Jenny’s immediate instinct was to shrink back into the shadows. Any of these men or women could be city council, or some other less-organized gang.
But she’d given one of her wings to Calvin, who, amazingly, was already frantically waving to someone in the crowd. Chivalry-induced clearheadedness could only get one so far.
The silence of the square broke somewhat as a white-bearded man conferred briefly with a flight-suited woman, then strode towards them with remarkable agility. People returned to their crafts, passing tools to each other, tightening and testing and chattering. Jenny checked her list of drinkers and remembered Calvin had a father.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” Adam McConnell said, his goggles glinting accusitorily. “You never quite had the inclination for…”
“I’m glad we ran into you!” Jenny cut in, taking over the conversation before Calvin’s crestfallen look could turn into something darker. “I’m trying to get these wings back home to Dr. Griffin’s lab. Think I can do that without them getting me into any more trouble?”
Adam scratched his beard and gazed down the cliff before answering. Her uncle’s lab was near the lowest point of the plateau that held the town, and there were many tight alleyways and sharp drops between it and the square.
The crystal square itself was a wide open space with several rolling terraces, bounded by tightly gathered fences and shack walls. People in Rust Town didn’t agree on much, but one thing they all took as law was that no permanent structure was to be built within a certain distance around the crystal–so all could see it at all times. As a result, the place was a mess of half-erected trinket stalls, the remnants of campsites, and of course, skycraft.
“You picked a bad time to be out here,” he said at last. “Take the north path. Only one direction they can come at you. You won’t be home any faster than that.”
Helpful, Jenny thought, but nodded. Before dragging the wings away, she took the time to look Calvin in the eye.
“Thanks for helping me out,” she said. “I don’t think I could have got them down Dusk alone. Dr. Griffin says thank you as well.”
“I…um…” In the presence of his father, Calvin had begun stammering most of his sentences. But he gave her a smile, awkwardly large, and dropped the wing at her feet.
She picked it up. Immediately, her shoulders groaned under the double burden she was demanding from each one. She told them to shut up, and started to drag them around the clear channel at the edge of the square.
Before the change rippled through the crowd, Jenny had time to look once more at the gigantic exposed face of the blue crystal, and to wonder once more about the usually ignored question of how it had gotten there.
Then she heard the piercing voice.
“Right! Nobody move, now. We’ve already taken the square, so let’s all sit tight and wait for the glow.”
A hubbub erupted among the planes. The people in the crowd went for their weapons at once, drawing swords, javelins, crossbows.
Jenny searched frantically for a place to hide the wings–no good. Every spot was occupied by a human or a plane. There must have been three or four hundred of each out here.
She dropped the wings flat and stood over them, hoping to muddle the sight in the darkness.
The crowd scanned the entrances to the square. Jenny held her breath. She wasn’t so worried about whatever bandit had decided to lay a sole claim to the treasure of the Sphere this week, but she was worried about their timing. They hadn’t shown themselves. If people started turning on each other, the square could turn into a bloodbath.
If that happened, she’d have to abandon the wings. Dr. Griffin would be crushed. But he would rather she come back.
Adam McConnell took the lead. “Show yourself!” he barked, manhandling a massive greatsword off his back. “Around here we look people in the eyes when we steal from them.”
“How can I steal what isn’t your property?” the mocking voice floated back. “The Sphere’s always belonged to the City Council. It’s in a bank the sky until we claim it.”
A shadow appeared on the rooftop, and immediately became the target of several dozen crossbows and at least one pair of throwing axes. It didn’t appear fazed.
“You’re confident for folks without airplanes,” Adam shot back.
“With reason. While folks wasted your time tinkering with gliders, we came up with something else.”
Other shadows were popping up now, chortling in a really annoying way. One guffaw sounded from right behind Jenny’s ear. She spun, falling to the ground to defend the wings, and saw a stumpy shadow on a tin roof, some kind of cylinder clamped in its hand.
Jenny’s blood ran cold. She recognized that shape: Finn, the city council’s resident do-nothing. And it didn’t take an engineer to realize those cylinders were the reason the gang was feeling so peppy.
Calvin’s father had arrived at the same conclusion. He glanced at his wife, Stacey, to check that she’d sheathed the throwing axes.
“These pack as much force as any fifty of you’ll generate falling out of the sky. So it’s best you take my advice, sit, and listen.”
Jenny recognized the shadow now: it was the man who’d lurked outside of Rose’s infirmary. She remembered his name–Aiden.
Finn snickered down at her. One time he’d shoved Jenny into a mud puddle to get the last gourd at one of the covered markets. He really was unpleasant.
Aiden held his bomb aloft. “Here’s the plan. When the glow happens, you all are going to take off, as normal. Or boom. You’ll get to the sphere, loot as much treasure as you can carry, come back, and give us…let’s say all of it. Or boom. And if you try to land anywhere else…”
Despite him talking from a rooftop, Finn’s voice somehow sounded right beside Jenny’s ear. “…for you, I think we’ll blow up your crazy uncle’s workshop. Not like anybody would miss him. Boom.”
“I’m not going to the sphere at all if you don’t let me take these wings home,” Jenny snapped.
The wings, she thought suddenly. They’d been a drag on her all the way through town. But they were all she had.
What if they could save her? Or save everyone?
The full moon rose high over the rooftops of Rust, high behind Finn’s odious form. And Jenny had an idea.
Staying prone atop the wings, she caught a ray of moonlight on the tip of one, and began to angle it toward the face of the crystal.
At last, she had it where she wanted. But her heart was pounding in her throat. The square had settled into an awkward silence, Aiden or one of the others shouting whenever any whispering got too loud.
Jenny had been bold at Rose’s shop, with her not-aunt there to protect her. But this was bigger. She could be endangering Calvin, his family, everyone else she might know in this crowd.
But not acting would endanger them even more.
“Look!” she shouted. “Look at the crystal! The glow is here!”
The square erupted. Her signal rippled through the crowd. Ropes released, propellors whirred to life, landing gear detached, while Aiden bellowed for order.
Jenny would have laughed if everyone hadn’t been in so much danger. The city council had no idea what they’d tried to put on a leash.
Then the expected happened. As quickly as they’d leapt into action, people began to mutter. Those who had seen a glow before told those who hadn’t that it didn’t look right this time. The crystal should have been a lot bluer if it was announcing the arrival of the sphere.
Jenny leapt to her feet, clutching one wing.
“Are you serious?” Finn sneered. “You don’t really expect us to believe–”
She swung the wing at him.
The rooftops of Rust were all pretty low, the better to reach the airstrips quickly. She wasn’t tall, but could easily reach Finn with the length of the wing–and while they weren’t the heaviest, they packed enough momentum to unseat the city council bastard.
Finn yelped. Stumbled. The crowd behind devolved into confusion as people tried to silence their wound propellors.
Bulbous Finn collapsed to the ground. The wing fell on top of him. Jenny let go of it and caught the falling explosive canister in one smooth motion. Then she sprang to the top of a barrel, and from there to the roof.
“Aiden!” she cried out. “We gotta have another talk.”
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.