“You’re wrong,” Kio said reflexively. “You’re a liar.”
“I have been, in the past,” Medwick replied. “As a priest of court it was necessary. But I am not lying now.”
He spread his hands wide in supplication. “It is just the two of us here, my lord. What would be my reason?”
“Maybe it’s not,” Kio challenged. “Maybe you have more people hidden around the city and you’re trying to get me to…to…”
Medwick waited patiently.
“To give you Nashido!” Kio burst out. “You want my castle. My family’s holding in the middle kingdom.”
By way of response, Medwick turned and started walking again. Kio hastened after him, not sure how to respond to this.
Only after several silent minutes had passed within the city did his strange companion say, “Will taking you to my supply cache not be enough to win your trust?”
There was a note of sadness in his voice that nearly played Kio like a liar–but the ambassador he was posing as would not be so easily fooled. “You’ll tell me everything,” he said. “Your entire story. Then I’ll decide whether to trust you or not.”
Medwick’s shoulders sagged enough to remind Kio he’d once been a corpse named Gunner. “Very well. But once we arrive.”
The cache turned out to be hidden on the outer ring in an appropriate place–under an old food store, whose ceiling had fallen in and left a pile of rubble. One side of the room butted right up against the edge of the floating island. Far over it, with a pang, Kio caught sight of Nashido, motionless amid an empty panorama of air.
Peering through a window on the other side, he saw a purple glow on the other side of the street. A kind of park had been erected around a towering crystal that he realized must have served the same purpose as the six on Nashido, keeping the atmosphere dense enough to breathe. The ground, perhaps a garden once, was scoured clean.
Medwick told Kio that the unfamiliar, inactive runes on the walls had been used to keep the air frigid but still inside the space.
“Do you know much about rune magic?” Kio asked, forgetting his suspicion for a moment.
Medwick in Sunton nodded. “Much. But now is not the time to tell you. Once we have finished our discussion, perhaps.”
As the big man levered up a floor tile, Kio realized with a jerk in his stomach that Medwick had just applied leverage to him. The court priest gave freely of his food, but information would come at a price.
“More than ten years ago,” Medwick said without preamble, “my sovereign began to receive augurs of a terrible event.”
He’d gotten the stone tile up, revealing a deep space below. Kio peered into it to see stacks upon stacks of brown packages labeled with ink: Auk. Dried stonefruit. Jade tea. Spearfish. He had never tasted fish.
“You want to tell me here?” he asked, a bit stupidly. Medwick raised an eyebrow at him.
“Nowhere on the kingdom is less ruined, my lord. I lack a sanctum like yours. You’ll presently see why.”
The morning had grown late while they walked, and the sun rested high in the sky. As they emptied the chamber of the food Medwick was willing to give up, clouds slid across the light, painting the collapsed ceiling in shades of gloom.
“The king didn’t ignore the omens. Not exactly.” Medwick wiped his brow. “But he was so confident of our strength that he gave no thought to any preparations. He had other things on his mind. War, trade. The grand worship I accomplished for him, to praise his name to the heavens.”
“What do you mean by augurs and omens?” Kio asked. The words had set his scholar’s mind on alert.
“Not the chantings of soothsayers, or the entrails of anything, fear not. I mean observations myself and others took of the sky. It was rapidly gaining a composition of elements it hadn’t displayed in historical memory.” Medwick frowned. “Then came the messenger.”
“A Rokhshan?” Kio asked.
“No, and that was strange. It was a glider from Caelash.”
Kio felt himself go pale. He and Karla had visited a city of that name years ago. It had been in worse shape than this one.
“The glider carried a message from my Caelash counterpart. He had seen a great menace approaching from one whole side of the sky. It had no form, but it was tinged green. In his hurried message to my king, he named it. The Ash Cloud.”
A green cloud. That was Karla’s recurring dream. Kio found himself shaking uncontrollably as pieces slid into place.
“The Ash Cloud was the catastrophe that caused all this death in Sunton.” Medwick had stopped organizing the piles of food, and spoke with a kind of enforced motionlessness that made him look even more like a statue. He was fighting to keep something monstrous from escaping onto his face. “But it bore another terror along with it.”
“What?” Kio blurted out.
Medwick clamped his eyes shut, then opened them again to stare at Kio with the intensity of a marble figure.
“I…mean only…” Somehow he’d picked up the priest’s formal mode of speech. It made him feel less frightened. “The Ash Cloud took every sky kingdom. I’ve been to many others, and they all are the same. What could it possibly have brought to you that was worse than everyone dying?”
“Not to us,” Medwick said. “To Castle Nashido.”
The last piece slid into place.
“Benefactor,” Kio whispered. “You mean the Harpooneers, don’t you?”
Medwick remained silent, letting Kio answer that for himself.
“Who were they?” Kio heard himself asking, from a long way off.
