother died because my parents defied the goddess. The rain goddess, I mean. I’m from Ehkisland. My parents died, too. I’ve come to serve Audblayin, the goddess of life, not just because I want to live, but because it’s the right thing to do.” He rubs his temple with his left hand. “Submit to them. Serve them. Why else are we here? What else are we for?”
I can’t be a slave. That’s not what I’m for.
“How do you know?” Unar asks. “Whether you can serve the goddess or not, I mean?”
“There’s a tree growing out of a tree.” The boy’s hands relax. They rest by his sides. “The night-yew, I mean. It’s the first tree, the beginning of the forest, but it’s a parasite, like all babies when they’re new. It grows out of the host tree. When Audblayin’s a goddess, like she is now, it flowers at night and is the night-yew. When Audblayin’s a god, it flowers in the day and is the day-yew. It wakes up the magic, if you have it. And if you have it, you can serve.”
“I have it,” Unar says at once, her certainty making her louder than she would have liked to be. Magic. That’s what she has, and she has it without even visiting the tree that grows out of the tree. Does that mean she’s something better than a servant? Does it mean she really could be a goddess of her own? She remembers how Oxor glowed. How the seed in her chest tugged her towards the Garden. “I saw some Servants in Oxorland. Six women and a fighting man.”
“I suppose the fighting man was Oxor’s Bodyguard. Deities in male bodies each have a female Bodyguard. The ones in female bodies have male ones. My grandmother told me that my brother drowned and I lived for a reason. She said I felt drawn towards Temple service because the deathless ones had a use for me. I’m not so sure. There’s nothing special about me. How could there be? I was a twin. There was always a spare one of me.”
Unar stares at him. His eyes are wide, searching her face for some sort of reassurance, but she’s barely seeing him; she’s thinking about what he said.
When Audblayin’s a god, it flowers in the day and is the day-yew.
Deities in male bodies each have a female Bodyguard.
I felt drawn towards Temple service because the deathless ones had a use for me.
Possibilities branch in all directions.
Audblayin is a goddess now, but in her next incarnation, she could be a he.
Maybe I’m to be the Bodyguard of the god of life.
The seed in Unar’s chest bursts into vibrant, thrumming tangles that fill her from fingertips to toes. The smell of quince and wood fern comes again, stronger than ever. It startles her afresh. Twitches her. Sinks from her feet into the platform of living wood. The first smells are washed away, replaced by the scent of turned-over, month-old mulch and pungent tallowwood sap. The boy stares, drawing back slightly, as though he can feel it, too.
Slowly the smells and sensations fade. Unar can’t find any trace of the seed inside her. Bats still screech and owls still hunt, but everything is changed. The goddess of life has called to her. Marked her out. Pulled her close, filling her with the belonging and warmth she has rarely felt in her mother’s presence.
Saved her, but not her sister, from her parents’ neglect, for a reason.
“Why don’t you want to serve Ehkis, then?” she asks the boy, as though nothing unusual has happened. The seed is gone, but the memory, the powerful conviction that she is on an ordained road, remains.
The boy’s mouth makes a flat line, and his wide nostrils flare.
“The rain goddess drowned my brother,” he says. He rubs his skinny left shoulder with his right hand. “He punched me in this arm, the last time I saw him alive. It went numb and then it hurt for the rest of the day. I wish I could still feel it hurting.”
So. He might say he wants to submit, but not to the rain goddess. Not yet.
Unar almost tells him about her baby sister, Isin. She almost shows him the indents in her skin from the cot she lay in, tells how it smells of emptiness and death, and how her cold mother thought nothing of making her sleep in it.
After Isin fell.
Instead, she sits down cross-legged beside the boy. Together, surrounded by the sounds of falling water, whining mosquitoes, and musky night-parrots making small branches creak and crack with their weight, they wait for the break of day.
Moonlight had followed Unar in the hours since she’d slipped out of the Garden, and now, as a shadow on a branch resolved into a rain-silvered silhouette, she realised something else had followed her, too.
