Freetown 4

Over the next hour, as the lamps of Rust Town extinguished to reveal the stars, Karla learned that she had not erred in swearing by her mother’s name. Mara had spent five years in the village she’d called Freetown, demonstrating the energy of a minor deity for every day of them. Pacing, gesticulating, draining mugs–a task Karla helped with–Rose and Griffin explained the way Mara had brought the gospel of apocalypse to the people of the surface.

By the end of her first year, there were a group of people following in her wake, named after the gift Karla’s father–whom nobody ever named, because Mara herself had never named him–had given his love before she escaped slavery. The Harpooneers soon outgrew both the City Council and the bay-borne slavers, and cowed them both into the shadows for a blessed while. Treasure hunters supported them: anything to bring back a share of the sphere’s wealth.

Kevin Griffin, brother of Edward and husband of Rachel, became their most zealous booster, closely joined by Almon Carpenter, a famous sniffer-out of mushrooms. Their efforts that first year focused on trying to recreate Rokhshan-style flight using the lift runes Mara remembered from the castle.

But it was no use. Mara’s memory had holes torn in it by starvation and the lash. The runes had flaws just big enough to make them useless. In workshop after workshop, one hushed basement meeting after another, they sparked with brief light–and then fell dark again to groans and recriminations.

Later on, when the Ash Cloud didn’t arrive immediately, they diversified. Alongside their planes they began working on plans to save the townsfolk in case they didn’t find the right skycraft in time. They became a peacekeeping force, almost an actual city council, and started using the old town name. Some people dropped out when the end didn’t come, but others redoubled their devotion–after all, Mara had never set a date for the island’s doom.

Karla took all this information in with an off-kilter detachment, as though she had just discovered her favorite book had several chapters she’d always neglected to read. It was hard to imagine having come from this. Her mother had been a warrior, wasting no time in racing back toward the sky to save the people she’d left behind. Though it had taken five years, she had never wavered from her mission.

Karla, on the other hand…Karla was already giving up. It was easy, almost. Comforting to imagine there was no way to save Kio, that she had no work left but suffering through grief.

She pinched herself hard, startling the room for a moment. “I just…spaced out for a sec,” she told the three concerned faces. “Sorry. Keep going.”

“I was just saying, I saw the way your mother raised you,” Griffin told her. “She would make you toys out of bits of wood. Started her own garden, right by Rachel’s, to make sure you’d have mashed vegetables to eat. Never let go of you.”

“Even after you learned to walk,” Rose laughed.

With the joke came a new memory: strong arms holding her protectively, watching a clockwork craft wheel and cavort over the bay. She could sense the tension of the woman holding her, could feel her awe and relief when the pilot pulled out of a deep dive.

“I remember!” she spat out suddenly.

Griffin and Jenny were in the middle of an argument abuot one of the Harpooneer aircraft designs. Once again, everyone broke off mid-sentence.

Karla felt absolutely certain. The memory had come the normal way, no evil gas required. Her new Rust Town friends had unearthed something within her.

“I want to tell the way the story ends,” she said with determination. “I was there. I can do it.”

“When are you talking about?” Jenny asked.

“The day of the Ash Cloud. The day the Harponeers launched.” She gulped. “I call it Year Zero. But before, I only knew what happened in the sky.”

 

They gathered in the crystal square, bathed in faint blue glow that meant the castle was far-off but approaching. A dozen or so Harpooneers kept order with swords, while the rest readied the fleet. Rusters of all sorts milled around the edges, waiting for their places or snorting in disbelief.

But not many. Those who didn’t believe in the craft had run for the boats by now.

The craft were strange-looking: a new design, her mother said, never tested before, with some attempted runes to help them out. They weren’t what she’d wanted. But her people were out of time.

The Rokhshan would surely not shelter their landling slaves inside the Heartsphere. They probably wouldn’t enter themselves, due to the order from their Benefactor. That meant the only choice was to fight.

Mara kept one arm around Karla while examining one of the planes in the other. She kept glancing worriedly toward the southern horizon.

Karla herself wasn’t really paying attention to the big purple cloud, even though it was pretty in the sunset. She was watching Dr. Griffin fight with his brother Kevin.

Kevin was pulling on his gloves as they argued. “Griff, listen–”

“Don’t call me that!” Dr. Griffin yelled. “You don’t get to use nicknames and pretend we’re still brothers. Not with what you’re doing here.”

“Which part? Protecting the town? Or sending my infant daughter to safety?”

Griffin’s hands clenched into claws in front of his face. The blue light made him look like an angry monster. “I knew you’d lost your mind to Mara. I just never knew it was this far gone.”

“Evidence, little brother,” Kevin snapped. “I brought you up better.”

Dr. Griffin snarled. “Fine. You’re flying, because you think attacking the flying castle is the only way we can be safe. But you’re sending me on the boats, with Jenny, because you’re concerned for our safety? Which is it, Kevin?”

“It should be obvious. Our plan is to bring the sphere down to the surface.” Kevin buckled a pilot’s helmet beneath his chin. “But if we fail, I’ll be drowned if I leave my family without protections. Even if they are obstinate fools.”

“Fools like your two-year-old child?” Griff pointed in her direction. “Mara is bringing her daughter.”

“Karla can walk unassisted. Jenny is a baby in arms. Whose arms, by the way?” Kevin mounted one leg up to his cockpit bar. “I told you to take care of her.”

“Rose has Jenny. They should already be to the boats. But if you believe any of us remaining down here have a chance to survive, you have yet to explain why you’re flying.”

“For what I believe in, Griff!” Propellors were winding up around the square, ready to detach at altitude to turn craft into gliders. The sound filled Karla’s ears, nearly drowning out the argument though she strained to hear. “For the people trapped up there who can’t save themselves! For the future of this miserable rock, where my wife sleeps, where my daughter will grow up!”

“Your wife!” Griffin spat. “If you cared about her you’d let her stay down here! With–”

“With you?” Rachel asked. Karla jumped in Mara’s arms. She hadn’t seen Kevin’s wife hiding around the other side of the plane.

All the fight vanished from Dr. Griffin. It was like the man deflated. At once Karla could tell all he was thinking about was fleeing.

“With us,” he said lamely.

 

“Could you skip ahead?” Griff asked her.

Karla plunged back into the present day to notice he was holding his head in his hands while Jenny rubbed his upper back. Rose had vanished downstairs again, probably to consult with Grace, though the timing was a bit convenient.

And she remembered: he had brought up Rachel many times in his earlier stories, even while discussing other people, places she wouldn’t have been relevant. He was as good as screaming that this woman was still taking up space in his head.

To lose her to a brother…Karla had no idea what that would feel like.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll jump ahead. There was the Ash Cloud, and the castle coming from the north, and then the launch.”

 

The propellors reached a screaming pitch. The crystal glowed as bright as a star. Ahead, at the edge of the square, those closest to the seacliff launched in waves.

One row. Then the next. Like a tide that would carry Karla out to sea. Strapped into the cockpit, folded in her mother’s arms, Karla felt like she was buried in sand.

She craned her neck around, but couldn’t see far enough to find out where Dr. Griffin had gone. She badly wanted Jenny to be all right.

Another row of planes launched. Two left now.

