The flock of birds, the green cloud, the fire…
Karla jerked awake, banging something hard against a rough stone battlement. The sky above her was pink, brightening into blue behind. Other than a thin layer of cloud it was empty.
She scrambled to her feet, but only succeeded in finding her knees. In three long shuffles she crossed the top of the tower to look out from the sky side. There, having grown a little smaller since last night, sat the sky kingdom: massive, far away, and empty, except for a dead body and a lot of skeletons and hopefully some food and Kio.
Her stomach churned. “Mara,” she said out loud, “it looks so far away…” Not even the Big Island had ever seemed that distant.
Another thought surfaced: this was the first night they’d ever spent apart. They slept at different ends of the castle all the time, when he was busy reading or she in her workshop, but even then she’d always stopped by to tell him good night, may the wind stay away. He’d been there for her first memory of waking up, beside their first pathetic attempt at a vegetable garden.
She grinned up at the sky kingdom. “Thank whoever there were food stores left in the pantry. Otherwise we wouldn’t have made it a season.”
Hold on. Kio was trapped on a flying graveyard, drifting farther and farther away from her, and here she was…watching? Napping? Reminiscing?
Time to go. She flung open the trapdoor and took the spiral stairs two at a time. “All right, Kio, can we make a deal?”
She passed one of the atmosphere crystals, which didn’t answer–fine, Karla wasn’t paying attention anyway. “We are going to agree that you’re here and I’m talking to you. So even though you aren’t, and I’m not, I get to not be crazy. Bargain?”
It appeared to be a bargain.
Karla rolled the heavy door aside and stepped out onto the reservoir rim. This was a new kind of apart: not the frantic thunderhead chase sort of alone, but a steady, silent, rhythmically pounding alone. It would take new measures to get through.
She had become aware, over ten years without much to do but build and think, that she often made her decisions as though she were taking example from a different Karla–a strong, smart, powerful, certain Karla who always knew what to do.
This Karla was a great person to have around. The more like her the real Karla acted, the better she felt. So she drafted the better Karla into service alongside the only Kio.
Down a ladder, in the top room of the outer citadel, she paused, glancing over to the warren of hallways where Mara’s letter rested. But no. That was not the kind of comfort she needed right now.
“Comfort comes from doing,” she reminded herself. “What do I need to do?”
Outside a window, she spied one of the long pulley-ropes, fixed around one of the mysterious gears. She’d been meaning to get to work deciphering those as soon as she had a free minute. Life had not exactly been complying.
She snapped her fingers. “Workshop.” And not a moment to lose.
Karla sprang from the window ledge and got a firm grip on the rope. “Lucky it’s not one of the ones you twisted up in the gears,” she said to Kio.
The counterweight for this rope was a jug full of water. One well-placed kick spilled it down the castle wall. It shot up, hurtling Karla down.
She enjoyed the view. The day was clear, the sea beautifully wine-dark below her. When she sped past the vines, she shot an arm and leg out and found purchse. Thirty seconds later, she was back in her workshop.
The first thing she did was strike flint sparks to relight all the braziers–she’d doused them all, thinking she was going to spend days straight on the sky kingdom, and the room felt strangely cold and empty.
The second thing was to go directly to the half-fixed hulk of Raven in the center of the room, and trace the copy of Kio’s tattoo carved into the spine. The lifting rune.
Even the slightest cut to the path of a rune of power could recast its magic. The drip in the temple had proven that when it continued to send Gunner’s signal long after his death. If she could cut into the lifting runes, she might be able to get Raven skyborne again without any repairs at all.
“I’m sorry about this,” she told Raven, then stuck her sharpest chisel into a short mark, and cut into the wood.
The whole design flared into light. Karla got a brief flash of the violet color she was coming to recognize, before Raven jumped toward the ceiling and one of its wings caught her in the face.
She flew backward, managing to fling an arm out just in time to avoid slamming into one of the braziers. The light exploded into several bursts behind her eyes as her head hit something. She heard a crunch of wood and canvas as Raven crashed back to the ground, slightly more broken than before.
