Signal 2

First things, as always, had to come first. Karla had returned to Nashido alone to make sure it didn’t fall apart. As always, that involved seven hundred little jobs.

She manured the vines and vegetables, checked the food stores for the small vermin-birds that got in there sometimes, oiled the pulleys, and sifted grime out of the reservoir. After that she discovered that the bone dragon had churned up the mist garden on its way in. The sun was in the sky before she put that to rights, and yet–

–something was wrong. Something other than how she’d never before done this without Kio. Karla shivered, but couldn’t put any words on her feeling of foreboding. Everything just felt cold.

With all her furs still on, she slammed open the door to the library like a commander charging into battle. Mara had taught her to read, she was pretty sure, but the place had always intimidated her even so: no organization, no plan to the shelves, and most of the books didn’t have any words on the covers.

Kio had the gift of being able to pull a few down at random and find what he wanted. Karla would have to do this the old-fashioned way.

She started with the piles around his workbench–desk, it was called a desk. He’d ripped pages out of all of them, but most still had there titles. A red one on the top of a stack turned out to be Isle Idyllic: Being a Treatise on the Ideal Composition and Management of a Kingdom.

The first few pages were just the author talking about how great his own kingdom and king were. Karla skipped ahead, skimming pages at random. Her eyes lit up when she saw the heading of Chapter XLIV, “What Must Be Constructed In Order To Ensure Tranquility,” but it was all about coliseums and grain silos, nothing about how to evacuate in a crisis. Personally, Karla thought a few decent flying machines or a giant elevator would have made her feel much more tranquil than any of that stuff.

Enough of this political philosophy nonsense. She needed a book about building things, not about how great it was that a lord could order people to build things.

Years ago, Kio had found all the books that referenced the construction of flyers, and stacked them in an annotated pile by the door. She’d taken most of them to the workshop by now–and read them backwards and forwards and upside-down. They had exciting things to say, but nothing on where an emergency flying machine could be found and used to escape a flying island.

Visions of him appeared in her mind as she dug through book after book. It was always the way: when apart from him, she took some of him into herself.

This time, she’d gained his ability to imagine the worst possible outcome of every situation. She pictured him standing on a crumbling ledge and falling to his death, curled up dying in a corner after eating some morsel of putrid food. She conjured worse things, while Better Karla shook her head and clutched her face in frustration.

“You’re not going to die,” she told Kio. “I’m going to find the answer and I’m gonna save you. Just hang on. And look for tea.”

Her image of him flickered. Call him back, Better Karla urged as Karla’s heartbeat galloped.

“I need a book,” she said, pacing back and forth before the library window. “I need a book that talks about where kings keep their secrets. This is all the stuff they sent out into the world, but where are the things they hide? Who writes down a kingdom’s secrets?”

She put out her hand, a randomly chosen shelf, and tried to close her eyes and let Kio guide her. Stumbled forward. Her hand closed around three volumes.

She let two of them drop. When she opened her eyes on the one that remained, she saw a faded green cover and a gold-embossed image of a sparrow perching on the arm of a curious shaggy beast.

The title inside the cover read Fables and Legends of the Gliding Bards.

“Of course.” A smile spread slowly across Karla’s face. “The secrets are in the stories.”

***

Kio froze.

His entire body locked up as though he were bound with metal ropes.

He’d already spoken. Too late to play dead. Besides, he had no rune of repose on his chest.

“Who’s Karla?” the voice repeated, then added, “Who are you?”

Eyes stay open. No, close them. Damn, damn, damn!

The next time the voice spoke, it sounded lower to the ground. “How did you come to be here?”

Kio’s skin crawled. The man was kneeling over him.

“Please don’t be afraid,” the voice said. “I want to look at your face. Is that all right?”

It was very much not all right, but there wasn’t much he could do to stop the man from seeing. And this was at least a question he could answer without opening his paralyzed mouth.

He nodded, and opened his eyes.

The face leaning over him was, as he’d hoped and feared, the face of the man they’d called Gunner. It looked different alive: still craggy, worn, a granite head for a stout, heavy man, but warmed by curiosity and concern.

Gunner pushed dark hair aside to inspect Kio’s left cheek.

“A lifting rune tattoo,” he said, awe creeping about the words. “So a Rokhshan has survived after all.”

Kio became aware that he would need to talk.

Over the years, he had come up with a thousand questions for this moment. But they had all been for a shepherd on a surface isle, not a dead man walking through the ruins of a dead world.

He could have asked how Gunner survived. Could have gushed out something that would have made him sound weak, undeserving of the knowledge. People in books didn’t greet people like that. They said much grander things.

Some inner script possessed him to say, “I am Lord Kio of the House Rokhshan. We seek the aid of your kingdom.”

Gunner laughed. A chuckle at first, then deeply. Kio hadn’t known a man could laugh that way. His own, when he did, sounded thin by comparison.

“I am Medwick in Sunton,” the big man replied. “And I’m glad to see you alive, my lord. Now it is vital that you listen to me.”

