Rose passed the knife back to Griffin handle-first as the engineer picked himself up out of the road. “I’m sure you had things under control,” she said, offering him a hand that he waved away, “but I just thought I could–”
“That was awesome!” shouted the sky-shattering voice of Guy Carpenter, who slipped away from his mother’s grasp and raced up to Griffin and Rose. “You threw that guy off the roof! And then you just–bam!”
Lost for words, he clapped them both on the back, barely reaching.
“Go back and help your mother,” Rose said, gently shoving Guy toward where Jada had pitched Aiden out of the trough. The older woman was tying the bandit’s hands and feet together.
As she turned, Griffin took his chance to study her face. Her mussed brown hair covered her forehead and fell past her shoulders, notwithstanding a failed attempt to tie it back. It went everywhere, framing her gently curved nose and eyes he’d always noticed were a complicated shade of hazel. Never the same twice.
She turned back to him and he glanced away, not quite quickly enough for her not to catch him staring.
“Where’s Dan?” he asked, so there wouldn’t be an awkward silence.
Rose half-smiled. “Minding the workshop. I think he can see my door from there, too. Makes me feel better to have someone besides the patients standing guard.”
“What about the rest of the city council? And their bombs?”
“Don’t know. But nobody’s exploded yet.”
“How did you know to come here?”
“Your niece got herself into some trouble up at the infirmary,” Rose checked behind her to see Jada restrain Guy from kicking the unconscious Aiden. “I followed as soon as the fight she started moved on. I’m not surprised I arrived just in time for something.”
Griffin scratched the back of his head. He could practically feel the white in there today. “She started what?”
“A fight.” Rose shrugged. “It was a good idea. But if she’s gonna keep calling me her aunt, I’m going to use that power to insist she be in deep trouble.”
Griffin didn’t reply. A knot in his gut had tied and tightened. He told himself Jenny could handle the craft, that she’d wanted to go, that he’d had no choice…but it was precisely when people said that that the choice was most important.
“Where is she, by the way?” Rose asked. “Somewhere safe?”
He looked at her, and swallowed, and her healer’s wisdom told her the truth instantly.
With one step she was in his face. “You let her fly?”
“Aiden forced me to!” The words sounded feeble as they left his mouth.
“You threw him off a roof!” she shouted. “You couldn’t have done that forty-five seconds earlier so a twelve-year-old wouldn’t have to fly to the sphere by herself!?”
With nothing to say, Griffin held her gaze, racking his brains to think of how to make this up to both of them.
Information. Need information.
He took off downhill, toward the seacliff, and Rose kept pace.
In the quest for more working space, some Rusters had built wooden decks out from the cliff top, and lived and worked over empty space. At least one hanging airstrip emerged from the twilight as Griffin and Rose panted their way toward a better view. With the town emptied out by the Glow, nobody stopped the from racing onto one of the bridges leading between these suspended shacks. Griffin braced himself against a doorway–there were no rails–and Rose pulled up short.
Planes buzzed over the ocean like hornets from a kicked nest. The smaller ones that hadn’t been built for distance were already turning back, but they had to weave through the flock of late launchers. Those that couldn’t ducked underneath and veered hard to avoid crashing into the cliff. Everywhere Griffin looked, a dozen aircraft were circling, diving, climbing, pulsing, pedaling, skimming the waves. Barges plied the whitecaps, some of them prying survivors out of their doomed aircraft, some of them ransacking the craft themselves.
None of them were his. None of them contained Jenny.
Rose nudged his arm hard and pointed down at one particularly large raft. It had no sails, no mast–just sacks of lumpy misshapen items, a dozen people straining at the oars, and one squat, practically square-shaped man in a fancy coat.
“Master Ranson,” Griffin muttered.
Rose hadn’t let go of his arm. “Edward, we can’t let him get anywhere near her. The best thing he’ll do is steal your aircraft.”
The deck squeaked under Griffin’s feet as he shook. “But what if Jenny lands back at our airstrip?”
“She’ll be fine!” Rose took off again. “We need to be there if she lands in the ocean. Or anywhere near his barge.”
With a deep breath, Griffin followed in her wake.
Two of the crew shipped their oars and dragged Karla and the girl aboard by their collars. The oarsmen were all large, dour-looking men and women, and Karla had no idea what sort of island produced people like this–or whether all surface people just perpetually looked like they’d just had the same bridge collapse on them for the third time in a month.
The moment the crew holding the girl pilot let go, she made a break for the water. The raft rocked, the short man in charge barked and order, and a massive oarsmen yanked her back on deck, not letting go this time.
“Make for the cavern. No more distractions,” the short man in the purple coat ordered. He spoke to his crew entirely in sharp, clipped statements, like they were half-trained animals. He was chewing on some sort of rolled cigar, its tip glowing orange in the deep-blue night.
When he turned to his captives, however, his tone became treaclier. Karla didn’t like him. She hoped the girl pilot was nice, since otherwise the surface was really not sending its best humans to greet her.
“You’re Dr. Griffin’s little apprentice, aren’t you?” he said, and grinned. “The madman’s daughter. How adorable.”
“My name is Jenny,” the pilot spat, “I’m his niece, he’s not a madman, and nothing about this situation is adorable. Let me go. My plane is sinking.”
“A salient argument for why we shouldn’t rescue it,” the raft’s master replied. “It’s in the ocean, ergo it’s failed, ergo your mad uncle has another mark on his record.”
“Shut up!” Jenny’s face grew red. “Uncle Griff’s plane made it farther than anyone. I could have reached the sphere. I just turned back to…to…”
Her eyes drifted to Karla.
The raftmaster chuckled. “No need to censor yourself, Jenny Griffin. She’s already told us everything. You brought back the queen of the castle in the sky.”
Jenny wiped her tears with her sodden sleeve. Incredulity filled her face. “You’re…you’re from the sphere?”
The sound of the waves, the thud of distant propellors, a seagull high up in the sky–all the noises of the scene amplified, filled Karla’s ears until Jenny’s words sounded faraway.
“I…told you the dragon wasn’t my craft,” she half-whispered.
“That’s not the whole story, is it?” Jenny crawled toward her, rocking the raft further. “You didn’t launch from Rust Town. You were descending.”
“Then she got where she was going!” The raftmaster pointed to a spot along the seacliff and glared at his rowers. “Double time. We’ve got the most valuable hostage in this grubby island’s history on our hands.”
Karla still hardly heard a word.
This was the Big Island. The place she and Kio had dreamed of. The capital of the world.
What was Rust Town?
Also, this girl–Jenny–she wanted to reach Nashido. The place Karla had spent her life trying to escape, and Jenny believed as strongly in getting there as Karla ever had in leaving.
People driven toward one thing, one thing only, could recognize each other on sight. That was Karla’s first lesson in interacting with surface people.
Her second came soon after.
“Take us back to shore,” Jenny demanded, her voice shaking. “Now.”
Ranson laughed, louder and louder with each second, until his oarsmen joined in.
“I won’t be doing that, little girl,” he said. “Do you know who I am?”
“Should I?” Jenny asked.
“Yeah, should she?” Karla added.
“I’m Ranson,” the raftmaster said. “Wealthiest slaver on the island. I’ve been to Toral half a dozen times. And this time, you’re both coming with me.”
“If we…refuse?” That sounded to Karla like the right thing to say.
“Why would you?” Master Ranson looked her dead in the eye, chewing on his cigar like he intended to swallow it. “You’re going to meet the Emperor.”
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.