Karla’s eyes twitched open.
Her hands–human hands, pale and rigid–were clinging onto something, without her consent.
She was sprawled flat on something, every single inch of her skin smarting like it had been struck with a paddle. Her hood flapped back and forth as her hair streamed above her. Sky and earth and sea wheeled before her in a disjointed dream.
Had she fallen asleep? Was this what birds dreamt about?
Wait. Something else was going on. Something important, that she’d spent a lot of time thinking about, and that Karla predicted would have her a lot more worried in a few seconds.
Oh, right. I’m falling to my death.
Whether or not his niece believed him, Dr. Griffin had lived an interesting enough youth to know what to do when someone lunged at him with a knife.
The first thing, he remembered clearly, was that you didn’t want to lunge back at your attacker like a drunken rhinoceros. So he dodged backward instead, and Aiden’s manic swipe of the blade swept through the air where his body had been.
The second thing was to gauge your attacker’s frame of mind. What did they want?
Dr. Griffin was pretty sure Aiden wanted to kill him. He might even have a good time doing it. But the city council man didn’t want to blow himself up–he had the look of a man who enjoyed life. So Griffin probably didn’t have to worry too much about the explosives.
Except that while the bomb was live, the people surging through the sky above him or banging on his door would be too afraid to approach and help him.
He backed hastily up the launch ramp out of the scrubby courtyard, so Finn would have a harder time circling behind him. Aiden lunged upward, chasing him up toward the airstrip, the sharp edge glinting blue in the faint light scattering off the crystal.
Griffin wished he wasn’t so good at picking out knives.
Finn threw his whole body, missed completely, bowling back down the ramp.
Griffin’s heart gave a wild pound to remind him this was not his job. He was supposed to be a scientist, a servant of the world, but in Rust Town nothing was objective. And it certainly wasn’t sacred.
“What are you even trying to do?” he shouted at Aiden, dashing backwards across the airstrip. The wheeled landing gear sat near the ramp, thrown back by Jenny’s launch. Griffin grabbed it and flung it between him and the bandit. Its wheels squeaked in protest.
“Win this town forever!” Aiden’s next swing lodged his blade in the cart. He dislodged it with a yank. “Why do I have to keep explaining things to you people?”
“You’re not going to use that big bomb of yours!” Griffin tried to shove the cart down the ramp at Aiden, but the wheels didn’t turn. “That makes you basically just a dumbass with a knife. Which is hardly original around here. The only way to be less creative would be if you were drunk.”
As Aiden leveled his knife again, Griffin’s eyes alit on a crowbar one of the women who launched before them had dropped.
It would have to do. Aiden plunged his knife down, but Griffin scooped up the crowbar and flung it up to block his arm from landing. The bandit wrestled, but Griffin had swung too many hammers to be a total weakling.
They separated, circling each other on the airstrip. Let’s have a real fight.
Karla wedged herself on top of the skycraft as comfortably as she could. It wasn’t easy–wherever this thing came from, it refused point-blank to behave like Raven. It was always slightly too long, or too narrow, or its wings were beating at an angle just different enough to feel weird but not so different she could immediately put her finger on it.
Now that she wasn’t moving around, the craft managed to fall slightly less and glide a little more. Its pilot hadn’t spoken yet–probably still thought Karla was unconscious.
She’d have to make first contact.
Here goes, she thought. First human in your life who isn’t Kio. Say the right thing.
Her throat siezed up, but she forced through anyway. She’d always dreamed of this moment, known it would be difficult, prepared mentally and emotionally. She knew exactly what to say.
“I don’t think you’re flying the plane right!” she shouted.
She hadn’t planned that.
Clinging to the top of the craft that threatened to buck her into the freezing ocean any second, Karla felt a cold sweat. She’d have expected this kind of awkwardness from Kio. Not her.
Then she realized the pilot probably couldn’t hear her anyway.
Instead, she watched the world wheel and hung on desperately. She had never been this close to the surface before, and it thrilled her blood and bones so much she barely knew she wasn’t dreaming.
The stars and clouds were so far.
The mountains were above her.
Could she actually hear the ocean? Nah, blood rushing in her ears. But she did hear something soon enough.
“Why don’t we switch places, then?” came a high-pitched shout from under the wings.
“No, I–uh–I didn’t mean–” she spluttered. “I’m Karla!”
“You’re supposed to be unconscious!” the voice bawled.
“I can help you!” she shouted. She wanted to be sick–even with her strong raven’s constitution–but she’d still been able to observe the strange plane’s flight path. And extrapolate.
In the distance lay the lights of the Big Island, crowned with the glowing blue crystal. The craft’s nose wavered across an average path pointing directly at that plateau.
“Can you drop my weight by fifty pounds?” the pilot shouted.
The plane lurched downward. The pilot gave up even more altitude to level it out.
“You can’t make it!”
“To the city!” Karla stopped herself from crawling forward. “We’re too heavy, and you’re already too low!”
Another few lurches up and down. The pilot snapped, “Look, I don’t know how things work on your dragon, but–”
“Wait, what?” Karla nearly lost her grip. With effort, she fought back into place, fighting the forward sweep of the craft over the ocean. “That’s not my dragon!”
“Then where did you fall from!?”
The lights swung lower. They were pointed directly at the seacliff, snaggletooth rocks rearing up below. As though they were beating on the sea, not the other way around.
“We don’t have time for this!”