My lord was weird enough to galvanize Kio into moving. He began to shuffle upright against the temple’s most intact wall, but Medwick offered him a hand. For a dead man, he was strong–one arm was enough to pull Kio to his feet.

“You need aid, yes?” Medwick said, when Kio was sure he wasn’t going to fall back over. “We can talk as we move. I will take you to a stash of supplies.”

“That would be…” Kio mumbled. “Yes. Please. Thank you.”

This is the first other man you’ve ever spoken to, a harsh voice kept reminding him, and he already thinks you’re a gibbering fool.

“I am sorry if the defences gave you trouble,” Medwick said as they passed the fire-hurlers on the way to the bridge with the intact exit. “There simply wasn’t time to shut them off, you see. Events were unfolding too quickly.”

“Is…is that what you wanted to tell me about?” Kio was trotting to keep up with the man’s broad strides. “The booby traps?”

Medwick stopped, and turned, so he and Kio faced each other over the center of the bridge. “No, Lord Rokhshan. What I have to say will be harder to hear.”

Kio thought he’d be able to bear anything. He was stranded in a ruin full of skeletons and one living man who should have been dead, with his only friend in the world rapidly disappearing over the horizon.

He summoned up some of Karla’s courage. “Tell me.”

“It is about the Harpooneers, my lord. The enemies of your family.” Medwick’s brow creased in something like grief. “They were not destroyed on the Day of Reckoning. Their mission continues. As long as it does, your life is in danger.”

***

The sun had crept far past the top of its arc before Karla slammed the bards’ tales shut like a swimmer coming up for air.

She had an idea. The Tale of the Priest and the Three Kings described a meeting in the “Middle Kingdom,” the territory of the Rokhshans of Nashido.

Mention of the noble house always gave her a hard feeling in her gut: definitive proof that she didn’t truly belong here, never had. Proof she couldn’t share with Kio because she’d gone too long not sharing it with Kio. Every day made it harder to admit.

Yet she’d told herself to forget all that. The important thing was how the three kings reached Nashido. Each assumed the other two were tricking him when they met with the middle-sky ambassador lords, and so each devised the same ingenious elevator to get him to the castle as quickly as possible after a lookout sited another trying to board.

There were some hijinks, and a moral, but Karla hadn’t read that far. She needed to figure out if the elevator was real.

Some of the books she found–the ones with the most gold leaf–were the annals of royal engineers, talking about the great bridges and towers they’d added to their cities. They were useless. No king wanted to brag about building an escape route.

Engineers on their own, though…she imagined herself playing politics, and giggled. She really hoped she never had to. She couldn’t even hide things from Kio, and he was off in his own world half the time.

Book after book, page after page, skimming in the hopes she’d found the right one. At last she pulled a small brown volume from behind a stack of others, near the bottom of the avalanche that was Kio’s desk. It didn’t have a title, and the pages were all gridded, marked in pencil.

Her heart leapt. It didn’t matter how this had wound up in the castle library. This was the journal of a sky kingdom engineer.

She skimmed the pages for schematics of the weapons they’d encountered, but those didn’t seem to be this engineer’s department. It was mostly trigenometry, interspersed with notes written in a hand so tight it was barely legible.

Squinting at it, she found signposts that led her to a trove of buried gold. Splashed across two full pages was a design that could have been lifted directly out of the story.

“HA!” Karla pumped her fists in the air and shouted out her lungs to the empty library. Kio had a way home!

Of course, first she had to get the book to him. Which meant it was time to become the raven.

Holding her breath, feeling half-bird already, she descended to the hangar. Beyond its open walls, cumulus clouds drifted in the sky that would soon be hers to command. She stepped across the calendar, past the remnants of the last test of Raven, and letting out a cry, saw…

…the same patch of sky.

Where was the black room?

Better Karla rolled her eyes, snapped her fingers, and flew off in the feathered black body that should have been hers.

“Come on!” Karla shouted, and swore worse things too. It was the bridge all over again. Whatever her raven form really was, it loved to only appear when it felt like it.

“I need you,” she howled, “I need you!”

Her image of Kio was sympathetic, but mum. He had his own problems transforming.

High emotion. She wasn’t feeling strongly enough. She found the point of her brain that worried about Kio and picked at it like a scab. She tried to rage at herself, or at the Rokhshan who had excluded her. She kicked gears, hurled tools, sent at least one of their calendar markers out into the sky.

And at last, Karla Harpooneer sat in a circle of her own devastation, too worn out to rage or sob, still resolutely a human.

On the bridge, she hadn’t turned because some part of her had known there was another way out. But she’d turned since then, and had thought it was supposed to get easier every time.

No matter. If she couldn’t travel as a bird, it only meant there was another way to get Kio the book. She had to find it.

I’m a self-supported artist. If you liked this chapter and the rest of The Clockwork Raven, please consider pledging to my Patreon and getting cool rewards and prizes. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shoutout!

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

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