Karla hadn’t had the idea until the last steps before the staircase dead-ended in open air. But now, three strides later, it was clearly the only thing that made sense. Her first thought had been to run to take Raven out in pursuit of the creature–but any fool could tell Raven wasn’t close to ready. She couldn’t fly. She had to reel him in.
She and Kio were fastidious about keeping things on Nashido, since it was almost impossible to scavenge replacements for anything that fell off. Anything that could be lashed down was. Except, as Kio often grumbled, themselves. There were ropes on the pulleys, but they’d just fall limp if she let them off.
Knowing that, what was the only thing on the castle that would do?
When Karla had figured out how to build spring-loaded spear guns, she’d planted them until the castle was bristling with them from all sides. She could see one from anywhere on Nashido. They didn’t all look the same, scavenged the way they had been–some of them were tipped with table knives, spokes, animal teeth, some of the mounts were bedframes–but they all worked. She tested them every day.
The one on the other tower was long enough to reach Kio. If she could reach it.
Last pace, then up onto the battlement. The spear gun was mounted on a ledge partway up one of the other two towers, accessed by a hole knocked through the wall over two laborious weeks. Karla didn’t stop running. Looking over the abyss in the split second before she jumped, she felt a pang. She would have loved to have shimmied across an aqueduct instead of hurling herself like this. But on Castle Nashido, you did what you could with the tools you had.
One great leap, and she was in midair. No problem. She spent half her life that way.
Hanging onto his dragon-wing parasail, Kio saw Karla land hard, with one hand already on the turret. She’s not going to waste any time calculating an angle.
He was right. Karla shot from the hip. She wasn’t aiming at all, just trying to put as much cable as possible in Kio’s reach. All she had to do was just miss a little.
She’d angled downward. The spear–a discarded fencepost, best as he could tell–sailed toward the surface just to Kio’s right. The cable attached to it was strong steel, recently scavenged. He wrapped his arms around it, then looked down at the scrap of dragon.
“Leave us alone!” he shouted, and pulled up both his legs to wrap them around the cable.
One last glance at the claw didn’t show him what he expected. It wasn’t scratching for a last chance to snare him.
It was pointing, feebly. A gesture like a dying breath. It held its position for a few second more, then tumbled toward the surface, losing altitude faster with every second. Faster than Kio ever hoped he’d fall. Soon, it was out of sight behind a cloud.
In the days that followed, Kio would ask himself many times why he looked. He should have kicked the dragon-scrap off like a piece of garbage. He shouldn’t have followed the pointer finger.
But he’d never seen Nashido from below. He hoped he’d never be down here again. That simple bit of curiosity made the decision.
As many times as he asked himself why he’d looked, he asked himself if he regretted doing it. He’d found he couldn’t say for sure. Did that one decision really lead to all the others? Would it have if he’d been anybody other than Kio?
Who could say?
Where the top half of Nashido was all stairways and walls and towers, the bottom half had a different look: decks of different sizes flowered out at different levels, connected to the citadel by stout supports and open to the air. Kio saw it all in cross-section. The mist garden, full of plants that caught fog and condensed it into drinkable dew. The machine deck with its lightning rods, and the great barn-sized propellors underneath. And the great hangar, where no guests came to land.
The mist garden was the lowest, jutting out into the sky from the level of the propellors. Between the softly lit field of deep green and the vast metal teeth, the gently curved lower port side of the outer citadel showed as a bare wall. Part of the library was on the other side–he’d spent countless hours in there–and though he’d wondered what was on the other side of the wall, he’d never been brave enough to check. Or to ask Karla. Partly because he knew she’d do it.
Now he could see it all. The underside of the library was covered in runes. Vast white-glowing symbols, identical to the ones carved on the barrier crystals, except that they were several Kios tall.
Kio gawked. He forgot the strain on his limbs. The lines of these symbols were perfect, as though scrawled by the Benefactor himself, which they probably had been. Was that what kept Nashido aloft? The same kind of sky-kingdom symbol magic none of his books ever quite explained? The sygaldry he’d been trying to decode for over half his life? Castle Nashido’s dark system number one?
Then he made the second discovery. The one that caused all the trouble.
The symbols at the edge of his vision were tinged the color of the stone.
The string of runes disappeared in both directions around the sides of the sphere he couldn’t see from his precarious position. It probably went full circle around the base of Nashido. That meant there were could be some fully-washed-out runes out of sight. Runes that had lost all their power.
Or would there be? Wouldn’t that mean the castle should be listing to one side? Did the symbols even work that way, and if they had only lost their power in patches, would that loss spread? How quickly?
Was Nashido losing altitude?
All these questions ran through his mind in the split second before he felt a tug on his line. The top part of the runes, including much of the fade, jerked out of view. Stop! was his first, irrational thought. I need more time!
Coming quickly to his senses, he looked up the length of the steel cable, to where Karla perched halfway up a tower. She was a speck in the sky, like the frigate birds that wheeled far from the castle. Her muscles were straining against the crank on the side of the spear gun. It hadn’t been designed to hold a human’s weight.