What would it be like to leave the surface behind? Karla tried to memorize the feeling of grass under her feet, the shape of the mountains. She gazed up at the moon, and decided she’d better memorize that too: after all, on the castle they’d be much closer, and it would probably look pretty different.

Another wave launched. One left now.

“Are you ready, Karla?”

Her mom’s voice didn’t sound like it usually did. The ferocity was missing. Suddenly she wondered if Mara would rather Karla wasn’t going.

“I guess so.”

“Are you all right?”

More propellors spat to life. Karla shut her eyes tight, trying to trap the surface world behind her eyelids.

She asked, “Didn’t they hurt you up there?”

“Yes, they did.” Mara’s hand went to the long sword resting against her thigh. “But they won’t hurt anybody anymore. We’re too strong for them now.” She squeezed Karla tightly. “You’re too strong. I’d like to see them touch you. My little warrior.”

Karla didn’t feel like a warrior. She felt like she’d never see grass again.

The last row of planes leapt into the air. The propellor sped up. Mara was saying something, but Karla couldn’t hear.

 Her mother ran, then, when invisible hands pushed them upward, jumped.

The island dropped away like a stone into a well.

Karla had flown a handful of times before–Mara had insisted on taking her around the island in laps so she could “acclimate”–so she knew for certain: planes weren’t meant to rise this fast. Some of the first to launch were already specks against the darkening sky. The first lift frames had been released, plummeting to the ocean as their former skycraft turned into gliders.

She frantically searched the sliver of land and water she could see. No boats. No Jenny or Griffin.

In fact, to the east of Freetown Island, she could see nothing…except the roiling purple ash cloud, crawling through sky and sea toward everything she loved.

 

In the silence after Karla finished, Rose produced a match and lit a lantern on the wall, giving them all some long-overdue light.

“Why mention how quickly you rose?” Dr. Griffin asked thoughtfully. Karla studied his face as though for the first time, now that she remembered a bit of his younger life. She tried to figure out how only ten years could have turned a man in his thirties into such a greybeard.

“It’s just something I remembered.” Though in fact Karla was thinking furiously. If she could figure out the source of that surge in lifting force, she might have a path back to Nashido after all…in a working skycraft.

“And?” Jenny asked determinedly. “What happened next?”

Karla shrank a little. “That’s it,” she said. “I don’t remember anything else. Until…”

Three faces watched her, and she realized that there was only one way to go from here. She would have to tell the story of Year Zero, the one she had remembered in the Inner Citadel.

Then she realized something else: she could tell that story. It terrified her even now. But these people could give her the strength to be brave.

“My mother told me to crumple when we landed on the top of the tower,” she began. “Not to try and land on my feet…”

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Freetown 3

The room contracted. The sounds of drinking and gaming, kicked chairs and pounded tables and songs, wafted up from a different world below, drifting past the ears of four people huddled alone together.

“I used to like this story,” Jenny said shakily. Karla forced out a giggle.

Leaning on the windowsill, facing out, Dr. Griffin sensed he had a duty. He badly wished he were back in his workshop, tinkering with a wing joint while the kettle boiled in the background–or at least that he were certain the city council hadn’t moved in and turned it into a drug den. He didn’t trust McConnell’s gang to search thoroughly enough.

But Rose had taken the burden for long enough. She deserved to breathe.

“Rose,” he began. “You want me to…”

She nodded, sank into the chair. Time for Griffin to shoulder the story again.

“What happened after you and Rose got my mother out of the plane?” Karla asked. “Was she really not hurt?”

Griffin shut the door and leaned against it. “No, she was injured very badly. But she was alive, and Rose thought she could be saved, if enough space and decent supplies could be found. She sent me running off to find water and bandages while Rachel–Jenny’s mother–led her to an abandoned workshop she knew.”

He coughed a bit, not entirely proud of having delayed this task, even years later. “But before I left, I checked inside the cockpit to see what material she’d used. Something that could withstand that kind of impact was nothing short of magical.”

With a strange look in her eyes, Karla interjected, “Were there glowing runes carved all over the inside?”

“Why, yes.”

“Dr. Griffin, it was magical.”

Griffin broke off, perturbed. Was it possible this girl wielded the same power? “Do you have any knowledge of these runes? Could you possibly–”

“Griff,” Rose warned. “Story.”

“No, wait!” Jenny put a hand on the healer’s ankle. “If these things actually work, they could revolutionize engineering. We could put magic and flight together to create something completely new. How do we know that’s not how all these Harpooneer women have been getting up and down in the first place?”

With a visible effort, Karla got up, crossed the room, and sat down in the corner next to Jenny, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll totally tell you everything I know,” she said with a smile, “but I wanna hear the rest first.”

Jenny swallowed and nodded, nearly bursting with excitement. Griff smiled too, to see the change from her tears.

He also didn’t mind the space on the bed. Even he could only pace for so long.

Settling down, with a creak of dust and springs, he launched back into the tale.

 

There were four in the room when the woman woke up: Rachel, resting on an overturned crate, eyes sharp. Kevin at her back, muscles in a protective tense, hair prematurely white in a mirror of what Edward could expect soon. Edward himself, arms aching from hauing another pail of water back from the rusty old pump in the next yard–he knew he could improve the damn thing given two hours free. Finally, there was the new healer, Rose, with her close-cropped brown hair and sure way of moving, coaxing the woman to drink.

The woman herself was named Mara, and she bore the marks of her story on her skin. When Rose changed her bandages, Edward could see old wounds on her, gashes inflicted with a crop. This woman had fought back and been punished for it.

For a while, there was no sound but Rose tutting and Mara wincing as the healer continued to clean her wounds. At last, Edward’s brother Kevin broke the silence.

“If this is true,” he said, moving closer to his wife, “it will cause riots.”

“It is, and it will kill everyone whether they riot or not,” Mara replied, forcing the words out as though it hurt to talk. Kevin flinched, but Edward appreciated her bluntness.

There was likely no room for mincing words in the sky. Less so if you were stealing an airplane and escaping from slavery.

What sorts of hazards did these people face that in five hundred years none of them had managed the same feat as Mara?

“This thing you’re claiming is coming,” Rachel spoke up. “This…dark cloud.”

“Ash Cloud,” Mara corrected.

“Right. Ash Cloud. You’re certain you can’t forecast it.”

Mara made to shake her head before Rose rushed in to stop her. Any movement threatened to loosen her bandages.

She settled for blinking hard. “Not even the Rokhshan could forecast it. They knew it was coming, knew it would come soon, but they couldn’t pinpoint the day or the season. Even that was better than what the Sky Kingdoms believed–watching Lord Rokhshan struggle to convince them, I could almost feel sympathy for the bastards.”

“Which bastards?” Edward asked.

Rose somehow sensed that Mara was going to shrug, and placed hands on both shoulders. “Rokhshan, SK, who cares?” said the pilot. “They’re all bastards to me. But not even they deserve what’s coming.”

“But…” Rachel ventured. “The Rokhshan know about the Ash Cloud. Can’t they take precautions?”

“They’re taking the wrong ones,” Mara told her. “They think they can ride it out on their castle–some garbage they believe their Benefactor told them. They can’t. There’s only one place on their castle you can safely escape this thing, and they’ve got a sacred prohibition against going in.”