Unar wanted to ignore the crouching outline above and to the left of her. Barefoot on her own broad bough in loose leaf-trousers and a red Gardener’s tunic, she was impatient to see if she could reach the thing, several body lengths below, that she’d come for. There, barely discernible in the dark, a cloth-wrapped bundle was stuck in the fork of the next lowest lateral branch, tantalising her, but half-heard myths of the Understorey kept her gaze fixed to the silhouette.
She gripped her bore-knife. It had proven useless in her descent through the mighty forest. This was a gap-axe tree and couldn’t be bored into by any means short of magic. The knife should puncture a lung easily enough, though.
“Who’s there?” she called defiantly.
“You climb well,” a man’s low, amused voice replied. “For a Gardener. But you’re trespassing. You crossed the border many minutes ago.”
“Both of them.”
Unar had been aware of it even before she reached the crossroads. She’d felt the Garden’s power shrinking as she crossed horizontally from the realm of the birth goddess into the realm of the rain goddess. Then she’d felt queasy in her gut as she’d climbed lower and lower, crossing the vertical border from Canopy into Understorey.
Here, none of the Canopian gods or goddesses held sway. All the magical
gifts of Unar’s mistress had faded completely. Only Unar’s physical strength
and stamina mattered here.
“You’ve crossed the border, too,” she said. “Who are you?”
The man leaned forward out of the tree’s moonshadow. A lined brow suggested he’d seen at least twice as many as Unar’s sixteen years. Water dripped from his glossy, tousled hair. Raised, charcoal-rubbed scars in the shape of tears streaked down cheeks that in daylight would be dark brown, naming him neither Understorian, nor slave, but a Canopian dedicated to the rain goddess, Ehkis. The tears of her Servants were said to have terrible powers, but below the magically defended border, they could do nothing but mingle harmlessly with the rain.
Unar relaxed her grip on the bore-knife.
“I’m Edax,” he said. “Bodyguard of the Bringer of Rain. Shall I tell you her birth name while she’s sleeping?”
“You’re not her Bodyguard,” Unar said, shocked. “If you were, you’d be with her, watching her.” As if the rain goddess’s Bodyguard, her most trusted, feared, and beloved, would betray childhood secrets from a time before the nature of her soul became apparent.
“She sleeps in the bottom of a lake. Who can harm her there? Meanwhile, I’m cursed with a Bodyguard’s sleeplessness.”
“It’s a gift.”
“You think you want that gift, little adept from the Garden Temple? You think you want to be a Bodyguard to the next incarnation of your goddess, when she is reborn a god? And what if she is a woman, again, and then another woman, and then a woman a third time? Mulch for brains!”
“You’re the mulch for brains if you think you can guess the next gender of the one I serve.”
The goddess that Unar served, Audblayin, the birth goddess, had been a woman for three incarnations. She was old now, so old. Surely she would take a turn at being a man. She must be a man. Then she would need a woman Bodyguard, and Unar would be waiting, ready to take the power that being a Bodyguard would bring.
To never need sleep!
“You have bigger problems than the next incarnation of Audblayin. Staying out after dark, for one thing. Will the Great Gates of the Garden not be closed to you forever, little Gardener?”
Unar raised the rain-speckled bore-knife higher as Edax came closer again. She realised as he moved along the underside of the branch, with a brazenness only a chimera should have owned, that he must be what he claimed to be. With utter certainty, she knew she couldn’t fight him and live.
But he didn’t know everything. The Great Gates were already closed, of course. Unar had climbed them. Edax eased himself down to the final branch between them. Th e flaps of a sodden, silver-star-embroidered, indigo jacket hung loosely over his black tunic. Also hanging were the paired hems of a calf-length skirt, split up the sides to give him freedom to climb while still appearing formal when he stood on a flat platform. She couldn’t see if he was barefooted like she was or wore boots.
“I came for that,” she said, indicating the bundle below them with her knife tip, not looking away from him.
“And what is that, exactly?” he asked.
“I felt it. When I was higher. I felt new life on the brink of being extinguished. Audblayin shares that power with all of us. So we can tend the Garden.”
