“We’ve gotta stop this,” Karla told Kio as they picked their way around the burned furniture.
“What, so we can freeze to death?” He grimaced. She hoped that wasn’t his attempt at a joke.
“Not moving. Falling into these memories. They’re costing time we could be using to get ourselves out of this.”
If he was happy to see her forming sentences–even if purple wisps kept escaping the corners of her mouth–it died quickly on his face. “That last one helped me, Karla, I swear. It helped you too.”
“It did not.”
“You’re moving, aren’t you?”
“Just stop!” she shouted. The effort kicked off a coughing fit. Kio caught her before she collapsed into the ruins of a table.
“Stop pretending anybody who was here that day did us a favor. Every single one of them betrayed us. Your father, my mother, all of them.”
In some way, saying that had been supposed to make her feel better. In every way, it failed.
Kio stared at her for a moment, his mouth hanging open. He reached out and, with a few stiff movements, brushed some dust off her fur. Then he turned, looking like he was struggling between marching off without her and not wanting to leave her alone.
She couldn’t share the power he’d gained. He’d seen his father, great. Kio’s last memory of his father was probably of a hug or a lordly pat on the head or something. Definitely not of being shoved into a cupboard.
And he’d never been asked to murder her. That she knew of.
That same feeling was back–of resenting Mara for being her only mother and resenting that she loved Mara, loved and hated her at once in much the same way she felt about Castle Nashido.
“You still don’t know what caused the fire,” Kio said tersely, when they’d reached the ladder out of the solarium. His winding rune tattoo seemed to stand out at her, growing sharp as a knife.
“Does it matter?” Karla snapped, and strode ahead of him to grab hold of the ladder first. “My people lit it. Or yours. Who cares? They’re all dead.”
She left a trail of purple gas behind as she mounted the rungs. Only halfway up did she remember she wasn’t supposed to mention that they did not have the same people.
But if Kio picked up on that, it wasn’t what he pursued. “It does matter,” he told her. “It happened in the Inner Citadel, and we need to know more about this place. If we’re ever gonna get our heat back. Remember that?”
“Of course I remember!”
Though he was right to ask. She had been having trouble. Her mind was stuck, revolving around Mara and Kevin and the Harpooneers.
“Fine.” Kio’s tone softened a bit as he refocused on the task. Karla felt a pang–she was supposed to be the one who was good at that. “I…I wanna get out of here. But while we’re finding the open exit, we need to find out how to restart the gas cycle.”
“First of all,” Karla prodded the trapdoor, “it’s not a gas, it’s two gases reacting with each other. Second, we can’t restart it. It’s supposed to be constant.”
“Excuse me if I haven’t–”
He broke off as she shoved the trapdoor open. Ice crystals rained off it, scattering down the ladder.
The second she saw the room, her eyes clouded over again.
She lost her grip, crashing into Kio, but didn’t notice. Not even when he yelped, or when they both hit the ground, or when he rolled her onto a rug, laying her out as comfortably as he could, checking her vital signs. She was gone, back into memory.
When she and Mara were above the flat stone roof of the tower, Karla unhooked her harness straps. She didn’t think her mother wanted her to, but she thought they’d do better without being tied together. She also couldn’t remember when they’d taught her to undo the catches. But it was pretty obvious.
The Harpooneers threw stones and shot fire arrows to clear the gunners from the battlements. By the time Karla crumpled and rolled, landing like they’d practiced, the Rokhshan defenders had retreated back to the stairs.
Bodies hit the tower all around her. Some got up. Some didn’t, and the others stepped over them. Karla felt a stab of sorrow as the wind whipped their glider away, a flash of lightning from the ash cloud illuminating the shiny faces of its gears one last time.
She pushed herself to her feet. The roof was slick with rain. The damp came away on her hands.
“Forward!” Mara shouted.
Legs rushed around Karla, swords sliding out of sheathes past her head, brushing through locks of her wild brown hair. A hand touched her shoulder–her mother’s. She groped for her fingers and clasped them tightly.
Mara had a longsword in her other hand, but people had rushed ahead of her, fighting with the Rokhshan at the top of the stairs. Voices shouted from below, maybe as many as there were Harpooneers. Were they really all one family?
At the front of the pack, the man with the moustache, who hadn’t removed his goggles, kicked a Rokhshan swordsman in the chest. The fighter’s gilded coat wrapped around his legs as he tripped backwards down the spiral staircase, laying his comrades out like dominos.
Karla didn’t remember a lot of what happened next. They fought their way down a cramped stairway, through a solarium, then out a window, dropping a few feet to a long bridge that connected two of Castle Nashido’s spires. There, the man with the moustache returned to Mara, carrying a dagger he hadn’t had before.
“Any resistance in the next tower, Kevin?” Karla’s mother asked in clipped tones.
Kevin shook his head. “Something worse, commander. Almon smelled gas. You know his nose has always been sensitive.”
Karla’s face screwed up in sympathy. Mara just frowned. “What sort of gas?”
“We think it’s being ventilated through hatches in the inner citadel. Maybe connected all the way to the heartsphere.”
“The heartsphere is full of gas?” Mara held up her sword hand to stop the fighters behind her. “And the walls, too?”
“Full of it, or surrounded by a later of it.” Kevin nodded. “Was going to ask Griff what he thought before we launched, but he wouldn’t tell me anything. You know he’s never liked us.”
“Then he can die on the ground.” Mara motioned the Harpooneers forward, pulling Karla gently by the hand. “Kevin, you and Almon keep scouting ahead. Report to me every minute. Everyone else, split in half. We need to clear both these towers if we ever want to reach the sphere.”
She rapped her blade on the ground. The scrape rang through the storm. “For the survival of Freetown!”
“For Freetown!” the others echoed.
Karla’s stomach siezed every time the wind blew. The bridge had no rails. How many Rokhshan had fallen over the sides? There was nothing to land on but more hard castle roof, and sky.
A deafening bang–not from above, from ahead. The doors to the opposite tower flew open, and three Rokhshan wheeled a cannon through.
Mara broke into a run, a yell escaping her lips, so Karla ran and yelled too.
The room above the door was the place where the final piece of her memory began, though she had never seen it. The room was where the Rokhshan had lit the gas on fire.
But hadn’t burned it all off. Something in the castle had kept it going, had actually been rejuvenated by the explosion.
It was something they could do again.
Or might have been, if Karla hadn’t been a prisoner in her own head, gazing out at nothing, chilled to the bone, shaking and sobbing with the force of what she had seen.
It hadn’t been the scariest of the memories, at all, not like the burnt bodies. Nobody had even died. But she had seen the origin of her entire life, the method by which she and Kio had been stranded alone, and somehow that was even more horrible than the fire.
Especially since it was going to have to be lit once more, either at her hands or at those of the other person Year Zero had destroyed.
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