“Unhelpful,” Edward remarked.

“At least they’ve got one.” Mara looked at him, and he felt a strange crackle–as though she’d sized him up and found him wanting.

“Why not warn them?” Kevin asked. “They are practical people, I’m sure, to survive up there. They would have listened.”

“Love, don’t…” Rachel reached up to touch his chin, twinging Edward’s chest a couple different directions, but Mara had already turned her hard gaze toward the elder Griffin.

“Look,” she commanded.

“I…” Kevin tried a smile. “I am looking.”

“Under the bandages.” Mara’s voice grew louder. “At the scars. Trace them with your fingers, I don’t care. I want you to know they did to me.”

“I’d rather not–“

“He’s sorry,” Rachel said firmly. “Aren’t you, dear?”

“Yes.” With the conversation, in his mind, settled, Kevin tried to change tack. “How can we–“

But Mara wasn’t finished. “Do you know how many people have lived and died under the Rokhshan yoke without ever seeing the ground? How many have been thrown off the towers for so-called insubordination without ever having known freedom? They named me a house servant, I waited at table, and I was still whipped when some fat aunt decided I had been stealing.”

She pushed herself to her feet to stare at Kevin, finally forcing her way through Rose’s grip–but the bandages held. Rose breathed deeply, and Edward shared her relief. She’d applied them well.

“I didn’t break out so I could save them,” she told all four of her listeners. “I came down here for two reasons. First, your town needs to fight back against the Ash Cloud. And second, we need to liberate the slaves on Nashido.”

“Liberate them?” Edward asked. “How many of them?”

Mara appraised him again. “All of them. Would I have come down here if I intended anything less?”

“That’s…” Edward fumbled his words. “That’s impossible. Dozens of people go missing every generation. The people of this town can’t get a single plane as high as the castle, and you’re asking us to get a fleet up there, to assault a fortified position on ground there’s no way we can train for…”

He trailed off when he realized Rachel was looking at him–not with the penetrating stare of Mara, just with soft bewilderment.

And, he imagined, disappointment. He sighed.

“It could be possible, right?” Rose the healer asked. “I mean…nobody had ever made it down before. Until now.”

“Falling slowly is one thing. Rising is another,” Kevin said, but thoughtfully, as though he wasn’t discounting Rose’s point.

Mara was still testing her range of motion, Rose following behind her with her hands hovering like a terrified new mother. She stumbled a few times–once on a dust-covered workbench, once onto the healer–but was gaining strength with astounding speed for someone who’d been in a fatal crash two hours ago.

At least fatal to anyone else, Edward thought. Who is this woman?

“I will rescue the others, or I’ll die,” Mara said matter-of-factly when she reached Kevin and Rachel. “But first, we must prepare for the Ash Cloud. It could come tomorrow for all the sky’s soothsayers know.”

“And what will happen if we aren’t ready?” Rachel’s face was pale, but the twist of her hands in her lap hinted at the inner vigor she so often hid.

“The cloud will announce itself with green in the air. The temperature on the island will rise, not catastrophically, but you will notice. Then your people will begin to cough. This means the gas has come, and it has entered your lungs. You don’t need to breathe in its presence for it to harm you. You will hallucinate. You will suffocate.” Mara sat heavily onto the cot where she had woken. “You will be dead within minutes.”

“Why should we believe you?” Kevin challenged. “This magical load of aether coming out of nowhere to kill us all–you could have made it all up. I have no idea why, but you’ve given us no evidence–”

“The Rokhshan have runes that saved me from a ten-thousand foot fall,” Mara replied. “They have crystals that produce a breathable atmosphere for them. They regularly trade with floating rocks the size of cities. Trust them when it comes to magic.”

Another debate broke out between Mara, Kevin, and Rachel, with Rose speaking up. The immediate details escaped Edward. He was distracted by something he had seen as Mara had made her circuit around the abandoned workshop, proving to the surface world that she could walk.

Around the back of her wrist, just under where a splint and gauze lashed the battered extremity in place, Mara had tied a leather cord. Hanging from it was a charm made of a metal he couldn’t recognize, in the shape of an old harpoon: the kind used before Toral ships had depleted whales from all Twin Continent waters. It was a strange thing for such a practical person to carry on a mission with so little room for error.

What did it mean to her? Had somebody given it to her? And if they had, were they still trapped aboard the flying castle she’d refused to name, with all the others she was determined to save?

 

Karla’s face revealed nothing at this point, save how very much like her mother she’d grown up. The poor girl had learned so much in such a short time that her non-essential mental systems were likely shutting down to cope with the strain. But she still spoke.

“My father. That’s why you mentioned the harpoon charm. She got it from my father.”

Griffin nodded. Speaking of bandages, better to just rip this one off.

Karla, however, beat him to it. “That means that when she told you guys about the Ash Cloud, she was pregnant with me. I was there.”

“In a way,” Griffin said, “you were the sixth. You truly have been a Harpooneer from birth.”

“So…in that room…”

Rose sighed. “On that day, the Harpooneers were born.”

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Freetown 2

Rose pushed her way back into the room, a story already on her lips about how Grace’s card-sharp prowess had the regulars so angry they could hardly remember another slave had escaped from the sphere.

She found Jenny sobbing, Karla staring blankly at the wall, and a distinctly guilty-looking Dr. Edward Griffin trying to comfort them both at once.

“What did you say to them?” she demanded.

“You knew what story I was going to tell when you left!” he pleaded, backing toward the window and ceding the room to Rose.

“Did you take any time at all to see if they’d be ready?”

“I thought–” Griffin hissed in a voice he evidently perceived as quiet, “–Jenny can dismantle and rebuild a tail fin aileronater in twenty-five minutes.”

“And that means she’s no longer a twelve-year-old girl?” Rose knew she was rubbing her temples a lot lately, but the night was the sort that called for it. “Let’s stop for tonight. We can finish in your workshop when it’s–”

“No!”

Both of them turned.

The shout had come from the bed, where Karla, the Harpooneer’s daughter, was sitting rigid as a statue.

“I want to hear all of it,” she told them. “Every bit. Don’t hold back because you think it’ll hurt me or you don’t want to say it or it’s getting late. All of it.”

She pounded the bedspread to punctuate the last three words.

For the first time, Rose took a long look at Karla, taking everything in. She didn’t know yet what the young woman had gone through in the sky–only that it was something she had to work up to talking about.

Yet to survive up there, Karla must have been unimaginably strong. Rose felt an ache inside to look at this indestructible girl with her sunbleached hair and sky-darkened skin. Every day, in her job, she saw people on the worst day of their life. She thought she would have been used to it by now. She hadn’t reckoned on meeting somebody whose entire life had been one big worst day.

In that moment, Rose vowed to give her a better day. Just one golden hour she could give freely that Karla could call her own. Often, too often, that was all her Remedium vows and training could do.

“Let me tell my story,” she said. Griffin relaxed to have the weight taken off him.

“All right.” Karla nodded.

Jenny wiped her eyes. “Yeah, no more ugly surprises for a little while.”

Rose shut the door, and began.