He dropped suddenly, suspended by clawed toes in front of her, upside-down with his skirt hems held in one hand, loincloth and concealed throwing knives showing, grinning, making her gasp. It wasn’t right, to have feet like that. Unar had heard rumours that those who served Orin, goddess of birds and beasts, were permanently changed in size and shape, but nobody had ever mentioned to her that the Bodyguard of Ehkis had the grey toes and talons of a sooty owl.
“Shall I fetch it for you?” he asked whimsically.
“Yes,” she said at once.
“What will you give me in exchange?”
“What do you want? I have nothing but what you see, and what you see is owned already. Audblayin gives no gifts to the Servants of her rivals.”
“She owns you while you’re in Canopy,” Edax said salaciously. “Just as my oaths keep me celibate while I, one who walks in the grace of Ehkis, find myself in Canopy. This is Understorey.”
“This is Understorey,” she agreed. “Your goddess-given abilities to walk sideways and upside down won’t work here, will they? Your tears will melt neither bones nor iron bars. Why did you offer to fetch it when you can’t reach it? You’re a liar. You’re wasting my time.” His owl talons were able to encircle the smaller branch that he hung from, but they couldn’t penetrate the bark of the gap-axe tree.
New life on the brink of being extinguished. That bundle stuck in the tree fork could be the baby, Imeris, only fourteen days old. Unar had never met the baby’s father, the merchant, Epatut. Imeris had fallen some ten hours ago. Everybody was looking for that baby, though. Epatut had offered a huge food reward. He’d even paid the Servants of the death god, Atwith, in order to learn that the child’s spirit had not yet passed under their master’s eye.
Unar didn’t know Epatut, but she admired him for so desperately seeking a child who was probably far out of reach and alone in the dark, with death only a matter of time.
Except that I have surely found her.
Edax continued to grin and watch in silence while Unar stubbornly roped the wet, lichen-dappled bough of the great gap-axe tree. It was slippery, dangerous work. The tree was taller than seven hundred men standing on each other’s shoulders, and falling wasn’t the only risk. Understorians could be lurking anywhere in the gloom.
Worse, the longer she stayed below the border of Canopy, the more the arcane aura faded from her skin. By morning, the unseen magical barrier she’d passed through so easily would no longer admit her back to the high stratum that was her home.
Ten hours since the baby had fallen. Perhaps Imeris’s aura was gone already, but Unar had to try. Nobody had tried to get Unar’s sister back a de cade ago when Isin had fallen.
Isin had fallen during the monsoon. Unar paused with her fists tangled in rope, remembering. The rain had seemed to hang, fixed like spiderwebs. Water ran off branches unpredictably. There had been dry patches in odd places. Puddles in others. A man screamed that his dried fruit storage room was flooded and his fire was out, blaming the external stair tacked on by a neighbour.
All of that fell away when Unar, six years old, saw the open door of the hovel. Lacewings filled the black hole of it like flies in a dead animal’s mouth. Her first, stupid thought: Our fire is out, too. Mother will be mad.
Father had halfheartedly called her name. That was how she knew she’d pushed ahead of him, teetering precariously on the path. The broken lock was gone. Stolen. It had contained a minuscule amount of metal. Faint light from the excuse for a window showed the empty crib.
Mother has taken Isin to the forge.
Mother had never taken either of her children to the forge.
Isin is taken, little Unar had thought, horrified. Isin is stolen, like the lock.
But, no. The ashy, wet smears on the splintered floor told the story. Isin had climbed over the railing and fallen into the wet ashes of the fire here. She’d crawled there, to get cooked grain from the cold wooden bowl with both hands, leaving ghostly, glutinous handprints here. Footprints there, where she used the bars of the crib to pull herself up. Landed on her bottom. Maybe she had cried.
She’d crawled to the open door and fallen into the dark.
Drips slowly, inexorably carried the ash and sticky grain residue over the edge. Unar had shrieked Isin’s name.
And what had Father said?
We’ll get another.
Another lock? Another child? Unar was afraid she knew which one he really meant, and when he tried to gather her, to push her inside, she bit his hand.
