Reckoning 2

Thinking like Karla, that had been the key. What did Karla like? Other than aviation, thunderstorms, pineapple–which she’d had three times in her life–sleeping in, and racing paper boats?

Hydraulics.

She loved working with the aqueducts even when she didn’t need to. Figuring out all the things she could make water do. It was like having another set of hands to help, she always said: water just needed directions, and it would gladly do its duty.

That was what Kio would do. Make an extra set of hands.

Working in the rain disinclined a lot of his kindly thoughts toward water, but at least he wasn’t going to run out of material. The trickier part was gathering what he needed without leaving the ledge.

Luckily, this garden was on the same side of the castle as the clay jug they used as a counterweight for the pulley elevator. By hauling on that rope while kicking off lone seagull adventurers with both feet, he was able to drag the jug within reach.

It was harder to find a way to suspend the spear gun in such a way that gravity could work on it, but he managed this too by cannibalizing the rope the jug had been hanging from. Nashido’s obnoxiously perfect construction made it difficult to find a place to attach the line. Finally, he yanked carrots out of the garden, tied them to both ends of the line, and threw them to the ledge above, and kept throwing them until they lodged on something.

Now he had an empty spear gun hanging from the ceiling, with a jug hanging from its trigger. And a Karla he’d dragged as far out of the rain as he could, still shivering–he couldn’t decide whether to add furs or remove them, since both seemed to make her shake worse.

“Soon,” he told her. “I promise.”

The hard part was over. The garden was irrigated directly from the reservoir, with a pipe on a spigot above his head. They’d shut it before the sky kingdom, a million years ago, having expected rain.

They’d had no choice but to drill the spigot too high into the wall to reach. Kio turned it by hurling a cabbage.

The reservoir was already spilling its rim from the rain. The released water burst out of the valve like it was breathing a sigh of relief. Kio held his breath, hoping he’d positioned it correctly…

…the falling water splashed into the rim of the jug. Kio let out a whoop.

As it turned out, the only thing he’d miscalculated was the load-bearing knots attaching the jug to the gun. The water wasn’t spilling right.

Having shifted them, he stood back in satisfaction. A crowd of gulls gathered, curious about this stoic newcomer.

When the jug filled past a certain mark, its weight jerked the trigger, and the birds scattered, terrified of the missile that wasn’t coming. As they flew off, the water splashed out, leaving the trigger to reset and the jug to fill again.

I’ll call it the Kiobot, he thought, as he picked up Karla under her back and knees and raced for the hatch.

Behind him, the Kiobot snapped. A flock of gulls squawked their way off to the horizon. And the tension in Kio’s gut eased just a little.

He hardly remembered the trip through the heartsphere. It was fitting, in a way, since he hadn’t remembered his first until a few days ago. He knew now, though. He’d broken the first commandment of the Benefactor. And it wasn’t hard to imagine that he’d spent his life cursed because of it.

He took the side exit out of the Inner Citadel, from the room above the burned room. Shuffling quickly through it, keeping Karla from bumping into anything, he thought he saw sunlight glinting off the remains of a chandelier.

The closest room was the one near the top of the sphere, next to the empty hallway complex he never bothered to enter. It held the same four-poster where they’d conferred about their plan to enter the Inner Citadel, which had gone pretty well if you discounted everything that had happened to Karla and most of the things that had happened to him. At least it was warming up again.

He laid her out in the bed, removed most of her furs except the bottom layer so she wouldn’t be too hot, then propped her head on pillows and tucked her into the quilt. Then he rearranged the pillows and shifted the quilt about because it felt like making progress.

Outside, the rain pattered on, making puddles all over the castle erupt with little mountain peaks. Clouds drifted into wisps beyond the towers outside the high bedroom windows. Somewhere below, the Kiobot snapped its trigger again, keeping the mushrooms safe.

It was time for him to get back to the garden. He couldn’t leave the mushrooms to get eaten in the middle of one of its intervals.

Yet something stopped him in the door. He felt suddenly like his eyes were connected to Karla like a ray of energy, and if he broke it, he’d lose her forever. He’d been near her since she collapsed. He wondered if that, all along, had been keeping her alive.

Cautiously, he stepped to her bedside.

“We’re all we have,” he told her. “You promised. Don’t go without me. Not even there. Not that place. Don’t leave me.”

He broke the connection like ripping a bandage off. Had to get back through the heartsphere, had to keep protecting the fungi. Only three left.

They would cure her, not sitting by her side and whispering magic words.

As the rainy evening turned into a starless night, and then a smoky morning, Kio rode up and down the rope lift to the platform–easier to use now that he wasn’t carrying anybody comatose. The sun burst into view all at once as he pressed cool cloth to Karla’s forehead and tried to get her to drink water, spilling most of it. By the time he was back to the garden to untangle a snarl in the Kiobot’s ropes, the clouds were burning away.

Kio’s breath caught to see the ocean glittering below. The thought crossed his mind that one of the worst things about being trapped on a floating castle was that he would have loved life on Nashido had he been able to leave once in a while.

He dozed at some point, not even remembering where he was, bedroom or garden. He dreamed of Karla slipping away, blown on a soft breeze while he fought to change into a bird and follow. He grabbed himself, forcing his own outline into the correct form, but all he created was a human growing smaller and smaller until he vanished altogether.