“The vows of a graduate of a Remedium Academy are simple. Spread the light as far as you can, for as long as you can. When I stood up in the sanctum and received my eight-pointed star,” here she touched the emblem sewn onto her breast, almost without thinking, “I knew I wanted to go someplace that had never seen a healer before.”

Jenny dried her eyes on her sleeve with one great, final sniff. “Yeah, but there must be places in the world more remote than Rust, right? At least we have clockwork and…I dunno, wells and stuff.”

Rose pondered for a moment. “I think what intrigued me was more the way this place was forgotten by history. Hannah’s story became a backwater after her death–a ghost tale nobody took seriously. After all, the disappearances had stopped. The people who religiously quoted old books describing sightings of the creatures were laughed off as kooks. But nobody ever mentioned the descendants of Hannah’s followers leaving the island. It didn’t take too much asking around on the Toral coast to learn that people still lived out here. Not only that, more kept arriving.”

Something had seemed to nag at Karla while Rose explained this part. She spoke up when the healer paused for breath. “How could this place still be so remote if everyone on the continent knows where it is?”

“Ah, well, stories don’t pass equally through all groups of people.”

Dr. Griffin half-smiled when she said this. It was a kernel her father had enjoyed, and when she’d first voiced it to him, he’d finished it with the correct metaphor: men and women are not grains of sand, and tales are not water. It had felt strange, so quickly after arriving, to have a hidden joke with a local, like being given her own room the first day of boarding school. But that was jumping ahead.

“I treated broken bones in a fishing village until I had enough to pay for passage, then I hopped a ferry. I can still remember when I first saw the island drawing over the horizon. The crescent around the bay, those sharp drops into the ocean, and then the lights from the plateau…”

For a second she closed her eyes, recalling the scents and sounds.

 

“You sure she’s got gold, Aiden?” The small man tossed Rose’s bag aside. “Nothin’ in that satchel. An’ it smells funny.”

“A trick,” snapped Aiden, who was holding a hatchet to Rose’s throat. “Didn’t work. Now she’s gonna tell us where the real one is.”


“There is–there is no real one,” Rose said, missing a step as Aiden feinted at her right eye with the blade. “You’re smelling my herbs. I’m a healer.”

Aiden directed his lackey back to the satchel. “Check for a false bottom.”

Rose had never been robbed before. All the way through the voyage, she had remained convinced she was making the right decision. Stepping onto the isle’s creaky, half-eaten dock, startling up cormorants who glared at her as they fled to higher refuges, she only felt more sure. The salt in the air, the sublime snaggletooth of the mountains, the utter sense of being as far as possible from everywhere–every bit of it came together into an atmosphere of destiny.

Wearing that destiny like an amulet, Rose squared her shoulders, and adopted the posture she imagined someone would hold if they were being robbed but taking it really well.

“What makes you certain I’m lying?” she asked Aiden.

“This.” Aiden flung his empty hand wide, indicating the whole street beyond. From the top of the wooden stairs drilled into the cliffs, Rose could see up the whole sweep of the town.

Acres of squat habitations with corrugated roofs reached uphill toward an abrupt end at the sheer mountainside, tumbling down toward an equally steep drop. None of the streets were paved. Lumber and scrap metal piled on every surface. A sunset, filtered through wisps of smoke, cast a red pall over the whole scene.

“In Rust, you either chase the real money in the sky, or make pocket money on the ground.” Aiden tapped the blade against Rose’s chin. “And you ain’t carrying no flying machine in that bag. You must have a stake. Can’t start a business without a loan.”

“It’s not a business.” Despite the cool of the morning, sweat dampened Rose’s forehead. “I’m consecrated to the Remedium. I work for the public.”

“Goodness of your own heart?” Aiden’s eyes narrowed.

“My heart doesn’t enter into it. I took vows.”

Aiden signaled.

A shadow slipped out of a hole in a fence beside her and seized Rose from behind, pinning her arms. She shouted and struggled against the new bandit’s grip–he was built like a standing stone. How had he stayed hidden?

Aiden pointed the hatchet at Rose’s chest. “The gold, healer girl. Or I’ll check your heart myself.”

The smoke in the sky turned from grey to a bright-tinged blue.

Rose felt the clamp-sized hands release her. “Damn it!” Aiden exclaimed. “Not now!”

“How far to the hideout?” the little one asked.

“A few minutes.” The two tore off down the street. “Ranson might not kill us if we run.”

“Hey!” Aiden raced after them, tripping over Rose’s bag. “You can’t launch without me!”

Alone, Rose gathered her kit in a daze. People darted to and fro amid the huts, whose windows glowed as the thuds and clangs of last-minute touch-ups rang out. Behind doors, on roofs and in yards, propellers whipped into life.

Cresting a hill, she confirmed the source of the glow: the crystal, tallest object in town by a factor of three. The important thing was to be in the air when it lit up–lest your neighbor beat you to the sphere. Rose thought about straining to catch a glimpse of it, but staring up at the sky while ignoring the ground seemed a poor idea right now.

The next second, however, she became unable to look away.

Several pilots who were quick on their feet, who’d been lucky enough to be tinkering with their craft when the hue and cry announced the glow, were already in the air. Suddenly, those in the lead of the flock swerved hard.

Rose winced. She had zero aeronautical background and even she could tell the flyers hadn’t been built for hairpin turns. Why would they? The only obstacles in the sky were your next-door neighbors. There were the crescent mountains, but that was a matter of altitude.

She was still thinking along these lines when she saw what they’d turned hard to avoid. A craft was streaking the wrong direction with the speed of a meteor. Years later, Rose would swear it had left a trail of sparks.

The young healer was transfixed. The plane hurtling earthward was a strange enough sight to push the mugging holdup from her mind. Others, strange people with grimy aprons and goggles and children in tow, froze near her.

Someone had the presence of mind to shout aloud. Several people dove into the alley where Aiden’s massive henchman had hidden. Rose nearly followed them. The craft was a missile, and when it landed, it would take out a whole block…

…but it had a pilot. A pilot who would need help.

A voice in Rose’s head, reciting the vows she was to repeat: I swear that no danger, no hardship, no fear will keep me from rendering good to every person I see in need.

The plane was feet from the rooftops now. In the blink of an eye it seemed it had crossed half the sky.

A glint of metal caught Rose’s eye: someone had dropped a long wrench in the dirt street in their hurry to take shelter. She snatched it up, liking the heft of it for protection against further bandits, and strode toward the falling plane.

The next instant, it struck.

Rose had never heard such a loud sound. Had never imagined sounds could be so loud. The single shattering crash rattled every one of her bones and sent a blinding shockwave from her head through her ribcage. Her ears rang.

When her muscles stopped vibrating, she did a head-to-toe self-check as quickly as she could. Nothing broken, bleeding, or ruptured.

Finding her way to the impact site was harder than she’d thought–the town streets refused to conform to any orthogonal system–but by following her memory of its flight path, she discovered a grassy circle, like a dale dug out of the mountain.

Or, at least, the former site of a dale. As she’d expected, the impact had caved in every roof it had landed on, plus some it had just skimmed across. All she saw now was a twisted pile of smouldering wreckage, with a handful of people gawking around its edges.

Rose’s confidence melted away like a summer frost. There was no way anybody was alive in there.