She didn’t run away. Not then. Not yet. Not until years later, when she heard them talking and knew they intended to make her a slave.
“Your rope is too short,” Edax observed, bringing her jarringly back to the present.
Unar wanted to cry. The man who claimed he was the Bodyguard of the rain goddess was right. She could return to the Garden for more rope, but by then it would be too late.
When she turned back to Edax, he stood beside her on the bough.
“Take my ankles,” he said. For a moment, she simply stared up into his face. He couldn’t be Ehkis’s closest and most loyal Servant. Nobody with such grave responsibilities would be so rash.
Matching his impulsiveness, she wrapped her arms around his knees. Together, they toppled, face-first, the rope tied tight to Unar’s climbing harness. It jolted them as they reached the end of it. Unar’s grip on Edax’s knees slipped to his feet. She managed not to recoil from them, even as the long owl-toes flexed, keeping the sharp talon-tips turned inwards. His hands grappled with the bundle.
“I have it,” he shouted.
“What do we do now?” Unar cried as they swung in a pendulum arc, crashing into the gap-axe’s smooth, unyielding trunk. But Edax, serpent-like, doubled back on himself, scaling the rope with the cloth-wrapped burden tucked under his arm, and with both of Unar’s hands freed, she was able to climb up after him.
“Here,” he said, breathing heavily, handing the bundle to her.
When Unar unwrapped it, her hands still shaking from the chance she’d taken, she found not a baby, but a bag of half-rotten blue quandong and white satinash fruit. Some of the seeds had germinated but withered in the absence of light.
“New life,” Edax said. “Are you going to save it?”
Made mute by the deepness of her disappointment, Unar spread her hands, spilling the seeds and the wrappings into the blackness below.
The Garden Gates were high and glittered in the moonlight with inset metals.
Elaborate carvings provided purchase for Unar’s fin gers and toes. It was probably sacrilege for her bark-encrusted bare soles to soil the life-giving lips of the engraved goddess, but she didn’t care. All she could think about was the baby who had fallen and the smirk on Edax’s face as she’d let the seeds scatter.
At the top of the Gate, the wards interrogated her memory, invading her mind.
Have you stolen food?
Have you stolen the sovereignty of another’s body?
That question irritated her. If she’d been made a slave, as her mother intended, she could have been sold to the Garden and her bodily sovereignty stolen daily. But the Garden cared only for the sanctity of free Canopians.
Have you stolen human life?
“None of those things,” she whispered, clutching her head as images of everything from her sister Isin’s cross-eyed baby face to the withered seedlings flared and died. At last, the wards permitted her to drop down from the lintel into the Garden.
The Garden grew in the hollowed-out trunk and crown of a lopped-off tallowwood two hundred paces in diameter. It was the tallest tree in the niche of Audblayinland, one of thirteen sovereign kingdom niches that comprised the great city of Canopy, and despite losing half its leaves in the lopping, it was kept alive, growing, and malleable by the birth goddess’s power.
Delicate suspended bridges connected the two dozen smaller gardens, planted in lopped lateral branches, to the central circle of the main garden. Soil was cultivated in the hollows, providing foundations for ferns and flowering miniature trees from Understorey and Floor. Open to the sky, except in the places where peaked pavilions stood, the Garden was watered by rain during the monsoon. In the dry season, slaves carried water from pools in the crotches of leafy lower laterals by screw pumps and buckets on chains.
At the very heart, surrounded by a moat filled with rainbow-hued fish, stood the egg-shaped Temple of Audblayin, Waker of Senses, the birth goddess, sometimes a god, carved of a piece from the lustrous white sapwood and pale yellow heartwood of the tree.
Unar hoped that the lone sentry, the sleepless Bodyguard of the goddess, would be hypnotised by the beauty of the moon this night and fail to spot the miscreant Gardener who crept back towards her hammock in the loquat grove. Unar had seen the goddess only once. It was the morning after an assassination attempt by a pregnant woman who had hoped to gain Audblayin’s soul for her imminent child. The Bodyguard hadn’t been with Audblayin when Unar saw her. Whispers said he had gone to punish the woman’s family. It was he who had foiled the attempt itself, tossing the perpetrator out of one of those crescent-shaped windows to break her neck on the steps below.
