Jennifer Hunter Griffin slid down the inside of Rose’s shop door and immediately felt her pulse begin to slow. She breathed in the mingling scents of sandalwood and musty lumber and sage insence. Underlying it all was a layer of smoke mixed with the good kind of sweat.
As comforting a smell as you could find in Rust Town, where odors tended to skew less subtle.
She blinked and raised her eyes to the high ceiling of rough stone–a strong, sturdy sight that steadied her even more. Rose looked up from the poultice she was dabbing onto the shoulder of a man who looked quite a bit too small to have been picking fights. She dropped the rag on a table beside the cot and was three racing steps toward the door before she realized who had come through.
“Jenny?” Rose wiped her hands on her apron and tucked a few strands of brown hair back into the cloth tied around her head. “What’s happened to you? If you’re being chased–”
“No!” Jenny forced out between gasps. “There’s no need to get the wrench, Aunt Rose. Go back to your patient.”
Rose arched an eyebrow high enough to lose it behind the bandana. “One, I’m not your aunt. Two, don’t tell me what to do in my own infirmary. And three, I kind of want to get the wrench.”
“I mean–” Jenny peeked at the wooden slat door, with navy-blue night visible around all its edges. She took a few steps into the warm torchlit air of the dirt-floor infirmary. Lanterns hung from brackets riveted into the ceiling of the mountain cave this had once been. Two of the five cots were occupied: one by the brawler, one on the far side of the room, bearing the same feverish old lady it had been last time.
She followed Rose back to the cot, where the healer continued applying the poultice. Her patient thanked her profusely in between gasps of stinging pain.
“It was one of those city council guys,” Jenny confided, lowering her voice. “You know the way they hang around so they can snap up any action they see.”
Rose feigned surprise. “Next you’ll be telling me they’re not the real city council. You shock me, Jennifer.”
“It’s Jenny,” she hissed, hoping the patient wasn’t taking his cues from Rose. Right now, he mostly seemed to be groaning.
Suddenly, however, he spoke up. “I hate those guys. Too damn good to glow like the rest of us. Hanging around to steal our hard-earned treasure when someone finally brings it back.”
“There’s nothing wrong with making a living in Rust Town other ways than flying.” Rose poulticed a particularly sensitive bit of the wound, making the man wince. Jenny snickered. It wasn’t a good idea to offend your healer on the cot, especially if the healer was Rose.
Her smile didn’t last long as she remembered the difficulty of her situation. Apprehension must have showed on her face, as Rose’s look softened.
“If they are outside, that’s not good,” she allowed, “since I assume you’re here for the wings.”
“Ideally,” Jenny murmured, feeling things were shaping up any way but ideal.
“How does that feel?” Rose asked the patient.
“Better.” He grinned. “Yeah, a lot better.”
“Good. You’ll sleep here tonight. In the morning, you should be ready to go.”
Rose turned, wiping her hands clean on a separate rag. She swept through her preparation area–a pot of water she kept at a boil for washing her hands, clean bandages, various jars of plants Jenny couldn’t name–through a door even less substantial than the one in the front. Jenny exhaled. Watching her tall not-aunt, graceful but covered in indescribable stains, had a way of making anything less scary.
Rose returned much more slowly than she’d left, laden with a burden she had to push through the gap with a great deal of grunting and cursing.
Ah, the wings. Jenny’s whole being brightened. She liked the wings.
Her uncle, Dr. Griffin, had forged them bit by bit at the hot anvil run by Kalend & Kalend, the old smiths. He’d insisted on swinging the hammer and working the bellows alongside them. A month later, probably around the time Tom and Seana Kalend were debating how to politely ask him to take a break, he’d entered the smithy under cover of early morning and left with two wings for what would surely be the oddest skycraft Rust had ever seen.
The strangest thing about them was how rigid they were: dozens of slim metal rods fit together in a glittering framework that resembled the child of an eagle’s wing and a spider’s web. She and her uncle would stretch canvas over the frames back at his shack. For now, they were skeletal.
And lighter than they looked, but not quite light enough.
The patient gawked as Jenny shifted empty cots to give Rose space. “How do they flap?”
“Rest,” Rose commanded, and laid the wings down. Jenny tested them. Not so heavy in the moment, but they were big and unwieldy, and she was not big, and twelve years old to boot.
When she next caught Rose’s eye, the healer wore a look of concern. “Why are you here alone?”
Jenny hesitated. “See…Uncle Griff–”
“–doesn’t know you’re here, I figured that much. It doesn’t answer the question.”
