Half an hour of coaxing and voice-following and occasional carrying took them both to the hangar. Karla went there because she always did when she didn’t know how to feel, and she brought cat-Kio because she didn’t know how he felt, and figured he’d appreciate it.
At some point–she’d be damned if she could remember when–they had raised Raven back up into her darkened workshop. But the calendar was still there carved into the floor, sturdy and reassuring. Some gears reflected the sunlight and scattered it.
This room, with its open walls and its stout pillars, always seemed so full of promise when they were about to set out on a test of the ornithopter. When Karla thudded down near the ledge, she regretted that she had come here mostly because she couldn’t figure out what to do with her legs.
Kio curled up on her lap. That was another thing she regretted, but it was just so easy to get him to do it, and it would be pretty hilarious to tell him when he came back.
“This sucks, Kio,” she said, gazing out at the sky as she scratched him between his ears. “I wanted you to be a bird too.”
She almost giggled when he purred, but giggling wasn’t something she felt like doing either.
“I think I figured it out.” Her eyes absently traced a pair of gulls wheeling over each other. “It’s because we went into the Heartsphere, get it? That’s the reason the Rokhshan had ‘don’t go in there’ as their first law. There’s some kind of energy in there that changes you. Fundamentally. And you can’t have a noble house where the lords and ladies turn into lizards or whatever whenever they get upset.”
Kio looked up sharply and sprang out of her lap, chasing some invisible sound. She let him run.
“Because that’s it. You changed when you thought I had died. It happens when there’s nothing else that can happen. And I think it’s easier every time. My second didn’t take as much effort.”
As for you, she thought but didn’t say, the big difference between us is that you spent five more years on this castle than me. Being near the heartsphere bathed you in whatever it was putting out that came from inside it. You got…immune, somehow, and it took more for you to change. It took a lot for me, I’ve had ten years, but another five isn’t nothing.
“This whole time, I’ve been thinking–the moment you get your bird body too, we can fly down to the surface forever and forget all this ornithopter business. But now…we still need Raven. We still have our promise. We’re right back where we started, with a flyer we can’t make work, even for one person.”
Her nose reddened, and her eyes pricked as he wandered back over to her, gazing out at a cloud. She really hoped she wasn’t allergic to cats.
She hoped he was going to change back. What if that was something else that was restricted to landlings?
The caption under the picture had mentioned that cats liked milk, but they never had any milk–it curdled too quickly. She made a slurry of gull and water and managed to convince him to lap it up.
Then she went to work on Raven. Letting a mewling Kio up into the workshop so she could keep an eye on him, she tinkered and tightened and stretched and replaced and oiled with a frenzy she hadn’t felt in months. She felt the old machine-ness taking her over again, the sense that she was building an island for herself while the one she stood on collapsed beneath her feet, and that her life depended on finishing her work just a little bit earlier than everything came crashing down.
The sun sank behind the clouds and she kept working. The stars followed the moon out into the night and she kept working. Kio yowled at her and she stopped working long enough to shoo him to a warm spot under one of the braziers–she didn’t have any trouble translating his cries into what he would have said as a human.
As it turned out, she wasn’t quite right. But his voice and hers did remind her that working to escape her problems wasn’t the greatest idea.
“Liars, the both of you,” she grunted. She was working to eliminate her problems.
Around midnight, an impromptu wind-tunnel test had her convinced that some three-month-old repair had left Raven’s wings imbalanced–the right was heavier than the left. She took the right down to the hangar so she could watch the skies while trying to make it lighter.
Two hours later, she considered that she’d also be fine with making the left wing heavier, should the right prove to be impossible.
The moon scattered silvery light over islands of cloud, conjuring them as ghostly mirrors of the rocky isles below. They made a path of stepping stones to take her far over the horizon, to circle the whole world and come back to step lightly onto the machine deck at Nashido’s aft. Without once setting foot on the surface.
Kio licked at her fingertips. His tongue was sandpapery.
Once upon a time, they had concocted a plan to chart a tall mountain, run the castle aground on it, and work their way down to the surface. This had lasted for months of them attempting to seek out every sufficiently high mountain on the four sea charts in the library, some of which overlapped. At last, they’d had to scrap the idea–every region with mountains high enough to work also boasted weather stormy enough to throw even Nashido off course. They had turned back for the archipelago without ever seeing a mountain higher than the Big Island.
However, right now, Karla saw one looming ahead, so high there was a village level with Nashido, with shepherds and smoke drifting out of chimneys. Which is how she knew she was dreaming.
She woke up with Raven’s wing covering her like a blanket, and a tattooed face looking down at her.
“Hey,” Kio said, almost apologetically. “We have to talk.”
Karla pulled the wing up before realizing it was an awful comforter. She set it gently aside and sat up. “Yeah. We do.”
Words streamed out. “I know I’m always apologizing to you in this room, and that’s weird because I like the hangar but anyway, I…I was a total idiot.”
Kio dropped to a sitting position and held out his hands. “It’s fine. That gas did stuff to you I still can’t figure out. If we hadn’t had the mushrooms…”
“You can’t just blame the gas! It was me, too. I didn’t want to jump, I just wanted to do something. To push back against the memories.”
“We did do something. We got the warmth started again. But that’s–”
“–I feel so stupid–“
“–that’s not what I wanted to talk about!” Kio shouted.
“Right.” Karla folded her arms around her knees. “We should probably discuss the cat thing.”
“That’s kinda it.” Kio studied the sunrise. “I’ve got an idea. You won’t like it.”
Karla had decided from her research that she liked sunsets better. The colors happened all at once, instead of proceeding in an orderly fashion when the sun told them it was all right.
“You have to go,” Kio told her. “You have to become a raven and fly down to the surface without me.”
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.