Audblayin had emerged from the Temple at dawn to reassure her Gardeners and Servants. Her many-layered robe of eggshell-white and frost-green had a high, constrictive neck. It held her aged face in a receptacle like a benevolent, overripe aubergine. She’d made no motion to aid the growth of any tree or vine, yet all green things in close proximity had sent new growth creeping towards her. Out of season, luminous blue flax lily fruits burst into being on the ends of long black stems, and flowerfowl came nervously out from among the possum-paw plants and golden guinea-flowers to lay their eggs at her feet.
Later in the morning, when the goddess had gone back into the Temple, Gardeners and slaves relished the eggs and fruit. Only Unar stared at the crescent-shaped window and wondered whether Audblayin’s Bodyguard was short or tall, educated or unlettered, born an internoder or born stricken, a superior warrior or a superior mage.
Memories faded. Right now there wasn’t time for Unar to stare at the window, not when she feared the Bodyguard might be staring back. She’d wasted enough of the night on her futile mission without being caught and punished as well.
As she skipped across a slender bridge that chimed gently and swayed under her weight, she barely avoided a collision with a slave.
The woman was cloaked and hooded. Dirty hands flew to her face an instant before she fell to her knees. White hands looked unfinished to Unar, like portrait outlines on parchment waiting for the mixing of the colours. Unar’s friend Oos had made portraits on monkey-vellum upon arriving in the Garden. Those portraits, added to her manner of speaking, earned Oos the instant enmity of the other candidates. Plenty of them would have, prior to their calling, enjoyed a few extra animal skins, the source of the vellum, for warmth. They resented the vizier’s daughter who wasted them on trifles.
“Forgive me, Warmed One,” the slave said. She lowered her hands, revealing a bleached, hawkish face, and gazed up with white-lashed, watery, pale eyes.
Unar had noticed this particular slave before, one of five ageing beauties that had been left as a tribute at the Temple before Unar was born. Th ey were the purchase price for the fertility of a Canopian princess, and in two decades, the five women had grown expert in tending plants.
Unar examined this one closely for the first time. The woman had the baby-sick skin but not the deep forearm scars of Understorian warriors with retractable “claws” for scaling trees. She couldn’t be a slave taken in war, but instead must have been born a slave. Nobody had set the snake’s teeth in place at puberty to form a grown fighter’s magically grafted climbing spines.
“What are you doing?” Unar asked.
“Gardening, Warmed One.”
“By moonlight?” Unar demanded, even as the rain clouds that had been covering and uncovering the moon all night cloaked it once again. Th ough the monsoon was over, there would be a few final, intermittent showers. “Is this Understorey superstition passing for true magic?”
“Then explain what you’re doing.”
The slave looked everywhere but at Unar.
“One of the other women from my previous house hold.” The dirty hands clenched on the slave’s knees. “The oldest one. She can’t work as she once did. She couldn’t turn the crank handle to bring up water, so I did it for her. It took me all day.”
“So I was left with no time to prepare the soil and plant the seeds that were given to me to complete the spiral pattern. I buried them in a single hole. Now I have to dig them up again, loosen the earth, and plant them properly before morning, but I can’t find where I buried them. I need a lantern, or when daylight comes, they’ll find out about the old woman. They’ll push her off the edge of the Garden.”
Unar had been raised to hate slaves. If they were dark-skinned slaves, Canopians who had been sold by their families to settle debts, they were weak and deserved to starve, and if they were pale Understorian slaves, they deserved to be pushed off the edge of the Garden for being enemy raiders or the descendants of enemy raiders.
But before she could turn away in disgust, she heard her mother’s voice, saying that Unar was fit only for sale at the block. She remembered her sister, Isin, who had fallen, and the missing baby Imeris. It was too late for either of them to return to Canopy, but if they had somehow survived the fall and been found alive by the denizens of Understorey or Floor, she would wish for strangers to show them forgiveness. Kindness, even.
