After hastily aborting their launch, the crowd had fallen back into dead silence. Over a hundred pairs of eyes swiveled back and forth between Jenny and Aiden. Nobody breathed.
As Jenny’s legs began to shake, rattling the iron roof, she decided that dead silence was a stupid phrase.
“Well?” Aiden called out. With the moon at her back, she could make out every detail of his lean, violent body, while to him she must have been little more than a shadow.
“Well what?” she replied for lack of anything better to say.
“You said we needed to talk. And nobody’s talking. What gives?”
“You have to go!” Jenny’s palms were sweating where she had hold of the explosive canister. “Leave these people alone. Fly your own planes like everybody else in town.”
Aiden doubled over laughing, though in collapsing with his hands on his knees, he didn’t let go of his own bomb.
“You know what’s up there, kiddo?” he asked when he could breathe again. “Up on that floating fortress?”
“I will blow you to–”
“You won’t!” Aiden roared. “When I can throw this anywhere in front of me and kill twenty people, what do I care if you’ve got one too?”
Jenny’s mouth moved, but nothing came out. She had, indeed, made a very poor decision.
In the crowd, Adam was inching closer to Aiden, pulling Calvin in his wake.
“As I was saying,” the city councilman went on, “the treasure up there is the finest sight any of us muck-scrabbling fools can ever hope to lay eyes on. Enough gold to make a king out of seven men.”
“What’s your point?” someone shouted from the crowd.
Aiden’s mouth curled up. The moonlight showed Jenny the smallest detail. “What wouldn’t you do to get up there?”
“Blow anybody up. Next question,” Jenny retored. If nothing else, terror made her comebacks snappier.
“And that’s your own fault. The reason you all are going to forfeit the treasure is because you never really wanted it. Not like my friends and I do.”
“Clearly you don’t care if any of them live or die.” Jenny said this partly to dissuade the McConnells from aiming their weapons. A chorus of guffaws from the other city council bandits confirmed: one of them eating a bolt, or a bomb, only meant a bigger share of gold for the rest.
“Hey!” Finn, struggling to throw the wings off him, shouted up to his fellow looter. “This was supposed to be a sure thing, Aiden! Don’t throw me into the gears here!”
His pleading gave Jenny an idea. And at a time like this, survival was measured in the time between having an idea and acting on it.
She sprang down off the roof, planted one foot on Finn’s neck, and held the canister over the wings. “If that’s true,” she yelled up at Aiden, you won’t mind if I blow these up.”
“And yourself too?” Aiden tilted his head. “Do me a favor.”
“All right.” Jenny imagined the wretch watching her shadow shrug. “Suit yourself.”
How did these bloody things work? She had to look like she was about to do it. Aiden would know if she was bluffing…
Jenny broke into a grin. There was less to this guy than she thought, after all.
Calvin pushed, or maybe accidentally stumbled, his way past his father. “Jenny, no! Those are our only hope of ever seeing the sphere!”
“Well, that doesn’t matter to the city council.” Jenny shrugged and raised the canister. “Stand back, McConnell. You don’t want any bits of me on you.”
Her heart swelled with affection for the lush. Flaky as he could be, he understood what she was going for a lot better than his rigid father.
“Stop!” Aiden commanded, his voice stronger than before. Others in the crowd joined him, driven by a sincere desire that nothing explode today. “What’s so special about these wings?”
“Do I have to explain?” Jenny rolled her eyes. “They’re Dr. Griffin’s creation.”
A low moan swept through the crowd and she instantly knew she’d messed up. But now was no time to stop forging onward like a fool. Instead, she summoned rage from a hot well of it she’d been carrying around ever since she’d been old enough to step outside and listen.
“Dr. Griffin is the best engineer in Rust Town!” she yelled, not just to the city council but to everyone. “Sure, his planes don’t look anything like yours, but none of you have gotten even halfway to the sphere in a generation. Just because you don’t want to hear it, doesn’t make it less true. My uncle has ideas. If any of us ever want to get that treasure we’re gonna have to listen.”