“Raiders from the surface,” Medwick answered. “Piloting crude flyers that never would have stayed aloft had the Ash Cloud not changed the density of the air. They had only one goal: to overrun your family’s castle and claim it for themselves.”
“Fine, but…but they’re gone now.”
Again, Medwick waited for Kio to provide his own answer.
“You’re wrong!” Kio yelled, though the man had said nothing. He spun away and paced around the open space, nearly tripping on the rubble from the ceiling. “She’s not one of them. It’s just a cool word she saw somewhere.”
“It cannot be a coincidence, Lord Rokhshan.”
“Stop calling me that!” Kio whirled around. “Do you have any idea how many times Karla has saved my life? If she wanted to wipe out House Rokhshan, she’s had plenty of chances to push me, and besides, she’d still be around.”
Medwick’s features had come to rest in something like sympathy. “I sealed myself in the only room in Sunton I could reliably ward against the Ash Cloud, and reposed myself for ten years, all so I could give you this warning. I must insist that you heed it.”
“If heeding it means I have to betray my best friend, then you should die again and stay there this time.”
“You must listen!”
“I’ve listened enough.”
Head buzzing, Kio strode past Medwick and began shoving brown parcels indiscriminately into his pack. Without any malice, Medwick spoke to the back of his head.
“Trust the Benefactor.”
“I do trust the Benefactor,” Kio snapped. “So does Karla. So do all Rokhshan.”
“Karla is not a Rokhshan.”
For an instant, the darkening sky blinked white.
Karla had never been sorry they had so much glowmoss on the castle. Although it took up surfaces she could have driven more handholds into, and although it took forever to charge it with direct sunlight, it lit up the nights and made the place look human. The worst thing about the sky kingdoms wasn’t all the ruins, or the skeletons–it was the dark.
She was even more glad now that she needed a signal, since charging the glowmoss required lots of mirrors.
The sun was piercing the thin clouds in long rays, perfect for her to know exactly where to place them. Long ago, while exploring another sky kingdom, she and Kio had found an intact mirror as tall as either of them. It had been part of some sort of dance hall, and it had taken them a whole morning to pry it off the wall and roll it back to the castle–but mirrors were rare, and precious.
Standing on her garden ledge below the reservoir, she tied the grand mirror to the highest pulley, and hoisted it up the starboard tower.
Two other mirrors at various heights completed the system. Finally, Karla took a small hand-mirror back to the ledge, found the sun in its eye, and began to tilt it back and forth, searching for the perfect angle.
It wasn’t hard to know when she’d found it. A bright flash blinked off the grand mirror, brighter than the dance floor might have been, when people were alive.
“Hello out there!” she shouted joyfully, and the Kio by her side shouted with her. “I bet they could see that on the surface!”
She’s calling me, Kio thought, but it collided with another thought: What did he just say?
The two thoughts crashed together and tangled up, and he gained no profit by either of them.
“You don’t know who she is,” he managed. “It was the first thing you asked me.”
Suddenly, he became uncomfortably aware that he was standing between Medwick and the open sky.
“You’re right,” Medwick acknowledged. “I only know that any harpooneer remaining after the Ash Cloud is a danger to you, Kio. You may not believe she is. She may not even believe it. But when facing such a danger, I beg you to trust the Benefactor.”
Kio’s eyes darted around the storage space. To Medwick’s right, the pile of ceiling rubble blocking his way. But the left was open.
He inched toward his bulging backpack.
“What makes you so sure she isn’t a Rokhshan?” he asked.
“Her mother was one of them.” Medwick kept his words gentle. “She was known to us before the Day. Their resemblance is near-identical. I saw her glider board the castle right before I sealed myself in the tomb.”
Year zero. Kio floated outside of himself. Realized he was shaking. “Did you see what happened to Nashido?”
Medwick shook his head. “I am sorry. I turned away after she and her compatriots landed on your castle. There was hardly time to save myself.”
Kio relaxed a bit, but kept flicking his eyes back to the distant Nashido. Karla’s first message had only been to hail him. What was she trying to say?
Stall for more time. “What does the Benefactor have to do with any of this?”
“He is at the heart of everything,” Medwick said. “Of all the gods I worshipped as a priest, he is the only one who has been true. And he is yours. He raised Castle Nashido from the sea and gave the Rokhshan their title, their ancient commandments–”
“So you’ve met him?” Kio challenged. “And he wants me to be afraid of Karla?”
Medwick’s mouth half-opened. He didn’t have an answer.
Another flash in the corner of his eye, but he didn’t have to turn around to see. Light was shining from Nashido onto the sky kingdom of Sunton…onto the walls around its prism of black glass.
It held there. Karla had sent her message.
Kio grabbed his backpack. Medwick flung out an arm. Kio dodged underneath it, forced his arms through the straps, and bolted into the ruined streets.
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