She felt for, and quickly found, the strength of the life force in the seeds and their yearning to grow tall and strong. Inside the other woman was the unfurling of potential life; the slave was ovulating. The smell of earth and pulpy red arils filled her nostrils.
“It’s that bed over there. That’s where you buried them,” she said.
“Yes, Warmed One.”
Unar led the way off the bridge and over to the raised bed. She began digging, and found the seeds almost at once. The slave gave a small cry of relief. Smooth, shiny shapes filled Unar’s palms. She lifted them, sniffed at them, using her goddess-given gift.
“These are gap-axe seeds,” she observed.
“Yes, Warmed One. Planted here in the Garden, watered by rain, they will grow to only ten paces tall. There’s something about having their roots in Floor that makes the great trees grow to one thousand paces and more.”
“I know more than you about the great trees!”
“Yes, Warmed One.”
Unar didn’t feel particularly warmed at that moment. She dwelled in abundant sunshine that rarely reached Understorey, it was true, but she shouldn’t have boasted about having more knowledge than a slave.
“Go to sleep,” she said. “I’ll plant the seeds in the spiral pattern. With magic, it won’t matter that the soil hasn’t been loosened. I’ll lend them the strength to push through compacted ground. I’ll even germinate them, so that all can see the work was done.”
Unar saw from her hesitant expression that the slave woman didn’t believe her, and didn’t care. Were there Understorian gods? If so, they must be pathetic and powerless compared to those of Canopy, but maybe they had eyes to see; maybe they would recognise the tribute that Unar paid to them by protecting one of their own.
And maybe they would watch over a helpless, fallen girl child in recognition of Unar’s tribute.
The hammocks were tied between loquat trunks.
Unar stopped at the paired, hollow-trunked, deciduous prison trees at the grove entrance to return the unknotted ropes of her climbing harness to the store. Fallen leaves were beginning to make paired, patterned circles around their bases. Leashed tapirs were sometimes kept there, when the wealthy brought their foliage-fattened livestock for tribute. The meat of the docile animals, captive bred and accustomed to being farmed in treetops, was a rare treat. It was generations since troublemaking slaves had been sealed up inside either of the swollen, stumpy prison tree trunks, but Servant Eilif had threatened to do it to Unar the last time she was caught out of her hammock by moonlight.
On that occasion, Unar had been trying to sprout the seeds of the night-yew, despite knowing that it was forbidden for there to be more than one night-yew tree in the Garden. And when Unar had asked why there could be only one, Eilif’s answer had been that there could be only one incarnation of Audblayin at a time, which seemed irrelevant, but Unar hadn’t tried again.
The scent of loquat nectar in fuzzy, still-furled flowers and the sound of snoring drew Unar along the dirt path towards the hammocks. Layered, petal-like eaves of the Gardener’s Gathering pavilion sheltered the sleepers from light rain without blocking afternoon sunlight. Streams of water, diverted from the pavilion’s peak over the edge of the Garden nearby, connected the higher platform with one of the pools below. Oos said she hated the waterfalls, because they made her need to pee, but Unar appreciated their ability to mask murmured midnight conversations.
Midnight was well behind her now. She’d spent an hour planting, and her mind was numb, all the magic bled out of her by the task of germinating the gap-axe seeds. In hindsight, it had been a little ambitious, but Unar was accustomed to having a deeper well to draw on than most.
“Did you find the baby?” Oos asked sleepily, invisibly enfolded in her hammock, as Unar tried to climb into the one beside it.
Unar’s arms felt like logs. She slipped back to the turf, rested a moment, and then tried again to drag herself, headfirst, into the hammock.
“It was good of you to join the search, Unar.”
“It was stupid of me,” Unar said, her voice muffled by blankets. “Nobody lives who falls.”
“Did you go into Understorey?”
Oos caught her breath reverently.
“What was it like?”
“Dark.” Unar struggled to turn over, to lie on her back and look through the gap of her cocoon at the underside of the red-painted roof. Th e hammocks came from Ukakland, where the insect god imbued them with the ability to repel night invaders, but the soft silk lining was something Oos had sewn for her. “The rain was mostly stopped. The moonlight too.”