When he woke up, the mushrooms were ready.

He could tell from the brown spots speckling the caps of the three surviving fungi. They had been a solid white when he went to sleep, but overnight, the sign of maturity the book told him to look for was there. So too was the firmness–the caps gave under his fingers, but only just.

If they were ever going to work as an antidote, they were going to work now.

He pulled all three out carefully by the stalks, and put them in a pocket he had triple-checked would fasten. Then he rode the pulley up the Outer Citadel wall to Karla’s room.

She was on her side when he burst in, clutching sweat-soaked sheets like a lifeline. Her breath came in rattles.

“It’s all right!” He raced to her side and held up the mushrooms. “I’ve brought medicine. You’re gonna be fine.”

The book said to grind up the caps and stalks and strain a cup of hot water through the shreds. Kio almost laughed as he set up the cup and strainer he’d stashed in the room the day he built Kiobot. Karla was finally going to get her cup of tea.

He checked the measurements one more time. Three mushrooms was going to be just enough.

Karla murmured feverish words as Kio smashed the precious fungi with a mortar and pestle. He forced himself to steep the tea for as long as the medical text recommended, flattening the page out on the dresser top and staring at it like a verse of scripture that would keep him sane.

Steam rose from the cup. He tried to prop her up so as not to spill a drop of the precious brew. Even so, some spilled onto the blanket as he helped her drink.

Smoke poured faster from her mouth and nose. “One more sip,” he coaxed her. “Not too fast, it’s hot. Just sips.”

Sip by sip, she drained the entire mug.

He kept holding her, hoping she would smile, open her eyes, tell him she didn’t need the help anymore.

She coughed. And somehow grew heavier. A cold emptiness spreading out from his gut, he laid her back down on the pillows.

Kio staggered back, not even able to look at her. But when he turned to the window, the sight of the ocean, so beautiful earlier, made him nauseous. There was nowhere he could look. Nowhere he could go.

Was this how Karla had felt, standing on that precipice?

She coughed, writhed, and lay still, her breathing just as labored as before. Something was supposed to have changed by now.

He had failed.

He was going to lose her.

The emptiness kept spreading. It didn’t really feel like he’d imagined it would, watching Karla die. Over ten years he had imagined it a lot.

There was no sadness. In fact, there was nothing. Everything that was Kio was being flushed down the drain along with her.

No, there wasn’t sadness. Just a certain sense that he had reached the end of the road, and there was nobody standing there with him.

He thought back along the events that had led them here: the Inner Citadel, the sky kingdom, the bone dragon attacks, all the way back to the conflagration of Year Zero. And he had another vision–not an Inner Citadel flashback nightmare this time, just a very strong memory, of a sort he’d heard described once upon a time.

He was with Karla in the heartsphere, and they were both young, sheltering from the invasion of surface people and the explosion detonated by Kio’s father. “Are you a Rokhshan?” she had asked him.

Kio leapt at her out of the shadows. “Landling! Mistake! Broken! It’s your fault they’re dead!”

Of course, he hadn’t been able to find her. Every time they made brief contact, she scuffled him off again. “Stop it. You can’t even see me.”

“Nashido was supposed to strike you down if you tried to step inside the sphere. How are you still alive?”

“I’m a Rokhshan too, you idiot,” she shot back.

He swung a fist inches from her face and she lurched back. He’d gotten way closer than he’d thought. As his eyes adjusted to the dim green light filtering in, he reared back for another punch.

“My name’s Karla. What’s yours?”

He was already losing energy. She caught his punch in both hands and turned it away.

He folded, falling past her to land face-first on the slope. Karla watched him until he worked his way onto his back.

“I’m Kio,” he told her.

Neither of them said anything for a while. But after a few minutes, or an hour, Kio turned toward her, even though they still couldn’t make out each other’s faces. “Karla?”

“Yeah?”

“We’re alone here, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.”

Back in the bedroom, ten years later, no time at all later, Kio let the heartsphere bear him away.

***

When Karla awoke on drenched sheets, she couldn’t quite tell what time it was. The rays of orange light filtering through the window could have been sunset or sunrise, and having no idea which side of the castle she was on didn’t help.

She felt better than she had any right too. She recalled slipping in and out of fever dreams too disjointed to call memories, accompanied by a certainty that she wasn’t coming back. Suddenly, it was as though she’d just woken up from a nap.

Looking around with her newfound strength, she recognized the room. It was the starboard bedchamber where they’d made plans to assault the Inner Citadel. An empty mug and some cooking utensils laid next to a stack of pages on a dresser by her bed.

It was all Kio’s stuff. But where was Kio? Why wasn’t he at her bedside, waiting for her to wake up?

“He must be mulching. Or cleaning the gutters,” she said to herself, proud that he’d taken to heart her conviction that chores needed to be done even in the face of catastrophe.

Well, she felt good enough to walk. She’d go find him. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed.

And stopped. Something about this room didn’t seem right.

Something was moving, and it wasn’t Kio.

Karla snapped back up to stand on the bed–but her fighting stance relaxed when she saw how small the creature was. It was searching around the floor, sniffing as though looking for buried treasure.

She stared. Its body was a little shorter than her arm, black fur flecked with white spots. She’d seen a picture like this before. A surface animal.

Karla was pretty sure that when she’d gone to sleep, Castle Nashido hadn’t had a cat.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

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

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