“Well, he decided to stash the wings at your place, and you agreed for whatever reason–”
“Jenny!” Rose’s eyes flashed. The wounded man pulled his blanket up to his chin, and even the old woman shifted in her feverish sleep. Jenny took a step back as Rose strode forward, like they were fencing. “Getting these back to Dr. Griffin safely could be dangerous. Will be, if that city council scumbag is still outside, and I’m pretty sure I see him grinning at me. We’re all in trouble. You most of all. I need to know what’s happening.”
Jenny considered. On the whole, it probably would be a good idea to share this information with a healer. She’d just been embarrassed at how bad she was at sneaking out.
“They say there’s gonna be a glow tonight,” she mumbled.
The old women grunted hard in her sleep, like the great plaza crystal had shone blue in her dreams. The man tried to sit up. “A what? And I’m stuck here? Damn it–”
Rose was at his side in a flash, forcing him back down to the bed. “It’s your right to kill yourself trying to touch the sky,” she snapped, “but not while you’re under my care. If you move now, you’ll reopen your wound. You’re going nowhere.”
“But the treasure!”
“Do I have to sedate you?”
The patient kept struggling feebly. Rose rolled her eyes and produced yet another soaked rag, apparently from another dimension. She clapped it over the small man’s mouth and nose, and after a few more seconds of lolling, he fell back asleep.
“Aunt Rose, you’ve never gotten it, that’s fine,” Jenny said hastily, hoping to prevent Rose from turning the ether rag aginst her next. “But it’s my uncle’s whole life. And everybody’s around here, too, unless they run a shop or an infirmary or something, and usually even then. It would mean everything to him if he could be the first one to land on the Sphere. If some town-square drunk gets lucky tonight, and beats him because he didn’t have his new design finished in time, I don’t know what he’ll do. I don’t know what I’d do.”
“I know one thing he’s already done,” Rose replied. “Had the sense not to drag these wings back home in the dark, and probably at least enough to forbid you from going either.”
Jenny bit her lip. That was, in fact, why she was alone.
Rose wadded her new rag back up and began to pace. “But this isn’t a safe place for you either, especially if that guy goes to get his friends.”
“Yep! Exactly!” Jenny punched the air in front of her. “So I’ll just grab those wings and…”
Rose shook her head. “I’ve decided. I’m keeping them here.”
“Dr. Griffin will understand,” Rose said in her you need rest tone, the most final one she possessed.
“It’s not safe for you to keep them here either. They’ll descend on you.”
“Not if there’s a glow.”
“What if there isn’t?”
Rose furrowed her brow. “That’s not your concern, Jennifer Hunter Griffin. Get out of here before I decide to take my wrench to you for some practice.”
Jenny nodded. Aunt Rose never would, but they had both made their decisions: this is how it would have to be.
“Fair enough!” she shouted at the top of her lungs. “It would be a pity if somebody were to steal the solid gold wings we’ve just had freshly forged!”
Rose practically teleported to Jenny’s side to clap a hand over her mouth, but the girl was even quicker. She twisted to the side, still free to shout. “They’re not even that heavy, and we have so few weapons to defend them! Ah, what a shame that they would be so easy to melt down into coins on an oven such as you might have at home!”
“Jenny!” Rose hissed through clenched teeth, “are you trying to kill me?”
“I’m saving us! Just trust me!” Staying light on her feet, Jenny raced for the wings. Rose swore foully enough to make the old woman turn over again, and jumped over the wings to grab her long wrench from the table of surgical instruments. Jenny had seen her swing it so dextrously it might as well have been one.
She got a firm grip on one wing with each hand–that would probably be enough to move them–and shot a glance over her shoulder.
Through the gap in the door, she saw the city council man get slugged in the jaw by a man with more scar than skin.
A thrill coursed through her. It was exactly what she’d hoped for. When menaced by one army, the best thing that can show up is a second army.
And a third, and a fourth, and…
All right, she should probably go.
She hauled on the wings. To her further happy surprise, they moved. Their sheer size made them wobble weirdly, and she had to turn them sideways to fit them through the front door, but all things considered they could have been a lot worse.
The vaguely grassy dirt track in front of the infirmary was in chaos. Jenny saw two people who definitely hadn’t been there when she entered rolling through the mud, trading punches. The moment she dragged the wings through the door was the moment of truth, but the more entitled elements of Rust Town society were expecting glittering gold, not Dr. Griffin’s special lightweight bauxite thingy.
She couldn’t see the city council guy, but he yelled when she showed up: “That’s it! That’s the wings!”
But the street was so loud nobody could hear him. Jenny dragged her treasure around a hard right turn, shunting herself and the wings downhill. Only a few paces to the darkness, and then she’d be safe.
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