Her wrench hung loosely at her side. Who had she been kidding? She was a scholar, a reader, fantasizing about all the great works she would do in far-flung places. This was her first real experience, and she’d already failed. There was absolutely nothing here she could change.

Just like that, two words pierced the aether. Two words Rose would think of many years past whenever she looked out on the world and saw nothing but smouldering wreckage.

“She’s moving!”

Her head snapped up.

The shout had come from across the pile of scrap lumber. A woman with brown hair plastered to her forehead was pointing into a cockpit Rose couldn’t see. A man was with her, helping her walk: he had dark hair and a well-groomed beard, and was dressed in what looked like a stitched-together labcoat. He took a second to help the woman sit against a wall. When she exasperatedly assured him she was fine, he ran toward the cockpit.

Others were gathering at the edges of the dale. “Let me through!” Rose shouted at them, tying her hair back with trembling fingers to let her eight-pointed star patch show. “I’m a healer! Let me through!”

By the time she maneuvered her way to where she could see the human carnage, the bearded man was already trying to force his way in to the pilot. Rushing in beside him, Rose could see how she might have had a chance of surviving. The cockpit was a fully-enclosed pod fully capable of concealing some technology that would have saved her.

“What are you doing?” she asked the man.

“Trying to find a pressure point,” he replied. “There should be a way for it to pop open, otherwise the whole thing would crumple whenever it–”

“Are you an engineer?” Rose cut in deleriously. He could help her get inside!

The man nodded. “Griffin,” he said, and kept feeling around for–

 

“Wait!” Jenny shouted at her uncle. “You were there too? Was I the only one who missed this?”

“You didn’t miss by as much as you thought.” Griff and Rose both started laughing again, and this time, it felt easy. Rose recalled being a little girl, knew how aggravating it could be when the adults had one over on you, or were pretending they did. So she understood Jenny’s frustration when she snapped, “I don’t remember this at all!”

“You wouldn’t.” Rose suppressed another laugh, and knelt down to Jenny. “Remember that woman your uncle brought to the scene? That was your mother.”

The younger girl turned beet-red. “She was pregnant with me?”

“She would be, but not for a few years yet,” Griff said, then looked to Karla, who was even more rapt than ever. “The pilot of the wrecked skycraft was your mother. Mara Harpooneer, first person to return from imprisonment on the castle in the sky in five hundred years.”

Karla was stock-still on the bed, hardly daring to breathe. Even Jenny fell silent. Griff said, “A crash so early in a glow was strange enough. But it was what she told us next that we all truly remembered.”

“What did she tell you?” Karla breathed.

“Nothing much.” Rose didn’t feel like laughing anymore. “Just that the world was going to end.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Interlude 3

Here’s the third of the Patreon interludes. Thanks to everyone for their support!

A verified excerpt from the diary of Karla Harpooneer, dated Winter, Year Five (equivalent to 478 AU). Karla would have been ten or eleven years old.

Hi diary! This is my first entry. Kio found some blank books at the bottom of a stack, and decided it would be really good for both of us if we started writing thoughts for only ourselves to read. I asked him what it would do to write the thoughts when I’m already thinking the thoughts, and he launched into this long explanation about the separate worlds created by language, and finally I agreed to try it just so he’d stop.

I peeked over his shoulder at one of his entries before he slammed it shut. It had a lot of big words, which I could understand, but didn’t see the point of. I’m gonna try and write how I talk.

I gotta admit, it does actually feel good. Being able to write and think at the same time is kinda like having an extra brain. So in a way it’s basically a machine. Take that, Kio! Diaries are in the Karla Zone now.

Plus, I like having thoughts Kio can’t read. It reminds me we’re different people. Which is easy to forget sometimes. I bet he feels the same way.

Right, so, don’t want my entire diary to be about writing in a diary…so what’s next? Well, today we did all our usual chores. It’s been a pretty good season for meat so far, since along with a ton of gull jerky, we also managed to snag this really big weird bird neither of us have found the name for yet. Kio’s in the kitchen right now trying to figure out what to do with it.

I saw a really cool island yesterday! It was sorta half in and half out of the water, but the water was in the center, like an island in reverse. Does that make any sense? Kio says it’s called an atoll, and the water in the center is called a lagoon. I’d love to swim in it one day. It was so blue it must be like flying through the sky to swim in a lagoon.

Oh, speaking of which, I’ve been working on a device that will let me sight the surface better. It’s called a telescope. I’m following a design from a book. It’s not gonna be very good, because I only have a little glass and no way to grind it right, but I’m gonna mount the lenses I make on a stick and do my best. Besides, the book says people from the Sky Kingdoms used telescopes to look at planets and nebulas and stuff up close. I only need mine to work for a few thousand feet so I can look at trees.

Trees, trees, trees…my mom said something in her letter about trees. I can’t see jellyfish but I can see trees. Near the big island there’s pine, and spruce, and some big tall hemlock, but there’s none on the island itself.

Pine…

Spruce…

Hemlock, and when we drift further south there’s acacia, and kapok, and eucalyptus…

Acacia…

Kapok…

Eucaluptus…

…I’m not going to die up here.

Freetown 1

The door kicked open, and everyone’s head swiveled in unison–but it was just Calvin, bearing such a full tray of drinks that he had to shove his way into the room shoulder-first.

“My dad wanted me to tell you guys they’re combing town for the City Council,” he said as he awkwardly tried to find a spot to set the tray down, settling for leaving it on the floor next to Jenny. The four mugs on it were brimming with a reddish-brown liquid flecked with traces of foam. Jenny reached for one, but at a sharp look from Dr. Griffin, pretended she had been moving to scratch her knee.

“Have they found any of them?” Rose asked.

“Uh-uh.” Calvin’s apron sat funny on his shoulders. “Mom and Dad formed a…a what do you call it. Citizen posse. He’s got the Kalends and Jada and Mr. van Diemen and a few others. But they can’t turn up any of the council guys.”

Rose clamped her eyes shut. “This is always how it goes,” she explained to Karla, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “They harass people for a few weeks, try something flashy, then rush back to their boltholes until people forget. Usually the next glow.”

“But until tonight they had yet to put any plans into practice during the glow itself,” Griffin pointed out.

“Hey Calvin,” Jenny asked, “is anyone talking about Karla down there?”

“Ah…well…” The young man looked at his hands.

Rose swore. “Start without me,” she said to Griffin, and swept through the doorway. “I’ve got to get those people drunker. Promises not to talk only go so far.”

“What’ll you do?” asked Griffin.

“Help Grace run five-suit, most likely. I’ve a decent dealing hand.” And with a quick grin, she stamped downstairs.

Karla started at the word. Promises. She had been thinking about promises. Was it wrong to have made one when she hadn’t been a hundred percent sure she could have kept it? She couldn’t have predicted for transforming into animals, obviously…or could she have? Was there some book she should have read?

What the hell does that mean? she scolded herself. She’d been five. If she wanted to act like Kio, the better time to start was right now. What he would do here would be to get the entire context of the situation. Know all he could.

When Calvin had left–to boil some water at Griffin’s request–she met the older man’s eyes. “Before you get to my mother,” she asked, “can you tell me where this town came from?”