“Did you meet anybody? Any wild slaves?”
“I met a liar. His name was Edax.”
“He was a liar if he said his name was Edax. That’s the name of the Bringer of Rain’s Bodyguard. Nobody else is allowed to take that name.”
Unar was taken aback by the instant recognition, but she had no energy to ask questions. What did she care, or need to know, about neighbouring gods and their Servants, anyway? Her place was here in the Garden. As a Gardener, she could sense struggling life and strengthen it. Soon enough she would be a Servant and germinate more than just plants; she would help to kindle human life. When she finally became the Bodyguard, the only one to have direct contact with the deity who stayed inside the egg-shaped Temple at all times, she would be able to ask: Had her sister, Isin, been reborn?
For just as the death god dreamed the names of those who passed into the ether, Audblayin dreamed the names of those who returned to be born again.
Oos, in contrast, hadn’t come to the Garden with ambition. She was fifteen years old. Only a year younger than Unar, she was delighted, like a child, by flowers, the feel of soil, and the sight of fish swimming. Th e daughter of a king’s vizier, she had an extensive knowledge of politics, astronomy, and religion. She’d come to the Garden in pursuit of beauty.
Unar’s mother was an axe maker, her father a fuel finder. Both were stricken, which meant they were free, but just barely. They didn’t own houses, like citizens. They were certainly not internoders, who owned whole sections of trunk between two branches, nor were they crowns, who owned the tops of entire trees. They were neither royalty nor gods.
They still should have found the food somewhere. Somehow. They should have paid tribute to the god Odel, the Protector of Children, so that Isin could live.
Unar would find Isin. New body or old. They would be together again.
As she relaxed in the hammock, she let images of her family’s hovel surround her. Unar’s earliest memory was of a cramped room: a wooden hollow all yellow lamplight and sooty shadow. The rocking and the creaking of the tree sometimes seemed to possess Mother. Her rocking and creaking with baby Isin in the chair moved in time with the great tree, as if their unity was something that might calm the tree in the storm. Little Unar knew that agreeing with Mother, mirroring her, sometimes calmed Mother.
Perhaps Mother thought rocking and creaking would calm the rocking, creaking room. Unar, blanket-wrapped, had crouched by the kettle and ashes a few paces away, mesmerised by the baby’s bright eyes and the puzzlement on the small, unformed face. Isin’s doughy cheek slumped against Mother’s right shoulder like dropped, unfired clay.
Baby’s puzzlement deepened. She vomited a splash of white breast milk onto Mother’s dark shawl. Then her little furrowed brow relaxed. All was well with her. She might as well have laughed with relief. Unar had laughed.
Is something funny? Mother shouted. Are you laughing at me? Here. Take her.
Unar took Isin while Mother rinsed the corner of her shawl in a bucket. Isin’s head wobbled and her inturned, useless feet fell out of her wrap, dragging near the rough, splintered floor. Unar was five years old, almost six, barely tall enough to hold her sister out of the dust. They stared at each other until Isin went cross-eyed and Unar had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing again.
We’ll laugh together, she thought. When you’re big enough. We’ll laugh at all the funny things.
A few months later, though, Isin had fallen, and Unar felt like she would never laugh again.
Oos’s voice, insistent, brought Unar back from her dark recollections.
“Unar?” Oos ventured.
“Did your oaths bind? While you were in Understorey? Could you have broken them?”
“There’s nothing out there that I want to steal,” Unar said scornfully. “And nobody I want to rape. I have no enemies to murder.”
“One who walks in the grace of Audblayin was only asking,” Oos replied, too quickly. “One only wanted to know how it felt. Did it feel like it did before? Before you came to the Garden, I mean. Could you care about things that weren’t birthing or sprouting? Could you think wicked thoughts?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Unar admitted, her eyes closing as she slipped into sleep. “All my thoughts are wicked.”
Excerpted from Crossroads of Canopy © Thoraiya Dyer, 2017
This excerpt originally appeared on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog.