All right, Jenny, she thought when she was safely out of sight, in the shadows around the bend. Rust Town map, just like Uncle Griff made you memorize. And…go.
A schematic she’d been drawing up all week materialized in her head instead, and she nearly dropped the wings so she could sketch out an idea in the air with her hands.
Dang it, focus. She pushed several strands of brown hair under her knit hat. The map of streets was so boring: no order, no system, just a bunch of hovels plunked down wherever looked flat. The streets themselves barely deserved the name. Jenny had never seen a path that wasn’t made of mud or grass, certainly none of the big flagstones she’d heard covered roads in the capital, all those miles away over the sea.
Nah, Rust Town was fine. But it wasn’t fascinating like an automaton, or beautiful like these wings.
She was on a path far different from the one she’d taken to Rose’s door. Even so, she managed to pull her location out of the black hole in her mind. Rose’s hospital was one of several wide-mouthed mountain caverns with walls of wood and corrugated iron built over the entrances. The others, a long arc of rooms large and small that followed the arc of the great Dawn Cliff, were mostly workshops, with some whiskey halls. Every other building in town was a workshop, and half of those remaining were taverns.
The Dawn Cliff, Jenny knew, ran from due east to due north. It was a child’s rhyme taught to everyone unfortunate enough to have been born here. Given Dr. Griffin’s shack was downslope to the southeast, she could find her way back no problem.
Assuming, of course, nobody took an interest in her brand new and entirely useless pair of wings.
She dragged them down a slope that curved past where the cave mouths opened up. Some ramshackle huts opened their doors onto the path, from behind barricades of stacked cinderblocks that walled off little plots of carrots and potatoes. Jenny could see flickering forge fires through the gaps in the walls.
The sound of metal sawing wood rang out from above her head. She jerked into a fighing stance between the two wings. But pausing for breath and a look revealed it was only a suspended hut, a way of living alongside the cliff face where you didn’t have to watch your back so much.
A network of struts held the hut aloft, placed as randomly as the web of a caffeinated spider. A knotted rope was the only way in. As Jenny repositioned the wings, two dirty faces poked out, followed by a third, taller and cleaner. Jenny hadn’t known they lived here, but she waved happily up at them anyway.
“Jenny Griffin?” asked the woman looking down at her from above the two boys. “What are you doing out here this time of night?”
“Running home.” She gestured to the wings by way of explanation.
The Carpenter Twins, and their mother Jada, were renowned for providing the best wood for skycraft frames. Nobody knew their real names. People came from all over town to barter for their struts and propellors, and most of them overlooked the fact that two of the three carpenters were nine-year-old boys.
“Whoa.” Guy or Dan Carpenter lifted his sawdust-proof goggles to get a better look. “That’s so cool.”
“For metal, anyway,” his brother Dan or Guy said dismissively.
“Oh. Erm.” Jada covered her mouth, but was making a spectacular effort to look impressed with her eyes. “Dr. Griffin’s certainly designed another…unique creation.”
Jenny momentarily forgot she was in danger of grievous bodily harm from the city council. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He’s gonna crash again!” Dan or Guy exclaimed.
“Dan, shut up!” yelled Definitely Guy At This Point.
“Jenny, if you continue along this path, you’re one left turn away from Dusk Street,” Jada said apologetically, yanking both twins away from the window by their belts. “You can take that to the Square or wherever you need to go.”
“I know where it goes,” Jenny called up, not feeling too charitable toward anyone in the Carpenter family at the moment. “Thanks.”
“Take care of yourself–Guy! No! That’s an off-limits hammer!”
The lofthouse’s curtain dropped over the window as Jenny dragged the wings onward.
Around the turn Jada had named, Jenny found herself looking out over a dusk panorama of Rust Town, its alleys and rooftops tight enough to form a firelit blanket over the whole alpine meadow. The old joke went that Rust was built on a slope so the dung could drain into the sea, but she had always found the view from upslope pretty: the red-and-blue canvas covers flapping in the breeze over markets, the whitewashed airstrips sprawling over three or four roofs each, the wooden and tarnished-iron shelters with smoke rising from half a dozen different holes. Rust Town was a curtain of quiet clangs and far-off shouts and rambling engines drifting high up into the sky. Higher than the gulls could fly.
Higher than she ever would too, if she didn’t get these bloody wings home.
Her mental map was filling in its gaps. From Rose’s place and the Crystal Square she triangulated that she was at the boundary of Low Dusk, the region of town inhabited by the people who had given up on trying to fly to the Sphere. It had no airstrips, but filled the extra space with more taverns.
And filled every one of their corners with thieves. In Rust Town, everyone who was really living was living to build the plane that would finally reach the mysterious Sphere, the castle that floated by whenever the crystal glowed. To have given up on that, one usually had to have turned one’s sights on smaller, easier-to-reach riches on the ground.
No, Jenny was not a fan of the idea of carrying her wings through Low Dusk, solid gold or otherwise. But the maze of alleys stood directly between her and her uncle’s workshop.
What she really needed was information. Exactly how dangerous was this part of town tonight? How restless were the natives?
She dragged the wings around another few corners until the alleyways became wider, not to mention piled higher with junk. Jenny found herself stopping every ten steps, teeth gritted, to fit the damn things around a pile of barrels or over a steel girder or down a steep basalt drop-off. At first, she’d thought their weight wasn’t as annoying as their shape. Then she’d thought their shape less annoying than how top-heavy they were, and finally had decided everything about the stupid wings was obnoxious and she wanted to go to bed.
At last she caught wind of the bustle of Dusk Street on the other side of a low wall. That meant she couldn’t be more than twelve paces from an inn. She leaned the wings against a wall that seemed to pump raucous music through the holes in its slats, covered them with an old sheet, and tiptoed around to the front.
Dusk Street wasn’t any less of a dirt path than any other in town, but it was livelier. Women and men danced and staggered back and forth, shouted to each other across the road, sang and argued loudly about drag coefficients. Flickering pools of light splashed across the road, seeping out of the pubs–which tended to be sunk halfway into the street, their roofs and awnings at eye level. Stairways led down. Drunks tried to negotiate them.
And every one of them is probably an aircraft engineer. Jenny remembered the day years ago when Dr. Griffin had told her most people in the world didn’t know how to build planes.
She’d been horrified. How did they live, off in the Toral capital?
A lanky man spilled out of one of the pits, not bothering with the steps. Jenny made a beeline for him. She had a mental catalog of all Rust Town’s biggest drinkers for precisely situations like this.
“Calvin.” She knelt by the man and flicked his face a few times. Wisps of oddly thin hair shifted in a light breeze. “C’mon, wake up. I need some advice.”
“Uh?” Calvin blinked, as though the grass had attacked his cheek and not the other way around. “Jenny? I promise, this looks worse than it is.”
“Wow, it must suck for you then.” She wasn’t tall by any standards, but the ridiculous height differential between her and the reeking Calvin was exactly correct for him to use her as a shelf to gain his feet.
“Is this a situation I might get a free drink out of?” he asked when his eyes indicated the street had stopped spinning.
Jenny snorted. “You think I found the sphere last night and didn’t tell anyone? I don’t have that kind of money. I just need your help to get down this street.”
“Right, that’s obvious, then.” The weight lifted off Jenny’s head. Calvin drew up to his full, imposing height. “I’ve got to escort you.”
She almost sighed, but having anybody by her side would be a help with things as restless as they were. Besides, she had noticed chivalrous duty had a sobering effect on Calvin. He didn’t seem to be swaying as hard, at least, as she led him around to the back of the tavern, and coaxed him to take hold of one of the wings.
He cast a longing glance at the warm, firelit cellar with its open walls and long tables, before Jenny snapped his attention back to the street with a hand on his arm and a question. “What’s the bandit activity like tonight? Are people whispering anything?”
“You mean other than about the glow?” Calvin shifted one of his wings, lurching around so hard a young couple had to let go of each other’s hands to avoid crashing into him. “Because people are pretty sure there’s going to be a glow tonight. The numerologists all reported it and they never agree on anything.”
“Yeah, but like…is anyone planning anything creepy for it? The city council places they wouldn’t usually go, things like that?”
“Dunno. People don’t really tell me that stuff.” Calvin shrugged, nearly losing control of his wing again in the process. “But you know how it is, Jen. You’ve seen what, fifteen since you’ve been here?”
“Seventeen since I’ve been alive,” Jenny corrected, bearing her wing on both shoulders. “And yeah. The Calm Before the Sphere. It’s both better and worse than usual.”
As they left Low Dusk and entered Rust Town proper, this became clearer and clearer. The street widened to the point where it could have functioned as an airstrip–and might have been about to. Jenny had never seen it this empty. The last few glows she recalled had come with much less warning.
The path led between rows of workshops, with chimneys belching forge smoke and clothes hung between unused skycraft hulks to dry. A little girl raced past Jenny and Calvin, chasing a rolling bolt.
Jenny shuddered. That had been her once.
The only sounds from the shacks were clangs and saws, canvas staplings and curt one-word check-ins. Rust could have been asleep under its ocean of roofs. She even thought she could hear the real ocean pounding far below.
Calvin stopped in his tracks and flung out one swaying arm. Jenny nearly walked into it. “Is that…”
Her sobering companion nodded.
Jenny swallowed. “I don’t like their chances.”
The crystal square, with its dark blue rock towering against the mountain wall, opened up before them. Every square inch of its grass was covered with people and planes–the planes sitting silent, wound up, while the people scanned the night sky, straining for any glimpse of the Sphere.
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.