“What do we have time for?” A pair of hands turned white on a cockpit bar, all she could see of her new friend. “Help me!”
At last, Karla risked throwing herself forward. For just a second, long enough for the pilot to notice, she pointed at a wide, empty barge floating in the black sea beneath.
Winning a swordfight with workbench tools atop a rickety airstrip, Dr. Griffin thought, was a matter that could be approached scientifically.
A low-flying plane, one of the first returning after the frenzy of the glow, swept over their heads and forced both him and Aiden to duck. That was when he started thinking.
He reared back, heading away from his workshop toward the street. His blows landed on Aiden’s knife arm, whirling his crowbar to clear a space in front of him. It was heavy, unwieldy, but it kept the mugger from getting close.
And with each step, each swing, Dr. Griffin thought more.
What were explosives? Chemical compounds that released enormous force when combusted, sometimes in a chain reaction.
Where did they come from? Barring fancy synthesis labs like the one rumor had it existed in the capital, from special types of ore–none of which Rust Town or its island had available in nature.
Which meant Aiden and the city council had bought them from an off-archipelago trader. And even with their ill-gotten gains, there was only one type they could have afforded.
Griffin swung a mad circle at Aiden’s face to make him feint back, wielding his superior range to get a look at the canister.
Yes! There were trace red marks on the rim–the telltale sign of a brimstone-saltpeter mixture that would be useless when damp.
Aiden was driving him steadily toward the edge of the runway. The street below was lined with forge-houses, smaller than Kalends and Kalends, but still in need of a great deal of water. With not much space to keep it in, the troughs tended to end up lining the street.
Griffin estimated he had a fifty-fifty shot.
“Help!” he yelled at the top of his lungs to all the shacks around. “I’m being robbed!”
In a hoarse croak, Aiden snarled back, “Nobody’s coming to–”
Crowbar-first, Griffin barrelled inside his assailant’s reach and wrapped both his arms around Aiden’s waist.
The bandit yelped. The knife slashed open Griffin’s shirt with the white-hot crackle of a near miss.
He bore them both down over the edge of the airstrip.
They didn’t have far to fall–Rust Town was a city that lay low to the ground. Griffin slammed hard into the grassy street, and lifted his head to see Aiden land exactly where he’d hoped: in a blacksmith’s trough.
His coin toss had paid off.
As Aiden struggled to rise, spitting out water, footsteps pounded around the side of the cluster of workshops. Rose, the healer woman, was leading a group of four or five other Rusters who had already landed or never left. She was armed with a long wrench, while the others had weapons of various sizes and hefts.
“His bomb’s neutralized,” Griffin gasped out. His side throbbed where he’d landed on it. “I got it wet.”
“Good.” Without another word, Rose walked up to Aiden and struck him on the head. Her medical skills paid off: she knew exactly how hard to hit him to knock him out without killing him. Transferring the wrench to one hand, she fished out Griffin’s knife.
The next few moments convinced Karla that this pilot could be reasonable. Once she accepted that she couldn’t land at the city, she began a slow, deft corkscrew down toward the sea.
Karla’s heart pounded wildly. The surface was down there. The sea, close enough to touch. Ten years and she was about to make it. Ten years…
She wished Kio were here. Their promise to each other stuck in her like a toothache.
The people on the barge waved at them as they circled, setting Karla’s blood afire again–that was more people than she’d ever seen in her life, except in stilted crowd drawings in Kio’s books.
Suddenly she had other things to worry about as the sea rushed up. It had been nice and far away before, and now it was so close she could see scales on the waves.
And then in way too short a time the craft splashed into the ocean with a noise like a bone dragon hitting the reservoir.
The water rushed up around Karla and “frigid” was the only word to describe it. She’d been cold before–she lived in the sky, for Mara’s sake–but not in a way that reached everywhere, that made her furs sodden and useless, that felt like she was being stabbed with icicles from every direction.
This much water should not have existed anywhere, unless it was in a cloud. Those were bad enough.
Plus, she had to swim.
Her outer fur clung to her body, dragging her down. She peeled it off, thrashing foam everywhere, then peeled the second off too, then looked around for the barge.
The craft bucked, and she swore she heard a strangled cry from under the water.
“Help!” she called out to the barge. “She’s trapped!”
A squat man barked an order to the oarsmen, who were already sculling the surface toward Karla and the wrecked skycraft. “Who are you?” the man–captain?–called as he drew near.
“I don’t know who she is!” she shouted back. “But my name’s Karla! I’m from Nashido!”
They don’t know? Why does this even matter? “The castle in the sky!”
Every single man and woman on the barge froze. Even the oarsmen stopped rowing.
“She’s going to drown!” Karla yelled. No change.
Screw this. They weren’t going to get there fast enough.
Karla sucked in her breath and dived. She knew where safety catches would likely be located, so she closed her eyes and felt along the harness straps until she located a buckle on each one. Then flipping them open was simple.
The girl revived in her arms as soon as they broke the surface. Both of them gasped gratefully for air. Above water, Karla could see the pilot was a slip of a child–younger than her, with straight brown hair plastered against her forehead and a body that barely seemed to weigh anything.
Blinking salt out of her eyes, she turned to see the raft full of gobsmacked oarsmen, paddling furiously toward Karla.
“What did you say to them?” the girl asked.
Karla paled. “Something I’m thinking I shouldn’t have.”
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