Karla took stock of the hangar. No birds. Not much wind. No bone dragons. Nothing to suggest she’d heard him wrong.
“Great,” she said after a little too much silence. “Good to know cats have a sense of humor. What are we really going to do?”
“Karla, I’m not joking.” Kio rocked a bit but held firm. “You can go down there, down to the surface, right now. Ten years and you can go whenever you want to.”
“I can’t,” she said, patiently, taking on her explaining-engineering voice, “because we made a promise–”
“I know we did!” Kio cut across her. “Don’t remind me what we promised. I’m asking you to agree to break it.”
All right. Time to confront the possibility that Kio truly was not joking.
“Forget it.” She stood up, making for the workshop elevator. “There’s no reason for me to leave now when you just lost seventy-five percent of your effective body mass. We’ll just retrofit Raven so a cat can pilot her. Make her work more by herself.”
“A cat piloting an ornithopter?” Kio caught her leg. When she looked down, she saw with a pang that tears were springing to the corners of his eyes. “Can you hear yourself? Karla, a cat is not useful for anything. You said yourself we can’t even make the craft work for one human–”
“Hold on!” She kicked her way out of his grip. “You could hear me? You were a cat!”
“You understood me as a bird! And you know it’s true, or you wouldn’t have said it.”
“Wait, you were curling up on my lap. You licked me!”
“I couldn’t stop!” Kio turned beet-red. “It’s an instinct thing. My other body is domesticated. I’m a housecat.”
He stood, flinging an arm behind him to point down toward the ocean. “I can’t keep you from the surface anymore–”
“You idiot, you never were!”
“–it could be the only way–”
“I’ve been keeping myself from the surface since this damn bird thing started, since before! A promise takes two people!”
“–so you want to go!” Kio charged her.
“Wait.” Something he’d said had caught in her mind. “What do you mean, the only way?”
“Think about it.” He caught a little of his breath. “We’ve never made anything that could hold together long enough to make it down to the surface. But we know people are capable of flying the other direction.”
“No we don’t. What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you remember? The Harpooneers.”
The fact that she’d managed not to remember staggered Karla. Maybe she had begun believing too much in her own Rokhshan lie, despite intentionally bringing it up as little as possible. “It should be harder, though,” she said to cover her confusion, “shouldn’t it? Isn’t lift harder than controlled falling?”
“You once told me all flying is controlled falling.”
“I know I did! Stop quoting me.”
“Look,” Kio said, and Karla got the sudden feeling that he’d been thinking about this a lot while a cat. “I knew you’d say it doesn’t make sense. But it’s what happened. It’s all we’ve got. We know gliders can make it up, and we know birds can make it down.”
“You can’t expect me to just accept that. There is a real aeronautical mystery here–”
“And you can solve it on the surface.”
That stopped Karla in her tracks. Whatever she’d been readying to say next fell out of her mouth and slipped away into the sky.
He was right. Of course he was. The only place to solve the mystery of how to reach the surface was the surface itself, the place where her mother Mara had launched the greatest skybound expedition in history. She could go to the big island, and from there, investigate the origins of the Harpooneers. She could go about as one openly, drop the Rokhshan façade…
Her eyes grew warm, and a dam burst from behind them. Kio, long since having dried his eyes, looked startled.
Karla managed to get her knees under her before sobs wracked her body harder than a coughing fit. Hot tears dug trenches down her face.
Kio dropped down before her, but she pushed him away. “Don’t,” she babbled. “Don’t make this harder.”
“You don’t want to say–”
“It’s NOT goodbye!” Her shout rebounded around the space, climbed up Castle Nashido and shot out into the sky. “You’ve tricked me into admitting that briefly leaving is the only way forward. When we’re both on the surface, you owe me an amazing apology for this.”
“Fair enough.” Kio smiled.
He’s already there, in his head. He thinks I’ll see him again.
So what am I so worried about?
“Don’t forget to manure the vine beds every other day. And the food beds every three.” She advanced toward him, holding a finger out like a sword. “The aqueduct pivot points have been squeaking again, they need oil if it’s going to be able to catch rain from all direction. There’s some weird crunchy grass in the mist garden I haven’t gotten out yet, and the new veggies need washing. And put back that spear gun. There’s just enough metal for a new spear in the workshop.”
“I know all of that,” Kio said. His cool voice was evidence of a switch flipping–he definitely still cared, yet he was suddenly pretending not to.
Karla narrowed his eyes. What was his game?
“I can handle it all,” Kio went on. “I never really needed you, anyway. You always just get in the way.”
“I know what you’re doing,” she shot back. “You’re trying to make me upset so I’ll transform. It’s not gonna work.”
“Yeah, I bet it’s not!” Kio raised his voice into a strangled yell. “Because–you know–you’re so bad at everything! I never wanted you around! I’m really glad you’re leaving!”
“I’m not leaving right away! Unless you keep up with this crap–”
“When else are you going to leave?” Kio shouted like a kitten howling. “Huh? What do you have left to do up here?”
She couldn’t listen to any more of this. He shouldn’t have gone off–should have let her figure out how to transform in her own time. But that wasn’t his style.
They were all they had. They helped each other. He wasn’t going to let her go off alone.
The thought of it gave Karla strength. She wiped her face clean with one furred sleeve. Kio’s fists were balled, his face hardened, and his heart, she could tell from afar, beating as hard as it ever had.
Forget falling. Forget bone dragons. This was his greatest dread.
Yet he’d plunged into it, anyway, for her.
Did people on the surface have people that would risk everything for them? Who cared? She had one.
Since learning she could transform into a raven, Karla had associated the feeling with dread, and terror, and loss. She’d never thought she could turn from happiness. But knowing that Kio would pretend shove her away just to help her was enough to make her feel the now-familiar sensation of her body being squeezed tightly while her brain expanded.
The last thing she saw, before the raven mind compelled her to wing her way into the sky, was Kio attacking the calendar floor with the carving stone, scratching a gouge that seemed like it would never come to an end.
An hour later, or two, Kio sat in the library, reading some old book of sky kingdom poems. Four lines each, seven words, some utterly mundane topic allegedly rendered profound…he couldn’t tell. Didn’t care. Just needed to be reading something.
His stomach rumbled, and he smiled, knowing that any moment Karla would burst into the library and remind him to eat.
Kio Rokhshan awoke to the silence, like one does when one has realized one is the only one in the visible world making any noise. Nashido bustled and creaked. It all sounded far away.
It was very quiet. And he was very alone.
Karla cut her way through a darkening twilight sky.
Thinking as the raven was as hard as it ever had been, but she had no trouble retaining the concepts she needed.
Surface. Down. They had ruled her mind since she had been old enough to think. Not even the magic of the heartsphere could flush them out.
Down. Surface. They had drifted over the archipelago. Sweeping open before her were the scattered field isles, the crescent-shaped mountain range, the great bustling city of the Big Island. Its crystal was glowing brightly, its skycraft buzzing around the rooftops, surging up toward the clouds Karla pierced through on her descent.
A fire erupted in her heart. She was going there! Fear and excitement and uncertainty mingled together into a fuel to keep the blaze going.
Karla Harpooneer folded her wings, and dove.
That was when a great dark shadow slammed into her from the side, and something sliced feathers off her right wing, and she lost consciousness in the middle of the air.
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