Jenny grimaced, and grabbed one of the mugs before her uncle could stop her, lifting it up to Karla. “You’re gonna need a drink for that story.”

“Jenny,” Griff warned.

“What? There’s clearly something pretty great about that stuff, or you people wouldn’t keep not letting me drink it.”

Wanting to spare Jenny further trouble, Karla took the mug, and sipped tentatively. It tasted bitter, but also dark and sweet, reminding her of the one time she’d scrounged chocolate.

“It’s ale,” Jenny told her. “Water, yeast, barley, and hops. That’s a kind of berry some people grow in their yards here.”

“Drink it slow,” Griff said, then to Jenny, “Where do you learn these things?”

“Where did I learn to build skycraft?” Jenny shot back. “You leave a lot of books around.”

Karla took another swallow. “I thought…” she said with even more care than she’d sipped the ale with, “…something like…that this town was the capital of somewhere.”

Jenny burst out in a giggle. “Rust? Of where?”

The world, Karla would have said yesterday. Instead she ventured, “The archipelago?”

“Aye, I suppose so.” Griffin shifted against the wall, looking up at the sliver of mountain visible through the tiny window. “As all of the other settlements on these islands are smaller. Some have moved to the outlying isles to claim more space for aircraft, but since they can’t see the crystal from there, it becomes something of a wash. Most of them become shepherds.”

A thrill went through Karla at those words. What a wonderful thing, she thought, to be a shepherd on an isle with grass and trees of her own. She’d never leave a life like that to go chasing after treasure.

Jenny, in her corner, was still chortling. “I’m sorry,” she said when she could breathe, “but can you imagine if Rust Town was the capital of the world? What sort of world would that even be?”

“It’s all I knew,” Karla told her, sharper than she meant to.

Jenny’s face quickly sobered. “I really am sorry. It’s just…not something I ever dreamed anybody could think. But I never dreamed anybody lived on the sphere, either.”

With a twisting of the knot in her gut, Karla realized she hadn’t told them about Kio yet. It would have to be now, here, in this room.

Whenever she was ready to admit she’d doomed him to a life alone. A life she couldn’t possibly rescue him from, where he’d grow old on Nashido. Probably would go mad.

“How long has the town been here?” she asked Griffin so she could think about literally anything else.

“Generations,” the engineer said. “But the story starts even before that. Hundreds of years ago, back when the Toral Empire was nothing but a rump state of the Great Confederation, people began going missing from isolated villages.”

Karla’s ears perked up. For the moment, she was able to surface from the cycle of guilt and take a breath.

Griffin continued. “Back in those days the Twin Continents were a lot more like things are here. Fighting on the roads, bandits in the wilds. Citizens expected to be their own police.”

Karla vaguely recalled the term “police” from one of the library’s more lurid books–more sophisticated studies of sky kingdom politics tended to prefer “guards” or other terms that sounded more graceful. “Is that like Calvin’s dad’s citizen militia?”

“Adam’s militia would likely have done a better job than police for the people of these villages,” Griffin said. “If Aiden and Finn can be found, he’ll find them. The villagers, though, had no recourse. No clues. No way to move forward.”

Absently, Karla twisted a handful of threadbare blanket in one hand. She could think of several ways this might lead to Castle Nashido, and none of them were good.

Griffin paced what little floor he had. “Some blamed bandits, but the bandits were losing people as well. Eventually, there was one woman–a priestess of the religion that became the Remedium–”

“The what?” Karla interrupted.

“The league Rose is a member of,” Jenny piped up. “They walk the world healing people in exchange for charity. They’re so freaking cool!”

“They’re the major remaining arm of what was once the world’s dominant faith. Before more enlightened times.”

“Uncle, you can’t call things more enlightened now just because we have better machines! With the Torals running all over the place–”

“Jenny,” Griffin said firmly, “we’re supposed to be helping Karla.”

“What did the woman do?” Karla asked, to forestall an argument it seemed like the two of them had waged before. If anybody knew about having the same arguments for years on end, it was her.

“The woman’s name was Hannah, later called Hannah the Navigator,” Griffin said, finding a tolerable spot of wall to lean on. “She traveled the Twin Continents, gathering stories from places where these disappearances had occurred. She suspected demons, or some strange new infection–nobody’s quite sure what she thought, but the confirmed theory was stranger than what anyone suspected.”

Karla swallowed.

“Hannah discovered that there was, in fact, a single connecting thread between all the disappearances.” He paused, enough to make Karla suspect the engineer was a natural showman at heart. “Strange activity in the skies.”

“What sort?” Karla asked.

“Nothing definite. Some said they saw great winged devils in the sky when their loved one was taken. Others disagreed, claiming to have witnessed some sort of machine. But everyone at length agreed the missing people had been taken to the skies.”

“Wait!” Jenny sprang up. “A flying machine that’s also a monster–isn’t that what I saw right after I rescued you?”

“I…” For the first time, Karla was more interested in the story than distressed, but she still wanted more information before she let those details go. “You said I wouldn’t have to talk about that.”

“Until you’re ready,” Griffin said, not doing an excellent job of disguising how urgently he wanted to hear.

“Fine, you two, but I’m gonna think more about this.”

“Hannah tracked the creatures,” the skycrafter went on. “She made an alliance of others on the same trail, and followed the course of the stories out into the eastern ocean. That’s what got her the name Navigator.”

I want to learn how to navigate by the stars, Karla thought suddenly, and then, I want Kio to learn too.

Jenny cut across the rising lump in her throat by blurting out, “What if the monsters are machines that gained consciousness?”

The timing was so perfect Karla wondered if the younger girl had known. Again, she felt immensely grateful to Jennifer Griffin.

“If that’s possible, I certainly hope nobody in this town stumbles on it first,” Griffin told her. “Anyway. The island they found, as you’ve probably guessed, was this one.”

“And they found the crystal?” Karla craned her neck, barely catching a glimpse of the great gem in the center of the plateau. Its blue glow was fading slowly away.

Griffin nodded. “Exactly. The other members of the expedition wanted to move on, but Hannah convinced them to stay and watch the crystal, and that’s why we remember her name and none of the others.”

“Did she see Castle Nashido?”

Jenny winced. “Gonna have a hard time remembering to call it that.”

“Welcome to my feelings about Rust Town,” Karla muttered.

“Hannah was lucky.” Griffin laced his fingers behind his back and started out the window at the crystal. “Not only did it only take her a few weeks of observation before her first glow, but there was a creature returning to the castle as it neared this island. She and her retinue got the first good looks anybody’d ever had at the beasts.”

Karla’s mind was a wash of debris sloshing back and forth. Could it be true? The bone dragons, her nemeses, had been kidnapping people from the surface for hundreds of years? Could that explain why there was no mention of them in the Rokhshan annals–because the historians had been covering up a crime in which they were complicit?

“Hannah saved them, right?” Jenny’s face was full of hope. “She’s the hero here. She has to have gone up and saved all the people from the castle, right?”

Griffin looked at her for a long moment, as though afraid to deliver the killing blow in a fight whose beginning he’d relished.

“No,” he said at length. “Hannah the Navigator never reached the castle. She never found the slaves.”

Jenny slumped in the corner.