So his second thought was that he couldn’t tell Karla.
Or he could. But he really didn’t want to.
Why not? She could help him solve it. They solved every problem together. Celebrated every victory together.
No problem’s ever been this big before.
Kio planted his feet against the side of the castle to help take some of the strain off Karla at the winch, and knew, with a certainty he couldn’t trace, that he would be too scared to get out the news about the faded runes.
No, before Kio could be brave, he needed to be certain. And that meant research. Which meant hiding something from the only person in the world he could tell anything.
Another person, Kio thought ruefully as he baby-stepped up the citadel wall, would probably make this decision better.
Midday found Karla on her back in the mist garden. Blades of grass came up past her eyes. She bunched some in her fists and exhaled as slowly as she could.
She had shed her harness, her outer leathers, and her belt, leaving her in an animal-skin shirt and pants–she wasn’t sure which animal. The wind tickled her skin and blew strands of her cloud of hair around her face.
Her muscles felt like compressed lead, and they’d feel worse tomorrow, since she’d forced herself not to collapse immediately after hauling Kio to the lowest possible ledge. Together, the two of them had done what needed doing: spread manure on the vines and the vegetables, yank out the weeds that blew in on the wind and took root, check the pulleys and lines for strain, salt the previous day’s catch of birds before it went rancid. Kio did more than his share, taking every job that kept them apart, but she didn’t think anything of it. He always got a bit squirrely after she saved his life. She tended to respond by getting extra huggy, which really wasn’t Kio’s style. He probably just couldn’t think of how to handle it.
The mist garden at the bottom of Castle Nashido was the best place in the castle to relax, even if it was a little too damp to sleep in. Of course, the wind still blew–you couldn’t ever really get away from the wind. But the faint glow radiating from the grass, and the stalks of the tall plants that were firm enough to waft gently even in a gale, combined to make it feel like an oasis. It helped that the mist garden was often enveloped in a cloud of fog–only fog because it’s touching land where people live, she heard Kio reminding her, and grinned–so thick she couldn’t see open sky.
Her fingertips inched toward the belt of knives and wrenches she’d laid beside her in the grass. Even here, she had work to do. Couldn’t lie around forever. The garden sure wasn’t. The glow from the grass came from hundreds of firebugs that made their homes in the lawn, and the tall woody stalks had big leaves, perfect for gathering clouds into dew. She and Kio had dug channels under places where the leaves came together in canopies, to funnel the beads of dew into a central pool. The bugs kept the soil aerated the way the fogleaves liked it. Everybody was doing their part.
Except the grass. She sucked a drop of dew from one blade into her parched throat. The grass was just pretty.
Of course, she hadn’t made this place a priority for a while, since the expansions to their aqueduct had been working so damn well. Now, this strange backup cloud-catcher was all the water they had. She had to make sure none of the channels were blocked, and spread the manure they’d withheld from the vines that morning. She could have sworn the big things were complaining at her as she cut their food ration.
The manure, of course, was hers and Kio’s. Her nose still wrinkled at that ten years later, but she didn’t dwell on it for too long. The mist garden was peaceful in the sunshine today, even with the rush of wind through the porticos. Living on Nashido, buffeting by the air was constant when she was outside, and its howl was ever-present indoors. She didn’t think about wind anymore.
There were two sets of freestanding stairs leading to the mist garden, between two pairs of columns attaching it to the castle at its four corners. Kio appeared down the far one with a bowl in hand. He was still in his fur parka, but had the hood down, letting the wind blow his hair back. It revealed his whole spiral tattoo: a black mark on the left side of his face, curling at the top, forming a brace in the center to a zigzag in the bottom, with dots surrounding each change in course.
Inadvertently, Karla touched her face where hers would have been, if she’d had one. Kio’s working theory was that the Rokhshan didn’t tattoo their women. Still, it felt so much less natural to think of herself as one of the house than it did to think of her friend as Kio Rokhshan. It was his face: his features delicate, his mouth soft and noble, despite all the weatherbeating he took every day.
He placed the bowl next to her in the grass. As he sat down, she sat up. “I think I made a decent scramble,” he said as she snatched up the wooden spoon. “Peppers, onions, cabbage. And that mushroom infestation in the upper-northwest patch turned out to be edible, so I used some of those.”
Karla hesitated with a bite halfway to her mouth. “How did you test it?”
“Fed it to birds,” Kio shrugged. “I already ate it and I feel fine.”
She dug in hungrily. Their main cooking task was always figuring out how to make the rock-hard salted gull jerky edible. Karla took the brute force approach, softening it in broth, but Kio always found some sort of creative juices to soften it with. She was the better prepper, but he was the better cook. He was always secretly glad when it was his turn.
“There’s water in the stone bath here,” she said after she’d cleaned out her bowl, “but it won’t be enough for everything. We need a plan.”