Karla drew a long breath. Something was ringing in her head. “Really? Nobody objected to that?”
But neither Kio nor Better Karla said anything. After all, it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
She paced a few steps around the structure. Kio’s runes had saved her life, but they must have been even hastier than he’d thought. Not only had they leaked magic the first time they’d turned on, they were spilling it like a sieve now.
“Idiot,” she said to herself, or rather, Better Karla said to her. “Why didn’t you make a sketch of his tattoo before you left? You were in way too much of a hurry to leave.”
Karla already knew that. She was always in way too much of a hurry. The question was how to help Kio right now.
She couldn’t get the ornithopter working in time. But what if Raven wasn’t the answer?
It took a bit of fresh air to get past that first mental block. Poking her head out a window and breathing deeply Karla realized how often she’d used Raven as the answer to everything, even before a working Raven had existed. Her clockwork bird cut through were all other solutions failed: parachutes would dump them in the middle of the ocean, there was no rope tether long enough, but flying, flying was the over-answer.
Better Karla was perched on a ledge outside the window. “If I were you, what would I be doing?” Karla asked, then answered. “Using all of my tools. Not just the ones in this room.”
What tools did she have? A craft she couldn’t fly, magic she couldn’t use, a bird-form that couldn’t lift heavy objects…
…and a friend who could do anything she could, if he knew what he was doing.
“It’s not what I have to work with,” she said slowly. “It’s what you have.”
What did Kio have? For one thing, a better knowledge of sky kingdoms than she did. She’d have to catch up. Maybe even surpass him.
Karla groaned. It looked like there was no avoiding the library.
One of the things Kio did not know about sky kingdoms was how they interacted with any level of the sky above or below themselves.
It would have been useful, quite useful, to know how their diplomats reached the meetings on Nashido that the Rokhshan mediated. For a while, he passed the time huddled against a collapsed wall out of sight of the gantry, working on the problem of why there were no flying machines among the mounds of people trying to escape the end of their world.
They must have built something more advanced than the personal gliding suits their nomads had used thousands of years ago. After all, the anti-dragon weapons had turned out to be real. But there was nothing.
The only explanation was that the end must have caught them all in the air.
After that, without making any conscious decision, he moved. He had a job to do on this island, after all.
He used his shelter as a staging ground, returning to it every time he filled his backpack, dumping off treasure and sorting it. A block of hard cheese. A bag of tea that must have weighed fifteen pounts–Karla would be happy. A stack of hides of animals he couldn’t identify–he’d have to see about setting up a tannery on Nashido. Couldn’t believe they hadn’t done that yet. And, of course, every bit of rope he could get his hands on, no matter how short. Back home, he could splice them all together into something usual.
The eastern sky was turning pink by the time he realized he was having trouble focusing his eyes and making out the edges of things. He’d been so busy staving off terror, he hadn’t worried about exhaustion.
He trudged back toward the center island, onto one of the disarmed bridges. For some reason, probably the massive empty moat around it, the inner sanctum felt safer. He was too tired to realize that anything able to fly to the sky kingdom could reach him in there.
The lack of handrails woke him, made him a bit more careful. By the time he reached the central temple and gazed up at the prism, he could have slept on any surface in the sky.
Kio had no plan. But plans were things that could happen after sleep.
Karla’s working on it, he thought, over and over again. I can sleep while she does. Then it will be my turn.
There was a patch of grass at the base of the stairs. No ceiling, but Kio read the clouds and they didn’t look like rain. Meteorology was second nature for a sky-dweller.
He unrolled his blanket and sprawled out. The Benefactor had led him here, he felt instantly certain. He’d never known a softer bed.
His eyes had hardly closed when he awoke to a sky full of light, and a finger prodding him hard in the side.
“Karla?” he murmured. Which part of the castle had he fallen asleep in? He couldn’t recall.
A deep voice replied, “Who is Karla?”
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