The following quiet left Karla alone to turn yet another indigestible word over and over. Slaves. There it was at last.

She remembered it. Ever since the Inner Citadel, and even before that, from between the lines of her hidden letter. Land-folk are nothing but slaves to them, livestock to be harvested and thrown away. Land-folk are nothing but slaves to them, livestock to be harvested and thrown away.

Of course the House Rokhshan took landling slaves. What else would the Harpooneers have been fighting?

“The first skycraft launched toward…” Griffin paushed and snapped his fingers.

“Castle Nashido,” Karla supplied.

“Nashido. The first expeditions weren’t treasure hunts. They were rescue missions, launched in fleets every time Hannah or one of her associates saw the crystal glow.” Griffin sighed. “But science just hadn’t advanced far enough. They didn’t have the planes. Hannah grew old, waiting to save the people she’d crossed the world to find.”

Jenny buried her face in her hands. Karla looked askance at Griffin. “Haven’t you told her this story before?”

“Not…not this part.” Griffin seemed to have noticed his niece wasn’t taking the ending well. “While she never made it to the sky…”

“She died?” Jenny wailed. “I know she’d be five hundred years old, but–”

“She didn’t make it,” Griffin crossed the room hastily to put an arm around Jenny’s shoulders while the girl sniffled, “and nobody else made it, but–”

Without thinking, Karla made a slash across her throat with one hand, a Kio signal for cut it out. It must have been a surface gesture as well, because something changed in Griffin’s eyes and he hurried on with his ending.

“One of the slaves did come back!” he told Jenny.

“Yeah, I know that bit,” Jenny snorted. “Everyone does. It was Mara.”

The room grew faint, muffled. Somebody called her name. Somebody threw the door open, exchanged confused words with someone else. Karla watched the scene from a faraway ledge in a dream.

Either her family line had been trapped on Nashido for five hundred years before she had been too, or…

She didn’t know which was worse.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Benefactor 3

“You do not believe me, do you?” the Benefactor asked thoughtfully, as they strolled through the statuary corridor.

“I…sir…” The world contorted around Kio as though the old Rokhshan statues were waving at him. Lights swirled in front of his eyes as emotioned whirled thoughts in his head–he’d eaten, the Benefactor had sat patiently while he’d eaten, but the dizzy feeling had only increased.

Was it something the Benefactor was doing? Did this always happen in the presence of divinity? He wished he had a frame of reference for talking to gods.

“I do believe you, sir. I’ve always believed in you.”

The Benefactor smiled. At the sight of it, all the warmth  of the surface world flowed through Kio’s veins.

“Thank you, Kio.” The corridor resolved itself. They were strolling down a sunlit crimson carpet, faded by the years. The Benefactor reached the stairs that wound down to the mist garden, and motioned for Kio to go first.

Kio hesitated. The Benefactor’s smile turned to a frown, as though regretful he’d made the young man feel uncertain.

“I never meant to suggest your belief wasn’t genuine, Kio,” he said gently. “Only that I recognize what a strange experience this must be. You know that you are the first member of your line to see my face since Great Rokhshan himself.”

He looked up above the door, where stood a mosaic of a stylized Benefactor presenting the Heartsphere to Great Rokhshan. “The depictions have gotten…interesting, since then.”

Kio wanted to grab the nearest rock and hack the mosaic away.

Down in the mist garden, the Benefactor sat on a flat rock, and motioned for Kio to sit across from him. He did so, not managing to keep from shaking.

“I…saw you. In dreams,” he blurted out.

“Is this a dream, Kio?” asked the god in the grey wool suit.

Kio shook his head. His stomach was leapfrogging too much for him to be dreaming.

“Those were not dreams either,” the Benefactor went on. “I have visited you before, Kio. I have kept an eye on you, intervening only when you truly needed me. I must say, you have managed better than I ever expected.”

Kio thought he might melt off the rock and soak into the grass.

The Benefactor stood up. “I only wish to do you a favor,” he said. “To bolster your faith.”

Kio opened his mouth to protest that his faith needed no such bolstering, but the Benefactor was already moving. In three strides, the tall man crossed the mist garden’s grass, and leapt off the edge of the platform.

A strange, strangled sound bled from Kio’s mouth. He twisted, half-standing, half-sitting, over the rock. There was still dew hanging in the air where the Benefactor had sprinkled it. Scattering light.

He’d made it one step before he realized how ridiculous he was being. The Benefactor was a god. Of course gods couldn’t die by falling.

But what was he doing?

Kio waited. His heart hammered. One could go mad waiting for the gods to finish their work.

Thumps and scrapes came from below the garden, barely audible over the high-altitude gusts. The sky that morning was a flat white layer–an overcast morning below, with a bright sun far up and behind him. Kio could make out the shadow of Nashido moving about far under his feet.

The next instant he felt a sensation so strange he nearly lost his footing. It was as though the castle had torqued hard in midair, but without actually moving.

The shadow on the white sheet of cloud shrank by a fraction of a fingerwidth.

Kio had once read in an old book of terrology a fact that had bewildered him at first, but that made increasing sense the more he thought about it. The surface world, the book said, was constantly spinning, and any objects in the sky close enough were caught in its orbit. He’d assumed Nashido couldn’t possibly be affected, but then realized it was the only way to explain why they kept circling over the same areas of surface.

Next, he’d wondered if people on the surface, constantly living with that spinning, developed any sort of sense that it was happening. They probably didn’t know they felt it. But they would definitely have known if it stopped.

Kio himself had a similar sense for the motion of Nashido, like a sailor living years on end on the same ship. That was how he felt that the Benefactor had changed something. Nothing really moved, but he felt the switch in his bones.

The tall man clambered back up over the side of the mist garden, straightening his suit and running a hand through his hair. “There,” he said, “I’ve fixed your problem.”

Which one? Kio racked his brain. His being trapped? Karla’s having betrayed him?

Then he remembered. “Rune decay!” he blurted out.

“No longer,” the Benefactor told him. “Runes are notoriously tricky things. People treat them as passive spells when they really do have minds of their own. Fortunately, I know how to reason with them.”

“You…you fixed them?” Kio asked stupidly. The Benefactor smiled.

“I did what they required, no more.” The deity of the Rokhshans took his seat again on the rock across from the last of that line. “But this castle should remain intact. Of course, it was never falling that was the issue…the Heartsphere remains aloft through magic powerful enough to give even me pause. The danger is that the castle would pull itself apart under the spell of gravity, and fall to earth without the Heartsphere to support it.”

Kio hardly heard the horror of the last sentence, preoccupied with trying to imagine magic so strong the Benefactor would have nothing to do with it.

“Is that why you’ve come?” he managed to say.

The Benefactor shook his head. “Merely a favor I realized I could provide you with. The true purpose of my visit–now that we’ve established human and god can speak freely–is to discuss something with you.”

“What could you…”

Kio trailed off. A lump was forcing its way through his throat, and he knew where it was coming from: the letter, still strewn across the desk in the library with a dozen half-finished copies. He looked down at the ink stains on his fingers, and couldn’t form any more words.

The Benefactor touched him softly on the head, coaxing him to look up.

“Kio, it’s about Karla Harpooneer.”

