“Child,” the Benefactor said, smiling, “how did you come to be here?”
Kio struggled to sit up. This was the man who had elevated House Rokhshan to the middle sky, who had drawn the blueprints and breathed life into Castle Nashido. A Rokhshan, even a pathetic starving one, should face the Benefactor on his feet. But Kio’s limbs were too weak and rubbery even to climb to his knees.
“The ash cloud has passed, Kio, don’t you know?” The Benefactor reached down and took Kio’s hand. “It is time for you and the Harpooneer to see the sun again.”
Kio’s dry throat let no words out. Here he was, speechless before the Benefactor, embarrassing his family one last time before he died.
The Benefactor’s face was lined but strong, aged but not decayed. He didn’t waste a single movement as he pulled Kio to his feet, the young boy neither helping nor resisting. A wave of nausea hit Kio and he stumbled, but the Benefactor caught him, holding him in his arms until the lightheaded rush passed.
“You can stand, Kio,” the Benefactor said. “There is still food on this castle. The Rokhshan line is not yet finished.”
“Wait!” Kio croaked. With his unworldly grace, the Benefactor was heading for a door neither he nor Karla ever took. He couldn’t say where it came out.
He almost tripped again, put all his scant energy into keeping his feet. By the time he looked up again, the Benefactor was gone.
Memories didn’t have to come from weird hypnotic furnace gases. Sometimes you could just pull one up to keep you warm, or at least distracted.
Until three days ago, Kio had forgotten he’d ever entered the heartsphere. Which meant he’d forgotten hallucinating the Benefactor, as well.
He’d also failed to recall the way the hallucination led him to a hatch he’d missed, which had led him out to this very ledge where he and Karla now had their largest garden. A ledge which, before they added their pulley system, could only be reached by entering the sphere.
Something the Rokhshan had expressly forbidden. Living proof that it wasn’t just the Harpooneers who had secrets to answer for.
Kio wiped sweat off his brow. Despite the chill of the early morning, he was drenched in it. He might have been wearing too many furs, but the cold bit him every time he took one off–even with the warming gas restored, this was one of the coldest spots on Nashido. He wished Karla didn’t have to lie here, but with the number of times he’d nearly lost her in the last day alone, he wasn’t going to leave her alone.
And he couldn’t leave the garden. Shifting his grip on his heavy launcher, he cast an appreciative glance down at the field of mushrooms. Their blank brown caps stared back, mocking him.
He’d always been a better cook than Karla because he’d been more willing to experiment. He’d known for a while that the mushrooms he kept finding in this patch were good to eat. It had only been three days, however, that he’d known they were excellent cures for all sorts of poisons.
He had no way of knowing whether that applied to this poison. But he had to try. In another day or so, they’d be big enough, and then he’d know for sure.
Kio didn’t know whether he actually wanted that day to come.
A chorus of cries echoed out of a gray cloud on the horizon, and he snapped to attention, hefting the heavy launcher.
He was quite proud of the weapon. It was an adaptation of Karla’s design for the spear cannons, which was a fancy way of saying he’d ripped off the mounted part and gotten rid of the line too to save space and weight.
But it was still heavy and it fired too damn slowly. He had to make every shot count. To make every shot scary.
The clouds were dark and pregnant with rain today, and the surface was probably getting soaked. But they were also wispy and insubstantial enough that he could see the seagulls flying toward the castle with a minute or so to go before they arrived.
Kio edged forward to protect Karla. Karla stirred, and groaned, but made no more sound than she had for days.
Another chorus from the gulls. He’d found their song restful, once.
An echo sounded above him–an echo that wasn’t an echo–and he jerked the launcher up, firing without a second thought. The spear hurtled into the sky.
“Benefactor!” Kio shouted aloud. The gulls that had snuck in from above to perch on the battlements flew clear at the sound of the spring releasing. Kio hurled himself to sprawl over Karla’s body. He’d made a terrible mistake.
The spear thudded into the garden, point-first, beside the row of mushrooms. The gulls from behind the cloud shot in, racing for the kill.
Kio didn’t know what about the mushrooms attracted them in such large numbers, but they could smell the damn things from miles off.
With no time to load the spear back into the gun, he grabbed it and charged the gulls attempting to land on the other end of the platform. “Get out!” he bellowed. “Get away from my friend!”
They squawked and hopped toward the mushrooms in the patch. Kio jabbed at one, which flapped its wings so hard he fell backward.
He spat out dirt. Karla had only been out a few days and he was already being intimidated by a bird.
The seagulls hopped closer to the row of mushrooms. One pecked, pulled a cap out of the soil and eating it raw.
“NO!” Kio shouted. The bird with mushroom in its beak looked at him, squealed, and swallowed.
Only the sound of the weapon they’d been trained to fear would keep them away.
Kio shoved himself to his feet and wheeled around the flock. Just as another fungus vanished down a bird’s beak, he jammed the spear haphazardly into his torn-off gun and squeezed both handles.
The gulls scattered, calling up a storm, as the spear sailed off into the misty spaces between the clouds. As he watched them all go, Kio wondered if he could have gotten the same sound by firing an empty weapon.
Oh, he thought, grinding his foot into the garden’s stone rim as a substitute for kicking himself. Yeah. Probably could have.
He sat down gently between Karla and the mushrooms, hoping he could defend them both at once with his big noise machine. Karla’s eyes were shut and her breathing labored. Kio’s heart clenched. She was rotting from the inside out, and all he could do was sit here and watch fungi grow.
Reaching out softly, like one jolt would shatter her, he brushed a strand of hair out of her face. A thin ray of sun shone on her closed eye.
She was tossing and turning like a loose gear, unable to find any comfort. She must have been swimming through a darkness bigger than the sky.
All of a sudden, Kio felt slashed by a knife of guilt for having stranded her out here.
Karla shivered, her teeth chattering, still without opening her eyes. The medicine books had all said exposure would kill her twice as fast, yet he’d been selfish, knowing that more than anything he’d regret missing it if she…
What would she do, if it were me?
Not sit around, that’s for sure.
What could he do? Make another spear. Or take her to a real bed where she could get more than fitful, tossing rest. But both of those required him to leave the mushrooms unguarded, and if he did that, the gulls would snap them all up. Of the seven he’d started with, only three were left.
If it were Karla, tending to him, she wouldn’t write off the problem as insoluble. She’d figure out the parameters. Kio needed something else to defend the crop while he took Karla somewhere safer.
Far off in the distance, perhaps over miles of sky, a peal of thunder cracked. Minutes later, it reached the ears of Kio, who was still thinking.
The rain began to fall just after. At first he threw himself over Karla to cover her like he had with the birds–but overheating her, crowding her, was just as bad as letting the rain chill her.
He tore off one of his furs, the outer one filled with pages, and laid it over her as insulation. Let the rain take him. Let it chill him. Maybe it would knock his mind into functionality.
“Come on!” he yelled. “Keep it coming! If this is what it takes, I’m game!”
The rain obliged. No more thunder followed, nor any lightning. Just streaks and rivulets of cold water that sparked and fizzed off Kio’s skin and reminded him how much energy it took to live.
Looking from Karla to the mushrooms to the weapon he’d built, he had an idea.
But it would have to happen quickly. He was borrowing against his best friend’s lifespan.
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