Arten walked toward the human town, still unsure what to do. Back in the tambran homeland, deep in the heart of the forest, he would search for a particular vine, the smoke vine, which floated over the breaks in the forest, light as the smoke of its name. He’d been young when his people were driven from their homes by the malicious shadows, but he remembered the dusky light of those clearings bridged by the smoke vine. They’d had a strange, otherworldly feel, as if staying too long in them would trap a tambrae in some other place, impossible to reach by walking.
Smoke vine, though, didn’t grow here at the edge of the forest. What could he give to Lenil instead to show his love?
Arten arrived at the village with no answers. Gangly humans walked rapidly past, often pausing to look at him. Stumps, they called the tambran—living stumps because their round bodies and bark-like skin made them resemble chopped trees. The tambran had been several years that they’d lived outside the village for several years, and the humans often went out to see their ritual races, but still the people stared whenever Arten entered the town itself. He’d always found something dishonorable about humans. Not that they were all evil—certainly not to the extent of the shadows that had conquered the heart of the forest—but that small lies and cheatings were a deep part of who they were. So he was careful to never trust them, never even put himself in a position where he needed something from one of them if he could help it.
He thought the streets were especially full today, but it may have been because he was trying so hard to find something to give to Lenil. What could possibly be as rare and wonderful as a length of smoke vine?
A group of young humans came running at him up the street, yelling and laughing. Arten hurried on his root-legs to the side of the street to let them pass. They seemed to be chasing something, but he couldn’t see what. Maybe this was the human version of the tambran races.
He thought of Lenil as he resumed walking. She was his age, her bark just slightly wrinkled. Soon it would be more deeply scored, though, as they both approached the time for their second peeling ceremony. As the tambran passed through the stages of life—from child to young adult, to adult, to elder and beyond—they had to go through a bark-peeling ceremony to make them stronger. Arten had to declare his love for her before then! A match planned in early adulthood was always stronger than one that began after the second peeling.
And besides, if he waited, who knew what other tambrae might notice her and sneak past Arten to court her? His fingers, slightly gnarled after one peeling ceremony, clenched at the thought.
The street opened before him into a large square filled with people. Arten slid in front of them and looked at what had brought so many people together. Kites.
Strings rose over the crowd, each held by one human while a second stood behind to assist. Light caught on the strings, as if they were covered with bits of glass. As Arten watched the dizzying spins and circles of the kites, he realized they were at war. The controllers used their kite strings to cut the others, and the kites themselves to drive other kites to the ground.
A bright orange kite sailed free as he watched, and a group of children dashed off after it. That must have been what the other group had been after too, chasing the fallen kites madly through the streets.
The best kites, though, remained, and their movement looked like a strange dance. It reminded him of Lenil’s own graceful dancing.
Arten had danced with Lenil a month earlier. That had been the start of their courtship. At night when no humans remained near their camp to gawk at them, the tambran gathered together at the edge of the woods. Small torches cupped in mounds of mud gave the clearing a strange light. The faces of the dancers were lit from beneath, turning even the most familiar tambran into intriguing strangers.
Arten had been sure his heart sounded like a woodpecker as he approached one vaguely familiar figure. She wore woven vines in her splintered top. Her nose was even with his mouth.
Before asking her to dance, he spun around in front of her, showing the movement of his root legs, the strength of his bark. When he stopped, she stood there, and he felt sure she was rejecting him. His face sank. As he was about to turn away for another figure, though, she began to move. Her dancing was smooth as she spun, and soon he moved with her, out among the other dancers.
These kites moved much the same, gracefully, surprising in their sudden shifts and twists. Arten let himself fall into the rhythm of the kites, let their movement turn his mind away from Lenil and what gift he would present to her. Kites flew free, and there was something inspiring in their sudden departure. Others became tangled in th -- [End of Preview.]