“What…” he choked. “What about her?”

“What she’s done to you,” the Benefactor said. “What she’s done to this castle.”

A floodgate burst open within him.

He found himself telling the Benefactor everything: the whole history of their ten years together, the trials they’d faced, all the things they’d achieved under false pretenses. The times she’d risked her life for him when she’d really been grooming him for gods-knew-what, and might have let him go any one of them, had she decided in that moment that her mother’s directive was more important. The story of everything after the bone dragon’s first attack, right up to Karla’s departure for the surface.

The Benefactor nodded throughout, touched Kio’s head or shoulder for sympathy when he stopped to regain composure. Once or twice he asked clarifying questions, or led Kio down some other line of inquiry.

Finally, when Kio had no words left in him, the god stood up and stretched his arms above his head.

“Lord Rokhshan,” he said, using the title for the first time. For some reason, Kio didn’t mind it like he had with Medwick.

“Yes?” he mumbled.

“There are things that can be done about this.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Benefactor 2

“If you’re…reading this…”

Kio’s eyes fluttered. The glowstone split into three, then reformed.

“We have failed…to wrest…”

He became aware of how loud the quill was, scratching against the silence. His skycraft of thought lost altitude and plunged into the sea.

In the dark window, he could see the pool of light from the stone spilling over the mess of pages on his desk. He’d copied lines from the letter onto fresh sheets, scratched notes all over them until they were illegible, then started over. One was filled with esoteric events in Rokhshan history he’d only been able to find one reference to. One page had the words “trees” and “jellyfish” scrawled above all the information he’d been able to find in any book on those two topics–had they been a code?

One was torn to shreds, the shreds soaking with ink spilled in sheer frustration. Come to think of it, more than one. And many upset inkwells, and one ruined quill. He’d have to hope he came across a sky kingdom soon if he wanted to keep doing this.

“What are you doing, exactly, Kio?” he said to himself, suddenly dislking what he saw in the reflection. Having a vendetta against a bird had been weird enough. But this…

…well, this was Karla. The person he trusted even when he trusted nothing. The source of all his faith. Doubting her would be doubting a part of himself.

Never had a problem with that before.

His first thought, upon finding the letter, was that Medwick in Sunton must have planted it to sow discord between him and Karla. The fact that the lettering was clearly a commoner’s, not a priest’s, didn’t rule that theory out.

But around the twelfth time he read it, doubts surfaced in Kio’s mind. If Medwick had written this letter, how would he have known the name of Karla’s mother? The priest had clearly witnessed the Harpooneers’ attack on Nashido ten years ago, maybe even close enough to identify Karla by sight–he’d built a coherent narrative about a landling saboteur around her. But he hadn’t been in the thick of battle. Hadn’t known any names.

Aside from that, he would have had to sneak aboard Nashido, do nothing to apprehend his hated enemy Karla, plant the letter under the loose floorboard…and somehow, while trying to convince Kio of his story on the sky kingdom, not have mentioned the most damning piece of evidence. He could have done it between Kio’s escape from Sunton and now, but the kingdom had only been drifting farther, and Medwick had not had access to a flying machine.

Too many variables didn’t make any sense. The only answer that did was the one he’d been trying to avoid for hours: that Mara, Karla’s mother, really had stashed this letter in the castle while she was attacking it, and that Karla had hidden it still further away.

That both of them had been, or still were, Harpooneers. Landlings. Saboteurs.

Thus had begun his current project: transcribing several copies of every line of the letter, picking it apart, searching for answers it didn’t hold, in order to stave off mad despair for another few minutes. His stomach felt ready to cave in, his eyelids fought to close, but he kept on, losing track of how many times his eyes had started and stopped watering.

“Why didn’t she tell me!?” he burst out to the empty library.

A wave of nausea burst over his head. Sunset turned the world outside pink. Kio had the absolutely certain sensation that something in the sky was looking in at him, revelling–glorying–in his pain.

If he stayed in his chair any longer he would pass out. Springing to his feet, he paced the library, talking to the books.

“She should have trusted me. She should have told me when we were five years old. She lied in the Heartsphere, said she was Rokhshan.”

Why would she have? replied the spines of the books. In those first days, cooperating with each other was paramount. If you hadn’t learned to work together, you both would have died.

“All the more reason to be honest! I told her everything I knew!”

She was five years old, said the books. Not the age at which one can be expected to exercise long-term judgement.

“Then she should have told me when we were eight. Or twelve. Or the day she flew away. Or any other day. Instead she chose to hide this away from me. She kept making that choice every single day.”

Did she really? Remember how it felt to keep the secret of the decaying runes from her–something they still hadn’t dealt with, Kio reminded himself enragedly. Secrets armor themselves. Every day you don’t tell one, it becomes harder to tell.

“What about me, though?” Kio yelled. “What’s wrong with me that she didn’t think I could handle it? I’m hardly Rokhshan at all! I wouldn’t have cared if she was a landling ten years ago!”

But you care now?

“Let’s recap,” Kio snarled at the books. “A guy who claims to know the truth tells me the Benefactor told him Karla’s up to no good. I ignore him because I trust her. Now I learn I shouldn’t have trusted her at all–that–”

To stay standing was too much effort. He buckled to his knees, bracing his arm against a shelf, and said the next words to the ground.

You have to do what it takes, Karla.

“–that her mother told her…to…to kill me.”

The moment he fell silent, a loud impact resounded high above his head.

Something had landed on the library roof.

Bone dragon, his instincts told him immediately. They didn’t tell him to retch, but he did so anyway–he was in the perfect position for it, after all.

He was dead. Doomed. Had no weapons and was in no condition to fight. If the dragon found him, his choices were to jump through the window, or get torn apart.

Scrambling to a sitting position against the shelves, he crumpled into a heap, forcing himself not to hyperventilate and doing it anyway. A wooden slat dug into his back.

More impacts on the roof, rat-a-tat-tat. They sounded smaller than they should have been. Was the dragon feeling out its prey, stalking ever closer? Did it know it had all the time in the world to bring him down?

Kio dropped his head onto his knees. Did he want to survive? He thought about days and weeks and months, alone, waiting for Karla to come get him, not knowing whether she even could.

Not knowing whether she would. Could he trust that she wouldn’t just stay, among her people, in her world?

More taps. Heading now down the stairs that would take it to the library door.

I don’t want to be alone, he thought.

And then, I want it to take me. A day, a month, forever, it doesn’t matter, I’m done. I can’t handle any of them.

His dim memory of talking Karla down from this same ledge was very far away now. Yet, amid it, came one new thought: that it might be possible to speak to the bone dragon. They’d never tried to reason with it before.

The library door creaked open. Kio’s whole body wracked with shakes, head to toe, with all the chill of the sky. He slipped the first time he tried to stand up, made his way to his feet the second.

The door swung shut.

Kio stumbled into the corridor between shelves…

…and met the eyes of a tall man, with deep black hair, wearing a gray wool suit.

A man he remembered, from a long-ago dream.

It was as though warm sunlight had bathed him. Each one of his limbs grew light. Forgetting his hunger, his nausea, Kio stood up.

Then just as quickly dropped to his knees.

“Benefactor,” he murmured, and the man smiled.

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