“If we ever want to take a bath again.” Kio wore an expression like he’d just been ready to tell her something else, and was both happy for the excuse not to and ashamed of himself for taking it. The last bit was extrapolation on her part, but she did know him pretty well.
“So. Options,” she said. “Number one. Fix the aqueduct as quickly as possible.”
“How quickly is that?”
She counted on her fingers. “One day to gather everything that scattered across the castle, and to figure out what we lost over the side. One to rig pulleys to drag the frames that work back into place, and one more to get it all riveted down. One to fix the frames that are bent, one to lift those, and two to inspect the cloud-catchers and funnels and get those back in place.”
“Of course, that all goes out the window if we need to scavenge anything.”
“Right.” Karla lay back on her elbows. “No sky kingdoms since…how long?”
“Forty-nine days,” he said, and she knew he’d been counting. He sat silently, a bit of cloud twining around him, waiting for her to realize the flaw in her own plan.
“Seven days plus who knows how many to scavenge, all without water. Fine. We need a supply to keep us alive while we fix the aqueduct, and this,” she gestured to the bowl in the middle of the garden channels, “is thirst rations. We’ll live, but we could get too dehydrated to work effectively.”
Kio swallowed and nodded. “We need the reservoir filled. Sooner than we can repair the infrastructure to fill it.”
She plowed ahead. It wasn’t good to let him think too much when they were in this kind of danger. “We’ve got to fill it without the catchment system. Get into so much water that it won’t matter what’s guiding it to the reservoir, it’ll fill up regardless.”
“A squall,” he said, catching on. “Three or four of those would give us long enough to repair the aqueducts.”
“Yeah!” She rocked up on her haunches. “But how are we going to hit three or four squalls?”
Their heads turned, as one, to look at the three propellors suspended under the machine deck. For a second, Kio’s eyes flitted to the mist garden’s roof, which blocked the view from the lawn to the underside of the citadel. But then he was back to following her gaze, all the way up the lightning rods that poked out from the edge of the deck.
“How much juice in the–“
“Fish for more, then.”
“Fish?” Karla turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“I–“ Kio looked at his feet. “I don’t know. Feels like we need lightning to charge the batteries to reach a storm where there is lightning, and by the time we’re there, we’ve got rain anyway. If only there was some way we could make the rods longer.”
“There is!” Karla’s face lit up. They’d left a pile of potential lightning rod extensions lying in the empty reservoir. “The scraps of the aqueduct! We’ll bolt those on the bottom and run the rods up twice as high.”
“But…” Kio picked up a dewdrop on his finger, let it slide off. “That’ll delay the aqueduct.”
She laid a hand on his shoulder. “We can pilot around a giant flying castle, Kio. We’ll get the water we need to finish the project. Leave it to us.”
He looked at her, smiling a little with half his mouth. “Can I drive?”
“Depends on how much you can add to the lightning rod.” She punched the shoulder where her hand had been, grinned, and turned away. Over the edge of the mist garden, over the edge of the world, something had caught her eye.
“Kio! Look!” She crawled to the edge. He trailed right behind.
Far down through layers of cloud, fluffy cumulus and stratus solid like a landmass, cirrus whisps and mists hanging low over the sea, an island was passing.
They both knew this island. When they weren’t correcting Nashido’s course using its giant propellors, the castle had a path that it liked. Though Karla wasn’t fond of treating Nashido as a living creature, she could admit it had a tendency to sweep along the archipelago that started with this bit of land.
It was a tiny scrap of an island, a welling-up of green from the surface. This high up, she couldn’t tell if anybody or anything even lived there, other than whatever vegetation covered the surface. It was a dot on a map without labels.
Karla didn’t care. The island was part of the surface. It could have been the meanest rock and she’d have made it greater than any sky kingdom. She pictured people like her tending sheep, building homes for themselves, resting in sun-dappled groves where the air was calm and still. Each one had a boat, could come and go across the sea as they pleased.
“We’ll be there one day,” she told Kio as they lay together on their stomachs, waiting for the next island in the archipelago to emerge. “Safe on the ground with a whole village around us. We can be carpenters, or machinists, or farmers, or whatever we like.”
“I think I’d rather go to the big island,” Kio said. “More to learn. More people to meet.”
“Deal,” she replied. “Half the year as farmers on the little island, half the year as scholars on the big one. We’ll learn everything that’s missing from your books.”
Kio turned his head sideways to meet her eyes. “Promise?”
“Promise,” Karla said, five years old once again.
For a second, Kio opened his mouth with that same air of having something important to tell her. But once again, it passed by.
That night, after they’d dug through the pile of aqueduct scrap, Kio was snoring away in the library, under more books with sparse mentions of bone dragons. Karla made sure he was asleep, then tiptoed to one end of the outer citadel and slipped inside a trapdoor. Down a long hallway, uncomfortably close to the inner citadel, was another ragged trapdoor concealing a room with an equally ragged floor. She tiptoed toward it, eyeing the gaps in both, and what was buried beyond.
Sorry, Kio, she thought. I guess now we’re both keeping secrets.
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