“Yeah. Good call.”
Jenny leapt two feet in the air. Calvin lurched backwards into his father. Even Finn rolled over.
Aiden grinned at her, close enough for his sour breath to waft over her face. Her cheeks turned hot with embarrassment. She’d been defending Uncle Griff so passionately she had let him sneak close.
Adam shouldered his crossbow. In the background, the other members of the council shouldered their way into the crowd, covering everybody and their skycraft with the radii of their bombs.
“Hands off the girl, Aiden,” Adam growled.
“No hands need be laid on anybody.” Aiden gave Adam a little bow. “Ms. Griffin just has a good point about how much everybody’s planes suck, is all. She’s right that her crazy uncle makes different craft than everybody else. And if I can have the new design for my own, at no cost to me, I want it.” His fingers stroked his grenade. “On the off chance it’s the one that finally reaches the castle.”
“Jenny, I gotta lodge a couple complaints about this idea,” Calvin started. She shushed him.
“You’ll come with me, then?” she asked Aiden sweetly. “Down to my uncle’s workshop to see the whole plane? You can be the first to fly it.”
“Don’t be daft.” Aiden used the bomb to shove her forward so hard she almost tripped over Finn. “He’s coming, and the two of you are carrying the wings. And you, Jenny Griffin, will be the first to fly it.”
Despite how much she hated him, a thrill ran through Jenny’s body at those last words.
Dr. Edward Griffin hated glows.
He’d seen over forty in his day, and could count on one hand the mass launches that hadn’t killed someone he knew. There was chaos before them and chaos after, and chaos times chaos in the sky over Rust Town for hours in the middle. If it were up to him, he’d never launch in the midst of one.
Yet flying off Rust without intending to reach the sphere was like…like cultivating a plot of land and never harvesting your crops. It was only half a job done.
And of course, he thought as he rapped the stress points of the wingless skycraft body to test its joints, he was as caught up in the thrill of the chase as anyone in town. He didn’t know if he’d take the treasure–didn’t know if he could, since the sheer weight of gold was something not nearly enough “engineers” around town took into account.
Dr. Griffin just wanted to be the first to set his feet on that sphere in the sky.
Of course, the danger meant he’d never dream of letting anyone but him pilot his skycraft. No matter how much Jenny begged.
Jenny. Dr. Griffin sat down in his workshop’s only chair, after sweeping several parts and papers aside to make space. He knew he’d conducted the same stress-test half a dozen times now. His niece had sworn she’d be back from the market in an hour, and his water clock was counting onward toward two.
He stared around the cramped room, trying to find something else to occupy his hands. The nameless craft was sitting as finished as it was going to get without the wings he’d forged at the Kalends’. The workbench was more organized than it had been in weeks, drivers and pliers and wrenches all hung up from small to large. The sheets and mattresses on the cots in the back room were freshly laundered. He’d thrown out everything moldy in the pantry cupboard. And the jobs he’d taken on in exchange for the food–broken sewing machines, cart axles, pot lids–were ready for delivery.
He took a deep breath. Jenny could handle herself. Of course, if she got home, he was never going to allow her outside again…
…his iron-barred door burst open, and one of his newly-designed wings seemed to hover through on its own. His first thought was excitement–he had the body ready to receive them, and could bolt them on in seconds if the glow came when everyone expected it to.
His second thought, right on its heels, was anger. He’d explicitly told Jenny not to go to Rose’s tonight.
His third thought, in the same instant as the other two, was that the person carrying the wing was not Jenny. It was, in fact, a squat, round-faced fellow he remembered. Finn flung the wing down hard enough to make Dr. Griffin wince, and spat on the grass floor.
Jenny came in second. She carried the second wing in one hand, an unmarked cylinder in the other, and a sheepish look on her face.
A lankier man with another cylinder slammed the door behind himself. His blond hair was shaved close to his head, and his gaze was iron.
“Hi, Uncle Griff,” Jenny mumbled. “This is Aiden and Finn. They’re jerks. I have to fly the plane tonight or they’ll blow us up.”
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